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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 28, 2012

Here’s how my thought process went just now (tell me if you can relate):

Alright, Amie’s taking a nap. I have an hour, give or take. What should I do?

Well, let’s see, I need to grade four more papers today or else I’ll fall behind. I also need to do some reading to stay on top of what I’ve assigned my students to read. I also should try to write about 500 words in my novel today. Plus I need to get ahead on my blog, since my mom is coming to town tomorrow. Oh yeah, and I need to read some submissions for Bound Off.

Then I sat there and stared at my computer for a minute. Then I went through the list of things again. Then I (metaphorically) balled myself into the fetal position.

Minutes later, I was going through the list of things I need to do for about the twentieth time and thinking about what time it is, and how many hours there are left before bedtime, and whether my insurance will cover an extended stay in a mental hospital should I have a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, Amie’s nap was close to half over already.

This is one of the biggest things that prevents me from writing—I think about everything I  have to do, think about how much time I have to do it, become overwhelmed, and then waste what little time I have panicking. Maybe I’m right when I panic like this: maybe I couldn’t possibly get it all done today. But freezing up and wallowing in my own anxiety isn’t going to help me get any closer. Instead of knocking at least some things off the list, I get nothing done, which will just make tomorrow’s list all the longer.

So here I am. Getting started on the list. I tried to prioritize, but that just led to more panic. So instead, I just picked the thing I felt the most in the mood to do—get ahead on my blog. It was something I felt I could handle right now because (as you can tell) I suddenly knew exactly what I should write about. Amie’s up from her nap already, but you know what? My next step will be to ask Damien to watch her for a bit while I knock another thing or two off the list.

Because I can do this. I can get it all done. And if I can’t, big deal, I’ll get at least some of it done. Telling myself that I can’t, that there just isn’t enough time, has never, in my experience, been an effective way of creating more time. To my knowledge, there is no way to create time. Time is finite, there is how much there is. But worrying about how much you will be able to accomplish in the amount of it that you have is a waste of it. I’m going to try not to waste any more time with stress.

So, one task from my list: completed. What will I do next? It doesn’t matter. As long as I do something, it’s time well spent.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A fellow writer/mom just made a Facebook post that got me thinking about my state as a writing mama. The Facebook post talked about completing and submitting a draft of her dissertation, and it also talked about the job applications she is sending out and the two (two!) novels she has completed and begun submitting, too.

She is the mother of a toddler, a one-year-old. Where does she find the time????

Another writer friend of mine is also putting me to writing mama shame. Jayme Russell’s son, Dylan, is, I think, eleven. He was eight when I first met him, and he was so tiny and adorable and sweet and fun (he’s still most of those things, except that he’s not really so tiny anymore). In spite of having her hands full as the mother of a spirited school-aged boy, Jayme still found the time to earn her MA in poetry and is now working toward her MFA at the University of Notre Dame. Jayme has published nonfiction and poetry alike, and recently she made a vow to write a poem a day for the entire month of October (you can read about her progress in her blog).

She’s writing every. Single. Day. AND earning her MFA. AND being a mom.

Meanwhile, my relationship with writing has been very on-again/off-again since Amie was born, since I found out I was pregnant, even. It’s hard for me to find, not the time, maybe, but the energy to sit down and write when I spend most of my day chasing Amalie around, trying to prevent her from sticking everything she ever finds in her mouth and choking on it, and stressing out about whether I’m stimulating her mind enough and whether she’s hitting her developmental milestones on time. By the time I get Amie down for a nap or to bed at night, I don’t even feel like reading, let alone writing. To be fair to me, during a good deal of her sleeping time I grade papers or plan lessons, but I do have some genuinely free time . . . and I spend it watching Mad Men or playing Super Mario Land 3D.

I honestly think if I hadn’t already published a book before I had Amie, I would probably just give up on the whole idea of being a writer. I’m in my thirties, I would probably tell myself. I have a kid. It’s time to grow up and stop dreaming about something that’s never going to happen. But I did publish a book before I had a baby, and that, combined with whatever small success I’ve had so far, is enough to make me feel not like a would-be writer, but a writer, unqualified. It gives me the confidence to believe I should be doing this, should keep at it, that I am not wasting time dreaming the impossible.

So rather than looking at my writer/mama friends and telling myself, “I guess I’m just not a real writer, like they are. If I was, I would have found a way to be as productive as them,” I look at those ladies and feel inspired. I say, “So it is possible to juggle motherhood and the writing life. So I can do this.” And then, I do.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Humor writing is a tricky endeavor. Not everybody agrees on what is funny and what is patently not, so writing with the primary intention of making your reader laugh is a gamble. In fact, it gets even more complicated than that. Different people have very different senses of humor, and so the term “humor” is abstract, vague. Like “beauty” or “love,” it means different things to different audiences.

So it was with some trepidation that I started reading the current issue, Issue Two, of Kugelmass: A Journal of Literary Humor. What did literary humor even mean, I wondered, and would the stuff I found within the journal’s pages strike me, with my own particular tastes and distastes, as funny? Still, I love to laugh (as the Mary Poppins song goes), and I liked that this journal seemed to have found its own niche that no other journal I had heard of had yet claimed.

The journal started with an incredibly hilarious editor’s note by Editor David Holub, which ended up being the funniest thing in the entire issue. This could be seen as a negative—the best thing in the journal was the letter from the editor at the beginning—but I actually don’t see it that way. The editor’s note was funnier than anything in the journal itself, but that’s partly because the note wasn’t a work of “literary humor,” but a more straightforward, make you laugh sort of piece. It did, however, give me high expectations for the sort of humor I might find within the literary pieces to follow, and for the most part, those expectations weren’t met.

This is not to say, though, that I didn’t enjoy the pieces in the journal. As with most any journal or anthology reading experience, some of the pieces I really enjoyed, some, not so much. I suppose your best hope for any journal is that you’ll like more than you dislike (or are at least indifferent to). What I mean, mostly, is that I didn’t find most of the pieces funny.

Take Aimee Bender’s story “Lady of the Mail,” for example. This story was one of the highlights of the issue. This was my first encounter with Bender’s work, and I was very impressed. I was compelled by the narrator’s obsessive, borderline disturbed fixation on her ex-boyfriend, by her quirky new friends in her new job as a playwright. I liked the story, but I would never have classified it as “humor” on my own.

The same is true for Fred Siegel’s essay “Mysteries of the Bronx” and Ben Greenman’s piece—whose genre is labeled “unclassifiable”—“There Are Only Eight Kinds of Paragraphs.” Witty, I might say, but I would never list these pieces as humor writing. But perhaps that’s what “literary humor” is—good, literary works, with a touch of the absurd or an eye for the comedy in the tragedy of our lives.

And that’s exactly what Steve Almond suggests literary humor should do in his interview in the issue. Almond says, “I’d advise people NOT to try to be funny. Just run toward the shame and rage and all those other horrible memories and feelings and let the humor emerge intuitively.” That’s precisely what the best of the examples in Kugelmass Number Two seem to do.

There were pieces, though, that I thought did seem to be trying very, very hard to make me laugh. They were the ones that I definitely did not like. I didn’t think they were funny, for the most part, and they fell flat as literary works, as well. As a whole, then, I liked the issue, but I liked it for the half of it that was strong because that half was strong enough to justify me forgiving the rest of it.

And I also liked the funny tidbits at the bottom of every page of the journal. These, I assume, came from Holub—they match his sense of humor from the editor’s note at the beginning. Like the literary works in the journal, these bits were hit and miss, but the funniest ones matched my sense of humor exactly, comments like, “I need a pair of bolt cutters because my neighbor put a new lock on his shed, which is frustrating because I know he has a pair of bolt cutters locked in his shed.”

Sunday, October 7, 2012

This week, Damien received several boxes at work, packed with the newest issue of New Ohio Review. It’s always exciting when the new issue arrives. He puts so much energy into designing and editing it that it almost feels unreal, I imagine, holding the final product in his hands. He brought a copy home and read aloud to me some of his favorite poems from the issue. I loved them, too, though it’s safe to say that as simply a reader, I don’t have quite the same experience reading the journal as he does, having been in on the issue from its inception, having watched it grow and become what it eventually became.

His enthusiasm, sharing the new issue with me, reminded me of why I decided to volunteer to work as an Associate Editor at Bound Off. Certainly, the amount of work I’ll put in at my position is nowhere near the amount Damien puts in at New Ohio Review (and a good thing, too, since he gets paid for his efforts, while mine is just a volunteer, few hours a week kind of job). Still, I look forward to having that satisfaction again, that feeling of accomplishment every time a new edition goes out (especially when a story I recommended we accept is part of that new edition).

I’m also looking forward to the ways slogging through a journal’s slush pile will improve my own writing. As writers, we sometimes forget that our work must first win over an editor before it can ever make it in front of a reader. Editors read slightly different from readers. While readers go into a piece expecting it to be good (because, after all, the bad stuff has been filtered out through the publication process), editors have no idea what they’re going to get every time they open a new submission—they may be about to read something brilliant, but it’s just as likely that they’re about to read something terrible. The most likely scenario, though, is that the story will be neither brilliant nor terrible, but will exist in that hazy world between. Those are the submissions it’s most difficult to decide on, but decide we must—and quickly! Quickly! We don’t have a lot of time to devote to each submission!

A reader goes in to a piece planning to like it, but an editor must reject 99% of everything he or she reads. This means an editor must read looking for reasons to say no, planning to say no. Knowing that 99 out of 100 submissions you receive will be rejected puts the odds in the “no” pile for every new submission you open. In a reader’s hands, then, each piece is innocent until proven guilty, but to an editor, the burden of proof (that the piece is worthwhile, that the piece deserves a spot on the page, or in Bound Off’s case, in the podcast) lies with the submission.

And it’s useful to remember this as a writer. It’s useful to remember it when you get rejected, because it takes the sting off a bit; it’s useful to remember it when you get accepted, because it hammers home how good you must be that your stuff is making it past the editorial hurdles; and it’s useful to remember it when you’re revising, because if you really want to make it into the hands of some readers, you do need to take the opinions of other smart, with-it, literary types into consideration. You do need other people’s feedback, and you need to seriously consider anything other people might say. The things your beta readers or workshop classmates are getting stuck on might be the same things that cause an editor to slide your submission into the “no” pile.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that every piece of feedback you ever receive should be taken or that you should change your work in a way that you, as the writer, don’t like. But. You should listen, and more than that, you should really seriously evaluate any feedback you receive if publication is one of your goals, and let’s be honest, for most of us, it is.