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Fighting My Email Addiction to Save My Writing

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Fighting My Email Addiction to Save My Writing

My sophomore year of college I lived in an old hotel that had been converted to apartments. The hallways of the Heritage Inn smelled like boiled cabbage, and my roommates and I were the only people under the age of sixty-five who lived there. Every day when I got home from class, a horde of senior citizens would be hanging out in the lobby. “The mail’s not here yet,” they’d tell me.

“It’s late today,” one of them would grumble. “It’s normally here by two o’clock.”

I’d thank them for the update then head to my apartment.

It’s a known fact that old people love the mail. At my grandfather’s senior living complex, there’s a little sign in the mailroom for the mail carrier to flip: one side says “mail’s here!” and the other: “mail isn’t here yet.” (Heritage Inn really should have invested in one of those.) It keeps everyone from needlessly checking their boxes all day long.

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My grandpa is actually too cool to hang out by the mailroom.

 

Speaking of needlessly checking boxes, do you know how often I check my email? I’d guess five or more times an hour. I’m no better than the old people. In fact, I’m a lot worse.

Because it’s not just my email. I also waste time checking facebook and Twitter. Thank god I don’t have Instagram or understand Snapchat — otherwise I’d probably be checking those, too.

What happens is this: I’ll be trying to write. I’ll get a little stuck on something, so I’ll take a quick break and check my email. Or I’ll write a page of my novel then have the random compulsion to scroll through facebook for a minute.

It’s gotten to be such a habit that I feel like I can’t focus on something for longer than fifteen minutes without “needing” to check email or facebook. I feel like I’m developing ADD the way I skip from one distraction to the next.

Email and facebook offer the sort of instant gratification that writing a novel does not. I can post a picture on facebook then check back in fifteen minutes to see if I’ve gotten any “likes” or comments. Or I can simply open my email inbox and new messages have appeared. Sure, most of them are junk, but there’s always the chance that there will be some good news in there – like an email from one of the agents I’m waiting to hear back from.

Basically, having email and facebook is like having an always-available slot machine at my disposal. And it doesn’t cost any money to pull the lever. It only costs time.

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Eva and friends in Vegas many years ago.  Compulsive email-checking stimulates the same parts of your brain as gambling!

 

It might be that I really have gotten “addicted” to checking my email. It’s a classic dopamine cycle. I’m seeking a reward, and I get a little jolt of pleasure when I see messages in my inbox. But the “reward” (a bunch of junk mail) isn’t strong enough to turn off the seeking behavior, so I check my email again fifteen minutes later. (Read more about it here.)

Add to that the fact that email is unpredictable. Remember B.F. Skinner’s experiments where he conditioned mice to press levers? The mice that continued to press the levers the longest were the ones that got rewarded (with food pellets) at random intervals. I’m really no different than those mice. I don’t know when exactly I’m going to get some awesome email reward, so I just keep checking. (Read more about it here.)

As you can guess, my writing is suffering because of this. I waste a lot of time on facebook and email, but it’s not just the wasted time. In order for me to write fiction well, I should slip into the skin of my main characters and immerse myself in the world of my novel. But I can’t do that if I’m coming out of my story every fifteen minutes to check my email or look at pictures of people’s babies on facebook.

The problem has only gotten worse over the past few months as I’ve been experiencing some writer’s block. The more I struggle with writing, the more I want to “take a break” and check my email.

But not anymore! On Monday I decided I need to kick this habit. I made the following rule for myself:

NO checking email or facebook from 9 am to noon.

Nine to noon is normally when do my creative writing. (I work my various part-time jobs in the afternoon.) From now on, I will have those three hours uninterrupted by the distractions of email and facebook.

If I get stuck or if I need to take a break, I am allowed to read a book, take a walk, cook something, do laundry, etc. I’m even allowed to look something up on the Internet if I  feel the need to. But I am not allowed to touch my inbox or facebook for those three sacred hours.

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NO email-checking from 9am until noon!

 

I’m two days into this routine.  On Monday, I broke down and checked my email at 10:30 because I was expecting to hear back from a parent about whether or not I was tutoring her child at 3pm that day.  I did have an email from her.  I responded to it then promptly clicked out of my inbox.  Could I have waited until noon to read her email and respond?  Probably.

On Tuesday I made it until 11:30 before I broke down and checked my email.  Sure, I had stuff I needed to respond to, but again, I probably could have waited until the afternoon.

Still, it’s improvement.  I can’t expect to kick this habit immediately.  And checking my email once between 9 and noon is a lot better than checking it a dozen times.

I guess I’m different from the mice after all.  At least I have a little self control.  And I can’t make fun of old people anymore, because I totally understand their obsession with mail.

Writer’s Block Advice: Uncertainty = Creativity

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Writer’s Block Advice:  Uncertainty = Creativity

I have not been feeling creative or productive lately.

I started writing a new novel about two months ago. I wrote 100 pages right off the bat, but then I got scared that it was bad. I haven’t touched the novel for the past two weeks. In fact, right now I’m having a hard time even motivating myself to open the word document. I’m feeling uncertain about the story and where I was going with it. I’m worried that the whole thing is no good and I need to work on something else… but what?

I also have this finished novel that needs a complete structural revision. But again, I can’t seem to work up the creative energy to brainstorm what to do with it.

Then on Monday I tried to start something new. But my mind was blank, and my heart was full of fear. I wrote a few sentences then deleted them. Wrote a few more, deleted. In despair, I wondered if writing novels is what I should be doing with myself. Maybe I should give it up. Find a job where I can feel successful and productive.

In summary:  I’m suffering from writer’s block.

And I find writer’s block to be incredibly disheartening.  Because, first of all, writing is supposed to be something I enjoy, not something I dread. And second of all, how can I expect to be a successful, published author when I haven’t been able to write a full page in the past two weeks?

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Figuring out what to do with my writing is almost as confusing as this creepy Easter bunny tree. (Me at the Hirschhorn Museum.)

 

My husband and I are still working our way through Deepak Chopra’s The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success. Over the weekend, we read the chapter on detachment.

“You don’t give up the intention, and you don’t give up the desire,” I read. “You give up your attachment to the result.”

Naturally, I thought about writing. If I give up my attachment to getting published, will I be able to enjoy writing again? Maybe. But at this point I’m not even stressing about getting published. I’m stressing because I feel like I’ve lost the ability to write. I feel unmotivated, uninspired, uncertain.

Of course, Chopra has something to say about uncertainty, too:

“Uncertainty… is the fertile ground of pure creativity and freedom…The unknown is the field of all possibilities, ever fresh, ever new, always open to the creation of new manifestations.”

Oh. So all the uncertainty I’m feeling about my writing – that’s actually a breeding ground for creativity?

Chopra says yes:

“When you experience uncertainty, you are on the right path – so don’t give it up. You don’t need to have a complete and rigid idea of what you’ll be doing next week or next year, because if you have a very clear idea of what’s going to happen and you get rigidly attached to it, then you shut out a whole range of possibilities.”

This actually makes a lot of sense.

Right now, I’m unsure of where to go with my writing… Which means I can go anywhere. If I can only embrace the possibilities.

As a manuscript consultant, I often stress to my clients the importance of opening themselves up to all the possibilities of their novel before getting too committed to a single one. Sometimes, I tell them, we get so married to our FIRST ideas that we don’t realize they aren’t the BEST ideas. I always suggest brainstorming “what ifs.” Write down AT LEAST 20 different things that could happen in the story –- no matter how crazy or stupid they seem. The more open you are to possibilities, the more creative your writing will become.

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Monday night I moaned to my husband about how I  was feeling unmotivated and uncertain about my writing, and about how maybe I should be doing something else with my life.

“I think you should keep going with it,” he said.   Then, after I complained a bit more, he said, “Or, I mean, if there’s something else you really think you want to be doing…”

“The truth is,” I told him, “I know I want to write novels and get them published. Whether I do it now or I do it later, I know that’s always going to be a goal of mine.”

So obviously, the intention is there and has been since I was a kid. The desire is there, too, and probably always will be. If I let go of my attachment to the result and embrace the uncertainty, maybe I can find my creativity and productiveness once more.

I’m feeling more hopeful today.  Wish me luck.

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My brother, artist Deven James Langston, meditating at the Hirshhorn Museum.  I wonder if he ever experiences artist’s block.  He doesn’t seem to, but then again, he’s way more mellow than I am.

Can You Write a Novel While Trying to Buy a House?

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Can You Write a Novel While Trying to Buy a House?

A few months ago, my husband and I started going to open houses on Sundays. You know, just for fun. Because we plan on buying a house at some point, so why not start window-shopping now? Why not check out the neighborhoods and see what houses we can afford in the crazy-expensive, super-competitive DC area. No big deal, though. Just window shopping.

But then we thought, gosh, what if we fall in love with a house and aren’t able to make an offer because we don’t have our ducks in a row? So we got pre-approved for a loan and found a real estate agent. We naively thought it would be low-stress. If we saw something we liked, great. But we weren’t going to rush into anything.

Ha.

Two weeks later, we made an offer on a house. It was a really unique house, seemed like a good deal, and it was in a pretty good neighborhood. (One mile from the metro! Three blocks to Sligo Creek!) I felt nervous, and I worried it was too fast, but we both thought if we didn’t jump on this now, we’d regret it later. So, last Monday, we made the offer and it was accepted. It was official – we were going to be homeowners!

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Time to celebrate? Not so fast!

I tried to write on my novel last week, I really did. I’d manage to eek out a page, but then I’d need to scan some document to the loan officer right now, or I’d find myself looking up the address of the new house (our new house!!) on google maps and figuring out exactly how far it was from everything I cared about. (3.1 miles to Trader Joe’s! 3.2 miles to the library!)

On Thursday I didn’t get much writing done because we had to go to the three-hour-long home inspection. Everything seemed fine. The attic crawl-space was filled with this weird, rock-like insulation, but, whatever. I was more concerned with where I was going to plant azalea bushes and how I was going to set up my new office space.

On Friday, the home inspector called my husband with some alarming news. That weird insulation in the attic? Turns out it’s something called vermiculite, which has a 70% chance of containing asbestos. Just testing it for asbestos is often inconclusive. And removing the vermiculite (which can cost somewhere between ten and twenty grand) still doesn’t guarantee that you’ve removed all the asbestos from your home. I mean, it might not be a big deal. You might be fine. On the other hand, it could end up costing you a ton. And it might give you cancer.

We decided to back out of the deal and spent a few days feeling sick to our stomachs with disappointment and doubt.

But then, a day later, another house came on the market!  A house in an AMAZING location.  Sure it wasn’t as big or unique, but it was our dream location.  Maybe this was why the other house fell through — because we were meant to have this house (at least that’s what I told myself.)  We made an offer for more than we really wanted to spend.  We spent a day waiting with our fingers crossed…  Then our real estate agent called to say we didn’t get the house.  Someone had outbid us.

“This feels terrible,” my husband said.

“I don’t even know what I’m feeling anymore,” I said.

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The house we thought we were going to buy until the home inspection turned up an asbestos problem.  

 

And in the middle of all those emotions about houses, I was feeling guilty that I hadn’t gotten much writing done!

A long time ago I read Book in a Month: The Fool-Proof System for Writing a Novel in 30 Days by Victoria Lynn Schmidt. I thought it was pretty helpful for getting your novel written, whether you’re trying to do it in a month or not. At the beginning, Schmidt asks a series of questions:

Are you:

  • In the middle of a major move?
  • In the middle of a break-up, having relationship problems, or getting married soon?
  • Recovering from an illness or addiction?
  • Possibly losing a job (or did you lose one recently)?
  • Starting something new, like a job or career?
  • About to have a baby?
  • Overextended with family commitments?
  • Unsure where your next meal is coming from?
  • About to go on a major vacation?
  • Facing the death of a family member or beloved pet?
  • Already committed to the PTA and the Scouts and the car pool and.. and… and…?

 

She says “answering “yes” to one or more of these questions “doesn’t mean you should put off writing. It just means that you should cut yourself a little slack – you’re going through a lot. Set your goals accordingly, and be realistic about your goals.”

She really needs to add something to that list: BUYING A HOUSE!

Of course I’m having trouble disappearing into the world of my novel. My husband and I are in the midst of figuring out where we’re going to live for the next 7 – 10 years (or more). Of course I’m having trouble concentrating on my writing. One minute I’m making the intense decision to buy a house, and the next minute I find out I’m not buying the house after all. My brain is whirling with loan lingo, and I’m still suffering from sticker shock and the disappointment of losing not one but two houses.

It’s not an excuse for not writing. I’m not saying that. Because there’s always going to be something – some mini-crisis or life situation that has the potential to take my mind away from writing.  Heck, in the past four years, I can answer “yes” to most of the questions above.  But, like Schmidt says, I’m going through a lot right now, and I should cut myself some slack. Maybe eeking out a page a day right now is something to be proud of, not something to feel guilty about.

And I’m really glad I have my blog. Sometimes the best way to stop thinking about something is to write about it. I’m hoping that after writing this post, I will be able to get back to my novel instead of spending my time creeping around on the real estate listings. (We’ll see about that… Wish us luck!)

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Sometimes it takes a lot longer than a month — to write a book OR to buy a house!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to Acheive Success in Writing

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How to Acheive Success in Writing

Nearly four years ago, I decided to quit my emotionally-draining full-time job teaching high school math and move to Cape Cod to live rent-free in a tiny bedroom with my friend Nikki as her “writer in residence.” My plan was to sponge off Nikki (hey, she offered!) and work on writing for one year. If, at the end of the year, I was finding success with writing, I would continue to pursue it. If things were going nowhere, I would go back to teaching and give up on my dream, at least until retirement.

But that’s not exactly what happened. First of all, I didn’t end up staying on the Cape for very long. Soon after I moved there, I met my future husband, and I ended up making another risky decision: I moved to Seattle with him after we’d been dating for less than eight months.

Second of all, I realized that “success” is hard to define, and that giving up on my dream of being a writer wasn’t such an easy thing to do.

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Eva on a Cape Cod beach.

 

Back then, my idea of success was a book deal. A novel published with a major house and hopefully many more books to come. Making a living writing, being on the best-seller list, having my book made into a movie – these things would be great, too, but to me the measure of success was simple: a published novel. How hard could it be, right?

Really hard, as it turns out.

But is is it the best measure of success? I know of a lot of authors who reach the published novel stage and still feel like they still haven’t “made it.”   Now they’re worrying about sales, or writing the next book, or winning awards.

My husband and I are currently reading The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success by Deepak Chopra. Chopra says that success “is a journey, not a destination.” He says that success “includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind.” Nowhere does he mention having a published book. Of course, he is the bestselling author of a bunch of books…

My point is, I’ve been working with a narrow definition of success. After all, in those four years I have had success with my writing.  I started making (small amounts of) money by writing, and by doing writing-related jobs. I received a real writer-in-residency position in Mexico last summer. I’ve completed four novels and am working on another. I’ve gotten articles and short stories published online. I’ve made writer friends and learned how to use Twitter. I even had an agent for a while before he quit his agenting job. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’m getting better at writing novels. That’s success, isn’t it? If success is a journey, I’m definitely making my way up the hill.

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Success is a journey, like the multiple cross-country moves I’ve made in the past four years.

 

It’s still hard, though. I’m still looking for a new agent. I’m still wondering if my books are good enough. And it’s often really hard for me to admit to people that I’ve been working at this for four years but I still don’t have a book deal. Sometimes, my ego hurts something terrible.

But then I read this in The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success:

“Attention to the ego consumes the greatest amount of energy. When your internal reference point is the ego, when you seek power and control over other people or seek approval from others, you spend energy in a wasteful way. When that energy is freed up, it can be rechanneled and used to create anything you want.”

Anything I want, huh? Like a really awesome novel?

In other words, if I can stop spending my energy worrying about how I don’t have a book deal, maybe I will have the energy and creativity to write something super awesome (that will then get me a book deal).

It’s frustrating, of course:  the old stop-trying-so-hard-and-it’ll-happen advice.  It’s sort of like when I was a perpetually-single thirty year old and people told me I’d meet someone when I stopped looking. Annoying advice, but in a way that’s what happened.  I mean, I was still looking — I was still doing online dating — but when I moved to Cape Cod I dropped my expectations of finding someone during that year. And that’s the very year I found someone.

Chopra would call this “The Law of Least Effort.” He would call it the principle of “do less and accomplish more.” I don’t know if I believe it exactly, but I like the idea of working hard at the things you want, but letting go of preconceived notions and rigid expectations about the outcomes.

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I still want a book deal. Let’s be honest. But I should remember that in some ways I already am successful. My days are less stressful and more creative than they used to be. I think I get sick less often — I certainly feel healthier and get more sleep.  I have a lot more time to spend doing the things for which I feel enthusiasm and energy, and I usually wake up excited about the day instead of dreading it.

That’s the way Chopra describes success, isn’t it? I’m doing what I love, and all I need to do now is learn how to enjoy it. Learn to give up those greedy ego concerns and find some peace of mind. (As always, easier said than done.)

Chopra says, “when your actions are motivated by love, there is no waste of energy… your energy multiplies and accumulates – and this surplus of energy you gather and enjoy can be channeled to create anything you want.”

Well, I want a book deal. But more than that, I want to spend my life writing.  Because I love it.  At the end of the day, my actions are motivated more by love than anything else. That’s why I’ve continued to piece together part-time jobs and blush when people ask me if I have a published novel yet. Embarrassing as it is for my ego, I just can’t give up the dream.

So I’ll write because I love it. I’ll embrace the success I’ve already had. And I’ll remember that success is a journey, not a destination.

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From DC to Cape Cod to Richmond to Seattle to Minneapolis to Maryland.  It’s been quite a journey these past four years:  literally and figuratively.

 

YA & Middle Grade Literature: TRIVIA!

YA & Middle Grade Literature: TRIVIA!

I want to let you guys know that I am teaching a workshop class this summer for people who are working on YA or Middle Grade novels. We will do a combo of mini-lessons, discussions, writing exercises, and plenty of critiques of each other’s work. I taught the class this winter, and it went really well, and I’m excited to teach it again. Classes will be held on Tuesdays at 2pm at The Writers Center in Bethesda. If you know anyone in the DC area who might be interested, please spread the word!

And so, in honor of my YA/Middle Grade class, I’ve decided to do another round of Literary Trivia — see below. For some reason, I love trivia, even though I’m terrible at it. I went somewhat recently to DC Improv’s trivia night and was ecstatic just because my team didn’t come in last.

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Our door decoration is ready for the spring/summer season!

 

“Why do you like trivia so much?” my husband asked me when we got home. “You’re so bad at it.”

“I think it’s the anticipation of the next question,” I said.  I’m always hoping the next question will be something that is totally in my wheelhouse, like Beck songs, or children’s literature from the early nineties. Then, I will be the only one in the room who knows the answer, and I’ll feel super awesome.

Of course, then the next question comes, and it’s something about golf, and I’m like, “uh… Tiger Woods?” because he’s literally the only golfer I know. This doesn’t deter me, though.  I just get excited about the next question. Thinking that maybe the next one will be the one I magically know.

Every time I go to trivia, I fantasize about hosting my own trivia night, with nothing but questions I know the answers to. And then I remember, hey, I can do that on my blog!  (I’ve done it before.)

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Don’t worry, I won’t ask about the Baby-Sitter’s Club book I wrote in 2nd grade.

 

So, here you are. In honor of my upcoming class at The Writers Center, I present to you:

YA & MIDDLE GRADE LITERAURE TRIVIA

Answer as many of these questions as  you can without the help of google.  Answers are at the bottom of the page.

#1 The title of Lewis Carroll’s book about a girl named Alice falling down a rabbit hole is NOT Alice in Wonderland. What is the actual title?

#2 Before writing The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins was a writer for what American teen sitcom from the early nineties?

#3 This British children’s novel about time travel and girls at boarding school inspired Robert Smith of The Cure to write a song with the same name. What is the title of this novel (and the name of the song)?

#4 In the YA book Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, what day is protagonist Samantha made to live over and over again?

#5 In the book Blubber by Judy Blume, the class bully (Wendy) forces the class victim (Linda) to eat a piece of candy. What does Wendy tell Linda the candy actually is?

#6 Who is the narrator in the middle grade fairy-tale inspired book Far Far Away by Tom McNeal?

#7 What color is protagonist Karou’s hair in the book The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor?

#8  In Francesca Lia Block’s book Weetzie Bat, what is “duck hunting”?

#9 Name at least one of the jobs held by Louis in E.B. White’s book The Trumpet of the Swan. (P.S. Louis is the swan.)

#10 In the John Green novel An Abundance of Katherines, what is the significance of the name “Katherine?”

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The cover of The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey

 

 

 

ANSWERS:  

#1 Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland

#2 Clarissa Explains It All

#3 Charlotte Sometimes

#4 Cupid Day (February 12)

#5 a chocolate-covered ant

#6 The ghost of Jacob Grimm

#7 blue

#8  looking for guys to date

#9 camp bugler at Camp Kookooskoos, works for the Swan Boat in Boston, and a jazz trumpeter in a nightclub,

#10 The main character, Colin, has dated nineteen girls named Katherine, all spelled that way.

 

 

 

I Fell in Love with Tanka Poetry: A Review of Dawn Manning’s Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

I Fell in Love with Tanka Poetry:  A Review of Dawn Manning’s Postcards from the Dead Letter Office

At first, I wasn’t going to review Dawn Manning’s book of poetry, Postcards from the Dead Letter Office. After all, I don’t consider myself a poet. I don’t read much poetry. What would I have to say about her book? Certainly nothing intelligent.

But then I read the book, and I fell in love with it. I decided to review it (even though I might not say anything intelligent) because I want other people to discover this beautiful little book and fall in love with it, too.

One reason I’m so intent on sharing is that the poems in Postcards from the Dead Letter Office are accessible. You don’t have to be a literary scholar or have a degree in poetry to understand and appreciate them. And that, to me, is so wonderfully refreshing. These poems remind me that poetry isn’t supposed to make me feel stupid. Poetry is supposed to make me feel. And these poems do.

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Postcards from the Dead Letter Office by Dawn Manning was published in 2016 by Burlesque Press.  It is available here, or on Amazon.  (What a good thing to read during National Poetry Month!)

 

Most of the poems in the collection are tanka, a form of Japanese poetry similar to haiku. When writing in English, Manning explains in the introduction, you can think of tanka “as a five-line poem that can be said in about two breaths.” What’s most important about the form, however, is that there is a pivot within the poem in which one image or idea turns into another:Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.47.25 AM.png

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Don’t you just love it? A row of gravestones becomes the teeth of a zipper that joins together heaven and earth. There’s so much to love in those five little lines. The image, the surprising metaphor, the feeling — both simple and complex — that this poem evokes. But I gush…

Manning’s tanka are bite-sized, able to be consumed in about two breaths. And yet they pack such an emotional punch. I have been reading a handful of her tankas each morning and feeling satiated all day.

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Dawn Manning in Mexico.  Several years ago, I did this interview with her.

 

Postcards to the Dead Letter Office is broken up into themed sections:  tankas for each season and tankas for the various places the globe-trotting Manning has visited: Mexico, Venice, Scotland, and China to name a few. Interspersed among the tanka poetry are a few longer poems, though (to my short-attention-spanned-delight) none longer than twelve lines. The organization of Postcards as a whole was neat and beautiful, and when I finished reading the last poem, I felt complete; as if I had traveled the world in a single year and come home satisfied:

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Though the tankas are short (tweet-able, even), they say so much. Some explore beautiful images. Others take on personal topics. Occasionally, Manning mentions high-brow ideas like Ezra Pound or Monet paintings, but she kindly explains the references in her Notes section of the back of the book – she wants us to understand.  But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all is Manning’s cleverness, her quiet humor:

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Before reading Manning’s poetry, I had never heard of tanka. Now, I find myself so enamored with it I even tried writing some tanka of my own. It’s a fun form to dabble with, even for a self-proclaimed non-poet like myself.

Any poetry book that inspires me to write my own poetry must be good. And any poetry book I can read and enjoy from cover to cover… well, let’s just say, that doesn’t happen often.  Postcards from the Dead Letter Office is a collection I know I will come back to. Read and reread, savoring each deliciously dense poem. I can travel the world from the comfort of my living room, as Manning’s careful images bloom and turn in my mind.

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I did a terrible job taking a picture of it, but Dawn made these wonderful postcards with her poems and photographs she took on her travels.

Awkward Pitches & Bad Questions (How to Avoid Both) at the Philly Writing Workshop

Awkward Pitches & Bad Questions (How to Avoid Both) at the Philly Writing Workshop

Over the weekend, I attended the Philadelphia Writing Workshop in downtown Philly. I had signed up (and paid for) for three 10-minute meetings with literary agents, and so, for the first time ever, I pitched my book in person.

My first pitch was at the beginning of the conference, but my other two weren’t until late afternoon, so I had stomach butterflies all day, which certainly weren’t aided by the spicy pulled pork sandwich I chose to eat for lunch. (Thank god I didn’t spill any on myself.)

The agent pitches were awkward. I mean, how could they not be? You are herded into a room with a bunch of other nervous writers. The timer is set for ten minutes. You sit down and try to make quick small talk. (I told one agent that I liked her necklace, which I did, but I’m sure it just came off as sucking up.) You talk about your book, and then you wait to see if the agent says she’s interested. (I’m sure it’s awkward for them, too.)

Talking about my novel took me less than two minutes (I didn’t want to ramble), so then I had to think of ways to fill the remaining time. Mostly the agents asked me questions like, “what inspired you to write the book?” and I asked them questions like, “are you an editorial agent?” even though I already knew from reading interviews with them online that the answer was yes.

Here are a few things I learned about myself in these situations:

  1. I have a really hard time maintaining eye contact. I don’t know if it was the fluorescent overhead lighting or what, but looking into the agents’ eyes made me feel like I was going blind.
  2. Apparently I have a nervous tic: scratching my head. I was scratching my head so often I hope the agents don’t think I have lice.

Here are a few things I wish I had come prepared with:

  1. Middle grade authors and books I most admire. (I was able to come up with a few on the spot, but I would have liked more time to think about it.)
  2. A better-working pen to use when writing down the book titles one agent suggested I read.

 

Despite how I’m making it sound, the meetings went well. All three agents said they were interested and asked that I send them the first 50 pages of my manuscript. I know better than to get too excited at this point. I know they might read the pages and decide my book isn’t right for them. But, hey, three for three means I’m doing something right with my pitching. And no matter what happens next, it was good practice to sit in front of agents and tell them about my book.

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Here I am in Philly a few years ago, with my friend, Dawn.

 

When I wasn’t pitching agents, I attended the sessions about how to get published and market yourself as a writer. These talks were given by Chuck Sambuchino, the editor of Guide to Literary Agents, who spoke like the Micro Machines guy and doled out plenty of quips, stories, and tough-love advice. Even though most of the information was stuff I already knew from books and the Internet, he was definitely entertaining, and I’m sure he was super helpful for those just starting to investigate the writing world.

One of the best things about Chuck, in my opinion, was that he knew how to shut down bad questions and move on.

“I have a question. I’ve written a memoir that’s about twenty percent fictional, and–” a man began.

“I’m going to stop you right there,” Chuck said. “Memoir isn’t fictional.  At all.”

“Okay then, a novel inspired by real invents, and—“

“All novels are inspired by real events. This is a boring question. Moving on. Next question.”

A little harsh, yes, but as a person who has suffered through a lot of annoying questions at a lot of literary events, I appreciated it.

And I know, I know, there’s supposedly no such thing as a stupid question, but when you’re sitting in a room with two hundred other people and a speaker who has a limited time to get through a pile of information, there is.

Here are a few ways, in my humble opinion, to avoid being the person who asks a stupid question:  

 

  1. If your question can be easily answered by google, don’t ask it.
  2. If your question is super specific to you or your project, don’t ask it.
  3. If you are somewhat new to the writing world, maybe it’s better to listen and soak up as much info as you can. Chances are, your question will be answered eventually, or you might realize that the question you were going to ask is sort of silly.
  4. You can always ask questions later, in a smaller setting, instead of in a room with 200 other people.

 

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Sometimes it’s best to keep quiet!

 

And that’s it. That’s my take-away from Philly Writing Workshop. I met some super nice people, practiced pitching to agents, and made it home to DC despite the SNOW. On Monday morning, I sent the first fifty pages of my manuscript to all three agents. We’ll see what happens. I’ll keep you guys posted.

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