26. In Defense of Editors

08/17/2018

Editors are a bloodless lot. Ink runs in their veins. Like street paramedics, firefighters, and ER caregivers, the editors are the people whose job is not always lovely work, but it’s the work that must be done to save the savable lives. I spent 25 years in the emergency service and rescue professions, and people often asked me how I could do this, when it was obviously something that’s hard to do. It occurs to me now, that editors might be asked the same question.

I have done a little bit of editing and I have some very modest skills in that, but I’ve got to say, as people have said to me about what I do – “I wouldn’t want that job! It’s not my cup of tea.” The truth of the matter is, life tends to call us each to some path or other, and provides us with the skills and tools and temperament we need for it. If we have the courage to do that thing we’re called to do, even though it’s not always easy or fun, we will be good at it. If we do something else, either because it seems easier or because other people tell us we should, we never are as good at life itself as we could be.

Momentary digresion:  Expunge the word “should” from your vocabulary permanently. Strike-through it any/every time it pops up, and you will find that all of your thorniest decisions become astonishingly clearer and easier.

The editor’s calling is very different from mine, which is one of the reasons it’s so valuable for me. It’s the perspective I can’t see by myself. It’s the reason my editor battles me, to make my work the best it can be. What we are doing, what we are creating, depends on us both.

Dear editor: I hate you and I love you, because for better or for worse, you are my partner on the fire-line and in the trenches, and I know this.

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25. What Writers Do

07/09/2018

I wanted to bring something with me to the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference in August to put on the “consignment table,” where workshop leaders and attendees can put out a few of their books for sale. I looked through my  small personal catalog of works and decided to take a book of poetry called A Space Between Rains, and maybe a little chapbook titled Inchworms.

The chapbook was something I had sort-of thrown together in 2014 as a birthday gift for a writer friend, and never expected to publish. Besides writing, my friend was a full-time student and working part-time too, a very busy young man. His thank you, a few days later, was the best compliment I’ve ever received as a writer. He said, “I didn’t have time to read it, so I decided to just read one story. And then I read the whole book, cover to cover.”

So this year, searching for something “good enough” for the conference, I came back to it. Since then, more stories and poems have been added, and it has morphed into a viable book, with a cover blurb that says: “a lively little flea-market of a book…” A true definition of a chapbook, surely. There are stories that are blithe and happy, but also some that are deeper and dark.

This is not intended to be brilliant literature. Its essence is sometimes sweet and funny, often philosophical between the lines, and wiser than it seems. The title story is about a little girl, three years old, observing and describing an inchworm, a tiny green creature she finds in the chicken yard that is her backyard in North Carolina. She tells us about it, sharing her love of it with us. One page long, the story is simply a very young mind discovering the life around her. In later pages as she grows and sees more, the stories and poems do too. That’s it. That’s all it is.

This morning I realized that this is what we are all doing as writers, no matter what genre. We are observing life, discovering events and meanings, always more intimately, more vastly, and more truly, and we are inspired – no, compelled — to share what we have discovered. We want to shout from the mountaintop: “Wow – Look at this! This is Who We Are! This is what Life Is! Isn’t it marvelous? Isn’t it terrible? Wonderful, painful, joyous, profound, magnificent? To BE here and be alive, discovering it all?”

That’s what writers do. And somewhere hidden in a deep  place the world can’t pry into, we know that this is what we came here to do: to discover life and share it by telling it. With or without worldly recognition or reward, we write.

 


24. Memoir Snapshot: 3 Women

06/12/2018

There’s a little photograph I keep on my refrigerator door. In it, three women are sitting in a porch swing on the plain unadorned wooden porch of a farmhouse, somewhere in rural Illinois. The women pose with proper grace, smiling for the Kodak camera, with their hands folded neatly in their laps.

The house is quite small, made of clapboard neatly painted white. It’s summer. Emerald green fields of corn stretch out behind the house and seem to go on forever, all the way to the horizon. This is the front of the house, and the two windows that face the road are plain and functional too, and there are no curtains. The porch shade is more than enough from the midday sun, and there are no neighbors near enough to look in.

It’s Sunday after church, and the women are my mother and my two sisters. They have traveled all the way from Dallas Texas to Bloomington Illinois for Mother’s 50th high school reunion. This house is a place where Mother lived a long time ago as a child, and the current residents have welcomed her to the old homestead and invited all of them to stay for dinner.

In this small snapshot I can see through time, to past generations of strong farm women, practical, hard-working and generous. I love this little picture for its sweetness, its honesty and simplicity. Mother has left us now, gone from her place here on earth to a higher calling. Both of my sisters still live in Texas, both have grown children now. My own path has taken me from Texas to the East Coast, to the Midwest, and finally to the West Coast of Northern California where I call home, a long long way from Illinois. I take the picture down from its magnet on the fridge door and hold it in my hand for a moment. I hold these women in my heart forever.


23. Query Letters and Cowboy Boots

05/07/2018

As I write my book, along the way I’m putting together the necessary “query letter” for potential agents/publishers– the first level of approach/sales-pitch to get published. I scribble bits of ideas that come to me at odd times. Today sitting in my little neighborhood church in Oakland, I was not thinking about the book and certainly not the query letter, when a new segment of “my readership” suggested itself:  Gay men…
and everyone else who has a sensibility that’s strong but gentle and vulnerable, who probably has had to be on guard for most of their lives, even ashamed, lest that gentleness at their center might be found out, rejected, or abused.

Though this will certainly be catalogued as a “women’s” book,  the fact of the matter is, all of us struggle to fit Who We Are  into What The World Expects of us instead, and usually demands from us. That’s one of the themes of the book of course, and truth be told, we all spend most of our lives trying to understand who we are, and then find the courage to dare to genuinely be that. The greatest obstacles are the deeply-embedded lies we were taught about ourselves when we were children, either by people who should have loved us but didn’t, or more often by people who did, and lied because they loved us, and wanted to protect us from life.

The book is about a skinny little girl who loves horses and fire engines. She gets repeatedly told by the big people “You can’t have that, you can’t do that, you can’t be that” (about these and most of the things she wants) because you’re a girl. And what’s worse, there is the powerful unspoken mandate: “You shouldn’t want those things,” (because) girls don’t.

“Who says?” She demands, to no avail. Again and again she asks, “Why not?” and gets no reasonable answer. “Those things are for boys,” they say. What the child hears clearly is: Who you are is not okay. It’s not okay to want what you want.

It’s a big fat lie, and somewhere in every child’s heart we know this, but what can we do? We’re just a kid. Some of the same lies are passed along for generations, always  when we’re young and vulnerable and trusting, newly-learning about what life’s supposed to be. By words or actions, many of us were informed, “You shouldn’t be who you are, and it’s wrong to want to be.”  If you’re a boy, you’ve got to like baseball, not art or music or poetry. If you’re a girl, you must like dolls and dresses and tea-sets, not horses and fire engines.

I remember with crystal clarity, the day my brother got cowboy boots. I got all excited and asked, “Ooooh! Do I get some cowboy boots too?” My parents laughed and said, “Oh no honey, cowboy boots are for boys. You can have some pretty ballet slippers…”

I was four years old. “Ballet slippers?” I was stunned. “WHO wants THAT?” I begged for cowboy boots too. It didn’t do any good. Even now I can still feel the ache and sting of being so terribly wronged and cheated. I pleaded, in my own defense, “I couldn’t help it that I was born a girl! I didn’t get to choose!”

For the next decade I was a closet-tomboy, sneaking out to climb trees and roofs and fire-escapes and gallop around the neighborhood pretending I was a racehorse. Eventually I grew up and turned out straight, which made things easier, especially in Texas in the 1950’s and 60’s. I learned to “act like a lady” and I obeyed the rules. I married and worked two jobs, the telephone company and a department store, to put my young husband through graduate school. I was a good wife. I spent the 4 1/2 loneliest years of my life like that, until finally I realized that I had no Life, and I had no Self. I was living in his shadow, and whoever I used to be had gotten lost somewhere in the dark. Not his fault– we both played the roles we were brought up to play. This works sometimes for some people. Not this time, not for me.

Leaving was hard. It felt like more than a failure, it felt like a death, but I knew it had to happen. I got a divorce. I took my life back. I bought myself a pair of cowboy boots.


22. Good Writing / Bad Writing

04/24/2018

I love going to readings at local bookstores, like Diesel on College Avenue, Berkeley. Often there are great people there. The guy who wrote Kite Runner was there, with his wife and son. Maxine Hong Kingston read there, and the godfather of Poetry Flash, Richard Silberg is a regular. One week it was a guy who had a good opening chapter which he read, so I bought the book. The rest of the book turned out to be a rather corny contrived 1950s detective story, crammed with gratuitous violence and cardboard characters, seeded with bits of jargon and dialogue he must have picked up from reading old True Detective magazines. The book was dreadfully boring (to me, with my own tastes and prejudices) so I skipped ahead looking for something interesting. I got all the way to the end of the book without finding that. Hmmmmm… As writers, we are prone to getting so deeply immersed in “our thing” that we forget there is someone else to consider – the reader. 

You could tell that the writer loved his ending, reveling in his own brilliance. It was a long, drawn-out, TV-style scene of meaningless violence, clumsily written in slow motion. (Hey, here’s a thought: When ya write about violence, dontcha think maybe the writing should be sharp, fast-moving, or in other words, violent?) When you slow it down and do a close-up of every punch, every gory detail, and every button on the detective’s overcoat sleeve, it has no power. I would hate to have to write a newspaper literary review for something like this, and have to say “The plot was glacier-like, and the characters had no flesh, no bones and no heartbeat.”

(Okay, that’s awfully harsh, girl. Who died and made you the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Committee?) I actually have no experience or expertise in book reviewing, only that tired old basic principle I heard so many times when I was a young artist: “I don’t know much about art, (literature, music, fill in the blank: _________ ) but I know what I like.” 

Many thoughts this morning about writers and writing, and about how many books get published that are definitely not literature. The publishing business is not about literature, it’s about selling books, and schlock sells better than art or literature. In a group I once frequented, the teacher/leader had two published books. I only recently got around to reading one of them, the most recent one. (It wasn’t in the pubic library so I stalled around for years.) The book wasn’t very good. In fact I was shocked at how weak and unimaginative the first page was. (I’m no expert about professional writing or publishing, but I do know, Ya gotta have something pretty good on the first page, or else nobody’s gonna turn it over and read the second page.)

I might be a snob-reader, it certainly could be justifiably argued. I tend to be too critical, of myself and others. But is there really much point in putting pen to paper for stuff like that?  Unless you do it to make money… well, after all, that is a necessity in this world, to pay the rent, and writing is an honest profession, mostly.  So I admit, shamefully, that I’m a snob (or something equally wormlike) in my tough standards for writing. In my defense, I’m as hard on myself as I am on anyone else. Anyway, I have put the group-leaders’s book into my goodwill collection box. Somebody will love it.

Which brought me to the bottom line of what I think is true.  Whether you write for an audience, or for the benefit of humankind, or simply write for your own pleasure, writing is expression, which is always a good thing. It’s a natural thing, like the wordless songs babies sing in their cribs in the morning that wake you up with a a laugh.  It’s not exactly music… or is it?


21. Plot

04/08/2018

Every good writer/teacher’s chapter on Plot begins the same way: What does the protagonist want? And then, What obstacle(s) stand in the way of getting it? And there it is: your plot.

In my memoir Victory Is My Name, what Vickie wants is what everybody wants, if they only knew it. She wants to be free to be who she really is, and express that real self in the world. She knows, and knew even as a child, that the true Self of Her has value and gifts that should not be hidden, but shared. In the beginning she has no overt awareness of this and no way to express it without breaking the rules, but the urgency of this need will be ongoing through her life.

The core of the book is the hard path of unlearning the untruths we’re taught as children that we unconsciously allow to rule our lives. Becoming aware is step one, not easy, and can only come through life experiences, especially failures and bad choices. (We learn more from failure than from success, and the lessons are profound.)

I had to rein myself in from the need to explain everything important. I had to avoid getting teachy or preachy or psychologizing. Hard for me – to command my ever-intruding left brain’s urge to explain and document the parts of the process. Process, it turns out, is Life itself.  Explanation and dcumentation, though sometimes tasty and even nourishing, are really the parsley.

So I have placed no diagrams, circles and arrows, or dotted lines in the manuscript. Whoever reads this book will find what they are ready to find.  I hope it wil inspire people to write about their own lives, because the experience of looking upon all these events, joys, sorrows, and mistakes as a disembodied observer from somewhere else in consciousness, has been heavily loaded with personal epiphanies for me and simple truths of great beauty.

Like most of us, Vickie, my young self, stumbles toward the dim light of something that’s unrecognized but urgent. Through decades, the earliest rules and laws she was taught hold her hostage like invisible but impassable walls. Brick by brick, with only bare hands, is the only way to break through. Does she succeed? I will let the reader decide.

_____________________________

I’m seeking a few beta readers. If you’re interested, or would like to swap peer-reviews, do get in touch via:  writer2writer.victoriachames.com  Click  BETA READERS  in the header menu.


20. Illegitimi Non-Carborundum

01/11/2018

Tobias Wolff’s memoir, This Boy’s Life, was the book that sparked my literary/artistic ambition to the point of making a rock-solid commitment to completing and publishing my book. Before that, I was just working on it quietly, privately, as a maybe-someday-author. But after that, I took the pledge, literally, out loud to myself one night before I went to sleep. I told God I would do it.

Well, lots of never-published-authors do that. That was important, but still safe. Then I read Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and it resonated with my own life and mistakes, the circus-characters of my family and my expatriated state of Texas. (Her town in The Liars Club is a disguised Port Arthur Texas, where Janis Joplin was born and her troubled lonesome soul never really escaped from.) I went to hear Karr in one of those interview/conversations at an old hall at UC Berkeley, and that clinched it for me.

I had been genuinely writing my book, but still on the down-low. Anybody can do that. I realized that I had to take the leap into the abyss. I had to become A Writer, publicly, brazenly, and make myself emotionally bare-ass-naked to the world. OMG. From that moment, things started to change. The lens shifted, somewhere out in the universe a gear clicked, and it was scary as hell. Now I was no longer invisible; anybody could take a shot at me.

I took a few hits. I said ouch. But I had served eight years as a line firefighter a decade before, where I’d learned how to take a hit, get up quick, and get back on-task. But this was different. It wasn’t physical. It wasn’t bad reviews that stung, I didn’t get so many of those. What I got was, strangely, entirely unexpected subtle but discernible bad vibes from other writers. Veiled snarkyness.

We writers are a jealous lot. Hypersensitive and neurotically vulnerable, most of us. Perhaps it’s this artist’s temperament that enables us to receive profound meaning and God-sent talents of expression, that also makes us easy victims to insecurities and self-doubts. Sometimes we fall into something less than our truest and best selves.

Lately I’ve been learning and practicing the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. (It does take practice, like a foreign language.) It works like this:  When you feel yourself being snagged and pulled down by an emotion like jealousy, self-doubt, fear (the worst one) or any negative feeling, first, just notice it. Notice how it makes you feel bad/ uncomfortable/ unhappy, and you don’t like that. The action to take to change this circumstance is simple but effective. Admit it to yourself, (yes, I’m feeling like this) and then Let the feeling go. Push it away, and go on to something else you do like.

Easier said than done of course. So I devised a trick upon myself. (You could try it if you like, it might work for you.) I say, out loud, right in the middle of the feeling, “I don’t need this.” And then I visualize myself picking it up with two fingers, (like something nasty) putting it into a plain white business-size envelope, securely sealing the flap, and dropping it into the trash. Done.

I actually do feel noticeably better, lighter, and I feel like a real smarty-pants for so cleverly handling myself and refusing the annoying aggravation. I smile a smug little smile, think to myself, I win. And I go back to work.

The truth of the matter is that in the expression of the gift that has been given to you, no one else’s opinion matters as much as yours.  Every day remind yourself. Recognize, (“re-know”) and commit to this truth: This person may be either trying to help you, or hurt you. It doesn’t matter which, because nobody else can tell you how to be your best you, nobody else knows. You will find the answer inside yourself if you keep on seeking it. Everything else is not “the truth,” it’s an opinion. A perception. A different perspective. These can often be useful and valuable, as long as you don’t forget that they are not necessarily the truth.

When you get a disappointing response to a heartfelt endeavor, the problem is not that there’s anything about you that someone else should or could fix, the problem is that they didn’t know this. What they don’t know, as well as what they think, actually can’t hurt you unless you choose to let it. Don’t choose to let it. Don’t give in to doubts, misunderstandings, or insecure jealousies, and never give them squatters-rights in your mind. Get a big box of plain white #10 business envelopes…
(and be sure to empty the trash every day.)


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