29
Oct 13

How to Ask for Money as a Poet: A Drama in Ten Parts

1. Start by actually writing poems. Find that you’re sneaking in writing time wherever you can get it to fit.

2. Realize you have a book inside you.

3. Get really excited you have a book inside you.

This is what excited looks like.

This is what excited looks like.

4. Apply for artist residencies so that you can have the uninterrupted time and space you need to get that book out.

5. Get accepted to said residencies (if you’re lucky).

6. Realize you need money to help fund residencies.

7. Get nervous. Consider not going to residencies if you can’t afford it. 🙁

8. Tell friends why you’re nervous. Listen as they encourage you to ask for money. Furrow brow. Frown. Smirk. Make awkward face.

This is one version of awkward face.

This is one version of awkward face.

9. Fret for a few months about the prospects of asking for money.

10. Realize this project means more to you than any other before. ASK FOR THE DAMN MONEY.

P.S. Thanks in advance. 🙂


19
Sep 13

A Day in the Life: Here’s What a Day of Writing Poetry Looks Like

In my last post I talked about taking myself on as a client, trying to schedule my own writing time while working as a busy freelance editor––which is easier said than done. In the mean time, I had been wanting to visit The Head and the Hand Press, a local small press that also functions as a writing space. I am already a member of the awesome co-working space Indy Hall, but the buzzing atmosphere there tends to inspire me to hustle and bustle with my freelancing business and not to sit quietly and write. I liked the idea that I could go to this other place where I could spend the day only working on my own writing.

Last Wednesday I found myself with a rare day off. I wasn’t expecting a new project to arrive until Thursday and I just completed another one. No more excuses, I told myself: make it your writing day. So here’s my account of how it went down.

11:00am: Leave the house. Yes, my day sometimes starts this late. Though I recently challenged myself to start waking up much earlier to get to the gym, last week I was on my waking-up-late schedule.

11:00–11:45am: Flier for the Red Sofa. Since I’d just had postcards printed for my poetry workshop, I went around my neighborhood in West Philly distributing them to advertise. Writing day has yet to actually begin.

11:45am–12:00pm: Drive to The Head and the Hand, which is located in Fishtown. This involves getting on the I-95 North, which as a native New Yorker I find amazing and bizarre: I can take the highway to get from one neighborhood to another in Philly.

12:00pm: Arrive at The Head and the Hand. Off a raggedy looking street, I see the icon on the door.

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12:05pm: I enter up a staircase. The place is very quiet. This is alarming at first, but then I remember that this is a good thing. This is what I came here for.

12:10pm: I am greeted by Claire, the creative manager. I immediately get into a conversation with her and ask for a tour of the place. There’s no way I’m about to start writing yet.

12:30pm: After the tour and more chatting, I decide that I have procrastinated enough. I set up my laptop at one of the adorable, hand-made writing desks. I take a moment to let it all sink in, just looking at my writing space: the light, clean wood, the little yellow flower in a jar. I smile to myself and inhale deeply. This is what having time and space to write feels like.

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12:40pm: I take out the book I brought with me for poetry inspiration: Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples. I have been reading books of indigenous mythology as a way to help me write poems that address climate change (more on that in future posts).

Northern Tales2

2:00pm: I have read and read and read story after story just waiting for a spark, and it finally comes. I land on a striking image and decide it’s time to follow its lead. I set the timer for 30 minutes and begin to write.

2:30pm: I have written a poem.

2:35pm: And it’s damn good.

2:40pm: I keep writing past the timer.

2:45pm: I finish up my hand-written draft and type it into a Word doc.

2:50pm: Bask in the glow of a really solid first draft.

2:55pm: Revise that draft a bit.

3:00pm: Notice someone else has entered the room, a fellow writer and editor who is also a member of Indy Hall.

4:00pm: Get “lunch” with said writer/editor at Soup Kitchen. Yum. We chat about our former publishing jobs in New York, about what we’re writing and what we’ve been editing.

5:00pm: Head back to Head and the Hand for more reading. No more writing happens today, but that one poem took a lot out of me. This is hard for people who don’t write poems to understand, I think.

6:00pm: I see a tweet from Twitter-and-now-real-life friend Trina, saying that she is at Head and the Hand. I turn around and she’s right behind me at the desk across the room. We giggle and take a picture together that later surfaces on Instagram. I marvel at the Internet.

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6:10pm: Now the space is starting to fill up with writers. I feel cool cause I’ve been writing ALL DAY. But of course by writing I mean mostly reading all day, with 45 minutes of actual writing.

8:00pm: Everyone gathers for Workshop Wednesday. We snack on Oreo cookies and red wine. We chat about the latest Woody Allen film, which is awesome by the way. We chat about the whole history of Woody Allen films. I somehow start preaching about my love for creative non-fiction. Head and the Hand editor Linda Gallant passionately explains why the narrative arc of Breaking Bad is brilliant. I tell myself I need to get back into that show, even though it scares me. I talk about how Maria Popova is going to speak at Kelly Writers House next week and that she has the best website ever. Claire agrees. We gush.

10:45pm: I get in the car to go home. The feeling that comes after having written––not unlike the feeling after exercise––settles into my brain, a sweet and quiet buzz. I have spent more time reading and talking today than writing. But that’s all a part of the writing process. And I wrote. A damn good poem, I’d say.

 


09
Sep 13

How Hurricane Sandy Got Me Out of My Writing Rut

Sometimes it takes a hurricane to get yourself out of a writing rut. For me that’s exactly what happened.

I had waited out the hurricane safely in my apartment in West Philadelphia. Though we had prepared by stocking up on bottled water, cans of soup, and a really freaky weather radio, we had power the whole time and even, shockingly, there was no disturbance to our satellite dish. We basically watched the hurricane on TV. I was terrified. The wind was loud, and the rain sounded like doom. I watched my hometown of New York City get flooded. I imagined how I would have gotten to work if I still lived in New York and still had a full time job. I watched the Jersey Shore get smashed. I heard the news of the young woman who got crushed by a massive tree in Ditmas Park, while walking her dog in the hurricane. The dog was fine. That was my old neighborhood.

Needless to say, I felt alarmed, helpless, and frightened. We’ve known about climate change for quite a few decades. I learned about global warming in school, growing up in the 80s and 90s. I had always been a nature lover, recycler, Thoreau addict. But the terror of climate change did not really hit me until that experience of being stuck in the house for three days, wondering when and how hard Hurricane Sandy was going to hit.

In the mean time, I was in the middle of a long and painful “writing rut.” Since I’d received my MFA in 2007, I had continued writing new poems, but it was a struggle. I was working on revising and rearranging my first book manuscript, which after six years of tinkering with has been a finalist and semi-finalist in a number of first-book contests, but has still not found a home. The new poems I was writing felt disappointing to me––imitations of my earlier work. I kept at it, but never felt enthusiastic about my new poems.

My husband felt my frustration and tried all kinds of tricks to get me writing more consistently again. He bought me a beautiful, teal Underwood typewriter off of Ebay.

IMG_3067We had even tried doing little writing competitions, where each of us took turns doing a writing exercise (he’s a chemist, not a writer, so it was easy for me to feel awesome when I “won”). Finally, I started using the typewriter to compose new poems. One of the first that came out was “Sandy Beaches” (pictured, and very much unedited, below).

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I had finally started to get my groove back. I began writing more poems in reaction to news on climate change. I also began to discover elements of indigenous mythology related to the ocean that led me to writing a series of myth-based poems. It has been amazing to see these poems come to life, as if each one were giving birth to the next. This is the state of flow that I had been missing for quite some time in my writing practice. And I’m basking in the glow of it.

So I ask you, dear reader, have you ever been in a writing rut? What has gotten you out of it? I’d love to hear your stories!

 


26
Mar 13

The Rhythm of Work and Rest: How the Pomodoro Technique and Keeping Shabbat Have Improved my Editing

focus

I was recently talking to a computer programmer friend and commiserating about the difficulty of focusing. As an editor who often spends hours and hours in front of a computer screen staring at words, I wanted to be able to focus better and for longer. As a computer programmer, my friend shared the same issue. When working on a project, whether it’s writing code or editing a book on engineering, distractions arise, specifically internal ones. Internal distractions can take many forms, like wandering thoughts, but we both agreed that the pull of the Internet (checking email, Facebook, etc.) was a big one. Then my friend introduced me to the Pomodoro Technique, which I admit at first sounded kind of hokey. But it is a popular technique among computer programmers, and now that I’ve started benefiting from it, I wonder if many other editors and writers use it as well.

Before describing the technique, I want to note that the discovery of the Pomodoro Technique came about around the same time that I reinstituted a practice of keeping Shabbat. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Shabbat is the day of rest in Judaism, based on the idea that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day. Shabbat starts Friday evening and ends Saturday evening. Traditionally, there’s a whole long list of categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat. But some people choose to acknowledge the day in a modified way. My husband does a lot of computational work as part of his research for his PhD, and he was finding himself burnt out. He knew that I used to keep Shabbat years ago, and suggested we try to do so together (he’s also an atheist, and isn’t Jewish, which I think is a great example of the appeal of Shabbat for many of us in the modern world, regardless of belief system).

We agreed to do a modified form of Shabbat, a “no-screens” Shabbat, in which we simply refrain from using phones (particularly Smart phones), computers, and TV. In just a few weeks we’ve already gotten into the rhythm of the practice and are enjoying a much-needed day of relaxation once a week: eating a home cooked dinner, seeing friends, reading, playing board games, napping, taking walks. It’s really simple and really effective.

The Pomodoro Technique (created by Francesco Cirillo in 1992) functions similarly to Shabbat: it, too, is based on the notion of the rhythm between work and rest. The foundation of the technique is quite simple: You work on a task, say, editing a chapter of a thesis, for twenty-five minutes, then take a three to five minute break. Then you resume either the same task for twenty-five minutes, or move on to another one based on priority. (The technique has a bit more to it than that, though the bare bones described above are enough to get started. I highly recommend this book, which explicates the details of the technique and its benefits further.)

I am already seeing the benefits of this technique after a few weeks of practice: my ability to focus is improving in a profound way. The brain really gets trained to the cycle of focus and rest. I spend my five minutes of rest simply absorbing the information I just worked on, or relaxing with a quick game or a gaze out the window or a stretch/walk for five minutes. When I come back to the task, and I’m “in the Pomodoro” (as practitioners call it), I really feel a difference in my level of focus. Before I began using this technique, I would take breaks at will, but sometimes after working for two hours straight or sometimes just ten minutes. The regularity of the twenty-five-minute set is much more sustainable.

It’s a lot like the twenty-five hour period of Shabbat, but in microcosm.

I have yet to try this practice for my writing (well, except for right now, as I’m writing this blog post “in a Pomodoro”!). But I imagine it could be an excellent technique, particularly for novelists, essay writers, and bloggers.

I would love to hear from other editors or writers who use this technique or think they might benefit from it. Does it work for you, in practice or in theory? Why or why not? How do you train yourself to focus better? Please discuss in the comments.


19
Mar 13

Blog Hop: The Next Big Thing

Thanks so much to Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick for tagging me in the Next Big Thing. Most of the poets tagged in this blog hop have discussed new books or works in progress. While I do have a brand new set of poems that I’m excited to be working on, I don’t think it will be a manuscript for another year or two. So for now I would love to talk about my Next Big Thing, which is not a book but a workshop. The interview questions are tailored for my specific project.

1. What is the title of your project?

My project is a brand new literary gathering that I’ve launched. It’s called The Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop. It will take place twice a month at my home in West Philadelphia, replete with homemade vegetarian food and a supportive environment for discussing poems.

2. Where did the idea for this project come from?

The Red Sofa is an actual red sofa. It was the first (and only, so far!) sofa my husband and I bought when we moved in together back in Brooklyn, where we originally met. We got the sofa at a Macy’s furniture outlet on Long Island (for a great price!). The sofa quickly became a favorite of friends and guests, who would sometimes languish for hours at our apartment in cushiony bliss.

3. Who and/or what inspired you to create this project?

After I graduated from the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence in 2007, I started hosting informal poetry workshops in my apartment (and at friends’ homes) with fellow alumni. The workshops always involved homemade food, wine, cheese, and crackers. But more importantly the workshops were a chance to share new poems in a safe and supportive environment with a trusted group of readers and friends. Loosely based on a traditional MFA workshop format, we offered both praise and critique, highlighting what was working in a poem and what could be tweaked/revised.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I quickly set up shop as a freelance editor. Most of my days include revising, commenting on, and querying the carefully chosen words of scientists, anthropologists, philosophers, musicologists, and even poets and memoirists. But I often miss those workshops in New York, and the idea for establishing a salon and poetry workshop here in Philadelphia began to evolve in the back of my mind. Finally, in 2013, I decided to take the plunge and make this vision a reality.

4. What’s your workshop philosophy/style?

My philosophy is that we learn best how to write by reading. That’s why I structured the workshop to include an hour of discussing published poems. We will look closely at poems we admire and discuss how the poet achieved what they did, and what lessons we can glean from these poems to use for our own writing practice. I will offer optional writing exercises that emerge from the poems we read, for poets who need a little spark to get their writing going. We’ll spend the second hour workshopping poems in a fairly traditional workshop style. My perspective as an editor both of academic and literary work is always to pay close attention. To me, paying close attention as a poet means having both razor sharp vision and a finely attuned ear for the musicality of language. We can train ourselves to look at poems this way, and I believe as poets we must always do so in order to hone our craft.

5. Why did you choose to offer this workshop at your home?

The red sofa in my living room is the physical and metaphorical focal point of the workshop. Physically, it’s quite comfortable. Metaphorically, I wanted to create a space that is safe and supportive for our work as poets. Sharing poems, especially fledgling drafts, is sometimes a scary and vulnerable act; but our poems deserve the attention and feedback that can come from a great workshop. I think having the workshop at home makes it a more welcoming environment for this important work that we do.

6. Why food and poetry?

Why not? I remember back at Barnard College as an undergrad I used to attend poetry readings in Sulzberger Parlor. The room itself is really fancy looking, with oil paintings on the wall and old furniture. And they always served wine, cheese, cookies, and fruit at those poetry readings. Aside from enjoying the free food in college (sometimes wine and cheese was my dinner!), it also created this strangely elevated ambiance. It felt special to be at the poetry reading, to be fed delicious food. There was this feeling of sustenance as I tasted the flaky crackers and strawberries. It felt like poetry could be an equal kind of sustenance as well.

I have picked the following writer to respond to this blog next week:

The awesome Elana Bell, whose debut book of poetry I can already tell you is amazing!

 

 


17
Feb 13

Marketing Gurus Shmurus

For this hesitant blogger over here at BlogPhobia, it may be unsurprising to discover that I don’t read blogs all that often. Most of my aversion has to do with general information overload, in addition to trying to squeeze lots of other things into my day (like yoga, exercise, meditation, writing, researching, working on my lit journal, actual paid editing work, oh, and even cooking, cleaning…). But I did take the time to read “12 Social Media Mistakes for Authors to Avoid” and delighted in its frank and helpful advice. I found myself nodding in agreement with how annoying all those faux pas can be — especially spamming someone’s Facebook wall with promotions, blogging works in progress, and thanking people for follows. The person who wrote the post clearly has more experience than I do in both blogging and tweeting, so I’m always drawn to advice of this sort.

I tend to be fearful of spamming people with my own announcements, so I hope that my natural hesitancy has allowed me to avoid some of those aforementioned faux pas. The dilemma that many writers face is that we learn quickly that we must become friends with self-promotion if we want our work to be read––not even sold to the masses, but just read. Part of the advantage of being a poet is that, at least for me, it’s engendered a sort of “purist” attitude toward self-promotion, particularly using social media for self-promotion, and particularly measuring success in the sale of books. I’m sure folks will see me as way too much of a purist to be offering any kind of useful advice, but in my own defense I was so glad that the blogger of the above mentioned post said the following:

“I think authors have probably learned their most irritating habits from ‘marketing gurus’ who tell them they’ll make more money if they’re just ‘bold’ enough to use social media ‘like an expert.’ ”

I sighed with relief when I read that statement. When I first joined Twitter and started perusing some of the advice for writers spinning around the Internet, I found the proliferation of advice on using social media for book marketing to be somewhat panic inducing. In a way, I almost think advice in that vein is meant to be alarmist in nature: as a writer, you are taught that you must take marketing into your own hands (which is true), but then you must follow all these rules, keep up with so much information, and make worrying about your use of social media part of your job. At least, that’s how I felt when I encountered such advice.

I do not like being pandered to by so-called marketing gurus. I take my advice from other gurus, and that advice usually teaches me to process information in mindful way. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t market ourselves as writers, but we should do so mindfully. And it’s not that we should be above the idea of selling books, but that we shouldn’t see ourselves as marketing machines. If I have written something that I think matters, I will try to share it with the world in the various channels available to me at this particular historical/technological moment. But that is not my agenda as a person who communicates in writing. My agenda is to put what I love out into the world, whether that is my own work or that of others (through my lit journal or promotion of writers I admire).

If I had to add my own small drop of advice to the sea, I would say a good dose of self-awareness and integrity should be a part of any marketing campaign. We are not trying to trick people into buying books, but to share what is good. I think social media can be used for that kind of good, if we remind ourselves to take our finger off the panic button, and remember why we are writing in the first place.

 


10
Feb 13

On Guest Blogging (the easy way to blog for blogphobics)

In the near future I will post a link to a guest blog that I wrote for an organization that I deeply admire. It reminded me of that fact that before I started my own blog (a mere few days ago!) I did do some guest blogging on occasion. I realize that part of the appeal of guest blogging, firstly, was that I was flattered to be asked by a friend to contribute to their blog. But more so, guest blogging feels like it has that editorial stamp of approval—a topic that matters to me, and that comes up in my soon-to-be-published guest blog post. If someone has asked me to contribute to her blog, or if my work has been accepted by a journal, I feel legitimized. This is a feeling that many of us writers seek out—hence the endless attempts to get published. And hence the initial squeamishness some of us have about self-publishing, though it’s clear that self-publishing is taking on a new and exciting life of its own (a topic for another blog post at this humble, non-blog blog).

As a writer and an editor, I’m on both sides of coin. My work as an editor both professionally and for my literary journal sharpens my critical eye, which can be very helpful for my writing. There are times, though, when the editor in me gets in the way of the writer in me. I start composing the draft of a poem and can’t get past the first few lines cause I’ve already backtracked and started editing. This applies to my essay writing as well, which has tended to be slow and careful. That may not be a bad thing, but I know there is a certain amount of freedom that comes from simply allowing oneself to create that first draft, without judging. In a way, hesitantly allowing myself to publish my own blog is my way of offering myself that invitation to freedom. Without confining myself to a particular topic, without desperately hoping to get a book deal or a mass audience, I can return to the roots of my writing process.

Sometimes we feel the need for the approval of others to feel worthy of the work we do. The guest blog is one way to achieve that, and getting published in a venue one admires is a great ego boost. But blogging right here, at my own lonely blog, with the self-publish “button” so temptingly close to my fingers, is a scary thing. It means that I’m trusting myself to say what I have to say, and to provide a space for my words in this world. It means that the stamp of approval is my own, as I hover over the keys and hesitate before I click “publish.”


07
Feb 13

BlogPhobia: A Blog about Fear of Blogging, and Other Random Thoughts

I have avoided blogging for years. I’m a writer. I think presenting writing quickly on the Internet is the opposite of what writing is about. Writing should be slow, deliberate, well-crafted, edited, revised, and should only be published when it’s really ready. So blogging turned me off immediately. However, over the years, I’ve been invited to guest blog occasionally by friends who likely have more faith in my writing than I do (at times). I’m a very big fan of the essay form, and I think some blog posts happen to also be very well-crafted essays. I went to a talk at AWP a year or two ago by essay writers on the use of social media, and many of them seem excited about the possibilities of what different forms of social media can do for writing. One of the presenters talked about Montaigne as the first blogger, and it’s true that the open-endedness of the blog form can work just like an essay that muses, wanders, meanders, discovers what it means to say.

So with that in mind, I want to start blogging. The trend these days is to have a theme to your blog. People like themes. It makes sense, especially if you want to drive traffic to your website and get business, I’m told (though there is nothing appealing to me about the metaphor of traffic, and the idea of writing to make money, is, well, something that has never concerned me as a poet). One of the reasons I’ve never started a blog is because I don’t have a theme. I thought about starting a poetry blog, an editing blog, an art blog, a personal blog… and I am not invested enough in the idea of narrowing myself down to one theme, as though it’s imperative to brand oneself. But, clearly, I have thoughts. And some people out there like to read them, even when I think they aren’t polished enough to be out in the world, shivering in the cold on an empty field in the middle of the Internet.

So I’m going to start this blog, without the promise of a theme, without the promise of posting every single day, and without the goal of getting tons of traffic. In fact, if it’s only read by a few curious souls, that’s almost better. That’s how I always envisioned the audience for my poetry, anyhow. There are probably just a small minority of quirky folks in the world who will get it and love it, and you are my audience, and I am writing for you. I look forward to seeing where this new journey takes me. I invite you to come along and follow my wandering thoughts…