My 2017 writing challenge

2016 was not a good year for personal writing goals. I started this year determined not to repeat that disappointing performance, and it didn’t take much analysis to see the problem. I had to come up with a new approach to writing, or more specifically to a writing schedule.

By the middle of January I’d decided what that new structure would be. In every month of 2017, I would submit at least one piece of writing or self-pub a story on Amazon. There are enough stories, essays, poems and novel chapters on my computer to fill a small library—if they were completed. They need to be revised, polished, finished, and sent out into the world, to see if they find a place for themselves.

This was one of those Ray Bradbury sort of concepts. First you jump off the cliff, and then you build your wings on the way down. In other words, I started with the conviction, not a clear sense of the follow through.

We’re not far into the year, but so far I’ve stuck to the schedule. The February deadline did stretch into early March to accommodate word choices that just did not sit right. The opposing force to deadlines is you can’t send something out until it’s right, or as right as your current skill-set allows.

Two short pieces are being revised for submission in March. There’s also research to do, looking into magazines and sites that might be interested in those pieces. At the same time, I’m working on longer stories to submit in future months. So it’s developing into a three-tier process.

What’s struck me the most over this past seven weeks has been the effect of setting monthly deadlines. These are arbitrary and self-imposed ultimatums, but they have somehow lodged themselves in my brain and refused to be ignored, displaced, or shouted down by whatever else might be going on.

A huge bonus and upside is I’ve spent a lot more time reading online and at the library, enjoying the work of other writers as well as the magazines that publish them. Who knows what the odds are, but there’s always a chance one of them would consider including my work in the publications they spend their own long hours curating.

The time all this has taken has felt monumental. When it comes to restaurant menus, clothes, office equipment, I usually know what I want after a quick perusal of the options. But give me a piece of my own writing to polish and complete and you might not see me for days. Days spent excavating through layers of rough patches and not-quite-right word choices. As soon as the first set of snarls is sorted out, more are revealed.

And speaking of that, I have a deadline to meet.

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Immigration—gestures, posturing & walls

(in which Vesta has a soapbox moment, but let me just get this out of my system and we’ll go back to our regular programming)

A poet died last week. Memories of him lit up the Internet. Reading messages from writers and students whose lives had intersected with his, I could feel the traces he’d left along his way.

The poet who died is Tom Lux, and one of the most affecting messages about him was written by Vijay Seshadri, in writing freshly poured from pain and loss. It’s a remembrance of generosity and humane welcome that inadvertently shines a bright light on recent attempts in the U.S. and elsewhere to codify xenophobia.

Not that xenophobia is new, it’s a state of mind with a long and entirely shabby history. But it has attempted to pass itself off as rational in the wake of horrific events like the bombings and murders in Paris and Berlin.

Clearly, there are terrorists in the world. Very likely in every country in the world. We have our own home-grown varieties here in the states. Slamming the gates on individuals based on where they were born, banning members of any religion, will not keep this particular wolf from the door. It’s posturing. It’s throwing sledgehammers at a complex problem that requires precise tools and specialized knowledge.

The deeper problem here is that when we humans feel threatened we do what makes us feel safe, whether it addresses the actual threat or not. We point fingers. We roar. We pound tables and slam doors because it silences the noise in our heads, not to mention everyone within hearing range. This is sound and fury within the tiny neural networks of our own minds, not threat resolution out in the world where it matters.

But here we are, closing the doors. Locking the gates. Putting up walls.

I imagine Lady Liberty, our Mother of Exiles, standing in her harbor, wondering what happened to the country stretched out behind her. A place that once prided itself on can-do independence and ingenuity, the ability to roll up its sleeves and solve anything. For now, that country has decided to act out of its fear instead of its wits.

Another good read, with an excerpt

Dreams of My Russian Summers, by Andreï Makine

This book is so beautifully written, so deep with indelible images, events, and people, that it’s hard to know where to start or how to shape a review of it. I think it simply has to be read, start to finish. Although I’m reading it slowly because it’s so good I don’t want to reach the end.

So, on the subject of not knowing what to say, I offer these two excerpts on language:

“From then onward we talked but said nothing. Coming between us we could see the screen that is formed by those smooth words, those echoes of the everyday we give voice to; the verbal liquid with which we feel obliged, without knowing why, to fill the silence. With stupefaction I discovered that talking was in fact the best way of saying nothing about the essential.”

“The unsayable! It was mysteriously linked, I know understood, to the essential. The essential was unsayable. Incommunicable. And everything in this world that tortured me with its silent beauty, everything that needed no words, seemed to be essential. The unsayable was essential.”

2016 review & gearing up for 2017

10-007-8-29-14-cropAs it drops toward its horizon and final bow, what stands out the most about 2016 is the time I have not spent furthering my own writing objectives. Not what you want to see in a year-end evaluation, but it’s a chance to do better today and next year.

First, a step back. I’ve taken the critique group/occasional course/read-all-you-can approach to writing instead of enrolling in an MFA program. Critique groups teach you how to write in a sort of apprenticeship manner, by requiring that you evaluate and comment on other people’s writing in order to receive feedback on your own. If you’re lucky, someone skilled in this practice is leading the group and setting the example. Over time you come to recognize the difference between useful and not so useful comments, and you learn about writing by examining the results of unseasoned skillsyours and everyone else’s.

This process reminds me of the watches and small appliances my father and I took apart when I was a child, and then put back together again with varying degrees of success. It’s a method of discovering how things work that requires a lot of hours and can lead to incomplete or not entirely functional results, but it’s an indelible way to learn.

Okay, so that being my learning method, 2016 was spent in a group that recently released a themed anthology. That project was invaluable as a writing experience. It was a good challenge and I enjoyed working with and learning from the other members. However, it basically inhaled all of the year’s writing oxygen.

I wrote a total of five stories for this project over the course of about eighteen months. Two were published in the collection. Instinct told me to pull a third story from considerationI want it to come to a more slowly developed final form instead of being freeze-framed to meet a deadline. One morphed into something that didn’t meet the anthology theme. One was declined. All of this work was done according to a set schedule of writing, which in itself was a good experience. It’s the polar opposite of my customary “let it sit a while and come back to it later” method.

Here is the downside: two stories intended for self-publication this past fall did not make the finish line. One was a political satire intended for pre-election reading. The other was a chiller intended for Halloween. Three other stories have been waiting for attention before they can jump back into the submission/revision cycle.

So 2016 resulted in a book that contains some of my work, something concrete. And, in the process of working on it, three new stories evolved, two of which I think have promise. But looking at the work that the anthology forced aside has thrown up some red flags (or yellow cards). It was a good learning experience, but I’m not sure I would do it again in the near future. At least not while I also have to work at something else for a living.

What to do differently in 2017?

One change is something I just began doing this week, using new software that stores tasks, projects and deadlines and sends reminders keyed to my priorities. That should help keep me focused on the most crucial goals, instead of trying to do everything (my usual MO).

A second change is the result of seeing my writing go through a significant improvement or two during the past year. Most of those changes came out of writing things I was positive I had no business taking on. So wherever that road leads, that’s where I’m headed. As more than one writer has pointed out, if a project scares you it’s a sign that you should be working on it.

Out and available:

Two short stories and one micro fiction piece in the anthology Chord & Discord, a collection of music themed stories. Excerpts from the stories below.

You can access the book’s Amazon page here

And access the B&N page here

 

STORY EXCERPTS

coda-graphic-email-revisedCoda,
Lila and Cole, an eight-bar blues tale

First time I saw Lila was at the Mint, over on Pico, back in the ’90s. She was on stage at an open mic night. It was the twenty-fifth or -eighth or some too-high number of nights spent checking out singers at L.A. clubs, and I was feeling older than God at that point, or at least as tired. But my band needed a singer up front, instead of me frogging away while I banged on a Hammond, so the search continued.

She introduced herself as a folk singer and did a song titled “The Dutchman” about an old guy in Amsterdam. It has a killer chorus about his wife Margaret who remembers him as he was when they were young. And, yes, as I found out later, it is a folk song—God bless Michael Smith and Steve Goodman—but Lila turned it into a torch so hot it left the walls smoking. Separate a tune from its original beat, pace it according to pain and longing, and you can send shivers through every heart in the room.

Eight notes in and I knew I’d found my singer. Her voice shot me right out of my seat and up to the side of the stage. Thin as a quarter note with lots of black hair and brown eyes, she had the finesse of Ella and the power to blow the roof off the building.

When she’d finished—even before she’d finished—people whooped and clapped, wiped tears away outright, or coughed and pretended their eyes were just irritated by their cigarettes.


nickle-for-a-smileA Nickel for a Smile

Kate had a low, clear, jazzy voice. Mike played guitar and sang harmony in his higher reedier tone. Her hair was too red to be natural, frothy with curls and tied up into ponytail. He looked like Harry Dean Stanton circa Two Lane Blacktop. She wore a wild thrift-store mashup of two brightly colored skirts, one much shorter than the other, and three tops: long-sleeved, elbow-length, and short. He wore jeans, boots, a dark blue shirt, and a denim jacket.

Their sign read:

Kate & Mike

$0.05 if we make you smile

$0.10 if you tap along to the rhythm

$0.25 if we make you laugh

$0.75 if you feel like singing along

$1.00 if we make you dance

$2.00 if you help out on harmony

They looked so damned happy. Mark’s reaction that first night was, Give me a break, people, only happy types in this world are toddlers and the mentally unhinged. None of that bullshit for me, thanks.

grateful for:

007-6-22-15-cropDogs, rain, friends, family.

My father’s sense of humor and my mother’s toughness.

The authors who teach me how to write by being so good at what they do. Especially, most recently: Maile Meloy, Vendela Vida, Megan Mayhew Bergman.

The musicians whose work keeps me looking forward instead of down.

Workshop writers who patiently critique my work and the editors who do the same.

All the good people in my neighborhood.

The gardens, hiking paths and parks of the SF Bay area.

The Bay Area Book Festival.

Twitter, for saving my mornings from the Google News page (thank you thank you thank you).

The Berkeley Bowl.

Peet’s coffee.

Moe’s books.

Rasputin Music shop.

Chocolate, gingerbread, stuffing, fresh roasted chestnuts.

and again, dogs, rain, friends and family.