A Hitchhiker’s Guide to Poetry World

Last Saturday, I took part in ‘An Afternoon With The Small Press’ at Southwell Poetry Festival. In my “work role” as the Managing Editor of Mother’s Milk Books, I was one of four indie publishers at the event to talk about this strange thing known as ‘Poetry World’. (Credit goes to the marvellous Helena Nelson of Happenstance Press for naming it thusly.)

Ross Bradshaw, of Five Leaves Publications and Five Leaves Bookshop, put questions to myself, Di Slaney of Candlestick Press and Martin Parker of Stonewood Press, and the audience listened carefully, asked questions and whenever one of us had mentioned something particularly note-worthy they eagerly scribbled down what we’d said. Poets, especially those new to writing poetry, want to understand Poetry World, and they especially want to know how to get their poetry published.

But although I run a small press and know a bit about Poetry World through the publishing of other people’s poetry, I do NOT consider myself an expert on Poetry World as a poet. I have only been seriously writing poetry for about 5 years. That length of time is nothing in Poetry World. Seriously, it is just a blip (especially when you’re not actually writing poetry every day and sending it off every day). But… I have learnt a thing or two in that time. And so I thought that for those other fledgling poets out there, who are just about to strap on their poetic backpacks and head off into the realm of Poetry World, I would give them a few pointers.

My favourite accompaniment to a good book - creamy coffee and dark chocolate.

My favourite accompaniment to a good book – creamy coffee and dark chocolate.

1) Every successful hitchhiker needs a guide or two. The absolutely ESSENTIAL guide is called How NOT to Get Your Poetry Published by Helena Nelson. Seriously, if this had been published 5 years ago and I had read it then I would have saved myself a few poetic embarrassments and felt much more prepared when entering Poetry World. So buy it. Seriously. If you’re serious about poetry and getting your work published BUY THIS BOOK. It has bucket loads of information about how Poetry World works and how long it takes to get established in Poetry World. (Hint: we’re talking decades here, not months. So if you’re serious about this poetry stuff, start planning in the long term.) Also, it has lots of useful poem-making exercises. I’ll admit that at first I wasn’t convinced that I needed to read (or do) those exercises, because I don’t have any problems with inspiration, but boy, were they eye-opening! And funny. And insightful. And amazingly inspirational. And they made me look at poem-making in a whole new way. So hats off to Helena Nelson for writing this very, very good book.

 

2) Alongside the above excellent guide, I would also add that if you consider yourself fairly new to Poetry World then you should buy and read The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. And don’t just read it. Do every single crazy, beautiful, damn exercise that Fry has dreamt up. I promise you that it will give you a good basic knowledge of how this thing called poetry works. And by the time you complete the last exercise your “poetry brain” will have grown and absorbed a huge amount of knowledge.

 

3) Now, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here, because if you’re new to Poetry World, it may be a little too early (like, years too early) to start sending poems off to poetry journals and literary magazines. But hey! I know about that feeling of excitement that comes with the desire to get your poems out there. So when you’re thinking that you’re ready and are looking for places to send your work, you have a couple of options. The free and electronic-only option is to visit the website known as Comps and Calls. The wonderful Cathy Bryant spends ages each month listing all the free-to-enter submission calls and writing competitions that she’s discovered through t’internet. AND some of them even pay. Yes, you heard me right. They PAY. So check it out. And then the not-free (but still, very good value), paperback option is the indispensible Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses and Magzines 2016/2017. And while you’re flicking through the magazine, dreaming of the day when you’ll get your first poem or pamphlet or collection published… do something else. Make a note of the indie presses that publish poetry and BUY some of their books. This leads us nicely on to the next point –

 

Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses

Mslexia Guide to Indie Presses

 

4) A huge part of successfully navigating Poetry World and then becoming an established part of Poetry World is READING POETRY. It is not enough to simply write poetry, one must read it, read it, read it, read it. And continue reading it. Again, I’ll have to admit that it takes me a long while to read single author collections, because although poems are (mostly) short, they are dense in the sense that a good poem can make me think about it for days. And make me want to re-read it. So a full, say, 80 page collection can take me several months to read. So, if you’re new to this, maybe start with buying a few poetry magazines. Or anthologies. One can easily dip in and out of anthologies, (Being Alive, edited by Neil Astley is brilliant, as is my own Musings on Mothering – even if I do say so myself!). And pamphlets are a brilliant and less time and money-consuming way of reading contemporary poetry. I can heartily recommend the below which I read recently; all are haunting in their own unique way:

The Density of Salt by Kate Garrett, Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas, Lampshades & Glass Rivers by S. A. Leavesley

The Density of Salt by Kate Garrett (Indigo Dreams Publishing), Earthworks by Jacqueline Gabbitas (Stonewood Press), Lampshades & Glass Rivers by S. A. Leavesley (Loughborough University’s Lamplight Press)

 

(And by the way, if you’re looking to get a single author collection, I can definitely recommend starting with someone like Angela Topping, whose poetry is wide-ranging, tender and absorbing. Or Cathy Bryant, whose writing is thought-provoking and funny and witty. Or Sarah James whose writing is insightful and full of detailed imagery.)

If you’re cash-strapped then borrow poetry books from your library. Or read poetry online. There are many excellent websites and blogs that publish contemporary poetry. And if you don’t know where to start, why not try this excellent blog – The Poetry Shed, run by the fine poet Abegail Morley. And oh ho! What’s that I see? A poem and artwork by Marija Smits? Go on, check it out. I dare you…!😉

 

5) Now, I know that every poet (and writer) goes about editing their own work in different ways. Some have one trusted Poetry World friend (or if they’re lucky, a good editor) who gives them useful critiquing and works with them to get their poem/pamphlet/collection just right. Others are part of a supportive crit group that may meet every month or so, and others may be a part of an online crit group. And yet, some poets work solely (and happily) by themselves. Find what works best for you, for that stage in your journey through Poetry World, but be open to the other methods of getting feedback/useful critiquing. And knowing where you are along the path of ‘how well I take criticism’ is also useful. It can take years (and this I know from personal experience) to untangle the quality of the writing from one’s own personal worth, so if you’ve just started out in Poetry World and are feeling a bit disorientated (and perhaps a bit tender) it may not be the best idea to get your first poem taken apart and re-built by a ‘someone’. Just do the work — the reading and the writing — and you will get there.

 

6) When you’re ready to send your precious poems off into the world, (how will I know? you may ask. You’ll know, my friend, you’ll know…) then I’d suggest being methodical about the task. Set up a spreadsheet or use an exercise book and make a note of when, where and to whom you are sending off your poems. You’ll get rejections. Lots of them. But that’s okay. If you think of the submission process as the endpoint itself – then as long as you keep submitting stuff, you’re a success! I aim to always have 2, 3 or 4 submissions out there and under consideration (as I’m a short story writer and novelist as well as a poet, I have a range of stuff ‘out there’ which I bundle together under the heading of ‘writing’). Having just checked through my ‘little red book’ I submitted around 30 pieces in the past year. And 5 of them found homes. The others didn’t. And that’s okay. I obviously sent them out to homes that weren’t quite right for them (or perhaps the pieces needed another little tweak) or they simply weren’t to the editor’s taste. (Perhaps I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t really know what the editor was looking for by reading their publication thoroughly. Or perhaps I’d been lazy and taken a shortcut and didn’t buy (or read) the journal, assuming I knew what they were after.) Or… (and this is very often the way) the numbers game wasn’t in my favour. Because this whole submission lark is just that: a gamble. And one mustn’t get too serious about gambling (I know this from personal experience too). Numbers don’t care. They just are. When you send off your submission with (perhaps) hundreds of others, it’s always going to be a longshot that your work gets placed. But it does happen, sometimes. Enjoy it when it does happen and then break out the bubbly. See it as a pleasant bonus that happened because of you building your submission list (which, after some time and a few publications later may just turn into a proper publishing record).

 

7) And lastly, if I’ve given the impression that Poetry World is deadly serious and only about the end result of publication, then I’m sorry and I will have to address that. Because it isn’t. It’s full of fun and innovative ideas – Poetry Trading Cards, anyone? (I LOVE the idea of Poetry Trading Cards! Go grab some!) – and it’s also full of lovely, friendly and inspiring people, just like those who were on the panel and in the audience last Saturday. So get involved! Go to poetry festivals, go to readings at bookshops, perform your poetry (online or on the stage), or just get chatting to poets you admire on social media. And, of course, keep playing with words.

 

And a final, final p.s. I will tell you a secret. There really is no shortcut to becoming an established member of Poetry World. There is only the work, and the only reason to do the work is to love the work. And loving doing the work IS THE REWARD. But there is a longish shortcut to getting known in Poetry World. It’s called ‘becoming a poetry publisher’. But unless you have a penchant for quite literally, taking bank notes out of your own wallet, and setting them alight, then don’t do it my friend. Don’t do it.

 

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Neoliberalism: the invisible monster

I had intended for this blog post to be about some books that I read recently and greatly appreciated, but instead, something rather big happened here in the UK which derailed me. (Apologies to writers Angela Topping, Kate Garrett, Sarah James and Jessica Starr – reviews of your books will be along later.)

 

I refer, of course, to the UK’s referendum on whether to stay in the EU or not, and the outcome in which a 52% majority decided to leave the EU. I was shocked and saddened by the news, and the subsequent car crash that is UK politics. I was (and still am) disturbed by people’s reactions to the news, as witnessed on the internet (particularly social media), as well as ‘meatspace’ i.e. the real world. It is enough to send anyone reeling, but as an HSP, I feel that it has quite genuinely wormed its way into my head and parked itself with a huge amount of anxiety, rumination and a feeling of powerlessness and pointlessness: that there is no way out. That there is no way for cooperation to win. That always, always, the powerless are trampled on. That quiet, reflective people have no ability to effect change. That we don’t have a voice. Liars win. Aggression wins. Everything I do is pointless, and without worth.

 

And yet, and yet, hope wishes to prevail. Optimism would like to resurface. But it is still too early. I am experiencing a form of grief. Because any kind of separation brings about grief.

 

I have been (and still am) reading dozens of news articles and trying to process the why of the matter. Some individuals are very ready with generalisations and absolutes. People voted leave because of X. This happened because of Y. It is human nature to try to simplify things in order to find a certain sense to those things. But this is an incredibly complex issue, with layers and layers of political manoeuvring and lies to uncover, economics to make sense of, and people’s very genuine disillusionment with the state of the UK (and UK politics) to pick apart. Throw in a good dollop of racism and xenophobia, nasty political campaigning and the media aiming to outrage (not forgetting the actual reason for the referendum – the advantages & disadvantages of the EU [which I still think was a distraction]) as well all the negative affects of austerity, the issue of class and wealth, and hey presto! A perfect recipe for disaster.

 

I feel as though I am living in a state of limbo right now. Everyday life goes on, of course, (although I am noticing my anxiety seeping into my interactions with my family far too much) but my mind keeps returning to the why. And what now?

 

This article, by John Harris, is probably the most useful and insightful one about the why of what happened last Thursday. In it, Harris writes:

 

If we fear not just what this decision means for our country but how much it says about Britain’s underlying social condition, we will have to fight. But first, we will have to think, probably more deeply than ever.

 

And thinking is what I am doing right now. The whys are going around my head and the possible answers to those whys. And yet I know that I am missing something. I feel as though there is a something just out of sight, or possibly there, but not visible to the human eye. So it was a happy coincidence that I began to read How Did We Get Into This Mess? by George Monbiot last Saturday, because straightaway in the introduction, Monbiot very quickly made visible the invisible.

 

Take, for example, the ideology that now governs out lives. Not only is it seldom challenged it is seldom even identified. As a result, no one seems to know what to call it. Neoliberalism? Market fundamentalism? Laissez-faire economics? Though it is a clear and consistent belief system, though it is the ideology to which most governments and major opposition parties subscribe, and though it determines everything from the distribution of wealth to the treatment of the living planet, it has no standard or widely recognized name.

 

What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

 

 

And, I would add, to operate invisibly.

 

We need to go back to the 60s, 70s and 80s and once again acquaint ourselves with what Thatcher did to the U.K. We need to immerse ourselves in history and learn about the rise of neoliberalism, the rise of individualism, and the dreaded curse of competitiveness, which has led us to this moment.

 

We are, as Monbiot suggests living in an Age of Loneliness. And so, in my eyes, the UK annexing itself from the EU – a supposed act of “taking back control” – was actually an act of enabling further loneliness.

 

So what now?

 

We need to name the nameless. To clothe the invisible monster that is neoliberalism and give it a form. For when we can see our foe, we can begin to fight it, rather than each other and ourselves.

 

We writers, artists, mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, sensitive folk, and above all, the wild men and women – for there is nothing that neoliberalism hates more than wildness, the wildness of the human spirit and the natural wild – we must, in our everyday lives name the nameless and fight in our own gentle ways.

 

Disconnection must be countered by connection. Competitiveness countered by cooperation. And at the most fundamental level, hate needs to be countered by love.

 

The good thing about wildness, and the natural wild, is that it has an intrinsic desire for life and growth. It wants to grow. It wants to live and thrive. And with very little – empathy, a few kind words and deeds – it can and will thrive. Let us be like gardeners and tend to the wildness within ourselves and each other. But let us also be mindful of the nameless thing that wants to trample on us. Let us name it and fight it.

 

Neoliberalism image

Neoliberalism, the invisible monster

 

If you would like to learn more about the invisible monster, this is a useful book: A Brief History of Neoliberalism by David Harvey.

Or check out Wikipedia’s definition (the first paragraph is a good summation, and the paragraph about neoliberalism and feminism is also enlightening).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoliberalism

 

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Turning 40 – some reflections

 

Some treats of turning 40! Photo by Marija Smits

Some treats of turning 40. Photo by Marija Smits.

I’m not particularly worried about getting older, but there’s something about the number 40 that doesn’t particularly appeal to me. You see, in my quirky little overthinking brain, numbers have personalities. 5 is probably my favourite number because it’s a little bit curvy but it also has some straight bits. I consider it a friendly (but upstanding) number. It’s odd but, somehow, warm. The number 4 is all straight and cross and it looks rather irritable. And 0, well, that could be taken as a disappointed ‘oh’ (as in ‘forty, oh dear’). Or perhaps a rather surprised ‘oh’ or perhaps it’s sole function is to look like the shape of the mouth of the person screaming in Edvard Munch’s famous painting. I don’t know. I digress.

Yet, time marches onwards and it doesn’t care for my own particular preferences when it comes to what my age is now. So… I’m 40 now, and it’s time for a little reflection on the past decade and the forthcoming decade.

At thirty, I was pregnant with my first child, my darling girl. She was born in April, approximately a month before I turned 31. That 31st birthday was not particularly memorable to me because my life didn’t seem to be about me anymore. Instead, everything was about this tiny being who had entered our lives and time itself seemed to have shifted. I have photo albums which, instead of being labelled by months (or years), were instead labelled with my daughter’s name and by how old she was (in months). It took me quite a few years to shift back to ‘normal’ calendar months, which, I guess, shows just how much my life back then revolved around her.

So, in essence, the past decade, for me, has been very much about becoming a mother, first to my daughter, and then three-and-a-half years later to my son. It has been about breastfeeding, coping with little sleep, finding my own path as an HSP parent, finding a ‘tribe’ of like-minded mothers and lots and lots of nappy changing.

But it’s also been about finding a new surge of creativity within me and learning hundreds of new skills (some of which I used to set up and manage my small press, Mother’s Milk Books – but that’s a whole other story!). And throughout this hazy decade, I’ve been reading and writing, which has helped me hugely with reflecting on who I am, my place on this earth, and what I want to spend my days doing. The non-fiction books I wrote about here helped me enormously with my reflections, but I realize that not everything is done, soul-work wise, so I’m sure I’ll be adding more to this list soon. I’m aware, too, that I want to read more about politics, psychology, feminism and history; Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks and Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond have been on my reading list for a while. And I’ve also just got Love and Limerence, by Dorothy Tennov, which I hope will help to clarify some of my (as yet) incompletely developed ideas about love, lust and romance and what they mean to me as an individual.

Writing-wise, I *think* I’ve served my apprenticeship having written an okayish first novel (which will most likely stay hidden away in a drawer), lots and lots of poetry, a fair few short stories, a children’s chapter book, several children’s picture books and lastly… a good beginning on an epic fantasy trilogy.

So, what will the next decade be about? Well, my last decade taught me a lot about time. And how it’s very precious. And finite. So, perhaps, my oh-so-very-urgent desire for ‘better’ or ‘success’ was understandable. I was child-like in my impatience for wanting to be ‘better’ at art NOW! Or ‘better’ at writing NOW! But when it comes to mastering a skill, time and patience and dedication to the skill are the only things that will make a difference. So I am definitely going to be more accepting of that fact. And I have to face the fact, too, that if I don’t make time for my creativity it won’t happen. And I don’t want to live with the regret of not having tried my very best to master a creative skill and then shared the fruit of my labours with others (although my view on how to share the products of my creativity is still very much in flux).

So… as ever, boundaries will be important. It’s too easy to let social media, never-ending work and other societal pulls drag me away from what’s really key to my wellbeing: time spent with my loved ones (at home, and in nature) and time spent on creative endeavours.

I know I have a tendency to overthink things (the horrors of OCD rumination never seem too far away) but I am cautiously (I’ve got to be cautious, right? I’m an HSP!) looking forward to this decade. And what more can I give myself than the gift of being open to the challenges and gifts of the next decade? None.

Forty, after the party. Photo by Marija Smits

Forty, after the party. Photo by Marija Smits.

 

And a huge welcome back to Maddy from Writing Bubble after her week’s internet break. It’s good to have you back!

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Guest post: Ichabod’s 10 taste-tastic tips for dealing with writing rejections

Note from Marija:

Today I am delighted to be able to publish a post by my guest blogger, Ichabod “No Glory” Marty Arthurian Muffin, (who describes himself as a US-born English British writer guy who currently lives in the Thames Valley under a rock). Ichabod is perhaps (?) better known to readers as IMA Muffin, the author and occasional illustrator of King Arthur’s Merry Men vs the Crater Dwellers of the 375 Ursula Asteroid, which can be found in all good second hand shops and recycling bins of repute. Many thanks to Ichabod for being here, and it’s over to you!

***

 

Ichabod’s 10 healthy, taste-tastic and nutrient-packed tips for handling writing rejections

So you’ve just had your fantasy manuscript rejected by Hodderscape after months of agonized waiting, or perhaps your middle grade chapter book hasn’t made the Times/Chicken House longlist. Maybe some of your poetry has been rejected out of hand by one of those poncy poetry magazines that nobody reads. Or perhaps, worst of all, your pseudo-literary-comedy novella has been rejected by an independent press run by one of those pretentious literary types, because we all know – don’t we? the commenters say so! – that indie presses take any old crap. So that’ll be making you feel pretty inadequate, right now, won’t it? Like a worthless, useless, lump. I bet you feel like giving up?! But guess what, you’re lucky that you stumbled across this little old blog today because Ichabod (that’s me!) is here to share my top 10 tips for how to deal with writing rejections.

 

  1. This is very important and for various reasons of HEALTH & SAFETY must be carried out the instant you get the rejection. First, grab a pen and some paper (if you’ve just had your manuscript returned by post, why not use that?!) and then scribble all over it with the words: IDIOTS, POO, BUM, BUNCH OF SHITE – whatever takes your fancy! – and then illustrate it with pictures of the publishers/editors sporting boils, sores, runny noses, twirly moustaches, whatever! Go wild! Then cut the paper into strips and make some paper chains out of them. Tie the chains around your wrists – securely! – so that you can’t easily use your hands. It should ensure that you don’t instantly email the publisher with the following:

Dear Editor, or should I say, Dear Idiot,

So you just made the biggest mistake of your life, didn’t you? Because you’re sure gonna be mad as hell when my novel becomes the biggest thing since Harry Potter! Ha! So there! But maybe you won’t notice my success because you’re too busy DISCRIMNATING agasint other authors. In fact, I’m seriously considering taking legal action for your PREJUDIC and the way you have DISCRIMNATED against me.

Way to go loooser……….!!!

[Author’s signature.]

Folks! Just don’t do it. Bitter experience has taught me that this is NOT THE WAY TO GO. Hence the paper chains. And if they’re not doing the job sufficiently, get some really strong string and tie your hands together. Better yet, use rubber bands. (But don’t forget to take them off before your fingers swell into fat blue sausages and drop off. You’ll need those fingers to write your other novels, right?!) Alternatively, Blu Tack your hands to the wall. That should do the trick!

  1. This is another important one! DON’T GO ON FACEBOOK. OR TWITTER. You’ll only see all your friends posting about how their brand new and AMAZING book is out and receiving rave reviews, or how they’ve just signed a new publishing contract and got, like, a £100 000 advance. It’ll just make you feel like the biggest loser in life there is. And you’re not! (At least I don’t think you are!) So don’t do it! And don’t bother ranting about how you’re so utterly despairing because you’ve been rejected for the thousandth time that month. You’ll only get the usual shitty responses. Cue whiny voice: Oh poor you. I’ve been rejected a thousand and one times. So there. I’m better than you. Or the equally groan-worthy: Every writer goes through this. It’s all just a part of the process. Enough already! Cut the drivel and unfriend them. And if you’re STILL having problems staying away from your laptop or mobile device (even with the whole tying-your-hands-together thing) then go and play one-man player Frisbee with it in the nearest suburban cul-de-sac. Knock out a couple of dog walkers who never clear up after their squatting, shitting dogs at the same time and you’ll have killed two birds with one stone! Result!
  1. Grab the biggest, clumpiest shoes you can find and stomp around your home shouting ‘Screw you guys, I’m going home!’ a la Eric Cartman. Ignore the fact that you’re home already.
  1. If you’ve got a pet go give ’em a big hug and tell them how much you love them, and how they’re the only ones who truly understand your genius. Just don’t over squeeze them. It could get messy. (N.b. if you don’t have a pet I’ve found that this works equally well with teddy bears.)
  1. Still angry? Go out in your back garden and throw some bricks or garden furniture or trees around whilst yelling ‘Aaaaarrrrrrrgh! By the Power of Greyskull!’ Just be careful you don’t pull a muscle or send a brick hurling through a neighbour’s fence. You could end up in a fight and then get crushed, like a bug.
  1. Once your anger has subsided you may want to have a good ole cry. Curl yourself up into a real small ball while sobbing your heart out and then cover yourself in blankets. Try rolling yourself into the waste paper basket, ’cause sure as hell you’ll be thinking that you deserve to be there. With the rubbish.
  1. Phone a friend you don’t mind losing. Whine on to them about how those publishers are evil bastards who couldn’t spot talent if it stared them in the face. Read them extracts from your manuscript or manuscripts… and explain how much PREJUDIC there is in the publishing world – particularly against white middle class men (just like myself) until they hang up.
  1. Then phone your mum (or partner, if you have one! – lucky you if you do!) and have a good whine to her/him about your rejection (and your idiot of an ex-friend who totally abandoned you when you needed them most). She’ll totally back you up! (Though you may have to explain again about ‘when you’re going to get a proper job’. It’s something all us creative geniuses have to contend with. Sigh.)
  1. Have a J.K. Rowling binge evening. Stock up with all your favourite food and drink and start watching the Harry Potter films right from the beginning. Whilst you cradle your fat, bloated belly, the tears streaming down your face, just remember if J.K. Rowling can do it, SO CAN YOU!
  1. At the end of the day console yourself with the fact that only truly sensitive people get emotional about rejections. Other writers who don’t are obviously emotional inadequates with arses of steel. Your rejections are a testament to the depths of your soul and the silver filigree which lines your guts.
Cartman et al

In lieu of a photo of Ichabod, instead he sent me a photo of some of the things and people that inspire him…

So that’s it folkz! Ichabod’s 10 surefire ways to help you deal with rejections and keep on writing. Let me know if you find my list useful. (Only don’t tell me when you get published, I couldn’t take the pain.)

Best of luck!!!

Ichabod!

***

Note from Marija:

I sincerely apologise to my readers for Ichabod’s swearing, insensitivity and bad spelling. I think he’s probably been reading too much Francis Plug. And if you’d like an actually useful (and eminently more sensible) guide to handling rejections, please visit this blog post, by the highly-regarded poet Angela Topping.

 

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The Editor (and creative contributor) to Her Book

Just the other day I officially signed off The Forgotten and the Fantastical 2 with the printers. I am relieved. Very relieved.

TFATF2 front cover-page001

Ridiculously, I forgot how much energy, time and focus it takes to put a book like this together. With 17 stories by 17 writers, internal illustrations by Emma Howitt to incorporate and a huge amount of editorial tweaking, typesetting and other things to organize, a book like this is actually a huge project to manage. And being the illustrator of the wraparound cover and one of the contributing authors actually made it more difficult. I’ll be honest, I find it difficult incorporating my own work into the books I publish. Because, being also the editor and publisher, I have the power to do last-minute tweaks. And having the ability to do last-minute tweaks isn’t good for me. In the proofreading stage I am looking for flaws. I am hyper-aware of them and suddenly everything I have written or drawn seems rubbish, amateurish, not worthy of publication. I wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to get me, as Marija Smits, involved.

TFATF2 wraparound cover art by Marija Smits

TFATF2 wraparound cover art by Marija Smits. I’ve actually added to it since then!

I know a fair few HSPs who say that the issue of perfectionism is a problem for them. They set such impossibly high standards for themselves, which they know they can never achieve, so they don’t bother starting… because if it won’t be perfect, why try? Nowadays, I don’t tend to have this problem (although I did, especially with art, as a child) because I realize that art-wise nothing is ever really ‘perfect’. One can always re-work a sentence or add another brushstroke to a painting, or a little more shading to a drawing… But of course I would like to do things as perfectly as it is possible to do so and this is where the anxieties come in. The thought of putting something out there that is less than ‘perfect’ give me the heebie-jeebies. However, ultimately, writing and art, is subjective. Yes, I wouldn’t put forward my work for inclusion if it was massively technically wrong, and I do get useful and honest feedback on it that tells me if what I’ve created is a huge no-no or, in fact, has promise. But – and coming from a science background, where objectivity rules – I have had to learn that artistic endeavours are inherently subjective. At some point we have to let go of what we’ve created and say it is as ‘successful’ as it can be. No more can be done with it. Then you must let it find its own way in the world…

So someone will like the theme and the narrative of my story, ‘Little Lost Soul’ within TFATF2. But someone else won’t. My cover art may resonate strongly with one person, yet someone else will instantly know that they don’t like it. That’s fine. Really.

Of course we will have to see whether I can actually keep being philosophical about this, and take the genuine positive feedback graciously and the not-so-positive feedback with a view to learning about what works for some readers and what doesn’t work for others, but for now there are other things to do: the editing of others’ books, poetry and short stories to write, and other creative projects to start dreaming about.

***

And finally, just to illustrate that these kind of creative worries have been around for a fair long time, here is an excellent poem that describes what it is like to ‘birth’ a book and then let it go… (the author, Anne Bradstreet, was born in 1612).

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/172953

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Mother's Milk Books

Limerence, long-term love and short stories

I’ve had this post in my head for a while, and although I’d hoped to publish it on Valentine’s Day, work intervened and I wasn’t able to. However… it’s still February, so the topic of love is still kind of relevant, right?

Red heart zentangle, by Marija Smits

Red heart zentangle, by Marija Smits

Anyway… I’ve written before about how writing a first draft of a book is rather like falling in love, and so I wanted to expand on this. When I recently heard the word ‘limerence’ (which, in essence, means romantic infatuation) I thought it a lovely word and just right for describing my feelings about starting a new piece of writing.

Since the end of last summer I’ve been writing short stories (I wrote four in total) and I thought that the process had parallels with limerence and long-term love. The pre-writing part, where an idea sparks and I begin to work out the plot in my head, is rather like limerence. It’s the bit where I walk around in a daze, smiling to myself, having met what I’m sure must be ‘the one’. Then I write the first draft. It’s exciting and magical, just like the part when you realize the person you are hugely attracted to is also attracted to you. And I experience a real rush of emotion as I come to the end of the first draft knowing that something really special just happened…

There is a brief lull (usually a few days) as I step away from the story and let it settle. This ‘detaching’ is necessary so that I can switch from subjective mode to objective mode, which is needed for the editing.

When I come back to the story and read it with a clearer head, I taste the bittersweet tang that comes with the knowledge that this story has flaws; the limerence has ebbed away and what I am left with is a flawed, yet still worthwhile and valuable story. This is the part where long-term love can (or cannot) begin to grow. I’m pretty good at sticking with it, committing myself to the editing process (which, like long-term relationships, have their charms) but I have to say that on the second or third edit I have to wonder why I’m doing this. Isn’t it easier to quit? Isn’t it easier, and infinitely more lovely to start a new story and fall in love with another all over again? Well, that’s the temptation, isn’t it? But holding on… sticking with that story takes guts and determination and a willingness to find oneself out of one’s depth. Then to carry on and on, putting that story out there, submitting it, coping with rejection and re-submitting it… (This, dear reader, can go on for years — and it is not unlike the challenges that one faces in a relationship when children come along… but I wrote more about that here.) Well, it all takes time and energy and a strength of spirit which isn’t always easy to muster.

So wherever you are in your writing (or relationship!) or business or latest hobby, I (think) I can empathise. And I wish for you what I wish for myself; the wisdom to know when it’s worth holding on; and the courage to hold on when it’s worth doing so.

A Christmas argument… and cognitive dissonance

As some of you already know, as an HSP I’m slow to react to stuff. Which is why I’m not writing a new year’s resolutions post in January; I’m still thinking about stuff that happened in December.

Our Christmas was rather fraught and we’ll probably always remember it as the one where our youngest was ill (although, thankfully, it was only a bug that affected him mildly); it was also the Christmas where the veg was undercooked and the Christmas where my husband and I had an argument about wrapping paper on the 23rd December. Wrapping paper! I mean, for goodness sake!

Only it wasn’t really an argument about wrapping paper. It was an argument about parenting, our definitions of generosity and our own attitudes towards Christmas and our views on being environmentally-friendly. (And for clarity, I must elaborate: I am fed up of the amount of waste produced at Christmas – wrapping paper making up a large part of that – and so I wanted to use second-hand gift bags and pillows and old bits of ribbon etc. to wrap our presents with instead, to cut down on the waste and the time I spend peeling off bits of sellotape from the wrapping paper torn off the presents in an instant so that I can put it into the paper recycling rather than landfill. My husband found it difficult to see where I was coming from and we didn’t take the time to listen or try to understand each other’s position. There, I hope that clarifies things!)

It was a horrible argument – both of us were shouty (very unlike us!) and then very very quiet and withdrawn afterwards (both of us are HSPs so it took us a long time to merely process what was said in the heat of the argument). Anyway, thankfully, the next day, on Christmas Eve, we had the chance to talk it through and to apologise to each other. And thank goodness! Otherwise Christmas Day would have consisted of a poorly boy and undercooked veg as well as two very unhappy and sulky parents.😦

Anyway… what this post is really about is the difficulty in admitting when one is wrong. When you have made a mistake and you know you have to own up to it. Because, boy is that challenging!

It is as though one’s own sense of self, one’s own sense of oneself as a “good” person will shatter and crumble under the admission of a mistake. And saying sorry is the thing that collapses oneself. It is a horrible, uncomfortable, shaky feeling to have. And it is something that can’t be experienced for long. Ego, that coward (who, I guess, is only trying to relieve us of that horrible, uncomfortable feeling) would prefer to rationalize away our mistakes and, through self-deceit, turn them into something far more palatable, like mere trifles caused by the stupidity of others.

But this feeling… it has a proper name. It is known as cognitive dissonance.

“Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as “Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me” and “I smoke two packs a day.” Dissonance produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it. In this example, the most direct way for a smoker to reduce dissonance is by quitting. But if she has tried to quit and failed, now she must reduce dissonance by convincing herself that smoking isn’t really so harmful, or that smoking is worth the risk because it helps her relax or prevents her from gaining weight (and after all, obesity is a health risk too), and so on. Most smokers manage to reduce dissonance in many such ingenious, if self-deluding, ways.”

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions and hurtful acts by Carol Tarvis and Elliot Aronson (Pinter & Martin 2013)

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

Mistakes were made, but not by me. By Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

The difficulty both my husband and I felt in saying sorry after our argument reminded me of various instances in my life when I’d been in the wrong and found it difficult to say sorry. One particular instance was when I’d had a minor argument with my father (I can’t remember what the argument was about) and I knew that I was in the wrong. I was a teenager and probably hormonal, but I forced myself to go and say sorry.*

In this situation, my heightened conscience was a good thing. (It is not always – it usually causes me a lot of anguish because I can tie myself up in knots about what the “right” thing to do is, whether it be a small thing or big thing.)

Anyway, in this situation, it was a good thing. Because a few days later, my father died. I know that with my heightened sense of guilt, if I hadn’t said sorry, I would still be experiencing guilt today. (Although I do have to add that saying sorry solely to put off a future guilt isn’t probably the most healthy thing either – but more on that for another post, perhaps.)

This post isn’t really about saying sorry when it isn’t appropriate (I know that I can also fall into the trap of saying sorry when really I haven’t done anything wrong – and I’m not sure that’s very good for a healthy sense of self either), but I do want to highlight the uncomfortable feeling that cognitive dissonance can produce. It reminds me of this beautiful painting, by one of my favourite artists, Agnes-Cecile, which both discomforts and delights me:

 

I have a hypothesis that perhaps HSPs feel cognitive dissonance a little more keenly than others. I don’t know. And I’m not even sure that one is necessarily holding two very contradictory points of view; it’s just that there is one part of me that knows I acted meanly/without thinking/made a mistake and that doesn’t resonate with the image of myself that I have (as being generous, thoughtful, impervious to making mistakes etc.) and so that is why there is this horrible clash inside me. And it is this clash that thunders in my chest so noisily, so uncomfortably, that I wish for it to go away – by any means. My ego says: Wasn’t your fault. It was so and so’s fault. They’re an idiot. Don’t say sorry. (It wants to give me a quick-fix solution.) Thankfully, my heroic (but sometimes plain annoying) conscience comes along and says: Hey! I see that there’s a little noisy cognitive dissonance around here. Give it a while to quiet down and then go and do the right thing. It won’t break you. I promise. You’re still a good person. Just human. Just human.

So to acknowledge cognitive dissonance, and to name it for what it is, perhaps makes it that bit easier to act humbly if we are brave enough to do so. We then have the power to say sorry, knowing that it will not shatter us or make us any less worthwhile as humans, and it is then that we can move forwards with humility and grace and love.

 

*I think I probably mumbled something like: Sorry. Got a bit of PMT at the moment. I’m not entirely sure if I was experiencing PMT, but hey, I was fifteen and any apology was better than none. (See how that heightened sense of guilt would like me to keep worrying about this? Well I won’t let it! I’m only human for goodness sake!)

 

And… I did also want to say thank you to all the people who read and/or comment on my blog. I wish you a healthy and happy and creative 2016.:-)

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