Sunday, December 31, 2006

In Memoriam 2006

As I was writing this morning and eating my breakfast, I was listening to the Good Morning America weekend newscast. For the majority of the broadcast, they have been paying tribute to those famous figures who have died in 2006. Pretty typical for the last day of the year. However, as they continued to honor those we lost this year, I was surprised by the lack of writers on the list. Unless you count Robert Altman or Aaron Spelling as writers.

So, I began to search for the memorial list for writers. I tried Poets & Writers and Publisher's Weekly, to no avail. I tried a basic Google search, and only came up with individuals. Then, I began to dig deeper. While there are no definitive comprehensive lists of only writers who died, I am thankful to the Dead People's Server for their lists of all celebrities who died and including several writers.

Here is my list, not close to comprehensive, of writers who I admire that have passed away this year:

Octavia Butler -- sci-fi novelist
Stanislaw Lem -- sci-fi novelist
Wendy Wasserstein -- playwright
Betty Friedan -- feminist icon and writer
Mickey Spillane -- noir novelist
Robert Creeley -- Black Mountain poet
Muriel Spark -- novelist
Donald Hall -- poet

Perhaps next year a larger news source will honor the literary writers who have died, not just the creators of soap operas.

New Year, New Beginnings

Every year, I do my best give myself goals. I hate calling them resolutions, because resolutions seem like they're made to be broken. Last night, as I started thinking of my New Year's Resolutions/Goals, I considered how happy I am. How lucky I am to have a wonderful relationship with my husband, friends that I love, family that I am close to. Then, I considered what I want to achieve or change in my life, and surprise surprise, most of it had to do with my writing.

So this year, my goal focus will be my writing. I cleared off the extraneous material on my desk's peg board, and I posted the following 5 writing goals.

1) Write 3000 words/week. (Result: 159,000 this year.)

2) Work on getting published in journals once a month.

3) Send out my book manuscript once every two months.

4) Maintain my blog consistently all year.

5) Make regular time in my life for my writing practice.

Some of these are tangible. I can keep track of how many words I write each week. (And I'll post my ongoing tallies here.) I can tell whether or not I've sent out my book or written on my blog. But my last goal is a little more intangible.

I am thinking about #5 in both literal and metaphorical terms. I can make sure that I am writing regularly, sitting at my desk every night. But, I also want to honor my writing as much as I honor other things in my life. Rather than consider myself a teacher who writes, I want to get back to the idea of the writer who teaches. Isn't that what good resolutions/goals are, the ability to make a significant change in your life? Getting back to my very first post, if not now, when?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Not Knowing

For my 4 Week Fiction Primer, I read an excellent essay by Fred G. Leebron entitled "Not Knowing." Of course, it was a handout, so I have no idea where it came from, but it really opened my eyes. According to Leebron, if you know where your story is going, then your story will die. Automatically. My favorite quote from his essay, "I had made myself pre-designate the size and shape of the work before me. ...I couldn't write knowing too much..."

I've been struggling with this fiction writing, primarily because I never know where it is going. I feel like all I do is write descriptions, and nothing happens, because I don't know what's supposed to happen. Then, I sit in front of my computer, staring at the blank page, waiting to know what's going on. My desire to know everything constricts the life out of whatever I'm writing.

Despite Leebron's assurances that writing while not knowing will produce the good work, it is perhaps the most painful part of the fiction writing process. I am terrified, while writing, that I don't know what's going to happen, therefore, nothing ever happens. Then, I do my best to gain control.

It's not like I am unfamiliar with this idea in writing. In poetry, I start with an image, sometimes barely a blip, and a few words, and then I figure it out while I am writing. I guess I am just so accustomed to this in my poetry, that it isn't as difficult as the fiction. Also, I think there is an assumption/prejudice that poetry is somehow more instinctive than fiction or that fiction is more planned than poetry.

While Leebron's essay was helpful in the sense that it proved that everyone had the same process as me, I am still unclear as to where I am supposed to go from here. How do I break myself of the habit of wanting to know?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Brilliant Idea -- Poetry Thursdays

My new definition of heaven -- vacation from work and new wireless internet service in our condo. I've been playing around and trying to find what other people are doing with poetry and the internet. I've found a lot of good stuff, but so far my favorite idea is Poetry Thursday.

Poetry Thursday is a collective project for poets on the web, organized by two moderators. On Mondays, the moderators post a writing exercise that is due on the following Thursday. After Thursday rolls around, people who accomplished the exercise and want to share post their results on their blog, then send the moderators the link. The moderators then post all the links and instant poetry community.

I'm going to try to start the Poetry Thursday exercise, just to get those poetry muscles working.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This is what writers do when they marry...

When I was in college and graduate school, I studied poetry almost exclusively. Like good liberal arts colleges and universities, both writing programs forced me to take a few mixed genre classes. And like a lazy liberal arts student, I breezed through the assignments as quickly as I could. Poetry is my genre, has been, will be, forever and ever. Amen.

Then, a curious thing happened, right after I finished my poetry book manuscript. Poetry & I stopped getting along. With my manuscript, I felt like I said everything I could say within the genre of poetry, for the time being. Yet writing still had to be a part of my life, because I don't know who I would be if I wasn't writing. Or at least trying to write.

So, for the past 12 months, I have been writing fiction with little success. Like a good poet, I can capture voice and description, but I write lots of long winding pieces without any plot. With muddled point of view. And yesterday, I had enough. I've written too many piss-poor first drafts that went nowhere. I didn't know how to continue and couldn't necessarily go back to poetry just yet.

Luckily, my husband is a prose writer, and has been as steadfast in his dedication to fiction as I have been to poetry. After my freak-out, he created for me a 4 week fiction primer, on the necessary schooling for a fiction writer. His primer includes:

Week 1: Shitty First Drafts

Week 2: Point of View

Week 3: Plot

Week 4: Revision

Optional Week 5: Detail & Characterization

Optional Week 6: Characterization

He gave me a reading list and writing assignments for each week. I'm feeling pretty lucky to have this generous of a husband. And pretty excited to be back in school, at least for a little while.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Deborah Keenan, working writer

My master's thesis advisor, Deboroah Keenan, is a model for working poets. She is fond of telling her student's that during the writing of her first book, she was pregnant with her first child and that the process is very similar. She is a full professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN and tirelessly mentors dozens of young poets through the creation of their first books. Even two years of after my own graduation, she still emails me to make sure that I'm still writing while working.

Despite all that extra work, she still is able to publish beautiful, tender, and funny books about every 2-3 years. She also created a poetry collective, Laurel Poetry Collective, that publishes their members books, using alot of the craft publishing techniques.

So, I feel that I must mentiont that the Star Tribune gave a postitive capsule review to her new book and everyone should go out and buy it today.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My Favorite Writer... This Week

When my mother was in town for Thanksgiving, she lent me the book Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. Reichl is a food critic who initially gained fame as an LA Times food critic and then, the jackpot, the New York Times food critic.

I read her book, a memoir about her times as the food critic for the NYC paper, in about a week flat. (Which, for me working my job, is a speed record.) The book is funny, insightful, touching and, of course, passionate about food. As soon as I finished reading it, I ran to my local library and picked up Tender at the Bone, the memoir of her childhood and young adulthood.

TATB is fascinating, because it tracks one woman's obsession and passion throughout her formative years. She uncovers the early memories that lead her to learn to cook, and the hesitant, almost instinctive choices she made as a teenager and college student that drove her towards her life.

One of my student's lent me her very first book, Mmmm: A Festiary which she self-produced when she was a struggling hippie in New York. It was hilarious in a 70's art foodie sort of way. She enlisted her friends as models to create ironic pictures of different foods. It endeared me to her even more.

I must say that Reichl's books made me want to quit my job, travel to exotic places, eat the food, and call it a career. However, Reichl in her current life manages to be a publishing author and an editor of a high profile magazine, Gourmet. Oh, and a mother and wife. So, I either hate her or I want to be her. I haven't decided yet.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Intersection of Art & Language

Here' s an interesting NY Times article about a Turkish artist who calls himself a "scrivener" or copier.
He has a technique where he copies famous works of art and "improves them, " like a gold painted David. He also is featured as copying the NY Times newsprint, but adding a hall of mirrors image of the page with his copy, inside a page of his copy, etc.
I'm a sucker for anything post-modern.

Monday, December 11, 2006

For Word Nerds Only

I just found this's fascinating, if you're into linguistics or other word nerd stuff. The Vocabula Review stands for the preservation of proper English, in a time of lax attitudes about grammar and language. While I'm not 100% on the side of preserving "real English" and it's inherent classist/racist/sexist implications, I like to read articles from that side of the debate.

Monday, December 4, 2006


I’ve been involved with the same writer’s group for about a year and a half and I believe that after tomorrow’s group, we will no longer be in existence. One of the other members, a co-worker of mine, told me that he’s quitting at our meeting tomorrow, which brings us down to only 3 total members. I honestly can’t imagine continuing in the state that we’re in.

We’ve been sputtering along for a good 4 months, broken, but still running. It reminds me of when a car’s dying… you can feel it when you drive, but you can’t quite locate the problem. Is the rattling coming from the carburetor? Do I smell smoke, or am I just imagining it?

Overall, I feel conflicted about the writing group process. I’ve been involved in several writer’s groups over my life and they seem to all follow the same process.

1) At first, belonging to the writer’s group inspires me. I have deadlines and people to read my work and I love it. I burn through new work and I’m excited to discuss it.

2) At some point, I begin to slow. Perhaps it’s the monotony of a writing practice or the pressure of the same deadlines that once inspired me, but the writing isn’t as easy or enjoyable as it could be. I continue to plow through work, but it feels hollow and false.

With this current group, I’ve been at this stage for a good five months, if truth be told. For most deadlines, my writing has been mediocre, at best, and I feel like I’m just going through the motions.

3) Around the same time, I start noticing that I am receiving the same critiques over and over again. If the critique is constructive, rather than positive, it can turn cruel at times. Then, I’m molding my writing to fit this critique that I don’t necessarily agree with or understand. In some ways, it’s necessary to have this outside critique that gives you a different perspective. But in others, it’s claustrophobic.

In the case of the current writer’s group, positive critique handcuffed me to a project that they loved and I did not. Writing became this unbearable chore and I lost that feeling of immersion in my writing.

4) Members begin to spin off, equally disenchanted with the work and the group. There’s always an early exodus, before the true dissolution of the group.

With this group, we’ve been cycling through members almost since the inception. (I’m actually a newer addition than two of the current members.) Sometimes, losing the members allowed us to progress, but at other times, it seemed like we lost a certain momentum and cohesiveness when we lost key people.

5) Group dies completely. I’m left with a half done project and a desire to have an audience for critique, without all the drama.

I know I’ve painted this process in a wholly negative light, which is not entirely my intention. I am grateful to my writer’s group for helping me to commit to my writing over the past year and a half. I think I’ve made some big strides with this group, including my return to writing fiction after an 8 year commitment to poetry. I also believe I’ve made good friendships within this group and found some kindred spirits in the struggle to work and write at the same time.

But I’ve also, through this group, lost touch with my poetry (being the only poet in a group of fiction writers). I think, overall, I’ve grown as much as I can with this group and I’m left with the same old options: toil alone at my writing or find a new community, and hope for a way to break the writer’s group cycle.

Saturday, December 2, 2006


I finally was able to write today. Nothing significant for 2 weeks and then – boom! 8 pages in 2 hours. I forgot how alive it feels to be in a good writing space. I barely felt the time pass.

At the end of my time, I was able to enter my progress into my writing schedule worksheet. I’m obsessed with all things Excel. I use it to organize everything, but it is especially helpful for my writing practice. My husband lent me the Excel sheet that he’s using to track his project with his novel, and now I’m hooked.

It sounds a bit OCD, I know, but using an Excel sheet to track my progress allows me to see a lot about my writing habits. I give myself goals – 4 hours of time and 6 pages of writing – per week. Then, I enter my time and page rate into my sheet. Overall, it allows me to see what days and times work best for my writing practice.

Of course, entering a long string of zeros (during my slow periods) feels like crap, but an honest evaluation of my progress (and regress) is the only way I can improve as a writer.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Fallow Periods

It's 8:30 PM and writing time; do I know where my ideas are?

Of course not. Yet, I sit down to write anyway, just as I tell my students, and nothing comes out. Or I just stare off into space, somewhere above my computer, and waste my time not writing. Worse yet, I do write and what comes out is a weak and painful trickle, about a paragraph's worth.

In college, with my friends, we had names for it. "Writer's sludge" was my favorite. It's somewhere in between a complete and total blockage and the aforementioned trickle. When I was in college, I had the time to work through the sludge and break through. It's such a rare and amazing feeling at that moment when I break through and start creating again.

Now that I've got only between a half an hour and an hour a day to write, how can I get my rhythm without the painful yet rewarding process of blocking then breaking? I turned to the internet, and of course, found some interesting tangential information, but mostly the same old advice.

In between the "just do its" and the "create a writing practice" advice listings, I found these two articles:

New Yorker article -- This ran two years ago, but it poses an interesting theory. Apparently, when we moved away from the logical process to the "creative process" within writing, we gained Writer's Block. Apparently, when I was citing inspiration as an almost divine act, I was espousing a Romantic notion.

McSweeney's article -- This is also an old one -- yet it 's very funny. A humorous look at Writer's Block and what's really wrong with writing and not writing.

3) Sydney Herald article -- More recent -- about famous authors who have famously stopped writing. We're not alone.

So for now, I get to suffer in my little writer's block/sludge phases and hope that they pass. Besides, I have something do in writer's group on Friday. If that doesn't inspire me, I don't know what will.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Giving Thanks

I woke up this morning, before dawn broke, with this quote from Ani DiFranco in my head: "I don't always feel lucky, but I'm smart enough to try. Because humility is buoyancy and above us, only sky." I have this posted above my writing space at home, as a reminder to feel lucky in the face of everything. Often times, it's so much easier for me to focus on the stress and negativity in my life, without considering all of things for which I have to be thankful and humble.

So, in the spirit of the day before Thanksgiving, before I have to clean my entire house in preparation for my mother's arrival, while I am watching the Minneapolis sky turn light blue as the sun rises, here is what I am thankful for:

1) My family -- I am very lucky to have a husband, 2 kitties, 2 parents, and a sibling who love me unconditionally. Every day, I try to remember how lucky I am to have these people & animals in my life.

2) My home -- It's getting cold here in Mpls, and I know that I am very blessed that I have a safe place to live and work.

3) My friends -- I have an eclectic amalgamation of friends who I have kept track of semi-successfully over the years. These are the people who have known me through all of my embarrassing phases and transformations and who still love me. (A special thank you should be mentioned for my Mpls. guy friends who stuck with me once I discovered feminism and the Womyn's Center in college.)

4) My writing -- There are times when it seems more like a burden, a chore, a curse, and a failed attempt at expression. (Often all at the same time.) But there are also times when I am driven out of bed, a la Alice Walker's
"I Said to Poetry" and I feel so thankful for those moments of sudden inspiration.

There are a million other small things that I have to be thankful for, everything from computers and cars and addictive television shows/movies, to the brilliant pink sunrise outside my window this morning. But these are my major blessings that I have experienced throughout my life.

So, hopefully, while I'm stuffing myself silly, I'll be able to remember this list. What are you thankful for?

Monday, November 20, 2006

Penis Envy (Sort of) in Writing

Over the weekend, my husband and I saw an amazing movie called The Prestige. It was such a well-written, well-structured movie that my husband (also a writer) was devastated. He was so devastated, so cowed by the quality of this movie, that he considered stopping the project that he's been working on for 2 months. He's 44 pages in and he almost threw in the towel! Weird reaction? Not as weird as you think.

Ideally, writers, when confronted with a sublime example of their art, are inspired to produce work on their own. Perhaps, it inspires an homage to the original work of art. Or, perhaps, the artists are invigorated, ready to confront their work with a new perspective or new verve.

Confrontation with a work of perfect human creation should be, for artists, a confrontation with the divine. When I say divine, I do not necessarily mean the hand of God, although that is what the word is originally derived from. I only mean the contact with something outside of ourselves, that must be expressed through our art. In fact,
American Heritage dictionary, cites one of the definitions of inspiration as "Divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the mind and soul of humankind."

But confrontation with the divine is both splendid and terrifying. Splendidly terrifying. It is terrifying precisely because when a piece of writing or art is so perfectly composed, we can no longer detect the human creator behind the art. It becomes a seamless work of art that seems to be natural. We forget that the quality is not intrinsic to the product; it is there because of the artist. A human artist, with weakness and insecurity and failings, like every other writer or artist out there.

Now, I'm not saying that The Prestige is divine, but it is damn good. But inside its story, my husband was confronted, momentarily, with something special outside of himself. And it devastated him, because he did not know whether or not he would ever produce that same effect on another person. My husband is at that stage in the creative process where his work is still new and tender. It needs nurturing and work, not the evidence of some other writer's brilliant and seemingly seamless handiwork.

I remember, for me, when I was writing my master's thesis that I had that moment. I was a masochist enough to read the early books of many of my favorite writers. I figured at the time that if I could see their unsure, early work I would be encouraged on my own. Instead, I came across a book that inspired me to a full-on breakdown, complete with tears and assumptions of failure. It was called
Ararat, by Louise Gluck. The book was so beautiful and layered and complex, everything I wanted my book to be, that I thought I could never compare. And let's be honest, it's Louise Gluck -- I'm not in the same stratosphere. Once I remembered that, and became okay with that, my writing continued.

So, this week it's The Prestige for my husband and once upon a time Ararat for me. What piece of art was it for you that made you want to quit? How did you survive it?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wasting Time -- One in a Series

I've been thinking about all the things that suck my time, steal it away in little five-ten minute bursts. I like to think of them as little bandits that rob me of my writing time. It starts out, most of the time, as little increments. Five minutes here, ten minutes there. Then, there are those sneaky thieves that steal larger amounts -- an hour or two. Before I know it, I haven't written all week. I'm left with nothing truly tangible to show for my week.

I originally was going to write about some of my fun & common time waster, but the one that struck me today was stress. Stress is probably the biggest reason for wasting time I have in my creative life. Stress is my most typical excuse for not writing, and my most typical excuse for my more destructive habits. It is as if having a moderately stressful and responsibility laden job absolves me of any creative effort. I can just lounge away my evenings and weekends, in my PJs, all thanks to stress.

I have two or three concurrent stress patterns. My typical stress thinking goes something like this: Man, I have had a stressful day. I don't feel like writing/I can't write. Or it could go something closer to: Man, what a stressful day, I deserve time off. (Deserve is a typical stress word for me. I don't deserve this stress, but I do deserve this 3 hour television watching spree.) Often times, these stress thinking patterns intersect, giving me the double dose of I don't feel like writing and I deserve time off.

Stress is a hungry time waster. While it can take the little bursts of time, it most often results in a lost evening or weekend. I drift in a semi-comatose state, seeking only pleasure and relief while creating absolutely nothing.

The kicker of it is, of course, that my biggest stress reliever is writing. For many artists, this is the case. Writing/Art is the one release we have from the stresses of daily life. Through our art, we can have the flow experience, that moment where we lose ourselves within the act of creation. What can be better than that?

So how do we, how do I, break this cycle of stress & not creating? Easy answer: create new cycles of stress & creation. This is something that I have struggled to include in my writing practice. Sometimes, like today, it is successful. Other times, it isn't. But I can only work to connect pleasure and stress relief with my creation, through practice, rather than tying it to that other obligation that only exists to stress me out.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What I Tell My Students

I started class again today. My school is on a 6 week term schedule, so every 6 weeks is an opportunity to screw up or succeed... for both students and instructors.

As a teacher, I force my students to journal 3-4 days a week. Sometimes it feels like forcing, sometimes it doesn't. To be completely honest, this is more than I journal, myself. I use quotes as starting points for discussion and inspiration, and then ask them to respond to it in writing for 10-15 minutes. As first week quotes, I use the following two:

If not, when? If not me, then who? -- Talmud
As long as you start, you are all right. The juice will come. -- Ernest Hemingway

In the spirit of those quotes, I decided to start this blog today. I've been struggling, now that I'm out of graduate school and working 40-50 hours/week, to fit writing back into my life. So here is a way for me to practice... and back up what I tell my students.

Here's to hoping that it works.

Sunday, January 1, 2006

Inspirations & Influences

Inspirations & Influences
Here are links to the writers I revere...

Allen Ginsberg, Beat Poet & Activist
Amiri Baraka , Beat & Black Arts Poet & Activist
Arthur Rimbaud, Scary-Revolutionary Poet
Diane Di Prima, Beat Poet & Memoirist
Elizabeth Alexander, Dream Poet
Francesca Lia Block, Young Adult Author
Henry Rollins, actor, writer & spoken word artist
Tao Lin, poet and fiction writer
Henry Miller, Fierce Novelist & Memoirist
Jeannine Hall Gailey, Feminist Superhero Poet
Jodi Picoult, Family Novelist
Kirsten Dierking, Minnesota Poet
Marshall McLuhan, Academic & Critical Therorist
Neil Gaiman, Sci-Fi Author
Nikki Giovanni, Feminist Poet
SARK, Writer, Artist & Nap Queen
Sylvia Plath, Poet Who Left Too Soon
Walt Whitman, Father of Free Verse

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