Tuesday, 05 April 2011 15:28

Turning Away from Toxic Friends

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People who make me cry in bathrooms at parties are now off my list. "You," said a former friend, "are a representative of the literary establishment in this town, and I want nothing to do with that, so I don't want anything to do with you." We'd been friends for 20 years, close friends for 10. There was no reasoning with this person, who had been alienating friends one by one, so I'd heard, and had said uncharacteristically hostile things before, but I blamed it on hardening arteries. I hid and cried. There was nothing to do but cut this person -- and I hate doing artificial, gamey social shit like that -- at the next gathering where this person called after me, "Hey, Catherine--" Jerk me around? Uh-uh. I choose my mental health.

Former good buddy lies around now smoking pot, having ruined his finances by investing all in a business scheme, complaining in an endless loop about how he's been blackballed and there's no use looking for work. Tells me he's going to write a novel, will I read it when he writes it? I am no longer getting any pleasure from this friendship.

Distanced myself from former very close friend who broadcast something personal I said in confidence. We still must interact, but trust this person again? Never.

I look askance now at a likeable person who wanted to make sure I'm still teaching ONLY at the night school while this person holds a slightly more prestigious position.

Years ago a close writer friend and I competed for the same prize. I won. Never heard from him again. That's probably a good thing.

A dear friend needs to be steered away from the toxic topic of why this friend isn't published in Poetry and why universities aren't begging this person to teach and do readings. I said, "You've got to go to them." This person replies, "I shouldn't have to." I explain that things have changed since the days of Allen Tate. This conversation is toxic both to this friend and to me.

Am sad when people remain miffed that they were not interviewed for Meet Me. I couldn't interview everyone in town. There are two writers I deliberately and with forethought chose not to include: David Clewell and William Gass. There's plenty of stuff about them in print and online. Writers, if you want to be interviewed, do something new or notable and then put yourself in the path of interviewers.

Writers and non-writers, keep positive people around you if you are going for your dreams. And you need to be a positive person yourself.

Tuesday, 05 April 2011 13:16

Why Katie Couric Didn't Wash

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The journalism people take seriously nowadays comes from ordinary folks acting as journalists, posting videos and opinions, and the trick to their success is that they are unencumbered by a corporation's bottom line or the strictures imposed on the news by advertisers. They might be crazy but at least nobody controls what they do. When I worked on a dailly newspaper I was not allowed to cover a strike at Boston's biggest department store because it was a major advertiser. Everyone in town knew about the strike but the paper pretended it wasn't happening. My paper didn't even like reporters even to leave the office because they thought maybe we'd go to some bar and party, or otherwise stick it to the man. It's kind of hard to do good community journalism when you aren't allowed out of the building. We gathered information by phone or rewrote press releases and printed them as news. This was immoral. We had become journalists to serve the citizenry with trustworthy information. We had been trained to be personally accountable to the truth. We resented being treated as inmates and became cynical about the profession we had loved.

You can't have good solid serious journalism without journalists who love what they do and take it seriously and don't have to be people-pleasers. They must have freedom. The newspaper editorial was invented specifically so the suits would have their space to vent. Now they use the news to vent and we have what's disparagingly called "the media", very obviously brokers and spin doctors, and if nobody wants to read newspapers anymore or watch TV's nightly news, it's no mystery as to why.

Despite the serious, prizewinning work she had done as a journalist, America's former sweetheart Katie Couric was not taken seriously as a nightly news anchor and after five years -- granted, an era where nightly network news is no longer important -- is on her way out. It isn't her femaleness (although the cuteness she used to stay on top at Today works against her now). She's just no good at being stuck in front of a camera with nothing else to do, nowhere else to put her energy but her voice and determined facial expression, no one to argue with. It's the dullest, most "figurehead" of the high-visibility jobs. She's a journalist who wasn't creating, wasn't writing, wasn't free except to do the occasional special or interview (such as with Sarah Palin). It gave Couric a discomfited, even constipated expression. Who wants to watch that?
Sunday, 03 April 2011 03:04

Writing an Author a Fan Letter

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More than 30 years ago I received a pair of life-changing books that I read and annotated to pieces so I had to buy fresh copies, that I still read and re-read and use with pleasure, and finally a few weeks ago I emailed the author the fan letter. This was a cookbook author. (Cookbooks are the one kind of book I would never want as e-books only. I love love love them, and especially those by this author.)

I told the author how much the books have meant to me, what recipes I liked and how they helped sustain me and friends in good times and in lean times. I did not expect a reply, but she wrote that I made her day, and so on. If you have ever received an appreciative letter about your work, you know how it refreshes you. This was the thought finally drove me to take a minute and send my fellow writer, the cookbook author, my long-overdue verbal bouquet. I recommend this. It feels like a deposit in the Bank of Good Karma.

What I don't recommend is trying to establish a correspondence. A real writer is going to be too busy writing to be your penpal. (OMG, who remembers "penpals"??) I sent then-Vanity Fair columnist Christopher Hitchens my article about a TV show on which he had written another opinion. He wrote me back to say he appreciated my point of view. (I was amazed he had received, opened and read my letter at all.) I wrote him back but did not hear from him again. This wasn't rude. He's a writer.
Tuesday, 29 March 2011 00:34

They Don't Want You to Write

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Am haunted by the women who sought me out after Saturday's talk at "Celebrating Women Over 50." I'd said that as new writers they should expect overt and covert opposition, especially when they seek solitude -- because the woman who shuts herself away to do art threatens those who think she "should be" a voluntary slave to her family, friends, job, house. I had said, "They're just jealous," because in an hour I couldn't to explain everything about it: that "It's not that they want you to care for THEM. It's that they can't stand seeing YOU taking care of YOURSELF." There'a discussion about exactly this in the book The Artist's Way (pp. 198-200). Author Julia Cameron calls such relatives and friends "Wet Blankets." I recommended writers' groups for support. But opposition should have been the topic of the whole workshop. It hit a major nerve.

One woman described her husband getting nervous and suddenly needing her when she tried to shut her door to write. "What would happen if I called HIM at work and told him to come home immediately and take care of MY emotional needs?" she asked. Of course, short of illness or death in the family he would tell her to take a flyer, and rightly so. Another woman described her husband's verbal abuse. It was classic:

1. Horrible verbal abuse occurs regardless of the seriousness of "what's wrong." (Crooked miniblind is as enraging as a wrecked car or an IRS audit.)
2. The abuser denies that it is abuse.
3. The abuser declares that if anything, the abused is the abusive and crazy one.
4. Verbal abuse never occurs in the presence of witnesses (except children, whose testimony is easily discredited).
5. The abuser denies that abuse occurred, even when there is proof, such as a recording.
6. To others the abuser is affable and reasonable and socially is the better-liked of the pair.

To anyone out there with this problem, let me save you five or ten years of trying to fix it: There is NO cure short of separation.

The people to hang out with, live with, be with, as you begin to write, are the people who support your efforts, and if you haven't got them at home, join a writers' group.
Sunday, 27 March 2011 13:49

Scary Me: I Get a Clue

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Yesterday spoke to a roomful of women over 50, my favorites, interested in starting to write. Advised them, as I would advise anyone:
  • 1. Take a writing course, in person, not online. You will have an instructor and deadlines and meet other writers, leading to--
  • 2. Have a network. Join writers' organizations. You are never too much of a beginner or a pro. Don't shun a support system. Especially if you begin to write in mid-life your family will freak out.
  • 3. If you want to publish and make money, learn the business end. It's very complex. Learn it anyway.
  • 4. Do not give up.
  • 5. Buy reference books on "How to Publish," "How to Write a Novel," "How to Format a Manuscript.," "Be Happily Self-Published." These will answer so many of your questions....
I wore my current Sunday best: a black long-sleeved dress (I gained a few pounds over the winter and nothing with a waistband comfortably fits.) Black nylons. Black low-heeled pumps. That's a lot of black, but I wear a lot of it because it all matches. Big pendant of smoky quartz (a stone that gives me great power) on gold chain. Pearly earrings my mom gave me. Of course my glasses. But this is the thing:

A participant told me afterward, "Your presentation was so informative. You were so funny and delightful! So glad I stayed for it!" (The people who come up to me after a talk are almost always representative of the whole audience.)

Thanks, I said, secretly surprised because I thought my presentation had been insufficiently linear and organized. And I worried because I had said I liked my writing more than I had liked my husbands. (This generated laughter.) I didn't want the audience to think they had to jettison their husbands to become writers. Knowing I had to be vulnerable so they could connect with me, I also had given them a list of secrets I don't tell anyone.

She added (This is my CLUE): "When you walked in and I first saw you, so overdressed, I thought, 'Oh no,' it's going to be a dull presentation,' but you surprised us! You were so funny and delightful!"

My CLOTHES? I have heard "overdressed" before. On occasions where I'm looked at, I want to look good, not as if I'm about to clean my bathroom. I honor my work and respect my audience by dressing for it. (Or is that an olde-fashioned or working-class notion?) Furthermore I like the contrast between how I am dressed and what I say, particularly when I do literary readings. My usual business-casual pants I might have worn yesterday temporarily do not fit. I need a red or pink or yellow dress for these occasions! If I buy one I can write it off as a business expense! Golly, I don't want people to dread me when I walk into a room.
Friday, 25 March 2011 04:44

I Want to Be Another Poet

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I'd like to be another kind of poet, writing poems that really get taken seriously. A few years back I tried this. Only one of those poems was completed. It was somber, serious, international in scope (the subject was the great Korean poet, Ko Un. I was not at all making up what I felt when I saw him read: respect and awe). I described the sweaty-warm spring day. The poem was also highly referential (if you couldn't deduce that the poem was about Ko Un you wouldn't get it), sharply observed (he wore a wrinkled dress shirt too big for him), and ultimately my poem was really about the power of poetry. Top that!! I titled it "How to Change Everything" and asked a poet friend for an opinion.

"What were you trying to say here? Makes no sense," he complained. I said, "But this, and this..." He wasn't buying. I saw that I was not going to become an author of serious, ominous poems about important international and social currents -- at least not by deliberately trying.

Not long ago tried a longer, solemn poem about something else important. Responses said it started out okay, had some good moments. Greatness was not mine.

Alas, like a singer I apparently have a range. Quirky, "jazzy" and "cute." I guess as long as I'm healthy and have enough to eat there is no point in wishing things were different. I've tried working within my range with very serious subject matter: In one poem I think is a good one, the speaker verbally abuses an ugly girl on a crowded greyhound bus. While I read it, the workshop laughed. "What are you laughing at? This is a very tragic poem," I said. The reply: "It's just the way you put things, like, her stye looked like a tomato seed." "But that's what a stye looks like," I said, chagrined.

Think it's time I gave up.
Friday, 25 March 2011 00:31

The King and I

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I once went to a class led by an image consultant who told me to have my upper lipline straightened because one bow is very slightly higher than the other. He said it gave me a contemptuous expression. I was stunned, but didn't think he was lying. I just had never seen what others saw.elvisbw Later when I wrote a long essay about young Elvis I was amazed to see in him the same slight defect, which lent him his famous "sneer," although the man was not known to have sneered at anyone, and on him it looked cool. I'm thinking of this because I met for the first time today the publicist hired by the publisher of Meet Me, and she seemed to have expected a difficult encounter. I have never understood why perfect strangers assume I am cold, exacting, demanding, and severe. Oh, I admit that my gaze is like a laser beam. But the publicist couldn't know that because we had never met.

Something precedes me, and I would say "It's my work," except that on the first day of classes I frighten students who have never read a word I have written, and anyway it isn't scary work. Smiling at students more -- cheaper than plastic surgery -- and putting the class's focus on them, not me, has fixed that. Back in undergrad days my writing did precede me: People would say, "That's you? I expected a big huge Amazon" -- but that was only on campus, and those days are long gone. Or it could be "my reputation" preceding me, except that other than having on numerous occasions given blunt and ill-considered opinions -- but never to students -- and maintaining an army of flying monkeys, I cannot imagine how I earned an intimidating reputation. I think of other writer/teachers who had scary reputations: Howard Nemerov appeared to enjoy making devastating remarks. You will never hear me saying to a young poet, "Son, the problem with you is, you have a tin ear." Others were known as curmudgeons, stoners, and lechers. I am none of those.

I think part of the problem may be that I am female and one bow of my lip is slightly higher than the other, and like almost every other educated female in America I will be acceptable only after I undergo plastic surgery, or, even better, go back into the kitchen where I belong.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011 01:07

Coming: Professional-Writer Certification

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The most successful writer-certification program I know of is for Professional Resume Writers. They're powerful; nobody wants their resumes written by anybody else now. A certification organization for writers in general (membership $50; take an exam; pledge to uphold certain ethics) didn't catch on, but you don't need a weatherman (excuse me, meteorologist) to know which way the wind is blowing.

Writer certification is going to happen. Professional writers of the future will have to show a package of credentials such as degrees, certificates, and exam scores, and pledge to uphold certain standards and ethics. It is only natural when anyone can write anything short of libel and post it on the Internet, copy anything and photoshop it and sell it and claim fair use when sued for copyright infringement, or take hidden cameras and pose as Muslims hoping to bait NPR execs into dissing the Tea Party so as to bring down the whole organization.

Today I see online psychic sites claiming their psychics are certified. Wine writers recently argued about whether wine writers and reviewers should be certified. Ultimately the wine writers said no, because lots of wine writers have been fine ones without credentials or guild membership. But the question arose, along with this one: Should a restaurant critic have worked in a restaurant (makes sense, kind of, doesn't it?) and pass an exam showing they know terrines from pates -- even though they're really just a writer? ("Just" a writer? Please! Who else has the skills we have?) It will happen in bits and pieces: As our profession stratifies into "technical writers" and "medical writers" and "web content writers" and "resume writers," eventually, as for other professions like law and medicine, professional-level money will be reserved for those with credentials. It's already that way; there's just no established certification process as of yet.
Tuesday, 22 March 2011 01:32

The Fake Job Interview

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The CEO, a youngish "Social Media" type, explained how if we were hired we would get to wander around the company, shadowing people and designing our own jobs, and every Friday, as part of this growing company's Business Leadership Program, business leaders would lecture and help turn us into company execs. This was a group job interview, my first. We were six: 4 young male college grads, a mature woman (me) and an old man. BUT....TO OFFSET the COST OF THIS Business Leadership Program, and the $3750 we would be paid during our 12-week internship, we had to work 8:30 to 5 and make 3,000 phone calls a month. "We don't like to call it telemarketing," said the CEO. "It's the 'call center'..."

Then we toured the building (in scenic Overland), saw the warehouse and the "call center," a huge buzzing hive of cubicles, in each a college-educated 20-something microserf making cold calls on a virtual phone. During a month with 21 working days, 148 calls must be made each day, or 18.5 calls an hour. $3750 for 12 weeks is $312 a week, divided by 40 is $7.81 cents an hour. Telemarketing at minimum wage.

This was how they set their hook for nice clean articulate college grads to interview for minimum-wage jobs as telemarketers: tell them they will be interns. That's a word they understand; very Job Market 2.0. The company's morale-boosting slogan: "Thank God It's Monday." Their Business Leadership Program had been advertised through the State of Missouri careers site, and I did think it fishy when they called me although my resume clearly says I graduated in 1978. At the group job interview I almost got up and said "This is an outrage" (it is a clever, entirely legal and blameless form of the old "bait and switch" job offer) but I decided to say nothing and make them sorry they had invited a former investigative journalist to their group interview and company tour.
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