Monthly Archives: February 2014

Roberta Pantal Rhodes on Writing

Here’s a guest post from contributor Roberta Pantal Rhodes. Her poetry can be found in the March 2012 online issue.

I’m flattered that I have been asked to write a blog about writing, or my writing process. I kind of think, gee, me, what have I got to contribute? Well, we’ll see.

In the beginning when I sent out fiction and poetry, I didn’t have an expectation of acceptance, and when it came, I was truly surprised. More often than not, rejection notices fill my mailbox, but every so often, there is a ray of sunshine, and what do you know, my writing has been accepted.

Over the years, I’ve been in many writing groups, mostly fiction. I found the groups helpful, but at times, I would change something in my writing based on a comment from a group member which I now regret. After all, it’s only someone’s opinion. Sometimes people are trying to rewrite your story. However, many times, the opinions are useful, but I think a writer has to really consider the suggestion before running to make a change.

One particular group was extremely helpful. Each of the members would take home someone else’s writing, read it, and comment. Then a group member, not the writer, would read the few pages, and everyone would take turns responding to the text. The leader, however, didn’t comment until the very end, not wanting to influence the group. The leader was exceptional in that she could zero in on what needed to be expanded or eliminated.

I think the best thing about writing is the unexpected surprise that comes after you’ve finished. You’re writing, writing, and then suddenly, something wonderful happens and you ask yourself, where did that come from?

It took me a while to realize that everything I put down on paper isn’t going to become a finished piece. I may put something aside for a while, then when I go back to it, I’m not drawn to it, it didn’t percolate, while other writing may still have that attraction and is something I will stick to and try and develop. Sometimes I get too attached to what I write and it becomes difficult “to give it up.”

Recently, I ran across a story called “Beginners,” by Raymond Carver on The New Yorker website. It was the original draft of the story with the final version retitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” edited by Gordon Lish. I never realized how much influence an editor can have on a story. They seem like two different pieces. One is by Raymond Carver, and the other Gordon Lish. Definitely worth checking out.

When I get stuck, not knowing what to write, I often turn to books of poetry or prose and look for lines that I can write off. But lately, I’ve been going to museums roaming among the sculptures, photographs and paintings, finding inspiration looking at the artwork.

One other thing that happens to me, when I’m writing is if I’m sitting and nothing is coming, I get up and lie down and let my mind wander, and in a short period of time, something clicks and I’m able to return to my writing.

I keep the following rejection notice on my bulletin board next to my desk;

Dear Writer,

Thank you for your submission to Orchid. Your story was carefully read. We’re sorry to report that your story does not meet our needs at this time. We’re writers, too, and understand the disappointment of rejection. Please keep in mind that we’re all in good company. The average story is rejected 25 or more time before being accepted. Some famous rejection stories: C.s. Lewis sent more than 800 manuscripts out before he made a sale; Ray Bradbury, also around 800; Gone with the Wind, rejected by more than 20 publishers; Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted bird, rejected three times by the same publisher, one of those times AFTER that same publisher had accepted it; An editor told Nabakov that his Lolita manuscript should be “buried under a large stone;” F. Scott Fitzgerld was told, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

Please keep in mind the words from Charles Baxter quoted above. Take care and keep writing.

Poem as Rescue Ladder

Here’s a guest post from two-time Bluestem contributor Dave Seter. His poetry can be found in both the Spring 2008 and 2011 print issues.

Sometimes as writers we need to salvage ourselves from misplaced criticism. This is true whether the critic simply ate a bad oyster for lunch, had a fight with their partner that morning, or felt threatened by the writer’s youth, tattoos, race, and so on. I’ll never forget my first one-on-one critique at a writers’ conference. The staff poet arrived, threw my poetry on the table, and said: What’s this? She didn’t consider it poetry, she expressed between glances at her wrist watch.

If the writer chooses to salvage meaning from criticism, there’s a parallel idea in the poem itself. The poet Mary Kinzie writes (in her book A Poet’s Guide to Poetry) that every poem is a rescue, an attempt to salvage the chosen subject using the limited tools of language. We have no choice as writers but to rescue ourselves, to shout out if necessary, but in our own voices, not the adopted voice of the critic. Life can be hard: why should writing be any different? We rescue ourselves from the crossfire, the unemployment line, and so on.

I was fired from my very first job as a supermarket stock boy. After my first day the foreman said it was as if I hadn’t learned a thing from the first week’s training. It was an outrageous thing to say—because—I hadn’t been invited to the first week’s training. Sometimes the right thing to do is simply walk out one door and get hired next door.

My point is, if there’s an edge to life, it needs expressing. For example, our society faces environmental challenges. I capture this tension by using urban metaphor in nature poems. This may be an effect of the dual influence of the poets John Clare (the first true nature poet) and Philip Larkin (social critic and curmudgeon) on my work. Poems of mine published in Bluestem (and formerly Karamu) feature: a jay needling the unrest in the heart; a raccoon caught in a cabaret act; and flames that can’t be kindled with flowers.

To give a fair impression of my skill level, I’ve also had poems rejected by Bluestem. Criticism and rejection are a necessary part of the experience. If the editor or audience can’t climb the rescue ladder of a poem, it may have a few rungs missing. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fixing.

While my own work tends toward traditional free verse, I’m currently reading contemporary poets Judy Halebsky (who weaves together found poetry with personal experience in a lyric that transports the reader to new worlds), and Katherine Hastings (whose sensory and emotional depth pull the reader to the center of her subject with the force of gravity). What I learn from these writers gives me another angle from which to look at my own work. Continuing to learn from each other is one way to grow as a writing community.

The Bay Area writing community is fortunate to have organizations such as the Marin Poetry Center and Word Temple Poetry Series which provide engaging, provocative speakers, as well as opportunities to practice the spoken word. It’s worth seeking out local community or creating one where it doesn’t exist. When it comes to online resources, I favor the edgy or progressive, such as Weave Magazine and Xenofiles.

I’m also partial to The American Poetry Review, in part because one of the founders, Stephen Berg, was my first poetry instructor. But this newsprint journal also serves as a portable community, one that can be clutched on the bus or spread beneath a tree. It features not only contemporary work but also the most thoughtful critical essays found outside of the halls of academia. The more we share our knowledge and invite each other in, whether in tactile newsprint or the ethereal cloud, the more we rescue each other from the outer and inner critic, to live another day on the page, and come closer to what we’re trying to say.

Keys in One Pocket, Change in the Other

When I was asked to start coming up with ideas for my first blog entry as Bluestem’s new editorial assistant, I immediately thought of a recent trip I took with my two-year-old daughter to see her speech therapist. I’m always trying to carve out spare time to work on my novel-in-progress, but killing an hour in a rehabilitation clinic’s waiting room means dealing with incessant coughing, cellphone chatter, the blaring of a television talk show, and the sharp gaze of that guy who continues to stare daggers from across the room even though we’ve made eye contact more than once. On this particular trip I was already down-and-out, tired and hating my lack of productivity, wishing my daughter could talk and I could work. Unable to gather my thoughts long enough to scribble anything down, I started reading a short story by Nathanael West called “The Impostor.”

He opens with the lines, “In order to be an artist one has to live like one.” I tried desperately to block out Ellen’s studio audience.

What could they be so damn excited about?

My worry subsided when he continued with, “We know now that this is nonsense.” Okay, I thought, maybe there’s hope. I soon learned of the struggle Beano Walsh was having, a sculptor who’d recently arrived in Paris on scholarship. This 1920s Paris, a silver-screened stupor of fast cars and faster living, was supposedly the perfect environment for an artist, much unlike my waiting room. The problem, however, was that Beano couldn’t produce anything, no matter how hard he tried. Here was this stocky guy, a little rough around the edges, rescued from a life of manual labor and holed up with a “Belgian girl” in a studio sporting little more than a pot-bellied stove. His nights were spent scrawling crude shapes on expensive sketch paper, and his days collecting truckloads of marble. He’d hack away at them until they crumbled into heaps of ruination and regret. He knew he was in trouble, so he started blaming the anatomy books. Obviously he couldn’t master human proportions because, well, the models were much too short. In a last-ditch effort to retain his scholarship, Beano decided he’d need to compose a book of six-foot models. So, naturally, he purchased a male corpse of the correct proportions. While showing it off to his friends he had a slight misunderstanding with a couple of police officers (who were curious as to why Beano had a dead body in the back of a taxi cab) and ultimately ended up spending his night in a cell with the body of a deceased sailor.

Up until this point in the story, everything had been somewhat lighthearted. I was enjoying myself. Then, I was told Beano’s evening with the corpse drove him insane. He’d be damned to live the rest of his days in an institution. The end. I couldn’t help but feel that familiar clutch of anxiousness, like the story stuck it to me in a visceral kind of way. Where Beano’s burden came from a lack of ideal anatomy, I have grad school and a family to think about, not to mention a teaching career. When do I have time to be a writer? What free moments I can possibly carve out for myself could be spent doing a countless number of other things: volunteering at a soup kitchen, or maybe building a bridge. Yet here I am devoting years of my life to what, a novel? And is it even any good? In that waiting room I had to ask myself whether or not I’m an imposter, doomed to drive myself insane in the name of creation, of artistry, and to what ends? But I needed to slow my roll.

Everyone self-deprecates.

I fell into that trap that all writers probably find themselves in at some point or another. Doubt, no matter how frightening, is part of the creation process, right? And inspiration, drive, the want to succeed, all come from a place of fear, fear of failure and rejection, or the inability to renew a scholarship. Fear will drive us to extraordinary lengths, maybe to purchasing a corpse. But the imposters are those who try to live the clichés like Beano did. It is possible to be a parent, student, manual laborer, and create something, anything, worthwhile. Here I was, surrounded by people struggling to overcome bad knees and broken arms and legs that won’t cooperate. As the man next to me compressed his joints and the woman across the room practiced her breathing exercises, I learned that I was undergoing my own kind of rehabilitation.

Maybe it really is possible to write in a waiting room.

-Aaron White

Be Kind and Take it Easy

Here’s a guest post from Bluestem contributor Leesa Cross-Smith. Her short story, “Sinnerman,” can be found in the September 2011 online issue here:

Be Kind and Take it Easy

When it comes to writing, if you find something you can do well, milk it. For example, Lorrie Moore. She is a sublime at conjuring the jaw-dropping metaphor/simile. She takes me so far into it, I almost forget what we were talking about. It’s the almost that matters. For example, in her brilliant little collection called Self-Help she writes “Cold men destroy women…they woo them with something personable that they bring out for show, something annexed to their souls like a fake greenhouse, lead you in, and you think you see life and vitality and sun and greenness, and then when you love them, they lead you out into their real soul, a drafty, cavernous, empty ballroom, inexorable arched and vaulted and mocking you with its echoes—you hear all you have sacrificed all you have given, landing with a loud clunk. They lock the greenhouse and you are as tiny as a figure in an architect’s drawing, a faceless splotch, a blur of stick limbs abandoned in some voluminous desert of stone.” Those sentences are basically Russian nesting dolls of metaphor/simile. I don’t want it to end.

In Kathy Fish’s book, Together We Can Bury It, she writes, “We say shit and stamp our feet on the pavement, shoot breath from our nostrils like morning horses.” And later, “Slide into each other like river otters.” In Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon he writes “Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald writes in her novel, The Way The Crow Flies, “She rejoins the crowd and watches with her friends, but she feels like an emptied glass—that crestfallen feeling of walking out from a movie theatre in the middle of the day, out from the intimate matinee darkness and the smell of popcorn, which is the smell of heightened colour and sound and story into the borderless bright of day. Bereft.” And “As abrupt as a flock of gulls, a squad of young men jogs past, white sneakers in double-time, billowing singlets and blue shorts, sweat stained cadets all sinews and Adam’s apples.”

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, uses such tiny folksy metaphors/similies, I find myself underlining and starring and dog-earing a lot. “Pretty as a small brown hen” and “I feel as though I’ve gone hollow as a soap bubble, and perhaps I shall burst with joy.” “She said, in a voice like metal shavings” and “the gentlemen of the Court descended upon me like a flock of parrots on a ripe passion fruit.” “Sun glinting on his hair as though on a trove of gold and copper coins.” “He stared at me intently, like a snake hoping to fascinate a bird.”

In her collection, The History of Vegas, Jodi Angel writes “The river was like white noise on a television station without reception. And “her body was wide as the open prairie” and “The highway shimmered like a broken bottle edge on the beach.” Mary Gaitskill writes in her collection, Bad Behavior, “Daisy was silent and frail as a cattail” and “Her dark hair fell across her face with the graceful motion of a folding wing.”

Of course metaphors/similies shouldn’t be overused—you don’t want to wear your reader out. Sometimes things simply are what they are and they don’t need fancying. But when it works, it really works for me. Something like Galbaldon’s “he looked like an autumn leaf, swirling joyfully wind-borne,” can really lift a piece—a little puff of air that keeps a sentence-feather from falling to the floor.

I read these, study them and try my hand at them, as well. (This is not me comparing myself to these wonderful writers I’ve mentioned. This is me sharing my process with you.) In a story of my own called “Absolutely” I wrote “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read.” And in another called “Whiskey & Ribbons” I wrote “the thought of kissing him is there snapping back and forth like a clean white dishtowel hanging on a clothesline in the wind of my cluttered mind.” In “Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars” I wrote “His heart is a heavy, loaded gun he hands over to me, lets me spin on my finger.” And in “Making Cowboys,” “She shoved all of her feelings into the overflowing suitcase of her heart, sat on it and smashed it down so she could close it, snap it shut.”

In order to grow as a writer, my advice is to do other things. Anything, everything. Pay attention. Look for new ways to compare one thing to another, read the writers who are good at doing what you want to do. Be kind and take it easy. And when you do sit down to work, work as hard as you can. Fight for it, be open, change your mind, be awfully stubborn. Get better and submit and stand back, get out of your own way so your story light can shine.

One of my favorite spots for writing advice is Roxane Gay’s Tumblr but not only for the writing stuff, but also because of how she approaches the process, blending it so effortlessly with the rest of her life. Roxane is a genius (and I don’t throw that word around often) when it comes to being able to engage readers. She writes about writing and books and current events and she also adds a personal touch, mixing writing tips in with recipes and what she’s making for dinner that night. It’s a joy to read. That’s the thing about writing. I wouldn’t have much to write about if I weren’t paying attention to current events, reading work by writers I admire, laughing with my husband on his way home from work, making dinner for my family. Writing is one tiny part of wholeness; life, tessellated—chunky pieces of bright blue and amber and green and black coming together bit by bit to (hopefully) make something ravishing.