Wednesday, June 19, 2013

not our customary rejection: lessons from the black hole

Have you noticed that you can’t do anything lately without being asked to fill out a survey? Everybody wants feedback. The car dealership appears interested in what I thought of my recent oil change experience. United wants to know how my flight went. The car rental company is concerned with my thoughts on their service, as is the hotel where I stay every time I take that same business trip. (Still happy? What did you think this time?) That website I visited, the utility company I phoned, my doctor’s office — all deeply concerned with getting helpful feedback.

Sure, the flight attendant was friendly enough. Eight out of ten for answering my call in a reasonable time frame. I give my opinion over and over again, so why can’t I expect just a little feedback for myself when it comes to my writing?

But no. Here's how it goes with writing: You do the hard work. You poke your muse, scramble your heart, wrestle the alphabet and craft a story that feels worth telling. You fight to make it art. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite again until finally you call it ready. And then you send it out, because now that you are done writing you want someone to read it. So out it goes into the black hole of mystery into which we writers deposit our work.

Then one day, many weeks or months later, you go for the mail and see your own handwriting on the famous SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) and can pretty much be assured of rejection. Odds are against you. Especially if you happen to write short stories in a category known as literary fiction. Hundreds, maybe thousands of other writers have cast their stories out to that same publication, hoping to claim one of the dozen or so slots in the small literary journal that publishes maybe twice a year. Quarterly if you’re lucky.

Inside that envelope that you so carefully (and oh so hopefully!) addressed to yourself back in a headier time is a slip of paper. It has been copied at an angle from a master print out. That apologetic half-slip (why waste valuable paper with such a tiny budget?) contains some version of the standard, “Thanks for the opportunity to read…We receive hundreds of submissions…Not possible to reply…Regret… your work does not fit our needs at this time.” There are subtle variations, but that’s the gist of the typical form.

So you look for the meager signs of hope we writers cling to. Hand signed (an imprint of humanity). Or a sentence fragment (nice work) in nearly illegible scrawl that suggests they actually read it and maybe a real person even enjoyed it. Or best of all, a note, a note saying please submit again. (They did like it and it really just doesn’t fit this time. They wouldn’t encourage more submissions if they didn’t really want to read more. Be still my heart.) The rarest of all is an actual note or email (all of this has its electronic version, the form email) remarking on some actual element of the story, something that hints at why it was not chosen or almost was.

There is often room in the envelope for an additional slip of paper inviting you to please send in some money to become a subscriber to their fine publication or perhaps support their non-profit mission. (All good. All something I believe in. But somehow it feels like a bit of a slap in the face under the circumstances.)

I was a reader for a literary magazine myself for a few years. As a code, I dedicated myself to reading every manuscript at least three pages in before deciding for or against it (what if it had a rough opening, but turned brilliant; it could be edited) and usually read the whole thing. I always wrote at least a sentence on the form letter unless I really believed the person should not be in any way encouraged (rare). It was my personal act of honor for all of our sakes.

My husband is a painter and he gets feedback all the time. This is what frustrates me about writing vs. other arts. Musicians can play for people, even if it's a small crowd, and people either dig it or they don't, and you can pretty much tell without asking. People download your new song and tell their friends, you play a street festival. More people show up next time. A painter can begin with a small show and people come and say what they think and then maybe a bigger show and then maybe a gallery take you on. Maybe someone buys a print and takes it home, someone else sees it and days, "Who did that?" A sculptor can even place a piece in the yard and hear what the neighbors have to say. 

But we writers send our envelopes or pixels floating out into the unknown and wait. Six weeks, a few months, half a year — sometimes even longer.

Although I am a published writer, lately I can't seem to make it past the nice note stage and mostly it's that pathetic form letter. So I was recently delighted to receive the better-than-average form letter pictured here. Hooray! A small note and the form itself declaring that it was not their typical form letter. This must be the extra special form letter reserved for those above the riff raff of regular rejectees. I must admit I grabbed that branch.

The hard part for me is not knowing if my story got discussed, had a fan along the way or got tossed immediately. Was I a contender? I realize that the places I try for get a ton of submissions. But was I in the top 100 of the thousands or rejected immediately with the first to go? It's a mystery. One answer suggests keep trying and the right editor will finally connect with the work. That it really wasn’t the right fit right now. Another answer says work harder at my day job because this ain't ever gonna happen. It's difficult not knowing where I fit in that continuum. Not knowing how I stacked up. The guy who changes my oil knows. Not me.

Recently I was fortunate to get a glimpse behind the curtain. A writer I know heard the scuttlebutt at a journal where I submitted. Knows that I came close. That I got past the early rounds. That good things were said about my work. Still, I wouldn’t have known that without her generosity, because what I heard back was the standard form letter. Not even a note. It meant a lot to hear anything from the black hole. We writers don’t need all that much to take heart. We can feed on very little.

What you also don’t hear is what fell short. The things that you could work on to make it better, to improve your chances of finding readers. Because there isn’t time. I won’t go into that here — all the reasons why. The overworked volunteer staff, “The State of Literary Fiction in America Today” or all the ways that writing and reading can be reinvented and taken into our own hands, self-publishing, eReaders, yes even blogs. This isn’t about that.

This is about the huge act of faith it takes to believe in your own work day after day. To work alone and work hard. To stuff your hand down your throat and feel around for your heart and hand it to someone. To hear essentially nothing in response. To file that nothing away in whatever folder you keep your rejections in and then decide to do it again.

I have a suggestion. Maybe there is a new form letter and it has 5 stars like my restaurant app. Or maybe a scale from one to ten like my car dealer. And the person returning the SASEs can just color in the corresponding star or check the appropriate box that shows where that manuscript falls among the world of possibilities. That tiny gesture would be so much more feedback than we can expect today. Maybe even enough to keep going.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

the runaround

Derby runs ahead and when I look over she is stilled at the fence, watching with her entire body as the border collie at the Urban Farm circle-eights the horses. Their stalls are being cleaned and so the horses shift back and forth wishing there was somewhere to be. If I could hear inside Derby’s head right now it would be all longing and respect, but I don’t imagine these things are felt in words. She is feel-thinking the way Derby does. Roscoe thinks in language, I know. It’s easy enough to tell since he practically bores through you with it, his eyes so convinced you can pick up the signal. There are many times I do. Times he does in return. Derby is all physicality and she is good for me that way. Her love, her fear, her excitement can barely be contained. I recommended that we drive rather than fly all the way from Denver to Delaware at Christmastime, mostly so I could see Derby run at full speed along the edge of the ocean. Not much makes me happier. Her either.

Friday, February 18, 2011

swing set

Memory: When I learned how to make myself go it was from another kid at the park. Boy, girl, I don’t remember. A little older, probably tired of giving me a push. Legs out, legs in, again, over and over. When to push them out? When to pull them in? Oh, I see. I feel it now, a rhythm to it, pump out, draw in, and I say the words to remind myself. Now I don’t need anyone to swing on a swing set, any swing anywhere; now I can do it myself. An open swing, mine, mine mine. My own swing set in the backyard, red and white cross bar, white plastic seats. Now this is really mine. I don’t need my parents’ help. Higher and higher, pumping my legs. I make it my objective to see if the swing can go all the way around. If that is possible without falling off. I reach the highest trajectory, right before the jerk of the chain and then soon begin to fly from that point. Not long and I start to mark my landings, try to surpass it on the next jump. My red Keds fly off and I don’t pick them up. I hitch up one of the swings and hang upside down, still making myself go, my entire 4-year old body the meter and the rhyme. I try to walk across the top bar. I hang from the side and reach to touch the ground. I wear a path in the grass, a lopsided oval where I drag my feet when I have to stop. Mostly I don’t stop. When called to dinner, I have to be named multiple times before I fly free and somersault into the yard.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

okay, now for the good stuff

The other thing I liked today at the museum: Sandy Skoglund

by june the light begins to breathe

Keith Jacobshagen 1999-2000, oil paint on canvas
It's my birth day. I took the day off work and let M take me to breakfast at Devil's Food. Then we went to the Denver Art Museum. I wanted today to be spent doing what I wanted. And what I wanted was the things that wake me up and connect me to the stuff of consequence. I wanted to see art, to write, to be with good people, to read good words, to eat good food made by people who care. Today, I have been moving by feel with no real plan beyond enjoyment.

My phone used up its battery ringing and beeping and bringing me the words and voices of people I love, wishing me well. I feel rich in friends, lucky in family and thankful that even good-hearted strangers took time to say happy birthday. Like the man at the bank checking my ID. 

It was good to take in the art, but only a few pieces stood out to me today. Of course being word-sensitive as I am, the piece above caught me by its title: By June the Light Begins to Breathe. And for the fact that the artist admitted to the inherent cliches that landscape artists work with, but sought to do something interesting with them. I have struggled this week with the burden of originality, with the slumped shoulders of purpose. We are all handed so much history, the job of originality can be overwhelming. What can we do but move ahead and try.

Here, I love the sky, the proportion of it, and maybe it's fitting that I noticed an artist working in Nebraska. As a girl born in the mid-western plains, those open spaces are baked in there somewhere. Part of why the ocean seemed familiar when my family moved east and the big western sky felt right again later on when M and I came to live here.

But honestly, it's been a hard week. I've known this birthday was coming; it's been gaining on me for a while and I thought I was mostly fine with turning 50.

(Here is where I must step aside and add a note to the reader. Forgive me, those who are making 60, 70, 80, etc. look good, likewise those traumatized by 20, 30, 40... I do understand this is relative.)

Just because yesterday I was in my forties, I mean really, what's one more day? Who is that asking what have I done with my life? Who is it pointing out the obvious? That dream of being an olympic athlete: dead. My Grammy winning album: highly unlikely. That dream of being featured in the New Yorker along with other promising young writers: so very dead. (I can hope for promising old writers, but I haven't seen that issue.) But even after telling that voice to shut up, there are the small, many and tangible loses.

Back to the painting. Say I am really lucky and live to 100, then that would mean this is the middle right? The turn around point? My June? Maybe that's why I was so happy to think of the light beginning to breathe. Those big long days and short nights. So much room.

I like thinking of this as something like a beginning. I may be fooling myself, but today who cares?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

sitting still

On the corner of Pima and Swan near the representative’s office, they arrived to stand with others and listen for news. Some were crying, some were praying and some just sat down in quiet there on the curb. It didn’t take long on January 8, the day of the shooting, for people to gather together to form a vigil.

They arrived holding bouquets of flowers from their yard. They brought the Virgin Mary and a white and red teddy bear. Candles and flowers and hand-lettered cards. They brought their selves. Arms and hearts and legs and heads in their living bodies. They touched each other to see if they were whole. They drew together to make sure they were not alone.

On the wide green lawn outside the University Medical Center in Tucson where the congresswoman fought death, they came with floppy eared stuffed dogs. They came with more candles and flowers and new collages on poster board crowded with clumsily cut images. They gathered to lay out beads and photographs, anchoring balloons with statues of Jesus.

At the El Tiradito shrine near West Cushing and South Main, they stood in silence holding their candles. They offered the peace sign to passers by.

On Sunday, January 16 several hundred people “walked for peace” from Columbus Park to Gabrielle Giffords’ Tucson district office. Four miles in memory of the six victims, the many wounded and the recovering. One foot in front of the other on the pavement, hundreds and hundreds of them.

Last week when they moved “Gabby” to a rehabilitation hospital in Houston, people gathered to watch the motorcade go by. Tucson came out to say goodbye. “We love you,” they shouted. A woman named Dot told the newspaper how she cried. Representative Giffords’ medical team said she could hear the cheering crowd from inside her ambulance and smiled. In Houston, the people picked up the vigil with their own candles, homemade cards, stuffed animals and balloons.

The news may come to us by satellite and cell, delivered through television, computer or smart phone and connecting us minute by minute to the information. But when things come apart we still come together. Drawn as if by magnetic force without announcement. In person. In place.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

famous for staying alive

1.20.11 One-mile swim. You never know what to expect at the rec center. Some nights we cram in three or more to a lane, rattled and rushed, or I can come on the very same night and time and have the pool almost to myself.  Last night was one of the busy ones. Good practice, I guess, for the Bay Swim start and the flailing crowd, but I don’t like it that way. It’s hard to settle in to a rhythm and let my thoughts roll, unwinding the day. Instead of being one with the water, I must pay outward attention to my body in space and more importantly, the other bodies moving through it with me. We must find a common lane rhythm instead of tocking to our own internal movements, making allowances. One benefit is that I usually swim faster when it’s crowded so that I am not the one to blame for clogging the counter-clockwise flow.

Last night The Tonight Show invited two identical twins as guests and then surprised them by asking Carol Burnett to come out from behind the curtain. Inez Harries and Venice Shaw have lived to be a hundred. Supposedly the odds of this happening to identical twins are 1 in 700 million. It turns out Carol Burnett is one of their favorite performers ever and the comedienne read this in an article celebrating the twins’ achievement. Already inspired by their longevity and caught up in the article, she burst into tears to discover her name. She called the twins, sent them signed photos (“I mailed them myself!”) and rearranged her schedule to come on Leno and give them hugs.

Carol Burnett was clearly overcome. Was she moved to be one of the few memorable things in such long lives, lives that saw multiple wars and their favorite invention, the telephone? Does their refusal to die give her hope? “It’s like we were the stars,” the twins said. Famous for living, for holding out and holding up.

Holding up, especially. They aren’t just old and alive, they are old and alive. These two women are independent, mobile, their brains functioning, even remembering things. Like playing those swap tricks only identical twins can play, like Venice buying her first car in 1931. They still drive their cars, and they look great, better actually, than some people decades younger. “We don’t feel a hundred,” they bragged.

One (the oldest by 15 minutes) is slightly younger looking than the other. How? A better marriage? More exercise? Mangoes? A more upbeat attitude, or a little work done along the way? We need to know her secret.

But I’m wondering why this charmed me. More than the turning of the tables: old women telling jokes on the host, the star acting the fan, I think it has to do with that fear we all have: the fear of looking ahead into our own older age. We see the break down in our grandparents. We lose people we love. We even lose some people early. That must play into those crazy 1 in 700 million odds, the fact that neither one of them got run over by a bus or stricken with one of those old-fashioned diseases. We know it’s remarkable, because we know how bad it can be.

Inez and Venice tell us maybe it’s not so bad, maybe you can keep going. We are giddy to see them in their identical red sweater jackets. We laugh to see the better-hearing twin kidding her sister. Look at them go!

Is that what makes spunky old people so adorable? Not cute in that whole start-out-as-babies-and-return-in-the-end way that we patronize older people. But when they say, no thank you kiddo and go on being capable, even a little cranky, we are caught by our own surprise. Maybe that’s why we laugh.

This morning I watch several older couples moving through the airport and think, “that will be me and M someday.” At least I hope so, that we both make it a long way together. If we are lucky. And at first this is sweet and comforting, and then that scares me. I think about all of us here in this airport eventually headed to the same place. And now I am sad. That deep in-your-bones knowing sadness of mortality. The more vibrant the life the bigger the absence, but the same stop. Is my best hope to leave a bigger hole? I realize that it’s not a good idea to have these thoughts in an airport.

I read that Inez and Venice celebrated their common birthday at the Lockheed Federal Credit Union as part of a marketing event. I don’t know if this is sad or funny. Or both.

Inez and Venice also celebrated the fact that they have each other. All these years. I hate to think what will happen when one of them is gone. I allow myself to wonder for a second about my own partnership, about who will end up taking care of whom.

I want to turn these thoughts around. I think about how I am getting on a plane to see some of my girlfriends, how we have a full weekend planned in a beautiful place where we will talk about what matters to us, where we will read good words out loud to each other and write some of our own, and eat fresh, well-prepared food and laugh about some silliness the waiter said and tell each other we are not crazy for thinking and doing the things we do. Where we will give each other permission to love the people we love and not the people we don’t. Where we will look up at just the right moment to look across the room or the table and catch life in the eyes of someone we love, cradled in laugh lines and shining hard. That’s the best I can do for now.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

snowy walk

1.09.11 Today a reversal of yesterday’s warmth. Several inches of snow and still falling. The trail blurs into the rocks and dirt, grasses and briars along the creek bank, white lumpy edges, undefined. I debate whether to force Roscoe into his boots or wait and see if his furry paws make it through the snow without forming ice balls between his pads. The snowstorm doesn’t deter a Kingfisher watching over the water from a post in the middle of the creek, nor Derby from swimming her heart out. The dogs are happy. The snow is dry and powdery and it looks like we can skip the dog boots. I can’t run in all the layers I have put on against the cold, and so I walk as fast as I can, the swish of my snow pants reminding me of being a child. Quiet today, the way a snow blanket dampens sound and draws everything more intimate. Roscoe leaps again and again, looking at me as if to say, “isn’t this something?”


1.08.11 Today a bird choir, a prairie dog convention, a train whistle hurrying the coal train along. My own breath gives rhythm to my foot falls as I move down the trail at Sand Creek. In the mid 40s on a January morning, the sun out, warming it enough for me to be comfortable running in just a long-sleeved shirt and we are alone here, me and the two dogs. Maybe most of active Denver has opted for the mountains this weekend.
We may be alone, but it’s noisy. The ducks and geese seem especially talkative and I am struck by how ducks really do say “quack.” The I70 highway is more noticeable this time of year with the shrubbery stripped of volume, the buffer of full greenery gone. The remaining stalks are brittle and bare and chatter in the wind.
As we run by the urban farm, the horses turn at the edge of the corral and eye us without a sound, but the prairie dogs pop up and yell at us, saying what can only be nasty things. It’s obvious we aren’t welcome in their town. A red tail hawk gives a piercing, movie-quality cry. I turn around at the half-way point to head back and see the front range laid out, topped with snow on the peaks like dipped cones from the boardwalk back home. “Aren’t we lucky?” I ask the dogs. No answer, but they fall in behind me and we run towards the mountains, 10 feet soft on the gravel, light and nearly prancing.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

cowboy goes to a reading

Little did cowboy know when he attended his first reading, that one of the authors would be the next National Book Award winner in poetry. Congratulations, Terrance Hayes. Cowboy was just a little smitten. Another reader that night, Mark Doty, was already the 2008 winner. Such heady company.