Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What's the difference between art and just a good idea?

In my last post, I described some of the ideas/projects that I came up with this year, which I've since had to abandon due to lack of time (or a lack of intense interest on my part). [Since then, I've imported an essay into this blog that I originally wrote for my now-defunct essay-blog, Electronic Closet, which describes another one of the ideas I've had this year that didn't get very far.]

I've been thinking a lot lately about what the difference is between art and just a good idea (or bad idea, for that matter), especially since going down to the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C. a few weeks ago. One of the exhibits that sparked this internal discourse was Yoko Ono's Wish Tree. There, in the museum's sculpture garden, near Rodin's exquisite "Burghers of Calais," is a tree that has been planted ("installed"), to which people attach little notes describing what they wish for. A tree. That has been "installed." Which has tiny slips of paper all over its branches.

Still, I can't begrudge the fact that at least it's a tree, which is beneficial for the environment. And that wishes in and of themselves are not a bad thing. It may qualify as a piece of art, even within my own exacting perspective, since one of my definitions of art is something that people respond to. My daughter ran from the museum, across the street and back to the tree, when I told her she could post a wish if she wanted.

Harder for me, in trying to acknowledge what is art, is the museum's interior Panza Collection exhibit. This includes a whole wall of nothing but "REDUCED" painted on it and a large room in which a rectangular slab of white broken rocks is set out (the rocks are called"Carrara Line"—from 1985; I wonder how they manage to set it up exactly the same way each time since the rocks all look almost the same). It would all have an Emperor's New Clothes feeling to it except that I stood there in the large room and wondered how many homeless people could be sleeping in the space at night. It could have easily have held 20 or more cots, which would have been a worthier use of the space, in my opinion. All that heat and space and light for a bunch of rocks in the floor.

I really don't know why it is there. I'm sure an art expert could justify it to me and I might be, eventually, convinced that it is worthy of the space. But that would be after days and nights of talking on their part, given little sleep and little food, worn down finally by such an argument. Otherwise, I think I would remain pretty resistant and unswayed. Especially when I think of artists more deserving of the space, who aren't there only because they aren't known.

I don't think there's any way that Yoko Ono's Wish Tree would be standing in the garden if she hadn't married John Lennon. I know she was somewhat well known before she hooked up with John, but I'm thinking maybe she would have receded into some kind of thankful obscurity by now, save for her marriage to a famous man.

So how does a piece of writing or art become visible? Is it the loudest artist whose work gets known, and survives? Or, is it the artist who can hone his work down to one clear idea/theme/object, or who is best at self-promotion or has the most connections?

I am trying to hone down what it is that I do and want to do, but ideas keep popping up in my head and sometimes I let myself pursue them just a little; I abandon them only when reality calls me back—dirty dishes, things I do to make money, children who need attention. If I were Yoko Ono, I'm wondering if my collaborative blog on places people have lived would be thriving by now. Or Ullysses as a Seinfeld episode would have been produced by an experimental theatre.

As a joke, a long time ago, I created a character in my little magazine named Margarene Crisco. I described her hanging up laundry on a clothesline in cities all over the country as a feminist statement about women's oppression, which of course was also a rip-off of the more famous Christo hangings in wide-open spaces. Since then, I've read of several such clothesline art projects (to broadcast renewable energy, exhibit unmentionables, showcase the clothesline itself, etc.). Was my idea also "art," though it wasn't tactile, just a description?

I have a lot of writing in notebooks and on scraps of paper, tucked into boxes and file cabinets. I'm not sure, sometimes, what to bring out and put on display, what to spend my time on developing. Perhaps the successful artist also knows how to select and hone, how to find and concentrate on a few things, and has the assurance that this is what the world has been waiting for.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Call Outs called off—
Culling the unnecessary in order to write

In another of what is proving to be my continuing series of learning to let go of things I don't really need to do, I'm calling off my blog feature, "Call Outs," in which I asked writers to weigh in on various topics like rejection, tracking submissions,  etc.

I liked the idea of reaching out to other writers through this blog, but in order to get people to respond, I had to solicit in places beyond it (e.g., writers' networks), and then weigh the responses and choose the best. And that was with just a few responses. If the feature (and response rate) had grown, I fear I would have found myself in the same situation I found myself in as a little magazine publisher years ago—using my free time to read submissions from other people and, conversely, not having as much time to submit my own things elsewhere.

But it's not just the time factor. Since a blog is essentially a vanity publication, I realized that it's OK if most of the material comes from me. After I posted the Call Out topic on how writers make a living, I also realized I've been waiting to write something about this for years, having collected information on the occupations of well-known writers (which I'll share later).

So far this year I've started three blogs that I've since shut down or put into hiatus:
  • The Electronic Closet of Beth Blevins' Overactive Mind, a blog composed strictly of short essays on any topic that popped in my head, which I shut down after I recognized that some of those posts might actually work as the basis for longer/better essays;
  • Cooking for Four, the food/cooking blog that was supposed to make me money; and
  • Places I Have Lived, which was supposed to be a collaborative blog in which I invited friends and writers to reflect on places they'd lived in the past, but to which no one had the time to respond. (I had envisioned this blog as an updated/electronic version of my earlier zine, particularly its "Neighborhood" issue, in which I asked readers to describe their current living situations.)
I've also started three web sites this year—two as companions to my blogs (cooking and places), and one, How Do Women Write?, which was never quite finished, but which became the impetus for my still-current Quotes About Creative Women blog. 

If these had been started on paper, no one would ever know about them, or find them, and my negligence to them would never have been known. The Internet makes my failings all the more visible.

Yet, I'm not sure it is a failing to stop something that I can't do well, or to learn to set more realistic goals for myself. I am trying to hone down all that I do creatively into activities that will strengthen my writing and my avocation as a writer. If this were a true publication and not just a self-produced blog, of course I would be soliciting ideas and stories from other writers. Or, if I were a well-known writer, I suppose that my ideas might carry enough weight that I could get other people to carry them out for me (Jeff Koons-style).

I wish had enough energy and time to pursue all the ideas I have. I'm hoping that the ideas that I make the time to pursue will prove worthy of their selection.

In the meantime, I intend to continue my Writer Profile feature, since I consider it an apprenticeship, of sorts, which is allowing me to learn from other writers who come from a diversity of genres and fields. I hope to publish at least 10 more writer interviews in the next year. Stay tuned.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Why a raconteur should never fear consulting a dictionary

As a child, I never heard anyone pronounce the word “ennui.” The rural Southern people I grew up with were too busy to be bored and the moments that might have been dull, they sat and talked. So, from the first time I encountered “ennui” in a book until, years later, when my (sometimes French-speaking) spouse gently corrected me, I pronounced it “N-U.”

Maybe I had looked up “ennui” in a dictionary at one point, but somehow my mind could not grasp how anything with two Ns could not have a strong “n” sound in the middle. And though that dictionary might have told me that “ennui” meant weariness and boredom, in my mind “ennui” sounded like sadness. I’m sure I said more than once in college, “I’m feeling a little ‘N-U’ today” and no one corrected me—perhaps they thought I was speaking of some condition or university they had never heard of.

A similar thing happened with “poignant.” Though I correctly understood its meaning, I pronounced it like someone’s poor attempt at saying “pregnant” with a Jersey accent. This, too, my husband corrected me on, not so gently this time. After years of hearing me mispronouncing it he finally shouted “It’s ‘poi-nyent’ not ‘poigg-nannt’!” Incredulous, I had to have him pronounce it several times before I believed him.

I consider myself somewhat of an autodidact, notwithstanding the efforts of several of my high school teachers who attempted to bring me viewpoints and correct pronunciations from their educated perspectives. But I have been a lazy autodidact because, too often, I forget to consult a dictionary when encountering new words, taking their meaning from their current contexts only.

Consequently, when I arrived at a writing workshop given by my friend, Kim Dana Kupperman, a couple of months ago, I did not heed her advice when she set out a dictionary at the start of a writing exercise and suggested we consult it if we needed clarity on any of the terms she was going to give us. She asked us to write a short description of our first kiss then passed around a paper bag filled with little slips of folded paper and told us to randomly choose a new persona from which to rewrite our descriptions. I pulled out “raconteur.”

“‘Raconteur’ is akin to ‘rake’ and thus is a bawdy retelling of a story,” I told myself, realizing it was another word that I had simply breezed through while reading, on the assumption that I already knew its meaning. But I didn’t want to get up in front of the class and look it up since Kim had introduced me to the class as one of her old college buddies, which in my mind, was someone who should have known what ‘raconteur’ meant. Thus, my innocent and somewhat accidental first kiss became a tale of conquest and bragging.

Kim had us read our revised passages aloud and have the rest of the class guess our persona. “This one will be easy,” I promised my classmates, but no one could guess it and Kim looked puzzled since it didn’t seem to be a persona she had put in the bag. I leaned over and pointed it out on the list of personas on her desk. “It’s that one,” I whispered, thinking she would understand and be able to enlighten the class; when she still looked puzzled, I knew I was in trouble.

In retrospect, it was one of those a-ha moments that everyone needs, both humbling and clarifying. I now intend to consult a dictionary more frequently, especially anytime one is offered to me, and I hope I will not be too arrogant to use it.

Still, I have to admit, I blushed a bit that day, and blush a little now, thinking back to that moment. It all makes me a little poignant with N-U.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Is Google book search a good or bad thing for writers?

Last week I created a "Special Features" section on this blog and helpfully included a "Writers' Tools" link, only to realize I'd written exactly one post indexed that way. So, I'm gathering up info I've meant to share—and to put somewhere that's multi-accessible for my own purposes—and will attempt to post regularly on writers' tools until the section gets plumped up.

I would call my relationship with Google Book Search (GBS) a hesitant love affair, at best. And yet, since I've started using it to find potential entries for my quotes about creative women blog, I haven't been able to "quit" it—and can't imagine quitting it anytime soon. To put it briefly:

• I love that I can search in almost any book ever published for whatever search terms I throw into it. Through a search for "women and creativity," "women and writing," and variations of those terms, I found the books, Word: On Being a [Woman] Writer and Sleeping with One Eye Open, which I never would have found in my local library (or known to find through an Amazon book search). In fact, Sleeping with One Eye Open inspired a post for this blog and a fan letter to one of its editors, Judith Ortiz Cofer, who wrote me back.

GBS offers full and limited previews of some books, snippets of others. With even just "limited preview," I've been able to read through sections of books and decide whether I want to further pursue an author, which for me these days means, mostly, obtaining the book via interlibrary loan from my local library. I am tapping into the richness of a universal library for free.

I also can't think of any other tool currently available to writers that allows them the potential to search for phrases and terms that have already been published in books. Maybe you think you've come up with a fantastic sentence in a short story, but worry that it's something from memory and not newly inspired. First, you'd want to search it on Google, which will pick up phrases on blogs and web pages, then search for it on GBS.

Here's an example: I mentioned googling the phrase "inner Julia Child" in my post about writing in a vacuum-less world. I tried the phrase in GBS and the results showed it was also mentioned in the book, The Fun Book for Couples ("Discover your inner Julia Child with a series of in-home cooking lessons a deux") and the July 2005 issue of Cincinnati Magazine.*

Writers can also use GBS for background research, edification and vanity searches. For example, I have learned more about feminist writers from searching for creative women quotes than I could have in any other way except maybe taking a college course; and, I plugged my name into GBS just now and found that it remembers the little magazine I published, the grant guide I edited, the poem I published in Kalliope.

• But I hate the idea that people will be using GBS instead of going to a bookstore and browsing (and buying) books. I worry that Amazon and GBS are killing the neighborhood bookstore and even the chain bookstores, and that public libraries will be diminished when people can search for what they want from their home computers.

I'm annoyed at the idea that given the possibility of searching through almost everything that has ever been written, I will be less likely to attempt to write something new, and maybe some writers will even give up writing when confronted with everything at once that has already been said.

And I am especially incensed to imagine a time when writers stop getting paid for almost anything they write and that we all, in essence, become bloggers. If no one is buying books (except libraries) and everyone else is reading books/text via GBS, the publishing industry may grind to a halt. Of course, on the bright side, Google supposedly is paying publishers for what they put in their database, so this may be the new model of publishing in the near future.

--------------
* NEWS FLASH: GOOGLE BOOK SEARCH HAS JUST ADDED A LIMITED NUMBER OF MAGAZINES TO THEIR SEARCH RESULTS...ONLY A FEW MAGAZINES SEEM AVAILABLE RIGHT NOW, WITH LIMITED PUB DATES.


For the full agreement and information on what Google Books accesses and will access in the future, see the page on Google Book Search Settlement Agreement.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

And then there were two...

The first few weeks of a blog are like a new love affair—you want to spend time with it every day. And then the relationship sets in and the polish of newness starts wearing off. You know the blog isn't a good time investment when it becomes a chore to log into it and keep writing something in it. It's time, then, to drop it, leaving it as another neglected blog-carcass along the Information Superhighway.

So now I abandon my food/cooking blog, Cooking for Four (at least for the time being).

I still like writing about food, but it's difficult to maintain enthusiasm about a blog that has only garnered 159 hits between today and May 9 of this year. And it's been difficult, lately, to find the time to sign into it. Each essay only took, at most, a couple of hours a week from start to finish, including upload and finding an illustration. But a couple hours a week have become precious to me. That two hours might be half a page of a short story or time spent looking for literary markets—or more frequent posts for this blog, which has more of my heart in it.

And, I'll just say it right here, if I'm going to write about cooking, I'd like to get paid for it. I'm tired of "giving away the milk for free," as I protested in a previous post.

Cooking for Four was supposed to be my money-making blog. I put Google Ads on it and an Amazon widget. I tried to gear the writing to a broader audience (everyone eats, not everyone writes), and to write in a chummier style. Then I sat back and waited for the money to roll in.

I've yet to earn a dime. All I've gotten so far are helpful emails from Amazon and Google, suggesting ways to better embed the ads or better sell the merchandise.  (I'm not sure anyone is making money from their blogs; if they are, I'd like to interview them and ask them their secret.)

If there is a publication out there looking for someone to blog about food on your web site, or if you're a magazine editor looking for short, friendly articles on cooking for a family with different food tastes and/or on healthy eating, I hereby announce my availability as of today.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Writer Profile: Barry Yeoman


I met Barry Yeoman when we were both reporters in North Carolina. I was running the Winston-Salem Journal’s one-woman bureau office in Boone and he was writing for a local weekly, Mountain Times, and freelancing for the Charlotte Observer and The Independent. The big news that year was whether the city of Boone would allow alcohol sales. Despite being a college town (home of Appalachian State University), it was dry—forcing college students to make a perilous, winding journey to Blowing Rock to get “likkered-up.” It was such a big deal that TV reporters from Charlotte and Winston-Salem joined local reporters at what had been sparsely attended council meetings. Eventually the referendum came to a vote and passed, students got drunk to celebrate, and nothing really changed except that you could buy a beer with your pizza in downtown restaurants.

Barry and I both left Boone after a year—I ran away from my too-solitary office to go to graduate school at UNC, and he went to work for The Independent in Durham. We didn’t communicate with each other again, though I kept up with his career by reading the articles he filed at The Independent, and later for Mother Jones and other national publications.

I renewed contact with him this summer when a friend of mine wanted to write about his medical mission to Iraq and I suggested he query Mother Jones since “I knew someone there.” A bold and somewhat false statement, for sure, since I hadn’t seen Barry for 20 years, but the urgency of the story lent itself to such chutzpah. Happily, Barry remembered me, which led to this interview.

The thing I have learned from Barry, even from afar, is that any writing job, no matter how small and humble, can lead to bigger publications and wider audiences as long as you keep putting yourself out there, and keep looking for a story and for a market. Of course, it helps in his case that he is a wordsmith as well as a terrific investigative reporter.

Barry's work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; The New York Times; AARP The Magazine; Mother Jones; Audubon; Rolling Stone; Reader's Digest; Psychology Today; Glamour; salon.com; The Boston Globe; Ladies' Home Journal and many other publications. He is currently a contributing editor for AARP The Magazine and US Airways Magazine, and a contributing writer for Mother Jones. His work has been reprinted in several books, including The Best American Science Writing 2007, The Best Business Stories of the Year and The World's Best Sex Writing 2005. In addition to his writing, during the summer, he teaches at Duke Young Writers' Camp in Durham. For more information, see http://www.barryyeoman.com.



WH: Why are you a writer?

It’s definitely in my blood. I was creating a neighborhood newspaper when I was 11. I’m not sure where the impulse initially came from. It’s something I always knew I wanted. I was editor of my junior high and high school newspaper. And when I started to think about college, many of the adults around me were trying to talk me out of journalism. One, because it was a bastard profession and, two, because they didn’t think that it was ideally suited for a kid with a stutter. But I was only in college for three days before I went to a journalism department orientation at NYU and I was so excited that I changed my major from psychology.

I think why I write now is different than why I wrote even 10 years ago. As I’ve made my way first through alternative weeklies and now to national magazines, my original impulse was about changing the world. I primarily saw journalism as a way of educating people, so that they could make a difference in addressing social injustice and economic maldistribution and stupidity in politics. That is certainly still one of my missions, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that a great deal of my pleasure comes in two other places. First, the opportunity to pull up a front-row seat to people’s lives, especially people whom I wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths with. And, second, to my great surprise, the craft.

Craft came second to me. I came of age in the inverted-pyramid style of journalism. I wrote so that you could lop it off the bottom. Now I write narrative. I’m writing stories, consciously focusing on narrative structure and character development and the weaving of big-picture issues with very fine, narrative detail. You can no longer cut a story of mine by lopping it from the bottom because every piece of the story is carefully interwoven with every other piece. Many people call this kind of journalism narrative nonfiction, and I think that’s right, because we are telling stories, which happen to be true, and we are using all the techniques of literature in the creation of story.

WH: Do you do any other kinds of writing, for fun or elsewhere?

Not very much. I keep journals when I travel. (But) I tend to write so prolifically professionally that at the end of the day what I’d rather do is read, or cook, or walk, or travel. Most days when I’m done creating words I want to kick back with my friends and have a good meal and hear some music, drink some beer and zone out the mind so it’s fresh the next day.

WH: What prompts a story for you?

With most of the magazines I work for, we have a give and take. About half of the stories I write, they’ve come up with the idea, and half of them, I’ve come up with the idea. A lot of my work includes developing and maintaining relationships with editors so that when I write or call with a story idea they know who I am and they know that they can trust me. And, likewise, when they have an idea, that they think of me.

I hear ideas when I’m reporting other stories. I read a lot. I keep my eyes open as I move around the world and I move through the world a lot. Even in my hometown, I try to move through a big world and have a relationship with people who are different from me, and always have my ears open whether I’m in Bolivia, South America or Bolivia, North Carolina.

WH: What are some of the more memorable pieces or some of the favorite stories you’ve written?

The first thing I think of is a two-part series where I spent ten months at a Hispanic Baptist mission in Siler City, N.C., as a way of understanding the huge wave of Latinos that had immigrated to North Carolina. It was such an amazing experience to be able to see this community of immigrants and believers up close, for so long, to be welcomed into their church, and into their homes, and into their secrets. They trusted me and shared a lot with me. I attended Saturday-night services, Baptisms, birthday parties and weddings. It became a 17,000-word series for The Independent, and the inspiration for an article in Mother Jones.

Many of my favorite stories have let me penetrate cultures that were unfamiliar to me, or have conversations with people having interesting lives. Writing for Mother Jones about Christian missionaries that had gone undercover in the Muslim world; writing about scientists who were under attack for sex research; writing a profile of Jack Abramoff, and having the opportunity to interview him for 12 hours; and, likewise, having tremendous access to Elizabeth Edwards, for a profile I wrote about her for O Magazine.

WH: Have you managed to make a living solely as a writer, or have supplemented your income in other ways?

I teach writing to high school kids (at the Duke Young Writers Camp) in the summer. My teaching is something I do for fun. It actually pays less than my journalism. I make a living full-time as a writer. I’ve been a full-time writer since I graduated from college in 1982 and I’ve been full-time freelancing for the last nine years. Before that, it was half-time freelancing and half-time newspaper work. Freelance writing has been very good to me. Once you reach a certain tier in the magazine world, the pay scale is sufficient—not to get wealthy—but to make a reasonable, middle-class living.

WH: By the way, why did you move to North Carolina in the first place?

Around 1984 I was working for a mainstream alternative weekly in Lafayette, La.—they were leagues above the daily paper in quality, but didn’t really live on the cutting edge. My publisher went to a conference of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and she came back and said, “We met the founders of a new alternative newspaper in Durham, N.C. (The Independent) whom you would love. They are such idealists. But they’ll never make it.” That was 25 years ago.

I left Louisiana when the oil-industry bottom fell out and I found myself unemployed. I moved to Watauga County because I had a friend who had a house in the woods 18 miles out of Boone. And I started freelancing there. A year later, I was offered a job at The Independent and I moved to Durham and fell in love with the place. I’ve lived in Durham since.

WH: Before this interview, you said you were going into isolation for a week, to write. Do you do this for every article you write, or only when it’s a major assignment or an accumulation of work? And, how do you manage it?

When I’m writing, I turn off the phone, I try not to check email. I make sure I have food in the house and plenty of coffee, and really do quarantine myself for eight to 12 hours a day. Because I need to concentrate, and it’s so easy in this modern world to succumb to a lot of distractions. And that means also not doing other work-related things. I don’t write queries or handle administrative stuff. But, since I live in the real world, I will respond if an editor needs to contact me. Every so often I need a change of scenery and I’ll take my laptop to a coffeeshop, but that’s very rare. I’m much more focused when I’m in my house with coffee on the stove and food in the fridge and the phone turned off.

WH: Is there a subject area you’re most comfortable with, or do you consider yourself to have expertise in any particular subjects?

I do pride myself on being a generalist, in that I can come into a subject I know very little about and totally immerse myself in the issue and come away as a miniature expert. I don’t claim expertise in any one issue, but, rather, I think of myself as an expert in Topic A this month, and Topic B three months from now.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The lies (or embellishments) that writers and artists tell

When I was a freelance reporter in the Idaho panhandle, I met a lovely woman who was exhibiting her interior and landscape paintings at a local women’s conference. Upon seeing the extreme, exuberant color in her paintings, I immediately wanted to write a story about her, especially when she told me that she was new to the area and hadn’t had much press at that point. But what may have sealed the deal for me was when she told me that her work had appeared in Architectural Digest. This fact was prominently noted on the C.V.-like sheet she handed me.

A few weeks later I visited her in her home, a gorgeous house overlooking a lake, with carpets dyed the color of “Gauguin-green,” as she described them. We ate dinner and chatted, and then she pulled out the issue of Architectural Digest where her work had appeared. In an ad for an interior decorator, one of her earlier floral paintings was on the wall, in the background. Her work did not appear anywhere else in that or any other issue of Architectural Digest.

I didn’t know what to say. Obviously, I had been envisioning a spread or at least some small mention of the painting in the magazine, not something sitting quietly in an ad. But, seeing how it had been so important to her, in the second paragraph of my story, I stated that "her work has appeared in Architectural Digest."

I bring all this up now because I ready to send out submissions again, and for most magazines I must create a short biography, including a list of my publications, that I can attach to each submission. In the publications list on my personal web site, I mention that one of my satirical poems was excerpted in The Washington Post Magazine, in a story in which I was interviewed about the little magazine I was publishing at the time. 

I wasn’t sure whether I should even list it at all there, but, to be honest, I needed to give my publications list more variety and to pad it out with more non-vanity publications (beyond this blog or my self-published little magazines, which as I’ve noted in a past post, is where I’ve put too much of my work). I also list that I had a satirical poem published in the Post’s Style Invitational.

Since there won’t be space to explain that it was actually an excerpt of one of my poems that appeared in an article about me, I’m wondering if I should just say: “My work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Kalliope, Trestle Creek Review, … and the Washington Post Magazine.” Is this dishonest—or is it what writers and artists must do to gain attention?

I would have wanted to write about the Idaho artist whether or not she’d told me her work had appeared in Architectural Digest, but I might have used it as a selling point with the Spokesman Review when I pitched it to them. I can’t see that it hurt anything, seeing as how the talent was there, it just needed a bit of a lure to bring the press in and help discover it. And I didn't feel I was lying then, since I was quoting her on having appeared in the magazine. But I'm not so sure I can do it for myself.

It sucks that writers (and artists) can only get attention when they've already had attention. It causes us to grab any little bits and pieces of attention/publication we can muster, cobbling them together into some kind of  pattern of success until maybe embellishment itself becomes an art form.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Do writers need an MFA to get published?

On Fresh Air yesterday, Terry Gross interviewed James Franco, whom I remember as the good-looking stoner on Freaks and Geeks. Franco, it turns out, is pursuing an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia.

Gross asked him why he is going to school to learn to write. Franco answered:

"I felt that if I wanted to be serious about writing I should be around other writers. There's a romantic notion, like, uh, 'well if you want to be a writer just write.' But I don't know if this is true, but I had a professor at UCLA who just wrote a book on this very thing. And I think it turns out—I could be wrong—but I think 90 percent of fiction authors that are being published today went through MFA programs."

This gave me pause—enough to look up the podcast and transcribe the passage above. I have no intention of pursuing another graduate degree, mostly for reasons of time and money, but also because I don't want to go through the trauma of taking the GRE again. (It turns out your GRE scores are only good for 10 years; just thinking about taking another long, standardized test makes my palms sweaty).

I wasn't sure how to test this premise—most published fiction writers do not put "MFA" after their names. But, of course, it turns out, other blogs and web sites have addressed this issue so I don't have to do any original research here. 

I googled: (do fiction writers need an mfa?) [without quotes] just now and found the following answers*:

• Everywritersresource.com - Should I get an MFA in Creative Writing? The Good, Bad and Ugly. The answer is "maybe," but only if you write literary fiction.

• afterthemfa.com - A short post says: You don't need no stinkin' MFA, which links to a web site devoted to this idea, http://www.youdontneednomfa.org (Unfortunately, it hasn't been updated since Feb. 2007).

• A link to a book listed on Amazon, Portable MFA in Creative Writing, which purports to offer the "core knowledge of a prestigious $50,000 MFA program without paying tuition."

Most of the other hits, especially on the following windows, seemed to be links to specific MFA programs. So I tried a new search question,  (do fiction writers need an MFA to get published?) This brought up such titles as: 

• I Say "Phooey!" to the MFA in Writing: Let's Write Our Hearts Out Instead (from associatedcontent.com)

• The importance of MFA creative writing programs for writers (from helium.com)

• How to make a living writing short fiction (idea) (from everything2.com)

What's depressing is that many of the articles that weren't links to MFA programs were found on non-paying, freelance-written web sites, or posted as questions on user-driven forums like Yahoo! Answers.

So, based on this short Internet survey, whether you have an MFA or not, it looks like the chance of your being a struggling, unpaid writer are still very good.

* I know Google isn't AskJeeves, but plugging in random questions is sometimes a cool way to discover new web sites—I'd never seen any of these web sites before now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Blog site counters—or spyware?

I used to have Sitemeter installed on this blog, rather than just the simple blog counter I’m using now, but I uninstalled it after only a few weeks. I still use Sitemeter on my Quotes About Creative Women (QACW) blog and have enjoyed seeing that that blog has found readers in India, South Africa and the United Kingdom, even while reader numbers were in the low 40s (that’s not 40,000 but just plain old 40).

I hardly check the Sitemeter icon on the QACW blog because I don’t go on it every day. (That’s because I usually spend half a day a month finding quotes and loading them onto QACW, and post-dating them so that one automatically publishes each week.) Even when I do look at the blog, I mostly forget about that little green icon for Sitemeter at the bottom of the page. Since I'm not writing the material, I don't have as much ego invested in it, I guess.

But I go on this blog more often. And when Sitemeter was on it, I checked it to see if friends who said they would read this blog had, in fact, read it. There’s a function on Sitemeter that lets you click on “Recent Visitors: By Location.” This brings up a page where country of origin appears in the first column, as a small flag icon and country name (which is why I knew that someone from S.A., India and the UK had looked at my quotes blog), and a more specific “Location” is listed in the second column. Through this function, I’ve discovered the blog also has had readers from South Carolina, Illinois and Canada.

Even more specific is Sitemeter’s “Recent Visitors: By Details” function. This brings up a page that lists domain name, visit time and visit length. This offers a little more detail than I want. For instance, most people have visited the QACW site for 0 seconds—not very reassuring. Obviously, most of QACW readers have stumbled upon it by accident, either through “Next Blog” or some chance Internet search and have declined to stay.

I’m not sure why I need to know how many are (or who is) reading my blogs, but I can't bring myself to erase the counters. They are addictive. In anxious moments I scan them to see if the numbers are going up. Even a small increase (more than five), has kept me going another week on my lesser-read blogs.

So, I'll keep them for a while longer. Yet I wonder if the information on who is reading what is being gathered somewhere, by some organization, trying to predict consumer spending/reading habits or, worse, political affiliations and grievances. I worry, then, that these are tools on more than one level and that this and other blogs could be conduits to information gathering in some other place. Such tools are free, but I wonder what price we might all, ultimately, pay for them.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

My accidental synchronicity with Joan Didion

Last week I put a quote temporarily in this blog's header:

"The impulse for much writing is homesickness. You are trying to get back home, and in your writing you are invoking that home, so you are assuaging the homesickness." --Joan Didion

I found it accidentally, while looking for quotes about women writers. In an interview, Joyce Carol Oates said that Joan Didion had written it. I then Googled part of the quote and found it had been mentioned in several other sources and by other writers (though I've yet to find Didion's text where it first appeared).

This was five months after I named this blog "Writing Home" and used the tag line, "Aren't all writers writing home—and trying to find a home for their writing?"

I'm returning to the original tag line today, but I'll put the quote in the margin to remind myself that there may be no new thoughts left, only new ways (and not necessarily more eloquent ways) to express them.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Finding a room of one's own

In Sleeping with One Eye Open: Women Writers and the Art of Survival (which I’ve been mining for my blog of quotes about female artists), Judith Ortez Cofer talks about the evening writing class she led with a group of working class Latinas. The women's first assignment was to create their own version of “A Room of One’s Own” in their crowded houses and lives. The women say it is impossible—they have no time or space. Yet they all manage to return to the next week’s class with reports of having cleared tables and corners of their homes to make space for their writing—except for one woman, a single mother, whose children in their cramped apartment had gotten into every space she tried to set aside for herself. So she made a portable “room” via a small notebook, which fit into the back pocket of her jeans.

I think this is a universal difficulty for female writers (or maybe all writers), no matter what race or class. I, too, have carried around a portable room of my own with a series of small notebooks I’ve kept in my pocketbook over the years, in which I’ve jotted down ideas and dreams when I’ve had a few moments of time. In fact, most of the introduction to the Interview with Kim Kupperman for this blog was written in a dining booth at Chuckie Cheese, on a long-promised pilgrimage with my daughter this summer.

When I worked nearly full-time and had a toddler son, the room of my own was the subway ride I took each morning from Maryland to D.C.—if I was lucky enough to get a seat. In a series of spiral notebooks I carried with me, I scribbled ideas for the little magazine I published at the time or, sometimes, the first few paragraphs of short stories, many of which never fully materialized.

Now that my children are back in school, I sometimes have whole mornings free when I could be writing fiction or blog posts. Yet many mornings pass just as this morning has—after exercising and eating breakfast, answering three phone calls, starting two loads of laundry, loading the dishwasher, and writing several necessary and unnecessary emails, it's 12:30 and I've written nothing expressive until this minute...but I'm hungry and craving lunch, and need to start another load of laundry.

So, a room of one's own is not just physical space but time or, rather, well-defined/set-aside time. Taking time away from the everyday demands of life to write can be guilt-inducing for women—or, at least, for this woman, especially writing that is done for the pure joy of setting down words to see what thoughts will come out, like this moment, without worry about market or publication.

Maybe it's not just a gender thing, but a class thing. After I had my first baby, a female relative so much as said that I should give up the nonsense of publishing a little magazine. The magazine wasn't making money, obviously, and was taking time away from free moments when I could have been mopping the floor or washing the dishes. From her perspective, it was unproductive (not producing money or otherwise contributing to the household) and therefore a waste of time.

This class-ism, if that's what it is, plays out in multiple and subtle ways. Give me a deadline, or assign me a topic, and I'm good to go; I am "working," not just piddling around. Offer me money to write about something or edit what someone else has written, and that project goes to the top of the list, even if it's not due right away or it means that I won't finish something I've already been writing on my own.

Whether I want to be or not, I may always be working class; when I write I am working against an ingrained notion that writing is idle time. Maybe that is why I find "serious" writing so exhausting. All those drafts and rewrites, "for what?" a little voice inside asks. "To perhaps appear in a literary journal not many read? And for no money? Why waste the time?" To continue on, the creative voice must also be an arguing voice; often, I'm afraid, creativity gets lost in the argument.

I need to build a room where such thoughts are made small, where there is no guilt in dawdling with words. My room, I realize, must first be constructed in my own head before I can find it anywhere else in the world.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Making a living as a writer

Lucky, indeed, it must be for those who go to work and are able to write what they want to say or who are otherwise able to make a living from expressing themselves. I’ve never found such a position, though I’ve tried to find jobs that, I thought, would tap into my writing and research skills, perhaps strengthening them along the way. I have worked as a newspaper reporter and a reference/research librarian; now I work part-time from home as an editor. But none of these jobs have let me write what I wanted to write, or what I would have written had I had the freedom to express myself fully.

And after a working day spent on a computer, it has been difficult to sit down again to write when it’s late in the evening, after dishes are washed and children have been put to bed—especially when my neck already hurts from too much time already spent looking at a monitor.  (I never had shoulder and neck problems until I began to use a computer. Now I have sporadic bouts of arthritis that is more likely to occur after hours spent on the computer, which makes reading difficult on some evenings and writing by hand, also, a pain in the neck.)

I often wish I had pursued the degree in Botany that I had, fleetingly, wanted after taking one class in Field Botany. Or that I could raise herbs for restaurants for a living or in some other way get fresh air and/or exercise before returning to this interior life of putting words on paper or into a computer.  If I had known that physical therapy existed when I was in college, I might have gotten an additional degree in it, just to be around people during work hours and to be, on some level, physical.

Both journalism and librarianship these days mean hours on a computer, often with little people contact except by email and by phone. So, though I have played to my strengths in my career choices so far, I don’t think I’ve nourished my life as a writer, in both a physical and social context.

Which brings me to the topic of this month’s Call Out to Writers: How do you reconcile your writing life with your career? I’d love to hear from other writers who have found a way to make money from their writing, or who work in a career that offers rich contact and context/experience. Send your submissions by November 12, for publication sometime later this month.



Tuesday, October 28, 2008

WH's Upcoming Call-Outs to Writers

In September, I issued WH's First Call Out to Writers, and printed the results (Writers on rejection)  earlier this month.

I'd like to schedule this as a regular feature because I enjoy hearing from other writers and feel I have a lot to learn, especially from better-published writers. In order to give writers a longer period in which to respond, I'm listing the topics for the next two Call-Outs below, along with a request for ongoing information on online writers' tools. 

Instructions
Please send your responses to me via my email thebethblevins -at- gmail.com, and put  "Writing Home" in the subject line so it will get through spam filters. Please reply to one topic per email to make it easier for me to know what you're talking about. The deadline for responses is given with each topic.

Topics
1. DEADLINE: NOVEMBER 12, 2008
If you don't work as a professional writer (i.e., write for money): how do you reconcile your writing life with your career? Do you work in a related field, or in an environment that totally takes you away from pen and paper (or computer) all day?  Do you find things in your workday to write about, or does your writing come from a totally separate part of your life and experience? How do you make time to write?

2. DEADLINE: DECEMBER 12, 2008
How do you keep track of your submissionsand publications/contests to submit your work to?  In my August 4 post, I wrote about the wonderfully tactile way that writer and instructor Nancy Naomi Carlson keeps track of her submissions. I'd like to hear if there are other ways to do this, which writers have found easy or especially beneficial. I'd also really like to know how you keep up with all the contest deadlines out there, if you regularly submit pieces to contests.

3. DEADLINE: ONGOING.
What are your favorite writers' magazines, web sites, blogs? How do you use them? Why do they particularly appeal to you?  Your responses will help me add links to a list of writers' resources in the right column of this blog. Feel free to send suggestions anytime and I'll add them as I receive them; unless you say so otherwise, I may sometimes print the comments you send about the resources in occasional blog posts. 

Friday, October 17, 2008

The danger of not writing on paper

From childhood until early adulthood, everything I wrote was on paper. Journals, poems, love letters unsent—I kept them all in boxes and file folders, and managed to take them back and forth across the country, even though my means of transportation was bicycle, bus or plane and I lived in a series of small, rented rooms where storage space was at a minimum.

In the last couple of decades I've written almost everything on the computer and, despite living in houses with attics and closets, I haven't bothered to print most of it out. Except for letters printed once and sent off, and stories printed for submissions, the rest of it sat on a hard drive somewhere. I assumed it would always be accessible if I backed it up.

An article I read in a writer's magazine a couple of years ago warned that writers shouldn't assume their hard drives won't crash or their houses won't burn and suggested the best and cheapest means of backup would be to create an email account just for the archiving of writing. First draft, you send an email to that special account, final draft, another email, with draft status noted in the subject line.

Easy enough, I created a "beblevinsarchive" account on Yahoo and have been sending copies of my pieces to it ever since. Until yesterday, when the email bounced back with the message: "This account has been disabled or discontinued."

I checked online and got this explanation:

Your Yahoo! Mail account is no longer active.
Why is my account inactive?
Yahoo! Mail deactivated your mail account because:
• You have not logged into your mail account during the past four months

It also said "All email messages, folders, attachments and preferences have been deleted and cannot be recovered."

So, just sending messages to a Yahoo email account is not enough to keep it active. I don't even remember what I sent to the account, so some of it may be gone forever.

OK, I'll just back my writing up on some kind of external storage medium. But here's what gives me pause: I have an article I wrote years ago for a graduate journalism class, which I'd like to find again since it included an interview with Sy Syfransky, publisher of The Sun. I can't find a paper copy of it; the only copy I seem to have of it is on a floppy disk—a five-inch floppy disk which I no longer have any means of accessing.

Even if I manage to transfer that disk (via a company that does such things) to a three-inch floppy disk or a flashdrive, I wonder now how long it will be before they are outdated and equally hard to access.

Today I created an "Archive" folder on an Internet email account I check on a regular basis, to which I can send copies of my writing for storage. But I'm also going to get some boxes ready, restock the printer with ink and paper, and get ready to churn out "hard copies" of things I've written in the last decade. Maybe some of it wasn't worth saving anyway, but I'd like to be the one to make that choice, not a machine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Watching the blogs scroll by

If you want to get an idea of how many blogs there are in the world, I recommend watching the list of fresh posts on Google's Blogger.

Whether you have an account on Blogger or not, you can access Blogger's Dashboard. There, to the left of the sign-in boxes, under the Blogger logo, is a scroll-by of blogs that have just been updated, e.g., "Blogs Updated at 10:45 PM." Each title appears for less than a second (on my older laptop, the titles post as a scrolling list instead of individual titles flashing on and off). If you don't sign in, the list never stops rolling by. Titles appear in English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, etc. If you tire of the list, or a title piques your curiosity, you can click on the title/link and go right to the freshly minted posting.

What's amazing it that not every blog that has been updated in the world makes a half-second appearance there. I tested this by dating a post on my cooking blog ahead by two minutes. Then I signed out and went back to Dashboard to watch for its title, but it never appeared.

After I waited for my blog update to appear, between 2:56 and 2:59 p.m. last Thursday, I lingered and watched the following titles scroll by (there were many more, but these were all that were memorable, or that I could write down quickly enough):

Dee Dee Myers Photo

Anal Sphincter Cramping

Hazel Gordy

Newman S Own Charity

Citizens Against Government Waste

Jim Lehrer

Dude on the Run

Debate Analysis

How to spot a Gucci fake

Gay white men naked

Papa Was a Rolling Stone

Strategic Tanker Mission

Roger Junior

Gay Prisoner Penpals

etc.

I find the scroll-by mesmerizing. Since I discovered this feature, I often pause at Dashboard and wait awhile before I sign in. At its best, each title represents a human being expressing themselves (whether through essays, poems, minute accounts of their quotidian lives, photographs, drawings, etc.). I say this even though some of the titles are yucky (in five minutes of watching last week, there was more than one Lolita-themed blog) and some are obviously commercials for business offerings.

It's almost equal to a world population clock--which seems to imply that there are seven births per second (I got this figure by refreshing the page several times while using a stopwatch!). There may be more blog postings birthed per second than there are human beings being born since Blogger isn't the only blog host in the world. I appreciate the newness of the postings noted at "Blogs Updated at..."; it's almost like we're there just after the moment of their birth.


10 minutes later—
I wrote the above and showed it to my spouse before I posted it, since I wanted to get his take on the blogosphere. He went to Dashboard and rather than watch the blog titles roll by, he started clicking on the titles. At 11 p.m. on a Thursday (which is when I'm actually writing Friday morning's post), he noticed that a lot of blog titles started to scroll by with women's names: Mari's Blog, Lawanda's Blog, Cathy's Blog, etc. He clicked on one and it led him to "hornymatches.com." He clicked another and it also led him to "hornymatches.com." Both times the page showed women supposedly from our local area in Maryland (though some of them looked like LA porn stars so I'm not sure they were really Baltimore or Silver Spring gals). Not only had the robot figured out how to benefit from the Dashboard scroll-by, it also figured out immediately where we live.

So, Dashboard is a lot like the world. Creative, intelligent voices mix in with the commercial and crass. There is integrity and exploitation, the inspired and the mundane. But unlike the physical world, the Dashboard scroll-by (and also Blogger's "Next Blog" feature) lets me peer into what is being thought in those physical spaces without my having to even knock on the door.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Writers on rejection

These are some of the responses received to the WH Call Out on how writers deal with rejection. Strangely, no men wrote back, only women, which makes me wonder if male writers face less rejection, if they blow it off more easily than women, or they just don't want to talk about it—?



Nan K. Chase
Since I'm writing for money, not for deep self-expression necessarily, I don't take rejection personally. A rejection at the "pitching" stage is due to:
  • poor research about the market
  • poor query (weak lead, errors)
  • weak story idea
  • etc.
Rejection farther along is due to the same things, plus wrong word count and generally poor writing.

Analyse the mistakes, fix them, send it out again. And don't take it personally—it's important to always get over yourself.

Nan K. Chase's books include Asheville: A History (McFarland & Company, 2007) and Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs from Nature (Gibbs Smith, 2008) with co-author Chris McCurry. She lives in western North Carolina.



Kim Dana Kupperman
I file the rejections I receive (I have a thick file that corresponds to my ever-thickening skin). It has long been a dream of mine to wallpaper a bathroom with these rejection letters and notes. I don’t own my own home or bathroom so the project is stalled for the moment. However, the plan would consist of making a collage with the rejection slips for each piece next to the cover of the journal in which they finally appeared.

I’m now at a point where, if I receive a handwritten note from an editor, I consider that a “good” rejection. Only writers could come up with the notion of a “good” rejection! But seriously, those handwritten notes are an invitation to keep going and keep submitting. An editor (who penned such notes to me and then finally accepted my work) told me that authors who received such notes were called “legendary” amongst staff at the journal while writers whose work was accepted were welcomed as “family.” I really liked that distinction.

Rejection is a way of life in this adventure called writing. I use it to remind myself that what passes as “good” writing is a matter of individual taste. Today’s periodical literature is so exciting because it’s not being chosen by one or two editors, but by hundreds, all with a different aesthetic. What doesn’t work for one editor will for another. I learned a long time ago that being rejected doesn’t mean I am being rejected, it means my work—as I submitted it—doesn’t light up the heart of the particular reader or (as is the case at many journals) group of readers.

For more on Kim Dana Kupperman, see the Writing Home Writer Profile about her.



Angela Render
I used to keep the rejections in a file folder until I moved and decided they weren't worth hauling to the new house. Now rejection doesn't bother me at all. I think the key to dealing with it is to remember that the person did not reject YOU. They rejected a piece of writing that might not have been mature yet, or that hit them at an inappropriate time. Two weeks earlier or six months later and it might have been accepted. Since timing is so important to getting published, it's worthwhile to resubmit a piece to a place that's rejected you if:

1) The editor has moved on to another job.
2) A world event has suddenly made your piece timely.

Angela Render is a professional web developer who writes historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy and cross-genre romantica. For more information, visit her website: AngelaRender.com.



Lalita Noronha
I treat rejections the way I do my weight. I go up and down with the process; I may slow down, but I never quit! First I read every word of the rejection letters, even the boiler-plate replies, wipe my tears (it’s true!) and then faithfully file those treasures. Then, I return to some of my favorite quotes:

"Anyone who cannot come to terms with his life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate... but with his other hand he can note down what he sees among the ruins."
--Franz Kafka

"I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, 'To hell with you.'"
--Saul Bellow

"This girl doesn't, it seems, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level."
--From a rejection slip for "The Diary of Anne Frank" (as quoted on http://www.thinkarete.com/quotes/by_teacher/Unknown ).

Born in India, Lalita Noronha is a research scientist, teacher, poet, author and an editor for The Baltimore Review. Her literary work has appeared in over 40 journals, magazines and anthologies. Her short story collection is entitled Where Monsoons Cry (Black Words Press, 2004). Her website is http://www.lalitanoronha.com.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Learn from my mistakes: how to start a blog off right

I hereby impart the wisdom of my limited experience, gathered during the five short months I've been blogging. These are things I would do-over if I could:

1. Always try to make your blog name and blog URL coincide as much as possible.
I used "http://beblevins.blogspot.com/" for "Writing Home" blog because I used to be "beblevins" in all my past email addresses (@aol, etc.) and thought maybe people who knew me could find my primary blog that way.

The other reason I did this is because http://www.writinghome.blogspot.com/ had already been taken—though it hasn't been updated since 2005; and http://www.writinghomeblog.blogspot.com/ had also been taken, but it hasn't been updated since 2006.

That leads me to my second do-over:

2. Come up with a name for your blog that hasn't already been used.
I know that's getting to be nearly impossible since so many people are creating blogs now (and they get to keep those blog names even when they're no longer updating them...). Be willing to compromise, if necessary. When I started this blog, "Writing Home" was the name that stuck in my head and I couldn't let go of it; although I still really like the name, I wish I had come up with something that hadn't been used on Blogger before and which also isn't the name of at least one book and several other web pages, as I found out after the fact. (I also wrote about this in my April 8, 2008 posting, Writing Home—Not such a unique name after all). 

3. Create a somewhat generic email address that you can use for signing into all of your Blogger accounts.
This is really important if you're planning to do more than one blog—or if there's any possibility that you'll do more than one blog in the future.

I made the mistake of creating a unique email address for each of the blogs I started so that I had to sign in four different ways at one point—and I sometimes couldn't remember the unique sign-in for each one. Now I have added "thebethblevins -at- gmail" as an administrator to all my active blogs, which is why "B. Blevins" and "Beth Blevins" are both listed as administrators for Writing Home. I don't need B. Blevins anymore, with her unique writinghomeblog -@ -gmail address, but I haven't been able to bring myself to kill her off yet.

4. Decide what you want your blog to do or even achieve.
Do you just want an electronic refuge for your thoughts? To simply try your hand at blogging? To make a visual/photo record of your family life? Then proceed immediately to the nearest free blogging space and blog away, knowing that only your friends may read it (and you may not be able to persuade them to read it, either).

Do you want to reach readers (or even make money)? Then you'll need to think about this for awhile, preferably before even finding a name for your blog. To be a successful/popular blogger, it seems that you need to find a niche that no one else has filled or that you can fill better than anyone else even if others have attempted it.

5. If your aim is to write a popular (and/or money-making) blog, do some research first.
To find your niche you'll need to look at a lot of other blogs, or at least be aware of them. When I've begun to look at blogs, I've been overwhelmed with the variety and number. For lack of time on my part, I've been unable to sit down for hours and scroll and hyperlink through them. There are directories and lists of best blogs that I've looked at, which I found after I already started blogging. But I don't think that I would have been deterred from letting this blog evolve the way it has evolved if I had looked at and studied them first. Mine was the first impulse listed in #4—I just wanted to create something and get it out of my laptop. Now I wonder why my audience hasn't found me even though I've never really gone out looking for my audience.

_____________________________________________________

It should be noted that this blog originally didn't start out as a writers' blog anyway. The original focus wasn't just on writing, but was anything I happened to be thinking of the day I wrote it. Then I went to a blogging workshop and described my then one-month-old blog to the instructor, who said it had no focus. So, I divided up what had been posted on the original blog into three different blogs, keeping Writing Home as a blog about the writing process. (I described my reaction to the workshop in the post, I'm doing this all wrong). 

The other two blogs have since fallen to neglect; in the meantime, I started two other subject-focused blogs—Cooking for Four, my food/cooking blog, and QACW, a databank/blog of quotes about creative women. It's too soon to tell which of these, including Writing Home, will survive in the next few months.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Writer Profile: Kim Dana Kupperman


(An occasional series, in which I'll talk with writers I know—or want to know—about the craft of writing.)

Kim and I met when she and I were both applying to be the Women’s (Womyn’s) Editor at City on a Hill, the college newsweekly at UC-Santa Cruz. (The former women’s editor, Kerry Anna Cobra, I think was departing to join a coven in San Francisco). We ended up sharing the position as co-editors, for a time, coming up with such features as “The Joy of Bundling.” Our section for the April Fool’s issue featured fashion makeovers: from punk to conservative, dyke to earth mother.

Needless to say, we were not universally liked in the university’s and town’s feminist communities. Some wrote the paper complaining of our frivolity in light of such pressing issues as clitorectomy in Africa and the ongoing, chronic subjugation of women in all parts of the world. But we both agreed, without needing to talk about it much, that feminism needed to lighten up sometimes and not always take itself so seriously.

Kim went on to live in Los Angeles, France, NYC (her hometown) and Maine. She taught English by phone to French people, taught English as a Foreign Language, French, and creative writing stateside, worked as a journalist and as a writer and community educator for nonprofit organizations before earning her MFA in creative writing (nonfiction) from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program. She is the founder of Welcome Table Press, a nonprofit independent publisher whose mission is to publish and celebrate the essay, in all its forms. For her day job, she works as managing editor of The Gettysburg Review.

Through the years and our various addresses, we’ve always managed to keep in touch, sometimes reconnecting after a silence of several years. That’s 25 years of correspondence, longer than I have kept up with most people, though in recent years, admittedly, most of it has been by e-mail. I miss our pages-long, handwritten and typed missives, where we used to plan out our futures and analyze our presents. Hard to imagine anymore putting so much intent into something that only one person will read, gone forever into that sealed envelope. When I write a letter now, on my laptop, I can just as easily send it to a thousand as I can send it to one, and I can archive it in a variety of ways, where it might sit silent but searchable for many years.

Kim has published extensively in the last several years. Her essays have appeared in Agni online, Brevity, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and elsewhere. Her essay “Relief” (Hotel Amerika, Spring 2005) was chosen for the anthology Best American Essays, 2006. For more, see Kim Dana Kupperman.



WH: Why do you write? And, why did you choose writing instead of some other form of creativity?

About ten years ago, someone told me that writers weren’t listened to as children. While I’m sure this assessment is not universal to all writers, for me it made sense. One of my mother’s favorite admonishments was “children should be seen and not heard,” and while my parents certainly paid attention to me and did listen to me in many ways, in many other ways they didn’t. I’m sure everyone could claim their parents didn’t listen to them in some fashion. The point is that writing is all about finding a voice, not necessarily the one with which you speak to your family, loved ones, friends, co-workers, or acquaintances, but a voice that expresses what is really happening in the interior self. That’s the first part of my answer: I started writing to satisfy the need to speak out and up, to raise my voice with the authority I didn’t necessarily have as a child.

The second part of the answer is that crafting language into art seemed to fit me as a form of creativity (I’m thinking of Rumi’s delightful line, “Wine gets drunk on us, not the other way around”). I did dabble with visual and performing arts as a young person, but writing complemented my sensibility in deeper ways. I have half brothers, but because they had a different mother and were quite a bit older, in essence I grew up as an only child. My mother, when I lived with her, left me alone to the point of neglect. And so I learned to amuse myself, seeking refuge in my imagination, which was a territory of unending possibility and joy. It was also a place where I resolved my fears and this is very much akin to what writing is all about, especially writing personal essays that seek to examine the unexamined life.

The third part of the answer is that I am both a storyteller and a very visual/aural person. Writing allows me to use all those capacities. Plus, when I was in my twenties, I thought it important to learn everything associated with writing, even the act of writing. I became a calligrapher. I tried my hand at translation, journalism, grant writing, and, as you know, I was a great fan of the epistolary tradition. For many years, my best writing happened in letters I wrote. Later, I learned to make books, which satisfies my desire to fashion things with my hands. I still like making books. I like it so much that I founded a press that will incorporate letterpress printing and traditional book arts into many of its projects.

WH: What was the first piece of writing you ever had published?

An article called “Journey out of Silence,” about women artists and the indecent lack of exposure for women who paint or sculpt. It was published in 1980, in Matrix, A Women’s Newsmagazine, a monthly tabloid produced by a collective in Santa Cruz. It was a very exciting experience to publish that article, especially because it combined my love of visual arts with my proficiency as a young writer (not to mention the hope it gave me to be able to voice my opinion in a public forum about inequity in the arts). I even made the collage that was published on the cover.

WH: What are you working on now?

A second collection of essays. I’m hesitant to say what it’s about because I don’t want to jinx the project.

WH: What are you reading now?

Truth in Nonfiction, essays edited by David Lazar; The Unequal Hours, essays by Linda Underhill; Walking the Wrack Line. On Tidal Shifts and What Remains, essays by Barbara Hurd. I also read the New Yorker and the Sun. I just recently finished reading the entire February 2008 issue of the Sun, which has some remarkable essays in it, most notably the one by Derrick Jensen on zoos (he compares zoos to pornography, a brilliant and all-too-true notion).

WH: Are you exclusively writing nonfiction or do you work in other genres as well?

I have been writing nonfiction pretty exclusively for the past four years, but I’ve also written quite a bit of (bad) poetry and some fiction (one piece was published some years ago). I’ve been working on a project for some time that uses all three genres.

WH: What does a managing editor at a literary journal do?

The primary and most pressing task consists of shepherding the journal through production. This involves readying manuscripts for the typesetter; copyediting, proofreading, and communicating and/or negotiating with authors about edits; coordinating and communicating with the designer, typesetter and printer; ensuring that graphics (we run an eight-page art feature and ads from other journals or presses) meet our print-quality specifications; and basically making sure everyone involved in the process meets deadlines in the production schedule (which I also set in advance of each publishing cycle). Other responsibilities include supervising student interns, writing grant proposals and managing grant contracts, processing contributor and vendor payments, overseeing the annual budget, managing single-issue distribution, dealing with distributors, and attending conferences and book fairs. I used to also be in charge of marketing, but because of my responsibilities as coordinator of our summer writing conference, I no longer coordinate marketing activities. Managing editors at other journals have assorted other responsibilities, including setting editorial policy and selecting work. I’m lucky as I get to work with authors once they’re accepted (i.e., I never reject anyone!)

As coordinator of the Review’s summer conference for writers, I make sure everything that needs to be in place—i.e., advertising, publicity, contracts, scheduling, housing, transportation, catering, etc.—is in place. I make sure people will have the information they need to get from one event to another; it’s a details job. Once faculty and students arrive, I spend a great deal of time solving problems and making sure everyone feels welcome and satisfied. It’s a customer-service job more than anything. When the conference ends, I supervise the compilation of evaluations.

WH: What do you hope to write (or accomplish) in the next five years?

I hope to get my first collection of essays published, a scary proposition considering how essay-phobic the publishing world is (the other reason I founded Welcome Table Press was to address the need for a publisher to focus on the essay). I’m working now to get the press up and running, and to bring the idea of the essay to the fore in terms of contemporary letters. And I want to finish more reading! Always more reading, including rereading. In prose, Woolf, Sontag, Pamuk, Didion, Baldwin, Jeff Porter, bell hooks, Winona LaDuke, June Jordan, and that’s just for starters; the list is endless actually. In poetry, everything!

--Interviewed (and introduction written) by Beth Blevins.

Friday, September 12, 2008

WH's first call-out to writers: How do you deal with rejection?

(This is a question for writers who have successfully published at least two pieces of writing in any type of publication.)

How do you deal with rejection? Do you have any special rituals, drinks or treats that help numb the pain of reading a rejection slip (especially one that goes into detail about why your piece didn't work)?

Or, does rejection not bother you anymore? If so, how do you think you've managed to make peace with it—do you see it as constructive criticism?

If you have any other words of wisdom to share about the response stage of the submissions process, please do so. 

Please send a short response (less than 300 words) to this blog c/o thebethblevins -at-gmail.com by Sept. 30th. Also include a short biographical paragraph and/or link to your web site. 

Confessions of a writer who is afraid to submit her writing elsewhere

Writing short pieces for this blog was supposed to be a warm-up for me to write longer or more eloquent pieces that I would submit to online and print journals.  Instead, I've been writing postings for this blog (usually on Fridays), for my food blog (usually on Mondays) and spending a small amount of time each week tracking down quotes for my online databank/blog of quotes on creative women. In addition, this week I spent some of my free time watching The Colbert Report (on the tiny TV in the kitchen while washing dishes), looking at YouTube political videos and being hysterical about Sarah Palin. I also did some volunteer work, some editing for money, got acupuncture, had my annual physical and finished reading "Little House on the Prairie" to my daughter.

Once my kids went back to school this month, I thought I would have no excuses for not sitting down and polishing up pieces I've intended to send out for years, and working on new pieces that have been written in my head for months. What is the hold-up here? I finally asked myself. And the answer came, loud and clear: I hate rejection—I hate to read rejection letters. I hate looking for markets for things once I've written them, and I don't like writing for intended markets (unless they are of my own making, like blogs and little magazines).

The pathetic conceit is that all my writing sitting stale in a filing cabinet is "brilliant" unless proven otherwise. I do not know how to prod myself to start up what for me is the painful process of stuffing SASEs and hopeful query letters into envelopes again and again. If I had some feel for what people wanted instead of blindly sending things out, it would help.

One thing I hope will help me get through this is that I am going to yield parts of this blog to outside experts. In a separate post, which I'll also post today, I want to send a call-out to other writers to tell me how you deal with rejection.  I hope to have similar call-outs to writers in the future, on a range of topics, at least once a month. I also hope to interview and talk with other writers on how they are able to maintain productivity and why they write in the first place. I am hoping to learn from their examples, yes. But I'm also hoping that letting other people occasionally talk through this blog will free me up a little and get me back to my other writing, especially the short story I've always wanted to finish.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Not so a-Twitter: Do writers need to know about all the Internet's gizmos?

Maybe it’s my age (I went to college with a Remington manual typewriter), but I don’t see the usefulness of a lot of the gizmos on the Internet. Last year I managed to make a Facebook page and start a Facebook page group—admittedly with the help of my teenage son. And I’ve started a few blogs and web pages, though I’ve yet to figure out how to publicize them or help other people find them.

This is painful to me as someone, long ago, who considered herself to be part of the latest technology trends. Instead of an engagement ring, I asked my fiancé for a Mac Plus—cutting edge at the time, it allowed me to lay out the pages of my little magazine, section-by-section (the screen not big enough to see even a whole, small-scale page). And as a librarian, I used to search online databases for a federal agency, cranking out mega-searches sometimes worth hundreds of dollars.

But now I’m confronted with little icons for Digg and RSS feeds and bookmarking tools when I go to other web sites and I don’t know why I should care. At a blogging workshop I attended, the instructor told us we needed to know about such things, but as she mentioned them it was like she was talking to me from a distant tunnel—I just couldn’t hear her. Such things are not part of the Internet landscape I have grown to be comfortable with—Daily Show videos, Yahoo email, the Washington Post online, my Facebook page, the county public library online catalog.

There are two particular things I don’t understand that I’ll mention today: Twitter and Technorati. (I suppose this could be a series—“Cranky Middle-Aged Woman Complains About All the Technology That’s Passing Her By”—should I choose to look at other Internet features in the future).

1. I don’t understand the usefulness of Twitter, except to stalkers and people engaging in affairs who are trying to let their paramours know where they might be able to hook up.

Twitter entries I found just now:
  • Eating chocolates right out the box.
  • is thinking of eating out tonight, but would love some company
  • Figuring out what we're going to do today. Oh, wait, now I remember: NOTHING.
[Found quickly by searching “eating” and “going.” I don’t know anyone on Twitter to search for.]

I assumed that Twitter was mostly for high school and college students (and, as I said, people who might want to be stalked or have love affairs), but when I was looking through the search results just now I saw some pretty middle-aged looking people doing pretty typical (boring) things.

As a writer, I worry that this is what people are reading now instead of reading books, that things like Twitter are contributing to our already short-attention-span culture. It seems an outgrowth of the ability to click on endless TV channels and Internet hyperlinks. The other worry is that the people who write these Twitters might fancy themselves writers, so they feel compelled to flood cyber-space with all their interior thoughts, which turn out to be superficial and limited. This will make it harder to find (and justify placing) good writing on the Internet.

2. I don’t know what Technorati is exactly, but I saw it on someone else’s blog last week and when I clicked on the icon, it somehow led me to a place where I could put the icon on my own blog. So I did, totally not knowing what Technorati could do for me, or why I would need it. It was an experiment from which I’m not sure I’ll be able to interpret the results or even recognize any results if they are there.

If any other writers are using Twitter or Technorati to good effect, feel free to share them in the Comments line below. I can't say that it will help me understand them better, or make me want to use them, but maybe if enough people try to tell me about this stuff, the voice(s) coming from the tunnel will be loud enough for me to almost hear them.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Is Helium.com a bust?

Sometime this summer, I saw an ad from Helium.com requesting freelance writers.

Looking for every opportunity to publish at this point, and being new to Internet publishing (i.e., not knowing what else is out there), I wrote a response to one of their posted debates, on motherhood and writing.  It’s the top-rated article in the “No” category for this question—but I haven’t been paid for it.

On their information page, Helium promises: "When you write at Helium, you help inform millions, earn money, get recognized and build your portfolio." However, even when I signed up, I was suspicious that this might not be a legitimate business venture for me since they didn't ask for my SSN (which even Google wanted when I signed up for Google AdSense on one of my blogs).

When I look at the ad-engorged pages of Helium now, I realize that letting people post whatever they want on a web site and having them return to the web site again and again to see who is reading it or how it is rated would be a great way to guarantee eyeballs to the web site's advertisers. So I asked other writers (via a local writers’ listserv) to share their experiences with it. These represent the typical responses I received:

 “I occasionally post to Helium and my articles are always highly rated. Sounds good, right? Not so fast. Because I've only written a handful of articles, and only a few of them are the sort advertisers would find useful, y-t-d I've "earned" about $7.36. You don't even get a check until you a certain threshold ($50, I think).”

 “I have a Helium account, but quickly lost interest because I found it rather confusing and not worth the effort. I believe I've made about $4.50 cents with Helium. They're legit...but you have to contribute lots and lots of writing to make it worth your while.”

“Be cynical. ...what you'll find there is akin to a "fan readership" you could generate at MySpace or Gather or any social networking site. If you do publish there (just for fun), I wouldn't add it to to your resume as a publication credit.”
---

What's sad is that there are so many people who think they can write and have something worth sharing with everyone else in the Internet universe. Helium offers their essays on such varied topics as:
  •  An overview of Lake Mead boat tours
  • Realization that your Pastor has value, and
  • Animal books and their educational use with children (which includes this helpful advice, "Animal books capture the attention and imagination of most children, and by reading them they can learn many different things...."
I pity these people who are fooling themselves into believing that someone is reading them–and that their writing matters. But then I realize the context in which I am sharing this—on my own blog, read by few, publicized nowhere right now, and for which I am not paid. A tiny voice in a roar I have helped to create.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Blogger as index and time machine

Today I created a new blog to house quotes on women and creativity. It's not a blog, per se, but I wanted to use the label feature of Blogger to index the quotes. (The label widget lists subject labels alphabetically or by frequency). This way, I can sort-of alphabetize the writers I'm quoting with a label like: writers-Alice Walker. (I haven't found a way to put last name first since Blogger uses commas to separate individual labels).

I'm not sure how many more quotes I will add myself, but hope that people will submit them to me. Each person who submits something will get an acknowledgement, along with a link to their web page or to a biographical paragraph I'll house somewhere on the web, if they have no particular web page.

I say that I created this blog today, yet the posts date back to July. The Post Options feature of Blogger has allowed me to turn back time. According to the blog's Archive, in July, I was not busy editing, or taking children to the swimming pool, but was finding fresh quotes for the blog. Cool. I wish I could do this with other aspects of my life--it's almost as good as having a clone.

The blog is called "Quotes About Creative Women" and can be found at: http://qacw.blogspot.com/. Please feel free to submit any quotes you happen upon or remember reading fondly in the past. Humor is especially needed since the past reality of creative women tends to be a little depressing.

Send quotes to me c/o thebethblevins -at - gmail.com. Please put "Creative women" in the subject heading or it may get filtered out.