Posts Tagged ‘writers’

invest 3Investing can be hard. Not because of the research involved or the principles to master, although that’s hard enough. Investing is hard because you have to do it in the present while not seeing the results until the future, sometimes the far, far future. You have to have faith that efforts or sacrifices made today will ensure a better life years later. And yet, if one doesn’t take actions in the present, it’s impossible for the investment results ever to materialize. There are other life activities that follow this model. One is learning a musical instrument. Another is physical fitness. You can’t forego daily, sometimes boring, practice for years and suddenly be an accomplished musician or have physical strength and stamina. Plus, if you don’t work out or practice your instrument, your skill level actually diminishes. For writers, it’s daily writing, or as close as we can achieve, that must be practiced. If you aren’t making incremental progress on your book, it won’t suddenly appear. If you don’t practice craft, you’ll never get any better. Meanwhile, there is no guarantee that results will ensue, or when, if ever. No guarantee of a book contract or a contest win. Like with exercise, musical or physical, you simply have to have faith that it will pay off. However, physical exercise has one advantage, in that it often results in feeling better rather quickly. Even a short walk can boost one’s spirits and sense of well-being. Writing has the same advantage, at least for me. I always have the sense that every time I write, even if it’s only a page, I’m becoming a better writer. It’s my investment in the future author that I hope to be. Though I can’t recall the source or the exact quote, Woody Allen once said, “It’s the dailiness that counts.” Yes.

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fruit salad 2At a restaurant a few days ago, I had a side of fresh fruit with my burger. It was so refreshing, I thought I’d recreate it at home. I bought a selection of fruit at a store that’s usually pretty dependable in its produce. Everything looked appealing. I thought I knew how to judge quality. But when I made up the fruit salad it was a disappointment. The strawberries were sour, the grapes were tough-skinned and the melon was still unripe. Perhaps they were picked too soon. Some fruits will “ripen” or develop more sugar content if left out on the counter for a few days. Some never will. I have a choice: I can just throw it all out and try again. There was a time I was much poorer and wouldn’t have even considered tossing edible food. But even then I had no illusions that that the fruit would miraculously start to taste better.

Sometimes my writing ideas and efforts are like that. They seem exciting and full of potential when I first think them up. But as I work with them further, I realize they are not going anywhere. They aren’t working and I can tell they aren’t going to get any better. As with the fruit, should I just throw it all out? There was a time when I did not have faith that ideas were abundant. I only had a few and didn’t know when I’d get more. It was an attitude of scarcity. While my mind still doesn’t spew forth ideas the way I’ve heard other writers brag about, I now have faith that it’s a never ending supply. There’s no need to cling to ones that aren’t exciting. Throw them out. Make room for something better.

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Hemingway2As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. The author, Lesley M.M. Blume, recounts the incident when Hemingway’s wife, Hadley, gathers up all his manuscripts “including his short stories, poetry, the starter novel and all of the carbon copies of these works.” (Emphasis mine. Because that’s the most chilling part–that she took the backup copies as well as the originals.) She packs it all into a valise which then goes missing at the train station, never to be recovered. Blume goes on to say that Hemingway used the incident in a later unpublished short story. garden2What she doesn’t say is that in a posthumously published novel, The Garden of Eden, Hemingway creates a much harsher version. In that book, the character of the wife deliberately destroys some of her writer husband’s manuscripts. Whether intentional or accidental, this sounds like a terrible thing for a writer to undergo. But both in the real life version and the fictional one, that turns out not to be the case. In the novel, the writer, David, was able to reconstruct the entire lost story from memory, and even improve it as he went. In the real life version, Hemingway “came to believe that ‘it was probably good for me to lose the early work.'” Ezra Pound’s counsel was that “memory was the best editor.”

Recently I lost two blog post drafts before I had a chance to save them. Even at the moment of recreating them, I could tell the new versions were better than what I had lost. This doesn’t mean that I would be glad if all my notes and drafts suddenly got wiped out, as it did for a friend of mine whose work was lost in a warehouse fire. What it does mean, is that the writing was there in our heads before it ever got set down on paper or in a computer file. If the physical or electronic copies are lost, the work still exists, right where it originated, waiting for us in our writers’ brains.

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Hemingway2I’m reading Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, by Lesley M.M. Blume (which I recommend).

The author recounts that in early 1920’s Paris, Hemingway became the deputy editor for a literary journal called transatlantic review, started by Ford Madox Ford. It didn’t go well. In addition to editorial differences, Hemingway “had begun to suspect that Ford was praising his own work under pseudonyms in the transatlantic (he was correct).”

Apparently sockpuppets have been around since well before the Internet. Plus ça change and all that.


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thI belong to several online writers’ groups. One discussion that keeps recurring is: Should you pay to enter a writing contest? I’m not talking about the obvious scams or “contests” that are no more than money makers for the “sponsors” or ways to build email lists or sell books. (Writer Beware, a site maintained by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America has an excellent article about how to spot the scams. The same article also has good information and advice about all contests, bogus or genuine.)

The answer to the question of whether to pay to enter contests is easy for some writers—no, never, ever. For me, it’s on a case by case basis. Is the contest sponsored by a journal or entity I respect? Do the entry fees seem reasonable, i.e., enough to pay the judges an honorarium, plus enough to pay out the cash awards, if any? Is there some other guaranteed benefit that comes with payment, even if one is not a winner? These range from critiques or comments from judges, editors or successful writers in the field, to a subscription to the sponsoring journal or other perks. If there is no prize money, do you get a certificate, plaque, or other recognition? One of my favorite potential rewards is being included in a print anthology made up of the winning entries, even if there is little or no cash prize. There will be a greater number of winners, improving my chances, and I’ll have something to add to my shelf of published works.

Then I think about the downside. Some contests require exclusivity until the awards are announced. This means my work is tied up in the event I see another, perhaps better market. Some contests allow you to withdraw. I’d opt for the flexibility. Will developing my entry distract me from other writing actions that would be more helpful to my writing vision? Then there is the investment in time, energy and focus. Each contest has its own rules for length (will I need to cut, or add, words?), formatting and method of submission. That means that every time I enter a new contest, all that work has to be re-done. That effort is no different from answering any other call for submissions. Perhaps I’d be better off going that route.  

So, there are really two questions: should you enter writing contests at all? And if so, should you enter those that require an entry fee? I have and will continue to go the contest route, at least for now, including ones for which I pay for the privilege. I have no advice for others, except to educate yourself, focus on your goals and stick to actions that foster those goals. Then, I believe, you win every day.

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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.

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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?”


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