Chapter of the Week

Every Friday, I get to hang out with a few other writers and read the latest chapter of my book to them. The hanging out is done online right now because of the pandemic, but it’s still enough for me to make sure I at least revise a chapter for the week.

I’m at a stage where I’m going through the book chronologically and doing tweaks and consolidations. It’s the first time my group is hearing the chapters in order, because the first round of chapter segments were created and shared in haphazard fashion. Sometimes they skipped decades forward or backward.

Going in order is harder. It’s scary to be marching forward, one chapter a week, knowing that at some point I’ll reach the end of pre-written stuff for revision and have to write a few missing chapters at the end. Then an introduction. And then it will be a fucking manuscript.

And I’m doing this during the pandemic, with the future so uncertain, and my critical voice shouting that no one’s going to want to read anything about any other subject besides this for the next indefinite number of years.

Let Us Write Together

You are loud today, world.

This is not a week when I can even try to defy you, blot you out or forget you.

There is no muffling the parts of your voice that shriek at me not to write. That tell me it won’t matter, that any story I tell is unimportant. That thinking about the projects I cherish is shallow and self-absorbed.

You are here in the room with me, humming and babbling and singing.

So get comfortable.

I have found extra chairs.

Sit here, pandemic.

Read over my shoulder, climate change.

Correct my spelling, cruelty. Play with my paper clips, ignorance. Have a mint, fear.

Let us write together.

Third Time’s the Charm?

Today I wrote the third version of the few pages that mark the beginning of a new phase of my book. The first version got okay feedback, but I and my fellow writers agreed the voice wasn’t quite right.

So I wrote it for a second time. I changed the voice and changed the tone in a way I thought would sound more personal. I put in some new, clever stuff as well. Satisfied, I stuffed the stapled pages into my backpack and brought them to the group.

They hated it.

I wasn’t even surprised–by the time I finished reading the section out loud, I knew it wasn’t working. What had escaped me at the keyboard became obvious to my ears. I hadn’t just failed to improve it; I’d made it much worse.

So today I wrote a third draft. It’s different from the first two; it doesn’t try to cover as much and it’s definitely more personal. (Cried while writing it, which is usually a good sign I’m being authentic.) But I have no idea whether it works or not.

What’s really hard is that I haven’t got a plan for what to do if this isn’t better. I’m pretty sure I’ll need to put it aside for a while and try to work on another section, but I don’t want to. I want to be happy with this piece before I do later ones.

And I want a pony.

First Principles

What helps me when I get overwhelmed by my writing projects, or by life in general? Sometimes nothing…I get to be overwhelmed for a while. I do mindless things, try very hard to choose mindless things that are not self-destructive, and generally buy time until the intensity of the feeling passes.

But when the overwhelm is about my books, it helps if I can go back to what I call my first principles: Why am I working on these projects? What is my duty in regards to them? Do I understand that I am not in control of how they are received when the time comes to send them out? Am I willing to do my best, with no guarantee that they will be published or widely read? Am I willing to resist comparisons and fight insecurity when I hear of fellow writers’ productivity, networking and other successes?

The insight I had (and was questioning) about the structure of my nonfiction book has crystallized into an updated plan. This is exciting, and it’s making me more connected to the book’s arc…which, in turn, sends my mind into the future where the book’s a book and I’m querying agents et cætera. This is not the time for those thoughts. Maybe some writers can do it, but I know I need to concentrate on getting a draft of the book done.

I’m not trying to seal off any knowledge of or respect for the realities of the publishing industry. I’ll continue to get feedback from other writers, but right now I know I’ll hamstring my creativity if I try too hard to write for anyone but me and the people I’d like to help.

Oh, No! Not Perspective!

Don’t make me be aware of how gigantic and complicated the world of writing is! Let me stay in my little bubble of blogs and local poetry readings!

This week I’m trying out a new submissions tracker online. You can use a lot of filters to search for publishers or agents that accept the things you want to send out. I decided to look into it because they really keep their listings current–when I used books, I’d often go to a publication’s website to find they didn’t exist any more or hadn’t accepted new material in years. The tracker also has stats on things like average response time.

I’ve really done very little submitting to non-local things, and I want to change that. But I have to admit it’s intimidating to read some of these sites. I have a tendency to look at whatever I am thinking of sending them and think “nah, they’d never want this.” Especially the heavier literary sites. I suspect some of the guidelines are written in such a way as to discourage as many people as possible from adding to their undoubtedly huge slush pile.

But submitting is not just emotionally intimidating, it’s a pain in the ass too when you’re a newbie. Many publications only accept submissions electronically these days through an engine like Submittable. It’s not too bad once you get used to it. However, they don’t all use that. Some want you to set up an account on their very own server just to do a one-time submission. And everyone wants you to tweak your files in a different way.

And then there are submission fees. They usually run about $3, except for contests and book-length works. It’s an amount designed to feel like no big deal, but they add up! I’ve heard an author brag that she never, ever submits anywhere that has fees–well, that leaves the majority out. She can afford to be picky now that she’s well-known, but…at any rate, I’m budgeting to do about 8 submissions a month. It’s what I can afford.

It’s always overwhelming being the new kid at school. On the bright side, it’s a role I’ve played many, many times. I’d like to think I’ve become more comfortable with it. Or at least comfortable with being uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.

Now That You Mention It…

The other day an old friend asked me about my writing. We hadn’t seen each other in many months, so a lot had happened. As you can imagine, I was off like a shot, talking about progress on the nonfiction book project.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, five or ten minutes later. “I’m going on and on, aren’t I? It’s just occupying a lot of my brain lately.”

She smiled. “No, it’s interesting.”

I believe it is interesting to her–but even if it weren’t, it would probably be hard not to at least start chattering about it. It runs so close to the surface these days. Last month I met a friend-of-a-friend at a party and ended up rhapsodizing at length. Again, he seemed interested, but was he just being polite? I can’t be sure; I’m biased.

Truth is, I don’t want to restrain my enthusiasm about my writing projects. I feel like they’re the most distinctive thing about me at this stage in my life. And they represent what I have to give in terms of outreach to the addiction and mental health communities.

So yeah, it’s going to come up when you talk to me for any length of time. It’s inevitable. Your only hope is to steer the conversation to specific topics and not ask open-ended questions.

Tear It Apart

So I’ve written something. Do I have the guts to rip it apart and put it together a new way? Or more than one new way?

The workshop I went to a few days ago talked about this. It was interesting to hear–although I’ve read a lot about revising poems, I’m not as exposed to writers talking about how to revise a short story or book. Joshua Mohr, the instructor, wasn’t shy about suggesting big changes instead of just small ones.

Chop out the first 600 words of this scene and start here instead. Move this scene and do this other scene first, then put in some of the first scene with suitable alterations. Shuffle the chapter order in your book. Cut a chapter that no longer fits with the arc of your story. Take the whole damn piece and rewrite it in a different voice.

I notice that, even when I’m excited about the possibilities a change has, I’m resistant to some of the big ones. One reason is I cling to the version that exists because it’s been around long enough to be my baby. To change it, I have to say goodbye to the previous version–or at least shove it into a smaller area of my brain to make room for the new one.

Perfectly normal. But the other reason change is hard for me is one that’s more problematic: it’s an attitude of scarcity.

Wait, I spent time and effort writing this. Maybe every word was an ordeal if I wasn’t in a good place at the time. If I rewrite a scene, or drop it completely, all that effort has been wasted! Oh no!

This flawed logic leads me farther into the land of scarcity: I only have a certain amount of time, strength, focus. I have a limited amount of words in me! If I don’t use every single one I manage to squeeze out, I’ll never write the things I want to write!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t write very well when I have this attitude. Nor do I enjoy it very much. My first book’s an intimidating project, but I must make room for the happy preschooler with her scissors and paste.

Cinderella

I spent yesterday in a fairy-tale world, feasting on delicacies and dancing with handsome princes and princesses. But the ball had to end, and I departed without leaving so much as a shoe behind.

Okay, so it was really a one-day writing workshop at the office of ZYZZYVA magazine in San Francisco. They accepted my piece for the event, and I’d promised myself that if I got in I’d go. So I did.

I call it a fairy-tale world because it’s so unknown to me; I had never been to that type of workshop before. I compare it to the ball because I associate it with having more money than I have; the cost was such that I don’t expect to be able to do such a thing again any time soon. Let’s just say I got my Christmas present early this year.

I enjoyed myself very much. The author who led it, Joshua Mohr, had insightful things to say about writing personal narrative. Here’s a distillation of what I feel was the most valuable reminder for me as I work on my book:

When you write a narrative that’s about yourself, you still need to treat the “you” in the story like a character. You need to pay attention to the same things you’d look at when working with a fictional character you’re creating: Are they interesting? What am I doing to let the reader get invested in them and want to know more? Is it clear what they want, or think they want? What are their obstacles, internal and external? Am I building complexity; giving the reader new perspective on them with every scene? Do I avoid either idealizing or demonizing them?

This kind of perspective will help me as I make choices about the structure of my book: order of chapters, what to keep and what to cut, and what isn’t written yet but needs to be.

I’m aware of a part of me that feels envious when I think of how many workshops and classes some of my fellow writers go to, or that focuses on my wistful desire to be someone who can do the same (or, for that matter, who can submit a ton of stuff without worrying about how those submission fees will add up.)

But that’s my baggage talking. It’s understandable that I want these things, but focusing on what I don’t have is toxic. I create things when I am focused on what I do have, what I truly want, and what I can do to move closer to it.

The Deadly Reflex

Have you ever won something, or been chosen for something, and immediately started playing a negative tape in your head about it? Coming up with reasons it’s no big deal instead of just being happy and honored?

Two weeks ago I sent out a piece applying for a narrative writing workshop. I thought getting in was pretty unlikely, but decided to give it a shot. Well, I’m in.

Any bets on how many seconds it took that part of my brain to go from joy to rationalization?

They must not have received many submissions. The submission process was probably just a marketing ploy to make the workshop seem more exclusive and therefore more desirable. They’re really taking anyone who is willing to pay the fee.

It has to be something like that, right? Surely they couldn’t have really liked my writing and chosen it over some actual competition?

Yeah, I do this. When I won a couple of prizes in a local poetry contest last winter, I told myself the contest must have had very few entries. When I shared the happy news that one of my poems was accepted for a gallery show project, I always emphasized that it was a small gallery!

The weird thing is, not all of me is this way. I’m capable of the opposite. I can admit that I really like how I write; that I think it’s good. (And why not? Of course I like my own style, and work toward improving it in ways that make me like it even more. It’s mine.)

But that other voice is eager to chime in, and I need to recognize it. “Oh, you again. Hi. Uh-huh. Really. All right, you’ve had your say, now fuck off.”

We Shall See

Yesterday, I sent about 2500 words of my nonfiction project to be considered for a day-long workshop on personal narrative writing.

“Which piece should I send?” I asked an experienced writer who has heard many segments of the project. “Which works best as a stand-alone?”

“Doesn’t matter,” they replied. “You won’t get in.”

I was surprised, but not offended. I knew he wasn’t saying my work isn’t good. He likes my work (or he’s been doing a really good job of faking it.) He’s just of the opinion that my style doesn’t match what they are looking for, based on his perception of the people and publication behind the workshop.

I decided to give it a try anyway. Going through my binder, I considered and rejected many segments. From what I had heard, I had an impulse to choose one that included my time at MIT or some other attention-getting intellectual thing. But many of the segments don’t work well as a stand-alone, because they’re far along in the book.

In the end, I chose an early chapter. The protagonist is not at MIT, or studying to be a therapist, or having an edgy time in rehab. She’s a preadolescent torturing her toys. It’s often funny, sometimes sad, and very authentic. I like it. Don’t know if they will.

Pain 1, Me 0

Chronic pain sucks.

This week I am receiving a reminder of this. I did something to my back 8 days ago; thought it was no big deal at first but it got worse as the week went on. It’s been hurting at the level that used to be going on all the time for me.

I’m spoiled these days; often pain free with occasional flareups. I haven’t had one this bad in four years or more.

So right now I’m being reminded how much pain screws me up–and I’m getting to see how it screws up parts of myself necessary for writing.

One: Pain makes me afraid. I future trip like crazy–what if it doesn’t get better? When can I go back to my regular activities? How am I going to function when sometimes I can barely function without pain? Writing in a state of fear tends to be joyless and stripped of its usual juice.

Two: Pain makes me stupid. Even less sleep than usual, fatigue from stiff muscles; it all leaves me cloudy. Writing is slow and awkward.

Three: Pain triggers bad memories and cravings. Back pain will always be associated with the worst time of my addiction. The physical sensation triggers memories of standing in line, filling out forms, and talking to doctors in order to get more painkillers. Even though I know all that is in the past, my body isn’t sure. Writing is harder because it’s difficult to stay in the present.

Four: Pain ups my level of depression. Understandable. Limited mobility leads to boredom, which makes me more vulnerable to depressive content from my head. Writing is harder because the grayness of depression works against my creativity.

Five, and most dangerous of all: Pain makes me self-absorbed. I regress, as many in chronic pain do, to an ego state where I lose perspective and my pain becomes the center of the universe. Writing is hard because I lose touch with why I write.

I really hope this won’t last much longer. But if it does, I need to remember that the imperfect writing I can do in this state is still approximately ten thousand times better than a blank page. So what if it’s not quite up to my usual standards? That’s what editing is for.

Hurricane

“I’ll write my way out, write everything down far as I can see. I’ll write my way out, overwhelm them with honesty, this is the eye of the hurricane, this is the only way I can protect my legacy…”

So, my 18 year old daughter has infected me with the “Hamilton” virus. I’m not one of those lucky rich folks or lottery winners who have actually seen the play, but thanks to her I’m nearly letter and note perfect on the soundtrack.

The words above come from the song “Hurricane,” in which the Hamilton character recalls how his writing after a hurricane’s destruction helped him win support from the townspeople to get to New York and an education. Now he’s resolving to use his writing skill to find a way out of a scandal threatening his career.

At any rate, I think most writers identify with parts of this song. I certainly do. The power of writing, of storytelling, is sometimes the only power I think I have. Maybe some writers don’t feel this way; maybe they feel powerful and successful in other aspects of life too. But when we’ve failed at other things, when we’ve been to some dark places, we can start to believe that our creativity is the one power we possess that no one can take away and its products are the one unique thing we have to offer the world.

In the end, our best shot is to “overwhelm them with honesty.”

Writing Into the Void

So, about that voice in my head saying civilization is doomed and there is no point to me writing…

I’ve been writing a lot, both poetry and prose. My nonfiction book is beginning to take shape in my mind as the segments I write start to arrange themselves in order and bring ideas as to what should go between them. It’s raw, it’s real, and I genuinely believe it will be worth reading. My first full-length poetry collection is taking shape nicely as well…neither of these things will be done soon, but they have a new level of form and reality.

Then I hear the latest lecture on climate change and nihilism crashes into me. We’ll all be dead soon. No one will ever read my work and it wouldn’t do them any good if they did.

Granted, those thoughts belong to the extreme end of the spectrum…not everyone believes in the very short-term extinction of our species. What is certain is that change is here, much of which is irreversible. Life will get harder, conflicts over dwindling resources will grow, and catastrophic events will occur.

So is there a point to me writing about the subjects I do? Why try to help addicts, or the mentally ill, or both, when the larger world is in crisis? Why does it matter, in the quick or slow apocalypse, whether John Doe stays off drugs or out of the hospital?

I start to drown in these thoughts, and must return to my most basic principle:

It matters to me.

Even if it’s only about how present people get to be for whatever happens, it matters to me.

Being conscious and capable of love matters. Suffering and dying as a human rather than a numbed zombie or cornered animal matters. Being in the mix, a member of humanity, instead of watching from the sidelines, matters.

Flooded

How do we know when we’re writing too much?

It’s tempting to think they’re’s no such thing as too much. Maybe that’s true for some people, especially if the things they write cover a variety of styles and subject matter.

But this week, I’m conscious that I may be writing too much of a project too quickly. My nonfiction project contains many memoir-style pieces for the purposes of outreach, and I am working on some that cover a very dark time in my life.

My task is to convey, at different times, an authentic tone of what it’s like to be a practicing addict, to take doses of drugs you know might kill you and not care as long as you get high, to be deep in clinical depression or overwhelming anxiety, to be suicidal, to be convinced that suicide is the best thing you can do for those you love, to know that you have lost and drugs have won, to plan your own disappearance and death, to know that you deserve nothing better…

My task is to write it so well that an addict or a mental illness sufferer will identify strongly, while someone not familiar with the feelings will have a window opened to a bit of understanding.

Strong feedback I’m getting tells me I am at least partially succeeding in this. But there’s a cost: I’m writing it authentically enough to affect myself as well.

Floods of old emotions, ones that are always there but more in the background, wash over me. Old grief, guilt, and shame come up often. The otherworldly loneliness of that time echoes.

Too much of this is dangerous to my current mental health. I’m noticing hits to my self-care and changes in how I relate to my family.

These things need to be written…but I need to pace myself.

Fighting Fire With Poetry

Readers who don’t live in California may still already know this, but just in case–we’re on fire. Worse than ever before. Hundreds are dead and more hundreds missing. Ash and smoke have rendered the air bad enough to close schools and other things; masks are being worn for hundreds of square miles.

What do poets do at a time like this? We write, of course. We write about what’s going on–and sometimes, for our own survival, we go on writing about other things too.

Or we write about what’s going on, but indirectly. We write things that come from ourselves after we strain current events through the cloth of our psyche. Odd inspirations that come to us, or characters inspired by people we met or heard about.

I had an experience like this a couple of nights ago when I read a wildfire-related poem at an open mic. It was a strange one–for some reason, what came from my psyche was a poem about visiting a friend in the psych ward while the fires were burning, and about the way his mental illness was severe enough to cut him off from being able to feel or care about them.

But strange can be good sometimes–as I know I’ve said before, writing about the same basic things from a million perspectives is what poets do, because you never know which angle will touch somebody.

 

Why Feedback is Awesome

As you know, I am relatively new to the concept of showing my writing (especially prose) to people who actually express opinions about it face to face. It’s scary and empowering at the same time, it motivates me to complete writing goals, and it gets me excited about future projects.

Sometimes it does something even more important: when I share a piece with others, their response shows me positive things about it I didn’t see. I come away realizing it’s a better piece than I thought it was; that I’d blinded myself to some of its merit because of insecurity or lack of perspective.

Yesterday I brought another of my memoir-style prose pieces to the writing circle. I had struggled with this one; the kind of struggle where you sit, stare, type a sentence, stare, erase the sentence, repeat ad nauseam. I thought the completed chunk was not bad, but perhaps not up to the standards of some of my others.

They fucking loved it. One said it was their favorite so far. Okay….

So why didn’t I like it that much? And who is right? Ultimately, I have to be the final arbiter, because I’m the one who stands by the words and claims them as mine. But it’s good for me to give it a chance, to see if other perspectives help me warm up to something.

Spaghetti Brain

I’m finally feeling creative again after a days-long crash following my exciting reading. Creative–but wildly unfocused.

My brain is trying to think of the following things simultaneously:

  1. The status of my fellowship application to a writers’ community
  2. What to enter in a Bay Area poetry contest coming up
  3. Plans for compiling my first full-length poetry manuscript, and whether I could get it together in time to submit to a certain press by their annual deadline
  4. Which memoir-style piece to tackle next for my nonfiction project
  5. Two different ideas brought up recently for collaborative pieces with poets I know
  6. Bits and pieces from pretty much all of my old poems, thanks to recent work of pasting them into a new format
  7. Submission to a women’s magazine whose reading period just began
  8. A community chapbook I have been thinking of getting together and whether I should go ahead and send out calls for submissions.

And…Hamilton lyrics, which are awesome poetry but an immense distraction when they keep popping up during any of the above.

You Gave Me Money For This?

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For the first time, I have exchanged poems I wrote for money. What a trip.

When I was the featured poet at a reading on Friday night, I brought copies of my first chapbook with me. Chapbooks are simple, low-budget productions, usually containing between 10 and 15 poems. I didn’t think I would get it done in time, because my date for the reading had been moved up, but with the help of my spouse I did.

I was looking forward to the feature, and determined to focus on enjoying myself at the mic and not worry about whether anyone would want a copy. Realistically, I expected to sell 5 or less to the modestly sized audience. I sold ten, so I’m very happy.

Anyone who’s been reading this blog, or my old one, knows that me writing and then beginning to join the writing community has been quite a process of change. You might have read an entry two years ago describing my first attendance at a poetry open mic. or my first submissions.

So if you write, and long to develop your writing more, I hope you will take encouragement from the things I share. I’m a messed up person, but I took one step at a time and I did these things. I think you can too.

My Book is a Bastard

So what are these projects that have been sucking up my writing spoons? Well, as far as poetry is concerned, I am trying to put together a chapbook for a feature I am doing in November. It will be the first time I offer written poems for people to take home. It’s just a low end thing, but I have to go through the horror of figuring out which poems to put in it.

The other one, the really new one, is my nonfiction book. I have always had a vague idea of using the essays I’ve written for the last five years as raw material for something, but recently I’ve hammered out much more of a plan and begun writing pieces that are targeted specifically for that.

This book is a bastard. A hybrid. A mutant.

Why?

Because it doesn’t fit into an easy category, like memoir or inspiration or self-help. I don’t want it to be just another “here’s the story of some shit that I survived” memoir–but there will be memoir pieces in it designed to help a reader identify or get a perspective on eating disorders, addiction and mental illness. It’s not a “here’s what to do to change your life for the better” book–but it will contain some ideas of things that might be worth trying, or tips on finding your own ways. It’s not a psychology book–but part of what makes it a bit different will be the experience of going through some of this stuff as a person who already had a clinical background, and where knowledge is and isn’t helpful. It’s not a “spiritual inspiration” book–but will certainly contain some metaphysical thoughts on why not to give up.

From a marketing perspective, some might say I’d be well advised to change it to fit a category, because bastards are hard to market. But I don’t think I can do that; I need the outreach element to be there. We’ll see. It’s all so embryonic that the most important thing to do at this point is to keep writing.

Something New

Six years of essays, three years of poetry…and now adding something completely different.

My essays have always been personal, but in response to some feedback from fellow writers that saw a few of them I’ve been experimenting with longer pieces of more intimate and detailed memoir. These would ultimately form part of my pet long-term nonfiction book project.

I’ve gotten very good response on them so far, but it is a new kind of writing for me with a new quality of emotional experience. I need to be careful not to get overwhelmed.

I also don’t want to neglect my poetry (haven’t so far) or posting here on this site (which I definitely have.)

I have this idea that I’ll challenge myself to post every day for the coming month of October–but, knowing me, there’s a certain probability of that being bullshit. I want to post a lot, though, because there are interesting things happening with my creative life and its interaction with my health and sanity.

The Best Thing I Ever Write

Periodically, I need to remind myself why I am writing. It’s not to get my ego stroked. It’s not for the high I get when performing. It’s not for the thrill of getting published. Those things are all gravy, and it’s easy for me to get drawn in to this exciting subculture and try to do too much. When I do that, it’s easy for me to start judging myself for not having the energy to go to nearly as many events as a lot of poets seem to do.

I am writing because the very best thing I ever write might help someone someday. That’s what started it, and that’s the core to which I return. I want there to come a time, in the dark watches of some wakeful night, when someone picks up something I wrote and it helps them get through until morning.

I will never know what the best thing I ever write is. It might not be what I expect. It might make someone feel less alone, or it might cause them to feel more accepting of some darkness within themselves. It might carry a metaphor that helps someone create their own personal metaphor as a talisman. It might be a piece that I don’t even rate very highly among my body of work.

Returning to this basic idea is even more important as I begin to consider pulling my prose together and morphing it into a longer project. Changes in style and a thousand different ideas about voice and structure try to distract me, but I must not let them.

Discomfort Zone

When I grow, it’s because I did things beyond my comfort zone. Granted, there are times my comfort zone is smaller than my own skull, but whatever it was at the time, I made conscious efforts to leave it. In everyday living, in social interaction, and especially in writing, I try to push the edges and perhaps push them a little further next time. And, naturally, I dance with the questions of whether it’s wise to push a certain edge at a certain time.

It isn’t productive for me to push in ways that will render me nonfunctional for days. It’s productive for me to push just enough for discomfort, just enough to require some courage. Enough to have consequences in my thoughts and emotions for days or weeks, but have them be consequences that I can manage without being propelled into a serious dip that will make me useless.

I’ve been sharing poetry with others for two years now, and I recently began to share prose for the first time. My essays on my blogs, theoretically, have been shared for years, but never critiqued by other writers or otherwise given feedback. That’s the new thing I did this week, and it was a very different experience from sharing poetry.

One piece of feedback I got is that people wanted more personal detail in some of the pieces. They encouraged me to depart a bit from the conversational style of these essays and branch out into a more personal viewpoint. So this week, I’m writing a piece that focuses more on describing an experience and isn’t about outreach per se.

It’s hard. It brings back the memory in a more visceral way, without the intellectual and the clinical to soften the edges. Even without that discomfort, it’s just different. For the millionth time, I’m the new kid at school.

Give Me An Inch…

Sometimes it’s good to get greedy.

I’m currently working on applications for no less than three different “if you win you will get some writing-related experience for free” scholarship contests for writers with financial need. One is for a fellowship in a writer’s community in SF, one is for a literary seminar and one is for an editorial services scholarship.

These feel different from regular submissions. Usually, I’m submitting a piece for judgment and the result is solely based upon the reaction to the piece. For these, I’m presenting myself. In addition to writing samples, I am putting together essays about me and why I’m a good poet to subsidize. Why I have potential, or why I am useful to the poetry world.

I had an incredible time at an open mic last Friday, and got asked to feature soon at another. I’m on a “high” that is probably fueled by a bit of hypomania, but I believe it is also genuine happiness about what being a poet means to me these days. These feelings are helping me take action on these scholarships.

Sometimes, my opinion of my work crashes and submitting things feels ridiculous. This appears to be pretty normal for writers. But when the opposite is happening–when I believe in myself and I’m excited about the things I am going to write–well, why not try?

Poetry Speed Dating

Here’s one challenging thing about poetry readings: You have to pick something to read. Usually you have about two minutes at the mic. That’s enough to read one poem or perhaps two or three short ones. You don’t get to lay out your entire body of work like a huge tapestry to be admired.

Tomorrow there’s going to be a poetry reading at the gallery show that’s featuring pieces done on one of my poems. I am supposed to read that piece and one (repeat: one) other poem.

Which one?

This is a special reading, and I want to do it justice. I’m working on a draft of something I think is appropriate, but if it is not done to my satisfaction by tomorrow which poem will I choose instead?

It feels like speed dating, or like a job interview with only one question. No piece could give a stranger a full sense of who I am as a poet. This is why doing a feature was so much fun, but it may be a long time before I get to do another one of those.

I have to accept that I can’t convey all I want to convey on any given occasion. I can only leave the impression of the pieces I am able to read.

Actually, that’s not the only impression I can leave. My presence leaves an impression: my voice, my expressions, and my body language speak to a discerning eye of who I am.

Sweet Rejection

I got a rejection email this morning from an online journal. I’d sent them three poems and the editor is “sorry they will not be able to use them.” Oh, sweet rejection.

Why do I call this sweet? It’s simple. Getting a rejection letter means that I TRIED. I went through the footwork and submitted something. I put something out there.

I’ve been trying to get more comfortable using Submittable, the most popular submission software used by magazines’ websites. I’ve been trying to compile a more current list of publications I would like to explore. I’ve been trying to reach out on social media to more of the poets I have met at readings.

Doing something, no matter how small, in the category of advancing my writing gives me a welcome sense of accomplishment. Insecure as I am, I can say honestly say it doesn’t matter that this particular editor didn’t want them.

Suddenly, It Sucks

Many writers know this experience. We’re chugging along with our stories or poems or whatever. We don’t think they are perfect, but there are things we really like about them. Then, WHAM! We hit a pocket of insecurity.

Suddenly, everything we have written sucks. It’s cliched. Trite. Boring. Unoriginal. What were we thinking?

I experience an augmented version of this when I am in a depressive phase. Today, I am aware of a general feeling of pessimism about all aspects of my life. My writing is no exception; I am looking at drafts that pleased me a week ago and wanting to scrap them.

Actually, as recently as two days ago I was really happy with a work in progress that I’m planning to read at an open mic this weekend. I had that impish grin I get when I’ve just successfully completed a draft, and was looking forward to reading it. Now I’m not even sure I want to go, and not at all sure I feel comfortable reading my new creation if I do.

The good news is, I’ve been through some crap that has taught me I shouldn’t always believe what I am thinking.

Many Doors

One could say the things we write are never unique. How could they be, when there are basic human experiences that provide the material for us all? We make things out of the basics the way a chef makes a complex dish from basic ingredients.

You never know what will reach someone or what will be the most effective way of accessing the heart. Recently, I heard about a submissions call for poems to be used in a gallery show about women’s issues. I decided to write something new for it, but as I sat and pondered several ideas I felt stuck.

There was no doubt I have strong feelings about these issues, yet as I thought of them I felt a bit numb and words did not flow. I could write as a woman who has experienced misogyny and internalized misogyny…yet nothing was flowing. I could write from the perspective of a disabled person terrified of a harsh future in my country…yet nothing was flowing. It went on like this, until I started thinking about my daughter and how these issues relate to her. Like a dam breaking, the block dissolved and words came. On that particular day, that perspective was the way in to my emotions and my words.

This is why the arts are important. This is why we must never stop expressing the same idea in millions of different ways. Every soul has many doors, and we cannot know which ones may open and when. We cannot know which of our poems or paintings or stories is a key to one of them.

The Fear of Sentimentality

Recently, I finished a first draft of a poem called “Ladders.” I liked it a lot when I finished it, but now realize that I am hesitant to read it at an open mic or send it anywhere because I’m afraid that it will be heard as sentimental, schmaltzy, cheesy, overly inspirational, or other adjectives that might relegate it to a realm better suited for Hallmark cards than serious poetry.

Why am I afraid of letting some of my poetry reflect the unabashedly inspirational parts of my writing psyche? My prose essays drip with it; I have no hesitation about expressing fierce compassion towards others, trying to spread illogical hope, or digging for beauty in dark places. Why am I afraid to let more of it into my poetry; that a poem speaking inspiration directly to others will be dismissed as too sentimental?

I have spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a person who has tasted a tiny bit of nonlinearity in this universe, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m passionate about giving others a feeling of acceptance, wholeness, being valued, or just being seen, and I’m not ashamed of that. My poetry should not be ashamed of that either.

It’s appropriate for me to look at a draft and ask if the tone is what I want the tone to be. It’s appropriate for me to ask myself if the poem needs revision to change the tone to one I think will be more effective. But these questions should not be asked out of fear.

Stream of Consciousness

For a week or so I’ve been trying to do daily personal writing in the style of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. In this book, she recommends a thing called “morning pages.” It’s supposed to be three pages of complete stream of consciousness, done without any pauses or editing. You’re not supposed to stop, even if the result contains things like “pause…mind blank, eager to be done, blah blah blah why can’t I think of a single thing to write right now?”

She’s not alone in recommending stream-of-consciousness writing, or course. A poetry exercise I read about calls for ten days of ten pages a day, to be examined later for potential poem material.

I chose 1000 words for my daily target, which may or may not be as many words as three pages but it is a nice round number. The new writing software I’m working with lets you set session targets, which is perfect.

I’m trying to do this to help with my resistance to writing anything that is not meant for a fate involving other people. I’m also doing it because it is supposed to be good for creativity. You’re advised to put the pages away when you finish them and not look at or reread them for a while. For me, I imagine rereading them after a month or so and highlighting phrases I think would be useful for an essay or poem.

I have two main fears about doing this. Firstly, I am afraid that doing it will exhaust my writing energy for the day and I will spend less time working on other things. Secondly, I’m afraid that I will fail at doing it consistently and experience the familiar negative emotions that come with starting and abandoning something.

Non-Zero

“Just get a non-zero amount of words on a page.”

I have a series of files containing the scraps of future poems. Some files have nothing but the poem title. I open one up, stare at it, and if nothing seems to be happening I close it back up again.

I do this because it is a lot less intimidating to look at one of these than to look at a blank page. The act of establishing a place for the piece to come gets me over a psychological bump about starting something. I’ll put in the words or phrase that inspired the idea, give the project a title, and that is that. Sometimes I will let myself stare at the file for a few more minutes and see if something arrives–but that is not the plan. 

The philosophy of non-zero applies to other aspects of my life. Just do a non-zero amount of exercise. Just make a non-zero effort to reach out socially. Setting the bar that low can get me past inertia, and the non-zero amount might grow. If it doesn’t, it is still better than zero.

Ah, the psychological tricks we need to play on ourselves! What would it be like to be someone who just decides to do things and does them?

Ant Logic

I remind myself again and again about how subjective poetry is. How it’s possible for the same poem to be liked, ignored, sneered at, or adored by different people. When I forget, I think of a poem called Ant Logic. It was written by Susan H. Maurer and published in Rattle Magazine in 2016.

The poem consists solely of the phrase “ant logic” repeated many times.

I liked it. I thought it was quirky and cute. But I have to admit, I was surprised to see it published in a prestigious magazine that receives thousands of submissions for every issue and has turned down pretty much every poet I know.

Well, an editor took a liking to that poem and decided they wanted it. They didn’t need a reason; they might not even be sure why they liked it. They just did.

So Ant Logic has come to be an encouraging symbol for me of why I should submit pieces to publications or contests that appeal to me. It’s impossible for me to know what will appeal to an editor or judge.

So send your Ant Logic in. Read your Ant Logic at an open mic. Be proud of your Ant Logic.

The Things I Must Not Write

Some poems, and stories, and essays of mine are not ready to be written because they concern other people too directly. It’s a pity, because I’m sure they would be rich, and dark, and searingly honest. I know some people write memoirs and let the chips fall where they may, but for me it would feel wrong to write really raw stuff specifically about people who are still alive.

Part of my decision is based on fear, I know. The fears many of us have about confronting sources of our deep and sometimes illogical terrors. I’m all about trying to face my fears more often, but I also know my own limits and know that pushing certain things would harm people who don’t have the capacity to deal with it.

I’ve sometimes been advised to write pieces and simply not share them with anyone–don’t read them, don’t submit them, don’t self-publish them. Occasionally I do write some things for a recovery activity or when working with some kind of counselor. In general, though, I feel frustrated at the idea of writing things I am supposed to keep secret.

It doesn’t make sense. Journaling is so highly recommended for creative types; why can’t I get on board with private writing? Is it that I have a hard time giving myself permission to create without some small chance of it enriching others? Or is it just ego?

Tea Works Better When You Drink It

Pretty frequently, my daughter reminds me that the untouched tea, or coffee, or snack near me is doing me no good sitting there.

By the same token, getting my writing seen and appreciated by more people is a lot more likely if I actually send it out. Submitting pieces might not lead to them being accepted by a certain publication…but not submitting them definitely won’t. Reading at an open mic might not help me get new connections and meet people who like what I have to say…but not reading definitely won’t.

Recently, I sent out a couple of different pieces in response to submission calls I had heard about. Just local things, but I was very excited when one was accepted. I would like to get into a more regular habit of submitting work. I have everything I need to do it; I just need to acquire some discipline and get into a rhythm.

It helps when I have a clear notion of why I want to submit work to publications; what I want to get out of the process. I suppose what I want most is to be more open to possibilities. Also (and this part is important) I enjoy a childlike pleasure in having something out there because it means there’s always the possibility of a nice surprise coming.

Poetry…Because Drugs Didn’t Work Out

I used this phrase when meeting my new psychiatrist and got a quizzical look. He’d just asked me what coping mechanisms I use to deal with my symptoms. I’ve used the phrase before with others, or referred to poetry or writing as my “newest vice.” Some people get it right away, some don’t.

It’s like one of my favorite snarky T-shirts, that says “Writing…Because Murder is Wrong.” That one either gets a laugh or a vaguely uncomfortable look.

Poetry, and other writing, are indeed a coping mechanism for me. Doing them is part of my ongoing efforts to break the old patterns that want to keep me silent, ashamed, and stuck. Doing them can help me get through the disorientation or despair of an episode, or at least give me reference points before and after.

Poetry, and all art, is a form of therapy as well as whatever other purposes it has. Some might sneer at those who seem focused on this aspect of it, or draw distinctions between such people and “real” artists. I believe there’s a place for a critical voice in our process, but I also believe there’s a special corner in some hypothetical hell reserved for those whose contempt or elitism discourage creation.

The word therapy comes from the Greek root for to serve. Psychotherapy translates to serving the soul. Whether it’s our soul or others, or what the ratio is, the service exists. When we create something–anything–we influence the world.

Through a New Lens

Recently I went to a reading at a local art gallery. Poets had been requested to choose a work in the gallery and write a piece inspired by it. At the reading, the artists were present and heard our work.

Few things are as personal as a painting to an artist, or a poem to a poet. I had done ekphrastic (inspired by a piece of art) poems before, but I had never done one that would be heard by the actual artist. I worried that they might dislike my work or be disappointed that my take on the piece was so different from theirs.

As it turned out, the artist did like my poem. I got to talk with her after the reading and she said the poem gave her a different appreciation for her painting. How wonderful! It gave me real satisfaction.

However, it’s important for me to remember that if she hadn’t liked it, it would have been all right. I would have regretted it, but it wouldn’t mean I had failed.

Why? Because poetry, like other forms of art, is the ultimate in subjectivity. Any piece will appeal to and repel someone on this earth. We need no justification for our reactions or our opinions. This is what makes the arts special.

Why to Go to a Poetry Reading

So I recently gave tips on how to attend a poetry reading, but why should you? What about them makes it worth your time and effort? Why leave your comfort zone for it? Here are some reasons I find apply to me.

  1. It gives me perspective. As I hear different styles of poetry read in different ways by  different poets, I maintain a realistic opinion of my own work. I’m reminded of how subjective it is; I am left feeling neither inflated nor deflated about it.
  2. It gives me ideas. When at a poetry reading, I am listening without distractions and my mind wanders in a specific way that promotes new connections. It’s common for me to get a flash of inspiration for a new poem I’d like to write. I keep paper and pen handy during a reading and jot things down between poems. By the end, I have a bizarre mishmash of seemingly random words and phrases that carry the seeds of multiple new works. I may or may not follow up on each of them, but the seeds exist.
  3. It gives me a sense of community. I find groups of people very challenging because of my odd fluctuations of energy–I’m always waiting for people to write me off as they find out more about me or hang out with me long enough to get a feeling for the inconsistencies in the way I present myself. My bipolar disorder and the depressive phases come with it can make me feel “other” more often than not–yet, with all that, going to readings helps me affirm my identity as part of a creative community. It lets me see poets of all ages and backgrounds and realize that no idiosyncrasies have the power to un-poet us.
  4. It changes the way I write and revise poems. When I expect to be reading a new poem out loud, I end up paying more attention to its sound and rhythm. It’s important not to get carried away by this; the way the poem looks on the page is still just as important. However, thinking about sound adds a layer to the process of refining a draft.
  5. It re-connects me with the part of myself responsible for poetry. Daily stresses make it easy to lose touch with this, but after a good reading I feel stronger and more centered. Toxic people, the news, pervasive fears–all of these have lost some of their power when faced with the power of creative thought and the love that drives it.

Sweet, Sweet Deadlines

They can be stressful sometimes, but some of my poems owe their very existence to the presence of a specific commitment about when and how a certain poem will be communicated to another person.

A blessed deadline helped me break out of my winter slump recently. It was an especially useful deadline because it is an event being held at an art gallery and I had agreed to write two poems about two paintings. It wasn’t like submitting to a magazine…miss your deadline and they just don’t consider you. Missing this deadline would have meant flaking out on something that was specifically expected from me and creating a blank slot in the program.

So I got the two poems done. I got them done in time to send them off. I had to finish a version of them even if they felt stupid or awkward or forced.  In doing so, I was reminded that finishing a poem is satisfying even if doesn’t seem like my best poem ever. I was also reminded that sometimes a poem can grow on me.

It will be interesting to see what the artists think of my contribution, but I have gained something from the process no matter what happens.

Porn for Poets

If the main purpose of porn is to inspire and facilitate fantasy, the poetry equivalent for me would have to be ads for workshops and retreats. Magazines such as Poets & Writers contain multiple listings that render me dreamy-eyed and wistful, imagining myself scribbling away under a linden tree on a remote estate or perched, bright-eyed, on a chair as a teaching poet reads my work.

Some workshops are priced lower than others, but aside from the rare scholarship offers   they are all out of my reach.  Alas, just as in porn, sometimes you get what you pay for. On the other hand, there do exist some good, free online resources and opportunities for writers–certainly a cut above the internet’s jungle of free porn options.

It’s important for me to be aware of these and understand that when I feel isolated as a poet, it isn’t because I lack money. Sure, workshops are fantastic, exciting, sexy. I’m getting excited right now just thinking about a couple of notices I read this month. However, a poet can form ties and get criticism in other ways. My most important barriers are emotional and psychological, not financial. My level of connection and my development as a poet are my responsibility. “But I had no disposable income,” is not a suitable epitaph to rest above a grave filled with unwritten truths.

Poetry Dress-Up

I’ve been trying outfit after outfit on my newest poem in progress, and nothing works.

Advice essays by poets for poets often advocate experimenting with different poetic forms. Though free verse is incredibly popular, and is often a go-to, using a form can take  a draft in new directions. I haven’t done it very much–tried to do a pantoum with one draft, but usually blank verse is as close as I come to a form.

However, my current project has me so stuck I am desperate. So I tried doing it as a ghazal. (Basically, that’s a series of couplets that all end with the same word.) Then I tried doing a set of tanka (a five-line Japanese form with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern.) No dice.

Experience with forms is something I’ll get more of if or when I manage to take some actual poetry classes. For now, I suppose I’ll try a couple more forms–then, perhaps, give up and put the draft aside for now. There are other fish in the somewhat murky sea of my imagination.

One-Note Solo

I wrote this on my old site Not This Song years ago–and today, I needed to read it again. I need to remind myself that it’s okay to do things badly; to be a clumsy novice. It’s even okay to do things at which I might never particularly excel. I don’t need a reason or a justification for enjoying something. Neither do you.

When I was in second grade, the school had a choir, but the teacher chose which students were allowed to sing in it. So if you didn’t have a natural ability to carry a tune at age seven, having never had any practice or instruction, you were pretty much told that singing was not for you.

When I was nine, I had one season on a girls’ softball team. Now, it’s quite true that I sucked at softball. I was afraid of the ball; I was uncoordinated, and–something we didn’t know then–I couldn’t see worth a damn. This interfered with batting and catching. So softball wasn’t for me at that time…fine. But was it really necessary for the adults to shake their heads and conclude that I was never going to be athletic? It quite literally took decades for me to realize that, with my adult body, I’m not completely lacking in physical gifts.

When I was twelve, I got an F in art. Seriously? Who gives a kid an F in art? I don’t have a problem admitting that my clay dragon sculpture looked more like a dragon turd. I have a problem with being labeled “bad at art” and living in a culture where that meant I wasn’t supposed to do art any more.

I know, my story’s not unique. What matters is what I do about it now. Starting to write is a big part of this: I’m defying the messages that tell me writing is restricted to an elite class, or that it’s only worth doing if it will be well received. The bad poetry thing is another example. I also have aspirations toward becoming a bad artist someday.

There’s one area where I really made progress as an adult, and that’s singing. Thanks to the urging of a friend, I joined a choir with him in freshman year of college. It turned into many years of singing with various amateur groups. I finally got the experience of being new at something, doing it just well enough to get by at first, and gaining in ability and confidence as I got more practice. That concept we call…what was it…learning?

The best choir director I ever knew once said to us: “Don’t sing tentatively. I’d rather have you all slam into an entrance in the wrong place than do the entrance half-assed.” He meant it, too.

One day we were doing a full orchestra rehearsal, and the soprano entrance was a fortissimo (very loud) high G. When you’re a soprano, there’s one thing you learn about hitting those high notes: whatever the volume, full commitment is necessary. If you sing it any other way it will come out flat. The only way to sing it right is to be willing to risk singing it wrong.

It was probably one of the nicest G’s I’ve ever sung. It rang clear and bright, with a crisp start and plenty of feeling behind it.
Too bad it was one measure early.
I blushed bright red as the conductor prepared to start us all again, but I was able to join in the good-natured laughter and smile sheepishly when the director complimented me on my one-note solo.

Thanks, Maestro, for meaning what you said. That errant note made thousands of great notes possible.