Go Gay or Go Home

At this year’s AWP Conference in Washington, D.C., I spoke on my first panel.  The panel

Hail from AWP

That’s me, hiding behind the podium, speaking with my hands!

was called, “The Politics of Queering Characters,” and was, as the title suggests, about the benefits and drawbacks of creating queer characters on the page (whether that page be fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or otherwise).

I organized this panel in response to a talk Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You, gave at last year’s AWP.  For those unfamiliar with Greenwell, his latest novel has been hailed the “great gay novel of our time,” and as a queer writer, I was eager to hear him speak.  On the podium, Greenwell talked about his views on being marginalized as a “gay writer” (a place some writers try to avoid as it often is seen as a curse, a label that can keep a writer from becoming more established and well read).  He brought up Aristotle’s idea of the universal, that belief a writer’s our goal should be to tap into a collective consciousness of sorts, where no matter where you live or who you are, if the writer is doing their job, the reader will be moved by a “universal” sense of what it means to be human.

This is something I’ve always aspired towards in my own writing, this sense that all stories, even a queer story (especially a queer story), can be made into a story anyone can relate to, if done correctly.  This idea works with my own sense of idealism, and for years, I’d gone about on this quest quite happily.  But then, Greenwell threw a metaphorical wrench in that system.  He questioned this idea of the universal, wondering who it was made for?  Was it made for people like us?  Or was the universal created out of the artistic aesthetic of a privileged few.  And that aesthetic looks a lot paler, whiter, and straighter than my own.

And so Greenwell argued, why aim for the universal at all?  “I am a queer writer,” he said, “writing queer characters for a queer audience.”  He spoke, quite passionately, about the so-called “gay-ghetto,” claiming by the end that if James Baldwin and Virginia Woolf are in this “gay-ghetto,” then count him in.

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Sound Bite Sunday

Guest post by Randi Beck

My current day job involves equal parts mind-numbing monotony (think walking very slowly through a grocery store while using a calculator) and twenty or so Billboard pop songs played on loop (think Maroon 5—all day, every day.) So rather than sink further into a Sisyphisian state of depression, I said screw the no-headphones rule and started downloading podcasts.

It turns out you can find a podcast on pretty much anything, including writing. I have found some to be surprisingly motivating and/or educational. I have also found some to be terrible. So I have weeded through dozens of podcasts to bring you this weekly list of recommended listening, which will heretoafter be known as “Sunday Sound Bites.”

Some of these will focus on craft and productivity, others feature author interviews, and some are just good writerly fun. A few may not be about writing, specifically, but should prove useful in developing your writing habit or motivating you when the going gets tough. I hope you’ll find at least a few that you enjoy. Continue reading

Saturday Afternoon Inspiration

Happy Saturday, folks.  Here in Merced-land, we are laying down laminate floors and jamming to music.  It’s a busy day, but thanks to my commitment to you, I’ll still put words to the page by the end of the night and hope that, no matter what YOU are doing, you’ll do the same, too!

Today, I thought I’d leave words of wisdom to the wise.  Here are 13 inspiring quotes stolen from HERE and HERE and HERE.  Find the one that inspires you, and write it on a post-it.  Leave it somewhere on your desk to remind you as you go.

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On Daily Habits: Thoughts From Our Challengers

Whenever someone joins this Writer’s March, I ask for an exercise that they’d like to
share.  This year, several responses had less to do about one-time things and more about the daily writing people do to help form good habits.  Reading these changed the way I think about exercises. I always thought they something you did when you were stuck or wanting to get started, something that changed every time.  I hadn’t considered the way we could turn the exercise into something that “unsticks” us on a daily basis.

This morning, as we ate breakfast, Randi told me about how habits are formed.  I’ve written about this before, but I hadn’t thought of how those habits are related to the processes of our brains.  As Randi explained, rather than thinking about the left and right sides of the brain, think instead of the front and back.  The front of the brain processes information that is new.  That new information, if repeated often enough (30 days, ahem!), moves to the back of the brain to form habits.  Once things are habits, they become easier to do because we no longer have to think about doing them.  On Sunday, she’ll offer more insight on this (specifically on how to break the bad habits), so I don’t want to give it all away, but here on Day 3, I thought it would be cool to see the habits that are already in place.  These are things the rest of us might steal either for the entirety of March or just for the day: Continue reading

The Will to Fail

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This winter, Randi and I took a road trip from California to Norman, Oklahoma for the holidays.  It’s a long drive, over twenty-four hours, and we spend most of the time reading to each other.  Randi had picked up  Dorothea Brandt’s How to Wake Up and Live: A Formula for Success that Works.  Brandt’s other book, Becoming a Writer, was one of the most influential in Randi’s early writerly development.

Brandt’s book, as it’s subtitle suggests, is a “formula for success.”  In the introduction, she tells us this formula has changed her life then teases the reader with several chapters before she gives said formula away.  At first, I’d been annoyed – why dangle the “secret” over our heads (for it is, indeed, similar to the “secret” in The Secret), but as Randi read onwards, I began to understand.  A formula can only be useful if you have taken the time to understand its parts.  And this formula had one part in particular that needed explaining: it was, as Brandt called it, the “will to fail.”

friedrich-nietzsche-power-quotes-the-world-itself-is-the-will-toThis will to fail concept is a variation on Nietzsche’s “Will to Power,” which my old friend SparkNotes explains as a fundamental part of living, the quest to have and be powerful, a need that is “stronger than the will to survive.”  While this will to power can result in conflict, “Nietzsche is more interested in the sublimated will to power, where people turn their will to power inward and pursue self-mastery rather than mastery over others.”  In other words, it is our desire to be powerful individuals that drives us towarsd self-betterment (or at least this is how I understood it).

Brandt, however, points out that there is something stronger than this “Will to Power” that Nietzsche doesn’t address, and that is the “Will to Fail.”  For pages upon pages, she offers examples of what this will to fail looks like – the person who says they want to travel but blames a lack of money.  The person who wants more from life but is focused on raising a family.  The person who wants to be a writer, but after receiving rejections claims that they’d tried that and the world had dubbed them not good enough.  Each person has a dream, a goal, an internal sense of what would make their lives better (their own will to power, so to speak), but each person’s will to power was usurped by the stronger will to fail.  And so, despite what might seem like success–person A died a beloved member of his community, person B raised three healthy children, person C lived a long, mostly happy life, Brandt argues they fail in their ultimate purpose.

Now, I admit, there is a harshness in Brandt’s observations.  There is, too, a certain privelege that she brings with her as well, and yet, as she described each scenario, I couldn’t help but think of people I knew, each one doing similar things to those in her examples, each wanting but doing little to make changes, each with another reason or rationale for why the changes were impossible.  Each mostly happy and simultaneously dissatisfied with their current state.  Since reading this book, I have come to notice more and more the way my own excuses have become transparent as just that: excuses.

At this point, you may be wondering…This is Day 2 of Writer’s March!?  Why are you talking about failure?   Isn’t this when you would usually inspire us to craft our goals?  To be excited?  But as I think about my own goals for the month, which are still in the formation stage, I can’t help but feel like it is vital that we examine how the will to fail is playing out not just in our daily lives, but in the goals we are setting before us.

So, here on day two, I offer some ideas of self-reflection.  

First, consider the excuses you make for why you don’t write.  Do you recognize them as excuses?  Do you see them as the obstacles they are?  Second, consider your goals so far.  Are we asking enough of ourselves?  Are we asking too much and setting ourselves up for failure?  Are we aware of how capable we truly are in terms of what we can accomplish?

Find some way to offer yourself a reminder and/or clear the obstacles away.  Maybe it is an object or a quote.  Maybe it is a drawing of what these fears look like.  Maybe you hold a ritual and write the excuses on strips of paper, then burn them away.  Whatever you do, I think it is crucial that we face our own will to fail when we set forth on the journey of this month of writing.

…and if you are interested, it might be fun to share them in the comments below.

Then, when you are done, don’t let your meditation on the will to fail become another excuse for why you are not writing.  Get to it.  Tell us how it goes.

An End to the Hiatus?

Hi Everyone,

Well, the one year Writers’ March hiatus quickly turned into two (or is it 3?).  These days, my life is so busy, I often find myself wondering if I have time to sleep, let alone write, and yet, as I stare at the calendar and watch as March fast approaches, I cannot help but wonder…is it time to re-emerge from our slumber?  To take to the sheets (or paper) and write through the month once again?

And so, a post to gauge interest.  How is everyone doing?  Who is interested in participating?  Is anyone out there interested in writing up some guest posts?  Even if the “official” Writer’s March doesn’t happen this year, I’d love to hear what you folks are up to!

Let me know?  Convince me one way or another?  Leave a comment below?

Sam

 

Writer’s March Takes a Hiatus – A March 2015 Apology

Well, it is March 6th, and usually Writer’s March would be well under way.  This year, however, has been unexpectedly chaotic.  I moved to a new apartment in February and only yesterday set up my home Internet.  Believe it or not: March crept up on me so fast that even I didn’t notice that it.

And so – sincere apologies.  There will be no official Writer’s March this year, but I do hope that your writing will happen anyway.

ALSO:  I have plans on renewing the Writer’s March project in 2016.  So, never fear – this hiatus is only temporary.  The March is still very much alive…

Until then, happy writing,

Sam

Day 31: Farewell March! It has been swell!

Congratulations!  You’ve made it!  We are at the end of this year’s Writer’s March, and I have very much enjoyed writing with you this year, and hope to do so again in 2015.  In the end, I felt like this month had some of the best posts the March has ever seen thanks to an amazing team of bloggers!  And so, I thought it would be fitting to leave you with the best tidbits from the month:

Key Quotes from Week #1:

Let me tell you this: there is nothing more delicious than writing when you know you are supposed to be doing something else. -From “The Start of March”

If you have the time to fill out a 200 page comp book in the month, feel the heft and the thickness of it and revel in the fact that it was blank at the start of the month. Of course some of it will be crap, of course it’ll “need a lot of work,” but we’re writers: cleaning up crap is part of our work. And unlike waiting for a phone to ring, writing is work. Even if you’ve only got the time for a page a day, that’s still 31 pages. It’s a healthy chunk of a tree, it’ll need quite a bit of extra postage to mail. Enjoy that feeling. Heck, if you’re so inclined, mail it to yourself so you can see that great big envelope with all those stamps arrive and know it was something you accomplished. -From Bob Sabatini in “Add It All Up”

Sometimes life is hard.  Things go wrong – in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways that life can go wrong, and when things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. – A Neil Gaiman tidbit from “Neil Gaiman and the Top of the Mountain”

At the same time, sticking to the familiar path ensures that you will never turn a corner and discover something beautiful, interesting, or confounding. How many side streets do you drive past every day without turning down them? Yes, most of the neighborhoods look the same, but sometimes you discover a park with a cool public sculpture, a house covered in brightly colored tile, a tree where someone carved Our Lady of Guadalupe. There is a reason that many people would rather risk a hole-in-the-wall restaurant rather than eat at a chain restaurant again. – Upon discussing “The Thing” in Jennifer Krohn’s post “Leaving the Familiar Path” 

I’ve found that writing in this way, with a prompt and a timer, really gets the inner critic and the censor off the page and out of your head.  It allows you to dig deep into your subconscious and get at the heart of things. -From Jennifer Simpson in “Playing with Words”

Key Quotes from Week #2:

I’m a firm believer that stories should tell themselves, that while broad structures could be useful in giving guideposts to a writer who is lost in a piece, but if the writing is going smoothly it should be allowed to explore. After all, what’s the point of taking a road trip if you don’t get off the Interstate once in a while? -From Bob Sabatini in “Shape it up”

For me, writing poetry is not like doing a triple axel in the Olympics. I can’t just leap with no warning with the pulse of the music in my throat and throw down ice chips in my wake like broken stars. Even Olympic figure skaters can’t do that, I don’t think. They leap effortlessly because they’ve practiced and trained and fallen for years. They’ve sat there with their bodies and their work and haven’t expected things to just work out. – From Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco in “Sandcastles of Crap”

There are a dozen other things to get rid of for March:  the Thirteen-toed Sloth of Procrastination (oh, wow, write?  No, I better wash the dishes, take the dog for a walk, check Facebook, take a shower, do my taxes);  the Pernicious Pit of Cumulative Despair (Oh, I didn’t write for three days, might as well give up the whole thing),  and her cousin the Sad and Stubborn Can’t  (this scene isn’t going well, so obviously I can’t really write at all);  the Uninspired Auntie (I can’t think of anything to write.  I don’t have any ideas.  Might as well give up).  I’m sure you can think of some of your own. But for now, banish them all. -From Lisa D. Chavez in “What I’m Giving Up For Lent”

“Cloud spotting” he says, “legitimizes doing nothing.” He reminds us (well me at least) that inspiration can be found in the every day, that looking up at the clouds is about being present and letting your imagination wander. – From Jennifer Simpson in “Looking (Up) for Inspiration”

I’ve set some pieces in the desert, but I find that I tend to do what that panel of Western writers called “window dressing.”  I bring in details of the setting and I make it clear that it’s taking place in Albuquerque, on a desert road, etc., but I have yet to write anything where the desert setting feels absolutely essential and integral to the story.  -From Melanie Unruh in “Let the Sky Haunt You”

Key Quotes From Week #3

Suspension of disbelief is no mere myth. If your story is compelling, your characters engaging and with an emotional heart that resonates deeply, then readers (or viewers or listeners) will happily grant you that suspension of disbelief, and either not notice or choose not to care when you need to hedge “reality” or common sense in order to tell that story. -From Bob Sabatini in “Up in the sky!  Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s a plot hole!”

One of the best writing exercises Demetria [Martinez] offered was this: “Describe a kitchen from the point of view of someone who is grieving.  Do not use the word “grief” (or any of its forms).”  And then, “Describe a kitchen from the point of view of someone who is in love. Do not use the word “love” (or any of its forms).” I don’t know about you, but I tend to write too much in my head, and these exercises, even for a nonfiction memoir writer like myself, are very useful. -From Jennifer Simpson in “How We See Things”

Today, my days are more full and my writing has more weight, more pressure.  BUT, this month, when I’ve been sitting down to work, I’m letting the fun win more.  I haven’t always worked on the novel.  I haven’t always worked on prose.  One day, I sat there and drew pictures and called it the beginning of a graphic story.  Another day, I cut out bits from a magazine and glued them into a scrap book.  As artists, aren’t we allowed to sow as many seeds as we see fit? -From “Gardening Tips for March”

Key Quotes from Week #4:

I feel it’s important that I make it clear the advice I’m about to give is not just meant to help writers better meet some arbitrary word-count goal, it is meant to make them better writers: do not stop yourself from writing. Don’t worry about what anybody else is going to think when they read it, whether you feel you “know enough” about the subject matter to write convincingly or that you know you’ll never be able to publish it. – From Bob Sabatini in “Write it!”

Your intuition knows when the writing is good and when chances are necessary.  Get it down, and while you’re at it, get out of the way!  -From “Faulkberries!”

Remember, challenges like the Writers’ March are meant to work for you, not the other way around. If you find that any approach leads you down an ill-fitting path, simply turn around. You can always return to your comfort zone any time you like.  -From Lisa Hase-Jackson in “Five Weird Ways to Get Writing”

We’re always going to find someone who is more than willing to tell us that we’re not a writer. Someone who is more than happy to point out that what we’ve written doesn’t really count. The best thing that I’ve ever done was to ignore (or at least actively try to ignore) them. Today, I suggest you think about that subject matter, that genre, that form or lack of form, that thing that you’ve been avoiding writing about because it doesn’t count, and, of course, write about it. -From Jennifer Krohn in “Prove Them Wrong”

And what I’ve learned THIS MONTH (why only now!?) is that it is only when I STOP thinking about [external factors like publication and money] that writing is fun again, and only when writing is fun again that I come close to finishing. – From “What’s Your Motivation?”

Final Thoughts & Final Thanks

This year’s March has been a huge challenge for me, and it would not have been made possible without the help of my fellow bloggers.  Thank you, thank you, thank you to Jennifer Simpson & Bob Sabatini for your weekly help!  And thank you, thank you to this year’s Guest Bloggers: Elizabeth McMunn-Tetangco, Jennifer Krohn (who wrote TWO posts!), Lisa Hase-Jackson, Lisa D. Chavez, and Melanie Unruh.  Without all of you, this year’s writer’s march would have been a series of author quotes and writing exercises.  I am so grateful for the added dimensionality and insights you’ve provided.  You definitely kept this blog afloat!

And finally, to those out there who wrote with us this year.  Thanks for being a part of the March!  Hopefully, we’ll see you next year!  And if you are interested in blogging with us, please let me know!

Day 30: What’s Your Motivation?

I’m currently teaching a composition course linked with intro psychology, and the other day, there was a guest lecture on motivation.  As the man spoke, I couldn’t help but think of writing and, since it is now the end of March, all of you.  In a way, I think of this post as the most important post I’ve written on this Writer’s March blog so far.  It is also a meditation on the entire lecture.

First, some definitions…

When I’m talking about motivation, I’m talking about the drive to do something, anything, whether it be wake up and go for runs or – more on subject – what drives you to write?

Nothing makes me want to write as much as the Ghost Ranch library...

Nothing me want to write as much as writing in the Ghost Ranch library…

Psychologists divide motivation into two categories: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic motivation comes in the form of external things.  Remember those programs they used to do in grade school where if everyone read X amount of books, then the class would get a pizza party?  That’s an extrinsic motivator where reading = pizza party.  Work = pay.  Study = good grades.  Intrinsic motivation, as you probably know or probably guessed, means that the thing you “get” out of any given task comes from inside you.  It is the feeling you get from playing soccer, playing the drums, scratching in your notebook.  It is, in a nutshell, the things we do just because we want to.  The things we do for ourselves and our sense of well-being.

So, which one is better?

It doesn’t take make to know/believe/understand that being intrinsically motivated is better in the long run, but why?  Remember that example above about books = pizza?  On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea, right?  If you extrinsically motivate kids to read more, then they will discover reading and will be readers for life, right?  Well that was the thought, but when psychologists studied these programs they discovered that in the end, the program was counter productive.  Here’s’s what I mean (and here I’m going to unscientifically summarize for you):

If someone offered me a pizza party every Friday, would the stack beside the bed get any smaller??

If someone offered me a pizza party every Friday, would the stack beside the bed get any smaller??

Let’s say that a kid was reading something like 5 books every month before the program.  During the program, the same kids had to read 10 books a month in order to help the class win the pizza party, and so he/she did.  Books were read, pizza parties were won, the program – as programs do – came to an end.

So here’s the important part: what happened to our readers after the program?  That same 5 book/month kid now reads 2, much less than he/she had read before.  Why?  Because there’s no more external reward.  The external reward (the pizza) had come to stand in for the internal reward (the joy of reading), and without the pizza, there was no more joy.

As I learned about this, I couldn’t help but think that perhaps this is the reason so many people stop writing after attending an MFA program.  You take something intrinsic – the love of writing.  It is something you do because it brings you joy, makes you feel good, makes you feel like an individual with something to say while during the day maybe you are a starting to feel like just a cog in the working world.  You love writing.  You love it so much you quit your job for it.  Then you go to school, and now you are writing because you have to turn in a workshop story and then you start writing because you want a good workshop (you want people to just stand up and clap, not critique you anymore), and then you write because you have a dissertation/thesis to finish, and then you write because you want to get the book published because if you have a published book you can apply for the job market – and you see what I’m saying?  All the motivators for writing became extrinsic, and the intrinsic motivation is lost (for many of us, we can probably find it still hanging out with our healthy livers…)

But what about the extrinsic, doesn’t it make us work faster? Be better?  Get Stronger?

I mean, we are America, right?  Land of capitalism and opportunity.  Land of…be the best and get paid the most.  Land of…bonuses, commissions, incentives…you get the picture, but do these extrinsic motivators really make us into better beings?  This was a question tacked by  the following TED Talk by Dan Pink on “The Puzzle of Motivation”:

At the beginning of this video, Pink tells of two different psychological experiments.  First, in 1945, a psychologist did an experiment to test people’s ability to look “outside-the-box.”  He invented “The Candle Problem” where people were put into a room with three objects on a table: a candle, some matches, and a box of thumb tacks.  They were tasked with attaching the candle to the wall so the was wouldn’t fall on the table.  People tried melting the candle to the wall.  They tried thumb-tacking the candle to the wall.  None of those things worked. Eventually, they figured out that you could remove the thumb tacks from their box, tack the box to the wall, and then set the candle on top.

Another psychologist took this experiment even further.  Using the candle problem, he   divided subjects into two groups:

  • Group #1: These people were told that they were looking to find the average amount of time it took people to solve the candle problem.
  • Group #2: These people were told that the faster they solved the problem, the more money they might win.  The person who was fastest would get $20.  The top 25% of people would get $5 (think inflation – this used to be a lot more money than it is now).

Again, you would think that the people with the incentive to work faster would finish faster, right?  Right?!  But the opposite turned out to be true. Group #2 took an average of 3 1/2 minutes longer!  Again, contrary to what we might think, instead of inciting creativity and outside-of-the-box thinking, the incentive actually DULLED creativity.

Mom: extrinsically motivating since the days we were born...

Mom: extrinsically motivating since the days we were born…

Not sure about you, but this makes me consider my own writing life and the way my own desire to write and ability to be “creative” seemed to disappear the second I started to focus on the extrinsic factors.  Such as: I want to publish stories so that I can find an agent or qualify for residencies/fellowships, and I want to publish the book so that I can go on the job market so that I can make some money so that I can buy a house and start a family.  And what I’ve learned THIS MONTH (why only now!?) is that it is only when I STOP thinking about these things that writing is fun agan, and only when writing is fun again that I come close to finishing.

And so my posts have now brought us full circle.  I’m now back to where I was in the beginning of this month: thinking about how to make writing fun again.

And so, where does that leave us?

Here on the second to the last day of Writer’s March, I find myself wondering about what kind of a motivator this March is?  The hope is that it is meant to tap into our intrinsic side,  but I worry that it might be just another extrinsic motivator.

And so, today, as you finish out the month, I urge you to take a minute to examine your own motivations.  Are you more intrinsically vs. extrinsically motivated?  How are the extrinsic factors getting in the way (becoming the pizza party) for the intrinsic joy of our task?  How might you shift your focus to the things which bring you joy?  I urge you to make a list and put it by your desk.  Retrain your brain somehow.  See if you can start thinking of writing NOT as work, but as….I’m not sure…  Play?  Fun?  Your life?  You decide.

And, just because, here are my hopes for you at the end of this March month:

  • I hope you wrote more than you might have written
  • I hope that you had at least one day where writing brought you joy.
  • I hope you tap into that day of joy as often as possible for the rest of your writing lives.

Now, what are you waiting for?  This was a very long post.  Go to it!

Sweet Inspiration

–by Tyger Burning (Marisa P.C.) in loving memory of Gena N. (1963 – 1996)

Gena N. and me in fifth grade, with some kid in a hat that screams 1970s

 

Confession #1: I’ve officially written only TWO of the days of the Writer’s March. That means putting words on the page. As usual, I’ve done a lot of work in my head, but that’s not what the March is about.

Confession #2: I agreed to write this post several days ago. As usual, I crafted it in my head. It was wonderful. It was about a recent hike I went on with my friends and how I didn’t finish it but didn’t feel bad about it. I was going to make it into a metaphor about writing, sort of.

Confession #3: I wrote this post last year for Writer’s March, but it wasn’t used. I hope it’s of use to you now. Maybe it will be of use to me in these last days of the march. (By the way, the photos are today’s additions.)

 

Sweet Inspiration

Hello from Marisa! How is your march going? Today’s post is intended to encourage those of you who may be struggling to keep up with your goals and to inspire all of you to remember the early inspirations in your writing life.

 me in third grade

The first half of third grade was coming to a close, and I had just turned eight. We’d been working on multiplication tables, cursive handwriting, and the proper use of ballpoint ink. I don’t remember what we studied in English, only that my teacher, Mrs. Zettel, taught us how to write poems. They had a bouncing meter and a strong dependency on rhyme. I wrote my first poem in rhyming couplets. It was an eight-line masterpiece titled “December”: “December reminds me of red and green. / It also reminds me of Christmas string.” I meant “tinsel,” but “tinsel” didn’t rhyme. “It reminds me of Santa Claus / and how he makes such a ho-ho pause.” I didn’t know what a “ho-ho pause” was; the important thing was that “pause” rhymed with “Claus” and “ho-ho” was, obviously, an onomatopoeia representing Santa’s laughter. I remember the rest of the poem too, but I trust you get the picture: Its reliance on rhyme was wreckage to image and accuracy.

At eight, I didn’t still believe in Santa. But Christmas was coming, we wouldn’t have to go to school for a few weeks, there would be decorations and presents, and that was what was on my mind when we were assigned our first poem. I don’t remember anyone else’s poem. I do remember how much everyone else loved mine, though. Mrs. Zettel, of all people, loved my poem! She was a strict, paddle-wielding teacher who rarely smiled. She often wore an avocado-colored dress that raised up to reveal her girdle whenever she wrote on the chalkboard. She was a stout woman who pinned her graying hair in a swirl atop her head. She seemed old. She may not have been. But Mrs. Zettel, she raved about my poem.

Mrs. Zettel with a rare smile, not looking so old after all

All my classmates loved my poem. Most important among them was Gena N., my first love. (She looked like Barbara Feldon/Agent 99 in Get Smart!, I swear it to this day. A lifelong fan of my writing, Gena N. also read my first novel during study hall our senior year of high school.) Anyway, it was also important that my parents and grandparents saw greatness in my poem. Writing those eight lines was the only thing I’d ever done in the whole of my life that made everyone lavish praise upon me.

Gena N., out of focus, but looking decidedly like Agent 99!

The next year I won the fourth-grade poetry contest, and Mrs. Bullard took me to hear Elizabeth Spencer read. Our class made books — mimeographed, stapled affairs — of our poetry and drawings. One of my poems was about springtime. It mostly rhymed. In fifth grade I continued to meet with success for my seasonal writing; my poem “The Year Is Here” (about Thanksgiving) was published in the local newspaper. That year I also wrote and illustrated my first book, The Golden Pond, during lulls in class; it was about Jesus’s second coming and his deep despair over pollution. I probably plagiarized an anti-littering commercial that was popular at the time, but I forgive myself because that was before I knew what plagiarism was.

In short, at school I was becoming known as a “writer.” And my family still supported my work. I wrote a poem about our pet cat, Fat Cat, and won a local poetry contest with “Butterfly,” about a monarch who met its death when it fell prey to a crow. When my great-grandmother died just before my ninth birthday, I wrote a poem called “Granny.” (“Granny was a good old soul. / She lived to be quite old.”) I used my finest penmanship and wrote its seven lines with the faintest of pencil strokes. That last line, standing alone with no rhyming couplet, may symbolize my grief, or perhaps it marked a Coleridgean inability to finish. When I handed it to my grandmother, she cried and cried. That poem made her so happy. She quoted it often.

It’s true that puberty made a mess of my poetry — I suddenly found concrete images expendable and replaced them with tortured, abstract emoting — but I’m not writing this post to supply a history of my writing. Instead, I mean to pay tribute to those earliest positive influences on my writing — in particular to Mrs. Zettel and Gena N. — and I wish to encourage you to think about yours. Who has been most supportive to you along the way? What are your earliest good memories of writing? Who and what inspired you? What did you write about?

P.S. I would like to thank Sam, creator of the Writer’s March, for being another voice of inspiration. Thanks, Sam!

 me and Sam, still in school