Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

First read-alouds

We’ve recently hit a fun new family milestone: our oldest child is old enough (and has the attention span) to start doing some read-aloud chapter books.

Perpetua still takes a daily nap (long may it so be) and so most days, Anselm and I will take some of that time to snuggle up on the couch and do some reading together. We read a lot of picture books throughout the day, of course, but there’s something lovely about doing these long-form books. We do two chapters a day.

Our first was Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary, the story of Henry and his found dog, Ribsy. I didn’t remember this one very well — I was more into Cleary’s Ramona books when I was a girl — but it was an enjoyable read. Henry and Ribsy get into all sorts of scrapes, but manage to (mostly) get out of them with some creative problem solving. The most tension appears in the final chapter, when Ribsy’s former owner shows up to try and claim him; Anselm was made incredibly nervous by this and didn’t want to listen, which gave us a good chance to talk about how listening to stories even when we’re nervous can help us practice being courageous. He made it through… and so did Henry and Ribsy.

Since then we’ve been enjoying Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series. Siblings Jo, Bessie, and Fanny move from the town to the country and discover an enchanted wood at the centre of which grows a wonderful tree: so magic that it can grow all kinds of fruit at once, inhabited by all sorts of interesting characters, at stretching all the way up to a hole in the cloud, above which lies a magic land to visit, a different one every week! The children — along with their special friends Silky, Moonface, and the Saucepan Man — have all sorts of adventures, and get into some dreadful scrapes, in all sorts of magic lands. These books have had a wonderful sparking effect on Anselm’s imagination, and little Faraway Tree plot threads find their way into his pretend-play pretty regularly.

Note that these are older editions, published in the early 1990s. Recent editions have modernized and Americanized the books’ language (they are very, very British), including changing the children’s names (Jo -> Joe; Bessie -> Beth; Fanny -> Franny). I haven’t read the modern editions, but the changes are pretty well decried on Amazon and other review sites. I wanted to complete the trilogy, so when I bought The Enchanted Woods (the first book), I made sure to buy an older copy from a used book store instead. I’m looking forward to reading that one next, and then — we’ll see where we end up next!

Reading Round-Up: May 2018

Usually I wait until after the end of the month to post these, just in case I can squeeze one last book in under the line. There’s no way that’s happening this time; I’ve been making my way through Helen Hooven Santmyer‘s massive … And Ladies of the Club in the latter half of May (and yes, the ellipses are part of the title; I wasn’t just trying to build anticipation there) and I am nowhere close to finishing. And I do mean massive: I’m just over 900 pages in — but that still means another ~500 to go. Clocking in at 600,000 words, this beast of a novel is longer than The Lord of the Rings.

Anyway, besides the big slowdown for … And Ladies of the Club, this was a bit of a bumper month for me. We went away for a week and so I got some beach reading in (ok, well, beach house reading, anyway), and I haven’t been crocheting much lately which has freed up my eyes and hands for other things. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Client (John Grisham)
  2. Sestets: Poems (Charles Wright)
  3. So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  5. Revival (Stephen King)
  6. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  7. The Partner (John Grisham)
  8. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Bruce Handy)
  9. Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey)
  10. Little Bee (Chris Cleave)
  11. Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary)
  12. Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church (Lynn K. Wilder)
  13. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

For the most part, this was an enjoyable month. There were two big disappointments: Sestets: Poems by Charles Wright, and Stephen King’s Revival. As far as the Wright is concerned, I found the poems very dull on the whole, and often obscure in that way that feels like obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I don’t mind reading obscure poetry — I don’t always know what Seamus Heaney is talking about, but I love Seamus Heaney — but it has to have some other attractive quality. This didn’t. The other big disappointment was Revival. I tend to enjoy Stephen King, and Revival sucked me right in — I couldn’t figure out where it was going. And then I got the end and found out: it was going somewhere dumb. The ride along the way was great, but the ending was completely preposterous. I ended up leaving that one at the beach house since I’ll never bother reading it again.

The big highlight for me this month was Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, which I picked up on impulse while looking for something else in the 800 section. What an informative, amusing, and deeply appreciative book! I love children’s literature, and Wild Things was a joy and a pleasure to read. Best of all, it spurred me to read a couple of kids’ books that had been languishing on my shelves: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, by Trenton Lee Stewart (an excellent sequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society); Henry Huggins, the story of a boy, his friends, and his dog, by the inimitable Beverly Cleary; and the classic A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

On the adult fiction side of things, The Client and The Partner were two solid offerings by John Grisham; I’ve read a few clunkers of his (The Litigators comes to mind — I couldn’t even finish that one), but the ones that are good are really good and these two were no exception. For me, Grisham is perfect summer reading.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields was an impulse read; I realised that I hadn’t brought quite enough books to the beach house with me, and so chose it from one of the shelves there. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Shields before, in a CanLit class in university, but hadn’t encountered this particular novel. It follows the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth on the Canadian prairie to her death as an old woman in Florida. I found it very moving and it made me want to do a lot better at keeping up with my own journaling.

Little Bee was the other novel I read in May. I won’t say much about it — indeed, its cover copy enjoins me not to ruin the surprise. But it was an engrossing, beautifully crafted, gutting read — you’ll just have to find out why for yourselves. (Seriously. This is one to pick up.) I’ll be reading more Chris Cleave books in the future.

Finally, two books of memoir/theology, the first of which was Sarah Bessey‘s Jesus Feminist. I actually had picked up Jesus Feminist back in March or April — I forget which — but ended up putting it down so that I could finish Winston Graham’s Poldark series (sorry, Sarah). I think it must have been April. So my reading of Jesus Feminist was a little scattered and I had some trouble picking up the threads when I determined to get it out of my to-read pile this month. But I liked it; I don’t agree with all of her theological positions (or resonate with a lot of her experiences) but it was a thoughtful and well-written book that I can see being pretty helpful to people, especially women who have been wounded by the church (in ways that I personally haven’t been, but others certainly have). Don’t let the F word in the title throw you off too much.

Finally we come to Lynn K. Wilder‘s Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church. I’ve recently started to get to know a Mormon mom in my neighbourhood — we meet up at the playground from time to time — and I wanted to learn more about the LDS Church. This was a great resource and a compelling read. I’ve also picked up her slimmer Seven Reasons We Left Mormonism which is more theological and less memoir-y — that one will have to wait until June, though.

So You Want to Talk About Race was already treated in its own post.

And that’s it for May! Tune in next month to see if I manage to finish … And Ladies of the Club in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time!