- "While having my second cup of coffee...." (indicates excess leisure; annoys readers who by necessity wake to horrible alarm clock, rush the kids to school, rush to work)
- "our late breakfast of coffee and blood oranges..." (indicates excess leisure and money-fueled hyperestheticism (the oranges being rare and expensive; the casual reference to "blood," the implied reference to Wallace Stevens' "Sunday Morning"), and, lucky you, you probably have a two-income household)
- "Walking in the desert wilderness I was thinking about..." (indicates a panoply of luxuries: solitude, leisure to think, time for aimless walking, and placement in a remote quiet setting)
- "Woke up this morning..." (it's an essay, not a blues song, honey)
- "My mother" / My father" (no one cares; get to the point) (I once read a litmag that had four pieces in it all beginning with the words "My father...")
- "Sometimes, reality strikes with the force of a tidal wave" (you're just figuring that out?)
- "I find myself saying frequently to my students..." (wow, you've got a teaching job? lucky you)
- "My father would sit with his feet up on his desk..." (your father had a desk?)
- "My senior year..." (better, start out "In 1985," or whatever year it was. Nobody cares about your senior year, but some readers might give a hoot about 1985 as a year)
- "I learned early on..." (you're showing, not telling)
Employability/Disability Assessment (Instructions to screener: Check all applicable items)
writes for hours without being compelled to
calls word-processing "creative writing"
reads Middle English
asserts that the 18th century is important
believes beauty is truth
believes publication confers validation
claims his/her condition is congenital and "fun"
thinks 12 percent is fair and 15 percent is generous
feels uncertain about the line between poetry and prose
likes closed captioning
will struggle for an hour to get the "1" off manuscript page 1
thinks it would be "great" to live alone in a lighthouse for a year
Sitcoms and standup have set the tone for our language and behavior, and writers increasingly write that way. I have a cookbook whose hip young authors riddled the text with cutesy, unfunny jokes, and I wonder why. If someone speaks in earnest, with passion, we say: "Tell us what you REALLY think!" If someone complains, we play the air violin or say, "Do you want cheese with that whine?" A harsh story or philosophizing makes us say, "that's heavy" or "that's pretty dark" and we do our best to restore a light and carefree atmosphere as if the world and Disney World were one and the same. We joke, tell jokes, refer to jokes. We all know chronic jokers. I have learned smart-aleck replies to earnest inquiries as simple as, "What time is it?" Above all we want to be liked. Laughter brings us together, but it can also keep us apart. Not everything is a joke.
Surprisingly, our comedians do not tell jokes. We are the ones who tell jokes. They tell truths: about money, sex, relationships, politics. Our poets do that also. The U.S. found the perfect poet in Billy Collins, a hybrid poet/comedian who is a product of our time.
This is a self-publishing project: an illustrated little inspirational book for women. The fantastic drawings by Sheila Kennedy will make the book of work of art. This project has long roots. At a printery I'd seen adorable little books, like children's books, except they were for adults; loved the shape and size. Then in my files I found the list, 31 lines, that would become the text. I'd written it to restore myself after a rough patch. Re-reading it I was surprised it was still "alive." I thought, this could help somebody else. My Inner Critic had a field day:
*who will read this? *you, writing inspirational stuff? *you want to kill your reputation this will do it! *you really want to embarrass yourself! *it will cost seeerious money! *where will you find an illustrator? *what qualifies you to try to inspire people? *why isn't it a book of poems? *you are crazy!
But I shut up my Critic (he looks and sounds like Christopher Hitchens). It wasn't easy. It was like the Puritans in old Plimoth: If somebody in town went nuts or on a bender, they dragged him to his house, tossed him in and then nailed the door shut, to let him cool off. Just in the last two weeks I first spoke of the idea to other writers. I explained the concept or brought them the text, nervously asking, am I crazy?
Finding the illustrator was easy; I was led to her. I didn't seek design and printing estimates; knowing its likely price and what I wanted, I asked for it and signed. My publishing experience, all of it, came in very handy. (I'm the kind who'll park the car in the first empty space and walk, rather than keep circling to find one closer to the entrance.) And, gritting my teeth, sent the check today.
Several streams had run together: the business course that said manifesting "crazy" ideas was the sanest thing to do. My editing of faith-based book manuscripts, which I found strangely moving although I am not religious. Karmic issues I won't go into. The "now or never" bit. The "leap and the net will appear"/"walk by faith, not by sight" bit. (Did it before, risking much more than I am now.) The "better to regret what you did do than what you didn't do." The "dare you dare you, double-dog dare you." The "I could vacation on this money or I could make this book. I'll make the book."
1. Give it when the recipient will care about it. You have friends who don't care a fig about your poetry. Do not attend their birthday parties and, with shining eyes, gift them with your poetry book.
2. Do not give it as a prize or premium, or instead of compensation for services, or as a thank-you, unless you are thanking the recipient for somehow helping in the book's creation or promotion. Do not withhold the book from anyone who helped.
3. Do not give your book as a substitute for a real gift, or as an act of charity unless the charity solicits it.
4. Do not try to impress a non-writing romantic interest, or his or her parents, by giving your book. If you are female they will say behind your back that you are siddity (stuck-up, think you are too good for them); if you are male they will say the writer thing is okay but he'll never make any money with it.
5. Yes, give your book in exchange for another writer's book.
6. Give it to a potential reviewer, but when no review appears, don't pin her to the wall and demand to know what happened.
6.5. Don't give it to people you ignore except when you want their attention for your book.
7. Don't give it unless you give it with all your heart. If you'd really like money for it, tell them you'll sell it to them for cost. Really. Or the transaction will embitter you.
8. Don't give it to someone who really should buy it, such as a stranger chatting you up at a book signing.
9. Give it to a famous writer if you like, but do not expect it to be read, because he or she gets handed books all the time, and do not expect thanks. Hope only that he or she glances at it and says, "Doesn't look bad," or "That'd be nice to read if I wasn't so busy writing."
10. Give it to someone who will share the joy of it with you.
- Copyedit a manuscript, meaning: correct the grammar, punctuation and spelling, and establish consistency throughout. "Line editing" means the same.
- Copyedit a manuscript and provide feedback on its contents, readability, publishability, tone, and so on.
- Do the above, plus reorganize and possibly rewrite portions of the text.
Even worse, some writer's creative nonfiction features a certain character: Let's say it's you. But unlike a student evaluator, the creative nonfiction writer doesn't judge you by even a vague set of standards; his or her view is totally subjective and piecemeal. The writer "characterizes" you, describing a few of your traits, and, oh God, quotes selected things they claim you SAID. Even if it's a flattering characterization, your gut reaction will be to cringe or criticize. Student wrote about me in a free-write: "Catherine is very organized." What could be wrong with that, you say? Well, she didn't add that I am also very beautiful! I don't believe that anyone who has ever been quoted in print thinks he or she has been quoted correctly. But there you are on paper, exposed to the eyes of strangers, and a mere pawn in the writer's world.
So, yes, real people will feel annoyed and upset when they read what you wrote about them--even if what you wrote was nice. What you wrote won't ever match what they'd write about themselves, if they could; but they can't. Your job as a nonfiction writer: Honesty. And maybe for the sake of peace not presenting your "characters" with a gift-wrapped copy of what you wrote. If they find it themselves they can always say that you didn't know any better.
What had I done wrong, I wondered, and slunk away.
Now I'm beginning to see how what I wrote startled her.
- I had re-named, for an audience, the man she had called Dad and I had called Grandpa.
- In doing this I had asserted my difference from her. Mom did not at that time perceive us kids as differing from her in any important way. I was the eldest and my job was to break such news ("Mom, we're different from you") and absorb the response.
- In writing "Grandpa Pongratz" I had used the power to name. Such power in the hands of an eight-year-old--anybody would freak out.
- By writing, I had transplanted Grandpa from our entirely private family hothouse and placed him in the light normally reserved for public figures.
- Words on paper strike much harder than information conveyed verbally.
- Until that moment her father had not existed on paper, in prose, independently of his own hand.
Reminded of this by seeing Indian Paintbrushes growing in the roadside today, and remembering that long-ago car trip, on which Mom told me the name of those orange flowers.
More on this later...