Monday, May 22, 2017

On planning to be happy

I’ve been thinking a lot about reaching my writing goals, and my last three posts discussed the basics of establishing a mission, setting goals, and managing time.

But there is so much more to life than writing, and I need to remind myself of this on occasion. I’m sitting by one beautiful example of this so-much-more as I write this; while I do my work, he does his—he’s watching an episode of Peppa Pig and eating his cereal.

My shorthand way of thinking about the so-much-more is to call it happiness. That’s a very wiggly word for it, though. Is happiness the same as joy, or am I low-balling when I revel in the simple pleasure of having my best little friend by my side? Is this contented feeling happiness? 

And as I write this, and always, at every moment, there is gut-wrenching torture and pain and sorrow in the world. Someone I love is consumed by worry that he can’t pay an important bill. Another person I know is doubled over in pain at the death of her sister. And people I’ll never meet are starving and suffering and hurting in ways I can’t even imagine. This is always true, and there’s something problematic about happiness or joy under the circumstances.

I teach composition at the university level, and in recent classes I’ve been pursuing a happiness theme as a research focus. My students and I try to pin down a definition of happiness. We talk about the relationship of happiness to work, to love, to place, to the spirit, to art—any connection we can make to untangle the idea (or to further complicate it). We ponder what our nation’s founders meant when they said we had the right to pursue it; we probe why polls find significant unhappiness in the U.S., despite our wealth and apparent opportunity.

I’m embarking on a new class, and I just posted some journaling themes for my students. These were pretty easy to generate, because they’re the very same questions I’ve been ruminating over. Here are some:

1. To what extent is happiness a choice?
2. What did our nation’s founders mean when they said we had the “right to pursue happiness”?
3. Is joy just extreme happiness, or is it distinct from it?
4. In what ways is sorrow relevant to/necessary for happiness?
5. How can we best address sadness in another?
6. Why do some polls find U.S. citizens unhappy?
7. What is the main ingredient of your own happiness?
8. How do you deal with sadness?
9. Why do we sometimes laugh in inappropriate settings, like funerals?
10. How can you increase your happiness?
11. Should you try to be happier?
12. Do you ever sort of revel in a mood of melancholy, and if so, why?
13. Does activism require anger?
14. What’s up with people telling us to smile?
15. What is the role of religion in happiness?
16. What is the role of work in happiness?
17. What is the role of family in happiness?
18. What is the role of romantic love in happiness?
19. What is the role of home in happiness?
20. What is the role of mindfulness or meditation in happiness?
21. What is the role of pets in happiness?
22. What is the opposite of happiness?
23. Why do some people feel happier in a tidy or clean setting?
24. What good can you say about sadness?
25. What is one thing you can do right now to improve your level of happiness?
26. Read any article about happiness, scholarly or otherwise, and respond to it.

One thing I tell my students, and something I believe very strongly, is that sustained happiness is not an accident. We may feel a burst of pleasure when we win some money on a scratch-off lottery ticket or we run into an old friend, but it seems to me that a happy life is the result of planning. We have to set ourselves up for it. Luck helps, too—if we have good health and a job we enjoy, we’re mostly just fortunate, although health and employment, too, are things we can strive for.

So as I’m planning for a summer of successful writing, I’m also thinking about soaking up all the happiness I possibly can—and about supplementing the happiness of the people I care about (and I like to think that’s everyone, although I may fall short in a few particular instances).

What will happiness require? I have an idea that I’ll need to write things I care about, but also that I must have time in nature, time with my family, time for navel-gazing and relaxation. My gut says that multitasking is working in the wrong direction, and that to be fully happy, I have to inhabit my life and be fully present in each moment.

I anticipate some disappointments, and maybe some very harsh ones. But right now, I’m reaching for joy, and I’m doing all I can to be ready for it.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Making the most of a writer's time

Badger, Sir Thomas Browne, 1658

To reach our goals, it’s important to have a mission and a plan. Even more than these elements, though, we need to have time—and time, in fact, is the only absolute necessity.

I’m thinking of writing, although “mission” feels like more of a corporate term than an artistic one. As long as we devote some time to writing, we can muck around without a mission or purpose, and we can feel our way without a plan. But there’s no substitute for time. Writers have to write down some words, and this happens in a unit of time—a few seconds spent scrawling on the back of an envelope, an entire day drafting at a desk. You can take away the envelope or the desk, but you can’t subtract time from the equation and still say that one has written.

This formula for achievement of goals—mission plus plan over time—works for every goal, even beyond writing. We could have a mission to get fit and a great exercise plan to follow, but if we don’t spend time exercising—if we don’t act on the plan in real life—nothing changes for us. There is power in having a vision, but most of that power has to do with the way it changes our actions. I have a lot of desires, but I can’t think my house clean; I need to dip into my limited pool of time to pick up toys or scrub the shower.

My last two posts here have talked about mission and planning as ways to make the most of summer writing time that academics frequently have high hopes for. Summer, I’ve found, can get away from us if we do what we feel drawn to—sleep in, laze about, soak up the sun. With an idea of what it is we’re about, and a plan for what we’d like to accomplish, we might be tempted to go with what feels good. Sometimes that’s exactly what we should do—and it’s undoubtedly a good idea for at least some part of our free time.

But a big part of the plan is how to execute it with the resources we have, and our most important (and most limited) resource is time.

The outset of summer is a perfect time to craft a schedule for meeting our goals (and perhaps for starting a habit of intentional use of time, even though the schedule might change). Here are some steps to consider for making the most of time:

* Take a realistic look at the twenty-four hours in a day. Figure on eight hours for sleep, even though eight full hours of sleep is a pipe dream for me; still, that’s a healthy target, and I wouldn’t advise low-balling sleep, or making a plan that steals from our need to be good to ourselves.

* Start to chart out a calendar, with the understanding that your Mondays are different than your Thursdays—each day brings its own commitments and challenges.

* Make a place on the schedule for those elements that can’t be omitted—like childcare or work. It helps to know the difference. We actually can let the dishes stand in the sink for a day. We can forego a shower or a favorite show. Children are going to need to eat, but we can forego an hour-and-a-half of cooking in favor of a frozen pizza in the oven, at least on occasion.

* Look at what’s left—and again, we can do this even if we have to steal time that we might prefer to use for another purpose. I love to woolgather in the morning before the family is awake, but that’s my best chance at a few hours of uninterrupted writing time, and if I’m focused on meeting my goals, I need to be thoughtful of what I do with pockets of time.

* Give yourself permission to regard writing time as one of those immutable elements, and place it on the schedule. For me, I might make the immutable writing time that pocket I regularly have from 6 to 8 a.m.—or I might know that I’ll be waiting out my kid’s karate class or sitting in a car line for a pocket of time. I suggesting giving a regularly available pocket of time to writing, and trying to find the best pocket available for the purpose. Sometimes we’re dealing with ten-minute increments, but sometimes we have the benefit of an entire unscheduled hour or more.

* Be both ambitious and practical about the amount of time you can dedicate to writing. If you can give eight hours to it, do! But that sounds like an unusual day to me, and the kind of overly ambitious planning that dooms a goal to failure.

* Because theoretical time has a tendency to disappear, try to identify a secondary time you might use for writing if your primary spot is taken. Mark it down, and if you find it’s necessary look for places to economize on time (the frozen pizza trick) and expand the secondary pocket.

Busy people really can’t count on writing time popping up accidentally, although waiting for (and recognizing) this kind of opportunity is sometimes my method. If we are to look back on the summer with the satisfaction of knowing that we made progress on our goals, we need to have the resolve at the outset to identify who we are and what we’d like to accomplish, and then to chart a course that takes the best advantage of available time.


Interested in maximizing your writing time? Maybe you need a personal trainer. I am pleased to introduce “The Badger,” my service for helping writers and researchers to reach their goals. Check it out here!

Friday, May 19, 2017

Pursuing the mission-driven life

C.F. Tunnicliffe, Badgers

Why do we creative types cede all talk of mission to the corporate realm?

When I was younger, I thought about starting a business, and I attended a few workshops sponsored by the Small Business Administration. Mission was the name of the game. Over and over again, the experts stressed that to obtain capital and to communicate to prospective clients, it was crucial to have both a clear idea and a statement of mission.

I worked on a mission statement for my business. (It was a writing consultancy that I called “Your Wordsworth.” I still like the name.) As instructed, I went for a brief, lively statement that I could put my energy behind—something to say This is what I am, or, more to the point, This is what I can do—the problem I can solve, and my reason for wanting to do so.

Mission statements were also on my mind when I was the editor-in-chief of a literary journal. Journals often seek funding for their efforts, and one crisis in the field is that we all seem to share the same mission. Most magazines seek “to publish the best work available by writers both established and new.” A few magazines specialize and serve a particular demographic or literary style. The word that almost never gets unpacked is “best.” Thus, magazines all seem to compete for the same dollars with the same tired statement, while they also compete for the same work—the best work. Strangely, no one seems to want the crummy stuff.

As editor, I underwent some training with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses—the folks who brought us the Contest Code of Ethics that most reputable journals subscribe to. Their message was the same as the Small Business Administration’s: It’s critically important to set ourselves apart with a clear picture of who we are, what we want to do, and how we are distinctive in our approach to doing it. If we couldn’t do this, why would anyone choose to subscribe or donate?

These days I’m more tuned in to writing than to entrepreneurship, and I’m no longer at the helm of a journal. However, I’m finding more and more that this notion from the corporate world has relevance to my life. Shouldn’t I be able to state in a clear sentence what it is I’m about? I think I should—and not to coax in customers or sources of capital, but to remind myself of my purpose and to doggedly pursue it, come what may.

What a poet understands better than a trainer from the Small Business Administration is that words are powerful magic, and we tap into that magic by declaring how we intend to function in the world.

For some, it’s a huge step merely to declare oneself a poet. When you love poetry, claiming that title feels like assigning yourself an honorific—might as well ask everyone to call me Lady Gorgeous De Fancypants, because it’s just that ridiculous. But the simple fact of the matter is that if we write poetry, we’re poets. We might be suck-ass poets, but bad dogs are still dogs—we don’t pull the title when they eat a slipper, because it still serves as a useful description of type.

This whole issue is complicated by all the writers we know who never write or publish. I went through a long—as in a multi-year—dry spell in my thirties, and I didn’t stop calling myself a poet during that time, but I sure wasn’t writing. I was editing and I was reading, but I wasn’t actually writing. By the time I figured out I was more of a former poet than a practicing one, I was already starting up again, and the distinction was unnecessary.

This summer, I’m thinking a lot about the power of language and the mission-driven life. Like so many academics, I keep up my writing through the school year, but I wait for the summer for high-concept work—like putting book manuscripts together, or sending out book proposals, or making a publishing plan. Summer, too, seems to allow sustained thought on writing projects, so I feel more inclined to take on ambitious work—a multi-page poem instead of something sonnet length.

But to make that sort of productivity happen, I have to tell myself the right kind of story, and those words become sort of a de facto mission statement. I devote time and energy to my writing. I make the most of unscheduled time to complete ambitious writing projects. I am driven to create in the time that is available to me. Statements like these keep me on track during those non-teaching months I think of as free time but which are really my best writing time.

What follows a clear statement of mission is a process of goal-setting—how am I going to complete my mission?—and then of working to meet those goals. With a mission that feels honest and optimistic, it’s a pleasure to scheme and then to follow through. But a great summer of writing doesn’t happen by accident, and I know that I need to plan now to make the most of the time I have.

I’m a poet. And I’m on a mission.


Would you like to make the most of your summer writing ambitions? I’m offering personal training for writers and researchers through a program I call “The Badger.” In June, July, or both, I will cheerfully “badger” you every day, by helping you to set and track goals and to stay true to your own mission, whatever it may be. Information is available here.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Badger yourself to better writing habits

A friend of mine has gone a long time without writing poetry.

It bothers her. She defines herself as a poet, and because she is well published, poetry feels to her like it is the key to a better future. But nevertheless, she says that she seldom finds time to write, and when she does, the words don’t come.

“I need something to change,” she told me. “I need to make something change.”

I know what she means. This is one of my first regular blog posts in quite some time, and that’s only half by design. Life got busy and I had to let something go. To be honest, I had to let several things go. I’m having a dry spell, too, poetically speaking.

And here I am at the end of a semester of teaching with the summer looming before me. It feels good—no one needs anything from me for the first time in a long while. I have no appointments. My things-to-do list is entirely self-determined, and today it has one thing on it: Write this blog post.

Poetry remains conspicuously absent. Do you ever feel like I do—like your creative work is something you need to sneak up on? Sometimes my orange tabby cat gets out of the house. Escape is always on his mind, but he’s terrible at it. He’ll dash to the neighbor’s bush and stand under it. From that point I just reach in and grab him by the scruff of the neck—something I would never do under ordinary circumstances—and I put him back in his safe, non-bird-killing, unsquashable-by-car space.

The writing is like this, for me, anyway. It seems very elusive, but when I sit down, I can coax it out of the bushes. The comparison falls apart a bit here, because it’s not my desire to put it in a safe space, but rather to play in the traffic of the psyche. I think writing can be a little dangerous when you do it right. Poetry, in particular, is uncomfortable. There are a lot of ways to write a poem, but for me, it’s very much a process of taking my actual pain and making art out of it. Other poets may work differently, but I don’t find the practice the least bit fun.

Is it any wonder we let it slip? If our art form were something like tickle-fighting or sundae-eating, we’d never miss a day.

Maybe there was a time when writers had plenty of minutes to think and to play with words; I’m no historian, but it seems like the Transcendentalists and the Romantics spent their days walking and writing and bullshitting. Having money helped then, just like it does now, and so did having friends with money to mooch off of. But for the average Joe, or more specifically, the average Jane, I do know this: There was a time when doing laundry started with manufacturing soap out of ashes and beef tallow, and it ended with washboard-scrubbing and wringing. When could Jane write, much less ramble and get high on laudanum and swim in the Gulf of Spezia?

And I guess my friend and I are modern-day versions of Jane. While the laudanum and the Tyrrhenian Sea weren’t strictly necessary for writing, no one really wants to read poems about laundry, and no one wants to read about grading college students’ essays, either. Work gets in the way of writing time, and it also gets in the way of having experiences that lend themselves to writing—even the experience of wool-gathering while spotting animal shapes in the clouds.

I know this about writing: It has always taken me back. Like my friend, I’ve had dry days that have turned into dry weeks and months and even, I regret to say it, years. But when I’ve felt ready to go back in to those bushes, they were there—and there was nothing that said I needed to wait calmly to be lugged back to safety.

My cat is very gentle and would never bite or scratch. Maybe he should. Maybe that goldfinch is as delicious as she seems, and maybe he ought to try harder to consume her and her song.

Again, it’s a faulty metaphor. Unlike the typical house cat, killing up to twenty songbirds each year, my poetry doesn’t hurt anyone. Rather, it makes the world better—a little more gentle and less perplexing, at least for me.

The trick—for me, and for my friend—is to set some goals and to make the time to reach them. I am ready to have a word-rich summer, and so I’m starting out by making a plan.


Are you interested in setting some goals for your summer writing projects? I have a new personal training program for writers that I call “The Badger.” For the month of June or July—or for both—you set the goals and I “badger” you every day with prompts, check-ins, light feedback, and whatever other help you need to get where you want to go. Check it out! 

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Poem366: VILLAIN SONGS by Tammy Robacker

The poem in Tammy Robacker’s collection Villain Songs (ELJ, 2017) that I come back to again and again is “The Cuckoo Clock.”

When I was a girl
I wanted to live
inside of one.

A wooden, small
place to hold me.
I was in love

with its bird
face. …

This is the wondrous beginning of the poem, and I’ve felt this—a sense that there was some magic in that chamber where the bird lived, or, in some versions, where the tiny woodcutter keeps his table, or the milkmaid has her bed.

But this poem goes darker, and its danger is the same throughout the entire collection. It’s an overwhelming sense of masculine oppression, built into the whorls and knots of the timepiece.

Clockmakers all carve
the same male game

in their overhang.
Reared buckhorns
and alpha beasts—

They rule the ornate
roost. …

Robacker ends the piece by referring to the pinecone weights of these clocks, “dangling / their gonadal hang.” And just like that, a child’s wonder is given over to oppression and fear.

Villain Songs calls out the dangers the world poses to its children—and particularly its girls—in poems of witness, poems of incest, a poem with a buried fetus, poems with nighttime dangers and unwelcome touch.

And they resonate. The poems in Villain Songs hit home for anyone who has encountered a cockthrust on a public bus or the weird attention of a creepy uncle—its intentions obvious in retrospect, but puzzling to a child.

Once I was at a gas station and a man exposed himself to me. The front of his pants were open, and he stood there as if the presence of his penis were an accident of which he was unaware. I called him out and he ran, and when I got to my car, where my mother waited, I worried that I had made an error. Maybe he didn’t know. My mother shook her head. “Men always know where their penis is,” she said, and I think it’s true.

In Villain Songs, my mother’s words stay with me. The men whose selfish and violating acts are recounted know what they are doing. There are no accidents here. And Robacker knows what she’s doing; she’s bearing witness. She says as much in the poem “Blocked Memories”:

             … I could never tell
the poor man it happened then.
I tucked the secret beneath my body.
Silence fell across me like down.
For forty years I have slept
on it. Blank as a sheet till now.

As Rick Barot states in his blurb for the collection, “Poetry’s work as retrieval and repair has never been more vigorously practiced than in Villain Songs.” He also cites superb craft, and poems “as artful as they are wounded.” It’s not an easy collection to process, but it houses important truths—and poets know there is beauty in that.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #9

Today, try to unlock a different part of the creative mind by engaging in a type of imaginative play that is different from your norm. If, like me, you tend to create only with words, you might consider trying to execute a drawing—a self-portrait, perhaps, or a spring blossom. You might also try singing or playing music, or attempting a craft, like paper-making or wire sculpture. Whatever you try, give it an honest but non-judgmental attempt, just to see how far you can take this other medium. Maybe you’ll surprise yourself—or maybe you won’t, but you’ll at least explore another wrinkle in your capacious, inventive brain.


I’m offering contemplative prompts for poets all through April, National Poetry Month. If you subscribe to Better View of the Moon, you never need to miss one.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #8

You’ve probably been informed that there are things you can’t do. Center a poem. Start a poem with a definition. Start with waking or end with sleeping.

But don’t some poems demand to be written in a way the workshop hates? And isn’t that the pure pleasure of leaving the workshop behind? The people who told you that there couldn't be a good essay on ___, or that no one needs another ___ story, or that there are too many poems about ___—they’re off somewhere, not writing about whatever it is they prohibit, and here we are, left to our devices, free to write about sex or motherhood or cancer or all three at the same time.

Your challenge today—again, a contemplative challenge instead of a poetry challenge—is to write down every rule anyone has ever tried to give you for your poetry. That includes anything you’ve heard outlawed or mocked by professors, classmates, or editors, and it also includes anything you’ve been telling yourself.

Read over your list when you’re done with it. Such a constipated way of thinking about poetry is at least worth a good laugh. Maybe, too, there’s a prompt in it. You could write a poem right now that is centered, or that has a single obvious rhyme, or that contains an obvious bookend, or that uses the word “love” like it’s your turf or something.


If you like this series of contemplative prompts, offered throughout the month of April, be sure to subscribe to this blog so you won’t miss a single one.

Friday, April 7, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #7

I seem to remember that as a child, I spent a lot of time in proto-science activities—splitting the stalk of a dandelion with my thumbnail to see the milk inside, watching the weird slow-fast morph of clouds, looking for the source of the birdsong. I remember the simple amazement of dirt, and how black it was beneath the surface, and what little things were in it--bugs and stones and tiny snails.

In keeping with yesterday's prompt, engage in a little proto-science today. Recapture that feeling of having a child's sharp senses, and explore anything handy—what’s in the dark recess under the porch, what the inside of rock looks like if you break it, what the cat's footprint looks like. Just look and wonder. And as always, write if you want.


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #6

Set aside some time today to recapture a memory of your distant past. I just did this myself. I went to the school playground all by myself and I picked out a swing. Remember that? You’d go to the swing set and look for one that was just the right height, and you’d settle in and kick off—feet pointed forward for coming and knees bent for going.

I lost some time swinging. I tried to recapture the pure memory of the motion while I forgot everything about my actual day. It worked, too. It took very few backs and forths before my musculature took over. My quadriceps remembered; my gluteus maximus; my hamstrings; my Achilles tendon. And my mind cleared itself of minutiae, and when I was done I was ready to do a writer’s work.

There are plenty of ways to reconnect to that child self, it occurs to me. I could finger paint or make cookies; I could record my height on the jamb of the door. Choose a physical action from your childhood and give yourself over to it. Afterwards, if writing comes ... let it. Maybe your child self has something to say.


I hope you’re enjoying this series of prompts, which are not for poems, but rather for fostering a poetic mindset, without the pressure a poem-per-day prompt set sometimes carries. Please consider subscribing to this blog so you don't miss a prompt—offered every day in April, National Poetry Month.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

More hubris and cruelty from editors

Sometimes literary editors are discouraging, and sometimes they miss the point—but sometimes their rejections are just … well, odd.

I recently rounded up some of my friends’ bizarre experiences with rejection, and the stories ranged from comical to heartbreaking. There was one theme, though, that fascinated me, and it happened when responses almost seemed like afterthoughts.

For almost all rejection notes, the wording is as meticulously crafted as in any submission the magazine might receive. I remember my first stab at writing the text of a rejection. A few considerations seemed vitally important. 

  1. “No” should never be tacit. A writer is looking for one key piece of information when an editor responds to a submission: Is it accepted? A rejection slip needs to say “no” directly, and early; I always tried to include my “no” in the first sentence.
  2. “Thank you” is necessary. A magazine needs submissions. Writers are critically important to any journal’s mission, and they deserve appreciation for helping to contribute in that way. (I know plenty of editors who regard large numbers of submissions as undesirable—a problem. While they are a lot of work, I welcome every one. More submissions means better work.)
  3. False encouragement should never be offered. “No” and “thank you” are the basics. “We invite you to submit again”—now, that’s special. I never offered this language to any writer unless I actually wanted to see more of that person’s work. Journals get enough submissions that they don’t need to ask for more.
  4. There should be no tone of apology unless the journal has done something wrong. If my response is late, I apologize. I’m not sorry for a simple no.
  5. There should be no excuses. A rejection should not suggest that the journal “can’t” accept work. 
  6. There should be no counseling or patronizing. It is inappropriate to point out that a journal’s decision represents only one person’s or group’s opinion, or that there are a lot of other fish in the litmag sea. Empty platitudes are disrespectful, and they have no place in rejection correspondence.

Most editors think about the message they are sending to writers, and how it reflects on (and how it will be received by) all parties involved. Suffice it to say, though, that “most” does not mean “all.”

Here are some of the less considered responses some of my writer friends have received:

  • Many writers report the new trend of the non-response: If you don’t receive a contract, you should consider yourself rejected. This is the response that shows up when you log in to the submission management system and see that your work is declined without comment. A handful of magazines acknowledge up front that this is how they operate; some just quietly click “reject” without sending word of the decision. (Sometimes they do this accidentally.)
  • R. reports that she once received a note that informed her “Only one of these even came close.” Remarked R.: “OK, then.”
  • J.’s favorite rejection told him, “We don’t publish this type of material, and even if we did, we wouldn’t publish this.” A similar magazine later accepted the pice—and sent a nice-sized check.
  • L. received a rejection that said simply, “We prefer poems that laugh down the well.” I admit I’m not sure what that means.
  • One of my most celebrated writing friends, D., reports, “I once received a form rejection from a journal and then, two days later, a handwritten note from the editor saying that the form rejection wasn’t sufficient to express his dislike of my work—that he found it flat and unmusical and completely devoid of merit of any kind.” He adds, “A few years later, this same editor published a memoir about his unhappy childhood, and I thought, nah, not unhappy enough.
  • C. says that an editor told her to read previous issues of the journal, because they publish only “phenomenal” poets. The weird part? C. herself had been in the journal twice before. “Does that make me a part-time, or an only-once-in-a-while, ‘phenomenal’ poet???!”
  • S. remembers when he was a grad student, and as a class project he subscribed to a journal to write a detailed critique of it as a class project. Later, when he sent his work to that journal, he mentioned a few pieces he particularly enjoyed. “Within a week I received an angry handwritten note on my cover letter stating that it was ‘clear I had never bothered to read their journal, that my cover letter was an insult because the editor personally knew that he had no subscribers from Arizona, and that my submission went in the trash as soon as he saw praise for the poems from their last issue that I had clearly not read.” S. sent back a copy of the issue with a mail stamp addressed to him and “drew a big, full-fingered bird on the cover.”
  • G. tells me that he has received a Post-it note rejection, as well as another rejection for which the first page of a manuscript was returned with “NO!” scrawled across it.
  • R. notes that she received an acceptance on a Post-it—“the entirety of which read, ‘I’ll take [poem title].’”
  • M. once received a standard rejection with an additional note that said only, “A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Because we all know there’s only one kind of story ….
  • H. got a handwritten rejection once that was completely illegible. She says, “It was handwritten, presumably in English, but I literally couldn’t read a word of it, and it was also super-late, like over a year.” (Incidentally, H. says that she’s been writing a long time and isn’t bothered by rejection—“But when I think of beginning writers or writers who are insecure about the value of their work receiving the responses people are describing here and being hurt by them, I’m disgusted.”
  • P. says she once received a a snail mail rejection with a flyer containing submission guidelines, with the submission window aggressively circled and highlighted. The editor had scrawled a message: “FOLLOW GUIDELINES CORRECTLY.” The problem was that the dates on the flyer contradicted the dates listed on the website, which had her submission occurring within the window. “This stuff doesn’t bother me as much now, but when I was just starting to send work out, it stung a bit.”
  • F. remembers sending a note in her cover letter explaining that she felt a particular group of poems might be a good fit. The editors responded, “No matter how you feel, these poems aren’t a good fit for XXX Review.” The editor signed the note, “I.B. Scrood.”
  • L. received a poetry rejection that said, “Your poetry is good, but alas, we can’t use it.” Alas?
  • E. received a rejection slip in the mail in the old days of paper submissions. The clean but oddly angled cut made it clear an intern had prepared the rejection with one of those guillotine-style paper cutters. As did the smear of blood across the quarter-sheet ….
  • Someone—an editor of a well-known feminist journal—once rejected A. with a note that admonished, “Only famous poets can write in lowercase.”
  • Poor J. received a rejection once that had none of the typical language of a rejection slip—just a single sentence saying, “Don’t quit your day job.”

I may need to write another post about rejections that run the gamut from the cruel to the ridiculous to the nearly sublime. There are so many stories about odd and inappropriate rejection notes that I feel affirmed in my approach: Editors should just say no, politely and respectfully—and humbly. 

There is never any need to hurt a writer. A simple rejection says all they need to say.


A Writer’s Spirit Prompt #5

Today, we kick out the stool.

Remember yesterday’s prompt? You recorded your habits, preferences, and rituals, as if you were an anthropologist, studying a culture. Today, you mess with that culture. Did your subject (you) require morning writing time? Write in the evening. Did you require a computer? Use pen and paper; use crayon to really shake things up. Change your place, your time, your tools, your habits of mind. And do some gentle writing—no expectations. What happens? Does the writing change?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #4

Most writers have habits of mind or practice, and some of these habits can rise to the level of ritual. But sometimes these behaviors are not even conscious ones. We find ourselves writing in certain ways, with certain tools, at certain times of day. Today’s prompt asks you to describe your writer self in your most descriptive terms, as if you are observing yourself from a distance (e.g., “When Karen writes, she uses the bluest pen, with bright thick ink that globs when she stops”).

This is a writing prompt, but do not feel pressured to make a poem from it. You’re just an anthropologist, recording the habits of the locals—or rather, one local: yourself. If something comes of this, go with it.

Looking ahead, tomorrow’s prompt will ask you to think of ways to disrupt your habit—so be as faithful a recorder as you can today, and if you can’t think of anything you typically or “always” do, make something up. Imagine your ideal conditions.

When editors get creative with 'no'

A memo to editors of literary journals: You do important work. But you are not the important part of the work you do.

I know. I’m an editor myself, and I have been for years. I’ve learned on the job, through some pretty good decisions and some ridiculous mistakes. But the most important thing I learned about literary editing was that the work is the most important thing—the work, and the readers we connect to it.

Still important, but less so, are the writers of the work. The work has a life beyond the writer. It lives on the page and in the minds of those who receive it. The work originates with the writer, but it’s a lot bigger than that. Its potential, once a writer summons it into being, is nearly endless. It’s different for every reader. It’s a living thing.

So let’s recap. Here’s a list of the most important entities associated with literary publishing, in order:

  1. The writing.
  2. The audience who receives the writing.
  3. The author who operated the pen or the keyboard.

Those are the top three—and not that editors and publishers aren’t on the list. Maybe they’d share the fourth spot. But as an editor, I know that these three entities come before all other considerations, and that I am their servant.

It is undeniably true that editors do holy work. They are the clerics who convey the prophecy from the prophet to the people. Without them, the reach of the work is limited; without their discretion and insight, excellence would never be known, past the writer, and worthwhile voices would be lost to a lot of noise. But a problem happens when editors exalt themselves over their vital and necessary work. It happens often enough that nearly every writer has a story.

I have a regular feature here, one I haven’t written in a while, called “Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection.” In that feature, I parse the language of a rejection note so that writers can understand the messages they’re receiving. A rejection is both highly crafted and highly coded, and it’s important to pay close attention to the wording—to understand that a “send again” message is more than a breezy kindness, and to get a feel for how their work was received.

Today, I was kind of blanking on a blog topic, and I asked a large group of my friends for oddball rejections that I could choose from for a Tea Leaves feature. The response was huge and the examples were stunning. It became clear to me that among all of the excellent literary editors who are now operating, there are quite a lot of people operating not with a public servant’s heart, but rather on the engine of pure ego.

Let’s look at some examples—all names removed to protect some stunned writers and some editors who, like all of us, deserve the benefit of the doubt:

  • M. recalls that an editor wrote to him about what poems were supposed to be like—and included a treatise she had written on Anthony Hecht, her paragon of poetic quality. “It was long, too,” he remembers. “A couple of pages and barely about my work except to say it wasn’t real poetry.”
  • T. remembers an editor who felt helpless in regarding his writing. “My weirdest rejection situation came from an editor who stated their main sorrow in life was that they would never have enough time to teach me how to write, even if they set aside their other projects,” he says—and to be clear, T. never asked this editor to teach him anything; he was just wanting a decision on a submission.
  • K. recalls two memorable rejections. “One journal used to use a form letter that was a play on an ‘it’s not you, it’s us’ breakup letter. Literally, it repeated that phrase a few times, which made it feel ironic and not so nice,” he says. “It was trying to be funny and cute, but a funny and cute rejection like that felt kind of disrespectful to me. I haven’t submitted there since.”
  • K.’s other weird rejection was scrawled in pencil on a piece of the journal’s stationery: “Sorry, but no.” Says K., “This was so bad that I have kind of grown to like it. I still have a photo of it somewhere.”
  • S. notes that her poetry was rejected for its “remorseless insistence on free verse.” She admits to being puzzled: “I’m still not sure what I should have felt sorry about.”
  • L. received a weird fiction rejection once that sounded somewhat angry, as she recalls. “They didn’t think the one-sentence overview in the cover letter matched what happened in the story well enough. It was quite strange, and I’ve never submitted to that journal again.” L. hunted and found the correspondence, and she offered this actual quote from the editor’s rejection note: “Hmmm. I always try to be encouraging in my comments about a story, but your’e making it tough to do.”
  • Another L. writes, “I just looked this up so I could get the wording right. I got one a couple of years ago that rejected all of the poems, but noted the one that was least offensive because ‘Despite its personal references, it felt less self-absorbed than some of the others.’ The whole tone and response felt really sexist to me. IDK, sorry for being a woman and connecting to the world around me, I guess?”
  • My friend J. received a similarly dismissive and possibly sexist rejection slip, but while L. can laugh hers off, J.’s unfriendly rejection still works on her. She notes that her rejection “blasted me on writing about the experience of being a mother, and writing from personal experience at all.” She adds, “I’ve never forgotten it, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m still reluctant to send my work out.”

I’m going to interrupt my list here to point out that what J. describes is some of the real damage that can come out of an abuse in an unequal power relationship. Here’s J., new to publishing and sending her work in good faith to an editor, and that editor responds to her by saying that her lived experience is not sufficient to be the stuff of poetry. I’ve had the pleasure of reading J.’s poetry, and I found it to be both insightful and well crafted. Maybe the editor misspoke or was misconstrued. Maybe the editor has a strong preference for poems that avoid domestic topics. But the advice was phrased in a way that wasn’t meant to build J. up or to encourage her to keep trying; instead, it lingers with her as yet another societal voice telling her that women don’t matter, mothers don’t matter—she doesn’t matter. But I know for a fact she does.

The heck of it is, when writers send their work out for possible publication, the very act announces that the work is not intended for workshopping. An editor may have a critique to offer, but submitted work is regarded by the writer as finished work—not work in progress. What a writer is asking for is a decision—yes or no—and, ideally, a home.

Many writers love receiving advice from editors, and these folks should have some unique insights. No one reads more new poems than a literary editor, and few are as adept as saying what works and what doesn’t in a poem. But my strong sense is that if one editor doesn’t like a set of poems, another might—or might not. I just send it on along, while I focus on writing my new work and tracking what’s in the hopper. A rejection is a piece of information. A dozen rejections provide a compelling piece of information. That simple “yes” or “no” is the only information I really need from an editor who has spent a brief time with my work. If an editor shows interest, I’d be very happy to talk about edits or revisions, but barring that, an editor’s opinion is just one person’s idea about the work, and I’d just as soon keep it brief.

J.’s editor, though, went beyond the purview of an editor to comment on … what? J.’s humanity, maybe, and its value? But feedback about the choice of subject matter is just next to useless. I’m not even fully convinced that poets are fully responsible for their choice of subjects. I write what I’m compelled to write, and sometimes that’s motherhood—the most significant experience of my life.

  • Another J., a memoirist, tells me that she was rejected because her piece was just too sad. “It made us want to cry,” the editor told her, explaining that the journal couldn’t publish something that sad. 
  • W. writes that he received a rejection accompanied by a link to a website offering information on basic plot construction.
  • My friend S. writes that she was rejected once because, in the words of the editor, she wasn’t “established” enough. She also notes that she was just recently rejected by the editor of a journal immediately after she had done the same to that editor—a would-be tit-for-tat situation—“And yes,” S. says, “they mentioned that in the rejection letter.”

I file all of these rejection under the category of editors behaving badly. Sometimes they’re behaving cruelly. Sometimes they’re behaving self-importantly. And sometimes they’re behaving ignorantly, with a very narrow view of what poems, essays, or stories are allowed to be.

Editors curate a journal. They work toward a publishing mission that they’re allowed to define, and they get to say no to work that doesn’t fit that mission or doesn’t meet the quality of the work they wish to print. All writers get rejections. I don’t even regard them as particularly negative. Rejecting, in and of itself, is a neutral act.

And incidentally, we read a lot into acceptances, because they’re what we want, and they’re a sign that our writing is going in a good direction, but they’re rather neutral, too. The writing is the thing, and the publishing activity is what happens around the thing. It’s so much nicer when the publishing efforts are successful, but excellent work is rejected every day—and ridiculously bad work is published. Acceptance is no indication that a writer should work less hard.

It kind of sounds like I don’t love or appreciate editors—but I do. I think my own editing work has been the most exhilarating and educational work of my life. I know that I’ve helped and encouraged writers, and I also know that without meaning to, I’ve hurt and discouraged my fair share.

But editors need to be humble, even when they choose to share hard news. I’m not referring to a simple rejection, but rather some element of commentary or critique that they feel compelled to spend precious time communicating to a writer—often this is exactly the information that the writer most needs to hear—they really ought to practice audience awareness. To newer writers, editors represent a voice of authority. That authority should be used with grace and discretion.


I received more editor horror stories than I could easily use in one post—plus lots of full rejection slips that I plan to parse in future installments of my Reading the Tea Leaves of Rejection series. Check back Wednesday for more unusual responses—and on Thursday we’ll turn the tables and discuss editors who are making the literary world a better place with their actions.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #3

Head to the grocery store and buy something new. For me, I think I’d go for one of those whole sugarcanes in the produce section—those great stalks I’m not sure how to break into, but that I know are filled with sweetness. I’ve always considered buying one, just to see what they’re like.

The prompt: Savor the new tastes and texture of your choice—the rip or snap or bend of it, how it feels against tooth or tongue, the sharpness or saltiness or sweetness, whatever about it surprises. Let words come. Let yourself trace it back to its origin. Say you’re sampling an exotic cheese; can you taste the grass the cow ate? Do you smell salt on the wind? Let the food—a gift from the Earth—transport you.

As with all of these conceptual prompts, there is no pressure to write—just to explore and imagine, using food as your guide.

That daily poem is not your symphony

The daily poem is a staple of National Poetry Month. Practically every poet I know is part of an April 30/30 project, cranking out a poem each day, offering and receiving instant feedback, responding to prompts or forging ahead on their own projects.

I often work in projects, and particularly daily projects, throughout the year. It doesn’t have to be April for me to be working on a new poem each day. I have meditation-related projects, where I think intently on a subject and write about it in a discrete poem every day; I also sometimes observe seasons—liturgical, hemispheric … even sports seasons.

It’s a lively way to operate as a writer, and when the theme of the project is constant, it’s one way of going deep the limited time available in a busy life. I like the energy of this kind of challenge, and it’s sort of fun to see the poems pile up. Obviously, some of them are no good, but some have life beyond the challenge, and these seem to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Recently, though, a mentor said something rather thought-provoking to me. We were enjoying a rare in-person visit, and she pulled me aside to tell me, “You know, I don’t really understand this poem-a-day thing. To what point?”

No one had ever really put that question to me before, and it’s rather substantial one—why do you operate the way you do? And while there was an element of real curiosity in my mentor’s question, the gentle critique was there, too. Is a poem the product of an available hour? Or should poetry do something more substantial?

Most of my favorite poems were the product of longer contemplation. Maybe an exception can be found among the Romantics, who took long walks or did copious amounts of drugs and then wrote like the wind, with a draft in a single sitting (or, in the case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” a partial draft, lost when that single sitting was interrupted). But then there’s William Wordsworth, rewriting The Prelude his whole life (when he should have quit while he was ahead).

The contemporary lifestyle doesn’t allow for long, focused contemplation. We have work and family—not always the case for writers through the ages—and we have huge houses (and no staff). What we don’t have is quiet—Xbox or the big game in the next room, playdates and ringing phones, projects after the work day, pets.

There have always been distractions. I’m just not sure we’ve ever known our current level of distraction, or that we’ve ever had quite as much vying for our mental energy.

But what if we did devote more focused attention to a single poem, instead of one a day? What if all of April’s writing activity resulted in only one poem—and not even a long poem, but a fine one, the poem that makes all other poems seem a little less necessary?

What if we cultivated a contemplative spirit instead of a quick one? What if we toyed with the idea of a masterpiece, instead of a lot of minor pieces?

I was talking about this today, and a musical analogy occurred to me. These daily poems play an interesting role in the life of a poet. They keep us limber, and they train us to think like a poet does—a little obsessively, prying beneath the surface of things. They hone our skills, much like finger exercises keep a musician limber.

But where’s my symphony? Or where’s my concerto, at least?

Maybe I’m squandering my poetic life on arpeggios. And maybe for me it’s time to think past the daily poem.


Have you been following my contemplative prompts for National Poetry Month? Visit Better View of the Moon for tips on cultivating a writer's spirit.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

A Writer's Spirit Prompt #2

Poetry, for me, is connection. It is made of breath and observation and words, which are transformed in the gut and brain of the poet, the hottest smelter available for refining meaning. My suggestion today: Pay close attention to some natural thing. (I did this yesterday, and I chose a bright tiger swallowtail farming a lilac blossom. I felt lucky to see something I had names for—more than butterfly or flower.) Today, watch some natural thing—even the rain or snow through your window—and breathe into it. Really observe it. Then grab a pen and see what words suggest themselves. You don’t have to do anything with them; you’re merely the transcriptionist, and your job is to get them down. Maybe later you can make a poem—or not. The point is the watching, not producing.

A Writer's Spirit: The healing waters of Eureka Springs

Where I am: a town with springs, where people once came to heal.

I’m on a writing retreat in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a place I like to come from time to time, and a place I give my partner and he gives back, alternating months, because children are little beauty machines that run on minutes and hours, like noisy parking meters that accept only time.

It’s good to get away—and then it’s good to come home.

I’ve worked hard this trip—not much time for fun—but during a recent visit I went on a popular ghost tour at a grand hotel, the Crescent Hotel. (I didn’t see any ghosts. It seems I am willing to believe in them somewhat more than they are me.)

The tour recounted the hotel’s start as grand resort, with tea dances and coach rides, then as a college and conservatory for women, but most significant to the tour was its stint as a hospital for the desperately ill, starting in 1930.

To shorten a long tale, the person who started the hospital, Norman Baker, a former magician and radio personality, gave cancer patients pseudo-treatments made from watermelon seed, corn silk, and clover. The tour guide recounted how he had patients sign blank pages upon admission, and then his staff wrote letters home on their behalf, touting the patient’s improvement and enjoyment of the stay. Some of these letters were apparently sent after the patient’s death, and the ghost tour culminates in a basement room where bodies were sometimes kept on ice until one last check arrived.

It’s a macabre tale, to be sure, but it’s also documented. Scores of cancer patients were swindled and their lives were shortened through trickery, and Baker, the millionaire pseudo-doctor, was fined $4,000 and imprisoned for his crimes—for four years.

It’s a terrible thing, how some can take a pure good and twist it. Eureka Springs was visited long before European settlement by people looking for real healing. Some say there’s a powerful energy vortex here, and it makes sense, if you believe that kind of thing—something like sixty-three springs in the city limits, crystal-rich mountains all around.

And I’m here. I’m not sick—the body, mind, and spirit keep doing their thing—but sometimes my writing self gets buried; sometimes the ideas roll down like water and I have nothing to catch them with—no vessel, just my hands, shallow as they are.

For me, contemplation and writing are the healing spring. The town of Eureka Springs has several public springs, some passing through stone basins or at the base of rock stairs. Locals have planted gardens and provided benches nearby. Some are quite pretty; one is sheltered by a purple gazebo with twin statues of couchant animals—I’m not sure what, but perhaps lambs?—giving watch.

They’re beautiful, these springs—and I’ve driven by them, glancing their way.

Sometimes that’s my relationship to poetry. There is magic, right there, and I view it through glass, on the move.

But yesterday I stopped to touch it. I stopped at a spring I feel especially drawn to—Sweet Spring, it’s called. Historic photos show it perfectly encircled by stonework, but today it’s a ruin, and it’s better for it. It’s possible to scale down a few rocks and stand in front of the spring, put your hands under the flow—and I did. I let the possibly healing waters move over my fingers, my writing hands, and then I sat in the sun beneath a lilac in bloom and breathed deeply as they dried.

I’m not the first to come here to have something restored. And I came in good faith, like so many before, since before there were records.

I admit I put a kind of trust in this magic—I wanted the cold waters to wake something in me. The trick, I think, is not to let anyone come between you and the magic—no charlatan touting a cure. If you want to be saved, you have to touch the good earth—let it touch you back. That’s the source. That’s what can make you whole.