WRITING & SUBMITTING
Haven’t gotten back on the submission mission, just yet. I’ve been working pretty steadily on the new project, reading a bit for that (see below), and gearing up for the next special series of the podcast (see below).
I like being in the trenches of a writing project, submitting is the pain in the ass thing I procrastinate about the most, which is why I’d really like to have an agent, but . . . The more search for one, the more I think finding an agent is like trying to find a girlfriend through online dating apps.
I sucked at online dating. Ever since I stopped trying to use it, I’ve been trying to figure out why I sucked at it. Here are my thoughts: and yes, these thoughts, with very little adaptation, apply to courting an agent.
1) I read the whole profile, and if the woman says she’s only interested in men between the ages of 28 and 38, I eliminate myself because I’m 47 and I won’t be one of those creepy douche-nuggets who appears to ignore someone’s stated preferences. When it comes to agents, I read their bios (if they have them online) and I look into their existing list. If they’re not interested in “literary fiction” or if all the books they’ve represented have garish, shiny, cartoon-like covers associated with the sub-genres (seriously, you can’t know who every writer is, nor spend your time reading all the writers an agent represents, but the publishing industry knows how to package a book for its intended audience (even if they sometimes get it wrong) and only satirical literary fiction would employ they cover art tropes of say Romance, or Sci-Fi – which is to say that, for the most part these days, yes, you can judge a book by its cover).
2) Again, because I read the whole profile, if a woman doesn’t read – or claims to only read, let’s say, self-help, I strike her from the list. I write “literary” fiction – which is to say I write whatever the hell I want and use genre elements as a part of my tool kit, rather than try to fit into any particular genre. So, if a woman or agent (oddly, most agents appear to be women) doesn’t appear to be interested in reading anything I might write, I’m not going to bother her because, frankly, she’ll be uninterested in anything I do and, as a writer in Kansas, I suffer quite enough neglect already.
3) I have a strange sense of humor, I’m socially awkward sometimes, and extremely self-critical. These things make it hard to write a profile and get someone’s attention in a small space with a limited amount of time. My dating profiles tend to be too obscure, or too snobby, or too formal, or too devoid of personality, which makes me easy to overlook considering the heavy amount of douchebags out there shotgunning messages to every woman on the dating site. In other words, all of the women on the dating sites have their defenses up to begin with (and all agents have their defenses up against unprofessional, and sometimes unstable wannabes) and since I can’t seem to figure out how to charm my way past the filters they’d put in place to keep the angry, entitled, aggressive assholes at bay, I seem like a plain, beige, blankness.
4) There are always more men on dating site than women, partly because of the aggressive entitled douchey-ness of men online, but also because, well, of social gender norms. Women get pursued in person because that’s how we train men, and so a woman, depending on her sociability, work environment, friend network, etc. will have just as much luck, if not better luck, meeting the right guy by going out in the world and doing the things she likes to do. That means guys like me, with loose, or small, social networks (all of my close friends in town are married and I seem to be the only single person I know, even at work), have to rely on diligent commitment to online dating, or luck. The literary equivalent to this is the literary conference. There are always more writers than agents, and because of the internet, the agents are getting bombarded by every delusional amateur who thinks they’re they next J.K. Rowling, but are actually more like a less talented (if that’s even possible) version of Dan Brown or E.L. James. The literary conference is a filter like a circle of friends, or trusted co-workers.
Luck, at least in the dating scene, did finally break in my favor a few months ago. It’s a longish, complicated story that if told as shortly as possible goes like this: someone I met a long time ago when I was dating someone else read a recent post I made on facebook and sent me a message, turned out we both had an interest in each other way back when but completely misread the other’s potential interest.
Maybe I need to go back and recycle a few of the agents who turned down my first novel.
After finishing Ulysses, I was supposed to pick up something else and get it read before starting in on the next special series for the podcast. I haven’t done that yet; however, the reading for the next special series is much, much lighter than Ulysses, so I should be able to squeeze a few additional things in.
On the agenda over the summer: The Little Prince, and The Long Goodbye (re-read) (podcast), plus some books by friends and other associates I’ve not gotten around the reading yet, such as Pauls Toutonghi, Laird Hunt, Brian Evensen, Andrea Portes, Troy James Weaver, Colin Dickey, and so on. Not to mention the host of books I’ve been hoarding, unread, for years like The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes, and Women without Men by Shahrnush Parsipur to name just two of what seems like a hundred or more.
I read a short essay titled “The Emergence of Metaformic Consciousness” by poet and feminist activist Judy Grahn, which she adapted from her book Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. In it, she posits, (in my very reduced rendering here) that when the early human mind began to see the pattern, the synchrony, between the moon and women’s monthly bleeding, and began to react to the implied power behind it, our early ancestors began to slowly, over millennia, develop rituals to understand and contain the power, thus creating, first, consciousness, and then all the other building blocks of civilization. Considering the depth and ferociousness behind modern misogyny’s attacks on women, it feels true. In fact, most of western civilization seems hyper concerned with controlling and containing women. It’s as if they posed some existential threat to the very existence of the world.
The Ulysses podcast is finished and now I’m in the process of editing audio to get it ready for the Bloom’s Day release. But there is no rest for me on the horizon. I’m launching into another special series, this time one the mystery genre (for lack of a better term). I do need to get going on some filler episodes while Stephen and his family are still resettling after the home accident that left them living out of a hotel room for a while. Once Stephen and Co. are settled, and the school semester is over, we’ll be back to our monthly chats. Some of the ideas for the one-off episodes are to talk about query letters, and other aspects fo the publishing business. Then, in the fall, after the mystery podcast is released, I’m hoping to start another, longer running series with my . . . am I too old now to use the term “girlfriend?” Anyway, her name is Julianne, and she co-writes a blog called “We Minored In Film,” and we’re thinking about doing a series discussing books and their various film adaptations. Between the two of us we have four degrees in English (2 BAs and 2 Masters), so that should be fun.
It’s been a grand time catching movies with Julianne. We recently saw the Natalie Portman lead movie Annihilation, and the animated Isle of Dogs, which I loved. It put me in mind of my dog, Lady, long deceased now. I got her for Christmas when I was 8 or 9 years old, and she died when I was 21 or 22. I haven’t had a dog since. Someday, I’d like to live in a place with a fenced yard so it feels more practical to have another dog.
Julianne and I have also been watching movies at home. She’s a horror fan, and I’m not, but sometimes people will bend the rules if properly persuaded. She got me to watch The Conjuring recently. It was ok, better than what I expected for a horror movie in that no one’s actions seemed illogical, and the bouts of irrationality seemed to fall into standard human modes of irrationality rather than the realm of eye-rolling horror movie stupid. That’s my usual reason for disliking horror movies: there’s always a slew of characters who have witnessed a few people die or get possessed or whatever the big bad scary thing does to people, and then they do something similar to this: the band of plucky would-be survivors/victims get to a supposedly safe place away from the big bad scary thing, and one idiot, proclaiming their safety, says they have nothing to worry about and then promptly gets whacked sending the remaining survivors scurrying about screaming. At least in The Conjuring, supposedly based on true events, no one did anything truly stupid, and the irrationality was based in fear, not in the defiance of fear.
Now, the other reason I tend to dislike horror movies is because I simply don’t understand the desire to frighten yourself with spiritual, psychic, or gory violence as a form of “fun.” The faceless, implacable, nearly invincible killer, the centuries old, immortal witch baby-eater, devils, demons, satan, incubi, succubi, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, zombies, or Cthulhu – these are all a manifestation of our primal fears of the unknown and the mysterious. Scaring myself with that stuff for fun seems ridiculous considering the very real human capacity to inflict true horror on each other: mass shootings, lynchings, public execution by traffic stop, genocide, war, nuclear annihilation, serial killers, home invasions, and so on. The real world seems quite frightening enough. Evil is real and it lives inside everyone.
I don’t enjoy being frightened, and I especially don’t enjoy being manipulated in that fashion especially when there’s nothing to do about it (I can’t “fight back” so to speak, except by turning it off, which is “not watching a horror movie”). After movies like The Conjuring, where the horror, the evil, has been externalized and endured, it rebounds. For someone with an anxious personality to begin with, a highly sensitive personality, a “good” horror film activates my nightmare capacity. The imagined horror of the film turns into an uncontrollable imagining of the real horror of things like the Carr Brother murders, of the Manson Family, the bloody Benders, Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper, H. H. Holmes, BTK, the Green River Killer, Tommy Lynn Sells, and other mass killers. Then let’s not forget the non-sentient horrors out there like the ebola virus, classic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and the fact that the world is experiencing a acceleration of antibiotic resistance that could lead to a total, world wide resistance to antibiotics, which could leave us unable to treat even “simple” infections like pneumonia or a resurgence of something like bubonic plague as a mass killer. And, just like us, viruses and bacteria evolve, change, mutate and so who knows what future horrors are waiting to infect us (a “zombie” may one day be real).
I suppose there’s also a bit of the asshole fan factor about why I dislike horror movies. Like snooty vegetarians or completist nerds, you know, those people who adopt a condescending tone when they find out someone isn’t a vegetarian or doesn’t get all the subtle fan-boy nuances of the obsessed-over object, horror move obsessed fans can be the worst. I’ve had too many horror fans adopt a tone and tack of engagement that is best compared to playground taunts of being a chicken, a scaredy cat, a pussy – as if experiencing fear in the face of something frightening meant you were defective.
I had written something else for this section, and then threw it all out Saturday morning when I found out that Bobbie Louise Hawkins had passed away. Strangely, the random thoughts I deleted had been about funerals.
Bobbie was my advisor in graduate school, and one of those people who, despite my inability to keep in touch with her over the years, was incredibly important and had an outsized impact on my life. Ever since I sat down to have her read one of my stories out loud to me to the present, I occasionally hear her voice in my head when I’m writing or revision fiction. In particular, I hear this specific thing she said. I wrote it down the moment she said it, and I keep it on a slip of paper pinned to a cork board that sometimes hangs over my desk. It reads “Your organism will inform you that you suck.”
I treat it as a reminder that my internal editor and critic is useful and should be listened to, within reason of course. People don’t often trust their native intelligence, which is something I remember Bobbie talking about frequently in the workshops I took with her. If you learn to trust your native intelligence, then your organism will indeed inform you when you’re not doing well, and you should be smart enough to listen and correct. The trick, of course, is to be smart enough to know when you do, in fact, suck at what you’re doing and to be able to figure out how to get better. Once you trust yourself in that way, it’s easy to avoid being self-critical to the point of creative paralysis.
During my first summer, Bobbie was the moderator for a panel discussion with Robin Blaser, Bob Creeley, and Michael Ondaatje. I downloaded a copy of the recording of that discussion from the Naropa archive because it was a turning point in my life as a writer, and Bobbie was there to shepherd me through it. I became an admirer of Ondaatje because of that panel discussion. Bobbie also pointed me to John Berger, Lawrence Durrell, and Colette. Bobbie, like all of those writers, had a gift for evoking a deep emotional resonance in her work, a tone that seemed to attach a much deeper significance to what might seem to be otherwise simple language. This was something she tried to teach in a class of hers that I took called “The Feeling Tone” where we read Ondaatje and Colette among others.
If you ever find yourself browsing books somewhere in a second hand shop, or online, and come across one of her books, buy it, read it. You won’t regret it.