Writing Off the Page

I live in the North Shore of Long Island, the setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. In theory, the bucolic landscape of sea grass, lush trees, and glittering water that surround me should provide the ideal framework for my fiction writing. But as a mother of seven-year-old twins with a household to manage, a social life, and a husband, my writing life is far from ideal.

Rarely do I write as often as I would like to, or for as long. And the few precious hours a week I get to spend in the quiet of my room, at my desk, the tips of my fingers poised on the keyboard of my laptop, are not always satisfying or productive. Seldom do I achieve that deep, focused state of mind that feels so necessary to good writing, and when I do, inevitably the home phone will ring, or my mobile dings with a new text, summoning me out of the waking dream, back to reality: my best friend—and one of the few people who actually cares about my writing, aside from my husband—is having personal issues, so how can I not interrupt my writing to hear her out? Meanwhile the school nurse has just informed me that my daughter’s ear is hurting; I should pick her up as soon as possible. And there goes my writing day.

I might have given up writing long ago, or set it aside until my kids are at least teenagers. The reason I haven’t stopped writing has something to do with my suspicion that there probably is no ideal time in life to write, but mainly it has to do with a habit I’ve developed—call it self-preservation—of stretching my imagination past the limits of my allotted writing time, beyond the confines of my laptop and desk.

Often I will write in my car, parked near the stop sign where the bus drops my kids off after school. In the glove compartment there are pens and stacks of Post-it notes. If something pops in my head as I wait, I jot it down. Occasionally I will cover a Post-it or two, the flow of words usually cut short by the approaching sound of the school bus, or someone pulling up next to my car to ask for directions. Once, as I was busy filling a Post-it, the honking of a car horn made me look up. A man in whose face I slowly came to recognize my neighbor was smiling expectantly at me from his car. I waved at him across the glass, then looked back down and continued to write. Hey, I’m as friendly as the next person. When I’m not writing. Or trying to.

When I can’t hold a pen and paper—in store aisles and checkout lines, or as I’m driving—I will resort to writing in my head. More accurately, I try to lose myself in the feeling-state world of my characters, to perceive smells, sounds, the weather, an image, a conversation, as my characters would, while my mind free-floats through potential scenes. What I call writing in my head—or off the page—is a combination of playacting and dreamstorming: driving to the supermarket, I am no longer a mother, or even a woman. I am six feet tall and have dark hair cropped close to my skull, and my name is Aeden. Except that Aeden rarely ever goes to the supermarket. Aeden doesn’t even live in this town. But here he is, discovering that his colleague in the research lab betrayed him. And his reaction isn’t one of anger—as I’d thought—but one of bewilderment.

Writing off the page, flat characters can come to life and stories take shape. One time I had just left the supermarket and was rushing toward my car. It was one of those still gray mornings in winter when you know it’s about to snow, and I was in Emily’s skin, the thirteen-year-old girl in the story I was writing. Her mother had hidden her Pink Floyd CD and Emily had run outside to look for it. Emily couldn’t have cared less if it snowed. She would have been out in a snowstorm looking for her CD. I got inside the car and jotted this down. And that is how my story “Breathe” begins.

While writing off the page, I’ve grasped what it was about a scene that wasn’t working, or discovered the emotional layer one of my characters so desperately needed. I remember pushing a shopping cart across a supermarket aisle where two women stood talking. Being in Cathy’s body—the protagonist of my work in progress—I was drawn to these two women. Cathy, who was always alone, yearned for human connection. She would have wanted to know what the women were saying to each other, especially if it was something personal. But when I wheeled my cart past the two women, Cathy didn’t want to know. She had no interest in them, or in anyone, for that matter. Cathy was a loner by choice. She thought she longed for people but she didn’t, and deep down, she was aware of this contradiction in her character. Now I understood that her voice could not be the purely yearning one I’d written; there had to be irony in it, too. I filled several Post-it notes in the car that day and for several weeks went back to them to re-write scenes in Cathy’s new voice. In hours of sitting at my desk, I’d been unable to figure out a problem I solved behind my cart at the supermarket.

I know that creativity benefits from periods of incubation. But I also believe that creativity can be activated by habit. My time alone in the car and stores is just the kind of idleness I need to fuel my creative dreams, which is why I value that time so much. I have noticed, though, that if I let too much time pass between a writing session at my desk and an opportunity to dreamstorm, my characters become less tangible to me, and my focus on them compromised.

Standing near the rack of tabloid magazines at the checkout counter, I begin to wonder if it’s true that Angelina Jolie is starving herself to death. I ask myself why Barbara Streisand looks so old lately, and find it slightly upsetting that an NBA player was dumped by one of the Kardashians. And there goes my character, along with the scene I’d conjured. By the time I’ve paid and left the store, the question of whether Demi Moore will survive without Ashton Kutcher has become a more pressing issue in my mind than why my character has just fallen down a flight of stairs and broken his leg. I rush towards my car to jot down a plausible explanation for my character’s misfortune before Demi’s crisis, like blotting fluid, erases it. But the truth is, there is no clear reason in my mind as to why my character has fallen down the stairs.

Lately I’ve been trying out a strategy for making use of the over-stimulating influence of pop culture. If a celebrity intrusion distracts me enough to threaten to kick a character out of my head, then maybe it can also serve as the catalyst for new material. After all, my characters, though they are my creations, are inspired by the world I live in. Writing off the page might be an ideal means of harnessing creative leaps that can only come from tabloid invasion.

I recall Demi’s look of sweet longing and indignation at the photographer who sold that picture, and wonder how my character, who now wears a cast up to his thigh and goes to work on crutches, will respond to pity. I don’t know. But inspired by the look on Demi’s face, I can begin to imagine two options for my character: either he tells his coworker to get lost, or, through tears, he tells him to try running down newly polished stairs after the woman he loves has just left him. Options worth dreamstorming during the drive home.

A Reading: Poetry from Tom Paine

DANCING THE CRAY-CRAY

 

People do crazy shit. Now I am people.

Better late than never! I write this poem

for you, perfect person in a panic attack.

I write this poem ‘cause when I danced

the cray-cray, this poem was MIA. Perfect

people go crazy-crazy ‘cause when they get

all cray-cray, there is no poem or tattooed

cray-cray friend to say: we’ve been waiting

for your cray-cray heart to grab the wheel!

Here’s the good news: you will never smugly

shit on cray-cray again, and you will comfort

the cray-cray, as this direct poem hopes to do.

Here’s the bad news: before this mortal panic,

your life was a lie. I lied, that’s the best news.

 


FERRYING

 

Would you rather

be paralyzed

from the neck down,

or dead?

I awoke with this question,

and thought:

that’s a crazy-ass question.

So I made coffee

and sat on your quartz

in the garden;

waited. The birds sang,

I sipped;

shoveled my toes

in dark soil.

I kept thinking:

dead, or paralyzed?

Pick one, a voice said.

A honeybee sat down

on a petal of your pansy

and wiggled her ass.

How does this honeybee fly?

Another crazy-ass

morning thought:

but there it alights

again, insistently:

wherever the hell you are,

it is your fingertip

ferrying this honeybee

flower to flower.

 

 


 

SAY

 

Before your first sunset,

after a second wine,

we’d walk the goat trail

 

to the secret bay, watch

the sun pulled over cliffs,

and naked, we’d slip out

 

of the mouth of the bay,

and into the ocean’s rollers,

where we have no say.

 

Again, the sun will set,

as I kiss your lips at last—

the gale is to the North.

“The Only Life and Death Matters Are Life and Death”: A Few Quick Words from Porochista Khakpour

The following originally appeared as a Facebook post on March 7, 2017, and is reproduced here by permission.

PSA: everyone is moving too fast. It’s chaos. See our dictator & co. But it’s everyone. Myself included! My old mantra for students: the only life and death matters are life and death (and hey, I experience several of those regularly). But people are not reading carefully, not being mindful of others, making all sorts of messy calls, information is getting warped and lost. Please, take a second and breathe and think and give yourself a chance to do things right!

Anxiety and mania are close relatives, and this can be a very tough season for many. Please make space for yourself and for others — that’s a very generous act, and to do it right involves communication; not just ignoring them either! Ask them to slow down, ask them to read; do the same for yourself.

Challenge that American addiction to speed — figuratively and literally! The worst writing I have ever seen has come from prescription stimulants and too much coffee, and sometimes both. Not judging you, as I know some of you have to be on it, but for those that take it recreationally or for work — and there are many! — just FYI, I’m very productive and I don’t go near either. In fact, I drink chamomile tea and such to slow down. That’s also what I drink at readings and for public speaking. Some might benefit from this. I used to use coffee mainly for the gym — and I’ve dabbled in butter coffee practices — and stimulants felt best suited there!

Whatever it is, for the sake of yourself, for those under your care, for those around you, slow the pulse of your world as much as you can. There is much ancient wisdom around this. Anxiety and mania can be very destructive. And elders (I count myself as one of the Newly Olds), don’t be afraid to tell younger people this and help them — stop adapting to their suicidal rushing instead. Let’s be mindful and deliberate in this truly terrifying time.

Watch Didi Jackson Read On the Death of my Father

On the Death of my Father

Thomas Melvin Gibbs (1943 – 2006)

 

All too often my back betrays me

as I pick up the lightest pillow while making our bed,

or bend to brush my hair after a hot shower.

So I’m forced to walk crooked, arched to one side

like a preacher from the God-soaked South.

 

Reverend Howard Finster played the banjo and sang

about a small tack in the shingle of his roof:

              Come on back and stay with me?

              Come on back and stay with me?

              Make the little house what it ought to be?

 

He paced back and forth on the stage of The Tonight Show

in a suit like any suit my Appalachian father might have worn,

bought second hand, collar wide as a flag, his wavy

gray hair combed and greased bucket high.

He even wore those same black boots

with a slight heel, zippered at the side,

like shiny gritty teeth peering out below his pant leg.

His outsider art graces the album cover of Little Creatures

by the Talking Heads, and a vision of his dead

sister climbing down from Heaven

and the memory of his brother burned alive

were enough to make him born again

and to preach the word by age sixteen.

 

When the sun sets around these parts,

it tries to gun down all the trees

but settles for bullet holes in street signs, especially

those announcing a deer crossing or to Stop.

Because who wants to stop? My father died

five years before Rev. Finster, was no preacher,

except maybe to whoever lived at the bottom

of all those bottles he was Hell-bent on emptying.

 

Sumerians thought to translate footprints

birds left in the mud near the edge of the Euphrates.

They thought the prints to be a secret cuneiform.

After five Hallelujahs we can be saved, right? How many

texts do we need to know to make it in to Heaven?

So many signs to translate for our own salvation.

We can bend over the lines and read them out loud

until our throats are dry and our backs break.

 

Sympathetic Magic

Sympathetic magic. This is a term that does mean something like what you think it would. It is a kind of sympathy, an extension from one thing to another — the idea that you can influence something based on its similarity to something else. Think poppets, little dolls made to look like lovers or bad neighbors. What you do to one, you do to the other. Think pink candles lit for love; pink as interior, tender parts.

This magic is also called the magic of correspondence or contagion — the properties of one thing leaping to another. In folk medicines around the world, it shows up in what has been called the doctrine of signatures — the belief that you can tell what plant will heal you by its similarity to an ailing part. Lungwort, with its oval, spotted leaves, was prescribed to cure our ulcerated and cancerous lungs.  Walnuts for the brain. Eyebright, a sunny-centered herb, for what hurts the eyes. Saxifrage breaks apart stones with its roots, and so was thought to clear away kidney stones.

As a poet, these are my favorite falsehoods. As above, so below. Correspondence means a kind of matching, but also letters, communication. If I light this wick here, and kiss this rock, some cloud above me will shift in response. If I make this metaphor well enough — if tenor moves with vehicle, hovering above that holiness called ground — then some confusion within me will lift, and I will be able to see clearly enough to show you something — that I love you, that I fear for you, that I have found something beautiful and terrible in this world.

I refuse to believe this work means nothing. And yet, I know  you can crack walnuts between your teeth all day and your brain can still stutter until it stops. I know if I cut back the hair of a doll that looked just like you, even if it had your own locks sewn into its scalp, you would be untouched. Intention is powerful, they say. But I don’t know if it moves anything above or below. I only know what metaphor, what ritual, moves inside of me — what corresponds to my blood, what intent can contagion my daily movements: I will be better today. I will fight better today. I light a blue candle in the dark — blue for healing, blue for calm — and for a minute, the whole room is.

There are some who believe that the doctrine of signatures did not begin as the idea of a map placed on earth by God to tell us what can heal us. They say that individual correspondences between the shapes of plants and their qualities were used first as mnemonics — to help us remember when we stumbled onto a good one, a cure that actually worked. Eyebright, as it turns out — whether by coincidence or long-forgotten, accidental discovery — when used in eye drops, really can fight infection. Maybe that’s what ritual, what magic and the magic of good writing can do — they remind us of what we already know can help sustain us. An intent. A symbol. A daily work. A correspondence, a leeching of light from one source to another.

Alison Prine Reads Coming Out

 

How (And Why) to Build an Author Website

Recently, my friend Jason texted me and asked for some feedback on a few songs he’d posted on SoundCloud. He said I could find them on Facebook.

Texted > SoundCloud > Facebook — the number of high tech solutions immediately available to us are impressive — but I was on my phone where, like most people I know, I do the majority of my time-wasting internet stuff.

Usually, I absorb content on my phone while doing other relaxing things. Here’s a good tweet related to that:

The problem I encountered is that you can’t play SoundCloud songs on Facebook without opening the SoundCloud app. I’m certainly not going to download an app so I can listen to Jason’s songs while also watching Cheers reruns.

Therefore, I still haven’t listened to Jason’s songs. I just checked — I can play them in the browser on my laptop, but this machine is for important stuff like doing my paying job, sending emails apologizing for not doing my job sooner, and writing this essay.

What I learned from this experience is that, even though there are a multitude of technologies available, finding the right one is crucially important if we want anyone to actually pick up what we’re putting down.

User Experience designers — or UX people — study how we use modern applications and the challenges we face, like the speedbump I hit trying to listen to Jason’s songs. It wasn’t a mistake that SoundCloud tried to force me to download the app; it’s probably part of a big push to get more users for their service.

UX people know that phones are the most popular way to access the internet, so they account for that in the way they build websites. Along with their Search Engine Optimization (SEO) team, they know where their traffic is coming from, on the web and in the real world — their “referrals.” They know why users will “land” on their websites, and where they will land. They even track where users are looking with their eyeballs and where they move their mouse — even if they don’t click on something. They rank how long people stay on a site before clicking, and whether they click a link on the site, or close the tab, or just abandon it.

They don’t know if you get up to microwave a Hot Pocket, though, and neither does Obama.

If you’re interested in building an author site, and you want it to be worth your effort, you need to think like the UX people and the SEO folk. If you’re reasonably handy with the web, you can make a reasonably handy website in just a handful of hours. Platforms like Tumblr, WordPress, SquareSpace, Blogger, and Wix are reasonably handy, too.

But if you want those hours not to be wasted, you probably want people to look at your new site. And if you want people to visit, you probably want to make it worth their while, right? You also want to present yourself in the best possible way, according to your personality. Think of it the way you think of deciding what to wear: how does my wardrobe/website represent me?

So here’s where you start your website project: with a pen and piece of paper. Daydream some answers to questions like these:

  • What do I want to know about other writers?
  • Why will people visit my website?
  • What should people learn about me?
  • How will they know the site exists?
  • What are Google search terms that could lead people there? (Know that without an insane amount of effort on your part, people aren’t going to arrive at your website because they Google “short stories” or “contemporary American writer”)
  • What’s my message?
  • What’s the simplest way to get my message across?
  • How often will I update my site?
  • What’s my personal brand?
  • How many visitors should I expect a day/week/month?
  • Do I even care if people visit my website, or do I need one just in case someone wants to find out more about me?
  • Do I want to sell anything?
  • What kind of tone should my website take in its appearance and in the writing?
  • What pages would I have on my website?
  • What pages should appear in the main menu?
  • How should people interact — with comments, contact forms, social sharing, ranking posts, or maybe not at all?
  • How will I measure success?
  • How will I sustain the website?
  • How much money do I want to spend every year?

As long as you’ve got that pen and paper going, write down your own questions similar to these. I can think of plenty more, and you should too — even things like “what colors do I want my site to feature,” “how many pictures should I have,” and “what is the first thing I want people to see when they visit?”

In order to guide your thinking, look up the websites of writers you like, and those of super-famous writers. Most importantly, focus on writers who are at a similar point in their career as you. What kind of content do they have?

Now you’re at a good point to … no, not start building your website — pause and step away. Ask whether or not you need an author site at all. You’ve accumulated some good answers to questions about yourself, about what you’ve got to share, and why — as well as what other people in your writing world are doing (you should have made some judgments about what you think of these other sites). What does all this information tell you?

It might be really motivating. You might be surprised at how many ideas you have, and maybe you’ve developed a good plan for success. Or you might have thought, “Well, it looks like I don’t really want a site, and it’s not going to be something I’m going to spend much time supporting.”

In that case, you should think about some other options. In 2017, having a cool Instagram can be just as valuable as having a website you’ll abandon after a few well-intentioned months. If you can think of a social media platform that you’d be interested in, you’ll get a lot more mileage out of it.

If you conclude, “I don’t want to maintain a site, but I feel I need one because I’ve got a book coming out, or I plan to do a lot of poetry readings this year,” then you should look back at the previous paragraph: can you do something else instead? Keep in mind that publishers might not even want you to build your own website, because it can conflict with their branding efforts. If you decide to build one after all, though, you should move on to the next step. Just keep your site really, really simple. Like, one-page simple, with a picture of your book, your bio, links to social media, and a way to drop you a line.

(Note that if you’re self-publishing, you might not need an author site per se, but you definitely need some web presence for your book.)

This article on how to build an author website is intentionally general, because I think overly specific guidelines result in an internet that all looks the same. That’s too bad, because the internet provides an amazing opportunity for diversity and a level playing field. But in order to be useful, here are some common elements that you should have seen while looking at other writers’ websites:

  • A dedicated URL, like authorname.com, as opposed to authorname.xplatform.com — this conveys that the writer means business (since most conventional names are taken, you might also, and unfortunately, see “AuthorWrites.com.” What will your solution be? Note that with liberalized domain names, there are a lot of Top Level Domains — “the .com/.net/.org” suffix — so you can go with AuthorName.info or, like me, “.ninja”)
  • “About” page which includes a short bio, perhaps a longer narrative about the writer, and maybe a headshot. I always like to see what writers look like
  • “Publications” page with links to things that can be read online and the purchase page for issues of print journals they’re in
  • “Books” page that includes information about their books, including a summary, blurbs, and links to reviews
  • “Contact” page with a contact form or links to their agents, or just an email address
  • A blog that is updated at least once a month and preferably more — even if the update is just a cat video
  • Social media links, perhaps including an Instagram and/or Twitter feed

And that is pretty much it. From within those confines, great originality and personality can emerge. For instance, compare the brand new website of Kristen Iskandrian to Roxane Gay’s. Gay, media titan that she is, has a profoundly active Tumblr AMA, while Iskandrian has a fetching list of “COOL FACTS ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” — but both sites have basically the same page structure.

We’re finally getting somewhere. You’ve decided to go forward with your website, and you know what it’s going to be about, what the color scheme will be, and some practical stuff, like how much money and time you want to spend on it every month. Next, you need to decide how you’ll build the site.

I want to make this easy for you and say, “Just use WordPress because it’s the platform that more than half of all websites are built on.” But it’s not that easy. Maybe you want to spend $0; if you have great content, you can do that and still be successful with a sweet Tumblr site. Here’s where your research into other websites will pay off: just ask the people who made the ones you like what platform they use.

If you’ve come this far, you’re probably taking the whole thing seriously, and maybe you’re even willing to spend some big bucks on it. And when I say “big,” I mean a surprising amount. With all the complexity of web design these days, the minimum you can expect to pay a developer for even a very simple site is $500. Add a few bells and whistles, and it can add up to a few thousand dollars pretty quickly.

Even if you are going to hire someone else to build the site, you should get your pen and paper back out and draw what you want each page to look like. This is called “wireframing,” and there are a ton of tools for it, but none better than pen and paper.

Be as specific as possible about what elements of the site you want to appear in which spot. Don’t just write “Header” — write what you want to appear in the header. Will the site title be your name? Don’t just write “main nav.” — write the pages that you want to appear in that menu. (Don’t worry about what these things will look like, like the font or colors; you’ll figure that out later.)

When you draw the wireframe, imagine how users will move through the site. This is that UX stuff we were talking about. If people arrive directly at a blog post (because they follow a link from someplace else), how will they get to the next thing you want them to look at? Will you have a link in the sidebar to your most popular posts? Will you have a popup that says “check out my new book?” What if they arrive at your homepage from Google? Where will they look for your “About” page?

Once you know the content of the site, and the look and feel, and the way people will move through it, you’re ready to start building, or talking to pros who can build it for you. I do recommend giving it a go yourself, now that you’re at this stage. Start small and expect to be limited by your technical know-how. Use Google — there are a ton of resources out there if you need to get a specific thing done. But sometimes coming up with a workaround can result in some better ideas than you had in the first place.

Ultimately, don’t be afraid to fail, don’t be afraid to ask for help, and don’t be afraid to simplify, simplify, simplify. Computer people call this “iterating,” as in “let’s iterate on the simplest minimum viable product.” That means, let’s start small and build on it once we know what we can do and what people care about.

That’s, like, the smartest advice in the world.

Wonderland: Readings by Matthew Dickman

The poems in Matthew Dickman’s latest book, Wonderland (scheduled to be released by Norton in 2017), are an exploration of the factors, some familial, some deeply ingrained and social, which shape us as adults. How is it that out of a group of kids, all growing up together in the same rough neighborhood in Portland, OR, some grow up to be poets and others to be neo-Nazi skinheads? In our current political climate, when we can too easily define ourselves by our differences, Dickman reminds us that our art can be a way into finding our sameness—a way to rediscover our humanness.

https://www.audiomack.com/song/hm-ephemeral/intro-and-wonderland

“I think, as liberal white artists, we assume that we aren’t part of the troubling issues of this great lie of being white. We want to be the one white person that isn’t part of this infrastructure of racism that is in the United States, but the fact is that we are. You know, we’re deeply part of that. So, I’m just trying to stumble around and fall and explore the truth of what I’m really a part of and of who I am.” ~M. Dickman

https://www.audiomack.com/song/hm-ephemeral/wonderland

“It seems like everyday now, anytime we make art, or really listen to someone else’s point of view, or empathize with the other, that it’s a fight against meanness,” says Dickman. And that seems to be his real goal—to fight against blind meanness, to remember that we were all kids once, and to recognize more similarities in our selves than differences. The following two poems, both entitled Wonderland, follow the life of a fictional character named Anton, a composite of many boys Dickman knew growing up. Dickman tracks Anton’s life, from that of a young boy playing He-Man with a stick in his front yard, to marching with his new family, other skinheads, down the street as a young adult. Dickman’s objective isn’t to point fingers or even to chastise, instead, he says, “I’m just trying to stumble around and fall and to explore the truth of what I’m really part of, and of who I really am.”

 

Matthew Dickman is the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008), 50 American Plays (co-written with his twin brother Michael Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (W.W. Norton & Co, 2012). His poems have appeared in McSweeny’s, Ploughshares, The Believer, The London Review of Books, Narrative Magazine, Esquire Magazine and The New Yorker among others. He is a 2015 Guggenheim recipient. Matthew Dickman is the Poetry Editor of Tin House Magazine. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

art as a gorged star: eight erasure poems

These are erasures of a book published by MOMA, which features transcribed versions of three lectures given in the 50’s and early 60’s: Art as the Measure of Man by George D. Stoddard, Art as Education by Irwin Edman, and Art: A Personal Vision by Bruno Bettelheim.

Through the erasures, the text is refocused onto the mystical and spiritual nature of art, working against the way these men tried to define and explain art in mathematical, economic, and social terms.

Another preoccupation is the way art and the artist are gendered within the lectures — almost always the singular, masculine he. The erasures play with the plurality of art, of collaboration, and move away from the patriarchal undertones of it all.






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What Being “Willing to Fail” Really Means

These days, many people know it’s okay to fail.*

They understand that failure is an essential part of any ambitious path, and also a fantastic learning opportunity. They also know that if you’re not failing at least some of the time, you’re probably not taking enough risks.

This failure-is-okay viewpoint is reinforced by many inspiring quotes by brilliant people, including:

“He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great.” — Herman Melville
“Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” — Winston Churchill
(There are zillions more.)

So, to repeat: these days, many people realize it’s okay to fail.

Or do they?

It turns out that many who think they’re prepared to fail, really aren’t. Underneath, they still crave success.

It’s a good bet that they’ve defined success perfectionistically — meaning, that any outcome short of “fabulous” is unacceptable.

And that they’re counting on someone’s good opinion of their result and/or a monetary or other yield from it. That’s always a dicey situation. (Far better to derive your validation and rewards internally from the pleasures of doing the work.)

And, finally, that they have no “Plan B”: meaning that if they don’t succeed to the desired extent, they have no idea how they’ll cope or what they’ll do next. Having no backup, especially to an unrealistic plan, is also dicey.

Let’s be clear:

  • Hoping (a bit, not too much) for success is fine.
  • Needing success, especially when it’s defined perfectionistically, isn’t.

So, if you’re stuck or slowing down on a project, ask yourself if you’re really, truly prepared to fail — or if you just think you are. If the latter, you are probably experiencing a terror of failure that is inhibiting your creativity and productivity.

Here’s what being prepared to fail really looks like:

  • You’re focused mostly on your process, and not thinking too much about either the outcome of your efforts or its reception by others. Put another way, you’re working mostly in the moment, and not focusing much on either the past or future.
  • You are prepared to fail utterly — to embarrass yourself, even. Although even in the worst case, you probably won’t be that embarrassed because you are not so personally invested in your product, and not craving outside validation.
  • You understand that this project, no matter how important it seems, is merely a “way station” along the arc of your work and life. (This is true even for seemingly very important projects! No project is do-or-die, and there are always alternative paths.)
  • You have a Plan B that, while not optimal, you would actually be okay with.

There are probably plenty of “unimportant” things you do where you are perfectly willing to fail, and so you can use those as a guide on how to handle the “important” ones. (Also, think of a kid building sand castles.)

It might seem paradoxical or even impossible to embrace a low-stakes mindset about your important work, but it is very doable, and gets easier with practice. Moreover, like all productivity work, it is hugely liberating and can create a lot of peace and joy around your work. So go for it!

*Asterisk to remind us that there is no such thing as a complete and total “failure,” since most failures contain elements of success, and all failures are terrific learning opportunities.

This post originally appeared April 30th, 2014, at HillaryRettig.com. Reproduced with permission.

Why I have Hemingway Tattooed on My Forearm

“Why do you have tattoos?” I often hear.

“Because I like tattoos,” I say.

Some people understand. Some don’t. And some don’t like it. Regardless, all of my tattoos have meaning to me, but there is no way to thoroughly explain that meaning in twenty-second sound bites.

However, I can usually relate salient points quickly: “Most of the sleeve on this arm has a nautical theme. I love being on the ocean. Moby Dick is my favorite book—he and the Pequod are there. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ is my favorite poem—some of my favorite verses are scrolled around my arm. And Einstein sticking out his tongue is there to remind me that if one of the smartest men that ever lived didn’t take himself too seriously, why should I?”

“What about Hemingway?” they ask. “What’s the story there?”

The short answer, “He’s one of my favorite authors,” just isn’t enough. If that were the sole qualification, I would have more than two authors tattooed on my arms. (The other author, on my other arm, is Vonnegut. His is a story for another time.) No, Hemingway means more to me than that, and I never have the time or the on-demand eloquence to properly explain it. It has to do with a big, two-hearted river.

When I look at Ernest Hemingway, I see Nick Adams. Nick’s exploits in Hemingway’s short stories echo Hemingway’s childhood, his fishing trips, his war experiences. Because Hemingway based Nick on himself, there is cohesiveness to Nick’s character. Over many years and many short stories, Hemingway developed Nick as a reflective man who would at times ruminate on his past and present.

For example, in one short story, “Now I Lay Me,” Nick is in Italy recovering from wounds suffered in the First World War. Nick is trying to think about fishing trips, family, and anything else that will distract him because he doesn’t want to close his eyes—he is afraid he will die if he does. The story opens with this:

That night we lay on the floor in the room and I listened to the silk-worms eating. The silk-worms fed in racks of mulberry leaves and all night you could hear them eating and a dropping sound in the leaves. I myself did not want to sleep because I had been living for a long time with the knowledge that if I ever shut my eyes in the dark and let myself go, my soul would go out of my body. I had been that way for a long time, ever since I had been blown up at night and felt it go out of me and go off and then come back. I tried never to think about it, but it had started to go since, in the nights, just at the moment of going off to sleep, and I could only stop it by a very great effort. So while now I am fairly sure that it would not really have gone out, yet then, that summer, I was unwilling to make the experiment.

In another short story, “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick, still in the First World War, is again having trouble sleeping because his mind is racing and he cannot stop it. In one paragraph, a full page and a half long, Nick’s thoughts during an attempt to nap string out in a rambling series of flashbacks that may or may not stick to the truth. When awake, he babbles, and he knows it. In one scene he rambles to bewildered Italian soldiers, on and on, about American grasshoppers: which ones are good for fishing, how best to capture them, etc.

What Nick saw and experienced during the war is important, and how Nick dealt with these experiences is important. Nick ruminates. Nick rambles. Nick’s mind moves.

I suffer from bipolar disorder. I ruminate. I ramble. My mind moves. And one thing I struggle to do is peacefully enjoy my surroundings. This rarely happens, and it definitely does not happen after something traumatic. Was Nick suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? Was Hemingway bipolar, as is often presumed? I don’t know—but I am seeing unmistakable traits to which I can relate.

Big Two-Hearted River” is considered by many to be one of the best post-war stories there is. The short story (two actually, Part I and Part II) follows Nick as he heads into the wilderness after returning home from his traumatic wartime experiences. Some reviewers have said that Nick is at peace there in the wilderness because he finds strength in connecting with the natural world. I have a different view.

In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick gets off a train in a deserted town. The town and surrounding countryside have been burned to the ground. Nick walks through the town, observing the destruction, not saying a word, and, important to me, Hemingway reveals no thoughts that Nick may have of it—especially how it must certainly compare to the war he just left behind. Nick then walks out of town and across charred land. He stops to notice that the grasshoppers are black from the soot.

As I mentioned, in “A Way You’ll Never Be,” Nick, for no particular reason, describes with fondness and expertise the American grasshoppers to the Italian soldiers. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick observes the grasshoppers in the burned-out fields without mention of those he encountered in Europe during the war. When he was in Italy, grasshoppers were a connection to his life back in America. Back home, he finds them charred and black, and he says the only real dialogue in the story: “Go on, hopper. Fly away somewhere.”

Eventually, Nick finds the fire line. Once beyond that, he is finally in pristine land. The comparison between living in a burned-out war zone and returning home is undeniable, yet Nick makes no connection that we are privy to. Instead, Nick thinks about setting up camp. Nick thinks about scouting fishing locations. Nick thinks about fishing, even as he’s fishing. Nick thinks about what the next day’s fishing will bring.

Nick never, ever thinks about the war.

Nick, in “Big Two-Hearted River,” is not ruminating, as would the character developed in other Hemingway short stories. He does not reflect on the war even once.

He was blown up. He had nightmares. He couldn’t sleep. He had scars, physical and mental. He saw horrors. He killed. He feared he would die if he simply closed his eyes. Yet here he is, walking in the most serene of environments, quietly observing, thinking simple thoughts. How he should fish. Where to set up the proper camp. The best way to gather bait.

And here I sit—waiting for him to explode.

This is going to hit him. This wouldn’t be much of a story if it was solely following a well adjusted soldier on a fishing trip back home.

No, it will hit him. When? I wait. And wait. But it doesn’t come.

The tension is agonizing.

When will he suddenly look at the grasshoppers and say, “I missed you! You’re all black! How did the war follow us here?” When will he throw down his rod and put his head in his hands and sob?

Nick smokes a cigarette and surveys the scene. No thoughts of the war or the trauma or the horror or the death. But the thoughts are coming. They must be coming. When will they come?

They don’t come.

Yet.

And I know what this is. I know what Nick is doing. It is not denial. It is an attempt to free himself from the ceaseless thinking. It is the never-ending quest to quiet the mind and enjoy the here and now without letting disturbing thoughts intrude and control. And it only lasts so long.

Until the crash.

And he will crash.

Why do I have Hemingway tattooed on my forearm?

I like to look down once in a while and see Nick.

I like to see that I’m not alone.

Someone understands me.

Where I Find Myself

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m trying to write nonfiction.

I have published some fiction, so I think of myself as a fiction writer. I have published some poetry, so sometimes I think of myself as a poet. I have published a few essays, but I have never thought of myself as a nonfiction writer.

I’m not a nonfiction writer. In fact, I don’t even believe nonfiction can exist. All writing is fiction by virtue of the fact that words can never be equal to lived experience; I can say I’m writing truth, but all I’m doing is constructing a mirror of the truth, a mirror of lived experience, using words as symbols to do my best to communicate what the truth is.

Ferdinand de Saussure is famous for saying there are two things in all communication: the signifier and the signified. The signifier is arbitrary; there’s no inherent reason to refer to a dog as a “dog,” except that, as English speakers, we have agreed on this word to signify the animal we think of as a dog.

But the word “dog” will never be an actual dog. Words will always be words; words can never be truth.

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog.

I’m here, in Philadelphia, because I’m working on a PhD in English at Temple University. I want to study Rhetoric and Poetics and Creative Writing pedagogy and identity and race and literature and anything that has to do with words, really, and how they can connect to our lived experiences. This is why I’m here.

I have an MFA in Fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. When I was getting my MFA, there were creative nonfiction writers in the program, but they were separate from me. They were people who had led interesting lives, done interesting things, grown enough that they could offer some perspective on reality that I couldn’t. I was only a kid, 25 years old, from a small town in Arkansas; I’d barely traveled anywhere, hadn’t seen much of anything; what could I add to the already abundant world of nonfiction?

I was a kid. In many ways, I’m still a kid, trapped in the extended adolescence of the post-irony, post-sincerity millennial era; I came of age in America under the Bush Administration, a world where words, masquerading as truths, became tools for war. Fictions posing as nonfictions created disaster. Why would I even want to pretend to be able to tell the truth?

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I’m looking in a mirror.

This is the story I’m telling about myself, and for the most part, it’s true. That is: it’s easy to believe that there’s a place called Philadelphia, and I am in it, along with my couch and my dog. I say these things; you think these things; therefore, they are.

Brian Street has said before that sometimes we form identities in our narratives: we tell stories about ourselves, and in doing so, we figure out who we are. By creating a fiction, we create ourselves.

That isn’t true, of course. I mean, not truly true—we can’t be the actual fictions we make out of ourselves; we will be ourselves, and the words will be the words. In writing, I play a character in a story: I am in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog; in reality, I’m much more than that.

I’ve been reading a lot about identity lately, mainly because I’m trying to figure out who I am. It seems strange to be me, in the literal, physical sense, and yet to not really know what it actually means to be me. What does it mean to be here? What does it mean to be a fiction writer? What does it mean to never want to tell the truth?

I used to be mad whenever anyone would read one of my stories and critique it as though I was the main character. That still isn’t a critique I would support, but certainly, a character is a part of my imagination, isn’t it? In the way that a child might reflect a parent, a character reflects me, irrevocably tied by creation, if not always by advocacy.

If then, in my fiction and poetry, you can see a blurry reflection of me, why would that be less true of my nonfiction? The reflection, albeit blurry, is still a reflection, isn’t it? I look in the mirror, and I know that the reflection isn’t me—it lacks my entire interior life—but doesn’t that reflection still contain at least some aspects of who I am?

Why should I give a shit if my signifier and signified aren’t entirely equivalent? Symbols are the only things I have to express truth with, and even if they don’t convey all of the truth, they can convey some of it. The truth inherently bleeds into my fiction, and so maybe there is no fiction, but instead, only nonfiction.

In every fiction there is an aspect of nonfiction. In every signifier, some image of the signified; in every word, some aspect of myself.

~

I’m in Philadelphia, on my couch, next to my dog. I have written nonfiction. I have always written nonfiction. I am a nonfiction writer.

Air: Photographs

 

These photographs from the series “Air” were featured in Hunger Mountain Issue 19: The Body Issue.

Writing the 30th Gate

This past summer my husband, Derek, and I spent seven weeks in Mexico, where he took immersive Spanish classes, and I holed up in our rented apartment finalizing some contracted writing projects. I also spent my days trying to learn to prepare food at regular intervals and attempting to convince myself I have the discipline to complete my own writing projects.[i] This probably comes as a surprise to no one. My friends, family, coworkers, dentist, and that lady at the mall kiosk are all equally familiar with my tenuous commitment to the craft of writing (and also my Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese lifestyle, for that matter).

I think every writer grapples with discipline.[ii] To that end, I conducted my previous writing experiment—talking about writing without writing much—for around five years post-MFA. Despite repeated trials, my results were always indistinguishable from the control. I swore Mexico would be different. I would be as prolific as Malcolm Lowry, minus the mescal, plus a stable, loving relationship. Everything would be different this time!

Except that it wasn’t. I sprawled on our rattan couch, ate a bunch of avocados, watched any show on television that was broadcast in English, and waited for Derek to come home from class. Comfortably slunk into nihilism with Will & Grace as background noise, I had some kind of revelation. Perhaps it was the altitude sickness (Guanajuato has an elevation of over 6,500 ft.) or the near-vertical walks up the infernal hill that led from the grocery store back to my apartment, but I decided I would try an endurance exercise that would, ideally, show me what improvement looks like.

Since it’s difficult for me to gauge the effect of discipline on my writing, I would paint. I would paint the same scene every week day for the remainder of our summer, allowing me to see creative growth in a new way.[iii] It was a mad endeavor, one that made my grandmother say, “My god, Caitlyn,” when I explained it over the phone, and one that taught me everything I now know about progress.

~

Guanajuato is a city at the bottom of a bowl, and mountains make up the bowl’s sides. Our apartment was perched above the city center and provided an unfettered view of La Bufa, the city’s most famous rock face. The rooms of my apartment were simultaneously small and spacious—as if we lived in Mary Poppins’ handbag.

The gate to the apartment complex required two separate keys, a strong push, and occasionally some swearing before it would swing open into our courtyard. “My” chair on the balcony faced the gate, so naturally I painted 29 representations of it over the course of 40 days.[iv]

Here’s what happened when I, a non-painter, painted for the first time as an adult: I felt clumsy, tried to use the brush like a pencil, and used paint that was much too dry. I scraped that pigment over the paper until the paper pilled. I felt proud of myself.

Gate #1

Gate #1

On day two, I was shocked at how much better I’d done. Shocked enough to feel ashamed of my painting from day one. Was this how I’d been as a beginning writer?[v] But the biggest difference was my attitude. I was experimenting. I had guesses about what I could do differently from the previous day, so I was coming at this painting thing with an attitude of genuine curiosity. I was experimenting. I was having fun.

Like all heady times, the feeling did not last long. I’d say I got about five days in before I felt like I’d made a huge mistake. So why didn’t I quit this time?

~

Prior to leaving for Mexico, my parents (who live conveniently close to an international airport and thus hosted us in the days preceding our trip) voiced some concerns about what might befall us in Guanajuato. When my mother hugged me goodbye, I couldn’t tell if her extra-strong grip was in case this was the last goodbye she’d ever be afforded—or if I was imagining it.[vi]

After I painted my second gate, I emailed them photos of the first two paintings with the subject line “A Marked Improvement in My Painting Skills.” They each responded that they could really see the progress. I decided that day that I’d email them every painting. The Gate of the Day newsletter would remain capped at two subscribers. I saw Gate of the Day as the conscription of my parents. They certainly were not given the luxury of the “unsubscribe” option of other newsletters. Each evening I took a photo of myself holding the painting in front of my face and sent it off to my mom and dad in America. It was my version of holding up a newspaper. I’m fine, it said. Each day both of my parents picked out one element of the painting to praise.[vii]

My weird forced newsletter is a key element of this story because it gave me accountability. I worried that if I didn’t send a painting, my parents would imagine I’d fallen into the hands of Chapo Guzmán himself.[viii] I obsessed that my parents could be living in fear until my return, and this obsession proved to be an effective motivator. It turns out I am also a huge fan of being praised.

~

I started to see patterns in the way I was improving, though my improvement was slow. I thought about my progress as though I were viewing myself as an avatar in a video game: I’d run forward, then have to take a step back before I could vault myself to the next level. Often my biggest leaps came after what felt like insurmountable backslides. Many of my paintings are hideously ugly.[ix]

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

I rated each painting on an arbitrary 10-point scale

~

Of course, these peaks and valleys inspired a lot of frustration. I’d devise new ways to make that same gate image seem new: setting a 10-minute time limit for a painting, using a single color of paint, or zooming in to paint small details instead of the full image. I would also procrastinate. Arms laden with groceries, I’d catch my breath on a bench at the mid-way point of that devil hill after my daily trek to the store. The back of the bench featured the words BAD BITCH. I’d intentionally sit next to the graffiti—I didn’t want to obscure any of the sloppy blue letters. I would nod to myself. I would think, yes. Bad bitch. Then I’d walk home with a little more surety to paint in the twenty minutes before Derek got home.

~

One day, just like that, it was over. I found myself on an airplane watching Mexico recede from view. For a while we hovered next to a mountain with a flat top before gaining altitude until nothing was in clear view except for the clouds. My 29 paintings were neatly wrapped in a plastic bag and tucked into the front pocket of my carry-on bag. My husband held my hand.[x] The final painting had felt important, so I gave myself over to it. Before sitting down to paint for the last time in our perfect apartment in a perfect city, I thought of the art we’d seen in a museum in Querétaro. I had noticed that the painters used unreal colors that somehow imbued every person or building with weight and reality. But I hadn’t been thinking at all while I painted the 29th gate—I was immersed. I leapt.

~

I fell short.

~

Gate #29

Gate #29

 And I know I’ll continue to fall short. As a writer and especially as a painter. The other thing I know is that I’ll keep showing up, keep progressing.[xi] Because for me, writing is not about writing. It’s about becoming the kind of person who is willing to leap.

~

[i] Note that there’s no way to say, “I spent seven weeks in Mexico [more or less fucking around]” without giving the impression that you’re kind of a douche. I’ve tried phrasing it different ways to no avail. Please accept my assurances that I’m mostly not a douche.

[ii] If you were expecting a statistic here about writers and commitment, you’d be wrong! I’d prefer not to complete any (potentially disheartening) research in favor of repeating comforting platitudes. Are you struggling to sit down and write? You’re not alone.

[iii] I gave myself weekends off because I’m not a monster.

[iv] It could be tempting to ascribe some kind of meaning to this choice. Something like, the gate signifies how close I am to achieving my goals, or a V. for Vendetta-esque The gate was open the whole time! Alas, I just thought the gate looked kind of cool and was visible from my vantage point of choice.

[v] Because I teach, I know the answer to this question.

[vi] My parents are lovely and open-minded people who often take my travel plans in stride. I’m not surprised they were worried about Mexico, considering the media paints it as a dystopian wasteland.

[vii] Even the shittiest paintings! My parents have a knack for finding the positive.

[viii] My husband has been following Guzmán’s exploits for some time, so it was particularly surprising that Guzmán tunneled to freedom while we were in Guanajuato.

[ix] Making ugly things can be exciting, too.

[x] Sometimes Derek would paint with me out on the balcony. I love that man.

[xi] “This is practice: if we feel like doing it, we do it, and if we don’t feel like doing it, we do it just the same. We just keep doing it.” –Ajahn Chah

Paintings

Hunger Mountain is thrilled to present this collection of paintings by Don Fenestre-Marek as the featured artwork for the online Prizewinner Issue–October 2015.

Artist’s Statement:

Over the past three decades, Don has worked in a variety of art media.  He considers painting to have the broadest vocabulary for articulating the intersection of practical existence and spiritual inquiry.  “For Marcel Duchamp everything, including art, could be reflected on in the course of what happens on a chess board; for me the canvas is the chess board.  If I can imagine a way to get it onto the painting surface, I can see how it fits into broad and complex systems.”

Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co.

From 2002 to 2004, Evie Lovett photographed drag queens preparing backstage for the monthly drag show at the Rainbow Cattle Co. in Dummerston, Vermont. The exhibit has toured throughout the state of Vermont, with the last show at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center from May to June 2015. We are thrilled to present photos from this series in the online MASCULINITY issue of Hunger Mountain.

Artist Statement: The Ladies Come Home

Twelve years ago, I began taking photographs of local drag queens getting dressed backstage for the monthly drag show at the Rainbow Cattle Company, a gay bar in Dummerston, Vermont.

I was mesmerized by the process of transformation—layers of pantyhose pulled on, waists cinched, breasts created, eyeliner drawn, false eyelashes, wigs, jewels, nails. But it wasn’t all about taking pictures. I also loved being part of it. I was sucked into the world of attitude, banter, and camaraderie in that smoky basement room.

I couldn’t have imagined then the fun I’d have in the year and a half of photographing, or the friendships I’d form—nor that my journey with “the Ladies” would continue for over a decade, from Dummerston to Boston, New York, Phnom Penh, and a three-year tour of Vermont’s fourteen counties.

Backstage at the Rainbow Cattle Co. returns to Brattleboro for the final showing in the tour. The show sparked a month-long exploration of “Sex, Gender, Expression and the First Amendment” at Vermont Law School, a drag show, film screenings, numerous articles, and twelve public conversations.

Most viewers’ responses mirrored my gratitude at the performers’ willingness to share their backstage and backstories. Most were as captivated as I by exposure to the Ladies, who do what they love with exuberance and an attitude of “if you don’t like it, you’re missing out on fun.”

In the few cases of resistance to the work and subject matter, community members closed ranks to support the importance of freedom of expression and the role of art in enabling us to imagine worlds and ideas beyond those we inhabit. Audience members in Rutland stood up to defend the show against a protest during a public talk. The small, Memphremagog Art Collective in Newport voted to dismiss a fellow member who prevented viewers from seeing the show.

What have I learned on this journey? What is the show about, really?

All I can speak about with authority is my own transformation. My time with the Ladies changed me. Their readiness to do what they love, be courageous and outrageous, and write their own life stories gives me the courage to do the same. Thanks to the Ladies, I commit to doing what I love, despite my fear of what others will think.

In the words of Mama: “Lighten up! It’s about having fun!”

— Evie Lovett

BODIES SPACES

We are thrilled to showcase these photographs from the series BODIES SPACES by Daniel Toby Gonzalez, who was recently featured in Hunger Mountain‘s issue 19: The Body Issue.

Artist Statement: 

Daniel Toby Gonzalez, or Toby to those he’s closest, is a cerebral artists who lets his personal beliefs around fine art photography guide his work. It is an ideology he developed after completing an early college portfolio, that he found to be “too literal and unfocused” to stir conversation and the minds of viewers.

Fine art, he has come to believe, is meant to be a voice for him (the artist) to say things he is too afraid to say aloud, in a way that’s free of clumsy phrasing and awkward pauses. As such, photography is meant not for the viewer’s pleasure, but rather for the artist’s personal expression. However, in seeing that personal expression, the viewer will explore his/her own experiences as generated by their own thinking.

Toby has found the greatest personal release exploring themes of masculinity—both his own masculinity and the way masculinity is perceived by society—and plans to dig further into the subject, attempting to “hit the bottom, if there is one.”

Write Hard, Die Free: Searching for a Mentor and Finding Bob

Early in my career, lusting as I was to become a literary light in the nonfiction world, I realized that I desperately needed the services of a mentor. I imagined a sort of a cross between an Oxford don, a Jesuit spiritual advisor, and Dr. Phil – an uber-mentor in my mind’s eye. I pictured this person in very specific terms. He (not she, please—the idea of a female mentor seemed too fraught with the possibility of messy emotional complications) would be ferociously smart, of course, but he would impart his wisdom in a user-friendly manner that also left me feeling warm-and-fuzzy. From behind his massive mahogany (or possibly teak) desk, surrounded by shelves groaning with the weight of his manuscripts, he would take it upon himself to steer me from idiocy to greatness.

After writing professionally for nearly 20 years, I’m sorry to say that I still have yet to meet this fellow.

Instead, I wound up with Bob.

~

The impact of Bob Shacochis on my writing career is a bit like that of a terrorist attack from an Al-Qaeda sleeper cell: explosive and devastating, but triggered by an incredibly long fuse. The full force of Bob’s creative munitions failed to detonate until I’d been at the writing game for a decade and half, first as a staff writer at TIME, later as a senior editor at Outside. Those were hard, mean, frustrating years for me. Years in which I stumbled and careened from one debacle to the next, wallowing in mediocrity, awash in confusion, beset by the aggrieved conviction that if my uber-mentor would just have the decency to show up, clock in, and get down to business, things could start falling into place. Whoever that person was, he never bothered to materialize – a dereliction of duty which eventually convinced me that if I truly wanted a mentor to help me figure out the hard stuff, I would have to go out and recruit that target on my own.

This proved to be difficult, mainly because my older colleagues at the publications where I worked – the sort of whip-smart folks who seemed to offer the most mentor-worthy material – displayed, at best, a passing interest in my development. Their apathy, I now realize, had little to do with the shallowness of their commitment to helping others, and was instead a completely appropriate reaction to the grotesqueness and the absurdity of my own desperation, which was a reflection of my belief that excellence was a gift imparted by someone else, instead of a quality cultivated from within.

During my second year at TIME, where I started out as a fact-checker, I asked editor Priscilla Painton (by this point, I was frustrated enough that I was willing to adjust my standards and consider a woman for the job) if it would be OK for me to sit in her office for about a week and basically listen to her answer the phone. Priscilla, obviously one of the most talented people at the magazine (she was eventually promoted to deputy managing editor, the highest-ranking woman in the history of the magazine, before becoming editor in chief of Simon & Schuster’s adult trade imprint) shot me a look normally reserved for the neighbor’s cat when it meanders through the front door and vomits on your couch. We later became friends, but she never quite recovered, I think, from her astonishment over meeting someone who had failed to grasp the rudiments of journalistic pedagogy: the act of teaching oneself is indispensable to the process of becoming a writer.

Before I knew it, 15 years had somehow slipped past and I was forced to conclude that along with a wife, a family, a fat 401K, and a number of other achievements that have eluded my grasp, perhaps a mentor simply wasn’t in the cards for me. At which point, having decided to abandon the search, I found exactly what I was looking for.

Well, sort of.

~

 I’m not sure I can pinpoint when, exactly, Bob Shacochis became my mentor – a confusion exacerbated by Bob’s insistence that he is not my mentor but that we are simply colleagues and friends. This is an asinine assertion because, among other flaws, it implies a parity of talents and achievements belied by the fact that while he is a National Book Award-winning author who has mastered both fiction and nonfiction, I am – and will continue to remain for the indefinite future – a struggling, dirt-bag hack.

I first met Bob when I was at Outside, but we began to form a meaningful connection only after I quit my job and started lurking around the patch of turf he occupies in a remote corner of northern New Mexico. Bob allegedly maintains a wife and a home somewhere in Florida, but most of his year is spent on a five-acre meadow surrounded by a dense ponderosa forest in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Here, in an adobe cabin at the end of a nearly impassable dirt road, he spends his days banging out novels, nonfiction books, essays, and magazine articles.

Our relationship got off the ground tentatively, a hesitation stemming from the fact that I had decided, fairly early on, to write Bob off as incandescently brilliant and fantastically gifted but also insane. There was, I hasten to add, an overwhelming body of evidence to support this conclusion. Whenever I would make the hour-long drive from my home in Santa Fe to pay a visit to his lair, I would find Bob in a state of high indignation. Clad in the wooly demeanor of a bear emerging from a long and profoundly troubled hibernation, he was always ornery, invariably profane, and often apt to fire a blast of buckshot – sometimes rhetorically, occasionally with a Winchester 12-gauge Double X magnum – into the branches of his apple tree. But it was the ferocity of his anger that most took me aback.

As I huddled in front of the fireplace with his dogs while the winter storms sought to bury his cabin under a mountain of snow, or sat on the patio on warm summer nights as the starlight filtered through his strings of Tibetan prayer flags, I slowly came to fathom the depth and the vitality of his contempt for the current state of American magazine journalism. He hated the endlessly expanding power of publishers and marketers, corporate owners and advertisers, of course – and rightly so. But he reserved a special loathing for editors of magazines whom he viewed as hypocritical liars and self-righteous nincompoops, the corrupt custodians of America’s tradition of literary nonfiction (Harpers, The New Yorker and The Atlantic being the exceptions). As for the quality of the reporting and writing overseen by these bureaucrats of the fourth estate, he regarded the bulk of it as a cultural disgrace.

Having only recently ceased being a magazine editor myself, I reacted defensively to these criticisms, and thus it took some time for me to recognize that Bob was almost entirely right about all of this. After finally coming around to his point of view – a perspective I fully embraced, to my shame, only after seeing my own work mangled in the very same manner I had once mangled the work of my freelancers – I was forced to change my opinion about Bob’s sanity. At which point our friendship started to change and his imprint began to leave its mark.

~

Over the last five years as Bob and I have grown closer, my career has slid inexorably downhill, a trend I attribute almost entirely to his influence. Each year I make less money, I turn down more assignments, and I blurt out more inappropriate remarks – often at Bob’s instigation – that antagonize the dwindling number of editors still willing to work with me.

A few years ago, for example, I got upset when an editor at Outside expressed interest in publishing a particular photograph to accompany a story I had written about the Siachen War in the Himalayas. I feared the photograph might provide the Indian Army with some clues about the exact location of a Pakistani military base I had visited – a concern shared by the art director and the photographer. The editor went ahead and published it anyhow. Several months later when the military base in the picture was hit by an Indian artillery shell that killed three men and a string of high-altitude pack ponies, a number of my friends pointed out – correctly – that there was probably no connection between the photo and the explosion, and they advised me not to say or do anything that might upset the magazine. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face,” they urged. “You cannot afford to piss off Outside.”

Only Bob argued that by even the loosest definition of journalistic ethics and integrity, I couldn’t afford not to piss off Outside. He declared that I should stop writing for the magazine as long as the editor in question remained on staff. And he announced that in the spirit of solidarity, he would stop writing for Outside too – thereby ensuring that both our incomes took a substantial hit until the offending editor was let go.

Another magazine sent me off to do a feature story on Mount Everest and ended up gutting the manuscript, botching up the language and cutting the length by two-thirds. When I later re-stitched the discarded material and sold that piece to a competing publication, the editors of the first magazine announced their intention to sue me for $30,000—several thousand more than I had made the previous year (thanks, in part, to the boycott Bob had initiated). The moment Bob learned of this, he offered to start a second boycott, and to get other freelancers to participate. Fearing this whole boycott business was starting to get out of hand, I decided instead to apologize and beg forgiveness. When Bob heard about this, he hauled off and punched me in the solar plexus so hard that I thought I heard a piece of cartilage pop.

The force of that blow underscored Bob’s outrage at a writer who would compromise on principles for the sake of trying to make things easier on himself (the principles in this case being a writer’s absolute ownership of the ideas inside his head, and his inalienable right to publish those ideas wherever the f*** he sees fit). But Bob’s fury didn’t end there. What incensed him even more was that by caving in to this kind of intimidation and bullying, I had done a disservice to my craft. His point wasn’t simply that cowardice is inimical to good writing – although that notion carried a sufficiently damning indictment on its own, given what I’d done. The true focus of his rage, I think, had to do with the vital connection between creativity and subversiveness.

I’m not sure Bob and I ever discussed this explicitly, but the insight I carried away from our confrontation was that the flame that burns at the center of your work, the heat around which you cup your hands, is sustained by defiance. And without the flare of defiance—the irrational urge to stand up to commercialism, to stupidity, to incompetence, to mediocrity, to raw power; or the blunt, unapologetic inclination to demonstrate that in a free society, defiance for its own sake sometimes carries value and meaning—without such impulses, a writer has nothing worthwhile to say.

This notion, which I still find electrifying, is articulated perhaps most pungently by a pair of talismans that hang next to a shelf close to my writing desk at home. Both were given to me by Bob. Together they offer a summary of what I understand to be a significant part of the philosophical code he embraces as a writer.

The first object is a small enameled pin that hangs from a chord. The face of the pin bears the image of a skull with two crossed pencils, superimposed over a typewriter. It is emblazoned with the words “Write hard, die free.” The other object is a piece of paper that bears a quote from the reporter and novelist John Hersey. It reads: “There is one sacred rule of journalism. The writer must not invent. The legend on the license must read: None of this was made up.”

If, like me, you’re the sort of person who appreciates credos that can help you  calibrate your moral compass, this isn’t a bad place to start. “Write hard, die free, and don’t make stuff up.”

Most students of nonfiction would harbor nothing but reverence and gratitude for a mentor who is capable of producing such a succinct aphorism. So why, I sometimes wonder, have I allowed my relationship with Bob to become stained by the sin of betrayal?

~

As I’ve explained, I spent years wishing I had someone who could advise me on what I should and should not do as I bumbled forward in my career. Now that my wish has been granted, I find it odd (and also a bit embarrassing) to report that I almost always respond to Bob’s advice by flagrantly ignoring it—a tendency made even more bizarre by the fact that I have usually taken the trouble to solicit the very council I’m tossing into the trash.

Esquire called yesterday and asked if I’d be willing to do a story on the Horn of Africa,” I’d inform him. “Should I take the assignment?”

“If you go to the Horn, you may be kidnapped by Somali gunmen and you’ll probably wind up dead,” he’d reply. “Don’t accept.”

Thanks for the advice, I’d say. And off I’d go.

Since Bob teaches graduate writing seminars at both Bennington and Florida State, and thus is continually surrounded, like some sort of Ottoman Grand Vizier, by earnest supplicants beseeching his council, it took a while for my insurgency to register on his radar. But eventually he caught on and objected, stridently.

Outside wants me to go to Pakistan but is only willing to publish 4,000 words. What should I do?”

“Why the hell should I tell you what to do when you’re just going to ignore what I say and do the opposite?!”

“No I won’t.”

“Oh yes you will!”

“Will not.”

“That’s it, where’s my shotgun?”

The pattern of these exchanges often leaves me dismayed by the distance dividing the serene discourse I’d first imagined, in my original mentor fantasies, from the crabby bicker-fests into which so many of my evenings with Bob devolve. And in fairness to myself, I’d like to point out that these disputes often arise out of Bob’s refusal to appreciate the difference between me mindlessly blowing off his advice, and me deliberately electing to contradict it. That may sound like splitting hairs, but when I started thinking about this matter I realized that the distinction illuminates a key aspect of the mentor-protégé relationship.

It turns out that much of Bob’s advice when it comes to the question of whether or not to go to places like Kashmir, Iraq, Pakistan, or the Horn of Africa is driven by a concern that I might get killed, and by the knowledge that there are easier ways to make a buck. The irony, of course, is that Bob’s own commitment to the craft of literary nonfiction journalism renders these arguments ludicrous. By the standards he himself has set in places ranging from Haiti to Kosovo to the Himalayas, not doing something because it’s dangerous or impractical or, worst of all, just too hard, is simply bullshit.

What’s more, if someone were to advise Bob to follow the same course of action he often urges me to consider, he’d tell them to go to hell. Which is why when he complains about my impudence, I refuse to feel bad. When you fertilize your field with the manure of independent thinking, when you cultivate a commitment to excellence by systematically weeding out prudence, diplomacy and the desire for financial gain, one of the fruits you should expect to reap is disobedience.

If I’m an obstreperous punk, the fault for planting the seeds of my insubordination rests entirely with Bob.

~

I wish I could say that during the infrequent moments when Bob and I aren’t having yet another argument about all the fabulous advice I’m ignoring, we’re immersed in high-brow discussions about the nuances of language, the power of metaphor, or the mechanics of sustaining narrative arc. Of course, we do talk about these things – sometimes. Mostly, though, we just drink. And when we’re not drinking – and, now that I think of it, often when we are drinking – we tend to do things like pounding nails, chopping wood, misusing power tools, taking his dogs for a walk, cleaning the outhouse, and any number of chores at his homestead nestled among the fragrant junipers and the soaring ponderosa pines.

If such activities, shared between a mentor and his protégé, were taking place in say, Japan, there might well be a series of profound lessons residing within each task. And at the appropriate moment, Bob would turn to me and say something like, “So, Grasshopper, can you hear the sound of the one hand clapping?” However, since this is not Japan but, alas and wondrously, northern New Mexico – where folks prune the sunflowers from their alfalfa fields with chain saws and use their washing machines as lawn art—the chores we perform are devoid of any larger meaning. Indeed, they have no meaning whatsoever other than the fact that they’re all part of an elaborate campaign on Bob’s part to procrastinate the pain of having to drag his sorry ass back to his writing cabin and resume work on his novel. And it is this, the subject of pain, that has opened the door to his greatest gift.

When I wandered into my colleague Priscilla Painton’s office all those years ago at Time, I was partly in search of concrete tips: how to talk to sources; how to follow a lead; how to shmooze people over the phone. What I really wanted, however, was simply to watch a writer at work – a desire that, by virtue of my relationship with Bob, has finally been fulfilled. By hanging out at his cabin and insinuating myself into his life, I have at last been given the chance to take a peek under the hood to see how the pistons fire, the cylinders compress, and the engine of writing thrums to life. Now that I’m privy to the spectacle, let me assure you, it is completely horrifying.

For Bob – and thanks to Bob, for me too, because his curse is contagious (Damn you, Bob!) – writing is searing agony. He puts it off as long as possible; and when guilt, shame, or the looming specter of financial apocalypse prevent him from doing so any longer, he shuffles into “the pain cave” of his writing cabin and thrashes around like a Cyclops whose eye has been poked out with a sharpened log. For the full details, you can read his story, which should dispel any delusions you may be nurturing about the romance of writing. But what’s relevant here is the unsettling fact that, even for the recipient of the National Book Award, the Prix de Rome, and a final nomination for the New Yorker Magazine Book Award for Best Nonfiction, nothing about this process comes easy.

The pace of the work is glacial (poor Bob has been hacking away at his current book for more than six years). The act of summoning beauty from the ether of nothingness inflicts torments that can be assuaged only by alcohol, drugs, or not writing. Most daunting of all, however, is the loneliness of the labor itself, a desolation of the soul that may perhaps best be likened to a kind of self-imposed solitary confinement in the Abu Ghraib of one’s mind. Labor done in silence. Labor devoid of companionship. Labor performed for weeks, then months, then years without the slightest notion of whether anyone will read it, respond, or even care.

Watching Bob raise the scaffold of a novel upon the rock of his imagination is so awful that I sometimes wonder why I don’t just give up writing altogether and explore a less unpleasant line of work like, say, mining coal or cleaning airport bathrooms. Partly, I don’t do that because at the age of 42, it is simply too late for me to switch gears. But the real reason I haven’t run screaming for the door has more to do with the example my mentor has set. An example that, God help me, has instilled an unwilling acceptance of what I imagine to be one of the fundamental truths of this craft.

~

In my view, there is perhaps only one great truth about writing, which resides in the fact that it is done alone. The quality of what you produce—good, bad, or indifferent—isn’t something anyone can bequeath you. But what a mentor can give amounts, in my experience, to two things. First, a glimpse into the nature and the depth of solitude: its terrifying severity, its austere magnificence. And second, a demonstration of the courage that is required to chase the tail of one’s own truths, whatever they may amount to and wherever they may lead, into the face of that void.

A mentor, an uber-mentor, who is capable of imparting this kind of understanding—and who, by force of example, can help steel you to the prospect of stepping into the abyss yourself—isn’t someone you will ever be able to search out, or cultivate, or conjure from the darkness of your own desperation.

In the end, such a person finds you.

 

bobkevinoutside (credit Chris Boss)


Originally published by the Mayborn School of Journalism

7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Introduction

Sin. Such a little word.

But what does the word tell us? According to John Fredrick Nims and David Mason in Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry, the sounds of “sin” are meaningful. Our lips are drawn together as the hiss of s escapes the lungs, struggling between teeth and tongue through friction. Ssss—the serpent’s sound. From this beastly fricative, a slight jaw drop allows the little i, a middle frequency (tenor) vowel that Plato considered “especially apt for movement.” This i slithers the serpent’s s through the mouth to end with a nasally n that is more irritating than its siblings m and ng, with its higher tone and whiny sound. Sin: Movement that irritates and interferes; a whiny beast in constant struggle.

We’ve all danced with, told a secret to, or bedded one—most likely all—of the Cardinal Sins: Envy, Sloth, Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Wrath, and Pride. The seven deadly sins that engender all other sins. A quick Internet search reveals various contemporary ways these sins (or the idea of them) have been interpreted: seven deadly sins of investing; seven deadly sins of JavaScript implementation; seven deadly sins of social networking; of blogging; of a relationship; and—Suzanne’s and my favorite—seven deadly sins of Gilligan’s Island.

And yes, there are plenty of lists devoted to the seven deadly sins of writing. A popular one resides at Hamilton College’s Writing Center: passive voice, incorrect punctuation of two independent clauses, wordiness, misuse of the apostrophe, misplaced and dangling modifiers, pronoun problems, and committing pet peeves. The topic of craft not only dominates most writing sin lists, it’s the top priority in workshops, essays, lectures, and coffee shop discussions. As well it should be—it is craft that makes an artist. A close second priority in the writing community, especially among emerging writers, is cracking into the Fort Knox that is publication. A distant third is conversation about the writing life.

Yet, our writing life is where we are most vulnerable to sin. Crafting stories, poems, and essays is not sinful. Neither is publishing. Our characters and speakers on the page, they too can sin; but no matter how much blood we spill with their hands or anger we pour into their hearts, our characters only fall to sin if we let them. It is we, the flesh and blood—far from perfect—writers, who are primed to fall into a life of sin; a life of faults, transgressions, and constant struggle against temptation.

Traditionally, stories about the deadly sins were meant to teach sinners how to travel through a long trial and back to virtue after a fall from grace. So too does a fall from grace exist in the writing life. The difference I see, is that the path back is not one toward virtue, but toward the work of writing. (Perhaps virtue and the work of writing are one and the same; a question only the writer can decide.) In my own writing life, I do find my way back to the work but I never stay there, falling again soon enough to publication Greed or a Slothful writing schedule. I have to wonder if I am lengthening my own pass through the long trial, with this cyclic fall. Perhaps the struggle satiates an innate desire for the apprentice’s initiation; the longer the fall, the greater my lesson. Maybe I simply enjoy tempting the whiny beast. A sin masochist.

Last Spring Suzanne and I brainstormed over email for a lecture we planned to present at a writing retreat. As we threw out ideas, our opening (and often, closing) paragraphs vented struggles with integrating a writing life into lives that included, but were not limited to, raising a teenager, a difficult pregnancy, aging parents, spouses, working non-writing jobs to pay bills, paying those bills, and the (very) occasional leisure time. As we fought Sloth and Wrath toward domestic responsibilities and dreamed of giving in to the Lust and Gluttony for our words, we found ourselves cycling through the seven sins without notice until Envy reared its green head and heckled us. No longer could we turn from our sins.

Addressing sin in the writing life, we decided, is a tool for traveling the multifaceted work of writing. From stark loneliness at the keyboard to workshop with peers to reading in front of a crowd at a coffee shop to a national book tour, the journey of writing is in constant motion. To maintain the dedicated path, the writer is forced to consistently re-establish her footing, while (hopefully) building stamina instead of breaking spirit.

So we divvied the sins between us. Each of us penned an individual essay on our ‘sin of the week’ and then worked together on editing and formatting the series as a whole piece. To broaden the discussion and to deepen the scope of experience with sin in the writing life, we surveyed seven writers at various stages in their careers. We asked how and when they encounter the deadly sins, and—this is what we were truly greedy for—what tricks they used in overcoming them. Our hope now is that you, reader and writer, will add to our investigation.

Despite the ever-present temptation of the whiny beast, the act of writing returns writers to their work. And return we must. What happens then, when we do accomplish our goals of so many words per day, so many submissions per month, or the publishing deal of a lifetime? Here we ought to let Virgil guide us, as he does The Pilgrim: “Remember your philosophy: the closer a thing comes to its perfection, more keen will be its pleasure or its pain.” And so the long trial continues.

~

We invite you to read, think, and live with us in sin.

Comment on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to join our discussion, share your stories, and teach us your tricks for taming the beast that tempts you away from the writing life.

Next up: Envy ….. Series Page

~

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Alghieri, Dante. The Divine Comedy; Volume 1: The Inferno. Trans. Mark Musa. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
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Nims, John Frederick and Mason, David. Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2000.

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7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Envy

At a recent gathering of writers intending to read new work to each other, a friend (I’ll call him “Mark”) told me he had some positive writing news to share. Good will rose in me. But then he said he didn’t want to share it with everyone, just with me, that it was still very new, and he’d tell me after the readings were finished. So it was really positive news. My brain spent the evening devoting ten percent of its energy listening to the readings, and ninety percent hamster-wheeling into a quiet state of despair.

You see, Mark, a fiction writer, has been writing a narrative nonfiction book. Last summer he asked me, a narrative nonfiction writer, to look at his draft, and I devoted several hours of my first-ever Caribbean vacation to reading and responding. The draft was fresh and rough and showed a lot of promise. I believed my feedback would help him reshape the work into something meaningful. As his friend, and also as a devotee and perpetual student of nonfiction, I genuinely wanted him to thrive in the genre.

But that night while Mark hush-hushed about his potential success, I guessed it was about his nonfiction project and I grew nervous, then glum. I think I even glowered. Why? I’d been shopping my own nonfiction book around for a year with no luck. What if Mark had found an agent or a publisher? What if that sun-kissed rough draft in my cocktail-wet hands were to become a shiny award-winning first book? What if he went on to get a subsequent book deal and was now destined to become a hot new narrative nonfiction writer? What if people paid him to write about the very topics I wanted to write about?

I pulled Mark into the kitchen at the first opportunity and insisted he tell me his news. Turns out, he had a story provisionally accepted by a prominent journal. He needed to revise it, but hoped that with the fiction editor’s guidance it would eventually be published. I had had a piece provisionally accepted by another prominent journal. Mark wanted to tell me privately because (a) I’d been through a similar editorial process and would understand and advise, and (b) it was still too uncertain to announce to the larger group.

If I could film this kitchen scene B-movie-style, I’d add a murky shadow—some mixture of army green and pea—that hisses out of my eyes, nose, and mouth, and escapes through the grimy window. Now gracious and ebullient, cleansed of my Envy, I hugged Mark, then asked him questions about his story and how he felt about the suggested revisions. He’d been hoping for this particular journal for so long. My joy for him was sincere.

The next morning, recalling my switch-flipping moment, I was sickened. How was it that I could only feel happy for Mark once I confirmed that I had no reason to be desperately Envious?

Envy is the only sin that cannot be directed at the self or one’s own work. Unless we try to bend it back on ourselves (e.g., I’m Envious of the time I used to enjoy before I had a baby), Envy can be drawn as a line segment from the self to an outside end point—in the case of my story, to Mark. In the expanding world of literature, there are more and more such end points to Envy. Writers publish, win, or succeed at more fellowships, more retreats, more small presses, more journals, more readings, more MFA programs, more online outlets, more contests. At the same time there are more writers … many, many, many more writers. And somehow, despite the excess, there is a hell of a lot less money. Envy may very well be the first sin we commit as writers, and the one that we fall to most often.

We asked a few writer friends what they feel most Envious about (see our questions at the bottom of the page). Rich Farrell observes that in our current writing environment, success is divorced from the creative act of writing itself, and instead measured by lines for the bio. It’s those major-deal lines that can incite our Envy. “I exist in a world that values the outcome, not the process,” he says. “This same world sensationalizes and lionizes the exceptional case—that twenty-year-old writer with an uncanny wisdom—rather than the quiet tinkering monk, hard at a lifetime’s quiet work.” Farrell admits that though we regret an environment that overshadows the artistry in the art, we still want in. It’s nice to be the monk, but, Farrell says, “I’m envious of that twenty-year-old superstar writer.”

For Jason Mott, it’s talent. Persistent, dependable, infinite talent. “Anyone can write well once,” says Mott, “but some writers are extremely prolific with very little impact on the quality of their writing. They write novels, poetry, screenplays, comic books, and on and on. And, somehow, they’re all excellent. Yes, these are the people I desperately envy.” Risa Nye says her Envious eye is trained on luck. “It’s those ‘right time, right place’ or lucky break stories that get me. I know of a local writer who sent her manuscript to someone who shared it with a cousin’s roommate’s boyfriend (or something like that) who turned out to be a literary agent … and the rest is history. Her book took off like a rocket.” Nye specifies why she thinks lucky breaks are particularly Enviable: “They are so fluky and can’t be replicated.”

Uncanny wisdom, prolific talent, lucky breaks. Our writer friends speak of Envying that which can’t be planned for or worked at. Envy of the unattainable, the elusive, the rare. In the case of my friend Mark’s news, on the other hand, I was Envious of something decidedly attainable. Mark and I write in different genres about different things with wildly different styles. We read different journals and submit to different places. We are never head to head in anything! But then he seemed to be entering the narrative nonfiction territory to which I, despite laboring, had not been granted access, and Envy consumed me. Over that ugly hour, I became Envious of Mark’s presumed seriousness in my genre, and Envious of him as a writer in general. He could now tell his family and friends that he was a writer and they would believe him! I wanted not his book deal but his badge. I Envied his proof.

Whatever it is we writers Envy most, we all seem to agree that social media intensifies Envy. If we draw Envy as a line segment, it is easy to see how social media, by constantly broadcasting the external end points, quickens Envy’s rise to the surface and spreads it out among multiple recipients. Lavonne Adams shares this story that reminds me of how integral Facebook has become to the writing life: “I went to a reading given by one of my colleagues. … I don’t remember seeing any of the usual announcements, and heard about the event from a mutual friend, yet the room where the reading was to be held was packed. I commented on this fact to a woman standing next to me, who responded, ‘She sent out invitations through Facebook.’ I was stunned.” Without Facebook, we might miss important chances to not be Envious, chances to be supportive and engaged. That’s the rub of social media: With it, we’re force-fed others’ accomplishments; without it, we’re down a powerful way to market our own.

Adams continues: “Since then, I have also joined the Facebook ‘community,’ an act that has led to a more intense level of envy (imagine a shocking chartreuse as opposed to a less jarring grass green). Since a large number of my ‘friends’ are fellow writers, whenever I scan the news feed, I see announcement after announcement of awards won; poems, essays, shorts stories, and books that have just been published. They are a creatively prolific bunch. And it is hard to not feel insecure.” We can, if we’re in a particularly defeated mood, feel Envious of things we hadn’t even heard of before the Facebook announcement. Social media is touted as a marketing aid, but it hurts oh so bad sometimes. “Everyone’s always doing great according to Facebook,” says Jason Mott. “And it never seems to fail that, on your worst day, everyone you know in the world is having their best day. And, with the advent of Facebook, your crappy day is allowed to get twenty times crappier with just the click of a button.”

When we let it ripen to what Adams dubs that “shocking chartreuse,” Envy damages our writing lives (not to mention our friendships). We might stop reading and writing. We might continue reading and writing but stop enjoying it, stop enjoying what others produce and cease to feel present in our own pages. We might write inauthentically, by which I mean, we might write in the stylistic vein of others who have succeeded where we haven’t. And I have read a few scathing reviews that only betray the writers’ Envy of those they are trying to undermine.

Envy, because it is projected outward, also presents this unique twist: While writers may feel insecure about the accomplishments of others, they may also worry about their own accomplishments, in that they might make their friends and colleagues Envious of them. In other words, writers fret about becoming someone else’s end point.

Jennifer Lunden, whose first national publication won a Pushcart, recently queried Harper’s (her “Holy Grail of magazines”) and was asked to send along her essay. At first, Lunden experienced what any of us would: hope. “So there I was, looking at that email from the assistant editor at Harper’s and feeling pretty good about my trajectory as a writer. … I fantasized about a $3,000 paycheck, about becoming a regular Harper’s contributor, about becoming a contributing editor. A yes on this piece could change everything for me.” Lunden’s fantasizing abruptly stopped, however, when she considered her peers. “But then I got to thinking. If I got an essay published in Harper’s, my fellow writers would surely hate me. It all would have come too easy. Which is funny, really, for me to have even thought that. Because it hadn’t come easy. I had been slaving away behind closed doors for years, working towards this moment. But the thought of being shunned by my fellow struggling writers disturbed me enough I even talked to my therapist about it.” In fact, broadcasting success, especially through social media, has developed into a delicate skill of its own. How to strike just the right note between humble and proud, the note that won’t set off Envy in others? If two writers announce success at the same time, and one does so boldly while the other does so humbly, I find myself cheering more for the humble writer.

Despite its potential for damage, Envy carries a perk. The sunny side of Envy is that it shines on what we most want, which can be a valuable time-and-sanity-saving device in a writing world so bloated with opportunity to submit, subscribe, post, apply, and enroll. Most of the time I click “like” on Facebook, there’s nothing more to it than that. I like it. But if Envy bites while I click, I want it.

While Envy can clarify our desires for our writing lives, it can also directly serve our writing. “I’ve come to realize that ignoring envy, or any other uncomfortable emotion, won’t make it disappear,” says Lavonne Adams. “As a poet, investigating every emotion seems to lead to a bevy of insights, which then leads to richer writing. Why shouldn’t we turn this to our advantage?”

The virtuous antidote to Envy might be love, but in the writing life, love and Envy coexist as easily as do arrogance and self-doubt. We asked our friends how they overcome writer-Envy and avoid its pitfalls. Adam Arvidson looks at the Enviable successes of others as goals for himself. “When I see someone publish a great essay collection or environmental book, I feel I will one day, too. When I see someone land a plum teaching gig, I picture myself there, too, down the line. That vision drives me to continue working, continue tweaking, continue studying.” Jason Mott agrees. “I tell myself ‘If they can do it, then I can as well.’ ” Mott cites the myth that if one is more successful with her writing achievements, then another must necessarily be less successful with his. “There’s the thought that success is a zero sum game, even though that isn’t the case,” says Mott. In reality, for each opportunity lost, there are ten more to try to attain.

Lavonne Adams talks about converting Envy into power: “I decided to channel my competitive urges, making a pact to compete with only myself. In other words, as long as I continued to move forward professionally, to do a little better every year, I would feel less envy toward others.” But Adams also sees Envy for what it is, an inevitable byproduct of the writing life. Then she addresses it, packages it, and sets it aside. “I’ve had to revamp my manner of handling envy,” she says. “I now allow myself to wallow for a set time—fourteen minutes to be exact—before steering that energy toward heart-felt happiness for what one of my peers has accomplished.”

Every writer, no matter how successful, misses sometimes. Jennifer Lunden’s piece was not accepted by Harper’s after all. She describes what could be the ultimate magic pill for diffusing Envy: “I fell immediately back into the ranks of my fellow struggling writers, which, in actuality, I had never really left.” Even those at the top are competing for just one Pulitzer, just one post as Poet Laureate, just one National Book Award. Those we most Envy might be feeling a little Envious themselves. In other words, we really are all in it together.

Returning to the scene in the kitchen with Mark, let’s pretend he does have a book deal. My writing peer, a close friend at that, has a book selected from the multitudes of manuscripts. What’s more, as a fictionist, he’s taken a risk on nonfiction and has been rewarded. In this hypothetical world, it’s not hard to measure that achievement for what it is in his life, rather than for what it is not in mine. Against the welling of Envy, this shift to the positive is a difficult mental turnaround. But once made, the thing I most Envy is suddenly no longer connected to me by a sickly green line. It’s just a thing that belongs to someone else. I don’t need it. Or, more precisely, I don’t need that book deal. I need my own, and I’m more revved up than ever to get it.

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Join us and 7 other writers as we read, think, and live in sin.

Comment here on our site or go to our links to the essays on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to share your tricks for taming the sinful beasts that pull you away from the writing life.

Dear Sinner ….. Series Page

Next up: Sloth

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The writer friends quoted here…

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Lavonne J. Adams is the author of Through the Glorieta Pass (Pearl Editions). Recent journal publications include Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, Cincinnati Review, and Crab Orchard Review. She teaches at UNC Wilmington.
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Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and nonfiction writer. His writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, flyway, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many design magazines. A Minneapolis resident, he will graduate from VCFA’s MFA program in January.
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Richard Farrell is upstreet’s Creative Nonfiction Editor and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” received a Pushcart nomination.
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Jennifer Lunden is a glutton for information and proud winner of a Pushcart for “The Butterfly Effect,” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Another essay will appear in Orion. Her book-in-progress, One Canary Sings, won Honorable Mention in the 2010 Maine Literary Awards.
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Jason Mott
holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.
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Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.
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The questions we asked…

Has Envy ever kept you from writing, or kept you from focusing enough on your own page in order to make it sing?

Do you discuss it with anyone when you feel Envious?

Do you feel Envious about certain things more than others? e.g., Envious about other writers’ perceived advantages (married to a publisher!), resources (trust fund to allow for writing time!), or talent (damn, she’s just really, really good!)?

When you succeed, are you conscious that others might be feeling Envious of you?

How does social media, Facebook in particular, fuel, exacerbate, or alleviate Envy?

How can we move past Envy? Is that even possible?

7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Sloth

Sloth, real Sloth, is easy to recognize. Greasy hair, potato chip crumbles down the shirt, dirty dishes stacked at the sink and on the coffee table. The sun rises and sets while one lies on the couch with eyes transfixed on a TV screen. A writer can be Slothful exactly like this, but Sloth in the writing life is a kaleidoscope of images: I click through random articles on the Internet, rationalizing that I need to know the most current events; I run more errands than I need to in a vain attempt to “get ahead”; or I cook a new recipe that takes hours to prepare because I feel as though my family needs this from me. My most destructive Sloth is convincing myself that I can let the afternoon or evening go by without writing because tomorrow will be more productive than today. Then the morning comes and I’ve slept in, so I promise to write that night—a promise I easily break.

When we asked what Sloth looks like in the lives of our surveyed writers, we heard a lot about the vortex of social media. “I worry about how many times I stop in the middle of writing to play Words with Friends™ or Draw Something™, or to make the rounds of Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.” Risa Nye admits. “It certainly doesn’t help me work with greater focus, and I find it really exhausting.” Jason Mott confesses: “Facebook is a terrible time sink. Probably the worst. Five minutes can turn into an hour on there so fast your head will spin. I’m very guilty of falling victim to Facebook’s charms.”

As I researched Sloth for this essay, the soft, arboreal leaf-eater asleep in the trees morphed into a snarling, snorting beast pacing in front of my desk, ready to charge. I always recognized Sloth as “sluggishness, laziness, and physical or mental inactivity”—behavior I do not want to give in to, but at the same time not the worst sin I could commit. There are days so full of activity in my house and in my family’s lives, it feels as though the sluggishness toward writing is justified. Earned, even.

It never occurred to me that Sloth is an active deadly sin: “failing to utilize one’s talents and gifts.” The inaction that is failing to write leads to some nasty, active verbs: Sloth cheats the world of art, Sloth silences voices. How did I miss this?

I’m appalled that Sloth is not simply having a lazy day. By ignoring our writing we cut ourselves off from the rewards that stem from this deep thinking and creativity, and we fail a community that needs the respite of a compelling story after a long, hard day, an essay that helps them feel less alone, or a poem that provides courage during a tough time. By not honoring the writing life we are not honoring our thread in history, our connection to the great writers before us, the ones in our midst, and the ones yet to come. It took these words—failing to utilize one’s talents and gifts—to strike a chord with my inner Sloth, to stop the beast from running wild and free in my writing life. Now to tame it.

It’s not as if no one ever talked with me about how to identify Sloth or showed me, through action, that it doesn’t have to be a negative force in my life. For two years I worked for architect Ligon Flynn. My job consisted of writing about his design philosophy and weaving it into the pattern of architectural history. Given the breadth of the work he produced during a career that lasted more than five decades, Ligon could be described as anything but Slothful.

In a building designed by Ligon, tucked in a nook behind a stairwell where the window was a floor-to-ceiling sliding door, my writing space looked onto a courtyard oasis. A soothing trickle from the water garden; climbing vines that carpeted one-hundred-year-old red brick walls; and lush foliage from dwarf pittosporum and fatsia to Japanese maples and seasonal flowers providing splashes of eye-catching color. But being paid to sit at that desk—this dream job that I had not yet earned as a writer so early in my career—made me feel like enjoying the view was an act of laziness. I kept my head down and concentrated on putting words on the page. I pushed myself through the work day until my eyes grew hazy and my mind threatened to explode from information-overload. To alleviate the pressure, I often went to the restroom when it wasn’t necessary or poured one more cup of coffee when I’d already had plenty—two valid reasons for leaving my desk.

Throughout the day Ligon would visit my nook. Sometimes he sat across from me in his comfortable leather chair and stared into the courtyard, saying nothing. Usually he wanted to read something I had written, or he thumbed through pictures in one of his many architecture books. At first I wasn’t sure how to respond to his sitting across from me in thoughtful silence. This was my job, after all, and I assumed something was expected of me. But I learned that the routine of leaving his desk to stare out the window or peruse inspiring images was integral to his creative process.

When Ligon left his desk, he didn’t leave his work. Quite the opposite; his work was allowed time to mature in his mind. Though he had walked away, he remained active and engaged in his creative process. Ligon had trained his Sloth-beast as a companion; something he tended to without being deterred from his work. When I realized this, I understood that I needed to figure out what the creative process should look like in my life. Soon enough, when I needed a break from the mountain of architecture books and my writing on the computer screen, I simply sat back and watched water fall into the fountain or bamboo grass sweeping in the breeze.

Finding one’s process in the face of Sloth is not simple. The beast needs consistent discipline for proper training. “I wouldn’t call it a routine, but I do schedule breaks, promising myself I can watch a guilty pleasure show on Bravo if I finish a piece,” says Nye. “An old-school To Do list actually helps motivate me to get things done so I can cross them off. Not groundbreaking, but it keeps me on track and cuts down on my wanderings away from what I need to do.” Mott keeps his Sloth tethered to the desk: “I literally force myself to sit at my keyboard—while keeping the internet turned off on my computer—until I write or edit a certain quota for the day.”

Yet writing is not just…writing. Writing is reading, organizing, researching, editing, submitting, and staring out the window with a faraway gaze. Poet Nancy Eimers, one of my graduate school advisors, enlightened me after I apologized for staring out the window and sending her fewer poems than promised:

It’s funny about the relationship between intense reading, staring out the window, and writing. Anyone watching a writer work would think some real laziness was involved, but I find that that ‘empty space’ is integral to the process though perhaps just what exactly that vacancy is can’t be put into words. All I can say is that it is somehow meditative and that something is happening that has a profound connection both to what has just happened and what is about to.

The “empty space” Eimers speaks of, I believe, manifests in many forms. Sometimes it includes a mundane task that moves the body and lets the mind unwind, a task that might feel Slothful—Why am I not at my computer?—but that, as it turns out, serves the writing. It could be sweeping the porch or the slow folding of laundry, down to the meticulous creasing of underwear. For Nye it’s “Ironing! Great distraction, occupies the hands but not the mind, really—and after a couple of shirts or whatever, the respite allows me to carry on with renewed energy.” Suzanne, my co-author for this essay series, told me about what she calls her “and” space.

Most of my better ideas come after a period of silence on the page. I draft something and I come back to it to revise. The space between—that tiny little ‘and’—is just that. A bit of space that separates the two actions. What I ‘do’ inside that space changes, but it never looks anything like writing. It usually involves cooking. I chop a LOT of vegetables in my ‘and’ space.

Two years ago, no longer seated in my nook by the courtyard but in a new house in a new town, I found myself forgetting to engage in the “empty space” that had become important in my writing time. Trying to coordinate writing with the dynamics of my family’s new schedule, I felt the same pressure I did when I first began working for Ligon. I had to produce pages.

Similar to excessively visiting the bathroom, as I had done before I learned how to build an empty space at my desk when I worked with Ligon, I began leaving my writing to wash dishes. Unlike the bathroom and coffee breaks I had taken at work, washing dishes appeased something within me that I couldn’t immediately identify. When I first started, my body was tense and I questioned my motives, even put myself down for not being a dedicated writer. After a few weeks, my shoulders slackened and I stopped being self-deprecating. Freed from negative thinking, my mind began to wander through my writing as I scraped the morning’s eggs from a skillet. Similar to Nye’s ironing respite and Suzanne’s “and” space, my ideas had time to mature—not unlike the mental engagement Ligon’s courtyard once gave me (though certainly not as aesthetically pleasing). Soon enough cleaning dishes became integral to my creative process. I purposefully left the dishes for when I needed to walk away from the desk—when I needed an active empty space.

Today, I’m working again and my schedule has changed, so the time for late-morning dishes has ceased. Instead I’m trying a new approach to keep my Sloth-beast trained. With scissors and glue and markers, I trace, paste, write, and draw in a visual journal. Perhaps this new space in my creative process will be with me for life, or maybe I won’t finish the one journal I have started. Either way, I have to keep allowing time for my active “empty space” if I want the Slothful beast to be my companion and not my master.

Everything I’ve learned about Sloth tells me to be less focused on how much, how often, how many. Still, I feel incredibly Slothful when only a small number of words end up on the page after sitting at the computer for hours, and Nye agrees: “I’m ‘in the chair’ a lot of hours each day, and there are times I wish I had more to show for it.” Writing holds a small time-slot in my current schedule; it’s upsetting to feel like I’ve wasted time, given that it takes a lot of planning to arrive in the first place.

But Mott reminds me, “You can have episodes where solving some writing problem takes time, but that just means you spend that time writing on something else. One doesn’t bang their head against the vault door, they take their time and pick the lock.” And that’s it, I realize. A writer must learn the right finesse for their writing time: how to traverse the ebb and flow of production; when to walk away; what task encompasses the “empty space.” It takes tolerance and experimentation and dedication to do that. But if I can manage it, Sloth will rest nuzzled at my feet while I work into the wee hours of the morning.

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Join us as we read, think, and live in sin.

Comment on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to share your tricks for taming the sinful beasts that pull you away from the writing life.

Series Page….. Dear Sinner ….. Envy

Next up: Lust

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The writer friends quoted here…

 

Jason Mott holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.
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Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.
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The questions we asked…

Do you distract yourself from writing? (e.g., Facebook, email, dishes, shopping)

Is Sloth a mental block that keeps you from writing?

Do you have a routine in which you have curbed Sloth behavior?

7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Lust

There are days when I so badly want to write, that I think I could put my infant son in his crib, close the nursery door, and let him wile away the day so I could surrender to my urge. I don’t. Of course I don’t. But sometimes I think I could.

In January 2006, in a downtown Manhattan jury holding room, while braiding and re-braiding my hair and waiting for my name to be called, I was startled by a fervid need to write. At the time, I was teaching second grade at a school for boys. My baseball-obsessed class of eight-year-olds had recently revealed they were surprised that girls like baseball too. An hour into my first morning of jury duty, backpack loaded with my intended time-passers (magazines, crosswords, mail), I claimed a cubicle desk and gave in to my urge to write a chapter book about a girl named Zoo who loves baseball. It was simple: I had to write this book for my class. My fingers danced and my name was never called. In twenty-one hours over three days, the entire time I sat in the holding room, I wrote a complete draft.

After that, I snuck writing in at school, envisioning a series for Zoo and her friends. I jotted essay ideas on apple-shaped notepaper and my mind drifted at lunchtime from the “Muenster bagels” on the table to the book I would write about childhood obesity. A colleague and I wrote a tongue-in-cheek dramatization of the First Continental Congress for our students to perform. During a parent conference, I got the idea to write a series that combined math and geography, and lost the conversation thread while fantasizing about “polar perimeter” and “Serengeti symmetry.” I was living two lives: one, the professional educator; and the other, the artist, starving inside because I’d developed a longing and couldn’t fulfill it.

What happened next alarmed me because it felt as though it happened outside my control. Two months after my three-day writing bender in that Manhattan courthouse, I resigned from my teaching job and applied to graduate school. I applied to only one program, The New School for Social Research, because, among other things, it required a thesis rather than a comprehensive exam. I needed to write.

Christopher Hitchens co-taught one of my first semester classes, “Cultural Criticism.” During his handful of appearances, Hitchens exposed us to fascinating facets of the writing and lives of Twain, Orwell, Mencken, and… Hitchens. Here was a real writer. On Hitchens days, the class attended in full to lap up his words. Again and again he said something that imprinted itself—for better or worse—on my understanding of writers: Writers need to write every day. In other words, writing is biological. Like a reflex writers are born with. Writing is an acute urge with no lasting satisfaction, for it repeats itself each and every day. To me, that sounded like obsession. Passion. Lust. And it sounded like justification for my abandonment of a stable career. Listening to Hitchens, I leaned as far forward as my chair-desk allowed, and practically shivered with recognition. That’s why I badly needed to leave the job that I really did love. I am a writer.

Why such longing for the page? Writers give a number of reasons for why they write: to understand a situation, to solve a problem, to make sense of chaos, to share information, to opine, to clear cobwebs, to inspire new ways of thinking, and on and on. George Orwell’s “Why I Write” is often cited for its list of four primary motives—“sheer egoism,” “aesthetic enthusiasm,” “historical impulse,” and “political purpose”—which spring from the intellect and nod to another sin, that of Pride.

But something else lurks inside our motivation, something that originates not in our intellect but in our gut, a gnawing hunger that seizes us in an inspired moment. Orwell sees something deep in writing that is neither noble nor pretty, a “mystery” that lies behind all other motives: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” I think back to Hitchens’s Lustful comments on the writing life, delivered through fat wet lips under bloodshot eyes and sagging skin, via a smoke-ruined voice scraped together from raspy breaths, his round belly full of whiskey and ready for more after class—Hitchens as writer was a picture of Lust’s wreckage.

Writers “itch” to write. We feel the “burn” and write even though it hurts. I am aware of my Lust most when the world presents just a spare hint of an idea and suddenly nothing else matters. My breath quickens and my body lurches. The need to spill words interrupts everything, including work, time with my family, sleep.

We asked a few writer friends if they experience the same. “I’m one of those writers that have to write. Otherwise I’m cranky,” my series co-author, Cheryl, says. “I drop everything … to make notes, write a few lines or a stanza—enough to get the idea on paper. Five minutes at most.” Giving in to her urge satisfies Cheryl, but only for a moment. She’s left wanting more. “Walking away from the initial idea fuels a lust to revisit those words; I’m tantalized by the mystery of where they will take me when we meet again. Full lust kicks in when I finally sit down with them and I’m working toward a first draft. Nothing pries me from the chair when I’m engaged in a long love-fest with flushing out an original image, sentiment, or idea.”

“Sometimes I think of something in the shower,” says Risa Nye, “which means I don’t get around to all my usual post-shower maintenance routines until I write. An hour later (maybe longer), I realize my hair has dried into its frizzy natural state, my skin cries out for moisturizer, and I have not quite finished getting dressed.” I imagine what writers look like to others, as our eyes fade in order to focus on the inner landscape, and our hair, like Nye’s, runs wild. Orwell’s demon bares itself.

Recently, when my newborn son’s Social Security card arrived missing one of his middle names, I took him to the nearest government office to have it corrected, an outing that proved at once humorous and frustrating. I needed to write about it the moment we got home. My tiny baby lay on his activity mat, staring at his hanging toys, while I kneeled next to him, hastily logging into my laptop the dialogue that had just occurred. Did I miss twenty minutes of bonding time when I could have been joggling my son’s owl chime? Yes. It couldn’t wait until he was napping? No.

Lusting to write can make us Kerouacs, tossing off pages and pages of raw material. Losing ourselves in the act is, in fact, something we are at times advised to do—just write, without looking back at what’s been written. Push forward. Succumb to the stream of consciousness. There’s always time to go back later. When Lust takes hold, however, how long should we write before we wrench ourselves away? When is it time to let the words breathe, and when do we return to revise? Do we even have the self-control to stop and move on to something else?

One problem with Lusting to write is that we don’t always Lust to engage in all stages of the writing process. We might Lust for that one piece, nurturing it, cradling it, unable to tear ourselves away and release it to readers. We might Lust after what’s new, without finishing drafts—it’s always the next project, the fresh idea, the novel form that tempts us to the page. I have a stack of unfinished pieces, a folder of diatribes and scatterbrained story starters, a file stuffed with rejections of pieces that, when I really examine them, were just not good enough to submit.

Another problem with our Lust is that we writers Lust for all things literary, which makes it tough to prioritize. There are times I find myself Lusting after anything and everything that stimulates writing, without actually writing a word. As a reader for Hunger Mountain, I ask to be assigned more submissions even when time is scarce. I bookmark so many online essays my list of unread pieces would take hours to scroll. I volunteer to provide feedback on friends’ manuscripts. The summer after I started grad school, I attended the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, enjoying nightly readings of brand-new work by attendees. I came home Lusting for more. I founded a group to fill that need, and, years later, still rely on my monthly fix.

Formally introduced to the writing life by Hitchens, I used to think “true writers” are those who always feel Lustful and give in to their writing urges, day in and day out, at the expense of their “normal” lives—or those who never build non-writing lives in the first place. Those who are married to writers, who write twelve hours a day, who talk about writing with other writers, who dress, speak, and act the part. I saw Hemingway and Woolf, Hughes and Stein, Kerouac and King. In other words, I saw true writers as those who perpetually live in sin.

I valued this kind of Lust, one I expected to look like the cover of a romance novel. And I envied it. I thought that writing—and the sexier of its attendant activities like giving intimate public readings or spending debaucherous evenings with other writers—should be an all-consuming passion that wells up from within, takes over, and makes us sling ink all over everything without worrying about what gets dirty.

It’s both tantalizing and troubling to consider a life so full of writing there’s no room for anything else. I simply Lust after too many other things. Time, most of all, but not only time to write—time to read, cook, and stay current with Breaking Bad. When asked if she ever Lusts after things other than writing, Risa Nye says, “You mean like ice cream? Or going out with friends? Or sleeping? Checking my stats on my blog obsessively? Then, yes.” Sleeping sounds great to me, too, now that I have a baby. I need strolls along the High Line or East River Esplanade. I long for afternoons at a market—farmers or flea, Amish or Chelsea. Then there’s the editing jobs, the friends with problems, the family obligations, the apartment repairs, the laundry. I understand now that I am no less a true writer for knowing that I must juggle my writing cravings with other wants and commitments.

Of course there are many ways to juggle our Lust for writing, our desires for the writing life, and our everything-else. Almost seven years into my own writing life, I’m not clear on what model of the writing life I should emulate. I floated Hitchens’s comments and my former vision of true writers in a workshop once and was admonished by writers who write for different reasons, write just in the summers, or spend most of their writing time working on paying projects they’d rather not be doing. Maybe no “true writer” automatically succumbs to the Lust to write. We all wrestle with the seductive beast—whether trying to lock it out, tame it, or entice it into one’s bed—in hope of finding the right relationship with writing.

“The ‘true writer’ idea is a tricky one,” says Jason Mott. “I consider myself a true writer now because I’m, fortunately, now able to do it full-time. This is a rarity and a blessing. … Was I a true writer before? Actually, I believe I was. A true writer is simply someone who finds it impossible not to write. If you’re okay just writing occasionally, you should be doing something else.” But Mott acknowledges that sometimes we must write when it’s disassociated and mechanical, when we’re driven not by Lust but by discipline. Mott, echoing Hitchens, says, “There is the ‘myth of the muse’ that hurts writers the most. Some people think writers only write when they’re inspired. No. Factory workers, car salesmen, lawyers, shipbuilders … those people write when they’re inspired. Writers write every day. They reach out and claim their inspiration, they don’t wait for it to find them.”

Adam Arvidson says it can be difficult to maintain Lust specifically because he gets to write for a living. “To use the metaphor of seduction: I pitch an idea to a magazine that I am totally in love with at the time, but through the process of research and interviews, I find I’m maybe not as interested in the topic as I thought I would be. So when I actually have to sit down and consummate the assignment, I find myself going through the motions. There’s no Lust anymore, just performance. And, insidiously, by then I usually have a new love, a new article, something I’m actually interested in. And I’d much rather be seducing that project than consummating the current one.”

Jennifer Lunden says, “I lust to write every day. It’s what drives me to eke out the time to write when I can.” And since she works a full-time job outside of writing, the desire to write can feel quite wrong. “It’s like lusting after a hot but taxing lover even though I’m already married. To my other job. The one that pays the bills.” But Lunden aligns Lust with another passionate word: mission. Intellect and Lust meet, creating the force needed to wrench Lunden away from “real life.” “This lust was not always so powerful,” she says. “At one time, it was more of a tender, hopeful yearning. … But then I discovered my mission. My passion, if you will. And now, nothing will stop me, not even my other job, not even all the other thieves of time.”

Tavia Gilbert explains that her motivation to write is not to earn an income or answer an urge. Rather, she’s motivated by circumstance. “I am significantly challenged by my body,” says Gilbert, “by the chronic pain of fourteen corrective foot surgeries, and by pain and limitation from spinal ill-health resulting from dysfunctional feet.” Gilbert notes that despite the pain, it is still possible to do this thing she does so well—writing—so she does it. “I don’t feel that I must write, like some people seem to. But I do feel that I can and I should write, especially because pain has given me a premature look at aging, a shadow experience of torture, insight into the lives of people with far more debilitating injuries and illnesses than I have had to bear.” The very real threat of a life without writing brings Gilbert to the page. “I can’t say if I would have pursued writing without this unusual path, but I do think my circumstances were offered to me in this lifetime as an opportunity, a teacher, and a gift.” And as Cheryl points out in her essay on Sloth, neglecting one’s gifts is a grave sin indeed.

What I didn’t foresee when I first left my stable job and jumped into bed with writing was the series of quiet activities that make the writing life less a steamy affair and more an enduring relationship with its periods of distance, ongoing spats, and moments of tenderness. I didn’t foresee what my writing friends grapple with every day, the different Lusts and longings that pull them in all directions. Now I laugh at those who chide authors they don’t like by saying, “Anyone can write a book!” Anyone can try to write a book, but it takes discipline to manage one’s life in order to actually write one. Page one might be wine, silk, and mood lighting. But page 200 is microwave popcorn for lunch and you’re lucky if you showered. Still love writing when it’s crabby and has morning breath?

Just weeks into my first master’s program, I knew I’d want to get my MFA, too. And a couple semesters into that, I knew I’d need a post-graduate semester. More loans, more late nights and weekends of schoolwork, more time spent drumming up income in lieu of a regular job—anything for writing. But in the last year, I’ve wondered and worried if my own Lust for writing was still there. Once I finished and submitted my memoir manuscript, I struggled to ramp up the same fervor I felt while writing the book and while living as a graduate student, the fervor I felt almost seven years ago when I typed: “The bell rang. Zoo knew she was in trouble.” Instead, I expanded my freelance editing business, taught graduate school, and became a mother. And honestly, I enjoyed HBO and weekends at the lake more than almost anything else. Life took me away from writing more and more. The fire had cooled.

In these last couple of months, working on this series has meant living the writing life each and every day—to show up for Cheryl, to meet deadlines, to fulfill my promise to our surveyed writers. But none of this has felt like an obligation. I’ve wanted to get in the chair. I’ve yearned for it. It’s just the spice my writing life needed. There’s nothing so unabashedly sexy as raw pages in need of substantial revision. There’s nothing that takes my breath away quite like a deadline knocking at my door.

Late last night I fed my son and put him to bed, awoke three hours later to comfort and feed him once again, and set my alarm for one hour after that in order to write. And so, after yet another night of four hours of sleep, while my son and husband still snooze, I choose to write rather than eat breakfast, check email, do house chores, shower. I choose to write over enjoying a precious extra hour of sleep. Because this morning, here on this page, it’s like no time has passed since I last tinkered with my words, running them through my fingers and watching them fall in new arrangements. Tired as I am, I want to be doing this more than anything else. This morning, I Lust to write.

~

Join us as we read, think, and live in sin.

Comment on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to share your tricks for taming the sinful beasts that pull you away from the writing life.

Series Page ….. Dear Sinner ….. Envy ….. Sloth

Next up: Gluttony

~

The writer friends quoted here…

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Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and nonfiction writer. His writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, flyway, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many design magazines. A Minneapolis resident, he will graduate from VCFA’s MFA program in January.
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Producer, actor, and writer Tavia Gilbert has appeared on stage and in film, as well as having narrated over 150 multi-cast and solo voice audio books. She will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January.
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Jennifer Lunden is a glutton for information and proud winner of a Pushcart for “The Butterfly Effect,” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Another essay will appear in Orion. Her book-in-progress, One Canary Sings, won Honorable Mention in the 2010 Maine Literary Awards.
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Jason Mott
holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.
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Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.
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The questions we asked…

Do you ever burn to write but can’t?

Do you ever intellectually know you need to write and sit down to do it, even without the burn?

Do you ever desire to crack an inner ring of “true writers” but fear that you can’t because you hold a job, raise a family, watch television and movies, etc?

Has Lust for other things ever hindered your writing life?

Have you ever Lusted for other writers? For their work? For a writing environment?

7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Gluttony

Cheryl Wilder would like another helping, please. And maybe just one more?

While studying poetry as an undergraduate in UNC Wilmington’s Creative Writing program, I became obsessed with line breaks. For me, the magic of poetry resided in a well-rendered line break. I marveled at how the decision to move a word from one line to the next created suspense and anticipation in the poem. And if I tried hard enough, I could create double meaning in the poem by choosing which words stood together on each line—a story within a story. I was in love. This poetic tool influenced every decision I made during revision. For two years, nothing mattered more than the line and the line break that made it possible.

The problem? My obsession drove me to revise even a “finished” poem. I wanted the line breaks to be more poignant and the images to be richer with double meaning. I sat for hours making a single line break decision, only to change it back, or change it in a different way. When I finally stopped, the poem sat chopped-up on the page, barely breathing. Perfectionism had overpowered both me and my poem. I was a revision-Glutton.

Over-indulgence in revision brings up the age-old question for writers and artists alike: is a piece ever truly finished? During a Sarah Lawrence Summer Writers Seminar, poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar told our class a story when this question came up, as it often does. She was honored with being one of a few readers that “opened up” for poet Galway Kinnell. As the readings of the night proceeded, Bosselaar watched Kinnell penciling edits to his Pulitzer prize-winning book in preparation for his reading. If the Pulitzer does not persuade an artist that his work is finished, than what in the world could?

When Suzanne and I asked a handful of writer friends about Gluttony in their writing life, Jason Mott said this about revision: “No piece is ever finished. That’s just a rule of art in all forms.” But the endless tinkering can come at a price. “For me though, gluttony always makes me suffer. In my world, a project is done when I’ve read, reread, and edited it until I’m utterly and completely disgusted with it. That’s the ‘walk away’ point. Or, rather it’s the ‘walk away or I’m torching my computer’ point.”

Risa Nye knows what it feels like to labor over a much-revised piece. “I have one particular piece in mind here.” I marvel at her: Only one? “I have revisited and made a number of changes to it. Sent it out, got rejections. Gave it a long rest. It’s out in the world right now, and I’m determined to get that sucker published somewhere. Wanna read it?”

Over-indulgence in revision is just one form of writing-Gluttony, but it happens to be the only kind I currently suffer. One of the most resonant lessons I am learning while writing this essay series—working with co-author Suzanne, reading the comments of our surveyed writers, and hashing through revisions with our editor, Claire Guyton—is that the deadly sins play out in the writing life in a stunning variety of ways. Maybe one of the reasons we formally discuss the writing life so much less—as opposed to the time and space we devote to solving the mysteries of craft and publication—is precisely due to its individual nature; its utter subjectivity. At best we can only learn how others traverse their writing process, but inevitably we have to make the writing work in our own lives, addressing our own nuanced, sinful transgressions.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere in this series (most notably in Sloth and Lust), writing includes other tasks besides putting words on the page. One of these is research, which brings the Gluttony out in Jennifer Lunden. “I am an information addict. There. I said it.” And what’s wrong with that? “Well, here is the problem,” she continues. “I love information. And when I am doing research for an essay, or for my book-in-progress, one curiosity leads to another, and another, and another, and pretty soon I’m a long way down the rabbit hole… [which] makes for a very slow writer.”

Jason Mott suffers a form of Gluttony that I Envy: adding words. “I tend to overindulge in description. Settings, scenes, characters. I can go on for pages just describing everything about them if I don’t edit myself.” How I wish I could silence my internal editor, who commands a halt to any impulse to Gluttonous writing, then calls for the Gluttonous revision to begin.

Adam Arvidson’s Gluttony should be the Envy of any writer. “My writing process was once described by Kurt Caswell (a VCFA advisor and environmental essayist) as ‘binge writing.’ I tend to do all my research up front, then sit down and write in one big fell swoop. It’s not unusual for me to crank out a 3000 word essay or article in about 2 hours. That’s gluttony at its best, and because of it (and the exhaustion I feel after gorging myself at the keyboard), I would love to just put a bow on my writing and walk away.”

I’m inspired by Arvidson’s Gluttonous writing, even by the exhaustion he feels afterwards, which I see as the natural coda to a satisfying hard day’s work. I’m determined to experience that feeling.But Arvidson and I are natural opposites. Whereas I’m editing before words even appear on the page, his binge writing leaves him with no energy nor desire for revision at all.Never looking back is as fatal to a piece as over-revising.We need tofinda balance between the two extremes. So far the best method I have found for tempering my revision-Gluttony is totiltmy laptop screen toward my fingerson an angle that hidesthe wordsappearing across the page, taunting me to revise them.Arvidson’s balance comes from a methodical approach to revision that preserves his early, impulse-driven material.

“When I attended workshops with Barry Lopez at VCFA,” says Arvidson, “he spoke of the ‘genius of the first draft.’ Lopez feels that there is some magic in those first words and that any revision (even for flow and grammar) should be considered carefully.” So Arvidson created a revision process that honored the first draft. “[O]ne must revise, to some degree, so I do. Taking Lopez’s advice, though, I save a new copy of my file and run some revisions. Later, the next day, say, or sometimes after even months, I save a new copy and run the revisions again. So I end up with files called ‘Essay’ and ‘Essay2’ and ‘Essay3.’ At some point, either when it feels near finished or when I feel it has lost something, I go back to earlier versions and read those again. It’s not unusual for bits of the original feast to come back in.”

There is always one slice of pie that is cut larger than the rest, one that makes us feel queasy as we loosen our belt and scrape the last pieces off the plate toward our mouths—a deeper, darker over-indulgence, and I’m not talking about Hemingway’s drinking, Burroughs’ heroin, Byron’s sex, Dostoevsky’s gambling, Rand’s amphetamines, or Dickens’ “repulsed attraction” to the morgue. I’m talking about the over-consumption of advice from other writers, something Rich Farrell knows a lot about:

I consumed craft books by the dozens. I read whatever more successful writers read. I followed superstitions and practices. (Write before breakfast! Write to music! Write in nature!) I gobbled up aphorisms and advice and stuffed myself with wisdom: You attend, said Annie Dillard, and I did. I searched earnestly for Robert Olen Butler’s white hot center and I wrote moral fiction as John Gardner preached. I practiced a sort of ascetic discipline that involved forced hours of bad writing. All of this became a desperate prayer, a cry for help that had less to do with the words on the page and more to do with my unfulfilled sense of self.

I, too, have hungered for the knowledge and experience and words of successful writers. I hasten to admit it looks nothing as seductive as Farrell’s search for the “white hot center.”

When I decided to pursue writing as a high school student, the first lesson I took in was to find my own voice. I considered this advice to be absolute and I didn’t Gluttonously work to capture Sexton’s emotional anguish or Poe’s attention to internal rhyme. Instead I bounced from William Blake to James Joyce without any real direction. Back then I was a Glutton for words and I did write pages and pages of awful material (which may be why I grew to over-compensate with my revision), but I did so because I selfishly wanted to discover something within myself. The advice that struck a chord with me was not bad advice—a writer has to find her voice—it was incomplete advice.

When I returned to college in my late twenties as a single mother of a three-year-old, I had no time for indulgence in craft books or hours of producing pages (good or bad). Instead, I indulged in the wondrous Gluttony of education. In Spring 2005 I began my last year at UNC Wilmington. It was finally time to gorge on poetry—I had just been introduced to Symborska, Pastan, and Hoagland.

That semester, poet A. Van Jordan was a visiting writer for our Writers Week and I was one of a lucky few students scheduled to receive a one-on-one critique from him. I also planned to attend the Sandhills Writers Series that April, where poet Thomas Lux would provide a one-on-one critique as well. After years of revising many of my poems to the point of waste, I was determined to figure out how not to over-indulge in revision-Gluttony. In part, this meant I needed to trust myself—my decisions—during revision. And learning how to do that meant learning how to trust myself as a writer over writers whose work I admired and respected.

Workshop is a valuable tool for writers, but as a new serious writer, finding confidence in my revision process was not easy in the wake of advice from an admired writer. In those early years of undergraduate school, I was Gluttonous for any successful writer’s feedback, and took it in voraciously—because they knew better than I did. They had books to prove it. But if you’ve ever been in more than one workshop, or you have had two writers leading one workshop, you quickly learn the varying opinions on how to revise one single poem. It was enough to make this beginning writer crazy.

Determined to trust my revision choices, therefore freeing myself from over-indulgence in revision, I gave Lux and Van Jordan exactly the same poems. Once I gathered the revision suggestions together, I read them over and over, absorbing their differences. Fireworks shot off in my private writing life. I was elated at their conflicting opinions; it validated that I could make a divergent choice too. It was one of those moments when I felt my brain grow.

Learning how to stop putting too much emphasis on what another poet said about my work was an important step in actualizing myself as a writer. Before then, it seemed as if I was only playing writer, not being one. And as I had suspected, freeing myself from writer-advice-Gluttony in turn helped me address my revision-Gluttony.

Mott empathizes with feedback overload and has found a way to avoid it: “Getting lots of feedback from lots of people is mostly useless and serves only to cause confusion. I’ve been lucky enough to find a core group of about three really strong readers who I’m able to send my work to for feedback. I definitely listen to what they have to say.” And Farrell has addressed his writing-advice-Gluttony by leaving half his slice of pie on the plate. “I had feasted on my own need for validation. The belly-ache from such on over-indulgent binge came in the form of a year’s worth of rejection letters. But then a strange thing happened. As the initial sting wore off from the impersonal rejections, I began to feel a sort of relief, a slow, somewhat painful but liberating realization that my gluttonous ambition had been misguided.”

When I look back at the poems that took the brunt of my indulgent revisions, I see the initial beauty of the words that I loved so much. I’ve even pulled a few from the dredges to bring back to life. And over these last weeks, as Claire and I tinker over every last word in an essay late into the night before she publishes it, I realize that my history of Gluttonous revision is not wasted. I’m not afraid to cut my favorite sentence if it doesn’t work for a piece. I don’t feel guilty for staring at a word for ten minutes in hope of finding a more descriptive one. And I’m comfortable taking constructive criticism. Though writers approach Gluttony in their writing life differently, what we’re really saying is, “I’m not going to stop until I get this right.”

The truth is, Gluttony may be the most productive sin for writers. “To me,” says Lunden about her over-indulgence in research, “That rabbit hole leads to a fascinating warren of interwoven facts and stories, and that makes for a good essay.” Revision-Gluttony, writing-advice-Gluttony, writing too many pages of description, researching ourselves into that rabbit hole—all of these variations of Gluttony mean one thing: the writer is engaged in the writing life. Those chopped-up, barely breathing drafts of yesterday are stepping stones to the completed manuscripts of today.

~

Join us as we read, think, and live in sin.

Comment on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to share your tricks for taming the sinful beasts that pull you away from the writing life.

Series Page ….. Dear Sinner ….. Envy ….. Sloth

Lust ….. Next up: Greed

~

The writer friends quoted here…

Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and nonfiction writer. His writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, flyway, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many design magazines. A Minneapolis resident, he will graduate from VCFA’s MFA program in January.

Richard Farrell is upstreet’s Creative Nonfiction Editor and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” received a Pushcart nomination.

Jennifer Lunden is a glutton for information and proud winner of a Pushcart for “The Butterfly Effect,” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Another essay will appear in Orion. Her book-in-progress, One Canary Sings, won Honorable Mention in the 2010 Maine Literary Awards.

Jason Mott holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.

Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.

 

The questions we asked…

How does a writer learn when to walk away from a piece and not over-indulge in revision? How do you know when a piece is finished?

What do you do with those pieces that have been suffocated by your over-revision? Do you revisit? Try to revive them?

How about the over-indulgence in an admired writer’s feedback? How does their critique influence your revision?

Is there something else that you over-indulge in when it comes to writing?

Is this more of a sin for beginning writers?

 

7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Greed

Maybe it’s the election, but “Greed” comes easy to the tongue. Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren spoke at the Democratic National Convention about decades-old “corrosive Greed” reincarnated today in billionaires with Cayman Islands tax shelters, a not-so-subtle dig at Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Romney accused the striking Chicago teachers of letting Greed trump their devotion to students, and discounts half of all Americans as parasites, or—as his running mate Paul Ryan calls them—“takers.” “Main Street” Americans criticize big-business executives for being the real takers, who slink away from a crumbling economy with oversized bonuses and severance packages spilling from their pockets. In a slinging contest, Greed is the ready scoop of mud.

I was taught in Catholic school that Greed is the acute desire for material possessions, wealth, power, or notoriety, a desire so powerful it drives the Greedy to take more than they need or deserve, and to deprive others. My mother reinforced these lessons, going to great lengths to impose fairness among her children at all times—she even meted out M&Ms in equal numbers and colors. And as a writer making my place in a community that celebrates art, self-expression, and camaraderie among peers, Greed seems particularly repulsive. Greed had Amazon.com recruiting customers to scan prices in small bookstores, report them to Amazon, then walk out of those stores empty-handed in order to get a discount online. Greed drove the Super Stop & Shop in the town I visit on weekends to buy the land across the street just to shutter its “competition”—a tiny farm stand selling Jersey tomatoes and rhubarb pies. Greed characterizes Wall Street, oil empires, the 1%. I stand with Dickens, who called Scrooge “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!” Writers, Greed is everything we stand against.

Right?

Yet when I take off my mask of naïveté and peer at the writing world, I see Greedy hands grabbing here, swiping there. An author who doesn’t share the spotlight with those who helped him attain success, or one who pays overeager MFA students pennies to churn out work, secretly, under her name. Writers who consistently submit four times the page limit for workshops, or writers who ask their grandparents and roommates and dentists to post multiple glowing reviews of their books under different names, thereby bumping themselves to the top of online search results. Authors who self-publish at higher-than-average e-book rates are accused of Greed, as are authors who hold out for fat speaking fees. In the May/Summer 2012 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Patrick Toland reports on new domain name endings on the horizon and how those with enough cash could purchase .poet or .novel, thus buying “the unspoken right by association to say who was authentic and who was inauthentic.” What power! Toland likens the purchase of domain name endings to a “land rush.” Previously untapped writing life territory has opened up for the Greedy.

I too have been Greedy. My writing life isn’t that old, and given that most of my writing time has been devoted to completing one manuscript, I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to get Greedy. But even within these narrow parameters, I’ve succumbed. Recently, someone offered to pay me for a copy of my manuscript. A stranger who saw one of my published pieces wanted to read more. I could name the price. For a moment (an hour? an afternoon?) I didn’t consider whether to accept the money, or why this person wanted to purchase it in the first place. I debated how much to ask for. Then, sensing something was off—like my normal-self had absconded to a café while a secret-agent-self took over negotiations—I wrote an SOS to my writing friends, who responded unequivocally that I should reject the peculiar offer.

Greed seems to me the guiltiest sin. The sin you most have to apologize for. Just ask British crime writer R.J. Ellory, who recently scripted a sorry to readers for pseudonymously writing positive reviews of his own books while slamming those of competing authors. In fact, until a late draft of this essay, I hadn’t included my personal example of Greed. But several surveyed writer friends were willing to own up. Once they did, I started seeing multiple other ways that I have been Greedy, aside from the obvious desire for some quick cash. When working on a new piece, for example, I am Greedy for my husband’s time and brain power. Even as he dead-tired drifts on the couch after a 70-hour work week, our baby pressed to his chest, I read my work aloud and ask for feedback.

Adam Arvidson’s Greed hones in on what he finds the single most valuable commodity in the writing life: “Recognition.” He calls it his “guilty secret.” “I want to be well known, famous,” says Arvidson. “I want to have a platform from which I can share my views as a credible witness. All the other things (earnings, contests, book deals, speaking engagements, teaching positions) either lead to or result from name recognition, so that’s the core.” Risa Nye echoes the desire for notoriety, finding her Greed in wanting more than she already has: “I have some name recognition, but it’s never enough! I want to keep my name out there.” So does Jennifer Lunden, who notes just how early the Greed started, and how broadly it expands. “I have fantasized about being a famous author since I was a child,” she says. “I still do. I want to be studied in colleges. I want to go down in history. I want to change the world.”

Rich Farrell’s Greed ties tightly to the sin of Pride: post-MFA, he “yearned for entry into that rarefied kingdom of Writers.” To quicken his entry, Farrell “began to submit stories that were nowhere close to being ready. I’d fire off new stories with the sole intention of sending them out as fast as I could finish them.” He questions the Greed behind the speed. “Why am I greedy for what I haven’t earned yet?” Jason Mott, in ten years of working, did earn his way into the circle of published novelists. “Actually, I feel a little greedy for my book deal,” says Mott. “I’ve been fortunate in poetry with two publications and now I’ve just landed a two-book deal for fiction and, by some miracle, found myself able to quit my day job and become a full-time writer.” Risa Nye also highlights writing for money: “It’s always great when someone pays me for my written work—and when the check arrives, THEN I feel greedy for more.”

As the guiltiest sin, Greed is also the most unbecoming. Envy highlights what we want and drives us to attain it. What we choose to do when we’re Slothful can reveal us as charming, bedraggled, whimsical. Lust equates to singular focus and propels us toward writing. Gluttony can be presented as perfectionism if one voraciously consumes craft advice, or devotion if one must own every edition of every book in a beloved author’s body of work. Wrath can set off an explosion of creative work. Pride dedicates us to quality. Is there anything attractive about Greed?

In second grade I voted for Walter Mondale because Ronald Reagan already had a “turn” in the White House. I get frustrated when professional athletes who are former Olympic medalists leave their highly paid positions to become “amateur” again and compete for more gold. My longstanding and somewhat unrealistic attachment to fairness aside, I do see one positive aspect of Greed: it can breed continued success. We write for myriad reasons, most of which have nothing to do with external rewards. (Writing a book is just about the worst get-rich-quick scheme I can think of.) But the taste of a win can make us strive for more. “There’s always the next thing,” says Jennifer Lunden. “I wanted to win a Pushcart and I did. So of course, now I want to win the National Book Award. And hell, why not be honest here? I want a Pulitzer! And then, on to the Nobel Peace Prize! Not yet, but someday….”

Our surveyed writer friends identify desires—for recognition, publication, and compensation—that sit on a thin line between ambitious goals and true Greed. After scrutinizing what they name as examples of Greed, I say let them off the hook. We have every right to desire (and sometimes to insist on) reward for our work. I came across what I think is a perfectly nutshelled redirect of an accusation of Greed in a March 2012 Tweet from a writer named Saladin Ahmed: “Got called greedy writer for asking about pay. Grew up poor. Am deep in debt. Have kids. Money matters to me. LOTS. Don’t like it? Fuck you!” Jason Mott finesses the point a little bit more when talking about his book deal: “It’s more than I ever dared dream would happen and, yes, somehow I feel a bit greedy, even though I probably shouldn’t. After all, I’ve been working for a decade to get here.”

There is room for some Greed in the writing life. Though Charity is known as the virtuous antidote to Greed, we have only so much attention to give each other. We offer to critique another writer’s work for free and with enthusiasm, hoping that writer will publish the piece and add to the CV. We recommend each other for writing jobs and introduce each other to movers and shakers. We notify each other of upcoming contests and grants. We share our opinions, our connections, our wisdom. But as writers, we must be selfish with our time and attention, too, keeping the greater share for ourselves. Otherwise, our writing lives would slip away, leaving behind benevolent readers and reviewers who used to write.

Our challenge is to properly diagnose the sort of Greed we’re experiencing, then either refuse to give in to it or channel it into appropriate action. Once my friends brought me back to my good sense, I chose not to give in to my Greed, and declined to sell my manuscript to the mysterious shopper. When a friend asked me to look at her submission to a publication, and then wanted to use my exact language as her conclusion, I feared that my Greed for credit might show itself, but gave her the go-ahead. When she announced a few weeks later that her article had been accepted, I didn’t even think about my role. When I published a piece this past spring in a journal I covet, I felt eager to submit again, even though I didn’t have anything ready to send. My publication-Greed could have pushed me to submit a half-baked essay; instead, it propelled me to get cracking on revisions. When I got frustrated this fall about not having a fellowship that would allow me to work on my book without worrying about income, my compensation-Greed bit hard, and I had to remind myself that I have applied for exactly zero fellowships. An unfinished application still sits on my desk, waiting for me to channel that Greed into action.

Sometimes Greed can infect what’s at the very heart of the writing life—the writing itself. Unchecked Greed can cause a writer to perform such extensive surgery on her material that it’s no longer recognizable. When I re-enter my nonfiction manuscript and consider my next steps, I remember the friend who read it earlier this year and told me I’d have a better chance of publishing if I fictionalize it. To her, the story reads more like a novel than narrative nonfiction, and she dropped two biggies in one email: “agent” and “movie deal.” I had to laugh, but I did wrestle with the temptation. For a while, I wondered how a shift from truth to fiction would impact not the manuscript, but the manuscript’s chances. Fortunately I’m tuned in to my deep love of nonfiction, oriented toward my goal of being published with an independent press, and aware that fictionalizing my book would hardly guarantee a seat on the gravy train—far from it. I’ve got my Greed licked. But every once in a while, as I’m feeding my baby in the middle of the night, my fingers pretend to do a quick search and replace of “I” to “She” and my imagination runs wild.

The most effective way to keep Greed in check in the writing life might be to cultivate satisfaction with where we are, what we have written, how much we have accomplished. After her essay won a Pushcart, Jennifer Lunden says her Greed was temporarily fulfilled: “I am pleased. Delighted. And don’t tell God, but I’m proud, too.” Risa Nye says, “If I set goals and keep going, I can look back someday and feel satisfied that I tried a bunch of things and managed to accomplish them with varying amounts of success.”

Satisfaction, however, ebbs and flows. Get Greedy, succeed, feel satisfied, repeat. “There will always be something more that I want to shoot for with my writing,” says Jason Mott. “Some new story, some new style, some new medium. There is always room to grow and learn as a writer.” Risa Nye agrees: “Being satisfied doesn’t mean resting on your laurels.” Cheryl Wilder, my co-author of this essay series, describes satisfaction’s changeable nature: “I see satisfaction as more a moving target than a stationary end; I can be satisfied with a piece I have written, but once that elation fades, it’s time to move on to the next poem or essay.” As she points out in her Introduction to this series, once we travel the pathways of sin, we can forever travel back toward virtue, never reaching an end point but rather finding purpose in the journey.

In most areas of my life, I possess what I call a “strong peace reflex.” Several years ago, as I and my then-new husband circled over the Greek island of Santorini, I gazed out at the ancient volcanic crater that would serve as our honeymoon destination and said, “If this plane goes down and we die, I’m satisfied with what I’ve done in this life.” In my writing life, however, I crash through waves of regret and despair, which is one of the reasons I wanted to co-author this series on sin. I’m learning that when it comes to my writing, should the ebb and flow of satisfaction stop suddenly and forever, I want to be arrested in the flow—content with my body of work. I’m not there yet. My book isn’t published, and publication might be necessary to get me there. But here’s a nudge in the right direction: a few years ago, I couldn’t have started a sentence with, “My book.”

~

Join us as we read, think, and live in sin.

Comment on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to share your tricks for taming the sinful beasts that pull you away from the writing life.

Series Page ….. Dear Sinner ….. Envy ….. Sloth

Lust ….. Gluttony ….. Next up: Wrath

~

The writer friends quoted here…

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Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and nonfiction writer. His writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, flyway, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many design magazines. A Minneapolis resident, he will graduate from VCFA’s MFA program in January.
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Richard Farrell is upstreet’s Creative Nonfiction Editor and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” received a Pushcart nomination.
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Jennifer Lunden is a glutton for information and proud winner of a Pushcart for “The Butterfly Effect,” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Another essay will appear in Orion. Her book-in-progress, One Canary Sings, won Honorable Mention in the 2010 Maine Literary Awards.
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Jason Mott
holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.
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Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.
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The questions we asked…

What, if anything, do you feel most Greedy for? Name recognition? Earnings? Contest wins? Ongoing book deals? Solicitation of your work (i.e., lack of need to submit)?

Does Greed ebb and flow as writers move through different life stages?

Do you think you could ever be satisfied as a writer?

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End Notes
Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. New York: Penguin Classics, 1995.
Toland, Patrick. “.Anything! How the Dot Com Boom Might Cost Writers More Than Just Their Money,”
The Writer’s Chronicle (May/Summer 2012): 94–98.

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7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Wrath

Wrath doesn’t sound fierce enough for its meaning. It starts with a liquid consonant and ends with a breeze through the teeth, and it’s comprised of a single syllable that contains the first vowel sound we teach to children. Taking a cue from my co-author Cheryl’s introduction to this series, however, I listen for fury in the word, and at the right frequency, I hear it. The flowing r deepens into the growl of a cornered cat. The short a escalates to an open-mouthed scream. The th whips into a spitting curse fixed on the enemy.

I’ve been afraid to look closely at Wrath. Because my husband produces for a television news magazine, we frequently watch episodes about rage—between neighbors, ex-spouses, co-workers, siblings, classmates—festering and building until someone winds up dead. There’s a difference between Wrath and anger: anger can smolder indefinitely, the ominous thundering that never becomes the storm, whereas Wrath explodes and destroys. The firenado.

I once came close to publicly releasing my own small firenado into the center of my writing life. For years I had idolized “Jamie,” a well-known author who produced the kind of work I wanted to write. Her books seemed to target me specifically. They plucked me from the reading multitudes, pushed me into my writing chair, forced me to face my work—work that wrangled with a complicated loss—and showed me how to shape it into something whole. Because of Jamie, my work found its literary cousins. It belonged somewhere. Jamie, a hologram hovering over my laptop on a perpetual writing date, became my mentor and trainer. She wouldn’t let me give up or even get up.

I badly wanted to meet Jamie in person, to narrow the gap between idol and fan, and, at the very least, to thank her. And my secret self wanted something more: I imagined Jamie as a wise and gentle guide who would throw her arm over my shoulder and welcome me to the writing world. But my fantasy-Jamie took a direct hit when a friend told me something terrible about real-life-Jamie. He had gotten to know her and said she fulfilled every unflattering cliché of the successful author: arrogant, condescending, pretentious. She was dismissive, he said, too caught up in her circle of big names to spare a few minutes for a small name like him. According to my friend, she did pay attention to one thing: she took an idea of his and ran with it as her own.

Not Jamie. Not my Jamie.

Years after discovering Jamie on the bookshelves, I had the chance to meet her at a literary event. There she was, center to a group of fans like me, so accessible. A hologram turned human, a byline and black-and-white headshot become flesh. And not on-a-panel flesh or behind-a-podium flesh but in-our-shared-space flesh. She had walked in with someone I knew, so now we had two people in common. The degree of separation between us all but eliminated, I bounced and beamed and fussed with my hair until a moment opened. Setting aside my friend’s warnings about Jamie, I unloaded my fanhood without pausing for breath. I love your work. My writing would be a scrapheap without you. In fact, I referenced one of your ideas in a piece I just published. I’d love to talk with you about it.

Jamie let me flare out. Expressionless, she said, “You did cite me, right? For that idea?” I stumbled. “Yes … of course I did.” I don’t remember if I said anything else. But I do remember that Jamie turned her back on me—literally—and took the elbow of a man close by. I didn’t know him. I’m sure he was adorable, eloquent, perhaps with a book on his CV or a choice seat on a conference panel or a madly popular upstart journal. Was my writing idol nothing but the archetypal high school mean girl?

With a couple glasses of wine already working their black magic on my self-control, I nearly spat something out. Something loud. In the middle of a room of fellow writers. Something along the lines of: Wow, my friend was right, you really are an ass!

Even now I cringe when I think of how I seethed and nearly behaved like a fool. Hindsight tells me that I wasn’t being fair to Jamie—how could she possibly know what she had meant to me, and, quite frankly, why should she care? If I’d indulged myself and blasted her, I might have crippled some of my writing aspirations. Ours is an intimate world—an outburst would not soon be forgotten, and bridges might burn on the spot. Worse, I would have betrayed my friend’s confidence. Worst of all, erupting at a literary event would have felt inimical to the best part of my writing life, my commitment to and participation in our good will for one another. Our esprit de corps.

I wish that were the end of it. I wish I could have separated Jamie-the-person, who had snubbed me, from Jamie-the-mentor, who had spoken to me from the pages of her work. But in private I cursed Jamie. I refused to attend her readings and panel appearances, and told my closest writing friends to steer clear of her, too. I stopped reading her words and believing in her wisdom. I don’t regret guarding myself and my friends from a well-known writer who could act so superior. But it was destructive for me as a writer working through an all-consuming project to banish, so suddenly and painfully, my on-page guide. I came to hate those of my pages that seemed to have been influenced by hers. What kind of writer was I if I’d been molded by someone so contemptible? Nothing, not even my writer-self, was safe from my Wrath.

When we asked our writing friends to talk about the deadly sins, Rich Farrell said he believes the sins resonate with writers because “the uninitiated must pass through a period of long trial.” He goes on: “The sinner becomes the saint, but only after passing through hell.” Wrath, for its heat, its terrifying ability to end things irreparably, its consumption of the self, its sheer noise, epitomizes hell.

Nothing compares to the Wrath of nature. As I write, reports on Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath scroll across the muted television. The devastation in my city—New York—is worse than anything we’ve ever seen. What strikes me most: the six-alarm blaze in a Queens neighborhood that destroyed over one hundred homes; the multiple power failures at our local hospital that led to the evacuation of even the tiniest babies in critical care; the carbon monoxide poisonings due to poorly placed generators; the mangled construction crane dangling ninety stories above Fifty-Seventh. When a hurricane is coming, we plan for wind and water. We can’t fully plan for the myriad other disasters that arise in a catastrophic ripple effect.

No, nothing compares to the Wrath of nature. And I hesitate to mention that truth in an essay on the writing life, when lives and homes have been lost or changed forever. But as I think about how Wrath acts—a blind, chaotic, and unstoppable force—it alarms me that should it go unchecked in our writing lives, it could destroy much more than just our writing.

Wrath has a sinister way of messing with us by propelling us down false, unproductive, or ruinous paths. Furious with negative reviews? Threaten the reviewers, squashing anyone’s inclination to write a positive one. Incensed at not selling a manuscript? Rage against the industry in a bout of self-blacklisting. Upset at how your piece is treated in a workshop? Blow up at the leaders and get kicked out. Bitter toward a journal that rejected yet another submission? Insult it, thereby insulting all the writers who have been published there. Mad that the book isn’t flying off shelves? Fire the publicist and writhe, alone with the stack of still-unsold books, on one side of the burned bridge. Jason Mott admits, “I’ve gotten angry at editors or journals for rejecting my work and wasted valuable writing time trying to write in a certain way just to prove that their feedback was wrong.” If we let it, Wrath can steal energy from writing, break professional connections, and destroy nurturing personal relationships in the writing community.

In this series, we have pursued both peril and potential in the sins, and Wrath is no exception. How do we see the bright side of an emotion that brings us to hell? How can Wrath’s destructive force be turned to good? Wrath can in fact be productive by igniting creative output. “Being pissed off can be a great inspiration,” says Risa Nye. “I wrote a blog post that was fueled by some really old wrath.” The key for Nye was to tap into her Wrath and employ it as a device. “I used an approach I learned in a writing group: write about something you hate as though you love it, or write about something you love as though you hate it. I went with the hate as love version, and wrote about how being a victim of some mean girls proved to be Another Fine Opportunity for Growth.” For Nye, Wrath was just what she needed to fire off a fresh piece of writing. And now that the tap is in, more pieces may follow. “Mean girls?” says Nye. “Bring it!”

Productively using Wrath is like burning the underbrush to prevent a forest fire. Adam Arvidson describes this process of Wrath’s controlled release through the writing process: “As an environmental writer, I feel some wrath toward the wanton disregard of our planet and the people and creatures who inhabit it.” By the time Arvidson sits down to draft, he writes carefully and with purpose, but not angrily. “This causes me some conflict, and sometimes I feel my writing should be more wrathful, but I just can’t do it.” Wrath remains, however, something like a silent partner to Arvidson. “My entire writing life (both my freelance work and my personal essays) is driven by deep personal convictions that, on some level, rise from frustration, anger, wrath. … So though the anger rarely appears in my writing, it is one of the driving motivations for me.”

Jennifer Lunden names Wrath as a primary catalyst for writing: “My book-in-progress combines memoir and social criticism to tell the story of how everyday chemicals are causing increasing health problems for Americans. In the prologue it says that I’m writing the book to protect others from getting sick, and that is certainly one of my motivations, but what fires this book is wrath. Don’t tell anyone, but secretly I think of it as my manifesto.” Yet Lunden believes that in order to serve the writing, Wrath must be mitigated with an opposing force. “The wrath-fired artist is fueled by a drive to foment change. But art birthed from wrath must be tempered with love. Love helps us craft rich and textured multi-faceted characters. Without love, everything would be flat and ugly. Love is what makes it beautiful. Love makes people want to turn to the next page.”

Tavia Gilbert’s Wrath is aimed at circumstances that make writing, among other activities, arduous. Dysfunctional feet that have required multiple surgeries, and corresponding problems with her spine, force Gilbert to live in chronic pain. “This, at times, has made me wrathful—resentful, frustrated, discouraged, despairing. It is enough of an undertaking to write at all, without adding in a level of serious physical difficulty. At times I am reluctant to sit down to work because my neck is in spasm … or my feet are overtaken by stabbing, lacerating, burning pain.” It’s the process of overcoming her Wrath toward her circumstances that gives Gilbert the motivation—and the capacity—to write. “Because of what I’ve endured and still endure, however, I am more compassionate, wise, gentle, forgiving, and intuitive than I would be with a body free of pain. … So, I suppose it is not wrath that fuels my writing, but what is on the other side of wrath—after-wrath.”

Wrath is a potent, potentially endless source for material. Our surveyed writer friends tap, channel, manipulate, and overcome Wrath in order to produce new work. Like them, I’m furious at a lot of injustices—a trusted school maintenance worker who stole my purse, the negligent parent of one of my students, a dentist who pulled my tooth without permission or anesthesia—and most wind up in my writing. I don’t feel ashamed of committing the sin of Wrath. In fact, my Wrath tends to be based on an indignant feeling of being right, and my prose is how I get—literally—the last word.

But the Wrath I felt toward Jamie, someone within my writing life, didn’t fuel me to write. It made me question the identity I’d dreamed of building and the type of work that spoke to me. As for my writing, it left me stunted. As I twisted in my Wrath, I turned away from the manuscript I had been piecing together, and from the enrichment that Jamie’s work might have continued to offer. And then I fell into a deep hole.

Time passed. The firenado didn’t incinerate me. The flames died down and I crawled out of my hole. I can’t really claim this as a triumph over Wrath. Rather, I coped with it until it became less scary, then surveyed the damage and found some unexpected benefits. I saw that my Wrath had torn apart not my work, but the limits I’d imposed on it by focusing so intently on a single source of inspiration. And I discovered new role models who might have remained hidden were I not forced to seek them out. There’s resolution in that, a sense of accomplishment that I didn’t let Wrath defeat me. And at long last, I’ve found a way to channel my Wrath directly into writing, by laying it to rest right here, on this page.

~

Join us and 7 other writers as we read, think, and live in sin.

Comment here on our site or go to our links to the essays on the Hunger Mountain Facebook page to share your tricks for taming the sinful beasts that pull you away from the writing life.

Series Page ….. Dear Sinner ….. Envy ….. Sloth

Lust ….. Gluttony ….. Greed …. Pride

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The writer friends quoted here…

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Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and nonfiction writer. His writing has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, flyway, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many design magazines. A Minneapolis resident, he will graduate from VCFA’s MFA program in January.
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Richard Farrell is upstreet’s Creative Nonfiction Editor and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq. His work has appeared in Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” received a Pushcart nomination.
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Producer, actor, and writer Tavia Gilbert has appeared on stage and in film, as well as having narrated over 150 multi-cast and solo voice audio books. She will complete her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January.
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Jennifer Lunden is a glutton for information and proud winner of a Pushcart for “The Butterfly Effect,” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Another essay will appear in Orion. Her book-in-progress, One Canary Sings, won Honorable Mention in the 2010 Maine Literary Awards.
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Jason Mott
holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.
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Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.
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The questions we asked…

Has Wrath ever hindered your writing?

Has Wrath ever fueled your writing?

How can we move past Wrath, not just in name, but really, truly move past it in spirit?

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7 Deadly Sins of the Writing Life: Pride

I needed to be heard.

I was in the fifth grade in 1984, when missing children—almost always dead children—stared at me from the milk carton as I ate my breakfast. My school district fingerprinted students on thick notecards with an attached mug shot—just in case. And teaching “stranger danger” was abandoned as a useless strategy when it came to preventing child molestation. Now children feared adults they knew and had trusted. At the same time, I was learning to write poetry.

For a school assignment, I wrote a first person poem in quatrains about a father molesting his daughter and the mom keeping quiet about it. It was fictional, but there was no way for the school authorities to know that without questioning my divorced parents. Then I was questioned, by my father, in a conversation that lasted minutes. He asked only if he made me feel uncomfortable. No, I replied, growing uneasy with what it meant to communicate, both in writing and talking.

The negative attention confused me. I had no idea as I wrote the poem that I was doing anything wrong; and technically, I wasn’t. Unfortunately, being questioned about my poem made me feel that writing about my experiences, my feelings, and my interpretation of events was wrong. Being questioned hurt my Pride. And that wound prevented me from writing again until I was a senior in high school.

In hindsight, it’s easy to see that my fifth-grade poem was a reaction to a loss of innocence and safety in my environment. Even more so, I was responding to the lack of communication from the adults in my world. There weren’t conversations around the table that addressed the upward trend of crimes against children or the fears that arose in me while looking at pictures of dead children over my bowl of Fruit Loops. Years later, as I began writing again, I was more conscious of my need to communicate, my gut-desire to articulate my thoughts on paper. My eighteen-year-old self knew she had the words people wanted, even needed, to hear. And I found Pride in that.

Listen to me. Read my words. Pretty please.

According to Christian ethics, Pride is the deadliest of the seven sins because it lies at the root of all sin. Feeling Envious of another’s accomplishment? Pride wants it to be me and not him. Gluttonous over revision? Pride wants my work to be the best it can be. Wrathful toward the workshop group that red-lined the hell out of my submission? My Pride is hurt. I see Pride as the deadliest sin for two other reasons as well: (1) Pride is all about me. (2) Stealthy Pride, living quietly at the root of other emotions, too often goes unnoticed and unchallenged as it motivates daily decisions and action.

Pride is also the most confusing sin. We are warned to resist it, yet we can use the word Pride to describe a natural and healthy self-confidence, satisfaction with our choices and actions. I’m Proud to have finished both undergraduate and graduate school while working full-time and raising a child. I’m Proud to be a member of a group of talented writers. I’m Proud when I know I’ve put everything I have into a piece of writing, and I’m Proud when someone praises me for that. Aristotle thought Pride not a sin, but a virtue. “Pride,” he says, “seems even from its name to be concerned with great things.”

George Orwell in, “Why I Write,” designates “Sheer egoism” as the number one motivation for writers. “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one.” I think another word for this “sheer egoism” is “Pride.” When asked about this deadliest of the sins, Adam Arvidson doesn’t pretend: “My desire for name recognition is utterly prideful. This is actually what I feel worst about, this self-centeredness. I want people to know me and listen to me.” Jason Mott doesn’t pretend, either: “Every writer wants their work to be loved. I’m no exception. Do opinions of my writing matter? Certainly.”

The difficulty of managing Pride in the writing life comes from the need to nurture the self-confidence that Aristotle seems to be talking about, without allowing it to blossom into the kind of Pride the Christian ethicists condemn—Pride-as-arrogance. Self-confidence is motivating and healthy. I believe in myself enough to sit alone and write with zero exterior instant gratification; no one is giving me a pat on the back for making my writing quota for the day. I have to believe that my voice is worth forging through the hundreds of rejection slips. Jennifer Lunden agrees:

I believe pride is a good and necessary thing. How else could we writers survive the pummeling of rejection after rejection (for me, sixteen rejections so far this year alone, many of those for a piece I happen to think is brilliant) and keep going back for more? I do it because I am proud of my work. I know it is good. If I didn’t have that, I would be a wilting flower.

But what price does a writer pay when Pride grows into arrogance? Pride-as-arrogance leads me to believe that I am better than you; better at writing, at cooking, at telling jokes. Remember my co-author, Suzanne’s, encounter with her writing idol, Jamie? Most likely Jamie doesn’t remember an interaction that crushed the spirit of an aspiring writer; Jamie was too wrapped up in herself, too bothered to smile and say thank you for the compliments. Suzanne’s Wrath was fueled by Jamie’s Pride-as-arrogance. And for a while, that Wrath extinguished Suzanne’s Pride-as-self-confidence, her self-respect as a writer, silencing her voice.

When asked if he has met Prideful writers, Mott answers,

Tons of them. It’s a little upsetting but, in the end, I try not to let it bother me too much. At the end of the day, we’ve all got to make our way as best we can. Lots of people use pride as a way of buttressing themselves against the harshness of the industry. If that helps them make it, then so be it.

When asked the same question, Nye says, “When I come across someone like that it reminds me not to constantly toot my own horn, to be modest but honest.” She also works toward modesty in workshop.

[I have] to accept the fact that sometimes I miss the mark in my writing and can take positive feedback without getting my knickers in a twist about it. I find it uncomfortable to be around people who believe their writing is vastly superior to everyone else’s. I’ve actually taken on people like that in workshop. It’s just ridiculous how people put down others to try and make themselves look better. It never works.

It’s easier than ever to fall into public sin before you know it, broadcasting a slip into arrogance with a few strokes of the keyboard. Earlier in this essay series, Suzanne talked about how social media can intensify a writer’s green-eyed Envy. And I talked about how the Sloth beast woos writers with the Internet. The World Wide Web poses similar challenges to our management of Pride.

Writers no longer wait for press releases, book signings, or book reviews to further their career. We can simultaneously self-express and self-promote through Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. In her essay on Greed, Suzanne mentioned how crime writer R.J. Ellory posted anonymous rave reviews of his own book online, and then, when he was discovered, was forced publicly to beg forgiveness. Obviously, Ellory is an extreme example of a writer who has fallen to Pride-as-arrogance. Most writers are straightforward self-promoters, who may, or may not, worry about appearing arrogant.

Is self-promotion a manifestation of Pride-as-self-confidence or Pride-as-arrogance? Regardless, self-promotion is necessary, if a writer wants to be heard among the chatter of all the other voices. “Every writer has a heightened degree of self-importance. Let’s establish that early on,” says Mott.

And it can be very helpful … in helping them with self-promotion. However, a person can still be humble and self-promote. Most of the time, people are sympathetic when they see you trying to self-promote—so long as you’re not obnoxious about it. People tend to understand that ‘Hey, if this person doesn’t self-promote to some extent, how can they ever expect to make it?’

Arvidson agrees that straightforward self-promotion shouldn’t be seen as Pride slipping into arrogance. “I don’t mind self-promotion—don’t mind doing it, and don’t mind when others do, too.” Nye reminds us of how a writer can be generous and humble while self-promoting: “If there is an opportunity to thank someone for the opportunity, or for selecting your work for publication, do this before mentioning your article, essay, or story in any public way.” And she stresses, again, that we writers don’t have a choice when it comes to self-promotion, which is a reminder that Pride-as-self-confidence, as Aristotle argues, is a virtue: “In the overwhelming flow of media, you’ll never stand out or get readers if youdon’t have a presence, so self-promotion is self-preservation.”

However necessary we consider self-promotion, there are writers who struggle with it. Perhaps they fear slipping into Pride-as-arrogance but their real problem is that they suffer from yet another kind of Pride, the kind that makes us refer to a hungry man who refuses a charity meal as “too Proud.” “[T]he unduly humble man,” says Aristotle, “being worthy of good things, robs himself of what he deserves.” The “unduly humble” self-promoters don’t self-promote at all, or do so on a minute scale. They don’t want to impose on other people, they are fearful of how they will be perceived, or they hate asking for help of any kind. And isn’t that what self-promotion is, asking others to help my writing career? Asking others to validate my work?

I am too Proud to self-promote. I debated not even telling my family about this eight-week essay series. I ended up sending one email in the beginning, but thought it was asking too much to send one every week that a new installment was published. In fact, I tell very few people when I publish at all. The reason I make myself admit this is because Aristotle—my guide throughout my meditation on Pride—believes the Pride that results in undue humility is worse than Pride-as-arrogance. Worse because it causes more destruction. Arrogant people are just fools, he says. Realizing that I am too Proud reminds me of my revelation that the Slothbeast actively silences the artist. “For each class of people aims at what corresponds to its worth,” says Aristotle. “And these people [those too Proud to ask for help] stand back even from noble actions and undertaking, deeming themselves unworthy.” This kind of Pride is not simply stealth, it is ninja-stealth.

Aristotle says that Pride is only virtuous when it shows itself in a good man, one who also shows courage, prudence, temperance, and, when called for, humility. Again, I am reminded of the importance of developing and nurturing my own Pride-as-self-confidence while being sure to avoid that slip into the deadliest of sins. Now, Pride is less ninja-stealth and more like a Samurai Warrior, standing at attention and protecting one’s self-worth without giving in to the temptation of arrogance. And without giving in to the temptation to hide in a hole, if that’s your tendency.

The bitch of it is, healthy humility, as opposed to undue humility, takes constant work: “Because I recognize this [desire for name recognition] about myself,” Arvidson says. “I actively suppress this urge to be at the center of attention all the time, and that active suppression has gradually led to (I think) a more genuine selflessness.” Mott also recognizes humility has an important part of the writing life:

Do I let them [opinions of others] control me? No. At a certain point in a person’s writing journey they pledge themselves to an idea, to an aesthetic, to a philosophy, with the full knowledge that there will be others who disagree with it and, consequently, not enjoy their writing. That’s just all part of the journey.

Rich Farrell remains committed to teaching himself how to privilege his inner tinkering monk we met in “Envy”: “My pride often gets in the way of doing the quiet, monastic work.”

For me, I need to rid “undue” from my humility. My desire as an artist is to communicate through the written word, and it’s stunted by my own lack of self-worth. That’s a hard pill to swallow and I have no one to blame but myself. On the bright side, I am once again shown that the writing life is not only about putting words on the page. Once a writer is dedicated to this task, the way she lives in the world begins to change—she is immersed in a world of ideas. Every sunset, every milk carton with a picture of a missing child, and every lone shopping cart in a parking lot, adds dimension to her characters, her poems, her stories. The writer’s eye never closes. And since it doesn’t, the writer becomes the writing which becomes the writer. The Prideful beast actually eats its own tail. And that’s a good thing. That’s something to be Proud of.

 ***

Ethicists originally defined and warned about the so-called seven deadly sins to motivate people to work toward virtue, to give them a framework in which to self-evaluate, persevere, and triumph. It is no different in the writing life. Jennifer Lunden speaks to the motivation the deadly sins give her: “[W]ithout this greed, this gluttony, this pride, what would drive us to go on? The love of words? Of beauty? The love of the pen to the page? Okay, yes, many of us would still write, but what would drive us to aspire to the very best we can be, the very greatest we can accomplish?”

As Suzanne and I studied each sin, we discovered behaviors and beliefs that define us as writers. In my case, this self-reflection tamed my Slothbeast, reinvigorated my Glutton for word choice, and took the “unduly” out of my humble Pride. This is not to say that I am free from committing sin in my writing life. It is to say that when I do regress, I must remind myself that I am not failing at being virtuous, but that the journey is and must be a long trial with cyclic falls from grace. Here I turn to the wisdom of Nelson Mandela, one of the great moral leaders of our time: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

I suppose it is time for me to fully succumb to the writing life, to re-establish my footing on the dedicated path whenever I am diverted by sin, and simply thank the journey for taking me with it.

~

Thanks for joining us as we read, thought, and lived in sin.

Series Page ….. Dear Sinner ….. Envy ….. Sloth

Lust ….. Gluttony ….. Greed ….. Wrath

~

 

The writer friends quoted here…

 

   Adam Regn Arvidson is a landscape architect and nonfiction writer. His writing has          appeared in Creative Nonfiction, flyway, Michigan Quarterly Review, and many              design magazines. A Minneapolis resident, he will graduate from VCFA’s MFA                    program in January.

 


Richard Farrell is upstreet’s Creative Nonfiction Editor and a Senior Editor
at Numéro Cinq. His work has appeared inHunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq,
and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” received a Pushcart nomination.


  Jennifer Lunden is a glutton for information and proud winner of a Pushcart for “The         Butterfly Effect,” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction. Another essay will appear in   Orion. Her book-in-progress, One Canary Sings, won Honorable Mention in the 2010         Maine Literary Awards.

 


Jason Mott holds a BA in fiction and an MFA in poetry. He is a Pushcart Prize nominee and his debut novel, The Returned, will be published September 2013 by MIRA Books.

 

 

 


Risa Nye’s essays and articles have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty, an anthology that guides parents through the transition to an empty nest.


The questions we asked…

As a writer, how much do other people’s opinions of your work matter? Does that hinder your creativity?

Have you encountered a Prideful writer and/or workshop participant? How does this make you feel as a fellow writer?

At what level is self-importance productive? How does it tie into self-promotion? Can one be humble and still self-promote?

Is there room for Grace in writing: humility, open mind, simplicity, and acceptance?

22 Questions For Poets

1.  The donée is the unasked for, the inescapable thing that is given to you.  For Lowell it was
history, for Berryman it was the Freudian myth of the Id, for Hughes it was forms of
blackness, for Dickinson it was devotion and skepticism.  What is your donée

2.  Are your poems cloud chambers or well-wrought urns?  Are they puzzles or
dreams?

3.  Of Water, Air, Earth, and Fire which is your predominant element?

4.  Is your poetry Greek (idealization) or Roman (realism)?

5.  Do your poems follow story lines or song lines?  Do they coil or arc?

6.  Is your poetry more Ariel (Ethereality, invisibility, velocity), or Caliban (earthiness,
nature, gravity), or Prospero (control, shape, mastery)?

7.  Are they more mirror (accurate depiction, the actual) or lamp (expressionistic,
metaphorical)?

8.  Are they more concerned with Society or Self?

9.  With Self (historical, political) or Soul (private, individuated)?

10.  “Mad Ireland hurt you into Poetry,” Auden said of Yeats.  What has hurt you into
poetry?

11.  If a central dilemma of poetry is a compulsion to understand the world versus a desire
to see beyond the details, to which side do you belong?

12. Is your poetry interested more in wedding or division?

13. What two living, American poets do you most admire?

14. What two poets do you most admire with no temporal or geographic restrictions?

15.  Is there a distinct male and female sensibility?  Is poetry gendered?
              Is it raced?

16.  Is your work more concerned with association (metaphor – what it is like) or
attention (what it is)?

17.  Is the poem a metaphysical window through which we see  deeper realities and the poet
a medium — like a pianist or spiritualist or an actor (transparency theory).  Or is the poem
an attempt at embodiment, to clot the emptiness by drawing attention to itself — a reality
(reality theory)?

18.  Is your poetry more concerned with ardor or irony?  The sublimehowever you
conceive it, or the shabby?  The vertical or the horizontal?

19.  What two qualities do I most admire in a poem?

20.  What quality do I wish I had more of in my poems?

21.  From a workshop I most want Judgment, Clarification, Support, Validation, or
Sustenance.

22.  Larry Brown, former coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, said of his [former] star
Allen “The Answer” Iverson, “He doesn’t know the difference between criticism and
coaching.”  What’s the difference between criticism and coaching?

BONUS QUESTIONS:

             1 .  “But the strongest single determinant of a person’s poetic imagination is the
                    state of negotiations between that person and their idea of the Creator.” Ted
             Hughes, Winter Pollen pg.109.  True or false?

             2.    “Poetry generally is a verbal configuration of personality” True or false?

             3.      True or false: When a poem would neither praise nor blame, it ends up praising;
                   its figural language heightens any subject and gives it, in capable hands, a
                   nobility.

             4.      Cat or ox?  Hummingbird or crane?


I begin the year with my second year workshop students at the MFA program here at Syracuse by giving them Ten Rules for Writers (and an encouragement) and this quiz I’ve harvested from my reading. Bring back the quiz, I say! Bring back sweating on the first day!  This quiz asks students to assess and categorize their own work with these largely impossible binaries.  I take them home and read them and respond to them as I read for the first time their poems.

Ten Rules For Writers (and an encouragement)

I begin the year with my second year workshop students at the MFA program here at Syracuse by giving them a quiz I’ve harvested from my reading and these“TEN RULES FOR WRITERS AND AN ENCOURAGEMENT”:

1.  Poems – lingering and leaping.
I imagine twelve poems of depth and vision, beautiful shapes and astonishing
revisions. One assigned poem that will break us into a kind of sobbing joy. There are no
assignments, per se, but the Exemplars are there to be used as music to play towards.

2.  Every writer gets a reader.
As friend in court, conscience, nagging parent, vigilant pal, gentle guide, village
explainer, designated weeper, interrogator, sympathizer, advocate, the company misery loves.
(The reader will briefly introduce the work of the writer in the final portfolio.)

3.  Every writer gets to be a critic.

The critic of new objects works in the dark. How and why is the work of art like it is?
The critic: part detective, part lawyer, part judge, in a country in which deeds of glory and
crimes look alike.

I want you to respond to the poem by first grunts and moans of approbation
(Oooh, . . .Ahhh, . . .Mmmm) and inquisition (Huh?), and then more articulate noises.
Pointing to specific words or places where the poem interests you or points where it seems
to be unclear or unravel are also helpful strategies to begin. Often it helps to make a
descriptive reading of the poem in order to locate the poem’s center. Then increasingly
incisive and insightful comments either rhapsodic or analytical. Analytical:  “The poem’s
short lines give it a nervous energy.” Rhapsodic: “Oooh, Ahhh.”

4.  Every writer gets a writer.
Another writer, dead or living, as mentor and tormentor, bête noir, angel, muse, god,
Wizard of Oz to be unmasked, father or mother to love and to kill, dragon, totem, future
and doom.
I’ll assign one; I’ll accept suggestions.

5.  Every writer is a reader moved to emulation.
I’d like to begin each class with a poem ancient or modern — as model, as target, as
scud, as assignment possibility.  I might ask students to teach a poem of their choosing.

6.  Every writer has a tune in the head.
During the course of the semester, I’ll ask you to memorize and recite (and write)
one poem.

7.  Text
READ EVERYTHING.  Recipes, the newspaper, visual novels, novels, criticism,
movie reviews, philosophy, art criticism. For each contemporary, promise yourself you’ll
read an older poet. Expand your temporal bandwidth.

8.  Final Manuscript
I’d like to consider the progress of the course to be toward a compilation of a
manuscript, a chapbook. Think of it as your best work. Not every poem needs be included.
It’s an edited collection of your best stuff, titled, revised and made perfect plus an optional
letter to me.

9.  Grades: Oh we’re in grad school, yet I assign a grade at the end of the term. Attendance
is 
essential.

10.  Readings and Conferences
              Attendance at readings at Syracuse of poetry and prose is highly encouraged.

               I want to confer with each of you early, compulsory, and later as needed.

11.  Coraggio! La lotta continua.


Hunger Mountain: This document was the inspiration for our Mentors and Tormentors issue, Bruce, so we are especially interested in number four on your list.

Bruce Smith: My thinking is this: to amplify and augment what writers are
already doing [someone like them] and to provide a resistance against what
they are doing [someone unlike them], I assign these poets other writers. If I find they are
too explicit I’ll assign them a more implicit or even bewildering writer. Too pop-culture,
trendy contemporary, I’ll look for a poet with historical heft. Too arbitrary, a formalist; too
formal, a more dislocated wild-ass poet. Too male… you get the idea.  But I look at poems
and look for their answers [especially for #1 of 22 Questions] for guides. It makes them
queasy and makes them want to dump Catullus for Dean Young. But no dumping I say.
Grow to love or hate [what flaw in your character makes you hate Dickinson?]. And yet
“Without contraries,” William Blake said “is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason
and energy, love and hate, are necessary to human existence.” And Who is William Blake and
why did 
you assign him to me?

Healthy Silence

Clint McCown, one of my graduate professors, once said, “The literary artist writes to tame an unquiet heart.” I was newly diagnosed with Celiac disease when I first heard those words. The decades leading up to my diagnosis were filled with chronic bone pain and insomnia, the latter of which I parlayed into writing. What else could I do at 1:00 AM, staring down the darkness with no hope of sleep?

I wrote like a maniac, penning four complete novels between 1992 and 2002. They were awful, but they taught me much about writing. When my fifth manuscript sold to a publisher, my editor was stunned that I hadn’t published any short stories in my literary career—that was the usual route, after all. I had to explain that by its general nature, insomnia is the architect of novels.

Insomnia was the easy part. If nothing else, it was time alone when my inner critic seldom bothered to show up. I wrote dangerous things in the glow of my desk lamp with the dog warming my toes, most of which have since been mercifully deleted. It was the chronic pain that disquieted my heart.

No one can experience another’s pain, no matter how graphically it is described. And when doctor after doctor reported that all tests were normal, the pain began to eat at my soul. At times my bones ached so deeply that I knew I was dying. But dying of what? At other times the pain simply retreated into some mysterious remission. Perhaps it was in my head? Maybe I’m not sick, I would think. Until the pain returned. It has something to do with the wind, I imagined one night on the Oregon coast, gales battering my shinbones like brittle saplings ready to snap.

My Celiac diagnosis was like being handed my life back brand new. It’s akin to gum disease in a way—floss your teeth and the problems go away. Omitting gluten from my diet was easy. To use an overtired cliché, sans gluten I felt like a million bucks! I immediately returned to activities like hiking. Then yoga. My skin took on a new glow. Pain was a distant memory, a ghost I recognized only by its absence. Insomnia? A thing of the past—an affliction I used to have.

My diagnosis came with just one problem. Writing—my insomnia’s dependable companion—also became an affliction I used to have.

Writing is an inspired act, and little had I understood the fountainhead of that inspiration. Pain is an ugly thing. It brings us in touch with dark ideas. What is fiction, but an elaborate staging of someone else’s pain? It’s downright cathartic when you have the power to release your characters from their pain (even when you choose not to). It stands to reason that when the pain is gone, so, too, is the muse.

During my new, physically robust years, I’ve written a string of short stories—a literary form I could hardly comprehend before. Each began as a grand notion with novelesque aspirations that impatiently sprinted to an early finish-line. The proverbial “novel in progress” I managed to knead into the familiar structure of plot and subplots wheezes in the corner, now, an anemic 120 pages.

There was a time when I looked at my future with vague apprehension, and that itself was a constant wellspring of stories. Of course even with my health intact, there are no guarantees. But neither is there a burning need to make my mark. Would I have dreamt of health had I known it would cost me my literary children? It’s hard to say, and it can’t be undone now. At the very least, my experience offers some feeble explanation for why so many literary artists find a self-inflicted source of pain at the bottom of a liquor bottle.

For me, the pain of being separated from my creative voice may be the very thing that revives my writing. Oddly, I hope it aches sufficient to the task.

Design: Collage & Mixed Media

Editor’s Note: Matt Monk’s design work is the featured art for the Prizewinner Issue–December 2014.

“In my collage and mixed-media work, I explore systems, typography, and narrative through experimental methods involving an expansive range of accretive and erosive processes including painting, gluing, scraping, sanding, tearing, erasing, patching, correcting. The images shown here in Hunger Mountain are details of several typographic collages made over the past decade.”–Matt Monk

Favorite First Lines

For the “Firsts” issue we reached out through social media and asked our Hunger Mountain friends to share their favorite first lines of literature. Here are a few of them:

“The muscular sky of Minnesota is more than I can fathom.” Autumn Song, Spencer Reece

Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having

done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” The Trial, Franz Kafka

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died-““591”, Emily Dickinson

“This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

“A screaming comes across the sky.” Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell.

“Robert Cohn was once middle-weight boxing champion of Princeton.” The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“All children, except one, grow up.” Peter Pan and Wendy, J.M. Barrie

“Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon with an 8-ball in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.” Until Gwen, Dennis Lehane

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.” Little Women, Louisa May Alcott

 “It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

 “He — for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it — was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.” Orlando, Virginia Woolf

“All around us everything was changing in the order of things we had fashioned for ourselves.” The Promise, Chaim Potok

“It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.” The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson

“To be born again,” sang GibreelFarishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.” The Satanic Verses: A Novel, Salman Rushdie

“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye form doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.” How Late It Was, How Late, James Keller

“I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists.” The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño

“Time is a blind guide. Fugitive Pieces, Anne Michaels

“What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.” A Supermarket in California, Allen Ginsberg

“I am an invisible man.” Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

“You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new.” All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” The Color Purple, Alice Walker

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Dark Places, Gillian Flynn

“I left Claude, the French rat.” After Claude, Iris Owens

“Ooow-ow-ooow-owow! Oh, look at me, I’m dying.” The Heart of a Dog, Mikhail Bulgakov

Snapshot: Siam Commercial Bank in Bangkok is Celebrating Life’s Firsts

Hunger Mountain Roving Editor, Donald Quist, snapped these photos of Siam Commercial Bank’s ad campaign celebrating life’s firsts.

By the Light of the April Full Moon: an Abandoned Beginning

A.S. King

Sometimes a great opening never becomes a novel–even for an award-winning author. A.S. King was kind enough to share one beautiful beginning that never bloomed into a book.

firstkissdetail6

By the Light of the April Full Moon

Lillian Hinnershitz sauntered down the blacktop wearing nothing but a cotton nightshirt and a pair of dull-green foamy slippers that were four sizes too big. If you listened closely enough, you could hear her humming softly to herself.

At Spring Street, she ran into Gerald Moore. He lived at the same nursing home as Lillian, but she wouldn’t know that because Lily lived in her own world now, since 2005 when she had her second stroke. Gerald was in a striped flannel Sears pajama set, complete with a green button-down cardigan sweater and tartan slippers.

When they collided, time stopped.

He said, “Here. You must be cold. Take my sweater.”

“Thank you,” she said, stopping to fit the cardigan over her shoulders.

“Was a nice night for a walk, wasn’t it?”

“I miss the birds, though.”

“I think I’m in love with you,” Gerald said, not looking up from the pavement.

“I think I’m in love with you, too.”

“Let’s get married.”

Lily squeezed his hand. “And have a baby.”

And so began Lily and Gerald’s journey backward through time.

?

It was a small and simple ceremony. Gerald wore his tartan slippers and Lily went barefoot.

Fred Heller, in room 114, was still a pastor, so Gerald dragged him from his room at six in the morning and sent him to the activity room with a cup of decaffeinated tea. Lily found Erma Gilbert, who played piano during chapel services when she wasn’t scratching her severe eczema, and got her to come along to witness. Before the seven o’clock breakfast round up, they were married. Nurse Dora was so touched she picked a handful of daffodils from the over-mulched flowerbed at the home’s entranceway for a bouquet. She turned to the aide and said, “How cute is that? They get old and do like kids do at recess.”

At breakfast, Lily looked around and noticed how many people she didn’t know. She felt as if she had just pulled herself out of a gray fog and onto a movie set she’d never seen before. She took off her glasses and nothing appeared blurry. Also, her knees did not ache for the first time in twenty years.

They skipped afternoon activity time in order to consummate their marriage. Neither of them had made love since the first Bush presidency and when they finished, they collapsed into the adjustable bed, curled in each others’ arms, and fell into a sweaty, love-induced sleep.

It was when they awoke, the trouble began.

loveatfirstsight

Beginning Horton Halfpott

Tom Angleberger

Here we have the story of two ways to open a book.

One, is in media res, or “in the middle of things.” Which, is often considered to be an exciting way to start a book.

And that is how I chose to start my first book, Horton Halfpott. (The first book I ever finished, that is.)

I wrote this opening, considered it to perfect and then wrote the rest of the book to go with it. Here it is…

Old Crotty gasped.

Crotty, the Luggertuck’s ancient maid, had not expressed surprise for seventeen years.

And even that occurred in the privacy of her own room, certainly never in the presence of M’Lady Luggertuck.

This gasp from Crotty would be the second of many unprecedented marvels that day and that summer, including, but not limited to, a Stolen Diamond, snooping stableboys, love, the appearance of a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig and, yes, even the black deeds of The Shipless Pirates.

Surprisingly, the first unprecedented marvel, the one to which all these others would owe their existence, came from the thickly painted lips of M’Lady Luggertuck herself.

“Not quite so tight today, Crotty,” said M’Lady Luggertuck as the old servant pulled at her corset strings.

The aforementioned, audible gasp of Crotty issued forth directly following M’Lady’s request.

In Old Crotty’s long memory there had never been a day when M’Lady Luggertuck’s corset had not been tightened to a breathless level of constriction.

What did you think? Did you even make it through?

As the manuscript racked up rejections, I started to suspect that the opening was to blame. Were people even reading the whole book? Or were the dropping it in exhaustion after one page?

And so… I killed it. I murdered my darling. After five years or so of hanging out at the top of this oft-rejected manuscript, “Old Crotty” got buried under a new opening!

The new opening wasn’t in media res, it was pure sales pitch, trying—rather desperately—to hook the reader:

          There are so many exciting things in this book—a Stolen Diamond, snooping stable boys, a famous detective, the disappearance of a Valuable Wig, love, pickle éclairs, unbridled Evil, and the Black Deeds of the Shipless Pirates—that it really does seem a shame to begin with ladies’ underwear.

          But the underwear, you see, is the reason that all those Unprecedented Marvels happened—with the possible exception of the pickle éclairs. The underwear in question was a painful item called a corset. A corset, you see, is a sort of undershirt made of straps and sticks and strings and whalebones. In the days of horse-drawn carriages and powdered wigs, some women—and some men—would strap themselves into a corset and it would squeeze them and pinch them so much that they would look skinny.

          Imagine being pinched like that day after day, year after year. It could make a nice lady into a mean one. So imagine what it would do to a lady like M’Lady Luggertuck, who was a nasty beast to start.

          Our story begins one morning, long after the corset has turned M’Lady Luggertuck into one of the worst people in the world. For some reason, which no one knows, M’Lady Luggertuck decided not to be pinched and squeezed that morning.

          “Not quite so tight today, Crotty,” said M’Lady Luggertuck as Old Crotty, her lady’s maid pulled at her corset strings.

          Old Crotty gasped.

Armed with this new beginning, the manuscript sallied forth once more… and was sold immediately! It got published with a glow-in-the-dark cover, was nominated for an Edgar award and got some almost respectable sales numbers!

Was the new opening the reason for all this? Who knows… But I’m glad the first opening was gone because it would have stopped a kid cold.

The original was written with cleverness in mind. The new one was written with readers in mind.


Excerpt from HORTON HALFPOTT: OR, THE FIENDISH MYSTERY OF SMUGWICK MANOR; OR, THE LOOSENING M’LADY LUGGERTUCK’S CORSET © 2011 Tom Angleberger. Published by Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS. Used by permission.


 

Memories of Mr. Myers

 Walter Dean Myers

(1937-2014)

We asked writers, editors, and educators to remember Walter Dean Myers, the author of more than 100 books, whose profound contributions to children’s literature go well beyond the printed word. In his New York Times essay  “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”, Mr. Myers argued that “books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color? Where are black children going to get a sense of who they are and what they can be?”

The following memories only scratch the surface of the mountainous legacy Walter Dean Myers has left behind. –The Editors


My lightning bolt Walter Dean Myers moment came when I first read his article in the New York Times Book Review, published in 1986: “I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry.” I was a young person aspiring to shape my own editorial list, and Walter’s article about the lack of diversity in children’s books affected me deeply and was instrumental in the identity I took on as an editor. (Sadly, Walter felt compelled to publish an article about the same theme in the New York Times almost thirty years later.) I used Walter’s article as a bible of sorts and would read it every so often. About twenty years after it was published, I gave the article, now yellow and crinkled from many reads, to his longtime editor, the brilliant and caring Phoebe Yeh, with the following inscription: “Walter has always been my hero.”

I first got to know Walter not as his editor, but as Ross Workman’s mom. Walter has long been my son Ross’s favorite author. When Ross was thirteen, he wrote Walter a fan letter, and, astoundingly, Walter wrote back to Ross and asked him to write a novel with him.  Who else would do such a thing but generous, kind Walter Dean Myers, who mentored so many children and teens, and was always willing to take a young person under his wing? Walter and Ross worked on the book together for several years, with Phoebe’s guidance. Kick was published by HarperCollins when Ross was seventeen, in 2011, and he and Walter made various appearances to talk about it.  I tagged along, as mom. I remember sitting in a restaurant in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, with Walter, Ross, and Phoebe after a school appearance, and listening to Walter talk about a wide range of subjects with dazzling knowledge and intellect. When Walter spoke, his listeners would want him to go on and on. He knew about history and literature and music and theatre and sports. He knew about how children and teens should be treated by society. He knew about life.

When Phoebe left HarperCollins for Random House last year, I had the great honor of being asked to be Walter’s editor. We met for lunch with his longtime agent, Miriam Altshuler, and HarperCollins Children’s Editor-in-Chief Kate Jackson, and again, I just wanted to listen to him talk. He was so charismatic and brilliant that he defined the phrase “lights up the room.” We worked on several wonderful books over the past year, which will be published in 2015 and 2016. As an author, Walter was the consummate professional—a gentleman and a scholar. There were days when I still couldn’t believe that I was working with the Walter Dean Myers. Never mind actors and sports stars: modest, ever-humble, kind Walter was my idea of a celebrity. He was a great man who revolutionized the world in his own way. I miss him, and I’m staggered by this loss.

-Rosemary Brosnan, editor


The first time I met Walter Dean Myers, I was fourteen years old, and we had already written a rough draft of a book together. His books had such an impact on me that when I was thirteen, I felt compelled to e-mail him to let him know how I felt. His writing spoke directly to my fears, hopes, and emotions. Even though I hadn’t necessarily experienced the same situations that were in his books, the thinking processes of his characters were similar to my own. When Walter emailed me back (within minutes), he suggested we write a book together. Such was Walter’s incredible generosity.

When I walked in to meet Walter in the HarperCollins offices with our editor Phoebe Yeh, I was nervous and self-conscious. What would he think of me? When I first walked into Phoebe’s office, he shook my hand, smiled, and said, “’Sup, man.” I immediately felt at ease. It shocked me how such a brilliant and intelligent man could be so down to earth. Walter never put on “airs” and always had the time and patience for me. His intellectual but down-to-earth demeanor was part of what attracted so many readers to his books. He connected with them on a level few other authors could.

While we worked on our book, Walter was not one to give too much praise, so when he did offer praise, it was meaningful. When my writing was not up to my ability, Walter let me know this and was always there to offer advice and mentorship.

Whenever we met, Walter would talk eagerly about the latest books he was writing. And when he talked, everyone around him listened. He knew something about everything.

Even now it is ironic that I can’t find the right words to do justice about the man who taught me so much about finding and using words. I will always miss Walter as a writer, but I will miss even more the Walter I knew as a person.

-Ross Workman is the coauthor of the novel Kick, written with Walter Dean Myers. He is currently a student at Cornell University.


I first discovered Walter Dean Myers when I was looking for books about my students’ lives. They weren’t connecting with the books I knew. How could they?  Their lives had much more serious things to worry about than dances, boys, and summer camp woes.  They lived in homeless shelters.  Their parents were in jail and witnessed shootings of family members. And they were only six!

But, Walter knew my children. He helped me know my children. I couldn’t believe that in all my English classes and even African American Studies courses that Walter Dean Myers was never mentioned. But Walter knew why…and said it best in the New York Times piece this past year.

One year, when I attended the SCBWI-LA conference, Walter was a keynote speaker.

And while I was walking down the street on the way to lunch and gushing about his speech, I hadn’t realized he was right behind me! Slightly embarrassed, we all walked to lunch together.

This was when I dared to ask my haunting question: “Do you think someone like me (Jewish) could write African American books?” I was afraid of the answer, but I had to know. Or maybe I just craved The King’s blessing.

Walter asked why I wanted to. I told him. He responded, “Writing from the inside is never wrong.” At the time, I wasn’t sure what he meant, I thought it meant like “write what ya know.” Really? This was all you got? After much thought, I understood. Don’t write outside of your culture because you think it would be “cool.” Write because you believe a voice needs to be heard. Write because it scrapes your soul and you will not rest until the story is told.

Walter taught me to write from the inside out.

-Lisa Rose, writer


A few years back, shortly after I signed my first deal with Simon & Schuster, and had written When I Was the Greatest, Walter Dean Myers came into the store I was managing at the time. I think I was helping a woman with a pair of shoes when he stepped in with his son, my brother, Chris.

“Pops said he wanted to meet you,” Chris said.

I stood straight, and looked Walter in the eye, his presence filling every corner of the room. I reached for his hand and he gave me a very “informal” handshake, Harlem all over his fingers.

“I’ve read your work,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Do you write every day?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s your schedule?”

“Some in the morning, some at night.”

He went on with a few more questions, prodding at my work ethic, my discipline, my passion. And once he was done with the questions, he said, compassionately but firmly, “Son, you will not fail.”

Those words will ring in me for the rest of my life. The way that Baldwin made it okay for Walter to write our lives, Walter gave me the confidence to do the same. He made me feel like my voice was necessary, and that there was a place for me in this legacy.

Walter Dean Myers, thank you so much and I promise to do my very, very best.

Jason Reynolds, author, When I was the Greatest


Walter Dean Myers was the man who ushered me into the role of Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. I said to him, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And he said, “Of course you can.”

He sat next to me at the induction ceremony, and sitting beside him made me feel brave.

Today, the day after his death, I am thinking about his words, his stories. I am thinking about the gentle man he was. I am thinking that no one can ever discount the power of words, because the life of Walter Dean Myers embodied the power of words.

I am also thinking that I would give anything to sit next to him one more time.

Kate DiCamillo, Newbery medal author, 2014 Ambassador for Young People’s Literature


When I first read The Blues of Flats Brown by Walter Dean Myers (Holiday House, 2000) I wasn’t sure what to make of it because it defied my expectations for what a contained and focused picture book should be. Since that time, it’s become one of my favorite books to read, teach, read to my daughter, and use as an inspirational challenge when I write.

I first came across it when doing some research for a class unit I was teaching on animal stories and fables. Yes, the main character of the book, Flats, is a dog, and yes, there might be a moral or even two, but there is a lot more going on in this book. A lot more… If one were to read the basic summary on the jacket: “To escape an abusive master, a junkyard dog named Flats runs away to make a name for himself from Mississippi to New York City playing blues on this guitar,” they might think how the hell could Myers build a story around this premise in a thirty-two page illustrated picture book? But it works without being confusing, contrived, or silly. It just does.

It could be argued the ambitious book exposes oppression, animal rights, and class issues, while teaching about music, jazz in particular, regional dialect and geography, culture, and friendship. I would agree. Yet it could also be argued that it’s just a really good and entertaining story that sucks the reader in without getting too caught up in any of its own eccentricities.

The Blues of Flats Brown, along with some of Myers’ other work, has strengthened my understanding that intriguing children’s fiction doesn’t need to be just about one thing or follow one theme, but instead can open up an entire quirky world for a reader to explore and leave with their own conclusions. It can be relatable, but it doesn’t need to be the exact world we live in. Just like with work for adults, it can and should defy expectations. Similar to the rumor referenced on the last page of the book about Flats and his aging best friend, Caleb, playing their favorite tune, “The Freaky Flea Blues” on the waterfront in Savannah: “Some people don’t believe that. I do”.

Katy E. Whittingham, writer 


I was first introduced to Mr. Walter Dean Myers by way of reading Monster for an African American Literature course in undergrad. He returned to me when I took up a master’s degree in school library media and signed up for the requisite young adult literature course. But I can still recall the moment we become best acquainted.

My 4th grade students and I kicked off National Poetry Month by reading Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog, a middle grade novel written in verse from the perspective of a boy who is required to keep a poetry journal for school. Without sharing too much of this moving plot, Creech weaves a tale through free verse of a boy whose beloved dog has passed. The boy discovers a platform to explore and share his feelings through poetry, and one poem, Walter Dean Myers’ “Love That Boy”, reaches the boy in that special way that perhaps you yourself have experienced. For the boy in Love That Dog, he feels almost as if Myers has written the poem precisely for him at this exact time.

Poetry is magic like that.

Poetry has the power to transcend time and space and to connect with us no matter what the circumstance or brevity through which the poet communicates.

“Love That Boy” reached me. It spoke to the boys in my class who were hard to love. Those who demanded my unwavering attention and who challenged my ability to manage behaviors. The poem’s title became a mantra that I repeated to myself then and continue to speak today. And it’s not just for my boys. It’s for every kid that walks into my library.

I love those kids.

No matter what baggage they bring into school with them, I love those kids.

How they struggle or why they act out, I love those kids.

If they’ve grown too cool for me or if they roll their eyes at me, I love those kids.

When they lose a book or two or three and I know and they know there’s no way their parent is going to pay to replace it, I love those kids.

When they seem like life just keeps throwing them curveballs and they just can’t seem to get a break, I love those kids.

And every time I love those kids, I think of Mr. Walter Dean Myers and the way he taught us that we’re different, each of us, and that’s something to celebrate. No matter how hard it gets or how few people understand, each and all of us are loved. You don’t need to know by whom. You just have to know it.

Matthew Winner is an elementary school teacher librarian in Elkridge, Md. He is a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and was named a White House Champion of Change. Matthew is the host of the popular children’s literature podcast Let’s Get Busy and the author of the Busy Librarian blog. Find Matthew online at @MatthewWinner or by visiting BusyLibrarian.com.


Myers’ Monster

“Mr. Mena, stop giving us this boring crap to read,” she said as she hurled The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde across the room. “Don’t worry, I’ll send myself to the ISS [In School Suspension] room.”

And this was how a good portion of that first semester of teaching the high school reading program went. I would choose a book on the shelves left from my predecessor and we would read a page or two into it before the students would lose interest and act out in order to get sent out of the room. Jekyll and Hyde, The Gift of the Magi, A Midsummer Nights Dream, and Flowers for Algernon (which, due to poor inter-school communication, they had all previously read in middle school). All with zero luck in attracting student interest.

Now, I feel I should explain that these weren’t the typical high-achieving, need-to-please students of my blue-collar town’s high school. No, this reading program was designed to teach them how to actually read, because at 15 and 16 years old, it was a skill they were still lacking. And while only in high school, these students were already in and out of rehab and juvenile detention centers, consistently absent from school—often for the mandatory court appearances of their parents, or their own—and were already on a first-name basis with their parole officers. Needless to say, my first year of teaching high school was a challenge.

And then Walter Dean Myer’s Monster found its way into my life. And for the first time in my incredibly short high school teaching career, I actually had students volunteering to read out loud. I, surprisingly, even had to develop a “first come, first served” system for calling dibs on the parts. “Well, Nick, if you want to read Steve’s part again, you better get here before Jayden tomorrow and call dibs.”

Now, I don’t want to sugarcoat and say everything that transpired over the next month while we read Monster was magical. Life rarely works that way. Still, because Myers’s novel had people of different ethnicities, different social classes, and different prejudices, I had 90% of my class thoroughly engaged. I had kids actually reacting to the text and telling me, yeah, my dad was in prison and this seems pretty accurate. Or, my favorite: “I hate that Pitro—Pechel—Petrocelli girl. Why is she so mean and dumb? Can’t she see Steve didn’t do it?”

Which, of course, then warranted my favorite response, “Why do you think she’s trying so hard to convict him? What does she have to gain from it? Would you do the same thing in her shoes?”

This then led to our first class discussion that was not completely one-sided. One that took us out of the text and into the students’ own lives and hypothetical choices. And for that, I owe everything to Walter Dean Myers.

Gerardo Menais an ex-Spec Ops decorated Iraqi Freedom veteran turned high school English teacher with pieces published and forthcoming in The New York Times, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, and Ninth Letter, among others.


My Fabulous Life with Walter Dean Myers

I like to pretend Walter Dean Myers and I are BFF.  In fact, I refer to him as WDM.  In the summer of 2011, Catherine (one of my co-graduate assistants) and I were insanely excited to be WDM’s “keepers,” as he called us, when he was a visiting writer at VCFA. I didn’t know much about WDM’s life, but I do know and love his work, and so do my students. Of all the moments we had, from leaving a maple bunny on his pillow before he arrived, to the drive back to the airport with Diane Stanley, the moment I will forever remember was during his Saturday morning talk. It’s not because his talk was insightful, which it was, or inspiring, which it also was, but because it was a much delayed foot-in-mouth moment that began on the way back from the airport the day before.

In the car that day, WDM, Catherine, and I had some meaningful conversation.  Oh, it was the usual run-of-the-mill, getting-to-know-you type of conversation about politics, the state of education in the country, juvenile criminal justice, and the foster care system. Thinking I had some insightful info, I launched into a rambling about a documentary I had seen about adopting older children who are in foster care. “And you know,” I had said knowingly, “many foster kids who age out of the system wind up joining the Armed Forces.” As I continued, WDM nodded and smiled, a truly attentive listener.

So you can imagine my horror during WDM’s talk when he told us all about 1) being a foster child and 2) his time in the Armed Forces. His story wasn’t exactly like those of the children about which I had spoken earlier, but it became clear to me that anything I had told him was not news. It also became clear to me that not only is WDM an amazing writer and speaker, but he’s also a truly amazing, gracious person. What could have been an awkward moment in the confined space of the car wasn’t. He didn’t even mention it, and I sure wasn’t going to.

-Danielle Pignataro


A Letter to Mr. Myers

Dear Mr. Myers,

Excuse me if I cry during this letter, because we never got to meet. I always thought we would one day, with little brown faces listening intently at our feet. We’d both read from our best-selling works and you’d say, “Well done.” And I’d try to hide my fangirl smile.

You’re gone now, Mr. Myers, and I’ll never get to hear you say those things.

As a Black writer, Mr. Myers, I thank you for all the work you’ve done. You’ve made it possible for someone like me to be accepted and seen. The Legacy, in your hands, has manifested into many books instead of just one dream.

Always,

-Necole Ryse, YA author


Walter Dean Myers will forever be an influential author in my life. As a reader, I first discovered Walter Dean Myers through his books: Scorpions and Monster. He had a way with language, and he had a way to make you feel as though you had become a part of the story. He was a pioneer in young adult literature, both in fiction and nonfiction. He made reading young adult stories feel authentic. In my English class, we watch a video every year on how to write a short story. My students watch Walter Dean Myers explain how he puts pictures up in his writing room and creates characters from those pictures. He explains in the video how he was born in a small town, and if he continued to live in that small town, his stories would have been much different. Instead, he grew up in Harlem, wrote about Harlem, told the stories of Harlem. Influenced by James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Myers’ stories have that same feeling of jazz and growing up during such uncertain and oppressive times as the Civil Rights Movement.

As a writer, Walter Dean Myers influenced me in this way: He said that when he sits down to write, he writes for the reluctant reader. He wanted to reach kids that weren’t the typical reader. He wanted to reach out and turn non-readers into readers. He wanted his passion to become their passion. It is clear that, in so many ways, Walter Dean Myers achieved the goal that he set out to accomplish. In bookstores, libraries, and classrooms all over the United States and the world, the books and the influence of Walter Dean Myers are read and enjoyed by both young and old. His stories are powerful, influential, and didactic without being preachy. He had a way with words that pulled you into the story, allowing you to spend some time with his characters and see their world. After reading a story by Walter Dean Myers, you would come away a better person.

When I was growing up, I didn’t like to read. It wasn’t until I came across young adult authors like Walter Dean Myers that all that began to change. So now, when I sit down to write, I don’t think about best sellers, or fame and fortune; my purpose for writing is to write the story for that reluctant reader. In writing my novel, The Final Play, I wanted to write a story that young adults could relate to and engage with. I wanted to show that literature is about more than just words on a page. It is an experience in which readers can submerge themselves and truly become a part of in so many ways. Walter Dean Myers accomplished his goal of getting reluctant readers to read. Even though we say goodbye to a legend, Walter Dean Myers will live on in our hearts, our minds, and his stories.

Leonard Spacek, YA author


The first time I ever met Walter Dean Myers was at the SCBWI-LA conference in 2007. It was my first time going as an actual author–well, almost. My book Chess Rumble was coming out in a few months. I didn’t even have an ARC, just the proofs, which I had in an over-sized envelope in my bag. Walter was the first author I ever really wanted to meet, so I eagerly waited in the autograph line to see him. I had all kinds of things to say to him, important things, as if I was the first to ever tell him how his books changed  my life, how they inspired me to write, etc. etc. When I got closer, I had second doubts. Was I any good, really? Did I dare call myself writer? Compared to Walter?

When I found myself in front of him, I was dumbstruck. I handed him a copy of his book Monster to sign. Feeling the pressure to say something, I blurted out the first thing to come to mind –”uh, I have a book coming out too.” Brilliant.

I handed him a postcard with the cover of my book on it. He thoughtfully took it, looked it over. “You don’t have a copy yet?” I shook my head. “I have a proof,” I said, clutching my bag. He looked at me with his Yoda eyes, waiting. I didn’t know if he wanted me to leave but somehow I gathered that he wanted to see it. Now. I looked behind me at the line of people eyeing me, like why is this doofus hogging the line? I fumbled for my bag and pulled out the envelope and handed it to him. He slid out the  glossy proof and immediately stopped when he saw the opening page of a boy with his fist held straight out at us. He looked up at me and smiled, nodding and flipped through the other pages, pausing now and then to read a line or look at one of Jesse Watson’s amazing paintings.

I didn’t say a thing, didn’t dare explain what it was or what I was trying to say with the story. I may have asked him something like “Do you play chess?” He didn’t answer. I kept looking behind me and shrugging at the impatient line, but Walter seemed determined to flip through all the pages of my slim novella. When he was done, he put the pile down on the table, put his hands on top of them and nodded. “Yes,” was all he said, quietly, then nodded again, one more time. “Good.”

He finished signing my book. I didn’t know what he meant. Was that it? When he was done, I awkwardly shook his hand, scooped up my pile and my autographed book and got out while the getting was good. I’m pretty sure I thanked him. I ran to a quiet corner, dumped my stuff on the ground and cracked open the copy of Monster. In it, he wrote: To Greg–A writer.

The Master had spoken.

G. Neri, YA author

 

Visual Art: “Firsts” Video Project

This gallery is in answer to Hunger Mountain‘s open call for one-minute videos addressing the notion of First Experiences. We asked artists to interpret this notion in the broadest possible terms. Here is an assorted and provocative sampling of what we received:

 

 




Design: Editorial Illustrations

Editor’s Note: These illustrations were commissioned for Hunger Mountain‘s first online issue published on the new website in 2013.

“Working on the illustrations for Hunger Mountain was a great opportunity for me in many ways. It pulled me out of my conceptual sandbox for the figure studies, challenging the inspiration-source to come—not only from one idea, “firsts”—but also to be replicated in as many distinct and varied themes that I could come up with. (Of course I’m in debt to many friends who helped me come up with the ideas.) It was also interesting to work in a landscape orientation as before this project the figures were only positioned in portrait. All in all, what a great opportunity to sit in the same space as all of the amazing authors occupying all of the brilliant content of Hunger Mountain.” —Kerri Augenstein

 

 

 

 

First Fish

1967. A Connecticut prep school boy with a new driver’s license and an Ozzie & Harriet haircut. Never been to a rock concert. My cousin, an undergraduate at Yale, had started out organizing and producing folk concerts there, had since branched into rock. Very good bands were available then for not a lot of money. Tom had already pulled in Jefferson Airplane and Cream.

Tom needed ushers for Country Joe and the Fish, who would play at a crumbling music hall in a neighborhood seedy even for New Haven. I recruited some buddies—same prep school, same haircuts, and we decided to wear blazers and ties, fercrhissake—and we drove from Hartford packed into Mom’s Chevy Corvair. My girlfriend, my first true love, came too.

It was wicked cool to be part of the production team at this event. In every other respect we could not have been less cool, more geometrically square, more antithetical in appearance to all this concert represented. The first patron I assisted looked like Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century man of letters, complete with wig, except it wasn’t a wig. The next looked like Jigger Johnson, lumberjack. Then came Jeremiah Johnson, mountain man.

The air was already sweet with pot. Jeremiah took back his ticket stub, eased his buck-skinned bulk into a fifth-row seat, looked at his usher the way the Wampanoags must have looked at the Pilgrims. “You’re not from around here, are you, man?”

I couldn’t have ached more to be where he was from. The Fish came on. If you listen close enough to “Section 43,” you can hear the beating heart of God. The first time is still the best.

My girlfriend came from up the coast, from East Lyme, and Lynn’s mother wanted her home by ten. She and I left in the middle of “Bass Strings”—I believe I’ll go out to the seashore, let the waves wash my mind/ Open up my head now just to see what I can find—it felt like coitus interruptus (as if I knew what that felt like then).

By the time I got back to pick up the other ushers, the concert was over. They were scuffling around in front of a dark building, glad not to have gotten mugged yet. It was all just beginning.

firstlinedetail

First Bram

When I brought the book home from the library, I didn’t know I was coming down with simultaneous measles and mumps–or that there was no better way to read Dracula for the first time. Hallucinatory fever dreams, the taste of blood in my mouth, the smell of mildew from the old volume’s pages….I was nine years old, too weak to resist as Bram Stoker’s Undead hovered over my sickbed, very much alive.

I did identify with him. For a period of time after reading the book, I began to sign my name Diane Draculefer. Fourth-grade teacher was not amused.

firstkissdetail2

First Flannery

The first time I read Flannery O’Connor’s story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” I was in college and it scared the shit out of me. I was taking a class called “Short Stories” and we were assigned the collection A Good Man Is Hard to Find. I trudged up to my attic bedroom to read the title story for class the next morning and was surprised by how funny the story was—the grandmother is ironic, unreliable, and sociopathic–and even more surprised by the lightning-quick change in tone, that a short story (a homework assignment!) could feature the systematic execution of an innocent family, little baby included. My plan had been to read this story then fall asleep, but I paced around my house for several hours, too afraid of the Misfit to turn out the lights, too excited about what writing could be to not read the story again.

First Elk Bugle

I was five or six the first time I had the living daylights scared out of me by the bugling of elk. We were high up in the Rocky Mountains, lost in the deep-sea darkness of the wilderness at night, and I was perched on the roof of my parents’ car. My mom had wrapped me in a flannel blanket and set me there to see what I could see—and what I could sort of maybe see through the blackness, and what I could most definitely hear, had me equal parts terrified and rapt.

We lived in Boulder, 2,000 feet of elevation away from Rocky Mountain National Park. As a kid, trips to the mountains seemed long to the point of being inhumane. I measured the drive in the number of episodes of Full House I could’ve instead been watching. Despite my protestations, we made the trek to the park almost every weekend. I hiked, looked for bighorn, and collected creek water samples in empty Tic Tac containers. The lake I’d declared my own, with my beach, was just around the bend from where we waited that night for elk.

But that place, the moraine of our vigil, felt weird and unfamiliar at night. We were lined up with a number of others across from a stand of aspen, a known hotspot for elk dating. Family friends were a car away, but there was enough darkness between us and the others for me to feel completely at sea. Adding to my anxiety were the highlights I’d latched onto from a horror novel my Dad had kindly synopsized for me on a previous nature expedition—he took a particular Dad kind of pleasure in telling me about a breed of demon that disguised itself as bits of shredded tire along highways. Even if my parents hadn’t propped me and my thermos of goulash up on the roof, I would never set foot on that meadow.

From where I sat, the elk looked like black afterimages, the not-quite-real signs of something moving. What was real and immediate were their calls—the distorted, netherworldly gargle of sound that passes, if you’re an elk, as a love song—and the smack of antlers. My mom waded into the grass just away from the car, and I held that thermos of goulash tighter. I was two Full Houses away from home, at night, without light, in a valley boxed in by mountains. There was enough scariness out there beyond the car for me to relish where I was, snuggled in the blanket that later saw my dad through a blizzard-bound night on the floor of an A&W. I sensed that I was right to be unnerved. There was the wild and there was I, a little precarious on the roof. But I had, too, a feeling of comfort and thrill at the dark, of being safe at the edge of the world.

First Time with Charlotte: New York City, circa 1996

This was not, strictly speaking, my first time. I had done it now and again with the famous one, Charles, and a posse of anonymous theatrical types. Every one of our hook-ups, if you want to call them that, as alien and lovely as Victorian horsehair upholstery against bare legs. There was always that papery feel of aged skin under my fingers and a lingering scent of the last century, which sometimes made me sneeze, even at the apex of my joy.

I gave myself to famous Charles and the nameless others, because I desired intimacy with them and their brief period in the long stretch of this world.

So this was not my first time, but it was my first time with her—with Charlotte. It was not her first time absorbing the impact of an untimely death—she had done that now and again, in those anguished moments when her family at Haworth grew smaller. This day, I held her yellowed letter in tentative hands and willed my nose not to bleed, as had happened once before in London during an encounter with some deceased playwright and his ragged scrawl.

“Emily is dead,” she told her friend Ellen Nussey, in tight, faded script on a sheet of paper that had not, by 1996, weathered the years very well. It was my first time with Charlotte, and my virgin pleasure was shattered by those three hard words at the mid-point of her letter. I was the luckiest woman in the world that day, a world of riches mine for the asking.  And also, like Charlotte on the day she wrote her tiny sentence about a sister gone like a dream, I was the most bereft.

It was the first time I wept soundlessly in an archive, wetting my cheeks and my hands but not the precious letter, which I pushed away in the nick of time.

firstkiss

 

Literary & Laundry To Do List #15 – Paul Lisicky

 

  • Finish storm cleanup. Wipe slop from porch, shovel up mush of leaves. Wash windows a third time. Sweep walk. Pick up torn shingles, torn papers, loose plastic. Hose off white table to make it white again.
  • Stop thinking about the fact that you now live in a part of the country where there can be a combination hurricane-Nor’easter one week and a freak snowstorm the next.
  • Patronize businesses in town. They need it now.
  • Finish rereading Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies for Book Fight podcast next Wednesday. Read Joy Williams’ intro of novel. Then read it once more. Joy Williams!
  • Talk to your landlord about what to do with recyclables you’ve been heaping in the basement since August.
  • One less glass of wine today.
  • Make playlist for Largehearted Boy.
  • Schedule that forearm tattoo you’ve been thinking about since July. An anchor is an anchor is an anchor.
  • See beach.
  • Write to editor and explain why you haven’t sent her the new manuscript, even though you finished the manuscript two months ago. Be clever and fun about it.
  • Send out more copies of Unbuilt Projects.
  • Read Diane Williams story for Monday three times. Read three student stories by tonight. Stop trying to write an epic about each one. Be concise. Duration is not depth! Multiple feedback pages do not translate to care and concern.
  • Reread Forrest Gander for Tuesday.
  • Decide what the hell you’re teaching in that potentially huge undergrad class this spring. Ask Famous Poet for his syllabus. Why haven’t you sent him that email yet? Examine.
  • Think about what you’d like to plant out front come spring.
  • Start the search for a new apartment come spring. Ocean Grove? Bradley Beach? Get in touch with (very hot) realtor you once had (very hot) sex with. Talk to others at the coffee place for apartment suggestions. Stop isolating yourself.
  • Put a limit on the time you spend on Twitter. Write blog entry. Find a way to reinvent your blog.
  • Start running again. What’s it been—two months?
  • Go through files and revise abandoned stories. All right, one story.
  • The boxes your ex dropped off in September—put them in storage unit. Why have you been avoiding your storage unit? Why should a storage unit make you tired? Is tired the same thing as sad? Oh, God.
  • Text buddy to let him know you’re still thinking of him.
  • Text ex about having dog (Ned) stay some days in December.
  • Go to police department and ask about getting fingerprinted for the new low-residency job. Try not to stutter and blush when you tell them it’s for a background check. Why do you feel like a criminal?
  • Course preference forms! Due last week.
  • Write course description for summer workshop you probably shouldn’t have said yes to. (Three summer residencies-workshops! What were you thinking?)
  • Reduce towers of folded clothes on closet shelf. Put summer clothes in boxes—summer ended. Leave two pairs of shorts out for trip to Miami Book Fair next week. Reserve rental car. See how you’re going to get to Newark Liberty with no train service on Thursday.
  • Try to write a to do list in a bright-enough voice when the very idea of a to do list swamps you with dread.

~

Gratitude from Country Mouse

Tamara Ellis Smith

When I sit at my desk on the second floor of my house, I look out over our town park with its playground and band shell, soccer and baseball fields, and, right about now, the remains of our skating rink made by the local tow guy. Beyond the park I see the line of trees at the Winooski River’s shore, and beyond the river I see five hill peaks. To the right of my house is Jericho Settler’s Farm, where we hear the baaingof sheep and the snorting of pigs. To the left of my house is On the Rise Bakery, where the smell of baking bread and brownies and pizza tumbles onto the street.

Kissing the Earth was born out of a series of conversations between Sharry Phelan Wright and me about creating a blog together, one about writing that would be different from the others out there in the vast blogosphere. Beyond our passion for children’s literature, we also share a deep reverence for nature and for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary—and thus we created our bi-monthly blog about the intersection between landscape and writing for children.

At Kissing the Earth, I am the country mouse. I live in Richmond, Vermont, a small northern rural town all the way on the other side of the country from Sharry. I run with my dog (and my running partner and her dog) on the trails by the river, cross-country ski behind the farm, and attend a yoga class in the loft of my neighbor’s garage. My kids walk to school, and my husband rides his bike to work. (Or he used to, before Tropical Storm Irene destroyed his office. To read a Hunger Mountain essay about how Irene influenced my writing, see here.)

I feel a sense of gratitude for where I live. I am well connected to this feeling; it is right on the surface where I can find it and touch it easily, but it is also deeply inside of me in a place where I can feel it in my bones. But if someone had asked me a year ago—before Sharry and I began writing our blog, Kissing the Earth—why I feel this gratitude, I would have been at a loss for words. Writing this blog has changed that. Now, when I hike through the woods and feel that rush of centered wonder and happiness, I take a moment to really explore what’s stimulating that good feeling. The way the trees covered in snow create a canopy over the path. The comfort that the flora-embrace brings. Now, when I walk the kids to school and I feel that same rush, I breathe slowly and deeply and take in the warm, thick smell of my neighbor’s wood-fired stove. I register the way it triggers a sense of safety inside me. Now, when I run along the trail by the river, I feel, once again, that same centeredness. I stop and listen to the ice cracking around the flowing water and bend down to see the tracks that a pair of foxes left while trekking the same trail, veering off now and then to drink from the icy water’s edge. And then I understand why I am feeling a sense of connectedness to this trail, this river, this place.

I am able to see—and feel—how the amazing individual pieces of my landscape make up its whole. I am able to name what brings me joy and sing its very specific praises. And because of these two things, I am able to find where I fit into my landscape and where it fits into me.

In a recent blog entry, I wrote:

Rituals are comforting. It feels good to do something familiar. My body can relax into it because it knows, instinctively what to do—downward dog or stretching pizza dough or whatever the movement may be—and so my mind can relax too. There is no thinking about the action, only doing it, and this frees me up to dream or imagine or simply let go.

But rituals also facilitate discovery. Because I run along the same river trail day in and day out, I notice when a tree has fallen or a fox has been by or the ice flow on the river has shifted. I can hone in on tiny new details because I am not taking in the entire landscape in that sweeping, wide-angle way I do when I am in it for the first or even second or third time. Rituals strengthen that observation muscle.

The dual-layered practice of paying close attention to my landscape and writing about it bi-monthly at Kissing The Earth, has, of course, informed my writing. It has opened me up to the rich details that are all around me waiting to be internalized and then recalled when the just-right moment arises in my works-in-progress. On a hike up Mount Mansfield, for example, I noticed for the first time that the rock at the very top of the mountain is striated with white, grey and silver. Just like a marble. And—lo and behold!—my novel that centers around a marble includes a hike up Mansfield. You can bet I wove that perfect, metaphoric detail into the manuscript. I write with more specificity as a result of my flaneur practice. When my main character is wrestling with a particular feeling, such as grief or joy, bits and pieces of my landscape (and my correlating feelings) rise to the surface of my consciousness. I can use these details to express my character’s feelings.

For me, landscape is often a metaphor. It can be used to enhance a pivotal plot point, or describe a character’s state of mind, or mirror her strong emotion. And making a daily practice of observing the landscape that surrounds me has transformed what used to be a haphazard method of writing into a solid, well-crafted tool. One that is readily available to me. The study of landscape allows for much more than that, though. Yes, I have found a tool—or a language—with which I can view, talk about, and write about the world. Studying my landscape has given smell and shape and sound to the musings and wonderings and ideas in my head—the ones that make their way into my work. But I also have come to truly view the elements of landscape as characters unto themselves. The foxes on the trail are a metaphor for resilience and cunning, and they are also real foxes! With hearts and bones and fur; with struggles and instincts and journeys. The trees bending over the path are a metaphor for home and safety, and they are also real trees!  With roots digging deep into the earth and branches reaching high into the sky and so old they have bore witness to multiple human lifetimes of events. When the metaphor and the real are woven together in a story—this is when alchemy happens. This is magic.

Kissing the Earth has also opened me up to landscapes other than my own.  I eagerly await Sharry’s posts every other week, excited to learn about yet another wondrous corner of San Francisco. I talk about landscape much more than I used to, so I am constantly gaining new bits of information about all sorts of places, from the road between my sister’s hotel and her yoga studio in India, to my friend’s son’s preschool in the middle of the woods in Germany, to my mother’s walk up the road on my childhood farm’s property.

I am also more acutely aware of the role landscape plays in other authors’ stories. Just as Sharry tries to weave the craft of writing into her blog posts, I try to weave a book I have recently read into mine. Often it is a book that has reminded me of an intimate landscape, such as Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, which prompted me to write about my sister’s cancer recovery on the North Shore of Boston, or Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green, which evoked my own landscape-of-origin (the family farm). Sometimes it works in reverse, and my own observations remind me of books I have read, such as Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, which was conjured deeply by the snake-like vines that entwine with the trees along my river trail.

That blog entry is one of the ways I have woven together landscape and books, but there are more. An exciting new development at Kissing the Earth is our author interviews. We, of course, focus on what role landscape plays in the author’s novel, as well as the details of that landscape and where the landscape is personal and intimate to the author.  The process of discussing books with their authors has been a joyful and enlightening endeavor, and we believe the interviews that come from these conversations are a unique entrée into a book, a different way to get to know an author. We plan to add more of these this year and make it a regular feature of Kissing the Earth.

But for now—in this very minute—I am going to press the command and S keys on my computer, get up from my desk, go downstairs, and head out. Out onto my street, across the park, down to the river, and I’ll see what happens from there….

Out the door for a run. Kara and I weren’t going to be deterred by the weather. We donned our yak-traks and headed out onto the trail. Sheer and total ice. Kara and I had to run along the side of the trail. Any step on it would have resulted in both of us on our tails. I know this because the dogs did slip and really fell on theirs. And even the sides of the trail were icy. I had to keep my eyes on my feet the entire time I was running.

I initially felt that fear that I always feel when I’m worrying about falling; when I am sure, at any moment, I am going to lose control. But as I ran—as I continued to focus on my feet, and as the unusual silence between Kara and me opened itself up to the sound of ice cracking on the river, the clicking of the dogs’ toes on the frozen ground and the rush of the wind—I began to get into a rhythm. My feet, my breathing, and my head all came together in a sort of running meditation. I was fully in the moment, fully in my body, and not afraid at all.

The first thing Kara said to me when we finished the run was, “That was hard but it was kind of like a meditation and I began to love it…” How amazing that we had shared the same experience without ever communicating during it. Did one of us inspire it in the other? Did the landscape inspire it in both of us?

Whoever it was that helped me transform my fear into joy, I thank you…

DIY—Are You a Real Writer?

~Inspired by a conversation with Michael Martone

Of all my internal struggles, one I really hate has to do with self-publishing. The true me, the one hiding deep down, has never understood why publishing your own work is seen as controversial, vain, worthy of mockery. The socialized me, the one I fight with regularly, buys into the idea that it’s not a legitimate option for “real” writers.

I discovered this watercolor comic by Aidan Koch at my local library. www.aidankoch.com

I know real writers. In fact, I met one at a party last night. She’d just contracted to write a nonfiction piece for a major commercial magazine. She’s won a place in multiple top-tier literary magazines and she’s published a well-received and award-nominated book. She will soon begin work on her next novel. Sitting next to her, it was hard to think of myself as anything more than a poser.

 

I’ve been writing for decades. And I’ve seen results: I’ve been published many times as a journalist, and I’ve made a decent income as a freelance writer/editor for many years. But my creative work—my poetry, fiction, and personal essays—have yet to appear anywhere beyond a sidebar to an article I wrote about National Novel Writing Month and the website for the collaborative project I started, Spark. As a friend once asked my husband—can a person call herself a (creative) writer if she’s never been published?

I don’t suck as a writer, but I do suck as a submitter. I hate getting rejected. I can’t stand waiting months and months to hear back that my work didn’t make the cut. In fact, I decided a while back to just stop submitting altogether. Yeah, I know. No one’s going to come asking for stories they can publish, but I thought maybe from that point forward, I could just write and forget about ever landing an audience. Yet, I want people to read my work. Or, at least, I want my stories to find a life beyond a virtual folder on my laptop.

 

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Artist and zinester Nicole J. Georges produced the limited-edition Dogs on Doilies.www.nicolejgeorges.com

The basic idea behind self-publishing is “You are allowed,” which runs counter to the gatekeeping philosophy, “Few are allowed.” It’s about here in my internal dialog that I ask why I didn’t start putting out my own work a decade ago. Why, instead, I kept showing up at mainstream literary events, trying to figure a way in. Isn’t there another path for people like me? Might self-publishing be that path? I have a set of five short-shorts that I’ve sent around as much as I can bear. Now I just want them out in the world. I’m not going to do more work on them; they are as done as they can be. Why not put them out as a chapbook?

Last year, I finally applied to the Comics Certificate Program at the Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) in Portland, Oregon—something I’d thought about doing for a couple of years. As you might guess from the name of the Center, learning how to self-publish is built into the program, and that’s what has long intrigued me about it. Yet when I got accepted, I didn’t exactly shout it from the rooftops. I told my closest friends, of course, but I held back a bit from my acquaintances and colleagues. For one, I was moving across the country to study a new form, which felt risky. But I was nervous, too, about how the DIY bit would be received. Publication buys legitimacy. We probably all agree with that. But to some people I know, publishing your own work is worse than never publishing at all.

I discovered Kelly Froh's work in the Multnomah Co. Library's extensive zine collection. www.kellyfroh.blogspot.com

I discovered Kelly Froh’s work in the Multnomah Co. Library’s extensive zine collection. www.kellyfroh.blogspot.com

Soon after arriving in Portland, I walked into my neighborhood library to get a card. It’s a smallish branch, but next to the computer bank, in a prominent display, sat three shelves of zines and independent comics crammed into plastic bins—a forceful testimonial to the DIY culture of the city. In the bins I saw production values of all sorts. Some of the publications were simply photocopied and stapled pamphlets. One was a single story, printed as a palm-sized booklet. Another was literally a piece of paper, 11 x 17 inches and folded into fourths, that opened into one of the most gorgeous, ethereal watercolors I’ve ever seen. It turned out to be a comic.

My first months in Portland, I checked out dozens of these publications. Anything that grabbed my attention—a nice cover, an interesting title—came home with me. As I met more people here, I started noticing their names in those bins. I took home their work, most of it self-published, and devoured their words and images. This is stuff I’d never have been exposed to if the creators hadn’t put it out themselves. Much of it is excellent, as good as anything I’ve read or seen. Some is mediocre, to be sure, but don’t tell me you’ve never read a mediocre book put out by a New York publisher.

Potential cover for my chapbook.

Potential cover for my chapbook.

Let’s say I publish my chapbook of short-shorts, and let’s say it sucks. So what? Does my shitty self-published book negate the value of all self-published work? Does shitty work put out by big-name publishers, backed by significant marketing dollars, negate the value of all literature? No. When a publisher puts out a bad book, it might get bad reviews, but those reviews focus on the work in question. When someone self-publishes a bad book, a diatribe ensues about the whole of self-publishing—oh these vanity presses! Somehow this bad self-published book (or zine or set of poems or whatever) stands as proof that self-publishing as a whole is somehow wrong, vain, insert your own negative adjective here.

I call bullshit.

In the world of independent comics, self-publishing isn’t even a debate. You draw; you create a story; you photocopy it, staple it together, and carry it with you to conventions. Maybe you sell it on Etsy or on consignment at a local shop. Or you trade it with your cartoonist friends. It’s just the way it is.

The IPRC might hold the key to everything—for me and you.

The IPRC might hold the key to everything—for me and you.

Why can’t poets and prose writers do the same? Well, some people are doing that, and hurrah for them! But why aren’t we all showing up at AWP with photocopied stories, folded and stapled into book form, so we can trade with one another? Hell, I know writers who are still afraid to send Word files over the Internet because someone might steal their work.

Things are changing; I know it. It’s just happening so slowly. Places like the IPRC help, but shouldn’t there be one in every U.S. city? Socialized Amy sees all of this as a puzzle she’d like to solve. What are legitimate pathways to a creative writing career? What are alternative ways to get a seat at the table? True Amy is ready to stop thinking about why or whether to self-publish and instead just freaking do it.

Flooded with Understanding

Tamara Ellis Smith

Flood water smells old. It smells like something decaying, like something that has been left out for too long, like a mix of oil and compost and mold. Flood silt is heavy. It sticks to everything it touches. A pair of blue jeans covered in it is almost too hard to carry. I know these things. I know what it feels like to walk down a block lined with more appliances than trees and more garbage than grass. Facing clean-up and recovery is lonely—deep in the bones lonely—and while part of that loss of control means surrendering to the awful thing that has happened, another part means accepting help—from friends but also from strangers. And that’s why I also know what it feels like to have a stranger walk up my front porch steps, ask if she can take the pile of muddy, wet laundry from my front yard and wash it for me—and to not know what to say—and to finally say yes—and to have my life change forever because of that one word.

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Early this fall, Tropical Storm Irene swept through my home state of Vermont, my town, my street and my home—and all of a sudden I was inside Marble Boys, my middle-grade novel about Hurricane Katrina, in a way I had never, ever, ever imagined.

I began to write Marble Boys in September 2005. The story was born out my son Luc’s question, “Who exactly is going to get my blue jeans?” as we dropped off a bag of food and clothing for the Hurricane Katrina Relief Drive at the Vermont State Police Barracks. I didn’t know how, exactly, to answer his question. I didn’t know who would get his blue jeans. But it—or he—stayed with me. This mystery person. Who would he be? Would he be Luc’s age? Would he love to skateboard too?  Play the trombone?  Be afraid of making telephone calls? And so I began to imagine: What if a boy in Vermont named Henry donated a pair of his blue jeans to the relief effort in New Orleans and a boy named Zavion got them? And what if Henry put his lucky marble—which he had just deemed unlucky because of his own terrible tragedy—into a pocket of those pants?  And what if Zavion found the marble and wondered who had given him this magical gift?

Like any good writer, I did my homework for this story. I read many articles and blogs—first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in New Orleans during and after Katrina. I interviewed people. I watched countless documentaries about Katrina. I also read articles on post-traumatic stress disorder and, in particular, the way children are emotionally and psychologically affected by natural disasters. And finally, I read Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina, which is a compilation of his stunning stories that appeared in the Times-Picayune.

I felt as though I knew—as best I could—what it had been like during those harrowing days during the hurricane. I was emotionally connected to the incredible people who had survived such a tragic disaster and my heart was bursting with empathy. It was from this place that I wrote Marble Boys.

But now—after Tropical Storm Irene has seeped into every corner of my life—Marble Boys has become exceedingly more personal. Flooding-papers-225x337The outpouring of help that my community, my family and I have received is staggering. Strangers have shared in the very real and physical process—hauling soggy, disintegrated boxes out of my basement and then donning dust masks to disinfect its floor and walls. They have also shared in my equally real and emotional process—crying with me as we tipped a too-heavy box of my children’s waterlogged art into the dumpster.

At one point during the hauling and dumping brigade, someone brought yet another box up from the basement and gave it to me. I was standing outside by the dumpster making decisions about what could be salvaged and what had to be thrown away. (Most everything had to be thrown away.) I opened the box, as I had opened all of the others. Photographs. The box was filled with photographs. And I began to cry. They were soaking wet and covered in mud. A picture of my siblings and me at my wedding, a picture of my sister the first time she made Luc laugh, a picture of my newborn daughter in my mother’s arms. I stood and stared at the surely ruined photographs. I knew there were dozens of similar boxes, also full of photographs, still in the basement. And I knew I had to throw them all away. But standing there, with this box in my hands, I just couldn’t do it. A friend put her hand on my shoulder and gently suggested that I put the box aside. I could make the decision later. I could throw them away later. I went back to sorting through clothes, winter boots, books and manuscripts, filling the dumpster bit by bit. Hours later, as the sun was setting and I was still receiving boxes from the basement and throwing things away, I took a break and walked over to the lawn at the side of my house.

What I saw took my breath away.

A group of people—people I didn’t know—were sitting on the grass saving my photographs. One by one, image by image, memory by memory. Someone peeled the photos apart, someone rinsed them in a shallow bin of water, someone laid them out in my shed, and then finally, someone hung them on a clothesline to dry. They hadn’t talked to me about it, they just did this meticulous, time-consuming, oh-so-intimate work.  I was struck, in that moment, by the smallness of the objects—these photos—and by the vast enormity of their meaning to me.  I didn’t know these people and yet there they were, their hands and eyes and patience and generosity all over the documentation of my life.

Flooding-3-225x150By crossing into that intimate space, these amazing human beings took on some of my actual grief and suffering. They helped me begin to transform and heal. Accepting help became entwined with growing an incredible sense of empowerment, liberation and connection. I am still struggling to express the magnitude of what happened to me, but in the end, these strangers and I—we became friends.

This is what happens between Henry and Zavion in Marble Boys.

Life has imitated art, which leaves me on-my-knees humbled by the lessons I have learned. I have stumbled into a simple epiphany that goes something like this: Knowledge and understanding with humbleness is truly the best we can offer.

I know now that I got Marble Boys right in so many ways, and I am grateful for that, but I also know that I still have more to learn, more to revise, more to get right—and I am absolutely ready and eager to incorporate all of these new lessons into this manuscript. Most of all, I am holding very tightly to my heart my new and real understanding that experiencing our own suffering in connection with others—connecting in our basic, common humanity—transforms that suffering into something healing, intimate, and deeply profound.

~

Just two weeks ago, my family was given a bag of winter clothes, and in it was a pair of snow pants, exactly Luc’s size. And Luc remembered, and wondered all over again about his own donated blue jeans. Am I any closer to answering his question, “Who exactly got my pair of jeans?” Maybe. Maybe I am.

My experience makes me wonder if maybe there is magic within the pages of Marble Boys: how one boy in Vermont and another boy in New Orleans can come together in such a strange and amazing way. Maybe there is magic in those snow pants. Maybe there is magic in Luc’s blue jeans. I, for one, believe there is.

 

Photos courtesy of Alice Pollvogt


To Read An Excerpt from Marble Boys, click here.

 

Keep Calm and Query On

Query Letters: Reflections on Bulldozing Writing Walls

Now that my wife, Jennifer, and I have been living in York, England for six months, some of the immediate gratifications of moving abroad have worn off. Instead, the steady monotony of life, raising a toddler, and writing have settled in, and I find Winston Churchill’s slogan during the war, “Keep calm and carry on,” has become a rallying cry of sorts for us here.

As we’ve been going through intense withdrawal from the car, the job, the microwave, money for real-coffee-rather-than-instant, the drying machine, a second pair of pants—all of which we bade farewell in our jump across the pond—Churchill’s slogan compels me to keep moving forward.

When my son, my wife, and I all received the glorious Winter Vomiting Virus (as the National Health Service so articulately and properly named the nasty bug), there were Churchill’s words again, rallying me to continue moving forward.

And when our boiler broke in the middle of the frigid winter, leaving our home heat-less and forcing us to camp out within our walls for a night—buried beneath various clothing articles and watching our breath rise to the ceiling—yup: Churchill, with his pudgy self and wise words, was there again.

Keep calm and carry on.

It strikes me now that this is also excellent advice for a writer. If you love the way words sweep, sleep, or creep together, then chances are you’ve hit your moments of crisis. Perhaps you’ve hit that wall where you sit down at your computer, and all your brain can say to your fingers is, It ain’t happening today, man. No way, no how.

And even though you respond to your brain by saying, Hey, I promised myself I was going to at least get one page a day, no matter how terribly awful and dreadful the writing is, your brain simply lies back and falls asleep, while the little blinking cursor of Microsoft Word still mocks your efforts in perfect rhythm.

Or maybe you’ve written those glorious 200 pages of a middle-grade novel, and you’ve revised it, and you’ve reworked it, and then you’ve revised some more, and you’ve asked a friend who is also a writer to read it, and you’ve incorporated her revisions into further revisions, and then you look at it and you speak to it as if it were a real, live human: You exist! YES! You are here, all 200 pages of you! But then agents and editors aren’t, for some strange reason, as thrilled about your 200 pages as you are.

Or perhaps you’ve crafted two novels—one YA and one MG—and both have been published. Yet you sit down again at the computer, and your brain still won’t release the critical voices that would prefer you sit quietly and do something else with your time. For goodness’ sake, clean out your belly button lint already, will you!?

Whatever form your writing foe takes, keep calm and query on.

No matter how little you feel like it, no matter how futile it sometimes seems, you must keep writing. You must continue to send out queries. You must continue to make contact, believing that the words you write do possess all the possible power and beauty in them to affect one life.

One small life. In one—just one—possibly big way.

Back in the states, when I was in my third year of teaching English at a public school in Connecticut, I gave my 11th-grade students a novella assignment to complete. Over the course of three months, they would be required to write 50 pages of fiction.

They flipped (and rightly so).

Meanwhile, I relished the chance to challenge them with a task they thought they couldn’t possibly complete.

But every one of them rose to the challenge. Week after week, they crafted their pages and brought them into our classroom, and we shared our woes, joys, hopes, and fears about writing. I gave them the challenge because we learn best by doing and because, Lord knows, I needed it myself.

Sometimes the process of writing can seem mystical and surrounded by an aura of secrecy, or placed on the top of some hierarchy, only accessible to the smartest, or the most educated, or the “talented” or the “gifted.”

And all of that is one load of crapola.

I would have to side with Toni Morrison on this front: The Nobel-prize winning author claimed, “If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn’t about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything.” Some of the best stuff I have ever read wasn’t produced in the highest echelons of society, or by those who would seek to make a name for themselves for that purpose alone.

Indeed, to this day, the best poem I have ever read was one written by a former seventh-grade student of mine named Mike. He called it “Walking at Night,” and it moved me even more deeply than my other favorite poem, “When You Are Old,” by the great Yeats himself.

All this is to say that to write you only need two things: a heart and a pencil. (Well, maybe a pair of hands and some paper would help. And while we’re at it, throw in the brain, and a desk, maybe a room with a view….)

You do not need a degree. Indeed, one of America’s greatest authors, Gore Vidal, never even graduated from college. You do not need permission. Many of the world’s most powerful works were written by people who had teachers who told them they would never do anything of value. You do not need money. Look at the words of Anne Frank: They burn with the fire of redemption and love, yet her room certainly had no veranda. You do not even need praise (though if you are a writer, you certainly think you do). No matter what anyone says about your writing, there is only one person’s opinion and voice that truly count: your own.

And should you choose to wade through the waters of fear, worry, criticism, and lack of discipline, you may find that the words you craft do, indeed, end up making a difference in one life.

(And that life may be your own.)

So yes: keep calm. When it seems a hopeless endeavor, and you’re onto your fourth novel, and you feel like something isn’t clicking…keep calm! Just keep writing. Keep reading. Let yourself continue to believe that you need to create, and that the words you craft may, indeed, reach the village one day.

And yes: query on. When it seems that most of what you write never enters the world, remind yourself that this is the case for all writers—even the truly remarkable ones. They craft pages and pages and pages that will never see the outside of a desk drawer or a hard drive.

Keep writing, and keep sending your work out into the world, whether to magazines, publishers, agents, or even the trees and the birds (more than a handful of poets have honed their own lines by reading them aloud to the birds and the bees). Query on!

You never know when one word may meet another and start a relationship that just won’t quit, and hey, don’t you want to be around to watch what happens from there?

 

By

Luke Reynolds

The Menagerie’s Menagerie

There are twenty-one dog toys on my living room floor because William, my four-month-old Irish Wolfhound puppy, is a hoarder. His much older brother, eight-year-old Fenton, stopped caring about toys long ago and has left many of them to fade in the yard under the yearly feet and feet of snow, where William has rediscovered them and brought them into the house one at a time. William’s favorite toys are new, purchased on the occasion of his arrival, super soft and stuffing-less with squeakers in both the head and tail: a fox, a martin, a rabbit, and a mink. There is a mallard almost too large for his mouth, except at the neck, that quacks. There is a hedgehog that has lost part of its stuffing that used to squeak AND grunt, but now only grunts. There is a squirrel made by one of those all-natural companies that neither squeaks nor grunts, but there must be something very pleasing about it anyway because there is often a ruckus between the two dogs with the simple brown squirrel at its center. There is a fuzzy bear dressed as a bumblebee. There is a scary pumpkin with a long orange tail that looks like something from one of those movies in which the dolls murder the children. There is a once-yellow Easter bunny with big fat paws and long whiskers that has faded almost to white. There are three fuzzy bones—one pink and green stripes, one brown fleece on one side and red on the other, and one that possibly used to be black. There is a canvas semi-stuffed Frisbee. There is a Martha Stewart™ three ring pull toy in red and white candy stripes. There is a grouse that used to make bona fide grouse sounds but has long since stopped. There is an oversized brown tennis ball with a tail attached to it, which William will chase endlessly, while Fenton looks on with an expression on his face that says, “where in our breed name do you find the word retriever?” There is the Castor & Pollux fuzzy moose I bought just yesterday—like we needed another toy—to assuage my guilt around going to Mongolia. Then there are the remains of actual animals, good for chewing: a piece of a horse hoof, the base of a moose antler, an upper vertebrae of an elk, and a no longer identifiable bone that most likely belonged to a cow. All of William’s interest in these objects has rekindled Fenton’s interest in them because it is lots of fun to steal them from the puppy and then growl and snap when he tries to take them back.