Recently in My Writing Category

Fairy God Muse

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My final official duty of the semester (aside from attending graduation this Saturday) happened Friday morning: I had to conduct the defense of a thesis I directed. It was 200+ pages of a novel, and it was pretty damn good. A prose thesis only has to be about 60 pages, so I was proud of this student I worked with, proud that she was so ambitious, proud that what she wrote was so strong.

But it wasn't finished--it wasn't even half finished. And as any writer knows, a work often changes shape and form and direction as you write it--it rarely turns out as you originally imagine, if indeed you have a particularly clear notion of what you hope to accomplish. Sometimes for short pieces I can be all about discovery, surprise, just seeing where the writing takes me, but I think that for longer works, some projected goal is useful, even if you find yourself doing something completely different.

The Last Word

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In honor of the end of the semester, via Dr. Crazy, Dr. Medusa and Profgrrrrl, the last word of my dissertation:

place.

The dissertation is about place--about Taiwan and Arizona most specifically.

But I decided I didn't like the last line and cut it when I revised the diss for publication (yeah, still working on that), and now the last word is growth.

Frankengirl posted an entry about diaries and whether or not they are meant to be kept or burned. This is a topic that gets ME burning. In the December 2004 issue of Sunstone, I published an essay detailing my attitude about keeping a journal. It seems relevant, so I'm posting it here.

Although I am no longer a believing or active Mormon, I still live a lot like one. OK, I drink an occasional beer, though I have never been able to cultivate any interest in substance abuse. I don't worry about the ratings of the movies I watch, though I have enough sense to avoid films that are obviously crap. I don't go to church on Sunday, though I have tried to find a congregation where I feel at home, but I can't help noticing other meetings' short-comings when compared to a Mormon service: I hate having to stand, then sit, then kneel, then stand again; or I hate that other worshipers sing tacky devotional pop songs accompanied by guitars or recordings, like it's some group karaoke thing; or I hate that people show up in t-shirts and shorts, like it's the grocery store.

But I still write down goals. I still strive to be scrupulously honest in my business dealings and to give a good portion of my earnings to charity. I still buy groceries in bulk. I still can't throw away anything, from a scrap of fabric to a cardboard box, without asking myself, "Is there some possible use left in this thing?" I still keep a journal.

For many years I kept a journal for the same reason I flossed, made good grades and exercised: because somebody told me that when I was seventy, I'd be glad I'd done such things in my youth. In general, the journal has given me more pleasure than the flossing. I was 11 when President Kimball issued his encouragement to

Get a notebook...a journal that will last through all time, and maybe the angels will quote from it for eternity. Begin today and write in it your goings and comings, your deepest thoughts, your achievements and your failures, your associations and your triumphs, your impressions and your testimonies. (4)

My New Favorite Literary Mag

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I recently mentioned a rejection letter that didn't entirely suck, so I thought I'd discuss what's usually the best part of the publication process: actually seeing the work in print.

A few days ago my got my contributor's copies of Poetry International, and it has become my new favorite literary journal. First of all, it's simply gorgeous. The production values are impressive: good-quality paper, nice graphics that don't overwhelm the content of the text, an attractive cover (even if it is mostly earthtones). The journal is also a little bigger than usual: 9.75 inches by 6.75 inches (as opposed to 9" x 6"), with 208 pages before the ads start.

More importantly, the poems in the journal are GOOD. I haven't, by any means, read everything in the 2006 issue (it's a yearly, not a quarterly), but everything I've read I like--the poems are about things that matter--or at least, about the things I think matter, like suffering and truth and pain, which I guess is one reason they were willing to print my work.

And a more personal satisfaction: my poem is on page 30, and on page 31 is a poem by Billy Collins. It's the first time I've been published in such close proximity to a poet laureate of the United States.

So get online a buy a subscription, or rush out to the periodical section of your large university or independent bookstore, and read Poetry International.

My New Favorite Rejection Letter

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That title is both ironic and a tad oxymoronic: it's not like I have an old favorite rejection letter, and I've never received a rejection letter I like as well as any of the acceptances I've gotten. Still, some rejections are less vile and upsetting than others. Here's one I got last week that doesn't make me want to give up not merely sending my work out, but writing poetry altogether:

Dear Holly,

Apologies for the delayed response! I really enjoyed "Portrait of a Bedtime Storyteller" but got a bit lost toward the middle. The ending is magnificent, though. Would love to see more of your work.

Very Best,

Poetry Editor

Apologies are indeed in order for the delayed response: this journal had my submission for NINE MONTHS. It's not at all unheard of for literary journals to hold your work for six months to a year before they get back to you, and that long response time is one reason journals that don't accept simultaneous submissions totally SUCK the putrefied body parts of long dead farm animals. This journal at least allows simultaneous submissions, so the poems they held practically forever were also seen by other journals, one of which is now going on ten months for its response time.

But at least the editor liked my work and want to see more. So one of these days I'll send more out.

Enclosed Please Find

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Yesterday I did something I don't particularly enjoy: I put together submissions of my poetry to send to literary journals.

Ugh.

The fact that I don't enjoy doing it means that I don't do it often enough. I tend to do what I've just done: wait until most of the journals I've submitted to have responded, gather up the poems that are left, and do another massive mailing. I'd probably be better off to keep things in circulation all the time.

Writing cover letters, printing out copies of poems and addressing a bunch of envelopes are not terribly interesting activities, and I won't bore you with any more details. But I will add that it's why I don't have much to say today, and I will also ask you to cross your fingers for me and hope that some of the poems get accepted.

My Mother Sends Me Stuff

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My mother has begun doing this really annoying thing: she has begun emptying filing cabinets and drawers that haven't been opened for 20 years, and if the contents bears any relation whatsoever to me, she sends it to me.

Monday I got a big package containing my report cards from first, second and sixth grade; a bunch of my elementary school photographs, a few of which I'm posting just for the hell of it; the program from my kindergarten graduation ceremony (apparently I won the coveted role of Mama Rabbit in the classic play "The Little White Rabbits Who Wanted Red Wings," and I also got to play the Queen of Hearts in "A School Day in Storybook Land"--I actually remember the costume for that: it was this fabulous confection of a white dress with red hearts all over it, and I wore a tiara and carried a heart-shaped scepter); and lots and lots of really BAD poetry written before I had mastered cursive handwriting.

I can see why she saved that stuff. And I guess I'm glad she's sorting through it now, so we don't have to do it all after she dies. (I know my father is going to leave us a huge mess of papers, bills, uncashed but no longer negotiable checks--sometimes he just can't be bothered to go to the bank--and stashes of decades old sugar-free candy to sort through and discard.) But I admit I'm sort of resentful that I'm supposed to become the custodian of my own childhood at this point. After all, that's what parents are FOR: to maintain a shrine to our childhoods so we can grow up and forget about them, right?

Self-Portrait as Recluse

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A piece salvaged from old files, this was written in August 2001, when I first moved back to Arizona.

"People look better back-lit," my photographer friend told me. It's also true of mountains. This evening I rode my bike down to the Gila River a mile north of town, which involved passing the old sewer pond and the new wastewater treatment facility, both of which smelled especially bad, perhaps because it has been so long since it rained. The clouds were orange for a long time and then they were gray. The mountains had contours for a long time and then they were just a stark, dark outline before a diminishing brightness. I had never noticed before how the Pinalenos and the Santa Teresas look like a felled dinosaur, the head pointing southeast and the massive tail jutting northwest.

These two ranges, connected by a long, low ridge, look like they could be one mountain range, but they're geologically different, I'm told. The Pinalenos, which are taller and thicker and longer, have nothing in them worth mining. The Santa Teresas contain gold, silver, copper, etc, and if anyone wanted those minerals badly enough, they could get them out.

I haven't done anything exciting in the past eight years except: get a PhD, fall in love and get my heart broken, write a book. Each of these activities has hampered the rest of my life in certain ways. Getting a PhD involved being in graduate school in the Midwest for eight years. I hated many things about being in a PhD program, course work being at the top of the list, poverty running a close second. Once I finished course work and could just sit at home and read the books I needed to read for teaching or for research, graduate school became a lot less vile. I had lots of time but not a lot of money. I started to knit and quilt again. I took up yoga. I began to garden. All of that was enjoyable but it doesn't exactly rank high on anyone's list of huge thrills.

It's Out

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Yesterday I met a friend for coffee at Barnes & Noble. (Yeah, I know: how terribly corporate of me. But my little home in the Rust Belt doesn't offer much else. I have tried and rejected as thoroughly inadequate the various non-corporate alternatives for book acquisition, with the exception of my university library--that rocks. And even non-corporate coffee is hard to come by. The one entry in the corporate coffee delocator for this area was provided by me, and that place is a million miles away, with mediocre mochas.)

My friend was late, so I browsed the books. On the "New Arrivals" table, I saw several copies of Best American Short Stories 2005, but couldn't find the other titles in the series. Finally I located a sales clerk. "Where's the Best American Essays?" I asked.

"What do you want?" he asked.

"The same thing as this," I said, holding up the collection of short stories, "except with essays."

He led me to a display, and there it was. I picked it up and scanned the table of contents: twenty-five essays, by the likes of Jonathan Franzen, Edward Hoagland, Oliver Sacks, David Sedaris, David Foster Wallace--and me.

Art That Fits in Envelopes

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This post is dedicated to my new friend Tammy, whom I met through Friendster (yes, you really can meet interesting people that way) thanks to the suggestion of a mutual friend (SBJ, to be specific), who thought we'd get along. We've been corresponding for less than three months, and she has already written me several of the best letters I have ever received in my entire life.

***

I think one reason I like blogging so much is that it's the closest I can come to writing letters all the time. The letter is one of my favorite art forms and one I think I'm particularly good at. I have always placed a high premium on good mail, and while I've learned to appreciate the virtues of email--its immediacy, for one thing--still, in many ways it's a sorry substitute for a real, honest-to-goodness letter. Most people send such short, inconsequential notes over email, and I still miss opening my mailbox, finding an envelope bearing the return address of some cool person, and knowing that inside are a couple of pages that will entertain and delight me.

Email has also hurt another of my favorite art forms, the postcard. What a great thing to find in your mailbox: a few really witty statements on the back of an interesting photo! I love getting and sending postcards, and used to devote a lot of time and energy to building up an impressive postcard collection. But these days I have only one friend who sends me postcards: John C, who not only sends postcards, but sends them with postmarks from Thailand and South Africa and Austria and so forth. (I am chagrined to admit I send him, at best, one postcard for every four or five he sends me, and mine have BORING postmarks.)

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