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Entries in writing tips (37)


Epiphany, A Literary Journal (review) 

cover image from Epiphany's websiteAs I mentioned in the last post, I've started a new series about literary journals. I'll offer some tips on submitting to journals and review some of the many I have stacked around my house.

Earlier this week I had a guest post over on The Artist's Road, Patrick Ross's blog. Patrick is doing a series of Lit Journal Nuggets, and we'll be linking back and forth every so often so you can get a feel for a variety of journals. (So far he's reviewed AGNI and Fugue.)

If you have questions about journals or would like to see me review a particular publication, please let me know.

Here's the beginning of my review of Ep;phany:

Epiphanies get a bad rap in the world of literature. Writers bemoan how overused and trite this literary device has become. Need a tidy way to tie-up the loose ends of your short story? Give your protagonist an epiphany! Need to impart some existential meaning to bridge the personal-universal gap in your memoir? Epiphany! [Keep reading this review....]


Intro to Literary Journals

Awhile back I mentioned literary journals in my post about alternatives to getting an MFA in writing. I included them in my list of things to seek out and pay attention to.

Literary journals! Read them, subscribe to them, and send your work to them. Volunteer with them. If you don't know much about lit journals (I didn't just a few years ago), check out NewPages.com to get the lay of the land.

What are lit journals? Basically they're periodically published collections of writing, often supported by a university, though not always. Think of them as magazines of well-written prose and poetry, sometimes with photography and art. They may contain essays, short stories, poems, and interviews. You can probably find at least a few of them lurking in the magazine racks of your local mega-bookstore. I've spotted The Paris Review and Granta at mine, but there are hundreds more! (If you have a well-curated local bookstore you may have a better selection available.) Magazines such as The Sun and Orion feel a bit more magaziney than lit-journaly to me, but they are definitely closer to lit journal status than a magazine such as Good Housekeeping. (These aren't judgement calls, just comparisons to help give you an idea of what a lit journal is.)

Lit journals are perhaps the best-kept secret of the publishing world. This is a shame, because it means that the general public has no idea they even exist. If I told my brother that I was published in The Iowa Review, he would probably congratulate me and then (secretly) think, "Iowa? What the hell's in Iowa? What did she write about? Corn and cows? That doesn't sound very impressive." But if I told my friends from grad school I'd been published there, they would probably congratulate me and then (secretly) think, "The Iowa Review! Bitch! I wanna be in The Iowa Review!"

(For the record, I have not [yet] been published in The Iowa Review. And my friends probably wouldn't really call me a bitch.)

The point is this: What is impressive to other writers may be absolutely meaningless to the general public. But then, this is the way in most fields. I'm sure carpenters and chefs have their own personal milestones, the names of which would impress others in their profession while I'd be clueless as to their importance and clout.

Before grad school I really knew almost nothing about literary journals. I had heard of their existence, but I didn't know what a big part of a writer's life they could (probably should) be. I had no idea I'd end up with lists of them to check out and a spreadsheet to track my submissions to them. Long before authors have a book published (and long after, actually), they usually submit their work to lit journals, and if they're persistent and lucky, they get published in one and then another and then another. If you look at a published collection of essays or short stories, you will probably see that the author has acknowledged the journals that first published some of the pieces. Even excerpts of memoirs and novels can be first published in journals.

In an effort to help spread the gospel of literary journals, I'm starting a new series about them here in The Word Cellar. I'll offer some tips on submitting to journals and review some of the many I have stacked around my house.

Tomorrow I'll link to my first review, which I did as a guest post for Patrick over at The Artist's Road. Patrick is doing a series of journal reviews as well, and we'll be linking back and forth every so often so you can get a feel for a variety of journals.

If you have questions about journals or would like to see me review a particular publication, please let me know.


Six practical (and slightly irreverent) writing life tips

It's been about two months since my last "In The Word Cellar" column on writing and creativity. Two months! This is not good, kids. I know I'm always declaring my desire to buckle down and write more (both in general and here on the blog), and I'm weary with my own inconsistency.

I can write a good game about what I need to stay committed to my writing: time and space and quiet, first of all. I've written about creating writing rituals and rhythms, how to keep creating, and the enthusiasm that must remain after inspiration. I probably need to go back and read those posts, take a dose of my own sweet medicine, essentially.

But in addition to all that, I'm thinking about some practical, kick-in-the-pants things I can do make my writing life a priority. Here's my list. Most of them are as much about living as they are about writing, but that's really not such a surprising distinction, methinks.

1. Admit that you're delusional. First of all, I need to admit that I'm delusional. I still think that what I value and desire will come easily and automatically. For example, I value and desire a clean, orderly home. I think better and feel better when I'm not surrounded by dust bunnies and chaos. But maintaining a clean, orderly space is not my strong suit. I want the calm, but I tend toward the chaos. In the same way, I desire to write regularly. I want the consistency, but I tend toward the sporadic. The delusion is that I think I'll work toward what I want (clean home, regular writing practice) without resistance.

I think that if I really wanted these things, I'd make them a priority no matter what. And I think that this no-matter-what should be my default mode. Nuh-uh. Not so. I don't know if it's this way for other people, but it's not true for me. I have to remind myself to work at things -- even if I really want them and love them. My gremlins try to tell me that this means I don't really love them, because if I loved them enough I'd just do them no matter what. So I have to remember this delusion and not fall under its self-esteem-eviscerating spell. I get distracted. I get tired. I get busy. Having to remind myself to write does not mean that I'm lazy or incompetent or that I don't really and truly want to be a writer. Resistance does not a failure make.

2. Take hostages. In other words, write things down. You think you'll remember that delightful new word/phrase/book/idea, and sometimes you will, but often you won't. Okay, so I mean that I won't. But this is a common stumbling block. Capture things when they come to you! I use the "notes" feature on my phone when I'm out and about or when something hits me when I'm in bed falling asleep at night. I also usually have at least half a dozen notebooks lounging about, making it easy for me to jot things down. But this creates another problem, which leads to the next point.

3. For the love of your sanity, corral your hostages. Electronic notes. Scraps of paper. Napkins. Eight different notebooks. The backs of grocery lists. I just know that idea is on one of these. Now where was it?.... This one is so basic it's almost embarrassing, especially since I've done some serious project management in the past and have kept all sorts of things organized for my clients and employers. Why is this so difficult when it comes to my own stuff? I don't know the answer to this, but I'm getting better at creating a system that works for me. It's still unwieldy, but I can mostly keep track of things now that I'm down to about three main notebooks, some with special sticky notes and tabs! (If you have tips on either why this is so hard, or how to overcome it, please tell me!)

4. Eat something, dammit! I rarely forget to eat, but I am known to get wrapped up in a project, put off eating for too long, let my blood sugar get all dippy, and then freak out because I can't think, I can't write, and I NEED TO EAT RIGHT NOW. This is not conducive to staying in (or returning to) the creative flow. The practical tip here is to be prepared with three levels of eating options. Level one we'll call Code Green: Schedule time into your day to cook something and take a break to do it. Level two, or Code Yellow: Have food in the house that's ready to eat, such as leftovers, sandwich fixin's, or a frozen meal option. Code Red: Have cash on hand to order an emergency pizza or take-out sushi.

5. Fight the power! Do not be taken hostage by Facebook, Twitter, Email, or Instagram! Those bastards will try to woo you and lull you into just a few more clicks and updates. Be strong.

6. Half-ass it. I'm a writer with a blog, which sometimes feels like an occupational hazard. Imagine being a chef and inviting a few friends over for dinner. That dinner better be foodgasmic, right? At least, that's what I'd be thinking if I were the chef. The dinner guests, on the other hand, are probably just happy to (a) be spending time with friends; (b) not have to cook; and (c) be eating yummy food no matter how simple it is. I already know that not everything I write will be amazing. I let myself write shitty first drafts (á la Anne Lamott) of my essays, knowing that I'll clean them up later. It's not quite so easy with a blog. I don't want to write a shitty blog post, but I have to give myself permission to half-ass it from time to time -- because sometimes half-assed is all I have. Not because I don't care, but because not every blog post will be brilliant. (This one certainly isn't.)

That's what I have to go on right now: debunking delusions, organizational challenges, meal planning, a call to arms, food analogies, and a handful of swear words. What you got?

Read other "In The Word Cellar" posts here.}


Creativity & Quiet (In The Word Cellar)

A few weeks ago I wrote about creativity and time, about such inconvenient facts as these: 

Ideas don't come down the conveyor belt in perfect succession, spaced apart just so

. . .

Creative work needs time and space to breathe.

This week I've been pondering the silence that our creative spirits need.

** ** **

Creativity craves a chapel.

"A chapel," writes Pico Iyer, "is where you can hear something beating below your heart."

This is why I need to write in silence: no music, no background chatter, not even a clock ticking too loudly. I need to be able to hear the words trying to come through me. I need the quiet so I can hear the melody of the language.

This isn't to say that one can only write in literal silence. I could, if given the chance, write to the sound of the ocean surf. I know writers who do some of their best work while sitting in a café listening to music through their headphones. For each of us, there are sounds that allow us to tap into the chapels of our creativity, sounds that enable us to hear the rhythm of our hearts and something beating below that. We need whatever version of sound or silence permits us entrance to the stories waiting for us to tell them.

Eudora Welty said it beautifully. She wrote that she hears a literal voice when she reads and when she writes.

It is the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, the feeling that resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers ― to read as listeners ― and with all writers, to write as listeners. It may be part of the desire to write. The sound of what falls on the page begins the process of testing it for truth, for me. Whether I am right to trust so far I don’t know. By now I don’t know whether I could do either one, reading or writing, without the other.

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

Welty is also known for saying that she listened for stories. 

Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it's an early form of participation in what goes on. Listening children know stories are there. When their elders sit and begin, children are just waiting and hoping for one to come out, like a mouse from its hole.....

I don't know how Eudora listened for her stories when she was on her own. I don't know if she sat in silence, but I know that she didn't have the same temptations I face when I sit down to write on my laptop. She may have been distracted or tempted away from the page by many things, but she never had to fend off the siren songs of the Internet.

Oh Lord, this little white box on my lap and its magical, invisible companion, WiFi. Was there ever anything so marvelous and so terrible? I love this white keyboard (and my high school typing teacher) for the gift of being able to capture my thoughts in nearly real-time. I love the connection this device gives me to the world, real connections that break the bounds of anything virtual. It is ease and comfort and connection, all wrapped up in silicone and hard drive. And yet...

I know that when I hop around the Web, watch YouTube videos, surf the TV set, I turn away and feel agitated. I go for a walk, enjoy a real conversation with a friend, turn off the lights and listen to Bach or Leonard Cohen, and I feel palpably richer, deeper, fuller, happier.

Happiness is absorption, being entirely yourself and entirely in one place. That is the chapel that we crave. ~Pico Iyer

I like the chatter. I like tweeting and updating and commenting and posting. I even believe them to be one way I feed my creative spirit. But too easily I can get caught up in the noise of it all, in the twitchy, buzzy, fuzziness that doesn't make me happy, that doesn't deepen my thoughts.

If I want to write more consistently, I know that I have to invite in the quiet that I crave. I could go for a walk, or sit in the dark listening to music, as Iyer describes. I could read. (I constantly have to remind myself that reading is part of my creative process. I think I'm still incredulous that something I love so much could be so good ― even necessary ― for my artform. But really, could it be any other way?)  I could stare out the window and daydream. All of these things restore me to myself, which, in turn, restores my creativity to me. 

It turns out that I need silence not only when I'm writing, but in the spaces in-between the acts of creation. The silence is part of the "time and space" that our ideas need to breathe.

I sense that I have so much more to write about this. But my cat is currently banging a kitchen cupboard door, which is his noisy way of asking for what he craves (the food inside). Also, it is late, and if there's one other thing I need as much a silence, it is sleep. And so I'll stop here, but I'd love to know: What does your creativity need? What is your kind of silence? What is your chapel?


"A Chapel Is Where You Can Hear Something Beating Below Your Heart" by Pico Iyer, originally published in Portland, Winter 2012, reprinted in The Best Spiritual Writing 2012, Philip Zaleski, editor

One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty


{In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.}


Creativity & Time (In The Word Cellar)

The last "In The Word Cellar" post wrapped up the MFA mini-series. That said, I'm happy to add to it if you have questions, so just let me know. This week I'm thinking about creativity and time. I'd like to write a beautiful, meditative essay about this topic, but that's going to take more time than I have right now. So for now here's an off-the-cuff post instead.

Doing stuff takes time. Doing creative stuff can take a lot of time. It can also make time go all wonky, contracting and expanding it, making it refuse to play by the normal hourly rules.

Scenario #1: You sit down to write and the words won't come. You tell yourself, I'll sit here for one hour and do nothing else but focus on writing. Time limps, drags, scrapes by until you're begging for mercy, aching to stand up and do something more pleasurable, like wash dishes. 

Scenario #2: You set out to write (or paint or dance or take photos) and you shimmy into a sweet groove. You are in the zone. You look up and zip! You've "lost" an hour or two or five.

Scenario #3: This is the in-between scenario: You write something, maybe a blog post. You think it will take about an hour to write it, edit it, proofread it, add a photo to it, and hit "publish." Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes it takes three. It's not that time zipped or dragged, it's just that the process was more involved and consuming than you thought it would be.

I was talking about creativity and time with a client the other day. She was feeling frustrated because Scenario #3 happens to her a lot. It happens to me a lot, too. Things often take much longer than I think they will. (Except when they don't, of course. Sometimes I put off doing something because I'm sure it will be difficult and a major time-suck. And then it ends up being easy-peasy and taking five minutes, and I feel like a schmuck, albeit a productive schmuck.)

I've been thinking about the nature of creative work, and how it forces us to play by different rules than if we were just making widgets on an assembly line. Creative work isn't so regulated, so orderly, so perfectly timed.

Ideas don't come down the conveyor belt in perfect succession, spaced apart just so

Developing an idea doesn't happen in an orderly, assembly line fashion. It's messy. Things do not always proceed in a linear direction. There is much doubling back, doubling up, rearranging, redoing. I have to remember this every time I start writing a new essay or developing curriculum for a new course. Each time I do it I learn something new, but the learning never stops.

The most important thing I keep learning about creative work is that it needs time and space to breathe. If I sit down to write, I want to be writing--actively. I want to see words filling up the blank page. Letter after letter, word after word, line after line, punctuation mark after punctuation mark. Progress! I worry that if I'm not typing, I'm not doing anything. And if I'm not doing anything, then I must be lazy or stupid or creatively blocked. But no, this is not so. Idling is a good and necessary part of the creative process. Let your mind wander. Daydream. Doodle. Give yourself -- and your work -- time and space to breathe. I mean this literally (meditation, yoga, deep breathing, taking walks -- all good things), and more metaphorically. Let things steep and simmer for awhile. It adds flavor and depth, like a good soup. (Not everything needs -- or can wait for -- a lot of marinating, of course. This blog post, for example, won't get a lot of breathing room. It's a bit more slapdash than that. But the essay I'm working on this week is getting a lot of breathing room. I've been noodling with it since August. This frustrates me, but I also know that it needed this long to come into being and to come into its own.)

Creative work is like window caulking: It needs time to set-up and cure. Or compare it to wine and men: It needs plenty of time to mature. (My apologies to the men. And the grapes.)

(Those jokes probably won't make it into the meditative essay I want to write about creativity and time, so thanks for indulging me here.)

What about you? How does time fit into your creative process?

{In The Word Cellar runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Read other posts in the series here.}

** ** **

If you'd like to explore your own creative process and give yourself the time, space, and permission to write, I invite you to join me for Alchemy Inspiration: Start Writing. This fun, gentle, and encouraging 4-week ecourse is perfect for anyone who wants to start writing for the first time or the first time in a long time. Alchemy Inspiration runs February 6 - March 2, and registration is open.