Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Decisions, Decisions


A few months ago, I was fighting a story I wasn’t sure I had the guts to write, much less publish. The story was about a woman who, after reinventing herself, is forced to face the shame of her promiscuous past. There were erotic elements, even instances where a less-careful reader might think the main character was a lesbian. I got caught up in what I think of as a dangerous place for writers. Rather than worrying about telling a good, honest story, I worried about what people would think of me.

Luckily, I got past myself enough to finish it, charging headfirst through my fears. After careful consideration, I decided to give a copy of my story to a friend at the “class” after my weekly writing class. I’d picked Mary (not her real name) because I’d always admired how frank and free-spirited she was about human sexuality. If anyone could read my story and not be offended, I was certain it would be Mary.

I was wrong.

A few weeks later, I finally had an opportunity to ask Mary what she thought. I got one of those shifty “I liked it” responses, the kind punctuated by a nervous smile and evasive eyes, followed by an immediate topic change.

It rankled. From the way she acted, I was sure she’d gotten the wrong idea, but I was worried I’d over-explain it and make things worse. I let it go, but it still bothered me.

Now here’s my point: should we walk away from our stories, because we worry what people will think of us? Class has resumed. I’m back to seeing Mary again on a weekly basis. Last week, I sat across from her in our lopsided circle, wondering what on earth she thought of me. Did she think I was a closet lesbian? Did she wonder if I’d once been a slut?

Yep, it still bothers me.

If you’re wondering, I submitted the story to an online magazine. I’m sure some writers would disagree with my decision, but I felt the story was worth making myself a little uncomfortable. So what if people judge me? I wrote the story as I thought I had to, doing what felt natural and true for the characters. I think I hit on something honest in the process. I feel good about working through the tough stuff. I just hope if anyone feels they must judge me, they judge me for the right thing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Caught Between Two Worlds

If you looked out our back windows, you’d be amazed by the activity just beyond our property line. Our backyard borders a busy divided highway, so for most of the day, traffic whizzes by at 50 mph or faster, a stream of trucks, school buses, SUV’s, box vans and minivans. Everyone’s in a hurry, no matter what the road conditions. Drivers look straight ahead and drive fast. This road is about getting to your destination.

The view from the front of our house is the complete opposite. This is our quiet corner of the world, the world I love. Today, for example, I’m watching the snow fall steadily on the street undisturbed by passing cars. The flakes float down as silently as if they fell in a dream, blanketing the branches of the big maple out front. The sky hangs silvery gray overhead, casting its glow over everything and blurring the lines between earth and heaven. Across the street, a dozen or more ancient trees dot my neighbor’s yard. The sight of those tangled branches etched in black and white forces me to stop and admire them. Only a few cars drive past each day, almost none on a snowy day like today. If it weren’t for the sounds of the traffic out back, you could hear the sound of nature’s snowy slumber.

I often find myself caught between these two worlds. We’ve tried, albeit futilely, to bring some of the soul-stirring quiet into the back. My husband has a big vegetable garden back there. He grew up on a farm and needs that connection to the earth, that simple purpose of bringing life and nourishment from his own patch of soil. I have a few beds of flowers, things I’ve divided off the plants I nurture in the front yard, purple coneflowers and tiger lilies where the sun beats down without respite, green hostas and pink bleeding hearts in the cool, damp shady grottoes beneath the silver maples and box elders. Next year, I plan to add a bed of ornamental grasses. My heart wants to hear them rustle in the breeze, but my brain knows traffic racket will drown out their voices. Until we put up a fence to block some of the traffic noise this past summer, my husband and I had to shout our conversations while picking the zucchini and green beans.

I think this sense of being caught between two worlds is one of the reasons I need to write. Life is like that busy county highway, always noisy, always on the move. By contrast, my heart wants time and quiet to hear the wind whisper through the pampas grass. Writing makes me slow down and process what’s happening around me, makes me notice the way snow falls, see how it frosts the branches, top side white, the bottom slate gray, a clear line with obvious distinction.

I know I’m not the only one. I have a friend who is an avid bicyclist, my former college chemistry professor who, God bless his heart, did his best to make esterification seem fun. I often see him when I’m out walking on summer mornings. One day, as we stood chatting by the side of the road, he told me he loved to bike because that is how fast his brain operates. I thought about that the rest of my walk home. He cycles; I walk. Each of us has our own pace we feel comfortable facing life at. He’s probably forgotten it, but our conversation still wanders through my head, even a year and a half later. I guess that’s the pace my brain works at. I’m a walker in a world that wants to run. Perhaps because of that I’m a writer.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Rejected by the Sea Urchin


I’ve learned to take my fair share of rejection. But every once in awhile, one comes along that really gets to me, down deep where my muse and I live.

Example: the rejection I got yesterday for “The Postmodern Bullcrap Devolution of Daddy’s Little Girl,” a story I wrote about a year ago in response to the Writer’s Digest Your Story competition. The prompt was to write a short-short story about a character getting a chance to be on TV that results in the character’s humiliation.

Well, as anyone who knows my writing can attest, I’m an expert in humiliation, but the TV angle didn’t come naturally. I clustered, I freewrote, I lay awake at night, and eventually came up with an psychological piece about a woman coming to terms with being rejected by her alcoholic father. The TV thing was an add on, tacked on like lace on a hem. I sent it off to Writer’s Digest with my heart bursting with hope, sure I was going to be lauded as the next Faulkner or Hemingway.

No dice.

I pouted about it for a week, then started shopping Postmodern around.

Months passed. The story made the rounds to half a dozen-ish markets. I got a few form rejections and, even better, several promising personal rejections. I revised, I revamped, I even lost the TV aspect, finally admitting that the whole TV angle dragged the story down.

But still no dice.

I entered what I now call Angry August, the month where my spirit was broken from months of rejection. On August 1st, I decided to give Postmodern one last try. I found an e-zine with a astonishingly high acceptance rate and again, sent it off, sure they would be grateful to get work from a writer of my caliber. Dammit, I was going to get in this time.

I heard back from them yesterday, 167 days later. I submit their response for your enjoyment:

Greta Igl,

Deepest appreciations are tendered for your sharing of your fictional "The Postmodern Bullcrap Devolution of Daddy's Little Girl."

Unfortunately, it pleases me not-- or, in the least, insufficiently. Please keep my humble journal in mind as you continue writing, and consider submitting other pieces in the future.

All for the Best in the Best of All Possible Worlds,

The Enormous Sea Urchin*

*name changed from one non-sentient sea creature to another to somewhat obfuscate the identity of the publication

Yes, I’d been rejected by a sea urchin.

Last I checked, sea urchins couldn’t even read. Yet, somehow, this one not only read, but also considered itself sufficiently self-aware to evaluate the story I’d slaved away at for so many profitless months. I pictured some acne-pocked, chubby teenager in his basement bedroom cackling as he hit the SEND button. How dare these people send me such an inane rejection? I’d been the paragon of professionalism with them. Didn’t I deserve a modicum of respect?

I stared at the monitor, which turned red before my steaming gaze. This proved it. I truly was an expert in humiliation. My own.

A good night’s sleep changed my attitude. I still would have appreciated more professionalism in their response. But I’d like to think the sea urchin angle was someone’s idea of a cutesy joke, rather than someone’s effort to hide behind anonymity.

Rather, my change of heart came about something I knew I could change—my own lousy attitude. I finally figured out what I should have known from the beginning: Some stories just aren’t meant to see the light of day. It looked like Postmodern was one of them. I wrote it. I learned a lot from it. But it was time for me to move on.

So I move on now, a little humbler and a little smarter, God willing.

One last bit of crow to eat: Sea urchin, I apologize for all the snotty thoughts I sent toward your little corner of the ocean. I won’t say you were right, but you weren’t 100% wrong. Perhaps you’re more self-aware than I am.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

New Resolve for the New Year


I don't want to let 2007 go.

It isn't a fear of aging thing, or some psychological inability to accept the inevitability of change. It's just that 2007 was a very good year for me as a writer. Not only did I get my first three acceptance emails (two of which have translated into published stories, while the third languishes under the looming collapse of the e-zine that accepted it), but I also successfully completed National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a Herculean achievement that taught me as much about myself as a person and a writer as it did about my characters and storyline.

It's hard to let go of a year that brought me so much. But time marches on and I need to get in step with it. In that spirit, I submit my GOALS FOR 2008.

#1 ~ Design and implement an effective blog.

Everyone knows the web is the place to be for writers. It's time to befriend technology with a warm and open heart. I hope this blog will be a friend to those who visit it, as well, instead of just a self-serving, self-aggrandizing monologue.

#2 ~ Get 4 more publishing credits.

Yep, I know this sounds like a pitiful accomplishment for a year, rather like hoping to roll out of bed most days, but those of you who write know how tough this is. The short fiction market is shrinking, according to the experts. That means less opportunity for newbies like me, struggling to learn their craft.

#3 ~ Get paid for a piece of writing.

Again, pitiful. Even more pitiful is that I'd do it for free.

#4 ~ 1 publishing credit in a semi-prestigious market.

I'd even settle for a meaningful personal rejection or, better yet, a rewrite request from some lofty grand dame like Ploughshares. My personal favorite of 2007 (not from Ploughshares) was the form rejection thrust into an envelope so hastily that the form got glued into the seal. Tell me, please: what kind of editor doesn't have time to seal a paper in an envelope properly?

#5 ~ Finish a novel. Any novel.

Confession time: I have two first drafts of novels in various stages of the revision process. One has been landlocked for 4 years as I pick at it as ruthlessly as a pageant mom. The other, of course, is my NaNoWriMo baby. Point being: how many first drafts do I plan to accumulate? It's time to get something finished and out there.

#6 ~ Successful 2008 NaNoWriMo.

Apparently, I so enjoyed trying to write a 50K novel in 30 days while undergoing two weeks of painful (make that excruciating) dental work that I'm inspired to do it again. Yep, I'm a glutton for punishment. It just felt so good when it stopped--both the dentistry and NaNoWriMo.

As the year progresses, I hope I'll be able to tick these off under your watchful eyes. Looking back, 2007 felt good in spite of the frustrations, every halting, babystep of the way. I want that feeling again, that feeling of breaking new ground, of rediscovering my own abilities as I stumble as naively hopeful as a white-frocked debutante through rigors of 2008.