Monday, March 13, 2017

Love for Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Love is a transformative experience.  We know that.  We assume that those we love must be in our lives, pushing us, prodding us, arguing with us, supporting us in order to feel that transformative power, but this morning, as I cry my eyes out over the death of a stranger, I’m coming to realize that what we love--even if it’s distant, unknowable, and other--can still transform us.

This story begins perhaps eight years ago.  I read a review of a memoir, The Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  At least, I think that’s how I found it.  A best of list, a must-read list, I can’t remember anymore.  But it had two things that meant a lot to me--encyclopedias and ordinary life--so I thought I would like it. 

It didn’t take long to read. I shared excerpts with a friend who was writing a memoir.  I ate it up, I loved it so.  I read all the time--five, six books a week, more if it’s poetry or children’s book week.  But I don’t always fall in love the way I did with Amy’s ordinary life.  I don’t always find the website of the writer.  I don’t always order every book they’ve written from the library.  But I did after I read Amy. 

I had my MFA.  I wrote memoir and poetry.  Then, I stopped writing.  My second child, born eight years after my first so that I would have time to continue writing and building my writing career, was on the autistic spectrum.  He did not sleep.  He was challenging.  He needed a lot of outside support.  I stopped writing.  But when I met Amy (through her book), he was in middle school and doing much better.  I had time to myself again.  I had stopped writing for adults, but had begun to study books for children, picture books, mid-grade novels, science books.  I had written a mid-grade novel over one summer and fallen in love with Kate DiCamillo.  I was thinking about writing for children.  I was studying writing for children. 

But Amy’s memoir inspired me.  Maybe, I thought, I should go back to that work.  I didn’t know anyone who wrote for children and adults. 

Then I went to Amy’s website.  And under her umbrella (yes, it's really an umbrella)—books for kids and books for grown ups. 

Maybe, I thought to myself.  Possibly? 

I read Amy’s picture books, I liked them as much as I did her Encyclopedia.  I kept writing, doing my work--writing poems for adults and picture books and novels for children.  Occasionally, I wrote poems for children, but mostly they were for adults.  I worked, I read, I learned.  Every so often, I’d visit Amy on her web page, just to see what she was up to.  To check in with her the way I did with friends on Facebook or through email.  I ordered her new books, watched the Beckoning of Lovely videos.  And then, one time, I found the PantoneProject website.  Ohhh, color.  I submitted a picture.  I submitted a story.  Amy published my picture.  Then, Amy published my little prose poem/story. 

I had not published anything in fifteen years.  But Amy thought my writing was good enough.  Okay, I’ll admit, I don’t even know if it was Amy who was doing the selecting, but I felt like I knew her. When she accepted my work, I felt like she had seen me and found me to be lovely, to be good enough.  The best writers make us feel that way, don’t they?  Like someone can see inside us, like someone cares enough to show us how to live. 

After that, I had more courage.  I sent out more poems.  I finished books.  I went back to Amy’s site when I designed my website.  (I still think she has the best website ever.)   

Poems got published, agents said nice things.  I wrote more.  I’m still trying to find an agent for my picture books.  I’m still submitting poems and waiting for more yesses than nos. I'm still writing, creating, imagining.

When I was younger, I completed an MFA.  Leslie Ullman and Ben Saenz cheered me on.  But then my writing life went on pause.  When I was ready to start again, Amy cheered me on.  Not because she knew my work, but because of who she was--an energetic, inspiring, openhearted person who seemed to share all of herself with the whole world.  Who didn’t seem to think she had to fit anyone’s idea of what a children’s writer, a memoirist, a videographer, a community organizer was supposed to be.  Amy cheered me on without ever meeting me. 

I’m heartbroken.  I’ve cried for nearly an hour, and even now, my eyes are getting a little blurry while I think again of a world without Amy.  The love she poured into her books and into her projects has transformed me.

But though I’m bereft at the thought of a world without Amy, I’m also happy to know that her work is still here.  She’s left a little part of herself, indeed she’s left as much as I’ve ever known of her behind.  She will still teach and inspire others.  

I’m sorry for her husband, for her children, for her friends.  And I’m sorry for Amy. I have a feeling she might have liked to say more to this world during her time in it or maybe just wanted a little more time. I’m sorry for her readers.  I’m sure some of them, like me, are sitting at their computers and crying as if they’ve lost a friend. 

And I’m so glad she was my friend.  A friend I shared so much with.  A friend who led me to my best self.  A friend who transformed me with her love.  A friend I never had a chance to meet.  Sweet rest, Amy.  Thank you so much, for encouraging us to be more, to do more for others.  Thank you so much, for everything. #LoveForAmyKrouseRosenthal

Saturday, February 18, 2017

On No

Screen shot from Duotrope 2/18/2017.  Poems sent this month. 

I hate the word no.  Ask my husband, my children, my friends.  I hate it. 

And it’s not that I was spoiled as a little girl.  I wasn’t.  Indeed, no was a frequent companion.  So as an adult, if I hear no too often, I fall into a well.

That makes it challenging to be a writer. Working on my resistance to no is one of the primary self-advancement tasks that I’ve set for myself this year. 

Even before this year, I’ve been working with my aversion to no.   Still--no, we don’t want these poems--no, we can’t represent you--no, this group, fellowship, etc.  is not for you--hits like a punch in the gut. 

I hate NO.

So, I’m practicing my own aversion therapy.  This month I’ve submitted 120 poems to very low acceptance journals (<1.5% acceptance rates) with quick turn-around times.  I’ve gotten 38 no’s so far.  But I haven’t stopped there.  I committed to sending the poems back out to another journal without compunction, without revision.  I’ve been busily checking off my submissions, posting them on Duotrope, and trying to smile when I send the poems off to the next journal. 

But today I woke up cranky.  When my husband asked what was wrong, I told him I was sick of no.  As an antidote, I sent out 31 more poems.  I’m feeling a little bit better.

I’m a writer.  It is a given that I will hear no more frequently than I will hear yes.  I’m trying to make friends with it.  I’m trying to remember that it’s not about me.  I’m doing my best work.  I’m sending out excellent poems and children’s stories. 

I’m looking for the audience that will say yes.  I will find it if I can wade through enough no's.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Life in Paper: Organzing Poetry

© Lori Gravley 
I know, many of you reading this are digital natives, and you’ve totally figured out how to do all this work without ever killing a tree.  Me, I buy recycled paper. 
Essentially, my paper file management for poetry mimics my computer file management. Computer file management comes first, but the paper management is essential for me. 
I have one giant notebook with three sections: Submitted Work, Work to Submit, and Published. 
I keep that published section because it makes me feel good, but it also means that I have paper copies of every single poem that I think is good enough to publish.  I created this before I began putting my book of poems together as a way to track my work that felt more concrete, but having this notebook made the process of putting my book together much easier.
Within each of these sections, I’ve arranged the poems in alphabetical order. 
The biggest drawback of my paper system is that it’s not portable. It lives on my desk.  I may take it to a local coffee shop once in a while, but usually I have to work on this book on my huge dining room table. 

I wish I could let it go, but I can’t.  Indeed, I was quite stuck in my progress on my book until I committed to and found a paper system that worked for me.  If you feel stuck, you might give a simplified paper filing system a try. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Resource Sharing: Reading as Research

Check out the amazing presenters in this year's ReFoReMo.
Early in 2016, I found a link to something called ReFoReMo (Reading for Research Month).  I promptly signed up.  After all, since I'd committed to reading 1,000 picture books in 2016, I might as well get the most out of them.

Boy, did ReFoReMo help.  A wonderful community of writers shared tools for keeping track of reading, approaches to texts, and success stories from authors who had truly turned their reading into research for their own stories.

I discovered some of my new favorite picture books during ReFoReMo last year, and I look forward to seeing what I'll discover this year.  Sign-ups start on Feb. 15.  I have my calendar marked.  I hope you'll join me.

Find out more at ReFoReMo 2017.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback.  Image © Lori Gravley
I’m in a couple of wonderful picture book critique groups, and I’ve been critiquing for nearly 25 years.  I have a set of rules in my head, and I follow them.

In one of my groups, a member was feeling as if she couldn’t critique.  She didn’t know what to do or how to begin.  Leslee Anne Hewson shared two amazing resources.  The first is an overview of Critique Groups on Kidlit 411 which compiles links to a variety of resources.  The second is a list of Twenty Questions to Ask a Picture Book from Rachel Hamby.

These are wonderful resources, full of suggestions and things to think about, but they don’t focus on attitudes and mental approaches that can be the foundation of successful critiques.  Here are a few attitudes that it’s helpful for me to remember before I sit down to critique.

1.  It's the writer’s story.  It’s important to keep your critique partners intention for the story in mind when you review. Let’s say that a writer writes a story in rhyme.  You know rhyme is hard to sell, but you also see plenty of rhyme in the books you read. 

A good partner won’t try to convince the writer to rewrite in prose. Instead, a good partner might identify places where the meter or rhyme seem strained.  After all, it’s clear that this writer intends the story to be in rhyme. In this instance, it’s also important to find the story and the character as well.  I may not write in rhyme very often, but I know stories, and I have a trained ear.  So, I wouldn’t ask the writer to rewrite the story in prose, but I would ask questions and make suggestion so that my writing partner can write the best rhyming story possible.  Not only by thinking about the rhyme but also by thinking about the story as a whole. 

One of the hardest but truest critiques of one of my rhyming stories was that my story didn’t seem to have the narrative power for a book.  If my partner had only been looking at my rhyme, she might have missed the fact that the story wasn’t living up to a book-length narrative promise.  Her comments, hard as they were to hear, honored my intent.  I had to go back into the story and reexamine the narrative and character arcs.  Those tough comments helped me see the weaknesses in my story that the fun rhyme were covering up.

2.  Look for what’s going well.  I have to start here. I graded papers for so long that sometimes the negatives can take over.  I become a walking red pen.  I have learned to find the good in the story first.  This good appears both in my overall comments on the story and on the line edits.  I note lines that make me laugh, lines that seem just right, and lines that inspire me.  I always begin my critique comments with justly deserved praise, both general praise and specific praise, since general praise can sometimes seem false and generic if not backed up by specifics. 

3.  Find the places of tension.  Most drafts have places that slip—the voice changes, the language gets too formal or too casual, the story moves away from what seemed to be its intent.  Identifying those places of tension can show the writer where she might go back into the story to make it better.

4.  Don’t feel like you need to solve the writer’s problems.  If you have a suggestion, share it, but if you see a problem but don’t know how to fix it, feel free to just identify it. 

5.  Be careful with line edits.  Line editing can be helpful if a story seems nearly there, but if a story needs more work or some big revisioning, then line edits aren’t really helpful.  You can point out grammatical habits and vocabulary that don’t seem to benefit the story.   You might focus on words that can be deleted, but for the most part, in my critique groups, we’re still working on the big questions:  audience; tone and voice; beginnings, middles, and ends; etc.  If the writer is working on revisions, line edits can just be a distraction.  In my groups, if I think a story is mostly ready and I only want line edits, then I’ll ask.  

6.  Know that the writer owns the feedback once you’ve given it.  It’s a gift.  If they don’t find it useful, that’s fine.  You did your best and your comments helped the writer see her story again.  You don’t have to worry that you’ll give bad advice.  You don’t have to worry that you haven’t been hard enough.  The whole point of critique is to help the writer see the work again.  What she does with that work once she’s read your critique are up to her. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Magic of Everyday

Just like drinking enough water, immersing myself in words for some time each
day makes me happier and healthier.  Image © Lori Gravley.

I met with a poet I much admire this summer, and when I told him I aimed to write a poem every day his response was that he wasn’t sure that was a good idea. 

But he was over ten years younger than I am with four published, award-winning books. He has young children still at home. He has papers to grade and lessons to plan. Perhaps for him writing a poem a day or aiming to would be stifling, impossible, narcissistic.

My children are grown. I don’t have to grade or make lesson plans. I don’t expect that every poem I write will sparkle with wit and genius. Sometimes I know that what I’ve written as a poem is merely a journal entry with right hand line breaks.  But I have I don't have the patience or time to just sit and think about writing anymore. I hate to think about all the lines that have flown back into the universe because I was sitting and thinking but not writing. 

I’ll admit, I played with the idea last year that writing a poem a day might not be good for my writing (I even went days without writing a new poem), and, well, I did not find that to be true.. 

My best days were made better by thinking poetically, trying to find the beauty, the nugget, the word to catch that day or moment. My worst days were made better or at least made visible by my willingness to sit with what was and try to find the words to describe my suffering or ennui. My everyday was made better by my attention to the world and to my own interior life on a daily basis. When my children were younger and I had papers to grade, I could go months without giving myself that attention. 

If what the poet I spoke with meant was that writing a wonderful or even good poem everyday might be too high a thing to aspire to, I can fully agree with that. There is much dross in what I create each day. 

Sharon Olds mentioned during a talk on her recent (and wonderful) book Odes that she could never tell if a poem she was writing would be good or bad, so she just wrote a lot and let her judging self determine value after the generative work was complete. She estimated that fewer than ten percent of the poems she wrote were publishable, but that more might be brought to that point with some careful revision. That seems about right to me. 

Very few of the poems I write and rewrite each day (I do work on the poems until they are as close to what they seem to want to express as I can make them) are publishable just as they are. Most likely, that number for me is much fewer than ten percent. More poems have a nugget or spark that seem worth working with. The others (the larger percent of them) are just practice, free throw shots that hit the rim or glance off the backboard.

I guess I’m an artist who requires a lot of practice. I’m so thankful that I have space in my life now and the yearning to learn as much as I can about this craft I’ve devoted most of my life to.  Perhaps like Pablo Casals in his late sixties, after so many years of work, I’m happy to come to my craft each day. I, too, feel I’m making daily progress. Most importantly, I continue to take joy in my ability to do the work and in the time I have to do it.