Can I Handle Being a Pest?

If I have to, yes. I used to spend hours agonizing about how to approach an editor, or the owner of a micro-press, with questions, requests for updates, clarification of certain points in the guidelines. I didn’t want to “bother” them. They’re so busy. They have other writers, vendors, computer issues to deal with. I was raised not to put myself forward, so I’m usually uncomfortable speaking up. Finally, I got tired of the hamster wheel in my brain. Just ask. I tell myself, if you’re not sure, ask. If you’re still not sure, ask again. Did I turn some of those editors or publishers off? Without doubt. But I’ve decided it’s better to risk that than to either stew in uncertainty, or turn them off by not following their preferences. On the other hand, once things are clear, I follow rules. If a publication says wait three months for a response, I wait three months. If they want a certain format, I follow those instructions.

I also used to refrain from asking questions after talks or panels, thinking my ignorance of some basic thing that absolutely everybody already knew but me, would be met with scorn or exasperation. But then I decided, this may be my only chance. If people scoff, so what. I’ve also learned over the years, that if I’m confused about something, very likely someone else is as well. And if I speak up, they’ll be grateful that I did it and they didn’t have to. Or maybe the question hadn’t even occurred to them until I gave it voice. And guess what? My biggest fears have never come to pass. My concerns and questions have been treated only with respect and also with the precise missing piece of knowledge I needed.

Nobody’s born knowing this stuff. We all have different pieces of the puzzle, and luckily we can also count on each other, our fellow writers, for information. We share advice, tips and leads, on forums, in groups, and in private email exchanges. There’s a line between being pointlessly shy and being a pest. But this is my work. Like someone said, no one will ever care about my writing as much as I do. So, I risk a negative response if I’m a pest. But the whole business is about taking risks. At least let me take the risks that give me a chance of success.  

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Do It Anyway

You may be familiar with the Kent Keith poem, popularized by Mother Teresa, that contains the line “Love them anyway.” It goes on to mention setbacks, disappointments and obstacles, to which the response is to continue to do the right thing, anyway. I feel that way about my writing. As in:

The competition is staggering. I write anyway.

I’m not at the level I want to achieve. I write anyway.

I rarely get a response. I write anyway.

I’ve used up all my good ideas. I write anyway.

I get tired of trying. I write anyway.

I wish I had more time. I write anyway.

All my work seems so ephemeral. I write anyway.

Sometimes it’s hard. I write anyway.

Whatever happens or doesn’t happen, I write anyway. 

I write anyway.

Just this: I write anyway.

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I don’t make enough money from writing to deduct writing expenses. But I still have them, so I look forward to the day when I might, in fact, be able to balance them against what I’ve earned. My accountant was incredulous when I suggested this possibility. Not incredulous about my ability to make money writing. That’s reserved for my family and friends. But incredulous that it might cost anything to be a writer. After all, isn’t all you need paper and pens?

Well, no. Okay, maybe. I have plenty of writing related expenses and we’re not even talking about the infamous “home office” deduction that we are warned will only trigger an audit.

The first one I mentioned to my accountant was the cost of a professional head shot. I got mine done a few years ago, when a local photographer gave my chapter of Sisters in Crime a one day “author’s special” package. Saved me a bundle. I didn’t have to do it, I could have gotten some friend to take a snapshot in the back yard with my cat.

Then there’s the cost of professional writer magazines, craft books, classes, seminars, conferences, and, once, for professional coaching when I was in a slump. Add in the membership dues for professional organizations I belong to. There are books, anthologies and magazines that I buy because they are ones I aspire to submit to. Yes, I could get some of these from the local library or even online. But I’d rather own them so I can take my time with them. Finally, (or maybe not, maybe I’ve forgotten something) there’s the high and ongoing cost of printer ink, plus other office supplies and, vitally, an internet connection. At least we’re not stuck with postage, mailing envelopes and SASEs like the old days. I’ve also paid for a cover designer and a formatter for online versions of my work. If all goes well, someday I’ll need a professional editor before I send my proposals off to agents or publishers. And also, there the cost of a domain name if you have a web site, and, if you have internet, some virus protection software.

Can you be a writer without spending all this money? Of course. Can you cut costs by using the library’s internet, books, magazines? Sure. Can you team up with another writer to share subscriptions and other resources? I guess you could. Can you do it all with just pen and paper? Many people have. Or so we think. Just butt-in-chair daily output. While that part is essential, I’d rather have all the other supports and incentives, the camaraderie of groups, the tips and critiques, the ability to send off a manuscript at midnight, during a thunderstorm, or on a holiday. On the other hand, will spending one dime make me a better, more productive, or a more marketable writer? No. Only time and work and study will do that. The commitment to those necessities is the one quality that only I can provide. There’s a cost to that as well. I’ll talk about that some other time.

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Showing Some Spine

Between the global health crisis and the upcoming election, many of us have been more glued to our monitors than ever. So much of what we hear is repetitive or speculation, so I start noticing the backgrounds, rather than the commentators. Well, I’ve always kind of done that. And I’ve noticed there are two basic backgrounds: indoors and outdoors. (Well, what else could there be? Outer space? Internal organs?) I haven’t done a formal study, but it seems to me that 90% of the indoor shots are filmed in front of bookshelves. Some wall to wall. Some packed and overflowing. Some with carefully curated objects spaced artfully between the volumes. And more and more these days, I see a trend to feature the commentator’s own recent book prominently in the camera angle. One author/commentator even had a giant blow-up of her book standing behind her.

These people choose this background for a reason. It conveys a message–of thoughtfulness, expertise, education. Fishing gear or a restaurant grade freezer would send an entirely different vibe. Doesn’t matter whether they’ve actually read the books behind them. In fact, there used to be a standard studio set fitted out with bookshelves on one of the cable news networks that appeared in multiple news segments with a rotating cast of speakers posed in front of it. It was strictly to set the atmosphere and provide a nice backdrop. Nowadays, with experts (or otherwise) being wired up for video in their homes or offices, there’s more variety to puzzle over and be entertained by. Being a heavy reader, I recognize many of the titles, sometimes just by a particular distinctive cover or spine. I look especially for titles I’ve read myself. But I also wonder. Hmm, did they set this up? Did they hide the trashy romances or erotica, in order to attempt to make a better impression? Or is this what their shelves look like in real life?

Here’s my point: physical books still rule. I love eBooks and audio books. But I still prefer physical books and so do the majority of US readers. According to one marketing blog, during August, 2019, hard copy books sales made up about 80% of all total books sales. While there may be some difficulty collecting statistics for some eBook sales, this is still a good indicator of how people read.  I do have one friend who reads exclusively on some device. But she’s the exception.

It will be interesting in a few months or a year to see how the recent conditions have affected these numbers. After all, so many bookstores and libraries where people get physical books are closed or have limited service even though online retailers are still available. Will that urge more folks to try electronic versions? Don’t know. But what I am sure of, is that after reading this, you’ll start to pay more attention to those backgrounds behind the talking heads.

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Less Than I Thought

What do you need to write? Ideas? A certain space? A block of time? Quiet? Solitude? Physical comfort? An Internet connection? A writing group? An MFA? What if you don’t have what you think is essential? Are you dead in the water?

I used to think I needed some of these things. Now I know there is only one requirement: the decision to write. If I have that, everything else follows. I can write in the middle of a crowded room, with a bad pen on stray pieces of scrap paper, wearing a scratchy shirt. When the commitment is made, there’s some switch in my brain that takes it to a whole other place, separate from whatever else is calling to me. Sure, there is a minimal level of comfort or peace of mind required. I doubt I’d be able to write if my house were on fire, or while having my cat put to sleep. But, for me, it turns out that, 99 percent of the time, what I need is pretty minimal. Decision. Commitment. Action. Not even faith is needed. Because the end result, whether publication, recognition, or improved skill, doesn’t matter at this point. Those goals may come later. But they won’t be possible if I don’t, or can’t, initiate that first act. My job as a writer is to make that decision frequently. Maybe every day. Maybe even several times a day. If I make that one simple decision, I have a chance for all the rest. If I don’t, then, that’s when I’m dead in the water. If I have not made that decision, I can sit in the best writing space in the world, with all the solitude and tools I want, and still, nothing will happen. What those other conditions can do, at least a little, is to help make the fundamental decision automatic.  A particular space or time or writer’s group meeting can be a trigger. But in the end, the decision comes from some hidden, mysterious place inside of myself. And in the end, that’s all I need.

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Oh, Really?

I can’t work at a messy desk. I need to relax with a few games of FreeCell before I get started. This email is way overdue. Just let me throw in a load of laundry. Need to make that dentist appointment. If I don’t get this birthday card in the mail, it won’t get there in time. It will only take a minute.

My mind is very creative when it comes to making excuses, finding distractions, justifying work delays. It’s a daily battle, between my writing goals and my reluctance to start typing.

And yet–sometimes it’s not that hard. When I forget myself, my ego, the possible outcomes. When I can see large projects in the tiniest of segments. One segment that I did two days ago was simply to photocopy a quote I want to use in my latest work-in-progress. Maybe that was all I could get done that day, but it moved the work forward, however incrementally. Greg Louganis said, “Focus on skills, not results.” Whatever it takes to trick my mind into taking action, I’m all for. Good habits help. Opening up a blank document and writing even one word helps. Sometimes writing something else helps. But I’m pretty sure all those other things in that first paragraph above don’t help. They drain my mental and physical energy, and all of a sudden, whoops, it’s time to make lunch. So, I’ve learned to do it first, “it” being the writing, or at least some tiny smidge of writing. Like Mark Twain said, “The secret to getting ahead is to get started.”

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The First Obstacle

My handwriting is terrible. Even when I try. Even when I slow down. Even on a good surface. It’s one of the reasons I did not want to write directly in the oral history book my niece sent me. Now that I’m back to working on a major project, it’s the cause of much wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s because back when I started this project, I wrote down all the initial drafts and notes on legal pads or in notebooks or on other oddments of paper. Now I’m confronted with the necessity of transcribing them all into Word. I puzzle over unidentifiable scrawls. I try to capture my thoughts by the context of the surrounding words, or by remembering what mood I was in when I wrote them several years ago. I try out different possibilities. What could this word conceivably have been? Point? Print? Pout? I get up and walk around, hoping the break will be enough of a refreshment to bring it all back. Sometimes that even works.

Here’s the thing. This bad habit has created problems for me my whole life. I jot things down in the most haphazard way, because I overestimate my ability to interpret them later. I’m glib about my brain’s talent for recall. I’m quite sure “I’ll remember what I mean.” Or, “a key work or two is all I need.” Worst of all, “I’ll be typing this up shortly, while it’s still fresh in my mind.” No, no and no. Stray words that at one time encapsulated the next brilliant story, essay or poem, somehow show up later, lacking all memory of what triggered them. What on earth did I mean by “ballpoint” or “fitted sheet” or “pigeonhole.”

Every time I’m faced with this pattern and the distress it causes, I vow to change. To take more care to flesh out thoughts when I have them. To glance back at what words I’ve dashed down and quickly re-write any that are already illegible two seconds after I’ve written them. So far, I’ve never learned. So, back to my tedious, frustrating, and perhaps inaccurate transcription. I can only have faith that in the end, the effort will be worth it.

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Before You Know It

I’m not the only one. I’m not the only writer who is struggling to write during these unusual times. I see the posts on the various writer forums I belong to. Of course, some of those folks don’t have that problem. They keep chugging right along, or even find the current conditions in the world an actual nourishing environment for their work. And if I’m honest, I was already in a bit of a slump. That happens from time to time and I’ve always pulled out of it. But this was going on longer than normal. And I didn’t know what to do. All my old tricks weren’t working.

My niece had sent me one of those do it yourself memoir books. They contain questions about your past, experiences, relationships, possessions. They are intended to record your life history for your grandkids or other family. There are a bunch of these on the market, but this is the one she chose. I had been dragging my feet getting started. My handwriting is terrible. I hated to mess up such pristine pages. But the biggest obstacle was that the answer to so many questions simply would not fit in the space allowed and something in me balked at simplifying them to the point of what I thought was shallowness or meaninglessness.

So, I decided to ignore the book itself and use the questions to create long personal essays and accounts in response to the queries. The queries were in fact engaging writing prompts. I began spending a few minutes each morning creating, fleshing out and editing these little pieces. As I did so, something happened. The words flowed. With no editorial judgement, no deadlines, no comparison with other writers, I once again was awash in the pure joy of writing. Constructing sentences and paragraphs. Choosing the perfect detail. Expressing myself on the page.

And then the next thing happened. I began to remember snippets of my other work. Ideas I had wanted to develop. Projects half finished. Works in inventory that I might take another look at. I began to long to get back to my own work. Work I cared about and still had faith in. I picked one, a major project that I had barely started, but wanted to get back to. At first, I would do a little of each. A bit of an essay for the personal history, then a page or two of my project. However, I was drawn more and more by an urge to make headway on that long-neglected piece, and work on that project has now supplanted the personal history book. (I promise, I’ll get back to it.)

This is inarguable proof that the process works. If you’re stuck, write. Just write anything. Anything that you care about, or that amuses you, or that you feel needs saying. Write for the love of writing. Write without self-judgement, without thinking of the end result or where this is going. Writing begets writing. Any writing exercises the writing muscles, builds the writing habit, develops the writing skills, and reminds and reassures yourself that you are a writer, no matter what doubts you may have or how far from that self you have drifted. Before you know it, you’re baaaack. I’m back, too.

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Neighbor to Neighbor

I’ve written more than once about Little Free Libraries. My neighborhood is in a warm, dry climate, with an engaged community, so we have dozens of these free standing tiny display boxes with books and magazines to share and exchange. But lately, there’s been a new trend. The owners are often sharing additional items as well, perhaps, or perhaps not,  inspired by the current health crisis. Some examples:

chef boyardee

A can of cooked pasta and sauce


A selection of yarmulkes


A Darth Vader piggy bank

Of course, since these little “homes” are so small, you won’t find anything like a lawn chair or child’s bike. But, in addition to the intended use of sharing literary finds, it’s fun to see what else these installations might offer. The next time I visited these particular ones, the non-book items had all been claimed. By someone. Not me, but someone. Have I myself benefited from any non-book finds? Well, there was that package of whole wheat linguini. . .







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Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

abacuSometimes I wish I were an accountant. I’m actually good with numbers. So, I could have been, back when I was supposedly “choosing” a career. But nooooo, I had to do something with more romance, more cachet. Like being a writer. But man, I sometimes envy accountants, bookkeepers, actuaries and the like. After all, the numbers either add up, or they don’t. If they don’t, there are various tricks and techniques to help you figure out the glitch. Then, AHA, problem solved. Numbers are not subjective. There’s no judgement from them or from an unseen “editor.” You never have a bunch of fellow accountants sitting around a table, making suggestions on how they would add up the numbers if it was their balance sheet. There’s never a need to stare at figures and wonder, is there a more accurate, more descriptive number, the way I sometimes agonize over word choice. It’s either the correct number or not. And numbers, too, can tell a story. The dwindling totals in a bank account. The set number of days between exposure and symptoms. The timelines that don’t add up, revealing gaps in an alibi. And bankers can be detectives. See Emma Lathen‘s John Putman Thatcher novels.

But I didn’t. I coulda, and maybe I shoulda. But bottom line, there is no woulda. I would never have given up my writing for another career. Not that any of us really has to choose. Lots of writers have, or had other careers. Cops, lawyers, university faculty, news reporters, social workers, longshoremen. Mine was community college librarian, a path that suited me, in which I made a contribution, and which served me well. But still. The clarity, the simplicity, the transparency of numbers will never lose their appeal for me. But then, neither will words.

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