Writing

I have aspirations to write more blog posts – regular content, platform, and all that.  There are a lot of things going on right now that could use the added energy: Riddled with Arrows recently launched its second issue.  I’ve got new stories and poems floating around in the world or forthcoming.  Voting for the 2017 SFPA Rhysling Award just wrapped up (with two of my poems in the running),  the Dwarf Stars voting is now open (also with one of mine), as are the Elgins, plus we have a Contest and a bag of holding full of administrative happenings, well, happening.  In short, I done been busy.

But behind the scenes, life takes precedence.  We just wrapped up one of the longest and most difficult chapters of our family story, hopefully never to be revisited.  I’m still recovering, physically and spiritually, but mostly doing okay.  I’ve been enjoying a period of creative abundance–not just the desperate, defiant manic phase that I’m used to, but a purposeful, measured and meaningful stretch of good, old-fashioned work.  I’m hoping to keep up momentum over the summer to re-stock my story and poetry stables for submission, then maybe step into something bigger-picture come the fall, once both kids are safely ensconced in school (and not climbing on Mom’s head, literally, as she tries to write).

In the meantime, I’m prepping for a somewhat-surprise trip to northern California to visit my grandmother, who is turning ninety-six-years-young this Saturday.  I haven’t seen her in person in three or four years (or my hip uncle Bruce in more than I can remember), and I’ve never been to the West Coast before.  Although the hyper-focused, rarely leaves the house without her children mom in me is freaking out a little at the thought of switching planes in a strange city all by myself, the rest of me–the part that USED to have a life, and love adventure–is starting to get psyched.  I’m looking forward to a few days in new environs to work, write, and think without little voices overriding everything.  Plus, I get to spend a few more days (and, let’s be honest, the last ever) with a very special lady–the only grandmother I’ve ever known.

 


So that’s why I’m not publishing as much content as I’d like–I know, excuses, excuses.  This is just to say, hi, I love you, hope you’re having a nice summer! And also, stay tuned.  More words to come.  Eventually.

When I first started submitting work for publication in earnest, a personal rejection (when an editor or reader gives specific feedback, such as what they liked about your work and/or why it was rejected) was rare and valuable; almost as good as an acceptance.

sandwich-451403_640

Almost as good like winning a free sandwich on a scratch-off game, to be sure – yes, I’d rather get published / win the big prize, but sandwiches are nice too.

A personal rejection means that someone took special notice of your work; it wasn’t just an auto-reject by a slush pile robot or an embittered assistant reader getting drunk on whiskey sours somewhere and reading snippets from your beloved story/poem/essay out loud for sadistic kicks.

For an under-published writer, a personal rejection isn’t just encouraging (though it can be that, too). A personal rejection is medicine. Having trouble finding a home for your work? Here’s why: your poem needs tightening. Your story needs a resolution. Your changing POV is confusing, your narrative is stilted, your something or other needs some kind of attention – it was an almost for us, here’s how it could have been a yes. OR – or! There’s nothing wrong with your work at all; we just couldn’t use it this time – please try us again.

postal_carrier_-_pigeon

an endangered baby bird carrying a gilded note with advice on how to improve your writing (and your chances of getting an eventual “yes”)

From what I can tell, personal rejections are becoming even more unusual these days. My rate of submission hasn’t changed, so either my writing IS SO GOOD it leaves editors speechless, OR, they have less time and inclination to make personal observations. It’s probably the latter, maybe having to do with the publishing glut and automated submission portals  (though the speechless thing sounds good, too).

Whatever the reason for their rarity, if someone sends you a personal rejection, treat it like precious baby bird.

 

Then again, sometimes – sometimes! –  personal rejections are dumb.

Recently I received a rejection for a flash fiction / vignette along with a thoughtful explanation for why it had been rejected – exactly the kind of thing I would have salivated over a few years ago. The editor even included a helpful full revision of the piece with suggested line edits and a total overhaul of the narrative style.

 

I hope you're saying Wait, what? because that is what I said, minus some creative and colorful comments of my own.

Wait, what?

It’s important to keep in mind that this editor is probably a lovely person. Her life is as full and evolved and as busy as yours or mine. She probably deals with hundreds of submissions on a regular basis plus whatever editor-ly duties she has hanging over her head. The fact that she took the time not only to comment but to thoroughly comment on my work was an act of enormous generosity for which I should be grateful. What I should have done was file the rejection away and move on.

That’s not what I did.

Instead, I broke my rule of zen and immediately hit “reply” to explain – as politely as possible while still sounding smugly self-righteous – that while I respect the editorial prerogative to reject my work, there is a difference between editing and re-writing.

Which is true. This editor crossed a line. In her zeal to be helpful, she overlooked personal style and creative choice and revised my (much polished) story to how she would have written it herself, which is unhelpful, at best, and more than a little insulting.

But I should have let it go.

coffee first

Never hit send before the owl mug has been drained. Preferably twice.

I broke the rule because I’m human (and I’m pretty sure I hadn’t had my coffee yet and/or was coping with a rash of rejections that week), which brings us back to the point that not every personal rejection is golden because editors are human, too. They have their own prejudices and preferences. They like what they like, and they’re looking for what they’re looking for. Sometimes they make decisions while under-caffeinated. Sometimes they mean well and do dumb things. Sometimes when they reject you, it may be for sound, objective reasons, or it may be because they just don’t get you, which is not to say some other editor/venue won’t.

Bottom line, personal rejections are like any other form of critique. Critique is valuable, it’s necessary – hell, it’s crucial – but only in general. If you’ve ever worked with a critique group or beta readers, you’ll know that for every 5 people you share your work with you’ll get 15 reactions, most of it contradictory, some of it downright dumb. Your job, as a writer, is to sort through it all, look for what’s consistent (if 13 people tell you your action sequence is dull, it’s probably dull) and balance that against your own judgment, your own vision. Sometimes, critique will point you in the right direction, and sometimes it will only muck you up.

Sometimes, you have to say “Dear Editor – thank you for your interest in my submission, but after careful consideration, I have decided that your rejection just isn’t right for me.”***

***Say it – don’t send it.  Drink your coffee.

One thing that really, really bothers me is when people, writers, over-simplify the problem of Writer’s Block. Like:

“Oh I just force myself to write and then I do, tralala”.

Or:

“Here’s a list of frufru prompts like “What if you woke up tomorrow as a butterfly – go!”.

I’m not going to say that those approaches don’t work.  Maybe for some people they do.  But Writer’s Block is not a virus you catch and then cure with a “take two and call me in the morning ” prescription.  Writer’s Block is a psychological condition.  It reflects a person’s life circumstances, their frame of mind and emotional state.  Its’ source can be simple (like, oh I don’t know, having work and home and family matters constantly vying for your attention and babies that won’t stick to a predictable nap schedule and snow days off of school that inevitably fall on the day you cleared so you could concentrate on your writing for the first time in MONTHS- just for instance); or, it could be deeply rooted and hard to define, let alone overcome.

Depression, Writer’s Block… Kissing cousins?

Sometimes, telling a writer “Just write,” is like telling a barren woman, “Just conceive.” For many of us, lack of inspiration is serious business that goes beyond a shortage of will power or ideas.  For many of us, Writer’s Block can be downright crippling.

I was given a couple of poetry exercise books for Xmas, the kind meant to help inspire you and get you writing. I only just now cracked one open – it’s been that kind of winter.

I’m very hopeful about getting something from these books; I was introduced to some of the exercises at the writing retreat in October, and went on to use them, successfully, for a week or so after, until the tsunami of real life reasserted itself.  Le sigh…

Instead of sitting down to bang out some proto-poems, though, I found myself snorting at a comment in the first chapter, and ended up here with a mini-rant on the topic of blasé attitudes towards Writer’s Block.  I guess you could say I was “inspired”…

The author starts out by confessing how he wasn’t writing much at all because he had no time and no inspiration.  One of the things he says helped him overcome the problem was making lists of ideas.  This, he says, eliminated all excuses because he could no longer “play the no inspiration card.”

While I can relate to the concept – and let me just say, I do think it’s a good idea, and I do it, too, and it helps – I just have to point out that having a list of “things to write about” is not the same as being inspired.

For me, having an idea – a theme, a setting, a premise, a haiku moment – is just tinder.  Yes, you can’t start a fire without it.  But what else can’t you start a fire without?

That’s right, kiddies.  A SPARK.

Hooded_crows_in_the_hood

How cool is this picture?

And therein lies the real problem.  The world is full of things to write “about”.  Learning to see them is a skill, like anything else.  It takes practice; writing lists, yes.  Free association.  Observation.  Journaling, recording dreams, people watching, eavesdropping. Recently I overheard someone say, “Once you start thinking about crows, you see crows everywhere.”

Ideas are crows.

But even if you have so many crows you can’t step out of your house without tripping over one, it won’t make a bit of difference if you’re not inspired.

Inspiration is another animal entirely.  Inspiration is a non-quantifiable, I’ll-know-it-when-I-see-it, enigmatic THING.  It’s either there, or it’s not.  Inspiration is why I tend to poo-poo the “Write about a time that you were mad,” kind of prompts and the “Just Do It” sneaker philosophy of writing.  Without inspiration, it’s all just tinder.  Or… crows.  Tinder crows.

So how DOES one set their crows on fire (now THERE’S an image for you).  Obviously, the answer to that is different for everyone.

For me, it’s like seduction.  Firstly, I don’t go for just any idea.  I like the smart ones, the weird ones, the ones that most people overlook.  The ones with lots of layers, inner meaning, a Jungian’s fantasy.

Secondly, it takes time.  I like to flirt with an idea for a long time.  Sometimes days.  Sometimes years.  I like a slow burn.

And the final payoff? Let’s just say it’s a magic combination of timing, setting, opportunity, and mood.  And coffee, or a cigarette, or… something to put in my mouth.  I’ll just leave the rest to your imagination.

 

Gnomes_plan

Step One: Write a List. Step Two: … Step Three: Inspiration.

But that’s just me.  For you, it might be something totally different.  Maybe lists ARE your thing – that neat, orderly, tantalizingly visual representation of thought.  Of… possibility.

Or maybe you’re into butterflies.  I mean, whatever – to each their own! My point is just that, as writers, we are all keenly aware of how personal the creative process is.

 

 

No matter what we write, or how, we invest so much of ourselves in it.  We are all beautiful unique snowflakes and, as it happens, some of us snowflakes have Writer’s Block and it sucks, so shut up with your platitudes already and have some compassion.

 

snowflake

My snowflake is cranky when she doesn’t write.

— we could encourage more young people to express themselves in the arts.

My mother and father were, unquestionably, a positive influence on my writing.  My teachers, too — were it not for their mentoring, cheer-leading, and instigation, I might not be who I am today.  But perhaps equally important to my development as a writer was the opportunity to showcase and compete.

I had my first poems published when I was ten: one in Creative Kids (which, whoah, is still around?!?) and another in Piano, two magazines with content by and for children.

I won my first writing award in middle school: honorable mention in a student essay contest sponsored by the Postal Service, for which I earned a shiny stamped certificate signed by Some Important Government Official (fun bit of trivia, I missed the award ceremony because the invitation arrived in the mail a week late.  Hahaha – no, really.)

And, no, I didn’t always win, and, no, I didn’t necessarily take losing gracefully.  But the opportunity to compete was just as valuable.  It felt good when teachers encouraged me to try; the fact that they believed I could win helped me believe it. The feedback I received was usually very rewarding – I remember to this day when one of my classmates told me that her mother, who was a judge for a local competition, thought my story was the most imaginative of the batch.  And even if/when I didn’t win, competitions and journals and creative arts programs showed me that writing was something that mattered outside of the classroom.  That my words could go places I’d never imagined.  So even if/when I didn’t win, I kept writing.

A budding young author circa 1993 – haha, look at me pretending to be straight-laced.

It was a community that valued the arts that fostered the artist in me.

So when I heard that the Delaware PTA needed writing judges for the 2015 PTA Reflections contest, I jumped at the chance to pay it forward.

In my kitchen right now there are 69 essays, poems, and short stories by Delaware student writers, grades K-12, along with a table for scoring and a short blurb to guide me in my judging.  Having poured my heart into this responsibility, I’ve found it fabulous, fascinating, and, frankly, overwhelming – in the best possible way.

Over the last few days, I’ve decided that being a teacher must be REALLY HARD.  Imagine putting a grade on some budding author’s precious work of art. How do you carefully and thoughtfully soak in someone’s heartfelt written work and then squeeze it into some arbitrary shape by which it can be compared to a ream of other uniquely conceived masterpieces? Oy.  I honestly don’t know how people do this without breaking off little pieces of their hearts every day.

I have new appreciation, also, for the editors and judges who handle slush piles on a regular basis.  Even piles of the most stellar submissions start to swim before your eyes after just a few hours.

I learned that entering national writing contests is not a top priority for high school students — I handled a total of FOUR high school entries, compared to dozens from middle-schoolers and younger grades.  Hey, kids — What’s with that? Why U No Compete? Something to look at more closely, methinks.

I also enjoyed a glimpse into how young people are thinking these days.  This year’s theme, “THE WORLD WOULD BE A BETTER PLACE IF…” opened up a wide range of ideas, from personal wish-fulfillment to frustration with society to highly sophisticated analysis and solutions for global problems.  I took special joy in the poems and stories, of course (including a lot of science fiction, of all things), but the essays and narratives were also surprisingly creative.

In short, I believe kudos are in order — for the students, obviously, but also for the village of families, teachers, and arts enthusiasts who have encouraged these kids to put a pencil in their hands, their ideas on paper, and their writing out in the world.

I read each entry several times over, in between Babycakes care and laundry and what passes as my own”writing work” these days (which is to say, some lazy shifting of words around my keyboard like cold peas on a dinner plate).  A small sacrifice of time and brain power, but to me, totally worth it.  Contributing to this process for the sake of young Delaware writers has been truly an honor.

Five years ago this month, I retired from my full-time job as a bookkeeper.  My son was my main reason for taking the leap — he had spent half his life in daycare at that point, and I wanted to be the one to raise him — but finding time for my writing was a close second.

I remember driving home from work one day, getting an idea, and reaching for a pen at the stoplight, only to realize that not only did I not have a notebook with me, but it’d probably been months since I’d thought to carry one. As someone who has often relied on writing for survival — quite literally — that was a major wake-up call.

My salary was a good one. Giving it up was hard, and definitely came with emotional struggles as well as financial ones. But we were able to make it work, and for that I will be forever grateful, because I feel like the most important part of my life started the day I traded my calculator for a keyboard.

One of the first poems that I submitted for publication was to a literary journal called Kaleidoscope, published by United Disability Services in Akron, Ohio.

kaleidoscope 620

The poem, “Portrait of a Woman Drinking Coffee,” is a somewhat goofy but earnest reflection on unipolar disorder, also known as cyclical depression, dysthymia, or whatever label the DSM wants to give it this year (basically bipolar disorder with no highs, only lows) – a condition I’ve struggled with since I was a little girl.

My late-teens and early twenties were the hardest (they typically are, aren’t they?) I lost a great scholarship, some good friends, and several years of writing  — almost lost my life, too.

By twenty-five I had my shit (mostly) together (chain-smoking notwithstanding), graduated college with honors, and was working a good trade. Just as important, I was finally able to hold a pen again and start picking away at the emotional scabs that had been keeping me from putting down words in a coherent and meaningful way (and isn’t that an attractive metaphor? pick, pick).

Once I would have tumbled into this emotion
a storm’s eye sitting
in a broken coffeehouse chair
once I would have seen it as poles colliding
closing in on every last spark of joy
but now I see it as an old
familiar friend;
the kind that puts out a cigarette in your coffee
and reminds you
of everything you try to ignore

“Portrait of a Woman Drinking Coffee” is from that era, written in the corner of the Brew Ha Ha balcony in a messy notebook with an ashtray full of clove cigarettes in front of me.

ashtray-295028_640Though it took them nearly five years to publish it (five years!!!), I let UDS take their time (with only minimal grumbling) because I couldn’t think of a better home for a poem like this than Kaleidoscope, a magazine “creatively focuse[d] on the experiences of disability through literature and the fine arts.”

Putting aside the notion that many of the best artists, writers, and performers are/were nut jobs (though they totally are/were), the arts themselves are an important means of therapy and self-expression. This is true for everyone, but perhaps especially so for those whose ability to function day-to-day is a constant challenge. Kaleidoscope provides a forum, a spotlight, for artists with disabilities, including the so-called invisible disability of mental illness. As a survivor, I am happy to be living in an era when the stigma of difference is being tested, shaken, picked at like an ugly scab on our social conscience (see what I did there?) I want to thank projects like Kaleidoscope for adding to that momentum.  I am honored to have even a small part in it.

To download this (Issue #70, “Journeying to Acceptance”) or other issues of Kaleidoscope, visit http://www.udsakron.org/kaleidoscope/issues.aspx.

 

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With MiniWriMo come round again, I’ve been thinking about what to write this month – which led me led me to look back on what I have written, and, more specifically, how those stories came to be.

head-113927_640Sometimes, stories are NOT born because a mommy story and a daddy story loved each other very much.

Sometimes, story ideas come about fully-formed, like little gifts from fiction heaven. (And isn’t it peachy when THAT happens?)

Other times, it takes a lot of forethought and muscle on the writer’s part – like, conjuring one’s inner Frankenstein to hack and sew words together and scream at the Gods until the Thing takes a life of its own.index

And then, sometimes, the process falls somewhere in the middle. A little prompting, a little “hmmm-ing”, a little pen-to-papering, and then… hey, look. An idea begins to grow.
For me, this often takes the form of a “What If” story.

What If… Bad Was Good?

In April of this year, my flash fiction story, DEFIANCE, appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine.

Issue 11 Cover Preview

DEFIANCE is a fun little piece. Written in late 2012, it predates – I swear! – the Syfy show of the same name. While both the story and the tv show involve alien invasions and pockets of humanity that remain, erm, defiant, that’s pretty much where the similarities end (at least as far as I’m aware – I lost interest in the series halfway through the first season. Sorry Rockne).

In my DEFIANCE, the main character is a soldier in Earth’s resistance against aliens that have enslaved most of humanity. Poised for a sniper attack on the roof of an old elementary school, Jackson recalls his pre-invasion childhood of classroom tantrums and frowny-face notes that made his mother cry. While we learn that it was his inherent defiance that got young Jackson separated from his mother in civilization’s final hour, it was also what spared him from slavery – and presumably it is what helps him thrive in an alien apocalypse.

So how was this a “What If?” Back in 2012, my six-year-old had a disciplinary record that could put any teenaged hoodlum to shame. He is a brilliant child and the apple of my eye, but our boy was (and still can be) a holy terror to his teachers. A year later, he would (finally!) be diagnosed with Aspergers/Autism Spectrum, but at the time the “whys” of him were a mystery. One of the labels bandied about was Oppositional Defiant Disorder, which is another way of saying “irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome”.

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irascible, recalcitrant little butthead syndrome

On the verge of seeing my baby expelled from first grade, I spent one afternoon crying into my hands until, when my own brand of stubborn kicked in, I poured myself a glass of suck-it-up and sat down at my computer. “What If,” I pondered, “being a born butthead was a survival skill? What would that look like?” An hour of fevered-typing later, the world of DEFIANCE had taken shape. Murky shape, maybe – it is only 800 words long, after all – but lo, I’d invented a possible future for my son that wasn’t all bad.

 

WHAT IF can offer new ways of thinking about old problems – and conjure up kick-ass stories, too.

 

What If… Left Was Right?

Science Fiction is an especially appropriate Petri dish for “What-Ifs”; it is, after all, speculative by definition. What if we had the technology to…? What would the future be like if ?

My story, GHOST-WRITER (published thiScigentasyWEBheader2s month in Scigentasy) tackles the Sci-Fi challenge of “What If” in a couple of ways. The primary question, dealing with possible technologies, comes from a note-to-self I found while flipping through old files in search for story ideas: [sic] what if someone’s brain hemispheres suddenly switched dominance?

For those of us who aren’t psychology nerds, “lateralization of brain function” describes the different but complimentary personalities of the left vs right sides of the brain. Though the subject has long made my geek happy (google split-brain experiments), I had recently read a book that was a game-changer for me: My Stroke of Insight, by Jill Bolte Taylor, in which a neuroanatomist describes how her life was enriched by a stroke that disabled her left hemisphere. Free from the constrains of language-labeling and logical thinking, Dr. Taylor describes a world she perceived as free-flowing, creative, and spiritual.

Blausen_0215_CerebralHemispheres
With my, “What If”, inspired by Dr. Taylor, I tried to imagine what it would be like not to lose the functions of one hemisphere or the other, but to have the hemispheres up and trade places – prince and the pauper-style? Would wacky hjinks ensue? Would the body even notice, short of some vertigo, a Matrix-like glitch? The brain is superbly plastic; science has shown that under the right circumstances it can recover from grievous wounds, basically re-wiring itself to restore lost functioning.

It was from this line of thinking that GHOST-WRITER was conceived. In it, my neuroscientist, Carla, has invented a means of restoring function to brain-damaged patients by getting the remaining, healthy hemisphere to annex the dead tissue and graft its own programming there. Though the titular “Ghost-Writer” project is still in its exploratory stage, wrapped up in the proverbial red-tape, an inoperable brain tumor and a pending divorce compel Carla into taking matters into her own hands.

All fiction can be a “What If” playground; as writers, we can pose the question and invent answers within the parameters of any genre. Science Fiction just happens to lend itself particularly well to pushing the boundaries of possibility.

 

What If… Maybe Was True?

For this reason, a lot of Sci-Fi doubles as social commentary: if we can imagine a future or world or an alternate universe with even a minor shift in our cultural norms, what would that look like? Sometimes this socio-political exploration can be overt, with plots that cover the author’s agenda like a dancing green alien’s chemise (*cough* Star Trek *cough*).

In other cases, like with GHOST-WRITER, the questioning can be more subtle. My “What-if” about the brain’s hemispheres was my primary reason for writing it, but because my main characters are gay women, the story naturally raised questions about the future of gender and sexual politics, in particular same-sex marriage (which was not recognizedl in most states in 2011, when GHOST-WRITER was written).

Gaymarriage

So I wrote Carla and Maggie as a married couple –more significantly, I chose not to comment on it. I wanted to create a future where same-sex marriage is not only legal, it’s a non-issue. And I wanted to allow for fluidity, too: when Maggie turns down a date with another doctor it is for emotional reasons – not because he’s a he.

These were little things – I think I said more on the topic by not saying much – but the fact that beta readers were surprised when Carla’s spouse turned out to be a female pleased me, because it means my  take on “What If” here had the power to challenge assumptions.  And that’s, well, something.
What’s great about “What If” is that it inspires us, as writers and readers, to consider possibilities. Not necessarily large or paradigm-changing ones; we should not expect, when we sit down with our laptops or pens, that what we write will save a life or change the world. But, then again, we can always ask:  – What If it could?

What_if_I_ask_for_help

I almost didn’t make it. The GodKing hurt his back last week, the Kinglet is having a rough month at school, and, at four months, I’m still nursing my baby girl. To ditch them all for a sequestered, catered four-day weekend felt terribly self-indulgent. So when a transportation issue came up and I couldn’t find a ride down, I was like, well, I guess I just won’t go.

besides, how could I leave THIS?

besides, how could I leave THIS?

But my husband was having none of it. He was preparing to take off from work and drive me to Lewes himself when, thankfully, my poet friend Phillip Bannowsky welcomed me to ride with him.

Even still, it was touch-and-go that whole first morning. At breakfast I got an email from the Kinglet’s teachers explaining how he was getting kicked out of enrichment class rather than implementing his IEP; in full-on Mother Dragon mode, I’d responded with one of my signature Strongly Worded Letters while simultaneously cramming a bagel into my face-hole. Then I thought I’d lost my purse – spent an hour or so driving around looking for it when I’d meant to be packing and getting ready. (Never did get around to shaving my legs). Found the purse and managed to stuff my stuff into my bags and lug them to the porch by 11, still basically hyperventilating and wondering if I’d be able to relax at all.

I can’t say that I ever truly did – the combination of mommy hormones, social anxiety and over- caffeination had me feeling rather bipolar that entire weekend – but that wasn’t really a bad thing. I experienced some crystal highs on this retreat: getting to know colleagues a little better, starting new friendships, sharing in society with other poets and writers – “the tribe”, as JoAnn called it. People who speak my language, who love words and wordcraft. People who get it.

And I wrote. Not prolifically, but some, which is more than I’ve done in longer than I can say. Though I’ve been very productive in the last year with getting things published, I’ve produced very little new work, for one reason or another. The one thing I’d hoped to accomplish on this retreat, above all else, was to start the momentum again – and that, so far at least, I definitely have done.

Some thoughts and tidbits:

– During introductions on the first night, I mentioned that I’d just had a baby and that I was away from her for the first time. Thus I became known as the one with the baby for the remainder of the weekend. People kept coming up and asking, “So how you doing? Holding up okay? Sleep okay? Did you call home yet? How’s the little one?”

I laugh, but I really did appreciate it. It helped break the ice with people I didn’t know, and kept me “checked in” with those I do, who knew what a Big Deal it was for me to be there, away from my kids.

To answer the questions: I held up okay. It wasn’t as hard as I feared it would be, but it was definitely surreal. I kept thinking, Isn’t there someone I’m supposed to be taking care of? And for the first time in years and years and years, the answer was NO. I was responsible only for ME, having thoughts that were 100% my own. I felt younger, if that makes sense. Like twenty-something me was waking up from a very long sleep – which might also explain the bipolar feeling. But that’s okay! Crazy makes for better poetry.

– TheVirden Center isn’t the Ritz, but it’s perfectly sufficient to a writer’s needs. The personal screened porches were great (mine came with a pet preying mantis, for that extra little poetic symbolism), small but cozy, and Godz, if we didn’t have great weather for it.  Sunny, breezy, cool at times but not cold, and blue skies!

IMAG0226

Works for me!

My only beef about the accommodations were that 1) the nightstand was across the room from the bed rather than next to it, so I had to keep my night stuff (eyeglasses, saline, cup of water) perched precariously on a desk chair, and 2) the handle to my toilet stuck. You had to jimmy it or else it would keep running, which I kept forgetting, so I’d be staring into space trying to write a poem and then realize I was still hearing that damn toilet’s heavy, watery exhaling (inhaling? hmm.)

IMAG0225

shall i compare thee to a toilet’s whooooooooosh…

 

Oh and, 2b) I finally got in the habit of jiggling the handle by the last day, but now I’m trained to it, so every time I flush at home and hear the tank filling up I have the urge to go back and fondle the toilet. Thanks, Virden Center.

– The thing that most surprised me about the retreat is how little time I actually had to write. Part of that was unique to me – I spent an average of two hours a day pumping and storing breast milk, and, really, everything I did had to be scheduled around how long I’d have until I had to quick back to my room to pump again (oh, and did I mention, I got a nasty carpal tunnel flareup from what I thought at first was due to scribbling poems longhand (for want of a printer) but realized later, face-palm, was due to two hours a day minimum of squeezing a breast pump… TMI?) – but between that and workshops and needing to be in the dining room for meals at a specific time, I felt like writing was something that happened in the margins. You pretty much had to skip meals, sleep, or socializing to get any real work done. Being a nursing mom and always always hungry and always always tired, I went with option three, eschewing company except during meals and group.

– Not that anyone was knocking down my door; I felt a little lost at times.

– BUT ON THE OTHER HAND. I relished how open and friendly everyone was. Whenever I stepped into the dining room, there was a moment of “hmmm” – that flashback to grade school or camp or whatever, when all the cool kids bunch together and you wonder if and where there will be a space for you. I can’t be the only one who went through that. – But it wasn’t like that. By any stretch of the imagination.

I made a point of sitting at a different table every time, with different folk, trying to get to know new people, seeing the place from new angles – and for the most part it seemed like everyone else was doing the same. I thought a lot about how small the Delaware writing community is – even people I didn’t know, coming down, I realized I have seen before, or am only removed from by one or two Kevin Bacons. I like that kind of intimacy. It feels good to be a part of it.

– About food: I heard some mumbles about the buffet. This being my first retreat, I have no basis for comparison, but I was impressed with the grub. It was diverse, always something new, with options for veggies and carnivores alike. I thought it was pretty stellar, actually – but, then again, all of my food was cooked for me personally due to my dietary restrictions. Maybe I got extra special treatment, in which case, lalala for me! I loved having grownup food (artichoke hearts! sundried tomatoes) that met my needs that I didn’t have to cook myself. I was bowled over by how accommodating the chef and the staff were – the servers even knew to bring me the honey bear for my coffee by the second night (which I use because I can’t have cream). I felt truly pampered, and I wish I could bring them all back with me to My Real Life.

– Ah, pie in the sky dream.

So those are my impressions. It was an expensive trip, in more than just the cost of registering, but totally, I think, worth it. Coming back to reality this week, I felt refreshed and rejuvenated in a non-cliché way, a way that goes beyond “post-vacation bliss”. I feel as if I finally got a handle on where I am in my craft, in my career. I produced some work that I am proud of – more importantly, I am sharp with intention, the impetus to create more. Plus, I met a host of great people, colleagues, and gained a broader sense of community.

Oh, and gratitude. Thank you, Universe, and you, Delaware Division of the Arts, for sponsoring and, you, Oh Unknown and Unbiased judges, for selecting me as a participant. I am so honored and glad to have been counted among so many hugely talented writers.

It was, in short, really swell.

 

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In which the poet is accomplishing muchly.

I’m meant to be working on my novel today.  I’m all set up in my comfy chair with my laptop and my coffee, but instead I’m turning to you, blogosphere.  Because that’s almost as productive….

writers block

It’s been ten months since I did anything with COVENANT.  Last spring I revamped the outline and rewrote the first few chapters.  I was really happy with the way they turned out – I even included an excerpt in my application for a major award and went on to earn an Honorable Mention over dozens of applicants.

But then I put it aside.

It was supposed to be just a summer break sabbatical.  My son, the Kinglet, would be underfoot all the time – there would be swimming lessons and summer camp and far too much noise under one roof for me to get anything done.  I intended to start back up in September, but then it turned into a So-it-turns-out-the-Kinglet-has-Autism-but-the-School-wants-to-Fight-Against-Services-Oh-By-the-Way-I’m-pregnant-Hello-Morning-Sickness-Happy-Holidays-More-Morning-Sickness-Get-the-Nursery-Ready-Why-Am-I-Still-Throwing-Up-Oh-Look-It’s-Spring sabbatical.

Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Now my novel is like a friendship left too-long untended… you think about it, you say to each other “we really should get together soon”, but so much time has passed since anyone made an effort that you’ve crossed into awkwardness and no one really knows what to do about that. I miss it – I know I need to do something, especially now, before the baby comes and steals my sleep and every ounce of creative energy, but gah, where to start? Do I even know this novel anymore?

awkward

I guess the only thing TO do is just dive back in, no matter how awkward it feels… just open up the file, find the place where we left off and … start writing.  If it’s anything like real-people friendships, pretty soon we’ll be sharing mental martinis and tripping over things to say to each other.

drinks

It’ll be like no time has passed at all. Right?

Right?

When a friend invited me to participate in an upcoming pulp-inspired “giant monster” anthology, I initially turned him down – something to the tune of “well I don’t… do? giant monsters?” But he asked me to think about it, and I did, and I’m glad. I won’t say too much, as the project is still pulling bits of matter into it’s orbit, but I started with a “what if”, and ended up somewhere I never expected to go:

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Mosaic of the Schiaparelli hemisphere of Mars – USGS Astrogeology: Martian Hemesphere Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve decided I like writing to themes. I like challenging my own habits and tropes, trying out my voice to other people’s songs. The resulting arrangements can be very interesting – like…

pagan gods and terra-forming

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‘Sapporo Underground Pedestrian Space Station Road”’ in Sapporo, Hokkaido prefecture, Japan} by 663highland

 

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From http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/women.htm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

magic, black-eyed maidens, and destiny –

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“the goddess” by Eddi van W.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/spiritual_marketplace/3003158871/

 

 

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Mercury Spacesuit – NASA

 

 

 

 

 

 

– on Mars.

 

Speaking of Mars, and playing outside our comfort zones, here are some interesting Red Planet-related oddities I discovered while writing my story:

 

 

942_streamPRINCESS OF MARS – by Chase Toole

Searching for illustrations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars series, I stumbled across this image by contemporary artist Chase Toole.  I honestly thought at first that it was taken from some 60s pulp cover.  Although the heroine in my story is (mostly) fully dressed, I’m in love with this girl.  Just look at those colors, and contrasts.

 

THE MARS SOCIETY
MarsSociety_logosmall

Featured recently on NPR, The Mars Society is an organization dedicated to “furthering the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet” through “Public outreach fostering Mars pioneers, worldwide support for government-funded Mars research and exploration, and private-enterprise Mars exploration and settlement.”

 

I didn’t know there was such a thing – did you?

Want to sign up?

Or, you could just SEND YOUR POETRY TO MARS and touch the cosmos that way.

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“haiku” – Monrovia Public Library
http://www.flickr.com/photos/monroviapubliclibrary/2594040178/

 

A part of the Going to Mars Project, NASA has invited citizens of earth (yes, you!) to write  mars-related haiku.  Three global winners will be recorded on a dvd that’s to be sent with the MAVEN spacecraft into – yeah – outer space.
Everyone who participates will get their name on the dvd, at least.  To find out more, visit Going to Mars with MAVEN.

 

 

Want to know more about giant monsters, beautiful (clothed) ladies, and colonies on Mars? WATCH THIS SPACE – there’s more info to come!

 

 

 

Writerly friends: if you don’t already follow Jessica Bell, you should.

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An Australian-native fiction author and poet, Jessica Bell also makes a living as an editor and writer for global ELT publishers (English Language Teaching), such as Pearson Education, HarperCollins, Macmillan Education, Education First and Cengage Learning. Her poetry collection, FABRIC, was a semi-finalist in the GOODREADS CHOICE AWARDS 2012 for BEST POETRY. Sellers like Amazon.com offer a selection of her fiction, poetry and non-fiction, including her pocket guide WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series, which offers user-friendly “how to” demonstrations to help writers hone their craft.

Jessica has a warm and witty online presence on social media sites like Facebook and Goodreads. She’s also part of the team that brings us Vine Leaves Literary Journal – a high-quality (and visually stunning – seriously, have a gander) online journal. Taken from the original meaning of the word, “vignette” (“something that may be written on a vine leaf”), Vine Leaves celebrates the kind of short, emotive writing that is too often overlooked in a literary culture fixated on the plot, the plot, the plot. By recognizing that there is also artistry to be found in a moment, a feeling, an array of words – and creating a venue for it – Jessica Bell became a hero of mine. So when she announced that she was launching a virtual tour for her upcoming projects, I happily volunteered.

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Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell: Demonstrated Subversions of Adverbs & Clichés into Gourmet Imagery is the second installment in Bell’s WRITING IN A NUTSHELL series. In this NUTSHELL, Bell tackles those insidious, tricky little linguistic buggers that tend to slip into our writing because they’re familiar, easy, and ready-at-hand. We all do it: unconsciously, habitually, we rely on adverbs to tell (not show!) how something is done. Like a rat on a wheel, we use clichés to get our point across – and thus we keep our writing mediocre, rather than great.

But how, HOW, do we avoid the pitfalls of adverbs and clichés? By subverting them, Jessica says. Identify them, drop them from your repertoire, and replace them with something original. Give details in your prose to show that your character is mad, rather than having her say it angrily. Plumb the treasure trove of your imagination for metaphors to convey his love – don’t rely on his racing heartbeat or the truth welling up from the windows of his soul.

With Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell, Bell gives us thirty-four specific examples how to turn adverbs and clichés into vivid and unique imagery. This in itself is unique, so far as I’m aware – tons of writing books and blogs tell you what not to do, but with this guide you can actually see how it can be done – over and over again. Plus, it comes with prompts to practice writing subversions of your own.

Now, I don’t believe adverbs and clichés are always, universally evil. I raise a literary eyebrow when the media buzz tells us what is in, what is out, what defines good writing, and (even more fun) what makes writing bad. (Ten things you should NEVER do! Twelve things every agent HATES! Eleven ways to ensure you’ll never see your work in print EVER!) The pundits say it, it gets circulated and internalized and taken for gospel when, really, what’s good has a lot to do with context. SOMETIMES, clichés work. (They are clichés for a reason, after all). SOMETIMES, adverbs work (saying it quickly can be better than taking up a paragraph with original purple prose to demonstrate how it’s said).

AND, I shall be quick to point out, Jessica Bell says this too, right up front. She gives a very good argument for the whys and why nots of adverb and cliché use in the introduction – the best argument I’ve seen. The danger in my mind is that writers, especially new writers, may accept that these writing rules are (cliché alert) written in stone, and may learn not trust their own instincts, their own voice. But I use the word “danger” loosely – it’s not like writers are going to be blowing things up with adverbs. And there’s nothing wrong with learning the rules well – if nothing else, it may teach you how and when to break them.

The biggest critique I have of Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is that I wish the sample adverbs and clichés (of which there are over a hundred, I believe) were treated individually, rather than clumped together in thirty-four sample passages. Some of the passages are short, but many are quite dense, encompassing twenty or more “problem phrases” in one scenario. This clumping can make it hard to remember which phrases we’re subverting – I had to keep scrolling back and forth to figure out what Bell had changed from the “adverb” and “cliché” examples to the new, original writing. I even thought, in a (very) few cases, that the original “bad” writing was better, if only because the “better” samples tried to encompass so much.

For my purposes, I would have preferred one, maybe two adverbs and/or clichés per example. It would have been cleaner, focusing the reader’s attention on each problem phrase and an example of how to rewrite it, rather than making a dozen or more phrases depend on one another within a scene. It would have made the book longer (hence not a “pocket guide”) but way easier to use.

Still, Bell suggests that the book is meant to be read and then reread, several times over, and I can see how that would help the reader begin to pick out the nuances. And, indeed, that is how a writing book is meant to be used – often, and repeatedly. It is a reference, after all.

And for that, Adverbs & Clichés in a Nutshell is a great resource, and a great buy. At a mere $1.99, I don’t see why any writer wouldn’t want to snatch it up. So go do that.

Here’s how:

Click one of the following links to purchase:
Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Ca | Kobo

For more information about Jessica please visit:
Website| Blog| Twitter | Facebook