Category Archives: Writing Talk

My Only Resolution

Ten months ago, we trapped Perry in our backyard. Since that time, I have written about him in 25 blog posts! It’s almost embarrassing that I’ve written about him so much.

But, in for a penny in for a pound, I guess. Here’s another post about Perry :).

He is still kittenish, although large–larger than the other five cats–and loves to play wrestle and energetically engage with these senior kitties that just want to lie around and sleep. He also still needs his daily cuddles with mom. I am constantly getting him away from the other cats. He wants to lie in Kana’s bed with her, but then he gets restless and starts to annoy.

His main targets to annoy are Kana and Felix, the other “big cats.” The three little ones–Pear, Tiger, and Sloopy Anne–are bitchy enough to him that he doesn’t mess with them much.

 

Tiger and Sloopy Anne waiting to hiss at Perry when he passes by

Perry and Kana are true frenemies.

Although the vet had told me she thought it possible that he was part Siamese, I (who have never had a fancy breed cat) didn’t pay much attention to that. But suddenly one day, as if the president of the Cat Fanciers’ Association had snuck up and slapped me upside the head, I realized that Perry has got to be part Maine Coon. After I looked it up and confirmed my brainstorm, I read an article that said that there are lots of Maine Coon mixes in the general cat population. If you wonder what I’m talking about google “blue and white Maine coon cat” and go to images. There you will see a stunning array of Perry’s possible daddies ;).

This explains why Perry looks different from the other cats. His outline is different, and his face is different. My son calls him “cartoon cat,” and my daughter agrees with him. The gardener calls him Curly (from The Three Stooges). I call him rat face and funny face. For all that, he’s gorgeous. The son of the man who installed our new water RO tank said he was a king of cats. His dad called Perry King Tut.

Perry has taken up all my writing time in 2017. I need to get back on track. Maybe he can go with me into my office and we can shut the door so he can’t bother the other cats. Maybe he will settle down into the cat tree and take a snooze while I work on . . . something. This month I need to get cracking because mom will be with us next month. I’ve been trying to imagine her staying with us with our six cats and all the unrest with Perry.

My only New Year’s resolution: write, no matter what and no matter what it is.

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Poetry Ancestry

Last week I went to see three grande dames of literature at Arizona State University: Joy Harjo, Rita Dove, and Sandra Cisneros, hosted by Natalie Diaz. These are writers whose works I taught to college students for years, but this was the first opportunity I had to hear them talk in person. They were seated on stage in a conversation area–a couch and armchairs. What I hadn’t realized was that they are all graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which has long been considered to be the top place to earn an MFA in writing. These women all know each other–and Harjo and Cisneros were friends in grad school. I felt I was eavesdropping on their conversation with each other.

Since these women are all poets, but have published prose as well, I was fascinated to hear what they had to say. Their voices come from disenfranchised groups–Harjo is Native (Muskogee Creek), Cisneros Chicana, and Dove African American–so it’s important to listen carefully and sympathetically in order to hear things from a variety of perspectives. They were also talking about timing, and how timing was very helpful to them in achieving the level of success they have had. You can look them up if you want the deets. In fact, Dove mentioned that when she was a grad student she didn’t know the work of a lot of poets who were mentioned in her classes. She would surreptitiously write down the names so she could find them in the library and read their work. In that way, she was partially self-taught.

I’m leading up to something here.

Of all the wonderful ancedotes and tips I heard that Saturday afternoon, the one that stood out the most to me is one from Harjo. She said she teaches a course about poetry ancestry. It’s studying the genealogy of your poetry writing. You look at the poets who most influenced your own writing. Then you see who influenced them. And go back as far as you can, studying the work that turns up in your research!

I wanted to see where I could go with this, but it will take time. I’ll just start by mentioning some of my poetic influences. Keep in mind this is NOT an exhaustive list by any means.

  • Sylvia Plath: there is no doubt that I found her big mouth and aggressive imagery very liberating
  • Emily Dickinson: her spare and sometimes wry writing appeals to me, but the downside is she keeps herself out of most of her poems, and that is too convenient for me
  • A. R. Ammons: I so admire his oneness with nature and spirit and his very smart use of language
  • Gerard Manley Hopkins: his spirituality and fresh imagery speak to my heart
  • Linda Hogan: like Ammons, her oneness with nature and spirit inspires me
  • Adrienne Rich: she broke the ice at the top of the ocean she dove into in Diving into the Wreck
  • Edna St. Vincent Millay: maybe the first poem not written for children that captivated me was Millay’s “Renascence.” When I was a kid, I took an LP record out of the library and listened to her read it over and over and over and over and over again.
  • classic children’s poetry of the 20th century, as well as nursery rhymes: these are what first instilled a love for poetry

Do you notice anything about my little list? Lots of women, not too much diversity (except Hogan who is Native and Rich, a Jewish lesbian). But what else? The poems I read that first inspired my writing were written mainly before 1980 all the way back to Dickinson who was writing before and during the Civil War! Of course, I’ve read a lot of contemporary poetry over the years, but poets who first influenced me were not my contemporaries or even those just a little ahead of me. They were considered masters when I read them, except for maybe Hogan.

I’m thinking I need another list of poets whose works next influenced me–people writing after the poets listed above. That might then offer more of a platform for the “family research.”

Do you know who your first influences were for your own writing? Have the type of influences changed over time? For instance, if blogging is your main writing format, who were your first influences?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Submission Advice from Robert Okaji, author of FROM EVERY MOMENT A SECOND

Today I want to introduce you to Robert Okaji, poet and the writer of the new Finishing Line Press chapbook From Every Moment a Second. Robert’s poems are relatively short and seem simple. I said seem. Each polished gem is the kind of poem you fall into, without worrying if you will “get” it or not, and an array of meanings will wash over you without effort on your part, but the reward is great –an emotional and intellectual payoff.

Robert is published regularly in literary magazines. So I asked him for advice for readers about submitting to magazines. This is what he wrote for us.

 

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Newer poets occasionally ask me for advice on how/where to get published. What follows expands a reply I made to a comment on my blog in August, 2014. I can speak only from my experience, thus any advice I offer should be taken with a huge grain of salt. But here goes:

Determine who you are as a writer, and where your work has a realistic chance of being published. What, you say, how do I do this? Think about your favorite living poets, those poets you’d most like to be associated with, whose work has influenced your writing, and with whom you’d like to “converse” through poetry.

Where does their work appear? Look at their lists of publications, choose the smaller, lesser known literary journals first, and read them cover to cover. When you find in these same journals other writers whose work appeals to you, examine their publication lists. After a while you’ll notice that certain journal titles repeat. Compile a list of these, and consider them your “targets.” Read them. If your sense of aesthetics meshes, send them your best work.

This is not a quick process, but sending your poetry to publications that publish the poets writing the type of poetry you like is much more effective than haphazardly scattering your work across the poetic landscape. In other words, be selective. Think. And always read submission requirements. If a journal says “no rhyming poetry,” don’t send them any. You get the picture. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste theirs – most lit mags are labors of love. The editors earn no money, often, if not usually, bearing all publication costs. Be kind to them.

Also, look for newer publications calling for submissions. They may be more amenable to your work, and the competition may be a bit lighter. How do you find these? Read Poets & Writers. Check out New Pages‘ calls for submissions. Facebook’s “Calls for Submission” group is worth joining. Follow Trish Hopkinson’s blog. Join various writing communities on social media. Look around!

You might also consider subscribing to Duotrope, if only to determine what certain publications’ acceptance rates are. For example is it worthwhile to submit to a publication that accepts only 1/2 of one percent of submissions? Or would your time be better spent submitting to publications accepting 5% to 20% of what’s sent to them? One can over-think this, of course, but knowing the odds can increase your chances. Of course ego comes into play, and sometimes you just have to send your work to one of the “unattainables.” And hey, nothing ventured, nothing gained. Duotrope‘s “News” tab also provides links to new markets or those that have recently opened or closed to submissions.

When your work is rejected (and it will be – everyone gets rejected), look closely at it. Was it indeed as ready as you originally thought? If so, send it back out. If not, revise it. Keep writing. Keep revising. Keep sending.

I submit my work cautiously, as if editors are looking for excuses to NOT publish me. This means that I take my time and ensure that every piece I send out is flawless in appearance – no typos, no grammatical errors, etc. Unless a publication specifically requests more, my cover letters are brief and say very little but “thanks for the opportunity” and might at most contain a sentence or two regarding biographical details or previous publications. Anything else is superfluous – I don’t want to give them any reason to not accept my work.

Again, this is just my approach to getting published. I’m sure that other, more successful writers have better processes. And of course I ignore my own advice from time to time. Send out those poems. Good luck!

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From Every Moment a Second can be found on Amazon.

 

The son of a career soldier, Robert Okaji moved from place to place throughout his childhood. He holds a BA in history from The University of Texas at Austin, served without distinction in the U.S. Navy, lived the hand-to-mouth existence of a bookstore owner, and worked in a library and as a university administrator. He lives in Texas with his wife, two dogs, some books and a beverage refrigerator stocked with craft beer.

He has never been awarded a literary prize, but at age eight won a goat-catching contest.

Recent publications include the chapbooks From Every Moment a Second (Finishing Line Press), If Your Matter Could Reform (Dink Press), two micro-chapbooks, You Break What Falls and No Eye but the Moon’s: Adaptations from the Chinese (Origami Poems Project), a mini-digital chapbook, Interval’s Night (Platypus Press), and “The Circumference of Other,” a collection appearing in Ides: A Collection of Poetry Chapbooks (Silver Birch Press). His work has appeared in Taos Journal of International Poetry & Art, Boston Review, Hermeneutic Chaos, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Panoply, Eclectica, Clade Song, Into the Void, High Window, West Texas Literary Review and elsewhere. Visit his blog, O at the Edges, at http://robertokaji.com/.

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Memoir Mumblings

There’s a great cartoon by Dan Piraro (Bizarro.com) out that I have decided it’s safer not to have on this post for possible copyright reasons. A woman writer is signing books at a book store. The name of her book is called My Miserable Life. haha, an obvious memoir. Her parents are apologizing to her, saying that if they had known that she was going to be a writer they would have been better parents. Too bad she wasn’t born with a warning for her parents.

Beware: a writer is born. Treat her well!

I find it funny because anybody writing a memoir that involves their childhood is likely to find flaws in their upbringing. Heck, most of us do anyway.

My memoir manuscript (such as it is) is out with beta readers right now. Nervous? Me? Hah, yup!

On the subject of memoir, I just finished Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas, a pseudonym. I gave it a 2 out of 5. I’m a generous rater. If you have read it, what did you think? I felt I was being played. Not totally sure in what way. The obvious goal was to persuade readers that sociopaths are special and are a boon to society. Apparently she is real, an ex-law professor named Jamie Rebecca Lund. Apparently the book (and its creepy admissions) caused her to lose a great gig as a law professor at BYU.

But the creepiness of story and author are not why I gave the book a 2. It’s repetitive and quite dry for very long passages. Copy editing was well done though!

Finally, a memoir needs to have a very trustworthy narrator, and that is where this book could never have worked. By the writer’s admission, sociopaths lie and manipulate. So how could I trust her?

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Guest Post: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

I had the privilege of guest blogging about a poem from Kin Types today.

Diary of an Eccentric

Luanne Castle is my guest today to celebrate the release of her latest poetry collection, Kin Types. She’s here to share a poem from the book and its inspiration. Please give her a warm welcome!

Advice from My Forebears

Always use hot pack canning for your green beans
and test your seals at the end.

Don’t grab a burning oil stove without considering
the consequences.

Don’t get in debt. If you don’t got it, don’t get it.

Make up your mind what church you’ll attend
and go there as often as you can stand.

Be Dutch or you ain’t much.

Get the log out of your own eye so you can get
the speck out of the other’s eye.

We can’t talk about it, but here’s your great-grandma’s
Eastern Star ring so you will have a signal.

Never pick a fight but if someone hits you,
hit them back.

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Write Short First

So you want to be a writer? Are you planning on working on the book-length manuscript for as long as it takes? And then market it to agents for as long as it takes?

How about being published in the meantime? Nothing is better experience for the novelist or memoirist than writing and publishing short stories or personal essays along the way. If you don’t have what it takes to go through the process successfully with short pieces, what makes you think you can do it with a longer story? Additionally, earning bylines along the way may help get your first book published.

Windy Lynn Harris has written the definitive book to help you get started. Writing & Selling Short Stories & Personal Essays: The Essential Guide to Getting Your Work Published provides valuable guidance for crafting and fine-tuning those shorter pieces, as well as providing a step-by-step plan for getting published. This system includes finding markets, preparing your manuscript, and how to submit those pieces to magazines. She even gives pointers for how to deal with rejection, an inevitable part of every writer’s life.

After you follow the advice in this book, I suspect you will have acceptances, too, as Harris’ information is practical and grounded in the realities of the publishing industry. I suggest purchasing a paperback copy and keep it at hand and well-notated on your desk.

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I posted the above review for Windy‘s book on Amazon and Goodreads. But I’d like to expand on the idea of going short before going long. I know I’m going to step on some toes here. A huge number of writers go straight to writing book-length manuscripts. That’s great. They often self-publish and tend to learn from the experience and the books improve with practice. I’ve greatly enjoyed many books that developed from these origins.

But my philosophy is that the best way to learn craft is to start by writing short stories or essays and revising them until they shine. Then send them out and get some publications under your belt. While you are doing this read like crazy. Revise like crazy. Find experienced beta readers who aren’t crazy. I think this is what takes good stories and turns them into literature.

Don’t throw things at me now!

 

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Poetry Book Reviews: Goodwin and Swartwout

I’ve been doing some more reading again lately. Here are two poetry books that I swooned over.

In Caroline Goodwin’s new poetry collection, the elegiac The Paper Tree, language seeks to locate and identify. This is where and what, the poems seem to say. The mood can be mournful, commemorative, meditative.

Images from nature are seeds blown into the wind by the poet in an act of claiming. The urgent need of the poems, intense as it is, ebbs for a moment when hope soars for “a new kingdom . . . where the need to name the shape / does not even exist.” For now, the kingdom itself does not exist, but the glimpse of it has been noted.

Ultimately, the outward gestures of naming and sowing images lead to a necessary inwardness: “hold out your hands / open your heart / here’s where the world slides in.” The Paper Tree will present you the world if you open yourself to its wonders.

 

Odd Beauty, Strange Fruit, Susan Swartwout’s latest poetry collection, finds the beauty and pathos in the oddities of life. Family history, carnival performance, time spent in Honduras—the subjects are varied, which further emphasizes that our lens can be adjusted to spot the strange and wonderful—or the pitiful—anywhere we look. The language is gutsy, the images sometimes grotesque and sometimes mystical. I found this collection impossible to put down, and poems like “Five Deceits of the Hand” where “we” are betrayed into aging and death thrilled me with jealousy.

Friends vanish like misplaced directions

into skies you used to claim. Age begins

sucking your bones until you lean shriveled

into the mouth of harvest.

In case you’re worried that the book ends on a dark or depressing note, the last word is salvation. I guess you’ll have to read the book to see if that means things work out ok or not.

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Maybe I finished my diamond poem (the one I mentioned in Typical Tuesday). Letting it rest right now.

I used #amwriting as a tag this week because I started looking through my memoir manuscript with an idea to restructuring it AGAIN. This is so insane. But look at it this way, what happens over many decades has to be structured in a way that is easy for the reader to follow and stay engaged. Most memoirs take place over a much briefer period of time (is briefer a word?), but the story I want to tell begins at least when I was 11, but truly long before I was born, and doesn’t end until this past decade. PULLING MY HAIR OUT.

Which reminds me that I wanted to share that Perry is in absolute love with his hairbrush. Yup. He hugs it.

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A Morally Ambiguous (Feline) Character

When Harold Hill sang his way into River City, Iowa, in the musical The Music Man he showed himself to be a con man. He believed he was a liar, and he tried to keep that information from the townspeople. Now, as it turns out (spoiler alert!), Harold was a liar and a con man, but he also was a dreamer and a believer, but he couldn’t really admit it to himself. It’s so easy to ignore the way Harold has manipulated people when we see him get trapped by love and notice that other people’s lives have been enhanced by their belief in Harold’s dreams.

This complicated personality makes for what is known in the lit biz as a morally ambiguous character. What is odd in this case is that morally ambiguous characters typically make good tragedies, not musical comedies. But Meredith Wilson, the writer and composer of the musical, knew what he was doing. He knew we (audience members and humans) could relate to someone who was bad but also good. We’re all a mix of good and bad, after all, although we like to think we lean way more to the good than to the bad.

The most famous morally ambiguous character is probably a creation of Shakespeare: Hamlet. Do you have a favorite morally ambiguous character from book or movie?

Have you had people like this in your own life? People who bring you joy, at least occasionally, but also bring you a lot of grief by their actions or inactions? Or someone who does something bad, like commit a crime, but in general is big-hearted?

If this person is a coworker or casual friend, it is one thing. But if he/she/they is a family member, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms. How much “bad” can we overlook in order not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”? If you deal with an addict, for example, you might be used to feeling conflicted about your loved one.

If you’re a writer, how do you create one of these complicated beings? How do you show terrible behavior and yet create an appealing character?

This is a subject that touches me personally for the memoir I’ve been working on for a looooong time, but I’ll just leave it at that for now.

Lemme know what you think about this subject, pretty please!

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Perry update: gosh, he’s cute. Have I said that before? He’s been out for a few hours at a time each day now. He gets along fine with the other cats because he is so good-natured, although obnoxious. He just wants to play with them, and although they absolutely do not want to play (although Kana might want to and hasn’t admitted it yet) with him, they realize he has good intentions.

Sloopy Anne update: First let me say that Tiger doesn’t get along with Sloopy Anne unless they are in the kitchen. Tiger has slept with the gardener and me for years, with the door closed so nobody bothers her/us. Sloopy Anne can’t stand the bedroom door shut at night and will wait in there hiding hours ahead of time so she doesn’t get shut out. Lately, Sloopy Anne has been in the bedroom, under the bed or on the floor, each night . She then advanced to jumping on the bed while we’re asleep. Tiger retreats to the top of my head and Sloopy Anne at the foot of the bed. If it stayed like that I would be fine with it, but why did I think she had a Machiavellian plan to take over the bed and kick Tiger out of it for good? Well, night before last I woke up at 6AM to a cat fight. Sloopy Anne was angry and attacking Tiger! It was some kind of argument over the litter box, but Sloopy Anne was definitely on the attack. A morally ambiguous cat?! Now I have to get that door shut while she’s eating dinner to keep Sloopy Anne out at night!

My thoughts and prayers are with those affected by the hurricane(S). And those we lost 16 years ago today on 911.

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Guest Blogger and Author Luanne Castle!

Guest blogging at Phil Taylor’s today about FLASH NONFICTION! Thanks, Phil!

The Phil Factor

How did prose, namely flash nonfiction, end up in my new poetry chapbook Kin Types?

The easiest way to think of flash nonfiction is to think about a creative essay and imagine it tiny—50, 100, 500, 1000 words.

Once I started trying my hand at flash nonfiction, I saw that flash nonfiction forms are just poems opened up a bit—made a little larger, a little looser, but also relying heavily on sound, diction, images, just as poetry does.

The forms include, but are not limited to:

*lyric essay

*collage

*prose poems

*braided essay

*hermit crab essays that assume the form of something else

*based on photograph, artifact, document

*lists

I was able to work my subject in both poetry and flash nonfiction simultaneously because the two genres occupy the same sort of creative process.

Here is a flash nonfiction piece originally published on Toasted Cheese that found its way…

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Family Histories: Kin Types by Luanne Castle

Adrienne at Middlemay Books allowed me the opportunity to guest post about family history, a subject close to my heart and that of Kin Types! Thank you so much, Adrienne.

Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained-Period Drama on Paper at Middlemay Farm

Welcome to Family Histories, a series of guest posts by some of my favorite bloggers in which they explore family . . . and history. The families and the histories are sometimes the writers’ own and sometimes not.

This weekLuanne Castle discusses how the exploration of family history has enriched her creative life:

By combining a passion for family history with my creative writing, I felt able to—for a brief moment—inhabit the lives of women and men from previous generations and imagine how their stories felt to them.

Family history as done by genealogy buffs only interested in filling in the dates and places of lineal ancestors miss the point. Everybody has ancestors. What becomes fascinating is that by recreating and listening to the stories of previous generations, we learn from the experiences of those who have lived on Earth before us.

Family history is a messy, complicated, and…

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