In Praise of Earlier Works

Never thought I’d see the day. An actual novelist on stage at the Emmy awards. And not in her role as screenwriter. Purely as a novelist. And that it was Margaret Atwood was utterly thrilling. Ms. Atwood was the original source, of course, of the multi-award winning Hulu streaming series based on her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Liane Moriarty also got full recognition for writing Big Little Lies, as the mini-series based on it also won lots of awards. Each of these two feminist video series won five awards.



There’s another earlier Atwood book that I loved when it came out, but which never seems to be mentioned these days. It’s called The Edible Woman. In fact, I often enjoy early works by writers who later go on to greater fame. Another example is A Slipping-Down Life, an early work by Anne Tyler. With new, wonderful books coming out every day, it can be hard to find time to go back and fill in blank spots in a beloved writer’s oeuvre. But I squeeze them in when I can. Very worthwhile.

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My Newest Hero

crosstalksmI hope you have time to read this long, but brilliant and lively interview with Connie Willis printed in Lightspeed Magazine. She has so much to say about writing, getting and developing ideas, researching, rejections, despair, hope, the unexpected aspects of being a writer as well as social media and mass communication. The personality of the interviewer also shines through. I rarely read science fiction, but I rushed right out to Vroman’s, my local independent bookstore, and bought Crosstalk. And thanks to Michael T. for alerting me to this interview.

(If you can’t get it at a library, here’s the link to buy it at Amazon.)

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Rookie Mistake

mistake-e1504639194587.jpgIn my last couple of posts, I’ve talked about how other writers may help us in many ways, but it’s still up to us to do the actual work. There’s no better illustration of this than a deeply embarrassing incident from my early days as an aspiring writer. I had been publishing book reviews in the local paper, when a fellow I knew from writing class mentioned that the biggest paper in town had just hired a New York mover and shaker as their new book editor. I should send in a query, he said. Her name was Ellen Parker. (This is not really that editor’s name. I’m still too chagrined to admit who it really was.) I dutifully crafted a query, attached some published samples and sent it off to said mover and shaker at the paper. Never heard a word back. No surprise there. Big paper, lots of competition, already an established stable of contributors, etc. But then I saw her name in print: L.N. Parr-Kerr. Sheesh. I thought I knew what I had heard, but never bothered to follow up with fact-checking. Now I follow the advice from the old tailor’s saying: measure thrice, cut once. I check and re-check names, titles, requirements. Maybe given the odds, I wouldn’t have gotten an assignment anyway. But why take a chance on sabotaging one’s chances with a bad first impression? Lesson learned.

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Assistance League

helping handLast post I talked a bit about how we writers have to carry our own load of work. That doesn’t mean, however, that writers can’t help each other. In fact, our generosity to each other is one of our best traits. Here are three examples. When I was just starting out, I attended a small summer workshop in my writing teacher’s home. There I met a woman who was writing book reviews for the local paper. She thought I was a good writer, and offered to introduce me to her editor. He liked my samples and I became a regular book reviewer, which led to a twice monthly column, which led to assignments interviewing several local newsmakers.

Another example: when I first began blogging, I was overwhelmed with what seemed like a huge undertaking. A friend of mine, a more experienced blogger, pointed out that not every post has to be an award winning essay. Sometimes a new fact, market or insight, perhaps with a link for further information, is just enough. His advice eased what had been the weight of a self-imposed, but false, sense of  the earth-shaking consequences of my every word. Once I became more relaxed, I became a better blogger.

On the several forums that I belong to, members are generous about passing on notices of new or changing markets, with the links, among tons of other useful information and advice.

But, in each instance, it was up to me to follow through. In the first case, I contacted the editor, went in for an interview, and provided quality sample reviews that met his deadline. In the second, I became more aware and open minded about blog content. In the third, it’s up to me to follow the links, study the guidelines and produce appropriate material.

I get help from all over the place. The initiative to make use of it can only come from me.

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canoeIn one of my former writer’s groups, I was the only member who focused on poetry as well as fiction and essays. Yet, I was stunned when one day at the meeting another woman read a poem, turned to me and asked where she should send it. Since I had actually published poetry, she thought I was an expert. I scanned my brain for a response that wouldn’t be harsh, then explained that her poem was in a different style than I wrote in, and so the markets I submitted to would not be appropriate for her piece. But what I really wanted to say was, “Hey, I work my buns off to market my work. Have you even tried to find a market yourself?” I’m not selfish. I like giving a helping hand to fellow writers, as they certainly do for me. I don’t think this woman, otherwise a sweet lady, was lazy. I think she was just naïve and had not the faintest idea of the effort needed to publish poetry. I don’t think she realized there are hundreds of markets for poetry out there, that I couldn’t possibly know them all, nor could I know what audience she was seeking. And she had written one poem, just this one. Not the hundreds most poets churn out.

She also had not done what I have done: taken classes, bought and read books on the craft of poetry, studied other poets, subscribed to poetry and writer’s journals, researched and followed up on dozens of markets, and submit, submit, submit.

I had just bought the latest edition of Poet’s Market, so at the next meeting I gave her the previous edition, only a year old.  I hoped it might at least get her started. I doubt that she ever cracked it open. As I said in my last post, writing is hard. We can all support each other in many ways. But none of us can do another person’s work. It takes all we have to do our own work.

I’ve always liked these words from Sarah Bolton‘s poem “Paddle Your Own Canoe”:

Nothing great is lightly won;
Nothing won is lost;
Every good deed is nobly done,
Will repay the cost.
Leave to Heaven, in humble trust,
All you will do;
But if you succeed, you must
Paddle your own canoe.

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Why Bother?

question marksDecades ago, I was a member of several writing critique groups, including a small group of 4-5 people. One member was a woman about 35, thin, with lank, dirty blond hair. She would sit on the couch in our host’s living room, shake her head slowly from side to side, stare blankly into the middle distance, and say, “You can’t get published these days. You just can’t get published these days.” Now, call me perplexed. This was long before the internet. There were newsstands overflowing with magazines and newspapers. Bookstores, both independent and chain, were thriving. Countless corporations, small businesses, non-profits and government agencies had newsletters, either in house or for the public. Somebody was cranking out all that material. Unless there was a factory in Delaware that had the concession to write everything printed in the U.S., many people obviously were getting published. And what about the couple of us in the group who already had been published, in however a small way? In fact, a couple of my early publications were book reviews in the newsletter put out the by the PR department where I worked. I counted them as published credits, for sure.

But it was beyond my confrontational comfort zone to ask this woman the more pointed question: If she really believed what she was saying, why was she there? Why did she bother to come, week after week, to a meeting whose only purpose was to write with the aim of publishing? Of course, the real reason behind her pronouncement was more likely to make an excuse for why she herself had never managed to get something in print. But why lay her trip on the rest of us?

I write often about attitudes. It’s because I believe they are a crucial part of creating a contented, successful life, however you define it. I believe one’s attitude is even more important for us writers. We have chosen a tough path. Sure, most of us get down about rejections, lack of progress, or days when we don’t have an idea in our heads. But I will never entertain the idea that it’s not possible to have a satisfying writing life. I will never think, “why bother?” Or listen to folks who do.

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Keeping the Faith

wisdomWhether or not you are a believer, the Bible has wisdom to convey. One of the most famous verses is from 1 Corinthians, verse 13. Of course, there are several translations, but this is one from The New International Version:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

I look at this passage as a guide to how to treat editors, other writers and my own commitment to writing. The word “protect” is different from that used in other translations, but to me in the context of my writing, it means to protect my writing space, time, ideas and vision. I believe there is no room in our chosen profession for resentment, jealousy, bitterness, selfishness or mistrust. And certainly not for despair or faintness of heart. Like “Desiderata,” a poem by Max Ehrmann that I mentioned before, wisdom about our writing life can come from many sources. I don’t know about you, but I can use all the wisdom, advice and encouragement I can get.


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