Sunday, June 27, 2021

Drink More Water

When I started this blog, I imagined I'd periodically try to give advice or perspective on writing. As it's gone on, though, I've realized I don't feel as comfortable with that as I do presenting the gems I find from other people. While I hope I'll always keep a student mentality, this year especially I've come a long way in understanding just how much I still have to learn. In some ways, that's exciting. In others it can be a little discouraging. In either case, I feel silly using this blog to pontificate.

Fortunately, there is no shortage of brilliant writers offering very useful insight, so I wanted to share a couple pieces I read this week that stood out to me as helpful.


First, this post from Peter Clines about social media struck a chord. It's a couple months old, but the question at the core of his post—does a writer need a big social media presence to be successful—has been floating around in one form or another since the first bloggers began getting book contracts. Since then, each new platform seems to give rise to new anxieties. Should you spend more time on Twitter? Follow more BookTubers? Stream readings on Twitch? Review books on TikTok?

There's a cyclical nature to these things, and as social media changes so do the anxieties. (A lot more writers worry about Twitter these days than they do about blogs. In ten years it will be something else.) Even so, just about all of us can name at least one or two really successful writers who are also adept at social media. It's hard not to believe in a cause and effect. Of course the person with a quarter-million followers is going to land on the NYT bestseller list. They've got a customer base already built in!

But is that assumption actually true? Clines understands these anxieties from all sides, and takes a pretty nuanced view of the subject. For anyone writing creatively, it's a good perspective to read from someone who's had a long and successful career in the industry.


Second, a post from Tim Waggoner. This isn't the first time I've shared something from him, and it won't be the last. What resonates for me are his perspectives on the long game—on what it means to commit to a lifetime of writing, with all the ups and downs that entails.

This year especially, as I've worked to change my approach to discipline and creative productivity, I've asked myself some hard questions that I don't really have good answers to. Should I have focused on writing novels much sooner? Attended a different school for my MFA (or skipped getting one altogether)? Committed to finding a mentorship in the hopes it might open some doors?

What these questions all have in common is that they assume some Great Success was mine to be had if only I'd made different choices. They also assume that the career I've enjoyed—selling stories, poetry, and even a serial novel—is not its own kind of success, even if those are things I'd only have dreamed of when I was writing my first stories in high school.

Each achievement and milestone can have the unintended consequence of nudging the goalpost back a bit further. That can be a great motivator to drive yourself forward, but it can also take some of the fun and sweetness out of the writing itself.

Waggoner's had a lot more success than I have. So maybe it shouldn't be a surprise he's felt the undertow more acutely as well:

I forget to enjoy the result of my efforts, to savor the experiences, to have fun, to feel joy. If I'm not first writing for myself, writing to spend my life in a way that feels fulfilling to me, if I don't remember to appreciate these things, that's when I most feel like a failure. My writing is supposed to sustain me, but if it was water, I'd get regular deliveries of it, throw the jugs in my basement, and never drink a drop of it. I'd be too focused on obtaining more water without taking the time to appreciate the water I've already got.”

Chop wood, carry water; but don't forget, now and then, to pause for a sip.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Adventures in Pupating, Part 2

In his book “Photography and the Art of Seeing,” Freeman Patterson points out that one of the major barriers to observation is our own familiarity with the subject at hand. By adolescence, he says, we tend to be too quick to catalogue everything we see in accord with our own understanding. “We rule out visual exploration,” Patterson writes, “and seldom discover the myriad facets of each object.”

A swallowtail freshly out of the cocoon.
The wings will take a bit of time
to dry and spread out.
I've been thinking about that a lot this summer in the midst of our attempts to raise swallowtails. From elementary school on, the metamorphosis of butterflies seemed to get a lot of airtime in class. It's one of those facts that gets hammered into your brain, like the water cycle or the order of the planets. 

Despite that, it turned out there was still a lot I didn't know. Some of it pretty dramatic! Some of it pretty disgusting. And some of it was just unexpected, presenting new challenges to what we were doing.

Here are five things we've learned since starting a caterpillar ranch.

  1. Those aren't monarchs.
    The very first lesson I learned was that the caterpillars I assumed were monarchs were actually swallowtails. Despite similar coloration and bandings, the critters crawling around on our dill were not what I thought. But because I thought I knew what they were, it took me a long time to fact check. (Forgive me, Freeman!)

  2. Caterpillars only have six legs.
    This was another thing I never looked at that closely. Whenever I saw a caterpillar crawling around I always thought it was on two long rows of legs, kind of like a millipede. As it turns out, though, they only have six. Those grippers that run down the rest of the body are something called “prolegs,” which are more like squishy little nubs that will disappear later—not real legs at all.

  3. Caterpillars dump their guts out before they build a cocoon.
    The surest sign a caterpillar is about to build a cocoon is that it will completely void its bowels in a huge, slimy splatter of poop shortly before it sets up a perch. I had no idea! The first time we saw this we thought one of the caterpillars was ill. If we'd known what was actually happening, we might have made preparations for what happened next.

  4. Caterpillars get really antsy when it's time to transform.

    After a little while
    the wings are dry
    and fully spread. You can
    see goo (#5) on the mesh
    behind him.
    We learned this the hard way after two caterpillars vanished in our kitchen, and I found a third making its way across the tile floor. Up until that point, they'd been content to crawl up and down stalks of dill, eating their way from one side to the other. Once it was time to build a chrysalis, they set out to discover new ground. While we've since moved the remaining caterpillars into a safer enclosure, I do expect one day soon to walk into the kitchen and find an unexpected swallowtail waiting.

  5. Butterflies also dump their guts out.
    Ah, some disgusting symmetry! I would have thought, based on the quantity of the caterpillar poop from #3, that their tanks would be empty by the time they emerged from their cocoons. Wrong! Because one of the first things a swallowtail does once it climbs out is to blast a long streamer of goo out its butt. There you are, appreciating the subtle beauty of a butterfly wing as it gently unfolds, when all of a sudden you find yourself inside the splash zone.

So there you have it. I knew none of these things until now, and that's been the fun of observing them daily. As Patterson writes, “new conceptions arise from your direct experience.” And if there's been this much to learn about swallowtails over just a few weeks, how much more is there to learn about, well, everything else?

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Fifty Pounds of Pots

This week, my friend and former classmate Eliza sent me the very good news that she'd placed an essay with New Letters not long after she shared it with me for feedback. I can't take any credit—my only comment was to say, “This is great; please tell me you're sending this out.”

(Sometimes there's really not much else to say. That's one of the things I think workshops should try to get across more often—when you're reviewing somebody else's work, you don't have to come up with suggestions or changes. Sometimes the best thing you can do for a writer is to help them get a piece out in the world.)

Just before she shared the news of her acceptance, she also sent me a link to this really smart piece by Kim Liao. It's part pep talk, part persuasive essay, and chances are good that you've already read it since it went pretty viral. 

I, however, had not. Or if I had, maybe I wasn't quite as primed to let it sink in. In her essay, Liao argues that writers should aim a lot higher when it comes to rejection.

In late 2011, a writer friend was sharing her experiences of having months of uninterrupted writing time at her residencies at the Millay Colony, Ragdale, and Yaddo. I was staggered by her impressive rates of acceptance. You probably have one of those friends, too—you know the one I'm talking about, that friend who is a beautiful writer, but who also seems to win everything? I could barely believe that she had the balls to apply to—let alone, get accepted to—several residencies, a prestigious fellowship, and publications in journals I had actually heard of.

I asked her what her secret was, and she said something that would change my professional life as a writer: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you're sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

Out of curiosity, I decided to count up my own rejections for the year. Counting both short stories and the novel I'm sending to agents, I'm so far up to 34. That's not bad, even if it's felt like more, but it really hammered home for me just how much work gathering a hundred rejections actually is. Because in addition to those 34 nos, I also have 28 submissions in process, and two acceptances.

I'm not sure you can actually extrapolate a rule of thumb here—response rates vary wildly—but if you could, it sure looks like it would take more than 150 submissions to achieve 100 confirmed rejections over the course of a year (along, possibly, with six acceptances and a whole bunch of work in review).

Liao's friend is right. It's a lot of hard work to get that may nos. And maybe that's what makes it a worthy goal.

Of course, part of the reason Liao's argument resonates with me so much is that we're reading the same source material. Just like I was inspired by Ted Orland and David Bayles this year to set my goals differently, Liao cites a story from their book to help explain why this approach works.

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales [sic] and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group's pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practices, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer's block.

That story stood out to me, too. It was a big part of the reason I decided to increase my own productivity by setting multiple goals, including for time spent, word count, and the number of stories completed. Even if I don't hit every one of my goals, setting them high has helped get me a lot closer to my own fifty pounds of pots.

Now, halfway through the year, I'm wondering if I should add a new one. It feels a bit like the last piece of the puzzle. Writing a lot is just half the equation. The other is sending it out.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

"An Indiana Grand" Published in Tough

I'm breaking my routine of only updating Sundays with some very happy news--my story "An Indiana Grand" is now live on Tough. I'm beyond thrilled to be in the company of writers like Nick Mamatas, S. A. Cosby, and April Kelly with this story, among too many other great people to name.

And if you happen to be coming here by way of Tough, I'm glad that you did. I write this blog weekly, mostly about writing and books, but sometimes also gardening, birds, caterpillars, and whatever else catches my interest. If you like that kind of thing, then this is the kind of thing that you'll like.

Hopefully you also liked "An Indiana Grand." If you did, and would like to read more about the much put-upon driver Jon Cassidy, check out "A Christmas Story" in which Cassidy features.

If you like crime fiction in general, then I'd point you at "Donors," which also takes place around Christmas, oddly enough. I guess it's a theme around here.

Thanks for stopping by! I'll see you next Sunday.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Adventures in Pupating

One of the strange things about gardening is witnessing the relationships between certain plants and certain bugs. I don't mean something as broad as “bees and flowers,” where any old bee might visit any old bloom. No, I mean something deeply, peculiarly specific.

For instance, I didn't know squash beetles were a thing until the year we tried to grow butternut squash. At first the plants went like gangbusters, then all of a sudden they began to wilt and turn sickly. My wife showed me the problem on the underside of the leaves, the patches of little red dots that turned out to be clutches of eggs.

Caterpillars crawling on dill planted in an old yogurt container
Three caterpillars and some
droopy-looking dill.
A lot of them had already hatched. I just hadn't noticed, because squash beetles are masters of hiding. Any time I got a little too close they'd scuttle to the other side of the leaf and wait until I was gone. It wasn't until I deliberately began to look for them that I realized how many we actually had. But by then it was much too late. 

Things aren't always that grim. Sometimes the bugs are quite welcome. Our dill, for instance, attracts swallowtail butterflies whose caterpillars will eat nothing else. And look, I like dill as much as the next guy, but you only need so much of the stuff to put in potatoes. We tend to have more than we need.

So we take a very laissez faire attitude to pulling it up, even when it grows where it isn't supposed to. It seems like bad karma to pull up a plant that could yield a swallowtail, and we don't need any more of that, thank you.

What we didn't realize last year was that all this extra dill would attract more than the swallowtails. After a couple weeks of checking on our caterpillars, we walked outside to discover a trio of marauding wasps plucking them off the plants and devouring them whole.

I know nature is all “kill or be killed,” but this was still pretty jarring. By the time the wasps were done there were no caterpillars left on the dill. With attrition like that, it's a miracle the swallowtail isn't already extinct.

Making preparations for a cocoon. See 
that silk around its midsection harnessing
it to the stalk?

This memory was still fresh in our minds as the spring crop of dill started to grow. The caterpillars followed soon after, little dark specks that quickly fattened up into colorful creatures from Alice in Wonderland. We decided we'd do what we could to help see a few of them through to adulthood.

So we pulled up the dill and carried it in, placing the plants in dirt to keep green for as long as possible. The caterpillars ate, and they grew, and they ate some more. We brought in fresh dill and they mowed it all down, nary a wasp in sight.

Now, knowing what I do of life on this earth, I should have been prepared for this next part, but somehow I wasn't. Somehow I did not expect the caterpillars to poop. And poop. And POOP. I mean, my god, by the time they got a couple inches long that seemed to be all our crop of caterpillars did, and the size of the droppings grew as quickly as they did. It was impressive, if a little unsanitary, and all as they continued to relentlessly gobble the dill.

And then, the grand climax: one of them suddenly shit his little brains out. We thought something had gone terribly wrong, but no, this was the final stage before building a chrysalis--they void themselves completely, getting ready for their great transformation. 

Now, we wait. The first of the cocoons have started to form while the others continue to eat. If you see a some extra swallowtail flapping around this year, or some wasps that look like they've missed a few meals, you know who to blame.

Clearing Things Up

We're in the process of moving. It's going to take us a while, but as a part of all that I've spent the last few weekends trying...