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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Myths About Modern Poetry: An Interview with Poet Dawn Manning

Myths About Modern Poetry:  An Interview with Poet Dawn Manning

April is National Poetry Month, so I am closing out the month with an interview from amazing poet and lovely human being, Dawn Manning. Dawn is a writer, photographer, and rogue anthropologist living in the Greater Philadelphia area. In addition to receiving the Edith Garlow Poetry Prize, her work has won the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Writing Contest and placed second in the 81st Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition for non-rhyming poetry. Her poems have been published through American Poetry Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Fairy Tale Review, and other literary journals. In her spare time, she explores ruins and rescues animals.

Dawn and Eva at the San Miguel Writers Conference 2013

Dawn and Eva at the San Miguel Writers Conference 2013

When did you first start writing poetry? 

I wrote some verse as a child, and of course some truly terrible emo poems as a teen. I repressed the urge to write poetry for a long time after that, partly because I had gotten the message that poetry was not a legitimate life choice, and also because I hadn’t written anything that I considered good yet.

It wasn’t until I went back to college later on and took creative writing that I started being honest with myself about the fact that I might be a poet. The first time I wrote a poem during class and knew I had accomplished something with words that could only be done through poetry, I felt this corset loosen—like I’d physically been unable to breathe deeply in years. I excused myself and stood in the hall just breathing these great big gulps of air. There was no turning back after that.

By the following semester I was enrolled in a poetry workshop where my professor, poet Jeffrey Ethan Lee, set up a one-on-one session with Natasha Trethewey, who was visiting our campus and had just received the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard. She read a poem of mine and gave me some thoughtful feedback. I went from thinking “I might be a poet” to “I am a poet” in fifteen minutes. That night I began searching for MFA programs in poetry.

 

How has your poetry changed over the years? 

My writing changes as I encounter new ideas and forms I want to try out, and I think overall has become less wordy. I’ve been interested in tanka poetry recently and that has definitely encouraged me to boil images and concepts down to their essence.

 

How do people respond when you tell them you are a poet?

When I tell people outside of the greater writing/academic community that I’m a poet, the majority of the responses tend towards the incredulous, characterized by nervous laughter, deer-in-headlights stares, or questions like “but that’s not a real thing, is it?” On a few occasions I’ve gotten blatant eye-rolling. Once, I was declared “hilarious,” as such a response could only be a joke. I knew from the moment I decided to pursue poetry that my alternative lifestyle would raise some eyebrows. I’ve tried to view these moments as evangelizing opportunities for the poetic arts.

On the flip side, there are people who seem to be bursting to have a conversation about poetry and will start talking about their favorite poem or poet, even if they haven’t read a poem since high school. There are also a lot of people who’ve been tricked into believing that contemporary poetry is above their heads, even though they enjoyed reading poetry when they were younger. These conversations are my favorite because they foster an open and honest discussion, and hopefully, a chance to rekindle an interest in poetry.

How do you think writing poetry is different from other types of writing?

In poetry, the emphasis on sound and rhythm is heightened, and the white spaces shaping the poem are just as important as the words on the page. Even as language is concentrated, the room to play with image and metaphor swells. For me, every word in a poem, even the snippets of articles and prepositions, carry weight and purpose. Prose feels more forgiving, whereas poetry demands precision.

I think poetry is best when read differently than prose as well. People are so used to rushing through vast quantities of text online that it can be hard to slow down and stop scanning. Poetry’s greatest rewards aren’t given to the fastest reader. They’re reserved for those who take their time with a poem, and read it more than once. There’s also no shame in not getting something, in having to look up a word or reference.

 

Who are some of your favorite poets? Why?

The answer to that is an ever-shifting and growing list. Tennyson, Dickinson, Frost, and Millay have had a strong influence on me since I was young. Some contemporary poets I read/reread include A.E. Stallings, Natasha Trethewey, Traci Brimhall, Diane Thiel, Kay Ryan, and I’ve been reading a lot of Jane Hirschfield lately. I went through a major Octavio Paz phase. I also read a lot of tanka poetry, and like to read Eastern poets, such as Gu Cheng, Basho, and Akiko Yosano. I’m working my way through Robert Penn Warren’s vast body of work. I’m amazed by poems in which the content and form (nonce or otherwise) seem like such natural extensions of each other that it creates a chicken-and-egg causality dilemma.

 

What poem of yours is your favorite and/or are you most proud of? Why does it hold such a special place in your heart?

I don’t know that I have a favorite, but there are definitely poems that mark personal milestones for me. “Juanita,” which won the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Writing Contest, was first written soon after my come-to-Jesus moment with poetry. The fact that people lived in such fear of the natural world that they sacrificed their children trying to appeasing some malevolent force has always broken my heart. I didn’t want Juanita or the other children who’d spent their last moments in such terror to be forgotten. It also seems to be a poem that people who don’t read a lot of poetry connect with and that has opened up some great conversations.

Dawn in Mexico

Dawn in Mexico

What are some common misconceptions about modern poetry and poets?

The most common barrier I encounter is the belief that contemporary poets are all writing esoteric, experimental verse or minimalistic poems in which nothing matters or happens. Of course this is simply not true, but this belief is so rooted in the collective consciousness that it’s akin to an urban legend. It can take some convincing for people to give us living poets a second chance.

 

Speaking of convincing, let’s consider a hypothetical person who never reads poetry because she says she doesn’t like it.  Can you suggest a few poems that might make her change her mind?

I would probably send her a classic formal poem like “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, a contemporary narrative poem such as Traci Brimhall’s “Noli Me Tangere” and something succinct like “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost.

 

About how many poems would you say you write in a month? How long does it take you to write a poem?

I have seasons where I write a lot and then seasons where I am focused more on revising and germinating ideas. If a poem takes my entire life to write, then it’s resigned to the Paul Valery “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” folder.

 

Why do you think people should read more poetry?

Reading poetry is like entering an echo chamber. A poem sounds out and the ones who read it attune themselves to what resonates. The more an individual reads poetry, the more vibrations he or she becomes practiced at picking up on.

Dawn Manning, a living poet!

 

 

Dawn Manning, a living poet

3 Female Memoirists: Kerman, Gilbert, & Strayed, or, Why They All Gotta Be Blonde?

3 Female Memoirists:  Kerman, Gilbert, & Strayed, or, Why They All Gotta Be Blonde?

*My interview with Tawni Waters was reposted here on the San Miguel Writers Conference website!*

Recently my boyfriend became obsessed with Piper Kerman, author of the memoir Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, which was the inspiration for the Netflix original series of the same name. After Paul and I binge-watched the entire first season of Orange is the New Black, he binge-read the memoir and then strongly encouraged me to read it, too.

I finished the book last night, and I have to say it’s pretty good. Kerman has a strong voice, funny observations, and wise insights. In fact, I was reminded of two other memoirs written by strong, funny, wise women: Wild by Cheryl Strayed and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

The similarities of these three women are striking.  They are all so honest, so likable, so intelligent.  But what I keep wondering is this:  why they all gotta be blonde? Is it true that blondes have more fun?  Were Kerman, Gilbert, and Stayed’s adventures made possible, at least in some tiny part, by their Aryan looks?  In all three books, the women certainly get extra attention because of their hair.  Perhaps because all three went to places (prison, wilderness hiking, and India) where pretty blonde women are not the norm.

Ultimately, I’ve decided the blonde thing is probably a coincidence.  What the women really have in common is their intelligence, their bravery, and their work ethic.  They all happen to be educated, independent women with a taste for adventure and the discipline to sit down and write about it.  The new season of Orange is the New Black releases this June, and the movie version of Wild will be out some time this year, and so to celebrate, I present to you the eerie similarities of THREE FEMALE MEMOIRISTS: 

 

PIPER KERMAN:

Piper Kerman, author of Orange is the New Black. photo credit

Physical: blonde hair, blue eyes

Age: 44

Background: From a self-described WASP family in New England; attended Smith College

Her Love of Adventure: After college she became romantically involved with a woman who trafficked heroin for a West African kingpin. She was marginally involved in the operation, but she was mostly interested in the travel and adventure, not the money. Years later she was indicted for money laundering and drug trafficking and sentenced to 15-months in a minimum security prison in Connecticut. While serving time she experienced self-exploration and redemption for her actions.

Her Love of Others: Helped a fellow inmate earn her GED and was a caring friend to many of the women in prison.  She often writes about her deep love for her husband, Larry, and in general seems to have a lot of love to give.    

Memoir: Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison was released in 2010 and was a #1 New York Times bestseller

On the Screen: Kerman is portrayed by Taylor Schilling in the Netflix original TV series, Orange is the New Black. The show takes major liberties with the original material, but it is still pretty darn entertaining.  Season Two will be released in June.

Taylor Schilling portrays Piper Kerman in Orange is the New Black. photo credit

 

ELIZABETH GILBERT:

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. photo credit

Physical: blonde hair, blue eyes

Age: 44

Background: Grew up on a family Christmas tree farm in New England. Had no TV, radio, or neighbors, so she read a lot. Attended NYU.

Her Love of Adventure: After a painful divorce from her husband, Gilbert spent a year travelling alone through Italy, India, and Indonesia in a quest for healing, spirituality, and self exploration. She spent time at an ashram in India, and she worked for a medicine man in Bali.

Her Love of Others:  Helped a struggling Balinese woman raise money to buy her own house.  She made lots of friends in her travels (and met her future husband).  In general, she seems to have a lot of love to give.      

Memoir: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia was released in 2006 and was a #1 New York Times bestseller. She went on the Oprah Winfrey show to discuss her book. In 2010, she published another memoir: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.

On the Screen: Elizabeth is portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love.  The movie takes away the heart and soul of the original and becomes an empty Hollywood love story.  The book is a thousand times better.

Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

 

CHERYL STRAYED:

Credit: Joni Kabana

Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild

Physical: blonde hair, blue eyes

Age: 45

Background: Grew up on a farm in Minnesota with no electricity, so she read a lot. Attended University of Minnesota.

Her Love of Adventure: Strayed always enjoyed travelling.  After the death of her mother and a painful divorce from her husband, Strayed experimented briefly with heroin. She then embarked alone on a grueling 1,100-mile hike from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border in a quest for healing and self-exploration.

Her Love of Others: On her hike, Strayed explored her deep love for her mother.  She also made lots of friends on the trail and generally seems to have a lot of love to give.

Memoir: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, published in 2012, was a New York Times best seller and an Oprah’s Book Club selection.

On the Screen: Strayed will be portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the movie adaptation of Wild, due out this year.  I hope it’s good, but I have my doubts.  The book is always better.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild.  photo credit

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in Wild. photo credit

 

Betty Boop, Writing Exercises, & a Found Poem

Betty Boop, Writing Exercises, & a Found Poem

On Saturday morning, I was bemoaning the fact that I had nothing (good) to wear, and Paul was bemoaning the fact that every single pair of his jeans has a hole in the crotch. (I have no idea how this is even possible, but I don’t care to delve into this mystery any further.)

“What I wish,” I said, “is that I had a rich friend with good taste who was exactly my size, who would every now and then give me a pile of clothes and say, here, take what you want.”

Since that didn’t seem likely to happen any time soon, we did what (apparently) every other Seattlite does on a rainy Saturday: we went to the Goodwill.

It’s easy to see why Macklemore sang about the thrift shops in Seattle because they are cleaner, better organized, and better stocked here than anywhere else in the country. I browsed in the “Fashion Focus” section and found a brand name denim blouse. In the sweaters I picked out a random houndstooth jacket. What I like about the thrift store is that I can find things I would have never thought to buy on my own at a regular store, but when they are presented to me in an over-stuffed rack and given a price tag of $5.99, I’m suddenly interested in making them part of my wardrobe.

The line for the dressing room was six people deep, so when it was our turn, Paul and I went in together to try to speed things along but were yelled at by an angry Goodwill employee wearing a leopard-print headscarf. “Only one peoples at a time!” she admonished, rapping loudly on the door.

I emerged sheepishly. As if we were going to get randy in the Goodwill dressing room. Meanwhile, in the adjacent room, a slow-moving woman was trying on an entire shopping cart full of clothes when the sign clearly said only five items at a time.

“There’s no sign,” Paul noted, “that says only one peoples at a time.”

My new houndstooth jacket.

My new houndstooth jacket.

After the Goodwill, we saw an estate sale and made an impromptu stop. We wandered through the rooms of a modest ranch house, examining costume jewelry and dishes and ceramic figurines. One small bedroom was filled with Betty Boop collectibles: towels, t-shirts, key chains, wrist watches. In the basement were neatly organized holiday shelves: Christmas, Halloween, Easter. Paul examined a pile of ammo. There was a rusted old pick-up truck for sale in the driveway.

“Wow. She had quite the collection of Easter bunnies,” I said. “Or, I mean, whoever had quite the collection.” In meandering through the house, I’d already begun to assume things about the deceased owner. I imagined her to be a slightly overweight woman who wore red lipstick and glitzy brooches. Her husband had died years before, but she’d never had the heart to get rid of his truck, or the bullets to his old shotgun. Due to the Whitesnake and Aerosmith posters in the basement, I imagined a son who had lived in the house as a teenager. She had fixed him breakfast every morning, serving him scrambled eggs on one of the white plates with the blue trim.

“It’s weird,” Paul whispered to me, “to be looking through someone’s stuff like this. What they decided to keep after all these years.”

“I know. We’re looking at someone’s life.” Not only that, I thought.  We’re taking some of their life for our own.  Paul asked about fountain pens, and I bought a box of stationary, and then we headed home.

“I like estate sales,” I said in the car, “because you might not be looking for anything in particular, but then you find something weird or random or awesome that you would have never bought for yourself, but somehow it’s perfect.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “We should go to more.”

Betty Boop.  photo credit

Betty Boop. photo credit

At home, I read a few stories from the current issue of Carve Magazine since I am going to be writing some guest blog posts for them over the next few months. One of the stories, Eminence by Caroline Casper, stuck out to me in particular. It starts like this: We once had to make a list of all the things we didn’t remember. At first this assignment stumped us….But then we started writing and lost track of where we were.

What an interesting writing assignment, I thought. I considered writing a story about being born. Or maybe a poem about how all the dreams I’ve had and forgotten have actually come true, in a way, and I’ll never even realize it.

It wasn’t the story of Eminence that impressed me, but the way it was told. There were a lot of lines I liked because they sounded so poetic and wise. I wished I had thought of them myself.

Maybe it was because I had been to the thrift store and the estate sale earlier, but I was in the mood to forage through other people’s things. I sifted through the story like it was an overstuffed rack of clothing. I found phrases I liked and took them for my own, creating the found poem below.

In a way, literature is my rich friend with good taste who is always dumping piles of things on my bed, saying, “here, I’m done with these. Take what you want.”

So I take the words and make them my own.

 

Writing Exercises You Can Take from this Blog:

#1 Make a list of all the things you don’t remember. Pick one and write a story about it.

#2 Go to an estate sale. Make a list of interesting items you see. Go home and make up a story about the person who owned these items.

#3 Read a story and pick out your favorite words and phrases. Organize them into a poem.  For an example, see the poem below.

 

A List of Things We Don’t Remember
A found poem from “Eminence” by Caroline Casper

Our lists were long.
I wrote about a tornado,
I told the story backwards,
Unraveling from memory.
Like a countdown,
Starting at the end.

Violent wind, a funnel cloud hit the ground.
The final days of life, the ultimate countdown.
It sounded like a train coming,
Twenty miles left to go.
We already know how it ends.
Watching someone let go,
Seeing hands unclench for the first time.

Tornado weather. Too humid, too still.
As more time passed, you’d go back, too.
You’d go back for your mother,
Trying to remember the answers, the sound of them.
White noise.
When we know exactly how much time is left,
We pay better attention.
It’s easier to wait in front of the microwave than the stove.

An Interview with Tawni Waters, author of Beauty of the Broken

An Interview with Tawni Waters, author of Beauty of the Broken

Beauty of the Broken, a coming-of-age novel due out this summer, was written by a dear friend of mine, the talented and beautiful Tawni Waters. In this interview, Tawni talks about writing a YA book on a controversial topic and her whirlwind experience in the world of publishing.

#1  We writers often hear about needing a “one-sentence summary” for our novels.  What is the one-sentence summary for Beauty of the Broken?  

This is the summary the Simon and Schuster team came up with, and I think it’s lovely:

In this lyrical, heartwrenching story about a forbidden first love, a teen seeks the courage to care for another girl despite her small town’s bigotry and her father’s violent threats.

It’s not the one I originally gave my agent.  I met [agent] Andy [Ross] at the San Miguel Writers Conference in February 2013, and I sent him [my adult novel] the minute I got home.  Much to my dismay, he rejected it but asked if I had anything else I was working on.  My dear friend, Merridith Allen, ordered me to send him Beauty of the Broken, even though I’d pretty much given up on it.  I think my introductory sentence said something like, “I have this coming of age lesbian thing, but it sucks.”  Andy disagreed.

Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters

Beauty of the Broken by Tawni Waters

#2  You have mentioned some concerns about how your family will react to the novel.  Were you having those worries while you were writing it?  If so, how did you overcome the fear and find the courage to write what you wanted to write?

My family is the most loving family in the world, but they are very conservative.  My father was a preacher.  My brother is a preacher.  My mother is a preacher.  I was worried what their reaction to a lesbian novel might be.   I didn’t really worry too much while I was writing it because I was living in a “never published a book” bubble.  I wrote whatever I wanted because I had no notion that anyone would ever actually read it.  You don’t really confront the fear of having your work read by a large audience until it is about to be read by a large audience.

I came to terms with it in a pretty final way last month.  I teach college creative writing, and one of my students said to me, “You are a grown up now.  You have to live your truth.  Your family sounds very loving and amazing.  I bet they will surprise you with how accepting they will be of your work.”

She was right.  The book hasn’t come out yet, but some of the pre-publishing material has, and every time I post a link to any of it on Facebook, my big brother and his wife “like” it.  I don’t know why I’m surprised.  I wasn’t giving them enough credit.

 

#3  Can you describe your relationship with your agent?  With your editor?  

I’ll start with Andy Ross, my agent.  I love talking to Andy, not just about writing, but about everything.  He’s brilliant and kind. He has been incredibly hands-on during the entire process of editing and selling and publishing my novel.  Selling a book is stressful and confusing and scary, and you need someone you trust.

As for my editor, I’ve actually had two editors since I sold Beauty of the Broken.  My first editor, Annette Porlett, was the one who fell in love with the novel and acquired it.  She was so hands-on during the editing process.  She’d draw little hearts all over my manuscript. It meant so much to see these characters that I thought would live in my desk drawer forever being so loved and cherished by another human being.  She was also really understanding of the fact that I was a new writer, and I needed my hand held much of the time.

So you can imagine my freak out when she called me at Christmas to tell me she’d accepted a position with another house and would be leaving Simon and Schuster before Beauty of the Broken was released.  I thought there was no way I could get an editor as good as she was, someone who cared about me, and my little literary love child, so much.

But then, I met my new editor, Sara Sargent, and she is just as wonderful as Annette. We clicked immediately.  She took me to lunch, and we talked about my next project.

I am obsessed with myth, particularly the myth of Isis and Osiris, and on the way to New York to meet Sara, I started writing a modern retelling of that myth. When I went to lunch with Sara, she said, “You know what I’d love to see?  A retelling of a myth.  Do you have any myths you’d be interested in retelling?”  I told her the story of Isis and Osiris, and she said, “Oh, my God.  I have chills.  Give me thirty pages and an outline.”  So that’s what I’m working on now.  It felt like the universe tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “See, kid.  I got you another perfect editor.”

Tawni and Eva

Tawni and Eva

#4  You were recently signed with an agent, and then got  your first book deal shortly thereafter.  What are some things that have most surprised you about the process of getting an agent and a book deal?  

I wasn’t surprised by the good things that came with this process.  Those heady, “oh my god, this is really happening” feelings do come, and they are mind blowing.  It’s like falling in love.  It’s like flying. I think most writers expect to feel like that when their dreams come true, and you do.  You really do.

But what shocked me was this weird literary postpartum depression thing that happened to me.  I found out I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of having the world read my work, particularly because I’ve always made a practice of writing very raw, real, honest stuff.  It’s like putting your heart on a plate in the plaza for public consumption.

Also, there is way more work than I had ever dreamed possible involved in publishing a book with a major house.  You think you know what editing is?  You ain’t seen nothing yet.  Your life will become a long and very intense string of editing intervals that will leave you wanting to hack your literary love child to pieces.

 

#5  Do you plan to write more YA books?  

Yes.  I’m a YA author now, by accident.  I never meant for Beauty of the Broken to be YA.  I thought it was way too gritty and dark to be YA, but Andy said it was YA, and the publishing world agreed.

 

#6  What advice do you have for writers who are still working on getting a novel published?  

The three C’s:  Commitment, contests, and conferences.

First, commitment.  A lot of people want to be writers, but they don’t want to write.  If you want to be a writer, you must write.  A lot.  When I was in grad school, I found out that 1 out of 10,000 novels completed and submitted for publication gets published by a major house.  That’s a pretty daunting statistic.  I’m crazy and stubborn though, and I refuse to believe there is anything in this world I cannot accomplish. So I thought, “Ok, that means I have to be better than 9,999 other people.”  And I worked my ass off.  I write for hours every single day.  I never stop writing.  That is the only way to be a truly good writer.  Write.

Then enter contests.  Go to conferences.  If you win contests, editors and agents notice you.  And making personal contact with someone at a conference usually means they are more likely to want to help you, especially if you’re a nice person.

Almost every major step forward I’ve taken in my writing career has been due to either a conference, a contest or both.  In 1998, I had been trying to break the “major magazine” barrier for years, sending work out to big magazines and almost-but-not-quite getting published.  I won third place in the short fiction portion of the Southwest Writers Conference contest, which was a pretty big deal at the time.  The editor of Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel was at the conference awards dinner, and he approached me to write travel for him.  That started my career.

And of course I met Andy at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference. So, yeah.  Commitment, contests, and conferences.  I’ll throw in two more C’s.  College and coffee.  Take classes whenever you can.  No matter where you are in your writing career, you still have a lot to learn.  God knows I do.  Get an MFA if you can.  And stock up on the coffee.  You’re gonna need it.

Eva, Tawni, Merridith, and friends at the San Miguel Writers Conference 2013

Eva, Tawni, Merridith, and friends at the San Miguel Writers Conference 2013

#7  Last thoughts?  

I’ve written a very controversial book because the issue is important to me.  Some of the most important, precious people in my life are gay, but beyond the gay rights issues, which are huge to me, I’m also very concerned as a human being with the ongoing battle between love and dogma.  I always say, “If your dogma is more powerful than your love, you are in danger of atrocity.”  So for me, this book is really a treatise about dogma versus love.

 

 Further Reading

Ask The Agent (Andy Ross’s blog)

How to Write YA When You Don’t Read YA

Tawni Waters, YA author extraordinaire

Tawni Waters, author of Beauty of the Broken

Dyeing Eggs Quickly & Writing a Novel Slowly

Dyeing Eggs Quickly & Writing a Novel Slowly

The other day I thought it would be fun to dye some Easter eggs, so I picked up a half dozen eggs at Trader Joe’s. Stupidly, I forgot to open the carton to check if they were cracked, which is how I also missed the fact that they were brown. I guess I won’t be dying those.

The last time I dyed Easter eggs was at a friend’s house in high school. This friend – we’ll call her Trudy – had a very intense, hyper-active (and dare I say frightening) mother, who, at the time, was very intense and hyper-active (and frightening) about her involvement with church.

“We need to dye all two hundred of these eggs and get them over to the church ASAP,” I remember her shouting at me and Trudy.

“I actually need to get home,” I told her, glancing at the clock – it was a quarter past five. My own mother was very intense about being home for dinner.

“No one is going anywhere until all these eggs are dyed!” And with that she stomped out of the room.

So Trudy and I set to work placing hard-boiled eggs on the little metal dippers and lowering them into cups of dye that smelled of vinegar. At first, I tried to be creative – dipping half an egg in yellow and the other half in green, for example –but Trudy’s mother kept coming in to check on our progress and yelling at us for not being finished yet. She seemed to have forgotten that the eggs needed to be submerged in the dye for some time before they’d take on any color.

“Come on! Let’s get going!” she yelled. I looked at the clock. I really did need to get home. My mom was going to be mad.

Sweating with the stress of it all, Trudy and I plunked eggs into the cups and fished them out thirty seconds later. The egg in the purple dye came out a pale gray, and the egg in the yellow was the color of slightly-stained teeth. Well, whatever. They were dyed, weren’t they? Trudy and I didn’t care what they looked like anymore. We only wanted to avoid the wrath and disapproval of our respective mothers. We put the eggs into cartons and carried them out to Trudy’s mom’s van.

On the way to take me home, Trudy’s mom looked at us in the rear view mirror and said, “that was fun, wasn’t it?”

eggs
It was not fun, obviously. And dying Easter eggs is something that should be fun. Fun, or, at the very least, relaxing and enjoyable. There’s something pleasant about holding a hard-boiled egg in the palm of your hand, about watching it get swallowed up by tinted water. There’s something pleasant about plucking it out a few minutes later to see that its delicate shell has taken on a new color – a deep, rosy pink or a cool, bright blue.

But when you force someone to do something, and, worse yet, when you force them to do it fast, it tends to take the enjoyment out of an otherwise pleasant activity.

So why is it that people are always forcing themselves to write, and forcing themselves to do it quickly?

I understand the forcing yourself to write part. Writing is hard. It’s much easier to lay around watching Netflix and eating chocolate. Sometimes you have to to practice some tough love; you have to force yourself to follow the Nora Roberts writing commandment of “ass in chair.” But does that mean you have to write fast?

For many people, the answer seems to be yes. As proof look at the the popular self-help system “Book in a Month” as well as NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month (November). There are multiple 24-hour and 48-hour short story contests as well as (no joke) a 3-day novel writing contest.

And I understand the thought behind all of this, too. Writing is hard and scary. Better to get it over with as quickly as possible. It will come out crappy, but at least the hard part will be over.

That’s what I’ve thought every time I’ve embarked on a novel.  I always think faster is better.  After a while of churning out pages, I start to feel like it doesn’t even matter how the book turns out, as long as I finish.  I think that once I get to the end, the hard part will be over.

Except that isn’t the case.  Because I’ve written several novels in a short amount of time, and I’m realizing now that revising these quickly-written novels is actually harder and more frustrating than the actual writing of them.

Writing is not a race.  (Eva running in the Ugly Sweater 5K.)

Writing is not a race. (Eva running in the Ugly Sweater 5K.)

You know what else? Writing at a frantic pace is stressful. It takes a lot of the fun out of the process.

While I ponder how to improve the novels I’ve written,  I’ve started on a new one. Except, this time, I’m forcing myself to slow down.

I spent several days brainstorming before I even wrote one sentence.  I took a week to compose the first fifteen pages. Normally I would berate myself for such slow-going, but this time I’m not. I’m enjoying the process.  I’m allowing myself the time to be creative.

The other day I wrote two pages and then I went for a walk and thought about what I had written. I came back and changed a few sentences.  I wrote one more paragraph. That was enough for the day. I was pleased with what I’d done.

Sometimes you need to take your time and let the ideas soak. They’ll take on a good color that way. And you’ll probably enjoy yourself more, too.

Mathematicians, Carnies, and Writers: The Young and the Old

Mathematicians, Carnies, and Writers:  The Young and the Old

Over the weekend, Paul and I went to another Moisture Fest variete show. One of the first acts was an eleven-year-old trapeze artist. She had obviously been going to circus school for years, and she did some difficult tricks. But her movements were often clumsy; the trapeze bar swung when it wasn’t supposed to, and the routine was jerky as she struggled from one trick to the next. I could clearly see the mechanics that went into each move, and I could tell by her awkward smile, just how hard she was working. But she was eleven, so everyone was impressed.

Later in the evening The Velone Sisters did an aerial act. Paul and I had seen these two women perform before, and, as always, they were incredible. They also happen to be fifty-plus in age, although you wouldn’t know it from their bodies. They climbed the thick rope descending from the ceiling and took the audience through a fluid, daring, and graceful performance in which they hung upside down from each other’s feet and spun in circles through the air with their legs held in splits. And they did it all with dazzling smiles. They were polished and confident and professional. I could have watched them all night.

velone

The Velone Sisters

Earlier in the day, while hiking, Paul and I had had a conversation about our career fears, which, despite the fact that Paul is a physicist and I’m an aspiring novelist, are actually quite similar. Basically, we’re both afraid of getting old.

There is a popular notion that great math and science discoveries are most often made by the young. According to Paul, the majority of Nobel prize winners for Physics have won for work they did in their twenties and early thirties. Albert Einstein formulated e = mc2 when he was twenty-six, and mathematician G.H. Hardy famously wrote, “No mathematician should ever allow himself to forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game.” Even now, the folklore persists that mathematicians over thirty-five are “past their prime.”*

Paul just turned thirty-one.

Maybe it’s not quite as bad for me, but age is also a factor in the world of writing. When I finished my MFA at twenty-seven and thought I was ready to look for a literary agent (I wasn’t), my thesis adviser recommended I mention my age in my query letter because agents are always looking for “hot, young writers.” And it does seem that if you have two equally good writers, people will be more interested in the younger one.

I guess the thinking is this: an excellent young writer is good because of talent, whereas an excellent older writer is good because of practice. An excellent young writer has great potential for years to come.  A debut novel by a young writer is an easier sell to publishers and readers.

When I was in my twenties, I thought I would be a “hot, young writer.” I wanted to have a published novel by the time I was thirty.

Now I’m thirty-two. And lately I’ve been realizing that a lot of the writing I did in my twenties was awkward and unpolished, like an eleven-year-old’s trapeze routine. It’s taken me this long to get the knowledge and practice to understand that, and to understand how to write something that is worthy of publication.

In the foreword of Your First Novel by Laura Whitcomb and Ann Rittenberg, novelist Dennis Lehane (author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) gives some good advice:

You will need to learn how to use those tools [of writing] and reapply them so consistently that you reach a state of effortless facility….An unfortunate affliction that besets a lot of aspiring writers is one I’ve dubbed the Ticking-Clock Syndrome. You feel time sweeping past (tick, tick, tick) and your loved ones are starting to wonder when you’re actually going to, you know, publish something (tick, tick, tick)…so while you would like to learn how to use every tool in the toolbox, you’d also like to get out there and build the damn house….But please remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Please remember the part about wanting something versus earning it.

I hope the truth is this:  That while there are excellent writers who are young (and therefore as hot and fresh as a baked potato straight out of the oven), they are the exception, not the rule. Young writers may have talent and ambition and potential, but for the most part, they are still learning how to write. As Leon Trotsky wrote in Literature and Revolution, “technique is noticed most markedly in the case of those who have not mastered it.” It is the older writers, with the practice and experience, who can use the technique seamlessly to make their writing seem magical and effortless.  Like the Velone Sisters.

 

And what about poor Paul with his worries of mathematical greatness? Well, there’s also the realization that some of these hot, young stars burn out quickly. If you publish a best-seller or win a Nobel prize at twenty-six, where do you go from there? Then the stress becomes even greater as you try to top yourself. You might fall into depression, you might fade away.

“I know this is the pot calling the kettle black right now,” I said to Paul, “because I worry all the time that I’m getting older with no publishing success, but which life seems more satisfying: peaking early and then struggling to live up to great expectations, or a long, uphill journey where you reach your success later on in life when you can actually enjoy it?”

It’s funny, as much as I knew the answer should be the latter, there’s still a part of me that wants to be that hot, young star.

But I must remember the part about wanting something versus earning it. I must remember that, for most people anyway, this is a marathon not a sprint.

In the end, if a book or an idea is good, it shouldn’t matter how old the person is who created it. What should matter is the way the story or the idea takes you confidently by the hand and lifts you gracefully into the air, spins you in circles, and drops you upside down from its feet.  And does it all with a dazzling smile.

 

*Articles about age and mathematics

Mystery & Something More…But Take a Break to Pee!

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Mystery & Something More…But Take a Break to Pee!

*I have a story in this collection:  Witches, Stitches, & Bitches, and the collection is free on Kindle this week!*

I work part-time at an after-school program, and my job is to make sure everything runs smoothly. This means when a Kindergartener wets her pants during “Fun With Clay,” I’m the one who helps her clean up.

Which is why, not long ago, I found myself squatting in the girls’ bathroom, pulling a pair of drenched pink corduroy pants off of a 5-year-old who was babbling incessantly about salmon.

This girl was kind of a mess. Not only had she peed a lot – her socks and shoes were completely soaked – but her blond hair was in tangles, and it looked as if she had recently taken a bad fall off her bicycle . She had some bright-red scabs on her cheeks and forehead, and a long scrape down one arm.

“And on Friday – or maybe another day – we’re gonna release the salmon,” she told me, “and they’re gonna go back in the ocean and get big.” (The school has a fish tank in the front hallway with recently-hatched salmon, which we had passed on the way to the bathroom. She had wanted to stop and watch; I had insisted that we change out of her dirty clothes first.)

“That’s neat.” I was currently struggling to pull off her little pink socks.  I was trying not to be grossed out by the smell, or by the thought that I was actively touching something soaked in someone else’s pee.

“After this,” I said, “we’ll wash our hands realllly good.”

“And the salmon, they used to be eggs, but then they hatched and they ate their eggs. I think. Or maybe they ate fish food. Or bugs.”

I had assumed I would need to tell the girl not to be embarrassed – that everyone pees their pants sometimes – but instead she was so obsessed with the salmon that she hardly noticed when I handed her her a clean pair of panties and stuffed her soiled clothes into a plastic bag.

“When you get home you might need to clean your shoes.” I tied the laces, which were also soaked with pee. “Now let’s go wash our hands!”

Later, after the students were gone, I talked to the Fun With Clay teacher. “Thanks for taking care of that,” she told me.

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“She was so engrossed with her project, she didn’t even notice. I went over, and there was a puddle on the floor, and I was like, ‘honey, did you pee in your pants?’ and she says, ‘yeah,’ and just keeps on working. It’s a compliment to my teaching, I guess. I’m going to put that on my resume: is able to so fully engage students that they pee in their pants and don’t even notice.”

As I walked out to my car, I was reminded of something Jeff Kleinman, a literary agent for Folio Lit, has said about how he decides to take on a book. “I basically have two criteria,” he says. “First, I miss my subway stop reading the book. And second, I gush about it to any poor slob who will listen.”*

You can see why this reminds me of our little pants-wetter. She was so into her clay project that she missed nature calling. And she was so into the salmon that she gushed about them to me, the poor slob who was tying her pee-soaked shoe laces.

*  *  *

When I think about books that have fit this criteria for me, a few come immediately to mind.  Most notably, at least in recent history, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I could not put that books down, and when I finished it, I recommended it to everyone I knew.

Gone Girl was a mystery novel, although it was much more than that. I’ve heard people say that most stories are mysteries, and one writer told me that in a good book the first page promises mysteries or asks questions that are answered by the end. I think it’s that sense of mystery – those questions needing answers – that keep people reading past their subway stop. I plan to read more mystery novels in order to better understand how to write in a way that keeps people turning the pages.

But I’ll need more than just a good mystery to make people gush. I’ll need beautiful language or amazing characters or a unique point of view or a poignant epiphany or something. The mystery and the something more combined is what will make my book stand out from the others. It is what will keep people engrossed and reading. Hopefully, however, they’ll take a break to use the bathroom.

*See article about Jeff Kleinman here.  

Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Even Piper Chapman from Orange is the New Black loves Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Reading it almost makes her forget that she’s stuck in women’s prison. photo credit