Why Writing is Like Childbirth

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgIf  you’ve ever given birth, you’ve probably heard the old saw that women forget the pain of childbirth. The concept is simple. A new mother forgets because, if she remembered the contractions and the pushing and the panting, she’d never do it again.

What I remember about childbirth is sitting on the edge of my bed chanting to myself, “Don’t forget. Don’t do this again.”

I listened to myself then. I had twins, so that worked out kind of on its own.

I don’t always listen to myself, however. A few years ago, I had the brilliant idea of writing a series of How To posts for this website. One short post per day, for a month, each written the same way – definition, explanation, demonstration – to address a very specific craft element. For 30 days. Did I have 30 craft tips to share? Sure. Could I follow a formula to explain each in a succinct way? Of course. I wrote a few How To posts in advance, as insurance, and announced my 30 Days of How To posts.

On day 20 or so, I sat on the edge of my bed chanting to myself, “Don’t forget. Don’t do this again.” Because writing a blog post 30 days in a row using the same formula is tedious. And I did not count on question and comments, so there was monitoring. I spent those 30 days chained to my desk.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was writing a novel for women, an adventure I had not planned on taking. It started as a short story and grew. I followed the story. During the writing, I immersed myself into novels for and by women, many of which were sitting on my bookcase.

As natural as it may be for a woman to forget the pain of childbirth is the desire for a reader to share what she reads. Hence, Brilliant Idea #2: I would review stories by female authors for this website. I would write mini-reviews, in the same pattern every day: a short synopsis followed by answering the question “Why is this book a good read for women?” I had no trouble finding books to review—all I had to do was turn around and look at my bookcase.

By happenstance, I had this idea on Mardi Gras (day before Ash Wednesday) so I got into gear and made the announcement for 40 Days of Book Praise. No advance planning. No pre-writing of reviews for insurance. I did give myself Sundays off, to regroup, and because I’d learned my lesson from the How To month about putting pressure on myself to perform.

On day 20 or so, I sat on the edge of my bed chanting to myself….

Which brings me today. On Mardi Gras of this year, I made a vow to submit work for the 40 days some people celebrate as Lent. I didn’t do this as penance or for any spiritual reason. I did this because I had fallen off the submission train and I wanted to get back on. With flair. Or a vengeance.

One of the mindset changes in writing a novel, as opposed to writing short works, is separating from submitting. When I wrote short all the time, I submitted all the time. I had a process. Raw draft, rough draft, review by critique group, revise, polish, submit. I could have a new piece ready to go in a month or two. But a novel took years to draft, review, polish. I could not submit it during those years of writing, and while I focused on the novel, I let the short pieces I’d written before linger. My bad. Totally my bad.

Now I am agent hunting for the novel, which is an entirely different type of query. I can’t approach an agent every single day for forty days, so Brilliant Idea #3 meant I could mix querying with submitting short pieces.

Monday was day 20. Guess what I sat on the edge of my bed and chanted to myself?

Submitting is like matchmaking—you have to find the right place for the right piece, and then you negotiate the terms with the yenta/editor (yenitor?) Each submission requires a bio, and because I write different things, I need a different bio for each submission. Selling is part of matchmaking too, so I write a cover letter explaining why this piece and this publication are destined to be together.

And then there are fees. The days of going to the post office with a stack of envelopes and SASEs are over, replaced with nominal (or not so nominal) reading fees. 2 bucks here, 3 bucks there, and now Submittable seems to own my dowry. (But it is far, far better—and cheaper—than the post office.)

The process is exhausting, especially if you do it every single day. Why did I do this to myself again? Didn’t I learn? Won’t I ever learn?

There’s another old saw about childbirth and motherhood: a new mother falls crazy in love with the squalling, smelly, squirmy little thing she pushed out of her body because, if she didn’t fall like a brick, taking care of such a needy creature would be unbearable. The payoff for the pain of childbirth is the baby you love with all your heart.

On Monday, Day 20 of the submission project, in my email came the payoff: a letter of acceptance and a contract.

It made me remember why I keep doing this to myself. I like to be published. I like to teach. I like to support women who happen to be writers. I’m crazy in love with the writing life. Or, maybe I’m just crazy.

So, here is it on the morning of Day 22. I haven’t zeroed in on today’s submission just yet. Will I contact an agent? Will I send out an essay? Will I enter a short story contest? I have until midnight to decide. Only 18 more midnights to go.

Have you ever set yourself up for a challenge that you regretted—or thought you regretted?

Spring Forward with these Events!

Delaware is small, but we have a mighty big and mighty active writing community. Ahead are a few local events scheduled in the coming few weeks.

 First, a reading of Irish poetry:

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 Poets’ Corner Reading Series presents     

James Keegan & Anne Colwell

reading Irish poetry

Saturday, March 18, 2017, 4:00p.m.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 276 S. College Avenue, Newark, DE

Free-will offering.

Co-sponsored by St. Thomas Parish And the University of Delaware Department of English

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Second, a workshop on writing for contests:

DE writers studio

Third, a workshop day for writers and poets:

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WRITES OF SPRING

Poetry and Prose Writing Workshops
at the Judge Morris Estate, White Clay Creek State Park, Newark, Delaware.
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Delaware Division of the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship recipients, author Ramona DeFelice Long and poet Maggie Rowe, will conduct day long workshops on Poetry or Prose.
 Registration includes lunch and snacks.
$15/person. Call for more details and to register. 302-368-6900
This program supported in part by a grant from Delaware Division of Arts.
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Fourth, a free workshop at a public library:

Liz DeJesus

Writers and Poets Workshop Day

with Liz DeJesus

Are you a poet, a writer or would like to be one? Successful authors and poets share their experiences through stories, techniques and tips for crafting, marketing and problem solving along our creative paths.

Saturday, April 1 at 1:00-4:00 p.m.

Bear Library, 101 Governors Place, Bear, DE –  Meeting Room 1 A&B

Registration is FREE! To register call 302-838-3300

And fifth, a spoken word festival:

Stands Alone

I hope you will check out one of these offerings. A lively artist community depends on participation.

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Living in the Active Voice

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgLast night, after several months of absences, I attended the Open Mic offered by my town’s arts alliance. I did not read. I don’t always have short pieces to share, but that’s okay, because listeners are as welcomed as participants. Readers shared poetry and spoken word, short prose pieces, some novel excerpts, a music duo, and a haiku plus bongos performance. You never know what will happen at an Open Mic, and that’s the fun of it.

In my day job as an editor/instructor, I advise writers all the time to use the active voice. This is not a rule. The passive voice is often appropriate, but for the crime writers I work with, active works better than passive. This applies to character as well as writing style. An active protagonist drives a plot. A character who is pro-active is more engaging that one who is reactive.

Active characters make things happen. The active voice is more direct and lively. These are standards about writing and not really news.

So why am I writing about what’s not news?

Because of the Open Mic. And the vow I made last week to submit one piece of work every day, for 40 days. (This is Day 8. I’m 7 for 7, and have until midnight to be 8 for 8.)

Since my announcement last week about my submissions vow, three other writers have contacted me to say they have been submitting regularly, too. One received an immediate acceptance! This reinforces my vow to keep up the daily work of putting my writing out there for review.

And it is work. My goal was to get myself in gear again, but I also wanted to resurrect some pretty good pieces of writing that have been languishing in the virtual drawer. Some were never quite finished to my liking. Some were rejected a couple of times and needed review. Making a public vow to submit meant making the private promise to polish. After the polish, there’s the hunt for the proper market, and once that is defined, the cover letter and bio. I seem to write a new bio every day. It is, to be honest, a drag. But, it’s part of the gig. No one ever said the gig was 100% fun, or easy.

There’s also the rejection factor. 40 days of submissions means the possibility of 40 rejections. Just because I’ve been published and received fellowships and awards, does this mean I am no longer bummed by a rejection? No. Every rejection is a blow, but the counteraction to the blow is to hit back with another submission. The other option, to put the work back into the drawer, to be passive, means there is NO chance at all to be accepted.

Action.  Reaction. Counteraction. Submitting is a lot like living in a thriller novel. If you stop moving, the bad guys will surely get you. If you keep moving, your chances of survival grow stronger.

Even if every single submission of my 40 days is rejected, well, there are 325 other days this year, too.

It’s easy to become lazy or complacent. It’s easy to put aside a story when it becomes frustrating. Passive is easier than active. But passive also means missing out. It was raining last night, and I was tempted to skip the Open Mic, but I didn’t. I was tired yesterday and I was tempted not to submit, but I did. Today, I could have blown off writing this blog post, but I was charged up by the Open Mic and the news that a friend had taken my challenge and had a piece of writing accepted for publication.

That is life in the active voice. Getting your work out there. Making things happen.

But, as I noted above, there are times when the passive voice is appropriate, both in writing and in life. From time to time, it’s good to kick back and listen to the words and music from other artists who are brave enough to stand up before a crowd and share what’s in their hearts. It’s helpful to absorb the energy, to participate without being the one on stage. Every artist needs an audience, after all.

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A Submission a Day x 40

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI am writing this on Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the day in my childhood that meant spending all day wearing a princess costume and scrapping like a prize fighter for cheap throws at a parade.

Good times, those were.

The next day began Lent, the 40 days of reflection and sacrifice that, for me as a child, meant no chocolate until the Easter Bunny came. After six weeks of deprivation, I was so desperate for a hit, I chomped the ears off an innocent rabbit while it was still warm from my Easter basket.

I’ve moved away from places that have carnival though I still wear three strings of beads (purple, green, gold) on Mardi Gras day. And while I no longer observe Lent in the traditional give-up-something way, old habits are hard to break. I still do some kind of reflection, and sometimes I do a project, like 40 Days of Book Praise. That was fun

I’ve decided I’m not crazy about deprivation but I can get behind action. So, for the next 40 days, I am going to act on an area of my writing life I have neglected: submitting.

My vow for the next 40 days is to submit one piece of writing, or send a query, or fill out a writing-related app, per day. I have a backlog of pieces waiting for a home, and I need to supercharge my efforts so my little writing orphans can make it out into the world.

One submissiony thing a day. For 40 days. I’ll be so busy submitting, I won’t even worry about the chances of rejection.

What is your take? Is sacrifice or action your kind of thing? Or a combination?  And who wants to join me in doing 1 writing thing – your choice – per day, for the next 40 days?

 

 

 

Lessons from My Father

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgI could write for a hundred years, fill up every blank journal on my bookcase, and never run out of material about my family. And, probably, so could many of you.

The last few days, I have been sifting through memories of my father, who passed away suddenly last week. As I process his loss, I am also considering his legacy. I won’t get overly personal, but I want to share three lessons that guide me in business, and in life in general.

My father was not a writer, but like many writers I know, he had a day job in the oil industry that paid the bills, plus a second job in the family cattle business that was his true calling. He was hard-working and responsible in both, and when I took the leap into professional editing, his work and personal ethics gave me guidance.

Lesson #1 – Be professional.

Daddy loved his cows. He fed his Heifers, checked on them daily, and kept them healthy. He planted new grass in a fenced off field and waited until Christmas Day to let them feed on it, as a holiday present. He stayed up all night when a cow was calving. When he lost a herd in a flood during a hurricane, he was devastated. If our house got too noisy, he’d go off for some peace and quiet with his cattle. When he was sad or worried, he went to his pasture because “sometimes a man just needs to talk to a cow.”

But raising livestock was not a game, and when the time came, he loaded the cows into a trailer and off they went to the slaughterhouse. It wasn’t personal, it was business.

How is this a lesson for me? When I review a manuscript, I must put aside my personal feelings and remember that this writer—maybe a friend, maybe a stranger–is paying for  honesty and help, not sweet compliments or hand-holding. The author-editor relationship is a business arrangement between two professionals, and the only way it works is to keep it that way.

Lesson #2 –  Be a good boss.

Daddy’s first job was at a small town movie house called the Joy Theater. He was 12. When he was older, he was lied about his age and got a job as a roustabout on an oil rig. He worked in the oil industry for decades, finally as a workover supervisor. At his funeral, so many men introduced themselves as former oilmen, and I remember at least half a dozen said Daddy was the best boss they’d ever had. “He was tough but he was fair,” one man told me, with tears in his eyes. When your passing makes a former roustabout cry, you know you left a strong impression.

I am my own boss, so managing time and juggling jobs falls to me. If I can’t find balance in my home life and my professional life, both will suffer, and I’ll be a bad boss to myself. Sometimes it’s tough to say no to someone who asks for a too-fast turnover, but I have to be fair—to the work and to myself—so that the job is done well.

Lesson #3 – Make your deadlines.

Daddy was impressed when I started my own business, but I’m not sure he ever quite knew what it was—exactly—that I did. “You read books and people pay you?” he asked once, somewhat incredulously, and I answered, “Something like that.” He might not have understood the ins and outs of professional editing, but he got the gist: people sent me projects, I did them, and the people paid me. Every phone call, he wanted to know if I had jobs lined up. He was most happy when I told him I had projects queued for 6 or 9 or 12 months ahead.

One thing about my job never baffled him. When I reported that I’d stayed up late or missed an outing because I had a deadline, he didn’t say, “Poor you.” My father was early to every appointment and he always got work done on time. He never let his cows go hungry because he fiddled around instead of feeding them. He didn’t force a crew into overtime because the project  plan was sloppy. Being late was not an option for him, and it can’t be an option for me. When work is due, I get it there–on time.

I could tell you many other things about my father, but those are personal. Bits and pieces of him have always appeared in my stories, and that won’t change or be lost. He may be gone, but his legacy runs through me and my siblings, our cousins, and many friends. I hope you’ll find these lessons good guidance along your own path, whatever it may be.

From him to me, and now from me to you:

  1. Be professional.
  2. Be a good boss.
  3. Make your deadlines.

And, as lagniappe, a picture from his cattle pasture, because sometimes a person just needs to look at a cow.

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Humanities Are US

What are the humanities?

The humanities are language, literature, law, history, archeology, religion, ethics, art, heritage, traditions. The humanities make us feeling, thinking, creative, caring, compassionate human beings. Without the humanities, we become soulless creatures without a past or future.

The National Endowment for the Humanities is the government agency that spearheads projects to preserve and explore our national heritage.

Have you seen Ken Burns’ documentaries on The Civil War, Prohibition, the Roosevelts. Huey Long, the Dust Bowl, the National Parks, Baseball? Of his body of work so far–27 documentaries–15 have been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Do you know the Library of America, with support from the NEH, focuses on a writer of the week? This week’s writer is Ursula LeGuin.

Did you realize the NEH, since its inception 50 years ago, has published 7,000 books and, through its Chronicling America Project, catalogued and preserved over 63 million pages of historic newspapers?

This is the NEH’s mission statement:

Because democracy demands wisdom, NEH serves and strengthens our republic by promoting excellence in the humanities and conveying the lessons of history to all Americans. The Endowment accomplishes this mission by awarding grants for top-rated proposals examined by panels of independent, external reviewers. NEH grants typically go to cultural institutions, such as museums, archives, libraries, colleges, universities, public television, and radio stations, and to individual scholars.

“Because democracy demands wisdom”- can anyone argue with this statement?

The NEH needs support to continue its work to preserve America’s history. Please contact your legislators to express your appreciation for the NEH, and grab a poster below.

 

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I Heart the Arts

At the end of 2016, after the deaths of two writing colleagues, I wrote this:

Countries fall. Empires crumble. Buildings tumble down, and monuments wear away. People come, they go, they die. Only stories and dance and music and drama—only ART—remains in the world forever. Art is not required to be embodied by a physical thing. As long as we can move, sing, speak, act, and remember, we can pass along who we were, who we are, who we hope to be. Art is the ephemera that will last forever.

Art matters. Unfortunately, from time to time, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities come under attack for….well, simply existing. It is rumored that these agencies are about to be attacked again.

Today I will write about the NEA. Tomorrow, I will write about the NEH.

As an artist who has benefited from grant programming, of course I want to show my support and explain why arts, culture, and history matter to the world. I also run an arts-based business, so I have a very engaged and practical dog in this fight: I want to protect my livelihood. I want to save my job. Agencies like the Delaware Division of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts provide opportunities for artists and mentor the growth of young and emerging artists.

Here is the mission statement of the National Endowment for the Arts:

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency whose funding and support gives Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities. Through partnerships with state arts agencies, local leaders, other federal agencies, and the philanthropic sector, the NEA supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America.

And to learn about its history:

On September 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act, creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. To celebrate the agency’s 50th anniversary, we created this web section to highlight how the NEA has helped nurture the arts in the country and made it accessible to all Americans.

My own arts story is shared on the United States of Arts map. The red poster on my About page was created by the NEA to promote its 50th Anniversary celebration.

Please join me in supporting the National Endowment for the Arts. Contact your elected officials to let them know that art, history, and culture matter to you.

Yesterday, I went on a poster-making binge. If you’d like to save and share any of these posters to make your support public, please do:

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