Jun 04
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Sleeping Next to God

tenthreeMaybe you too have symbolic or metaphoric afflictions. For two weeks, my neck felt  like glass was breaking in there. Pain in the neck? It mounted. First took it to masseuse, then to chiropractor. But something was not right SPIRITUALLY. I was putting off balancing the checkbook and paying bills, getting it all set up but couldn't start. I let people down, put off calls, in order to score big on "Jewels" on my droid. Procrastination left things unread and unwritten and I drifted into dangerous territory, dangerous for me, anyway: bed at 3 a.m.; wake at 10 a.m. with the daylight one-third gone already. Abusing caffeine. Knew where this led if I didn't save myself: staying up till 4 a.m., then till 7 a.m., then 3 p.m., and jogging the streets for exercise at 11:30 p.m. saying to a passerby, "I just got up."

Meanwhile summer 2011 arrived. I decided to pitch my two-man nylon tent out back and sleep in it to restore the circadian rhythm I share with the rest of humanity as a first step toward simplifying life and liking myself again. My literal sanity bubble. Furnished it with bag, pad, pillow and sheet, and after nightfall on a 96-degree day, crawled in by flashlight. Dew soaked the grass. Fireflies whirled from eye level to the treetops, misted over by humidity. The tent has room only to lie down and stargaze through the top. Saw the Big Dipper. Nothing to listen to but thoughts (left the cellphone in the house) and unexpectedly I felt gratitude. Dew collected on the tent, ran down into the tent seams, and sometimes dripped on me. Wiped it down with a pillowcase.

Sleeping outside on the warm earth under stars, with insects rattling and night birds chortling, is like sleeping next to God. Sometime in the night the temperature dipped into the 60s, and pulling the soft sleeping bag over me gladdened me like nothing else. The sun rose at 5:28 a.m. and woke me. I was thrilled. It's been several weeks since I've been thrilled. In the house I made strawberry scones (3 minutes from start to oven) and coffee. Ate them. Brought laptop out on the porch and enjoyed the cool hours. That was this morning. It was great, but not a quick fix. Since then I have fought to stay on some sort of disciplined schedule, not playing until the work is finished. I plan to win this one, if not today, then soon.

May 22
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Compromise Your Art

At the beautiful Rockhaven retreat center, during the last segment of the inaugural Women Writers Weekend, playwright Joan Lipkin presented some of her work and spoke honestly and vulnerably about honesty and vulnerability: how important it is for artists to be courageous and squelch their fears. Fears of what, she asked. Why do we back down, or back away, or suddenly remember an important appointment elsewhere? And she said there's a Cowardly Lion in us all. As she spoke, I became annoyed and then angry, realizing that regularly, almost as a matter of course, I compromised my own artistic integrity, and why the hell did I do it? And do it a lot?

Just that morning I'd told a friend that I didn't bring certain of my works to workshop, fearing to offend or embarrass. I'd tried it, and it seemed to do just that -- poem not mentioned, eyes averted. But inoffensive material didn't get the rigorous criticism I need to strengthen my work. It was a lose-lose situation. What the heck am I doing? What kind of game am I playing? "Hide the Catherine"? For what? For whom? And if it's a lose-lose, why play?

I never wanted to be that way. My seventeen-year-old self, who wanted to become a great poet, sneers at me. I tell students never to compromise (understanding that sometimes a writer has to compromise not her honesty but her manner of expression if feedback indicates that her writing is sloppy or isn't communicating what she wants it to). I want never to compromise out of fear. But it's become routine! I have secret poems I shy from showing. I tell people who see them -- warn them -- it's not me who writes them, it's an alter ego. Let's see: did Mayakovsky play that game? Rimbaud? Whitman? Did Norman Mailer? Who wants to read poetry like weak tea? Exactly who is benefiting when I shield them from the real me? Who do I think is being well served when I compromise my art?

I've been re-reading and re-working unpublished poems and feeling that each and every one is hopeless, irreparable. Of course they are -- if it isn't the real me who is writing them, but the nicer me. The Cowardly Lion version.
May 20
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How to Destroy a Writers' Conference

Take a fully-functioning annual writers' conference that's been successful for ten years or so, a conference loved by its participants, but difficult and draining work for its organizing committee and its instructors, who nevertheless realize, when it's all over, that they've created something wondrous and given some of the participants the greatest moments of their lives. Then destroy it, bit by bit. Here's how.

1. Decide it has to turn a bigger profit.
2. Cut the director's salary in half.
3. Refuse to pay reasonable fees for "name" writers as instructors and speakers, and instead hire graduate students, unknowns or personal friends.
4. Exploit upper-class high-schoolers' career-minded parents and start a youth writing workshop that runs simultaneously, and then mix the youth in with the adults.
5. Use as a logo a typewriter image or a quill pen image obtained from a free clipart site.
6. Cut the publicity and mailing budget and rely on Facebook and Twitter to drum up interest.
7. Book and announce the workshop instructors at the last possible minute.
8. Accept all applicants, including those who can't write a plain English sentence.
9. Raise the price each year.
10. Stop offering a scholarship for a person who can't afford the price.
11. Don't bother sending acceptance confirmation or welcome letters, or orientation kits.
12. Instead of offering bagels in the morning, get a committee member's mom to contribute a dry little quickbread. Cut it into very thin slices so there are enough slices to go around.
13. Hold the workshops and events in cheaper, shabbier buildings and rooms.
14. Cease hiring the instructor who is a popular, proven success, whose workshops fill instantly; get someone more hip.
15. Because the fiction and poetry workshops aren't filling, combine them into a fiction-and-poetry workshop.

(#15, friends, is the death blow, showing a total misunderstanding of writers, the writing process, and workshops.)
May 13
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E-Books Outsell Paperbacks for the First Time

The Association for American Publishers announced last month that during February, more eBooks than hard-copy paperbacks were sold. Here are the numbers. I am quoting the AAP Monthly Sales Report for February 2011, released in April 2011:

"Other highlights in the February 2011 report (all February 2011 vs February 2010 unless otherwise noted):

Digital categories:
E-Book sales were $90.3 Million, growing 202.3% vs February 2010. Downloaded Audiobooks were $6.9M, an increase of 36.7%.

Trade categories:
Adult Trade categories combined (Hardcover, Paperback and Mass Market) were $156.8M, down 34.4%. [that's Catherine's emphasis. ]Children’s/Young Adult categories combined (Hardcover and Paperback) were $58.5M, a decline of 16.1%

*Year-to-date 2011 vs YTD 2010: E-Books increased by 169.4% while all categories combined of print Trade books declined by 24.8% . . . .

The AAP monthly and year-end sales report represents data provided by 84 U.S. publishing houses representing major commercial, education, professional, scholarly and independents. Data on e-Books comes from 16 houses. The report does not include all book and journal net sales but provides what’s acknowledged as the best industry snapshot currently available."

The report says that the spike in E-Book sales is credited to people receiving Kindles & other E-readers as holiday gifts. (Have one yet? Remember 2008 when Kindles were new and $399 and now they're going for half that?) E-Book sales have been slightly lower in subsequent months. But you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows...Those of you with books, how will you rethink your sales strategies?
May 12
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How Do I Get My Book Reviewed?

Q: How do you get a reviewer to actually read your work?
A: You can't. Book reviewers have editors who assign them books. Book bloggers have their interests and out of many competing volumes they are unlikely to choose yours if they do not know you. A young blogger will not choose a book by a middle-aged person, and vice-versa. You may get one local reviewer if the book is about local matters. Then there is a 50 percent chance it will be a negative review. There is 100 percent chance the reviewer will find "something wrong with it." There is 100 percent chance  you will think the reviewer missed the point of the book entirely.

If you are an unknown with a first book by a small publisher, or if your book is somehow countercultural, self-published, local, or a fine press book that is handcrafted, you will probably not get a review. A million titles are published in the US each year. There are not nearly enough editors, reviewers, or outlets to give most books any notice. Local reviews must appear within a few weeks of the book's appearance because after 90 days the book is old news and bookstores often return them to the publisher.

Q: What does the reviewer consider while reading the book?
A: There's no standard for assessing a book. Reviewers don't so much read a book as apply themselves to the book, hearing from it what they wish to hear, and then they react. Some critics merely summarize the book so readers can pretend they read the book. Others want to showcase their own expertise or wit or forward their agendas. Some will brown-nose publishers, employers or advertisers, and all such books are reviewed as great, ground-breaking, etc., and all competing books are dross.

Because it is hard to get reviews, any review, good or bad, is better than none, but good reviews do not sell many books because so few people read reviews. The day of the "Time magazine's positive book review creates a bestseller" is over. Book bloggers' influence is overestimated; their blogs are read mostly by the writers who contribute to them. A celebrity endorsement (a celebrity in the field -- let's say you can make Kay Ryan give you a good blurb for a book of your poetry) may help sell it to those who like Kay Ryan. A nonfiction niche book might be reviewed in niche publications (let's say a how-to book about buying vintage muscle cars might get a review in Car & Driver).

So know your niche, and send your book to whoever does the reviewing at a niche publication or blog. But your very best bet for sales is to forget reviews, and somehow get you and your book on TV.

May 08
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Annie Dillard Helped

Annie Dillard (nee Meta Ann Doak) helped me today as I chose 6 unpublished poems to submit to an anthology that is no sure thing, that I suspect might never be finished or published. So I wanted to hold back a couple of poems just too good for it, thinking: I bet these could impress a bigger editor -- later. Then Dillard's words came to mind:
"One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better."
And I sent my 6 best poems and felt the rightness of it, the healthiness of having set them free, trusting that I will write even better ones. Thank you, Annie.
May 08
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Get Real

At this point, after the fourth rejection of my "Interviews with St. Louis Writers" book manuscript, I could cultivate the familiar writerly psychological problems: "I did my best, it wasn't good enough," "Why try," and "I could have predicted this," & so forth. Against those I repeat 50 times: "Writing is an art, publishing is a business." But there's new spot in the Petri dish -- maybe because this is a new kind of manuscript for me -- and it communicates thus:

"You're so arrogant, thinking you can publish a book as-is and get a smidgen of glory. Get real. Remember you are a servant. You serve the publisher and readership. The publisher suggested you compile full bibliographies of all 11 authors. In certain cases, such as Gerald Early's or Don Finkel's, this would take years and you'd come out, as in grad school, with a face like a sneaker sole. But you should do it as a service. Learn to think not like an author, but like a servant."

To this I said (to myself): "That violates my boundary. I think it does. Yes. It does. I perform a service. But I am not a servant.

"H-ll no!"

May 08
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The Last Taboo: Money

Re: "The Privilege of Doing It" (June 19), poet Julia Gordon-Bramer commented: "There will always be young, hungry, talented interns who don't need much to survive. What is to become of the rest of us?"

Good question! My answer: The world can't use young and hungry interns for everything. People will sometimes want or need people with experience and a proven track record. Having those, we may value and price ourselves accordingly. And working for less shows we lack respect for our own hard-earned skill and wisdom.

True story: A friend said she would pay me to read her book manuscript and honestly tell her why I think publishers won't accept it. I said I would, for $75 an hour. She said "That's too much," and ended the conversation. Another writer agreed to assess that manuscript free, as a friendship favor. Two years later that writer still has the manuscript and my friend hasn't heard a word. It's strained their friendship: My friend tries not to feel resentful and both of them try never to mention it. Big bargain, eh?

I'm not saying, apply at Wal-Mart and demand $40 an hour just because you've been in the work force for a while. I am saying, if you have decades of writing experience and are asked to provide a writing-related service, ask for money. Yes, it's hard to do, and it's hard to be cold-shouldered or to hear cluck-clucking about how uppity you are. But you should feel GOOD when someone is miffed because you won't work for little or nothing. Watch this eye-opening 3-minute clip on YouTube called "Pay the Writer" to see the sheer absurdity of abasing yourself and your entire profession.

We got ourselves into the "Sure, I'll work for nothing" trap, and have to get ourselves out. It won't be quick or easy. Do it anyway. Asking for fair wages for your work will help all the others who are too weak to ask.

I know that talking about our paychecks is the last taboo. Ever wonder who made it and keeps it taboo?
May 08
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World-Changing Chapbooks

A list of historically important 20th-century chapbooks is nowhere to be found, so I'll make one. Please help me add to this list.

Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), by T.S. Eliot
A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), Edna St. Vincent Millay
Howl and Other Poems (1956), Allen Ginsberg
SCUM Manifesto (1968), Valerie Solanas
Edward the Dyke and Other Poems (1971), Judy Grahn
Twenty-One Love Poems (1977), Adrienne Rich

I thought Three Guineas might have been a chapbook -- it's often called a "pamphlet" -- but its first edition is in hardcover.
May 08
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Chapbook Renascence

Not so long ago -- about 15 years -- a "real" or "serious" poet wouldn't be caught DEAD issuing a chapbook. Only losers would try to preserve their work in little stapled, spineless booklets! Because desktop publishing as we know it did not exist, the booklets were either hand-set or photocopied. That was the extent of alternative publishing -- the only way for poets to take publishing into their own hands. A book reviewer back then, I swatted chapbooks away like flies. I saw them knee-deep at secondhand bookstores. Well, things have changed and chapbooks are important now.

Cherry Pie Press since 2005 has published a series of poetry chapbooks by Midwestern women. They are beautifully produced and the poetry is hot and it keeps coming: Three new books this year. A friend of mine, Pamela Garvey, won a chapbook contest last year; her chapbook is titled Fear (Finishing Line Press), and each copy is threaded through with a satin rattail ribbon, different colors: mine is wine-red. Poets with traditional publishers will issue chapbooks if they've got some work that's too edgy for the suits. Ted Hughes issued 110 copies (that's all!) of a chapbook titled Howls & Whispers (1998), 11 poems from the Birthday Letters series that he, or somebody, thought were too edgy to publish in the regular book. In a rare-book room I read copy #75. Online I found a deluxe edition for sale that costs USD $27,500. Mostly, though, chapbooks are a heck of a lot more affordable than normal books of poetry, and they're mostly meat, very little gristle. A book of 20 or 30 poems that are ALL good is positively intoxicating.

I'm even urging chapbook publication on poets who have lots of good poems but not enough for a full-length manuscript, or who have full-length manuscripts they can't publish. Chapbooks can be handsomely made, even at home, and circulated and sold, mainly at poetry readings, but also through flyers, local bookstores, and the Internet.

And as far as I can see, no poet today is ever sorry that he or she issued a chapbook. Poets, consider it. And maybe it's time for some fiction or nonfiction writers to do it too.
May 08
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The Privilege of Doing It

A scientist comes up to me after I discuss how writers never get paid very much because, it's said, just being published is pay enough, and it's a privilege to be a writer and I should be satisfied with that. . .She said to me, "I was a researcher and never got paid very much -- because just getting to do my research was, they thought, compensation enough. . ."

Surprised, I told her I thought all science people really raked in the cash with those grants.

Oh, no, she said. Post-docs, researchers, all sorts of people, they aren't paid very much.

I said, They also exploit young people. Because they're young, employers think they don't have to pay much.

She said, They do it to journalists, too. I said Yes, I know; I worked at a newspaper where goodies like circus tickets were supposed to compensate for pathetic paychecks.

Now I wonder: In how many professions are skilled and dedicated workers being b.s.'ed that they shouldn't be well paid because they have "the privilege of doing it." And like fools we believe and profess and accept that! What a wonderful scam!

(Winner of the June 2008 Artificial Difficulty Award!)
May 08
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The Poet Laureate of Missouri Said

Walter Bargen is the Poet Laureate of Missouri, the first one ever appointed. Notes taken during his talk to the St. Louis Writers Guild preserved some of the intriguing things he said:
  • "The role of the writer in society is to keep us awake."
  • "Poetry is like music; talking about it is not experiencing it."
  • "Each first line [of a poem] is an argument for the poem's existence." (For example: "About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters. . ."; "You don't remember the hanging, but you do. . ."; "Each lover has a theory of his own . . .")
  • "It's rhythm that marches your reader through the poem."
  • "You know you're really writing well when you're surprising yourself."
Also in my notes, not a direct quotation, maybe an on-the-spot inspiration: "IDEA: Read poetry to stones, birds, and trees." Read a post-seminar interview with Walter Bargen here.