We write to reach out, to find others who might feel the same way. This is a short piece on not having children. Many thanks to Beate Sigriddaughter for publishing this today in her fine blog for women’s voices.
My deep appreciation to the editors of Crack The Spine literary magazine for publishing my personal essay “The Year Before I Loved You.”
In this piece I reflect on the year immediately following my college graduation, when I was poor and hopeful, new to the city, and looking for my way into the world. Accompanying me during these tender months was a boy I will never forget.
“Crack the Spine loves the written word. Some might say we’re in love with the written word. But that’s just a silly rumor. We publish diverse and sharp literary works, including flash fiction, micro-fiction, poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. We don’t care if it’s four words or four thousand words, if it’s charged with artistry, we want to publish it. Given the choice, we will always select madness over method.”
My top three blessings, in order of appearance, are my sisters, my spouse, and retirement. I can’t imagine the hollowness of a life without loved ones; as for retirement, I am still marveling over the perks.
Who knew that a clear calendar could have such salubrious effects? Free to be no one but yourself, you become intrigued: Who are you? What do you want? What do you shun, and why? You glimpse your infinite layers and begin to peer inside. What will you reach for? What might be out there, beckoning?
At first you flounder. You have never been in open water and it does not feel natural. What if you’re doing it wrong? What if, god forbid, you are wasting your hard-earned time?
Months will pass before you learn how to float, before you understand that you will have all the time you need when you stop looking at the clock. There are, of course, some reasonable conditions. There are bills to be paid, clothes to wash, groceries to buy. These are the actions that keep back chaos, the last thing you need in your golden years.
Having written short stories and essays throughout my life, I assumed that retirement would find me sitting before my computer dreaming up new characters or researching the nesting habits of the scarlet ibis. How glorious it would be! No more leaping up from my desk and rushing off to work, my head clogged with abandoned words. I would be, at long last, an unbridled, full-fledged writer.
Imagine my bewilderment when I found myself with nothing to say. It wasn’t a case of the dreaded writer’s block. I had simply, unknowingly, wandered down a path to a place where words didn’t matter. Odder still, I did not feel bad about it. So what if I couldn’t write—I had written plenty in life, to scant notice, and who cared if I closed my laptop? Maybe I had written myself out, said all I needed to say. Honestly, it felt pretty good, not having to pry meaning from everything I encountered.
I put out a few passive feelers, tested my interests. Maybe I could do something with my hands, something of substance. I had always liked miniatures, and one day in a seaside restaurant I spied a delightful shadow box: a beach scene with a dock, a couple perching pelicans, a wee surfboard, a glowing metal sun. I could do that, I thought. I could be a maker of tiny perfect worlds.
My first attempt was a dinosaur diorama for which I used a thumb-size Tyrannosaurus, stones for boulders, sticks for trees; the background was a photo of a sunset I pulled from a magazine. One day I tried painting my own sunset, just for fun. I had no expectation of success and predictably the results were childish. But the difficulty intrigued me and I persisted. Now, 18 months later, I am painting animal portraits, a few of which have actually sold. Who knew?
A comparison of the art forms—painting and writing—is inevitable. What strikes me most is the disparity of delivery. Unlike a picture, which can be absorbed all at once, a story unfolds across pages. The smallest slip in the first couple sentences and the reader might not bother to continue. Right out of the gate, the author is at a disadvantage, and more so these days as millions of new books pile up on the internet.
Another hindrance to writing is the process itself. There you sit, closed off from friends and family, hunched over a keyboard, shuffling words. Often you cannot produce a single satisfactory sentence, and for this agonizing bout of literary constipation you have given up a day of boating. With canvas, the brush at least is moving. You may not be producing anything of value, but you are painting.
I could never listen to music when I wrote, and any sort of interruption unhinged me. Painting is more permissive. Working with acrylics, I can enjoy my Amazon music playlists or the latest New Yorker podcast; sometimes I hum or sing. Assembling my brushes and tubes of paint, I am reminded of art time in elementary school, when the books were put away and the blunt-tipped scissors, construction paper and Elmer’s glue came out, unleashing a collective imagination.
When I finish a painting I am satisfied with, I send its image to Facebook or my blog. This instant, easy sharing feels friendly: no strings attached, no ego involved. I am just one of many offering the world a bit more tenderness—take or leave it.
In contrast, a short story manuscript has a rough journey to its audience. As most publishers will not consider work that has already appeared online, even on a personal blog, writers must forego their social media followers, assuming they have them, and seek the approval of editors who can take several months to respond. Owing to a multitude of submissions and the caprice of editorial staffs, a manuscript, however worthy, is typically rejected. Because writing exposes our most private selves, rejections can feel like brutalities, while acceptances come as validation. A story lucky enough to be published in a literary journal will have a few weeks of modest visibility before it is buried in the archives. Money is almost never involved.
But it seems I’ve painted myself into a corner. In citing the advantages of painting, I have proven the utility of writing, falling back on the thankless task of sending words into a void. Clumsy, imprecise, maddening words.
The best thing about retirement? Never knowing what happens next.
A big thank you to editor Mark Leichliter for featuring my essay “Alabama For Beginners” in bioStories. This is my fourth appearance in bioStories, and I am honored to be among the many talented contributors.
“bioStories offers word portraits of the people surrounding us in our daily lives, of the strangers we pass on the street unnoticed and of those who have been the most influential and most familiar to us but who remain strangers to others. We feature essays from an eclectic variety of viewpoints and seek out writers of literary excellence. We particularly look for work that offers slices of a life that help the reader imagine the whole of that life, work that demonstrates that ordinary people’s experiences often contain extraordinary moments, visionary ideas, inspirational acts, and examples of success and failure that prove instructive. In short, we believe every life displays moments of grace. bioStories wishes to share pieces of these lives and celebrate them.”
Main Street Rag has just published Of Burgers and Barrooms, an extraordinary collection of poetry and prose featuring bars and fast food restaurants. My story “The Side Bar” is included in this publication, and I am deeply grateful. Provocative, humorous, edifying, delightful, this anthology has something for everyone. A great gift for writers and readers!
From the website: Main Street Rag Publishing Company has been publishing our print magazine, The Main Street Rag, uninterrupted since 1996. Among its features are poetry, short fiction, photography, essays, interviews, reviews, and commentary. Subscription information is available on the Submissions page and can be placed online at: Subscriptions. Current and back issue information–including who appears in each issue–can now be found at The MSR Online Bookstore on the back and current issues page. Our magazine is financed through subscriptions, direct sales and shelf sales. We receive no money in the form of grants or public funds. Reader support is important and necessary.
Many thanks to Darrell Laurant, for featuring Lovers and Loners in the latest edition of Snowflakes in a Blizzard. Please visit this book-saving site and take a look at some fine work you might not otherwise encounter. In the meantime, here are a few words from Darrell:
“Given the current technology, virtually anyone who wants to publish a book can now do so. And that’s a good thing, because I believe everyone has something of value to say and something to teach the rest of us.
But it’s also bad news for individual writers, because the chance that someone will randomly pick up or click on a particular book has decreased exponentially. I chose the name for this blog because getting noticed for a writer in this market — especially a new, unknown writer — is like a snowflake trying to stand out in a blizzard.”
Thomas Mann wrote that a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. Could there be a better definition? While others use words to communicate, writers understand that words hold greater magic, that when pieced together in just the right combination, words give us passage into our deepest selves. We write to discover what we know. We write to set ourselves free.
I often think of words as blackbirds wheeling above a wire. I know I can coax them down; I’ve done it before. I know they will settle into a tidy line, and that this line, while not perfect, will at least be coherent. As I am no Shakespeare, this process will take an absurd amount of time, and some of the birds will have to be shifted around many times. Eventually I’ll recognize that I have exhausted my potential, which is when I stop and click save. One more idea wrested into words, one more swipe at the great mystery. Tom Stoppard wrote: “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
Others might pity writers, might call it tyranny, this compulsion to hunt down the meaning of our experiences. Why isn’t living enough for us? I don’t know. I need to write about that.
How peaceful it must be to be done with each day when the day is done. All this sifting and sieving, this endless analyzing—I can’t say I’m any happier for the effort I’ve expended (nor a penny richer, but that’s another blog). And many times I wind up with nothing. Words are tools and sometimes they come up short, sometimes they fail me. Or I fail them.
Scant recognition. Slight compensation. Dubious value. Impossible odds.
Life is short. Mine will be over long before I’ve learned how to live it. You’d think I’d just stop this mad chase. Go play. Have fun.
Maybe I will. After.
As one of the contributors (“The Side Bar”), I am pleased to announce the upcoming publication of Main Street Rag’s Of Burgers and Barrooms. This exuberant collection of prose and poetry, featuring 140 authors, encompasses the hilarious and the heartbreaking in a delightful exploration of bars and fast food restaurants. Please follow the link to MSR’s online bookstore page where Of Burgers and Barrooms can be purchased at a generous discount prior to publication.
“Main Street Rag Publishing Company has been publishing our print magazine, The Main Street Rag, uninterrupted since 1996. Among its features are poetry, short fiction, photography, essays, interviews, reviews, and commentary.”
I am deeply grateful to Joseph Levens, editor of the Summerset Review, for reviewing my short story collection Lovers and Loners. Mr. Levens has published several of my stories over the years, and I continue to benefit from his kindness, guidance and wisdom. If you are not familiar with this fine journal, please take a look. “Founded in 2002, the Summerset Review is exclusively devoted to the review and publication of unsolicited fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.”
What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than financial reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value. Ninety-nine cents has become a common price tag, and authors are often compelled to promote their books by giving them away for free.
What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS and LOVERS AND LONERS, my short story collections, include stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of these two books. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.
Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair, the dreaded stasis of writer’s block. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, who are generally introverted, marketing is far more onerous than writing. It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.
Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.
I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they click into place. As I wrangle words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, struggling year after year to bring out his best.
You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. Most writers will never produce the stunning book they envisioned, nor will they reap the monetary rewards they have earned. As readers, we can at least offer them one dividend: the courtesy of a review. Reviews posted on Amazon or Goodreads cost nothing and require scant effort. Just a couple sentences is all it takes to let a writer know her words have not vanished.