What I expected would be a typical morning writing session, turned out to be a full blown intervention--and I was the reluctant guest of honor.
Anyone looking on would have sworn I was alone. But I'm a writer. Writers are never truly alone. That's especially true for writers who head-harbor slews of quirky characters who believe they created me. Yes, I said, 'slews'. And they were in slew-ful attendance . . .
Rae Tinsdale, the soft-hearted, smack-talking lesbian assassin.
Larry-the-Youngest and his dad--early 60s-era characters straight out of reruns of Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best, and The Twilight Zone.
Ethan Coe, and Levon Chester, saddle-sore co-sheriffs who straddle frontier law as if it's a corral fence.
Herb Granger, and Blind Smitty from Four Bits--The Town That Maps Still Can't Locate.
W.W. Peel, the hard-boiled detective with the soft-boiled brain.
Even Cool Jim, and Marty's-Ex--from the cobwebs of those early My Cousin's Cafe stories--showed up for this shindig.
Others clamored in the background, but too many. My cranium runneth'd over.
I shook my head violently--just to remind them who remained boss. "This intervention isn't happening, guys. Now, go back to your respective dark corners and chill. I'll call you if I need you."
Ethan Coe twisted one end of his handlebar mustache. "Hold on there, Slick. Who died and made you co-sheriff?"
I grinned, typed a brief flurry. "Ethan, you can't intimidate me. According to what I just wrote, your gun's not even loaded."
He didn't even bother to check. "You don't play fair, Writer."
Before I could respond, Rae spoke up. "That's what this is all about, Lee. You don't play fair. And we aren't going to take it anymore."
"Now, hold on here," I said, "y'all are my favorite characters. You've all been featured in several of my stories. You know I try not to play favorites. So, what's the kerfuffle?"
"It's time," declared Herb, evidently the elder statesman of The Recurring Characters Union. I heard several 'Amens' from among the gathered congregation.
"Time for what, Herb?"
"Time to put away childish things. Time to man up."
W.W. Peel spoke, "Time to commit . . . or be committed."
I took a deep breath, tried to will them all away. When that didn't work, I rested my chin in my palm. "Okay, what exactly is it all you figments-of -my-imagination expect me to commit to?"
Marty's-Ex said it first. "A novel."
Again, I heard several murmurs of assent. Rae added, "We're all tired of being one-night stands. Your short stories make us feel . . . cheap."
I make them feel cheap? When was the last time any of them ever bought me a lousy beer? "C'mon, guys, that doesn't make any sense. What's wrong with short stories?"
Levon Chester grinned like Robert Duvall playing Gus McCrea. "It's all wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am with you, ain't it, Writer? Don't it never occur to you to think 'bout anyone 'sides yourself?"
"Whoa, there, big fella. If I was only thinking of myself, why'd I bother to think any of you up?"
"So's you can brag on it," offered Ethan.
"For your own gratification," suggested Cool Jim.
"Instant gratification," Rae clarified . . . rather hurtfully.
"So, you're complaining about my short stories because they're . . . short?"
"Long'd be better," said Levon. "Nobody ever heard of Short John Silver."
Larry-the-Youngest piped up. "The way you write, I'll never get a chance to grow up."
The boy's dad nodded. "At this rate, the boy'll never leave the house. I'll never have room for a man cave."
"Larry, do you really want to grow up? There'd be no turning back, you know?"
"Stop scarin' the kid," said Peel. "I, for one, want a movie deal, and they don't make fifteen-minute movies no more."
I washed my hand over my face. "So say you all? Everyone wants me to switch to writing novels? Raise your hand if you do." I counted hands. "The motion fails to pass. Now, all of you skeedaddle while I create a new character--a loyal one, this time."
Cool Jim slapped his hand on my desk. "Wait. The vote was unanimously in favor."
"Nope. I voted against. I'm only one who can type, so only my vote counts."
Words like 'tyrant', 'mutiny', 'oppressor', 'ogre' and 'ring-tailed raccoon' floated in the air.
"Look," I said, "I'm just not a novelist. I'm no good at it. I haven't the stamina. Novels require years of single-minded commitment. How can I be single-minded when I've got all you maniacs running the asylum that is my brain?
My literary leprechauns exchanged hooded glances, but no one spoke.
"Besides, you'd get jealous. What if I singled one of you out, Rae, let's say, for an intensive multi-year novel write? What do you think would happen?
Again, the Cranial Conclave remained silent.
"Most likely, I'd panic and kill her off by page fifty. And the same goes for the rest of you. As Peel might say, 'I ain't got the legs for the long run'. And speaking of the rest of you, how'd you like ridin' the Group W bench for a few years while I devoted all my attention to 'The Chosen One'? Huh? How'd you like that?"
"A few years?" asked Larry. "That's a long time. Would I still be eight-years-old?"
I nodded. "And still the youngest. But you'd be sitting on the shelf all that time, playin' with dust bunnies. Is that what you really want? Is that what any of you want?"
Ethan squinted. "Three years? Are you dead, or just ornery slow?"
"You ever write a novel, Ethan?"
He shook his head. "But I never et a whole buffler, neither. Still, I think I could do her in fewer'n six months."
"That include the bones, Ethan? Because a novel, like a buffalo, has bones, too. And guts, and sinew, and loads of gristle to chew on. I'm telling you, folks, y'all try to push me into a novel," I tapped the side of my head, "most of you will be sprouting cobwebs up here before I ever get to write about you again."
Blind Smitty, ever the compromiser, asked, "Any chance you can write an occasional short story on the side, you know, while you're writing a novel?"
"Well, some can, maybe. But not me, Smitty. A novel is a monogamous commitment, and I'm no cheater."
"You mind, Writer, if we talk amongst ourselves for a bit?"
"Sure, Herb," I said with a dismissive wave, "take all the time you need. But I don't know what you'll talk about without me writin' the words for you."
In the end, the characters backed down on their demand. I guess they figured being a short-term star is better than a long-term nobody.
Writers experience more than disappointment when sales decrease. Feelings of self-doubt often accompany and exacerbate fiscal concerns. It’s important to assess the situation whenever sales decline. By confronting the issue, contributing factors can be recognized and addressed and positive change can be initiated.
Target Markets Drying Up
Witnessing the demise of various print media is a legitimate concern. When marketing opportunities evaporate, a sense of desperation can result.
Positive Change: Exploring remaining markets you have not tapped into can provide an unexpected excitement and new satisfaction. Research the existing markets’ needs through writing market publications and online searches. Network with other writers by joining a writing group or visiting online chat rooms or blogs. Expand your writing potential by delving into new areas of interest. Send queries. If you have been comfortable and successful as a non-fiction writer, try your hand in a different genre. If you have only pursued traditional print publishing, consider online avenues, and vice versa.
The “Sure Sale” Is Only a Mirage
As writers, how often are our submissions rejected after we’ve endured the always-too-long publisher’s response time? This is particularly upsetting when the submitted manuscript seemed such a perfect fit for the publisher’s needs. In the midst of a dry spell the sure sale offers hope; it promises to quench our need for validation...and income. Then, as the timeframe passes or a rejection is received, the sure sale vaporizes.
Positive change: You have done your job in fitting the piece to the target. Other variables have entered the equation and have derailed the match. Perhaps the topic was not “fresh” enough, or your submission was considered but reluctantly declined for reasons unrelated to your effort (i.e., space constraints, recent format changes). Because editors’ decisions are predominantly subjective, soldier on with confidence. Review the manuscript to ensure its caliber and resubmit it to another target. Tweaking the piece to fit the new target by changing its slant or word count might even prompt additional ideas.
The Malady of Self-Doubt
While hope may spring eternal, an apparently eternal dry spell can render that adage suspect. Receiving rejection after rejection or seemingly being ignored by acquisition editors can bury an author’s confidence. But the author is the one holding the shovel!
Positive change: Rather than stumbling into the pitfall of self-doubt, pick up your previously published materials and read them. Anticipate the upcoming publication of outstanding sales. Bask in the warmth of your successes! Looking at the positives of your craft will reawaken your sense of accomplishment and reaffirm your self-worth as a writer. Examining your sales log can help you identify connections between the feast of prolific sales and the famine of depleted sales. If you journal, studying the events in your life that likewise correlate can assist you in that analysis.
The Misdirection of Focus
Feeling sorry for ourselves is a slippery slope that does nothing to improve our sales. When we look at ourselves and decry our efforts, we annihilate motivation. Our outlook is better directed outward.
Positive change: This is an excellent time to direct your concern to others. Taking an aspiring writer under your tutelage often jumpstarts your creativity – not only in the realm of ideas, but with regard to style, voice, genre, marketing, etc. As you mentor novice writers, skills are exercised, specifics you have neglected are resurrected, experience is shared, and the process is mutually beneficial.
The Unsold…A Wellspring
Sometimes it seems we can’t breathe as we plod through a dry spell. The effort to write and submit seems to require more air than exists here beneath our pile of rejections.
Positive change: Don’t succumb. Write! Never idly anticipate a submission response or demean yourself over the current lack of sales. Continue to generate more material. Submit as reprints those previously published materials for which you’ve retained rights. We writers create more manuscripts than we sell. A backlog is ever ready for review, revision, and resubmission. Organizing and utilizing this backlog will help you maintain a level of professionalism, which will increase the likelihood of sales. These manuscripts serve as a wellspring to refresh yourself as you refresh them. How ironic that a significant portion of this mother lode of potential sales is the product of…rejections.
Exposure to cultural language patterns and uses early on helps us learn basic speaking skills. One could argue that positive early experiences are what shape us as writers and readers for adulthood.
Rudimentary reading skills follow from this exposure to language use, and the number of words and concepts children are able to use successfully depends on the kinds of linguistic uses they encounter in the home. Family culture is the beginning point of a child’s language learning. Thus, some students enter school with more linguistic ability than others. We like to do what we are good at, and so this early mastery of reading concepts is critical.
This kind of basic information goes part to whole as children piece together strands of language in their environment. Within our own society, media voices also play a role in our use of language. My own research interests really gravitate toward media and the way we use language through electronic means (screens and the like). Many people arguably learn as much or more about language and its uses from visual media in our society than day-to-day interaction with parents and peers.
Flash cards and mnemonics build information early on for readers, adding to their ability to decode words, and filling their lexicon with greater amounts of verbiage. Anyone who has recently taken a foreign language, particularly one that uses a different alphabet, can attest to the need for repetition and flash cards are just one way to repeat words and phrases. I am thinking of my experience of taking Greek in college here.
The part to whole nature of language continues as students learn details about their alphabet and are exposed to a variety of texts through the experience of public schooling. We grow with more interaction and exposure to text. Even as an adult, this is true for me. The more I read, the more I love reading and the more I want to read. School culture, then, builds on the family and media cultures to which learners are exposed.
Whether it is mother or father reading to the child at night, or dedicated teachers in school years bringing in a variety of texts, children grow in their reading and writing abilities based on the kinds of textual experiences they have. These “text role models” can be essential to linguistic formation and motivation.
It is ultimately motivation that plays a key factor. In our years on earth as readers, do we ever find what we are looking for that engages us in the world of words?
Basic language experience begins with family culture, media culture, and is further articulated through the kind of academic culture a child experiences. Further artistry, and even love of language, depends on a tether experience, drawing a reader into the world of text. This can occur through media, interest in visual literacy, or a uniquely interesting reading experience. Some avid readers gravitate to graphic novels, while others prefer romance fiction or nonfiction text examples.
This interest, or motivation, can propel a child into further reading experiences and, beyond “survival” reading in the working world, can help them to gain momentum and begin to choose and create their own texts for the purposes of gaining knowledge and pleasure.
The more interest a child develops in their early and later adolescent, the more cultivated their language use will likely be, developing into a kind of artistry with linguistics and a deeper appreciation of the language system.
Of course, this is all just words about words...but it is this love of language that continues to compel my interest and I hope I can share that love with readers and students.
They pranced down Washington Street past Carlo’s Bakery Shop where the queue of admiring tourists had already begun to form. If yesterday was typical, by the time the miniature long haired dachshunds returned from their walk to the park overlooking the Hudson, the line of customers to sample the Cake Boss’s wares would have wound past the CVS Store on the next block. Walking my son’s pooches provided me a worthwhile mission while he was at work. The adorableness of the dogs became fodder for conversation as visitors to the town stopped to pet and comment.
Every August, I journey to Hoboken, NJ to visit my second son. This year, feeling especially brave I avoided the hassle of TSA and instead drove up I-95 through squalls in Richmond, traffic jams on the Baltimore DC Parkway, and past accidents on the NJ Turnpike. Upon reaching his condo unscathed by the trip, I felt emboldened with a new adventuresome aura. Unafraid of heading out alone, I walked the duo in the early hours or under the midday sun or at twilight around the bustling streets and bar scene that is Hoboken.
On the fourth day of the visit the pets, named Grylls and Bear, with heads held as high as miniature dachshunds can hold their heads, strutted down the populated boulevard past television crews, giggling children and nannies pushing strollers of twins and triplets. I murmured constantly to the dogs as I turned the corner and headed toward the huge rock surrounded by American flags bearing a plaque in memory of Hoboken soldiers, perished in WWI. A homeless woman uttering obscenities pushed a cart full of plastic bags, almost tangling the dogs’ leashes. A young Chinese boy on the smallest two wheeler, I’ve ever seen, rode down the gravel path at Pier A Park and stopped to ogle the dogs as his mother warily looked on.
“They don’t bite?” his mother asked.
“Not at all. They’re more afraid of kids, than kids are of them,” I answered as the boy tentatively stroked Grylls’s long nose. “I’ve never seen so many twins!” I said as another perambulator zoomed into view.
The Chinese stranger looked wistful. “Yes,” she whispered.
“In vitro babies, I guess,” I said. The Asian mother nodded and cracked a slight smile.
Then her son was off shakily commandeering his bike down the long pathway toward the huge gazebo. On previous sunny days, hoards of toddlers and preschool kids practiced soccer moves with coaches on the grassy quad. Not today. It drizzled on and off. The park was deserted which gave me little chance to jawbone with strangers. A yuppie jogger sprinted past. A group of pre-adolescent kids and two moms strolled by stopping to pose for snapshots with the Freedom Tower as back drop. With i-phones steadied, they clicked and giggled.
I ambled on my habitual route to the expansive gazebo with the metal roof and granite benches where the dogs had rested on prior days. Usually, fishermen tried their luck nearby. Not today.
A fellow with a backpack peddled past, weaving sporadically from side to side. I yanked the dogs’ leashes drawing them closer to me, not wanting them to snarl the rider nor get run over by him, which would break their backs. I peered up at the erratic cyclist. He resembled a tramp. I steered the dogs closer to the railing to keep them out of his path. Now I spotted five grizzly looking hobos with stuffed backpacks, dingy sleeping rolls, and a chaos of bags. They congregated under the gazebo. The rain restarted.
I sought shelter and pulled my dogs toward the periphery of the structure. One light black fellow with a scraggly beard held an eight foot stick high in the air with a strap of a back pack precariously balanced on its point. With precision he heaved the back pack into the eaves of the gazebo. There it lodged. Then a heavy set white woman tossed him her bag, and he hoisted it up into the rafters as well. The ruddy guy on the bike didn’t hand over his back pack, but the squat Mexican man lounging on a bench held out his to be stowed in the ceiling of the gazebo. That red-haired guy now straddled his rusted bike while he positioned himself in the middle of the gazebo. The dogs fixated on that particular fellow. They barked and growled. This homeless guy with the bike turned toward them and sneered revealing his blackened teeth and multiple piercings to his nose and bottom lip. He hissed at them. The dogs got quiet. The rain suddenly turned into a torrent. I eyed the band of bums. Although feeling somewhat brave I decided against encroaching on their makeshift homestead. They’d spread themselves over every granite bench. Therefore, I’d walk the dogs home in the downpour.
The next day I strolled past Piccolo’s Hole-in-the-Wall Grill, famous for its charbroiled cheese steaks. I noted their hours while the dogs sniffed the oniony air. Equipped with doggie poop bags and an umbrella, I urged them do their business in the small square of dirt near a puny tree surrounded by pavement. Deftly, I pulled out the plastic sheath and wetting my fingers I rolled the sides back and forth to separate them to form a bag. Carefully, I scooped up the mess and trotted over to a garbage can to dispose of it as they watched their new mistress.
When the dogs and I reached Pier A Park, the clouds again unzipped themselves. Rain pounded the gravel pathway. The dogs rushed toward the gazebo, which was strangely silent and empty—almost. Only one homeless fellow lay stretched out on the stone floor. I sat at a bench as far from him as I could without getting drenched by the slanted rain. The eeriness of being alone in the park with this prostrate body settled on me. The rain curtained us from the outside world. The few folks on the verdant lawn had disappeared at the hint of the first drops. No one inhabited the park. My canine charges and this deadly still vagrant were the only life forms within eyesight.
I peered at the listless body. His face was turned away and his legs akimbo. “Ahem,” I coughed. “This rain’s fierce, isn’t it Grylls?” I said to the male dog whose snout reached up as I stroked its ears. Furtively, I stole a glance at the prone raggedy creature. I thought he was the Mexican from the day before. Again, I cleared my voice. Motionless, he lay. With dogs on a tight leash, I baby-stepped over to the prostrate man.
Suddenly, the homeless man opened his eyes wide and said, “QUE?”
I said, “Excuse me,” and yanked the dogs’ leashes and hurried off toward the water ferry. As we hustled out of the park, I conversed again with my canine companions. “I thought that guy was dead, didn’t you?” They looked as if they agreed with me, and then I added, “I bet I could tweak today’s walk into a cozy mystery. What do you two think?”
In doggy language they agreed. “Write it,” they said.
Q. How do you know if there's an elephant in your refrigerator?
A. By the tracks it leaves in the butter.
I have lived in interesting times. Much of it deadly serious. Korea, JFK, Nam, MLK, 9/11, church bombings, school shootings. Enough for me to want to pull the covers over my head.
But I've witnessed a lighter, sillier side of life, too. Hula hoops, Pet Rocks, My Mother the Car, Car Fifty-Four, Where Are You?, Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikinis, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Monty Python's inimitable mayhem.
Today feels like a good day to shrug off the sackcloth and ashes. To celebrate the inane, the antic, the inconsequential. Care to join me?
Q. What did the elephant say to the naked man?
A. Impressive. But can you breathe through it?
I was eleven in 1962 when The Elephant Joke craze hit Connecticut like a rollicking nor'easter. At the time, I was too illiterate to know what 'ubiquitous' meant, but elephant jokes sure fit the bill. Everyone had memorized dozens of them. Each one sillier than the last. I swear, I laughed more in 1962 than any other year of my life. Illiteracy doesn't discriminate when it comes to wit . . . or, nitwit. AM deejays, the funny papers, and class clowns spread these things like influenza in an incubator.
Q. What's red and white on the outside, grey on the inside?
A. A can of Campbell's Cream of Elephant soup.
Now, if you don't think that's funny, you're taking silliness way too seriously, and I'll bet you a sawbuck you're not an eleven-year-old boy yet to discover the joys of self-abuse.
I'll freely admit I was born with an overactive funny bone. I found humor everywhere. Strained peas amused me. Ed Sullivan made me titter. In my eyes, Walter Cronkite ranked right up there with Soupy Sales. My parents, bless them, worried I might be 'cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs'. I thought that was hilarious, too. What my parents didn't understand, I cried as much as I laughed. Just more quietly.
Look, gravity puts a tremendous, unrelenting weight on all of us. But levity is gravity's natural counterbalance. We cry because we hurt. We laugh because it eases the pain. Just like elephants, and elephant jokes. One weighs a ton, the other offers a ton of relief.
Believe me, my friends, it's never about the elephant in the room. It's about the lack of laughter in the room. I have never attended a wake or a funeral where a well-timed laugh didn't raise the bleak curtain, didn't ease the pain.
Dear, Animal Lovers, please realize that elephants are never the butts of elephant jokes. They're glorious, majestic stand-ins, proxies for our willingness to be ridiculous. To make unabashed fun of ourselves. It is precisely because elephants dwarf us that we choose them to be doppelgangers in our heavy-handed self-parody.
I haven't heard a new elephant joke in ages. Maybe I can change that.
Q. How do you get an elephant to vote for you?
A. Support the Second Amendment.
Q. Why don't elephants win Grammy Awards?
A. Blame it on the trumpet section.
Q. What would you get if you crossed an elephant with a giraffe?
A. A punch line . . . or a Nose, Ear and Throat doctor's retirement villa.
Q. Why don't elephants dance ballet?
A. Really? You have to ask?
Q. Why don't elephants bowl?
A. They can't button the shirts.
Q. Where do elephants buy Argyle socks?
A. Argyle, man. Like everybody else. What're you, daft?
Q. Why do elephants wear pajamas?
A. Nightshirts are drafty.
Q. How many elephants can fit in the backseat of a Toyota Camry?
A. Two. But only if it's prom night.
Q. Where do elephants go to the bathroom?
A. Anywhere but my house.
Okay, I'm no Nipsy Russell. Maybe you can do better. I think we ought to bring back the Elephant Joke.
Q. What do you get when you cross an elephant with Donald J Trump?
A. (I got nothin' folks. A little help?)
Look, the English gave us Shakespeare and weird, forked muffins. The Japanese gave us haiku (not to be confused with 5-7-5) and raw fish wrapped in seaweed. The French gave us sloppy kisses and Lady Liberty. The Italians gave Caruso and Chef Boy-Ardee. The Mexicans gave Texas and jumping beans. In return, we give the world Coca Cola and Elephant Jokes.
Here's to you, World. Remember us with a burp and a giggle.
Writers write ... right?
The more or less standard dictum is that a writer must write something every day, at the same time, in the same place, for a specified amount of time. A fledgling author is told that to be taken seriously, she must be able to block out a sacred couple of hours every single day to practice one's craft. I say, NOT SO!
I write to meet deadlines. This week, I know I must produce one nonet poem for a contest and one essay (this one). It is now Monday, 9 am. The essay must be complete by Wednesday night. The poem is due Sunday morning. I'm writing today. Will I write tomorrow? I have no idea. I consider it a waste of time to stare at a blank page or screen for two hours because this is my "scheduled writing time". I also consider it a waste of time to write garbage. If I'm going to invest time, I expect to have a publishable piece when I finish. So I don't sit down until I'm ready to produce something worth reading.
It's now 12:45 p.m. I've been interrupted by four telephone calls (two for my husband in the next room and two with no one on the line), been tasked to help move two couches and mop the TV room floor; I've moved the wash into the dryer, made tuna salad for hubby's lunch, and cooked and fed lunch to one aged German Shepherd dog while keeping a much younger one distracted. Hubby has been vacuuming up dog hair, so I'm not feeling put-upon; I'm describing a normal writing session. Has all this time been wasted from a creative perspective? NO! I've been examining ideas in my head and discarding those that won't work here. I've been making decisions about some P&S submissions I read yesterday. I know I'm ahead of schedule in loading P&S issues into the site's buffer, so no worries there. I remember a presentation I have to write and present on Wednesday morning and a vet visit on Thursday. I'll need to edit this essay tonight so I have tomorrow to prepare for the presentation (on financial compensation to US military widows).
If my writing time sounds like yours, don't despair. We're all busy people. We multitask. If your creativity punches a time clock and you have time you can call your own every day, I say, GO FOR IT! But if your alone-time is at a premium, write when deadlines or ideas press and don't worry about being considered a "real" writer. You'll still accomplish your goals despite your erratic schedule so long as you set and meet reasonable deadlines for small, distinct tasks. This is how you eat an elephant ... one bite at a time.
My creativity does not flow every day, and I have learned that forcing it produces trash. I've learned that setting deadlines for myself works better for me, in my circumstances, than setting an unrelenting schedule. Figure out what works for you. To cram yourself into someone else's mold will make you miserable. If you're miserable, it'll come through in your writing ... or you'll quit.
Writing is hard work. But it should, on the whole, be joyous work. Figure out what arrangement makes your writing time fulfilling and productive and generally stick to it. The only thing you "should" do is write--because writers write. The "right" schedule--or lack of one--is whatever works for you. (Draft completed Monday, 2:17 pm; final edit Thursday, 11:06 am)
What is it like to have your work validated by an editor’s acceptance, to see your words in print, and to have them read and considered by a myriad audience? Aspiring authors typically wonder; I wondered.
I dabbled in marketing my writing for a period of time, but did not grasp the pragmatics of submitting my work. I didn’t study writing magazines or pursue writing classes, but merely wished to be an author. While I truly wanted to be published (which was my definition of a “real writer” at the time), subconsciously I did not believe it would happen. I only realized this lack of belief, though, when a sale did occur. Other insights also surfaced in my first year of being a “real writer.”
A “real writer” does not dabble.
As I produced a story, I would send it off with good thoughts and little research. I made certain that the work was well-written with no grammatical errors and that it was formatted appropriately. I did not, then, generate other stories, but waited for this single effort to bear fruit. When it was not accepted, I would repeat the process, re-sending it willy-nilly. If it was a children’s story, I sent it to a children’s magazine. Without reading past issues to see if anything similar had been recently printed; without considering whether the story was more suitable for one publication than another or even if the story was age-appropriate for the target; without recognizing the impact of my cover letter or understanding the concept of querying, I unwittingly wasted my time and that of many editors.
As I enrolled in writing courses, perused writing magazines, and studied writing more, I was enlightened regarding these shortfalls and my professionalism improved. No longer dabbling, I learned when to query, when to send a complete manuscript, how to research markets, and whom to contact. I learned to present a single idea in different ways to varied publications. I learned, too, that there are a number of benefits in networking.
A “real writer” does not go it alone.
Despite the camaraderie of the classroom, writing courses did not result in networking for me. Being a bit uncomfortable in groups, I did not investigate the worth of writing clubs nor did I make any effort to form alliances with other writers. For one thing, I did not perceive myself as a writer; I merely was a person who wrote. To me, a writer was someone who was either published or who had no job other than writing – and the latter wasn’t really a writer unless they’d been published! I felt I had to qualify as a writer – make a sale - before I could present myself as a writer and join any writers’ groups. As a result of this misconception, I wasted more of my time.
Fortunately, a co-worker and I were discussing writing and I discovered she was a “real writer” – she had sold her writing to many magazines. Here she was, working alongside me with no visible indication that she was an author. What physical distinctions I had imagined a “real writer” would display I cannot say, but knowing this about her now elevated her status appreciably in my mind. Eventually, she and I formed a writing group of our own and this was the foundational step toward my personal success as a “real writer.”
A “real writer” submits in volume.
Having formed our group, my friend explained to me that submitting requires writing – much more writing than I’d generated previously. She required us to present at our weekly meetings at least one (preferably two) manuscripts. We would critique each other’s contributions and discuss them at each meeting with the intent that revisions would be made and the manuscripts would be submitted before our next meeting. Weekly meetings ensured several submissions were being forwarded each month.
Suddenly, I felt like a “real writer,” published or not. Generating so many stories, articles, poems, and devotionals, it would have been difficult to convince me I was anything other than a writer. Within a few months, I was a “real writer” based on my original definition – I had made a sale!
A “real writer” writes more.
While there was satisfaction in this, it was not the first but second sale that meant the most to me. That second sale proved the first was not a fluke and it validated my efforts. There have been several sales since qualifying as a “real writer,” and the thrill of a publisher’s acceptance does not diminish with more sales.
I am pleased when my work is accepted by editors. I enjoy seeing my words in print. I labor knowing many people read and weigh my thoughts; there is a responsibility in this. And, despite the occasional throes of writer’s block, it is not likely I will run out of things to say. After all, a “real writer” writes.
The human memory is a strange and wonderful thing. As we grow older, we may well forget the names and birth-dates of our children or, Heaven forbid, our spouses; grocery lists must be meticulously written down, and then some other memory aid invented to remind us that there is a list at all; the very days of the week dance in a delightful muddle around our brains, cheerfully refusing to be pinned down, and worst of all, we find ourselves wandering from room to room in our homes, muttering aimlessly, “Now, what did I come in here for?”
On the other hand, seemingly trivial stuff from distant decades pops up fresh and clear, with annoying regularity: the mole on the neck of a former girlfriend (the one who must never, ever, be mentioned); the patient look on your mother's face as she explains for the umpteenth time that, yes, underclothes still need to be washed, even though they never get dirty because they're under your clothes; the way your French teacher wrinkles her nose with distaste at the way you mangle her language, although you are trying ever so hard, in your earnest teenage way, to impress the pants off her. Why on earth does my brain blithely produce my childhood phone number, while stubbornly refusing to come up with my current postcode?
Just the other day, Eric Blow surfaced unexpectedly. There was no real reason for thinking of my old English teacher; he was just there. What he brought with him was one of his favourite sayings. Now, Mr Blow was an erudite and rather imposing teacher, and he had a range of bons mots which he used to trot out at odd moments, seemingly as much for his own sardonic amusement as for the enlightenment of the boys he taught. I well remember his cry of “I smell a rat; I see it in the air, but I'm going to nip it in the bud!” with which rallying cry he defied the dreaded mixed metaphor to approach his classroom.
The phrase that popped into my mind last week was a rather odd one – perhaps that's why my wayward memory had clung onto it for all these years: “He do the police in different voices.” It was a different era, a time when students did not lightly question the bizarre behaviour of their masters; I do not recall anyone ever asking Mr Blow what in the world he could possibly mean. Even if my curiosity had been piqued by this odd declaration and his even stranger abdication of traditional grammar, (of which he was tremendously fond), I would have had no way of investigating its origins or significance. Younger readers, try to imagine a world in which the personal computer has not yet been invented. No Google, no Wikipedia; how on earth did we ever learn anything?
Today, of course, we do have these powerful tools, and last week I carefully typed the peculiar sentence into Google to see what, if anything, might emerge. Who and what emerged, startled me no end – it was T. S. Eliot and his magnum opus, “The Waste Land.” Yes, the great man of 20th Century poetry, the seriously intellectual and fiercely academic scholar, had for many months toiled away on his most obscure and difficult poem under the working title of “He do the police in different voices.”
At first it did not seem feasible. How could he have possibly chosen this grammatically flawed piece of silliness as the title for a work that still stands as a revered monument in the canon of English Literature. A little more digging provides at least a partial answer; he had borrowed the words in question from another literary great, Charles Dickens. Aha! “He do the police...” certainly sounds more like Dickens than Eliot. It is traced back to Dickens' novel “Our Mutual Friend” in which the widow Betty Higden says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy, “You mightn't think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”
Are we any closer to understanding why this particular little gem from Mr Dickens, so tickled the fancy of Mr Eliot fifty-five years later, that he wanted to name his great poem after it? Well, yes, actually; it's all about the voices. In its introduction to “The Waste Land”, Wikipedia advises, “The poem shifts between voices of satire and prophecy featuring abrupt and unannounced changes of speaker, location, and time and conjuring of a vast and dissonant range of cultures and literatures.”
So, let's skate lightly over “The Waste Land.” First, an advisory – I have never read the thing, nor am I ever likely to. I suspect it is well beyond the range of my simple comprehension. Mr Blow, in his wisdom, did attempt to teach us some Eliot. I can remember a little of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Journey of the Magi”. We may also have read “The Four Quartets”, but if so, all detail escapes me. We certainly never touched on “The Waste Land”, and I suspect that was a good decision on our teacher's part. The following information is purloined in good faith from Wikipedia...
The Waste Land is a long poem by T. S. Eliot, published in 1922 It is widely regarded as one of the most important poems of the 20th century and a central text in Modernist poetry. The poem loosely follows the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King, combined with vignettes of contemporary British society. Eliot employs many literary and cultural allusions from the Western canon, Buddhism and the Hindu Upanishads. Because of this, critics and scholars regard the poem as obscure.
The style of the poem is marked by the hundreds of allusions and quotations from other texts (classic and obscure; "highbrow" and "lowbrow"). The Waste Land is notable for its seemingly disjointed structure, and in the Modernist style, Eliot jumps from one voice or image to another without clearly delineating these shifts for the reader. He also includes phrases from multiple foreign languages (Latin, Greek, Italian, German, French and Sanskrit).
Obscure, eh? No kidding!
Much older now and certainly somewhat wiser, my taste in Eliot remains closer to the Sanskrit-free “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” than to “The Waste Land”.
Vale, Mr Blow. Pity you never taught us about this…
Macavity, Macavity, there's no one like Macavity,
He's broken every human law, he breaks the law of gravity.
His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare,
And when you reach the scene of crime - Macavity's not there!
You may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air –
But I tell you once and once again, Macavity's not there!
I’m white. Recently, I was invited to a service at a black church. The congregation dressed up in their finery the way church members used to do at my church when I was young before Sunday attire became synonymous with recreational apparel. Lay speakers gave a history of their church saying it was 164 years old and started before slavery ended; they honored their oldest members asking them to stand and state their ages; they asked visitors to introduce themselves and tell from where they hailed; and the young choir clapped, swayed, and kept the beat to the music that a twenty-ish man played. All of this kept my attention, but the sermon surprised me most. It kept me awake! The guest minister, from Baltimore had been raised in this small Carolina church, and he had a message where he repeated the same phrase over and over again. The Amen corner inserted, “That’s right! Yes, it is! Hallelujah!” After a while, the preacher added an “uh huh” at the end of each line and nodded his head and bopped to the music. Before long, the rhythm of his words made the congregants clap and move with his chant. Then, he started singing his message. The mantra was memorable: Certain habits Christians must adopt. He repeated three activities beginning with the letter “P”: Preparedness, participation, and perseverance. He recited how these attributes are helpful in following the faith.
As I listened, fascinated by his ability to hold everyone’s attention, it occurred to me that this sermon applied to writing. Preparedness, participation, and perseverance are essential requirements for the writer who seeks a byline.
A writer must be ready to be inspired. He needs utensils at hand to catch the unexpected phrase, the anecdote, the description. He must read writers’ books on how to write. He should study literature. He ought to understand genres and pore over magazines that acquaint him with a writer’s world. It’s necessary to set aside time for writing. Without preparation, there’s no success.
A person who aspires to be an author must attend writers’ conferences, critique groups, and classes at some point. The scribbler can’t be a hermit; he’s obligated to network. Writing query letters and entering contests are types of participation in the business side of writing. Contributing to writers’ blogs, writers’ webpages, and book signings means taking an active role in the vocation. Once published, the altruistic writer should continue by lending a hand to a newbie learning the ropes. A writer needs to take part in a scribbling community even if it’s only a “virtual” village.
How many times as children did we hear: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again?” The sincere writer can’t let himself get discouraged. Each rejection is one step further toward achievement. The wordsmith fails many times before he succeeds. Tenacity trumps talent. Writing’s a job. Keeping oneself in the chair with fingers arched above the keys is worth more than a muse whispering in one’s ear. Persist!
The minister’s preaching about how to become better Christians made an unintended point for this pew warmer. As I listened to his rhythmic pontificating, I found his message inspirational in two ways: To be a better disciple of Christ and how to develop my passion. Writing is a calling.
Often enough, I refrain from telling new acquaintances that I write. I'm fully aware of the veer the conversation will likely take:
"A writer, really? How exciting!"
Oh, here we go. "Well, I dabble, really."
"Have I read anything you've written? A novel perhaps?"
My grocery list, perhaps? "Quite possibly."
"Oh, my. Which one?"
Hooked. "Do you remember the one with the rabid Saint Bernard?"
"You mean, Cujo? I thought Stephen King wrote that?"
"Yes, yes, indeed. Stephen King wrote Cujo. I wrote the other book about a rabid Saint Bernard. Did you read it?"
"No, I don't think I did. Really? There's another book about a rabid Saint Bernard?"
"Dozens, actually. In fact, it's become a whole new genre. Everyone who's anyone is writing a rabid Saint Bernard book these days."
"You don't say? Aren't they all . . . well . . . similar?"
"You bet. Why mess with a proven formula?"
"Huh. Doesn't seem right somehow. Have you written anything else?"
Ah, a true glutton for punishment. "Sure. Did you read Catch-22?"
"Of course. By Joseph Heller. One of my all-time favorites."
"Then you'll absolutely love my Catch-78."
"I beg your pardon? Catch-78?"
"Yup. The further adventures of a group of wacky flyboys living it up on some godforsaken fictional World War II island. Bombing Nazis never goes out of style."
"But Catch-22 is one of the greatest anti-war novels ever written. It's an American classic."
"You don't have to tell me, brother. Or any other writer, apparently. By the time I whipped through my book, Catch-23 through Catch-77 were already published. I had to settle for 78. Hey, I've got a first- edition 78 I can let you have for a song--personally inscribed by yours truly."
"No, thank you! Don't you ever write anything original?"
Ah, the moment I always drool for. "Why bother?"
Okay, I'm kidding. A little.
Still, I have got a grudge against the traditional mainstream publishing business. And not over sour grapes, either. My walls aren't papered with rejection letters. In fact, I've never submitted any of my work to a 'traditional' publishing house. I believe they're 'traditional' by reputation only.
See, I'm not in the recycling business. But trad publishing is. By extension, much of the reading public is, too. Just look at the covers of the books being promoted by the big houses. The most prominent feature on the covers of these books is the name of the author. Books are no longer chosen for publication based on their literary merit. No. They're chosen according to the 'wow factor' of the author's name. And the reading public has been trained to respond like Pavlov's dogs. Visit any sunny beach in America--seventy-five percent of the books being smeared with SFP 15 will have James Patterson's name billboarded on the cover.
There was a time when publishing houses were true talent scouts, mentors, nurturers. Now, they're bankers. And their currency is fame rather than talent. Publishing was once an admirable art. Now, it's a robotic, repetitive, predictable production line.
But don't be discouraged, fellow writers. Yes, I know I've become jaded. But it needn't happen to you. There are still high-quality, principled traditional publishers out there. What's more, we have the Internet. New writing venues and platforms (like this one) are springing up all the time.
And, of course, there's always self-publishing. But that's a rant for another time.
Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.