Jennifer Astle

March 22, 2009

Weekend Reading: Writer’s Block and My Overflowing Bookshelf

procrastination-main_fullWriter’s Block.  That terrible, ever-lurking antithesis to “the flow” of which writers speak is a very real thing.  To someone who does not write extensively, it may seem easy to cast the notion off as silly, and inextricably linked to ego, but in reality, it can interupt a writer’s work and frustrate the bejesus out of them.  Flow, on the other hand, is that glorious pace a writer can find where the words seem to come from the fingers (or pen) first and the mind later.  It’s a constant race to keep up with yourself before the next moment flutters out of your mind like a butterfly and is lost forever.  This can last four hours before the writer is broken from the trance and brought back to the reality of dinner that must be made, day jobs that must be worked, and bills that must be paid.

I don’t know what other writer’s do when they experience Writer’s Block.  I’ve found sites for writing prompts and ideas, but ultimately a prompt that says “write about a red ball” is unlikely to shake me out of reality, and back into that dream world that writers create for themselves.  Someone once told me to keep my head above the clouds.  My immediate reaction was that it was mis-phrased; it should have read keep your head out of the clouds.  I didn’t understand properly then what was meant by that, but I do now.  Above the clouds is where creativity flows, and sometimes it is impossible not to come down, into the clouds,  and subsequently back into reality where there is traffic, phones ringing, appointments, and all of the mundane practices that make up this thing we call life.

When I have Writer’s Block, I read.  I’m always reading something, and in fact, I can hardly remember a period of time where I wasn’t completely absorbed in one book or another.  For the year I wrote literally nothing, I was completely wrapped up in Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, a seven book monolith that makes The Stand look like a Sunday paper.

This may explain the current state of my bookshelf.  I’ve rationalized my Writer’s Block down to a few things, including the fact that I have my first short story making its rounds in literary magazines and contests, and somewhere deep inside me I am waiting for judgement/affirmation.  The second cause is related to research.  My book-in-progress is deeply rooted in religion, mythology,  psychology, and to some extent, sociology.  At 20,000 words I simply hit a point where the idea was no longer enough, I needed background knowledge to keep the train chugging along.

So, for a little change, I am offering my weekend reading list.

1984 by George Orwell

Until now, I hadn’t read this book.  Not only did I know that I must read it because it is a classic, but the subject matter interests me greatly.  I can hardly put it down and it has been dominating my reading for the last week. I plan to finish the last 30 or so pages today.  While reading it I have to constantly remind myself that it was written in 1949, and renew my admiration for Orwell’s construction of a future society.  As a sociologist at heart, this book is fascinating.

The Almost Moon by Alice Sebold

I found Sebold during a seminar course on Ethnography in my undergraduate degree.  Our professor assigned Lucky, a biographical account of her rape while attending college.  The Lovely Bones was her next book, which also took me in.  I expect The Almost Moon to live up to my expectations of Sebold’s ability to capture me.

2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market

Otherwise known as the bible.  I am going through this volume painstakingly, absorbing all of the information about the publishing industry I can cram into my 26 year old brain.  What are agents, publishers, and editors telling me?  How can I use it in the future?  I know that I can break down countless boundaries if I am prepared, and I intend to be.

The Lilith Monographs Vol. I: Immaculata by Joshua Seraphim

This is directly related to my book, in which the main character is Lilith, or rather my version of her.

Lilith: The First Eve by Siegmund Hurwitz

See above.

Glimmer Train Spring 2009 Issue 70

Glimmer Train is the first literary magazine I have subscribed to.  The first issue arrived in my mailbox on Friday and since then it has been waiting patiently underneath 1984, waiting to be picked up next.  I’m reading it partly to learn what other writer’s are selling, to compare as objectively as I can, the quality of the work therein versus my own, and to absorb great literature from the future authors of classics that will come about in my life time.  As my writing income grows, so too will my collection of literary magazines.  For those who do not subscribe, I highly recommend it.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

This is a slow read for me.  I can only keep my attention focused on congressional history and legislative process for so long.  I also feel this is a necessary read.  Obama is an eloquent and moving writer, and knowing full well that he will become known as one of the great thinkers of our time, I am compelled to read through the political jargon to hear the message behind it.

Defending the Damned by Kevin Davis

This was recommended to me by a friend who works in the legal system in the United Kingdom.  It focuses on a public defender in Chicago, named Marijane Placek, a “snakeskin boot-wearing, Shakespeare quoting nonconformist.”  Needless to say, she knows my taste.

What’s on yours?

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March 20, 2009

Confessions of a Writer: The Art of Patience

patienceIt is August, and I hand my mother a list.  She looks at it, and then looks back at me; it’s my Christmas wish list (including a section for Birthday, which falls 13 days before Christmas).  She puts it on the fridge, and there it sits until December, when normal people start thinking about Christmas.  But, in my head, I have been unwrapping gifts since before Labour Day.

I’m in university.  I complete a paper on some complicated Sociological issue.  I, of course, expect the professor to hand them back during the next class.  Of course, she doesn’t because she’s a professor.  It takes weeks.  For weeks, I fret about my grade, desperately wanting to hold the paper in my hands with those tell tale red marks scrawled all over it.  I lose interest (somewhat) in the grade, and become more focused on just knowing.

I meet my future husband.  We fall in love.  We move in together after less than a month and in less than three we move to Toronto. I know you want to correct me now, and tell me that means I am impulsive and not impatient.  I would argue that implusive people act without knowing what they want, while impatient people know exactly what they want and simply can’t wait.  I am the latter, trust me.

Now I decide to write a book.  I use my fantastic research skills (I did pay nearly $70,000 for them after all) to learn about how people get published and follow that path.  Write your book first (“But that could take a year!”), research agents, query them, and wait for a response (without hitting the refresh key on my email seven hundred times a day), likely having to do the same thing over and over until someone bites, if anyone bites.

So, I devise a plan to satisfy my urge to be published NOW; short stories.  They take less time to write, and I can begin querying (and being rejected by) literary magazines almost immediately.  But, instead of finding the immediate gratification that my personality wants like a junkie wants crack, I learn an important lesson; patience.

I don’t want to screw up my chances, so I hit send, shift uncomfortably in my seat, and stare at the computer screen.  Nothing.  Then I watch some news, listen to the Rachel Maddow show, and write a little.  Refresh.  Nothing.

(hold on, I need to check my email)

Still nothing.

Slowly, I am learning that the literary world requires something more of me than great writing; extensive patience.  I don’t imagine there would be any faster way to get rejected by both agents and literary magazines, than by harassing the editors for a decision.  So I remain silent (another challenge for me, I might add).

So, my Grand Master Plan has backfired on me.  I set out for immediate gratification, and instead I am getting an important lesson in the fine art of patience.  Instead of getting what I want, I am getting what I need.  I am learning to wait, without holding my breath too long.  I have submitted one short to three magazines.  I’ve only recieved one response since I began this journey to get published in February.  It was a rejection.  Nevertheless, when I opened my email that morning and saw a response from an editor, my heart jumped.  Someone, somewhere, had read my story.  Even learning that the story “was not right for the publication at this time” I was still elated.

Now I wait again.  One down, two to go.  It’s hard to say if I will still be elated and grateful for being read after three, four, or five rejections.  I am not that much of an optimist, but damn it, I am going to try.

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