the writing life

2 posts

Ah, the Writer’s Life!


Reading Denis Johnson’s farewell story collection, Largesse of the Sea Maiden, last night, I came across this paragraph — in the short story “Triumph Over the Grave” (editor’s note: If only!) — about the writer’s life. Well, a fictional writer’s life, but you see what matches and what doesn’t:

“Writing. It’s easy work. The equipment isn’t expensive, and you can pursue this occupation anywhere. You make your own hours, mess around the house in your pajamas, listening to jazz recordings and sipping coffee while another day makes its escape. You don’t have to be high-functioning or even, for the most part, functioning at all. If I could drink liquor without being drunk all the time, I’d certainly drink enough to be drunk half the time, and production wouldn’t suffer. Bouts of poverty come along, anxiety, shocking debt, but nothing lasts forever. I’ve gone from rags to riches and back again, and more than once. Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page, work it into a shape, cast it in a light. It’s not much different, really, from filming a parade of clouds across the sky and calling it a movie — although it has to be admitted that the clouds can descend, take you up, carry you to all kinds of places, some of them terrible, and you don’t get back where you came from for years and years.”


“Writing. It’s easy work.” (See “Irony” in your handbooks.)

Equipment inexpensive, pursue occupation anywhere. (See “True comma that.”)

“You… mess around the house in your pajamas.” (See “If you’re still 12, maybe.”)

“…listening to jazz recordings” (See “Jukebox selections may vary and DO….”)

“…and sipping coffee” (See “Amen!” and “Awomen!” to that!)

“If you could drink liquor without being drunk…” (See “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in the Judy Garland Wing)

“…nothing lasts forever” (See the Buddha nodding sagely — the only way he can.)

“Whatever happens to you, you put it on a page…” (Or squire, or knight… no, just kidding. This is another way of saying “Write what you know,” but you can write what you don’t know just as easily.)

“…clouds can descend, take you up…” (See “Ali comma Baba” in carpeting on the mezzanine.)

I don’t know about you, but I like reading about reading, and I like reading about writing, so a final tip of the hat to Denis. Thanks for the memories, kid. You knew your way around a sentence. A paragraph, too. What more could a writer — or reader — ask for?

Vital Signs for the Impatient Writer


Writers know they are alive by receiving rejections. Those rote e-mails in the inbox are vital signs–reminders of the obvious and the necessary. Receiving them is like focusing on the autonomous functions of your lungs breathing and your heart beating (Yep, all there and all working!)

The trouble is, rejections (peppered with the powerful flavor of acceptances!) come few and far between due to the slow nature of the submissions-process beast. Waiting for replies–acceptances and rejections alike–is like holding your breath and diving in for an underwater swim, back and forth, across an Olympic-sized pool. Air! You need air! But judgments from overtaxed editors of small journals, print and electronic, are like Marco Polo’s voyage to China–long in coming.

One solution, rare as they are to find, is entering a contest where poetry is judged weekly. The best example of this is Rattle‘s “Poets Respond” series, wherein Rattle invites poets to reflect on events in each week’s news by writing and submitting a poem with a deadline of Friday, midnight Pacific Time.

Rejection is uncharacteristically swift. It has to be! Usually it comes within 24 hours of the deadline, as the winning poem goes online by Sunday. And success? Like everything in the writing business, the magic brew will be a combination of luck, talent, and matching the subjective tastes of an editor (the not-so-secret ingredient). But at least you are impatiently alive as a writer and quickly reminded as much!

Weekly opportunities like this can also serve as great discipline. They are like daily warm-ups and exercise that force you to write and flex your creative muscle. You may feel current events make poor fodder for poetry, but remember that connections between the CBS Evening News and your muse can be tangential and even personal (that’s the point!).

For example, consider Joan Colby’s recent winner. She focused on one colorful word used by former FBI director James Comey (“Lordy!”) in his testimony before Congress and came up with this nifty number.

In my submissions travels, I’ve also learned that there are markets that respond in an uncharacteristically quick way compared to the typically 6-12 month crowd. Plume and 32 Poems (each approximately 2 weeks response time) are two examples of these rapid-turnaround rarities.

So go ahead. Submit! Breath! Let your heart race! Acceptances get all the attention, but it is acceptances and rejections alike that prove you are a writer. Honest.