"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Winter Submission Season

"So what are you doing with yourself nowadays?"

Do you dread that question as much as I do?

or...

“Whatever happened to your “book”?

I especially love that one as the room goes quiet and everyone turns to listen.

"It isn't a book!" I want to shout. "It's a manuscript!"

Two different animals, as an agent at the Columbus Writers Conference pointed out to me several years ago in a breakout session. “Your manuscript isn't a book,” she said, “until it has a Library of Congress ISBN number.”

That's an important distinction and one I've never forgotten.

But what I wanted to tell you is that I've just found a way to answer these innocent questions truthfully without sloaching into a corner. Thanks to a wonderful article by Cecilia Ward Jones, The Art of Perseverance, in the current issue Poets and Writers, I know now to proudly say, “I'm editing my novel. Yes, the one you read (insert appropriate number) __years ago.”

I must say, the weight of expectation shifted when I read the story of her writing experience, one so similar to my own. Not everyone goes to college right out of high school, making the seamless transistion to an MFA program and publication of their first novel before they're thirty. Most aren't even lucky enough to do it before they're forty. It's OK to have gotten married and had children first. It's OK to realize accidently that what you've really wanted to do all along was write. And it is especially OK to spend years editing a novel.

At the same time, however, it is not OK to cower in a room with the door closed, past the time when your manuscript is ready, mindlessly editing for the sake of editing, afraid to put yourself out there and move onto the next step, afraid to hit send. So how do we know when our manuscripts are ready? How do we make the distinction between jumping the gun and procrastinating our life away? I suspect that when you reach the point where you're only making minor changes, you're close, and when you’re satisfied that it's as good as you can get it, send out a round of queries,then immediately start a new writing project. I’m convinced it’s the only way to survive the inevitable rejections that will start pouring in, because they will.

I know. I've been there. I queried before I was ready and paid the price. Unable to make the distinction, I ignored the don't rush advice from those I should've listened to.

But I persevered. I survived a move, a broken computer and lost pages. I survived rejection and discovered the pleasure of editing. Cutting and polishing a manuscript is addictive. Reducing that word count instead of increasing it is highly addictive. As Andrea Cremer wisely advised, you have to take word count literally . . . make sure that every . . . word . . . counts.

And one day you and I will get “the call”. One day you won’t see the hated “however” in the first sentence of an agent’s reply. I’m convinced of that as well. For myself and for all of you who refuse to give up.

In the meantime I’ve rediscovered I can write short stories. Even Flash Fiction. I’ve dug out a few rough drafts from college. They don't pass the cringe test but they contain ideas. And that’s a start. An idea that becomes character, conflict, and resolution.

There are dozens of literary magazines and university presses out there calling for submission of poems and short stories. Some even pay you. Winter is the season to submit. There’s even a call for submission of one-sentence stories from Monkeybicycle. (Wrap your head around that one.) I gained confidence after having a short story accepted by Bloody Bridge Review for a February issue. (They’re a new online journal seeking submissions.) So while I’m editing my manuscript, I’m going to start submitting shorts like crazy. And poems. Like crazy! Tis the season.

One final note, don’t forget about Simon and Carolina's contest. Rules. Prizes. You have until the 31st (midnight tomorrow!!)to polish those thousand words and the prizes are tight. Don’t be square and miss out.

One final note as I say goodbye to January, I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers have been listing five things that make them happy. I like to be different.

I give you five things I wish I had, from the absurd to the just-out-of-reach.

A lemon tree
A parachute
A widow’s walk
An agent
A telescope

What are yours? And where are you submitting??

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Art of Doing Nothing

We had to put our dog to sleep last week. I wasn’t going to write about it but then I thought about how she liked to sleep curled up beside my chair with her nose on the heat register, content to be doing nothing, which brought to mind a book my son gave me one Christmas called The Art of Doing Nothing which inspired a long forgotten poem in which I mention this same little dog when she was still a puppy and I thought about another writing room and another time . . . and so it goes.


Sunny was twelve but still spry until the week after Christmas when her belly suddenly bloated and overnight she could scarcely walk. It seemed her legs would no longer support her stomach. After a couple days of this we thought she was constipated (too many Christmas treats?)and our local pet store said to give her pumpkin, and if she wasn’t better in a couple of days to call the vet. We gave her pumpkin. She ate it; she would eat anything.

She had lost weight but with her long hair we didn't notice it(we never cut her hair in the winter) until she got into a briar patch and had burrs from behind her ears to between her toes, and we had to take her to the groomer and they ended up shaving her to get them out, and we were like....My God! You can see her backbone! But this was two weeks before Christmas and with the chaos of the approaching festivities we neglected to do anything about Sunny because she was acting the same. We put her sweater on and forgot about the weight loss.

So we went with the pumpkin experiment, but she didn’t get better. She used to bound up and down the porch steps, but now she could only manage the down. When she finished her business she just stood there looking up with her mournful little shih tzu eyes. So there we were, carrying her inside and out, up and down, like a puppy.

My laptop sits on a table beside that heat register I told you about (her favorite place), but now she wouldn't get out of bed. I put a fried egg in her dish. She ignored it. Yeah. A very bad sign from a dog who used to eat everything.

The next morning, she lost control of her bladder, legs splayed in a widening pool of discolored urine. I looked down at her in horror. My husband called the vet and put on his coat. He told me to take a picture.
The prognosis? Possible kidney failure or a tumor or any number of other age-related ailments. The cost? $120.00 for a diagnostic blood test and $80.00 for an X-ray, and this just to find out what was wrong. Surgery, recovery . . . who knows? The vet said she could still die in six months. Our other option was $58.00 for euthanasia and $120.00 for cremation if we wanted the ashes. If not, they would do a “group” cremation for $50.00.

“My God!” my daughter said. “That would be like Auschwitz!”

The kids didn’t want her cremated. They want her buried on the farm with a marker.

My husband carried her home in a bag while I was at work. But we had a problem. The ground is frozen.

This dilemma made me think of the burial-delayed funerals in the U.P. They have a no-shovel season from November 15th to March 1st. Digging into the ground would be like trying to penetrate 8 inches of concrete. Cemeteries have thinly-walled buildings that rely on Mother Nature not refrigeration to keep the corpses cool. The caskets are tagged and slid into storage racks until spring. They’re used to this up there. There’s a large Finnish-American population in the U.P. Back in the old country, bodies were stored in the church’s bell tower until the funeral.

We don’t have a bell tower but we have mounds of rich, organic compost, freshly spread from the barnyard, snow covered but not yet frozen. So as of now she’s nestled under a mound of compost,
and next summer she’ll be spread around the farm. Is that so bad? Do the kids know this? No. They want her buried with her blanket and stuffed animal and a cross over her head, or a marker on which could be inscribed: Here lies Sunny, a good dog. She never peed on the floor until the day she died. She liked carrots and biscuits, eggs and pumpkin. She liked people.

I've subjected you to the tale of her passing, so I may as well subject you to the poem as well.


THE ART OF DOING NOTHING

The mercury outside my window
is covered with ice.
Even the inside of the window is frosted.
I scrape it off with my nail—
it falls into the sink.

The furnace drones without pause
and my summersick dog lies on the register.
A draft runs through the house.
It sets chimes ringing and makes her nervous.

I inventory things not to do.
It’s in a book—The Art of Doing Nothing.
Meditate and you can see things that aren’t there . . .
brandied cakes and a bottle of wine
set out on the sideboard as if for a friend.

I look behind doors and pause at the stairs
Come full circle to see myself sitting there—
in the old winged-back chair.
It’s a special friend.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Can They Be Stopped?


Everything is connected on planet Earth. It is said that the flutter of a butterfly wing in Thailand affects a thunderstorm in Wisconsin. Because of a century-old mistake, this ugly, inedible, aggressive fish is within striking distance of Lake Michigan. If it reaches the lakes the fear is that it will destroy the Great Lakes fishing industry, harm the drinking water that 40 million people depend on, and make the lakes unsafe for swimming and boating.

Asian Carp have been moving up the Mississippi River into the Illinois River for years, and now they’ve reached the canal that connects the infested Illinois River to Lake Michigan. This canal was dug over a hundred years ago for ease of moving barge traffic into the lakes, and all that separates the carp-infested Illinois River from them is a single, electrified barrier. If that barrier needs to be shut down for maintenance—and occasionally, it does—there's nothing to stop the intruders from making their way into the freshwater paradise.

Asian Carp were stocked in Louisiana fish ponds to clean them, but during a period of flooding they escaped into the Mississippi River. This ill-conceived idea combined with a century-old mistake has now endangered our nation's most precious natural resource.

We are not talking about common carp, which are eaten in many places. The creatures in question here are the silver and bighead carp. Even if they didn't taste terrible,

they have interlaced, "floating bones" that make them a nightmare to eat. While they are not good to eat, they are very good at eating. They can get up to 100 pounds in size and eat 40% of their body weight daily. The climate of the Great Lakes region is similar to their native Asian habitats and they would have no natural predators. They would simply out-eat and out-breed the others.

The fear is that the carp will transform the Great Lakes ecosystem into something unrecognizable. One need only look at infested sections of the Illinois River where environmental officials say that carp now comprise nine out of every 10 pounds of living material—plant or animal—found in the water. That’s 90% of the total biomass! "Sooner or later, those carp are going to find a breeding home" in Lake Michigan, said Joel Brammeier, acting president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago advocacy group. "And once that happens, there's going to be no stopping the Asian carp in the Great Lakes."

For the Great Lakes, already taxed by the invasion of other non-native species, it could be the last straw. "Once in the lakes, it would be very difficult to control them" say the Fish and Wildlife Service

One would think that the Great Lake States would unite on this issue, but Chicago business and political interests do not want to lose easy use of barges for shipping. So there's a fight. In an urgent effort to close down Chicago-area passages that could allow the unwanted fish to reach Lake Michigan, the State of Michigan is suing the State of Illinois. Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin have filed documents in recent days supporting Michigan’s move, and Indiana says it will soon do the same. But it may be too late. They shouldn't have waited until Asian carp came within striking distance before getting around to suing the very negligent and irresponsible state of Illinois.

“Officials need to put a cork in the connection between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes built more than a century ago. The end point clearly needs to be biological separation," said Marc Gaden, spokesman for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in Ann Arbor, Mich., which focuses on protecting the lakes' fishing industry. “Commerce will find a way to move cargo. The commodities will still move. And move efficiently. Until we slam the door, this problem will not go away.”

We must separate the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes basin, as Mother Nature intended. But will it happen? Michigan had taken their suit directly to the Supreme Court, but, sadly, the court declined to consider the suit.

Please pass the word, blog about this, call the White House, or leave an email in the nice little comment form. It's easy and you'll feel good about it. Michigan's Attorney General, Mike Cox, has requested that President Obama use his executive powers to close the locks and wouldn't it be cool if the Whitehouse was inundated with demands that he do just that? Even if you don’t rely on the Great Lakes for your drinking water, or eat fish from them, swim in them or vacation on them, what happens to them will eventually affect you, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Passing the Torch

It is time for me to acknowledge a few fellow bloggers who have been generous to me with their time and support. First, a special thank you to Carolina Valdez Miller at Carols Prints for being my 30th follower. She is hosting a contest with Simon Larter at Constant Revision to celebrate their each passing the 100-follower threshold. The rules are at Simon’s and the prizes are at Carolina’s. The prizes are very fine indeed. Don't miss this one.

Next, I would like to pass my Honest Scrap Award to my final three recipients. (See post below)
Jean Oram, who blogs here
K.T. Richardson at My Writing Masquerade
and Nisa at Wordplay Swordplay .

I won't repeat the guidelines except to say please don't feel bound by them. I think some of these "rules" may have been lost in translation, but all three of you define scrappy for me.

Next, I am passing on my Superior Scribbler Award (see sidebar) from Tricia O’Brien at Talespinning. To have received this from someone of your writing ability, Tricia, is truly humbling. I think one is supposed to pass it on to five fellow writers in the online community. But at this time I would like to gift it to:
Amber Tidd Murphy who blogs here
Catwoods at Words From The Woods
and Rebecca Bush at Just A Thought ,
three writers of unbelievable writing stamina. I wonder when any of you sleep.

Finally, I’ve come to my Humane Award.(Again, see sidebar.) Andrea Cremer at A Blurred History gave me this one. It was the first blog award I received and because of that and because of what it stands for, in some ways it means the most. I never properly thanked you, Andrea, and now you’re off to New York to meet your agents and editors, (sigh) so I hope you see this. I didn’t know what I was doing six months ago. I didn’t even know how to post a link, but I’ve sat on this long enough, and let it go I must. I can’t think of five more worthy blogging buddies to give the Humane Award to than:

C.M. Jackson at States-of-Mine
Rebecca at Just a Thought
Tongue Trip at Scentlessness
Mary Anne Gruen at Starlight Blog
and, finally, Jemi Fraser at Just Jemi
All of you are up front and amazing with your concern for others, doing your part to make this a better world.

Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who follows my blog or drops in for an occasional visit. I appreciate all of you and am constantly humbled by your generosity. The writing is for myself but also, more importantly, for you.

"All art has this characteristic—it unites people."
-Leo Tolstoy

And, finally, because Haiti has been on my mind, I'd like to share this haiku based on a true account and written to honor all those involved in the rescue effort.

THE PLANES CAN'T GET IN, BUT STILL . . .

Rescued from rubble
the girl danced
in joyful flip flops.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Honest Scrap (The Writing Edition)

I recently received the Honest Scrap Award (writing edition) from Jemi Fraser. Thanks Jemi! I love this award because I don’t think there is anything harder than writing.



As a recipient, I’m supposed to tell you ten things about my reading and writing life and then pass the award on to seven other writers. I’ve ignored rules in the past. But here we go…

1. I first realized I had a way with words when I was in college and a classmate asked me to compose a letter for her disputing an unjust decision, telling me, “You have a way with words.”

2. I used to read comic books and I read every Zane Grey book in the library.

3. I like to read the dictionary.

4. I know how to milk a cow and have taught a calf to drink out of a pail with my fingers in its mouth. (I just had to throw that in.)

5. I do most of my writing on my laptop but I have to print out a page before I can see what needs to be changed. Something about seeing the words on paper slips the editing process into gear. It’s like the saying . . . How do I know what I think until I see what I say?

6. I and my siblings grew up without television but had a first rate collection of World Book Encyclopedias, library cards, two daily newspapers, and a bookmobile. (Though all we really wanted was a television!)

7. I once wrote an Ekphrastic poem for a poetry class, (a poem based on a painting) and a sestina (nightmare!) in the same week.

8. I've been known to read and edit my work while driving.

9. I often get up in the middle of the night to write.

10. I believe you can ignore the rules as long as you first know how to observe them.


So without further fanfare, I would like to pass this on to (drumroll...) Charlie at Approaching Utopia , Travener at The Big Litowski, Amy at She Writes Here Now, and to Paperback Writer, who are four very scrappy writers. Check out their blogs and you'll see what I mean.

I reserve the right to pass Honest Scrap on to three other writers in another post. (See #10) And thanks again, Jemi, for this honor.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

THE TRAVELER

He was slim and well-dressed with a nice haircut, not too short, not too long. He wore a black tailored jacket and well-made jeans. His black leather shoes showed no sign of the slush outside the airport. He could have stepped off the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalogue.

But he had something he shouldn’t.

He mopped his face with a white linen handkerchief as he put his shoes back on, and I wondered if he was sick. He didn’t look sick. His face was tanned with no sheen of perspiration. I’d never seen anyone perspire so politely. His handkerchief was the size of a large dinner napkin with embroidered edges. I didn’t know anyone other than my father still used them.

I had to search his belongings—two Apple notebook computers, one purple and one green, a black leather satchel for compact electronics, a shopping bag full of gifts, and a gallon-sized bag of small toiletry items of the type one would collect from hotel rooms. From the looks of the assortment he’d been around the world, and as he patted his forehead dry, I wondered what else he’d collected in his travels.

The suspicious item was a bottle of water. It was from Neiman Marcus and it wasn’t plastic. It was sturdy cardboard of the type cartons of milk are made out of. The only plastic on it was the screw-on lid like they put on cartons of half and half. It was quart sized. Too big.

Who buys fancy bottles of Neiman Marcus water? Maybe a better question would be why aren’t all water bottles made of this material? Maybe a better question is why do we continue to allow Nestle to siphon water out of the Great Lakes aquifer to ship around the world in single-use plastic bottles that end up in landfills and waterways and the ocean where there is a growing plastic dead zone the size of Greenland? Yes, Nestle has diversified into something more profitable than candy bars. How about a bottle deposit on water bottles? The politicos won’t do it. They won’t even take the steps necessary to keep Asian carp out of the Great Lakes, so how would they gather the will to keep plastic out of the oceans? But I digress.

Back to my traveler. He was polite about my having to throw away the eco bottle of water (though I wished there'd been a way to put it in a display case). He shrugged and mopped his face again. He slipped his belt back through the loops on his jeans and his watch on his wrist, then patted his forehead dry and wiped his neck. With each step of putting himself back together he had to wipe his face, and he was well put together. I stepped back and watched.

He dropped his bag of toiletries into the large shopping bag of gifts, wiped his face one last time and put his handkerchief in the pocket of his jacket. He threw a laptop bag over each shoulder and went off to find his gate. I changed my gloves and watched him out of sight and couldn’t help but wonder at the story of his life.

I filed him away in my character memory folder, fodder for the basis of a short story or maybe a larger piece, a snippet of a life on the edge. Do you do that with interesting people you encounter? All these innocents who don’t know they might be written about as they go through the motions of daily living? Have you ever recognized yourself in a novel or short story? They say that friends and family members of writers are doomed to a loss of privacy, their tightest-held secrets revealed under the thin disguise of fiction. How many families have been torn asunder by the writer in their midst? How many friendships broken? I, myself, have done it. I couldn’t help it. And I’d do it again. Have you?

Friday, January 8, 2010

The Rebel You

With the New Year I find myself going back to my poetry roots. I’m often reminded that there is no money in it, but as John Gardener said, The rigors of writing generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession spiritual profits are enough. I admire Gardner and everything he said. But sometimes a little coin in the pocket would be nice.
Poetry was my first love so a relapse into the embrace of its rhythms is like the comfort of a secret hiding place, a letter from an old friend, a spiritual pick-me-up after a fiction fall.


The Rebel You

Remember when we walked barefoot across the grass
for a better view of the Big Dipper?
You lost your lighter and I tried to block
the neighbor’s yard light with my hands.
We pulled chairs off the porch and watched for shooting stars.

Remember when we traipsed back to the pond
to see what the “kids” were up to because the adults were boring?
We sidled up to the campfire and they tried to hide their bottles
behind their backs. As if we cared?

Remember when we lip-synced
in front of the mirror to love songs
and dressed up in long gowns and wondered
what it would be like to kiss a man and own a wardrobe?

My first kiss was a clear miss at the top of the hill
and I don’t own a little black dress.

I’m still the kid in front of the mirror
and this summer when you visit I want to set up camp
on the lawn with a cooler so we don’t have to go in the house
and whisper over the contents of the refrigerator,
afraid to wake those who sleep at night and miss meteor showers.

This time I’d like to smoke one of your cigarettes
and watch the sky turn pink and judge time by the heavens,
not by what we’re supposed to be doing
and haven’t accomplished.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Day in the Life of a Writer

Nathan Bransford is running a contest. I entered and you should too.

This is an offshoot of that. Here's to strong bones and healthy bodies and finding your muse.

Coffee and cream, my savior.
Bacon, cheese omelet, onions . . . satisfied.
Cereal for fiber and milk for skin.
Yogurt for bones and orange juice for sex. (I read it in a book.)
An apple for longevity, chili for protein, crackers cause I’m weak.
Red wine for low blood pressure and high sex drive. (When the work is good the sex drive escalates. It’s a win win situation.)
Water for heartburn. Tea for warmth.
Bourbon and soda for the doldrums and a wedge of lemon for memory.
Beer for courage.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Year of Kissing

I think it only fitting to start out 2010 with a post about kissing—almost, unconsummated kissing, because maybe 2010 begins the decade of possibilities, an era of blue, concern for the earth, and sustainable living, and much, much consummated kissing!

With that in mind, I'm participating in Frankie's No Kiss Blogfest in which writers are encouraged to share an "almost kissing" scene they've written. Check out Frankie's blog where everyone participating is linked and read some steamy, spine-tingling encounters.

Without further ado I add my entry to the fest. I couldn't choose, so I post two, one from a WIP and one from a short story.

#1

He opened a bottle of beer and threw his arm across the back of the seat, breathing in the scent of her shampoo and studying her neckline and the wisps of hair that curled around her ear. Her captivating nipples pointed their way out of her blouse, and as the city lights disappeared behind them, he dropped his arm around her shoulders and she relaxed against his side. The conversation kept flowing out of the front seat, and he added an occasional comment just to let his buddies know he was still there.

When they hit the gravel she jostled against him, and there it was—an opportunity. He dropped his mouth to hers in motion with the road, but they hit a pothole and his mouth only met the soft indentation below her bottom lip. And he might have taken her by surprise, but that was nothing compared to what her reaction did to him.

She jerked away and her hand flew to her mouth as if she’d just gotten a mouthful of rotgut whiskey she couldn’t swallow.

Well, Jesus Christ. Talk about a blow to his ego. He pulled his arm in and stared at her. Swallow baby. It’s OK. Swallow it down.

“Where do we drop you?” His buddy was looking at him in the rearview mirror.

“Ah, just pull in my driveway. You can turn around. We’ll take it from there.” He looked at her. “I’ll walk you home, okay?”

They watched the taillights out of sight and started walking. There were night insects singing from both ditches and an owl called from a distant tree. Her place was dark. No lights. He halted, suddenly not wanting to go any closer. The house has eyes. He put his hands in his pockets waiting for her to say something.

“Your friends are nice.”

“Yeah.”

“I better go in before he gets home.”

“Is he really such a mean sonofabitch, or is it just for show?”

“He says you gringos are soft and naïve.”

“Why? Because we don’t carry knives up our sleeves?”

They stood there a minute, and he waited for her to say something else. Should he make a lame joke? He guessed a kiss goodnight was out of the question.

She stepped away. “Thanks for tonight. I had fun. I’d do it again, anytime.”

Really? He was considering a smartass reply but she was gone, disappearing into the shadows around the house. He waited until he saw a light come on in the back; then he walked home, remembering that little indentation.

#2

He was brown-skinned and lean. We baled hay together and I rode on the tractor with him. He wore T-shirts with the sleeves ripped out, but I was too young to appreciate his muscled forearms and the way his jeans fit his thighs. But I do now. I was too naïve to realize he wanted to kiss me. But I do now.

“Walk me home,” he said.

I walked him up the dark gravel road, and at the crest of the hill I stopped, reluctant to go further, and he joked about hearing the heavy fall of my footsteps when I left him, and now I know he was only nervous but I was afraid and when he leaned over to kiss me I pulled away and there was only the faintest feel of his breath against my lips.

Would his mouth have tasted like the black walnuts he kept in his pocket? Like the beef jerky he favored and the cigarettes he smoked? I’ll never know. Was the moon out? Was it blue? I didn’t notice. Were the stars brilliant above us? I don’t remember. But I know now that the stars are not just overhead, they are everywhere around us and underneath us. And at times the moon really does turn blue.