Friday, May 29, 2009

Something Else That Keeps Me Awake At Night

It's only in recent months that I've used and become a fan of writing prompts. Prior to that I took my inspiration from art in its various forms and from life, following the energy of whatever phrase, scene, or character would "speak to me" at any given time.

In addition to writing prompts, a couple of my more recent shorts and stories have been inspired by poetry. What I'm finding, though, is that I feel filled with anxiety when my stories are drawn from the inspriation and ideas of these poems, these tiny capsules. What's borrowing? Stealing? And when, if ever, do I need to acknowledge what inspires my work? I recently spoke to a highly respected writer and teacher about this, and he laughed, saying "we all steal, it's our own unique voices that make it ours." Where's the line though? When might another writer be justified in saying "hey, that's mine!"

Here's a specific, and once-off, case for me: I recently turned to Brian Eno's oblique strategy cards for inspiration. After jotting down about thirty of the fifty or so random cards that "spoke to me" I worked my way through the list looking for the seeds of my next story. As I narrowed the list down I realized I had a poem of sorts, and continued to tweak at it until I had ordered twelves lines into a poem that had deep personal meaning for me. I didn't change a word of the random prompts, just ordered them. So my question is: is that my work or Brian Eno's? Do I need to acknowledge Brian Eno and his oblique strategy cards when I show this work?

Am I alone in this? Do other writers also grapple with this? Or do I just like to torture and dis-ease myself?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Note On Craft

So after an MFA in fiction, and more workshops and how-to books than I care to count, I think I've narrowed down the telling, the crafting, of story as follows:

- The decision to act
- The action
- The consequences of the action

Stories contain characters, the protagonist in particular, who struggle, make choices, act, and ultimately change.

Great stories also contain compassion and surprise.

The idea of conflict, the protagonist's struggle, in stories has been quite problematic for me. For years, I made the mistake of thinking that conflict had to be something big, dramatic. A mistake that resulted in overwriting. Now if I approach story thinking of trouble, rather than conflict, I do better.

At Mills College, Victor LaValle said that writers needed to know their weaknesses and write against them.

The weaknesses I'm aware of in my own writing are:

- overwriting*
- slow beginnings
- failing to deliver a satisfying story arc
- allowing my own self-doubts and inner critic to limit my creativity

*I received a very helpful rejection recently. The editor pointed out the following about my story:

- You're trying way too hard
- Select modifiers carefully
- Choose adjectives and adverbs that evoke rather than describe
- Choose the one noun or verb in your sentence that you want to illuminate
- Less is more

I returned to the story and revised it accordingly, and am so much happier with it. It's advice I plan to apply to all my work.

At the moment, I feel sad and frustrated because I so want to be a better writer. I'm fighting the urge to wallow, telling myself that all I can do is keep writing, keep trying. I might never get as good as I'd like to be. I might never get to tell all the great stories I'd so love to give the world. But with writing, as with all things, practice can only help.

Happy writing and living all.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Meet Me and More at Farley's

If you happen to be in San Francisco, I'm reading on June 2nd.

Douglass Reads at Farleys
An Evening of Discoveries from The Douglass Street Lab
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
6:30pm - 8:00pm
Farley's Coffee Shop
1315 18th Street
San Francisco, CA

The Douglass Street Lab, led by Matthew Clark Davison, is an intimate writing group focusing on the prose experiment.

I'm joining these talented writers:

Salem Admassu
Sarah Geis
Diane Glaub
Zach Grear
Lorena Landeros
Jessica Mele
Joseph Romelo
Mark Rubnitz
Kaitlyn Rubenstein

The vibe will be more sunny than somber. We are people who take our work—but not ourselves—seriously.

Coffee and pastries sold at Farley's & there are tons of other places to enjoy drinks and/or food on Potrero Hill before or after the reading, which will start at 7 and end no later than 8--guaranteed :-)

Monday, May 18, 2009

I'm Back

It's official, I'm back. I'm back but with self-imposed rules. Rules that can be clumped together under the title "Discipline." Discipline for many writers means writing and submitting in some kind of consistent way. In my case, discipline means cutting back on my writing and submitting schedule. I'm trying to slow down and really focus on the work, on process and craft.

In recent weeks, I was reminded of a lesson I've learned many times before, but one that I forget all too often: if my gut tells me something's wrong--I need to listen; if I'm not feeling happy then I need to step back and examine what's going on. My gut was saying "girl, you're getting too caught up with the "instant gratification" of online publishing. You need balance. You need to slow down." It's got to be about the work, first and foremost, about being honest with, and doing my best by, myself and my readers.

So I'm moving forward, determined to visit Twitter, Duotrope, Fictionaut, Zoetrope Virtual Studio, and my email account much less frequently (all fantastic places that I love, but time snatchers), and to write/rewrite for four hours each morning. After that, I plan to spend the remainder of each day living and giving to all the other wonderful areas of my life.

Just imagine if I was also on Facebook, all the time I'd have lost; I'm counting my blessings :-)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mondays and More

Every morning, and Monday mornings in particular, feels like the start of something, like new beginnings. Thanks to everyone for your comments here on my blog, and your emails and phone calls. I truly appreciate your concern and support. I'm doing much better, thank you. In addition to all of you, the following quotes have really helped me put things in perspective:

Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.--Pablo Picasso.

Focus on what's right in your life instead of what's wrong.--M.J. Ryan.

That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.--Emily Dickinson.

Life will bring you pain all by itself. Your responsibility is to create joy.--Milton Erickson, M.D.

Foremost in my thoughts: love, peace, health, balance, and being true to myself. I wish the same for all of you.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Big Five-0 and A Hiatus

The past six months have been a whirlwind of writing and submitting, and rejections and acceptances. To give some context to just how much of a tailspin I feel in: in the eight years between two thousand and two thousand and eight I placed two short stories with online magazines. In the past six months I’ve placed pieces of fiction--be they poems, prose poems, flashes, or short stories--in forty-eight different literary journals, and tens more are subbed and awaiting responses. Hence, it’s that big Five-0.

Needless to say I’ve received five times more rejections than I have acceptances. If not more! My “successes” have been fueled by the drive, perseverance, and downright obsession that I think all writers and artists can relate to, but my writing/submission cycle is veering toward addiction and that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to take a step back from it all for a time.

The other reason for my "hiatus" is a much more sobering affair: I am a sexual and physical abuse survivor. Given my recent, and perhaps too much too soon, widespread publication of some deeply personal works in several online journals, I’m feeling the need to step back from everything for a time and reassess who I am as a person and writer, and to explore the direction I want to pursue. I do not want to rewound or misrepresent myself. However, I do want to continue to take risks in my work and life, otherwise what’s the point? Where’s the growth, the energy? But I want to take risks that feel more calculated, and that I can fully stand behind.

In particular, I’m concerned that some of my recent publications, taken outside of the context of healing, female sexuality, and female literature, might be misinterpreted as merely provocative or erotica. I’m working hard to be authentic in my life and work, and I’m just not “erotica” or raw for the sake of "edgy" or sensationalism. I’d like to think that I’m earnest and honest and that just like everyone else I'm working through my "stuff" and finding my way. I do feel the need in my work to visit issues of abuse, recovery, and the darker sides of human nature, and I’m struggling with how to best do that in a way that does not in turn injure me or alienate my readers.

Frankly, I feel so much in a panic around the work that I’ve recently published or that is forthcoming that I’ve seriously considered pulling everything and taking to bed or a dark cave for the rest of my life. Yet I find I can't do that. I can't retract what I've written or adopt an alias or run away and hide. I’ve spent a lifetime pretending and feeling ashamed, and I just can’t go back there.

It’s interesting to me that there’s still so much taboo around female sexuality, in particular around women writing about women’s sexuality—their fears, confusions, and celebrations around it. These are themes that won’t go away in my work because they’re an integral part of who I am. I write to explore. I write to get answers. I write to speak the truth. I write to give voice to my fears, and to try and triumph over them. I just need to find ways to do all of that that will generate good and bring more light to our world.

So this is a farewell of sorts for me, at least until I know what to do next.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Ireland's Fish Publishing International One Page Prize

My flash "Like No One's Watching" was shortlisted for Ireland's 2009 Fish Publishing International One Page Prize. Alas, that's as far as the story got. Congratulations go to Bernadette M. Smyth for her "In The Car" which won the first prize of one thousand Euros, that's approximately $1,400!!! Congratulations also to the runner-ups. A big shout out also to Fish Publishing who do a tremendous job with these writing contests and their Annual Fish Anthology; the anthology always filled with first-class flash, poetry, and short stories. They and their patrons, such revered Irish writers as Roddy Doyle and Colum McCann, have helped launch the careers of many fine emerging poets and writers. Kudos all round.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Winner, Bartleby Snopes April Story of the Month Contest

My story "A Family Outing" won the Bartleby Snopes April Story of the Month Contest. As a result, "A Family Outing" has earned a guaranteed spot in the second semiannual issue of the magazine due out in July, 2009. Thanks so much to everyone for your reading time and kind votes. "The Librarian and the Janitor" by Phoebe Wilcox finished second, and "The Burial" by Ry Downey was third.
Congratulations Phoebe and Ry.