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.


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.