Weekend Write-In: Revelations

This week, I’m re-posting a blog I wrote for the Quivering Pen. Check out this great blogsite for reviews, giveaways, the regular feature My First Time , for which this blogpost was written, and lots of other great book stuff.

The books arrived on a September day saturated with light and sun. I feel it now — the heat of that moment, the blood rushing to my fingertips as I ran them along a spine with my name on it. I pored over the ISBN, the copyright, all the things that made me feel not myself, but someone greater! Someone for whom one slice of shelf space in a library might be reserved! I picked up several copies, stunned by their miraculous uniformity, before I finally flipped to the poems themselves and thought: Oh god. What have I done? In my excitement to finally have a book published, I had forgotten that people – especially people I knew – would, for the first time, actually read it.

The next day, as I walked my dog, my neighbor pulled up beside me. “I’m loving the book!” she said. Before I could thank her, she added: “It’s so revealing!” and sped off.

At a signing, a woman told me her husband refused to come. “He was mad at you for a while,” she said. “He’s over it now. That Oak Street Cowboys poem? That was his father who was shot.” I had retold my own father’s story about an argument that erupted over whose homemade wine was better; the dead man was a “ghost sitting on the front steps,/in a t-shirt and workpants, the shoes he’d crossed the ocean in.”

An ex-boyfriend’s mother bought a copy and sent me a lovely card that thrilled me until I remembered the Block Island poem in which her son figures prominently. She would recognize “the scar/below his navel, a cool bowl/you leave your thumbprint in.” Maybe she had forgotten that trip. Maybe she thought the beach sex was made up.

I had not changed the name of another old boyfriend, a name that happened to belong to exactly one person in my hometown for the twenty I’d lived there. The poem itself chronicled part of another relationship, part of a fictional scene, but who would know that? Oh well, I thought, it’s only about having a crush. How harmful can that be? Then, one night, after he had put his colicky twins to bed and drunk some bourbon, my nephew called me. “I really like your poems, ” he said. “But I have two questions: #1 – did you really have your first experience with Cameron B –? and (from a poem derived from a friend’s description of her anti-depressants) #2 do you have an addiction to prescription painkillers? You can tell me,” he said. “It won’t change how I feel about you.”

When I recounted these interactions to one of my writer friends and confessed my fear of appearing in public to read from this surprising tell-all, my friend said, “Poetry isn’t memoir. It isn’t history.”

When I had a similar conversation with my mother, she said: “You’re missing the point. People are actually reading the book.”

Of all the fantasies I’d entertained about the publication of my first book, the one scenario I had not envisioned turned out to be the best part of all: I got to talk to people about poetry, not just my own poems, but poetry itself. I am grateful for those moments that moved me toward a more complete understanding of what poetry is and what it definitely is not.

I also learned that, for me at least, there is some responsibility I hadn’t previously considered. Scribbling in my notebooks while the rest of the world slept, sending my work to small and lovely literary magazines that no one in my real world read, I had not applied to my own work what I have always known to be true: words have power. Meaning is not inherent in the page but discovered by the reader.

Whenever I forget those lessons and begin, again, to obsess about the place my book might secure in some library a hundred years from now, I remind myself of one scene that occurred at a family gathering several months after the book came out. Distrusting my explanation of my poem The Crush, my nephew stood up and read it according to his own interpretation. He wiggled his eyebrows and winked, mastered the let’s-get-it-on tone he insisted was present. Okay, so I can never read that poem aloud again to an audience, but my mother was right: he had read the poem and I loved what he made of it.

Weekend Write-in: Even Though You Won the Nobel Prize, My Mother Still Loves Me Better

Perhaps the room looked a little like this?

This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.

I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.

Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.

But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.

Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.

When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.

However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.

Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.

I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.

Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.

I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.

As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.

Weekend Write-In: Just Say NO!!

Since you're not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

Since you’re not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

It took me forty years to admit I’m a writer. First, I wrote it on forms that asked for profession. Then, I told telemarketers conducting surveys. Finally, I tried real people: women at my daughters’ preschool, my new dentist. No one called my title into question. Some people even started using the title in reference to me: “That’s Beatrice’s mother. She’s a writer.”

Then there was the day when I said, “I’m a writer,” and someone said, “Really? Would you read my novel?”

Since I had no idea how to say no, I slogged through page one of Wasted Lives, complete with typos, misspellings, and a main character named Dick. When I set the manuscript back into its shirt box, I lectured myself: I didn’t even know this man. Why would I spend hours plowing through his manuscript? I waited until I knew the author would not be home (these were the good old answering machine days) and then I left a message: “I can’t do your manuscript justice in the limited time I have. I’ll leave it on my back porch. Stop by anytime for it.”

The relief I felt at dumping the mess on my doorstep disappeared as soon as I received an email from a distant relative whose step-daughter wanted to be a writer. Might she get my opinion on her work? Evolution is a slow process, but I began the crawl. “I’ll take a look at the first chapter,” I said.

Thus, I spent a night with Jennie Longwood, a young, gorgeous virgin who meets her true love tending bar in a New York piano bar where she has gotten her first singing gig. Their sparks are only interrupted by a record company executive who asks her to stop by his studio in the morning. She takes the bartender back to her beautiful apartment and has an orgasm. Then I got to page two.

Dear Julie, I typed. How impressed I am that you have the discipline to see a longer work through to its end. I suggested she might sign up to take some writing classes.

For a couple of years, I cruised along unapproached by closet novelists. Then one night when I was running out the door, the phone rang. It was our new selectwoman, an acquaintance whose son went to school with my daughter. She asked for the name of a book I’d recommended at the busstop one morning. I told her and then said I had to run and (feeling boastful), added: “I’m off to my fiction workshop.”

There was a pause before she said, “That reminds me.”

I wondered if she’d seen the press release for my first book. If she would attend the reading I’d be giving at the library. Or maybe if she’d read one of the obscure but lovely magazines that had published my work recently.

Instead, she said, “I was just going through stuff and found copies of a novel I’d written. I was going to toss them out, but then I thought: maybe Carla would be interested in seeing it.”

Clever to frame it this way, no? The way she put it, I could lie and say, “Of course I would,” or I could tell the truth and say, “Throw it out.”

I wish I could say: Lesson learned. Just say no.

Instead, I read the first twenty pages and offered my stock advice about taking a writing course. Since then, I’ve had an almost total stranger send me his daughter’s collection of poems. Although she is only a ninth grader, I am sure you can see her promise. I’ve read shorter pieces for people who preface their queries with, “I’m not a writer or anything, but . . .” I’ve even (once) been PAID to review a manuscript.

But here’s the thing about real writers. Yes. I said REAL. They don’t ask just any ol’ person to take a look at what they’ve done. Why not? Because we’re writers. We understand the precious few hours we have in a day to get to work. We also hand off our work, not to someone we meet casually or someone who can’t avoid a biological link to us, but to other writers whose instincts we trust, whose input we value, whose works we would pore over in exchange.

So what can you do if you need someone to read your work (besides taking a class — still my #1 piece of advice).

  1. Join a writers group or form your own (I hung signs at a local library many years ago and wound up with four wonderful readers who also happened to become my friends).
  2. Offer to read other people’s work in exchange for them reading yours.
  3. Make friends with writers. We hang out at readings and conferences, but we also grocery shop and volunteer in our kids’ pre-schools, and take our cats to the vet.
  4. Of course, keep reading.
  5. Most of all, refrain from showing your work to find out if you are a writer, if you have what it takes. No one wants to read your stuff and deliver that verdict. It might take you a few decades to say it out loud, but if you are a writer, you’ll know it.

Weekend Write-In: What Do You Mean I Have to Sell the Thing?

My book among 1000's at this year's AWP conference.

My book among 1000’s at this year’s AWP conference.

Congratulations! After only ___ years, you’ve published a book! What a dream come true! What a lesson in perseverance, patience, the alignment of certain stars, luck. You’re a real, live author now and someday soon when you’re at a cocktail party (which you rarely are), someone is sure to ask you what you do. I’m a writer, you will say, feeling authentic. And that feeling will continue even when someone asks the next question: What do you write? Chest puffed. Shoulders back. Fiction! you crow. Written any books I might have read? For the first time in your life, you have an answer to this (that won’t insult the general public). Why, as a matter of fact, I do have a book you might have heard of (most likely this guest would not have heard of it, but you get to say it anyway). Aren’t you a fine specimen of literary success? You go off and celebrate with more champagne (which no one you know ever serves at any kind of parties).

I never tried cocaine, but I liken its high to what it’s like to publish anything. You send your darlings out there into the abyss and amazingly, impossibly, someone reaches back through the black hole and says, We want you. You turn around to see if there’s some other more deserving person standing behind you but, lo and behold, the recipient of the miracle is none other than you! And you soar! Briefly.

No matter how many magazines you are fortunate enough to place your work in, the dream is, the dream has always been, a book. You’re a reader. When someone asks you what you would bring to a deserted island, you forget all about water and energy bars, impossible as it seems to survive without a book in your hands. Your name on the spine of one of these mythical creatures? Turbo-charged fantasy.

The reality is, of course, as magical as you thought it would be, except for one tiny thing: now, you have to sell the thing. Suddenly, you are outside of whatever hovel you hunker down in to create. Instead, you are out there where, unlike some famous barroom, nobody knows your name.

According to Forbes Magazine: “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.” But know this: for each of those 250 copies, the author did some serious marketing work.

Writers are not necessarily business people. Some of us aren’t particularly social people. But if the first book doesn’t sell, many writers find themselves more hard pressed to find a second publisher than their comrades are to land their first deals.

So what to do? Start with two easy steps:

  1. Develop your network of writing friends. Join book groups, writers groups; take classes; read at open mics. Writers need communities of other writers for many things, but ultimately, these are the people you will invite to your book launch dance party. In the meantime, you will teach each other how to write better, where to send your work, how to court an agent, etc.
  1. Support other writers: Buying books is key, of course, but that isn’t the only way to help a fellow author out. People pay attention to Goodreads and Amazon reviews. Read a book you liked (even if you checked it out of the library or borrowed someone’s copy)? Then give up some love. Tell your FB friends what you’re reading and loving. Attend readings in your area. Faces in the audiences are often much more welcome than book sales. They are, at the very least, more encouraging than row after empty row of seats. Visit authors’ websites and let them know you’re out there, reading, listening, waiting for the next thing.
This is me at my book launch dance party -- highly recommended.

This is me at my book launch dance party — highly recommended.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am grateful and humbled and thrilled to have published books. It’s still hard to believe it happened to me. I’m happy to do the work of helping to sell my books, but it is a role that took some getting used to. The best piece of encouragement I received so far, was from a panel discussion on publicizing books where one writer said, “The best publicity for your first book is, of course, your second.” Nice to know, isn’t it, that’s it’s important to keep writing!

Weekend Write-In: The Difference Between a Talented Writer and a Talented, Published One

During their final days in one of my senior writing classes, my students sit down for a brief conference with me. This year, I asked James the same thing I’ve asked a few other gifted young writers: “Do you know the difference between you and people who have published poetry in literary journals?” James, like his peers, did not, so I told him: “They kept writing once they left high school.”

Seems simple enough, right? And, god knows, with the proliferation of writing programs at the undergraduate, graduate, even PhD levels, plenty of people call themselves writers these days, but in my nineteen years of teaching, only one of my students so far has come back to visit me, Bachelor’s degree in hand, and said, “I want to be a writer.”

One.

It’s not easy to profess yourself a writer, I know that. And it’s not easy to say to anyone (read: parents) faced with coming up with the kind of Monopoly money required for college tuition these days to say you’re going to use your education to become a poor poet, but people do survive in this profession. They may be hungry, but they don’t starve to death. They may not be ready for the runway at Goddard Park, but they’re not naked in public (usually, though there was that one couple at Bread Loaf . . .). But I’m not really suggesting my students dedicate every minute of their professional lives to writing; I’m not even suggesting they go to school for it. I just want them to know: you can do this if you keep on doing it and by this I mean publish, I mean keep writing.

One of the many wonderful things about teaching is that I get to witness the earliest stages of real talent. So many kids can write (especially poetry), but only a select few have an innate, instantly recognizable gift. When I see these kids again, all grown up many years later, and they tell me they are lawyers or computer technicians or architects, I think: but what about your writing? Because it’s hard for me to believe that they could set that gift down on the table and walk away from it towards something any old talented person can do.

Kurt Vonnegut has said of writers,”We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” This doesn’t seem like such a bad way to spend at least part of your waking moments.

So here’s to all those kids (and all those who used to be kids) who think writing is what you do in your angsty adolescent journal and in one elective class you could finally fit into your high school schedule: keep going. And, when you do, let me know you’re out there, wing buds at the ready, toes over the edge of that marvelous cliff. Let me come cheer you on.

Weekend Write-In: Varsity Line-Up Starting Four

I have taught writing to high school students for twenty years. As public school teachers, we spend a great deal of time writing curriculum according to whatever directives the district and state demand. These change often, driven by the whims of new administrators or politicians. Ideally, according to my evaluators, if you want to teach one of the courses I do, say the senior poetry class, you should be able to read my unit plans on a shared website and, essentially, do what I do.

But whenever a real human being has to teach one of my courses, I begin by recommending one of the following books. Not only do they help me get my students writing and thinking, but they help me get writing and thinking. Best of all, they DEFY proscriptive regulations on how to write curriculum and ask only that real writers describe real lessons that work. Amazing, right?

naming the worldNaming the World. Bret Anthony Johnston, ed. For prose writers and/or teachers of prose writing, I can’t imagine a more helpful book. Johnston (author of Corpus Christi: Stories and Remember Me Like This: A Novel), compiles lessons from Joyce Carol Oates, Ann Packer, Tom Robbins, Elizabeth Strout and Steven Almond, among dozens of others. The lessons are creative, easy to follow, and include both individual and group pursuits. The index includes lists of writing warm-ups to get writers to what Johnston calls, “Ass in the chair time.” Indispensible.

practice of poetryPractice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach, Chase Twichell and Robin Behn, eds. What Naming the World does for prose writers and teachers of prose, this book does for poets and teachers of poetry. Another compilation of lessons by writers for writers that work. This is a dog-eared, well-loved addition to my bookshelf at home and at school.

the discovery of poetryThe Discovery of Poetry, Frances Mayes. If you want to learn more about what poetry is and how to go about writing it; if you want models both contemporary and classic for the various elements you study; if you want a book whose writer speaks to you, invites you to enjoy both the reading and writing of poetry, you can’t do better than Mayes. I use this book with both my senior poetry class and with my AP English students because Mayes makes poetry accessible. She offers you, especially, many poems to choose from and, in this way, guides you toward learning from those writers whose work you most admire. All textbooks should be written like this: Mayes wants you to love poetry first and foremost and then, if you choose, to write some of your own.

on-writingOn Writing by Stephen King. This book is half memoir, half craft lessons. Unlike the other books I’ve listed here, King doesn’t offer exercises. Instead, he describes his own life as a writer and then he offers tips to fiction writers. Teenagers love this book, and adults understand why King has sold so many books. You can imagine him speaking to you over beer (or, since he doesn’t touch the stuff), strong coffee. His advice is straightforward and far from high-brow. Great read.

These books, for me, get the job done. I especially value hearing from writers who write and teach.

What can you add to this list? What books help you write? Teach? Think?

Weekend Write In: Real Cows, Imaginary Heroes

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

A very real cow. A very real me. At least in this instance.

When our cow Darcy escaped from the farm and wandered along Route One until she ended up in someone’s backyard, I was not the one who went with the police officer to retrieve her. I had gone out to the barn and had told my father, who sent the young hired hand, instead. But when I wrote about this adventure, I made myself the protagonist. Had to, as the essay was about my dawning understanding that life did not begin and end on the farm. Darcy’s wanderlust, I wrote thirty years after it happened, made me see that the world awaited.

Pleased with the final results, I sent the piece off labeled: non-fiction and was thrilled when it was both accepted and mentioned in a review of the literary magazine itself. A literary magazine the real hero would probably never read.

For several years after that, I continued to work on a series of “essays” about my life on my family’s farm.

Then two things happened:

#1 I published a book, a collection of poems, and, suddenly, people I knew were reading my stuff. Uh-oh, I thought. Good thing it’s poetry and not the cow “essays”.

#2 I met Scott Russell Sanders.

As a non-fiction tuition scholar at Bread Loaf, I was assigned to his workshop. He also delivered the conference’s first lecture in which he admitted he “committed memoir.” Scott spoke of the liberties memoirists take with the non-fiction genre, liberties he insisted made what was written another form of fiction. When, later in the week, a woman read from her well-received book and described, in vivid detail, a poker game that her family had played twenty years earlier — complete with specific cards and razor sharp dialogue — it was clear that, unless she had videotaped the encounter, some of this supposedly true stuff was made up.

That had been okay with me, perhaps because I, too, was guilty of it, but Scott’s influence was profound. He gave me two options: re-work the pieces so that I told the truth. This would include taking out of quotes whatever couldn’t possibly have been said. Or, re-label the collection as short stories.

I decided to tell the truth and thus embarked on a massive revision. The result according to my critic friends? I had destroyed the pieces.

I also struggled to complete. For example, I wanted to write a new piece about my father’s love affairs with bulls, the dangers they posed, his fearlessness or foolhardiness when it came to handling them. I took Scott’s advice and began researching. I called my brother, my cousin, former hired hands.

Writers believe they have good memories, though it may be just that we convince ourselves of the truth of something and there it is: a story crystal. However, people who don’t write pretend nothing of the sort. Thus, no one had much to give me. If I had to tell the truth, so help me God and Scott Russell Sanders, what was I supposed to do with the scraps this research provided me?

I believed Scott and I wanted to do right by the genre. But I was also tempted by my desire to tell a well-constructed and full detailed story, and by a marketplace that often seeks good creative non-fiction.

Then, two things happened:

#1 I added The Things They Carried to the sophomore curriculum at the high school where I teach. Tim O’Brien wrote these connected short stories because his memoir based on his service in Vietnam didn’t capture what it really felt like to be there. In one story he says, “I want you to feel what I felt.” What’s true about The Things They Carried is how it makes its readers feel. The horror of the war, the difficulty in telling a story, these things are very real.

#2 My bookclub read Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman, the fictional story of the death of the author’s young wife. Once again, his grief was as real as the readers’ responses to this story of love and loss, but he had chosen to write a novel.

These writers freed me. I went back to work on my story about bulls. This time, I added a fictional frame that had only one small kernel of truth. Wow. That was easy (and guilt-free) and someday, if I’m very lucky and this book gets published, I won’t have to worry about leaving out that boy who, long ago, led Darcy home along Route One, police car keeping pace behind him, blue lights flickering over a scene I only wish I had been in.

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

The Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA. Our 2012 writing retreat.

“Our Own Little Bubble” Our cabin on the Loyalsock Creek, Barbours, PA, 2012 writing retreat. The porch is where we gathered every morning to work. (photo by Hudson Rush)

Weekend Write-In: Go Ahead, Get Away

What are the chances I’ll receive this? I thought, as I applied for the Provincetown Fine Arts scholarship that would allow me to take a weeklong poetry workshop for free. Pretty good, as it turned out, and then the truly inconceivable thought: how will I leave my 3, 4, and 5 year old daughters to do this?

My friend Miriam, also a mother and a writer, said, “You’ll miss them until you step onto the ferry, and then, in a weird way, you’ll forget all about them.”

That prophecy had a lot of help coming true: my mother signed on to help my husband that week, I found an apartment in an antique Cape directly across from the bay that was quiet and affordable, I chose a workshop with a poet, Jim Moore, who turned out to be the perfect mentor for me. I woke every morning at dawn, wrote for a couple hours, went for a run where I revised in my head, returned to a house exactly as immaculate and silent as I had left it and reworked the new poems. Workshops and readings in the afternoon and evening and days devoted to being solely a writer.

In six days, I wrote at least as many poems, poems that completed my first manuscript. I met writers whose careers I have followed these past ten years. Most importantly, I discovered that getting away to write is essential and (despite the fact that my 3 year old broke her arm mid-week and I wasn’t there when she had it set without morphine), should be guilt-free.

Despite knowing this, when I headed to Bread Loaf three years later, it was for what I thought would be an agonizing eleven day stretch away from my family. This time, I left behind a box of surprises for my girls: one card and one gift for every day I was gone. I tried to leave them something that might amuse them for a few hours: jump ropes, press-on tattoos, a jigsaw puzzle, a few dollars for ice cream. And then I left, teary, forgetting my Provincetown lessons.

In Vermont, I was introduced to writers are various stages of their careers. I spoke with agents, editors, writers whose books I had devoured. I reveled in Scott Russell Sanders’ nonfiction workshop and hurried off to readings several times a day. I danced my fool head off. At the end of every event, I returned to my tiny, shared room at Brandy Brook, and collapsed beside Sarah, Brenda, and Rebecca to share the details of our days. Nights, when I called my children, their voices reminded me of the world I wanted to return to, though it was clear that I did not need to hurry back. They were fine and I? I was being a writer.

Last weekend, I sat with a view of Lake Cayuga. On the loveseat to my left, Sarah worked on the fourth draft of her latest novel. Beside me on the couch, Rebecca drafted a poem in the notebook she bought exclusively for our yearly retreats. On the floor in front of us, Brenda cobbled together notes for a teaching grant. We would break for lunch, return to our separate spheres for a couple hours, then regroup for cocktails, dinner, sharing the day’s successes and difficulties.

In a documentary on her work and her life, Anne Lamott reminds an audience that no one cares if you get to work or not. So, if you want to write, write. She’s right, of course, but sitting alone with that kind of truth can paralyze us. Instead, we can head off to a conference like Bread Loaf or AWP and feel overwhelmed by everyone else who’s writing, trying to do what we want to do.

But once a year, my writing friends and I gather to work side by side. In this context, the conviction that abandons us sometimes when we are alone with our tasks or alone in a mass of strangers, returns. This is the only kind of camaraderie that will sustain us through those long, cold, lonely times when we are alone with certain truths about the writing life.

What about you? What stops you from squirreling away this time for yourself? Or, how do you getaway to write?

Weekend Write-In: What Would Freud Say? Who Cares, So Long as He Read the Thing

Mushrooms pretending to be just mushrooms.

Does it matter that I did not intend to create a character who looked like a penis? That, readers, is today’s question.

My short story collection was published in October. Since then, I have turned promoter, a role I am not comfortable with. I have learned, for example, how difficult it is to have your book reviewed, so I was incredibly grateful when, nine months after the book’s launch, a review appeared on a popular blogsite. Even more thrilling was that the review was positive. The reviewer wrote, “Though the stories vary in tone, theme, and subject, they’re unified by the author’s gift for the incisive one-liner, the wry observation that illuminates the whole.”

That’s the good news. Later on, she says “the overall strength of this fine collection made weaker moments stand out.” Uh-oh. But it’s the final paragraph, and I’m thinking: who reads these things all the way through, anyway? The dread is personal, primal, even, but I’m a writer now. I can take the criticism.

Except, I didn’t quite understand it.

The reviewer notes that, in one story, a school secretary has a “‘large head of gray hair shaped like a mushroom’ and her name, we’re told, is Hedda Horn — a joke that only distracts.” For two days, I wandered around my house wondering what she thought the joke was. Wrong haircut? Too cliche? Overdone alliteration? I had based the character physically on a woman I’d seen in my own school building, her bowl cut and stocky figure leaving her Minion-shaped (though the story was written several years before I might have applied that particular allusion). Then, one day when I was out on my walk, it hit me: the reviewer thinks I deliberately made my character look like a penis.

I’m not sure which is worse: the fact that she mistook my intentions, or the fact that something I wrote so completely misfired. Believe me, my writing friends think my unintentional phallic symbol is hysterical. Even funnier? That it got pointed out to so many hundreds of readers. But I am plunged back into that part of myself that wants everyone to be happy. That wants everything I write to be perfect. Why didn’t I just give the woman a Dorothy Hamill wedge? A Shirley Partridge shag?

This reminds me of when my first book of poems was published and one of my distant cousins (there are zillions) approached me at a signing. She told me her husband didn’t come with her because he was mad at me. I had never met the man, but I had written a poem about two friends who argued about whose wine tasted better. The argument ended with one friend shooting the other. True story from my mother’s old neighborhood. “He forgives you now,” my cousin several times removed said. “But the guy that died was my husband’s uncle.”

When I told my mother this, worried I’d offended someone, she said, “You’re missing the point.”

“Which is?”

“People are reading your book.”

Oh. That.

What was obvious to my mother, was not so clear to me: that, after years of toiling away in obscurity at my dining room table or propped up with pillows on my bed, people were actually reading what I had to say.

For all I know, readers might imagine my stories populated with a race of penile people. They might see their own stories in whatever I’ve put down on paper. But the key word here is READERS. Those people (like you!) we writers can not live without.

Weekend Write-In: Having to Have Patience Whether You Like it or Not

“You were always so impatient,” my mother tells me regularly. “Even when you were little, if I bought you a coloring book, you sat down and colored every picture immediately. Didn’t stop until it was finished.”

As I writer, I appreciate my mother’s ability to nail down the characterization. This without any lessons in showing vs. telling! But as a very human being who also happens to be a writer, I also think: my god. What happened to me?

My first collection of poetry took me twenty years to finish. My first collection of short stories took me twenty-two. I didn’t set out to write a collection in either of these genres, but when you keep writing, you tend to pile up some stuff and one day, if you’re me, you lay it all out on your bed and wonder if there are enough pages for a book.

A novel is a different beast, however. A novel is something I always wanted to write. Something that I approached deliberately (once I realized the short story I thought I was writing was something else), thinking: I want this to be a book.

My novel started one day when I thought I’d like to write a short story about the summer I visited a carnival with a friend and met a man who ran one of the concessions. He was exceedingly friendly to me, gave me several nights’ worth of free chances and so many plastic poodles to hang on my bedpost that my mother grew suspicious. When she asked me where I got the prizes and I told her, she warned me to be careful, but she did not stop me from going to the carnival again. I was ten.

Perhaps she thought, as I did, that nothing could happen in our small town where everyone was a cousin or married to a cousin or someone my mother went to school with. But that fall, a thirteen year old girl was kidnapped and killed walking home at night just a couple miles away from where the carnival had been set up.

Chapter by chapter, the short story turned into a novel that is and isn’t the story of that summer, that carnival, the fall from innocence we experienced when such a tragedy struck our town. Twelve years later — the speed of light for me — I finally finished it.

What happens next, even after a dozen years revising, re-structuring, wrestling with the beast that is plot, is almost (almost) not important. What is important is that I did it. I waited it out. Powerless to know how to manage the story and all its threads, I had no choice but to slog ahead.

If I had sat down at any time in my writing life and thought: Okay, I’ll write this poem/story/novel etc today and twelve, twenty, twenty-two years from now, I’ll have a book, I would have put down the pen and picked up a paintbrush instead. And by paintbrush, I mean the kind you use to re-do your downstairs bathroom. In a way, I just kept coloring one picture after the next until I could close up shop on one particular work.

This makes me wonder if my mother had it exactly right: maybe patience had nothing to do with finishing that book. Maybe finishing it had everything to do with it, instead.