It Depends

pine strawBack when I was a Girl Scout, I went to camp every summer. Even the littlest campers were expected to help out with chores, both in their individual units and in the larger campground. One week, I was assigned to rake the pine straw off the sandy path from one area to another after breakfast each morning. One day, I was making progress, raking the path in long steady strokes. A counselor I didn’t know came up to supervise. Unhappy with my progress, she shouted, “Speed it up!” I was stunned and hurt. I was doing the best I could with my scrawny, little girl arms.

The next morning, I different counselor came along to monitor the chores. She said, as best as I can remember, “You’re doing a great job. You must have a lot of experience raking.” Now, of course, I was doing the exact same job in exactly the same way, which was the best I could and the only way I knew how. What changed was the viewer, not me or my work. I remember this every time I send out a submission. You don’t know who’s on the other end, the reading end. So, if you’ve done your best work, had it critiqued if possible, made revisions, followed the guidelines meticulously, then you can’t control the reaction of the editor or first reader.

I know I’ve told the story before of a piece I submitted to an anthology many years ago. The piece was not selected. But when I got the scores from the judges, it was more amusing than hurtful. One judge had give the story high marks on all criteria. One judge scored the story right down the middle. And the third judge had given the story all low marks, right down the line. So, what the heck? The wildly different reactions to the exact same story could only be the result of something in the judges themselves. I know from this and other experiences, rejections don’t mean my work is bad. It just means, not here, not now. I also know this because that same story was accepted and published in a different anthology a few years later. Keep writing, keep believing in yourself, keep submitting, keep finding new markets–keep trying. That’s my plan.

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victrolaNo, not with my writing. (I wish.) But with my consumption of books. Years ago, I had a super long commute to and from work, 75 miles each way. I naturally thought it would be a great time to listen to audio books. Total failure. My mind was too busy with planning work projects or with problems there or at home. I just couldn’t pay attention. So, I gave up, thinking I just didn’t have the kind of mind to absorb audio books. Then I married a man who was nearly blind. I began to get him audio books in various forms, some from the library and some from a paid subscription service. He gobbled them up, and I was a bit envious that he had that option. Somehow, after he died, I never canceled his paid service, but also never thought I’d use it. After all, I had plenty of money to buy books, and had several libraries nearby. BUT–

The time arrived when I wanted to save more money. The time arrived, as it does for so many of us, when the pile of unread, or half read books became too much for my peace of mind. The time also arrived when I wasn’t able to get the books I wanted from any of my libraries. Either the collection development librarians didn’t choose them to buy, or they were so wildly popular the waiting list was a year long. So, I decided to give audio books another try. This time, it worked! Why now? First, the pressure of the above mentioned conditions. But moreover, I’ve stumbled upon the joy of the convenience of “hands-free” reading. Listening during mealtimes is the greatest discovery ever! Sure, there are gadgets that supposedly cradle a book while your hands are doing else. But I never found that any of them worked very well. You still have to turn the pages, after all. You really can’t read a print book while eating corn on the cob. Also, as with books on e-readers, you can carry a whole shelf of them with you anywhere you go. (Earphones or ear buds a must for public places.)

And the ways to get audio books are many. As I said, of course, there are the paid subscriptions, some of which offer free books as well. There are “playaways” offered by some libraries. And those same libraries have a both books on CDs and audio versions to download, just like checking out a print book.

Print books are still better for some topics, especially those with lot of illustrations, instructions to follow, or poetry. I’ll never give up my addiction to print books and I also have always enjoyed my various e-readers. But thanks to my willingness to try, try again, I can take advantage of a whole new source of book delivery. For a reading addict, nothing can be better than that.


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A Choice Every Minute

choiceOr maybe even every second. I have a writing project on my desk. I’m stuck. Can’t think of  new idea, can’t think where to take the ideas that I do have. Should I sit here until I have some kind of breakthrough? I’ve already been doing that, for an hour, with no tangible results. Judging by appearances that method is not working, even though it has in the past. BUT–there’s this program at the library that I told everybody I would attend. It starts in 15 minutes. Should I abandon my temporarily stuck project? Or stick to it till I muddle through, knowing I can fix it later.? But, if I’m not getting anywhere, aren’t I just embedding the sense of failure and ineptitude? If I go out, be amongst people, learn something new, will I then come back refreshed and, likely, with new ideas or a new direction? Or do I judge solely on what’s most important to me. Well, it’s all important to me. New experiences, as well as my work. As a writer, as  human, as someone who wants to “have it all”, I make these choices constantly. Do I choose wisely? I can’t say that I always do. And I won’t tell you what I’ll do this time. What choices do you make in your life. Which ones further your writing. Which ones bring you the most joy? Can they be the same? Yes, or no?

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I Did It Anyway

obstaclesYesterday I put my last submission of the year in the mail. (This was one of those rare markets where you actually send in a paper copy.) And I did it despite all contrary conditions. Despite the printer running out of ink. (I had a supply of cartridges, but installing a new one took precious minutes.) Despite my cat pestering me incessantly for attention. Despite the pressure of an 11:00 AM appointment. Despite having a crisis moment when I forgot how to perform certain formatting functions in Word. Despite all the piled up after holiday chores, nagging at the corner of my eye. Despite my own misgivings about the story: was it good enough? Had I made it the best I possibly could? Won’t they get hundreds of submissions and do I even have a chance? Despite all the obstacles and set-backs, I did it anyway. That’s just what I do. It’s just what we do. We writers.

There are always going to be challenges in everything in life. So what? Nobody has it easy and it’s not easier for others, no matter how it appears from the outside. If we want the results, we press on. And I especially wanted to get the story off yesterday, even though there’s no fixed deadline. I wanted to be able to say, at least regarding the calendar year, “I finished strong.” In whatever way you choose, I wish the same for you.


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Season’s Readings

irving berlin3At this time of year, who can resist the story of the composer of “White Christmas?” Not me.   I do love biographies, but this one is exceptional. It’s about a genius, of course. But it’s also about three of the things I care most about: music, writing and the mystery of creativity.

In addition, Irving Berlin: New York Genius is about so much more. James Kaplan has set Berlin’s life in the context of the immigrant experience, New York in the late nineteenth century, the theater and Broadway, the literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s, early Hollywood and America during the war years and the depression. While these topics are merely background and obviously not covered in depth, they add immeasurably to the rich portrait of an extraordinary life. It’s an inspiration for me as a writer. The main lesson: work. According to sources, Berlin believed in perspiration, not inspiration. Hmmm. Sounds like a New Year’s resolution in the making.

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Looking Backwards

nostalgiaI’m not one for nostalgia. I don’t view the past with some hazy golden glow.  I remember all too well the struggles, heartbreaks and hard work of my younger years. Besides, I’m happy now, so the past holds little attraction for me. There is one area, however, where I do tend to dwell on the past. I remember and relive my past writing successes and triumphs, publications and awards. I review in my mind work I published long ago, or last year. While I’m proud of them, I also keep thinking of ways I could have made them better. Well, that ship’s sailed. Okay, it’s possible I might gather and reprint some of them into a collection, in which case I can make some additional tweaks. But, barring that, they’re done, over with, and in many cases, forgotten. In fact, as I look back at some of them, they deserve to be forgotten.

Which is actually one of the benefits of this particular time suck. It reminds me that I’ve indeed come a long way. I’m a much better writer now. And during periods of writing blocks, this reminiscing also reminds me that, yes, I’ve done it before and I can do it again. The only caveat: I mustn’t ever rest on my laurels. Sure, remember my successes fondly for a while. Then get on with the process of creating new work to be proud of.



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Roughing It

rough3In my last post, I talked a bit about how we get ideas. But getting the idea is worthless if we immediately lose its essence. We have to capture not just the idea, but its context. Many writers talk about carrying around a small notebook for these occasions. Or, you can verbally record a note into your phone for later playback. Yet, there are times when neither of these is possible, like in a dark movie theater or when your friend is sobbingly recounting the tragedy of watching her cat die of a stroke. You can’t just whip a scrap of paper and say, “excuse me a minute. (Scribble.) Now, what were you saying?”

Okay, so you record ideas when you can. But I’ve found, for me that isn’t sufficient. I end up with cryptic notes that no longer have the slightest meaning. I find things like “rain barrel” or “dirty socks.” At the time I record them, they are so vivid, I’m certain I’ll remember later what story the image created in my mind. But later, no matter how hard I try, I can no longer recall what brilliant idea these words were meant to capture. So, for me, I’ve found that it’s essential to add a rough draft of the concept. E.g., “dirty socks. Is his relationship was on the rocks. Had he been showing other signs that I had glossed over? Is his mental health in danger?” That sort of thing. Just something that will give me a clue what to do with my strange notations. The more I can rough out my ideas when they occur to me, the easier it is to flesh them out later on. It doesn’t have to be an entire draft, of course. But definitely more than just “dead bird” or “that shade of red.” Things that leave me scratching my head, going “Wha???” Otherwise those brilliant ideas never get written. Luckily, as I wrote before, there are always more ideas out there.

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Stray Cats

stray cats2Ideas, it seems to me, are like stray cats. First of all, they’re everywhere, even when you can’t see them. Sometimes, especially when you can’t see them. Sometimes you see them, try to approach them, and they dart away. Feral, you know. Other times, you see one, it allows you to pick it up, it nestles in your arms, and is thrilled to be found. But, occasionally, one shows up in your yard. You didn’t notice it arriving, just, suddenly, there it is. It may run away if you try to touch it, but after you retreat, it may stay and hang around. Kind of always there in the background. If you leave out a bit of food, it may wait till you’re not looking, then take a nibble. If it starts to eat regularly, word gets around, and other stray cats are likely to show up. If you begin to nurture them, rather than ignore them, they stick around. Eventually, one or more may become tame enough for you to bring it inside, get rid of the fleas and other flaws, and teach it good behavior, like using the litter box. Soon you have a well-nourished, healthy, flourishing cat. Then, like ideas that you have developed into a healthy piece of writing, you try to find it a home. When that happens, you’ve made room for the next cat–or rather idea.

Certainly you can foster multiple cats, or multiple ideas at a time. But don’t worry about letting any of them go, if they are not meant to be domesticated by you. There’s always plenty more out there, just waiting for the right house, the right yard, the right moment, and especially, the right person.

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The Least I Can Do

first stepWriting can be overwhelming. It’s like any other huge job. Getting a college or advanced degree. Cleaning out the garage. Getting your affairs in order, for when you die. All the advice books tell you to break it all down into small, manageable steps. Then take that first step. But, for writing, what is the smallest possible step? Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • For a blog: Click on “new post.” The blank new post template will appear. Put words, any words, in the title space. Go from there. Remember, you don’t have to publish it. You just need to produce something.
  • For a story: Take out a blank tablet or note pad. Place it in the middle of your work space. Come up with the name of a character. Any name. Start describing that person. Is this a character you can build a story around, or insert into a story you’re currently working on?
  • For an essay: Ditto about the blank tablet or note pad. Jot down the ideas that obsess you, the ones that keep creeping back into your mind when you’re doing something else. For me, those ideas include: hunger; loneliness; hoarding; aging, and a few others. These are not necessarily issues that I’m dealing with myself. They’re just ideas that I can’t let go of. Then jot down all the words that you associate with those images. Can you build an essay out of that?

You may already have an idea of where you want to go, the story you want to tell or the novel you want to write. You may already have a great opening line or scene in mind. But if you don’t, the goal is to start somewhere, with something. You have to get those first words or thoughts down on paper or on the screen. This particular first step may not go anywhere. But without that, there is, will be, nothing.

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Distraction Subtraction

blinders2“A definite purpose, like blinders on a horse, inevitably narrows its possessor’s point of view.” Robert Frost

Horses have their eyes on the sides of the heads. They wear blinders to keep them focused on the task at hand, and not startled or distracted by objects or movement in their peripheral vision. Whether this is annoying to the horse, I have no idea. But, if not dealt with, distractions have the potential to kill my writing. I can’t imagine wearing physical blinders (yes, blinders for people are a real thing), so I have to come up with other methods. For the physical distractions: work at the library or the coffee house. At home, temporarily put all the piles of stuff currently on the desk and not related to the current project in another room. Take Freecell off the computer, or at least hide the icon. Like the horse, out of sight, out of mind, works for me.

For the mental distractions: make a list of must-do’s so I’m not wrestling with the fear of forgetting something crucial, then put that list on the piles of stuff in the other room. Otherwise it just becomes one more distraction. I mean, it has to be the perfect list, right? Plus, if it’s in front of me, the temptation is to keep adding to it, re-arranging, perhaps ticking off just the one item. Deadlines help, as does having a critique or writing partner. Most important, I must learn to ignore the thoughts that push into my brain. You know the ones. I’m not good enough. This idea isn’t good enough. I should be working on a more substantial project (which somehow also never gets done). One way I handle those is to remember how important writing is to me. Too important to let one more day slip by without making progress, without producing something, without getting better at my craft, and way, way too important to let my doubts, fears and lack of confidence destroy my dream. When I’m truly focused on my goal, distractions magically vanish. They come roaring back, of course. But at least for those moments, I have won.


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