>I thought about saving this post for “Wordless Wednesday” and only posting a photograph of my brother, but then I decided that I wanted to make a few comments, so here we are….
Today is the 4th anniversary of my brother’s death. Mike (Johnson) was only 57 when he died of lung cancer on January 30, 2007. I wrote a reflection about his death three years ago, here.
… and a couple of years later, dressed up for a piano recital…. (He was much more gifted than I was. By high school he was playing lead guitar in a band.)
And here we are on my first day at Chastain Junior High (7th grade) where Mike was a 9th grader.
Every year the pain gets worse, rather than better. I’m already on my 3rd glass of wine, just looking at these photographs. Death, and the loss of a loved one, is never easy. But it’s especially painful when there are words that never got spoken. Hugs that never got given. Understanding that came too late. That’s how I’m feeling tonight, as I think about my brother’s death. We were only 15 months apart, and once we survived childhood (we both suffered a lot of emotional and verbal abuse from our mother) we became close friends as teenagers.
In 1970, Mike made it home from the Philippines (Marines) for my wedding. But the decades that followed found us drifting apart, as we chose contrasting lifestyles. We dealt with our “issues” in different ways, and it wasn’t until Mike was on his deathbed (I was with him when he died) that I realized that we might could have helped each other if we had communicated better. If we had been better listeners.
I won’t be driving down to Jackson today, but on my next visit, I plan to stop by Natchez Trace Cemetery and visit his grave again. I’ll pray the Orthodox Prayers for the Dead, and maybe sit on a bench under a nearby tree and just remember him.
I love you, Mike.
>Don’t you love it when you get more than you expected? That’s what happened on Wednesday, when I drove down to Jackson (Mississippi) for my bi-monthly visit with my mother. I often schedule my visits to coincide with literary events, and I saw that Jeannette Walls would be signing and reading at Lemuria Books on Wednesday afternoon. I asked my writing critique buddy, Ellen Ann Fentress, if she would be at the reading and she said yes, and we planned to have dinner afterwords. Good plans which I expected to yield good results, but wow….
First of all, I loved Walls’ first book, The Glass Castle, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading her second one, Half Broke Horses yet, although I purchased it when it came out in 2009. But the fact that she was still touring and reading (to packed houses, like she did at Lemuria last night) fifteen months after the book’s debut is a tribute to its staying power—and hers.
I didn’t expect her to look up from the books she was signing for me and listen—as though there was no one else in line—to my brief personal story of trying to write a memoir and now a novel. She encouraged me on several personal and professional levels, like a life coach and mentor might do.
What I also didn’t expect was the powerful, inspirational talk she gave after her book signing. She didn’t read from either of her books, but talked about both of them and answered questions. Her enthusiasm reminded me of my friend, River Jordan, especially when she talked about “the power of storytelling.” She wrote her memoir, The Glass Castle, in the first person voice of herself as a child, living through a crazy childhood that she doesn’t regret, but for which she is thankful. So when she got ready to write Half Broke Horses—which is really the story of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith—she initially wrote it in first person, thinking she would go back and change it to third person later. But her agent liked it so much this way that she didn’t change it. This left her with a decision to make about genre: she didn’t have enough specific information to stay true to memoir (completely nonfiction) so she did a little genre-bending, calling it a “true life novel.” That was she was able to be “factually honest and emotionally accurate.”
Half Broke Horses is full of those powerful stories she loves to talk about. One that she shared with her readers at Lemuria Wednesday night was about the hearse her grandmother bought and turned into a small school bus to ferry kids through the backroads surrounding their ranch in Arizona. If they got stuck in a ditch, she had the kids get out and push while she gripped the steering wheel and gunned the engine, having everyone say Hail Marys during the process. To encourage them, she’d shout from behind the wheel, “push and pray!” Later she decided to have the hearse double as a taxi to bring in extra money, and she even had to ask her paying customers to get out and push from time to time. She said, “I didn’t make them say Hail Marys, but I used the same line: ‘Push and pray!’”
As if this wonderful experience meeting Jeannette Walls wasn’t enough, my trip yielded more added value. Lemuria Bookstore owner, John Evans, took time to sit down with me over a beer and a glass of wine and “talk shop” about the publishing business. It turned into an interview for my next guest post at Jane Friedman’s Writers’ Digest Blog, “There Are No Rules.” (Watch for it on February 4.) John has been in the book business for 36 years (read his story here) and brings an informed and inspired look at the future of books.
It keeps getting better: a delicious meal at Char (hadn’t been there in years—under new ownership with a new chef) and more inspiration/encouragement from my writing buddy, Ellen Ann. I checked into my hotel around 8:30, ready for a couple of hours of writing before bed. More added value awaited me at a hotel I hadn’t stayed in before. (I published this experience in a Facebook Note, so I apologize if you’ve already read this part.)
When I checked into my hotel, this darling young woman at the front desk asked what the purpose of my visit was. I told her my mother was in a nursing home here and that I drive down from Memphis about twice a month to see her. She asked where I usually stay, and I mentioned the name of another hotel (which had no vacancies) and that I also sometimes stay with friends.
The woman lowered her voice so that others in the lobby area wouldn’t hear her, and then said:
“I’m giving you our hospital visitor rate. Be sure and ask for this special rate the next time you make a reservation.”
Nice clean room. Free wi-fi. Free breakfast. Can’t remember when I’ve had that kind of customer service.
I’ll be back.
That’s added value. And this morning I’ve been enjoying coffee and cheese grits at Broadstreet Bakery while doing a little more reading and writing. I’m off to the nursing home to visit Mom now, before driving back to Memphis later this afternoon. I can only hope to find Mom in good spirits, peddling around the halls in her wheelchair, looking for someone to talk to. Walls’ words last night are still in the back of my mind as I push forward, leaving behind the unhappy parts of my childhood and praying for a good interaction with Mom, as the Alzheimer’s takes her farther away.
Push and pray, Mom, push and pray.
>After a productive day (Tuesday) writing a new chapter in my novel, memorizing another poem and writing another reflection for my nonfiction book-in-progress, “Sleeping With Poets,” there was little time left for a blog post. I’m driving down to Jackson (MS) this afternoon to hear Jeanette Walls read from her latest book, Half Broke Horses, at Lemuria Bookstore, and having dinner with a writing buddy afterwords, so again, no time to write a blog post. (And yes, I’ll be visiting my mother at the nursing home on Thursday.) So…. here’s another entry in my 100-day poetry memorization project. I wrote this one day last week. This particular reflection is less about how poetry affects my prose and more about how it affects my spiritual life. I’d love to hear your comments on the part poetry plays in your life. Just click on “comments” at the end of the post.
“Into the Wordless”
Day 36—Sleeping With Poets
Following on the loneliness of moons from yesterday, I find myself embracing Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight” today. Although I memorized the poem in the morning, I waited until night time to write this reflection. Somehow it called for a evening rendering.
This is thy hour O soul, thy free flight into the
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the
Unlike Shelley’s weary moon, caught in a cycle of “climbing Heaven and gazing on the earth,” Whitman addresses his soul, and what it means to truly find rest at the end of the day. His words remind me of the Orthodox Church fathers who write about detachment—the ascetic work of freeing oneself from enslavement to material things and earthly works. Just before going forward to receive the sacrament of communion during the Divine Liturgy, we sing, “Now lay aside all earthly cares.” Why do we do this? In order to receive God into ourselves. We have to make room for Him in our cluttered, over-worked, over-stimulated selves.
It’s not that those material things and earthly works are bad. Words, books, art, lessons—the things that Whitman urges his soul to flee—are things that he loved. But the soul (like the weary moon) needs rest from all that intensity, in order to find itself.
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering
the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
I can’t get away from the spiritual elements here—that even “death” is one of the themes that the soul loves best. It’s not only the Church fathers who urge us to always keep our deaths before us. Contemporary musician, Tim McGraw, expresses this idea in his song “Live Like You Were Dying.” The popular movie, “The Bucket List” follows the same theme—what would you do if you knew you were going to die soon?
The thing is, we are all going to die, and it could be today, for any of us. When I’m writing at a fever pitch, driven to get an essay polished and “out there,” laboring to finish a book and seek its audience in the publishing world, my soul and all things eternal are pushed into the background. Maybe it’s that way with everyone’s work. Maybe the schoolteacher and the architect, the salesman and the physician are all caught up in the work at hand and not aware of the spiritual world in the midst of their pursuits. But somehow I believe that creative work—writing, painting, designing—takes so much of our souls that at the end of the day it’s crucial to flee, with Whitman, “into the wordless.”
This is much harder to do than it sounds. Have you ever tried to turn your brain off, to think on nothing? There are plenty of Eastern spiritual practices (not all Christian) that emphasize this emptying of self, this seeking of stillness. And maybe it’s possible to achieve this during the day—in the midst of our work—but I think Whitman was onto something when he wrote these words: night, sleep, death.
Darkness doesn’t guarantee this freedom from words. When I write late into the night, my brain has difficulty shutting down and embracing the rest that sleep should bring. I recently read that staring at a computer screen (or watching television) just before going to bed inhibits restful sleep. It’s just harder to turn the brain off when it’s been fed a steady stream of images just before retiring for the day. One of the claims of the Kindle reader is that it’s more restful than the iPad because it doesn’t have a backlit screen. I find this to be true in my own experience, but reading from a Kindle—or from a print book—is still engaging the soul with words. So what’s a lover of words to do? Who is going to give up reading in bed?
Perhaps I need to change my evening routine a bit. Instead of saying my prayers and then getting in bed and reading, my mind and soul would be better served if I were to save the prayers for after the reading. The problem with this plan, of course, is that the chances of getting up out of my warm, cozy bed, in order to do the difficult work of prayer, are pretty slim. Another problem is that I often fall asleep while reading in bed, and find myself gently awakened as my husband removes my glasses and book to the bedside table and turns off my light. I wonder if my soul can then erase the day and ponder the themes it loves best. Can I train it to slip quietly into the wordless?
I just returned from a weekend at Lake Norrell, Arkanasas, where my best friend’s mother and sister live in neighboring lake houses. Daphne, her middle son, Simon, her daschund, Violet (whom we affectionately call “Violent,”) and I drove out to the lake house Friday afternoon (after my drive to Little Rock) and spent two nights there. I was OFF THE GRID for 52 hours, except for posting a couple of photos with my Droid during the weekend.
Daphne’s mother’s lake house is lovely—she has a gorgeous view from her back porch and her dock. I’ve been there in the summer, (check out these pictures of the Lake Norrell 4th of July boat parade in 2008) when swimming and kayaking are the order of the day. But in the middle of winter, it was different. Quiet. Calm. Everything a city girl needs to unwind over a weekend, right?
The snow melted before I arrived, but the woods were still beautiful. I went on a hike with Daphne, Simon and the dogs on Saturday. They would probably say it was an easy walk, but it was a stretch for me. First we drove down a country road and parked the pickup truck by a creek. From there we walked up the side of the creek (well, Simon walked through the creek bed) a ways, so that at one point I couldn’t see the road at all. Nothing but woods in all directions. And the path was slippery in points, and steep. I can count on one hand the number of times in my life I’ve been in this type of setting, and each time it’s a bit scary to me.
There’s a monastery I visit in Michigan that has woods with paths that have been worn by the nuns on their daily walks. But even there—surrounded by prayer and warriors of the angelic realm—I get nervous when I’m alone in the woods. I’m thinking it’s a reflection of the state of my soul, which is tarnished by too much love of the urban world.
And so this morning, snuggled safely in one of the guest rooms at the lake house with a cup of coffee and a down comforter, I wrote this poem. I didn’t set out to write a poem, but simply a reflection that I could use as a blog post. Instead, the poem sort of appeared on the page. I won’t try to revise it (don’t really know how) but will just share it as it came to me in the lake house this morning.
Driving home to Memphis this afternoon, I found my senses stirring as I approached the Arkansas-Mississippi bridge and saw the skyscrapers on the other side of the river. I looked downriver at the River Tower Condominiums and imagined living there in that high rise with a perpetual view of the water and the built-in community the residents enjoy (not to mention the fitness center, hotel lobby bar, and swimming pool). I think I would love to live there, where I could enjoy the buzz of downtown living with a safe view of “nature” from my balcony. Yep, I’m a city girl.
City Girl’s Lament
My soul is not ready for Paradise
If it cannot be still in the woods—
Away from the city
Away from the buzz
I found myself missing the ’hood.
It’s not that the trees were not stately,
It’s not that the path was too long,
But even the birds in their
Sang a mystical, far-away song.
We followed a path by a creek bed
At times slipping perilously close
The drop was so steep and the
Rocks cold and hard
Shooting fear from my head to my toes.
Later I sat on the lakeside,
The afternoon sun on my face,
I breathed in the air
And tried to be still
So the beauty my soul would embrace.
The sun glistened bright on the water,
The sky overhead, clear and blue,
A boat motored by sending
Waves to the shore
And it was in their wake that I knew.
I wanted the thrill of the boat ride,
Instead of the world set apart,
The heavenly bliss of the
Quiet and peace
Was lost on this city girl’s heart.
>Every Friday on Twitter you see lots of #ff or #follow friday hashtags. “ff” can also mean “friend Friday.” It’s a fun way to give a shout out to your friends or sometimes your favorite bloggers or authors. I’m always honored to be included, although I’m not as good at shouting back sometimes. So today (following my Wordless Wednesday theme) I decided to give my favorite bloggers a #ff shoutout:
Two blogs I write for regularly:
A big #ff to Karin Gillespie (originator) and Kathy Patrick (current moderator) of the Southern Authors Blog “A Good Blog is Hard to Find”
And another big #ff to Jane Friedman, whose Writers’ Digest Blog “There Are No Rules,” has over 50,000 monthly readers!
Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents (Editor’s Blog)
Michael Hyatt (CEO Thomas Nelson Publishing)
Writers’ Blogs I Follow: #ff love to each of you!
I’m off to Little Rock this afternoon to spend the weekend with my bff, who is too busy raising four children to blog. We’ll be tromping around in the snow out at her mother’s lake house in the woods and sitting by the fire catching up on our busy lives, so I’ll be off the grid for a couple of days. Have a great weekend, everyone!
Oh, and please let me know of blogs you follow that I might be interested in—just leave a link to them in the comment section. Thanks!
>I’m not sure where the concept for “Wordless Wednesday” came from, but the first time I saw it was when author, Karen Harrington, posted her WW pictures on Facebook. When I considered posting a photo instead of text today, I Googled “Wordless Wednesday” and came up with this blog. It appears that the idea is to post a photograph every Wednesday, based (I would think) on the old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Anyway, here’s my picture for Wordless Wednesday.
I made this collage in 2005, as a visual to use for a talk I was giving at Toastmasters one evening. Yes—I joined Toastmasters to hone my speaking skills, because I had been invited to speak at a women’s retreat in Austin, Texas, that fall, and I was scared to death! Putting words on paper is one thing—standing in front of a group of people and speaking is another thing altogether! (I gave five one-hour talks that weekend, and led two discussion groups.)
Anyway, the Toastmasters talk was supposed to be memoir-ish, and so I talked about the first 35 years of my marriage, 1970-2005. Hopefully, the picture really is worth a thousand words. Watch for more pictures (with fewer words of explanation) on Wednesdays in the future, and thanks, Karen, for sharing this with me.
>Day 33 of my work-in-progress, “Sleeping With Poets,” is about the difficult work of revision, and lessons learned from Orthodox nuns and spiders. (I couldn’t find a photo from my visit to the monastery that’s mentioned here, so I borrowed one from the internet.)
In the 1990s I went on numerous pilgrimages to an Orthodox monastery in Michigan, usually spending a week there in the tranquil beauty of the evergreens and the angels. Monastics are sometimes called angels on earth, because they attempt to live the angelic life—strict fasting, long church services, hours of solitary prayer in their cells, all coupled with warm hospitality to visitors and devotion to their physical labors in the garden, the guest house, the kitchen, or the sewing room.
The sewing room is where they make vestments for priests. Visitors aren’t usually allowed in there, but one time, when my husband (who is a priest) was with me, I accompanied him to a fitting for a new cassock the nuns were going to make for him. I was fascinated by the quiet industry of the nuns as they worked—especially the ones who were ripping out seams that had been put in wrong. When I used to sew, I would sometimes get so frustrated with my mistakes that I would throw a piece of material away before I would put in the tedious labor of removing stitches. I asked one of the nuns how she could be so cheerful in such a task. She replied with a story about a novice who needed to learn patience. The abbess made her sew a piece and rip the seams out, over and over, just to learn her lesson.
Irene Latham’s poem, “The Faith of Spiders,” (in her new collection, The Color of Lost Rooms, which just came out in January of 2011) reminded me of those nuns, working patiently in the sewing room.
so many hours
in the shadowed corner—
not a single twitch in all those legs
not a grumble
not a curse
The shadowed corner which is the spider’s home is also the home of the nun, and perhaps of the writer. Writing, like sewing (and praying) is a lonely pursuit, even when it’s going well. But when the pages are filled with “mistakes”—with clichés and information dumps and scenes that fall flat—the even lonelier work of revision is needed. And for the nun and the writer, learning to do this “without a grumble, not a curse” is quite a challenge.
Once I completed the first twenty days of Sleeping With Poets, I crafted a nonfiction book proposal and began to query agents. Within a week I had received two rejections, and so I began to doubt the quality of my prose, and of my query letter and my proposal. I asked for feedback from three valued sources—a poet, a novelist, and a memoir writer. After receiving their gentle advice, I took my seam ripper and began the work of removing the dross. Latham’s poem reminds me, though, that I was the cause of my own problems, whereas the spider’s grief was caused by others.
and when the fly fumbles
or the wind
rips a seam
or the dog in its eagerness
plunders the silver center—
The fly, the wind, and the dog caused the damage to the spider’s web. And perhaps there are flies, wind and dogs running through my writer’s pen when my mind is scattered. Even in the “shadowed corner” where I try to write, my undisciplined mind often allows entry to these damaging elements. The flies—those nasty self-critics spreading their germs; the wind—everyday distractions that blow my pages hither and yon; and dogs—the loud, barking noises of the internet, radio and television, calling me to play with them.
And so as I sat back down with the query letter and the introduction, I realized that they, too, had lots of seams that needed ripping. I would always rather be drafting a new chapter of the novel or memorizing another poem, but this work, this reconstruction, must be done. I closed my eyes and pictured Latham’s spider, who didn’t grumble or curse, even
about the distance between the branches
or the afternoon lost to rain—
and I began revising. Sometimes, with these fresh eyes, I found the words boring, and so I would spin them again, and again, like my patient eight-legged friend:
the spider simply
>I drove down to Jackson (Mississippi) on Wednesday for my first visit with my mother in the New Year. But first I put together a little post-Christmas gift for her: a Digital Voice Recording Photo Frame. I printed off a picture of the two of us beside the Christmas tree at Lakeland Nursing Home, which I got one of the aides to take when I was there visiting Mom just before Christmas. I put it inside the frame, and then recorded a short (6-seconds is the limit) message:
“Hi, Mommie. It’s Susan. I love you!”
Then I wrote “PUSH & HOLD” and drew an arrow with a Sharpie, pointing to the button.
When I got to town, I stopped by Stein Mart and got Mom a couple pair of warmer sox (in dark purple, her favorite color), a dark purple sweater, and a long string of giant purple beads. (Long enough that she can see them and “finger them” when she’s wearing them.) Then I stopped at Mc Alister’s Deli for her favorite chewy cookies, and I was all set.
When I got inside, I found Mom sitting with a half dozen or more other residents in the dining room, watching the weather on a flat screen TV on the wall. It was good to see Mom moving around in her wheelchair and not “parked” in a row by the nurses’ station near her room. The dining room is spacious and light, and each table has a vase of fresh-cut flowers and a colorful tablecloth.
Her face lit up and she beamed a smile and said, “Well, hello!” (Not, “hello, Susan.”)
I sat down in an empty chair at the table she had wheeled up to and set my packages down.
“How are you?”
“I’m fine.” And then she began to look around the room at the others.
“Is it okay for them to be here, too?”
“Sure it is, Mom. This is the dining room. It’s where everyone eats.”
“Everyone? Not just you and me?”
“Everyone who lives here, Mom.”
“What about him?” She pointed to a woman at the next table.
“That’s a woman, Mom, and yes she can be here, too.”
“He looks familiar.”
“Yes, she used to share a room with you. But I don’t remember her name.”
I showed Mom the sweater and sox, and put the necklace around her neck. She beamed again. “These are beautiful. What are they for?”
“Well, they’re for YOU. “ She fingered the sox and sweater. “Do you want me to put the sox on your feet now? Or do you need the sweater around your shoulders?”
“No, not now. Maybe later.”
“I love the necklace,” I said, lifting the baubles. “They look like tiny Christmas decorations.”
“Yes,” Mother answered, “I used them for that first, but then I said oh what the heck, and I put them here, on this necklace. Do you like it?”
I just smiled, and reached for the bag again.
“Okay, well here’s another happy.” I pulled the digital picture frame from the bag and showed it to her. More beaming. And then I pointed out the button she’s supposed to push to hear the recording, and she pushed it.
“Hi, Mommie. It’s Susan. I love you!”
Again, she looked around the room, and then asked, “Are you sure it’s okay to have this in here?”
“Sure, but I’ll put it in your room with your sweater and sox later, okay?”
“Okay.” Serious expression, fingering the frame and pointing to herself, she said, “Who is that?”
“That’s YOU, Mommie. When we were visiting by the beautiful Christmas tree in the lobby just before Christmas.”
“That doesn’t look like me.”
“Sure it does. Look at that pretty smile. Although you did close your eyes.”
She continued to finger it, but didn’t push the button again. So I got out the cookies next.
“Look, Mommie—your favorite cookies from McAllister’s deli.”
For the next hour or so we nibbled on the two huge cookies, and she told me over and over how much she loves me. Once or twice we looked up at the television, which was showing the winter snow storm in Massachusetts. She couldn’t figure out what Massachusetts was, and finally said, pointing to the television:
“How did those people get inside there? And… how are they going to get out?”
“Out of where, Mommie? You mean out of the snow storm?”
“No, out of that box on the wall.”
She had me with that one. I just couldn’t come up with an answer, so I just shrugged my shoulders and had another bite of the giant chocolate chip cookie.
>Michael Hyatt, CEO of Nelson Publishers in Nashville, has a terrific web site and blog. In a recent post, “Why I Stopped Reading Your Blog,” he gave six reasons he might unsubscribe to someone’s blog. I sat up on the edge of my chair and leaned in closer as I read, hoping that he didn’t nail me with any of his reasons:
Your posts are boring.
Your posts are too infrequent.
Your posts are too long.
Your posts are too unfocused.
You don’t participate in the conversation.
I considered each of his reasons (and read the short explanation he provided for each) and decided that the main issue he might take with my blog posts is that they are often too long. He suggests 500 words/post. Mine are often 1000+ words. Hmmm, I read on…
You don’t participate in the conversation. Okay, I don’t get very many comments, but when I do, I don’t often comment back because the comments aren’t usually that “conversational.” But I’ll pay more attention to this from now on. I promise. (P.S. In Jane Friedman’s Writer’s Digest blog, “There Are No Rules,” where I’m a regular guest blogger now, and at “A Good Blog is Hard to Find,”
where I post about every month and a half, I notice I get many more comments, and I do participate in the conversation. I’m thinking it’s because those blogs have a larger readership. (“There Are No Rules” has over 50,000 monthly readers. I don’t know about “A Good Blog.”)
Hopefully my posts aren’t boring, and they certainly aren’t too infrequent (averaging 3 posts/week), but are they “unfocused”? I had to re-read what Michael meant by this:
“One day you’re blogging on this. The next day you’re blogging on that. What is your blog about? Please remind me, because I am lost in the forest of your eclectic interests. You’re not a renaissance man (or woman). You are undisciplined.”
Okay, I admit that I am intentional in publishing a “forest of my eclectic interests.” And while I know I’m not a renaissance woman, I don’t think I’m undisciplined just because I have more than one interest. In fact, I was getting concerned that I was blogging too much about WRITING and not enough about the other areas of life, and so I did a post-count for 2010, and this is what I discovered:
Spirituality: 37 (30%)
Other (Personal, Psychological, Art, Misc.): 16 (13%)
Family/Travel: 11 (9%)
My mother/Alzheimers: 8 (7%)
And so, as we plunge into 2011, I ask you, my readers: are you bored with my blog? Are you tired of reading so much about writing? About spirituality? Do you want MORE about my mother in the nursing home and Alzheimers?
I’ve noticed that I tend to get more comments when I write about Mom and about personal, psychological issues, than when I write about art and spirituality. Not sure what that means.
Okay, I’m going to stop here at just over 600 words and pack for a trip to Jackson to visit my mom in the nursing home. But I’m also meeting with a writing partner in Jackson, and we’ll be critiquing each other’s work and talking about our writing, workshops, publishing, etc. Wonder which one of these topics will show up on my blog on Friday? I hope I don’t make you yawn.
>Betsy Lerner is a partner with Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary Agency. She used to be an editor. And she says on her blog, “The Forest for the Trees,” that she used to be a poet. I say she’s still a poet. And her book of advice to writers, which shares a title with her blog, brings her wisdom in all of these areas of writing under one roof, which she shares with emerging and experienced writers alike. (I received a free “blogger’s copy” from Heidi Richter at the Penguin Group by clicking on the link on Lerner’s site, which I mentioned in my post on December 10.)
Anyway, I don’t know why it took me so long to discover Lerner’s book (published in 2000, “Revised and Updated for the 21st Century) but it’s a treasure. Twelve chapters—6 on writing and 6 on publishing—are packed with practical advice, humor, psychological guidance, and inspiration, all delivered in the poet’s voice. Her words are so eloquent that I’m almost afraid to comment on them. Instead, I’ll share my favorite morsels (like small plates) from each of the twelve chapters. So, if you’re only interested in certain topics, you can scroll down to those titles on the menu. But once you taste Lerner’s nectar, you’ll want the full entrée, I promise. Okay, here goes.
Part I: Writing
Chapter 1—The Ambivalent Writer
“Writing demands that you keep at bay the demons insisting that you are not worthy or that your ideas are ridiculous or that your command of the language is insufficient…. If the high wire is for you, if the spotlight is for you, if you believe that everyone should pay attention to your work, then you must keep writing, and by that I mean you are compelled to write…. You must be willing to hone your sentences until they are yours alone. You must have a belief in your vision and voice that is nothing short of fierce. In other words, you must turn your ambivalence into something unequivocal.”
Chapter 2—The Natural
“The world doesn’t fully make sense until the writer has secured his version of it on the page. And the act of writing is strangely more lifelike than life….every person who does serious time with a keyboard is attempting to translate his version of the world into words so that he might be understood…. Your job is to marshal the talent you do have and find people who believe in your work. What’s important, finally, is that you create, and that those creations define for you what matters most, that which cannot be extinguished even in the face of silence, solitude, and rejection.”
Chapter 3—The Wicked Child
“In author and psychoanalyst Leonard Shengold’s book on the effects of childhood abuse and deprivation, Soul Murder, he posits that ‘Dickens became determined never to suffer such helplessness and misery; the trauma fed an intense ambition.’ Writers are motivated by many things, but it is often some variation on the Dickens theme, some lethal combination of hurt and desire, that keeps a writer in the ring….But writing isn’t about attacking, defending, or proving once and for all that these people are bad, phony, corrupt, or evil. It isn’t even about telling the ‘truth.’ Great writing is meant to crush us, entertain and move us, return us to ourselves with some greater understanding of the world and its workings.”
Chapter 4—The Self Promoter
“All writers are like bomb-throwers, whether they attack with dense academic prose or jazzy riffs of stream-of-consciousness writing. Every writer wants his words to inflame, to reach across that great abyss, also known as the space between people, with his words.”
Chapter 5—The Neurotic
“I’ve come to look at neurotic behavior as a necessary component of a writer’s arsenal, the necessary defenses to screen out the rest of the world so that the ballet inside his head can begin to take shape…. Writers want love, and they hope that through their work, they will be recognized as gifted. And that is why most writers are so crazy. When a writer gives his editor the pages of his manuscript, or when the book is published, his entire sense of himself is in limbo. Waiting for feedback is like waiting for the results of a biopsy.”
Chapter 6—Touching Fire
“Being a writer or wanting to write is to live in a perpetual state of anxiety, where the chances of failing far outweigh the rate of success…. When the fear becomes overwhelming, when the anxiety nearly takes you out, it may seem that only a gin and tonic can take the terrible edge off…. Writers live inside their heads more than most people…. The creating of art serves a need but doesn’t necessarily fill it…. The person touched with fire becomes the container for all of our own suicidal tendencies, the excess emotions that frighten and weaken us. The person who crosses the line stands in for our collective self-destructive impulses and maybe, for just a little while, sates the savage god….we all, just once, would like to touch fire.”
Part II: Publishing
Chapter 7—Making Contact: Seeking Agents and Publication
“If you’re just starting out, I can tell you that agents and editors do respond to well-written cover letters and to opening sentences that bring a manuscript to life…. And then to send it to the right person…. I recommend sending your work out to a half-dozen agents, unless you have a good referral or contact at an agency or house; otherwise you could spend a year making three or four single submissions…. Mimic the strategy our high school guidance counselors suggested for applying to colleges: make two submissions that are a reach, two that are in range, and two you would consider ‘safety schools.’ Try an agent or two at one of the big firms, a couple at medium-sized agencies, and a couple who are out on their own.”
“No one is as tormented as the rejected writer…. I meet a lot of people at writers’ conferences who exude woundedness. I can tell they have made an attempt to get published and have failed thus far…. All you really need during those long years when rejection may get the better of you is one friend with whom you can share your work, one fellow writer with whom you can have an honest exchange. Just as Wordsworth befriended Coleridge, as Hemingway used Fitzgerald, so did Welty rely on Porter, and Kerouac on Ginsberg—writers need one another…. My advice is to write the book you want to read. Write the book that takes everything you’ve got. Don’t imagine an audience of more than one. Don’t dumb down, and don’t try to outsmart the market…. Write to the very top of your form. When rejection comes, and it will, at least you will know that you did your best work.”
Chapter 9—What Editors Want
“As a junkie craves a fix, an editor gets off on the thrill of finding a new writer or winning an auction…. The art of editing is a dance one engages in with the author to help him achieve the best results…. One of the great thrills for an editor is to have a revision come in that feels transformed. It may be the result of a complete overhaul or of just getting a whole lot of tiny details fine-tuned, but suddenly the writing sings where before it had only hummed…. What most editors truly want is a book they love. No matter how much it may seem otherwise, no matter how many mediocre or just plain bad books get fed into the great machine, most of us are in awe of a brilliant manuscript and will do everything in our power to see that it reaches readers.”
Chapter 10—What Authors Want
“What goes on between a writer and an editor is as mysterious and alchemical as a marriage. Some relationships are terrifically sadistic, abusive, and malcontent, while others are filled with mutual respect, adoration, and appreciation. But what most writers want, it seems to me, is to feel secure. They don’t want surprises. They don’t want to be kept waiting. They want their criticism meted out along with praise…. Most have such deeply ambivalent feelings about what they deserve and how good they are that they are often bouncing between their desire for approval and fear of rejection. Then again, if they didn’t struggle with issues of need, attention, disapproval, isolation, and social life, chances are they wouldn’t be writers…. what writers finally want more than good editing and smart marketing and ten-city tours and two-book contracts and appreciation (make that worship) and lucrative movie deals and hoity prizes are readers. Loyal, avid readers.”
Chapter 11-The Book
“Most first-time authors are woefully unprepared for what to expect when they’re expecting to publish…. Somewhere between the acceptance of a manuscript and actual publication, a great deal happens, or doesn’t happen, that greatly influences how well the book will be received, by both critics and consumers…. One of the most visible ways in which a book reaches its market is through it jacket…. Once the jacket art is under way, the next series of meetings involves marketing, publicity, and sales…. Most people know a good title when they hear one, but as publishing wisdom goes, a good title is one that sold…. After the books are titled and jacketed, the next major meeting in the publishing cycle is called presales…. While all the meetings are going on, the manuscript is also being physically prepared for publication…. the flap copy…. blurbs…. the author photo…. When all is said and done, there’s nothing quite like seeing your book for the first time.”
“Unfortunately, for some writers, the experience of publication is a living death, or hell, that offers little or no catharsis. Rather than acknowledging the accomplishment or feeling a degree of mastery over a body of material, the writer seems to have opened a Pandora’s box of anxiety, guilt and shame. Feelings of fraudulence continue to haunt some writers throughout their lives. Some writers I have worked with explain that it took three or four books before they stopped feeling like an imposter, and felt they could actually call themselves writers…. giving readings…. going on tour…. social networking…. publicists. Some writers are freaked out by the prospect of doing online networking; some are so busy scurrying between blog, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and website that they never get around to writing a new proposal or selling a book. I hate to counsel balance because I don’t think writers can or should lead balanced lives, but you need to be smart about what the web can do for you.”
Lerner’s bottom line? Editors and agents are looking for a witty or moving letter or a well-written manuscript. Lerner quotes one of my favorite authors, Michael Cunningham (The Hours), who also teaches creative writing:
“I try to remind my students that most of the editors I know are not opening that envelope hoping to find another story like the ten thousand they’ve already seen. They’re hoping to find something alarming, brilliant, and unprecedented.”