Writing Goals I: Filling the Toolbox

artists toolbox

Typical toolbox: Palette, brushes…and somewhere in the background, annoying husband

The other day my wife and I were on a long walk and we started talking about a class she’s scheduled to take next month. It’s a week-long painting workshop in which she’ll be working on the same large painting for five full days. This will be somewhat new territory for her, as she doesn’t usually paint in large format like that. This is part of the plan: it’s time to add that skill to her artistic toolbox.

The reason we were discussing it is she had just asked me, earlier in the day, for my opinion on which subject she should paint – the instructor had emailed her several photographs and, prior to the class, she was supposed to email back and let the instructor know which one she planned to tackle.

We had looked at them together and narrowed down the list. On the walk, we were discussing the merits of each of the potentials. I could tell she had a clear favorite.

“Why that one?” I asked her.

“It has the best light,” she said. Good.

“I like the spark of red in the window,” she said. Good.

“It has the most variety,” she said. Good.

“I think it would be the easiest one to sell afterward,” she said. Wait.

“Is that your goal?” I asked. “To create one painting to sell? Or are you trying to learn the skills to paint a hundred paintings? Does how that particular one comes out matter that much at all?”

And of course she said it was the skills she was focused on, that the idea of being able to possibly also sell the painting she created was just a potential bonus in her book. Icing on the cake.

I know her well enough that I already knew this was the case. I was just asking to make a point, to make sure she went into the class with the proper mindset.

In related news, yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

But really, her focus – anyone’s focus in a class or workshop-type setting, in my opinion – should be on filling her toolbox with the skills necessary to do one hundred great large paintings. A thousand.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King talks about writers having toolboxes. It’s a great concept, but a lot of times I see writers meandering away from the toolbox mindset and toward the tangible-result mindset. They go to a conference or workshop or retreat with a pointed result in mind – finishing one book, one story, getting an agent or a publisher – and often consider it a failure if they don’t achieve that result.

A good friend runs a local writing conference with lots of activities. What’s interesting is that he finds it much easier to fill the ones that have the potential for that pointed, tangible result associated with them (like Agent Pitch sessions – direct result: getting an agent, of course) than the ones that don’t have as clear of a direct result.

Case in point: the Query Letter critique. It’s much harder for writers to pinpoint the direct result of this activity – since you don’t get to select the agent / editor you end up meeting with, writers don’t see it as a clear gate to signing with an agent. And I’m coming to the conference to sign with an agent, so what good is it, right?

Here’s the thing, though. All the activities at the conference are great and educational in one way or another, but the Query Letter critique is actually the one that fills the toolbox most clearly. It should be the FIRST activity to fill up, not the LAST.

You get your query – a letter you might use to later query one hundred agents – critiqued by experts. Rather than focusing on a pitch session that lets you talk to one agent (who may or may not even be a fit for your work, by the way), the query critique session potentially adds a polished letter to your toolbox. A letter, again, that you can use over and over again to query dozens upon dozens of agents. At least one of whom is far more likely to be a fit for your work.

I see this also in critique groups, which typically allow you to bring five to ten pages, which you either read aloud during or share prior to the meeting. Most writers try to use these groups to get critique on their entire novel in sequence. But if your book is 300 pages long, five pages at a time means it will take sixty meetings to get through it all. That’s almost THREE YEARS if your group meets twice a month!

This is simply not how I view these groups. I love critique groups, but I’m not there to run through my entire novel five pages at a time.

I’m there to fill my toolbox.

If I’m working on adding humor to my project, or the relationship between two characters, or how the antagonist is portrayed, whatever, I bring a section that is representative of that thing, get my critique, then add the reactions I hear to my toolbox. I then apply what I learned (I USE THAT NEW TOOL!) to the entire book on my own. This means I often share my book out of order, skip chapters, switch from one book to the next, then to a short story I want reaction on, and so on.

I am definitely in the minority on that front. In fact I think my approach downright annoys people sometimes. But I don’t really care.

Have I mentioned the related news? Yes, I’m a pain in the ass. Fully. Aware.

Let me sum up what I’m trying to say with a bit of advice: when you’re heading to a writing conference or class, a retreat or critique group, a workshop, I suggest trying to think less about that particular direct result you’re hoping for – these five pages to critique (which MUST be the NEXT five pages in your book), that one agent I MUST convince to sign me, this one book that MUST be completed during this retreat, and try to focus a whole lot more on your TOOLBOX.

How does what you’re about to do fill it with more tools you can use over and over again? To query fifty agents. To write a dozen books. To fix your entire novel, rather than just this lone five-page sample.

Over the past year or two, as I’ve continued to traverse the ups and downs of the publishing industry, I’ve been thinking a lot about writing goals. First and foremost my own, which it’s probably fair to say I’ve transformed quite significantly, but also other writers. It can’t be helped: we writers are all bobbing up and down in own own rafts along this strange river filled with dangerous, unpredictable rapids. We’re on our own, but we’re right next to each other, too. We see it when some other writer’s raft gets flipped over by unexpected rocks. And we can’t help but wonder, from afar, what happened to cause it.

More and more, as I see those overturned rafts, those writers sputtering for air, I’ve been noticing a cause-and-effect relationship between these accidents and writing goals.

This post is the result of some of those ruminations – hopefully the first in a series on Writing Goals.

Stay tuned for Writing Goals II: Don’t Quit That Day Job.

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Butter Fingers

Butterfingers

Never played cricket, but a quick search reveals those guys make the absolute BEST faces as they’re dropping the ball

Lately I drop a lot of stuff.

This is super frustrating, because it used to be I could catch anything. Okay…actually, I still catch pretty well, but holding on to smaller crap has become much more difficult.

Example: Do not hand me a bunch of pistachios and ask me to hold them in one hand while I crack them open and save the discarded shells in the other hand without at least one – er, okay, maybe more like twenty-one – hitting the floor at one point or another.

You may conclude from this that I eat too many pistachios. You may be correct.

That’s beside the point.

stark handed thingsThe point is more like: expensive medicine or not, that kind of simple stuff is nearly impossible with Parkinson’s.

Which means I’m now more like Tony Stark in yet another way – I don’t like being handed things.

Hey, I’m getting used to it. Just don’t hand me anything and we’re cool.

But hold on, this post isn’t about Parkinson’s or pistachios or Iron Man, it’s about writing. Of course.

A writing career, I think for most writers, is always going to feel like something slippery in your hands, at least a little bit. Something that could easily be dropped at any moment, whether you’re just getting those words on the page, trying to find an agent, already published, whatever.

Because at every one of those stages, there’s rejection. It starts with being brave enough to finally show up at that first critique group and wincing as people talk about the words you’ve put on the page. Then it continues into querying agents, having those agents pitch to publishers, getting reviewed by critics and readers, and on and on and on. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Every writer I know is facing rejection in some form or another, all the time.

kid-kicking-ball

Future Writer

It can be exhausting, just like having those butter fingers – grabbing something only to drop it, over and over again. Or trying to learn to kick a ball for the first time, because at each stage you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing, that you”ll screw something up, drop the ball, trip over yourself, fall backwards.

Or – maybe worst of all – that someone’s going to notice you standing there and figure out you don’t belong. Good old imposter syndrome.

But I guess if we all DO feel like that, maybe none of us SHOULD feel like that. Because in between those rejections, your successes are hiding, waiting for you in the shadows. And you’ll only find them if you go through the rejections first.

In fact, maybe we start out looking at rejection a little bit wrong. Maybe rejection isn’t something to fear or dread. Maybe rejection is something we all ought to be seeking out.

I recently ran across this post on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year. The title seems subversive. It can’t possibly be right, can it? Do you want 100 rejections in one year? Really?

Well, yeah, actually, I think you do. The point is, you can only get to where you’re going by working a lot and submitting that work for appraisal. If you submit too early, you’ll know it. But you shouldn’t feel like you’ve made a huge mistake or you’re dropping the ball. You learned something, right?

The anecdote in that LitHub article that stands out to me the most is the comment about the pottery class from the book Art & Fear. Here’s a little outtake from the article, but you should really click over and read the whole thing.

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.

The other night I was at a dinner with a bunch of artists and this same subject came up. I told a guy the above pottery story, and he said, “That’s just like the Grateful Dead.” He then proceeded to relate how the bass player for the Dead didn’t actually know how to play the instrument when he started joining the band on stage for little gigs. But Jerry Garcia apparently (disclaimer: I’m repeating the story the way it was told to me; I’m not actually a Grateful Dead historian) told him, “Just come and play every night. You’ll learn.”

And, from what I understand, learn he did. I do know the Grateful Dead were around for a minute or two.

So I guess what I want to say is this:

Writers! Don’t let your butter fingers paralyze you. Don’t dread rejection so much that it keeps you from working a lot, from seeking critique and opinion. Whatever stage you find yourself at, don’t be afraid to drop what’s in your hand. Listen, even if you do lose twenty-one pistachio shells, you can always pick them up, throw them out, grab another batch, start over. And I promise there will be success soon enough. Just keep learning from your mistakes.

But really, still don’t hand me anything. That’s just plain wrong.

And I’ll probably drop it anyway.

Your most important grade

awc-talk*From Member Spotlight talk at Atlanta Writers Club monthly meeting, February 18th, 2017.

Mr. Cronk was my favorite high school teacher. He taught 10th grade social studies, and I think I liked him best because he was a storyteller. One might go so far as to say he didn’t just tell stories, he created legends. About himself, mostly, but yeah. Legends.

The starkly bald, middle-aged teacher talked to us kids like regular people, from what I remember, and he liked to fool around with us a lot. We used to ask him where he lived. He could’ve told the truth – he probably just lived in a normal two story in some regular cul de sac in one of the other area suburbs. But that wouldn’t have been much of a legend at all, now, would it?

So instead Mr. Cronk told us he lived above the Bar Bill.

Now, you have to understand our little town. Elma, NY. Frankly, there wasn’t much there. A few stoplights, churches, farms, little neighborhoods. The school. The town of East Aurora was next door, and that had more. A real, live main street. Fast food restaurants. Actual grocery stores.

And the Bar Bill, that was in East Aurora, too. The Bar Bill was – for me, anyway, since my parents didn’t frequent those sorts of places – this very mysterious tavern – an old house turned bar that I shouldn’t have any reason to be near. For Mr. Cronk to say he LIVED there, upstairs, so he could pop down at any time and grab a beer, well, this was fascinating.

Hushed whispers in the hallway. “Do you think it’s true?!?”

Mr. Cronk stuck to his Bar Bill story relentlessly. I’m sure I didn’t realize back then how his tenacity would later teach me to hold on to my own stories. All year long, whenever asked, he would tell us he lived above the Bar Bill, shocked that we’d question his claim. I remember even back then I had my doubts – but that’s all they were. Doubts. Because of the way he never wavered, I have to admit a big part of me thought it could actually be true.

Maybe Mr. Cronk DID live above the Bar Bill.

There were other legends that revolved around Mr. Cronk, like planets stuck in the orbit of a massive star. Some proved true, some seemed to have been merely rumor. One of the true ones was that, at the end of the year, to get your final grade, you had to go up to the front of the room and talk to Mr. Cronk about it.

(At least, I remember a friend telling me this might happen. I also remember it DID happen to me. I confess I’m not sure everyone got the same treatment. The details are a little fuzzy.)

Sure enough, the time came for me to head up and get my final grade, and I have to admit to being pretty nervous about the whole thing.

I knew I’d earned a good grade – aced most of the tests, did all the homework (yes, I was THAT kid) – but this “meeting” thing (or whatever it was) of Mr. Cronk’s represented unpredictability. Where grades and me were concerned, unpredictability was NOT a welcome thing.

At home my dad expected me to get As. A B could be tolerated – maybe – but anything lower than that was definitely WAY out of bounds. What if Mr. Cronk graded me on something other than the tests and the homework and all that? What if it was how many questions I asked in class? (Did I ask enough questions?) With him, you just never knew. After all, he lived above the Bar Bill, and a guy like that…

He had a grade book open on his desk and, in a blurred way, I could see other grades for other students. 75, 92, 84. He ran his finger down it to my name, and across from it, there was…nothing. A blank.

I held my breath. Looked down at him. He was grinning.

Grinning.

Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. “So…what’s my grade?”

And, still smiling, Mr. Cronk replied, “I don’t know. What do you think your grade should be?”

Seriously, he let me give myself my own grade.

But the actual grade (which was – wait for it – awesome) is beside the point. Mr. Cronk was trying to teach me something that day besides Social Studies. Something I still wrestle with a bit today.

Sometimes the most important grade you get is the one you give yourself.

Self-evaluation is really important, I think, in all walks of life, including writing. I don’t want to get political, but sometimes in politics we seem to find people who appear to incapable of self-evaluation and self-criticism. Maybe you can hold public office without that skill, but I don’t think you can write without it.

I’ve learned the most important part of writing is revision. At first you don’t think so. Despite all the blogs you read and podcasts you hear from more experienced writers, that “writing is rewriting,” you still start out sort of resistant to change.

You think you’re killing your darlings, but you’re really not.

You think you’re examining every word and sentence and plot point and point-of-view decision, but you’re really not.

Honestly, I know for me anyway, I thought I had this willingness to change anything to make my stories better, but it took a lot of writing for me to really get to that point. It took a long time for me to have the tools to properly self-evaluate and self-criticize my own writing at what I would consider a successful level.

Because, probably more important than knowing when you deserve a good grade is being able to see when you haven’t done enough work yet, being able to admit to yourself that more is required before you give yourself that top grade. And what does that even mean in writing? Probably, in a way, that it’s ready to submit to others to review. It’s a sort of personal responsibility, not to do that until your piece is ready. And sometimes I feel like I’m still working on that.

I practice kyudo, Japanese archery. I think I’ve blogged about it here before, so I’m not going to go into a ton of detail, just that learning it takes a great deal of repetitive practice and attention to the fine points. Many of the Japanese “ways” (the “do”s – kendo, shodo, chado, etc.) are like this, lots of repeating practice, always pushing forward. The 10,000 hours, as Malcolm Gladwell says.

One of the really frustrating things about kyudo is, after a whole lot of practice, you usually reach a point where you can hit the target. And that’s also usually around the time your sensei comes in and changes something, a little different (more correct) way to hold the bow, spreading your feet wider, raising the bow differently in the initial movements of the draw.

And – boom – you stop hitting the target. Soooo frustrating.

It’s that whole two steps back to take three steps forward thing, but it’s more than that.

It’s diving completely into your internal motivations and goals vs. the external ones. Because hitting the target is an external goal. If that’s the only reason you’re practicing kyudo, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

Hitting the target’s a gift, one of my senseis used to say. A result, rather than a goal. If you push yourself to do all the internal stuff right, that external result will sort of just come on its own.

The other thing about kyudo is the type of thing you never completely learn. You’re always growing in it, changing, moving forward, and that internal willingness to change is a really critical facet of this type of continual learning.

Another thing that happens in kyudo is eventually your instructor might tell you you’ve reached a point where most of the evaluation and change has to come from yourself. You have to reach a point internally, like Mr. Cronk was trying to teach me, where you can self-evaluate and self-criticize effectively. Practice at home and have an awareness of what went wrong with a particular shot or draw.

This internal self-evaluation and motivation is really important in writing, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love critique partners and workshops and anyone who takes time out to teach writing. And feedback is gold – I gobble it up.

But you can’t be too external. Writing is full of external goals that can really trip you up. You won’t be happy until you get an agent, then you won’t be happy until you get published, then you won’t be happy until you have a certain level of sales, then you won’t be happy until you get great reviews and critical acclaim. Awards. A movie deal…whew.

The problem with these external goals is you don’t control most of them. And so when they’re the things driving change, you’re not in control of the change either.

I think it’s really important to be internally focused about your writing. After all, having something to say is a lot different than needing to be heard, right?

I struggle with all that. I’m going to guess I’m not the only one (God, I hope I’m not the only one). Sometimes when I feel a little lost, I remember Mr. Cronk’s grin. I remember the time he let me give myself my own grade. I think he knew that, back then, the reason I worked so hard in school was more external than internal. It was for someone else. He helped me see that wasn’t the only reason – shouldn’t be the only reason – to work so hard, and every day I think I understand his lesson a little bit better.

I guess I should probably thank him. You know, I still have never stepped foot in the Bar Bill. Maybe next time I’m home, I’ll stop in and look for Mr. Cronk . He’s just upstairs, right?

UPDATE: The Bar Bill has a website! Progress! Look at those wings!

 

Why Parkinson’s Will Make Me A Better Writer

 

Our characters are supposed to change.

In our stories, characters have arcs. They begin as one sort of person and gradually transform into another, usually in response to the events of the plot.

It shouldn’t happen all at once, though. Those are the bad stories, where the character just snaps his fingers one day and – boom! – now he’s different.

No, the better stories contain scenes that show little changes over the course of time – a few weeks maybe. Months or years. An entire life. Little changes that add up to him being a different person by the end, and it all happens in a way that makes the transformation as a whole feel entirely plausible.

Sometimes these changes are so small, so subtle, the character – or the reader – doesn’t even notice them. Or maybe they have an awareness of…something, but it isn’t quite clear exactly what’s happening.

This creates a wonderful intrigue in the story that keeps us turning the page. Something is different, sure. But we’re trying to puzzle out just exactly what, to put our finger on the transformation happening just beneath the surface. The what. The why. We want to see the next little change, to find that new clue that might point us in the direction of the answers we’re yearning for.

And these little changes, these barely noticeable things, well, eventually they do become something big. Ultimately our character is a different person at the end of the story than they were in chapter one.

Change, change, change. It’s one of the inevitable things in life, like death, taxes.

It hasn’t even been a month since I received my diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Not so much time at all, really, but enough to grant me an opportunity to collect up all those scenes in my head. The subtle little changes that were merely puzzling at the time but now, with the benefit of hindsight, reveal the path to a much larger transformation, like someone sweeping the dirt off a track that had always been there.

Maybe one scene is at a kyudo practice, where lately our hero’s left arm is explicably shaking when he gets into kai – full draw – the arrow wavering at the center of his chest, his aim difficult to maintain. He practices again and again, listens hard to his teachers, but he can’t seem to correct it. He decides to take a break from Japanese archery, just for a little while. A few weeks that become months. A year.

On another day our hero notices his arm’s in a strange position while he walks. Sort of fixed at his side. Weird.

Our hero’s a writer, did I mention that? He loves critique groups, and one day when he’s heading into the local library for one, the librarian asks if he’s all right. “Of course,” he says, wondering what she means. “You’re walking like you’re hungover,” she laughs. Odd.

Stupid, but lately he can’t find the hole in his shirtsleeve for his left arm. His hand hunts and hunts, continually failing to locate the sleeve hole. For the first time, he makes a change to compensate – trying to put his shirts on left arm first, the opposite of what he’s been doing his entire life. A little better. Still…strange.

And why is it hard to dig his keys out of his left pocket all of a sudden? And how come his left hand feels sluggish when he’s typing? And where’s this shaking when he takes a heavy casserole dish down from the top shelf of the fridge coming from?

He always had those video game fingers. There was a time when he was pretty darn athletic. Is it carpal tunnel? Arthritis? Nope, red herrings. He tries keeping his keys in his right pocket. Every once and a while he finds it more comfortable to hunt and peck on the keyboard with one hand. Oh, and make sure to remember to use the right hand to grab things from the fridge. Change.

Change, change, change.

His wife starts complaining about his right turns while he’s driving. He has to admit, they have been a little wide. What’s up with that? He’s always been an excellent driver (cue Dustin Hoffman’s voice from Rain Man). Why, now, does he have to think so hard about it all of a sudden?

One day the pinkie and ring fingers on his left hand start to hurt, then go abruptly numb. They come back, eventually, but now those little changes on our hero’s left hand are bigger. It’s clear – his fingers aren’t moving like they’re supposed to.

“I think something’s wrong,” he says to his wife.

There are CT scans and MRIs. “Normal.” He keeps telling doctors he has diabetes, could it be related to that? The neurologists squint at him skeptically. Those same doctors make him walk up and down their hallways, test the strength in his hands by gripping them, assess how big and fast certain movements with his fingers are. It surprises him how much trouble he has with some of these tests.

Still, maybe it’s just a pinched nerve. It could be that, right? More squinting from more doctors.

And eventually one of them says, “Parkinson’s.”

Our hero will always remember the day of his diagnosis, because it’s the day before his wedding anniversary. The next night, he and his wife dress up and head out to the fancy restaurant they planned to and everything is fine, because he’s pretty strong about these things after all.

But when he goes to pay, he has trouble getting his credit card out of his wallet. Then, try as he might, he can’t get the card into that little slot in the card holder. Such a basic thing, but It. Just. Won’t. Go. Finally his wife reaches over and does it for him.

In a series of small changes, it’s hard to pick the one that will be the Dark Night of the Soul for our characters, the moment in the story that becomes our hero’s low point.

This point in time, this little struggle with the card, it shouldn’t be any bigger than all those other scenes, but somehow it is. Somehow, it’s this moment that almost brings our hero to tears right there in that fancy restaurant. Because he thinks, is this what his life is going to be about now? All the things he can’t do?

He can’t pay for his own anniversary. He can’t drive right, put his shirt on right, take something out of his damn pocket. Walk without limping, open a fucking door. He can’t.

Can’t. Can’t. Can’t.

Eventually, though, in the really good stories, our hero reaches a point on the arc where he  gains a new sense of who he is becoming, when he emerges from that Dark Night of the Soul with a renewed purpose and vision.

There are things he can do.

He can take the medicine the doctors have prescribed. It’s already making him feel better, loosening his hand up again.

He can join support groups, participate in studies, read about balance and stretching and other physical activity that might slow things down. He can make sure to get to the gym more often.

Our hero can make sure to use that Wii his wife decides to buy him for Christmas, for more work on balance.

images-4He can find that boxing therapy a couple of towns away, designed specifically for Parkinson’s patients, where he might get to learn boxing from a former pro nicknamed “The Truth.” And, really, what guy doesn’t want to learn boxing from a dude nicknamed The Truth? Do they play Eye of the Tiger? They should play Eye of the Tiger, like the whole time, every time. (Oh, and maybe he’ll even get a matching nickname, like The Falsehood or something).

He can become a better writer by remembering all those little changes that got him here, how those scenes worked, how small and insignificant they seemed at the time, but how they added up. He can take the same approach in his own work, create better arcs for the scores of people in his head.

He can.

I can.

Can. Can. Can.

And the great thing is, even though I am different now (aren’t we all?), even though the big transformation hinted at by all those little changes has happened, this isn’t a book. It’s real life.

And the end is still a long way off.

 

 

The Importance of Showing Up

So my wife Mary is a painter and this past weekend she had a booth at a Christmas Arts and Crafts show. She’d done the same show last year and had some success, but it’s a lot of work each year to get the paintings ready and set up the booth and transport everything to the venue, then spend the entire weekend manning it.

A little bit exhausting, actually. She wasn’t sure she wanted to do it again this year.

But in the end, she found some partners to join her, which eased the burden a bit. So she went ahead and decided to come back to the show for a second year. Can’t hurt to show up, right?

No, it can’t hurt. In fact, showing up is essential.

Booth

The full booth

We brought the paintings and some Christmas decorations, set up our booth. We showed up.

And you know what? It turned out to be a great weekend. Sure, she sold some paintings, but more important was connecting with people in the community with a burgeoning appreciation of Mary’s work. There was one woman in particular who had visited Mary’s booth last year. Back then, she’d thought and thought about buying a painting, but in the end decided not to.

When she got to the booth this year, she was so glad to find Mary again. “I thought about your art all year,” she said, going on to explain that she’d come to the show mostly with the hope Mary would have a booth again.

It was a great moment, a confidence-building moment. A moment she would’ve missed if she hadn’t shown up.

And, yes, this time the woman made sure to leave with a painting,

Still Life

Mary’s studio work

It’s hard to be an artist – painter, writer, whatever. We’re continually struggling with our confidence, constantly going through rejection. Sometimes we wonder why we do it. Sometimes we wonder if maybe we should stop.

This little post is a reminder to you (and myself!) to keep showing up, whatever that means to you, whether it’s continuing to submit to lit journals, agents, self-publishing another book, hitting another festival, whatever.

Keep showing up, because you never know when you’ll meet someone who’s spent a year thinking about your work. And you’ll only find out if you show up. Again and again.

Ballet shoes

 

earlan

These paintings by Earlan Gill

 

Some of Earlan’s paintings, some of Mary’s

 

 

 

 

 

Clean

The envious CLEAN sticker

The envious CLEAN sticker

For a couple of years, I’ve been getting phlebotomies, which is a procedure in which a giant (hey, to me it’s giant) needle is stuck in my arm and a big bag of blood is drained from me.

I’ve whined about it before, I’m sure, somewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. I know for sure I wrote a short story about it, which is called – creatively – PHLEBOTOMY. The fact it morphed into a vampire story should tell you all you need to know about how I usually feel leading up to and during this procedure.

My phlebotomies are done at a cancer facility. I don’t have cancer (thankfully), but that’s where they’re done. After I meet with the doctor, I’m led into a sunny area with walls of windows and recliners that might even look pleasant at first, but it’s not really because pretty much everyone else there is getting chemotherapy, which I’ve no doubt is a lot less fun than a phlebotomy.

I can pick any chair I want, and most of them are usually empty. The only rule is the chair I pick has to be “clean” – in other words, one someone wasn’t just in – and this is notated by a strip of white paper with a block of yellow in the middle that has the black letters “CLEAN” stamped on it.

Yesterday I had a phlebotomy. It doesn’t take that too long, but I do always, of course, bring something to read or work on (though I’m deathly afraid to move my arm while it’s going on – did I mention the needle is GIANT?)

On this particular day I brought with me a printout of a manuscript I recently completed. I’m letting it “sit” – mostly – but on occasion I take a tour through it and check it out, and that’s what I was up to on phlebotomy-day.

I picked out my “clean” recliner, set my manuscript on the side table, and moved the white strip of paper off the seat so I could sit down. It wasn’t until I was settled into the recliner that I noticed I had dropped the strip onto the top of my manuscript. It rested there aslant, as if someone had given it the once over and decided it was ready to go (note that it is FAR from ready to go), that it was “CLEAN.”

And it got me to thinking.

Whether or not the recliners are clean is a pretty objective thing – there’s some procedure that’s followed, a set of defined steps, a particular cleanser that’s used, whatever. The point is, at the end of these steps, the nurse can slap the “clean” tag down and, boom…clean. Nobody’s going to argue.

I recently submitted a new manuscript to lots of people (NOT the one I was reading during my phlebotomy, a different MS). When we writers send our work out this way, it’s a real act of faith. We cringe. We worry. We fret. And we hope, above all, that it comes back with that CLEAN tag aslant across the top, some rough form of it, anyway.

In my particular case, it did – from several folks. (Well, not “clean,” exactly. No piece of writing can ever quite get that particular stamp, but “good” as in “continue revising.”) But a person or two had the opposite reaction. The MS needed a lot of work, according to them, possibly enough to give serious consideration to moving on to a different project entirely.

Because reacting to a piece of writing, unlike cleaning a recliner, isn’t objective at all.

Nope. It’s sooooo subjective.

These reactions have been spinning around in my head for a couple of weeks, causing endless confusion as to What I Should Do Next. Should I move to the next project, leaving this book I cared about and loved so much behind? Should I stick to my guns? Something in between?

I think this is the normal, constant state of the writer – staring off into space contemplating What I Should Do Next. I hope that’s normal, anyway, because, man, seems like That’s All I Ever Do.

So it was that I stared down with some envy at the white strip of paper erroneously declaring my even newer MS to be “CLEAN.” Jealous of those objective, definable steps to that status for the recliner. Wishing writers, too, could rely on a single person to declare a book or a story is “CLEAN”…as in “DONE”, that this assessment was a Yes or No question at all.

Then my envy disappeared, because I realized something else – that subjectivity (or rather, lack of objectivity) is part of the magic of writing. After all, the beauty of how different we are, while still being the same underneath, is one of the very reasons I write.

And the thing is, no writing is ever clean, is it?

  • If your critique partners love it, your agent might not.
  • If your agent loves it, editors might not.
  • If an editor loves it, not all readers will.
  • If readers mostly love it, the critics might not.
  • If readers and critics both adore it, it might get made into a movie, and maybe movie-goers won’t like it
  • Even if you’re Shakespeare, some dude will log on to Amazon and give you one star centuries after your death. Jeez.

So we must learn to appreciate this part of the process, the wonder of trying to get a story right when no one can agree on what right even is.

To appreciate that all of us have our own version of “CLEAN” and it’s different. Awesomely, gorgeously Different.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I probably need to decide soon. But phlebotomies, though I kinda hate them, always make me feel a little better. This one especially so.

You Can’t Kill Art

Rose

“Rose”
Artist: Mary Negron

So I was reading an op ed the other day prompted by a rumor that Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin planned to defund the Kentucky Arts Council in his first budget. As it turns out, the Arts Council budget survived, although funding was cut by nine percent.

The author of the original op ed piece, Kentucky poet Maurice Manning, wrote about visionary printer Victor Hammer. He fled Nazi Germany in the ’40s when Hitler tried to eliminate art as part of his reign’s efforts at suppressing culture. Hammer landed in Kentucky and became a big part of the creation of a culture in Lexington that attracted other artists, an “influx” of sorts.

This got me thinking.

We see this a lot, don’t we? Some of the recent insanity in the Middle East has led to the destruction of art and culture. Fascists and zealots and fanatics try to kill art all the time. It’s a tactic employed throughout history, a first step toward subjugating a people, because the artists are usually among the first to challenge and question authority.

Sumi-e Koi

“Sumi-e Koi”
Artist: Mary Negron

Here’s the thing I decided, though. No matter how hard you try, you can’t kill art.

Let me say that again.

You can’t kill art.

Not in a culture or a person or a race or a country. You can’t.

When you bring your heel down on it, like Hitler did, you don’t smash it. You break open a seed pod, and the seeds spread out and away. Like Victor Hammer coming to Kentucky and helping to launch a whole new arts culture there. I don’t have a list, but that got me wondering how many places how many other people forced to flee Nazi Germany landed. How many other arts cultures, conclaves, influxes – whatever – were started in these places by these people Hitler attempted to suppress.

Warrior 3

“Warrior 3”
Artist: Suzy Schultz

And how ironic it is that Hitler didn’t kill art. He couldn’t. He could only spread it.

I’ve no doubt if some artists depending on the funding in Kentucky were forced to leave the state, had it been cut entirely, they wouldn’t have stopped making art. Being artists.

No, they would’ve spread out. To Tennessee and Ohio. To Indiana and Missouri and Georgia.

Because you can’t kill art.

My wife is a painter, and she recently returned from a trip to Marco Island for a painting workshop. One of her favorite quotes from the instructor was that we artists are “tenderized.” We get beat up a lot, told our work has no merit, receive subtle – and not so subtle – suggestions we should quit.

Solitude

“Solitude”
Artist: Mary Negron

I’ve had this experience myself. More than a few people have gone out of their way to make negative comments about my work to me, some without even reading it. All artists experience this. These people exist; it hurts when they speak up. A few times, I’ve even taken a little break after hearing from one of them.

But I always come back to my art, to my writing. Because you can’t kill it in me.

My work hasn’t always touched as many people as I would like it to, but I keep pushing forward, undaunted. Trying new things, being an artist. Pursuing my artistic goals.

And now I have a new goal. I want to spread art.

Last year, I helped my wife and several others write a grant proposal for a children’s art festival. We’ve got lofty goals. A full day of painting and music and writing and theater activities, for kids of all ages.

We were awarded the grant.

Hotel Bloom Lobby in Brussels, Belgium

Hotel Bloom Lobby in Brussels, Belgium

So now our event is this real thing. It will be held in April. If you follow this blog or me on Twitter or Facebook, I’ll announce more details when they’re available. I know at minimum I’ll be leading the writing portion and I’m really excited about that. I’ve even started to plan out the sessions and some other folks have had some great ideas for writing-related booths we’ll have on hand as well.

The thing is, I keep getting a little thrill imagining the next JK Rowling or JJ Abrams might come, and be inspired to create, to let their own unique art light shine, by this little event they went to as a kid. Or maybe a kid who becomes an engineer or a doctor, but harbors a lifelong appreciation of art because of the exposure we give them to it.

In the Garden

“In the Garden”
Artist: Mary Negron

Maybe, either way, we’ll never know. I sort of love that, the idea of sending bottles with little art messages in them out into the ocean, never sure who might be on the other end or how they’ll receive their discoveries.

Here’s what I think I know for sure, though.

I think, once that seed of art appreciation grows in you, it’s hard to kill.

Impossible, even.