Feb 12
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Recap of Independent Publishers Panel

If you couldn't make it to UMSL Friday to hear the good news from small-press publishers, try this link to read a blog entry about the event by Beth Mead, director of the Lindenwood University MFA program, who describes it well. The small-press publishers want to read things "exceptional and pure."
Feb 10
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The First Writer I Ever Saw:

norman_mailer_1988 Mine was Norman Mailer, fall or winter of 1972. My then-boyfriend, a freshman at the local college, knew I liked writing, so he took me to see a famous writer. Ignorant as eggs we sitting on bleachers in the gym looking at the first published writer I ever saw. I remember his tightly curled (like sheep's wool) hair. He talked at length about "existentialism," very big then.

Mailer denounced "Women's Lib," and a woman in the audience stood up and said, "Women's Lib isn't ____[forgot what she said]; it is a FACT." And Mailer replied, "Your ass is not a fact." Nobody laughed but nobody left. The probable origin of this then-very-daring/discomfiting exchange: In 1971 Mailer had published The Prisoner of Sex, a book tearing apart feminist intellectuals such as Kate Millett, whose world-changing Sexual Politics (1970) tore apart some work of Mailer's. I would not read Sexual Politics until 1975 (receiving it as a Christmas gift from another boyfriend). And that's all I recall. I don't remember that Mailer's books were sold there or that Mailer read from his books. This was when writers commonly toured. (What writer now would be booked by his publisher on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, so named because calling it UW-Kenosha would make people laff?) But I don't think that at that time writers toured only to read excerpts from their books. If somebody can recall, set me straight on this. It could have been that people sought writers' views on things in general, because writers, or artists in general, were equated with thinkers.

Later. when I read some Mailer, given all I knew of him, I judged him as an excellent stylist with a gift for turning a phrase. I believe he was not as much a thinker as a "doer," which, for all who are doers, carries with it the risk of making an ass of yourself.

[Photo of Norman Mailer, 1988, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.]
Feb 10
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When Three People Show Up...

Wednesday night when it was 9 degrees outside I and two other audience members got to question the heck out of Bobbi Smith, author of 54 books with over 5 million copies sold. Her story about the best writing advice she ever got: She wrote her labor-of-love first novel in her basement and writing it had been so much fun it made her truly sad to come to the end. At work (at a bookstore) she was shelving psychology books while crying about this. Her boss asked her what was wrong. Bobbi told her. The boss said, ""Write another one, stupid!"

Wearing her trademark rhinestone pin saying "Bobbi," Smith sat with us, read us some early efforts and told us she writes Westerns because NYC says no romance fan wants to read about the Midwest, or even any Western state except Arizona or Texas. Wyoming does not cut it. We talked about digital, about vampire books, about agents. I don't think I've ever been so close to someone so creative as to invent 54 full-length novels, even if they're not the lit'ry kind I read (exclusively, mind you!). She said a romance-writers convention had once held a Hunk Contest, and the winner got to be on the cover of a romance novel, and it happened to be Bobbi's, and she did her book tour with him, drawing tons of fans smitten not with the novel but with the Hunk.

Above all, she said, "You have no control." Luck. Publishers' and agents' whims. Audience whims. Cultural and technological shifts. Her new book is digital only, and not by her choice; by her publisher's.

If you have ever sought an audience, doubtless the little-to-no audience has happened to you. I have seen a poet at a bookstore bravely reading to empty chairs. Once I read poems in a restaurant on a night raining cats & dogs. There were no diners. The audience: a friend from work and a man who had a crush on me (note: I later married this guy). I have given "workshops" on the topic of, say, writing tone and style, and had two people show up. I have taught classes of two (who stuck with me after others dropped out). Each time I doggedly went through with it. Slightly sick at heart, but it was my own expectations that did that. This happens at last to everyone. But show up and do your job (or your show). We can control only what we do; we can't control results.
Feb 10
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Mental Monsters - Vanquished

How creative is the art of worrying! A largely baseless concern was filling up every corner of my mind, like poison gas, with worry and fictive worst-case scenarios, making me feel both jittery and paralyzed. My options at these times are 1) petition God, the Tarot, horoscopes or therapists for answers and peace, 2) take a pill, 3) make myself write the Absolute Truth about the concern. Often the resulting draft is an accumulation of put-downs, childish rage, obscenities and rudeness, and if it has potential I try pounding it into shape. If it's a poem I may impose a form on it. I took one such draft and turned it into four-line stanzas of two couplets each, and every stanza had to mention the name "Richard" (a pseudonym for the real name) or a derivative thereof (such as "Keith Richards"). This took all evening. Now that it's polished and disciplined, I lick my chops with delight when I read it.

Baseless worry and catastrophizing are byproducts of a creative mind, so artists often suffer from these mental monsters, which are made up of backed-up, souring creativity. If such a thing is bothering you, write the absolute Truth about it.  No one has to see it. Or you may want everyone to see it.

Feb 06
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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!"
Jan 31
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The Little Pit Viper

I was assigned two freshmen composition classes at Syracuse University in 1986, fifty students total, with no training other than “Keep records” and “Smile.” I was 29 and had never taught anything. First semester not so good. Second semester I began to love teaching and the students. Was disgusted by the ineptness and smugness of the supervisors, and they knew it (no use finessing my feelings because people have always seen right through me anyway) so when a huge impromptu party happened one evening in the largest adjunct office, with anti-supervisor graffiti Magic-Markered up the walls to the ceiling – Rankovic was a prime suspect. Yet all witnesses told investigators that the little pit viper had not been present. The traitors were in fact their finest Yes-men and Yes-women. Guess it happens that way a lot. Moral of the story: --Do you have a moral for this story, that'll sum it up?

Jan 22
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People Are Basically Good

I know nobody who wants to see a writer fail. In all my writing life, only one person ever elected himself as my sworn enemy. A writer, he actually wasted his energy trying to destroy others he thought were rivals. He did this by fault-finding. Their work lacked this, or lacked that. Moral, intellectual, or esthetic deficiencies: he found them wherever he looked, from the work of the lowliest E Comp student to the life work of the most decorated author.

I suppose his work lacked nothing. I did pay him some mind, and what he said annoyed me; that I recall. But the interesting thing is, ten years later nobody remembers what he wrote, or anything he said besides his catty remarks.

Guess what: He works in public relations now.
Jan 22
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I Remember This Girl I Hated

"Mickey," as she called herself (her name was Vivian) just loved to be wide-eyed and creative and stoned, and wear Danskins, and play with her food if someone was watching, and hang scarves from her apartment ceiling, and so forth. This was years ago; if it were today, she'd be designing slow-moving, psychedelic websites. She thought that although I said I was a writer, I was not creative. I lacked a cute haircut, a creative job. I wasn't taking a class in American Sign Language, lived in a basement I didn't bother to decorate.

I said creativity was not a feeling, or at least not necessarily a feeling. Writers create one step at a time, word after word after word, sentence following sentence. Creativity, yes, but sort of through a funnel. Plus some research and training.

She found this distasteful and made a childlike face, wrinkling her nose. If I had been five and not twenty-five, in return I would have stuck my tongue out.

Stoners, fake Buddhists, parlor pinks, and scarf-twirlers -- there they are, shelved in the past, where they stay, and where they belong.
Jan 22
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The Future of Writing: Read Locally

The latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, #31, is about the Future of Writing.

In the future, says one of the essayists, Astro Teller, huge omnimedia publishers will publish and mass-market seven books a year. People will buy and read them. But readers will be far wiser about the string-pulling and adthink that goes on behind those books. They will want to do a new thing: seek writing directly from the writer, guaranteed no middleman -- the Real Thing, the Genuine Item, pure and honest. It will be "in" to "read locally."

Writers will still want to write and sell one of those seven big bestselling books. There will be more writers, which means more competition. But you won't be looking for an audience; the audience will look for you. Books will rise to the top by choice of the readership, not the publishers. Local will be cool. And with no middleman, you will get 100 percent, not 10 or 15 percent, of what your writing earns.
Jan 22
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Keeping Writers at Arm's Length

I spent December through March querying agents for our writing group's second book. Score zero. Or, better for my mental health, I can say, "I didn't find the agent who wanted us."

We're now sending the book proposal directly to publishers. More than ever, publishers' listings say, "We don't take "un-agented" submissions, or look at unsolicited submissions." No, not even a glance at a two-page book proposal.

It looks as if publishers think they benefit from a setup that keeps them apart from writers. Now, think: Does that make any sense?
Jan 22
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On Self-Respect

My book Island Universe: Essays and Entertainments, is done. Yesterday I got the letter from painter Siegbert Hahn of Germany giving permission to use the chosen cover illustration. That was the last piece in the puzzle of putting that book together. I will E-mail the ms. to the publisher Tuesday, when I can get a broadband connection.

Next, a project I almost forgot about -- to arrange my writing group's next book. And when that's done, maybe I'll hear about the manuscript I sent out in mid-June. And then -- how about harvesting some newer poems and putting together a poetry chapbook?

I didn't realize it, but over the years I had just kept writing and writing, sometimes articles and reviews only for the pennies they might bring me, always grumbling and berating myself: "This isn't the best I can do," "Wish I had more time," "It's the deadline, I have to finish now," and "One day I'll do some real writing." Darned if it wasn't all real writing. I'm only seeing that now, and only now respecting myself for doing it. You, of course, will be smarter, and take pride in all the writing that you finish.
Jan 22
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I'm A Happy Little Cheat

Adjusting for subject matter and experience, a writer friend of mine, age 60, is as good a poet and essayist as Elizabeth Bishop -- to whom she has been compared. She published a book of poems (having won a competition) in 1991. She has three more books in manuscript. I guarantee you they are stunning. For a decade she sent them to publishers, receiving rejections mainly because they're literary and won't make money. She's worried that when she gets old and dies the manuscripts in her file will be thrown away.

I said to her, "What good are they in your file drawer? How about self-publishing?"

She found this idea distasteful. Self-published books are "not legitimate." But then she complained that a poet friend whose book was accepted three years ago by the "legitimate" LSU Press now hears it is scheduled to come out in 2010.

I said, "The system is broken. We all moan about how the publishing world is insane. We have to do things differently. Look," I said, "a book is a book. If you self-publish at least you'll have a book. It'll have an ISBN so people can find it. You can give it to libraries. You can give it away. Somebody somewhere will read your book."

My friend says it isn't legitimate. She wants to be legitimate more than she wants to publish. And she is getting what she wants.

Me? I'm publishing another book! It's essays this time. I am happy that my illegitimate books get bought and sold, and are in print, and in libraries, and on amazon.com, and not in my file drawer. I'm a happy little cheat who beat the system.