I want to lead the Victorian life, surrounded by exquisite clutter. —Freddie Mercury
Grant me the treasure of sublime poverty. —Saint Francis of Assisi
Allow me to paint you a picture:
Take a one bedroom apartment—vintage—that is to say, not rehabbed and fancy with a subway tiled bathroom and stainless appliances but cozy and cute with perhaps a little rust on the white, metal kitchen cabinets, some peeling paint on the window sills—let’s just call it patina. Add a mishmash of furniture dragged from alleys or selected at your finer Chicagoland thrift stores and one beautiful couch purchased brand spanking new from a real furniture emporium. Live in aforementioned apartment for eleven years. Enjoy the companionship of several four-legged creatures who make the sorts of messes four legged creatures are wont to do. Buy books until your shelves overflow. Buy holiday dresses, bathing suits and birthday candles. Make a Halloween costume every year; save them all because you might want to be Aphrodite, an owl or a ‘50s diner waitress again. Attend to living your life. Don’t get rid of any of the thrift store jeans you keep buying without trying on that don’t quite fit.
Writing can be lonely work. I’ve often wished to be part of an ongoing writers’ community that could offer support, critique, the occasional kick in the pants. I’ve tried a few times to get a group going, but haven’t succeeded in making one stick long term. (Recently, I’ve begun exchanging critique with a new group of writerly women, so that may change.) Rae Theodore is a writer I’ve gotten to know online through her blog, The Flannel Files, on which she discusses butchness, writing, cats, teenagers, spirit animals and more. She’s mentioned her writing group several times as being a major impetus behind her memoir, Leaving Normal: Adventures in Gender, which was published last year by Weasel Press. So I decided to pick her brain a little bit about her writing group and how it’s impacted her work. Continue reading Freewriting, Honesty and Respect: a chat with blogger/memoirist middleagebutch
Even before I walked around every day with a massive research library in my pocket, I often looked things up. In the olden days, when I was working on a project, I’d hunker in library stacks for hours, lug home bags of books. My life was full of Post-its, torn off slips of paper, scrawled, sometimes indecipherable notes. I fondly recall sitting hunched in a carrel in my college library with books at my elbow, books at my feet. I liked finding notes or marginalia left by other readers who—months or years previous—had been curious about the same thing I was investigating at that moment. Continue reading Strange Paths
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said. “One can’t believe impossible things.”
“I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
Things are happening, friends. I can’t say just what yet; the chickens aren’t hatched—but they are pecking mightily. There have been some heady phone calls and emails and talk of big things to come. It’s been gratifying and exhilarating—and nerve-racking.
On that front, I’ve had two good bits of advice. I called my sister in a slight tizzy over the uncertainty of it all—the possibly big-exciting-it’s-about-time things still up in the air. Her counsel was to soak it in, enjoy the anticipation of the moment before. This particular moment before may not come again, she said, so take pleasure in it now. Continue reading Six Impossible Things before Breakfast
Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.
— John Updike
I’m up to my eyes in query letters. I’ve had a few requests for the manuscript, so it’s out there with some peepers on it as well. It’s very exciting when I get those requests, and every time it happens I spend 24 mostly happily frenzied hours combing through the manuscript and making tweaks. The Saltwater Twin and Other Mythical Creatures, which weighed in at 84,000 words when I sent it to my first round of readers back in October, is just 78,000 now. Fighting weight I hope. Scrappy and trim.
This means some agents have seen earlier versions of the work. I worry sometimes, whether I should have revised and revised for another six months or a year before sending it out at all, but even back in October every essay in the collection had been through an average nine or ten revisions. It took almost four years to write the book. It felt like high time to send it into the world. Continue reading Searching for What I’m Saying: On Revision
I’m querying agents. This involves carefully crafting letters tailored to each individual agent on my list, which means researching what kind of work and which authors each one represents. My plan was to send out sixty queries before I let myself get too discouraged. I’m not sure why sixty. Somehow that number presented itself. Five dozen. I’m not even close to that yet, so it’s definitely too soon to despair. But the rejections have started to trickle in. They’re not rolling in—merely trickling. But the water is very cold.
I was feeling low last week. It was probably some holiday blues. Also I was immersed in researching Auschwitz for a study guide for The Passenger for the Lyric Opera. Also I had a behemoth of a migraine—which may have been in part a result of researching Auschwitz. And in the midst of all of that I got a very nice rejection from a fancy New York agent. My friend Lindsay pointed out that I should look on the bright side, which was that this agent used some lovely, glowing words to describe my manuscript—but I mostly felt bad that she said it wasn’t for her.
So Lindsay sent me a pep talk in the form of a link to a list of big time writers who got rejected before making it big, which of course led to further investigation on my part.
It seems Gertrude Stein submitted poems for over twenty years before one got published.
Louisa May Alcott was told to stick to teaching by the editor of The Atlantic who had to eat his words when she ended up outselling Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Henry James.
Rudyard Kipling received this note from The San Francisco Examiner in 1889: “I am sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just do not know how to use the English language.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald was advised by a shortsighted publisher, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”
Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected by 26 publishers. It went on to win the Newbery Medal.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously rejected a dozen times.
One publisher recommended that Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (probably my favorite novel when I was twenty-two) be “buried under a stone for a thousand years.”
Not that I’m as brilliant as any of these authors, but it helps to think others have survived this particular roller-coaster.
In the words of Sylvia Plath, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”
And Barbara Kingsolver:
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
That’s a quote from Coco Chanel that I used last week to kick off a theater/social studies residency with eighth graders in Evanston. We’re exploring the 1920s and ‘30s through theater and creative writing. The first week we looked at changing images and roles for women in the 1920s; then, the students investigated their own relationship to fashion by writing about an article of clothing that was significant to them in some way. The quote sparked a discussion about clothing and culture and the connections between the two, both in the 1920s and today. (Also, 1920s slang is the bees’ knees.)
As an eighth grader myself, I was fond of quotations and tended to season my writing liberally with them—drawing from top 40 songs as well as my mother’s trusty Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, which is apparently the longest-lived and most widely distributed collection of quotes there is. Its first publication was in 1855. (Side note: when I was in eighth grade, one couldn’t call a quotation a quote without risking the wrath of one’s English teacher. Quote was the verb, quotation the noun. Now, apparently one can although it’s considered informal usage.)
These days I feel like we’re inundated with pseudo-meaningful quotes photoshopped in every font imaginable onto pictures of sunsets or snowboarders. On coffee mugs. Reusable shopping bags. The internet is rife with sites devoted to cataloguing quotes on every subject under the sun. There’s even a primer on how to come up with a good quote of your own that offers up these helpful tips: Continue reading Quotes!
Have patience with all things, But, first of all with yourself. —Saint Francis de Sales
I’ve often felt like a late bloomer. Not as a kid—I learned to read at age three, and that saw me through for a while, impressing grownups and whatnot. But now I’m grown up myself, I sometimes feel like it’s taking an impossibly long time to get there. I’m not 100% certain I know what there even is. Not fame and fortune. Weeell, maybe a teensy bit of fortune. Maybe a laurel or two. At a minimum, I really, really hope I can quit waiting tables before I’m half a century old. I don’t know if it’s because academic achievement came so easily when I was young or if it’s because our culture is infatuated with youth and early success, but for some time now I’ve had to ignore this refrain that ticks through my head like a very nasty white rabbit: too late, too late, too late. I’m much happier when I forget about time altogether and just settle in to the work at hand.
I subscribe to a “weekly interestingness digest” from a really cool site called brain pickings. This weekend it included a letter from Charles Bukowski to the editor of Black Sparrow Press who offered him $100 a month to quit his post office job and write full time. Bukowski was 49. Seventeen years later, he wrote a thank you: Continue reading Late Bloomers
Sand dunes are in my recent past and my near future! I had a lovely sojourn on Martha’s Vineyard earlier this month, and last week I was invited to the Calumet Artist Residencyon the southernmost shore of Lake Michigan for two weeks—from the end of August through Labor Day weekend. It’s in Miller Beach in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Nelson Algren bought a cottage there in 1950 with the proceeds from selling the film rights for his novel The Man With a Golden Arm. Supposedly, Simone de Beauvoir created a bit of stir by sunbathing naked in his yard. Continue reading Sand, Simone de Beauvoir and a Secondhand Sea
I make lists. I’m soothed, in particular, by the kind where you eventually get to cross things out or check them off. But I make other kinds of lists, too. Lists are containers; they are maps, taxonomies, blueprints. As a kid, I listed ways to make money, things I wanted to have when I grew up, things I needed to pack for vacation, boys I liked, books I liked, songs I liked.
I like writing that’s based on lists. I liked the litanies we said in church when I was a kid—Heart of Jesus, Lamb of God, pray for us. Nowadays I often used list-based writing in teaching.
I am waiting for my case to come up and I am waiting for a rebirth of wonder and I am waiting for someone to really discover America and wail and I am waiting for the discovery of a new symbolic western frontier and I am waiting for the American Eagle to really spread its wings and straighten up and fly right…Continue reading A Taxonomy of Couches: Listmaking in Writing and Life