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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, November 27, 2011

A topic I’ve addressed before and no doubt will feel compelled to address again in the future is when to know whether a particular piece of creative writing is finished, polished, as good as it can be and ready to publish as it is, and when to accept, on the other side of the spectrum, that a piece is simply not ever going to be good enough, that it’s time to drag-and-drop it into the old “Failed Attempts” file.

Sometimes this question arises—like with my MFA thesis—because you’ve been sending and sending and sending something out and getting nowhere with it for so long that you have no choice but to ask yourself if it’s actually publishable. I got several agent nibbles on my novel, but no bites, and while most of the agents who actually requested to read some or all of the manuscript said it was well written, none of them believed that they would be able to sell it to a publisher. Fair enough. So I gave up.

But sometimes you find yourself asking this question because a particular piece keeps coming back with personal rejections. “This is very well written.” “We’d very much like to see more from you.” “You should know this came very close to getting accepted.” And yet it always gets rejected in the end. I have a story like that right now—the only story, in fact, that I’m currently submitting, which in and of itself is kind of depressing, don’t you think?

I guess it’s maybe because this is the only story I have in circulation, but I’ve been paying particular attention to this string of rejections. Why, I keep asking myself, does this story keep garnering these kind words from editors, even though it keeps getting rejected. I’ve come up with two likely possibilities.

The first is that maybe they think the writing is good, but not the story. This, I think, I would choose to take as encouragement. Then I would shelve the story and use the rejections as motivation to finish up some of the not-quite-ready stories I have in the works. (Motivation, by the way, I am in desperate need of, having taken such a long break from any serious attempts at writing and being, as a result, a bit rusty and hesitant.)

But the other possibility is that it’s a good story that just hasn’t found its home quite yet. This possibility is obviously preferable, but I don’t know if my considering it is wishful thinking. Am I wasting these editors’ (and my own) time by sending this story around? Am I futilely clinging to a bad story just because I’ve sort of lost my writing groove and this story is, at the moment, the only story I’ve got to send?

How to know, how to know.

Personal rejections are, of course, always a good thing, but sometimes they can be more confusing than form ones. I just don’t know when to take the fact that the story keeps getting rejected as a sign to pack it in. I’ll probably send this story out for at least one more round of submissions, but eventually, if it keeps getting rejected, I’ll need to accept that it just isn’t going to happen with this story. So I guess the real question is how many rejections should I rack up before that happens?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

This week, I received an early Christmas present from my mom: a Kindle Touch. This is my first foray into the world of e-readers. Ever since e-readers first started to gain popularity several years ago, I’ve been adamantly against them—or at least, against owning one myself—and afraid of how they might affect the future of the book industry. As a writer, reader, and bookophile, I guess I just felt uncomfortable with the idea of electronic books, fearing that they may supplant the need for hard copy books altogether. This fear is somehow ridiculous and entirely reasonable all at once.

As writer, e-readers made me uncomfortable because I was afraid of how e-books would change the way writers are able to get their work out there. The biggest problem lies in the lack of any need for brick-and-mortar bookstores if there is no longer such a thing as ink-and-paper books. Online shoppers are only going to find books either by actively searching for them, having already learned of the book elsewhere, or by browsing (only the most popular, major publisher books will come up that way). Small presses and small press authors like me don’t stand a chance.

As a reader and bookophile, e-readers offended me aesthetically. I like books as physical objects, small, handheld works of art. I like the feel of them in my hands, the smell of them, the sound of the turning pages. I like the way they look lining my walls, just like they lined the walls of the home I grew up in. E-books, no matter how convenient, portable, and inexpensive, are not works of art. They’re technological marvels, sure, but not works of art.

But when my husband Damien decided he wanted a Kindle Touch, I found myself suddenly rethinking my whole stance. The main reason Damien gave for wanting a Kindle—and I couldn’t help but see his point—was because a lightweight, easy-to-hold-with-one-hand reading device would make calming a fussy baby so much more bearable. My mom, who has been on the Kindle bandwagon from the beginning, offered to buy him one for Christmas. Suddenly, I found myself wanting one too.

They arrived this week, and they’re every bit as useful as my mom said. We’re both in love with them. Damien’s read more this past few days than he’s been able to read in a long time. He’s actually reading more with the baby, because what else is there to do when she’s fussing or sleeping in your arms? Our Kindles also allow us to buy more books for less money, to never worry about how much it will cost to ship them the next time we move, to not run the risk of the post office losing them (I’m still raw about all the books the post office lost when we moved to Ohio), and to read the same book at the same time (especially nice for us because we like to read the same book and discuss it, which in the past has always meant one of us reading it first and then waiting, trying not to forget anything important, as the other reads it).

On top of that, they’re far more environmentally friendly. You might think the electricity you use to run the e-reader equals the paper used to print hard copy books, but the fact is, e-readers use electricity very economically. As long as you keep the wi-fi turned off when you’re not using it, Kindle Touches are supposed to last up to two months between charges. Both Damien and I have been using our Kindles like crazy since we got them, but the little battery symbols on both are still almost full.

Yes, if I set aside my nostalgic and possibly materialistic obsession with physical books, I can see that the benefits of e-books far outweigh those of their traditional, hard copy counterparts. And if I can come around on the e-reader issue—me, of all people!—it doesn’t seem such a stretch that so, eventually, will everyone, that sooner or later (probably later, maybe not in our lifetime), physical, hard copy books will be little more than antiques. Just look at records. Okay, they’re not extinct yet, but as the generations of people who actually lived in the pre-CD era die off, I think record companies will stop putting new albums out on vinyl.

I expect children’s books will continue to be published in hard copy form, but I’d be willing to bet that someday—maybe a hundred, two hundred years in the future—all other books will be published only in electronic form. And while part of me still wants to rage against such a future, there’s nothing wrong with, let’s face it, progress. Cheaper, easier to handle, and better for the Earth we live on—e-books are not, as it turns out, a bad thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In a recent Scientific American article, novelist and psychology professor Keith Oatley talked about a variety of studies that proved a link between reading fiction and exhibiting heightened social skills. Avid readers of fiction are better able to pick up on social cues and empathize with others than are people who don’t read much fiction. This, of course, flies in the face of the cliché of the shy bookworm who has no friends and has trouble relating to other people. In fact, fiction (and this includes movies, by the way, though not, interestingly enough, TV shows) broadens our understanding of the vast spectrum of human experience. By reading a lot of fiction, we are better able to understand and care about people whose lives, backgrounds, and personalities are nothing like our own.

We English teachers already knew this, or at least, we had an inkling. I can usually tell whether or not a student reads much just by how much a student seems to understand and be able to relate to people with viewpoints different from their own. Students who don’t read for pleasure at all tend to be far less able to mentally put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to use another cliché (and students who announce proudly that they read nothing but the Bible in their spare time are even worst, but I digress).

As the Scientific American article was written by a fiction writer (who happens, also, to be a cognitive psychology professor), I couldn’t help but wonder where the writing of fiction might fall in to all of this. Now I have to tread lightly here because I certainly don’t want to suggest that fiction writers are somehow better people. First of all, too many writers are pretentious and self-absorbed, suffering from delusions of grandeur, for writers to be better than other people. Plus, I would apply my speculations about how writing might have a similar effect not just to fiction writers, but to writers in any genre. But I do feel that writing can help you process things you don’t yet know how you feel about. Writing can help you understand the world around you.

That’s definitely how it’s always been for me, anyway. One of the main reasons I write is so that I can climb into other people’s heads and learn what makes them tick. I write, often, so that I won’t judge, so that I can remind myself that we’re all human beings, and we all—or most of us, anyway—believe that we are “good.” Writing forces me to empathize in a way that just thinking about other people and their situations doesn’t. When I write, I have to become someone else for a while. I have to understand not only who my characters are but also why they do the things they do, how they justify their actions to themselves.

And when you’ve so fully become someone else, it becomes impossible to judge them quite so harshly. When you understand someone, you can’t hate them. Just like reading can change your personality, so can writing. And for me, that’s reason enough to do it right there.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You know me—I love metaphors for writing and the writing life. We’ve all heard that a writing project is like the writer’s child: you love it with all your heart, you’ve poured so much of yourself into it, you feel protective of it, etc. etc. etc. Now that I have a child of my own, I can see how fitting this metaphor really is.

See, when you have a newborn baby, you love her right away—yes, you love her madly—but . . . well, she’s just sort of lump of flesh at first. At first, she doesn’t do much of anything but eat, defecate, sleep, and cry, cry, cry. She doesn’t have much of a personality yet. In fact, in many ways, a newborn baby is still sort of a fetus. The human brain is so large that babies must be born before they’re actually developed so they can fit through the mother’s cervix. It’s true! Most (or maybe all, I can’t remember) other animals are FAR more developed by the time they’re actually born. Just think about all those baby animal births you’ve seen on PBS, where the second the baby is born, he begins walking.

So when a baby human is born, like a new writing project, she isn’t really anything yet, just an untapped ball of potential. Now what I’ve already discovered is that if you try to force things with your baby—if you, for example, want to convince her to play with a certain toy before she’s developed an interest in it herself—you’ll get nowhere. You have to let baby take the lead. She’ll let you know what she wants to do by trying different things and paying close attention to how she reacts to them. If she doesn’t want that toy, or if she doesn’t want to be read to just now, she’ll cry. Then you stop and try something else or take a break and just snuggle for a while.

As time goes by and you let her dictate what she wants to do and when, she begins to develop and become more of a human being, less an exposed fetus. She starts to show preferences (my little Amalie, for example, loves her Winnie the Pooh with jingle bells in his belly, which her Nonnie and Bapa bought for her at Disneyland); she even starts to smile! And you become more and more attuned to who she is and how to be with her.

This is how a new piece of writing develops. In my experience, if you try to force your preconceived notions of what the piece will be, it just won’t work. If, instead, you sit back and let the piece guide you, experimenting with different things and paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t, things will come together much more smoothly, though they may not come as quickly as you want.

My Amalie is now almost eight weeks old. Eight weeks. Already, she’s so different than she was eight weeks ago when I gazed into her blue, blue eyes for the first time; still, she has a long way to go before she’s ready to function out in the real world on her own. If I were to call up, say, an employment agency and ask them to secure a job for my eight-week-old baby, they’d either think I was joking or crazy. Yet this, essentially, is what many amateur writers do when they submit a rough draft for publication (and proofreading to catch the grammar and punctuation errors does not turn a first draft into a final draft, as any English teacher will tell you).

I’m not saying you have to spend eighteen years revising every single piece, but hey, let’s not rush things, okay? Your “baby” will develop exactly as quickly as is right for it, and one day you’ll be able to send it out into the real world proud of all the work you put into it and knowing that you both are much better for the experience.