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.