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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, January 29, 2012

A friend of mine out here in Ohio, Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, published her first book a few months ago: My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. Kelly has agreed to let me interview her regarding her experience publishing the book, which I plan to post sometime in March. (She also talks a little bit about the process at the end of the book, if you’re interested.) 

In the meantime, I wanted to talk a little about how much I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s funny and poignant, sad at parts, but that plucky, you-can-get-through-this sort of sad. The book details Kelly’s exploits retracing the Ingalls family’s journey west, at the same time exploring Kelly’s relationship with a man she refers to as “My Manly” and her desire to figure out what it is she wants out of life.

Part of the reason I was so pleased that this book was so good was because I remember, a couple of years ago, talking to Kelly about the book while she was writing it. This was not long after I had met Kelly, not long after I found out that Kelly’s first fiction publication—that’s right, her very first—had appeared in no less than the Gettysburg Review. (That same story ended up being nominated for a Pushcart, and it got her noticed by an agent!)

I remember it very clearly: a small group of us were having lunch at Casa Nueva—a highly overrated restaurant in my town, which serves food that kind of, sort of, if you really squint your eyes and hold your nose, resembles Mexican food—and Kelly was talking about working on the book. She really should be home writing, she said, but she knew the second she got home she would probably just curl up on the couch with the cats and take a nap. She was joking around, of course, but the sentiment behind the joke rang true: sometimes she just didn’t feel like writing. She had to get this thing done, she told me, because she’d already lined up a publisher for it. Still, there were definitely days when she had to force herself to get to work.

Cut to a little over two years later: the book is out and it’s fabulous. The work she did definitely paid off, and based on the number of Amazon book reviews it’s already garnered (my book’s been out more than a year and only three people have reviewed it on Amazon), I think it’s selling pretty well. And as I was reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about that day at Casa, how she hadn’t felt like writing. She hadn’t felt like writing, and yet when she sat down and forced herself to do it anyway, this lovely book is what resulted.

I find it all very reassuring, don’t you? ALL writers have to force it sometimes, even the really, really good ones like Kelly. Nobody walks around in a constant state of inspiration. Some days we stare at the blank screen for what feels like hours, willing the words to come. Others, we have trouble even getting that far. But it’s the writers who sit in front of that computer anyway who eventually produce excellent books like My Life as Laura. We should all take a page out of Kelly’s book.

Sorry, kitty, no nap for me today. I’ve got work to do.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Over the past week or so I read two very, very good books—Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby and Room by Emma Donoghue. Nick Hornby is one of my favorite writers—I’ve read all of his novels and loved every one. This was the second book I’ve read by Emma Donoghue, although I didn’t realize that until the end, when I was looking at the list of other books by her. It turns out she wrote one of my favorite short story collections of all time, Kissing the Witch, which reimagines classic fairy tales through a modern feminist perspective.

Both Juliet, Naked and Room were absolutely riveting, and Room is the best book I’ve read in a looooooong time. One thing that really struck me about both books was the fact that I was so engaged with the characters and plots that the writing itself just faded completely into the background—I hardly noticed it at all. This is not to say that the writing wasn’t good, on a language level. Both authors have an excellent grasp of voice, and we learn so much about the characters by the way they see and think about the world. Especially impressive is the writing in Room, which takes as its narrator a five-year-old boy who doesn’t understand very much about the world (think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime but even younger and even more confused). Sounds like a difficult, maybe even impossible perspective to get in to, but Donoghue totally pulls it off. It is, in fact, the voice of the narrator that gives Room its emotional resonance. He’s so innocent, so young and sweet. He deserves better than this awful, awful world.

But it wasn’t really the beautiful, flawless sentences in both books that made them so impossible to put down, or at least, it was more than that. It was the combination of everything together: the stories themselves, the characters, and the perfect writing. I had to know what was going to happen next. Would Annie end up sleeping with Tucker? Would Jack and Ma escape Old Nick and leave Room forever behind? I’ve talked in the past about how novels often have their slow patches, and how usually, when I finish reading a novel, I feel as though it should have been significantly trimmed. Not so with either of these books. I was right there with the characters on every single page, and that’s the sort of thing that can only be accomplished by compelling plot and characters, not beautiful writing alone.

On the one hand, there was something mildly depressing about the books, as a writer. Because I could never be that good. Because I’m the sort of writer who gets by on lyrical prose; plot is the biggest thing I struggle with, and it probably always will be. Still, reading these books was a valuable reminder of why I became a writer to begin with. It wasn’t the old “I could do that too” mentality that writers sometimes talk about. I became a writer—I’m sure many of us did—because of books like these. Books so perfect I wouldn’t change a thing. Books I could never have written myself. Books that make the world a better place just by their mere existence.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

So I got a rejection the other day that really bothered me. It burrowed its way deep inside my brain and hunkered down, having apparently made up its mind that this would be a lovely place to live. It wasn’t your typical sort of rejection. It didn’t come from a journal or an agent or a publisher. It didn’t offer any chance of personal feedback or the suggestion to try again. This was a rejection for a grant, an artist’s grant through the Ohio Arts Council.

When I applied for the grant, I knew it was a long shot. Only ten percent of the artists who apply, the application instructions said, receive funding. Still, I felt I had a decent enough shot that it was worth my time to put together the application materials. After all, the stories I included as my writing sample had all been published both in journals and in my award winning book, and two of them were nominated for Pushcarts.

The application process was complicated, the instructions poorly put together and lengthy. When it came time to mail the materials in, the grant instructions directed me to send the package to the wrong address, so, after my materials were returned to sender, I then had to hunt down the correct address, mail it priority, and hope I was actually finished this time.

Maybe it’s because it was such a time and energy consuming process applying for the damn thing that I started to feel an unwarranted sense of entitlement about this grant. I should definitely get this, I began to tell myself. Why wouldn’t I? I’m a good writer. I know people like these stories—there’s no gamble there. Only ten percent of the applications are approved, but just imagine how many of those come from amateurs who have deluded themselves into believing their not-ready-for-prime-time stuff is good. No way was I one of those amateurs. Nuh-uh. Not a chance.

Right.

I became so convinced I was going to get the grant, I started planning out how I would spend the $5,000—no joke! I was going to embark on a book tour across Ohio, and try my best to get my book in the hands of as many readers as possible. I could never afford to do something like that right now, but with that grant . . .

Of course, I didn’t get it. Incidentally, I knew I hadn’t gotten it before I got the email informing me of the fact. I knew because, in a series of events involving Facebook comments and the friend of a friend, I learned that the people who did get the grant had already been contacted. And I hadn’t heard anything yet.

So. When I received an email from the OAC, my heart only lurched a little bit. I opened it and scanned through, knowing already what I would find. The grant committee has met bla bla sorry to inform you bla bla bloo. They could have said, “Dear Amateur, quit wasting our time,” and the rejection wouldn’t have hit me any harder.

First, I was bummed.

Then, I was ashamed, very, very ashamed. For actually thinking I stood a chance.

Normally, rejections don’t really get to me, and even when they do, they don’t get to me as much as this one did. I had to talk it out with Damien—I don’t usually dwell on rejections, you see, so I don’t usually talk about them with Damien besides to say, “Guess who’s one point closer to Amazon bucks?”—because I knew if I said it out loud, it would seem ridiculous that I was so bothered. It did, and I felt better getting it out there, but I also realized that the reason this rejection hurt so much was because I had allowed myself to believe I was better than I actually am.

This is sort of the roller coaster of being a writer, at least this is how it’s always been for me. You have some smallish series of successes and begin to believe you must have arrived, or are at least well on your way. Then something happens—a rejection, a bad workshop, maybe even just the realization that the aforementioned successes don’t mean much in the grand scheme of things—and you’re knocked down a peg or two, maybe not all the way down to where you started, but certainly down to where you belong.

And the truth is, this is necessary. This is exactly as it should be. We need to be reminded that we’re not brilliant, that we do have to keep working very hard if we want those successes to keep coming. We need to be reminded that for every one person who likes what we’ve written, at least one (and probably many more) doesn’t. We need to remember these things lest we stagnate in our own hubris. Nothing is more damaging to a work of art, in my opinion, than the artist’s belief that he or she can do no wrong. If nothing else, our failures can motivate us to succeed next time, just like that old cliché: the only real failures are the people who give up.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

I have all kinds of things I want to talk to you about in the coming weeks. I want to tell you about my oddly regressive reaction to a recent rejection and what I learned from it. I want to tell you about my friend Kelly’s new book, how good it is, and how inspired it makes me to get to work myself. I want to tell you about my strange compulsion to look up jobs on AWP’s job list.

But first, I want to tell you about an exciting new blog project I’ve got in the works. To keep things from getting stale here, I’ve decided to line up some interviews with published authors to post on my blog. My idea is to post interviews with authors who published their books in different ways: I’ve got a self-published author lined up, an author whose book was published through a small press, and I plan to get an author who won a book contest and an author whose book was sold by an agent, too. These interviews, which I’m thinking I’ll post over the course of the entire month of March, should provide some interesting insight into the range of publishing options available.

Posting them in March, by the way, will be a nice break for me. Between AWP and another reading in Pittsburgh and final papers to grade and family visiting during spring break, March is going to be a very busy month for me. It’ll be nice to have the interviews all done and ready to post, and basically take a month off from blogging.

If it goes well, I’m thinking I might continue doing interviews now and then on the blog in the future. Let me know if you have any suggested topics or interviewees, and let me know, too—after I post them, of course—what you think of the interviews I’ll be posting in March.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Happy New Year! It’s that time of year, the time when we all look back on what we’ve done (and what we haven’t) in the past year. 2011 was a great year for me—the best year of my life, actually—and I say that in spite (yes, and definitely not because) of the fact that I hardly wrote at all the entire year.

If you’ve been following along, you know that I had a very on again/off again, false start kind of year as a writer. A lot of things changed in my life, pretty much all of them for the better, but my shifting world (and my disappointment over the anticlimax of publishing my first book) left me with a bit of difficulty getting anything productive done. My mind was a jumbled mess for the better part of the year, and once the baby came in September, I’ve been running on amounts of sleep so infinitesimal it’s a wonder I can even think at all.

But my Amalie is nearing four months old now (wow, it’s going by so fast!) and is sleeping longer stretches at night. Getting her down for a nap is still a nightmare, but overall, she’s a very easy, sweet-natured little baby, and I’m feeling more and more well rested every day. So, time to get back on the wagon for once and for all.

During my winter break from teaching, I had planned to write for a steady schedule of at least fifteen minutes a day. That plan, ambitious though it wasn’t, crumbled by the end of my first week off. I’m not going to bother coming up with excuses. It’s embarrassing to think I couldn’t even keep up such a basic writing schedule as that. But the important thing is I’m not going to let that failure prevent me from trying again. I know I can get back into the groove of writing. If there’s anything my years of making a serious go as a writer have taught me, it’s that writing is just like anything else in life—just like exercise. It can be hard to get yourself in the habit of it, but once you get your momentum going, there’s no stopping you. 

So here I am, at the beginning of a new year (and at the beginning of a new quarter—yes, school is already back in session this week), and I’m ready to make it count this time. I’m not going to set the goal of writing absolutely every day—I just can’t do it, with my crazy, new mom life right now. But I am going to make a goal for 2012: I intend to complete and begin circulating at least five stories by the end of the year. That’s actually not that ambitious of a goal, either. Back when I was an MFA student, I would be working on at least that many stories each semester. I’ve already got a good three stories in completed draft form, which have been revised multiple times already. I can easily finish up those three and write and revise two new ones in a year.

A year, after all, is a very long time. Even if I have several more false starts, there’s time enough to make this happen. There’s time enough, yes. There always is.