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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How To Be a Good Wife Review and more



How to Be a Good Wife
Emma Chapman

On the surface Marta Bjornstad is a lonely, middle aged woman going through empty nest syndrome. Her attentive husband Hector sees to making sure she takes her pills. “You know what happens when you don’t,” he admonishes. Yet for the past few weeks Marta has faked taking them, and she begins having visions of a blonde girl. The visions are disturbing, yet something drives Marta to refuse to medicate herself so she can solve the mystery of the girl, even at the risk of her own sanity.

Marta and Hector’s son Kylan comes home for a weekend visit with his girlfriend Katya, and the announcement of his engagement accelerates Marta’s illusions toward the sinister truth about her own marriage.

How to Be a Good Wife is a tense, claustrophobic, and ultimately heartbreaking mystery. My details are sketchy because I don’t want to reveal spoilers. If you were intrigued by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” or Kate Chopin’s “Story of an Hour,” How to Be a Good Wife will keep you awake for a few nights. Available Nov 4, 2014 in paperback. Picador Books

I recently received two other ARCs in the mail, yet I won’t be reviewing them because, as I said in a previous post,http://laura-moe.blogspot.com/2014/09/are-one-star-reviews-fair.html I don’t like writing bad reviews. I know how hard it is to write a novel, even a bad one. One of these I received from Goodreads. It’s a self published mystery that lacks tension. Rather than publicly humiliate the author, I will send it back to her, and perhaps she can find someone who will praise it.

The other one is from a small press. It too, is a mystery, but the writing itself is godawful. I blame the editor not to pare down the wordy sentences and the numerous misplaced similes that make this particular novel an awkward read. The book may appeal to readers who read just for plot, but I’m an unapologetic word snob. Words are like paint on a palette, and if the writer cannot paint the prose with the right words in the right order, the writing is beige.

Note to self: when entering a Goodreads contest, check out who published the book before clicking on enter.

On a positive note, a recent essay of mine got quoted on Cleveland Poetics
http://clevelandpoetics.blogspot.com/

Meanwhile, check out the entire essay in Poet's Quarterly:
 http://www.poetsquarterly.com/2014/10/confessions-of-failed-poet.html

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Why Do We Read Big Books?




Are some novels just too long?

In a previous post I researched one star reviews, and looked for two long books in particular: Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. http://laura-moe.blogspot.com/2014/09/are-one-star-reviews-fair.html  The biggest negative criticism lies in their length.  Ian McEwan, a master of short novels such as Atonement, believes “very few long ones earn their length.”

I both agree and disagree. 1Q84 could have ended after Book Two and I would have been satisfied with the tale. Gutting about 150 pages out of the center of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers would have improved the narrative for me. And yet I was held captive throughout Donna Tarrt’s 771 page The Goldfinch and Larry McMurty’s nearly 900 page Lonesome Dove.

My former student Logan P. recently finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, weighing in at 1100 pages. “On the surface level, it's given me the confidence to move onto much more difficult works,” he told me. “Once you've read one of the longest books ever written not much seems too difficult. And the book is absolutely packed with information on everything from higher-math concepts (it actually helped with my calculus class) to linguistics to how Alcoholics Anonymous functions. More than anything else, Wallace has a way with the human condition, from the highs to the lows to everything in between, and he's not afraid to discuss it”.
When I asked Logan if the book could have been shorter, he replied, “Yes and no. There are many parts that don't add anything to the plot or character development and just stagnate the book as a whole, yet the, "pointless", stagnating parts add to the themes and the book's purpose as a whole.” Logan said the book is “stupidly long, but it's an amazing read.” He summed it up in a single sentence; everyone is addicted to something, from their television to drugs to their love for their country, and it all ends up being a self-perpetuating cycle. “To quote DFW”, Logan said, “’Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,’ and you definitely learn more about what that means after reading Infinite Jest.”
After initially abandoning it, I “finished” One Hundred Years of Solitude by skimming and scanning the last two hundred pages, and I came away with more insight on why this novel ranks among the greats. Yes, the book is long, and the character names are nearly impossible to follow, yet after awhile I stopped trying to “understand” the book and succumbed to some of its wonders. If you are looking for a linear narrative, this is not your book. The tale reminds me of a Salvador Dali painting, where reality and dreams entwine. The book shares elements with Homer’s Odyssey and The Iliad or The Arabian Nights, parables of how history spins its wheel and lands on the same places of love, wonder, discovery, avarice, greed, brutality, and ultimately, death. One Hundred Years of Solitude begins at a time when “the world was so recent that many things lacked names” and evolves to when “science has eliminated distance.” Melquides, the gypsy, has predicted “in a short time, man will be able to see what is happening in any place in the world without leaving his own home.”  Like Ray Bradbury’s post war era Fahrenheit 451, the prescience of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ s 1967 novel has come true.

Other notable quotes from the text are:
“A person doesn't die when he should but when he can.”
“The only difference today between Liberals and Conservatives is that Liberals go to mass at five o’clock and the Conservatives at eight.”

And yet the novel could have been much shorter, because as Aureliano Segundo says, “Cease, because life is short.”

So are long books worth the time and effort? The short answer is depends on the book. On a deeper level each of us brings to a book our past reading and life experiences as well as our present. Sometimes a book find you, much like Julian Carax’s book in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Shadow of the Wind, a relatively short book at 528 pages, found Daniel Sempere.


What are some of your favorite long books, and why?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Putting Yourself Out There




I recently entered a contest called The Agent’s Inbox sponsored on the blog Mother.Write. Repeat. (Kristavandolzer.com) Occasionally Krista opens her blog up for up to twenty people submit queries and first pages of their completed manuscripts.

"An Agent's Inbox" came about because I felt like the blog needed a lift,” Krista said. “Also, because all the existing blog contests focused on first pages and/or shorter pitches. I hated writing shorter pitches, so I thought it would be cool to see the whole query (and simulate an agent's inbox in the process). I can't schedule them as regularly as I used to, since they do take a significant amount of time and I usually don't know when I'll have the time until the last minute, but I enjoy hosting them.”

Each contestant is asked to critique at least three other entries, and a guest agent awards an opportunity to submit anywhere from the first 250 words to an entire manuscript. Krista said she “knows of two writers who signed with the agent who judged the round of "An Agent's Inbox" they entered. “I would like to make it three.”

I recently entered one where the prizes were a first chapter (3rd place), fifty pages (2nd place), or entire manuscript for review (first place.)  Posts are public, so anyone with an internet connection is free to comment. While Krista asks that people “please keep comments constructive, it’s a little like Shark Tank for writers.

We’re all experts in writing that isn't our own, yet we’re too close to our own work and need another set of eyes. I had already run my book through a group of great first readers who provided enormous feedback. I also hired an editor to smooth out repetition and fix my numerous typos. (My editor also found where I had spelled a character’s name two different ways.) Breakfast with Neruda, which had gone through a litany of terrible titles, was ready to be seen.

Putting your “baby” out there for display is like watching your son walk into Kindergarten the first day. You know he’s not perfect, but he’s perfectly yours. Will he survive? Will he be bullied? Will he bite someone back? Make friends? Learn anything? Have permanent scars? Refuse to go back?

If you do “the agent’s inbox” or any other public critique, boldly go, but wear a suit of armor under your wet suit.

The driving question for criticism is “did you keep reading? If not, why did you stop?”
Most critiques heeded Krista’s request to remain constructive. In my case everyone who commented said they were intrigued by my story and would read on. The big hitches were in the query letter. Queries are hard. I’d rather write another novel.

How many of you have written unintentionally terrible query letters? I see thousands of hands in the air. (Try writing a bad one. It’s cathartic.  If you look up booksandsuch.com, under the blog posts look for Rachel Kent’s bad query contest. It’s a hoot.)

With the aid of former literary agent Mark Malatesta’s services (literary-agents.com) I learned the important steps to crafting a query, how to pick agents, and other components of marketing oneself.  It’s a ton of work. You may spend as much time devising a query and researching agents as you did writing your first draft.

My query covered the following:

Short synopsis of book, 1-2 paragraphs
Word count and genre
Why I contacted this particular agent (even though this was a contest, I still researched her and found an appropriate quote)
My writing background
My platform
My contact information

Some agents ask to acknowledge if submissions are simultaneous

Most comments said my query was too long, and the agent commented “Query: I really like the premise but each paragraph can be trimmed to get to the meat. Get to the point a lot more. Even your bio is a bit long-winded. Keep to facts. Overall: Even though I think the query maybe tells me a lot but not enough in a way, I'm still intrigued. It's a different story. It stands out. I'd read on.

Not all submissions fared so well. Some addressed the agent by her first name only. I can’t stress this enough: UNLESS YOU HAVE MET THE AGENT IN PERSON, DO NOT ADDRESS HIM OR HER BY FIRST NAME ONLY.

Others had typos in the query and/or the 250 word sample. One samples began with a long description of the temperature. There’s sort of an unwritten rule to avoid weather reports. In a 250 word sample, essentially the first page, you have no room to engage the reader if he or she is stuck in cloudy weather.

Overall, most submissions were admirably polished, and most participants were gentle in their comments to one another. I received good suggestions, and revised my query based on the agent’s and others’ minor suggestions.

So how did I do? I won second place, so I sent the agent my revised query and first fifty pages. I’ll keep you and Krista posted on whether this agent and I work together.


Labels, agents, writing contests, query, 

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reviews: The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, Who Is Martha?

Two for One Reviews

Thanks to Shelf Awareness for my review copies of both books.


The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man

W. Bruce Cameron garnered a following with his lively novels A Dog’s Purpose and A Dog’s Journey, and his latest novel, The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, will appeal to those readers. Ruddy McCann, former Heisman Trophy winning football player, has settled back into his hometown as co-owner of The Black Bear bar and supplementing his income as a Repo man. McCann’s colorful boss Milt tells Ruddy he has the requisite “nerves of stupidity” to legally steal cars back from their owners in default of payment.

McCann faces several challenges: he is hearing a voice in his head of Alan Lottner, a man claiming to have been murdered in a nearby town, an inept nephew of Milt’s who Ruddy is expected to train, a mystery behind checks a series of checks being sent to his foolhardy friend Jimmy, and numerous attempts to reclaim a car from the wily Albert Einstein Croft. While unearthing the truth behind Alan Lottner’s disappearance, Ruddy falls for the late man’s daughter Katie. 

The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. New York
Available in October, 2014. $24.99




Who is Martha?

96 year old Luka Levadski learns he has terminal cancer, and he is surprised “the intimation of his imminent demise hadn't allowed him to die on the spot, but had instead stirred up a lot of dust was an enigma.” Levadski decides to leave his long term apartment in Ukraine and venture back to Vienna where he lived as a child. Since he is dying, he goes on a shopping spree and stays in a first class hotel, where he befriends his butler Habib and an eighty something gentleman named Mr. Witzturn. Having lived in the same place for nearly his lifetime, working as a professor of ornithology, the reclusive Levadski catches up on social changes in the twenty- first century. In the interim, visual, musical and other sensory cues play tricks on his aging mind, flooding him with skewed memories from his ladder of years.

It is surprising how an author as young as Gaponenko, born in 1981, captures the authentic voice of a man nearly a hundred years old.


Who Is Martha? Marjana Gaponenko (Arabella Spencer, tr.) New Vessel Press. New York. Available October 14, 2014, $15.99

Happy Reading.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Are One Star Reviews Fair?



We’ve all read them: novels so bad you want to heave them across the room, or you just can’t finish because the story becomes convoluted, repetitive, and or the genre changes halfway through. But is a one star rating fair? Mostly not.*

As a writer I cringe when I read one star reviews of author’s books because writing a novel is hard. Even a bad one. (I’ve written my share of terrible drafts, and am currently revising a horrible manuscript to elevate its status to merely awful.)  But reading a novel is also Herculean, especially one weighing in at 600 or more pages. It takes weeks, sometimes months of commitment. None of us has to read fiction, unless we are editors, high school or college students, in which case we are prisoners to the assigned tome. Students can pay erudite friends to read it, use Spark Notes, or buy literary analyses papers online. Because I love to read, I never cheated myself from the experience of finishing an assigned novel. But I was young then, and my future slow-walked toward infinity. Time is finite, so before I commit to a novel, I often read the customer reviews, and I begin with one star ratings.

Many one star reviews are crass, and often cryptic, and sometimes customers give one star because amazon sent the wrong book or the item was mangled in shipping. Is that the author’s fault? (Note, independent book stores pack and ship items carefully. You’ll pay more for shipping, but you will get what you ordered.) I ignore the idiots, and read ratings where someone has actually read the book. Reviews say as much about the reader as the work itself.

I was curious how Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, fared in the ratings. I loved it, and recently recommended it to a friend. I had not read any reviews before purchasing it. I was in the bookstore and the opening scene grabbed me.  The novel begins in Italy during filming of Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and alternately shifts to present day Hollywood. I loved the fictional and real life characters, and like all good fiction, found the story believable. But that’s just my opinion, because J Lee has “been astonished at all the great reviews for this book” and found it “tedious, offensive and downright ugly.” Redgirl writes it was “torture to finish but did so as a model to my grandchildren that we MUST finish our homework” and Snickers88 is “angry at myself for wasting time with it.”

Another of my favorites, The Goldfinch, winner of the Pulitzer prize,  received mainly good reviews, but garnered a few one stars from many ‘anonymous’ people who found it boring. George H Hedges has “never wanted to burn a book… until now” and a reader called Californica, mentioning he/she loved The story of Edgar Sawtelle, (a book I found too boring to finish,) called The Goldfinch “incredibly depressing without any creativity and beauty,” and “a total waste of my precious reading time.”

Perhaps if I had consulted the one and two star reviews of Murakmai’s 1Q84 I may have saved myself a huge chunk of time. But I had loved Kafka on the Shore and The Wild Sheep Chase. Chris Fiorillo compares 1Q84 to ruining your favorite cocktail by mixing it with “clam juice, Tabasco sauce, maple syrup, nutmeg, and vanilla.” Emmett R. Furrow,  expresses how the novel “put me in a coma by the beginning of book 3 and I found myself talking back to the book as it progressed to its pointless end.” Yeah, I have to agree with these.

I’m on my third attempt at One Hundred Years of Solitude, largely because many of my favorite authors note that as the ultimate Latin American novel. I’ve made it further this time- about a hundred pages, but the reading is not effortless. Daniel claims the book as “almost incomprehensible. The only reason to buy it is you’re a poseur wanting to claim that it’s great literature.” I’m a little confused by the story, but I’m underlining passages, and I want to see what makes this a great novel.

Why do we read fiction?  It’s a pack of lies, yet stories reveal the ugly and beautiful truth of who we are. Whether that truth is revealed through zombie/vampire novels, dystopia, cozy mysteries, Shakespeare’s plays, or in tomes by Brian Jacques, we search for stories that speak our name.
Which novels have spoken to you, made you feel happy to be alive? Which ones have you hurled out the window from a speeding train?

*some sequels are best left unwritten. The Streets of Laredo, McMurtry’s bizarre anti- sequel to his masterpiece Lonesome Dove, is an example. McMurtry admittedly took liberties with his original characters to reframe them in this unpalatable book. Why didn't he just write a new book with new characters? I threw mine across the room by page 48. All of my friends who also loved Lonesome Dove said they couldn’t get past 60.

Upcoming reviews:
Who is Martha? By Marjana Gaponenko

Repo Man by Bruce Cameron

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Little Mercies






We hear news stories every day of people leaving pets, babies and toddlers in the back seats of cars, and we can’t imagine how someone can be so irresponsible. In the riveting new book Little Mercies, by Heather Gudenkauf, veteran social worker Ellen Moore, a woman who has dealt with countless incidences of child abuse and neglect, accidentally leaves her daughter in the back of her car on the hottest day of the summer in Cedar City, Iowa, while rushing to rescue two girls from domestic violence.  It can happen to any of us.

While the drama unfolds in the house where a man is holding a young mother and two girls hostage, Ellen is oblivious to the spectacle behind her until she hears the crash of breaking glass from her car.  When the limp body of her daughter Avery is pulled from the van, Ellen Moore’s life is shattered along with her the glass.

Meanwhile, ten-year-old Jenny Briard has come alone to Cedar City in search of a long lost grandmother. Jenny, a victim of child abuse herself at the hands of her stepfather, had been living with her hapless father, but after he is arrested, she has nowhere to go, and she bristles at going back to a foster home.

Ellen’s mother Maudene tries to help Jenny, but they are both inadvertently thrown into the turmoil surrounding Ellen’s mistake.  Told in alternating chapters between Ellen and Jenny’s stories, their lives converge in a surprising ways.

Gudenhauf’s novel is well paced, suspenseful and well written. Occasionally the narrative lags with a few typos and areas of repetition, but these may have been ironed out between the review copies and final print.  The believable characters and their conflicts will engage readers and lead to interesting discussions in a book club. Fans of Lisa Scottoline’s Look Again and Save Me or Paula Daly’s Just What Kind of Mother Are You? will enjoy Little Mercies.

Includes a Reader’s Guide and author interview.  (Available now $15.95, Harlequin MIRA)
  

Friday, August 15, 2014

Nest, by Esther Ehrlich: a Review





One of the many challenges for upper elementary and middle school Language Arts teachers is finding timely books with age appropriate characters and thought provoking themes, yet won’t spur parents to demand the principal to pull it off the shelf because of graphic violence, profanity or sex. Nest, by Esther Ehrlich, is a book that adults will approve of and young readers will love.

Set in 1972, the story centers on Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein. She and her father, mother and sister Rachel are year-round residents of Cape Cod, and the novel starts at the end of summer. At the beginning of the tale the Orensteins are a happy family; Dr. Orenstein has a therapy practice on the Cape, the girls get along well, and Hannah, the mother, is a former dancer who stays active in local dance recitals. Chirp, who gets her nickname because of her penchant for birds and bird watching, becomes friends with new neighbor and 6th grade classmate Joey Morell, whose parents often lock him out of the house.

Chirp’s idyllic world is soon shattered when her mother
,diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, falls into deep depression, and the story delves into darker themes of betrayal and grief. Yet Ehrlich skillfully balances this novel with resilience and hope while dealing with issues such as bullying, disease, child abuse, and suicide. Levity is provided through Chirp’s authentic voice, her passion for birds and her interactions with others.

Because the story takes place during the Vietnam War era, a time before cell phones and cable TV, it may be classified as historical, yet its themes are timeless. (Random House provides links to teaching tools.) The book stays true to an eleven year-old point of view where life hovers between childhood and adulthood, yet within that child’s lens is Chirp’s growing awareness of the world’s truths.

It would not surprise me to see this debut novel shortlisted for a Newbery or ALA award. I hope Ms. Ehrlich is working on more books for young readers so I can recommend them to my teaching colleagues. Nest is available September 9, 2014, for grades 4-8.


I would like to Thank NetGalley for my advance copy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Painted Horses Book Review




Painted Horses,  a novel by Malcolm Brooks, takes one back to the mid twentieth century before the vista was littered with endless strip malls, where untamed horses and impetuous wranglers vied for the land.  The tale centers around twenty-three year old Catherine Lemay, a young archaeology student, and a mystifying cowboy named John H who paints his mark on horse’s flanks. The land itself is a character, both benevolent, offering glorious vistas and water, and malevolent, with “a line of severe hills like the teeth of a saw blade rises massively in the distance….the stripe of clouds above the hills gathers amber then purple then blue.”

Even though Catherine has spent time on projects in Europe, the world she enters in Montana is more foreign to her. She has been raised within a country club lifestyle back east, with expectations to become a concert pianist, not a woman who chooses to dig through the earth for ancient relics.  Catherine soon proves, in spite of privileged upbringing, she is tenacious and focused, and uses her instincts to compel her to accomplish her goal of finding historical artifacts to prevent building of a dam that will flood all that remains.

Catherine suspects she isn't supposed to find anything, that she was purposely hired by Harris Power and Light, the contractor for the Army Corps of Engineers to build the dam, because she is a woman and a novice. Harris and Jim Allen, the wrangler hired to help guide her in and out of the canyon, seem accommodating enough, but they underestimate Catherine’s tenacity and her growing suspicion that she is being duped.

John H, the mysterious horseman, inadvertently watches over her, and becomes her ally. Throughout the novel his back-story is gradually revealed. Interestingly, John H served in a cavalry unit during WWII because of his skill with horses. John H seems an unlikely friend to the young archaeologist, but  by the end of the tale the reader cares deeply about him and Catherine, separately and together.

If the novel has faults, they derive from my own impatience with several passages bearing long descriptions of horses. (I know, duh, it’s called Painted Horses.) I don't dislike horses, but I don't know enough about them to distinguish one from another, and for me the narrative dips during those moments, but the fault is mine as a reader.

Another issue was occasionally I was unsure if a chapter was a flashback or taking place in the present. Because I was reading an uncorrected proof, this may have been resolved by labeling each chapter with a date or location.

Like most literary novels, the book does not have the stereotypical happy ending where the characters ride off into the smiling sunset; the ending has a realistic resolution. Fans of Annie Proulx or Wallace Stegner will enjoy this book. Painted Horses is an ambitious debut, a ruminative, adventurous story that resonates, and these characters will stay with me for awhile.  


Monday, July 21, 2014

Should I Be Insulted?



Recently I received a rejection from an agent thanking me for my query and wishing me luck.  She added links to three websites that might help me “learn about publishing.” Does this agent perceive me as a beginner? Should I be insulted?

I looked over the sites. One site, www.PublishingCrawl.com is group blog by industry insiders such as agents, editors, sales reps and writers. In spite of its push to market each contributor’s own books, this one looks useful. The other two links, however, looked like discussion boards for “newbie writers.”  Many of the questions posted are, in fact, by new writers, containing basic requests on formatting manuscripts and how to approach an agent or write a query.

The agent, I will call her Agent X, suggested one of the sites ‘as a place to post my query for critique.’ Should I be insulted this agent thinks my query stinks? That I know so little about writing I need to resort to an online discussion board comprised of random beginning writers?

Had I not already received glowing responses, albeit rejections, from several agents about the quality of my query and submission package, I might opt for seeking advice from one of these discussion boards. But should a writer, new or veteran, throw his or her work out there for perusal by strangers of dubious writing backgrounds?

I have heard of many friendships being formed by users of similar discussion sites. When I first started writing I welcomed input from anyone. I went through a series of workshops where participants shared their work with one another. Occasionally I was offered good advice, but for the most part it was the blind leading the blind down a steep rocky path.

Normally I’m not shy, but when it comes to my work I stick pretty close to my shell. I've been to enough writing circles where someone ends up in tears because others criticized her first draft of a story told through the viewpoint of a severed hand. Or when one of the participants prefaces each of his comments with “as someone who has had over thirty stories published in True Confessions,…".

Writers are solitary creatures, but there is value in attending writing conferences and workshops. Because I am in proximity of very few authors, I try to attend a conference once a year so I can discuss process and structure with like-minded people. Call me a writing snob, but I now only choose exclusive ones like Kenyon that require manuscript approval, where participants are (pardon the cliché and pun) “on the same page.”

I am reluctant to show drafts to anyone. Even Elizabeth, my number one person I select for seeking feedback, does not see first draft materials. My work has gone through the wringer at least twice before she lays her eagle eyes on it.

How does one know when his or her work is good enough?  Sometimes you don’t. It takes years of writing and reading to trust when your work is good enough. And there are days when I've had yet another rejection I start to question this writing gig is worth my time.

Perhaps Agent X suggests these sites to all her rejectees, and as usual, I am over thinking her intent, so I shouldn't take this as an insult. Just say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and submit to the next agent on my list.

Or as my fiend Myra just suggested to me, “write a trashy romance. That’s where the money is.”




Happy Writing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Am I Better Than My Work?



Often my writing sucks. Big time, and I remind myself often as I am drafting a manuscript with little side bars, for example, as I write this post, I may insert (THIS SENTENCE STINKS UP THE ROOM. ) but I am not criticizing myself, just the horrible combination of words that passes for a sentence.

Elizabeth recently posted a comment on Facebook criticizing a group of her poems, and several people remarked she should stop being so hard on herself.
“I was NOT insulting myself” she said, “I was critiquing the poems. I didn't say I'm a terrible poet, I meant, these poems poems need revision.”
“One must be hard on the work in order to improve,” I said.
“Exactly.”
“You’re a good enough poet to be cognizant of when your work is weak.”
“I’m not going to apologize for myself deprecating humor,” she said. “It’s who I am. I have an excellent self esteem.
Elizabeth needled me about a posting I had shared on ‘15 things you need to do to be happy.’ “I hate when people try to tell me how to improve myself,” she said. “I like my bad attitude and imperfect life.”
I laughed, and nodded. “Our writing comes from unhappiness and suffering. We kind of enjoy our pain. Pain is a catalyst for work.
She agreed. “Just because I criticize my own work does not make mean I’m unhappy. I can write really wonderful depressing poems when I am extremely happy. Being happy is overrated. I’d rather be fulfilled”
“I once had a drawing instructor tell me when you’re content with your work, you’re dead.”

Today I saw a badge on a FB writing site that said “Write What You Like”. Depending on the interpretation, writing ‘what I like’ in the context of being free to write anything, I agree. But writing only what I ‘like’ stunts me as a writer. Real writing comes from what bothers us, what we don't understand, and what scares the bejesus out of us. If we only write about what we like, we won’t grow as writers. We won’t explore the messy layers of the human experience and its gritty ugliness. We should not avert our eyes because something is unpleasant.

When I was in my MFA program, my first mentor asked me, what bugs you? I replied, “I didn't get the whole tattoo-piercing thing.” She said, “That’s what you need to write about.” All semester I entered the foreign country of tattoo parlors, marked bodies. I even attended a three day tattoo festival where I was the only unmarked person. I spent my time asking participants about what motivated their tattoos. One heavy young man said, “I don’t fit the standard of beauty, so I find beauty in my body by making it a canvas.”

Unlike journalist Dennis Covington, who chronicles his slow seduction into the snake handling culture in Salvation on Sand Mountain, I was not propelled to cover my skin with tattoos and piercings, but I gained insight into why others do it.


Good writing comes from what we feel passionately about, either positively or negatively. What bothers you? What scares you? You might not like it, and you may not like writing about it, but your writing will improve.

Happy Writing.