Maya Angelou: Phenomenal Woman, That’s You.

The day before my recent birthday, on May 28, I opened up Facebook to find an abundance of photos of and quotes by Maya Angelou. At first I did not think this odd. For one thing, the very nature of Facebook is that people “share” posts, and often throughout a day or series of days, certain topics become popular as a general shifting focus. The other reason I did not suspect anything amiss was because Maya Angelou was such a strong and inspirational woman, poet, writer, and activist that it seemed only right she would be an influential force in people’s threads. Maybe I was being ignorant or naive, but I had no suspicion she had passed. That’s how normal it felt to see her face and quotations such as these:

  Maya Angelou quote 3Maya Angelou quote 2 Maya Angelou quote 5Maya Angelou quote 1

It wasn’t until a post popped up that showed the dates of her birth and her death (that very day) that I was struck with a ferocity of weighted loss as I realized the reason for all the posts was not merely due to her awesomeness and inspiration but because she was gone from the planet. Immediately tears flowed in an uncontrollable stream as I opened Google news and read the first article I found.

Let me say that while I am a highly emotional person who is easily swayed by sentimentality in books, movies, commercials even, it is not my usual mode to cry over the death of celebrities. Not even writers. I can feel deep sadness and a sense of loss, but tears don’t usually flow. The only other celebrity I actually cried over was John Denver. That might sound a weird choice–as if we actually have the power to choose how we react to such news–but as a child of the ’70s, John Denver’s music had been an influential force that carried over as the soundtrack to the raising of my own small children. But I digress.

Maya Angelou was not a figure from my childhood. I did not read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings until adulthood. I do not share similarities of upbringing: culture, class, race, religion, or regional influences. So why was it that her death moved me to tears?

I think it was her woman-ness. I think it was her general awesomeness of spirit. I think it was her words, her poetry, her soul. I think it was her resilience. Her voice. The way she spoke. Her wisdom, her insight. The way she carried herself, regal and confident and unassuming. I think it was the way she danced. I think it was her passion, humor, and style. And certainly, it was her compassion.

Here she is reciting her famous poem “Still I Rise”:

And for those of you who may have missed it, here is the link to the livestream (no longer live, of course) of Dr. Maya Angelou’s memorial service that took place this last Saturday June 7 in Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University:

Thank you, Maya Angelou. Phenomenal woman, that’s you.


On Working with Editors, Seeking Guidance, and Self-Advocating

A few weeks ago I received an email from a literary journal concerning an essay I had submitted. The email said that the editors had read my piece and felt “very strongly about it” and that the editorial staff was “currently working on revisions to the piece” and would be in touch within the week with their suggested edits. If I approved their suggestions, the email went on to say, they would love to publish the essay in an upcoming issue.

Upon opening this email and finding a response other than the typical “thanks but no thanks” form letter, I was, of course, quite pleased. What a great way to start the day with my morning coffee! While it wasn’t an out and out yes, it was nonetheless a potential. Editors had read my piece and felt strongly about it, I thought. Yay!

Then the anxiety set in. What are they going to do to it? What if they butcher it? This essay was one of my prize creations: a thirty-page, triple-thread, braided essay begun in grad school and finished while in residency at the Vermont Studio Center. I had worked on this piece long and hard, and in submitting it to this journal, I had already cut five pages in order to fit their maximum length requirement.

Only a week earlier, I had received a response from an editor of a different journal concerning a separate essay submission. The editor said if I was “willing to do the work” to rewrite the piece accommodating her suggestions, she’d love to see it again. Essentially, this editor wanted an overhaul away from the style of its structure and also a change of title. I had already put this essay through the wringer with multiple drafts, but mostly I was disinclined to rework the piece because the very things the editor did not like about it were deliberate choices I had made in its construction. After seeking the opinions of several writer friends who had already given me feedback on the piece, I decided against a revision. While the result of obliging the editor’s wishes might have resulted in an acceptance, I felt strongly in the form and structure of the piece I had created and chose to stand by it.

So when I received that tentative “yes” a week later, I knew there was a very real possibility the suggested edits could be changes I would not be willing to make. The flip side was I really wanted this essay to be accepted by this journal, which made me contemplate what sacrifices I might make if I did not agree with the suggestions.

A little over a week later, I got the results. Tentatively, I opened the document to peruse the track changes. All was well for a good long while; the suggested changes were ones I could easily make—changing from present tense to past, adding a bit of structure in the form of numbered sections—but then on page seventeen, things began to shift, and by page nineteen, where it was suggested to move a section of the braided essay to an earlier position, I began to feel the weight of choice. And then on page twenty-one, where I discovered they had cut an entire section, I realized the very thing I was anxious about had manifested.

But wait! This is not a sob story about how yet again I wasn’t willing to make the changes, so I lost out on another potential publication. No. This is a story about perseverance, seeking guidance, and advocating for my work.

Once again I sought counsel. This time from two wise people: both writers who have worked with editors, and one an editor of a literary journal. Both advised me to approach the editors in an easy-going and friendly manner, exhibiting enthusiasm and appreciation for their time and energy in editing the piece and letting them know how helpful their edits were. Then in a gentle manner, succinctly explain my reasoning for wanting to keep in original form those edits I did not agree with. While waiting for their reply, I could decide whether or not I would ultimately accept the edits if the editors responded firmly. The editor of the literary journal ended by saying:

As an editor, I’m totally willing to hear the writer’s point of view and go back and forth. Don’t be afraid to have that conversation with them.

I must disclose here that my husband was very happy I had sought this advice because it tempered my natural fighter response, forced me to slow down my reaction, and encouraged me to play nicely with others. All in all, a very good lesson.

It took me all day to write that email. Although I tried to be succinct in explaining my reasoning, due to the nature of the suggested edits and the complication of the triple-threads of the braided essay, the explanation was not a simple matter of a sentence or two. But in the end, the result was worth it. Three days later I received an acceptance; the editors had agreed to my suggestions.

The big takeaway here:

  • Slow down
  • Take the time to respond with care
  • Seek advice when needed
  • Trust your writerly instincts
  • Don’t be afraid to have the conversation
  • And advocate for your work!

It’s not a guarantee of success, but it’s a possibility.

Pearls of Wisdom from author Robin Black

It’s not quite time for my regular weekly post (have I even gotten to the point of regular yet?), but I had to share a link to Robin Black’s “Twenty-One Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Started Writing …” up at Beyond the Margins.

If you’re a writer, no matter what stage of the writing and publishing game you might be at, there are so many things on this list that will make you nod in agreement or are just plain good reminders that maybe you haven’t consciously thought about but know on a more intuitive level. And, of course, some may surprise you altogether. (A big shout out to Erika Dreifus and her most excellent weekly post “Friday Finds for Writers” for this great recommendation. If you’re not familiar with Erika, check her out. She also publishes an informative free monthly newsletter “The Practicing Writer.”)

At every graduation at my alma mater, Vermont College of Fine Arts, there is a tradition where two graduates read a list called “Pearls of Wisdom,” wise (and often humorous) tid-bits collected by students from their written advisor feedback. Robin Black’s list reads like such a list of pearls. Even if you’re not a writer, there are pearls of wisdom here that cross-over into the realm of being human, not just being a writer. Here’s an example:

Don’t expect perfection of yourself. Do your best. Feel bad when you screw up, apologize if necessary, and don’t let it make you hate yourself. A lot of writers seem awfully prone to self-hatred. Try to cut yourself some slack.

I’d say that not only a lot of writers are prone to self-hatred, but a lot of People are too. And this:

The best you can do is the best you can do.

So there you have it: be good to yourself. And have a happy weekend!

The Triple-A Project: Handwritten Cards in the Mail

My family teases me that the highlight of my day is collecting the mail. It’s true; it’s sort of an obsession of mine, this six-days-a-week trip to our rusty, rural mailbox with its red flag and peeling green paint. Part of the allure is the quarter-mile walk each way, down a gravel drive through meadowland that passes one neighbor’s pond and another neighbor’s orchard, a lush organic farm just beyond and a view of evergreen mountain ridges both near and far.

In winter, the snow can melt and refreeze repeatedly into two channels of slick ice, and the trek then requires thoughtful placement of stout boots with decent tread. In spring when it rains, water often rushes down the ditch beside the road, threatening to crest and wash away the gravel. In summer, the heat can be unforgiving, radiating in thick, dry, suffocating waves. And in fall, well fall is usually just about perfect with its promise of shifting hues in the light and plentiful harvest.

Usually when I open the box and scoop up its contents, I’m greeted by bills or junk mail. Occasionally I’ll find a literary journal or magazine. But mostly, the mail is rather dull, which begs the question why am I so mail obsessed?

I think it boils down to Possibility. Every time I open that front-loading door and reach inside, there is the possibility that among the bills and junk, I will be rewarded, like finding the prize from the Lucky Charms box in my cereal bowl as a kid. Those days when a journal or magazine arrives are such days. But even better are the days—very few and far between—when I am surprised by a handwritten card from a friend.

DSCN5855This last week included such a day when a postcard of an Alaskan landscape painting by Sydney Mortimer Laurence arrived from my friend, Elizabeth, who lives in Fairbanks. In her pleasant and fully legible print, she wrote of skiing around the woodsy trails near town, camaraderie and friendship, and how the approach of spring brings deep thinking and analysis. This is the kind of treasure I welcome on my daily strolls to the mailbox, this illuminated possibility that could be lying within ready to brighten the day.

There is something fulfilling and profound about becoming familiar with someone else’s handwriting, a human trait at once individual like our own fingerprints yet depicting character in the way the letters are formed: curvaceous or blocky, a thin scrawl or deliberate as a firm handshake. Handwritten words carry a super-charge that type in email doesn’t embody, nor never will. It’s close, personal, like a whispered conversation.

The way of the old-fashioned letter in the mail has practically disappeared. Kids nowadays aren’t taught in school how to address an envelope. In fact, they’re not even being taught how to write in cursive anymore. Do they even teach handwriting at all? This shift to the digital makes communication fast and efficient, yes, but what of the charm of special stamps and stationary, postcards and pen-pals? I can’t help but feel the younger generations are losing something they don’t even know they’ve lost in this movement toward a more transitory existence. I mean, who prints and keeps copies of emails as a keepsake?

The awesome folks over at The Rumpus are doing their part in keeping the fine art of letter writing alive with their “Letters in the Mail” subscription. Each month, subscribers receive two letters in the mail, written by authors such as Margaret Cho, Rick Moody, and Aimee Bender, to name a few. Some are typed; others are handwritten; all are photo-copied. They’ve even started a “Letters for Kids” subscription with letters written by well-known authors of middle-grade and young adult literature. Their credo: “We’re helping people appreciate the post office at a younger age.” As to their motivation, this is what they have to say:

Six is pretty much the perfect age to start checking your mailbox. And if you’ve waited until you were ten, well, you’re four years behind but still, it’s not too late. And if you’re sixteen, that’s OK, there’s still something of the kid left. And if you’re sixty, well… OK. You’re young at heart.

I think that’s where it comes from, this obsession of mine. It started when I was a child checking the mailbox—an endearment, a joy, a possibility.

There’s one thing about getting a handwritten card in the mail from a friend. It’s called reciprocation. So full disclosure: my friend, Elizabeth, has written me other cards before this one I received last week, and I have yet to do my part and offer her the same moment of fun when opening her mailbox. (So, Triple-A, if you are reading this, please know that I have something special planned for you, and my saying it here binds me to follow through.)

As for anyone else reading this, I have an offer. With this post, I am initiating The Triple-A Project—handwritten cards in the mail. Leave a comment below if you would like to be on the receiving end of the Triple-A Project and then move over to the “Contact” page of this website (links are at the top and bottom of this page) to message me your address (messages are private and don’t appear online). I promise not to share your address with anyone, send you weird shit, or stalk you. I do, however, promise to send you a beautiful postcard with a groovy handwritten message.

Here’s to keeping alive the fine art of handwritten letters in the mail.

Rejection, Faith, and the Law of Attraction

Today when I collected my mail, the latest issue of a particular literary journal that will remain nameless had arrived. I gathered the assortment of mail, glancing at the cover of this journal, and said aloud with verve and finality: “I’m still mad at you,” albeit in a sulky tone. As if this journal could hear me. As if even if it could, the editors listed inside would care. As if I was a jilted lover holding a long-held grudge. My grudge, however, is not long-standing, only nineteen days to be exact.

Okay, before you start rolling your eyes and thinking “quit complaining and get over it,” let me explain.

First of all, I’m not holding a grudge. (Well, maybe an itty-bitty one. But I will indeed get over it.) It’s more hurt than grudge really. Yes, I know, to be a writer one has to be willing to be kicked more than a few times (like hundreds) and not take it personally, right? That’s the thing though. It is personal because the work is personal. And this essay I submitted that got rejected, well, it was way personal. Probably my most personal. And that’s saying something if you know me or my writing.

Now you might be thinking “serves you right god-damned navel-gazer.” And maybe to a certain degree that would be correct. I mean, if I dare to be confessional in my writing, exposing myself to the deepest core, well, then I’m taking a risk. I’m opening myself up to criticism and rejection, as well as praise and acceptance. That’s just the nature of the world. We don’t all have the same preferences. Thank goodness for that. And this journal that rejected me? They got more than eight hundred submissions. The odds were most definitely not in my favor.

I received this rejection while at AWP, and one of my friends there said “They get a lot of submissions. What were you expecting?” And in one sense, I suppose she is right. With that kind of competition, how could I have the audacity to feel like a jilted lover? Now, that is what I really want to discuss. But it takes some openness to what might be perceived as “airy fairy” notions or “new age-y” ideals. And if that’s an area that you find to be mamby-pamby-shit-talk, then you can just stop right here and hit that big ol’ X in the top right corner.

So that question my friend asked at AWP, what was I expecting? Here’s the truth. I was expecting my essay to be chosen. It fit all the criteria. It incorporated a strong narrative, research, and reflection. It reached beyond the personal into the universal. It was honest, intimate, and true. And to top it all off, it perfectly fit the advertised theme. But once again, there is that question of how could I dare to think, no, believe that my essay would be chosen amongst all those submissions?

Have you ever heard of the film or book—heck, I think it’s probably become a whole entire movement—The Secret by Rhonda Byrne? It’s based on a concept known as “the law of attraction,” a concept also made famous by the teachings of Abraham, an entity “channeled” by Esther Hicks. The short version is this: like attracts like; our thoughts have the power to create whatever we want. If we focus our energy on that thing we want, if we remain positive, not by mere positivity, but by pure belief of imagination, then like attracts like, and that thing will manifest based on that flow of energy. See, I warned you this could be considered some mamby-pamby shit.

Okay, so here is my dilemma. While I awaited the results of my submission, I maintained a positive attitude. But it was more than that. I visualized it. I felt it. I believed it. There was no doubt, not even an inkling. I think what I felt came the closest to what I imagine people who believe in God feel—not that I’m trying to equate my acceptance or rejection to an almighty that millions of people believe in, but more the notion of a belief so strong that you feel secure in that belief.

So here’s the problem. I don’t want to lose my capacity for positive thinking. That feeling I had when I visualized so strongly my positive outcome, it felt good. It felt great actually. But the reality turned out to be different. My essay wasn’t chosen. It didn’t even make the final round. And maybe using this experience as an example for a foray into faith and positive thinking is a silly one, but right now, in this moment, that’s what I’ve got. There are others who are dealing with much worse results than this. A dear friend of mine currently is battling cancer. She’s one of the bravest, most inspiring people I know. She’s had to face challenge after challenge, and with every step she summons strength and grace. It’s not always easy for her, but she does it. And this idea of the law of attraction, if I replace her scenario with my own, it becomes a ludicrous notion. She did not attract cancer due to a lack of positivity. In her own words just today, she wrote,

We want to believe that if we live right, we won’t get cancer. If we fight hard, we can beat cancer. If we stay positive then we live longer. I can tell you right now that’s not always the case. Being healthy, fighting hard, and staying positive are admirable and desirable traits, but they can’t guarantee life.

I’m not facing cancer. Well, I am if you count watching my friend’s trajectory, but it is not my personal daily experience. I have it easy.

This is the conundrum I find myself: Between a belief in the power of positive thinking and reality. I don’t want to lose faith. But I also don’t want to lose sight of what’s tangible, or even probable. Not being chosen out of more than eight hundred submissions—that’s probable. But still, I want to believe.

Launch of a Blog and a Writing Residency

Hello and welcome to my first blog post on my newly designed site. I started writing a post last week about attending my first-ever Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle, but everything I put on the page kept coming up drivel—not what I wanted for my inauguration to the blogosphere. As a result, I procrastinated, an easy thing to do when the sun is shining and the flowers are pushing out of the cold, damp earth.

A couple weeks ago, with AWP on the horizon and an upcoming interview to be published at Under the Gum Tree, I finally got off my ass (or more accurately, I sat my ass down) to create an author webpage—a task on my New Year’s Affirmations list (something I wrote about at Letters to Pomona). My new site is still in the works. I’ve never designed anything like this before, and even with the advent of predesigned themes on WordPress, there is much to think about. For example: Do I make the blog the landing page or have a static, unchanging landing page that tells about me? I opted for a Welcome page to introduce myself with a link to the blog at the top. Primarily, my intention for this website is to network as a writer/editor/teacher. And while my blog subjects will often be writing related, I want to allow myself the freedom to write about whatever may be of urgency in the moment of a particular blog post; thus, my choice to have the blog be an addendum to the rest of the site.

Now, I fear this post is not much more interesting than the one I initially tried to write about AWP, so I better get on with it before I lose you to some other blog or online article, Facebook or Twitter, and give you something useful.

So here it is. If you are a writer, and you haven’t already heard, Amtrak is developing a new writer’s residency, and applications are currently being accepted. When I first learned of this opportunity, I was very excited. Not only is it *free*, but it involves riding a train, a pastime I remember fondly from my youth when I commuted by train in the Bay Area to and from ballet class every day.

But before you dive into that application, you might want to check out the fine print. I was skeptical when a friend on FB posted a warning, thinking how easy it is to fall prey to paranoia, but then I saw a link to the official terms. Once I started to read, my enthusiasm definitely stalled. Here is a quote to give you an idea of why:

6. Grant of Rights: In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.

And there’s more where that came from. Take a look. If you’re considering applying for this seemingly attractive offer, you just might want to be fully informed. Until next time. Adieu!