Sunday, December 26, 2010

Reading and Writing for 2011

Sometimes I just want to read. When left to my own devices, a weekend alone, I want nothing more than to stay in pajamas the entire time, book or Kindle in hand, cup of tea on the table, cat quietly at my feet. First of all, my cat's seldom quiet. She's always on the wrong side of the door. Second, I say this now because I'm writing this on the cusp of a new year, when the Pacific Northwest is cold, wet and dark. My inclinations are much different when the sun dances across my bed at 5:00AM and smiles on my yard until late into the night.

Last year, I all but abandoned my writing endeavors. I took stock of all the online writers' forums, workshops, conferences, writer's retreats, associations I had tangled around my pen and asked myself what was in it for me. I came up with a big, fat zero. I wasn't getting anything out of any of them. The associations, retreat coordinators and workshop sales people were all anxious for my involvement, as long as I kept writing checks. Of course, they never offered much encouragement for my writing, but such is the station of the contender. At conferences, there was always the big divide between those who were there because they'd made it and those who were they because they wanted to make it, making it meaning being published. Oh, and then there was the category of those who hadn't made it but were there with something to sell that would make other people make it.

Online writer's forums didn't work for long either. There was the small, intimate group I loved for so long. But the woman who ran the group was hijacked by her ego and decided she wanted to turn the group into a real money-making proposition. She also decided that her writing talent exceeded all group members, and we somehow became her underlings. As for Zoetrope, what good did it ever do to post anything there? Most of the people who critiqued pieces there were just trying to reach their quota so that they could post more of their work. I don't know how many critiques I got from people who didn't even try to hide that they hadn't even read my piece.

It got so that I couldn't write without a hundred people in my head telling me how to do it, how I couldn't do it, how I should slant it, how I had nothing to say that anyone wanted to read, how cliched I was. So, I took a break. Some journaling. Not much. A few articles for a dieting blog I write. Nothing consistent there. And I read a lot.

This year, I plan to continue reading a lot. But I want to write too. So much has changed in my life in the last 3 months that I have no idea what is going to happen this coming year. But I will continue to read books like I'm drinking from a fire hose, and those readings I will post here. Then, when it's dark and no one's watching, I intend to pull out my pen and write things straight from my head. My hope is that imagination will body forth the form of things unknown, and the workshop leaders, forum trolls and retreat councilors will no longer be heard over the distance of a year.

Monday, May 17, 2010

This year has been a sore year for me as a writer. Last August, I left the AROHO conference for women writers, full of excitement and wonder. I walked away from that experience believing that I had taken my writing skill as far as I could without dedicated focus and wide-spread support. So much of the conference was populated by academics or by people who had completed MFA programs. Many talked about finding their true voices during the course of study.

Leaving the retreat, I spent another week, hiking the mountains of Colorado and the red rock country of Utah. Clipping along in my red Rav4 with a cooler full of ice water and an iPod full of the Kronos Quartet, I looked back at my life in Washington from this distance and knew that it was time for me to find a new life.

The question often arises when someone initiates great change: Are you walking to something or away from something? It's a loaded question, because the perceptions are false, the reasoning flawed. Walking away implies that one is a runner, an escape artist, and a failure...someone who is unable to make good with what is there. Someone who doesn't know how to make lemonade. While walking to something sounds more positive. If you're walking to something, you're the mistress of your own life, the creator of your destiny. You are following your bliss. Just like that glass half full/half empty thing. Sometimes having a half empty glass is beneficial. Sometimes it is the part waiting to be filled that holds all the hope and anticipation. Sometimes it is the part already drunk that is significant. Sometimes walking away takes more courage than the idiots who come up with these things could ever fathom.

Driving along the pinnacle contoured Utah highways, I knew that did not want to go back to my job in high tech. While the field does not compensate me as well as it does my male peers, I can't think of anything else to do that will pay as much. I decided to make a huge leap. I would go back to school and spend two to three years in an MFA program. I would sell my house, go someplace new and focus on writing and nothing but writing for the duration of the program. People at the retreat had encouraged me. Do it, they said. There are programs that are fully funded. Go for one of those. Do a teaching assistanceship, they said. It's easy. There are so many programs.

From August to January, I researched programs, filled out a blizzard of paperwork, found people to serve as references, studied for and took the friggin GRE exam, gathered together writing samples and research papers, wrote statements of purpose, paid fees and sent it all off. I applied to eleven programs. The University of Nevada never responded. The rest sent me form letters, saying that the decision had been so difficult but no.

It's May now, and I'm discouraged. Maybe it's time to put away my toys, I'm thinking. My last chance street car has derailed. Maybe I've been making a fool of myself. Give it up. Stop putting it out there. No one wants to read my writing. No one is out there saying that I have promise. I've pulled way back.

This year, I will mostly read and, if I write, I will do so for myself. I want to find out what will come out of me without all those other people's voices in my head. Don't be trite. I don't find your characters/plot/theme/pov/tone believable. Maybe you should add more detail, make it more understated, make it longer, shorter, put it in the future, take it to a new locale. Or the worst, uh, thank you for sharing. What would I write if I were my only reader? What do I want to write? Do I have any stories in me? At this point, I don't know if I'll even write anything.

Wish I felt more positive. Rough year.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Literary Fiction - Dead or Going Down in Flames?

An interesting pair of articles recently appeared, discussing the topic of literary fiction.

The Death of Fiction?


Third Degree Burns

This statement from The Death of Fiction was astonishing:

Back in the 1930s, magazines like the Yale Review or VQR saw maybe 500 submissions in a year; today, we receive more like 15,000.

The rest of this article, I thought was exasperating. The rest of the article is a typical editor's diatribe about how he'd be happy if writers would write things that are more interesting. I think that is bullshit. With that much material to choose from, it isn't that there's nothing interesting or worthy of his publication. He's just overwhelmed. How does one sift through that much material? With 15,000 submissions, the ratio of bad to worthy doesn't change, requiring him to sift through a lot of sludge. But it's not the writers' fault.

All of us know from the time we've spent reading the unpublished work of other writers in writer's groups, that there's a lot of really great writing going on that never finds a greater audience.

The other article, I think, comes closer to touching on the real challenges facing writers. As long as the publishing industry runs the business with an eye for what it thinks will make the most money, literary fiction is essentially dead. I loved the statement that publishers and editors are looking for what will sell millions of copies now, instead of what will still be read a hundred years from now. I found it interesting that the writer says MFA programs also work to produce writers of blockbusters, rather than literary fiction. Do you think that's true? So much for the Fine Arts part of the MFA.

So, these articles seem to beg a question of us as writers. What influences us? Do we write from our hearts or do we allow the marketing trends and publishing house mandates to influence what we write? When we agent shop, are we listening to the things we are told when we are given feedback and setting out to bend our work to meet what they think will suit demand? I have fallen into that trap. An agent once told me that my YA novel would be marketable if I were to change it into a futuristic story. I can't believe I actually considered it. How much does marketability play into what and how we write? Who do we write to when we're writing? These are the things that the second article brought up for me. Good stuff.