You can see my review of Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, for the Los Angeles Review, here. Thank you to Joe Ponepinto for setting it up. Here in this post, you can hear me read two passages from the book, below.
I love the Romantic poets, and so I’m introducing their poetry to you, in a five-part series. This is part four, on Percy Bysshe Shelley.
These are complex writers, and so I’m using a particular method to give newcomers to an entry point to their poetry and their ideas about poetry: the Wordsworth method. This method assumes Wordsworth as the central Romantic poet, and introduces the other poets (Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, and Blake) in terms of how they differed from him, how they strove to distinguish themselves from him.
[Read more…] about Introduction to the Romantic Poets: Shelley (the Wordsworth method, part four)
I well know the feeling of not having enough time to write, or (worse) having the time, but lacking the energy or will. And as I am about to start a PhD, which will involve teaching, studying, and writing (both scholarly essays and fiction), I have been curious about techniques that might make some of this work easier.
Ideally, I would simply become more productive, a la Getting Things Done, or via intricate reminders and to dos. An easier option, however, is to off-load some of the work to someone else. I’ve been reading about “outsourcing” in a couple of different places, primarily in Tim Ferris’s The Four Hour Work Week, and from Sean Platt, over on the Digital Writer.
It is, after all, a peculiar notion that a writer should do everything herself. An old master like Rembrandt worked with varying amounts of assistance from pupils, whether or not the final painting bore his name. Stephen Sondheim insists that he collaborates in each of his musicals, leaving the story design to someone else. And Dumas wrote each chapter of The Count of Monte Cristo from outlines drawn up by Auguste Maquet (as dramatised in Safy Nebbou’s film).
The simplest approach to outsourcing is to draw up a list of the things you really love doing and the things you really don’t, and see how cheaply you can employ someone else to do the latter. That way, you are doing more of the activities that energise and satisfy you, and fewer of the ones that sap your strength. On websites like Outsourcely (see comment below), fiverr and Guru, freelancers post what they can do for what price (in fiverr’s case, it’s a five dollar fee). Once a freelancer has a certain number of recommendations on the site, they should be reasonably trustworthy, and file sharing sites like google docs and dropbox can make it easier to share work with an assistant.
Speaking for myself, I struggle to submit stories to magazines. I have no problem entering writing contests, but general submissions trouble me. The process clearly activates something negative and uneasy in my head. It might be worthwhile–through meditation, self-discipline, and therapy–to fix this deficiency in myself, but it might be simpler to pay someone else to submit work to magazines on my behalf.
A less commercial approach to outsourcing would be the Monte Cristo route–to split the creative process between two people. I have done this once with a writing friend: I asked him to read a particular Steinbeck short story and then to send me an outline for a new short story, with different characters and in a different setting, but structured similarly. I have begun the story, and the writing has so far gone very well.
I would be curious to try this for an entire novel–each of us describing an idea, a setting and a list of characters, and the other then providing chapter outlines. After the first draft, one could obviously alter anything that felt off, but the first draft would be done.
A third option revolves around the “Tolstoy’s Wife” approach: someone else hassles / begs / forces you to write. If a “wife” is not available, one idea would be to agree with a friend that you both will enter, each day or week, a certain number of words or pages in a shared dropbox folder. Why strain under the mental double-duty of having to write and having to motivate yourself to write? Outsource the motivation. (I like 750.com‘s badges for this, too).
A fourth is potentially illegal, and so I would check local privacy laws before trying it, but, speaking as a teacher, I can’t help thinking how useful help with marking student essays would be, which is for me is more draining than actual classroom teaching (which I love). For each class, one could produce a detailed expectations / grading rubric sheet for students, then explain the sheet to an assistant, and have him or her do the initial sweep. Grading would then be a process of double checking someone else’s assessments–much less tiring. How much writing time could you regain if you received four hours help with each lot of marking?
One last method: outsource to a future version of yourself. We are more complex than we know, we are all legion, and different parts of us seem uppermost on different days. Some days, the imagination is full of new thoughts; some days, typing for hours is easy; some day nothing comes out at all. With that in mind, it may help to hand each day’s imagination the sort of work it most wants to do. I have been trying to get better at writing down and elaborating new ideas when they come, or, during the days when my backside feels at ease in a chair, to draft, one after another, a few of the blog posts or mini-essays that I have previously sketched, leaving the polishing for a day when polishing feels right.
Does any of the above disturb you? Does it seem too “un-artistic”? What methods do you use?
P.S. If you are looking for a virtual assistant or outsourcer, another company to try is Outsourcely. They contacted me and asked to be added to this post:
Outsourcely aims to connect millions of remote workers around the world who are looking to establish long-term relationships with employers who are looking to fill long-term remote work and build sustainable working relationships.
Employers seeking for the most talented remote workers and freelancers around the world can hire directly and pay zero commission fees, while remote workers can look for stable, long-term remote jobs with a great employer and pay zero fees with Outsourcely.
May is short story month. The web journal Fiction Writers Review is covering the month in a series of posts and reviews–I recommend checking them out. For myself, I am interested in using the month to spur and prod new writing of my own.
I’m convinced that we could all be more productive, more creative, if given the right push (“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite,” says Blake), and so I am settling down to write, or at least begin, a lot of new short stories during story month. The ideal would be to write one per day (like this), but I have other responsibilities, such as finishing my novel and learning French, so I may just write 500-1000 words of something new every day I can.
Here is your challenge: propose a story idea for me. I will begin it during the month. Any situation, genre, idea, historical period, tone. Whatever you like. I will be happy to email you what I produce, although it will probably be bad (I usually require many re-writes to reach ‘competent’). And I will dedicate the final version, if it comes into existence, to you.
Looking forward to your suggestions.
This post is an interlude in my short introduction to five of the Romantic poets: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Shelley, and Keats.
There are good reasons to consider the Romantic poets “romantic” people, poets who cared a lot about romantic love and longing, and not just Jane Campion’s film, Bright Star, about Keats and Fanny Brawne, which the New York Times called, “perfectly chaste and insanely sexy”. It struck one reader as strange, in my comments to an earlier post, that I didn’t consider Bryon a central Romantic, when clearly one of his slower weekends was probably more romantic than most of our lives.
Wordsworth, after all, wrote:
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
And Shelley eloped with Mary Godwin, Keats wrote myths of love in Endymion and Lamia, and Blake said that the apocalypse “will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment.”
On the other hand, the term “Romantic” was not meant at the time to describe a particular fascination with romantic love. It was intended as a contrast with an older vision of poetry and art, the “Classical.”
WJ Bate offers this definition of the “classical” view: “art is an imitation of nature.” In the classical view, art’s job is to reproduce, in its ideal form, what is out there in the world. The artist’s own psyche is of less interest than his or her efforts to produce cleanly and clearly the facets of the external world.
The Romantic, in contrast, is concerned with the emotions, the imagination, the process by which the mind forms its own reality. The poet, then, is not a editor, re-ordering the pre-existing world into a clarified form, but a creator, a human God, whose individual imagination creates the world afresh, and whose intuitions survey what lies beyond it.
Now, this is just the scholarly description. It might or might not be useful. But it does, I think, throw light on a peculiar feature of many of the most famous poems of the English Romantics: the speaker or protagonist spends most or all of the poem alone.
In poems like “Autumn,” “Intimations of Immortality,” “The Ancient Mariner,” and “Ode to the Western Wind,” we do not meet very sociable people. When one’s poetry is meant to explore the functioning of the imagination, one’s focus necessarily turns inward. When one wishes to merge with a supernatural force beyond the physical world, one cannot spare too much thought on girlfriends. When outside relationships disturb this solitude, either they ruin it, or it ruins them.
Blake’s poetry is a little tricky to put into these boxes. Blake used a constellation of dramatic personae and mythological characters to dramatise the conflicts within the human self, the conflicting forces that he believed keep us all in bondage to nature, natural reason, and death.
But Lord Byron’s romantic poetry may suggest that he was not wholly a Romantic. He remained too interested in other people.
AWP was less challenging and overwhelming for me this year, partly because I knew what to expect. Imagine three huge halls, in an unclear spatial relationship to one another, each filled with dozens and dozens of tables and displays, promoting and selling literary magazines, MFA programmes, and independent presses. Among these tables walk thousands of writers, people who want the same thing you want, who may be geniuses, who may be frauds, you forever wondering in which camp you fall, while in side rooms, talks are going on about literature and teaching and publishing, and, across the city, that night, are parties and readings and networking dinners.
I was extremely glad to have come with the Story Quarterly table, which gave me a little status in the nightmarish crowd (AWP whiffs a little of the unpleasant air of haves and have-nots) and as soon as I arrived at the conference, early Friday morning, I found (with difficulty) our table, and, finding it not yet occupied, I began selling.
I love it.
I love selling the journal at AWP, as it brings out the gregarious me without invoking his sullen, moralistic twin, as might happen were the product more expensive. What was funny was that all weekend, people complimented me, and, when he arrived, my friend Matt Blasi, on our sales technique. My teachers and classmates watched me talk, and, slightly amazed, often began giggling at key moments in my pitch, or yelled out a price of their own devising. Neither intervention was helpful.
This next fact is worrying: many, many people, as we chatted, suggested that no other table had really worked to get them to buy, or even look at, a magazine. I spent a lot of time wandering that floor, and I would agree that at best, four or five tables, out of dozens, made any effort to impress their magazine or book on me. Rose Metal press, Dos Passos, Rougarou, the Florida Review, Ploughshares, and a few notable others tried to engage me in either their work or the process of being that work’s editor. The majority seemed to consider it my duty to be interested in the stories and poems they published.
Here, in contrast, is my sales method, which has been very successful both years I’ve been to the conference. I’m lucky to have a reasonably big-name product, but with different words, the same process could be used for even the smallest magazine or chapbook (I would then stress personal involvement, authenticity, smashing convention). The goal is simply to distinguish yourself from the noise of the fair.
First, catch someone’s eye as they meander past. Anyone who avoids looking, or is pacing at speed, ignore. Let them go: you don’t need them.
Say to the slow, with a smile, “Hi.”
If that gains you their attention, ask,
“Do you know Story Quarterly?”
This usually gets the customer to come to the table and pick up a copy, leafing through its many pages of fiction. I found that speaking a little quietly worked well, as it forced people to step closer. Then, once they have a copy in their hands, and are admiring its firm binding, say:
“Do you write fiction? You do? I could tell. You didn’t look like a poet. They wear those funny hats. If you are a fiction writer, you need to read Story Quarterly. It’s a distinguished literary magazine, been around for decades, now run out of the Rutgers-Camden MFA—if you find anyone in this hall with white hair, and ask them about Story Quarterly, they will cry a little because they admire it so much. It isn’t easy to get into, but we take submissions all year round. You should sign up to our mailing list. We’ve got distinguished, established writers in here, and completely new writers, too. Madison Smartt Bell, Adam Mansbach, Paul Lisicky. And we’re selling it at a big discount today.”
The person asks, “How much?”
“Okay. Normally, it’s ten dollars. But today, we’re selling it for half price: two for ten. You get both the latest and the previous issue for just ten dollars.”
Later, we ran out of issue 43, and so the deal changed to simply half price.
If the person says, “I’ll come back later,” say, “All right, but last year, we sold out. I had to kill people just to keep the last copy in my hands. So come back early.”
If the person says, “I’ve already got too many magazines,” reply, “Throw those other ones away.”
If, “I’m a poet,” then say, “Move along. We can’t help you.” Poets love it when you say that.
I also, while walking around the bookfair, mentioned to other journals that I was working on the SQ table, and that we were selling at a big discount, and apparently a few people did come by, one mysterious individual throwing money at my colleagues and running off with a copy.
Other great lines I heard:
From Ploughshares, “This competition’s so good, I want to quit just so I can enter it.”
From Rosemetal: “You buy this book (the Field Guide to Flash Fiction), and the worst thing that can happen is you end up with six great new pieces of flash fiction.”
On Friday, one young woman asked me, “Are you even allowed to sell things at AWP?” She was mistaken, of course, but had walked through the bookfair in order to reach my table, so had managed to continue believing this after passing twenty or more stalls. This, I think, is a worrying sign, in American Literature’s biggest annual market for small presses. Over and over that weekend, I wondered about this literary world, which often seems determined to produce writing that is not intended to be read.