Monday blog post: March 12, 2019

Hello world! I am considering a new way of talking to you: writing a short blog post every Monday morning, to let anyone who’s interested know what I’m doing with myself these days. I’ve never found Monday mornings very friendly: unlike my wife, who can’t wait to get to work on Mondays, I almost always struggle with the transition from home to work at the start of the week. I am not sure why that is, but I think it has partly to do with a fear of new isolation after having been deeply ensconced with my family all weekend. So I figure that a blog in which I talk to the world could be a good way to overcome that, and turn Monday morning into a positive time. This is the first one, and yes, I know it’s Tuesday.

There are other reasons I’d like to communicate more often too. I have a couple of projects on the go at the moments—one creative and one teaching—that are lengthy and involved, and I’d like to let the world know how they’re going. Additionally, I often feel like I’m not making enough progress with these projects, and I wonder if writing about them weekly will help me both to think that I am making progress, and give me more incentive to keep them moving. And I reckon that by reflecting publicly on what I’m up to, there’s a good chance I’ll gain more insight into what I’m doing

So here I go!

First, I’m still recovering today after being sick on Sunday night/Monday morning. (Hence why Tuesday is my new Monday). While my internal systems seem fine now, I am still tired, and getting going seems harder than ever. But already I feel better, just by tapping the keys and seeing words appear. This is after all why I am a writer: writing always makes me feel better, and is quite possibly the reason why I’m here on the planet in the first place. On Friday night I had a sad dream, in which someone close to me had died. But in the half-waking, half-sleeping moments between the end of the dream and getting started on the morning, it suddenly seemed very clear to me that, in the face of the fact that life ends, I have to define my own meaning for it, and make my own value. And the two things that leapt to my mind as sources of value and meaning were:

  • To appreciate the world around me, in all its variety and wonder.
  • To write about the same.

These are not new thoughts to me—and of course many others have had them throughout history—but I feel them with a new urgency after that dream. So I want to try to make those two ideas active in my daily life, especially my working life. I am not yet sure how that will happen when they come up against the constraints of my working situation and the money I need to earn to support my family, but it must be possible.

Project news #1: online courses. For some months now I have been playing with the idea of making my own online creative writing courses. I love teaching writing, but I’ve found that the opportunities to do that are currently open to me are not frequent enough, or well enough paid, to make a living (see supporting my family above). So I’ve decided to try the online teaching world, to see if I can make it happen there, where the potential audience is so vast. I’m very excited about the idea of working like this: I would love to be able to make a difference in the lives of many, many writers, and I can see so many possibilities for doing that online. However, progress has been slower than I had expected. There’s just so much to learn! From the basics of site design, to creating content that works when I’m not face-to-face with my students in a classroom, to working out how I might reach suitable audiences to market to—it’s all new to me, and it all takes time. I was stressing myself out about this, which if anything was making progress even slower; but after that dream and epiphany on Friday, I rethought the whole situation. So it’s taking me much longer to get these course started than I thought, but so what? No-one is checking up on me with a stopwatch. In fact, everything I’m doing is a great opportunity to learn new skills and develop how I teach, and if there’s one thing I love doing besides writing, it is learning.

So with that liberation of attitude, I was able to get some good work done last week. I have drafted my first couple of pages of real teaching content, and I’m excited again about the possibilities of the course. My goal this week is to get 4 more pages done.

Project news #2: poetry manuscript. My big project last year was getting my first-ever attempt at a poetry book manuscript (or MS) together. I went through every poem I’d ever written, selected about 60 pages of what I thought was the best material, and attempted to put them in some kind of an order. I sent the MS out to its first competition on December 30, 2018, so I met my goal of preparing the MS and submitting it to at least one outlet in the year.

However, when I sent the MS to some readers for comments, they all said that the order of the poems didn’t work. At all. I wasn’t sure how to correct that at first—which is a mild way of saying that I was plunged into dismay, panic, and despair whenever I tried to rearrange them. However, I was saved from that state by the wonderful Give & Take program of the Maine Writers And Publishers Alliance. I was matched with a writer who had a chapbook MS prepared and wanted advice on creating an order for it. During January and February I spent time with his poems and figured out how I could configure them as a collection. It was super-valuable to be able to think that way without personal attachment to the poems, and though it wasn’t easy, I did find that the more time I spent with his poems, the more I saw how they could be connected to each other. (It also sparked a burst of intensive reading, as I ransacked my bookshelves for first collections by other poets to see how they approached the task). Anyway, in the end I did create an order for his MS, following this simple method:

  • Divide the poems up into Best, Strong, OK, Weak, and Omit piles.
  • From within the Best pile, find a poem that seems like a good first poem: i.e. that seems to announce the intent and some of the themes of the MS.
  • Follow that poem up with a few more of the Best and Strong poems. (Editors and judges don’t have long to make up their minds, so the opening few pages of a MS are crucial to its chance of publication).
  • Look for poems that will create a satisfying ending: ones that again seem to speak to the whole MS but seem to conclude rather than announcing.
  • Slot the remainder of the Best and Strong poems between the Opening and Ending poems. Try to find echoes/connections between each poem and the one before it—by theme, by tone, by image, or by form.
  • Fit the OK and Weak poems into the sequence already established. If one of these poems doesn’t fit into the sequence, leave it out.
  • Spend a short amout of time every day looking at the poems, checking my ideas.
  • Change mind frequently: promoting and demoting poems between the different categories, scratching head at my bizarre previous ideas of how two poems could possibly be connected, taking poems out entirely, putting one of the Omit poems into the Strong category after re-reading, giving up, resuming….
  • After some time, finally settle on a sequence that seems mostly to work: where I think the opening showcases a lot of the poet’s best writing, and I can explain to myself every single transition from one poem to another, even if no-one else agrees with me.

Well, maybe not so simple, but it was fun; I created an order that worked for me, and I hope it gave the author a useful outside perspective.

Now I’m applying that method to my own MS. It’s harder, of course, because it’s my own work, so I can’t see it as objectively as I could his. And it’s longer. But I have got the poems sorted into approximate quality categories (realizing that of course this is all totally subjective, but one has to start somewhere), and I’ve begun to weed out ones that maybe I was a bit partial in including in the first place. I’ve been through the ones I called Best, thinking whether they seem like Opening poems or Closing poems. Next I plan to spend a lot of leisurely time looking for that Announcing poem that can start it all off, then slowly, slowly, piecing together a few good poems to follow it.

It’s going to be another long process, I think—though I could be surprised. But I’m going to take my time, and enjoy what I learn about my poems as I do it.

I was also going to say something about what I’ve been reading, and Poetry Out Loud, but it’s too late! Time to do some work. Whether there will be any more of these posts, I am not sure! But thanks for reading this one.

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