Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Back to school edition: Lessons learned

The UW has been WILDLY UNDISCIPLINED. Remarkably, breathtakingly so. Downright delinquent, my friends. And for that she is sorry. Her best excuse she can offer you is: life.

Sometimes life happens. Sometimes several of your close friends have babies, move to new cities, start chemo, start new jobs, leave old jobs, leave the country, and sometimes these things all happen within a six week period. This has been one of those sometimes. The UW would like to think, or better yet proclaim, she is one of those people who can keep a set routine when life introduces chaos. She is not. When things get nutty she stockpiles lean cuisines and non-wrinkle shirts so she can still feed herself and come into work not looking like she dove headfirst into her laundry basket and shimmied out an outfit.  Her multitasking skills extend only so far as snacking while watching television (for which she could compete for Olympic Gold).  So she has not juggled, she has halted.  A real writer, arguably, would still find a way to write.  This may be why you are not reading this post on the New York Times.  But for a lowly humble blogger, life can still get in the way.

She is back though (announced for at least the third time since starting this blog less than a year ago)!  Previously on The Undisciplned Writer, our heroine broke up with fiction in favor of a summer fling with personal essay writing, got rejected a trillion times (ok, 5), and then tried to get back on the horse (but kinda instead just watched the horse across the pasture while emptying her DVR of 'Burn Notice' episodes). And now she is starting over yet again.

It has become apparent to the UW, during her 'doing creative stuff' hiatus, that maybe her compass has been skewed incorrectly.  After grad school, she felt significant pressure (from herself only) to find a way to get published.  Mostly to justify why she spent money and nights away from her couch & handsome husband for three years, and because in idle chit chat people tend to ask you what you plan to do with your MFA degree.  So she tried to write with the specific intent to get published, tailoring work to what was winning contests, submission queues, and general attention.  This effort produced a lot of very mediocre work and an embarassingly bad piece about cats.  Horrifically bad, guys.  A lesson learned.

Recently the UW has started reading 'Olive Kitteridge' by Elizabeth Strout (yes, Franzen is still on hold).  And she has fallen quite head over heels for this book.  Not just because it is well written and about her home state for which she will always hold a very deep fondness, but because it is exactly the type of story and writing she would love to do.  The UW has read lots of amazing books and been moved for sure, but often felt it was not something she could have ever dreamed up, let alone written.  This book, while clearly created by a FAR more capable author than the UW, somehow feels possible.  It is a very lovely feeling.  And has reminded the UW that there is tremendous value in just the act of reading and writing something that you yourself really enjoy.  And that writing a story whose process makes the UW as happy as as reading this book would be a very noble and worthy pursuit, even if no one ever publishes it.  And that maybe her aim should be more focused around writing things that excite her that may go nowhere, than bitchy crap about cats in hopes that it flashes across some snarky hipster's newsfeed for 20 seconds and maybe they read (and judge) it.

Things in the UW's life are shifting, outside of writing and working and eating and sleeping and watching "Parks & Rec" reruns.  It is a very wonderful shift, but has made her realize there is no great need for the fame and fortune that she kinda deep down has wanted since she was rehearsing award acceptance speeches into the hallway mirror she could barely see into on her tippy toes.  That there is just as much value to a quiet, simple, and unexamined by others life.  So she will still write (and blog), and now wait until she has written something she is proud of and believes in before she throws it out to the wolves.  And if it only ever amounts to a pile of shredded paper covered in wolf pee, at least she will have had fun in the process.

One final note: this fall the UW is actually doing something with that ding dang degree of hers.  She will be serving as a teaching assistant for her thesis adviser at her alma matter for two classes, including the Art of the Novel.  She hopes being back in a classroom and around young aspiring writers will help fuel many a blog post, and also her own writing process.  And her thesis adviser - whose new book is getting AMAZING press and glowing reviews (and made Oprah's Fall reading list people, its a big deal!) - will be headed out on tour and leaving the class in the UW's trembling hands for two weeks.  Gulp.  But she is also hoping being in such close proximity to literary success will also bring with it many a lesson as well. 

So to any of you left out there, please stay tuned.  As part of the UW's ongoing conversation about writing, she really appreciates that anyone at all is listening to her yell.

"Although I'd like to imagine that its publication ... has moved the editors who spurned it to smack their heads, fire their assistants, and rend their garments, I'm also pretty certain that none of them care," Bissell wrote. "Nor should they care. But the frequency of its rejection seems like a helpful thing to mention, given how many young and apprentice writers tear through ('Best American') every year, as I once did, wondering how one's work winds up so enshrined. One answer: Yell into a hole, and pretend as though you're having a conversation. Yell long enough, and suddenly you might be."
- Tom Bissell in the forward to his story A Bridge under Water  about it being rejected 15 times before it was published and eventually included in The Best American Short Stories 2011.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Back to work

The UW is quite sorry for being missing in action for nearly two weeks!  She has been enjoying a lovely staycation with her family that just ended this week and managed to effectively disconnect from the internetting during that time.  But she is back.  Since her e-departure, she has received 2 more rejections (bringing the total to 3, if you are scoring at home).  So between vacation brain and some self pity wallowing, she is bit uninspired today.  But fortunately that is not the case for other people!  Today the UW will phone it in with some of the excellent entries she has read of other people's blogs.  She loves ALL the blogs she lists to the right, but here are some really top notch entries that have stuck with her.  I know some of the more clever bloggers do such things as blog awards, but the UW isn't quite that cool (she still rocks out to C+C Music Factory when no one is around).  So instead this is a general shout out to other people's recent writing she is thoroughly enjoying and that she thinks you might too.

Writing in the Margins, Bursting at the Seams

Atoll Annie and the Non-Specific Rim

Lit Endeavors

Things Jill Likes

Lesser Apricots

Leah Kaminsky

Drunken Bee

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Try, try again

This week the UW got her very first, official rejection letter for a piece she wrote.  And she knew this day would come, and everyone goes through it, and this is part of the business of trying to be a writer.  That said, it still stings.

Thanks to her recent paramour, the personal essay, she managed to fall into the pandering trap.  Having read a lot of publications she enjoyed, she tried to craft something that would fit perfectly to what they publish - in essence art by imitation in hopes of a short cut.  It failed.  And with some perspective she can say rightfully so.  Her piece wasn't great.  It wasn't worse than what's being currently published, but that's another matter.  She tried to cheat her way into getting out there, instead of writing something authentic and genuine and in her own voice.  She was that girl who decides to like everything her date does in hopes he will pick her to go steady.  This was an important lesson to learn first hand.

That said, you still just want to think what you write is good enough.  And you wrote it, so it's very hard not to take it personally.  A writer friend said, after he finished his Grad program, it was difficult to walk into a bookstore.  Because you have labored over a genius novel that you can't get any takers on and there in front of you is shelves upon shelves of sub par work that is being gobbled up by the masses.  It feels like that a lot.

In order to withstand the onslaught of rejections that still lay in front of her, the UW has had the realization that to stick with a piece and continually submit it, you truly have to believe it's good.  In hindsight, the piece in question was not (and has since been served up a brief, literary death at hands of the UW's filing system).  She has one short story that she does believe in, and has submitted several times and is sure she will do so several more.  Now she just needs to write more of those.

But in addition to laziness, the UW has a SERIOUS problem defaulting to giving up.  About all things.  She is, although you aren't supposed to be, kind of a quitter.  Being a 30 year old grown ass woman without a driver's license is proof.  If she fails at something, she is very lousy at getting back on the horse.

In the spirit of saddling up again, she put together a list of things that got passed over initially that went on to success.  Hopefully it helps you swing yourself back onto the steed as well.

  • Animal Farm by George Orwell  was rejected by a letter saying ‘It is impossible to sell animal stories in the USA
  • Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov got the brush off saying ‘... overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy.  It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.’
  • Stephen King actually threw an early draft of Carrie in the trash after becoming discouraged with his progress writing about a teenage girl with psychic powers. His wife retrieved the manuscript and encouraged him to finish it.  
  • Just as The Help’s main protagonist found the publishing world difficult to navigate, so did the book’s real life author, Kathryn Stockett.  The number one selling book wasn’t an instant success. In fact “The Help” received an astonishing 60 rejections.  As Kathryn wrote:
"In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books."
  •  Ayn Rand has sold over 6.5 million copies of The Fountainhead. But before that happened it was rejected twelve times.
  • Madeline L'Engle completed the book A Wrinkle in Time by 1960, but more than two dozen publishers rejected the story before Farrar, Straus and Giroux finally published it in 1962.
  • When they completed the first Chicken Soup for the Soul book, it was turned down by thirty-three publishers in New York and another ninety at the American Booksellers Association convention in Anaheim, California, before Health Communications, Inc., finally agreed to publish it. The major New York publishers said, "It is too nicey-nice" and "Nobody wants to read a book of short little stories." Since that time more than 8 million copies of the original Chicken Soup for the Soul book have been sold. The series, which has grown to thirty-two titles, in thirty-one languages, has sold more than 53 million copies.  
  • Although The Giving Tree, was published in 1964, people said no before they said yes.  An editor by the name of William Cole sent Shel Silverstein a rejection letter, stating that it would never sell because it fell between the interests of children and adults.
  • John Grisham's first novel A Time to Kill was rejected by a dozen publishers and over 15 agents before breaking into print and launching Mr. Grisham's best-selling career   
  • J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was submitted to twelve publishing houses, all which rejected the wizard boy. But then, upon the enthusiastic response of the CEO’s young daughter, a small London publisher named Bloomsbury, decided to print the book.
  • Dr. Seuss' first book, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street was rejected 27 times before he finally got a yes.  One of his most famous rejection letter excerpts read, “This is too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.” 
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, considered to be one of the best American writers, wrote The Great Gatsby in 1922. While the book is now ranked #2 in Modern Library's 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, he once received a rejection letter that read: "You'd have a decent book if you'd get rid of that Gatsby character."  

Friday, July 15, 2011

Things to do while you wait for editors/contest judgers to respond to your submission

  • Work at your day job for, oh let's say 40 hours a week
  • Paint your nails with the full intention of chipping them off once they dry
  • Chip your nail polish off
  • Look up a recipe to make your own apple butter
  • Look up how to grow your own apple tree in your tiny postage stamp urban backyard
  • Laugh, laugh, laugh
  • Get the really spicy peanut sauce on your noodles so you can complain about the heartburn all afternoon on Facebook for attention
  • Make a Facebook profile for your pet
  • Delete it
  • Get depressed
  • Review your life choices to pinpoint exactly when you veered off the Noble Laureate track
  • Buy fancy dresses with excessive tulle online that you know are too short on you so that you will be ready when your life finally reaches that "wearing short fancy dresses all the time" phase you have been stockpiling for since you were fifteen
  • Choose names for all your future pets, children, & diseases you will be the first to cure
  • Read other blogs and websites that are really smart and funny
  • Get depressed again
  • Look up the nutritional information of a large Dairy Queen blizzard
  • Cry, cry, cry
  • Write something new
  • Deem that new writing total crap
  • Start to question if the things you are waiting to hear back about were the best writing you will ever do
  • Eat a pizza by yourself
  • Decide to take up photography
  • Take thirteen still life photos of the bananas starting to rot on your kitchen counter with your camera phone
  • Realize your talents are limited
  • Delete them
  • Change into yoga pants because wearing jeans seems too fatiguing
  • Read about all the additional uses for a paperclip in this month's Real Simple
  • Find a paperclip in your junk drawer
  • Clip two old grocery lists together
  • Take a nap from sheer exhaustion
  • Search IMDB for the name of that actor that you liked in all those mid-90's movies but now is in papertowel commercials
  • Buy papertowels
  • Try to assess whether you will hear back from said editors/contest judgers in the time it takes to birth a human, birth an elephant, or birth a nation 
  • Watch 17 hours of Law & Order in a row
  • Cut your own bangs
  • Fine tune your signature wink
  • Sigh
  • Remind yourself that even if all the editors/contest judgers in the world think your writing is lousy and unprintable, that you can always still post those homeless pieces here, on this fine blog, and that maybe one of the lovely and amazing readers out there will give a hip hip hooray about it and that will be just swell as well.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I'm just not that into you (right now)

Dear Fiction:

Hello!  I hope this correspondence finds you well.  I have been meaning to write you for several weeks now, but have not found the time nor the courage.  Fiction, we need to talk.

After careful consideration and much deliberation, I think we need to take a 'break'.  Not a break up, just a trial separation.  I think you are amazing.  I mean you are Fiction, god damnit.  What is better than Fiction? (answer: nothing, unless you are counting oreo blizzards).  You are smart, you are imaginative, you are lyrical.  You enchant, delight, horrify, and move thousands of people everyday on long commutes and the restless path to sleep.  You are amazing.  And always have been for the trillions of years you have been around.  You have your own Pulitzer Prize in your name.  You are the bomb.com.

Here is the thing, you are also wearing me the frig' out.  I have been trying to write you for quite some time now with moderate degrees of success.  You are complicated.  You require thoughtful plot, well rounded characters.  You need a clearly defined voice and engaging narrative.  You are looooong.  So long.  Even for a short story writer.

I also have to come clean.  I have been taken in by a foxy temptress.  One with cheap, easy thrills and a self-satisfying edge you never had.  Her name is Personal Essay and she is a vixen.  She makes it easy to write, quick to spill out ideas and characters and stories (because they all kinda happened already).  She can be trashy, I won't lie.  And she doesn't always require the same level of skill you do.  But she is fun.  And it's summer, Fiction.  The best time of year for fun.  I know you will argue that you offer up plenty of Jodi Picoult and Janet Evanovich for the season, but I can't write that kinda stuff, Fiction.  You know that.  My stuff is sad and weird and will never be what you are dying to curl up with under a giant beach umbrella as the sand sifts into the seams of your swimsuit and you slurp your lukewarm diet coke.

This won't be forever, I promise.  By the fall I will come crawling back, ready to snuggle under your densely worded prose and endless descriptions of dilapidated houses and well worn relationships.  I have loved you ever since I wrote that piece of crap story about a fountain in third grade that was such a horribly obvious rip-off of Tuck Everlasting.  You have my heart, Fiction.  And you always will.

But for now, I need a summer dalliance.  And this summer it is personal essays/David Sedaris impressions.  No, they are not great.  But they are easy.  And sometimes, when tube tops and flip flops abound, you just need easy.  So I am briefly trying to join the army of people already much more established on the interwebs writing bitchy snarky clever things about everyday real life to be enjoyed by the masses/lost in the chaotic traffic of the world wide web.  To that end, I have sent out two personal essays this week to actual factual online publications (which is why i have neglected you and the blog recently).  I know, when i get the obligatory "No thanks, silly Lady-who-thinks-she-can-write" rejections that you will have the urge to say 'I told you so.'  I will deserve it, but please be kind anyway.

Summer fling- don't mean a thing, Fiction.  But oh those summer nights...

hugs and kittens,
the Undisciplined Writer

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rules of Engagement

There was a great article in The Guardian with a gaggle of writers offering their 10 rules for writing:


These would be the UW's 10 favorites:

Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points. - Elmore Leonard

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine. - Margaret Atwood

Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer's a good idea. - Richard Ford

It's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. - Jonathan Franzen

Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. - Neil Gaiman

The two most depressing words in the English language are "literary fiction". - David Hare

Proceed slowly and take care. - Annie Proulx

Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst. - Joyce Carol Oates

Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never ­being satisfied. - Zadie Smith

The first 12 years are the worst. - Anne Enright

Friggin' Franzen

So the UW lied about starting to read "Freedom". She borrowed her sister's copy and put it on the shelf. End of story.

Actually that isn't 100% accurate. After putting it on the shelf, a few weeks later the UW was at Powells (the coolest bookstore in existence) and saw a used copy of "The Corrections". So she decided to read them in chronological order. No, she understands this isn't "Twilight" and it's not a series. But there is something hopefully inspiring in seeing how a writer develops from earlier work to later stories. Especially when they had 9 years to do so. She would like to think her literary skill will also sharpen with age, but there is a fifty-fifty chance it goes the way of a decorative pumpkin come mid-December.

"The Corrections" so far is amazing. Which is a problem. Because A: she wants to reread every sentence and savor its awesomeness. (It's a 567 page book and the UW is lazy, so this could take her YEARS to finish.) And B: she is an 8th grade girl wearing a useless training bra in gym class when she reads great fiction- all self consciousness and self doubt, with mild chafing about the armpits. As evidenced by the wild success of torrid Troll tales, you don't have to be on Oprah's book club list twice to make it. But she is pretty sure you have to be better than she is now. And that thought makes her tired and crave a sleeve of Chips Ahoy cookies. And by sleeve she means an entire package.

F-you Franzen and your gifted, lovely prose.