Today I ate lunch alone at a vegetarian restaurant and took
my dog to the dog park to run her little heart out. It was seventy degrees this
morning, a welcome break after a month of staggering temperatures in nineties and hundreds that felt all the more unbearable due to the humidity. Today
was a day off after months in which I had at least one freelance project to
deliver on each day (there are no weekends in freelance).
Today was glorious and slow-paced, a thing I crave from time
to time. I even took a nap in my husband’s nap chair (he uses the chair to read
news, too, but the thing seems magical in its ability to invite sleep). Today,
I got a rejection (one I thought would be an easy get) and an acceptance (a longer
shot – a dynamite publication for one of my strangest pieces ever. I look
forward to posting this new piece of work because I haven’t been writing as
much short fiction and got so used to that sense of completion.
With focus on my novel and my work, I haven’t been
allowing myself the luxury to write much short work. I know I miss it because I seem to have mentioned my dismay on the phone in an interview with SA Express News about After the Gazebo. So I wrote a very short piece, semi-autobiographical (what isn’t – even
at the fantasy level?), and now I feel refreshed. I believe that short fiction writers who dare the novel path should never completely abandon their shorties.
It’s funny, I was planning to speak highly of my novel
during that phone interview, but I think there are times when I can’t even
pretend to like the thing. I love and believe in the story, am proud of it, but
it’s such a monstrous thing—has taking up years of my time and caused me more
than a few uneasy days—that I believe there’s some resentment that has built.
My hope is that ours is a tumultuous, passionate relationship that will end
well. We will part, when it’s time, on amiable terms.
We’re soon to part; I can
In the meantime, here’s to short fiction breaks and seventy
degree days in South Texas! We need all the breaks we can get.
Today’s prompt: Write a story about a retired couple who
drive some distance to a landmark site they’ve been looking forward to visiting
for some time. When they get there, they are extremely disappointed by what
they find and begin to argue. As they argue, a buried secret emerges. *I’m
doing this one myself, as soon as I hit publish on this blog post. Have fun!
Fiction writers need to be good at complicating conflict; we need to find the frailties in our characters and exploit them. We need to make huge messes, in heads or landscapes or due to disagreements. Conversely, we need to keep a good amount of peace in our own lives in order to find the time and space to feed creative chaos.
With routine comes the continuity necessary to raise hell on the page (raising hell being the goal here). But life doesn't always lend itself to routine. Case in point: my life right now. I am a program director at a literary nonprofit, a freelance writer, and a freelance writing teacher and coach. My work schedule is busy and less-than-predictable.
So how to force routine? This has been my project over the last few weeks. After waking up at 5:30AM, then 5AM, then 4:30AM to try to force it; I tried nights. I tried. I failed.
So instead, here's my Midwestern workaround: accepting the chaos and working despite it. If you're making a casserole, for instance, and you don't have a key ingredient it won't matter because you'll find another ingredient. That's what makes it a casserole. Accordingly, I decided to give up trying to find a set time or day to write.
Instead, I tilted my head at the situation and found another way. How about associating place with routine instead? I go to the same coffee shop, the same desk at home, regularly. I go through the same routine, despite time. I have also created my own micro-routines that have very little to do with time of day. So long as every day, I:
1. clear the cache - meaning write with no expectations and no direction for a few minutes in order to clear out all the distracting thoughts.
2. sit down with the same intention at anytime of day (or night).
3. shut down the Internet (close all windows).
4. get coffee or tea - position it close at hand.
5. stick a book on the desk in case I get stuck.
6. open the novel folder. Reread the opening, then pick up where I left off and write a minimum of ten minutes (timed) after which I can either continue on (usually do) or not
7. go do whatever I'm scheduled to do next.
Worst case scenario: I digress and write a short story instead. Okay, that's a lie. Absolute worst case scenario: I don't sit at the damn desk. And if this happens, I will make up for it the next day. On busy days, I remind myself with a To Do type of app that reminds me to check off my writing time for the day.
For a prompt, if you'd like one, I challenge you to spend an entire week (or two - let's face it, this blog is a bimonthly deal now) refining your own routine. In the midst of this anti-routine, I challenge you to rewrite an existing story from an alternate perspective (another character's). You can do this with your own story, or with a story you admire. Something entirely new should arrive on the page, either way, something only a hell-raising writer could create, something full of the good stuff of fiction, allowed by the good stuff of life.
Before heading to a mini-conference at Gemini Ink on "How Writing Transforms Community," I changed my clothes three times. I'm always semi-tempted to wear dresses, then don't. They're not me (on most days), and although I was nervous about heading into this event and presenting on behalf of Gemini Ink's Writers-in-Communities Program, a program I believe in deeply and am proud to direct but am just getting to know. I had to go in as me.
And perhaps this is the reason I was so nervous. To quench my nervousness, I watched my absolute favorite TedTalk, The Art of Being Yourself, and sat for a few moments in silence before heading out. Because sometimes we just need to remember to say fuck it and be ourselves. Especially when we care about what we're doing.
Presenting alongside such strong community voices as Aaronetta Hamilton Pierce and Jennifer Bartlett, as well as an inspiring panel by Our Lady of the Lake's Writing With an Emphasis on Social Justice program, I quickly realized we all had the same stance - writing can be empowering, and we need to use it as a tool for communal growth and change. Funny how nerves step aside when you believe in what you're doing.
I took this job because I believe that writing—or any
developed creative output for that matter—once a part of our lives, becomes a
companion, and this companion transforms our view of self and our ability to
communicate. Writing, delivered by a passionate and driven teacher, can lay the
foundation of transformation not only on an individual level, but on a
community level, because the pain that many hold it, once released, loses power. Meanwhile voice, one shared with others, gains power.
While listening to others present and even when introducing my own panel and hearing/sharing stories of teaching in communities, I was reminded to reevaluate my own work for value and voice. Where am I holding back? Where am I taking the easy route? Where am I ignoring issues?
I'll add pics from the event to this blog as they come in. In the meantime, in lieu of a writing prompt, I'd like you to think about what writing really means to you and how you can use it as a tool for change or awareness. Something as simple as inserting a scene that confronts a current societal issue or something as complex as telling your own truth in a memoir, will get you there. As an exercise, try to write about something that's bothering you but you'd like to change - do it in narrative form. Taking stock can help us get back to the root of why we do what we do. It can also only work to strengthen our voices as artists. xo Jen
Roatán, one of the three bay islands off the coast of
Honduras, was the destination of my first international trip. My husband and I left on
Independence Day. The island, which is about fifty feet long and anywhere from
one to five miles wide, is primarily known for its scuba diving and eco-tourism.
I over-prepared in many ways (see packing and vaccinations) and under-prepared
in others (see packing). Because I was meeting people there, not going to a
resort or fancy hotel, I got a good glimpse into the day-to-day of the island. In
seven days, I managed to eat quite a bit, snorkel, explore, hike, visit West
End, West Bay, Coxen Hole, and Flowers Bay. I heard stories and myths about the
island, heard horror stories, and I slept comfortably without air-conditioning.
I heard the ocean in my dreams.
The ride from airport to the cabana near West Bay was marked
by a runaway cow that three kids were chasing, a few close calls with cabbies on
steep hills, and a lot of shifting of gears. Thing is, it didn’t seem road rage
was as much of a thing – more a thankfulness that you aren’t creamed. The turns
and hills were endless and sharp during that first half-hour drive. At the tops
of hills, we could see the ocean on both sides. At the bottoms, there was a lot
of loud breaking. We passed hitchhikers which, I would later learn, are more
commonplace than exception. “Pick them up… they’ll knock on the window when
they want off,” we were instructed. So later, when leaving the West End (nearby
West Bay but a hell of a walk), we picked up three people on our way home who
waved happily toward the bottom of West Bay before we arrived at our temporary
home. This brings me to the first recommendation when visiting the island.
Road to Flowers Bay Methodist Church
1.Explore (drive with care)
The roads are cracked and tough, the homes are candy shell
bright, and the food is inconsistent, but when you find a place that’s good it’s
really, really good. We visited Flowers Bay the second day, where
my father had walked a few miles from Keyhole every day for months (some years ago) to design and create
stained glass panels for the Flowers Bay Bethesda Methodist Church, a historical building, that sits a quarter mile
from the ocean. It’s side door remains open, inviting the saltwater breeze.
Stained Glass by Mark Knox
In full exploratory mode, I sat in church for the first time
in twenty years, confused by the quiet, aloof manner of folks before and
comforted by the way they opened up as they began to sing and share stories to
buy time – then more time – because the preacher didn’t show. Nonetheless, it
was a heartfelt service, marked by only one unfortunate event in which a man
with a dreaded beard yelled at a dog from outside the open door then picked
up a large rock as the dog continued to bark. He yelled toward the church,
nonsense, “the false prophet,” they called him. I wanted to run out and throw
the rock back at him, but he was crazy and at the same time a part of things
more than I was. I needed to be respectful. He was a crazy part that ran off,
and the dog didn’t appear to be hurt – it too was long gone in the other
direction. This bit of ugliness was quickly remedied as my father was mentioned
in sermon, called up and thanked. The singing got better as the service went
on. The preacher never showed but a few women stepped in to see the program to completion. We navigated the street above on the way there and back.
By the end of seven days, we had seen much more of the island and had eaten here and there and, well, everywhere. I recommend you do the same.
2.Eat and drink widely
Foster’s (on Foster’s stretch of the beach) on Lobster Night
and Mangiamo’s for breakfast (a corner store/breakfast nook that has amazing
breakfast and lunch) were my favorite places. In fact, Fosters again for
afternoon coconut shrimp and rum punch. I heard Oasis was wonderful too, but I
missed this meal when taking a night to explore the West End—the divers’ spot,
it seemed—for a night. We ate apple-bananas, the best papaya in existence, and
island sugar in our coffee.
The second day we were there, we had a barbeque and saw more
of the tropical jungle—just enough—and were told story upon story of the land
we stayed on, up the hill from West Bay. We had island lettuce, a buttery dark
leaf, on our sandwiches. We tried to get Monkey Lalas on video (Monkey Lalas
are clumsy lizards that run rampant on the island. I saw one run into a coconut
tree and get right back up only to run away faster on its back legs). There is
a drink named after these guys, as well there should be, and the Monkey Lala, a
sort of Mudslide with banana, is the island drink to try for tourists. Think
dessert and drink in one.
3.Zipline (there are many options – I recommend
After ziplining (another first – quite fun), we met a man
who expressed anger at the mainland, said the crime kept trying to bleed over
but “We won’t let the corruption in. All the drugs over there … shame. The
drugs will make you kill your entire family.” He went on. He said Roatán won’t
let that happen, the island is too strong. I hope so. I saw a crease of worry through the anger and wondered what had happened, exactly, to make him so angry. Honduras is the murder capital of the world, though not often given much mind in international US news. I wouldn't have known if not visiting the island.
4.Snorkel (but check your gear before you go – a
bad fit or bad buckle can mean no gear)
The island brings in money, mostly from tourists, and yet it
remains largely undeveloped. The ecology is notable. Don’t step on the coral. If
you dive, swim with the dolphins (one thing I’d like to do when I return),
snorkel or even swim out, be respectful. In many areas, it seemed the economic
stimulation felt both necessary and in direct opposition to the natural beauty.
Small piles of trash can mean small tears in this pristine, picturesque
5.Park carefully if you rent a car
We got a parking ticket, went to Municipalidad de Roatán in
Coxen Hole. Coxen Hole is worth seeing, but I’d recommend not going to the
Municipal unless you have to. Downtown traffic was so bad that my
father was able to get out, find a policeman, walk to the building and pay the
ticket by the time we parked. The officer he walked with, however, was very
nice and ensured the boot was removed from our rental before we even handed
over the Lempira. Luckily, we had a backup ride, or that could have been a day
gone instead of a few hours.
6.Take a water taxi
The short ride from West Bay to West End costs about $150
Lempira ($20 lemp = $1 dollar). The highlight of our trip was when, halfway,
the driver yelled at us to put on our vests. “I’ll get yelled at. Marines!” he
said. We grabbed the soggy vests and indulged, laughing as we watched the
looming ship pass by, imagining this anxiety-ridden driver getting yelled at as
though by a parental figure.
7.Listen to stories, tell stories. There is no
need to make things up.
There were stories of love, of those travelers falling in love with the island, and those who only want to leave getting the opportunity to travel themselves. There were sad stories of bodies washing up on the property shore after Hurricane Mitch (1998), toys and clothes appearing in quantities from the
mainland. Útila, another of the Bay Islands that currently hosts a research center for
whale sharks, was torn apart by the storm back then.
There were stories of magic and fortunetellers,
murder and voodoo, retaliation and myth. There were stories of extortion told over Cuba Libres (rum, cola and lime) as we stared out at the
water crashing yet serene. There was more anger or fear regarding the
mainland, but there were also stories of family there—homes there. The people
we met around town were helpful, showing us around and telling us what not to
bother with. It all made me wonder about the stories I’d hear back home, if I
knew of all that happened in my immediate neighborhood and what could be said
about the violence here that is often unreported or ignored by officials. Development
means structure, but it doesn’t always mean shelter or safety.
Fidel, the Keyhole dog, liked to sit out by the ocean and stare at the waves
We listened. We danced. We climbed laughably steep hills and
felt our hearts reach out for the many free roaming dogs on the island. The
homeless cats. We met a woman from London who said she came to visit and
couldn’t leave. We met a diver: same. Businesses opened on-time or not, so we
waited by doors. We swam and soaked up the sun, and it didn’t sear.
I feel I know the island well already. We haven’t just met,
we’ve dated. Getting to know the island more intimately before 2020, a target
date for doing my part to help establish an artist residency there by this keyhole. This
myth-rich island, with its unparalleled beauty and extremes, is a place every truly
artistic person should visit. Visit with care, visit with art… visit with a willingness to give up what you know for a time and open your eyes (or just go and stay at a resort and soak up the scenery). It's a truly remarkable place.
I have been offering workshops on how to begin a short story, how to revise and polish the story, and how to publish the story for NISD here in San Antonio. Most of the time, my lectures begin with self-evaluation. I ask my students what their goals are as writers, what they currently have to work with (the product or WIP), and how confident they really, truly feel about the work. From there, we construct a plan of action because unlike stock advice, everyone's on a pretty unique journey when it comes to writing. That said, as I developed my notes on the publication process, it felt pretty universal, so I thought I'd share it here at my sorely neglected blog. If anything has come from those prompts I've been posting, this could be useful....
How to submit your stories:
1.Be sure your story is completely done—that it is
polished enough to be published right now. Be sure…
a.you can read it out loud without pausing
b.you have let it breathe (for some that's a few days, for others it's a month or longer - however long it takes you to get perspective on your work)
c.you are truly ready to share – this is a biggie
d.you can summarize your story in a sentence or two;
for example, my short story The Suit (in After the Gazebo) can be
summarized as… A woman’s only reprieve from the unfortunate behaviors of her
meth-addicted daughter is public companionship—she’s everyone’s mom and
friend, the sweet lady on the bus. But on a normal route, she meets addiction
up-close and has to face the anger she’s been suppressing for years.
2.Find a few journal/magazines that publish work in your genre. Here are some free resources that will help
c.Duotrope (subscription of
3.Write a simple and
straightforward cover letter. Don't tell them how you started from bottom, and now you're here, and don't over-explain the story. Offer a summary only if they don't overtly ask you not to.
4.Familiarize yourself with
the journal or magazine’s content (read a few issues - BIGGEST TAKEAWAY FROM THIS WHOLE LECTURE) and also review the
a.Determine whether your
story is the right length, genre, and style
b.Find the appropriate
editor’s name to address your query letter to
c.Be sure to format your
submission appropriately (double-spaced, Times New Roman, etc…)
d.Look for wait times. Most journals will let you know
the average wait time for a response. This can range from a few days to a year.
5.Work on other things as you wait. A
lot of factors go into a journal's decisions ("Another woman who isn't related to anyone I know? Ugh." (Just kidding (kind of))), and even very good work is often
rejected. Keep the faith--the good work with shine through. Keep track of where you have sent your stories. Don’t be afraid to
simultaneously submit work, so long as it’s not against any given journal’s
guidelines. Follow protocol. I learned this the hard way. Save yourself some time. xo Jen