Poem-A-Day: me

Today is my daughter’s twelfth birthday. I cannot believe it. There’s no need for you to experience all the usual platitudes about how quickly children turn into adults or the beastly parts of adolescence. We know, we know. They know, they know. We and they know everything and nothing.

So today I’m posting one of my own poems. It started as a litany exercise, really, and evolved into a list of advisable things.

There’s so much I want to help my daughter understand about the time of life she’s going through, and we do talk, a lot. In her birthday card, I’m giving her a copy of this gorgeous and vital essay by Casey Fleming.

And then there’s this poem, which I’m sharing with everyone else, too.

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Litany

 

When you are given arbitrary instructions, take the nugget of common sense buried within them to heart.

When you have too many toys to play with, share all of them with anyone who needs them.

When the bread dough doesn’t rise, begin again once the sun is shining, remembering that flour and yeast are cheap.

When your pillows are expanding beneath you while you and your room remain the same size, take a deep breath and summon your inner peaceful goddess, the sleeping infant, the remembrance of time immemorial.

When you are given too many books to fill, pack them into a beautiful cabinet, all but one, and scribble your thoughts one page per day.

When you cannot stop sneezing, leave the house for an hour with your allergy medicine and a washed face, clean shirt, brushed-through hair.

When you burn your family’s dinner, know they still love you and will appreciate tomorrow’s feast all the more.

When the spiders come into the house, clear out the corners to give their webs room, and tell them the ground rules you’ve set. And know your wish has been granted.

When you cannot find your entrance into a poem, let other people talk around it on the periphery of your attention.

When the novel inside you is desperate to emerge but you have no time to write it out, make your passion part of your workday, even if just for half an hour.

When your father takes you to the rodeo, enjoy holding his hand between the games.

When you dream of me, be generous, please.

When you reach the end of your to-do list, revel in the glory of a blessing.

When you grow so wise you realize I am an imbecile, recognize this is a cycle, too.

 

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To Be a Valuable Critique Partner or Not To Be: Some DOs and DON’Ts of Participating in a Writers’ Group

A critique group should be one of the most valuable tools at a writer’s disposal.

Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly rip to shreds later...
Three members of the Crack of Dawn Writing Group getting together to produce those mss our respective critique groups will lovingly and appropriately rip to glorious shreds later…

Your rough drafts may be totes gorgeous and amazeballs, but believe me, if you haven’t had anyone else who’s knowledgeable about writing and/or your genre take a look at it and give you some honest feedback, your manuscript probably isn’t done. A critique group of writers supporting each other through constructive discussion about what works, and what doesn’t so much work, is worth one’s tender ego being a little bruised now and then after finding out one’s first draft is not the burnished gold one thought it was.

That said, sometimes you might find yourself in a critique group that’s not a good match for you. Sometimes the personal chemistry doesn’t work so well. Sometimes you need to move along and find other writers to work with, and that’s okay, too.

So I’ve decided, after being asked questions about all of this in several interviews over the last year, and after realizing I’ve spent the last twenty years either participating in or leading critique groups, to write a blog post about the dos and don’ts of being in a writers’ group.

In preparing for this post, I asked a lot of other writers, those in my current group and some not, for their ideas about good critique group etiquette and professionalism: what you can do, and what you can avoid, to make your––and everyone else’s––experience more positive and productive. There were a lot of common threads, and many of the items you’ll read on these lists were echoed by several of the contributors.

I’d like to thank Casey Fleming, Christa Forster, David Jón Fuller, Adam Holt, Brenda Leibling-Goldberg, Tyson Morgan, Meredith Moore, Shirley Redwine, Lucie Scott Smith, and LiAnn Yim for their input. And if you, dear reader, have some further suggestions on what a critique group participant should or shouldn’t do, please contribute to the conversation in the comments section below!

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DO…

When it’s your turn to present to the workshop, assuming your group reads the manuscripts ahead of time, DO SEND YOUR WORK OUT TO THE GROUP EARLY so they all have enough time to read it carefully, rather than rushing––or not reading it at all until the night before the meeting. Each group will determine what kind of prep time they need, based on the number of pages each person presents and how many people are sharing their work at each meeting.

Again assuming your group reads manuscripts ahead of time, DO READ EACH MANUSCRIPT BEFORE THE MEETING, more than once if you can. (If you have time, reading it through once and then making notes on your second pass works well.) Have specific notes to give the person. Commit to the time and effort to make a good try. Give it your best effort, even if you don’t love the manuscript.

WILLINGLY ENTER THE CONE OF SILENCE. It’s a hard skill to learn, but it’s so important to keep one’s mouth shut while others talk about your work. LISTEN FIRST and don’t argue with the critics. Wait until they’ve finished, and only then ask questions about the issues they raised. If there is a significant misunderstanding on anyone’s part, it’s better to clear that up before getting into a protracted debate, but there’s also tremendous value in just listening to the effect your writing has on a reader, rather than interjecting partway through and curtailing discussion. Remember that when your work is published and available for a wide audience to read, you won’t be standing over every reader’s shoulder explaining stuff, and you need to see whether your manuscript can stand on its own, whether what you intended to get across on the page actually comes through. Keep quiet until the Redirect, or until the very end.

Alex Haley said, “Find the good and praise it.” DO GIVE NOTES ON WHAT WORKS in the manuscript. People learn better from praise than they do from criticism. Cheering on a great line, a plot twist, or character insight­­––and being able to say why it works––is so meaningful. It’s too easy for writers to feel like our work––particularly our rough drafts––just plain sucks. Getting notes on the parts that don’t work helps, but so does hearing when we’re on the right track. It really helps, in fact, to start your commentary with the praise; if you can start by looking for the good in another writer’s work, it builds trust and helps the writer find a voice and a path. Just picking apart someone’s work mercilessly is counter-productive.

DO STAY ON TOPIC. Keep focused on the writing and feedback. It’s completely normal and acceptable for a writers’ group that’s been working together for a while and that’s built up a solid rapport of mutually respectful, trusting, cordial relationships to be social when they get together, but if you do, keep this part of the meeting confined to the very beginning or very end of the meeting. In my current group, for example, we always eat dinner together when we meet, and we socialize or catch up or chat about writing in general or writing opportunities we’ve come across that we want to share over dinner, and when we’re about done eating, we know it’s time to get down to manuscript business.

BE RESPECTFUL. Keep the writer’s goals in mind, rather than trying to rewrite the manuscript in your own style. Your comments should be about the writer’s goals and about the craft, not about your own tastes or preferences. Focus more on the reaction the manuscript provoked in you, rather than on how you would rewrite it or what the author should have done. Some good advice is to help “make the story more of itself,” which reminds us to examine what the writer wanted to do with the piece––and make recommendations accordingly. (Another way of looking at this is the adage, “It’s not all about you.”)

GO INTO WORKSHOP READY TO HEAR COMMON PLACES OF CONFUSION. Make a list beforehand of what you think could be improved in your draft. Nine times out of ten, good writers already know what’s wrong and just need that list confirmed by other people and re-articulated so they can start to fix it. That process makes the critique feel less personal. In other words, “They’re not tearing my piece apart, they’re helping me see clearly what I already know but am too immersed in the work to approach with clarity.” If you have specific questions you want the group to address, you can do so in Redirect or (if your group allows this) include a short list of questions with your manuscript (if your group reads them ahead of time).

KEEP YOUR OWN COUNSEL. Ignore overly prescriptive advice. Not everyone follows these rules, and it’s important to remember that you’re the one writing this manuscript, not anyone else. If you’re feeling squeamish or discomfited by the critique you’ve received––either because it’s unproductive or because it’s pulling you in numerous different directions––it’s helpful to remember this is your work. Sometimes you need to go with your gut.

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DON’T…

DON’T MONOPOLIZE THE DISCUSSION. Speak your piece concisely and make your point, and then let someone else speak. If you’re in a group where the critics take turns giving their commentary, and you have more to say after everyone else has had a turn, ask if you can add something. If you’re in a group where the conversation flows more like a dialogue, an open discussion, then pay attention to your involvement so that everyone gets a chance to contribute.

DON’T DISPARAGE THE WRITER’S WORK OR GENRE. Use your imagination and allow the author’s work to grow; don’t try to kill it before it blooms. Even if the manuscript isn’t in your genre, don’t treat it like it’s covered in snot. Everyone has different tastes, and if you’re going to work together, you need to respect each other and each other’s work. It may not be to your taste. That’s okay. Rise above your personal preferences and be a professional. Ron Carlson said the workshop participant’s job is to help the writer understand what her piece is trying to do or be and then give some thoughtful encouragement about how to get it there, rather than trying to bend it to the critic’s tastes. To that end, consider Andre Dubus’ essay “Letter to a Writer’s Workshop.” In short, honesty is good––but negativity, just destructive.

DON’T COMPETE. You’re not there to be the best in the group; you’re there to learn from each other. Be open to the idea that you will all learn from each other. If you were the most competent writer in the room, it would be really tough for you to ever get any better at your craft. Plus, competition really inhibits the kind of trusting rapport a group needs to function well.

DON’T SHOVEL ON THE B.S. As one of our contributors said, “I’d rather have someone be brute than dance around the subject.” There’s a difference between honest praise and kissing up, and anyone whose ego is smaller than Texas can recognize it. “Be encouraging at all times” is very important and worthwhile advice, but this doesn’t mean insincere flattery will be helpful in any way. Be diplomatic and kind, but respect your fellow writers enough to be genuine, too.

As one of our contributors advised, “DON’T USE THE F-WORD.” Be diplomatic and respectful in your choice of language. No personal attacks. And if you’re in a situation where someone is launching them at a member of the group, DON’T TOLERATE IT.

DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING YOUR WRITING IS YOU. It’s something you produce. It’s not personal, nor is it a reflection of your worth as a human being. Keep this in mind because no one is there to judge you. They’re there to improve their work and yours, so don’t be overly offended by criticism or overly enamored with praise of your ramblings. Just listen, learn, improve, and enjoy. Don’t get defensive, or the people critiquing your manuscript will be less likely to give you worthwhile, honest feedback. The important corollary to this, of course, is simple: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF EQUATING THE WRTER WITH THE MANUSCRIPT. That’s just uncool.

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I (and the other contributors to this piece) hope you find these guidelines useful. As with any set of rules, of course, you and your group will settle into a dynamic that works for you all. But establishing your rules of engagement early on can save a lot of heartbreak and stress later. Writing and critiquing and becoming better at your craft can (and should) be a fun, productive, valuable process.

May you find an excellent critique group, and when you do find it, may you stick with them. It’s one of the best ways to avoid having too solitary a life, too narrow an echo chamber. It’s one of the best ways to make your work better.

Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything

Having grown up in a large family with dozens of younger cousins and siblings around all the time lulled me, as I plowed blindly into adulthood, into thinking that I was something of an authority on the juvenile human.  From countless hours minding my younger relatives to the slew of babysitting jobs I had in high school and college, I garnered a feeling of intelligence about children which caused my breeding friends to Continue reading “Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything”

Reader Question: Themes in Your Short Story

Here’s the question that came in:

On my current short story that I’m editing, my friend pointed out to me that there’s a pretty strong theme of feminism, and I can really see where he’s coming from. I didn’t intend for this theme to exist though and in fact meant for another theme that is completely irrelevant to this one. Is this a problem then? Because I’m worried that the feminism might detract from the other theme, or something like that. But on the other hand, maybe its good that people can get different things out of different reads. What do you think?

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This is a great question.  I think that sometimes, when we write, our subconscious minds layer in things that we didn’t know we were thinking about or didn’t expect would come into the story (or poem, or play, or essay, etc.) at hand.  There have been several occasions when my writers’ group has analyzed a chapter or a scene in such a way that made me think, yeah, of course, that’s exactly what I was going for, but I had no idea of it at the time I was drafting it.  Writing is a funny beast that way.  And when I say funny, I mean extraordinary.

Feminism may be a philosophy that matters to you on a personal, daily basis.  Literature does not exist in a vacuum; writers are always influenced in one way or another by their lives, their experiences, their environment.  The adage that one should write what one knows doesn’t mean all fiction comes from one’s own past, but rather that we need to acknowledge that the more we know about a subject — or an emotion, or a theme, or the Human Condition in general — the more authentically we can write about it.

I don’t see anything wrong with having more than one theme in a single manuscript, even if they seem unrelated to you at first blush.  Back in school we used to joke that a piece of literature was deep if it “operated on so many different levels.”  We were being tongue-in-cheek and cracking ourselves up with this quip, but it was funny in part because it is true.  If it weren’t, it wouldn’t have become a cliché in the first place.

Hope that helps.  🙂  Anyone else want to chime in, feel free.

 

Answering Your Questions…Or At Least Trying To

I’ve been fielding questions about writing from my current and former students via email lately.  Lots of them.  And sometimes, similar questions from different people.  I’d like to open this forum up for discussions about writing — anything from creative writing technique (that’s my background) to literary analysis (that’s my background too) to grammar (really just a hobby).  I don’t profess to be an expert on anything, really, but if you pose a question in the comments section here, I’ll answer it to the best of my ability in a new blog post.  Then anyone else who’s following this blog — and I know for a fact that several of you are also writers — please feel free to chime in on the discussion as well.

This should be fun.  🙂

Good for Your Karma

This week, I want to give a nod to some projects and blogs I think are really worthwhile and deserve more attention.  Please click on the links below and check these out!

Brown Girl Magazine

http://browngirlmagazine.com/

The person who writes the “Dear Seema Aunty” column is a friend of mine, and really insightful.  I believe the magazine targets young women of any ethnicity, in the way that the Human Condition makes all struggles relatable to all people.

Pluck Magazine

http://www.pluckmagazine.com

This is a great online magazine that’s been around for maybe a year or so.  I was published in it back in September, a brief personal narrative about my arranged marriage.  Here’s the link to that:  http://www.pluckmagazine.com/articles/article_jamail_01.php

Victoria Love’s New Album

Yeah, I know, you’ve heard about her on my blog before.  There are two main reasons I’m passionate about this project:  first, I love the music; second, Victoria Love is my sister.  🙂  Love’s Kickstarter page is up and taking pledges; they start at $1, and she’s offering great rewards.  She also needs to raise a lot of money in the next few weeks for the project to be funded.  Can she do it?  Will it happen??  Ooh, it’s a nail-biter!  😉

Here’s the Kickstarter page:  http://kck.st/twBUzl

And here’s the review I wrote of her EP:  http://wp.me/p1MOqK-1q

You can hear some of her music on her website:  http://www.victorialovemusic.com

Pass it on!

Soap.  You Know, the Fancy Kind.

http://www.soapier.com/

The tag line says it all:  “Life’s dirty.  Get Soapier.”

These little cakes of cleanliness are well-made and super fragrant, they lather beautifully and look even better next to your sink, and they make excellent gifts.  Plus, they’re less expensive than fancy soaps in a boutique for the exact same product.

The website is not flashy and exciting, but the blog is current, and you can Like them on Facebook.

Some Blogs I’m Following

Here are some interesting and insightful blogs and artists you might enjoy.

you do doodle too:  http://udodoodle2.wordpress.com/

Paula Billups, Painter (gallery and blog):  http://www.paulabillups.com

Babette Fraser Hale, author:  http://www.blogger.com/profile/16801971149305731956

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Thank you, everyone, for your attention.