Alabama For Beginners in bioStories

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.”

 

Lovers and Loners in Snowflakes!

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.”

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Notes From A Burned-Out Book Mom

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I recently wrote a post called “Tough Love—A Few Words on Rejection” in which I compared submitting manuscripts to raising children. There is the pride we feel, the apprehension, the shared pain, the lengths we go to in our abiding love.

But that’s just the beginning. Once our children find homes—whether through our efforts or a publisher’s—we must function as literary soccer moms: organizing the launch, attending the readings, trolling for reviews, reaching out to libraries and local bookstores, paying for incidentals. And don’t even get me started on the time spent creating what is referred to as an author platform. I’m not certain what this is, but it seems to involve thousands of social media followers as well as marketing expertise, previous sales, a robust readership and throngs of industry contacts.

Remember when publishers arranged and paid for everything? Me neither. But it must have been something to be a writer in the 50s, when authors like Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, E.B. White and Kurt Vonnegut were wined and dined and generally treated like royalty. Of course they were unarguably gifted, but even lesser known talents could depend on their publishers to procure an audience and offer fair compensation for the hard work of writing.

Book promotion is never finished, I’ve been assured, and who would disagree that books, especially sidelined genres like literary fiction, don’t fly off the shelves and doubtless benefit from regular cheerleading. Unfortunately, it takes a certain type of personality—optimistic, buoyant, outgoing—to succeed at marketing, and most writers are not comfortable in that arena. I know I’m not. I get clammy just posting a story link on my Facebook author page, afraid that readers are tired of hearing from me, or worse, not listening at all.

I’ll admit it: I’m weary of the circuit. I’ve written one novel, two story collections and a book of nature essays, and while I don’t begrudge the years I’ve spent on their welfare, I’m ready for some time to myself. You can find my four children on Amazon, in paperback or digital form, just a keystroke away from ownership (the same technology that has devalued our work has made it instantly available). My books have not changed the world, but they do represent my greatest effort. I think we earn our lives by giving the world whatever gifts we have, regardless of how they’re received.

I spent my childhood looking at bugs, trees, clouds, stars, frogs. I want to go there again. I want to break away from the tyranny of this computer and collect fall leaves, make a miniature diorama, hunt for fossils. My books are leading quiet lives of their own and can carry on without me; indeed I’ve not been much help to them. Maybe, freed of my worry and angst, they will make their own connections, surprise me yet. In any case, they could never disappoint me.

We have an abundance of book clubs and writing groups. Maybe there should be support groups for weary book parents. Comrades, you are not alone.

 

Photo credit: Thomas Hawk via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

When Living Isn’t Enough

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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.

 

 

Photo credit: derekbruff via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Lovers And Loners in the Summerset Review

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.”

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What is a Writer Worth?


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.