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 Deadlines. They seem so far away when I first pencil them into my plans and schedules. But time speeds by, other unavoidable tasks crop up, or I underestimate the difficulty of the project. I try, try to train myself to start early, to get a jump on things, or to create a fake, earlier deadline in order to get moving. But my untrickable subconscious knows very well that it’s a fake deadline and blows it off. Yet, I keep trying. After all, I’ve managed to do it with other appointments. I leave plenty early for the dentist, for movies and lunch dates. And while I used to respond well to deadlines, now they render me immobile with stress.

More importantly, I’ve learned that trying to do things at the last minute is a dangerous practice. If I wait till the day of the deadline for a contest, anthology or other call for submissions to send off my entry, I know I’ll be plagued by some catastrophe or roadblock.

For instance: As I make the last tweaks to the manuscript, Word will hiccup and screw up the formatting for the entire text. I won’t know what happened, so I’ll tear my hair out for hours trying to reverse it. “Undo” will be strangely ineffective. The online support and forums will be mystified or useless. Worst of all, I will have once more broken my “rule” about saving a slightly earlier draft, so I have nothing to go back to.

If that doesn’t happen, my cat will need emergency surgery, my internet will go down or the fire department will knock on the door with a mandatory evacuation order due to a gas leak. The local library or cyber café will be under the same order and besides, I haven’t saved the work in a portable or cloud form.

Okay, so sometimes it works out. I wait till the last minute and succeed. But that just allows me to think it’s a practice that’s safe to continue. Also, it will never be perfect. Even if I get better at working ahead, life will occasionally throw an unexpected punch. Still, starting writing projects early is habit I want to add to my skill set. Now if I could just convince my subconscious to cooperate.   

Rejuvenation III

p1000927I wrote about getting an emotional lift from gaining a new follower. I also wrote about the consolation of sharing the experience of “rejection” with other writers. A third thing I sometimes do to get out of my pit of despair is to remind myself of past successes. This is easy when poems, stories or essays are included in journals or anthologies, which can be lined up on a shelf. But I have a ton of newspaper, magazine and newsletter work, which can be hard to preserve and access. I tried loose leaf binders, but they soon got so full and bulky, they were hard to handle, store, add to and review. That system just wasn’t working. Somehow, I hit upon the idea of putting them all into book form.

I hired my friend, Stephanie, to work with me. A brilliant organizer, she also does editing and graphics. She scanned all the loose material into her computer. Since she has publishing software, she was able to clean up stray marks, enhance text and otherwise improve the original copies. In this case, you can see how, by procsimple4outlining my contribution in red, she was able to make my “helpful hint” stand out from a whole page of them.

After the images were as good as she could make them, she uploaded them into Shutterfly, making sure each entry had its proper citation. I logged on, chose the colors and fonts, created the spine labels and title pages, and added any explanatory text.

We ended up with four volumes (so far): Book Reviews, Columns, Confessions and a volume I called Incunabula and Ephemera. This one is a collection of interviews, essays and other material that doesn’t fit anywhere else. It actually includes the very first time I appeared in print, in my Junior High newspaper. (Thanks, Mom, for saving it all those years!) The volumes are accessible, portable, sturdy and sit neatly on the shelf with all my other print work in anthologies and journals. Now I can look back and see that, yes, I have done good work in the past, and if I did it then, I can do it again. Very reassuring. The set also acts as a backup, as the paper copies continue to deteriorate.

I’m not recommending this method for everyone. It was expensive and time-consuming. Nor am I touting Shutterfly. I’m sure there are other services out there that can do similar projects. Although if I understand Shutterfly, the projects stay there forever, so, you know, in case the house ever burns down . . . (I’m not kidding. A poet friend of mine lost irreplaceable manuscripts and writing memorabilia in a warehouse fire.)

One thing to note: When I first began publishing in newspapers, I had the great good sense to photocopy the articles onto acid free paper, along with the accompanying heading at the top of the page. That made it a lot easier and more efficient for Stephanie to deal with. I also kept careful records of every publication, so I have confidence that the bound collections are reasonably complete. Sure, there are a few missing pieces, but nothing’s perfect.

 

Rejuvenation II

rejectedIn my previous post I talked about an emotional lift I got from gaining a new follower for this blog. That was in response to being “stuck” due to the sense that I was not reaching a single reader. But I can also get “stuck” when I keep getting editorial rejections. In this case, one consolation is to know that we’re all in good company, that rejections are all part of the life of any artist. If you’re not involved in a group of other writers, you can share the sting, and gain some comfort, online. One of my favorite sites for doing this is Rejectomancy. The owner, Aeryn Rudel, not only shares his experiences with “rejection” but often has advice about how to use it to one’s advantage. One of my favorite posts from this site is Michael Bracken’s description of a rare form of rejection, “The Unacceptance Letter.”. Bracken calls these rejections “disheartening” and yet his professional response to them still shines through.

 

Rejuvenation I

thx8w1iypuI’ve been in a slump. After cranking out 10K words on a non-fiction book, after publishing several newsletter articles, one flash fiction story and one poem, but not much else during the past year, despite lots of submissions, I was worn down. I decided to take a few weeks off. I re-started my writing practice, trying for a new attitude, one that focuses on the creation, not the outcomes. I was happy with that. Then came a major boost. An acceptance? No. A fan letter? No. An invitation to speak? Again, no. It was a new follower on this blog, a fellow I’ve known for years, whose writing I respect.

Why was this such an emotional lift? Maria Semple, in her novel, Today Will Be Different, has a passage that describes what the artist faces. Her main character, an artist herself, says, “What the world is, more than anything? It’s indifferent.” She goes on to say that as an artist, “You sign your name anyway. That’s the risk. That’s the leap. That’s the madness: thinking anyone’s going to care.”

Gaining a new follower, an actual person, not a bot, puts a dent in the world’s indifference. Choosing to follow a blog, or otherwise read someone’s work, requires action, not passivity, and I am grateful to everyone who has done so. Someone out there is reading.

As writers, the truth is, we reach only one reader at a time, whether it’s via a book, a story, an article or a blog post, online or in print. A new follower reminds me to write for that one reader, the only one I really have.

 

flowers-coverAs a frequent user of our local library, I enjoy taking part in many of the programs offered. So I was delighted to see a new one crop up. The Adult Reading Challenge encourages people to read in a genre or field they wouldn’t normally choose. The first month, September, was dedicated to Science Fiction or Fantasy. I never, ever read SF. It was a genuine challenge from my point of view, and I was eager to get started. But, what to read? Should I just pick something from the New Book shelf? Or try one of the traditional giants, like Heinlein or Herbert? Or what about our home-grown star, Octavia Butler, whose papers now reside at The Huntington Library? Then, at a bookstore, I noticed the classic Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and saw that it had won both a Nebula and a Hugo, both awards given for Science Fiction. It was also the basis for the movie Charly, I checked the library catalog and they had a copy.

Put aside the fact that I sobbed for an hour after I read the last lines. This book is now in my top ten list of best novels ever written. And I never would have picked it up without the Adult Reading Challenge. Sure, there are prizes and incentives. But the value for me was being semi-forced to read a book that I never would have gotten around to otherwise and that has enriched my life. So, thanks to whomever came up with this idea. It worked for me.

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.