Jan 28

What You Get from Your Job

Under "professional experience" please add:
  • Used now-historic computers and witnessed fascinating new technological developments
  • Made best friends with officemates
  • Witnessed dramatic business moments
  • Felt kinship with co-workers, especially if they were going through a rough patch
  • Experienced dramatic moments in business communication

Such as? How about the tiime the whole staff excused itself, one by one, in midafternoon thanks to a massive snowstorm. I was web editor and could not leave until I got the official word that the company's evening events were to be cancelled because that needed to be posted online. One boss and I remained, waiting for the word, knowing the big boss never liked to cancel anything for any reason. Outside the snow fell thickly and traffic crawled. Darkness fell. We waited. Finally the word came and I posted it on our most-trafficked pages and was bundled up and just about to leave when my boss said the cancellation did not show up on our website. Our postings had a history of lag time, on and off. I had measured it and it was always about 50 minutes and IT said they couldn't fix it, that it was a problem in our open-source software. Users would come to the site to confirm cancellation, and until I was sure they could see it, I would not leave. But in this case I showed the boss how to back out of his browser and then hard refresh. There it was. Then I fought my way to a friend's house because there was no way I could make the drive home.

Oct 24

Respect (Just a Little Bit)

I was the least distinguished guest at the dinner party. It was a great honor to be asked to dine among the stars. So I detailed myself and was on my best behavior, enjoying a glass of wine and listening to the chat. I did not smoke, swear, or do card tricks. But then dinner was ready. The host's dining table seated only 8 and there were 10 diners. What to do?

The solution: Put a little table off in the corner and seat there (with place cards) the least distinguished guest and the second-least-distinguished guest, both unescorted females. We could neither see nor be seen by the diners, who had their backs to us, nor could we take part in their conversation. We were told with an apology that this arrangement was by lottery. Forgive me, but I doubt that one or two of the nationally and internationally famous would have been seated at the kids' table, lottery or not.

I'm from an ethnic subculture that loves to host and treats even the most extraneous guests as royalty. We would rather face a firing squad than set a few human beings apart as if there were not several alternatives to this arrangement, to wit:
1. Serve dinner buffet-style.
2. Buy or rent a larger table.
3. Use smaller chairs. (Accommodating guests is more important than matching or having to move your furniture.)
4. Dining room too small for the crowd? Move the table to the living room.
5. Have the hosts (or at least one of them) seat themselves at the second-class table.
6. Have the hosts buzzing around serving and refilling and ascertaining that all invitees are well taken care of (the hosts can eat later).
7. Move the event to a restaurant (doesn't have to be expensive) and write off the cost as a business expense and as a way to head off even a whiff of an idea that they sort their guests by importance.

I was so embarrassed at being thus Jim Crowed -- regardless of status I am still a human being -- that I had to try not to cry, asking myself grimly and repeatedly, "What would Eleanor Roosevelt do?" She famously said, "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent." I wonder if anyone else was embarrassed by this arrangement. (Nobody said anything. I considered leaving. My parents would have seen the score, excused themselves and left. I thought that might embarrass the hosts in front of their other guests, and politeness required I should be embarrassed rather than they; and finally, I did not want to leave my poor tablemate twisting in the wind.)

As fate would have it, this happened to the only one who would ever write about it. It is what I have always done to stay sane.
Oct 08

Sic Transit Gloria

I'm an elder now among writers. The younger ones who have the positions similar to what I had, or used to want, do not know me, and haven't heard or read anything I've written; in fact they're not sure I am published at all. I haunt the fringes at readings or workshops, but what they see is a middle-aged woman, a local, who never published in Shenandoah or snagged a big prize, at least that they know about, or any honor that still matters. Maybe I was somebody once, but I made mistakes, missed the boat, and now I'm a member of the old-school. That's how it goes, the way the cookie crumbles, sic transit gloria mundi; anyway, their own lives occupy them quite completely, as they ought to. I have been where they are now.

I have learned that a middle-aged female no matter how distinguished isn't granted that halo of success and prominence the younger are sure that they will have when they reach middle age. Rather, the middle-aged female is a nonentity. The goosey voices of her kind get tuned out. People remark only on the way she dresses: a too-exotic scarf, a funereal black suit, maybe boots (groan), or microfiber flats that too clearly accommodate her bunions or bunionettes. But the clothes might as well be empty. She is an embarrassment; it is feared that her nothingness is contagious. That she might have accomplished notable things doesn't matter. Her fee might be twice what you make in a month. She might even be Secretary of State. But no halo.

It's a gleaming platinum halo; I have seen it around others, around the young, gifted, royal, and hopeful.

I wear it in my hair.

Jun 27

Reading Yourself

Chuck Berry hates to listen to his own records. Certain movie stars hate watching their own movies. I once spent a year and a half avoiding the print version of an article I published. Finally I read it. It wasn't half bad. In fact it was good.

Have you re-read yourself lately? If you are down, it might cheer you up. A few nights ago I got caught up re-reading my own books. I thought, "Man, I said that really well! It holds up! How did I do that? Can I ever do it that well again?" and although I know I could, given the same situation, for a few minutes I doubted it.

I'd say that was my own weird thinking, except I once interviewed a sitar genius named Imrat Khan who said he thinks the same thing when he listens to his own recordings -- that he could never surpass what he's already done, that future work will somehow be lacking.

These are fears, and fears have no existence apart from their host. Maybe Chuck Berry, 82, focuses on the future, not the past. I do appreciate the past for things accomplished and lessons learned. But a focus on the future -- even if it's only a contest deadline or writers' gathering that's coming up -- is a definite plus for the mental health of artists.
Jun 13

Discovering the Power of the Written Word

I come from a long and possibly unbroken line of non-writers and non-readers, and was about eight when my mom read my description of a family trip to visit her father up north. I must have written it for a teacher because in the piece I used his surname, calling him "Grandpa Pongratz." "'Grandpa Pongratz'!" my mother howled, but not angrily; more as if she'd been startled from behind.

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.
Writers forget how non-writers perceive us. We forget how amazed and hypnotized we were to see our very first work in print. We might even have succumbed to it ("The first time I saw my name in print, I knew--").

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...
May 20

How to Destroy a Writers' Conference

Take a fully-functioning annual writers' conference that's been successful for ten years or so, a conference loved by its participants, but difficult and draining work for its organizing committee and its instructors, who nevertheless realize, when it's all over, that they've created something wondrous and given some of the participants the greatest moments of their lives. Then destroy it, bit by bit. Here's how.

1. Decide it has to turn a bigger profit.
2. Cut the director's salary in half.
3. Refuse to pay reasonable fees for "name" writers as instructors and speakers, and instead hire graduate students, unknowns or personal friends.
4. Exploit upper-class high-schoolers' career-minded parents and start a youth writing workshop that runs simultaneously, and then mix the youth in with the adults.
5. Use as a logo a typewriter image or a quill pen image obtained from a free clipart site.
6. Cut the publicity and mailing budget and rely on Facebook and Twitter to drum up interest.
7. Book and announce the workshop instructors at the last possible minute.
8. Accept all applicants, including those who can't write a plain English sentence.
9. Raise the price each year.
10. Stop offering a scholarship for a person who can't afford the price.
11. Don't bother sending acceptance confirmation or welcome letters, or orientation kits.
12. Instead of offering bagels in the morning, get a committee member's mom to contribute a dry little quickbread. Cut it into very thin slices so there are enough slices to go around.
13. Hold the workshops and events in cheaper, shabbier buildings and rooms.
14. Cease hiring the instructor who is a popular, proven success, whose workshops fill instantly; get someone more hip.
15. Because the fiction and poetry workshops aren't filling, combine them into a fiction-and-poetry workshop.

(#15, friends, is the death blow, showing a total misunderstanding of writers, the writing process, and workshops.)
Apr 25

Irons in the Fire

I've got three book manuscripts out circulating, which rather takes my mind off the long, ambitious poem I sent to a magazine that may or may not take it, for political reasons (aside from the fact that they might not like it. But I do). Strange that I worry most about the poem, not the books.

It really helped getting my writing group involved in readying the Writing Group book for submission to publishers. One of us photocopied the book outline and sample chapters; two of us split the work of writing customized cover letters for each publisher; I made a spreadsheet to track submissions; someone did stapling and envelope-stuffing; she with the best handwriting addressed them and the SASEs; and finally one of us carried the packages to the post office and got them stamped for going (and returning; but we hope not). Any anxiety about that book -- now titled The Writing Group Handbook -- is divided eight ways. And so it rests lightly on the individual creative soul.

We, and specifically I, have no worries about whether the Writing Group book is good and worthwhile -- we know it is. Eight writers can't be wrong! A poet can never have the same secure feeling about a poem. But that's the price of writing poetry and wanting to publish it. I'll pay it -- but I am glad of having several other irons in the fire, and some writer friends.
Apr 11

The Myth of the Lone Writer

In a study or an attic, a writer works alone, cut off from the world. This is the Lone Writer.

After months or years of heroic solitary labor, the Lone Writer emerges, reeling, with a stack of pages: a literary masterpiece. Published, it becomes immortal.

The image of the Lone Writer, the burner of midnight oil, the solitary genius, haunts us, but it's misleading. In a word, it is false. The Lone Writer is like the private detective in his trenchcoat and fedora, or the Texan with a six-shooter and spurs: simplified, stylized images, created for entertainment. We know better than to confuse them with real people. But belief in the Myth of the Lone Writer lives on, even in the minds of writers, and unlike our images of detectives or Texans, this image can destroy people. It destroys writers.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a Lone Writer.

     -But, but! Some great writers of the past actually worked that way. Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. Right?

     -No. Poe was a magazine editor. He spent his days reading other people’s writing.

     -Well, Ernest Hemingway wrote at his stand-up desk alone in the woods.

     -He was alone while he wrote, but he had a great editor advising him and keeping him on track: Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. Hemingway called Perkins his most trusted friend.

     -Well, Thoreau, then.

     -Thoreau’s mentor, author Ralph Waldo Emerson, opened his home to Thoreau and at times supported him financially. Walden Pond was on Emerson’s property. And even at Walden, Thoreau was not always alone: His book describes the many visitors he had while living there.

     -Sylvia Plath wrote the Ariel poems alone at 4:00 a.m. while her children slept.

     -Those poems didn’t come out of thin air. For seven years Plath was married to British poet Ted Hughes. All that time they were a team. They read and critiqued each other’s poems. They had shared interests. Plath typed Hughes’ manuscripts and got him published. Hughes gave Plath writing exercises when she felt blocked, and inspired her to write a voice play and children’s books. Each deeply influenced the other.

     -Emily Dickinson never left home.

     -She asked the biggest poetry editor in the U.S. to critique her poems and come visit her. (He did.) They corresponded for 25 years.

     -Mark Twain.

     -Twain’s first novel, The Gilded Age, was a collaboration with a writer named Charles Dudley Warner. Look, why are we focusing so much on writers? Why don’t we focus on what they wrote? That's what's important.

     -I think we want to figure out how they achieved what they did.

     -One thing is sure: They didn’t do it being Lone Writers.

Because Lone Writers hold themselves apart from the world, there are all kinds of writing and publishing opportunities they will never hear about. They forego the chance that someone will suggest, for their manuscript, a really great title, or a better ending. They will never meet someone who knows a friend-of-a-friend who can help the writer get a grant, or get on the “New and Notable” list. However, it will be bitterly clear to the aspiring Lone Writer that other writers benefit from such “connections.”

Literary history, like art history, is full of artists’ circles and groups and movements and hot spots, as on the Left Bank in Paris, or Harlem in the 1920s. Can it honestly be said that because Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston worked together, or because Van Gogh and Gaugin were friends, they sacrificed their originality and integrity? Artists of all kinds need a community. Friends. A circle. Colleagues. A support group. A network. Sponsors. Grantors. Accomplished writers have always had these things – or they figured out how to get them.
  • Gertrude Stein had Alice B. Toklas and a weekly salon for artists and writers at her house.
  • Virginia Woolf had Leonard Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle.
  • T.S. Eliot had as his mentor Ezra Pound.
  • Jack Kerouac had Neal Cassady and a bunch of poet friends.
  • The Brontë sisters had each other.
Maybe you need to be alone to write. But you don’t need to be a Lone Writer. Pit yourself against the world, and odds are that the world will win.

How do I know all this? I used to be a Lone Writer.
Mar 24

The King and I

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.

Feb 06

How 'Me' Can I Be?

Surprise: I'm writing less carefully these days. Not with less attention to grammar and spelling, not that. But I'm just letting it spill. Or letting it flow. I'm not taking the time to refine, refine, refine -- and then get word from an editor that she/he has a few suggestions (and remember, in my experience, editors' suggestions have 90 percent of the time been good ones. Start out as a journalist; that'll take the prima donna outta you). What's more important, I'm also asking myself -- more writing getting out, or less writing being sifted, re-sifted, shifted, pulled apart, stitched together? What about those whole days spent on one word or phrase? Whole weeks spent on one line? Was I being great-souled, or was I being crazy?

Have I been lied to? What is this thing about "perfection"? Are all great pieces of writing sweated over? I know one that isn't, the American masterpiece Moby-Dick. I mean, that's a breathtaking book. And yet somewhere in its depths author Melville put forth what I thought an unforgettable cry:

"This whole book is but a draft—nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"
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