The Six-Minute Rejection

One of my all-time favorite rejection stories to tell isn’t mine. A friend of mine who is a well-published writer (in multiple genres), holder of a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, and professor, shared the most amazing rejection story on her blog a couple of years ago.

I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, she sent a story to an editor and six minutes later, she received a rejection email.

Fastest rejection in the East! Whoa, put the brakes on! Six minutes?!

That was my initial reaction. I told my Advanced Comp students about her experience and they were duly flabbergasted as well, but it allowed us to delve into why she (or anyone) would receive such a fast rejection response.

Knowing my friend and her writing, I know this piece was probably stellar and brilliant and creative and well-executed and polished, so it certainly isn’t that it was poorly written. Perhaps something was off in the story, or perhaps the editor just didn’t like it (and that’s okay!). Or perhaps it wasn’t a good fit, or didn’t fit that editor’s idea of the next issue at the moment.

The piece was short, so she rationalized that it probably only took the editor five minutes to read the entire thing.

But still.

Ouch.

That hurts just thinking about it.

And then I got my own version of the six-minute rejection. I sent a piece last year to an editor and about an hour later, it was rejected. However, I looked at that quick response as a blessing. My friend’s story and my essay were not wrangled up in an editorial limbo or stuck, unread, in someone’s inbox for two, three, six months. It was fast, yes, but it was also merciful.

I prefer editors who respond quickly when they know right away they don’t want my work. I’m fine with their judgment and confident decision-making and you should be, too. Consider yourself fortunate if you get rejected quickly. Because to wait three or more months only to be rejected is time wasted – time you could have been revising it or submitting that piece elsewhere.

The next time you get a speedy rejection, rejoice! And send that baby out again. :)

Midweek Writing Prompt: Letter to an Inanimate Object (9/10/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Letter to an Inanimate Object

Time to have some fun and stretch those imaginations! My students and workshop participants always end up loving this prompt, but often give me the same look you’re shooting at the screen right now. Trust me and go with it. :)

Think about all of the inanimate objects in your life. All of the things that you use on a daily basis. If I came to your house or place of work and told you that you can only keep ONE of those items for a whole week and everything else would be taken away, which item can you not live without?

Got it? Good.

Now, write a love letter to that inanimate object and make it sincere, convincing, and heartfelt with plenty of specific details and shared memories.

You will LOVE the result.

(And as a side note, one of my students developed her prompt response into a full-length creative nonfiction story that was accepted for publication. These prompts really do work! Now get to it.)

:)

 

 

The value of contemplation

When’s the last time you sat down somewhere and just thought? No distractions, no smart phone, no computer, no kids, no pets, no TV, no music, just you sitting in a space somewhere thinking?

There is great value in such moments and it is worth making an effort to claim that space and time for yourself.

Moments of contemplation allow your mind to calm, slow down, meander. And in that meandering, without you pushing it, your mind will start making connections, start creating images and ideas, and might even provide an answer for a question that’s been bugging you for awhile.

I hear the excuses flying at me: But I have no time! I’ve got kids! I work all the time! I’m too busy!

Bullshit,

You’re too busy to carve out a few moments of solitude and contemplation because you choose not to. Having a family is both a choice and an obligation, but you are not shackled to them or their every need. Having a demanding career is likewise a choice and you are not shackled to that either. If writing is really important to you, if it is the thing that you must do, then you will find a way to make the time.

Lots of my friends and colleagues have families, demanding jobs, and time-consuming responsibilities. And the ones who consider themselves writers? They find a way to make the time. Even if it’s just fifteen minutes a week. They pay themselves with time first and they find a way.

If you are truly serious about being a writer, you’ll find a way, too.

Making the argument

In the Spring 2011 issue of the bible of creative nonfiction, the journal Creative Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate explores whether the essay is “exploration or argument,” ultimately deciding that the best creative nonfiction essays do, in fact, make an argument, even if implicitly. And he says that teachers of creative nonfiction are at a disadvantage in one distinct way: “The creative writing teacher, whose authority extends from being a practitioner of the form, is not a trained rhetorician” (58).

Ah-HA!

Not so, Phillip Locate. For I AM a trained rhetorician. No wonder I have no problem teaching my Advanced Comp students that their creative nonfiction pieces MUST have a point, MUST persuade in some small way, MUST make an argument of some kind.

I feel quite good knowing that I have an advantage in this arena, for I am both trained rhetorician AND professional, published writer (in addition to teaching College Composition, which is all about argument and research). Hooray! (Of course, all of this know-how has zero effect on my ability to get stuff published quickly…I have to run the same marathons as you, trust me.)

So I need to put on my rhetorician hat here for a moment and share a few tips on making an argument in a creative nonfiction essay.

 1. Once you settle on an idea, ask yourself why you want to write about it. The answer to that question (unless it is a banal ‘because I want to’ or ‘because it’s interesting to me’) will likely provide a skeletal framework for your argument that will be cleverly and creatively embedded in the piece.

2. In creative nonfiction, you don’t really want to bash the reader over the head with your point or opinion or argument. You must use language, scenes, details, dialogue, description, structure, anecdotes, and moments of reflection to do that work for you. Subtlety can be just as persuasive as the invisible bat to the head. There should be no point at which you editorialize or moralize (‘the reason I’m writing this is because’ or some form of ‘the moral of the story’ or ‘what I learned was’…just don’t do it), but rather gently persuade through the hypnotic pulse of your sentences and structure. In this case, the whole really is the sum of its parts. Get the reader on your side – no one likes to be preached at.

3. Here’s a simplified rhetoric lesson. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Think about what persuades you. When you read an opinion editorial, do you ever think, ‘huh, never thought about it like that before.’ Gotcha! You’ve been persuaded. The piece made you think and feel something. Now, to make that work in a creative piece, think about the purpose of the essay you’re writing and the one single scene that you can include to show the import of your purpose. You’ll probably end up with more than one scene, but nobody likes to be overwhelmed, so start with one. You can build from there.

Say you want to tell the story of your dad’s abuse and how you have started to heal physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Your recovery is important because you finally feel like you are becoming your true self, out from under the weight of this experience and knowledge. The argument is that it IS possible to move past such a trauma. The story should demonstrate that abuse is dangerous and damaging and anyone reading the story should take solace that a) they are not alone and b) it IS possible to feel whole and human again.

Let’s start there.

What scene would be most important to include? Perhaps the moment you stood up for yourself and fought back. Okay. Write that scene. Now go back and think again about your purpose and argument.

Build on what you started with…what other scene might be important to include for variety and perspective? How about a moment from way back – your childhood. A moment where you were treated abominably to show the longevity and history of this abuse. Check. Write that scene.

Now your piece is getting pretty long, but you need another scene to round it out – you don’t want your story to be two-dimensional. No one is ever persuaded by two-dimensional arguments. You must address the counterpoint…your dad’s perspective.

So you pick a scene that balances the impression that you’ve given thus far that he is a two-dimensional monster…now he becomes human. It’s not important that you show readers that you have forgiven him – you may not have and this isn’t his story. This is YOUR story, so the focus should remain on YOU.

You may decide after writing these three scenes, revising, re-ordering, and polishing that they will stand alone without any explanation – the scenes make the argument. Or you may decide to play with the pieces and the structure and experiment with presentation. Whatever you decide, the underlying argument is clear because you thought about your purpose in advance, which provided a structure and guideline for your decisions.

Remember to have a purpose when writing – it will strengthen your story and improve audience (and editor!) reactions.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Family Interview (9/3/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Family interview

This prompt is a little more involved, but might produce some great stories and ideas.

Locate your oldest and most lucid living family member. Call or visit that person this week and interview him or her about your family’s history. Dig deep and ask the tough questions. If there is something that no one talks about, but everyone is aware of, ask about that. Try to get your relative to spill the details. (Years ago, one of my students discovered through this exercise that she had a relative in the Klan.) If you know of no such juicy story, then focus on finding out what life was like for this person when he or she was young. What were the circumstances leading up to this person’s courtship and marriage? What were the challenges in the family early on for him or her? Use your imagination and come up with a list of questions that reflect what YOU really want to know. I suggest offering to buy coffee or lunch as well.

At the very least, you’ll learn some new information about your family, have a delightful conversation with a person you likely don’t spend a lot of time with, and may come away inspired to write something. You’ll be happy you did this! :)

 

 

Writing is labor

When we think of labor, we often think about unions and steamfitters and autoworkers and construction crews. What about writers?

Writing is labor, too.

Sitting down to write an essay or fiction story or poem or annual report or academic grant may not require you to wear steel-toed boots and get your hands dirty, but there are many forms of labor.

Writing is intellectual labor. Paying attention to your world, tapping into your experiences and memories, researching an unfamiliar culture or practice, thinking about how this sentence can be turned and changed and altered until it sounds like the sweetest tuning fork – that is labor.

Writing is emotional labor. Crafting a story or essay about a personal experience requires feeling that moment all over again, tears and anger and laughter and all. Writing can be cathartic, but the emotions drawn up from the deep well often set us back, makes us think and reconsider, and might even prevent the words from coming to the surface.

Writing is imaginative labor. Imagining a place or a person that doesn’t exist requires a great deal of creativity. Imagining that place or person that doesn’t exist and being able to render that place and person as realistic is an even greater feat. Our imaginations work hard to re-create scenes from the past where the details are now fuzzy – we must imagine them into clarity while being honest and truthful in their representation. We imagine ideas coming to life in tactile form, spinning out of our brains and through our fingertips onto the page or screen. We imagine. And it is exhausting and exhilarating and time-consuming.

And unlike these other, more tangible and visible, forms of labor? Writing is labor that never, ever stops. We don’t work from 6 – 2 or 9 – 5 five days a week. We writers mull ideas over as we watch mindless reality TV, gaze at the garden with a cup of coffee cooling in our hands, and sit in traffic on the way to work. A writer’s mind never stops, never shuts off, never quiets. It is always seeking, thinking, searching, connecting.

That is the beauty and curse of being a writer. Our labor is a 24/7 operation, but we thrive on those flashes of insight that come from the constant hum of ideas rolling around in our imaginations as they collide with daily experiences seen and observed. We love that moment of startling clarity when we know just the right words to use in that scene or ending.

Writers labor, and deserve to be paid for this labor that brings the world fresh stories, new ideas, and original insights.

Taming the grammar beast

Writers and academics and linguists and regular folks argue incessantly about grammar – what IS proper grammar? Is it really necessary to follow stringent “standard American English” grammatical rules when writing? The myriad answers you receive to these questions can be frustrating, daunting, and confusing. Because there is no one answer.

Here’s my take on grammar for anyone who wants to be a published writer:

Make sure your sentences are clear and clean. No typos, no misspelled words, appropriate punctuation for your purpose.

But HAVE a purpose. When considering how a character in your story should sound, or how a particular passage should visually look on the page, think about what you want to accomplish and why. Why should that character sound like a caricature of Paula Deen? Is that really necessary? Why does this person speak only in slang? Why did you not use any commas or periods? What effect were you going for by using no paragraph breaks, no conjunctions, and no apostrophes? If there is no good reason for the choices that you make in your writing, then default to what most people would consider “proper” grammar.

The important thing is to create clear prose. Clarity = good writing. And there’s no getting around that. If it isn’t clear, your reader will not understand what your story is about, and you will lose an editor’s attention faster than a yellow jacket fleeing poison spray.

Consider your audience and compose for them. Beyond that, I suggest ignoring the hundreds of opinions on the issue. Write, write clearly, and write for a specific audience. Don’t let the grammar beast block your path.

Midweek Writing Prompt: Landscape Memory (8/27/14)

In my classrooms and workshops, I strive to create safe, welcoming writing communities where individuals feel free to explore ideas, stories, and concepts without judgment. After all, we need those spaces to get started. The judgment – of editors, professors, critical friends – will come later. But in the beginning, we need that soft, friendly embrace where anything is possible and everyone loves you. Let’s go there together.

When my schedule allows, I will post writing prompts for you to play with. I encourage you to write something and to share those initial efforts in the comment section, or even your response to the prompt – tell us what happened when you sat down to write. After all, some of these prompts will lead you down a path toward publication – I’ve seen that happen often enough to be confident in that statement.

Give it a try! :)


 

Writing Prompt: Landscape Memory

Think about a place in your life where you experienced some kind of hurt, whether it was physical or psychological or emotional. The place where this hurt occurred holds powerful stories of your experience. You may need to close your eyes and really meditate on what this place looked like, sounded like, smelled like, felt like. Allow yourself to fully feel all of the sensations, and once your mind is overloaded with sensory details, start writing. It doesn’t matter how you begin or where in the space or moment you start, all the matters is that you start writing. Write until all of the sensory details and actions and conversations and landscape descriptions are down.

Now save it and step away. Don’t read what you just wrote right away. Talk a walk. Fix yourself a cup of coffee. Go outside and breathe in the fresh air. You have just relived a landscape memory and you may still feel the effects. New ideas may sprout out of this foundation, or perhaps just expanded ideas based on what you just wrote. When you are ready and feel suitably refreshed, return to your words and read what you wrote.

See what happens. You might be surprised.

 

 

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