life, poetry, publishing, Uncategorized, writers, writing

What Won’t Make You a Writer in 2019

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Rather than talking about resolutions, goals, or similar subjects, I thought I’d highlight a few things that definitely won’t make a difference to your success as a writer in the 365 days ahead. Here we go:

1.) STUFF — I love fountain pens. I am particularly fond of Waterman pens from the City of Lights, Paris. When you write with a Waterman pen, it feels like history and beauty are both surging from the nib. No, I’m not being compensated to say this. Regular followers of this blog know I’m enamored with these products. But I am not so infatuated that I cannot write with anything else.

Thinking that a certain desk accessory will make you a better writer is the beginning of counterproductive hours.¬† Yes, it’s nice to have lovely things from Levenger or other high-end bookish vendors, but at the end of the day, tools are only as good as the person using them. Stuff, no matter how cool it seems, will not magically transform you into an author.

2.) BEVERAGES — Whether it’s coffee or alcohol, the old stereotype is that writers need their liquid fix. Stories are abundant about Hemingway and his beloved whiskey, and certainly other canonized voices are made more endearing by tales of their imbibing. “Write drunk, edit sober,” the old (alleged) quote goes, but no writer worth his or her salt follows that maxim. Writing and editing both require clear thinking, and even too much caffeine can inhibit that process.

I’ll never forget the time I was on a writing streak and consumed three huge cistern-sized mugs of coffee in the process. My heart raced, my brain surged and buzzed, and my breathing became erratically elevated. Something like a panic attack ensued, and I learned the value of moderation the hard way. Today I drink coffee with a bit more care and deliberation. Drinks don’t make you more writerly — if anything, they get in the way.

3.) WARDROBE — Along the same lines as “stuff,” certain clothing choices also don’t make one a writer. Not too many decades ago, the fashion at poetry readings consisted of a black turtleneck and accompanying black beret. This ensemble, the thought went, demonstrated one’s cognitive and emotional “depth,” whatever that meant. Today we’ve eschewed the theatrics of such a “poet’s uniform,” but even now, if one isn’t dressing in a non-conformist way, there are some who assume from such superficial measures that one isn’t a “real writer.” Forget them.

Dress how you dress. I tell my students: There is no greater conformity than non-conformity¬† because, well, you’re different just like everybody else. Assuming that eccentric clothing is going to get you a better platform for your work or more notice from key figures in the literary community is a bit condescending, as well. The assumption made is that people are too stupid to notice your words, and therefore, there must be some kind of gimmick to draw their attention. If your words are good enough, they’ll speak for themselves. No amazing technicolor dreamcoat is necessary.

4.) TECHNOLOGY — Sure, having a social media presence and a few high-tech toys can be helpful. But please don’t assume that your new iThing is going to mystically transmogrify you into Kafka overnight. Your cute photos on Instagram, your witty observation on Facebook, your wry humor on Twitter — all these make zero impact on your actual writing. It’s fine to create a persona online, but at the end of the day, the words you write will define you, not the keyboard or device you typed them on.

One of the finest poets I know (who also serves as editor of a well-regarded literary journal) uses her Twitter account to track her success at running. She posts her times and distances, and very little else. She tweets few literary observations, even fewer politics. I respect a literary human who refrains from leveraging social media to advance her writing or publishing endeavors. It goes against the grain of common practice and demonstrates a level of confidence that exudes cool.

5.) OTHER WRITERS — At one point in my writing journey, I assumed that hanging around great minds would result in some kind of artistic osmosis. And while it’s fun and engaging to be around people with similar likes, I learned not to expect “networking” to be my golden ticket. So much time is spent at events like AWP pressing the flesh and engaging in awkward literary politics; that time would be better spent pressing ink into a legal pad or notebook. Not to minimize the importance of sharpening the saw (Stephen Covey’s term), but breathing the somewhat rarefied air of writing workshops, seminars, groups, and conferences does no good unless motivation and productivity result. The rest is just so much window-dressing.

Don’t expect mentors or friends with lit-cred to pave your way to success (however you may define that term). One’s own writing must do the heavy lifting. In business, friends in high places are essential, and to a certain extent, writing is business. But the thought that name-dropping will somehow result in acclaim or acceptance is fallacy at its finest. Aside from patting oneself on the back, mentioning famous friends or prestigious places serves little purpose. Classy writers just don’t do it unless they’re specifically asked.

I’m sure I could come up with other matters that won’t make one a writer, but these five points are a pretty good start. As we unwrap a new year like a gift, let us put words on the page and clarity in our minds. My mantra will be a quote from the great William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer; be writing.” Happy 2019!

poetry, Uncategorized

Things of Lasting Value

notebook2redMy grandfather’s oldest brother was quite the fastidious businessman in his day. I inherited his desk, books, and office supplies, and I’ve found there’s so much to discover about people from the objects that filled their lives.

For example, my great-uncle was a Master Mason and a Shriner, an avid hunter, gardener and golfer, and he was a careful record-keeper. He believed in refilling complimentary ballpoint pens rather than simply tossing them out, keeping matchbooks from places he visited, and holding on to extra nails, screws, hooks, and tacks “just in case.”

When he purchased something, he made sure it was going to last. This new old desk I have received is a testament to his insistence upon quality. A dark, heavy hardwood, its fixtures are real brass. Most of them are still shiny, despite decades of use. He topped the desk with a larger piece of lacquered wood, and he attached felt pads to the topper’s underside to assure that the original desk would remain unscratched.

The lamp that accompanies the desk was made sometime, I would venture to say, in the 1960s. It is a heavy brown metal drafting lamp with fluorescent bulbs, and it can be pivoted and adjusted for different perspectives on projects. Turning the lamp on is like taking a trip back in time, as the satisfying click of the red “on” button bespeaks another era — one that was marked by products made for near-permanence.

Even the electric pencil sharpener that came with these items is remarkable. I know the brand — it is one that has frequented my classroom for many years. The difference is, this one was made nearly 50 years ago, and its motor has yet to burn out. Yes, the unit is heavier and bulkier than today’s model, but the machinery that comprises it has yet to fail. I go through electric pencil sharpeners in my classroom at an alarming rate. I’m lucky if a modern sharpener made by this same company lasts a full school year. And yet, here is this dinosaur, still grinding down wood and graphite with precision and speed. Granted, this model hasn’t undergone the abuses and rigors of a secondary classroom, but nonetheless, its continued functionality is commendable.

I bring up these examples not as a maudlin longing for simpler times, but instead, to launch into another point: what we produce as writers can be quick and slick like dollar-a-pack stick pens, or we can endeavor to create something a bit more like the aforementioned desk, lamp, and pencil sharpener — something that endures. One of my goals as a poet has always been to create work that will be read in classrooms and checked out from libraries 100 years from now. Some would say that such an ambition is unrealistic and naive. I prefer to think that considering legacy when writing is much like investing in quality items of a more tangible nature. It ensures that when the people we care about look back over our lives, they can safely say we, too, insisted on quality.

Among the books I’ve received from this great uncle are several Bibles and dictionaries. All of them have been used with frequency, but also with a sort of care that shows reverence and admiration. My hope is, in using and appreciating these everyday items, I might somehow pass on that great tradition of surrounding oneself with matter that matters. May our writing be done in such a way that, when others hold it like a leather-bound inheritance, they treasure it equally every time.