Archive for Writing Process


I’m letting my work come home to roost.  This past weekend, I sent out my last submission for 2013.  I have learned long ago that December is not a time to go on any kind of submission spree.  So, I let my work come home to rest — roosting much like the blackbirds that crowd the telephone lines outside of my house, their black feathers stark against a world of white.  It seems that editors are clearing off their desks and cleaning out their inboxes in time for the holiday season.  In the last five days, I have received three rejections.

This past year has been a weird writing year for me. Confession: I have not written a brand new poem since June. I have revised and revised and submitted and submitted, but no brand new poems have emerged from my notebooks.

Instead, I have turned to pieces of literary nonfiction. Since this summer, I have finished five essays, submitting them to various markets.  Much like my beginnings in the poetry world, I have received rejections.  That does not discourage me.  In fact, while I have been rejected, I have also received many remarks from editors who have encouraged me to revise and try again! I am entering into a new phrase of writing, and I am excited about this adventure.

This does not mean I have left the world of poetry behind. Indeed, I am working on my Best Collection posts (Look for my lists at the end of December) of what I have read this year.  And, of course, I have not given up on organizing my full length collection.  To be honest, I think this break from writing poetry will serve me well.


Wrestling with Sestinas and Other Adventures in Form

sestinas twoI have a love/hate relationship with the sestina.  I love to read sestinas — I love the way poets experiment with the form, playing with the end words, while twisting meanings, tenses and even spellings.  I also love to teach the sestina.  The sestina has a fixed pattern  — much like other forms that I teach (the pantoum, the ghazal and the villanelle), so many of my nonmajors suddenly see patterns and organization that they didn’t see before.

But I hate writing sestinas.

I admit it — it’s probably lack of patience or lack of imagination when it comes to linguistics and/or language, but every time I start playing with the sestina, I throw my notebook down in a huff.  The only time I managed to actually finish a sestina, I showed my poem (rather proudly, I might add) to a colleague, who read my piece, frowned, and said, “It’s a sestina, all right.”

Not exactly comforting words.

Still, The Incredible Sestina Anthology edited by Daniel Nester makes me want to try the sestina again.  In this collection, Nester brings to together a wide range of poets who have succeeded with the sestina.  Included are works by poets Elizabeth Bishop, Donald Justice, Marilyn Hacker, Sandra Beasley, Denise Duhamel and Patricia Smith.  It’s not the kind of book that you want to sit down and read in one sitting. Instead, it’s a collection you want to put by your nightstand, where you can read three or four sestinas before you go to sleep.  (This way, you can dream in sestinas — which has happened to me before — it’s a little funky.)

In the last week or so, we have been working with forms in my Writing About Literature classes.  Even though it’s not a creative writing course, I do take a class period to have students experiment with form.  For many, the sestina is the biggest challenge; however, many of my students do enjoy the pantoum and the ghazal.

Today, as I am finishing this post, we are under our first Lake Effect Snow Warning of the season.  The wind is blowing and snowflakes are flying.  It’s a good day to stay inside, bundle up, and try that sestina again.

The Writing Life: The Good, the Bad, and the Mundane

When I teach creative writing, I like to show clips of movies that depict the writing life.  One of my favorites is the 80’s dark comedy, Throw Momma From the Train starring Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito.  If you haven’t seen this movie in a while, let me refresh your memory.  One of the main characters is a community college professor who is suffering from writer’s block.  While struggling with his writing, he is also teaching creative writing and battling his own feelings of anger against his ex-wife who has allegedly stolen his novel.

When I show clips of this movie to my students and ask them to comment about the writing life, many respond that it’s “mundane” (after they get over the initial shock that yes, writers used to write on typewriters!!!)

I’ve been thinking about this movie (and my student responses) the last few weeks as I slowly try to clean up my poetry files in preparation for the new year.  Yes, there are good things about the writing life.  Wonderful new work that falls from your pen or pencil or keyboard. The acceptances, of course.  Attending writing conferences and readings. Correspondence between writers.  Working with editors.  Just the simple act of reading a great poem, or a wonderful collection, or a fantastic book.

Then there’s the bad.  One word.  Rejection.  That’s all you need in this category.

Finally, there is the mundane.  Waiting for responses — any kind of responses.  Sending out single works and collections.  Writing cover letters.  Figuring out individual submission managers.  Tracking down seemingly lost submissions.  Reorganizing manuscripts.  Sometimes, revising, especially if you can’t get a work quite right would also fall into this category.

Lately, most of my writing life seems to fall into this third category.  I have been tracking down seemingly lost poems, withdrawing poems from journals that are either taking too long (yes, I believe that over 12 months is way too long) or are shutting down (if the website has not been updated in over 9 months, I believe that is a warning sign).  This past year has not been a good one when it comes to submissions and I want to start off the new year with a fresh slate — or as fresh as I can get it.

October, So Far

October has started out on a high note — On Friday, October 4, I presented a brief poetry workshop to area high school teachers.  When I say brief, I mean brief – the workshop was only about an hour and a half long.  During the workshop, I talked about different forms of poetry including the pantoum, the ghazal, the sestina, and the villanelle.  (I mentioned the sonnet — but since most people know of the sonnet, I didn’t want to dwell on Bill Shakespeare’s favorite form!).

Then, I explained why I teach form in both my Writing About Literature and Creative Writing classes. I know that while many writers find writing within a specific form a bit stifling — students (such as many business, computer and engineering majors) are often relieved to find rules in place for poetry.  They are happy that they don’t have  to analyze all this “free verse jazz” as one of my students once called the open forms that many of us use in writing.

This workshop also reminded me of some favorite contemporary poets who experiment with form including Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Shaindel Beers and Sandra Beasley. I really need to revisit their work more often.

In other poetry news, I received two acceptances in the inbox this week, one for a poem and one for a poetry book review.  Since both are online publications, I will post links when I know more.  It’s just a bit nice to have a break in the rejection spell.

In general, we are experiencing gorgeous Autumn weather — the kind that makes me happy that I’m living in western Pennsylvania.  Thus, I am declaring a school free weekend.  I will return to reading student papers on Monday.

Rejection Tastes Like Chocolate

So, the leaves are starting to turn and we are under a frost warning for the night.  School is in full swing, and I have been busy with the usual activities that come with the start of the semester.

And I have also been swarmed with rejection slips.

I spent the start of September bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t heard much from editors over the summer.  Well, they all must have heard me because I have been receiving rejection notes left and right.

Writers go through these stages, I know.  They have a string of good luck and then they have a string of bad luck — at least that has been my experience.  I just have to ride out this period of bad luck.

And what should I do with all these rejection slips?

I don’t keep my rejection slips.  I never did.  Back when I received more rejection slips in the mail, I recorded the rejection (to help keep my records straight), and then threw the slip away.  Now, more rejections come via email.  I record the rejection and then delete the note from my inbox.

I agree with January’s post.  I don’t need reminders of rejections. Instead, I throw a dollar in my rejection jar.  And then I eat chocolate.  Lots and lots of chocolate. But I have been told that since it is dark chocolate, it’s okay.

Looking with Lia Purpura

Many years ago, I took a Chautauqua workshop with poet Margaret Gibson.  She told me that I needed to practice looking, and that in doing so, my poetry would be stronger.

I was a novice writer, and I didn’t understand her advice.  Looking?  Of course, I knew how to look.  Afterall, my poetry was about the working-class world.  I had grown up in that world.  I had spent my whole life Looking.

It’s been many years since that workshop and I have to admit that the process of learning how to look has been a slow one — and even now, I realize that it’s not an action that comes easily.

Essayist and Poet Lia Purpura, at yesterday’s Earth’s Eye Festival, encouraged us to practice looking.  The day was divided into two parts: field work at the lovely Presque Isle in Erie, PA and a craft talk by Purpura.  On the trail, Purpura told us that writing about nature is a tricky act to accomplish: we often enter nature wanting the unexpected or expecting great life revelations, and these two things can happen, but we have to work to make them happen.  I admit that I grew up in the rural world so I always want the unexpected to happen.  Sometimes, I get it.  I see a muskrat in the Connewango Creek right in the middle of town or a Barred owl in the middle of the day (no bad omens here — I have learned that Barred Owls are known for showing up in daylight) or a Black Bear crossing in front of me on a main highway.  Other times, Purpura is right — I have to work a bit harder.   And I also have to work at making leaps into life revelations.

All in all, it was a great day — made especially so because the rain held out until the end of the day, so we didn’t have to scamper off the trails to find shelter from any storm bursts.  Especially great?  In my journal, I have two new starts to prose pieces.  I’m not sure where they will go, but I know they will go somewhere!

And So Begins the Balancing Act…

The first week of school is over, and I’m always surprised about the weight that has lifted from me once I meet all my new students for the semester.  It’s a good type of stress, really, but stress nevertheless, and I’m always relieved to get that first week under my belt.

Now, comes the hard part.  A question that is always discussed on blogs and in columns is how to find the time to write.  I admit that I don’t have kids, but I still have a heavy teaching load at a community college, so my full-time job does take a lot of time and energy.  This is not a complaint: I love my job and feel very lucky.  Still, during the school year, I have to make time to write in a busy schedule and that is not always easy.  This semester is going to be especially challenging, because I have a mixed schedule — I’m teaching morning, afternoon, and evening classes and thus my free time is a bit different every day.  I used to write early in the mornings, but on some days, I won’t be able to do that.  However, this semester, I’m not teaching on Fridays, so I will have my Friday mornings free — which is the first time in all my years of college teaching including my years as an adjunct.

Looking at my schedule, I don’t believe having a set time each day is going to work for me.  Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Newswriting and Editing course and its syllabus.  In my life before a college professor (sometime in there between retail and factory work), I was a reporter for a small town newspaper.   As a reporter, I didn’t live by finding time to write — writing was my job.  Instead, I lived by deadlines.

I’m thinking that may be the way I should approach my writing life in the next few months.  Many submission periods and contests have deadlines, and making those deadlines should be a goal for me.  Better yet, in my notebook, I plan on setting five writing goals (attainable goals — sometimes I have very lofty goals and then I get upset with myself when I don’t complete them) for each month, and working towards those goals or “making the deadline” a phrase I’m going to use in my Newswriting and Editing course.

So, what is my first deadline?  Proofread a set of galleys and email an editor about a wayward review.  Sounds easy enough, right?

Goodbyes & Loose Ends

This week I’m back to JCC, so while I realize that the summer season is far from being over, my summer is winding down to an end.

This past week I said goodbye to Gregory DeCinque, who has retired after 19 years as President of Jamestown Community College.  I have been at JCC since 2001 and I will always be thankful for Greg and the JCC Community in general for giving a young, new faculty member (Obviously, I’m not young or new anymore!) a chance!

I’m also slowly saying goodbye to the summer by scrambling a bit with my own writing.  It’s true that I haven’t drafted a lot of new poems this summer, but I have started many, many prose pieces that I wanted to revise and send out.  And I did — two short stories, one work of creative nonfiction, and even some poems from last April that never made any kind of journey to the published world.  I know a lot of writers save their material for a big September (when many journals open their doors) event, but the start of the Fall semester is always too busy for me to even consider doing much with my own writing.

Here’s to the remaining days of summer and let’s hope we will continue with the beautiful weather!

Fighting Fruit Flies and Other July Notes

No, I did not melt into a puddle during our mini heat wave we had in the middle of the month.  Instead of melting, I spent a good part of July battling fruit flies.  I have no idea where these pesky fellas are coming from, but they are everywhere.  One flew into my cup of coffee this morning. Bleck.

I also spent a lot of July catching up on my reading. (I now only have two boxes of unread books instead of three).  I sent out quite a few submission packets, although I have found that during the summer, journals that are open to submissions are slow in responding (and I don’t really blame them), so for the last few weeks it feels like I have had a one-sided conversation with the poetry world.  I did receive some good news, however.  Special thanks goes to Justin Hamm and the editorial staff at the museum of americana for honoring my poem “How the People of Woods County, PA, Lost the ‘G’ in Drinkin” as a 2013 Best of the Net Nominee.  You can stop by here to read the other nominations.

The weather did cool down a bit this week, just in time for another great week at Chautauqua, where I took a workshop with the lovely Kim Todd, who is the author of such great books as Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secret of Metamorphosis.  Regular readers of The Scrapper Poet know that I have been dabbling a bit with prose, and Kim’s workshop was geared toward nature writing, or more specifically how the personal essay blends nature writing.  Although I would not call myself the next Annie Dillard, I did come out the workshop with four good starts to individual essays! More importantly, however, I feel excited about writing again.  In many ways, I have a hit a wall with poetry, and I think I need to take a break from my own work — never fear, however — I am not taking a break from poetry reading!

13 Poems

So far, 2013 has not been especially kind — not on the homefront, not in the world.  Writing has definitely taken a backseat to life, and instead of working on more formal pieces, I have been doing a lot of journaling.  Still, my final grades are in, and writing, whether it’s for the world (a few small part of the world)or for me, does give me a sense of peace.

I spent this morning reviewing my poetry drafts from 2013, and it’s true, I haven’t written a lot — but I did find 13 poems worth keeping.  I want to work on these poems and try to find summer markets that are open.  I also want to work on my full length manuscript.   Finally, I want to finish a few book reviews and dabble a bit more in other genres.

Lofty dreams indeed, especially when the warm weather  is beckoning me outside and a messy house is scolding me.  Hopefully, I will find a nice balance, soon!

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