Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Poetry. Just because.

Hidden Rose by Emily J. Photography

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust,
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart,

suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of the thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only a shade,

and once more I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

-- "The Wild Rose" by Wendell Berry

Friday, January 20, 2012

Younger than 5 years, more than 500 books

As a family, we may have a book problem.

Both my daughter and I have LibraryThing accounts. I've been updating mine lately with my recent reads and some old favorites, but it's not comprehensive... I don't have that kind of time, plus I can't always tell if a book is mine or my husband's (and I can't decide if that matters), plus we have probably a dozen (or more) banker's boxes of books in a storage unit that we try to rotate periodically through our house so I don't even know the full extent of what books we have, and there are overstuffed bookshelves and stacks of books like snowdrifts in every room of our house as it is.

For Serious Girl, though, I thought maybe I could keep track. I signed her up for a lifetime account shortly before her first birthday, and I figured I could input every book she's ever owned and read, and she'd be excited to see how many books that is when she gets older. Cool, right? And she doesn't have nearly as many books as my husband and I do, so it'll be easy to keep up.

I just finished a massive update of Serious Girl's LibraryThing last night. I haven't included all her books, because (like her parents) they are spread out all over the house, but I think I've gotten the majority of them, especially the ones that live in her room, the playroom, and the kitchen (but definitely not the ones in the office/study).

My daughter has over 500 books in the apartment right now. She doesn't turn 5 until April.

I think this might be awesome. But it also might be a sign that we're all going to die in a tremendous paperback avalanche when one of us knocks over the wrong book pile late one night. Or worse.

Maybe I should get my daughter one of those emergency help-line call-button necklaces now...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

School's in.

As some of you may already know, I'm now an instructor at Grub Street, Boston's best literary gang. This winter I'm teaching a Teen Writing Camp section called "Generating New Writing" and there are SIX SPACES LEFT in the class! Tell all the Boston teens you know...

You can register for my class at the Grub Street website, and at the top of my blog you'll now see a "current writing courses" page that I will keep updated with course descriptions and appropriate links.

No apples needed. Just bring paper and pen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Permission to write: Thou Mayest

Image found at Archaeolibris

My good friend and ruthless crit partner Bernice Buresh just sent me an email from California that I feel compelled to share here:
We stopped at the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas... Glad we did. In one display, there was a carved wooden box and a copy of East of Eden. This is what the description said:

When Steinbeck was writing East of Eden, he began each day's work by writing a letter to his editor Pascal Covicí. He made a box with the Hebrew word Timshel carved on it. It means Thou Mayest. When Steinbeck finished the book he sent the manuscript in the box to Covicí.

This is how I interpret this. Steinbeck needed a daily check-in, so he created one. Steinbeck needed permission to do this project. Since the story was about Cain and Abel he found an old testament word that he could use as a talisman to give him permission.

Conclusion: Steinbeck needed the same things we do to do his work.
An excerpt from those letters to Steinbeck's editor (which filled a journal over the better part of 1951) confirms Bernice's hunch:
I must get into the book again at least try to even though my mind is badly cut up in all directions. Very hard to concentrate today. But I must try for my own safety.Take things in stride and particularly don't anticipate trouble before it happens. One of my very worst habits is the anticipation of difficulties and vicariously to go through them in advance. Then, if they do happen I have to do it twice, and if they don't happen I have done them unnecessarily. I know this is my habit... but not to do it requires constant watchfulness on my part. I have the recurring tendency. I guess I am what is called a worrier.
In my first blog post of the new year, blood on the page, I wrote that you don't need permission from ANYONE to write, and that in seeking permission, approval, or encouragement from outside sources, you may be giving away power you should keep for yourself. Great writers aren't immune to self-doubt, fear, or writerly obsessions -- I read somewhere that Hemingway's manuscripts were found with numbers written in the margins that turned out to be tallies of his daily word count -- but perhaps these writers were able to give themselves the permissions and structures they needed to defeat those doubts long enough to get the damn work done.

Timshel. Thou mayest. If you choose, go write. No one else can move those mountains for you.

How do you give yourself permission to write?

Monday, January 9, 2012


They say that people who make official New Year's Resolutions are ten times more likely to keep them than people who plan to change but don't "resolve" to do so. I've got a few that I'm not willing to share for fear of jinxing them -- in particular, I believe it was Mur Lafferty who pointed out how many defunct blogs end with a post promising to blog more.

Yeah. Don't want to go there.

But I do have one small resolution that I decided to make public: like Natalie Whipple, I'll be reading a minimum of one book a week in 2012. I've posted the link to my 2012-tagged books in the sidebar (ah, LibraryThing, how I love you) because I want to not only read these books, but track them properly. I have no idea how many books I read on average each year because I never keep track. I'm a very fast reader, and I used to read voraciously. I was about to say that I stopped making reading a priority after I had my daughter and started actively pursuing publication, but that's not exactly true. I never made reading a priority BECAUSE I'm a fast and voracious reader by nature, so I never HAD to make it a priority. It came easily.

And then I read less and less in the last few years because I was researching publishing and reading writing-craft books (my planned book-a-week will only include fiction & narrative non-fiction... and poetry if the mood strikes me) and blogging and reading a billion children's books aloud (and there was that period of time when The Serious Girl got actively agitated when I tried to read a book without reading it TO her) and Twittering and...

Not reading.

So, this year I'm making it a priority. Let's see how much I can take in.

How about you? What are your plans for the new year?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Blood on the page.

I think this is important. Sit down. I want to take my time with this.

Remember these classic writing quotes?
Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
~ Gene Fowler
There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.
~ Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

I'm starting to believe that these quotes are being widely and wildly misunderstood. I'm starting to think that some people think the meaning behind these quotes is, "Writing is easy, if only you give enough of yourself, you special creative creature, you." Art is suffering, isn't it all so terribly romantic, let us melt together, we unique snowflakes.

Unfortunately, I am also of the firm belief that these writers meant the exact opposite. Don't get lost in the clever language, it's actually just self-deprecating sarcasm. What they are really saying is, "I have to sit in front of this blank page to write, and it's hard for me, even though I know it's a lot easier than a million other jobs out there." And, "I have to be brutally honest when I write, and it's hard for me, even though I know it's a lot easier than a million other jobs out there."

A really good book is a thing of beauty. A book that resonates with you can change your whole world. Even a lousy book can be a lot of fun. But being a writer? It can be a thing of beauty, it can be special and magic... but it's also a job. Just a job. You have to be professional and do the work.

Let's be clear. Being professional and doing the work is hard. And not everyone is talented enough or lucky enough or persistent enough (or the-appropriate-yet-variable-combination-of-all-three enough) to "do the work" well enough to succeed on the scale to which they aspire. Just like not every high school student gets into the college of his or her choice, just like not every lawyer made law review, just like not every talented-and-persistent-and-professional person is employed right now.

But I personally think this is rather liberating -- There's nothing inherently special about writers and artists unless you do the work and do it on time and do it well.
The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other.
~ Ernest Hemingway

Maybe you suffer. Maybe you get lucky. But know that you're not a better or more important writer if you bleed. Maybe it seems more romantic and sexy to be emotionally wrung out by the power of your own words, to wait for the magic moments of inspiration, to be a fragile artistic flower in need of just the right sunlight and water.

But some writers -- some very good writers -- just have fun. This year, I choose to skip the drama. I choose to be healthy and productive. I choose to make my own sun and water instead of waiting for it to arrive from some mysterious outside place.

Do the work. Get it on paper. Be professional. That's all.

Here are the real secrets:
  • You don't need permission from anyone else to write. In fact, you should be really, really careful about how and from whom you seek permission and encouragement. It's giving away power that you should be keeping for yourself.

  • Similarly, you are the only one in the world who can kill your dream. Insecurity, lack of discipline, fear of failure, lack of professionalism, impatience... that's up to you to overcome. It's not up to anyone else, no matter what they say. Getting the approval of an agent / editor / family member / literary critic / published author / mentor won't be the thing that makes you better. And thank god for that, because it also means that it doesn't make you worse when the approval of those people isn't forthcoming.

  • Words are like blood in one way: you can make more.
Writing is hard. So is every other job that uses your brain. Don't be romantic about it. Be determined. If it's what you want to do, sit down and write. And when it gets hard? Remember that you chose this. And unless you want to quit, it's up to you to choose it again and again and again until the job is done.

Otherwise, there are a million other jobs out there...