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.

Breaditations

I’ve very excited to announce that my poem “Breaditations” has just been published by Understorey Magazine in their “Food Work” Issue (19). I wrote this poem in the early spring of this year, and it conflates my experience trying to process pandemic-related news reports with the process of baking bread. You can click through here to read it, and I encourage you to explore more of what this issue has to offer!

(Note that because of some formatting stuff, my piece will look best either on desktop, or if you turn your phone sideways to access a wider screen.)

In pursuit of the beautiful dream

I have an internet-friend named Véronique. Véro is a Canadian, Catholic, mother of nine (!) who lives not far from where I once did — we have mutual friends in common although we have not met ourselves, and we correspond from time to time. I’ve been reading her blog since about… forever. She also hosts a podcast called Fearless Family Life, and on her latest episode she tackled the subject of “Making room for your interests and passions in the middle of chaos”, prompted by someone asking her if there is room for personal projects in the midst of family life, or if motherhood is just supposed to be “enough”.

During the course of that episode she mentioned the book One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to them Both by Jennifer Fulweiler, which also looks at that exact question. I promptly ordered it from the library, and finished it last night.

This book came to me at exactly the right time, I think.

Jennifer Fulwiler is a mother of six who also writes books (this is her second) and hosts a daily two-hour radio show on Sirius XM. This book tells the story of how she found a way to pursue her passion for the writing life, even while dealing with the considerable household chaos that comes from having six children in eight years. Here’s an excerpt from the back jacket:

When Jennifer Fulweiler had her third child, she faced a crisis. As much as she loved her life, something was missing. It had been so long since she’d pursued her own passions that she was starting to forget what they were.

After being jerked out of her routine by an unexpected opportunity, she dared to ask: Is there any room for personal fulfilment during seasons of sacrifice? How can we use our God-given talents while still honoring our obligations?

Good questions. I think this is a struggle that is very relatable — I know it’s something I think about in my own life. Right now I’m a stay-at-home-mom and most of my day is taken up with the care and feeding and et cetera of two small children. And while I enjoy what I do, and generally find it fulfilling, I don’t think that this is all I’m called to do, either. There are things that are life-giving for me — reading, writing, crochet, singing — that don’t especially have anything to do with the vocation of motherhood but which are still pretty integral to what it means to be me. And while having a family absolutely requires self-sacrifice, as we learn to put the life of the family ahead of the life of the self, it doesn’t require self-erasing. The gifts and talents that I have are meant to be used and are part of the recipe for my own flourishing. And we shouldn’t imagine that flourishing as something that happens despite having a family, but something that happens in the middle of a family, and that is also for the good of the whole family. (Because if I am putting myself last to the point of being miserable and resentful… who is that helping, exactly?)

One Beautiful Dream is a funny, honest, and thought-provoking book. It’s given me a lot of things to think about in terms of the vision for our family life and my particular part in it. I recommend it highly.

Freeing the writer within with Natalie Goldberg

If you are a writer — however you interpret that — then this book is for you.

I had never heard of Natalie Goldberg, until I read Tricia Lott Williford’s post “The Sparkling Moment” a few weeks ago, and then Writing Down the Bones immediately went onto my library holds list.

I devoured this book. Its chapters are short and digestible, sometimes just a page long, but each one brings its own treasures. Most helpful to me, probably, was the growing conviction as I read that if I want (need) to write, then that is something I need to honour and to make the time for. Yes, I have small children underfoot. Yes, I have other things on the go. Yes, I need to write anyway. If I care about it, I need to find the way. So I am trying to do just that.

Writing Down the Bones was a well-timed kick in the pants as far as my own writing practice — and I do mean, “practice,” as in doing a small amount of it every day. Julia Cameron suggests writing “morning pages” every day: three longhand pages, or about 750 words if you’re typing, that’s totally unfiltered and stream-of-consciousness. They should be the first thing that you write, and the idea is that it clears out all the gick that’s floating around in our minds and allows us to focus more fully, afterwards, on what we actually want to write. I did morning pages some years ago, briefly — probably less than three weeks’ worth all told. I didn’t see the value in them. But I love how Natalie Goldberg frames writing practice:

This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don’t want to run and you resist every step of the three miles, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it. And in the middle of the run, you love it. When you come to the end, you never want to stop. And you stop, hungry for the next time.

That’s how writing is, too. Once you’re deep into it, you wonder what took you so long to finally settle down at the desk. Through practice you actually do get better. You learn to trust your deep self more and not give in to your voice that wants to avoid writing. It is odd that we never question the feasibility of a football team practicing long hours for one game; yet in writing we rarely give ourselves the space for practice. […]

One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive. Art lives in the Big World. One poem or story doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s the process of writing and life that matters. Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves. This process teaches about sanity. We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories. […]

A friend once said that when she had a good black-and-white drawing that she was going to add color to, she always practiced first on a a few drawings she didn’t care about in order to warm up. This writing practice is also a warm-up for anything else you might want to write. It is the bottom line, the most primitive, essential beginning of writing. The trust you learn in your own voice can be directed then into a business letter, a novel, a Ph.D. dissertation, a play, a memoir. But it is something you must come back to again and again. Don’t think, “I’ve got it! I know how to write. I trust my voice. I’m off to write the great American novel.” It’s good to go off and write a novel, but don’t stop doing writing practice. It is what keeps you in tune, like a dancer who does warm-ups before dancing or a runner who does stretches before running. Runners don’t say, “Oh, I ran yesterday. I’m limber.” Each day they warm up and stretch. (11-13)

That’s a way of putting it that makes intuitive sense to me. I don’t do morning pages just to clear out my subconscious mind (or… whatever); I write morning pages because there’s something in me that isn’t happy unless I’m writing regularly, because I want to write more and write better, because it’s all grist for the creative mill, because writing begets writing. I write so that I will want to write. I write to understand the world, and to understand myself. I write because if you want to write, to be a writer, the only way to do it is to put your butt in your chair and your pen on paper (or your fingers on the keyboard) and do it. It’s both that difficult, and that simple.

And so I’m doing my morning pages again, nine days in a row and nearly 9,000 words so far. I do it while I’m drinking my tea before breakfast, and I use 750words.com to do it since I type way faster than I handwrite. Sometimes I do a writing exercise, like trying to describe a house I’ve visited as completely as I can. Sometimes I just write whatever I happen to be thinking about. Sometimes I surprise myself. And the thing is, whether or not these morning pages are doing all that Julia Cameron promises, they are motivating me to write more during to day, to keep my notebook and a pen at hand for when I need them. My production is up. So is my enjoyment. Maybe even my sense of purpose, at least as far as writing is concerned.

I’ve read other books on writing before, and I’ve gotten useful things out of them. I wrote a three-part series on reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which you can find on my Post Series page. I read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, or most of it. And I read Stephen King’s On Writing (as one does) and got some useful things out of that too — most specifically his rule of thumb for cutting, which is that your second draft should be equal to your first draft minus roughly ten percent. Okay, that’s useful advice. I’ve used it. But Writing Down the Bones is the first book on writing that’s actually galvanized me to sit down and write — and that’s priceless.

Introducing an up-and-coming young author

Anselm and I wrote a book yesterday. I think you’ll agree that it shows early promise of considerable genius. We worried! We laughed! We made sure to open and close our tale in accordance with all the orthodox formularies of fairy tales! We gave it a title that turned out to be completely irrelevant to the contents! In short, we had quite a bit of fun.

THE WEEKS (by Mama and Anselm)

Once upon a time, there were some Vs.

And there was the rest of the alphabet.

But the Vs had gone away! They went to the beach.

The Vs have to come back.

So the Vs walked back from the beach.

The Vs were back!

When the Vs were back at the alphabet, they had to take off their shoes and their jackets.

And they lived happily ever after. The End.

We’ll be querying agents shortly.

Reading Pressfield’s The War of Art (pt. 2: Turning Pro)

The second section of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art looks at overcoming the Resistance he outlined in the first section. The answer to Resistance, he writes, is “turning pro”. It’s worth noting at the beginning that although professionals do their work for compensation, it’s not the money itself that differentiates a pro from a hobbyist; being a “pro” is, rather, a matter of internal attitude toward the work. Pressfield himself wrote for seventeen years before seeing a single dollar for any of it! Early on in the section, he lays out an illustrative example of what turning pro looks like:

Someone once asked Somerset Maugham if he wrote on a schedule or only when struck by inspiration. “I write only when inspiration strikes,” he replied. “Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”

That’s a pro.

In terms of Resistance, Maugham was saying, “I despise Resistance; I will not let it faze me; I will sit down and do my work.”

Maugham reckoned another, deeper truth: that by performing the mundane physical act of sitting down and starting to work, he set in motion a mysterious but infallible sequence of events that would produce inspiration, as surely as if the goddess had synchronized her watch with his.

He knew if he built it, she would come. (64)

Perhaps the most valuable ability of the pro is simply their ability to put their butt in their chair, day after day after day, so that they can do their work. Pressfield suggests that we treat our creative endeavours the same way that we treat our day jobs: we show up every day, regardless of how we’re feeling; we put in our allotted time; we are committed over the long haul; we master the technique and essential skills of our job; we keep a sense of humour about it all (these and other items, 69-72). We show up. We put our butts in the chair. We do the work.

This is what I found I had to do when I was writing my master’s thesis. The particular logistics of my life at that point meant that I couldn’t write at a regular set time, like Somerset Maugham’s nine o’clock every morning. But what I did try to do was write every day: even if it was only a paragraph. Even if it was only a sentence! Because getting anything written meant that I was moving forward from where I had been the day before. It’s the concept of a “non-zero day” — which originated on reddit about a dozen years after The War of Art was published, but which I think Pressfield would endorse. Here is the principle of a non-zero day (excerpted from a much longer comment which you can read at the link below):

Rule numero uno – There are no more zero days. What’s a zero day? A zero day is when you don’t do a single f–ing thing towards whatever dream or goal or want or whatever that you got going on. No more zeros. I’m not saying you gotta bust an essay out everyday, that’s not the point. The point I’m trying to make is that you have to make yourself, promise yourself, that the new SYSTEM you live in is a NON-ZERO system. Didnt’ do anything all f–ing day and it’s 11:58 PM? Write one sentence. One pushup. Read one page of that chapter. One. Because one is non zero. You feel me? When you’re in the super vortex of being bummed your pattern of behaviour is keeping the vortex goin, that’s what you’re used to. Turning into productivity ultimate master of the universe doesn’t happen from the vortex. It happens from a massive string of CONSISTENT NON ZEROS. That’s rule number one. Do not forget. (ryans01)

The concept of non-zero days has spawned a small movement and now has its own subreddit and even a couple of apps. What the pro knows is that momentum builds motivation, and that discipline produces results. Whether or not inspiration comes when beckoned, the pro is still there putting in their dues.

Turning pro is also a way to make sure that when inspiration strikes, we are ready for it — another part of the mental shift is thinking of ourselves as craftsmen rather than artists. Pressfield writes, “A pro views her work as a craft, not art. […] she concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods. Like Somerset Maugham she doesn’t wait for inspiration, she acts in the anticipation of its apparition” (78). This makes sense, doesn’t it? Without a knowledge of craft and technique, it’s awfully hard to fully realise a vision of a work, however inspired you might feel. A pianist has to master their scales before mastering Beethoven. When I sit down and practice different poetic forms or churn out a blog post, that’s how I play my scales. And that practice, and that readiness, is a critical part of turning pro: “The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration, but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come” (84).

Now — what about inspiration? If we are working to overcome Resistance, if we are mastering our technique and putting in our time — how do we know that inspiration will come? Part three of The War of Art looks at Invoking the Muse. Stay tuned!