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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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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