What Happened Here?

As I made my way through Penn Station tonight, I saw what is pictured below:

And I couldn’t help thinking, “What happened here?” There was no one sitting or laying nearby to whom these shoes could belong. And the one stray pastel sock adds another level to the mystery. Does the sock belong with the shoe? Or were there two separate foot wear incidents in such close proximity? Questions arise.

How does one leave one’s shoes behind? And in such an orderly pose? And one sock? With those colours, could that be a child’s sock? A man’s, a woman’s with a sense of whimsy? It poses a quandary.

Naturally, my writer’s brain was quickened by the unusual sight, so much so in fact that I passed the shoes, noted them, but even though I kept moving, they squirreled into my brain, so when I got a short distance away, I went back upstairs to photograph then. What is their story? Don’t you want to know?

But you do of course. It’s in your head, and mine, and hers, and his, and theirs. So here is today’s challenge, a quest perhaps: choose your genre and tell us what happened here.

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Rejection

We’ve all heard the stories of writer’s who have saved every rejection slip or have papered their bathroom walls with them. They are the impetus for many to hone their craft, to push themselves forward. For others they are dejection, a reason to drink, a debilitation. For most, I would guess, they are a little of both.

I am a fan of Castle. In “Head Case,” his daughter is rejected from early admission to Stanford. Their exchange goes like this:

Alexis Castle: How do you do it, dad?
Richard Castle: Do what?
Alexis Castle: Well, that letter that you have framed in your office.
Richard Castle: [reminiscently] My first manuscript rejection.
Alexis Castle: Yeah. How can you stand having it there?
Richard Castle: Because it drives me. And I got twenty more of those before Black Pawn ever agreed to publish “In a Hail of Bullets”. That letter… that letter reminds me of what I’ve overcome. Rejection isn’t failure.
Alexis Castle: It sure feels like failure.
Richard Castle: No, failure is giving up. Everybody gets rejected. It’s how you handle it that determines where you’ll end up.
Alexis Castle: My whole life has been about making sure I could get into any college I wanted. What’s it about now?
Richard Castle: Give it time. You’ll figure it out.

(http://www.imdb.com/character/ch0136542/quotes)

One of the reasons I like the show is for scenes like this. Castle, the character, is a writer–yes, he’s a playboy, an amateur detective, a child at times, but he is also a writer. He writes; he procrastinates; he feels pressured by deadlines; plus, he creates; he makes up stories. He can’t help himself. And in this scene, he puts a writer’s spin (okay a published writer’s spin) on rejection.

I want to feel this way when I get those, “Thank you for submission. Unfortunately,…” letters (or as is more and more common these days emails). I want to frame one of those letters and let it drive me. I want to tell the story some day of how I overcame the rejection slips.But, most of the time, I just feel like hitting the delete button or shredding the letter, and crawling under the covers for a while.

I tell myself that art is subjective and I just haven’t found the right reader yet, but the form letters most publishers send out are cold. There is nothing in them to encourage the writer, to validate her craft, or to offer constructive criticism. The writer is left wondering why. And in the solitude of the writer’s room, that wondering can spiral into a maelstrom of doubt.

Of course, it is easy to understand why presses, publishers, literary magazines use the form letter. The field of literary magazines is shrinking, but the pool of prospective writers continues to grow. The small staffs and volunteers are overrun with submissions. Yet, that understanding only holds firm when one is not holding a rejection letter in her hand (or screen).

Over the summer, I entered a number of contests for both poetry and prose. Last week, I received a form letter. Thanks, but no thanks. Then today I received a different kind of rejection. “Although you didn’t win, I enjoyed reading this piece. It was unsettling in a pleasurable way, and the writing was good.” Well, that’s positive, for a rejection. Then the editor went on to express his “one quibble” with the piece that he thought ” it’s kind of ‘cheating’ to introduce a stranger at the end to serve as an observer and to wrap things up.” This quibble did a couple of things for me. The first, knee-jerk, reaction is to think that the reader missed something. That character isn’t introduced just at the end. The second reaction is that at least this editor read the story. I once received a rejection letter that stated, “Honestly, I didn’t read beyond the first page.” How dejecting was that! I’ll take a form letter over such harsh honesty any day. But this editor did read my story. And as I thought about it more, I have decided to go back to the story and beef up that character’s part so that he does not feel like such a stranger when the end rolls around. I have an even clearer sense now of “what the story’s about.” I have hope that this insight will lead to revisions that truly strengthen the piece.

I won’t be re-papering my bathroom any time soon, but I’ll save this rejection email to remind myself that there are editors who care even if they do not choose my piece. The entire email is six sentences, but, like Castle says, it drives me.

Create Fun

Here it is, the unofficial end of summer. Labor Day weekend. A time to celebrate the diligent labor that created this country. Do we still have that work ethic? Do we still work hard for the sake of a job well done? One thing is for sure; it is easier to persevere in our work when our work is what we want to do, when our work is not work. Creativity should not be work, right? But of course there are revisions and edits that need to be made, practice routines that must be accomplished, clean up after a project that can’t be ignored. Sometimes, even when we work at what is our passion (or follow our creativity outside of our salaried positions), sometimes even the creativity seems drudge-full. Everyone goes through moments like this. That’s when we need to remember our work ethic. That’s when we need to remember our creative desire. That’s when we need to create fun.

Did you ever babysit? Or are you a mother of a young child? Do you remember making a game out of cleaning up the toys before the parents came home? or before moving on to the next activity? “Who can toss the most stuffed animals into the box?” “Can you drive the train into the station?” “Time to practice parking–the tricycle goes over here!” For our children we make up games to get the drudgery done and re-establish some order to the space. Why not do it for ourselves?

Sometimes the answer is as easy as putting on some music or talking to a friend. Recently I was painting a tiny, tedious white picket fence around a porch in an oil painting. First, I sketched it in with charcoal, giving it my undivided attention. Then, I took a little break and chatted with a friend in the studio. Next, I went back to it with paint and again gave it my undivided attention as I painted in those tiny pickets. But soon, someone else came in and I took a quick break to say hello. Back to the painting–more concentration. Step back, observe, take a drink of coffee. More attention. Ask advice. Back to the pickets–adjusting size and color for the perspective and shadows. Was this a quick way to achieve a small portion of the painting? No. Does that fence look good? Yes. Was I looking forward to painting that fence? No. Am I happy with it and did I feel good when I finished? Yes. So maybe we also need to give ourselves time to slow down when the going gets sludgy–as long as we don’t stop. And try to remember that feeling of “it’s done, and it’s good” we had the last time we ran into a tedious revision.

Today, I think I’ll finally do some editing. I also have “work work” to do answering e-mails and creating courses. But think about it–in creating or updating my courses for next year, I get to read some really great poetry or short stories. In editing, I get to revisit my characters and see how they are doing, make their journeys smoother. What’s not fun about that? And I’m sure there’ll be many cups of coffee, glasses of water, and walks around the garden to motivate me.

How do you make those down moments fun? What do you do to keep a smile when the creation becomes a monster? And can anyone convince me that  running scales on the flute is fun?