Monthly Archives: September 2007

That cushie comfort zone

I just finished my first weekend in graduate school, and hoo boy, am I outside of my comfort zone. I am leaping into something that I know very little about in the company of people who know much.

I alternate with flashes of panic and overwhelming excitement.  I am at once wondering “what the hell am I doing here?” and thinking how lucky I am to be able to take advantage of such an opportunity.

For the next three years, the twenty-three of us in our “cohort,” will travel this academic maze together. I wonder how many will be at the finish line. This promises to be an intensive study, not only of the subject matter (theology) but of ourselves as we go through the process, sometimes in rather intimate engagement with each other. The instructors have promised us that we will change in the process.

I’m all for change.

I like who I am these days, and think I know myself pretty well, but I am not afraid of further examination. Instead, I am afraid of stagnation. And, truth be told, I’ve been languishing in my cushie comfort zone for way too long now.

I am seriously outside of my arena in this particular academic setting, but I relish the newness of the experience, anticipating astonishments and profound insights, and welcoming whatever personal growth that will result. 

It’s like that old roller coaster. Will I sit in the back car, gripping the handrail with whitened knuckles, my eyes closed, cringing at each spinal twist, just hoping to survive– or will I sit in the front car, trusting the handrail over my knees to keep me locked in, my hands high in the air, eyes wide open, screaming at the top of my lungs, taking advantage of every thrilling turn?

Today I choose the latter. I hope I always will. 

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Filed under college, Possibilities

Discipline: the stuff of life

My friend Sue said, “I will never have more discipline than I have right now.”

She’s right. All I have to do is look at the retirement community where my mother lives to know that I have more discipline now than I will have when I’m ready to move to such a place.

And yet… somehow I look at the future and promise myself that I will do so and so at such and such a time.  But the reality is that now is the time. In the future, I will not have the discipline.

This conversation came up when we were talking about making good habits. Now is the time to make good habits so that they are rote when we’re older and have less discipline.

There was a time when I smoked cigarettes. One day I saw an old woman–she looked like she was in her eighties, perhaps she was only a smoker in her sixties–sitting on a bench with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. I can see her to this day, gray and tragic. I thought: “That will be me someday if I don’t quit smoking.” The thought was so horrendous that I quit within days. Why did it take me days? Because I had to go through a bargaining session with myself. Clearly, I had to quit between that moment and the moment I looked like that woman. When would that be? When, exactly, would I quit smoking?

It took a few days to come to the conclusion that it would only get harder as I got older. The bottom line became: If not now, when?

I set down my cigarettes and never picked them up again.

I will never have more discipline than I have right now.

There are many things I hope to accomplish (there’s that whole thing with yearning again), and they all require some aspect of discipline. Clearly, after procrastinating all these years, I can afford another week of bargaining with myself before lowering the hammer. But then I need to take action. I need to either get on with it, or give up on it.

Some dreams I’m sure I will give up.

But some dreams I don’t want to give up. So I better get on with it. Identify the goal, make a plan, and assign the discipline.

Life is short. 

It’s time.

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Filed under Discipline, dreams, Possibilities

Yearning

Is it a part of the human condition to yearn?

Are we hard-wired to want more, bigger, better?

Those of us who do not are dismissed with a wave of the hand: “He has no ambition.” As if that is a bad thing.

This conversation came up last night when I went for a good, heart-pumping walk with Sue Palmer, after the rest of our writing group failed to show up. Sue and I were discussing our mothers and our families, and how most women feel that they yearn for something unidentifiable from their mothers that they have failed to receive. By the same token, they are fearing that they are failing their children in some unidentifiable away.

I believe that we are indeed hard-wired to seek spiritual awareness. And I have looked at too many gardens to realize that the big old cabbage never reverts back to a teenie seed. All of life, it seems, is progressive. Everything moves forward in its pre-ordained channel. That cabbage never changes its mind and becomes an eggplant. That’s a good thing.

And so we are too, moving forward in our channels–chosen or preordained, depending on your philosophy–always seeking more. At some point we put away the seeking for money and fame and stuff, and instead turn our seeking for more meaningful experiences. Today I seek for understanding of myself and my friends, and those amazingly diverse people who travel this planet with me. Instead of a new car, I want to go to Alaska. Instead of being understood, I yearn to understand.

Surely that’s why I’m a writer. I want to understand why people do the things they do. 

Are my kids yearning for something I haven’t provided? Probably. Maybe that’s a talk I’ll have with each of them some day. Then we can all understand each other a little better, and they will be free to yearn for other things.

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Filed under connections, family, Friends

My precious workspace

My husband is not a writer. He’s a tile contractor, and he doesn’t mind if people interrupt him while he works. Dogs, chatty homeowners, other workmen… whatever. He likes to put his head down and keep working, but it doesn’t take the intense concentration that writing does.

Electricians are here right now, installing much-needed lighting in our living room and master bedroom. I can’t concentrate. I can’t think for more than about twenty seconds and then one of them shouts up to the other guy in the attic, and I’m out of the land of my imagination and back into my office, grumbling. I should just give up for the day.

But aren’t there always interruptions? What about the phone? The neighbor’s leaf blower? The dog barking? The activists who ring the doorbell? I finally got a “no soliciting” sign for the doorbell, so that will help. But the point is, that when we project ourselves into the land of our fiction, step into the shoes of our point-of-view character and let his or her world envelop us, that world is easily shattered with an intrusive noise.

Like my husband, opening my office door, poking his head in and saying: “I’m not disturbing you. I just need to get my phone.”

Now that he’s semi-retired, we have had to make some agreements about this.  Susan Wiggs tried to enlighten him, by comparing a writer’s concentration to a golfer’s, when a $10,000 putt was on the line. He may have a better idea about it now. And I have drawn the line: when my office door is closed, I am not to be disturbed. I do not answer the phone. I do not answer the door. I do not make him a sandwich, and he better already have his cell phone with him.

Harsh, I know. But necessary. If I’m going to get any work done at all, it is imperative that I protect my solitude.

The rest of the ambient noise I’ve learned to live with. It slides in and out of my consciousness as it would my character’s. There is ambient noise in his life, too.  But the electricians drilling holes in the ceiling is a bit much.

We’re contemplating a major remodel to the kitchen in a couple of years.

I’ll probably rent an office for those months.

I was walking the dog through the park not long ago and saw a woman with her cell phone and her laptop doing business from a picnic table. Now that’s the way to office. If I thought I could write with such distractions, I would.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go water the garden.

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Filed under concentration, office, peace, Writing

Selling your short stories

Attention, class.

This is a very brief description of how I have come to have close to 300 short stories, articles and essays in print. I’m not going to talk about articles here, because they are a completely different thing from short fiction and personal essays. 

Today I received a submission in the mail for a defunct series I used to publish (last edition edited in 2003 and published in 2004!). He sent me what is clearly an original, typed copy — it was worn and had seen many submissions — it was a translation, and it came from India with no SASE or international return postage certificates. Normally, I throw these in the trash. But this? This is going to cost me time and energy to return it to him, and that makes me mad. I’ve thrown it away and pulled it back out of the trash three times so far this morning. And now I know I will take the time to take it to the post office, and put the postage on it and send it back to him. Grrr.

Over the ten years that I edited and published short fiction, I was continually astonished at the unprofessional submissions that crossed my desk: single-spaced, printed on both sides of the paper, no SASE, no return address, submitted three years after the series expired. So hear me when I say this: If you look and act like a professional, you’re already in the top ten percent of those who submit.

So here are my rules for successful story and/or essay submission.

1. Make certain this story or essay is ready to go. Never send anything to an editor straight out of your head. Be sure you give it sufficient (at least two weeks) cooling off time after writing it before submitting it. If, after letting it cool, you read it and decide that major rewrites are in order, give it another two weeks after rewriting before sending. Trust me on this. You will save yourself much embarrassment. Know the proper manuscript format. Make sure that your contact information is at the top of the first page, and that your name and the story name, along with the page number is on every page. During that cooling period, it wouldn’t hurt if you let a friend read it, or if you passed it by those in your writing group.

2. Make a list of potential markets. Be familiar with these markets. I rate them in order according to how much they pay (those who have published my work before are always at the top of the list), but if you’re a new writer and are seeking publishing credits, pay should not be as important to you as a high chance of success–i.e. sending it to the perfect publication. I try to put twelve publications on my lists of potential markets. If you’re not familiar with twelve publications that publish what you’re writing, then you don’t read widely enough. Get busy.

3. Send your manuscript, with a short cover letter (1-2 paragraphs that state your credentials) to the first publication on your list. If you have no publishing credentials, you don’t need a cover letter. Be sure to include a #10 Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope (SASE). Assume they will not return the manuscript, but will either send you a contract or a rejection letter. Put a copy of your cover letter in the file where you keep a copy of the story and your list of potential markets, or note on your list the date you sent it. (This is also the file where you will keep all contracts for that story.)

4. Forget it. It will either come back or it won’t. Meantime, get busy writing something else. If it never comes back (this has never happened to me, but sometimes it has taken a couple of years), then some day you’ll come across it, dust it off and continue its rounds. I don’t keep track of these things on a spreadsheet because then I will tend to agonize, and if I’m agonizing, then I’m micromanaging, and if I’m micromanaging, then I’m bugging editors. I absolutely forget it and get on with the next project at hand. Once it’s out into the world, what happens to it is someone else’s job.

5. If the rejection letter comes, print out another copy of the story and send it to the next name on your list that very day. Do not let your story sit on your desk overnight, or you will be tempted to read it. Then you’ll reread the rejection letter (even if it is a form rejection letter), trying to divine some secret truth in it that will help you become a more successful writer.  Then you’ll want to rewrite the story, but you can’t do it now, maybe next week.

And there your story will languish.

Please do not do this.

Once I deem a story fit to publish, I trust that instinct. Only when it is rejected from every publication on the list (this can literally take years), or I receive sincere revision suggestions from a respected editor, do I reread it. Then I will probably rewrite it, make a new list and begin again.

6. When your story has been accepted for publication, note the date that rights revert to you or else give it 18 months courtesy time after publication, then begin selling it again. I have sold stories up to five times.

Being a professional writer means acting like a professional. It’s a business. Have nice-looking letterhead, because that is the first impression you make on an editor. If you view yourself as a pro, so will the editors.

Always remember that competition is stiff for those limited slots in the best magazines and anthologies. Submit only your best.

So get busy, slick up those stories and get them circulating. They aren’t going to get published while idling in your file drawer.

Good luck!

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Filed under editors, Essays, Selling, Short Stories, Writing

No more regrets

My college diploma arrived in the mail today.

I know, that’s not a big deal for most people. Well, it is a big deal, it’s just maybe a bigger deal for me, since I’m 56 years old and just got my BA degree from Marylhurst University. When I decided to actively pursue the degree last year, I transferred almost 200 unorganized credits (I needed 180 to graduate). Most of the credits were older than my professors. It still took me an intensive year to fill in the blanks of a degree plan. I finished my degree in English Literature with a concentration in Creative Writing, at the end of August, and today, the diploma came in the mail.

The reason this is such a big deal for me, is that not pursuing my degree, not finishing my formal education, has been the one regret I’ve carried with me since I was 18. I let my many demons dictate my life for years instead.

But the demons have been put aside for more years than they tortured me, and I have made good on all my regrets. This was the final one.

I wasted no time in running out to get a frame, and it now hangs on my wall above my desk, a reminder of how my life used to be and how it is today.

Next week I begin graduate school. Again, I will be older than most of my professors, and my fellow students will be younger than my children. That’s fine. I know who I am and I’m comfortable in my own skin.  The best part is that I’m not furthering my education in search for another career. I have a career. I was born to write. But all education enhances writing.  So, while people in my classes are sure to be pursuing a better job, I’m pursuing a better me. I’m taking these classes simply because the subject matter fascinates me.

How lucky is that?

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Filed under college, dreams, goals, Graduation, regrets, Writing

The best bean soup

When I pull the slippers out of the closet, I know it’s time for a pot of bean soup. I am no kitchen diva, but I know good bean soup when I taste it, and this is my favorite:

2 cups dried beans (I like black beans)

6 cups hot water

1 big onion, cubed

2 tablespoons Summer Savory (the bean herb — goes great with all beans)

3 cloves of garlic, smashed

1 big can of smashed tomatoes (optional)

2 hamhocks

Throw it all in the crockpot after breakfast and get ready for a tasty dinner. If I’m really feeling fancy, I’ll whip up some cilantro and sour cream in the Cuisiart for a dollop on the top, but the soup really doesn’t need it.

This crockpot of soup that’s cooking in the kitchen right now is my first Autumn activity. Now I need to go chop down the sunflowers. The birds have picked them clean and they’re ready for the compost.

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Filed under Bean soup, Fall