Category Archives: Publishing

A Single Dispatch After the AWP Conference

The lanyard. My glasses.

Oh my god, after three days of the kind of intensity that only a conference of thousands of creative writers under one roof could generate, I am spent. And yet, at 4:30 on Saturday, as I walk away from the Oregon Convention Center at the end of my last session at the Association for Writers and Writer’s Programs Conference, there are dozens of friends from across the country still somewhere lost in those throngs–closing up the book fair, attending or participating in the last afternoon lecture or panel, perhaps preparing for one more night of readings and some kind of culminating dance party–and I feel a deep sadness walking away without being able to say goodbye to each of them. What saves me from despair is that right before I get up to walk to my car, I get to see and chat briefly one more time with one of my first English College Professors ever, 36 some years ago now, in Writing 122, Tim Barnes. He looks great, happy, and he wants to publish one of my prose poems in the Friends of William Stafford Journal and Newsletter. And I am off, returning home for the last Saturday night and Sunday at the close of Spring Break.

Now I’m going to try, in a kind of breakneck and fragmented way, to describe my experience of the last three days at the AWP Conference.

First of all, to give you a sense of the breadth and depth of each day’s offerings, here’s ONE page covering ONE day in the events schedule, followed by a map of the book fair, each tiny number representing a table or a booth run by a big small press, a small press, a tiny press, a writing conference, a writing getaway, or an MFA program in Creative Writing. It would be possible to spend 3 days in the book fair alone and not exhaust the possibilities. But as you can see looking at my copy of the schedule, I allowed myself only about an hour and a half each day to hang out at the book fair.

One day of three. Too many choices!

The book fair map.

Some thoughts on the offerings:

Unless one makes an unwavering commitment to forever and only publish in small presses, a fiction writer in want of a publisher needs an agent. While most of what this panel of five women from New York agencies revealed I already knew, here are a few takeaways or nuances from Agents 101:

  • For non-fiction you need a proposal; for fiction you need a complete manuscript. This seems a little unfair to fiction writers, but given the market for non-fiction compared to the market for fiction, I kind of get it. But I don’t like it.
  • As a fiction writer, you need to know something about the agents you’re sending work to—whose books they’ve sold, generally, what their tastes might be, whether or not your work fits into these parameters. But this strikes me as absurd in some ways, when I think about my limited time on Earth. Let’s say, if I’m lucky (and I have not been), I send my book to 20 different agents before someone wants to represent me: how much material did I need to be familiar with in order to really know how each of these 20 agents might be right for my work?
  • An agent, after they have agreed to represent you, may ask for as many as six revisions of your novel. Okay.
  • Agents, at least these ones, did not seem to have a problem with the idea of representing a work that had been previously self-published by the author. Hmm.
  • The stage was low, like, non-existent, and every single agent on the panel sat at a table. While I listened closely to every word, I never saw a single face, could not at the end tell you which agent was which. This seemed super dumb to me.

In a session called Page to Stage, I saw Taylor Mali perform in the flesh. I’m a fan. This was exciting. He’s a performance poet, runs a reading in New York City and invites all kinds of poets, is trying to break down the distinctions and barriers between performance poetry (slam poetry) and page poetry. Afterwards, I said hello, told Mali I appreciated his poetry about teaching, told him I was a 30-year veteran, and he gave me a sample pack of his Metaphor Dice.

In How to Talk About Yourself in Non-fiction, the most enlightening figure on the panel was renowned non-fiction writer Phillip Lopate. He was the only one on the panel who did not speak from prepared notes, but he struck me as being totally authentic, honest, funny, insightful and encouraging. His idea that the internal story is just as important (if not more so) than the external story, I found especially relevant: “Your intellectual life is part of your life!” How to distinguish between self-reflectiveness and self-absorbtion? See yourself as comic, he said. And see yourself at some distance. And be forgiving: “Everyone is narcissistic to some degree.” And writers—geez—none of us would write a word if we did not in some ways love ourselves. Right?

I saw Paul Beatty, author of The Sellout, and Joan Silber, author of Improvements, (a former teacher of mine!) give short readings of their new work and sit together for an interview and discussion. What an odd but terrific pairing. Takeaways? From Joan Silber: it is not the job of fiction to tell us what we already know. And this: neither writer admitted to reading their work out loud in the creative process. This blows my mind. I read every word I write out loud before I share it with anybody, and I advise my students to read their work out loud whenever they can as a sure-fire effective way to know what’s working and what needs work.

Colson Whitehead spoke for an hour about fried chicken and it was glorious. Best keynote ever. I haven’t read him yet. The Underground Railroad, anyone? It’s on a priority list for me.

In a session called Translating the Dark, most memorable were the contributions from C.J. Hribal and Goldie Goldbloom, both Warren Wilson MFA program compatriots. Goldie spoke about the myth of the likeable character, gave us a dozen examples of great main characters that were anything but likeable, talked about the importance, if you want to write the unlikeable character, of abandoning parts of ourselves, those parts of us conditioned to be “nice.” C.J. spoke about juxtaposition, tonal and narrative, counterpoint, how often writers approach the dark and then swerve. A reminder of the old adage (I don’t know who said it first), that one must go through the darkness in order to come out the other side. Can’t go around. Big ol’ cup o’ nope.

Real Women Talk Dirty, it turns out, is a true statement. Feminist women writers write about sex, yes, they do. English, I understood from Merritt Tierce, is a bad language through which to talk about genitals. Our options are limited, vulgar on the one hand and clinical on the other—very few choices in between. Metaphor is useful. Here’s a few more: plot doesn’t stop for sex. Sex doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Unless you’re into that sort of thing.

I have a personal stake in this topic, in that human sexuality and sex expression is a topic that fascinates me, that I have written about, albeit, more bravely and openly when I was younger than I have in recent years, and never on the blog, except in the most oblique way. I ended up writing a note to myself in my journal: “How much do I hold back, not just about sex, but about politics or religion, because of my public position professionally, my efforts, as Ms. Goldbloom discussed in a previous panel, at being ‘nice’? I don’t like the idea of waiting for retirement to be brave.” There’s that.

On a related note, David Shields signed my copy of The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power, in which I am quoted twice, once in the very first paragraph of the book.

I saw Tess Gallagherand Ilya Kaminski read together Friday late afternoon and it was phenomenal. I had an image in my head of Gallagher from the 80’s, so it was kind of a revelation to see this 75 year-old poet. She still is vital and relevant and funny and awesome every which way. I had never read or heard Ilya Kaminsky, but I had seen his name often mentioned in the poetry circles. Another revelatory reading. I had never heard anything like it. He’s a Ukrainian-born, Russian-American poet, his accent was thick, and his performance style was more akin to chant or incantation or singing than it was to the reading of poetry—very intense, sometimes reaching a kind of fevered pitch and usually ending in almost a whisper. His reading was accompanied with a big screen projection of his poems, which I was thankful for, but I still had to work pretty hard to keep tracking. The audience members who knew his work reacted to him as people do rock stars. Women around me were weeping. Check out this new collection, Deaf Republic. Mind blown.

Dinner. Imagine, if you will, thousands of writers at the Oregon Convention Center who, after the late afternoon reading, need to find a place to dine. Now imagine what it’s going to be like to find a seat at one of the restaurants close by. My friend Kathryn, her husband Tom, and another friend, Sandy, and I walked up and down streets, clocked a couple of miles, looking for a place to eat that was quiet and not too crowded. We did find a place to eat, but it wasn’t quiet and it was super crowded. Nevertheless, the food was delightful, the company was good, and I had the best Manhattan I’ve ever had.

The Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers held a reception at The Doug Fir Lounge for faculty, alumni, current and prospective students. I love this community, am increasingly grateful for its role in my creative life, its transformative tendrils always working on me, keeping alive the fiction writer and poet in me. And what a gift it was to have that space to hang, to reunite with old friends, and to meet new Wallies, all of us on this journey through an artful life.

I have for a long time been drawn to and excited about the indy press that calls itself McSweeny’s. Founded by fiction writer Dave Eggers, it has become in 20 years’ time one of the most prestigious and widely recognized presses in the nation, known especially for its forays into adventurous and unique kinds of literary art and its beautiful and often whimsical design. If nothing else, this panel made me still more enthusiastic about the press, inspired me to get a year’s subscription to their quarterly, and to scoop up as many of their authors as I could. I’ve got a long list now of writers to explore: Lucy Corin, Patty Yumi Cottrell, C Pam Zhang, Deb Olin Unferth, Rita Bullwinkel, Sheila Heti, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Hilton Als, and Miriam Toews. The worst thing about this panel: it brought home to me how embarrassingly and poorly read I am in contemporary literature. I’m going to moan about this right now just one more time and I’ll be done: it’s a tragedy that public school English Teachers don’t have time to read much other than what they happen to be teaching. Some of us find time to write—but at the expense of something, I’m betting. I know that’s true for me.

My penultimate experience at AWP was Punk Rock Presses (rinky dink, Forklift Ohio, Cardboard House, The Wax Paper). I don’t know that I have ever been so thoroughly engaged and entertained and moved by a panel discussion, one that has, in practical matters, nothing to do with becoming “successful” as a writer. As Matt Hart revealed in his moving essay about his Punk origins and trajectory as an indy publisher, “Money turns everything to shit.” All four of the presses represented on this panel were DIY to the extreme, anti-establishment in every way, unconcerned about profit or fame, in it exclusively for the love of it, the fun of it, and the revolutionary potential of it to build community through art. Rosemarie Dombrowski was the moderator, editor of rinky dink press, and she was beautiful and funny and super smart and I think I am a little bit in love.

My last experience at the AWP conference was a visit to a panel on which three of my Warren Wilson buddies were participating, Katherine Schwille (the moderator, author of What Luck, This Life), Nan Cuba (Body and Bread), and Adrianne Harun (A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain), and they were talking about Reimagining Tragedy. Each of these three and two others (Claudia Salazar and Sunil Yapa) had written books that placed a fictional lens on real historical and tragic events: the space shuttle Columbia disaster, a serial killer in Texas who may have had as many as 400 victims, an epidemic and virtually unreported series of missing indigenous women in British Columbia, political and military upheaval in 1980’s Peru, and the World Trade Center protests in Seattle in 1999. What was most fascinating to me about this panel were the varieties of perspectives about the approaches to these events. The commonality seemed to be that each writer represented a number of perspectives on the subject or tragic events in question. Beyond that, a number of distinct and idiosyncratic approaches. I wrote down Nan Cuba’s advice: find the medium, then find the vehicle—and along with that,  choose the right tone and the right structure for the material. All of them researched exhaustively, which to me is impressive and heroic. Too much work for me. I just want to make shit up or write from my own narrow experience. I remember William Stafford saying something like “the research for the work is your whole life.” At any rate, I digress. These writers were all so gracious, articulate, honest, engaging and inspiring. It was a perfect way to end the three-day conference–

–except for the sadness of leaving—not the conference, but these wonderful people, all of whom I would just like to pack up and take home with me. Conference schmonference. This was only my second AWP conference in 14 years. Its overwhelming buzz and sensory overload, coupled with the expense of travel, as inspiring and wonderful as it is, are the key reasons I stayed away. I came this year because 1. it was in my town, and 2. my friends were there. I’m happy I chose to go. I learned a lot and had a good time. It turns out that this entry was neither breakneck or fragmented. I just had to get it down. A more abbreviated version just would not have done the trick. I hope you enjoyed the ride and maybe learned a couple of things along the way with me.

One of the only quiet spaces I was able to find. The skybridge with a view to one of the two gigantic glass spires.

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On Reading An Unpublished Novel I Finished 15 Years Ago

is

The novel has been sitting in a box, both a real box on my desk and a virtual box on my hard drive. I miss it. I finished it some fifteen years ago, having labored over it throughout the preceding five or six years. I have fond memories of its composition and of the way I felt about its success on the page, bolstered by lots of voices from the past of folks who had read it, had good things to say about it, and encouraged me to get it out into the world. And finally, I feel a kind of sadness about the loss into obscurity of its subject matter, a subject matter I haven’t written about since then, but nevertheless a subject matter of monumental importance to my inner life and personality.

Why has it been so long inside the box? Well, the agent search yielded over and over again the kind of response that most good writers are quite used to seeing: “This is good; you’re a fine writer; here’s a list of laudatory adjectives to describe what we thought of your work; but it is not the right thing for us at this time. Some other agency will feel differently. Good luck to you!”  That’s not a bad kind of note to get. But it went on and on.  Until I had agents who wanted to take it on–for a fee. Or until I had agents who wanted to take it on, but  couldn’t tell me a damn single specific thing about why they loved it and thought they could sell it. Or until, (and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back), an agent loved it and asked for a series of quite lengthy and difficult revisions before she felt she could take it on. I complied. I complied because I thought the feedback was sound and the revisions would make a better novel. And I complied because I believed (don’t ask me why), that an agent asking for a revision would not do so unless they meant to take on the work.  Well, I was wrong about that. Ultimately, this particular agent passed on the novel. By now, I was shell-shocked. By then, I had been working on a new book. I shelved my little book about an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion (not really its true subject matter) and started in earnest on a new idea. 10 years later, still smarting from the agent search for the first novel, I skipped that trauma altogether and decided to self publish through iUniverse. Thus, the second novel I ever wrote, Monster Talkbecame my first published book. Then, I was on to the next idea, the idea that I am just now wrapping up, while my first novel continues to sit in its literal and virtual boxes.

Over the last several days I have liberated this work from its box on the desk and reread my first novel. What a strange experience. It’s probably been at least 13 years since I last read it from “cover to cover.” Some of it I didn’t remember writing, and as I was reading I was not sure where the novel would take me in the pages to come. That was a pleasant surprise, but odd, like looking at photographs of yourself doing things or being places that have totally fallen out of memory. Initially, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it, that it would seem green to me and unaccomplished, structurally incoherent. After all, I was 35 or 36 years old when I finished it, just a baby, and fresh out of writer’s school. But as I read, ultimately and happily I thought to myself, hey, this is pretty good. And it occurred to me, too, that its strangeness was in part because of the fact that the writer of this work was a different guy. We’ve already established that he was younger, yes, but there were other things that struck me about him. He was brave and brash. He was writing about things honestly that this older version of him would have difficulty articulating. His book was kind of dirty–but in the best possible way. Erotic might be a better word than dirty, but that would depend on the reader. But he was funny, too, and his sex scenes were funny. He could really write a beautiful sentence. And he captured, far better than I could capture now, 1980’s and 1990’s suburban life. Reading now the fictional work of a man who was alive then and living through it, the details are convincing and immediate. The internet was brand new in the 90’s and slow, non-existent in the 80’s. Email was just becoming a thing in the mid to late 90’s. People were still renting films from video stores. There were very few cell phones. Teachers were writing on chalkboards. Young people, when they wanted to go some place, walked to their destination. In this way, the novel felt like a kind of time capsule to me, and this writer captured what it was like to be a teenager in the 80’s, part of the true subject matter of the book, something I might have difficulty writing about now given that I am surrounded nine months out of the year by 21st century teens, whose lives, I suspect, are very different from their counterparts of 30-some years ago, but, who knows, might be in more danger of spontaneous human combustion then their predecessors!

So happily, I find suddenly and again that I have another work that is perhaps worthy of publication and I am psyched to try once again to find a good home for it. And to other writers who have older works languishing in drawers, boxes, and hard drives, I say, get those suckers out and reread. At the very least you’ll be surprised and you’ll learn some stuff about your past selves. And if you like what you find there, that work may just have another life to live.  Set that baby free.

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#110: Shameless Self-Promotion (An Advertisement Poem)

MichaelJarmer_cover_small

The NaPoWriMo website today suggests that we try an advertisement poem. That’s an actual thing, apparently.  As an example, the NaPoWriMo curator provides Exhibit A:

Said Farmer Brown
Who’s bald on top
“Wish I could
Rotate the crop”
Burma-Shave

So rather than create a poem advertising Burma Shave or a made-up product or some thing I dig and would like to promote, I thought, why not promote my own bad self and write an advertisement poem for my novel, Monster TalkIt’s terrible  poetry, but I hope it will have an effect–because I could use the revenue.

Shameless Self-Promotion: An Advertisement Poem

My elevator pitch:

the end of Frankenstein
was such a bitch
somewhere I wish that I could find
a story just as rich.
Monster Talk

The creature, in perfect health,
through his eloquent speech
convinces himself
to come back from frozen beach:
Monster Talk

Makes his own bride
and comes to the new world
to begin a new life
with his creature girl.
Monster Talk

Two hundred years later
a child is born of human parents
descended from parents greater
and becomes their heir apparent:
Monster Talk

The story of a boy’s adventure
learning to read and learning to love.
And in these endeavors he finds some danger
and must find the strength to rise above.
Monster Talk

It’s a book you won’t be able to shelf
about a boy who’s less monster than charmer
Don’t you owe it to yourself
to read this novel by Michael Jarmer?
Monster Talk

Click on any of the hyperlinks
in this little poem,
and Monster Talk will be delivered
directly to your home.

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2013 in review: Not Bad

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.  I’m not sure if people are interested in this thing or not, but the WordPress.com helper monkeys sent me this report and offered me a link that would allow me to share it with my readers, so at least in the opinion of the helper monkeys, some people might think it’d be a cool thing to see.  What’s most interesting to me is the info right out of the gate there, which you don’t even have to see the whole report to get, and that is that 2013 was my best year.  7,600 views.  I have nothing to compare that to, so I don’t know if I have a hit or a dud; what I do know is that I’ve been doing this for two full years plus now, and with a total number of views at 10,737, my readership has, in the last year, how do I say, blossomed–at least comparatively speaking.  Hey, all you readers: thanks so much for that!

For those of you blogging and for those of you otherwise interested, I have two theories about my bumper year.  On my best day ever here at michaeljarmer.com, I stirred up some controversy.  Actually, I didn’t stir it, somebody else did–by reading a particular blog entry I’d written about the rigors of teaching writing for your average high school English teacher and then by posting the link on Reddit with the headline “This Guy Is What’s Wrong With Education in America” or something to that effect.  So, one lesson about getting more readership might be to piss someone off to the extent that they would say nasty things about you on some other social network site and post links to your blog.  That was an interesting experience, but it consumed me for several days running, and that was bad.  It wasn’t all bad.  Readers stood up to the guy and defended me–people I didn’t know, and that was good.  And of course, it was my busiest day ever, and that was good.

My other busiest time of the year was during the cruelest month of April when I participated in the NaPoWriMo, meeting the challenge of writing a poem a day every day for a month.  And here’s the other wisdom nugget:  a way to increase readership is to post something every day.  That’s it–but you already knew that.  That’s no easy task–for so many reasons, not the least of which is time, and not the least of which is the problem of having a new idea every day–those two reasons are often insurmountable for people.  I doubt very much I could sustain that for any longer than a month, not without neglecting things around the house, or neglecting people around the house, or neglecting work and sleep around the house.  And as far as I can tell, I’m not earning anything, monetarily speaking, from my blog.  That might be a game changer.  Anyone want to pay me to do this?  For right now, I do it because I dig it, and for now, that’s good enough.

Again, thanks so much for being here, for reading, for commenting or not, for sharing or not, and even for saying nasty things about me on Reddit.  I couldn’t have done it without you, without all of your 7,600 views.  Happy New Year and happy blogging.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,600 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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On New Year’s Resolutions, Or, On Having Blogged A Bunch and the Dangers of Repeating Oneself

new-years-bucks-county

I began composing a blog entry this morning about New Year’s Resolutions.  The direction I was going felt compelling.  I was proud of the opening paragraph.  I was on to something and feeling clever and witty and all of that jazz. I was also feeling a bit of deja vu, like somehow, I remembered writing, if not these very words, about this very topic at least.  So I started doing some research in the archives of my own damn blogsite, and lo and behold, I found an entry called “Of Resolutions,” published exactly 365 days ago today, on December 30, 2012. It made me wonder how many times I have already done this.  In 131 blog entries, how many times have I said the same dumb thing over and over again in just slightly different ways?  Have I become a broken record?  Have I run out of ideas?  After a brief little panic, I come to the conclusion that no, that if in fact this has occurred throughout the annals of my blogging, it is no big deal, because I think it might be possible that some things are worth repeating.  It might also be possible that my memory is not as good as it once was–but I’m sticking to this first possibility.  Some ideas are worth repeating.  Many good ones are.  And sometimes it helps to repackage the same ideas in a new way, for fun, to keep them fresh, to try them out again in a different way.  Other times, perhaps the best option is just to repeat yourself verbatim.  I read that original post of a year ago and I did not find it lacking too terribly much.  So I choose now to repeat myself verbatim, because I can, because these ideas are worth repeating, and because of this recent mini-lecture I found on Upworthy.com by Dr. Mike Evans:

Recent Mini-Lecture I Found on Upworthy.com by Dr. Mike Evans

So, with that, here’s this, again. I’ve only changed a few words so that the thing can be about 2014 and not our current but waning year:

Of Resolutions

The only new year’s resolution I’ve ever made and then kept was the one I made two years ago to publish my novel Monster Talk in 2012. But I think I was cheating because the decision to do the thing was made before the close of 2011 by a couple of days–so the ball was in motion and there was very little I could do to stop it, even if I wanted to. I mean, I could have dropped the ball at any point in the process, but I didn’t, and there was lots of work to do around revision and editing and proofreading and arranging art that kept me busy all the way into spring of 2012.  That was an impressive resolution to make, though, the results of which were public and out there in the open for all to see, unlike most resolutions people make to drink less or eat less or lose weight or be nice–things that are very difficult for anyone other than the person making the resolution to see or keep track of.

So, I’m having some difficulty this year thinking of a suitable resolution.  Maybe I will resolve this year to make no resolutions.  Isn’t it true that people, on the whole, do things they really want to do, achieve the things they really want to achieve, and those things they don’t want to do or achieve, even if they’re really good for them, don’t get done–whether a resolution is made or not?  Maybe deep down I don’t want to drink less, eat less, lose weight, or be nice.  And most of the things I might resolve to do in 2014 (write more, finish the draft of the new novel, read more, record more, stress less, meditate)–these things just might happen anyway. But perhaps, even when a resolution is not kept, in part or in full, there is still some value in resolving to do something in the new year.  Just saying the words–especially in earshot of someone who might notice or care–might be worth doing.

It’d be nice, though, wouldn’t it, if resolutions could be more transformational and radical.  If resolutions could really shake things up, present real significant challenges, create profound  and lasting changes.  I imagine that some people accomplish these things with their resolutions, but I bet it’s more likely that these people are transforming their lives or the lives of others through a daily process of working toward some goal, some dream or another–it’s a part of their daily living and their way of being in the world and likely has nothing to do with a promise they made on New Year’s Eve.  This is just leading me down a kind of sad path as I realize how little agency I sometimes feel to make radical changes in my life–whether it is about some significant change professionally, creatively, personally, in my relationship to people and things, in how my values reflect or don’t reflect the way I actually live or work.  It’s an interesting, profound, and difficult question–if there were no limitations on things you could decide to do or try in the new year, what would you do? What would you try? What’s holding you back?  Would it help to make a resolution?

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In Celebration of My 100th Blog Post

It’s a milestone, don’t you think? It seems so to me. This blog post right here, the one I hope you are currently reading, is the 100th blog entry by Michael Jarmer. It took me two plus years to get here. So help me do the math. What is it? 50 posts a year? That’s 4.166 posts a month–but that wouldn’t be accurate, really, because there have been months at a time when I posted not a thing, and I’ve never posted less than a whole post, a fraction of a post, unless you consider a poem as something somewhat less than a full post, but then you’d be in some hot water with the poets. I wouldn’t want that for you.  But, to be truthful, the 45 poems I’ve posted, 30 of which were composed one-a-day as part of National Poetry Writing Month in  April, did enhance my numbers, productivity speaking. So, suffice it to say, I’m pleased with myself and I hope you are too–and to all of you who have made this blog site a regular stop of yours, I thank you from the very depths of my being.

Other than just to make a celebratory statement about my 100th blog entry, I’m not sure what to write about here.  Perhaps I could just muse a little bit on the effect blogging has had on my life and on my writing.  That might be good.  Perhaps, I could talk about the pros and cons of blogging.  At the very least, there may be some learning about the whole process that I could discover and then articulate for your reading pleasure, that is, if you find that kind of thing pleasurable.  Let’s have a go at that, shall we?

Blogging has made me more productive.  I’m a fiction writer, primarily, but I find that to write fiction, I need sustained amounts of time to immerse myself in the fictive dream, so to speak, sustained amounts of time that don’t occur for me on a regular basis–so my fiction composition is as slow as mud;  it took me ten years to finish Monster Talk and probably another ten years before the start of that project to finish my first novel, the one that’s been sitting in a box on my desk now for the better part of the last decade, yeah, the one about Spontaneous Human Combustion. Outside of my fiction writing, before blog (B.B.) I’d find myself writing poems every once in a while, sometimes in flurries far and few between, and sometimes I’d write a little bit of something in the context of my teaching for my colleagues, and whenever I could I would write alongside my students. But never could I say, that over the course of a year or two, that I had “finished” 100 pieces.  I’m still writing my fiction, slowly, I’m still doing odd writings here and there at work for colleagues and students, but on top of that, I have completed 100 blog entries. Perhaps, embarking on this endeavor, I have written more, finished more short pieces than I ever did B.B.

Blogging has widened my repertoire. I’ve written here essays about teaching, essays about parenting, essays about music, essays about writing, essays about fashion for crying out loud (thanks to Betabrand), autobiographical essays, cultural criticism essays, and blogs about blogging.  And I’ve written poems about 45 different things.  First off, my non-fiction output has shot up from no thing to 100 things! And secondly, none of those things are the things for which I think I am truly skilled and for which, as evidence of said skill, I have a piece of paper and a book! So blogging is helping me come into my own, I hope, as an essayist.

Blogging is spontaneous, improvisational in nature, at least it is for me, and that’s helpful because it has enabled me to explore things about which I have questions.  I choose a blog topic simply by intuition.  I’ve got lists here and there, but I don’t often refer back to them.  Rather, an inspiration will hit, stick with me for a day, an hour, or a few minutes, and I kind of know right away, I get a kind of temperature, and if it’s hot, if it sticks with me, if it compels me to sit down and begin typing, I go for it.  I rarely abandon a piece that I’ve started writing.  So blogging has also brought me a level of commitment toward finishing the things I start.  I appreciate that.

Are there any negatives in my blogging experience?

There’s a part of me that says ANY writing I do is a good use of my time.  Writing is something I want to do, so if I’m doing it, that’s a good thing.  But I have to ask myself, if all the time I devoted to creating blog entries over the last two years had been spent on fiction writing, how much further would I be toward the completion of a new novel–and wouldn’t that have been a BETTER use of my time?  My gut response is to answer no to that question.  When I think about the pleasure I have found in blogging coupled with the productivity and the way I feel like it’s broadened my writing, I am glad to have started the blog site and glad to have kept at it for two years.  I wouldn’t want to undo that progress in exchange for a draft of a new novel.  And what’s to stop me from blogging progress on the new novel?  What’s to prevent me from blogging fiction?

Now this is a difficult and dicey proposition, one that I have explored a little bit in an entry I wrote after National Poetry Writing Month.  There’s something scary and negative and offensive to me about drafting fiction in public.  I’m not sure exactly why–but I kind of feel like it demeans it somehow, and I’m guessing real poets feel the same way about publishing poems on a blog site.  I’m not sure I consider myself a real poet.  No, that’s not true.  I’m as real a poet as any other poet. Maybe it is that I have a different relationship to my poetry than I do with my fiction.  My poetry is kind of offhand, not meticulously crafted, and doesn’t have behind it a piece of paper and a book.  I know that and accept that about my poetry, so I’m not as guarded about it or as protective.  And the comment earlier, that I’m not a real poet, is only an effort to honor those poets who are guarded and protective about their work,  who feel like publishing their poetry in a blog post would somehow be demeaning or disrespectful to the work.  I’d love to hear other writers’ takes on this.  Ultimately, I think it’s all in my head.  That’s the truth of it.  And that leads to another potentially negative aspect of blogging.  This stuff in my head, emerging, not quite perfectly formed, sometimes even faulty, frail, wrong–it’s all right here on my blog site.

Blogging has made me a kind of statistic blip addict.  And that’s not a good thing. It’s something I want to work on–not being so needy about that. Part of the beauty and conversely the danger of blogging is the experience of instant publication and often instant feedback. How many visitors, likes, new followers, new comments, did that entry receive and what does it all mean?  This is something bloggers should be interested in, I suppose, but not obsessing about.  Only once have I obsessed–and it was terrible. Long after its original composition, a blog entry I wrote entitled “English Teacher Math: Teaching 200 Students How To Write” was posted and roasted on the Reddit social network  site.  It resulted in the busiest single day or two ever on my blog, and it resulted on Reddit in some pretty good conversation, some of it smart and helpful, but it also resulted in a number of absolute looney tunes posting comments after that blog entry on my site–all of which culminated in a near complete and total TIME SUCK in my life and in my head.  You know, hatred from strangers will have a tendency to do that–unless you have developed a strategy for dealing  with it, which I had not. I was a complete basket case for three days.  I got over that, and I have never had a repeat performance.  If another one comes up, I hope I will deal with it more effectively.  Blogging should not be a stress producer–and I’m thankful to say that exactly 99% of the time it has not been!

So there you have it, for now.  A meditation on my first 100 blog posts.  If you got this far, I thank you.  If you have been a regular visitor or a follower, I thank you.  If you would purchase my novel Monster Talk, I would be forever grateful.  It’s been a good trip, thus far.  I think I will continue doing this thing.  Cheers.

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Combustion Deconstruction: Some Musings on the Fate of a First Novel

I started writing my first novel when I was, perhaps, 28 years old, I finished it coming out of an MFA program when I was 32, revised it when I was 35, began a long, demoralizing, tedious, and ultimately unsuccessful agent search, and then, when I was 40, I put the novel in the proverbial drawer where it sits today. I’m 48 years old.

Even before my first novel went officially into that drawer, I had begun my second novel and chipped away at that, slowly, over about a decade. That novel finished, I felt like there was no way I would have the energy to do with it what I had tried to do with the first, so I made the decision to go the unconventional route (which has actually become pretty conventional) and I self-published my novel, Monster Talk, with iUniverse.

I keep peeking at that first novel where it rests inside the drawer. Actually, it’s not in a drawer. It’s in a box on my desk labeled Combustion. That was the title I gave the novel, named after the book’s central premise, that at the turn of the 21st century, the planet’s population finds itself living through an epidemic of spontaneous human combustion. That was the idea that started the ball rolling. It’s a comic novel and the germ that spawned this particular premise was indeed the great comic faux documentary called Spinal Tap. Before I knew what I was doing, the initial question was about extending the phenomena of SHC beyond the deaths of a few unfortunate heavy metal drummers to a world-wide epidemic—somewhat akin to the current Zombie apocalypse fad, perhaps. Spontaneous Human Combustion, while it literally happens over and over again throughout the plot of this thing, works as a sweet and quirky little metaphor representing a whole host of modern problems. But actually, at the heart, at the core—the novel is really about sex.

So, again, I keep peeking at this box with my first novel buried inside. I’m proud of the book. I think it deserves a life; it deserves to be read—but I’m conflicted. It’s hard to reread, not because I don’t like it, but because it’s almost twenty years old! And partly because, (this is sad) I have become in my middle aged years less of a dare-devil than I was at 35, even conservative in some ways (although not politically), and while a certain amount of mellowing is probably a good thing, in the world of writing fiction I think it’s potentially terrible. I want to be able to read those naughty bits in public. I want to be fearless like I was when I was 35—because, I think, while the Spontaneous Human Combustion element is clever, fun, effectively rendered, the sex, and the main character’s hang up and obsession with sex, is the most strikingly accomplished thing about this novel—if I’m allowed to use the word “accomplished” to describe my own writing.

Ultimately, I’m in a quandary about what to do with this baby. It’s difficult to let it go. It’s difficult to say, “This thing here that I poured my heart and soul into over the better part of a decade, this thing I’m seriously pleased with despite the fact that it was written by a different Michael Jarmer, I’m just going to let it sit in a box.” And it’s also maddening to think about picking up that whole agent search thing anew. I’ve thought of a few things, a few possibilities, and I’ll run through them here, for my own edification, sure, but also as a list of potential opportunities for other writers still in the same boat with first novels in boxes, and maybe too, to give readers of this blog an opportunity to weigh in. I could:

1. Look for a small press to publish the novel. This is an avenue I did not fully explore when I was trying to place the book with an agent. I think small presses are likely publishing the best writing out there and are perhaps less constrained by market influences, more interested in art.
2. Self-publish, again. Whether I chose to go with iUniverse for the second time or some other vender, bookbaby or lulu.com for example, my first experience was mostly a positive one, and, with a minimal investment, I can accomplish the most personally pressing goal—to make the work available for those who want to read; it would be no longer sitting in a drawer or a box.
3. Revise, drop the artifice of the SHC hook, use the sexy material to draft a completely new animal. This sounds painful but potentially interesting and rewarding. This might be fodder for another blog later—but what is this impulse to create a hook, no matter how clever, no matter how successfully executed, as a vehicle for the real material of the novel? This, I think, is a central impulse of mine as a fiction writer, one that perhaps might be worthy of scrutiny.
4. Go all post-modern and write a piece of non-fiction about writing a first novel, the text of which would include the complete first novel, with commentary along the way about the process, non-fiction narrative connecting real life to plot devices and characters, and self critique. There’s a genre buster for you. What kind of book would that be? A weird one: Combustion Deconstructed.

So, there you have it. I’ve fleshed out the dilemma around what to do about the first novel in a box. It’s one of those things about which I feel a decision must be made. Writers with similar experiences, please chime in. Readers of the fiction and the bloggery of this particular writer, chime in. I’m interested in hearing your stories, your opinions, your thoughts, and/or your questions.

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Filed under Publishing, Self Reflection, Writing and Reading