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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What Really Matters

I’m a bit of a sucker for books about writing. Some are of the “how-to” variety, some are reference, some are inspirational. Some are helpful, some are, umm, not. There’s really only one way to judge any of them: do they make me a better or more productive writer.

essentialismIn this regard, there’s actually one book that has helped me more than any other and it’s not about writing at all. It’s called Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. On the very first page, the author describes a fellow this way: “he was majoring in minor activities.” Something about that phrase jolted me to an awareness of how I was letting all the necessary, but unending details of life get in the way of what was most important to me. I was certainly one who was “majoring in minor activities,” and if I didn’t find a way to change that, my true goal of being a toothbrushworking writer would never be achieved. Did I really expect to be remembered for changing the brush head on my electric toothbrush? I’ve responded to that wake-up call with a more consistent writing schedule. If you are also struggling with this issue, I hope you find your own wake-up call–and soon!

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What’s In A Name?

title imagesFor poets, this phrase should be “What’s In a Title?” Poems, usually being compact expressions of a single idea, often need a title that adds to the overall thought, either adding meaning, content, clarification or setting the scene. One example of the latter is “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” Sure, you see “Sonnet VIII” or other generalizations. Also titles sometime are simply the first line of the work, e.g. “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Then there are the titles that are perfect, yet odd, as in “This Be the Verse” which doesn’t give a clue about what is to follow. In general, most poets craft the titles of their works as carefully as the poems themselves.
blue pencilSo I was both happy and dismayed when I got an acceptance for a sonnet, but with a note that the editor wanted to change the title. Yikes! I immediately began drafting in my mind a rebuttal that would show why the original title had to stay. The next day, I re-read the poem. I realized that the theme that I had wanted to convey with the title, I had not really carried through in the rest of the poem. The title turned out to be a distraction, rather than a useful adjunct to what was still a good poem. I realized that the new title in fact made the poem more accessible. This editor, like most, knew her audience, and had vetted thousands of poems. She was right and I sent off an email letting her know. As in so many cases before, skilled editors have been invaluable in improving my work.

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Writing Essentials–No Distractions IV

Okay, let’s cut to the chase. All those distractions that I’ve been writing about? Aren’t they all too often just a mask for the real issues, the distractions that originate from deep within ourselves? These are the ones that we are not admitting, are not facing. What’s often really going on is pure avoidance. We just can’t bring ourselves to face our work. Avoidance can come from many causes. Fear–of failure, of not measuring up, of exposure, of rejection–is common. My own avoidance comes mostly from dread of hard work. Because writing is most definitely hard work, even when it’s fun.

cagesAvoidance can also arise from a distaste for one’s current project. That may be a sign that the project should be shelved. Since writing is hard work, you should at least be working on something that engages you.  Entire rooms of books have been written on fear and other causes of procrastination. I can’t add anything to the help they might provide in overcoming the emotional roadblocks to our progress. What I will suggest, even urge, is this: locate the Christopher Fowler short story “The Cages.” It’s included in his collection Personal Demons. The story is a chilling and brilliant allegory for how we sabotage ourselves. For anyone who has ever wondered in dismay, “how did things end up like this?” this story gives an answer.

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Writing Essentials, No Distractions–III

sleepyWe’ve all been there. Ready (we think) to write, when we notice we’re (pick one) hungry, cold, itchy, achy, sleepy, hot or thirsty. Yet, there have also been times when I’ve been in “the zone” and any minor physical distractions have faded away. A couple of hours later, I’ll come out of my trance to realize I haven’t eaten in hours or that my back is aching and I need to stretch. In addition to physical irritants, there are the environmental ones. The garbage trucks roaring and rumbling down the street. Poor lighting. The message light blinking on the answering machine. Yet again, there are times when I have been in the throes of what I know is good work and I’ve become oblivious to a loud party in the next room. It’s all too easy to let annoyances become excuses for putting off our work. But they don’t necessarily have to be. A gripping idea, a looming deadline or a short window of opportunity to write can help us push through or ignore temporary discomforts. Barring those incentives, just start. Those distractions will always, always beset us. Fix them if you can, without, say, insisting that only a five course meal will do. Put on a sweater or open a window. Then just start. Procrastination, for any reason, all too easily becomes a habit, a pattern of behavior. At some point, despite whatever delays or annoyances we have, we just have to start.

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Writing Essentials I–No Distractions II

flyUnless you can retreat to a mountain cabin (and even if you do), there will be the danger of distractions. Even in the mountain cabin, there will be a buzzing fly or an aching tooth. Many writers like to work in a café or a library, to get away from ringing phones, pets and family members, who, as much as they love you, just don’t get it. That sometimes works for me. Truth is, I prefer the comforts of working at home. But, lordy, that’s where the distractions are everywhere, and sprout constantly. Yet, even at home, there are environmental changes I’ve come up with (some on the advice of friends) that, small as they are, have made a substantial difference in my ability to focus.

  1. I hid the Freecell icon. This is crucial.
  2. Each morning, I put my office trash can out in the hall, so when my superb husband goes around gathering up the trash, he doesn’t even have to enter the room.
  3. I got a standard wire in-basket. There I place every single to-do item that can wait. I used to leave them on my desk, where they constantly reminded me of little chores that needed attention. I had them on my desk because I was afraid I would forget about them if I hid them away. With the basket, I always know where they are, but they are still contained away from the work space. I can work without the nagging fear that I’ll forget to pay the cable bill or answer an invitation. Later, after work is done, I can go through the contents of the basket and deal with the pile-up.

My tendency had been to try to ignore those petty and almost imperceptible distractions, trying to believe I shouldn’t be bothered by them. Now I know it’s better to recognize them and find a way around them. Little things can make a big difference.

 

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