Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Home word cloud

OK, so I'm a little behind, and maybe everyone already knows about this, but I think it's cool—it's a Wordle* representation of the most-used text on this blog (click on the thumbprint to see it enlarged):

Wordle: Writing Home Wordle

* From Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The next big idea

Stephanie Meyer (who wrote the Twilight series) says the story came to her in a vivid dream: “In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire.” (SM Biography)

J.K. Rowling says that “the idea for Harry Potter simply fell into my head” during a train ride from Manchester to London.

Today, feeling a little tired already, I decided to lie down and wait for the next big book idea to come to me. I made myself as receptive as possible, taking deep relaxing breaths and shooing away any thoughts of doubt or feelings of guilt for lying down so soon in the morning after getting up.

And there the visions came to me: a mailbox of colorful mittens saying, “Hullo guv-ner,” just like the chimney sweeps in the Mary Poppins movie. Since I was passively letting these visions flow through me I didn’t respond to them, and they didn’t say much beyond, ‘hullo, hullo” or do much except for flapping around in the mailbox.

Then I saw a girl with white-blond hair skating on an icy river, flying off with suddenly sprouting wings. She didn’t look around at me but just headed towards the distance.

In my final vision, I saw a large boatful of Medieval monks in black robes with hoods, traveling into a tunnel singing Gregorian chants.

So, to summarize, I got:
  • a new character (maybe) for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, if it is ever revived
  • a new Barbie movie or movie heroine, a skating fairy or a bewitched princess
  • a scene from a movie I think I’ve already watched
At least I felt a little more rested.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Markets for short non-fiction

I made this list of non-fiction markets for anyone who might benefit from it—but keep in mind it's mostly here so I won't misplace it! Markets that specifically publish flash or short non-fiction were hard to find, which is why I included the Creative Nonfiction list of publications from Poets and Writers; perhaps hyperlinking through it will lead to other markets.

Brevity - Check guidelines page for submissions calendar; usually don't accept in summer months.

Conclave - Publishes personal essays 750-1,000 words.

flashquake - Says it publishes flash fiction and non-fiction.

Poets and Writers - Creative Nonfiction list - A list of ALL literary journals in their catalog that print non-fiction, regardless of length. (But I thought the list was useful, so I'm including here anyway).

The Sun Magazine - Readers Write feature - No word limit given on guidelines page, but they normally run length of two columns or less. They list a new topic to write about each month, which Sun readers are to write about.

* * * * * *
Here are some anthologies devoted to short nonfiction (but, given the dates of publication, some of the markets/pubs are obviously no longer going to be valid):

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sundays in the South

A realtor was quoted recently in the Washington Post Real Estate section saying, “Most buyers have no use for a living room.... It’s functionally obsolete...” Instead, people are converting those spaces to home offices, where they can work more quietly, and alone. The realtor then goes on to explain why: “Everyone here (in the D.C. area) is so uptight. We are so hustle and bustle. Everything is work mode.”

Perhaps this explains why I rarely go to people’s houses around here and sit in their living rooms and talk. Rarer, still, for my entire family to go to someone’s house for the sole purpose of sitting and talking together, as we did when I was growing up in the South. Now we are usually too busy on weekends. And even when we're not busy, we don't know that many other people who aren't busy or whose sudden lack-of-busyness coincides with ours. (I know, also, that some people never have us over because they are too busy to keep their houses clean).

When I was young, Sundays would find us sitting in our grandmother’s living room, joking and sharing with other family members. My Uncle Raymond and his wife and kids would come up every other week from Salisbury, 70 miles away, but most of the rest of us simply walked down the street to be there. We visited her during the week, as well, but those less formal visits were confined to her den or kitchen. On Sundays in the summer, we'd walk across the street to Aunt Maxie and Lola Belle's and sit on their front porch, amid large pots of Christmas stocking ferns, watching cars drive by while we rocked ourselves on their porch swing.

(When I returned to my grandmother’s house after going away to California for a few years, I was surprised at how small it was. The elegant couch and ashtrays with tiny pink china roses seemed almost ordinary, the room and house itself smaller than I remembered.)

I would get bored sitting there with my elderly aunts, my fidgeting cousins and smoking male relatives. Sometimes moments would pass with no one saying anything. Often the topic of conversation was who was sick in the neighborhood or who was having troubles in their lives, things I didn’t care to know as a child. In the winter, in the overheated house, I longed for fresh air and spring warmth.

But still I learned about my family, I learned the history of each of my relatives, and how we were akin to each other. I learned about how sweet my great-grandmother had been, how good with his hands my grandfather had been. We were surrounded by history. Maxie and Lola Belle lived in their parents' house; their brother and other sisters married and moved out, but they stayed on, adding a chandelier in the dining room, plush carpet in the living room, other parts of the house entirely unchanged, their father's furniture still in most of the rooms.

Now my own children hear about their great-grandmother intermittently, with no tangible thing to attach to the recollection, most of the people in my stories long gone. My grandmother's house was sold years ago and I don't know who lives there. There is never anyone outside it. No one is sitting on any of the porches in the neighborhood when I drive by. Perhaps they are inside, watching television together—or they are sitting alone in front of their computers, in their home offices, writing about the past.

(Pictured: My grandparents, in their living room, in an undated photo. He died when I was six.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My other kid

My teenage son, Isaac, came up to me a couple of days ago with a funny look on his face; after pausing for a few moments, he finally asked, "Why don't you ever write about me on your blog?"

While this isn't entirely true—he was mentioned in the posts Mea Culpa, Dinnertime conversations in an eccentric household, and Urban legends and bad poetry—they're all from last year.

The simple answer is that I didn't think he'd want me to mention him, especially in my recent posts about children's books. Yes, he sometimes listens to children's books in the car with me and his eight-year-old sister (usually as a captive audience), but I didn't think he'd want me to broadcast it. And, because he is gearing up to go to college next year, I guess I was granting him more independence, in my mind, than he would have as fodder for one of my blog posts.

The more complex answer is that I view his comics and short stories and doodles as his own creative/intellectual property, not something I can distribute without permission or that I should even ask permission to distribute.* They are his to do with as he wishes.

This begs the question, though—why do I feel that I can upload Emily's drawing and ideas but not his?

I suppose the main reason is that she doesn't have access to the Internet or other forms of distribution that he does, should he choose to share his stuff. I made that decision for her, then, when I shared samples of her Smiley Book Club and I'm not sure I entirely have that right. But I know, from past experience, that the titles from the Smiley Book Club are likely to disappear or rip or disintegrate in the next few years and be forgotten, and it was a way to preserve a sample of them electronically. And it was so perfect, to see the Smiley Book Club suddenly appear out of her backpack right after I wrote about listening to Andrew Clements' books. I hadn't known that his books (particularly Lunch Money) had had that much effect on her.

If blogs had been around when Isaac was young, I imagine I would have at least occasionally posted samples of some of his political cartoons and comics, particularly if they had been inspired by something he/we were reading. But the time has passed when I can post his childhood drawings—I don't want to embarrass him retroactively. And eventually, I suppose, Emily will want me to keep her drawings and books off my blog. I wouldn't want her to fear that showing them to me would risk their appearance on the world wide web.

So I have mentioned my son in my blog now. Perhaps this will be the last time he'll want me to mention him again, at least for awhile. But I'll certainly link to anything he chooses to put on the Internet in the future, proud mom that I am.

(* Addendum: Shortly after I initially posted this, Isaac suggested I add a picture of him as an illustration; he chose the digital self-portrait that now appears at the top of the post, which he drew this summer).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Smiley Book Club

A few days after I wrote my post on children's books, my eight-year-old daughter cleaned out her desk at school and brought home a collection of little books she has been writing whenever she finishes a test or task early. She calls them the "Smiley Book Club" and checks them out to her friends if they sign a take-out slip or promise to write a review on the back page, e.g., "This is a good book!"

Except for the fact that she is lending them out for free, her book club is reminiscent of Andrew Clements' Lunch Money, which we listened to in the car this summer. In the book, Greg Kenton creates the Chunky Comics book club and sells the comics to all his friends. His initial desire is to make money, not to be an author, but he discovers his creativity along the way.

She said her inspiration for "Chuckie Cheader" came from a combination of Chuckie Cheese and The Tale of Despereaux, which her dad was reading to her at night. I asked her why the mouse in the picture on the second page of her book repeats the text and she said, "Mom, that's a caption." I didn't know she knew what a caption was.

The inspiration for another book, "The Kings Wonderful Singing Dumplings," came from her love of Chinese dumplings and a fairy tale book that's in her classroom. "I tried to follow the fairy tale style," she says. In the book, the king finds his favorite dumplings sitting on the counter singing:

He picked one up and put it to his ear. Laaaaaaa!! He droped it with surprise. La La La La Laaa. The king was astoded. The dumplings were singing the most beautiful sound. He picked up the bowl and ran to the prime minister. "Listen to this!"...

How cool that is, to be inspired and then just go and draw or write something without worrying whether it is good or where it will be seen or what its purpose is. Children have a natural license to be creative. How do we lose it when we grow up? The only adults I know who have that capability are artists and writers—and maybe bloggers. I think that is why I choose to blog these days rather than writing pieces for publication. I'm inspired, I write, I put it on the computer and walk away. It is the process of getting something down, transforming a thought into words that matters. It is a form of elation.

(Note: The books were drawn with pencil on notebook paper and are hard to see unless you click on the picture and see them enlarged.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The writer, reading (listening)

“Read a lot” or “read widely,” writers are often advised. But most of my reading these days takes place in the car, with books on tape, and most of the books I listen to are children’s books. My daughter does not want to hear fiction written for adults—or any of the Teaching Company lectures (on Mark Twain, on great books, on the history of music, etc.) I was able to listen to when she was a baby and couldn’t complain about it.

She also likes to read one author at a time, everything they've written in order of publication, or all books in a series in exact numeric order. And so, over the course of a year, we listened to every Little House book. We listened to all the Beverly Cleary books that were available on tape, and I read the rest to her (first the Henry Huggins books then the Ramona series), a chapter at night before bed. She has been on an Andrew Clements kick lately and I sometimes find myself just as eager as she is to get in the car and see how the child protaganist(s) will figure out how to right things before the end of the book.

The thing about listening to books on tape instead of reading them is that, in my mind, the voice of the narrator often becomes the voice of the actor performing the book. When I think of the Little House books I now hear the raspy, slightly twangy voice of Cherry Jones (she of "24" fame). Ramona's story comes to me in the matter-of-fact delivery of Stockard Channing now. I'm not sure this would be a good thing for most people, but for me it has extended my repertoire of interior voices I hear when I read--I used to hear Dan Rather's voice when I read the newspaper, or the voice of a generic professor when I read anything philosophical. Now I am inspired to hear fictional characters in more than one voice when I read in silence, and I try to give them more individuality when I read aloud to her.

I've come to appreciate the complex simplicity of children's books (though my appreciation hasn't yet compelled me to attempt writing one). The plots may be simple, but the best writers really capture what it is like to be a child and/or present what it is that children want to hear. I am amazed that Beverly Cleary, already a responsible adult, was able to sit down and write about being seven years old. That Clements could take his experiences as a teacher and turn them around so that the children are at the center of his stories—the teachers are just there for occasional guidance and reaction. And, that the Little House books continue to present a world, as a teacher of mine in library school said, that children can relate to because it is one where children matter.

And so we ride along the streets, immersed in stories. Who knows what the other people sitting at the traffic light are listening to—talk radio? shock jocks? light rock? We are rehearsing for a holiday concert, struggling to survive in a prairie cabin, or walking to school in our new rain boots. And, sometimes, when we delve into fantastic tales like the Spiderwick Chronicles, we can almost see the fairies flying by.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The illustrated journal as art/the blog post as illustrated journal

A short article in this month's Smithsonian magazine has inspired me to look at blogging (and also, perhaps, journal keeping) in a new way.

The article, Drawn From Life, describes how the museum's Archives of American Art has acquired artist Janice Lowery's lifetime collection of illustrated journals (a page from one of them has been inserted above; click on the photo to see it whole).

I read the article shortly after a friend of mine commented that "I always seem to read your blog when you're talking about writing." I didn't know how to respond to her comment—I've tried to restrain the discussion here to creativity/writing ever since a workshop speaker told me I was doing this all wrong because my previous blog couldn't be described in five words or less. (Writing and creativity is still a wide net, though, compared to such blogs as The Brian Williams Tie Report or The Truth About Cars, et al.).

But seeing pages from Lowry's journals has inspired me to incorporate more visual aspects to this blog and to my irregularly updated, offline journal. I've taken photographs that will never go in a gallery, so why not post them here? I'm not saying the blog will be entirely visual, or necessarily go beyond the usual small illustration at the top of each post. But I now have the inspiration to do with the page and the blog post box what I will.

(For more pages from Lowry's journals, see the Smithsonian page, Journal 101.)

Friday, October 23, 2009

The new for blogs?

I got this strange email today:

This is Shiela from
We stumbled on your blog while searching for Hp Ink Cartridges related information. We operate the largest hp cartridges website featuring more than 30,000+ blogs. Our site averages 200,000+ uniques visitors per month. As a kind note We have featured your blog at We would be grateful if you could add the following details to your blogs main page.
Looking forward for your confirmation.

I don't remember ever mentioning HP Ink Cartridges on this blog—could they know that I have an HP printer? More likely, they are writing this message to any blog they can find on the Web and the gullible blogger, like me, checks out the site. I had a momentary hope that maybe HP had created a blog awards web site and I had been chosen for it, but a quick look at their ".org" site revealed it to be a commercial enterprise selling ink jet cartridges. Perhaps such gullible optimism accounts for their 200,000+ unique visitors a month.

My blog wasn't actually listed on their site although there were plenty of other blogs there already, from the "DIY Poetry Publishing" blog to the "Drugstore Divas" blog: "Life is expensive; toothpaste shouldnt be." I'm supposing Writing Home won't be among them unless I create a link to the HP ink web site, but that's not going to happen. Here's hoping this post does not give them any additional traffic!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Local is the new word in journalism

This is my first post that is here mostly to offer links to sources on a particular topic. (See previous post for more info).

Although I consider myself a creative writer, I have an ongoing interest in newspapers because I used to (and probably subconsciously still) think of them a backup plan: if I suddenly had to make some money, I could dust off my clips and walk them around to newspaper offices, offering to freelance. You tell me to write about something and I can usually deliver, no matter how little I know about the topic beforehand. It worked twice, in two different states in the 1980s, but I should know better than to think it will work now.

Or maybe there is still work in newspapers—just unpaid or poorly paid, compared to years past. Some recent articles I've run into have discussed the trend toward local news and local blogging.

• Maybe I'm a little behind on this trend, but the first article I saw about the local trend in a major publication (not just as a blogger's fantasy) was the article (Newsweek, Oct. 12, 2009), which discusses how citizen journalists/bloggers are stepping in to cover outburb communities abandoned by big-city newspapers. Some of the ventures have been launched by news companies themselves, like the New York Times. The article uses terms like "hyper-local journalism" and "journo-bloggers"—I'm not sure these are new terms of art, or were just made up by the writer.

• Then a few day's later, on Oct. 19th, the Washington Post rolled out a total redesign, along with a print "Redesign Owner's Manual." Two of the manual's eight pages are devoted to the Post's new Local emphasis: one page is about the Post's new "Local Living" section (which rolls in its former, separate Home and county weekly sections, saving paper and print) and the other about "A new local home page." The new Local web page can be set up to be the user's entry way into the rest of the Post, with zip code set-up for weather and a way to format the page to display headlines from your chosen area and areas of interest (e.g., The District, Maryland, Schools, Crime, Obituaries, Religion).

[The irony here is that I looked at the web page, but then had to go back to the print manual in order to figure out how to format the page. It was a lot easier to figure out using the print write-up vs. the bald site itself.]

• The next day, NPR's Diane Rehm Show discussed New Business Models for Journalism. Forty-one minutes into the show, Rehm asks Arianna Huffington what the Huffington Post is doing to "address the local issues." Huffington says that the H. Post has launched Denver, New York, Chicago sections, to offer aggregate local news by making partnerships with local newspapers (linking to their news sites), and by using local bloggers and citizen journalists. (Sounds like unpaid or low paid work to me.)

BTW, the Huffington Post has been looking at the topic of the evolution/death of newspapers for awhile, but can't seem to make up their minds what to call the trend. They offer these categories (some with only one article each):

- The Reconstruction of American Journalism

- Death of Print

- Death of Newspapers

- Newspaper Decline


Dare I say it? The H. Post needs to hire a librarian to firm up the categories and make the site more searchable. Perhaps that is where my next I'm-really-desperate-for-money news job is.

Collecting a virtual library for my readers and me

I've been collecting links and articles over the last several months on topics that interest me, particularly those that I keep meaning to write about for the blog. But it occurred to me today that I could just post the links with minimal description, and make them findable under particular categories. For instance, I've bookmarked a few articles recently on the fate of newspapers; rather than try to add my own cry to the crescendoing dirge for newspapers, I'll just put them in a post indexed "newspapers."

To be honest, I'm doing this mostly for my own benefit, so that I can find things later, whether to re-read them more intently or to visit them for the first time. And doing this will help plump up my somewhat anemic "Special Features" section under "Writers Resources" and "Musings on Newspapers."

I still intend to write an essay a week, so this will an occasional supplement to my other postings.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

"Lost" in soap operas and snow globes

I used to watch soap operas, mostly because they would be on when I visited my spinster aunts, Maxie and Lola Belle. I loved the juxtaposition of these southern women primly eating at TV trays while the actors on the screen were kissing feverishly and ripping off their clothes. Spouses divorced and remarried repeatedly, children were born and grew up in a week, ex-lovers came back into town looking completely different. None of it seemed implausible if you watched it long enough.

I also, secretly and occasionally, watched the “Young and the Restless” and “As the World Turns” on my own because it gave me something to talk about with my aunts. But I also watched with a writer’s curiosity, wondering how the current story lines were going to evolve, which characters would drop out and which would become primary, and who would be sleeping with whom in the next year.

Yet the thing I hated about the soaps was what I call “deus ex soap opera,” where a character would come back from the dead, or his or her strange behavior could be explained by amnesia or an impersonating, separated-at-birth twin. I just thought it was lazy on the part of the writers and was something that even more forgiving viewers like my aunts disliked.

I don’t watch soap operas these days because I just can’t commit to any television program that regularly, but there are some evening shows that intrigue me in the same way. I’m speaking particularly about the last season of “Lost.” I’ve not been much of a Lost fan until now, but I want to know how they’re going to tie up the multiple and weird story lines in this last season. If they pull a lazy “it was all a dream,” or “we’re all dead and stuck in purgatory” ending I imagine that I will be one of furious millions. Maybe there is a genius deus ex machina out there that will explain the mystery of the island and The Others and the polar bear and the smoke. The problem is that the writers have spent the last four years adding on so many creepy characters and coincidences that I’m not sure they can ever be tied or tidied up.

I watched nearly every episode of Felicity, a show J.J. Abrams created prior to Lost. So I remember the whole last half of the last season, when Felicity went back in time and was able to start her freshman year over again just so she could choose Noel over Ben. On the very last episode of the series, after going back in time has proven to be disastrous, Felicity wakes up from a long and fitful sleep, surrounded by friends at her bedside, like Dorothy back in Kansas. If Jack on Lost wakes up from a bad dream or stares into a snow globe of a tropical scene, a la St. Elsewhere, it will not only make for bad television and an unsatisfied audience, but will be a defeat for writers everywhere. We'd better not see the sudden appearance of his evil twin, back from the dead, either, or we're likely to toss our snow globes at the TV screen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Do we need to know who they sleep with, and what writers are really like?

A few weeks into my first English literature class in college, I raised my hand one day and naively asked the professor if D.H. Lawrence had been bisexual.

I was totally inexperienced at the time, so who was doing what and how they were doing it was of near-constant concern to me. I also thought that maybe I was the only person in the class who knew this interesting fact about D.H. Lawrence, which I had uncovered in one of my late-night wanderings in the college library. (This was also in North Carolina, at a time when no one at the college was “out.”)

Perhaps the professor had heard this question in previous classes from other equally naive young women, or perhaps I had interrupted a particularly important lecture that day (or, perhaps, he was a closeted gay man, which I would never have thought to imagine). He slammed down his notes.

“OK, Ms. Blevins, let’s just get this out of the way right now. Stand up please.”

He took up his copy of the Norton Anthology and started to thumb through it. “Lord Byron—a homosexual. Oscar Wilde—oh yes, he was homosexual. Walt Whitman—probably a bisexual.”

I started to creep back in my chair, but the professor said, “But we’re not done here. Gertrude Stein—lesbian. Ernest Hemingway—he liked women. Tennessee Williams—definitely and positively a homosexual.”

Red-faced I continued to stand while my classmates gazed at me in amusement. Until that moment, I think I had asked reasonably smart questions and perhaps they were happy to see me cut down to size; I was no longer in contention to be a teacher’s favorite.

“Is that enough? Have I satisfied your curiosity?” he said after he continued through to the end. “Now,” he said, motioning me to sit down, “has this served any real purpose other than to waste class time today?”

“Well...” I started to say that maybe it is important to know a little about the personal lives of writers just so you’ll know why they wrote what they wrote and the way they wrote it, but I stopped myself. “No sir.”

“Good,” he said. “Now let’s get back to what’s really important.”

I’ve been thinking about that embarrassing moment recently as I continue to plough through the Collected Short Stories of John Cheever. How can what’s going on in your life not affect your fiction, or the topics of your fiction?

The more you read a particular writer, the more you can often detect a theme of interest or a subject that’s gone back to again and again, however faint the repetition. With some writers, it’s easy to detect—Jane Austen never married and you can sense that ache for love and partnership in her books, especially in “Persuasion.” Kurt Vonnegut lived through the bombing of Dresden as a POW, and there’s always a sense of the absurdity and horror of life in all his books.

But I wonder about the writers whose personal lives I don’t know that much about. Alice Munro returns to the theme of infidelity over and over in her short stories and I wonder why. Should I wonder why? Will it give me any greater perception of what she is trying to convey if I find out more about why her first marriage broke up? Or does she write about infidelity (versus Austen writing about finding a good marriage) because it’s something contemporary married women have as a possibility now, whether pursued or not?

More troubling for me is the knowledge, revealed after his death, that John Cheever was a bisexual. Is that part of the reason why so many of the married men in his short stories are unhappy and feel trapped? And what about the female character in “Torch Song” who sucks the life out of men? Is that what Cheever subconsciously thought that women do to men in real life, or was it a fictional device in this one story?

I am raising my hand here, already thinking that I should put it right down and stick my nose back in my book.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Talking to myself

I usually write more when I am alone. That's when I need it more.

I crave some kind of a dialogue, no matter what circumstance I am in. And I have those dialogues on a daily basis—with my daughter as she gets ready for school, with my family at the dinner table as we share the events of our days, with my husband whispering at night when we are going to sleep.

But when I lived alone or with housemates in and out, I had only my notebook at night. And so I spoke there. I took time to write down my dreams or to explain my romantic preoccupations, trying to figure out all possible outcomes, even with men who hardly noticed me. I luxuriously wrote friends long letters by hand.

When I was even younger, living at home, I wrote towards my projected future, to my future self. I spoke to myself as my own confidant since no one around me seemed like me. I thought I had deeper thoughts than anyone else because I wrote them down—or that I had to write because my thoughts were so deep they couldn’t stay buried within me. It was a sacred sharing, which also kept me from feeling so alone and scared.

My writing now is less from immediate loneliness. I have the luxury of having a place in the world, even if my belonging is confined to the half-acre of our home. In cities and even out in this neighborhood, I’m not so sure that I really belong there, though it’s not as important to me now as it was when I was young and unanchored.

So, the question emerges, why do I still need to write? Do all writers have a soul loneliness that only writing, for some reason, can appease? Is ego always a factor, as it was when I was a teenager sitting in my room writing crappy poetry I thought the world needed to hear?

Perhaps my writing cannot evolve into fiction or publishable non-fiction until I get over the idea that I am sitting here talking to myself, until I can go beyond recording my immediate preoccupations and actions (she wrote, in her journal, an entry I'm now putting on my blog a day later). I'm not sure when something needs to be shown, when I am writing for something or someone beyond myself past, present, or future.

If I feel pressed to show this here, now, it's only because it's been a week since I've put something on this blog. The difference between a blog post and an entry in my journal, though, is that the journal entry can stop whenever—whenever the tea kettle whistles or the phone rings or someone knocks at the door. [The original journal entry ended with the paragraph above, left on an open laptop when the phone rang.] I need an ending here, and an ending is not making itself apparent. The cat is meowing to be let out and I'm starting to crave breakfast. Is that enough?

(Photograph: Self portrait, Santa Cruz, 1983. Copyright Beth Blevins)

Friday, September 25, 2009

The necessity of self-promotion

The Washington Post Style section ran an article yesterday about author Kelly Corrigan who, despite having two books in print, had to cobble together a web site, a trailer, a book tour and other forms of self-promotion, paid entirely out of her own pocket. Apparently, she is not alone.

The article, On Web, A Most Novel Approach, says this is now a common occurrence among not-yet-well-known writers:
Book publishers actively market and promote authors, of course, particularly the big names, but for thousands of writers it's a figure-it-out-yourself world of creating book trailers, Web sites and blogs, social networking and crashing on friends' couches during a tour you arrange.

Strangely, the WP article fails to hyperlink to Corrigan's web site in its online version of the story. It's here: Kelly Corrigan.

After viewing her self-made trailer, I'm a little shocked that it helped further her career. In the first few seconds there is a shot of her dad in bed, with the voice-over saying, "He calls his bed a fart sack..." OK, I'm probably not going to read this book if that is an example of its scintillating prose. But it must have been effective. The Post article says it has been viewed more than 100,000 times, and that it helped lead to her getting a booking on a network morning show.

I've always made a distinction between writers who blog and writers who publish books. There's a little bit of class distinction there, in my mind, despite my being mostly a self-published, Internet-based writer these days. I always figured that a writer in print had MADE it, that they would be taken care of by agents and publishers once in print. This article was disillusioning. Now I see the difference between a blogger like me and a blogger/web site creator like Corrigan is that, while we're both providing our words for free, her web site and blog promote something tangible, which can be purchased, and which can provide her with an income. Her blog is an ongoing advertisement; my blog is what I'm writing right now.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Why I blog

After I published my Popularity post (in which I lamented that stupid videos on YouTube can claim a million viewers in a matter of days while this blog had only had 1,200 hits in a year), a Facebook friend wrote me, saying: "Charles Bukowski wrote an entire poem about how you should only write because you HAVE to - I think that is probably a good enough reason, whether or not anyone else reads or likes it." [I think the poem he referenced is So You Want to Be a Writer.] Perhaps my FB friend was trying to console me, but I found his message a little depressing since Bukowski's poem about writing for the pleasure of writing had obviously been published and was enough-known for someone to reference it.

I knew from the outset that a blog about creativity and writing was not going to garner as many hits as blogs about vacuous celebrities (e.g., TMZ, Perez Hilton, et al). And, to be truthful, I’ve never wanted it to be that popular—if I knew that thousands would read each posting it would probably leave me tongue-tied, frightened of a voracious public appetite.

But since I received his message a few weeks ago, I've been thinking about why I write this blog when I could be doing something else with my time. I've come to realize that the blog serves several purposes for me:

  • It’s an electronic journal, of sorts, much like my Facebook status lines.

  • If it didn’t exist, I might not write at all, for days at a time. There is an artificial deadline hovering over me each week; if I haven’t published a new post by Friday I start feeling an antsy obligation to put up something new.

  • It’s easier for me to justify making time for a blog post than it is for more personal kinds of writing. I would never tell someone that I am going to go and write something in my journal—it’s private and, for some people perhaps, the act of journal writing (rather than mowing one’s lawn or cleaning one’s house, when both obviously need to be done) verges on narcissism or a waste of time. But tell that same person you’re writing for a blog and it seems more concrete, justifiable, with an edge of glamour even. And it’s something I can talk about since it’s public: my blog has a URL (which I sometimes put on my business cards); my journal doesn't.

  • It has given me a compilation of essays (or essay embryos) that I otherwise wouldn’t have. There are 80 posts on this blog right now that would not be here if I'd never created the blog. Having to write something every week often gives me a chance to start riffing on whatever is on my mind at a particular time, capturing thoughts that might have evaporated or evolved differently if I hadn’t put them down when I did.

  • And, it often gives me a respite from my otherwise overly to-do-listed weeks. I found this entry in my journal today, written late summer, which is what prompted me to write this post today:
"How simple it is for me, then, to sit down for an hour a week and write a blog post, then to take a few moments to look for a photo I might use for it, convert it to sepia, and load it up on Blogger. It is a moment of solace and peace. I wish I could have it for more than an hour a week."
(Photograph by Beth Blevins)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

In defense of paper

At a PTA meeting I went to a couple of nights ago, some parents argued that, for ecological reasons, the PTA newsletter should no longer be printed and mailed. They argued that parents should read the newsletter online and not expect a paper copy, which costs the PTA thousands of dollars each year in printing and mailing costs. The counter-argument was that not all parents have computers and/or Internet access. So an ad hoc committee was formed that will look into providing computers to parents who don’t have them in the home. (Although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure that the energy required to manufacture, ship and run a computer is all that much ecologically better, in the long run, than printing and mailing a bi-monthly newsletter).

I receive the PTA newsletter by email because it arrives a week earlier that way, but I don’t want to receive all my news—or all the words I read—this way. The primary reason is that it hurts my neck to read at the computer for long stretches of time. And online text glows, which never feels natural to me. Stare at it too long and I start getting eyestrain and an ache in my forehead. I never had a headache in my life—or neck problems—until I started to use a computer in the late 1980s.

If everything goes online, I’m afraid readers of the future will be awkward head-jutting, Advil-popping creatures tethered to the computer screen (since that will be their only access to any kind of writing and all measures of entertainment), unable to move away since their physical misery will keep them from wanting to get up.

Of course, there are portable devices that lack the glow of a computer screen, and which you can read as you eat breakfast, but as I said in a previous post, unless the Kindle becomes so cheap I can buy it at the Dollar Store, where I buy my sunglasses, I’m not likely to own one. Leaving the paper Style section of the Washington Post behind on your Metro seat is no big deal; reading it on a Kindle and leaving the Kindle on your Metro seat is nearly tragic, given its current cost.

But beyond cost and discomfort, I would miss paper because books and magazines are more inviting to me than hyperlinks. Sure there are splashy web pages, but looking at a publication online, I miss the typical Table of Contents, being able to physically thumb through a magazine, letting things catch my eye. More than anything, I'd miss layouts—I rarely see an online layout that compares to a great two-page spread.

And, since I have chosen what comes into my home, the books and magazines I own or borrow from the library usually have more authority than whatever pops up in a Google answer. One of the best books I own is The Indoor Kitchen Garden, which I bought 20 years ago—$14.95 seemed so extravagant at the time. I used it to start an herb garden in my high-rise, no balcony apartment in D.C. and still use it to figure out what plants can go on my deck in containers. Plant by plant, it tells me how big the pot must be to provide for the roots, what the soil pH should be, etc. I’ve tried to find similar information on the Internet but when I type in “basil,” I’m given hundreds of pages, most not specific to container gardening, many written with god-knows what expertise. I can try to sift through and navigate the many possibilities on the Internet, or simply go to my bookshelf, pull down my well-worn book, and have my answer in a just a minute.

Postscript: I wrote this on my laptop a couple of days ago and uploaded it today, finally realizing the irony of complaining about reading on the Internet via a blog post that I now hope people will read on... the Internet.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Writer Profile: Dustin Beall Smith

Dustin Beall Smith has been many things—a skydiver (in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Smith helped pioneer sport parachuting in the United States); a college dropout; a political campaign worker (he worked as an advance man for Robert Kennedy’s senatorial campaign and for the Norman Mailer-Jimmy Breslin mayoral campaign); and a key grip in the film industry (see Dustin Smith at the Internet Movie Database). He currently teaches writing at Gettysburg College.

Smith’s work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, BackStage, The Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, the Louisville Review, the New York Times Magazine, Quarto, River Teeth, The Sun, Writing on the Edge, and elsewhere. His honors include the Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in Nonfiction for his book, Key Grip. A Memoir of Endless Consequences; fellowships in 1995 and 1996 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Knowing his past experience as a skydiver and a member of the film industry, I was expecting someone who was arrogant and overtly masculine when I met him at the Conversations and Connections conference in D.C. last April. Instead, I discovered a gentle, humorous man who was willing to talk to me about writing and life as a writer even though I am not well-published, nor writing all that much these days. (We were introduced by his partner, Kim Dana Kupperman, an old college friend of mine.) He is also a patient man—this interview began by email prior to that in-person meeting, and continued in bits and spurts for a few months after.

For more on Dusty, and to see samples of his work, see his web site:
Dustin Beall Smith.

Why are you a writer?

I don’t think I have a choice in the matter. It seems to be in my DNA, even when I’m not honoring the gift—or the proclivity, I should say. There are times I envy people who have no need to write—wrongly, of course, since they have other needs. My own need comes from a basic inability to make sense of the world in any other way than writing about it. If I go for long periods of time without writing, I tend to sink into a curmudgeonly mood. My focus then tends to become negative. When I write, especially about things that disturb me, I often discover a brighter, more optimistic side to myself—one that involves more generosity of spirit. Humor informs me, whereas, without writing, depression is always lurking in the wings.

In your book, Key Grip, you describe yourself as being a writer-wannabe for many years. Now you teach writing, and you have a book in print. Was there a moment when you knew you were writing for real, or was it a gradual transformation? Was earning an MFA part of that transformation?

It was a gradual transformation, actually, beginning with a piece I published in the New York Times magazine over twenty years ago. Appearing in that venue was enormously energizing—it has over a million readers—and I was so taken with my success that I began immediately to write a novel. That project turned out to be a five-year-long detour from autobiographical writing, and because I was still working long hours on movies, I often felt like I was drowning. Not until I entered the MFA program at Columbia did believe I was writing for real—that I somehow “belonged” in the writing community. It helps to believe you have an audience—which is to say that you have an effect as a writer. Breaking into the ranks of published writers has always been a daunting task, but more so today than ever, I think. The world is full. With fewer and fewer high-profile publishing venues, and more and more writers looking to publish, the MFA system—its teachers and its students—has helped absorb the overflow by providing the community—the network—the audience.

Many of the chapters in Key Grip were first published separately as pieces in different publications. When did you start to think about compiling them into a book—and, did it require any rewriting (for transitions, etc.)?

The chapters in Key Grip were first published as discrete personal and autobiographical essays. They are arranged in reverse chronological order, honoring the Native American concept of the heyoka—the sacred clown, who does everything backwards in his performance (a subject discussed in the first essay). I submitted the collection as a “memoir-in-essays,” but Houghton Mifflin published it simply as a memoir, I guess because essays scare away readers. I intended it to be a perverse collection, one that forced the reader to connect some dots, rather than a straight-forward beginning-to-end description of my life. My life has been episodic; the book is episodic. My task in putting the collection together was basically to remove repetitive autobiographical material, and to solve the problems that arose from reverse chronology. The book can be picked up at any point. It can even be read backwards—something a few of my students did, to their apparent satisfaction.

What are you writing now?

I am now chomping at the edges of another memoir, this one having to do with my experience of coming to the profession of teaching, late in life—how I got here, what informs me as a teacher, the pleasures and vagaries of connecting with young people, the bittersweet task of passing the torch—the flame. It probably won’t be composed of discrete essays, and might well turn out to be anecdotal and chatty. I’m still looking for the right format. I like small books, but brevity is vastly harder than long-windedness. So much is being written these days. I just want to fit in edgewise somewhere. I’m just finishing rewrites of a 400-page novel, and hoping to get that out soon—even though the market is terrible. For me, writing fiction is a wonderful balance to writing nonfiction. Summer is a blessing: it’s mine, mine, mine. No student work to read, just my own feeble drafts.

What other types of writing have you done? Do you feel established with memoir, or are you itching to try new genres/types of writing?

I’ve gone through stages where poetry bubbles up in me, but I’ve never been happy with those results. I rework my poetry to death. And I wrote a screenplay that never got produced—about a college professor who gets involved in a terrorist plot to shut down America (in the early 1990s). I still toy with revisiting these genres, perhaps because I also teach them, but I think my real voice emerges when I write directly about my own experience, in relation to some larger theme. I can tell a story. And I have stories to tell.

Do you ever write with a target publication in mind, or do you only start to look for markets after a piece is completed?

I do now, but only if I’ve published there before, or if the editors have asked for more material. Generally, I think it’s a bad idea to put the cart before the horse. You are your own first (and best) audience. Writing specifically for The New Yorker, say, could cause you to pander to an imaginary audience (who is The New Yorker, really?) rather than to write from the heart in a focused, unself-conscious manner.

The piece I published in the NYT Magazine was about drinking and failure and promise. I had to write that piece. Its publication was just the icing. There’s a lesson there: if the voice is right, it will be heard. If I’d had a million magazine readers in mind when writing about failure, I’d have failed, I’m sure. Better just to write what you have to write, making urgent the subject, not the publication—or the exposure, or (rarely) the money.

How did you get that piece published?

I happened to be cutting public trails with a guy who lived in my town, and I got to talking about this little piece I’d written. He asked to see it. The next day, he called me and asked if I’d mind if he passed it along to his boss, the editor of the Magazine. A few days after that, his boss passed it down to another editor, with the dictate: publish this. My exhilaration was entire, I can tell you, but the success also felt appropriate: I’d had to examine my failure before I could achieve any success.

Do you have a schedule for writing (daily, weekly, monthly)? Or, how do you set time aside for writing?

I’m almost afraid to answer this question honestly, for fear of being a bad influence on writers seeking role models. But the truth is that I don’t have a schedule at all. Writing either takes center stage and dictates that I do little else with my day, or it stands smoldering in the corner like some reprimanded child—always nagging at my consciousness. To be fair, I also teach, and my teaching schedule changes every semester, so that dictates my schedule to some degree. In any case, I’m a believer that not writing is often as important as writing (Is it possible to write too much?), in the same way that leaving a productive field fallow for a season produces a greater yield in the long run.

Has working in the film industry affected your writing in any way (other than it being a subject of some of your memoir pieces)? For instance, does that experience help you see things visually, or to pay more attention to detail?

Work in the film industry is episodic; you’re always on to the next project. In that sense, it mimics writing. The old saying that you’re only as good as your last job holds true for writing, too. Some projects work, some work better than others; some fail. You move on. The secret is to move on: to get acquainted with the rhythm of beginnings, middles and ends. I believe we write against a backdrop of cosmic loneliness, perhaps even to relieve that loneliness. The bittersweet feeling that accompanies the wrapping-up of a film mimics the bitter-sweetness that accompanies publication. Success is great, but it isn’t immortality—even for immortal writers. It is impermanent and fleeting. Keep beginning…that’s the answer. That’s why the “beginning” of Key Grip comes at the end.

Does teaching writing help your writing?

Teaching helps to remind a writer that writing is all about process. That’s something we tend to forget, especially after a book is published and the book tour is done, and suddenly you’re staring at a blank page again. We begin with nothing, then suddenly a voice descends and we have an opening—an urgency of some kind—and from there on, it’s all just hard work. What feels good at the end of the day, often feels terrible the next morning. But knowing that it will work is invaluable. When you watch this struggle with creativity in your students, you learn to be more forgiving of yourself, more tolerant of process, less wowed by and concerned about the polished product. Antonio Porchia once wrote that nothing that breathes is complete. That’s the beauty of writing—and the payoff of teaching writing—watching the incomplete self unfold on the page.

If your house was burning down and you had to grab one or two things you’ve written (not a hard disk, but actual things on paper) what would they be?

No question, I’d grab the two large boxes containing my fifty-odd notebooks. Not because they contain special writing or special accounts of what I’ve done and where I’ve been, but because they contain my dreams. I’ve lived a life guided by dreams. Dreams are the ultimate nonfiction—perhaps the ultimate biography.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Facebook as fodder for fiction

[This is the second in what may be an ongoing series on Facebook for writers].

"It's complicated."

When someone's relationship status on Facebook changes from "In a relationship"(or, perhaps more tragically, "Married"), there is a short story there, both obvious and hidden. I'm surprised that friends bare themselves so nakedly in this way, even more surprised when strangers do.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who has gone through Facebook looking for the open-to-the-universe pages of people I barely know or don't know at all. The excuse I have at-ready is that I am a writer—I am plumbing the depths and superficialities of modern life and romance, as well as seeing:
  • what people do in their spare time;
  • what they believe in or don't believe in, who they voted for;
  • what books or concerts they consider the most important;
  • what old TV shows people are watching on DVD.
And to display some of my own honesty, of course, I'm also seeing what old boyfriends and classmates have done with themselves and/or what they look like now.

But the thought occurred to me the other day: Facebook is a fabulous tool for fiction writers because there are a million names there with pictures attached to them, and sometimes there are life summaries, freely available to all.

For instance, if you were writing a short story set in Oklahoma City and you wanted to name your main character "Chris Palmer," you can search for Chris Palmer of Oklahoma City (as I did just now), and there he is. I suppose you could still name your character "Chris Palmer" but you might want to switch cities, or you might at least make him look different than the young man with a crewcut I happened to find in FB just now.

Or, what if you want to include in your story a 30ish woman with black hair and blue eyes. By hyperlinking through friends' or random Facebook pages, you should be able to find someone who looks like what you imagine who is telling the world her taste in music, movies, etc. She could enter your short story, with some of her real-life personality intact (but don't use her real name), or mixed in with aspects of other people, perhaps also randomly chosen.

But—and there is almost always a but on the Internet—FB is both a potential idea-generating wonderland, and a labyrinth of links, updates and invitations. On one's Home page, especially when you have more than 100 friends or your friends frequently update, a cacophony of voices rises daily, which a writer might drown in. Writing is lonely work and it's seductive to have so many "friends" trying to talk to you, making themselves available to read what you write without fear of rejection, or having to wait months for a response. And, like other web sites, accessing FB on the same computer you use to write means that it is sometimes hard to pull away, to make the transition from absorbing text to producing it.

So, I offer a cautious endorsement of FB as a tool for writers. Like wine, it can be beneficial in small doses, but detrimental if you drink too much.


1. Choose a day at random; write down, or cut and paste, the descriptions in the status lines of all of your friends. Rearrange and use to compose a poem, or make each status line the start of a paragraph in a short-short story.

2. Random FB short story: Take 3 friends. Hyperlink 3 times away from their FB pages (click on the third friend on their FB page; then click on their third friend; then click on their third friend). Use the first and/or last names of the people you find as characters in a short story. Use real life personalities or descriptions of their appearance (but mix up so the first person's description matches the second person's name, etc., and no real person's name is linked with a real person's looks or hobbies).

3. Write a short story titled "It's Complicated." Base it on any non-friend's FB page you find with that in the status line, or just make up something. Write it in the form of reverse chronological FB status lines.

P.S. If there are writers already producing FB-based work that has gotten the attention of serious publications, please let me know by writing me at: thebethblevinsATgmailDOTcom. I might mention/examine it in a future post.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Facebook: Time-wasting guilty pleasure, or writer’s oasis?

Do you ever sneak onto Facebook, guilty that the tiny amount of time you linger there might have been better spent composing haikus or writing postcards?

I’m here to tell you that such guilt is unnecessary if you can view Facebook as a potential writer’s resource. Not only can you use FB without guilt, you can even feel justified in using it on a regular basis.

I’m not saying that you should go on and spend hours each day taking every FB quiz or playing every FB game that comes along. (Although, occasionally, you'll need to know such valuable information as your Gilligan's Island character.)

There are several uses I’ve found for Facebook. The first, and the most compelling for me is:

Facebook as an electronic diary

A few weeks ago, I was feeling glum that I hadn’t written a journal entry in months, not even in the pocket-size calendar I’d bought to record the occasional minutiae of daily life. (I always miss this stuff when I don’t write it down, months down the road. I find it comforting, in retrospect, to see what I was doing or thinking on a given day. Such info is also handy for writers who want to write about a real and particular day in the past.)

Then I realized I’ve been keeping an ongoing, electronic journal on FB through postings on the status line (aka the “What’s on your mind?” box). Of course, some of the time, I’ve attempted to be clever, but, more often, I’ve written down what I’m doing, much as I would in a regular journal, although, of course, more succinctly. Status lines, when taken as a cumulative whole, can reflect natural and cyclical patterns, from hot, humid days to snowed-in January afternoons.

And keeping a FB-based electronic journal doesn't require a lot of time. Most days, I go in, do my two minutes in FB to update my status and to see who/what else pops up on my Home page, and then I go off.

Here are some recent entries/comments. I’m posting them here mostly to show that none of these is especially profound. If I tried to be profound, I’d never post anything:

likes this cool, cloud-covered, humid morning.
August 14 at 9:08am

watched as a long black snake slowly slithered down the window ledge this morning.
July 30 at 4:44pm

lingering by the window, waiting for the sudden red buds on her hibiscus to bloom at any moment.
July 23 at 10:04am

is re-reading the Collected Stories of John Cheever, looking for a happy ending.
July 14 at 12:44pm

is going to D-Day beaches today
June 28

saw the sun for five minutes this morning. Oh well, at least I'm saving money on sunscreen.
May 6 at 11:24am

is watching the clouds roll by (the weather is changing here every five minutes)
April 3 at 2:04pm

spent the afternoon cleaning dead growth out of the herb garden in 70 degree weather—just 4 days after sledding in the backyard
March 7 at 7:35pm

Helpful hint:
If you decide to do this, you might want to download/keep your status lines every 2-3 months. In attempting to go back five months, I had to scroll down through screen after screen, and click on "Older Posts" at the bottom of the page. As the updates got older, FB became less cooperative, often not uploading the older posts the first one or two times I clicked on it.

1. Gather up all your status lines from the last six months. Copy into a word processing program. Put in page breaks between months. Add other things to each page, whether from a paper calendar, an email or a paper journal, trying to arrange by date. Print and put in a notebook marked "Journal."

2. Gather up your status lines from 2-3 computer screens. Copy them into a word processing program. Add only a sentence between each and try to compose the opening page of a short story, or a poem.

NEXT POST: Facebook profile pages as fodder for fiction

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Book of changes

The day after I wrote my last post in the DMV, I "threw" the I Ching while sitting in the car on the way to North Carolina, to ask why I haven't been able to write this summer. "Threw" is a relative term here. In the past, one would throw three pennies to determine whether the lines in the I Ching hexagram were yin or yang/broken or unbroken; and, in the distant past, one threw yarrow stalks. But I was actually just picking cards from the deck that came with my recently-purchased "The Lost Art of I Ching" set.

Perhaps I should offer a disclaimer here: I approach fortune-telling sources like the I Ching and tarot cards with a creative and open (but hopefully not gullible) mindset. I like how ideas and images can materialize where there was only a blank table before. I think such tools can help people—especially creative people—make decisions, not by any direct advice, but with whatever pops up in the subconscious as a result. If you laugh at the results because they seem ridiculous, that in itself is your answer. Such a reaction can perk up the mind to come up with less ridiculous possibilities.

It's been years since I threw the I Ching. I occasionally threw pennies in my dorm room, hoping for answers to my love life, or lack thereof, but was turned off to the I Ching a few years later when some people I knew in Santa Cruz consulted it day and night, for guidance on every action they were supposed to take. But I liked the look of this small boxed set when I saw it in the bookstore, and I had a hankering to consult something beyond my usual circle about my creative frustrations: at $7.95, it was cheaper than going to a therapist.

My card set advised me to state my question clearly and to select two cards: the first card would be to answer my question; the second would be how the answer would be transformed. Somehow, in my mind (I can't find it in the book now), I thought I was supposed to select a third card, for the question unasked, which I did.

Q. When am I going to have the time to write? What should I be doing right now about that?

Card One:


Bide your time. Attend to necessities.

Card Two (transformation/change):


Create alliances and systems of mutual support. Strengthen bonds, connections, and relationships.

Card Three (the unasked question):


Allow attraction to guide you. Learn from all you encounter.

These results pleased me, and gave me a sense of ease about my busy, errand- and work-filled summer. I am attending to necessities, as I should be. At the same time, I realized I need to start looking for systems of mutual support, which, for me, means attending a writer's workshop and/or meeting other writers as soon as possible.

I have no itch to consult the I Ching again, anytime soon, but I'm glad it's there, in my nightstand, if I need it.

Postscript: I thought that my advice to writers to consult the I Ching for questions about creativity was going to be new and unique; and, I had planned to write a post in the near future about using the I Ching and other forms of randomness/divination (like randomly selecting pages in books) to help writers come up with story ideas. But it turns out that at least two other writers have beaten me to it. I googled "I Ching and writers" just now and found two books on this topic:

(I don't know whether these are worthwhile books or not; I'm just noting their titles.)

There is probably, also, somewhere a published story or a poem based on I Ching hexagrams or a particular I Ching reading, which I've also thought about doing. I suppose that just because it has already been written about or may have been done already, that's no reason not to do it again, or differently. I realize also that the possibility that what you're writing has already been used/discussed/approached is something all writers must face in everything they undertake, but that they're never going to write at all if they think about it too much.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The once-a-week writer, more or less

In my last post, I described feeling crazy unless I write on a regular basis. And then I realized, after I uploaded it to the cyberworld, that it was the only thing I'd written in a week.

It's been like that all summer. Not only have I not gotten to write much, but I haven't even gotten to some of the necessary/piddly stuff on my To Do list from early July. My closet is crammed with things I haven't had time to put away and I've been grabbing whatever shirts and pants are most accessible when I get dressed.

This busyness of adulthood is not something I could have imagined in the humid, lazy summers of my youth, when I could read a book a day, and lay in the grass staring at the clouds rolling by without anyone scheduling me to be somewhere, nor with any trace of guilt about needing to do something else.

Now I look at the clouds through the car window when I go somewhere, or at the pool, while watching my daughter, scanning the sky occasionally for storm clouds.

I don't know why this summer has seemed busier than summers past. I'd hate to think that it's because I spent two weeks in France at the end of June and I'm having to pay for the time lost the rest of the summer. I had editing and volunteer work to attend to, while my daughter was in camp for only a week—which meant that during those five, lovely free hours each day, when I went to the computer it was not my own words I was working on; I had to suppress the flow of thoughts that wanted to come out of me. (Even when I watch TV late at night, it is in short spurts, my mind too tired to do anything creative).

Seeing my busy-ness, my teenage son remarked a few days ago, "It really must suck to be an adult." Realizing this, he seems to be trying to make the most of what is perhaps his last unscheduled, work-free summer. I hear him typing at the computer, late at night, long after the Internet has been turned off for the evening.

I wrote this originally on a notepad, with a gel pen, while sitting at the DMV, waiting for my son to take his test to get his learner's permit. I may be the only person here glad for the wait because it's the first time in a week that I've had spare time and no excuse not to write.

(written August 6, typed into Blogger August 11)

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The writer's eternal question

It's the eternal question: do I pay bills, or write a blog post? Leave the dishes in the sink, or write a journal entry? Do laundry, or start a short story?

Sometimes, I choose to ignore all the petty little things that compose a household, and then someone informs me (usually the very morning they need it, like this morning) that they don't have clean socks or clean underwear. Or someone walks into my dusty house and I can almost hear their silent tsk-tsking.

I imagine this is why there were so few female writers in the past, at least among the lower classes, because they had no one to wash their laundry or clean their dishes. Writing used to be a luxury for women; maybe it still is.

I made a joke out of this in a very small magazine, in a special issue called The Lost Poetry of Women (and other people). [The issue was published 15 years ago, so obviously this has been a recurring theme in my life].

In one piece in that issue, Mrs. Gautama Buddha complained,

I hear you are growing fat. What else happens to a man
who sits around doing nothing all day?

In another piece, "The Annotated Shopping Lists of J.R. Smith," the housewife Jane Reed Smith's shopping lists from the 1950s were mined for the poetry she scribbled in the margins, such as:

I just know that, sometimes, the dishes be damned, I need to write, or I start to feel an underlying grumpiness that's almost like a bad taste in my mouth. If the days become weeks, I almost feel that I'm going crazy. I've been like this since I was a teenager, when I was stirred to write bad poetry and narcissistic journal entries in the quiet of my room late at night.

I finally recognize and acknowledge that I've got to express myself in written words on a regular basis–talking is never enough. Other forms of creativity can tide me over for a few days, but I always feel an urge to get back to writing, like a need to get back home, to the natural home for my thoughts.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


“Had-i-lay, did-i-lay, had-i-lay, pood-i-lay.”

These words don’t seem significant, yet nearly five million people have tuned in on youtube to see a young man utter this gibberish.

This is not the kind of video I normally seek out and I wouldn’t have known about it unless the young man in it, Brandon Hardesty, was featured on a recent cover of the Washington Post Magazine.

The same week the article came out about the popularity of Hardesty’s “Strange Faces and Noises I Can Make” video, my blog counter registered 1,200 hits. That’s 1,200 hits in 13 months; 1,200 hits for 66 posts, sometimes made with thought and great care, vs. millions of hits for one video made in a matter of minutes.

I have never assumed I can win over the eyeballs that watch videos of cute cats or naked sportscasters or goofy teenagers. The difference, of course, is between readers and audience. Reading requires thought, perhaps even a delayed gratification. Watching a video just requires a couple of minutes of your time. And it’s hard to imagine an essay going viral.

In other words, I am trying to console myself with the idea that I am seeking quality of readership vs. quantity. But it’s not entirely true. I still expected that more people would have read my blog by now—it’s been around for almost 15 months.

Yet, truth be told, I’ve done little to promote it, other than having it listed on a couple of web sites for writers’ organizations. I’d rather spend my small amount of free time each week writing it rather than advertising it. And I don’t know how to advertise it anyway, or how to help people find it other than sometimes posting links to it on my Facebook status line.

It goes to a deeper problem I’ve always faced as a writer—do I write for myself, or for an audience? I feel a deep satisfaction when I’m able to complete a story or essay/blog post; it feels like an accomplishment in and of itself. But there’s always another feeling there alongside it, a tiny discontent that can only be appeased if I know that the thing I have created has been seen.

So, I am looking for validation, no matter how happy the process of writing itself makes me. Not fame, but a recognition, a visibility. Without that validation, there’s always a little bit of melancholy, perhaps even a small amount of bitterness, in everything I write.

I don’t think my lack of popularity in high school can be blamed for this, though perhaps it feeds into it a tiny bit, like so many other slights in the whole history of my life, all these things feeding into what it is that makes me a writer. Without that urge for validity, maybe most writers wouldn’t write in the first place. Without that urge, I would write, but the things that I write would be entirely tucked in my drawers and never seen, not even here.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The recession blues, all over again

Back in 1982 and 1983, I was making my slow way out of college. I wasn’t in a rush because I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do with myself once I was officially graduated and I didn’t want to leave Santa Cruz. My undergraduate thesis (on the Fourth Book of the Aeneid) was my excuse for lingering in paradise for another year, though I ended up expending more energy on scrounging money for food and rent than I did on research or writing. The thesis itself was written in a flurry, 60 pages on a manual typewriter, typed nearly non-stop the last week of the spring semester, still not totally finished the day I stepped up to the podium on campus in my silver go-go boots and free-box black dress to receive what turned out to be only a roll of paper. The actual degree was mailed to me a few months later, after my advisers had read the thesis and awarded me honors for it.

During those two years of lingering, I worked as a sort-of governess, a housecleaner and a babysitter. I tried to do elder care, which would have garnered me an actual paycheck, but the old lady died the day after I first showed up to her door. (Being Santa Cruz, my sometimes-psychic kundalini yoga teacher unexpectedly came to her house the exact afternoon I did, without my telling him I was going there; it seems he had been her counselor at one time in her life, and he just happened to visit her that day to check on her. He took me aside and whispered to me, “Her aura is black; she will die tonight.” And she did.)

It wasn’t that I hadn’t tried to find meaningful work, or better paying work. But jobs were slim and hard to come by. Paradise had its price. For every job listing, dozens of people showed up. People who were qualified to over-analyze Beckett and Joyce were taking jobs at the campus library or in bookstores—if they were lucky. To get a job at Bookshop Santa Cruz or any of the other independent bookshops around town was a mark of prestige. More likely, those lit majors worked at the bagel bakery or restaurants or, worse, at the cannery or the chewing gum factory. But I couldn’t even get a job as a waitress. I showed up at restaurants, wet from bike rides in winter rainstorms, wearing my thrift store clothing, to receive a firm no. I hadn’t worked as a waitress for a few years, and there were many more people available who wore better clothes and had kept their restaurant resumes active. Or they had connections.

I applied to be a copywriter for a computer software company (turned down immediately when I confessed I’d never used a computer), a waitress at various cafes and restaurants, a bus boy at India Joze (I couldn’t pick up enough weight to manage it), a cook at a tofu burger restaurant. No-no-no. No one wanted me. [That was the year my friend, Chandra, and I made collage postcards that we didn't know how to sell.] At one point, I took a part-time job at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, operating a spinning, tilting ride that played an 8-track tape of Fleetwood Mac over and over, all day long, but I left it to work as a live-in babysitter for a doctor and his wife out in the woods of Soquel, for $300 a month and a small, kitchen-less cabin to live in. That job was washed away when the 1982 winter floods brought mudslides and impassable roads.

I managed to squeak by, my last few months there, until the end of the spring of 1983, but once I finished my thesis, it grew harder and harder to find reasons to stay, especially with most of my friends going on to graduate school or internships and jobs elsewhere, and a new crop of students rushing in. Not knowing what else to do with myself, I followed a boyfriend to Idaho and was surprised that I found work there as a preschool aide and a bookstore clerk (though I only made $4/hour, and had no insurance.)

Maybe it’s always a little difficult to find meaningful or well-paying jobs in a college town because there are so many other students looking for work, and maybe it was doubly difficult in Santa Cruz because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world—redwood forests and fields of wildflowers and grasses, blue beaches below. But the recession of the early 1980s also, surely, played a part in my inability to find a job. Yet, I didn’t know this at the time. I thought that’s the way it would always be for me, never having really actively sought work before—that I was unemployable, and back to my elementary-school standing of being the last kid chosen for the team. The lesson I took from the experience was that writers/artists really don’t make money, no matter what they try to do.

I think about those desperate months every time I read a newspaper article these days that discusses the economy and references 1982 as having the worst unemployment rate since the Great Depression, and thereafter. That recession had a long-lasting effect on me. Whenever I apply for a job, I never assume that I will be hired; I lack the presumption of being wanted. 

I wonder if there are young people going through similar emotions these days, especially writers and artists who are already wondering what they can do in the marketplace with their skills, maybe not wanting to be in the marketplace, anyway, except by necessity. It's hard enough being a writer anytime, but recessions are hard on creative people. It's hard to face rejection in nearly every facet of your life. So, it's especially amazing to witness the people who keep at it, who plug on, year after year, no market ready to welcome them, still somehow sure that what they are doing needs to be done, what they are writing needs to be said.

(Photo--My graduation day, Cowell College, UCSC, 1983).

Friday, July 3, 2009

Solitude vs. the beautiful, chaotic hum

I’ve just returned from being out of the country for two weeks. During that time, I didn’t write anything but a postcard to my mom, assuring her that I was still alive. I attempted to write a couple of short emails to business contacts, when I had a few stolen moments on someone’s computer, but the French keyboard was so frustrating to use that I gave up (or, rather, gqvé up) after a couple of sentences. [A blog post appeared here last week through the miracle of Blogger’s post-dating feature—I’d written it before I left on my trip and it automatically uploaded while I was gone.]

The weird thing was that I didn’t feel a desire or need to write. This is an unusual feeling for me. Since I have known how to use a pencil to shape letters and words, I’ve had a persistent urge to write my thoughts down, though in recent years that urge has been satisfied by writing weekly essays rather than the daily journal updates of my youth.

I wasn’t experiencing any kind of creative constipation, but felt like some other, more visual/experiential part of my brain had been activated. I only wanted to take photos and make short movies of Parisian scenes, and to walk and take it all in—to eat luxurious meals, feel the breeze on my face, listen to street music, smell the pastries and chocolates—without attempting to describe any of it.

Perhaps in order to write about something, a writer must step back, set herself apart from things in order to filter and describe them. But in France, especially on the streets of Paris, I wanted to be a part of the beautiful, chaotic hum. Maybe if I’d spent a few weeks there I would have grown tired of it, or would feel a need to step back and return to the deep solitude I seem to only achieve during the writing process.

Now I am back in my quieter neighborhood, looking out to a narrow forest of oak trees from my bedroom window. My cat purrs on my bed, birds are speaking urgently to their kin outside. It is calm and maybe a little dull, but somehow it is stimulating for me—or is stimulating another part of my brain that was inactive during my European adventure. Thoughts and ideas for essays I could write began pouring out of me the day after I got home, especially after this morning’s walk on the sleepy streets around my house. I am suddenly a homebody, wanting to hang around the house, eat simple salads, pull weeds in my yard, and write. I am no longer yearning for pastries and people-watching on the Metro. I want to belong right now to a large but invisible community that is quiet and shaped by words, to seek immersion in ideas not crowds. I need both things—noise/conversation and quiet/thoughts. Finding the balance is an ongoing event in this writer’s life.

(Photos by Beth Blevins)