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braggIn a recent issue of Southern Living magazine, Rick Bragg published a column about a Southern character from his childhood that everyone simply knew as “The Goat Man.” This itinerant fellow traveled about the South with a herd of goats. Bragg had encountered him in Alabama in 1965. Coincidentally, I also had an encounter with The Goat Man a couple years later, perhaps in 1967 or 1968, in Georgia. The difference is that Bragg turned this incident into a salable essay, while I merely filed it away in my memory. And that’s part of what makes Bragg the excellent and prolific writer that he is. He heeds, curates and uses moments from his experiences consistently in his professional life. He sees their value as creative jumping off places for his work, and employs them when the opportunity arises. Which, in this case, I did not.

In my defense, I was only tagging along with a local radio reporter when he went to interview The Goat Man on a live, remote radio broadcast, from the grass verge of a country road. So it wasn’t really my experience. And whereas Bragg used his essay to reflect and comment on small towns, time and change, if I were to write up the incident, it would be about that reporter, his ambitions, and the tiny radio station where he hoped to get his start. Whether it would end up being a viable story (it would have to be fiction), who knows. But it’s a reminder to me that stories are everywhere, if we only see their possibilities, as Bragg did and does.

Bragg’s and my dissimilar responses to the encounter with The Goat Man also illustrates another point. Many experiences are common to everyone, and to every writer. Sure, there are the universal ones, birth, death, love, sex, grief, hunger and loneliness. But other less vital events also happen to lots of people. Book clubs, dinner parties, birthdays, paper cuts, a sleepless night. What makes us unique as writers is that we each interpret every happening in a diverse way. We shape our perceptions into art using eclectic voices, forms, tones, and with distinct outcomes. A single experience in different artistic hands can end up as a comic essay, a heart wrenching sonnet, a how-to article or the basis for a family saga. I’m no Rick Bragg, but I don’t need to be. The delight about being a writer is that there is room for all of us.

If you haven’t read Rick Bragg, I highly recommend his superb memoir, All Over but the Shouting.

Shame

th[8]In the last few months, I’ve learned: how to remove metadata from files; how to work with Track Changes in Word; downloaded and learned my way around Windows 10; dipped my toes into Excel; and finally (!) unzipped some photo files sent over a year ago by a friend. These may seem like small beer to some folks. To me, at the time, they seemed like major hurdles. (Turns out they weren’t.)

As I faced the necessity of doing each of these tasks in turn, I had a moment of panic. My thoughts ranged from “I’m not smart enough to learn this'”  to “I shouldn’t have to do this” to “I’m so far behind other people, it’s embarrassing.” Those thoughts didn’t last long, and for all of the new skills, I had resources, from a quick Google search to my handy Microsoft Office 2013 for Dummies, to You Tube videos, to tons of online forums.

But I had to cope, before proceeding, with the initial shame–the shame of not knowing, the same of feeling ignorant. Years ago, I used to let that shame get in the way of acquiring valuable knowledge. It’s hard to admit you’re the only one in the crowd, the class, the audience who doesn’t know what everybody else seems to know. But I realized admitting you don’t know is the only way to get that knowledge, to get in the loop, and most crucially, to build the foundation for even further learning. And that’s the terrible bind I see some people in. They have gotten so far behind esp. in technical skills, that, while they could catch up, it becomes more and more difficult and emotionally threatening for them to contemplate. And their biggest hindrance is often shame. You have to admit that you don’t know or understand something, in order to learn, and some people just can’t bring themselves to do that. They’ll fight to the death to save face. I never, ever want to be in that place. So, I push past the shame, the fear, the resistence and the resentment. I may be a little slow and clunky about it, but often, the task turns out to be oh, so simple, and then I have a moment of feeling a bit foolish. Silly me, why ever was I so reluctant? Nothing to it. And once I’ve pushed through to the end, the result is always the same–exuberance, joy, added confidence, and most of all, as I said, the skills to move on to the next learning challenge. To me, there’s nothing in the world so joyous as learning something new, esp. a new skill. And that’s a darn good thing, since that’s what life will forever be about.

 

A New Mantra

deep southIn his excellent book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, Paul Theroux talks about “places so obscure . . . they were described in the rural way as ‘you gotta be going there to get there.'” This struck me as a perfect mantra for writing, especially a novel. In order to get a novel, you gotta be writing a novel. Have some idea of the destination and be taking steps to get there. If you’re not already going there, you’ll never get there. Of course, it could apply to other things in life, as well. If you want to be fit, you gotta be taking steps to get fit. If you want a clean house, you gotta be cleaning house. While these other applications don’t quite mean the same thing as the original instruction, I still think they’re a useful reminder that to get anywhere, to accomplish anything, you have to be actually taking action, specific action, directed at that goal.

So, I ask myself, “If I want to be a writer, am I writing?”

 

thIFFW6ZP3A few weeks ago, I described a 30 year journey of one story from creation to publication in The 30 Year Story. Not long after that, Sarah M. Chen wrote a related guest post about perseverance and resubmitting one’s work on the Do Some Damage blog. Lest we leave you with a dismal view of the writing life, I hurry to say, it’s not always that hard. Last year, I placed two stories on the second try for each of them. I had written the first one for a contest in January. It failed to win, but, being familiar with the markets, esp. the online markets, I sent it off again in Feb., and it appeared in the April issue of Mysterical-e. You can read it here.

The second one was written for a June contest. When it went nowhere, I saw a notice for a new market, cut the story to fit, and it was published in Oct. in BJ Bourg’s new flash fiction zine, Flash Bang Mysteries. You can read that one here.

No surprise, the takeaways are the same. Write and polish a good story, be aware of a wide range of markets, and keep trying. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes, it’s easy (well, easier), but it’s all part of the life we have chosen as writers.

 

 

 

 

Why This Story?

In my last post, I told of the 30 year journey to publication of a short story. In that post, I posed the question: why did I hang on to and keep trying to place this story, when I had discarded so many others over the years as not having legs. It’s easier to answer the second part of the query first. When I periodically go through old work, I’m sometimes appalled at the crap I’ve written. It now seems boring, turgid, didactic, lifeless. I have new sympathy and respect for my long time writing teacher who had to slog through it all, yet always found something positive to say, even if it was just to praise one small phrase.  But, each time I make a pass through the old files, some stories still appeal to me, however badly they may have been written in the first place. And that was true of “All Creatures Great and Small.” But why? What was different?

The first thing that strikes me is that I liked the characters. I also liked their struggles and their situation. But I still hadn’t quite nailed down why I thought the story was viable. Then, a few days ago, I read another story to my husband. I write a lot of crime fiction and this story was especially grim and scary. He liked the story, but then he said, “It sounds like you had fun writing it.” Bingo. I think he hit on something important. That no matter how dark a story may be, if the writer has had fun in the writing, that quality will come across to the reader. This doesn’t mean, of course, that every time we write, it’s gonna be a laugh-a-thon. There are many different kinds of fun. I think it just means, your heart is in it. There are many quotes about following your heart that could apply here, e.g. Pascal’s “We know the truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart.” I’m sure you can supply your own favorite quote.

The 30-Year Story

The 30-Year Story

th[2]A looong time ago, I wrote a 4500-word light romance. Back then, there were a number of print magazines that published that sort of thing. I worked on it till it was polished, then sent it off. It didn’t sell. I sent it to another market. Same result. Over the next few years, every time I spotted a new market, I sent it off. It never sold, but I kept it in inventory. As time went by, print markets for popular fiction began to shrink. So did the story length they wanted. Each time, I revised the story downward. It went from 4500 words to 3500, to 3000, then to 2500 and finally to 2000. The last time out, it had shrunk to 1500 words.

Meanwhile, I was having some success with other things: confessions, short articles and essays, a newspaper column for a year and a half, and dozens of academic papers written in the course of earning two master’s degrees. The years continued to pile up, accompanied by another development, the rise of the Internet, followed by a proliferation of online magazines. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands of markets for every possible form of fiction.

In an online forum, I saw a call for submissions for an online newsletter, Seeds, edited by Michael Bracken. The story fit the market, but he only wanted 1000 words. Really? From 4500 words down to 1000? Yes. In this case, the market rules. Cutting the story still further was hard, but not all that hard. I sent it off.

Michael responded that he had gotten such a response from his call for submissions that he was now overstocked. Would he mind if he held on to the story till the next year. (He only prints fiction in the January issues of the newsletter.) Sure, what the heck. Truth to tell, I thought this was an editor’s version of “I’ll call you.”

But, no, Michael was a straight shooter, and last October, he sent an email asking if the story was still available. What I really thought was, “Oh, yeah, after 30 years, ya think?” But I try to be professional in these communications, so I affirmed that it was.

Michael has published the story, called “All Creatures Great and Small” and you can read it here. (You’ll have to scroll down.)

keep goingtry againThere’s no need for me to spell out the first takeaway from this account. All writers, or at least the ones that get published already know it. But it reinforced some other principles I believe in. First, connections matter. I would never have seen the call for submissions if I weren’t a part of the online writing community. Second, any story can always be made better. In the case of this story, cutting, cutting and more cutting saved it from oblivion.

But there is another thing to ponder. Why did I hang on to that story? I had discarded many others over the years that I knew were dead ends. I’ll talk about that in a future post.

If you are a writer, especially of genre fiction, and you aren’t familiar with Michael Bracken, I urge you to follow his blog and/or read this interview with him. He is smart, hard-working, generous to fellow writers.

 

51EFUpAtvyL._AA160_[1]th[3] Have you read either of these two books? If you have, chances are it’s The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. It’s gotten huge buzz and justifiably so, no matter what your final opinion is. But there’s another book that came out about the same time with a similar title that has gotten nearly lost in the hoopla over the Hawkins book: The Stranger on the Train, by Abbie Taylor. I liked them both. The title alone of the Taylor book, so reminiscent of the classic Patricia Highsmith novel, grabbed my attention, as did the blurb and reviews. The Hawkins book gives a searing look at what it’s like to be an alcoholic. The Taylor book, on the other hand, gives an equally disturbing picture of what it’s like to suffer from depression. And that’s what so impressed me about the novel. Being able to describe what the world feels and looks like for someone suffering from depression is a rare thing in literature. I have not read The Bell Jar bell jar(though it’s now on my list.) The other exemplar that I am aware of is Darkness Visible, by William Styron, darkness visiblealthough it’s a memoir, not a novel. Getting across what a depressed person experiences is, in my opinion, a nearly impossible task, but Taylor gets it right. It’s a relief to see one’s own experience expressed with such understanding. I’ve never been an alcoholic, but Hawkins’ description of that condition is also illuminating. Neither of these authors is judgmental about their main characters, but neither do they shy away from realism. The protagonists both eventually get the help they need. Their struggles, so well rendered, give both books a richness sometimes not found in mystery novels, which, while they may have been wildly entertaining, often vanish from my memory as soon as I finish them. These novels, on the other hand, still resonate in my mind today, a year after I read them.