Advice

“Not A Good Fit: Overcoming Rejection And Learning To Thrive In The Literary World”: Interviews with the Writers

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by Rebecca Mennecke 

The phrase “turning lemons into lemonade” is a common colloquialism in the English language – particularly in the Midwest. But, what does it mean to turn lemons into lemonade when the lemons are rejection letters and you’re a writer, not a lemonade-maker? 

Join Max Garland, Eric Rasmussen, Elizabeth de Cleyre, and Katie Venit at the “Not A Good Fit: Overcoming Rejection And Learning To Thrive In The Literary World” event from 6pm-8pm on Thursday, Sept. 19 at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Library, where they will focus on how writers can spin the negativity of rejection into a positive. 

Rasmussen, de Cleyre, and Venit will kick off the event at 6pm with their presentation “If At First You Don’t Succeed: A Conversation on Persevering Beyond Rejection.” Garland will follow with his presentation, “Befriending Failure: Lessons from the Whitman School of Condemnation, Defamation, Denunciation, and Vilification, or So You Think You’ve Been Rejected?” 

We had the opportunity to chat with the writers/masterminds behind this event to learn more about their backgrounds with rejection and how they turned those literary lemons into lemonade.

Chatting with Max Garland 

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Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation focuses on overcoming rejection and learning to thrive in the literary world. Can you tell us about your experience with rejection?

Max Garland: I think "rejection" in the literary sense of the word is simply a part of writing. It's really a part of any human process or endeavor, isn't it? You offer things and sometimes your offerings are accepted as useful to others, and sometimes not. But whether a poem or story or essay is accepted or rejected really has very little to do with the deeper reasons for writing.

RM: What can make rejection so frustrating for a writer?

MG: When a writer is starting out, rejection may seem like a judgement on the "person" rather than the work. Writers may begin to concoct conspiracy theories – how unfair the literary world is, how it's "who" you know, rather than "what" you know. Or writers may become discouraged and doubt the validity of their words. But doubt is part of any heartfelt endeavor. If you need to write to make sense of your life, then you continue, and, in the long run, the "success" of that continual effort will be dictated by how satisfying the writing process seems to you, how important the discoveries you make while writing become to your life.  

RM: As the winner of the 2017-18 Brittingham Poetry Prize, the winner of the Cleveland State Poetry Center Open Competition, winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry, and the poet behind several successful publications, do you still find it challenging to face rejection?

MG: For every publication or prize there have been many more times when the outcome hasn't turned out the way I wanted. I don't really consider those outcomes as rejections any more than I consider those prizes to signify success. I consider both as part of writing.

RM: How do we as writers turn something as negative as rejection into something positive?

MG: I'll paraphrase the poet Rilke, and say that "doubt" need not be a hindrance, but a signal that you're approaching something important, and you have a decision to make – embrace the doubt, live with it, knowing that it's part of the challenge, or give it the power to stop you. 

RM: Walt Whitman had to appreciate his own work, Leaves of Grass, before anyone else really did. How do you recommend writers gain that kind of confidence with their own work?

MG: Walt Whitman was an undaunted soul. He felt doubt, and was not above calculated professional intrigue, but his reasons for writing ran deeper than discouragement. He was audacious, ambitious, and had a sense of "self" that seemed to transcend the typical understanding of that word. He wrote as if his words came from the shared human experience. When I think of Whitman, I think of something the poet Mary Oliver said. She said it was never a matter of whether or not she was going to write, but a matter of whether or not she was going to love her life.

Chatting with Eric Rasmussen

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Rebecca Mennecke: This event focuses on the theme of rejection. Can you tell us about your experience with rejection?

Eric Rasmussen: I started submitting work, including short stories to literary journals and novel manuscripts to agents, about six years ago. The rejections started almost immediately after that and haven’t stopped since! As I’ve learned more about the publishing industry and what writers who eventually get published go through, I understand more than ever how rejection functions in the writing world. But even with that understanding, rejection is still something I struggle with. No more than a few days go by where I don’t receive a rejection, and that still stings.

RM: You have around 1,300 rejections! What do you do with a piece of writing after it is rejected?

ER: One rejection doesn’t prompt any changes. A dozen or so will prompt me to dive back into a piece to add another coat of polish, cleaning up sentences or trying to add creative flourishes. By the time I hit three or four dozen it’s time to think about bigger revisions. What could be added or taken away to make the story sleeker, more engaging, closer to something that lit journals or agents are picking up, or weirder and more unique so as to stand out from the pile?

RM: What makes rejection so frustrating for writers?

ER: Once a writer gets over the emotional response to being rejected (I’m not good enough, it’s not fair, the people who rejected me are mean/stupid/biased/etc.), what remains is the question of what to do with a rejection. How do I use this to improve the writing? The frustrating part is that rejections can mean so many things (that) they are essentially meaningless. Maybe your piece didn’t fit with the issue, or is too close to something recently printed, or is about a topic the editor has seen too many times before. Maybe your writing skills need some work, or your bio isn’t impressive enough. Maybe the editor ended up soliciting most of the pieces for the issue. Maybe your ending isn't dynamic enough, or your characters aren’t likable enough, or the situation is too quiet. Or not quite enough. Good writers will do their best to collect evidence of what they need to improve, but unfortunately, squeezing evidence out of a pile of rejections is an incredibly difficult task.

RM: As an editor, what are some characteristics of pieces that are rejected? What makes a piece "rejectable”?

ER: At the lowest level, not following submission guidelines and errors in basic writing and proofreading skills make a piece rejectable. After that, there are a whole pantheon of reasons, most of which vary by editor. We all like different things, as evidenced by the unique collection of books and TV shows and movies we all love. So, part of submitting is a game of statistics, of finding someone who loves the type of thing you’ve written. I wrote a story that got rejected about forty times because no one liked the ending (I assume this is true, because none of my writing friends liked the ending.) The forty-first editor who read the story loved the ending and accepted the story. That’s how most slush pile successes work.

RM: How can writers get over a fear of rejection?

ER: Sadly, I have no good answer here. I struggle emotionally with rejection all the time. With every new piece, I try to write something more engaging, more entertaining, more tuned to the marketplace. But I would also be betraying my craft if I didn’t write things that I wanted to write, things that I found profound and creative and worth putting on paper. Someday I hope to find where both those concerns overlap, at which point my acceptances will come a tiny bit closer to balancing the rejections. Until then, I wince a little bit whenever I check my email. But at least I understand better than ever before that it’s all part of a process that everyone goes through.

Chatting with Katie Venit

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Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation is about overcoming rejection. Can you tell me about your experience with rejection? 

Katie Venit: Well, I’ve been rejected a lot. I’ve been rejected quickly, and I’ve been rejected after months and months and months of waiting. One of my happiest moments as a writer was when I got a “higher tier” rejection from one of my crush journals. This is a rejection, but also a note that says they liked it, it just wasn’t quite exactly right for them and please submit again. I was so excited to get that rejection – even more excited than any of the acceptances I’ve gotten because I haven’t quite managed to get anything accepted at my first-choice journals.

RM: What can make rejection so frustrating for a writer? 

KV: For me it’s the black box of rejection – not knowing why a piece wasn’t picked up. Was it just not a good fit for them or was there something wrong with my piece – something fixable but that I just can’t see because I’m too close to it? I’ve been trying to place a particular piece for over a year—easily my favorite thing that I’ve ever written, but no one wants it. Is it because it sort of a hybrid piece that doesn’t fit into clear boundaries of flash fiction or prose poetry? Or is it just bad and no one could like it but me? I think I have good taste, but it’s also a very personal piece for me, so I don’t know.

RM: How can we as writers spin something as negative as rejection into a positive? 

KV: Someone told me to think of submissions as an opportunity for relationship building. So I try to think of rejections as just a part of the start of the relationship. Let’s say I meet someone I think might make a good friend and ask them to go to a monster truck rally with me. They say no, that’s not their thing. Well, now I know that’s something we don’t have in common. That’s a data point. It might turn out we don’t have enough in common to have a long-term relationship, or it might be that that’s the only thing we don’t share. I gotta keep asking and trying to see what future there is with us. How they refuse my invitation is important, too. Are they classy and kind, or scornful? On the topic of writing, I make a note of the places that say why they didn’t pick up the story. Those are the places that I will submit to more quickly in the future. If the rejections are snarky or inconsiderate, I don’t really care to have a relationship with them, so I can safely take them off my submission list for future pieces. In the flash fiction world, there’s a really prestigious online magazine that took a year to respond to my submission and just said, verbatim, “we’re going to pass on this.” That’s no way to form a relationship with a writer. If you asked your new acquaintance to a monster truck rally and they just said, “no, I’m going to pass,” and walked away how would that make you feel? For me, personally, it’s a sign that they’re not a good fit for me because I value life’s niceties and appreciate the acknowledgement that making an invitation and submitting a story is a vulnerable act. So I suppose the positive would be to look at it as relationship building. Which journals do I want to continue to have a relationship with? Which are a good fit for me, and not just the reverse?

RM: After a piece is rejected, what do you do with it? 

KV: After each round of several rejections, I’ll look at it again and decide if, with distance, I can see how to improve it. And eventually, after 10, 20, 30, 40 rejections I’ll probably give up on it if my passion for it is gone. I recently submitted a piece to only one place and it was rejected, and I don’t think I’m invested in it enough to keep trying.  It depends on how strongly I feel about it. I find submissions to be incredible tedious, so I’m not going to bother if I don’t love it. But it all comes down to priorities and what brings you joy. I couldn’t care less about seeing my name in print—I’ve seen my name in print regularly for 25 years because I’ve been in journalism and freelance writing. That drive for me is spent. The joy of writing, for me, is in the writing and revising. If I enjoyed writing and revising a piece, but it’s not getting picked up and I don’t feel passionate about it anymore, then it’s done its job and I’ve gotten all the joy out of it that I’m going to. So I let it go. The only time I still get an additional jolt of joy out of publishing is when I publish locally because then people tell you they read it and enjoyed it and then you can build a relationship with that person. (Bonus: it’s also easier to place a piece in a local publication like Volume 1’s local lit column or Barstow and Grand.) But random people living in California or Estonia who read your piece on a smaller flash journal don’t tend to reach out to you. Maybe it’s different if you’re published in larger venues. I don’t know yet.  

RM: After getting rejected, do you ever get nervous about being rejected again? How can writers move past a fear of rejection? 

KV: They say that little kids have big emotions because everything is a new experience for them. They scrape their knee and it’s awful, the end of the world, because maybe it’s the first or second time that’s ever happened to them. But eventually, by the time they’re 40 years old, they’ve scraped their knee so many times that it’s not noteworthy anymore. Slap a bandaid on it and get on with your day. I’ve heard the same thing happens with beekeepers. The more you get stung, the less it matters because you’ve been stung so many times before and survived. The novelty wears off. Same with rejection, I think. I used to be sad about it, like, down in the dumps for a couple days, but really quickly into my submission journey I stopped caring. Partly it’s because I got used to it, and partly because I realized what I was just talking about, that seeing my name in print doesn’t call to me. The thing I still struggle with is submissions because I’m a working parent of young kids, so above all else I value efficiency and efficacy. My free time is so limited, and if I spend that not writing (which brings me incredible joy) but submitting, only to be rejected very often, one wonders what’s the point (which is why I will so often abandon pieces). I sure hope the purpose of this panel was not to be purely motivational, because I will not succeed in that. I’m not the person who’s going to tell you to keep trying and not to give up, that it will eventually happen if you just keep going. First of all, that’s just not true. I could try to play for the NFL with every fiber of my being, and it’s not going to happen. I could try to be the next JK Rowling, but the odds are pretty similar. However, I will tell you not to give up on something just because it’s hard or it hurts sometimes, because it won’t always be that hard and it might not always hurt. But eventually you have to figure out where your bliss is and chase it. Maybe that’s writing fan fic in a composition book that you hide under your mattress and never show anyone. Maybe that’s trying to see how quickly you can rack up 100 rejections. I’ve done both, and I know what brought me more joy, and that’s my path. Your path is your own.

Chatting with Elizabeth de Cleyre

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Rebecca Mennecke: This presentation is above overcoming rejection and learning to thrive in the literary world. Can you tell us about your experiences with rejection?

Elizabeth de Cleyre: My experiences with rejection aren't especially unique. I imagine all writers can attest to the cycle of submitting, receiving a rejection or an acceptance, and then doing it all over again.

RM: How do you continue writing after rejection?

EdC: I view writing and publishing as two separate yet overlapping entities. Rejection doesn't make me write any less; if anything, it prompts me to write more. This may be an extreme way of looking at it, but how one writes in the face of rejection seems akin to how one lives in the face of death. We know it's inevitable, but do we stop ourselves from writing as a result of it?

RM: As an editor, what do you look for when deciding what makes a piece “good” or “bad”? 

EdC: "Good" and "bad" are subjective terms I avoid as an editor. I'm in service of a piece of writing or a publication, so I ask myself what the piece/publication is aiming to do, and whether it's accomplishing it. What I look for in a piece changes depending on the context of the publication. I don't think pieces are good or bad, as much as they are the right fit for the right venue at the right time. Which, in many ways, is trickier than just naming something as good or bad.

RM: What do you do with a piece of writing after it is rejected?

EdC: After a piece is rejected I either send it to another venue as-is, or I decide to revise it before sending it out again.

RM: What makes rejection so hard for writers?

EdC: Personally, rejection is hard for me because I put so much of myself into my work. As storytellers, it's up to us to make meaning out of events in life. So often we make meaning out of a rejection, and that meaning is usually, "I'm a bad writer." There are so many factors that go into placing a piece (timing, voice, subject matter, context, the editor's subjective tastes, whether that publication has run a similar piece recently) that it's really impossible to determine why it wasn't accepted. Ever since I dropped the story and started to view rejection as a kind of protection or redirection in my career, it's helped me take it less personally. 

Learn from Max, Eric, Katie and Elizabeth on Thursday, September 19 beginning at 6PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library.

 

 

 

 







Barstow & Grand Issue #3: Your Name in Print

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By Lauren Becker

For those who may be new to the Valley, Barstow & Grand is an annual print journal, published in the fall, that highlights writers connected to western Wisconsin's Chippewa Valley. 

We’re happy to share that submissions for issue three are now OPEN! And to celebrate, we asked the editor we all know and love, Eric Rasmussen, to share a few words.

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Lauren Becker: Could you give us a brief snapshot of the history that's built Barstow & Grand into what it is today?

Eric Rasmussen: It all started with BJ Hollars and the work he did in establishing the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild. Watching him build the organization was very inspiring, and I wanted to play along. So, we brainstormed what else the local literary community might need, and where that intersected with my skills and the skills of those who might want to participate. After lots of years working with literary journals and trying to get published in literary journals, creating a local publication made the most sense. We hosted some organizational meetings, put together a staff, and just like that we’re gearing up to produce our third issue.

As both a fiction writer and an experienced high school English teacher, can you speak to the importance of literary opportunities such as this for beginning writers?

Most writers start by writing for themselves. A lot of the advice new writers hear fits with this idea. “Write the story you want to read,” things like that. For many poets and authors, writing can continue to be an act of self-discovery for their entire lives, for which they often receive loads of support from friends and loved ones, and that’s a powerful and worthwhile thing. But some writers desire to take that next step and share their work with strangers, and this requires a subtle yet profound shift. What the writer wants to write must take a back seat to what the reader wants to read. Life is short and money is tight, and people will only read what appeals to them, not what appeals to the author. For this reason, the literary journal game becomes an important rite of passage for many creative writers out there. It’s a little Darwinian, but what makes your writing better than the other dozen (or hundred or thousand) pieces in the slush pile? When a writer is able to push through the inevitable heartache that accompanies sending out work and receiving rejections (and all writers receive loads and loads of rejections), they can ask the question “How do I better appeal to a reader?” And that is where all improvement in writing begins.

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For those of us who may be hesitant to submit, for fear of putting ourselves out there, what would you tell us?

Sending out your writing is like going to the gym (all stereotypes of writers not being fitness oriented aside!) At first, it sucks. No matter what. For everyone. But if you stick with it, changes will occur. Progress will be made. Guaranteed. It’s never as fast as we want it, and the steps we take are usually less dramatic than we envision. But one day, almost as if out of nowhere, you’ll take a step back and admire your list of publications, or your manuscripts, or your agent and book contracts, and you’ll be so thrilled you kept at it. And if you keep working, there’s nothing stopping you from achieving whatever goal you’ve set.

If you had to summarize the beauty of Barstow & Grand in only a sentence, how would you capture it?

Barstow & Grand seeks to fulfill a humble mission: to support, grow, and professionalize the community of writers associated with the Chippewa Valley. (Stolen from our website, but I couldn’t say it any better!)

What are you most looking forward to in this next issue and where is the publication growing from here?

After issue #2, we received a letter from a submitter whose piece we rejected. He explained that at first, he was pretty sore about the whole process, but then he took our suggestions, revised the piece, and it was picked up by a publication that, in all honesty, is way more prestigious than we are. This story fits with our mission exactly. I would love to see work from those folks who have submitted before, especially those whom we’ve rejected, to see how their writing is improving. And I’d love to see submissions from the area’s authors who have proven themselves in other publications if we’ve successfully earned their esteem. More than anything, I can’t wait to hand copies of the journal to the issue #3 authors. That moment makes the mountain of work this journal takes worth it.

➜ Are you ready for that moment? Submit your work here

➜ Support the literary community of the Chippewa Valley by purchasing past issues of Barstow & Grand here!

When You’re A Twenty-Year-Old That Wants To Write

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by Emma O’Shea 

I sit in a small coffee shop as the light dissolves below the snowy ground outside, to listen to the lyrical lines of fellow peers. Almost entirely made up of twenty-something-year-old Eau Claire university students, we gather around to share what we have written. Whether it be poetry, prose or none of the above, we share our stories, creative lines and emotional turmoil in hopes that it will resonate with someone. Some walk to the microphone taking a breath before looking up at the clustered crowd, while others march up to the microphone with solid conviction. Yet, everyone seems filled with a sense of elation as their final words twirled out of their mouths into the room. All of us came together to grow into the community of writing that nurtures our love for the written word.

Learning how to write is self-exploration. We use it to capture our nostalgia, create whirlwind stories, and as a therapeutic rescue to the thoughts that bombard us all. During the tumultuous years of college, we lengthen our concepts of who we are, and we mold our skills to different degrees. For some of us, this means taking the risk that accompanies trying to become a writer and sticking with it into the unknown. We gather in writing workshops and cluster together on cold weekend nights, to nurture our passions and encourage our bounds of comfortability to expand.

Delving into the uncertain world of writing is intimidating and nerve-wracking. When we are still attempting to get a concrete grasp on ourselves, we are also traversing an environment in which you must put yourself out in the open; raw and genuine. It’s something new and maybe slightly frightening, but also where we feel most empathetic towards one another. You take deep breaths up until you’re in front of the room with your poem between two shaking hands or you’re sending submissions into any contest you can find. It’s all about trying to find your own way when there isn’t a solid path or set guidelines that you should follow. 

Writing is an unnerving world for college students, but it’s something we push ourselves through because of what writing means to us. Writing is an endless means of creativity and expression, exemplifying the humanness of storytelling and connection through emotion. Through writing, we learn more deeply about ourselves. As Joan Didion wrote in her book of essays, The White Album, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

From Query To Publication

Walter Rhein

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Two years ago my friend Dan Woll, the author of North of Highway 8, approached me with a manuscript.

“I’ve got this book,” he said, “and I think there’s something there but I can’t quite make it work, and I’m sick of trying. How about this, you work on it for a year and if we can make something of it, we’ll publish it as a co-authored project.”

Initially, I was skeptical. I knew Dan to be a very talented writer, but it’s always difficult to find a publisher for a manuscript. I have relationships with Perseid Press and Harren Press, but I didn’t feel inclined to leverage those situations to get a co-authored work published. That meant if I took on the project, I’d be starting from scratch.

However, I had just finished The Literate Thief for Perseid, which had several books queued up ahead of it for publication. I had some time on my hands, so I concluded the least I could do was jump into Dan’s manuscript and see what I thought.

The manuscript had the working title ‘Fortune’s Fools.’ The book followed the lives of a young boy and a young girl. The story contained a philosophical exploration of mundane moments of ESP; like when the phone rings and you intuitively know who is calling. Everybody has had an experience like that, so it’s a relatable way to begin a discussion on a subject that people are curious about, but are also tempted to dismiss. I thought it was a strong hook so I kept reading.

The manuscript was as Dan presented. It had moments of really great writing and strong ideas, but it tended to lose the thread. Rather than read it through to the end, I began to do rewrites as I went. I figured I’d either finish the book, or give up at some point, but at least I was being productive. As I worked, I would send the rewrites to Dan to get his input.

“How are you doing this?” he asked.

“Doing what?”

“How are you rewriting a story that you haven’t even finished reading?”

“I’m picking up the narrative clues that you put in the book and I’m emphasizing the ones that most appeal to me. I trust your instincts as a writer so I think it will go somewhere. I hope it works!”

Throughout the process, I always thought there was the possibility that the book could become unwieldy, or the narrative structure I perceived would break down. But I had free time because of the delays with ‘The Literate Thief,’ so I kept working. The book eventually did have a sort of ‘Huckleberry Finn’ breakdown where the narrative took a sharp left from where it seemed to be heading. But by then, I could see how the book was supposed to end and we made the corrections.

It took a little over a year, but we finally produced a fun paranormal/romance/historical/thriller. I liked the fact that the book fit into so many categories because that meant it would be easy to market and therefore more attractive to a publisher.

About the time we finished, I saw an article about Amazon’s Kindle Scout program. Like it or not, Amazon essentially runs the publishing industry today. They have all the emails of everyone who has ever bought a book, they can push whatever they choose and make any novel a bestseller. The first place we submitted our manuscript, now called ‘Paperclip’ was to Kindle Scout. However, about a month after our submission, Amazon informed the world that they were dismantling the program. The news was rather irritating because it struck Dan and I as being a big waste of our time.

From there, we went through the usual process, scouring the Internet and web pages like Submittable for potential markets. I always enjoy working with the small presses that have developed loyal reader groups. Yes, getting placed with one of the major publishers would be like winning the lottery, but it’s just as likely. I’ve always been more inclined to follow the Michael Perry method of getting your work out there and making a big enough pile that somebody eventually starts to notice.

I found a small publisher out in West Virginia called Burning Bulb Publishing that had a Facebook group with nearly 40,000 members and I sent them a query letter.

Within a few weeks, Burning Bulb requested the manuscript, which is always a major achievement in itself. A lot of writers discuss how often they get rejections, but sometimes it is not emphasized how many books get rejected without an editor ever reading a single page of the work. As a writer, it’s easy to become dejected at a rejection letter, but it’s important to remember how difficult it is to get an honest evaluation. Editors and publishers never say, “I didn’t even look at this because I don’t have time right now, good luck placing it elsewhere.” Instead, their form letters contain language like, “Your work wasn’t right for us,” and you get those letters even without sending an excerpt from the actual manuscript.

The acceptance process always takes a few months, and during that time we continued to look for alternative homes for the book. When Burning Bulb finally offered us a contract, I was allowed a glorious day of going through my submission list and withdrawing ‘Paperclip’ from the dozen or so other places where it was still under consideration.

One publisher on Submittable had been evaluating the book for six months, and they wrote me a very kind email saying that the manuscript really stood out and that they had been strongly considering it. They even offered to help with promotion upon release. That email was encouraging because the next time I have a manuscript ready, they will be among the first publishers I contact.

Both Dan and I have similar expectations for this novel, it’s a small release with a small press and we hope that people find it entertaining and thought-provoking. We are already starting to organize library appearances, and public reaction has been encouraging. This is the start of a new journey, and I’ll be posting updates on my web page StreetsOfLima.com to let you know how it goes. Thanks in advance for the support!

Walter Rhein can be reached for questions or comments at: WalterRhein@gmail.com


From Student to Self-Published: 3 Things I Learned About Being an Indie Author

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By Nathan Zeiter

I remember the terrifying feeling of sharing my work with other students in my creative writing workshops at UW-Eau Claire. Sitting there—unable to speak—as others pick apart my writing. Dozens of eyes stare me down as I squirm in my chair, biting my tongue and accepting every bit of criticism. Despite the fear, it no doubt made me a better writer.

I reflect on all that I learned about writing during my time at UWEC as my hand hovers over my mouse. The next click will submit my novel for self-publishing. Five years of off and on work. Countless days and nights spent crafting a tale that people will hopefully enjoy. Once I click the button, it’s out of my hands. The horrible, anxiety-inducing thoughts swim around as I try to build enough courage. What if people hate it and leave bad reviews? What if it doesn’t sell? What if I wasted all this time for nothing?

As choose to let go of those fears and my fingers finally click the “submit” button, I find myself thinking about all that I’ve learned on this self-publishing journey. Here are the three things every writer should know if they’re looking to self-publish their work:

1.)  You’re too attached to your story. Find someone else to edit it.

The other day, I re-read the beginning of the first draft of my novel. It’s garbage. A nonsensical, poorly structured collection of word-vomit. Then I re-read part of my second draft. A little better, but still missing key characters and plot threads. A quick glance at the third draft left me shaking my head, wondering what the hell the character’s motivations were. The fourth draft was finally a decent product, but I wanted my manuscript to be perfect. So I went through it again. And again. And again.

I toyed with the idea of not hiring an editor and just putting the best version of my manuscript online. That would have been a huge mistake. After shopping around a bit, I sent a sample of my book to a professional freelance editor, and she sent it back to me a few days later. I was confident there’d only be a few markups. Wrong. I missed so, so much. But how? I read the dang thing like twenty times! Turns out, I was too focused on the big picture. Narrative, characters, plot holes, etc. Grammatical errors and sentence structure slipped through the cracks because my brain saw what it wanted to see—not what was actually on the page. I didn’t want to put out a subpar product, so I hired the editor and she helped make my novel a million times more readable. 

Hire an editor, folks. It’s worth it. If you don’t have the cash at the moment, then I’d advise hitting the pause button. If you release an unedited book, then any readers you happen to attract might be put off by the lack of polish, and even worse . . . they might not return for the next.

2.) Grab Their Attention and Keep It.

Anyone can self-publish. You need to stand out.

We’ve all heard it: don’t judge a book by its blah, blah, blah . . . Thing is, if your cover art looks like someone opened up Photoshop and slapped the keyboard three times, then potential readers are just going to scroll right by and pick something else that looks more professional. In the massive sea of self-published work, your cover art is the beacon of light that is going to draw people toward shore (the shore is the page where you can buy the book). If you don’t have the graphic design experience to create your own cover, then make sure you hire someone that can assist you. You don’t have to break the bank, but you need something decent. Once you’ve hooked in a potential buyer with a sweet-looking cover, the next step is to entice them with a blurb (make sure an editor looks at it!). If they like the blurb, then they might check out the free preview . . . which means your first chapter better be intriguing.

3.) Keep Writing!

What do you do after you write your first book? Write the next! Sounds obvious, right? However, here’s what I did the entire first week after publishing . . . I constantly refreshed the sales reports, repeatedly checked the Amazon page to see if the first review has been written, and I suffered through dreams about both rave and terrible comments. 

By researching and talking to other self-published authors, I learned that the best thing to do is to move on to the next book, and you should, too. Don’t ignore the ugly behemoth known as advertising, but don’t let its shadow loom over you all day. There’s no one way to be a successful indie author, so keep writing while you try to figure out what works best with your schedule and style.

Keep writing more and more. The freedom of self-publishing means there’s nothing in the way to stop you, so you need to take that momentum and run a 5k with it. You’ve laid the foundation—now build on it. Write, write, and write. I know you can do it.

Read a description of Nathan’s new book: 

In the heart of Pinewood lies GRACIE’s, a clothing store supergiant where Henry Holloway is having trouble keeping his head on straight. Literally. When he wakes up the morning after a rather humdrum shift with nothing between his shoulders but a dark, endless void, all he wants is for someone to acknowledge his abnormality.

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Demanding answers and receiving little to no help regarding his headlessness, Henry turns to his friends, Sarah Rohmer and John Clemmens, only to find they have also undergone dramatic, inexplicable transformations. When they find themselves haunted by a ghostly being from another world and hunted by Pinewood’s neighborly, panini-loving cultists, Henry has no choice but to fight against a seemingly unstoppable force . . .

Headless: Book One of the World Eater is available right here.

Craft Talk Preview: Jason Smith on Making Your Stories Stand Out

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by Emma O’Shea

I recently had the chance to speak with Jason Smith, the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, and the editor of Wisconsin People and Ideas. We talked storytelling, publishing advice, and more. Check out his advice below, and make sure to attend his Craft Talk this Thursday, September 20th, 7 p.m. at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library! Smith will explore how to craft gripping ledes and incorporate dramatic elements that captivate readers. He will also provide insight on how to translate complex subjects for, and explain abstract ideas to, general audiences.

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Emma O’Shea: In your seventeen-plus years of publishing experience, what stands out most to you when choosing writers to publish?

Jason Smith: There are a couple of elements that you look for in good writing, and part of my talk coming up this week is about storytelling. Being able to succinctly tell a good story, something that I call the barstool pitch, is important. If you can summarize what your story is in a brief paragraph; outlining your lead elements, talking about your lead characters, and the conflict or the dramatic element that’s going to carry the reader through, that has a symbolic element that reflects personality traits of the characters and subjects. Talk a little bit about the outcome of what that story might be. People will read this story and once they’re done reading it, they’re really going to have a greater understanding of the experience of this kind of person. Whatever the story is and wherever it takes you, thinking clearly about the outcome and beginning is important. If somebody’s got a really refined idea, then their pitch will have those elements in that.

EO: What would you say is a useful tip for writing a concise, yet resonating article?

JS: The question I think writers (myself included) should ask about their piece is “why this now”? This seems deceptively simple, right? You know, I can ask those questions, but when you start passing your piece through that crucible, through that filter, it really makes you clarify the story you’re telling. It seems the “why” is so obvious 一 because the editor told me to write about this. It’s not always like that. You must find the why in the heart of whatever story you’re writing. What's going to make it compelling, and then how does it fit for this particular publication? How do you make that connection for readers and bring the why right to the front so that they’re really understanding why this piece is sitting in front of their face. There are so many stories, so many different kinds of people. So many interesting ideas out there. What makes this particular one stand out above and beyond everyone else, why is this case exceptional? Here’s where the drama comes in, where you can really lock in the reader’s attention on this story opposed to the 8 million other things that fly before our eyes on a daily basis. The now factor is something that’s tethered to the moment. It can be a cultural movement, something on a local level or a response to a tragedy, but really hitting the timing of the piece is key.

EO: What would you consider the most important skill a writer can hone?

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JS: That goes back to storytelling. We tell stories in the way we’ve communicated for thousands of years. Recitation of the facts and an attention to detail is good. It’s really important to get your research right and to be really thorough, so as not to betray the trust of the reader.

EO: How would a writer most effectively avoid clichés on well-covered subjects?

JS: Don’t get stuck in those tropes and archetypes. The story of the up and coming someone doing great work; those stories are familiar and can sometimes border on cliché. The best way to deal with that is to try and find elements that complicate our understanding of these people, rather than follow along the rather rigid plotting character arcs. By complicated, I mean bringing in elements that change our understanding rather than just supply the detail and the things necessary to keep us going on a singular path.

EO: What would you say is vital for writers to know when trying to get published?

JS: This goes back to understanding where writers are pitching to and the mechanics of that magazine. Whether it’s an outdoor magazine or a literary one, really understanding the philosophical underpinnings of it. People all the time look at the contributor’s page, but they haven’t read any of the articles, so it’s helpful for them to go back and read some of our pieces and look at the types of writing and work that we’re doing here at the magazine. We’re looking to shine a light on not just scientific, artistic or literary expertise and innovation, but the ways in which these are used in the service of Wisconsin’s people and places. The second thing to consider is how does this translate some aspect of the creative process and make that process more accessible and intelligible to a general audience. There’s a human story in every story and finding ways to show how a person scientific, artistic, or cultural literary, works reflects the dignity in the work that people do on an everyday basis. So, I’m pulling back the curtain, this isn’t alchemy, or the work of a sheer genius. It’s the collaborative effort of people who are just trying to make their lives and the community that they live in a better place. The third thing is getting back to that notion of complicating our understanding. Getting off of that familiar plot or path line and showing people that it takes all kinds of people to compromise on community. In the case of our magazine, Wisconsin People and Ideas, we want articles that don’t show us this person going on this predictable path. We want to see something kind of unpredictable.

Meet Jason this Thursday at 7PM at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library!

What’s the Tuning Protocol? The Strategy That Might Just Changing Your Writing Life

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by Katie Venit

Confession: revising is my favorite part of writing. I love chipping away detritus to uncover a story’s themes and motifs. I love giving and getting feedback. When group members share their insights on my story, I can finally see what I’m missing. 

Confession: I stink at giving feedback. Constructive feedback is easy for me; I always want to hear what parts of my story didn’t work so I can improve, and I (incorrectly) assume the same for others. In my enthusiasm for improvement, I forget to mention the 95 percent of the draft that I loved. But knowing what does work is just as helpful as knowing what doesn’t. 

At the most basic level, the Tuning Protocol is a structured path to give everyone positive feedback and constructive criticism. (Protocols are highly structured activities.) Each group member offers warm feedback (something they liked). Although subsequent members can agree with those who came before them, each member has to say something original. Repeat the process with cool feedback (constructive criticism). The key is that the warm and cool feedback are not diluted. In other words, warm feedback shouldn’t be lukewarm. 

After all the rounds of feedback, the writer can weigh in. Perhaps she explains her reasoning behind an unpopular section, and the group can work through it together; perhaps she asks follow up questions. Finally, the writer reflects on the experience and identifies her next steps. 

Variations

  • The writer can either stay silent through the feedback round or engage in conversation about the piece right away. Silence helps if your group has difficulty staying on task, but it’s not necessary. 
  • Consider setting a time limit for each person if you have a lot of pieces to get through, or if you have loquacious members.
  • Reviewers can offer additional feedback other than warm and cool. For example, they can also comment on their emotional response to the piece, where that emotional response was interrupted, parts where they were confused, what they think the overall theme, message, or feel of the piece was, etc. Speaking from experience, feel can be an interesting topic: what the writer may have intended as positive could be perceived as something else entirely.
  • The writer can ask a specific question about the piece, and each reviewer can answer that question.
  • Distance variation: This works very well in an online community; reviewers already have the floor to say what they have to say. Maintain the structure of separate warm and cool feedback. 

Let Nothing Stand in Your Way: Fiercely Guard Your Writing Time!

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by Jan Carroll

Do you put time for writing on your calendar, like you would plans for a romantic evening out (with a heart drawn around it), an appointment with your doctor (underlined twice), or regular time with your best friend (circled and then made into a sun or a flower)? Maybe for you, writing time is so established, so habitual, so ingrained in your schedule that you don’t need to write it down or enter it into your phone—you know when it will happen, like you know what hours you have to be at work, what time to start getting the kids ready for bed, and which night to drag the trash can to the curb. If so, good for you! But that’s not true for all of us.

First Give Yourself Permission

For years, I really wanted to write, but it took a long time to realize that first I had to give myself permission. That among all those other voices, all those other really important things to do—work for money, recover from work, prepare to work again, spend time with loved ones, exercise, mow the lawn, take the car in for a checkup, get my teeth cleaned, do the dishes, scrub the floor, help a friend, do my part to make the world a better place, take the dog out—writing too is important! And for writers—for me—it needs to be a priority. Writing can be seem to be held as less important than so many other things in our culture. But it is important—for what the creative process does in and through us, as well as for whatever potential “product” it yields. For me, writing is like getting enough vitamin D, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I just feel better, more whole, more me. Writers need to write, and we need writers to write.

Then Make It a Date

Once you’ve given yourself permission and have assigned writing a prominent position in your life (and in your schedule), fiercely guard the time you make for it. Rest assured, hordes of reasons to put writing aside will sweep in to distract you. If you think of your writing time the same way you would a romantic date or a great conversation with a good friend, you’ll be less inclined to put it on the back burner if some other enticing or guilt-inducing possibility presents itself. Poet Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook, explains why maintaining this focus is so crucial. 

If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet—one or the other lagging, afraid, or busy elsewhere—there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing … is not so different.

Sure, sometimes you might not be as excited about going to dinner with your sweetie. And true, not every talk with that friend is scintillating. But showing up and being there for that person, and that person reciprocating, over time yields a beautiful relationship. But you have to make the date and show up—on time! If you are consistently there for your writing, it will be there for you. Stephen King, in On Writing, says:

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.

If you find you’re not really that into your writing times, maybe you’re not really that into writing, and you should consider watercolor, piano, community theater, hiking, or chess. But before you throw the baby out with the bath water, first give your writing time some of your best attention, the benefit of the doubt, and approach it with a sense of expectation. Give the relationship a fair chance.

But Maintain Consistent Focus

Why all the fuss? Can’t you just write when you feel like it? When you have a few minutes? Yes, impromptu, spontaneous times to write can be wonderful too. But there’s something about writing at a set time, a regular time, that yields the benefit of continuity of thought. Even if you have to eventually pack up, head home, and get ready for work, if you’ve set the intention to return to the work at the same time tomorrow, or whenever you’ve planned to, it tends to keep your head in the game. Instead of the first twenty minutes of each now-and-then session being you trying to reorient yourself to writing in general and to the mindset of the particular piece you’re working on, you can more easily jump right back in. You don’t have to spend time catching up with your old friend. You can venture right into new territory.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, concurs, describing how purposefully dedicating time for the writing to occur is key to the writing actually happening:

When we sit down each day [or in regularly scheduled sessions] and do our work, power concentrates around us. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

How quickly that magnetic hold can be lost, though. If too often I exchange a writing session for some other fun and possibly quite worthwhile activity, the “iron filings” scatter, and it takes time and work to restore that magnetism. Of course, if the dog is throwing up, a child is bleeding, you get called into work, or fire or flood threaten, do your due diligence. Your muse will understand. 

And Declare and “Wear” This Commitment

Zadie Smith, in her “Ten Rules of Writing,” says, “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

Decide when and where you will write. Discuss this with loved ones who share your space and time. Then when other opportunities come up, be prepared to say, “Oh, I can’t. I have another commitment,” or “Can’t. That’s my writing time, and that’s sacred,” and follow through. Over time, most people will get used to this; they’ll respect the time you set aside to write, if you do—so honor it.

Where you write has a lot to do with being true to it. Planning to write at a busy café during busy hours means you’ll probably run into someone you know, and even brief chats eat up precious time and defer concentration. Write away from Internet connection. You can research later, or beforehand. Turn off the phone. Have a bag prepared with all your writing paraphernalia or a space cleared at home dedicated to authorial pursuit. The dining room table, unless you live alone, is not the best spot. Having to clear it off every time, unless absolutely necessary, is not ideal.

Yet, Be Aware of and Open to Spontaneity

While regular, scheduled writing times do the heavy lifting, at times you will experience surprise insight, sudden bright ideas, and great lines coming to you at the least convenient times—in the shower, just as you’re falling asleep, or driving in hectic traffic. That’s ok! In fact, these lightbulbs suddenly glowing above your head or metaphoric faucets turning on can be a wonderful residual result of your regularly scheduled (and kept) sessions. I have often had to slog through a tough writing time when nothing much was coming to me, not much was working, or way more pondering was occurring than composing only to pack up, head home, and then BAM—everything seems to cohere, and choice words flow freely. Good idea to have a pen and paper or recording app readily available.

So, Fiercely Guard This!

If you haven’t yet, first work through giving yourself permission to write—and do! Then, passionately make it a priority—a date, resolutely stay focused and attentive, own this commitment as a valid and vibrant part of who you are, and guard your writing time stubbornly, while anticipating unpredictable, schedule-averse but fruitful deluges. 

Oh—and Have Fun!

 

 

From the Mouths of Writers 7: Any advice for upcoming writers?

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by Jeana Conder

Several months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled.  The responses I received are now creating our series, “From the Mouth of Writers.”  We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion. 

This month’s question:  Any advice for upcoming writers?

Allyson Loomis

(1) LIVE (2) READ (3) WRITE (4) THINK ABOUT WRITING (5) REPEAT UNTIL DEAD—the most important one is #5.  Writing is a practice.  Keep at it, and be patient with yourself.

Sandra Lindow

Unless you have been trained in technical writing, don’t quit your day job in order to write. Best sellers are hard to come by and you need to eat and pay your bills.  Developing as a writer is a very long process that requires discipline and cognitive development..  Poets rarely make much money unless they are already celebrities.  Spend time every day writing.  Try new forms. Go to workshops. Share work with other writers and take their critiques seriously.  Read, read, read, especially work that challenges such as nonfiction.

Bruce Taylor

I taught writing for 40 years so I have nothing but advice for upcoming writers. What it’s worth, if anything, is up to each individual writer. 

Learn to use Microsoft outline. Start there.

Early in the process stay away from sentences, paragraphs, any extended rhetorical construction for as long as you can.

Write or try to write what only you can, nobody else.

Pay attention. This is everything.  Pay attention.

Jon Loomis

Don’t wait for inspiration.  Inspiration is bullshit.  If you’re serious, put aside the things that distract you and start writing.   

Molly Patterson

Form the habit of writing. Don't wait for inspiration to hit; sit down and do the work with regularity. This might mean every day or it might mean three times a week, or it might mean every Saturday morning for one solid hour. But stick to it, and make sure it's a regular thing. If you write regularly, and with tenacity, you're a writer. Don't feel like you have to write from page one to page three hundred. Write bits and pieces, write specific moments, write half-scenes if need be, but keep getting words on the page. And don't be afraid to throw things out. Once a story starts taking shape, you'll probably find that a lot of what you wrote at first no longer fits. That's good: that means you're developing a discerning eye. Keep all those scraps somewhere in another document or another notebook, and know you can always use them if you want. Write, write, write: that's the best advice I can give.

Martha Qualey

Read out of your usual topic/genre/form zone and find or build a writing community. Watch out for those exclamation marks.

Brett Beach

Read. Read widely. Read curiously. Read books across genres. Look at what you’ve read and ask about authors who aren’t represented—writers of color, women, LGBTQ authors, foreign authors in translation. Read. Read. Read.

It’s old advice, but true. Some people say that if you read while you’re writing, you might be infected by the author’s voice, and write in an imitation. Well, good, I say: their books were published because they are good writers, most likely. There are worse things than mimicking someone you admire. I copied author’s voices when I started. I still do, probably. And then I revised, as I revise now, and other authors’ voices transformed into mine.

When Kao Kalia Yang visited UW-Eau Claire, she said, “Art inspires art.” I sometimes picture us, as writers, standing in a long line. We can look behind us at all the authors we love, who influence us, who mean the world to us, and their books are a record of what came before and how we used to live. We can look ahead at the uncertain future and try to guess what we might have to say. The two aren’t unconnected. Guiding us along, all the while, are the voices of our influences and our idols, singing in a chorus, melding together, coaxing us to put pen to paper, asking, Now what? Now what? Now what?

Jay Gilbertson

Try and shut me up! First off, finish. And you know exactly what I mean. Get it done. And read. Read your ass off. Go to workshops and take classes and meet other writers and join a few things, but not too many, and keep writing. And more than anything, don’t forget to have a life. How else can you write about it if you’re not in it kicking it around and falling once in a while? It’s the falls that make your story/poem/song/painting/life full of the passion we all need to know about. Now go and make you some art!

Nickolas Butler

Read, read, read, read, read.  That's it.  Telling me you want to be a writer, but that you don't read very much, or that you only read Harry Potter (I love the Harry Potter series and JK Rowling's exquisite universe) is sort of like telling me you want to be a carpenter but all you have in your toolbox is a few nails and maybe a pliers.  Good luck.  Take your time, read widely, live a full and interesting life, work strange jobs, take your education seriously, but mostly—read.

Cathy Sultan

Write about something you are passionate about. You will be spending long, lonely hours at your computer so love what you’re writing about. Patience and perseverance are also very important. You will write and re-write any number of times to “get it perfect” and then write it again and again so never let yourself get “down” and never say “I can’t do this.” Of course, you can, but you may need an extra dose of determination to get the job done. And I pass along what an author friend once told me: your book is never finished until it goes to press, so stick to it.

Sandra McKinney

Read good writing; pay attention; love the power of language and story

Having Trouble Writing? Write Faster

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by Katie Venit

Ah, writing. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Connecting with readers through telepathic magic, transmitting our thoughts to someone else...it’s a powerful experience. But first you have to fill that blank page, and sometimes that really sucks. You have an idea, a word, a character in mind… but then what happens? What if it’s just slop? What if the ideas vanish before they can be fixed on the page? These doubts can really get in the way of productivity. 

One of my favorite writing adages is that rough drafts are perfect just for having been finished. You should have doubts about your rough draft--but not until after it’s done. Somehow you have to ignore the doubts to complete the perfectly imperfect first draft. 

Enter fast writing. 

With your writing group, take a minute to reflect on your intentions. Set a timer for 30-40 minutes. Everyone writes as fast as they can, with absolutely no edits, no pausing, no doubts. Don’t correct your grammar or spelling. The backspace key does not exist. Your goal is to get as a high a word count as possible. 

After the timer dings, each person reads aloud. Listeners take turns sharing something that they liked about the draft. Constructive criticism is verboten; after all, it hasn’t been revised yet. 

If I have a good idea of what I want to write (or if I’ve had half a beer), I can write almost 900 words in 30 minutes. One of my groupmates consistently tops 1,000. I may only get about 400 words if I don’t really know where I’m going (or if I’ve had the entire beer). Either way, that’s several hundred more words than I had only a half hour earlier, and I can push forward from there in revisions.  

Variations

  • In person, this works best with groups of 2-4 people. If you have a larger group, split into pairs or triads.
  • In addition to giving positive feedback, talk about directions the piece could go in, bring up questions about the piece, or answer any concerns the writer herself brings up. Still, no negative constructive criticism. Just positive energy.
  • Everyone can respond to the same prompt, choose one of several prompts, or continue whatever they’re already working on. My favorite sessions are when I finally pin down an idea that’s been knocking about loose in my head for several weeks. What a relief!
  • Writing longhand on paper is the ultimate way to avoid editing. You probably can’t write as many words per minute, but there’s no backspace key. I also find that I can think more creatively when I write longhand. 

Distance variations

  • Call up a friend and say, “go!” Both of you write for 30 minutes. When time is up, call her back and read your pieces to each other. This works best with two people, unless you’re better at conference calling than I am. 
  • For an online community, set a prearranged time for everyone to start writing into wikis, a private blog, or google docs. When time is up, share the documents electronically and leave feedback for each one. Remember, no one has edited their documents; positive feedback only. 

 

 

 

When the Pen Won’t Work, Try the Axe: On Chopping Writers Block Out of Your Life

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by Ron Davis

A coffee cup holding pens, pencils, a Daisy Duck Pez dispenser and, for some reason, a size 9 blue Rapala sits on my desk. Boldly lettered in dollar bill green on the cup’s side is the phrase, “Will Write For Food.” As a motorcycle magazine columnist, feature writer and reviewer, I do that. But as any writer trying to turn words into bank deposits knows, writing for food often means butting up against the most creativity-crushing, soul-sucking, motivation-murdering impediment to writing anything you’ll ever be happy with: deadlines. Deadlines force compromises; you may never find that certain word, that certain slant you know is out there. Worse, deadlines may also lead to dead ends. A stalled vehicle on the side of the road, at night, in the rain, with no cell phone bars—not just writer’s block—writer’s paralysis. In the words of Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.”

What do I do then? I stop writing. But just walking away to scarf a sleeve of Caramel deLites  Girl Scout cookies or watch one more season of Homeland doesn’t work. I head out to the wood pile.

Splitting and stacking wood works, sometimes. Barring no wood pile, I try mowing the lawn. As long I don’t have to worry about garden hoses, rocks and the neighbor children, it’s a meditative state, the sound of my aged mower even sounding like a mantra…Ommmmmm, cough cough, ommmmmm... Walking the dog can be good, too, though there is a certain level of distracting focus and dexterity involved in daintily bagging dog poop. Driving? I don’t think so—too much imminent danger uses too much brain. Riding a bike? Maybe, but motorcycling, definitely not. Huddled over a luke warm cup of coffee while gazing vacantly out the Acoustic Café window has never beckoned the muse for me. And drinking Scotch just makes me want to, well, drink more Scotch. 

Shoveling snow, now there’s something to try when nature cooperates, but snow blowers, no. Painting has its merits, but isn’t a half-done wall just another deadline? Cleaning the garage, washing the car, all pretty good, as long as I don’t get too fussy. Reading, I would not recommend—too demoralizing to know some smug writer has actually hit his or her deadline.

For me, to break a stalemate with the keyboard, an activity has to walk that wobbling tightrope between having just enough self-absorption to counter the heebie-jeebies of the approaching deadline, while leaving enough room for my “inner writer” to work. As Michael Perry aptly wrote in Coop, “While the bones and meat wrassle, the mind is free to sort and ponder.” 

So, my coffee cup taunts me. Another looming deadline with not so much as a first paragraph, and it’s once more into the backyard where the wood pile awaits. It’s a frosty morning, and breaking the silence, a lone cardinal chimes from the highest branches of a barren ash. It’s working, the oak splits cleanly, and with it the Gordian Knot of another writer’s block. If you’d like to try it, I have about five cords. Bring your own maul.