Once Bitten Twice Sigh: Dealing with Rejection

I’m taking a leaf out of Beetleypete’s book and reblogging a few golden oldies as it’s holiday time and I’m basically Not At My Desk Very Much.  Here’s one from a while back.

*Sigh*.  Another day, another rejection – this time in the form of a competition shortlist which unaccountably did not have my name on it.  It’s very hard to keep going during these times: you feel a blow to the stomach like a sucker-punch which takes all the air out of your lungs.  You start to feel a bit sick: then the inevitable thoughts come in.  Why did I think that story was any good?  Of course they didn’t choose it!  What makes you think you’ll make a writer?  And so on.  But along with that there’s a stony stubbornness which won’t let me stop: and that’s a good thing – but right now it doesn’t feel good.  Right now that stubbornness feels like your doom.  It seems there’s no escape from your own nature – or fate, or whatever it is – and you start to feel like Sisyphus, condemned to push a rock up a mountain only to see it roll to the bottom.  Every time.

Maybe I should write a story about that….

Because yes, in the end that is the only response; to turn your experiences into art.  And thankfully nowadays the sucker-punch doesn’t last too long: I bounce back from it relatively quickly.  But it’s very hard to find a place in a world which doesn’t seem to have any time for your work.  My problem with stories is, I think, that they don’t have a strong plot.  I’m not good with strong plots: my strengths lie in ideas and characters; moments in a life.  Although I have had some success with surreal plots, such as Mem Mat, the one about the memory mattress which stores your actual memories.  I have also – as is only fair – had some success with writing about trans issues: first with the Mslexia blog and before that, a story called DIVORK where a woman thinks her husband is having an affair because of a lip-print on a glass, only to discover that the lipstick is his.

As far as poetry goes I think my problem is that I write a lot of rhyming verse and there seems to be a mindset that serious poets write free verse.  Hence I’ve had more success with comic verse.  Interestingly this mirrors the process when I began to write: unable at first to take myself seriously as a poet, I started with parodies and comic rhymes, assuming like everyone else that the serious poet did not rhyme (or only sporadically) and that therefore I was not a Serious Poet.  It took a long while for me to be persuaded otherwise – and now it seems to be taking a long while for publishers to be persuaded, too.

*Sigh!*

So here’s the rub: do you carry on doing what you do even though no-one seems to like it, or do you try to alter what you do to fit in?

Answers below please…

Kirk out

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Enabler or Gatekeeper? Choosing a Good Writing Course

Sometimes it seems that people who run writing courses are more like bouncers than ushers, taking your money and keeping you out of the club whilst claiming to ‘show you the way in’*. Some courses seem to promise much but leave you with little more than an overwhelming impression of how hard it all is.

(*this reminds me of an idea I once had. I used to suffer a lot from spam emails so I devised a special place in hell for spammers where every day someone comes along claiming to show them the way out of hell. They are compelled to believe these people but every one of them is a scammer.)

I don’t entirely blame them; it’s hard to make money from writing alone and you gotta do something. On the other hand if all you’re doing is taking people’s money and telling them how impossible it is to get where you are, that’s called ‘pulling the ladder up behind you’ and you’re doing them a disservice.

I do run the odd poetry workshop in which I try to help people release their creativity; however I don’t offer workshops oriented at success. This is for two reasons – 1, not having been ‘successful’ to any great degree myself, why would anyone take me seriously? and 2, it’s not what I’m good at (see point 1). What I’d like to do is offer more workshops on releasing and exploring creativity. But do people want that? I have a horrible suspicion that I’d give them my best stuff and then a voice would pipe up saying plaintively ‘this is all very well, but can you tell us how to get published?’ Such is the society we live in.

So here’s my advice when choosing writing courses:

1.Look for as many free courses as you can find. Free doesn’t necessarily mean worthless and you may pick up some valuable stuff as well as making contacts.

2. If you’re being asked to shell out money, check out the profile of the person organising it. If they’re offering a route to success but haven’t achieved much themselves, does that add up?

3. Does the course seem to offer a lot? Might it be offering too much? Check out user reviews from previous courses.

4. Is this what you really need right now? Call me arrogant but in terms of finding my voice I’ve always thought I was my own best teacher. There’s no substitute for reading as widely as possible and just writing as much as you can. No amount of courses can compensate for the lack of a writing habit. Equally, if you’re not at the publishing stage yet you don’t need a course on how to get an agent.

If you’re unsure what’s out there I recommend signing up to writers’ groups and websites. The Insecure Writers Support Group has a presence on Facebook and Writers Write gives daily writing prompts as well as running courses. You can also subscribe to the email lists of publishers and magazines without having to buy anything (I subscribe to the newsletters of Room magazine, the Royal Society of Literature – which produces the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook – and other local literary fora.) These will tell you of upcoming competitions and submission opportunities. And if you’re a woman there’s no better magazine to subscribe to than Mslexia: as well as offering opportunities within the magazine there are comprehensive listings in the back. I’m also subscribed to Granta magazine, if it ever arrives…but that’s more for reading than submitting to.

It’s amazing what you can get for free, but whatever course you go on there’s no substitute for a good writing habit.

Now, apropos of which, here’s my upcoming course on ‘Developing a Good Writing Habit.’

LOL. Though actually I could totally do that…

Kirk out

The Four Stages of Creativity

My copy of Mslexia magazine arrived today, another issue in which I have unaccountably failed to appear. I haven’t been entirely unsuccessful with them; a couple of years ago they published a poem of mine and a year before that I was their guest blogger on the theme of gender issues, so I thought I had a good chance with this issue as the theme was ‘Clothes’ and I had a short story and two poems on exactly that theme all raring to go out into the world and seek their fortune. Sadly in their infinite wisdom Mslexia declined to publish. Hey ho.

But it set me thinking about the different stages of writing, particularly writing short stories. These stages are analogous to growing veg: the first, the seed stage, is the idea. It may be a wild one, blown on the winds and self-seeded in rough soil, or it may be deliberately planted from a packet. At this stage you have an image of how it may turn out but whether or not it does what it says on the tin remains to be seen. Out of this idea comes a rough draft like a pair of leaves poking through the soil and at this stage it’s very hard to see what the story will become. But when it grows a little more, when the leaves assume distinctive shapes and the stem grows tall or winds in spirals or becomes short and stout, you begin to discern the shape. Aha! You think, I know just what to do with you! This leads on to the lengthiest stage of all, the editing, the rewriting, the pruning and weeding and feeding, until the plant reaches its full height after which, eventually, it will begin to bear fruit. At this stage the work is sent out into the big wide world with a hanky on a stick to seek its fortune.

Just as with gardening, the goal is to have pieces of work at each stage; ideas, drafts, stories in progress and work ready to send off. Writing’s just gardening really, when you think about it. Makes me feel like Peter Sellers in Being There.

Kirk out

The Blandest Thing on the Menu

What am I doing at the moment? I’m glad you asked. I’m rewriting a story I first wrote years ago for Woman’s Weekly magazine. Why? Because women’s magazines pay squoodles of dosh for a story and I thought it was worth a bash. I had several bashes at it in fact and I did ‘study’ the magazine as you’re supposed to before submitting, the conclusions of my study being that I should make the story as bland as possible. Now, things have moved on since then and it may be that Woman’s Weekly is as raunchy these days as Cosmo once was, but in those days the stories were so gentle as to be practically soporific. Well, I gave it my best shot (of valium)and when one story was rejected I wrote another, even blander one. Of course there’s no way of knowing why a story has been rejected so I might have been completely on the wrong track, but I couldn’t help thinking of Goodness Gracious Me and the guys who get hammered and ‘go for an English.’

I guess blandness isn’t in my nature… but it can be problematic to find out what is in your nature and other people’s guidelines are a very blunt instrument for doing so; sometimes they help and sometimes they don’t. If I’m feeling secure, I just sweep the unhelpful ones aside. But today I discovered Colm Toibin’s rules for writing and they made me feel thoroughly inadequate. He suggests writing all day with a short break for lunch and then another for the news, then writing until bedtime. No sex, alcohol or drugs while writing (yes, I agree with that) but not much of anything else either. I know I can’t work like that, and I ended up feeling quite inadequate. ‘I’m not doing enough! I’m not dedicated enough!’ And underneath it all the sly whisper of conditioning, is this because I’m a not a man? Am I actually the blandest thing on the menu?

But what’s missing here is context. From the tone of these rules I suspect that he wrote them for himself rather than for others; I also suspect that he has periods of writing and periods of rest as no-one could keep up such a schedule 24/7/365. In any case other writers’ rules are very hit-and-miss, and when they miss we should give them a wide berth.

Kirk out

Loss, Magma, Rejection…

I have just submitted three poems to Magma for their latest issue on the theme of loss.  At first I thought I didn’t have anything suitable but then I had a flip through and found poems on climate change, Brexit and stillbirth, all of which fit the theme.  I strongly suspect they won’t publish as Magma and I seem to inhabit different poetic universes, but hey – submitting is free, so what have I got to lose?  Only my confidence and sense of self-worth…

A propos of this, I’m in the midst of writing a poem on surviving rejection which considers now-famous works which were previously rejected.  I’ve blogged about this before so I won’t bore you with the details, but T S Eliot’s comment about Orwell’s Animal Farm, ‘you just need better-behaved pigs and all will be well,’ is a classic.  I’m still in the midst of considering Leavis (and wondering why I bother) so I’ll update you on that as and when.  In the meantime the novel progresses by fits and starts, but I’ve managed 7000 words of the final chapter, leaving only 28,000 to go, which means I’m a fifth of the way through that chapter and about two-thirds of the way through the novel as a whole.  Not too shabby.

Kirk out

 

Where Was I Again?

Every day along with my daily writing prompts I get interesting or inspirational quotes from established writers.  Sometimes these are good, sometimes they’re predictable and some days they just Do Not Compute.  Take today’s, from A S Byatt:

‘Don’t start writing until you know where you’re going.’ 

Immediately I thought, ‘well, that wouldn’t work for me at all because I never know where I’m going; not until I get there, and sometimes not even then.’  Some of the best stuff I’ve done has been written completely cluelessly with no plan, no concept and no destination.  If I’d planned a novel and knew each chapter in detail I’d be so bored I wouldn’t want to write the damned thing at all.  I can have a vague idea but the thing has to unfold for me just as it does for the reader.

Not that I don’t wish it otherwise.  Sometimes I’d give my eye teeth to have a plot idea I could send off to a publisher, like: ‘A Bulgarian milkman moves to Germany after unification and discovers that his father was a war criminal.’  That sort of thing.  Instead of which, what have I got?  ‘I’m writing a novel based on the Fibonacci sequence and the concept of spirals.’  What?  What?  So what happens?  ‘Well, I don’t know yet.  There’s a lot of stuff about Brexit – but I won’t know what happens until it’s finished.  Maybe not even then…’  It’s hardly the stuff that gets three-figure advances….

The thing is, most people start with a plot.  They sketch it out, then in come some characters and start interacting.  A setting suggests itself; then some dialogue.  Finally, if at all, comes the philosophy.  But me?  I get it completely backwards: first the philosophical concept, then the characters and setting and finally – if at all – the plot.  Such as it is.

*Sigh*

Mind you, I thought I’d come up with a brilliant plot the other day.  I rushed in to tell OH about it:

‘How’s this for a short story idea?  You have some women who do exactly what men want, who flatter them and obey their every whim – and in the end they turn out to be robots.’  As I was outlining this the smile on OH’s face was becoming more and more fixed.  ‘So what do you think?’ I finished up.

‘Well…’

Turned out I’d described exactly the plot of The Stepford Wives(In my defence I haven’t actually seen the film but I should have known all the same.)

*Sigh*

Hope you all had a good Easter. Yesterday Daniel and I went to visit my parents’ graves and on the way back we had a Grimbister.

Kirk out

Why Write Poetry?

This is a question which occurs to me often, though perhaps not so often as it occurs to other minds.  What is the point of poetry? they seem to say; or even more damningly, Is poetry even a Thing?  Isn’t it just chopped-up prose?  My acid test for the latter is to suggest they write out a poem in sentences and see if it reads exactly like prose: results have yet to come in on this exercise as I strongly suspect they can’t be arsed.  Once on Thorpe Cloud a man was heard to quote Wordsworth’s Daffodils and bleat: How is that different from ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb?’  How?  In the moment I was stumped because on the surface, it’s not that different; it’s a little like asking how a Joan Miro is different from a child’s daubs: on the surface, they aren’t.

I’m always stumped in the face of such scepticism because to see poetry for what it is demands a degree of openness; it’s not something you can persuade people of by showing evidence.  The earth is flat – no it isn’t, you can see the curvature in a plane, you can see the horizon at sea and you can view the whole sphere from space.  QED.

I’d be the first to admit that Wordsworth’s language is simple; it’s deliberately so because he was emphasising the simplicity of a life lived in harmony with nature.  Some of his ideas seem risible today but he had a strong belief in the tendency of the natural world to produce virtue in human beings.  So given that, let us compare and contrast Daffodils and Mary Had a Little Lamb.

First, the nursery rhyme:

Mary had a little lamb

its fleece was white as snow

and everywhere that Mary went

the lamb was sure to go.

It’s not great poetry and it’s not meant to be; it’s a rhyme for children which according to wikipedia was based on an actual incident:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Had_a_Little_Lamb

The simile is cliched: white as snow offers no surprise or insight and the rest of the rhyme simply tells a story.  I can’t think of anything else to say about it.

Now Daffodils:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

that floats on high o’er vales and hills

when all at once I saw a crowd

a host of golden daffodils

beside the lake, beneath the trees

fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

We are so familiar with this verse that its impact has faded but I would suggest Wordsworth offers us two things here.  If we stop for one minute to consider the image lonely as a cloud it will probably strike us as strong and original; it places the writer (or narrator) as part of the natural scene and yet separate from it.  As a ‘cloud’ he is looking down on the scene below, floating ‘on high o’er vales and hills’: the cloud is also animated, given feelings.  The second idea is the image of daffodils as a ‘crowd, a host’.  Anyone who’s ever looked at great swathes of daffodils swaying in a breeze can’t have failed to notice their resemblance to a crowd of people.  Wordsworth continues with that metaphor in lines to come, so not only is he part of the natural world but the natural world resembles a crowd of people, thus signalling his major theme of connectedness between people and nature.

One may disagree profoundly with Wordsworth’s thesis but I don’t think we can fail to ascribe greatness to his work.

And while we’re on the theme of simplicity, let’s consider another Romantic poet, William Blake.  There’s no tricksiness with words here, no verbal gymnastics or stunning erudition, but consider the power of these couplets:

A robin redbreast in a cage

puts all heaven in a rage.

Or this:

A truth that’s told with bad intent

beats all the lies you can invent.

And we are just as familiar with The Tyger as with Wordsworth’s blooms but I hope no-one would dare compare this to a nursery rhyme:

Tyger, Tyger, burning bright

in the forests of the night

what immortal hand or eye

could frame thy fearful symmetry?

And if you can read these lines without a lump in your throat, there’s no hope for you:

I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I

did, till we loved?  Were we not weaned till then?…

and now good morrow to our waking souls…

My face in thine eye, thine in thine appears

and true plain hearts do in the faces rest…

(from John Donne, The Good Morrow)

 

So much for other people’s poetry: now, for my own.  Why do I write poetry?  Like most people I suspect I do it because I must.  I do it because there are times when prose, much as I love it, just doesn’t cut it.  As C S Lewis wrote in his introduction to the Narnia books, you do it because ‘it is the best art form for something you want to say.’

I also do it because poetry connects strongly to the oral tradition.  When I first started to write I assumed I’d write novels and didn’t see myself as a poet at all.  But having found the novel too huge a thing to begin with, I turned to the short story.  Even these didn’t seem quite right, but I still didn’t think of myself as a poet and it wasn’t until I went to Word! poetry performance group in Leicester that I realised spoken word was what I’d been looking for.  I had to travel all the way back to our oral traditions before I could really discover what I was about as a writer.  This seems to me entirely logical.

The oral tradition is key: nowadays I never write a poem without speaking it.  As soon as I have a rough draft I stand up (poetry must always be spoken standing) and read it aloud.  Inevitably there will be bum notes and often fresh words will occur to me as I speak – and so the editing process goes on, sometimes speaking sometimes writing, until I have the finished poem by heart (though I agree wholeheartedly with Auden’s comment that a poem is never finished, only abandoned.)  To me, writing a poem without speaking it aloud is like writing music without playing it: impossible.

I’m going to get on my hobby-horse here because one of my bugbears is poets who kill their work in the reading of it.  Of course not every poet is able to read well, I understand that, but what offends me is the all-too-common attitude that it’s the page which matters and the reading aloud is just some throwaway act; something writers do.  It’s as if the very fact of it being the author’s voice gives some authority and mesmerism to the reading.  It doesn’t.

I don’t get this.  It shows a disrespect for the oral tradition, for a start, and for another thing why would you?  Why would you spend all that time and effort getting the right words in the right order on the page and then destroy them in the reading?  It really bugs me.  I work on my poems all the time, honing each word and phrase in the speaking just as I do in the writing.  I work on my voice too – but now I think I’ve wandered long enough o’er the vales and hills of poetry so I shall come to rest and tell you about that another day.

Kirk out

 

 

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