Winning Without Washington

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For the next week, I’ll be on a writing retreat on the Oregon Coast working on my next novel, World’s Smallest Parade. I’ve been working with some of the exercises developed by one of my sheroes, the master book coach Jennie Nash, on the blueprint for this novel, and this morning, I worked out the short description, or elevator pitch.

It’s a work in progress, but here it is:

What does it mean to live a meaningful life in the midst of the environmental crisis? World’s Smallest Parade is about young man on an epic cross-country quest to find out, who falls in love instead—with a woman and with a town in the Southwest, where an eco-village has sprung up in the barrio, full of folks dedicated to the low-carbron lifestyle, often to humorous extremes. These individuals are all more or less nuts, but together, they might just save the world.

In preparing for this, there are two articles that have been inspiring to me recently. The first is this interview with green biz guru Paul Hawkens on GreenAmerica.org, which details the most sophisticated analysis yet of what it will take not only to fight climate change, but to actually reverse it, and build the kind of society we’d all like to live in in the process. Hawkens and friends have done the math on every strategy there is for achieving this “drawdown,” and some of them are not what you’d suspect. (For instance: Educating women could do just as much–or more–as scaling up solar to reverse global warming.)

The message, to me, is galvanizing, in tune with the book I’m writing: The solutions are far more numerous (and accessible) than we’ve been led to believe, so whatever your passion is, whatever your expertise, dig in and double down. We can get there.

I’ve also been inspired by Bill McKibben’s recent article for The Guardian, entitled “We Can Battle Climate Change Without Washington, D.C. Here’s How.” In it, McKibben points out that that the strategy that’s been evolving for US climate action (and action in many other places around the world) bypasses central government as much as possible, because that’s where the oil industry is strongest and has the most influence. This, he acknowledges, makes a frontal attack on the oil industry hard, but he reminds us that “its flanks are wide open.” If we work together at the grassroots level, pursuing a strategy of “Sun, Sit (in) and Sell/Sue,” we can safeguard the future of life on earth.

Take heart, friends. Onward!

Know Hard Feelings

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I started the year by pledging to be more real, which is to say, being willing to slow down enough to acknowledge the tough stuff. A few weeks back, I’ve received news that a friend of a friend had died, and this morning, my husband and I were talking about the travesty that is American military spending–this insane drug our country is addicted to–even as the real cybersecurity challenges of the 21st century go unmet, our veterans are out on the streets, and the infrastructure of our country is crumbling.

I’ve been doing that thing where I make myself busy, where I stop thinking about things like this–about the wholesale giveaway of our public lands to extractive industries, about the folks I know who are battling cancer, about the friends left holding the shattered pieces of a marriage.

It can feel like too much sometimes, this business of being real, this business of feeling.

But this week I’ve received Gayle Brandeis’s memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, which I’ll be reviewing for Litreactor this month, and in its pages, I’ve found that I’ve been given permission to, in the unintentional humor of one of Brandeis’s relatives, “know hard feelings.” This book reminds me that when we give ourselves permission to feel the tough stuff, we not only give others permission to do the same, we open the door that leads back to the sunlit place where we’d like to live our lives.

In that spirit, I thought I’d share a poem of mine, Death’s Head, to which I have returned at times as a reminder. Of what lies through that door.

Death’s Head

 

Sometimes when a dead love leaves you,

the memory of pain, which is not the same as pain,

will tug upon your heart in passing

and lift off like a moth

that alit between your shoulders

years ago

so light you never felt it.

 

Sweetness, you never knew the weight

of what you were not yet.

It was only some part of you

you could not use and carried

from one lover to another

like a begging bowl.

 

All the fortune-tellers of the world

took one look at your smile

and took their mark

all the dogs bared their teeth as you walked by.

I’ve watched you labor so long beneath it,

this thing that keeps you pinned.

 

Look, this morning the lavender

has bloomed beside the step—

if you sit beside me in its perfume, I promise,

this great sadness that has lived upon your life

will beat its wings once

and leave you.

Submission Strategies for Writers

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If you’re a writer, you know how hard it is to get published. You probably also know that if you’re serious about making it happen, you should be submitting more than you are.

After years of taking a fairly half-assed approach to submitting my creative work, I decided to get serious about it (in part because I’m working on a collection of short fiction). In the last few months, I’ve leveled up my game, both in terms of my numbers and my record-keeping–and so far, I’ve seen more acceptances in January alone than I did for the better part of 2017. =)

If you’re interested in doing the same, here’s my recent post on the subject for Litreactor, “8 Submissions Strategies That Get Results.”

January means New Year’s resolutions—many of which we will ultimately fail to keep. But If one of your resolutions this year is to get more of your work published, friends, I’m here to help you make it happen.

The following tips and techniques are from a class I recently taught for Litreactor, Fiction: Final Draft, an intensive for emerging authors who are in it to win it. Which is to say, it’s a class for those who have worked hard, put in their ten thousand hours, and are now ready to beat the numbers game that is publishing.

If that sounds like you, it’s time to put the following strategies into play—now, early in the year—and consistently apply them over the course of 2018. If you really have put in the hours necessary to hone your craft, I can guarantee you they will produce results.

1. Set Aside Time

If you are not currently setting aside time on a regular basis to submit your work, now’s the time to establish that practice. (I would also recommend that you keep this time separate from your writing time, because if you try to perform these two functions at the same time, not only will you not be working efficiently, you’ll be more likely to second-guess your work.)

Here are some of the tasks I’d suggest you include in the period of time you set aside for submissions: A) researching reading periods, open calls, and opportunities; B) researching target markets and updating your “hit list”; C) submitting your most polished pieces of work, formatted according to the guidelines of each publication; D) updating your submissions records.

2. Do Your Research

It’s great to have big ambitions for your work, but everyone wants to be published by The New Yorker or Asimov’s, which means everyone else is submitting to these publications too. There are plenty of other publications that are worthy of your best work, in terms of their prestige, pay, or both, and on a purely statistical basis, you have a far better chance of being published by them.

But in order to suss out these publications, you’ll have to do your research. So don’t just hit the same ten or so dream pubs over and over again—do the research necessary to expand that list of target publications to 20, 30, or more. (And hey, if a publication sounds intriguing, consider a subscription—while we can’t do that with every journal or magazine, there’s no denying that actually reading a pub is the very best form of research there is.)

Looking for resources? Check out Poets & Writers online and Duotrope.

Read the rest of the post over at Litreactor.

This Is Scripture

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I have dabbled in New Age spirituality, Buddhism, and Christianity in my life, but my true religion is poetry.

I converted to it when I was seventeen, at the Interlochen Arts Academy, where I was given a book called Contemporary American Poetry, the fifth edition. It is a book that contains multitudes—to me, it is a grimoire, a codex, a key.

In it I discovered Marvin Bell, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Rita Dove, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Marge Piercy, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, Theodore Roethke, Gary Snyder, and William Stafford, to name just a few.

Though I was young, I recognized these people as artists of the highest caliber, and though I was already addicted to fiction in a way that all but ensured it would become my vocation, I saw that poetry was perhaps the truest form that human experience could take, the most sublime exchange of consciousness of which we are capable—the most rarified and at the same time, the most practical.

Because a poem is an object that can be held by the mind; it can be memorized. And its truth can survive as a fragment, unlike the truth of narrative.

Over the years, the Holy Bible, Koran, Lotus Sutras, and Tao Te Ching have traveled with me from one corner of the country to the next; I return to these books once in a blue moon. (Though since I’ve moved to the South, I’ve tried to do better by the Bible.)

But I’ve returned to the fifth edition of Contemporary American Poetry so many times over the years that the cover has long since been lost. Its pages are dog-eared and yellowed; the titles of poems I have loved—some enough, at one time, to have memorized—are underlined.

I have turned to these scriptures in good times and in bad. I have found solace and challenge and mystery in them—some of the gravest wisdom, and some of the most irreducible strangeness. And always, I have found what I needed at the time.

Last week, I finished the third draft of a long short story, one that’s set in a version of the community I grew up in (a natural foods co-op). This story is an ambitious piece, to say the least: none of the characters have proper names; it features ten characters and eight scene changes; it works in the slipstream between reality and fantasy; and it has no POV character.

In typical style, I chose to share some very personal material in a very tricky way—which I know from experience meant my chances of failure were high. My critique group and Patreon subscribers were enthusiastic about early drafts, but that, I knew, was mainly due to its novelty; the story had not yet really landed its ambitions and found its form. It was also a virtually unpublishable length: 14,000 words.

But in my last revision, everything seemed to come together, and with the story cooked down to 10,000 words, it should indeed be publishable—as speculative fiction, if not literary.

As a writer, there is something about having communicated a personal truth for which you’ve never before had words—something, moreover, that you’ve never seen reflected in media of any form.

Maybe this experience is what Ursula K. Le Guin would call soulmaking, though I think it is part and parcel of evolution. When you’ve shared a story that only you could have written, you have added to the sum total of perspectives available to the human race. Whether or not it’s a helpful perspective, it’s a true one, and as the fossil record shows, any variation, in time, may prove adaptive.

Really, even if no one will ever read this thing that you’ve written—or even if only a very few will—it feels as if you’ve done part of what you were put here to do.

This story of mine is loosely based on a real event, the death of a young man who was part of my co-op, Jim Gritter. Jim was nearly ten years older than me, so I mainly observed him from distance, but I knew he and Jason (a big-brother figure to all of us kids) played Dungeons and Dragons—as a girl who read a whole lot of fantasy, this fascinated me.

Like me, Jim would become a writer; like me, he would get involved with high-school theater. I saw him as Charly in Flowers for Algernon, a story about an intellectually disabled young man who’s given an operation that turns him into a genius—but then the effect is undone, and eventually proves fatal.

In retrospect, it was a fitting role for a young man of such promise, hit with schizophrenia in his early twenties.

To write about Jim, I had to write about my “unintentional community,” established as a natural foods co-op in the late 70s. I had to write about growing up in and around handmade houses, in northern Michigan, close to the land; I had to write about what it was like to be part of tribe of wild children, subject to its own laws. To do all that in a single story was to court failure, because so many variations from the norm can be hard for a reader to keep track of.

After all, most mutations do not, in fact, prove adaptive. A creature with something halfway in between an arm and a wing isn’t a bird, it’s lunch—and for a long time, I feared that’s what this story would become: a maladaptive variation, unfit for submission, too weak (or just plain weird) to compete for publication.

But as I get older, maybe I’m getting better at landing my ambitions. Maybe I’m getting better at doing the things that only I can do. And maybe someday this story will mean something to someone, the way works of art that reflect my own unusual personal history have meant something to me.

The title of my story is “In Blackwater Woods”—though until yesterday, I really could not have told you why. But yesterday, having completed this bit of soulmaking, I opened the scriptures at random, and realized I’d lifted it, whole cloth, from Mary Oliver.

From a poem, though I’d forgotten it, I once knew by heart.

I was so moved by this poem as a young woman that I memorized it; I recognized the truth in it, though I did not have the life experience to understand those truths the way I do now.

Friends, even if this latest story of mine were to somehow find a wide readership—even if it were to become the sort of thing people who talk about literature talk about—this poem by Mary Oliver would outshine it by the power of a hundred suns, and outlive it by a thousand years.

Which is to say, if a fragment of this poem were discovered on a pottery shard by those capable of decoding it a thousand years from now, it would still be a fragment of great power.

It is one of the truest things I know. If I do nothing else with my life as an artist, I will carry this poem. I will never forget it again.

In Blackwater Woods

by Mary Oliver

*

Look, the trees

are turning

their own bodies

into pillars

*

of light,

are giving off the rich

fragrance of cinnamon

and fulfillment,

*

the long tapers

of cattails

are bursting and floating away over

the blue shoulders

*

of the ponds,

and every pond,

no matter what its

name is, is

*

nameless now.

Every year

everything

I have ever learned

*

in my lifetime

leads back to this: the fires

and the black river of loss

whose other side

*

is salvation,

whose meaning

none of us will ever know.

To live in this world

*

you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

*

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.