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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I spent a few extremely fun days in Pittsburgh last week, doing a couple of readings, getting to know some very interesting people, and even making a trip over to the Monroeville mall, where George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was filmed. At one of my readings, I met a fellow writer who puts out an email newsletter on writing topics. I signed up for the newsletter and was impressed with some of the practical tips she gave, so I thought I’d give the newsletter a plug here. It’s called Brite Lites Writer Gazette, and if you want to check it out, you can email SandraGouldFord at aol dot com.

The current issue of Brite Lites is all about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which, in case you’re unfamiliar, occurs every November when people all over the country attempt to write a first draft of a novel—minimum 50,000 words—in a month. The newsletter got me thinking about why I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, and probably never will.

First of all, I should say that NaNoWriMo is a great motivational tool. At its heart, NaNoWriMo is simply a goal to work towards, a concrete deadline to get people writing. By encouraging people across the country to set the same goal, NaNoWriMo effectively creates a sense of community for these writers, encouraging them to stick with it and holding them accountable if they don’t.

You know me—I’m all for goal setting. Without goals, I would never have produced enough work to publish a book, and I wouldn’t, probably, write anywhere near enough to legitimately call myself a writer. So why, then, do I have zero interest in trying NaNoWriMo for myself?

Well, while I see NaNoWriMo as an extremely valuable tool for new writers, the more seasoned you get, the less useful this kind of extreme goal becomes. I think part of the point in NaNoWriMo is to make people who don’t write very much, but who have always wanted to write a book, realize that they can do it. They can pump out a full-length novel if they just try. This isn’t particularly useful to more seasoned writers, who have written plenty of books before, or who have published fairly extensively. These people already know what they’re capable of, and they probably know how much they need to write and what sort of routine they need to keep in order to complete a particular project.

But more than that, the main reason I’m not interested in NaNoWriMo myself is because I feel it’s too stringent of a goal. That’s actually kind of the idea, right? Writing 100% new material for three or four hours a day, every day, isn’t something that even professional writers usually do. Most writers allow room for days when you spend three hours agonizing over a single paragraph, or when you realize something is not quite right about a previous chapter and you want to go back and revise it. The idea behind setting such a strict goal is to push yourself about as hard as it’s possible to push, like running a marathon or climbing Mount Everest.

The problems with pushing yourself that hard, in my opinion, are countless. First of all, just like when you push yourself to the brink physically, you’re likely to collapse at the end of it all. You’re likely to want, maybe desperately need, a break when you’re done, which makes the experience more like a crash diet than a lifestyle change.

On top of that, NaNoWriMo emphasizes writing a first draft, which I think de-emphasizes a FAR more important part of the writing process: revising. Savvy writers would have the sense to see that whatever they pump out in that frenzied month is likely to be absolute crap and that they need to revise it extensively if they want it to be any good, but a lot of amateur writers probably don’t understand that—they think of revising as proofreading and little more—and even those writers who do recognize the value of revision are going to have more work ahead of them when they get back to work on their sloppily thrown together manuscripts than if they had taken more time during the initial drafting stage.

Plus, it’s widely recognized that goal setting is most effective when you set reasonable goals that are within your power to accomplish. Like many writers, I have a job and a family. If I were to push myself to write roughly 1,667 words a day for a month—about how many words you’d have to write to pump out 50,000 in thirty days—what would most likely happen would be that I would be unable, through no fault of my own, to meet the goal. This would leave me, at the end of the month, feeling like a failure, stressed and discouraged, unsure of my own abilities as a writer. I would, in other words, be worse off for having tried. I’d be better off, instead, looking at my own life, my own specific situation and commitments, and setting a goal for myself that pushes me just hard enough but is still absolutely reachable if I just work at it. Now that, my friends, is a goal that will likely benefit me.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Busy week between work (I collected my first batch of papers for the quarter on Friday) and trying to soothe Amalie, who I’m beginning to think might have colic and who also has her days and nights mixed up, so this is going to be a short, “just wanted to say hi” sort of post.

A few bits of news worth sharing:

I found out this week that Autumn House nominated my story “8 Stories I’ll Never Tell” for a Pushcart. This is my second ever Pushcart nomination—here’s hoping, right?

I’ve been excitedly getting ready for a couple of readings that I’ll be doing in Pittsburgh this coming week. I haven’t done a reading in months. This should be fun!

This week I got a cool personal rejection from a journal called Echo Ink Review, so cool I want to encourage YOU to submit there or, even better, buy a copy. Why, you ask? Because they actually pay you—okay, only $3, but it’s not the amount that matters but the gesture—if they reject a piece but they think you’re a good writer and want to encourage you. I think that’s pretty hardcore awesomeness. It goes a step farther than “Send us something else,” (which they also said, of course) or “We enjoyed this piece; however . . .” A journal that makes such an effort to encourage and support writers deserves to be encouraged and supported back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Last week I talked about the frustration of receiving mostly negative feedback as a writer. This week I thought I’d touch on how I manage to keep myself going in the face of all that rejection. Different writers deal with their steady stream of rejections in different ways. Some even save every rejection they ever receive; some even put them on display!

One of my instructors at UAF had a box containing not only rejections but acceptances and other writing related correspondence, like the letter he received from a literary agent who had read one of his stories in a journal and was interested in representing him, or the letter from an editor informing him he had been nominated for a Pushcart. He let us, one day after workshop, paw through it. This was an award winning writer, mind you, with two books published and a full-time, tenured position as an MFA instructor, and he had plenty of letters in that box that would seem in line with those facts . . . but he also had plenty of rejections.

The most striking thing about the collection was the fact that he hadn’t separated the negative from the positive, and seeing all the rejections mixed together with the positive feedback was a valuable reminder that it’s all just part of being a writer. Neither the rejections nor the acceptances were given extra weight in this box—it was just a memory box, mementos of his career as a writer.

I thought it was inspiring, but still, me personally? I don’t save rejections unless they are encouraging personal rejections. In fact, the first rejection I ever received bothered me so much I couldn’t stop obsessing about it even after I’d ripped it up and thrown it away. Just knowing that the pieces of it were still there in the garbage kept the wound open until the garbage bag was safely carted away to the dump.

Obviously, that was years ago, and I’ve received enough rejections since then to develop the writer’s version of a guitarist’s calloused fingers. I don’t take  rejections personally and I don’t dwell on them . . . but I don’t save them either. I log them then delete them and, unless they include some bit of useful feedback that I can use for revision, I try never to think about them ever again.

I do, however, save encouraging responses. Acceptances I print and put in a file. Encouraging personal rejections and other positive feedback (the couple of “fan” emails I’ve gotten, for example, from people who felt compelled to email me and tell me how much they liked a story they’d come across in a journal) I save in an email folder. I save this type of thing because just knowing that they’re there helps bring me up again when too many form rejections (or low book sales) has gotten me down. I wish I could say I didn’t need this sort of masturbatory ego massage, but the truth is, sometimes you just have to find any way you can to prove to yourself that it is worth the time and energy you put in, that you should keep writing, even if X editor or Y agent doesn’t seem to agree.

Recently, I closed down an old email address and had to forward any saved messages that I wanted to keep to my new email. The sheer number of saved emails in my encouraging responses folder gave me a much needed boost in self-esteem, and as I read through them again trying to decide whether I should really forward them all, I started to feel even better. This happened, by the way, at a time where I’ve been the most unsure of myself as a writer. The anti-climax of the book deal, the pregnancy, and now the new baby have left me really questioning my abilities as a writer. I’m so glad I saved all of those emails over the years, even if for just that one moment where I would stumble across them again and be reinvigorated.

For the record, I did decide to forward every single one. I may need them again one day. In fact, I know I will.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I don’t know about you, but the majority of the feedback I ever receive as a writer comes in the form of rejections or acceptances. This is unfortunate, since, let’s be honest, for every one acceptance a writer might receive, he or she probably received several rejections for the same piece. The result is that the vast majority of the feedback we ever get comes in the form of rejections.

Of course, all rejections are not created equal. A personal rejection, complete with a note explaining why the piece was rejected or complimenting you on some specific aspects of the story feels almost as uplifting and encouraging as an acceptance. But of course, a stiff and reserved form rejection—especially the sort that doesn’t even encourage you to submit again!—can feel like a fierce, deliberate kick in the shins.

They say that rejections and acceptances are not evenly weighted. “It only takes one acceptance,” well-meaning friends will tell you, shrugging at you and then promptly changing the subject. This is true. One acceptance means a hell of a lot more than twenty rejections combined. The acceptance means the piece is going to actually get out there. The acceptance means, also, that someone, somewhere thought the piece was good enough to share with a readership. A rejection might mean the piece isn’t any good; it might mean the piece has potential but isn’t ready; it might mean nothing, though, nothing at all. It might just mean the issue was full when your piece came in and so the editor read your submission just looking for any reason, any reason at all, to reject it.

Even so, it can be discouraging when the feedback you receive on your writing is mostly negative. This problem is compounded if you’re like me: having published my first book—and won a contest for it, no less—I’ve had to deal with the reality that a book publication doesn’t mean anybody will actually buy or read the book. You’d think having a book out there might help tilt the feedback scale to the positive side, but if anything, the silence feels ever louder now.

Since resuming sending out my work after getting my book published (I had to take a break because all of my stories that were ready were now taken), I’ve received mostly form rejections. Okay, I’ve gotten one acceptance and a handful of personal rejections, but most of my responses have been a formal one or two sentences: “Thanks for your submission. Unfortunately . . .” A friend of mine was wondering if maybe I’ve been aiming too high since getting the book published, that maybe the book gave me an extra dose of confidence that caused me to submit to higher ranked, harder to get into journals. In fact, the opposite is true. I’ve been concerned with building up more of an online presence and have been mostly submitting to tiny online journals. I suppose that fact makes the rejections smart even more: these journals don’t even get that many submissions, and they’re sending me form rejections. Ouch!

So yeah, I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged as a writer lately. It’s frustrating to fall back down to a point where I mostly receive form rejections. The feedback ratio problem is, I think, probably the hardest thing about being a writer. It’s hard to put so much time and effort into a story, only to receive a series of indifferent responses, and it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep going when the majority of the feedback you receive is negative. But I guess it’s important to remember that all writers must go through this, even the best writers, even your favorite writers of all time. And we should all remember, too, that getting over this hump, that sticking to it and keeping going in the face of constant rejection, is what sets the people who will end up being successful apart from the other, would-be but won’t-be, failed writers.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

This past week I read this really crappy book, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau. While the majority of the book had vague advice, which it repeated over and over again just to fill in enough pages to make it a full book, I felt, and which was often dubious at best, there was one tidbit that I took from the book that I can’t help but apply to myself.

The book classifies new parents on a sort of spectrum, from very organized and plan-oriented to fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants spontaneous types. The authors recommend the reader gauge where he or she falls on the spectrum in order to be more prepared for what aspects of taking care of a baby will be the most difficult for that person. I definitely recognized myself as being on the far end of the organized planner side of things. I’m a list maker; I wake up in the morning and calculate how much time I should spend on each activity that day and what time I should begin each new task; I keep a running tally of various things in my head at all times (calories eaten that day, time spent exercising, time spent on housework, time spent relaxing, and of course, time spent writing).

The authors suggest that people closer to the planner side of things tend to have a lot of trouble getting into the swing of life with a baby. Babies are spontaneous little creatures. They eat when they want to eat, sleep when they want to sleep, and cry when they want to do anything other than whatever they’re currently doing. Someone like me, who lives by my own self-imposed schedule, understandably has trouble adjusting to the new lifestyle.

For the past several years, I’ve been very focused on building myself up in specific ways. When I was in my MFA program, I spent tons of time and energy establishing good habits as a writer and building up publication credits. After I graduated, I was focused on getting a book published, and after I reached that goal, I was concerned with building up my CV in the hopes of eventually landing a full time job somewhere. I’m goal oriented, and I’m all about plans and dedication and working hard to get where I want to be.

Having a baby, I can see already, is going to force me to sloooooooow down. The first couple of weeks were fine, but now I’m scraping together less and less time to get anything done. Because I’m breastfeeding and Amalie isn’t ready, yet, to be introduced to expressed milk in a bottle, I can’t be away from Amalie for more than an hour or two—I’m the only one who can feed her. On top of that, I’ve had some problems with plugged milk ducts, which can lead to mastitis if I don’t spend a fair amount of my day pumping out whatever milk Amalie didn’t drink and massaging the plugged ducts. I spend probably at least twelve to fifteen hours a day in breastfeeding related tasks. I sleep for maybe six hours, here and there when I can, and the other three to six I have to divvy up between spending time with Amalie while she’s actually awake and bright eyed, and passing her off to someone else, so I can get something non-baby related done.

It’s hard.

And it’s made harder by the fact that I took on way more commitments than I should have for this first few months, back before I knew what I was getting myself in to. I agreed to teach an online class this quarter, which already I’m having a hard time keeping up with. I’m doing it, don’t worry, and I’ll find a way to continue to do it through to the end of the quarter. But it’s difficult. I also volunteered to write a book review for an online journal, which I had intended to finish prior to Amalie’s birth, but being distracted and jumble-headed during the end of the pregnancy, I didn’t get it done. Now I’m still distracted and jumble-headed, but add to that the fact that I have very little time to actually do anything anymore. Plus, my abdominal muscles separated during the pregnancy. This, I’m told, is very common, but it has to be rectified by daily exercises fairly soon after childbirth. Otherwise, the muscles will remain separated, and I’ll have an unsightly pooch between them for the rest of my life. (This may seem like a silly thing to be concerned about right now, but imagine looking back in ten years and knowing there’s something I could have done to get my body back, but I just chose not to do it. I managed to get through the pregnancy with no stretch marks, after all; I’ll regret it if I don’t take care of my tummy while I can.)

And I haven’t even mentioned any writing related projects, though there are a few that I’ve been hoping I would have the energy to work on during these first few months, before Amalie is mobile. But rather than panicking, I’m trying to just take it as a sign that it’s time, really, for me to slow down. It’s time for me to stop trying so hard, to stop obsessing over my career, my writing, to stop worrying about whether or not I’m spending my time efficiently. The transition is going to be difficult, don’t get me wrong, but I think this is going to be good for me. And either way, I have only to look into my baby’s beautiful blue eyes to see that it’s so worth it.