Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Knitting on a Roller Coaster

It's all starting. I had my first class at Chatham last night: a poetry workshop entitled "Inventing Landscapes" and led by poet Joy Katz. I'm already generating some work just after one class. I think I missed being around poets on a regular basis.

The status of my hard drive is DOA. I am trying to piece together older versions of my writing and work from May, which was when I last backed up. That was only because my keyboard was broken all summer. Hopefully Sal will be able to recover work from the summer. I hate the feeling of having my writing in all corners of the earth, spread across multiple computers.

I'm planning and/or participating in four events for Weave. Three of them are in September. The other is in February at AWP. Weave is going to have a kick ass reading in DC this year. We are partnering with A cappella Zoo and Ampersand Books. But this week I'm just going to be attending a reading: I'm going to Gist Street on Friday. Woot.

My stress level is ratcheting up up up, but I'm working on some healthy ways to calm down (down down) that don't involve eating lots of food in front of the television. I want to take a yoga class and I'm pretty sure I'm going to get a massage at least twice this semester. I'm counting it as part of my costs for going to graduate school. I've also been knitting when I feel stressed. I haven't knitted in years, but I remembered the general knit and purl stitches. As you can see, I've made some headway on what will become a scarf. Each little loop helps my brain unloop. I hope I can still manage to knit once things get really crazy.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

What is Creativity?

Well, I'm still waiting for Outer Space to define creativity for me. I think I'll ask my students.

I haven't written about teaching in a while. Mostly because I've been off all summer. It was a much needed break as last year was probably the hardest I've ever worked in my life. My first year of teaching went really well though, much to my surprise. I managed to get through the whole year without much drama. And my students are incredible. I get the same students this year, as is the nature of special education. Teaching gifted kids comes with it's own difficulties. A lot of people don't understand the special needs gifted kids have and studies have shown they are the students schools most often fail. We just don't know what to do with them.

My boss recently sent me this article from Newsweek. Basically the subtitle says it all: "For the first time, research shows that American creativity is declining. What went wrong—and how we can fix it." Last year in my pedagogy classes, we talked about creativity and discussed the role of the teacher. Can you teach creativity? Or is it inherent? Perhaps both? Can it be encouraged? Facilitated? Or is it an essential human quality that the current educational system discourages? These are all fascinating questions and I'm sure many people out there are writing their Phd thesis on the subject.

Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done some in-depth studies on the matter. I read parts of his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention last year. I was especially interest his description of the experience called "flow", which he defines as:

"being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." (link to Wired interview)

When I look at this chart I think about how much time my students must spend in the "boredom" category. I'm not sure I understand the "relaxation" one. That just seems like a breeding ground for anxiety when something does finally challenge you. But when things are too easy I get bored too. Although I do love to clean and organize and feel relaxed and accomplished afterward.

So back to my classroom. I've decided to create a theme this year. I'm working with this idea of creativity, the crisis in our schools. The Newsweek article suggests that project based learning and the development of problem solving skills is a great way to encourage creative thinking. Well, it just so happens that I can create my own curriculum and pretty much do whatever I want with my students. So that's what we're doing. We're going to learn about creativity. We're going to define it. Over and over. We're going to study what famous artists and scientists have said about creativity. We're going to research creative scientists and mathematicians. We're going to think about the problems in our lives and what skills we have to come up with creative solutions. Multiple solutions. We're going to answer these questions:

What is creativity? 
Is everyone creative?
How do you show your creativity?
How can your creativity help the world?

I'll keep you posted as the year progresses. I can't wait to hear some of the definitions the students come up with.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bragging Rights and Submission Strategies

So I'm not usually a good judge of my own abilities. It does not matter how well I've done before. Past experiences with success are often not satisfactory enough for my brain to accept that I might be good at something. "I succeeded before, but this time I might not!" my brain will shout. I tend to seek validation from outside sources to gauge my own success. Because of this, I tend to avoid bragging.

That's why I don't have too much of a problem discussing my own recent successes in getting published. This past week, I received acceptances of six poems from four different journals. Some of these poems I was sitting on because they were up for consideration at another journal I'd really like to see my work in. When that didn't work out, I sent them out to a number of journals and within a couple weeks I was hearing back. Here is what's been accepted and where:

dotdotdash - "From Scratch"
Pear Noir! - "Dear Outer Space"
OVS Magazine - "Blame" & Upon Realizing I Am Filled With One Million Poems"
Radioactive Moat - "On Rainy Nights I Dream I Am Pregnant" & "upon realizing men could see through my white skirt"

This is highly unusual based on what I've heard from other writers. It's also unusual based on my own past experiences. I have been occasionally submitting work since 2008, but I ramped up to submitting very aggressively in December 2009. I sent a ton of work out this summer. My first publication will be out this fall at Coal Hill Review, along with the others I've listed above.

With the competitiveness of the writing field, I've begun to approach submissions in a very practical, business-like manner. I got great advice from a former professor of mine at Chatham, Aubrey Hirsch. She primarily writes fiction, but has been successful in publishing nonfiction and poetry as well. When she has a story to submit, she keeps it out at five places at all times. If she gets a rejection, she tries somewhere else. No harm, no foul. It wasn't the right market. My feelings are rarely hurt anymore when I get a rejection. Aubrey also gave me advice about continuing to edit a piece, even after it's been submitted. Why not? If a journal accepts a previous version, well, great! I currently have at least 25 poems I'm trying to publish, so I've got about that many submissions out right now. I always appreciate a journal that accepts simultaneous submissions.

Other strategies I've picked up on my own is researching journals and targeting submissions, as well as tracking all my submissions and journal reading periods on an elaborate Excel spreadsheet. I did not set out for it to be so elaborate, but now I've got five worksheets for different kinds of information. Current submissions, Online, Postal, Contests and Responses. Each of those track which poems or stories I've sent where and also additional info about the journal, like their reading period dates, mode of submission, and contact info. I've also begun to research the various "tiers" of publications. I've found a few good lists that rank journals and now I've got a 1-5 ranking system. Soon I will begin to submit work in a system I've yet to develop based on these rankings. So far I've submitted (by accident) to ranks 4 & 5 and unranked journals. I've received personal rejections from two tier 5 journals, both encouraging me to resubmit. That's hopeful!

What I can't decide is, should I submit my work to the top tier journals first and then, as the rejections roll in (as they surely will), move down the list? Or should I submit to all levels simultaneously? Some people begin at the lesser competitive (but still competitive) markets first, gain a certain number of acceptances at that level, and then move to the next tier. But this seems like it will take more time. Why not try for the more competitive markets right away? Maybe you'll get lucky.

While this outside recognition of my work is nice, I can definitely see why it's happening. Looking back at the work I was sending out a couple years ago, I can see why the poems were not getting published. They weren't ready. The work I've created more recently is far better. I'm glad I am more capable of judging the quality of my writing. It sure does make the editing process a lot easier. Also, my skills as an editor have helped me with things like not feeling overwhelmed by submissions guidelines or being afraid of asking editors questions. I guess this is what confidence feels like. It's a strange, unfamiliar feeling. I hope I can hang on to it for a while.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Stop being so hard on yourself, Laura"

I can remember a particular week in my early 20's when at least five people said to me, "You should stop being so hard on yourself," or "Wow, you really put a lot of pressure on yourself!" At the time, it was the first synchronistic happening that lead me toward learning more about myself, my emotions and my personal motivators. I can't say I'm any less hard on myself now that I'm in my (very) late 20's, but I still use that familiar phrase as an indicator that I need to lighten up.

As writers, we often put pressure on ourselves to do more. I think this is because there is always more to do. Just today, I spent a few hours on an essay, another few hours doing management and business work for Weave, read blogs, books and emails. Socialized on my network. To an outsider, it would seem like I had a productive day. But to me, I feel lazy. I've also watched a couple hours of television and goofed off online. I should have also submitted work to journals, edited some poems, worked harder on my essay, gone out of the apartment for a walk. I suppose I can still do those things. It's only 5 o'clock. Pressure.

Last night I was talking to my boyfriend, Sal, about confidence. So much about my life and how I spend my time is dictated by how good I'm feeling about myself that day. It's difficult for me to accomplish much when I feel I can't possibly catch up. But catch up to what? When did this race begin? Who am I comparing myself to? There are millions of writers, most of whom are more talented and successful than me. But I don't even know if that last sentence made use of proper grammar. Than me? Than I? I'm a terrible copyeditor. I should really learn the rules of grammar and punctuation. Pressure.

If I had more confidence, I would stop this comparison thing. Because while the world and the job market want to make us feel like this is a race, it really isn't. Writing cannot be. Because writing, like living, requires a lot of patience. I won't have all the information I need right away. A journal will take months to get back to me about a submission. I won't be as well read as a lot of people. I got a late start, not having directly studied writing or literature in my undergraduate studies. I did study education though, which puts me in a nice position to always have a job teaching. But I won't be at the same place many other 29 year old writers are. I don't have a book. I'm barely published. I really need to send work out. I should be reading something. Researching markets. Pressure. Pressure. Pressure.

Part of the pressure we feel is invisible. We don't know our competition. While an athlete knows who they are competing against, writers can only imagine our competitors. When I submit work to a journal, in my mind I'm competing with the most talented, successful, ingenious writers in the world. This can make the submissions process terrifying for some. I feel my vertebrae compacting.

Sometimes pressure is good. When I'm trying to fall asleep, I cannot sleep without a blanket. Even when the temperature is 105 degrees, I must at least have a sheet covering my calves. Feeling the light pressure of the cotton fabric comforts me. I feel covered. Less exposed. When I'm feeling the emotional pressure, rather than a back massage, I often just want someone to literally lay themselves on top of me. Strange, I know, but I'll lie facedown and have Sal lie on my back for a few minutes. While I'm there, I can feel my spine cracking and stretching. My breathing is forced and shallow. My cheeks are squished and I can feel my hip bones digging into the mattress. And then he rolls off me, and I breath in deeply, filling my lungs, and I breath out. I breath out all the pressure.

I have not found a remedy, save for my boyfriend's full body squishes, for all this pressure. Sometimes I feel like having a real, honest writer-mentor would be a good antidote. Someone who is working as a writer, who knows how to set deadlines and stick to them. Someone who understands the mind games and the self-esteem and the lack of confidence. A person who can offer feedback and advice when we feel like quitting. Who knows when we've worked enough for one day. Someone patient.

Any takers?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How to Be Alone

A video by fiilmaker, Andrea Dorfman, and poet/singer/songwriter, Tanya Davis.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Notes from the Editor's Couch

I call it an Editors Couch because my desk is often uncomfortable. It's more academic, studious. When I'm reading submissions to Weave, I want to curl up with them as I would my favorite novel or book of poems. My laptop is small and easy to handle while curled comfortably in a corner next to some pillows. I've actually gotten into the habit of doing the business-side of things from the couch. Suddenly, paying sales tax isn't so bad when done from the comfort of my brown Ikea sofa.

I realized today that I haven't yet written about the fourth issue of Weave. This issue is particularly emotional for me, because it marks a transition in this project. Since Weave's co-founding editor, Margaret, had to step down, I've been spending some time thinking about what it means to be an editor. For me, this project was always about the work we publish. Clearly, it has to start there. Yes, it is fun. Yes, it is flattering to get off to a successful start. Yes, it was exciting to get a grant. But it's more than that and even more than the amazing art and literary works we publish. It's the emails of appreciation I get from readers and contributors. It's the readings where I get to meet our contributors and hear their works read aloud as they want them to be heard. It's when contributors discover one another's work, like issue 04 contributor Teresa Petro-Micchelli ("Tracing") did when she praised fellow contributor Sal Pane's story ("America's Lover") on her blog. It's when I get to hold the actual issue in my had, a tangible object, a collection of people's hard work. It's the feeling I get when I see people reading Weave.

This issue has so much to give. Playwright Cassandra Lewis's hilarious one-act, "The Elevator Mystique", never fails to pull me out of a slump when I need a pick-me-up. Patrick O'Neil's personal narrative "The Demise of Horticulture" is still honest and darkly funny each time I read it. Ellen McGrath Smith's "The Latching On Song" speaks to the strange connection of mother and child, making it both universal and utterly personal. LEX Covato's cover "Brainstorm" is an amazing addition to the face of Weave. Renee Summer Evan's deals with death, grief and ultimately that new spark of hope in her story "The Fifth Jar", which moved me to tears when I first read it. Partly because it touched on the feelings I had after the loss of my grandfather this past December. That's the kind of work Weave publishes. Work that shifts us, leaves us changed, or opened, or filled. Or all these things.

I highly encourage you to pick up a copy of this issue, if you haven't already. It's so fantastic. I could go on and on about each piece of work in the issue, but that would leave no room for surprise. I also encourage you to subscribe and also consider donating to Weave. We work hard and with the new staff lined up, I know there are great things to come. Fresh perspectives, new ideas, branching out into new media like podcasting or video readings. There are many new adventures on the horizon. I want to keep doing this as long as time and money allow, and sometimes even when those things fail, I hope to still be couch-editing. It's just so comfy.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I'm sure you've heard by now that Prop 8, the ballot proposition in California that defined marriage as an institution made only for a man and a woman, has been overturned. Gay couples can now get married, just like straight couples in this state, along with four others, plus our nation's capital. Living in California this summer, just feet away from the Castro, with all its history, and now being present here during the overturning of Prop 8, has given me some hope. Hope that human's can learn from their own history, weigh progress against tradition, factor in the ideas of the old and young, put aside personal beliefs, and just let people be themselves. I don't think I'll be able to process my entire experience in this state until I'm back in my home state. But for now, I'm just proud to be here.