Archive for the ‘Writing life’ Category

Finding the right question

January 21, 2009

I have begun compiling agents. From acknowledgment pages, from people, a few here and there: the list is short, but I’m beginning to find places to look. I’m researching the names I have, which begins straightforwardly if they have websites. I have more work to do along these lines, likely a lot of it, but I’m getting on to the next step, and that’s the hard part.

It’s the one most of the guides I’ve found don’t talk about. When I was job hunting, the first part was self-reflective: defining what you were looking for. The second part was networking. You have to ask questions — but you have to ask the right ones. What I’m looking for now are the questions to ask.

The best way to find an agent or a job is to know someone who knows one. When I was looking for a job, I learned how to ask for help so that I didn’t intrude. The right question was: would you talk with me for ten minutes about what you do or do you know anyone I might talk to?.

When it comes to agents, there are two standard approaches I can see. The better and harder one is to find a person who can recommend me to an agent. The other is the query letter. In the first, in some cases, a variation on the job questions may work. In the second case, I think the right question is a variation on: may I tell you about my book.

It isn’t would you publish my book. I’m guessing here, but I know it frustrates me when someone gets in touch with me at work and says, ‘would you write a story about about me?’ I can’t answer that question until I know more about them; it’s no good asking until they have told me what they are doing and why it’s exciting.

And I want to make the offer. I just put that into words, and there are reasons behind it. I want to feel confident in any story I assign. Anyone is welcome to give me story ideas, but no one is welcome to press me to commit to a story in a hurry. What I run is my responsibility, and the people who want stories from me don’t know the constraints I’m working under.

Once, I asked for information from a PR rep, and she wrote back to say she had set up an interview for me. This put me in an awkward position; I had wanted color to fill out a press release, but there were a number of reasons why I could not have written or run a story about her organization and event then if I had wanted to. I had to write and tell her to cancel the interview.

Some questions can close a discussion before it begins. So I can appreciate that it is important to ask the right question. Ask it as well as possible — ask it at the right time — ask it knowing that agents want good books the way I want good story ideas, and that we both want good writers. But find out how to ask it.

I say this humbly. I’m a brown trout in a beaver pond, and I like it that way; I know these are pilot whales and humpbacks and belugas I’m trying to call, and that’s why it feels so large. But whale song is a marvel when you can hear it right.


School’s in

January 11, 2009

My weekly magazine hit 40 to 48 pages a week shortly after my last post here. It stayed a weekly magazine, 16 to 24 pages, through the first week in November. And then I plowed through the last five chapters of the fourth draft of my novel. So my prediction in June came out right, and likely will as long as I have this job: in summer, I’ll have less time to write here. But now it’s a new year.

And I have a book to sell.

Yes, it still needs work. But there comes a time when you have to try to do something with it regardless. It has a structure now; it has the shape of the book it will be. Revisions won’t mean taking it apart and putting it back together, as the last three drafts have done. So it’s time to start working on the next part.

I went down to the local library and checked out most of its books about literary agents. That makes four, all five to ten years out of date. (Any that look useful I’ll look for in an updated edition.) I’m trying right now to get a sense of how the process works. It’s huge, and I’ll need to break it into manageable pieces, but I can’t cut it til I’ve got it assembled. (Like pie.)

So I’m going to be talking a lot about it here. As I figure out what I want to know, especially if the books won’t tell me, I’ll be thinking things through here, trying to figure out how to act on it and what questions to ask.

Here’s a start. (more…)


June 15, 2008

It’s summer, and I have fallen headlong into my new job. I’m sorry for the break in writing here. In May, I got bowled over by a flying calendar, 72 pages’ worth, and since then my quiet three-page weekly section of the local paper has bloomed into a weekly magazine, 24 pages and counting.

So this blog will run on a kind of reverse academic schedule for the forseeable future. Whatever writing time I carve out over the summer I’ve been saving for my novel. But I’ll still be here when I can.

There’s a pleasure in absorption. It’s finding out what I can produce, and holding each magazine in my hands when it’s finished. It’s walking through new buildings, and reading my freelancers’ hikes up trails three miles from here that I’ve never heard of, and getting to tell people about them. It’s sending a staff writer off on his first trail ride and hearing him laugh about it afterward. I feel that I’m doing good work.

And in the cracks, when I’m walking home late on a deadline day, blissful because it’s done, sometimes somewhere along the wood fence by the stream in the park I pull out a pocket notebook and jot a note about my own book. My novel is always with me, and it hasn’t stopped reminding me that the hardest chapters are here already.

I am loving this season for its bareness. Mixing bread dough in the morning, barefoot in pajamas, I gloat when the stretched neckline of the old shirt I wear slides over my shoulders. I’m loving the blue haze of mountains, and I’m loving the headlong rush of work, most of the time. In part for the way it makes me think, and carefully finger all my spare moments, and for the way it keeps me here.

It’s easy to be impatient in a new place, in a new job — to want comfort and company all at once, and to feel I should be doing more, faster. I still have five chapters left in a draft I wanted to have done in May, and I’m still single, and I still haven’t planted snapdragons under the front window or oregano by the drain pipe. And I’m still laughing at myself. You see what I mean?

Too much absorption can be dangerous. But all the same, if you never let yourself fall wholly into something, you never stretch yourself wholly. The greatest joy of graduate school was to let myself love the work I wanted, and choose it, and knock myself silly finding out how to do it. Now I’ve done that, a few minutes by the stream in the dark, and a few hours writing longhand in my arm chair, will keep me going weeks at a stretch.

Without that time to want it openly and think it through, I wouldn’t be able to see the work clearly. I feel more firmly myself for it. So I’m wishing, for many people I know, enough sleep, and enough spurring from like minds, and enough space, and enough time to fall in love.

World enough and time
For Rachel on her birthday, March 21, 2008

When you are walking wide streets under palms
or leaning forward at an outdoor table,
let the sun steep you in the gentle heat
of argument. A breeze lifts linen from you.
Bowls of dates hold corners of translations,
and muezzins call, not far away.

People from all reaches of away
felt with you the soft, dry shade of palms
and read with you translations of translations.
They cupped a flame and blessed a sabbath table
and left that flame to live today with you.
Hold to your forehead that absorbing heat.

This afternoon you will run the first heat.
The canopy has been folded away
and all the courtyard beckons bright around you.
Drink among the orange trees and palms.
Talk begins like rain around the table,
and you begin to write your own translations.

Among you, you will write your own translations
as once Toledans quickened in the heat
a university around a table
with a hundred definitions of away.
A ladder rung leaves friction on your palms.
Stories out of stories will enthrall you.

Classmates chant a blessing, turn to you,
laughing with the quick joy of translations.
Clap and sing contemporary psalms
until your palms are glowing with the heat.
Now within time, every here and away,
every sabbath table is this table.

Swallows’ shadows fly across the table.
Dusk has cooled the courtyard stones while you
were rapt, while you were looking for a way
to unite the root and all translations,
imprint the dates, the swallows and the heat,
this communion touching palms to palms.

Let palms inscribe your palms then; let this table
heat in the sun and brand its knot holes through you:
translate away from love — love from away.

Why I love New Hampshire (a companion piece)

March 6, 2008

My Eagle Pond post I meant, but thinking back now, the tone has a touch of New Hampshire curmudgeonly in it. In Hall’s dozenth essay, he’s asked to write about “why he hates Vermont”, and the essay is finally published under the title “Why I Love New Hampshire”. He felt curmudgeonly too.

So here, to go with my last wrestle with his book, is another response to it — here’s what I love about the state we’ve both lived in. Some of it is also what I love about western Massachusetts, and some of it is not. New Hampshire, even in the fast-growing coastal region where I lived, can feel farther from anywhere except Quebec than the Berkshires ever do.

When I woke in New Hampshire, I could look backwards out the window, up the undersides of white pines. Hemlocks grew all along my street, protected somehow from the southern blight. My landlord played the piano one floor up. He also tuned up the snow blower every fall and cleared the driveway all winter; he is in his eighties.

When he moved there, and Orchard Drive still grew an orchard, his children got to choose a special Christmas gift. They got moccasins and taught themselves to walk silently over all the stone walls. Coming into town, you drive by the stable to get to the University visitors’ center. They have one of the earliest agricultural schools in the country. When the wind sets right, you can smell the dairy barn, or the sea.

It has bizarre and beautiful kinds of open-heartedness. It is the only state I know of whose second language is French. Its coastal living history museum contains glassware from a brothel. Its sugar houses hold music jams to mark the start of maple season. I know a farm with a log cabin sauna, a church that held a group ceremony after Civil Unions came into effect, a community where people get together to paint each other’s houses.

I love the individual stubbornness of New Hampshire. People do things by hand, there. People repair old things and craft new ones. Ordinary people play the fiddles their grandparents’ left them: often fiddles their grandparents made. In the city on the coast, the houses have close set clapboards low down, as though the walls were sliding into themselves; they stand up against the weight of snow.

People don’t forget anything, there. The best people I know there are the kind of people you want with you when things fall apart. Hall, and a close friend of mind from grad school, call it a high tolerance for eccentricity. I would call it the kindness of people who have seen everything go wrong, deeply wrong, and don’t pretend about it. People who know what grief is, and don’t confuse it with anything less, and have gotten through it somehow… they aren’t afraid of someone else who is facing it.

People work hard. College freshmen from mountain towns may not know how to read a syllabus or take notes, and their parents may not know why they are trying, but they try hard. College may be only a practical step on the way to a job. Or not. For people with jobs, hours a week or health insurance may not matter. The people involved may matter, or the work that gets done, inside the day job or out of it.

New Hampshire doesn’t compromise well. New Hampshire values everything — including land — by its current use. New Hampshire has more young orchards than young people. People pick 50 pounds of peaches at a time and preserve them. New Hampshire was the first place outside New York to circulate the Moosewood Cookbook, when the Moosewood was xeroxed and even more outspoken than it is now. The vegan restaurant on route 4 serves locally grown kale 365 days a year. The college students run their own organic garden and sell five kinds of basil down by the science buildings.

It’s as hard to explain love for a place as for a person. I spent nearly four years there, eating its icecream and crossing its wide spans of bridges over the bay, admiring the conductors’ brass buttons in the old railway station, and learning to write in landscape dimensions, and playing its music. It will always be the place where I learned to write a novel, and to play dance tunes by ear. I like who I was when I was with New Hampshire. And some days I miss it powerful much.

Armed with poetry

February 8, 2008

Last weekend, I spent a day with the AWP.

Friday afternoon, I drove through sleet and farm country to a train station smaller than the train —six feet of baking heat behind glass, four wet benches, a patch of parking, and long lines of mountains. And I got on the train and got off in Grand Central.

My sister gave me most of the floor in her dorm room to sleep on, and half a sandwich at her favorite café, and a ticket to Rock and Roll, the new Stoppard play. It’s Czechoslovakia in the 1960’s right after the tanks went through. The narrative feels like a playlist deliberately at times, a series of short, scored scenes. Music tells the story and moves the plot; people betray for it, risk arrest for it, talk with it, learn indifference from it and let it move them to protective kindness and courage and passion.

And the play feels feels — contemporary. The hippies are outgunned and scared. Communism is not always unsympathetic, but it is inefficient and cold. And the narrative follows two stories in two places, among a crowd of people, across two generations. One actress plays a wife in act one and her grown daughter in act two. How many novels can you name that use that structure, a crowd of characters and a hundred years? Middlesex; Little, Big; A Hundred Years of Solitude….

I have a theory about the modern passion for writing novels across generations. Most novels want some kind of hope of continuity or union — most novels have both comic and tragic structure, things falling apart and things coming together. The early novelists had humanism and heaven and clan kinship and the family name, kinds of continuity that America manages to deny a lot of the time. But we do still have children.

I started out to write this post about poetry. A lot of Stoppard qualifies, at that. I’ll never forget the night I saw Indian InkLike Radha, most beautiful of the herdswomen, undressed for love in an empty house. But I did also, on this Saturday, hear poetry and prose beautifully read. Here’s a sampling.

Returning from limbo

February 8, 2008

Hello again.

This blog has taken a rest in the last month. At New Year, I funnelled my former apartment into boxes, carted them over the mountains, and began a new job in an almost new city.

It isn’t a large city; from my driveway, I can look clear across the top of it to the opposite ridge. The ridges are blue and unbroken, and the buildings on the main street are barely five stories high. This is a city that stopped growing upward around 1920.

I have lived near here before, a half hour north and four years ago. But it takes time to reroot from a cutting. The move has left me down a desk chair and at least two bookcases, but all my kerosene lamps are unpacked; things even out. And the park next door has an arboretum and a public garden. There may be roses. I have high hopes.

And I walked home from work to clear my head, and I am officially returning to this writing blog again. Now that I have two jobs, it is even more important that I keep up with this one and keep writing.

This “all” feeling

November 6, 2007

You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.

Herman Melville wrote this postscript in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851, at the height of haying season. Melville’s “Whale” would go to press in a few months. He was in the grip of a blue devil and half turned away from the idea of this blending into the touch of growing things, but he turned back again to explain it further. I have felt it too, and I’ve been trying, tonight, to figure out how to explain it to someone who has not.

I have only ever found two of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, in the Berkshire Reader, and they make me wish for more. I love to think of one grown man saying to another, after a fourteen hour day of labor, “you know what it’s like when you lie on your back on the lawn….” It’s an open pleasure, like jumping into leaf piles and whistling on acorn caps, a child’s game in the woods.

Of course, Melville had just spent all day, and all the days and weeks before, pitching cut alfalfa and clover into a pine board wagon and stacking it in a barn, to keep his horse alive through the winter. No wonder he had grass on his mind. (Don’t laugh.) But if he had written this passage as carefree as a boy, or as a farm hand after a long day, I would not have remembered it today, four years after I first read it, and felt drawn to pull it off the shelf again. It means as much as it does because he wrote it as a man, with a nagging soreness in him like toothache, and still he remembered.


Lay of the Land

November 3, 2007

The Kenyon Review blog posted yesterday a challenge from W. H. Auden to writers of criticism and evaluation: to describe our ideals, so that readers can judge our judgments. In this journal, I plan to talk about books I like and why I like them, about writing and conversation, about the places I walk and the people I meet in them, about whims and facts and stories that are new to me — and I invite you to evaluate it.

Auden describes his ideal place in a list. Here are my answers to his categories.

A living one, a system of systems. People walk barefoot there, and plants grow — lady’s slipper, pipsissewa, chestnut trees a man can walk through upright when they fall and hollow. The Mohican language classifies words as animate or inanimate, having or not having a soul, as other languages call words male or female; in it, mountains are animate.