The Old “What’s the point?” Thing: Caring, Pain, Baking Shows, and Cats

The other morning, I was surprised to find myself overtaken by a strong flash of “What’s the point?” It seemed like a sudden existential plummet, but if I’d been paying attention, I would have seen it coming.  I’d gotten on a jag of thinking about unwanted things over which I had no influence – a sort of accidental meditation on powerlessness.  I was in the middle of exercising and decided to put on an episode of The Great British Bake Off (a baking competition show with great heart) while I finished my workout. My despondency gradually began to subside – seemingly a byproduct of simply observing people striving to create stuff.  Some cakes, pastries, and breads worked, some didn’t, but everyone was engaged, wanting to participate, and caring, both about what they were doing and each other.   

The old “What’s the point?” thing is misleading; it implies both that an answer can satisfy us while simultaneously demanding that there isn’t one. “What’s the point?” is an abdication of responsibility. It is only our engagement with life that can provide a sense of purpose. There are always satisfying experiences available when we’re not judging, scrutinizing, or taking stock. Our job is to be open to those experiences. 

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Jennifer Paros Comments
Brainstorming: The Ultimate Weapon

I’m in the middle of packing up my car to head out on an eight-hour, solo road trip into the West Texas desert. Am I escaping the impending apocalypse? Losing my mind? Well, the last one is probably true. I’m actually putting my brainstorming plans into action. I’m starting a new novel and one of my favorite brainstorming activities is visiting my novel’s setting to get inspired (and get details, of course).  

Brainstorming is one of my favorite parts of writing because it can be so liberating. As long as you give yourself the freedom to write anything that comes to your crazy ole mind (even if—especially if—the writing isn’t top notch), that’s when the good stuff happens. Brainstorming is a technique to get the noggin working, to challenge yourself, to discover the path less taken. It’s an incredibly exciting process, and your imagination will surprise you once you take the brainstorming leap.  

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Erin BrownComment
Dumped

He’s a certifiable asshole, and you kind of hate him, but you want him to succeed despite all of his endless fuckery. That’s how I talk about Ollie when people ask what my book is about. It was just how I described him to my old roommate, Bean, who’d lived with me while Ollie was still about eighty-seven words and a pipe dream. I thought it was obvious where Ollie had come from, for Bean and I had spent countless hours dredging out our troubled backgrounds. She had an alcoholic for a mother and a twin sister that was apparently homicidal. I told her how my dad kicked the can, about the breakdown I’d had on some sidewalk near Union Square after being dumped by the biggest narcissist you ever saw. It sent me tearing madly onto the subway platform near my apartment; I was going to fling myself in front of the train and then everyone would know how much it hurt to live in this meat puppet of mine. Divine intervention got me to the hospital instead. Medication has sedated the wailing. My body grows less numb with the hormones I take.

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William KenowerComment
Be It Hereby Resolved

Now that you are firmly in the habit of sticking to your New Year’s resolutions (note the apostrophe), you can easily adapt that behavior to getting these commonly said or written disasters out of your writing (and speaking).  Resolve never to be guilty of using any of these incorrectly:

A LOT:  Two words.  Always.  If you make them into one word, you have misspelled allot, which means to parcel out.

ALL RIGHT:  Two words.  Always.  Two Ls; two words.

EXACT:  Compared things that are exact are precisely the same, so you don’t need to add the word “same” to exact.  It’s redundant and costs you more when sending a telegram:    That’s the exact  ring I was telling you about.

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Cherie Tucker
Let Things Be Small: Learning How to Stop Trying to Control Stuff

My youngest son was diagnosed as autistic when he was six.  He often walked the line between atypical and typical; he was communicative in his way, relatable, bright and loving, though his interest in his internal world far outweighed his interest in the external world. Mainly he was striving to block out the external world.  Over time, I fell to trying to control conditions so life might be easier for him and for me.  I didn’t want those phone calls from his school; I didn’t want him to melt down or to hear about the “inappropriateness” of what he’d done or said again.  I yearned for the day he would be engaged enough that I could step back and be free from what felt like an overwhelming responsibility. But trying to control things is completely inharmonious with freedom. 

My internal narrative was powerful: I had to keep things from going off the rails.  And this story was more overwhelming than any reality I was actually living. I was compelled to try to control the small stuff, so it all became big.  And the bigger it seemed, the more I believed I had to manage it so everything would be okay. 

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Jennifer Paros Comments
Unblocking Writer’s Block

“I don’t know what to wriiiiiiiiiite!” Isaac picked up the piece of paper scribbled with his nine-year-old penmanship and held it high in the air, his hands poised to rip it clean apart. 

“Wait,” I said in an even tone. “Take a breath.” 

The boy looked at me with feverish eyes, ones I had seen in the mirror many times before, as I’d struggled with my own writing assignments. He lowered the paper, inhaled deeply, and stared at me. “Okay. Now what?” 

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Erin BrownComment
I Cook the Way I Choreograph

When I start a page, I know the hills, I know the landing. Do I plan the trip? I never plan the trip.

Stupid? Perhaps.

Stubborn? Quite.                                                                                  

Not the stubborn, though, that’s guy stubborn – “Don’t ever ask for directions” – but the stubborn wonder of the curious, the want to see it happen from within me onto the page.

This stubborn wonder is the same curiosity that makes me watch my hair turn grey. I could color it and look perky, but I would never know how it had turned – with a white stripe down the left side like a tilted skunk. I am with the curious who want to see the nurse’s hand as she administers the shot, who want to know exactly how the body ages, who want to watch the writing fall through all that is disorganized in nature to the beauty of a tufted landing. I am the child under the blanket, making farts and smelling them.

This is how I choreograph.

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William KenowerComment
Put Yourself in the Middle of it All: There is Nothing to Lose

For a few years when I was little my family took summer trips to Martha’s Vineyard.  We rented a tiny cabin and walked to the beach every day.  I loved all of it, but was intimidated by the waves, which could get pretty big sometimes.  Going under them or turning to ride them required me to be in the middle of the action – which was not my habit.  And my reticence to participate positioned me perfectly for being knocked down.  Reckless or risky behavior is usually considered the cause of trouble, but in this case, caution caused my troubles. I was trying to avoid danger and often ended up underwater, overwhelmed, and out of control. 

 

We teach each other to be careful, to have forethought and to assess, but the application of that advice can become distorted and leave us perceiving more risk in life than is real.  The belief that we are at risk naturally creates resistance, and then we feel stuck and overwhelmed. But most of the time, there is no danger, nothing to lose, just fear of possibly feeling bad.  Focusing on potential loss logically makes us insecure. Measuring what we could lose rather than purposefully engaging in what we want to create generates more problems than it prevents.

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Jennifer ParosComment
Seriously, It’s Subjective!

I remember clearly the moment I first saw it. I was sitting in my office – not a corner one, mind you – in the famous Flatiron building in New York City. The submission was a thick stack of pages, without an agent letter attached. Direct from the author, it had made it into my assistant’s slush pile (unagented submissions), and she had read the manuscript with great interest. She ran in one morning, a huge smile on her face, clutching the pages to her chest.

“I found one!”

Giddiness ensued.

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Erin BrownComment
The Story of an Unlikely Writer

Perhaps we are all unlikely writers. Who can say with any certainty how, where, or why they have been visited by the creative impulse? What we know is that when it arrived, largely unbidden; having infiltrated our psyche, we were transformed. This was my experience, although unlike most of the writers I know who were busy making up stories when they were old enough to pick up a crayon, my creative life did not begin until my 45th year. And that beginning was as surprising and profound as what was to follow.

The year was 1993, and the country and the psychiatric field had fallen in love with a new little pill by the name of Prozac. I had been practicing psychotherapy for 15 years and was as curious as the next person about this new wonder drug and the dramatic stories circulating about its effectiveness in treating chronic depression. Being the descendant of a long line of depressive men, I decided to experiment, allegedly to find out for myself what my patients were experiencing, but secretly hoping for a miracle that would remove the lingering cloud of melancholy shadowing my life. My primary care doc complied and handed me a few samples like he was handing out candy.

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William Kenower Comments
Everything is Not All Right

I was reading a novel last night that was quite enjoyable.  It was published in England, which may or may not be significant, and the author spelled “all right” as “alright.”  It appeared on every page, it seemed, breaking into my enjoyment of what was otherwise a good read.  Every time it intruded, the editor in me rose up. 

Some people have argued with me that the language is changing, so I have to get used to it.  I can’t buy that.  There are rules that bear retaining. 

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Cherie Tucker
Rest, Peace & Relaxation: Discovering the Power of Passivity

One morning while taking a vitamin, I inhaled in a peculiar fashion, creating a sudden suction that pulled the capsule back and lodged it in my throat.  I tried swallowing and drinking to no avail, but only really understood the severity of the situation when I attempted to breathe more fully and heard airy whistling sounds, then attempted to talk and found I could not.  At that point I reflected upon my understanding of the self-Heimlich maneuver, which was scant.  Once I realized I could still breathe enough, I knew I needed to be passive, though I wanted to actively help myself.  I became still and aimed my attention on a state of mental passivity – a neutral place of no reaction and no judgment.  More than just the old “Don’t panic” directive, I wanted to intentionally rest in a state that was peaceful even though the situation was not.  Within the next few minutes, I had the impulse to manipulate my throat with my fingers (something I’d tried earlier) and the pill dislodged.  My full breath returned along with my voice. 

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Jennifer ParosComment
Five Simple Rules for Submitting Your Manuscript

The submission process: oy vey. That pretty much sums it up. You send out your tome to an agent, a manuscript that has witnessed your blood, sweat, and tears, only to hear back finally (if you’re lucky) after months and months with, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Ouch. Punch to the gut. Of course, the whole process is totally subjective—one agent’s lemons are another’s lemonade.

So how can you guarantee 100 percent that your submission won’t be rejected? Well, I’m sorry to say you can’t. However, you can make sure that the process goes as smoothly as possible by taking the following five steps: 

1.     Do your research. Double down on the legwork – make sure that the agent you’re submitting to is interested in your genre and is accepting submissions. Obviously, you don’t want to send your sci-fi YA novel to an agent who reps erotica, especially one who isn’t considering new authors. And please, know whether the agent is a man or woman, and properly spell their name when you address them in the query letter. Ah, the query . . .

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Erin BrownComment
A Calling's a Calling

Someone's finally getting real.

That's what I first felt, reading Don Lee's Rumpus essay itemizing the brutal realities of the writing life.

Lee lays it down hard: “Pretty much everything about it  –  the act of writing, the act of publishing, especially the act of promoting –  is miserable. And it only gets worse as the years unfurl.”

Acknowledging upfront that his own writing has made a bit of money as well as given him a solid teaching career with a decent salary and benefits, Lee names the sibling truths:

• Making the work is a perilous journey, haunted,  self-doubting.

• Self-promotion, “pressure to perform and be charming and sell [oneself],” can be agonizing.

So can waiting for reviews, receiving bad reviews, or (worst?) no reviews.

Lee notes that “being a midlist writer is the most tenuous position in publishing...” He may not have considered how it feels to be a small press/literary writer, whose sales and fan base seldom register on any agent's or publisher's radar.

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William KenowerComment
The Internal Destination: On Reaching Goals, Finding our Way, and Blooming

In two years, between the ages of six and eight, I changed schools four times – once because we moved, then because of an alcoholic teacher, then for a better program, then because that program ended.  In third grade I entered my fourth new school in two years mentally adrift, and life became surprisingly nightmarish.  I was so consistently frightened of school that I considered running away.  I imagined climbing out onto the very small overhang of my second floor bedroom window, jumping down to our backyard, and running off into the night.  The problem then (beyond possibly breaking bones) was I had no destination

A destination is defined as a place to which one journeys or “the purpose for which something is predetermined.”  It could also be thought of as an internal intentional goal, a mental/emotional place to go, to put our attention. Without one, running away (out in the world or in one’s mind) becomes a never-ending endeavor.   

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Jennifer ParosComment
It’s “Show”time!

Every writer, at some point, has heard the adage “show, don’t tell,” and has nodded gravely. Oh yes, I know what that means. Just, you know, show, and don’t tell. Right? Right. Well, for those who are as clueless as I was about this saying back in my youth (when we had car phones and T-rexes roamed the Earth), let’s have a refresher course—because agents and editors (and readers) do not respond to telling. 

I’m going to focus on fiction, on narrative prose, but this concept can be applied to creative non-fiction as well. As writers, we want to immerse the reader in our world, to create a vivid playground, complete with metal slides that sear your thighs in summer and monkey bars that inevitably lead to a broken limb. The easiest way to draw a reader into your world is to paint a picture—don’t tell a reader what is happening; show them. 

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Erin BrownComment
Pitching Your Work: How to Avoid the Mistakes that Leave a Writer’s Work Unread

The pitch is your foot in the door, getting someone to be interested in your script/book.

I’m that door. My job is to find projects and submit them to the decision-maker.  

I work for Muse Productions, Inc. You’ve seen our films: American Psycho, The Virgin Suicides, Spring  Breakers. We are pre-production; we find a script, marry it with a director and actors, and find the money. Everything we do is finding the project and selling it to everyone. Pitching is the most important aspect of our job. 

It starts with my pitch of your pitch. I read your proposal and then if I’m interested I read your script. If I like your script, I turn it into two or three paragraphs to sell to my boss.

The unfortunate thing I’ve learned is that a bad pitch can hide a good script.

Your goal with a pitch is not to simply get me to read your work, you want to have already sold your script/book to me (publishers/producers) with the pitch. By reading the script I am simply getting the details and checking that it is as you have described.

With this article I can help you avoid common mistakes.

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William KenowerComment
Be Light: Achieving What We Want Through Ease

I came across a video of a singer from Kazakhstan, Dimash Kudaibergen, who has a five-octave range: an ability to sing baritone and soprano but also in the whistle register, the register beyond falsetto.  Later I listened to a vocal coach describing Kudaibergen as exceptionally good at keepingeverything light"– the key, he said, to accessing those remarkably high notes.  Listening to Kudaibergen, it did seem as though he had made his voice like a feather, carried and guided, rather than trying to make something happen.  It seemed his job was to make himself light enough to be moved. 

I started considering this idea in regard to achieving anything we might want (high notes of all kinds). Usually when I think of reaching goals, I think of hard work – a certain amount of seriousness and intensity.  Though I’ve known gravitas as an agent of oppression – making projects intimidating or even choking the life out of them – it still remains a sometimes habit of mine. But without enough lightness, our ability to find the good fades and we are slowed or even completely stymied in our pursuits.

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adminComment
The Query: Getting It Right

Ah, the query letter – the ad, the pitch, the sell. And what does the query query? Bottom line: is the agent interested in representing your book? This letter is the one thing that will get you in the door – or not – so you better make it sing. Tra-la-la! Easy peasy, right? Well, there’s a reason that ad whizzes get paid the big bucks: selling is an art form. And the query letter is what sells your book and yourself as an author.

To start, I’ll give you the basics: one page only, single-spaced, Times New Roman font (don’t you dare try to throw in Comic Sans to be a Mr. or Ms. Sassy Pants). First comes the hook, then the pitch/greeting (or vice versa), the plot summary/synopsis, the author bio, and finally, the thank you/signoff.

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William Kenower Comment
Where You From?

We know that there are distinct regional differences in this large country.  You could easily assume an accent from the South or from Boston, but those attempts usually don’t come across as authentic.  There are phrases that can be used with those accents as well, but they won’t stand alone when used by unaccented speakers.  A friend from Alabama once told me she would check her calendar, but she thought she “might could come to dinner.” With her accent, it was charming.  The Southern director of my chorus said he wanted “all y’all” to sing this part, not just sopranos. We smiled as we all joined in.  And a friend with a lovely Italian accent would say, “Now don’t miss me understand.”

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Cherie Tucker