Saturday, December 25, 2021

A Year of SketchBox

A year ago, I decided to try SketchBox, a subscription service that sends you a small box of art supplies every month. I’d been taking a series of Zoom painting classes that had just ended, and I was worried that art would drift out of my life if I didn’t have some stimulation coming in regularly to challenge me. (I’m the kind of person who never goes to the gym unless a tennis partner or class instructor is waiting for me, foot tapping with impatience.)

There are lots of these subscription companies—ArtSnacks, ScrawlrBox, and Let’s Make Art, to name a few—but I decided on SketchBox because the ads had beautiful art, the materials seemed varied and high-quality, and it wasn’t aimed at kids; there were no hobbit houses or cartoon dogs in the ads. SketchBox has two tiers—a Basic Box at $25/month + $5 shipping, and a Premium Box at $35 + $5, which has everything from the Basic Box plus a few extras. I sprang for the Premium Box because I knew I’d always wonder what extras I was missing out on if I got the Basic Box. I steeled myself for that $40/month payment; I’m not made out of money, and this seemed like kind of a loony extravagance. But I didn't have any more painting classes lined up, I was curious about SketchBox, and I knew I could cancel it at any time if it wasn’t my thing.

And now it’s a whole year later, and I’ve received a full year of SketchBox boxes. What's the verdict?Read on. 

What I love about SketchBox

• You don’t know what will be in each month's box. No clue. I didn’t think I’d like that—you’re shelling out $40 a month, and you don't know what you're getting? But they smartly send you an email when it’s shipped, and that gives you 3–5 days for the excitement to build, and then it arrives, and—I’ve got to say, it’s exactly like getting a Christmas present. Every month, I tore into that box with glee. Not knowing what to expect makes it . . . better.

The February box was tinted graphite.
• It introduced me to media I didn’t know existed. This is partly a function of my age and situation; I have skills from being an art major in my 20s, but I’ve been out of the art game for more than 30 years, and I don’t really know what materials are out there now. Back in January, my very first SketchBox had acrylic inks—what were these little bottles? I tried them, and I was smitten. The next month was tinted graphite—smitten again. Later boxes had a Daniel Smith Watercolor Stick, a pan of Stoneground watercolor, Fude brush pens, Color Sparx Watercolor Powder. Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And many of the supplies are fancy brands made in Europe or Japan.

• With every box you get a link to an online video tutorial showing you how to use everything in the box. This was great—full of tips and techniques. (Ask me all about swatching.) Some other box subscriptions offer instructions in magazine format, but I would much rather have a video. I only wish they were a little longer.

• SketchBox usually includes a pad of paper, again often from Europe or Japan. Some other subscription services don’t do this; I’m sure it reduces their costs and subscription fee, but I love trying out different papers. My one quibble is that the paper is always 4 inches wide to fit in the SketchBox shipping carton. I'd love to occasionally get a larger pad, 6x9 or 8x8.

• One of my favorite things has turned out to be the SketchBox online community—it's large and active, and those connections have led me to other opportunities. Through posting and tagging my artwork that I made with the SketchBox supplies, I've found other SketchBox artists on Instagram, who talk about online instructors they like, many of whom have free tutorials on Youtube. And because several of my new Instagram contacts are in Germany, their posts are in German, and so are the video tutorials they recommend—which gives me a chance to brush up on my German, something else I haven’t used in 30 years. 

Not so hot

Did I love every one of the 12 SketchBoxes I got this year? Honestly, no. There were a few supplies that didn’t grab me. I’ve tucked them away in hopes that I'll warm to them one day, and because SketchBox tends to mix supplies, no box was a complete fail; there was always something I liked in it. But for me, the duds were:

• Alcohol markers. These are very hot right now, and some artists do amazing things with them. I’m just not one of them, and don’t have much patience for these. They also require special paper that they won’t bleed through. And they smell weird, like slightly dangerous fruit juice. 

• Oil pastels. One summertime box was all about oil pastels, five colors in very nice European brands, along with three small canvases. But I just can’t with oil pastels. They’re messy and inexact. And they also smell funny, like old crayons.

• Metallic and pearlescent paints. These seem to be popular, but I’m not sure why. Sure, you can paint something cool with them—you can mix colors just like any watercolor—but then you turn it to the light and go, “What the f***—why so glittery?” I'm clearly the wrong audience for these.

Accept no substitutes.
• White markers and blender markers. Do these ever work? Well, the one that worked was the white Sakura Gelly Roll, which is a miracle—if you want to add white highlights to a panting*, just get that and skip the others.

Seemed silly; ended up cool

• Every once in a while, a SketchBox includes . . . a pencil. Usually a European-made one, kinda fancy. I laughed the first time I got one, rattling around loose in the box—like, who doesn’t have a jillion pencils? But I've come to really like these. Some have hard lead and are good for light sketching that won’t show under a watercolor. Others are dark and smooth and are good drawing pencils all by themselves. There’s something to be said for good pencils, and they now have a special place in my drawer. I feel a certain calm reverence when I use a pencil made in Switzerland.

Get one. Seriously.
• Pencil sharpener. I also laughed when this tumbled out of the July box—a Staedtler Mars Lumograph tub sharpener. But holy crap, people, that thing has ruined me for other sharpeners. So sharp, so precise, so German. It retails for only $4.69. Run out and get one right now. I also love the Staedtler acrylic fine liner that came in the January box. Use it all the time. I am Team Staedtler.

• All of the brushes. Come on, if you’ve painted for any time at all, you probably have about a thousand brushes. But SketchBoxes often include one lone brush, an unusual shape or size that I probably wouldn’t normally buy—a chisel blender, a dagger, or a filbert—because they’re sort of luxurious and unnecessary. The kind of thing you might get—wait—as a Christmas present! I love them all now. 

Dreaming on

To conclude, I loved this year with SketchBox. And I don’t feel like I’ve quite had my fill of it, so I’ll continue my subscription for a while. I figure they’ll probably start repeating themselves at some point, but I like to think about what surprise might be in the next box. And there are a few things I wish they’d include, done up SketchBox-style, a fancy European or Japanese version of:

• Kneaded eraser

• Sand eraser

• More mouth-watering watercolors from Stoneground

• Samples of European watercolors I’ve been wanting to try: Gallo, Roman Szmal, Nevskaya Palitra, Sennelier, Maimeri

• Fountain pen

• Nib pen

And sticking with SketchBox will keep me from trying those non-art subscription services that now keep popping up in my Facebook feed like weeds—international snacks, cosmetics, coffee, spices, whisky. (Wait—the whisky one. Hmm . . .)

Made with the November box—Gansai Tambi
watercolors and Color Sparx Watercolor Powder.

* Many watercolorists shun this—adding white with a marker or gouache. Personally, I’ll only do it if the painting isn’t working and I’ve screwed it up somehow; then I’ll have at it with whatever markers are at hand just to see what happens. I’ve actually ended up with some good paintings this way.

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Inktober: Shut Up and Draw

Does an embarrassing clutter of markers
make you draw more? In a way, yes.
If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love me a writing marathon. Every year, I do NaPoWriMo and the August Poetry Postcard Fest, two 30-day writing marathons that I rely on to generate new poems. The rest of my writing year tends to be haphazard, and I work full time, and I’ve never been a write-every-day kind of person. But I’ve found that I can keep up a daily practice of just about anything for 30 days, after which I collapse in a boneless heap of laziness.

So I was thrilled to find that in the world of art—which I’ve recently rejoined after a long and bitter absence (future blog post)—there are also marathons. And this past month I decided to try one: Inktober*, a 30-day sprint where thousands of people from all over the world draw or paint a piece of ink artwork every day and post it on Instagram (#inktober2021). Back in my youth, drawing in ink was my thing, so I was eager to give this a try. I wondered: Could I keep up with a drawing a day? Would it energize me, or make me hate art all over again? And what, in today’s avalanche of art supplies, qualifies as “ink”?

I gathered everything in the house that had ink in it—fistfuls of pens, markers, India ink, even a Cross fountain pen that I bought in a closeout sale three years ago and hadn’t had the guts to take out of its package, it was so unapproachably pretty. I also snuck in some bottles of liquid watercolor, which felt like cheating but oh well. I chucked it all onto an end table in the living room and piled even more on it over the course of the month, my own Inktober hazmat site.

So, how’d it go? Pretty good. I drew almost every day. Okay, I skipped about 10 days, but I tried not to sweat that; not sweating things turned out to be one of the themes of my marathon. I ended up with about 20 new pieces of art, including a few that I’m proud of. 

During the month of drawing, I had a lot of thoughts—some ups and downs, many times when I almost bailed, and a lot of late-night pondering over the connections between visual art and poetry, different animals on the artistic family tree that still share some genes. So, observations:

“Inking” is actually drawing.

I had to laugh at this. Around day 5, I realized that I’d started the marathon with some lofty notion that “inking” would mean just grabbing a fancy pen or some brush markers and whipping up some instant art, a happy little miracle every evening. But I found out I’m too much of a mechanic for that; I preferred doing a pencil sketch first and then inking over it. The few spontaneous doodles that I did were my least favorite pieces of the month—they seemed inert, uninspired. But the drawing thing became an unexpected visit with an old love—I adored drawing in my teens and 20s; then, after some art trauma, I lost my confidence in drawing and didn’t do it for decades. But after this past month of drawing pears and apples and trees and cows and horses and houses and mountains, I now feel like I actually can draw again, like I want to. The muscle memory of it is still there, still in my hands; in fact, with my older brain, I seem to be better at it, better at seeing shape and value. I am, in particular, better at pushing the darkness (a metaphor on a platter). And luckily, the joy is still there too.

To keep drawing, I had to fight my own fragility.

This is one way that Inktober was different than a poetry-writing marathon—it turns out I have all sorts of confidence in my poetry, but almost none in my visual art. I’ve been doing poetry for a long, long time, and I’ve written so much and had so many poems published and rejected that I can write a crappy poem one night and completely forget it about by the next day; I know there will always be another poem. But the same wasn’t true of drawing; if I did a drawing one night that I didn’t like, I felt melodramatically wounded—absolute despair, like it was all over and I should just give up. This happened several times early in Inktober; I’d draw and post something that I wasn’t happy with, and it would haunt me into the next day: Well, there it is—I’m a crappy artist, and now the whole world knows. Luckily, by the next evening I’d usually get the bug to try something different—thank you, pile of art supplies on the end table—and that night’s drawing sometimes turned out OK. And the pendulum would swing the other way—Hey, this came out cool, so maybe I’m good at some things. Or even I like that color. By the end of the month I was very aware of those swings and was consciously trying to even them out. I realized that the fragility was a result of the Great Art Trauma in my 20s—a time when I decided I was a bad artist and feared showing that to the world—and the marathon became a way of working through some of that. And some of the drawings I didn’t initially like grew on me over time; they weren’t what I set out to do, but once I let go of that, they didn’t seem so bad.

The brain wants to get all up in art’s business.

I would start drawing, and my brain was clicking away. I could feel it, trying to control my hand. Careful. Don’t be derivative. That’s too Miro; people will notice. Don’t try that again—you’ve drawn so many bad horses! And then, without my noticing, that language center would shut off. Things got very quiet, and for a while I was all body—my hand scratching at the wet ink, flicking grass or branches onto the paper, my face contorted, my voice whispering to itself—rounder, darker, right here. I would sit back and see the balance of the scene, see what it still needed. It felt just like I was playing deep into a tennis match—all motion, intent, instinct, the body doing what it knows how to do. It was also just like being in the middle of writing a poem—the editor had fled and the subconscious was now driving; that’s always the interesting part. Oh, the brain came back later to criticize what I’d drawn, and sometimes it hurt me. This is a place where art and poetry differ: A poem can always be changed, but ink is pretty much forever and leaves an ugly stain when you try to fix it.

Drawing/painting takes longer than writing poems.

I got tired during Inktober. Really tired. Every night—even if I set out to draw/paint something simple, like a pear—I ended up spending at least an hour on the piece, and often longer. And afterward I’d be so wired that I wouldn’t be able to sleep. And it was a busy month at work, so I was already tired in the evenings. Toward the end of the month I felt sleepy every day by late afternoon. My system for writing every night during poetry marathons works better; somehow I can predict how much time it will take and compensate for it so I don't get exhausted. So that needs some thought. And, riffing off that …

I’m sort of lucky I survived.

By that I mean, all that staying up late and drawing when I was half awake probably wasn’t conducive to great art.** And by all rights, bad art should have finished off my fragile ass (see above). However, Inktober made me try out markers and pens and notebooks and pencils, and it forced me to go through my own reference photos (which I take all the time on drives around town) and raid them for things to draw. It was a month of experiments, and I found a few things that I unexpectedly seemed to be good at (and a few that I just liked doing). And in a way, doing that every night produced the same results you get—if you’re lucky—after receiving umpteen rejections of your poems for umpteen years. You stop caring so much about each rejection, because you know you’ll write again and will send stuff out again. Same thing with this art marathon; the next night, there was another pen, another fistful of markers, and another picture in my head. And I tried again. And that was maybe the best thing about Inktober—all those days to try.

* Another thing I found out this past month is that the art world, like the poetry world, has its scandals and infighting. Apparently the guy who owns the trademark to Inktober was accused of plagiarizing another artist's educational writing, and it caused a split in the art world; some artists now refuse to participate in Inktober and have spawned all sorts of rival marathons. So that gives me something else to check out next year.

** This is a debate that poets often have about NaPoWriMo: the argument that if you have to crank out a little ditty every day, how good are the ditties going to be? I understand that viewpoint—and I used to share it—but I found that NaPoWriMo serves a purpose for me, if only to shake up my usual writing practice and to force myself to write when I don’t feel like it, which results in interesting themes and forms. I always figure if I can get four or five decent poems out of the 30 that I write during NaPoWriMo, that’s a fine return on my investment. And I end up with stumps of weird stuff that sometimes serve as sparks for other poems later.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Poetry Postcard Fest 2021: Both Sides Now

All the postcards I received this year,
plus a bonus Buckley.
The poems are written, the cards are mailed: The 2021 Poetry Postcard Fest is a wrap.
        This year, the annual August writing marathon attracted more than 500 participants from 13 different countries. My group (go, Group 8!) had 33 people in it, and I ended up writing 33 poems—32 to the other people in the group, and an extra card to someone else.

Side 1: The poems
Those 33 poems meant that I wrote a little more than one poem per day, but this year I didn’t even try to write one every day; I almost always wrote them in clumps of three or four and then took a few days off between writing sessions. I’ve done this in the past, too; it makes the “poem-a-day” thing less of a chore for me. And as I’ve said in past PoPo recaps, writing several poems in one sitting sometimes makes them more interesting; often I'll riff on the subject of one poem and expand it into others. This time I had a series of poems about eavesdropping, since I seemed to be overhearing a lot of conversations and was fascinated by the relationship between the loud talker and the unwilling listener, and the incompleteness of the information you overhear—Is that person always like that? Did that person bring this problem on himself? How reliable is the narrator of this story? I also had a few poems about painting (more on that below), and lots of small scenes from around my town of Ashland, Oregon, which was plagued by hazardous wildfire smoke all through August.
        Looking back through the poems, I can see a few that seem like keepers, like something I might end up getting published if some editor likes them. A few fizzled. My favorite one is about my bathrobe, which had nothing to do with eavesdropping or smoke and just sort of flew in on its own, as the best poems sometimes do. 
        Thinking about which poems I might send out to journals made me go back just now through poems from past PoPo Fests (this was my 9th year), and I see that fewer of them have been published than I thought*. None at all from last year. And in fact I rarely send those postcard poems out to journals at all. I suspect that some part of my mercenary brain thinks that short poems—and especially short abstract poems—are less “publishable” out there in the mean world. In April, during NaPoWriMo, I put a lot of pressure on myself to write longer, more “serious” poems, whatever that means. April is sort of a poetry crucible, when I think hard about a lot of things and try to write deeply into them. In contrast, the August Postcard Fest is more of a lark; I have fun with these shorter poems, and I feel pretty much zero pressure. Hence I think I tend to take them less seriously. Or perhaps they really are “slight.” I need to think about that more.

Side 2: The postcards
This year, I took a totally new approach with the actual postcards: I hand-painted all of them. In past years I’ve used giveaway postcards from restaurants, touristy ones I picked up at the drugstore, and ones I got printed at Vistaprint with my own photos on them. But I’ve been doing a lot of watercolor painting this past year, and I was intrigued by the idea of painting each one individually. In retrospect, that sounds kind of nuts—paint 33 individual paintings?—but I was already thinking of it back in April or May, so I started painting them then. I tried out lots of different paper—postcards made for watercolor by Daniel Smith, Hahnemühle, Schmincke, and Strathmore, and also 4x6-ish pieces of heavy watercolor paper by all sorts of companies. Pretty much anything I ran across the past few months that seemed like it would hold up in the mail. I ended up putting a few in envelopes, especially if the paper was 100% cotton; it seemed too soft not to get torn in the canceling machines. 
        I painted them in batches of 4 or 5; I’d do a bunch of skies in slightly different colors and styles, and then some kind of land or trees or whatever. I tried really hard not to overthink them. I did a few others with markers. And it was an absolute blast—serious fun, and again, with no pressure at all. I was surprised at what a useful process it was to paint so many little 4x6 paintings; I kept a bunch of them because I want to do larger versions of them, and I was constantly experimenting and coming up with techniques and color combinations that I didn’t expect to find. Just totally screwing around with paint. It wasn’t hard, it was joyful, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I ended up painting about 50 postcards total because I kept painting ones that I liked enough that I didn’t want to send them away.

Bonus track: The community
Once again, the PoPo Fest’s Facebook group was really fun to keep up with all through August. People take such different approaches to the postcards; some do collages, one person used grocery cartons (she sent me one made from a Kleenex box). Some found vintage postcards; one woman in Alabama sent me an old postcard featuring a building in my town in Oregon, which amazed me. And many, many others didn’t really care about the postcards; for them, it was all about the poems. I’ve done it lots of ways over the years, and they’re all good; the PoPo Fest is flexible enough to accommodate pretty much any way you want to do it.

* Here are a couple of PoPo poems that did get published:

Speaking of smoke,
this one was in Crab Creek Review, 2019.

In Right Hand Pointing, 2021.

Past PoPo Fest Recaps:

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Writing Year: Get thee behind me, 2020

Derailed subway train in the Netherlands saved by a whale
sculpture, 11/2/20. Seems like an apt metaphor for the year.
I will just start by saying: All through the shitshow of 2020, the writing world remained an inspiration for me. I don’t know quite how we did it, but writers kept on writing. Poets figured out how to do readings online. Everybody learned Zoom. Literary journals continued, adapted, and sometimes thrived. A few really beautiful anthologies were produced about the pandemic, the ugliest of subjects. 
        Back on March 11, I wouldn’t have believed any of this. That was the day the NBA shut down, which, for some reason, was the watershed moment for me—the end of the civilization I knew. I pictured us at the end of the year, holed up in our dark bunkers reading old can labels to each other and trying to find the last station on the hand-crank radio. 
        So yes, as of today, we’re still here, but I won’t say it was a good year for writers. Or for my writing. Or for anything. That would be crass, cruel, and beside the point. Still, there were times of beauty and weirdness. Here are some things that changed, and things that surprised me, and some actual good things that grew, mushroom-like, in the dark year now ending.

Zoom poetry events: some good, some bad.
Seeing friends read in other cities—amazing! Seeing famous poets whose voices I'd never heard—fantastic! Attending open mikes with readers from other countries—transcendent! Going to online poetry
        Okay, let’s talk about that for a minute.
        I “went” to some online poetry conferences, the kind with presentations and workshops happening at various times through the day, where I could pop in on Zoom to check out each classroom and pop out if the thing wasn’t to my liking. I’m a restless conference-goer at the best of times, and on Zoom it was very easy to hit the “leave meeting” button when a presentation wasn’t floating my boat. At one day-long conference, I found one class I liked, stumbled across another that I sort of liked, and then bailed on another six—six!—after watching them for five or ten minutes. I can’t imagine walking out on six classes at an in-person conference; it would be too embarrassing to stand up and look at my watch as if thinking Oh dear, I left the baby in the car and clunk noisily out the door. But on Zoom, leaving is easy, silent, instant. Click. And I’m not sure if that’s good (freedom!) or if it’s hazardous to people like me with short attention spans; I wonder if I missed anything good. And the one thing I love most about writers’ conferences—the hanging out with other writers, grabbing a coffee between classes and drinks at the end of the day—was completely absent from those online ones. So, for me, Zoom conferences offer all the things I like least about conferences, and none of the things I like most.

I wrote a lot about the pandemic. 
I journaled to preserve the strange, disaster-movie quality of it all: the sudden shutdowns and surreal speed of it, the news from overseas, the appalling lack of response from the U.S. government, the rumors, the social divisions. It felt important to chronicle these things. I also wrote a shit-ton of pandemic poems early on, some of which I posted on Instagram with graphics, which was an empowering, absorbing project. I published some others in journals and anthologies. Some poet friends, I know, didn’t write at all about the pandemic. I totally hear that (see the next paragraph); I just felt compelled to make bread with the dough at hand, and pandemic dough was what I had.

I wrote almost nothing about a disaster close to home.
As if the pandemic, layoffs, racial tension, and that nail-biter election weren’t enough, my region got hit with another huge blow on September 8 and 9 when the Almeda fire tore through our Oregon valley, destroying more than 2,500 homes. It was epic, horrifying, unbelievable, frightening, and very, very sad. Many of my friends and co-workers lost everything. Even now, the burn zone—which starts 3 miles from my house and stretches 10 miles to the northwest—is a mind-altering, life-changing thing to see: miles and miles where homes and businesses used to be, everything now reduced to a hip-high, gray/white landscape of debris that looks uncannily like ruined tombstones. I’ve written a grand total of one poem about all that, although I did journal a lot. It was just too close; I know too many people whose lives are forever changed. To make art out of that and put it up on the internet did not feel like the right thing to me. It’s delicate, and I was not in the right mental space to do it.
        This made me think a lot about poems of witness and current-events poems. I write a lot of those, and I’ve always recognized that it’s different when you’re farther from the disaster; of course it’s easier to write about it. But there’s a voyeurism to it, an inauthenticity that, paradoxically, makes it possible to take the art/poem in different directions than if you’d seen the event yourself. But when it happened to people you know, there’s a line of ethics in there. Maybe there’s always a line of ethics, and we just trample over it all the time without thinking. 

Working at home hasn’t given me more time to write. 
I’ve been working at home full time since March 17 (and am so grateful to be working), and I still never feel like I have enough time to write. It turns out working at home in sweats is still working. I still really look forward to weekends.

I superly, very muchly miss drinking with poets in bars.
This surprises me, how much I miss the after-reading drink with a few friends at the pub. The big group walking to the restaurant for a meal with the famous poet who’s in town for one night. The random meet-ups in the hotel bar after a long day at the conference. The dinner with a poet friend where we talk about sequencing manuscripts and have a bit too much to drink and laugh our asses off. Writing is great, but being a poet is also about living in a world.

I miss doing road trips for out-of-town readings. I also enjoy not doing them.
Honestly, my relief at not doing them slightly outweighs how much I miss them. That’s mostly because of my 18-year-old cat, whose health has (knock on wood) been more stable during this quiet, stay-at-home year. I’ve also saved a lot of money by not traveling. I've loved the online readings I’ve done, but they don’t sell a lot of books. So the metric is all different. Two online readings I really enjoyed doing this year were the Spring Creek Project’s video series The Nature of Isolation (check out their other videos too, with writers and visual artists) and Rattle’s interview/reading series, Rattlecast, where I talked a lot about poem sequencing and revision and last lines and the music business and the problem with persona poems. 

I had to take some new author photos.
Because my hair is much longer now. I wasn’t identifying with the photos taken a couple of years ago, the short-hair ones. Is this isolation some kind of chrysalis? Will some of us emerge with antennae and tails? Will that be a wonderful thing? The pragmatist in me says Stop it. Cruel. Crass. The writer in me says…wings.

Netherland subway train photo by Robin Utrecht/Getty.

Almeda fire photo courtesy of Governor Kate Brown's office.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

NaPoWriMo, Plague Year Edition

I got an early start on NaPoWriMo by writing
Instagram poems in March. Let's just say
there was a theme.
It’s April 15th, which means I’m halfway through National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo). This is the annual poem-a-day writing marathon that thousands of people do during April, and that I've been participating in for about 12 years. As usual, I’m running a small private Facebook group with about 15 other people who are writing poems every day and sharing them there, where only we can see them. Every year, I rely on NaPoWriMo's discipline to help me produce a stockpile of first drafts that I can revise later, poems I probably wouldn’t have written if I hadn't set myself the goal of writing one every day for 30 days. And I’ve always loved the camaraderie of doing it with a group. (Left on my own, I’d flake after about three days.)

Hard syrup
So, how’s the marathon going? I won’t lie to you, reader; this one's been a slog. I haven’t had a single good patch of days where the poems were flowing freely; this year they’re all feeling sort of extruded, like old maple syrup that you have to squeeze really hard to get out of the bottle. Most years, there are a few days like that. But this time, it’s every day—a steady diet of hard syrup.

Of course, this year is different. Everything is different. We’re all carrying the immense weight of the Coronavirus pandemic, a horror show that keeps morphing with its shutdowns and layoffs and fevers and ventilators and shortages and epic presidential incompetence, and so many of us are waiting it out at home, isolated and bewildered. (For my part, I'm working at home, extremely grateful to still have a job, and staying away from people as much as possible.) There’s no guidebook for how to live and be during something like this, let alone try to keep up a writing practice. I see writers on social media talking about how they haven’t been able to write at all, and others saying how all their writing is doom and gloom and mostly cathartic, or they find themselves writing chirpy upbeat nonsense that even they don’t buy. On Twitter I’ve been reading good advice that people are getting from their therapists and counselors, and most of it boils down to this: You are going to feel all the feels, and many at the same time. Whether or not you choose to make art out of this (or substitute “be productive” or “stay positive”) is up to you, and there’s no one way; we’re all learning this, and because it’s grief, it will take its own path through you. Just know that it will.

Getting out there, metaphorically
But I had a poetry-writing marathon to get on with, and I realized that the pandemic felt a lot like the choking wildfire smoke we've had for weeks at a time in southern Oregon in recent summers. I was writing a lot then too, and all I could write about was that damned smoke; it was literally in my face, constantly. The pandemic is functioning like that as well, but of course everyone, everywhere, has it in their face. As with the smoke, I felt like I needed to break the current crisis down into small increments, micro-scenes of my own everyday life; it’s too vast and overwhelming—not to mention still developing—to take on much more than that in a single poem. And the whole thing is surreal, isn’t it? Like a dream that you’ll wake up from and think, Whoa, that was nuts.

I started writing poems about the pandemic back in March, before NaPoWriMo began, because the emergency was beginning to hit us locally and hard. And I decided early on to post a lot of them on Instagram (@amymillerpoet). I’ve been dabbling with Instagram poetry the past few months; I like the mixture of text and images, the block of art. The whole thing about how the poem is now published because I went and blabbed it on Instagram is just another interesting thing; I’m not sure what to do with that. But suddenly it felt like a time to let the poems walk out the door, since I literally couldn’t. We are truly all in this together, and I had a strong compulsion to get poems out in the world where all sorts of people could read them, not just the ones who subscribe to literary journals. And, I don't know, maybe I just needed a gigantic distraction. The discipline and techie geekiness of making those Instagram poems was like a lifeline I was following through some very dark water.

And now that NaPoWriMo is halfway through, I’m continuing to write and post some Instagram poems; the impulse to put together words and images is still strong. So maybe NaPoWriMo has felt like a slog because I was already tired from writing a poem a day in March, more or less. But, like I used to say about the great NBA player Tim Duncan, what made him great was that he kept going on bad days too; he just changed his game a little. So I’m still welcoming the daily discipline of NaPoWriMo, even if it hurts more than usual. I’m still hoping to hit a few three-pointers.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

100 Rejections: Pain or Gain?

I keep the guidelines of journals I'm interested in
on my desk. That way they're right in my face
and I can't avoid them.
It’s the start of a new year, and I’ve just crossed the finish line of a marathon I began last January, a strange, windmill-tilting quest to collect 100 rejections of my writing in one year. Yep, that’s right—I sent my work out to a lot of publishers during the past year, hoping that 100 of them would reject it in 2019.

The idea of boosting your submission process by trying for 100 rejections was championed back in 2016 by writer Kim Liao in her now-famous article “Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year.” It’s great reading, and it got a lot of writers talking about Liao’s philosophy, which was inspired by a friend’s advice to her: “Collect rejections. Set rejection goals. I know someone who shoots for one hundred rejections in a year, because if you work that hard to get so many rejections, you’re sure to get a few acceptances, too.”

I like this approach, and although I’d never really counted rejections, I knew that in past years I got way fewer than 100 per year; probably more like 20 or 30. So this past year I decided to participate in an online group where everyone was trying to get 100 rejections in 2019. (I like to do these things with groups because without any accountability or encouragement, I know I'll probably blow it off after a couple of weeks.)

The count & the amount
How did it go? In short, I didn’t make it to 100 rejections. I got 52, so I basically ran a half-100 marathon. And to get those 52 rejections, I sent out a lot more submissions than I normally would in one year. So my first takeaway is: It’s really hard work sending out enough submissions for 100 to bounce back.

My second takeaway was that it was fascinating to actually keep track of how many submissions I sent out (71*), how many were rejected (52), and how many were accepted (19). That meant a 27% acceptance rate, or roughly 1 out of every 4 submissions, and it held steady pretty much throughout the year. That 27% stat makes me happy. I’d never done enough analysis to figure out my acceptance rate in past years—I was afraid to, to be honest, fearing the percentage would be so depressing that I’d hang up my notebooks and never write again. But 1 in 4? I can live with that.

I kept a simple ongoing list of rejections and acceptances in my Notes app so I could jot them down anytime I got an e-mail with a yes or a no (and even at that, I may have missed one or two; I track submissions with an index card system that I love but that isn’t stat-friendly). By my calculations, I made $970** from writing in 2019, most of it from a second-place win in a national contest and reprints of a couple of articles that I wasn’t expecting and that I counted as a win. I didn’t keep track of how much I paid in contest entries and reading fees, but I'm cheap about those so I figure they came to about $100.

The reckoning
Because I’ve never kept meticulous stats on acceptances and rejections in the past, I can’t say how many more of either I got in 2019. But at a glance back through my 2018 submissions, it looks like I got more than twice as many acceptances in 2019. So based on that alone, this is a good system. I got into a few journals I didn't think I had much chance at; I was in "why not?" mode a lot this year, and that's a good way to be. And although, as I said, I worked a lot to send out all of those submissions, I never felt exhausted or defeated by the project. It was fun; it was a game. I’m a sucker for games.

However, I can’t help thinking that the whole process made me very eager to be published, perhaps more than was healthy. Like many writers, I was often told early on that writers should write more and publish less. (Somebody famous said that; I forget who.) Parts of me are at war over this. That publish-less thing is sort of a puritanical philosophy, like we all need to suffer to be worthy, and I know there are times when I rush off poems and essays for publication before they’re ready. (I can only hope they get rejected.) I also know that I’m 57 years old and don’t have the luxury of time that I felt in my 20s or 30s. And I sort of feel like, if I can’t rush to publication when I’m pushing 60, when exactly do I get to that? And I laugh, because writing is all about joy and not about rules. And I know I need to just keep writing and send out what I like.

On to 100?
I guess this was a success, since I’m already planning how to get more rejections in 2020***. But as always, I was surprised during this year of rejections by the way some of them broke my heart and others rolled right off me. In general, the 100-rejections practice helped take the sting out of them; when collecting them was a goal, it changed my feelings about them a little. ("Rejection? Great! Put it on the list!") That said, it didn’t mean I enjoyed getting rejecting any more than usual. This system is not a magic antidote; it’s more like desensitization. But, as I always tell young writers when I do presentations for them, this kind of desensitization is your friend. If you’re the kind who wants to rip up every rejection letter and mail it back to the editor in a Sharpie-scrawled envelope, you’re going to get very tired of doing that when they’re coming in at this rate. You log them in and move on and send out more, and that’s what takes up a lot of time in a writer's daily life.

Which brings up the question: When do you have time to write when you’re beating your brains out sending out all those submissions? I didn’t actually find that to be a problem; I continued my usual practice of doing two month-long writing marathons in April and August, and I sent out fewer submissions during those months because I was concentrating on a lot of writing. Through the rest of the year, I wrote about the same number of poems as usual, as well as some essays. So I guess the answer is that the writing still takes first priority; the submitting time, for me, ended up pushing something else out of the way, like Netflix or yard work. Which reminds me, please steer clear of my yard. While I was sending out submissions, I think skunks moved in there.

* I tracked submissions, not individual poems or pieces of writing. And note that the “submissions sent out” is just the sum of acceptances and rejections received during 2019; some were submitted in 2018, and I think a couple of publishers sat on them longer than that.

** I love it when writers tell you how much they make, don't you? The great taboo. This figure only tracks journal payments and contest wins, not book sales or honoraria at readings.

*** I'll try to be more methodical, like make lists of journals I want to be in and then actually go down the list and send poems to them. So far, I've been very good about making the lists. Not so good about the sending part.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Writers & One-Nighters

Poetry night at the Barkin’ Dog Grill, Modesto. A warm
room with fellow featured poet Paul Neumann and
gracious series host Stella Beratlis at the mike.
Earlier this week I took a quick road trip to central California to read at the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center’s Second Tuesday poetry series. I was reading with Paul Neumann, a former professor at Modesto Junior College, at the Barkin’ Dog Grill in downtown Modesto in this long-running series that was founded by poet Gillian Wegener and is now hosted by Modesto’s city poet laureate, Stella Beratlis. 

That is one healthy reading series; when I got to the Barkin’ Dog Grill, the place was packed, and as soon as Stella and Gillian arrived, I realized that they were waving at or hugging almost everyone in the restaurant—all these folks were there to see the reading (empty-house nightmare averted!). The audience was lively and engaged, with the kind of rapt faces that I always enjoy reading to.

And I would just like to say: This was the first reading I’ve ever done where the audience was eating dinner. And I loved that, and now I’ll always want people to be eating. There was something wonderfully assuring about the clink of forks and the light glinting off wineglasses while I read my work; some little existential cell inside me was happy that these people were getting sustenance. I have a longstanding blood-sugar issue—an aftereffect from a scary health crisis about 12 years ago—and I tend to get glucose crashes at inconvenient moments, like right in the middle of a reading*. So I’m obsessive about eating a solid meal before doing a reading. At the Barkin’ Dog I was able to order a full sit-down meal (and a giant glass of iced tea), and then ate half of it while the first reader performed. This was pretty much a perfect scenario; by the time I got to read, I was warm and tanked up, and there was still food left to polish off after my show was over. All the eating and waitstaff did make for a little extra noise during the reading, but it was nothing a seasoned open mike veteran can’t handle. (What poet hasn’t had to shout over a growling cappuccino machine or a phone ringing or a fight breaking out in the bar?)

Did you know Lodi is full of wineries and has miles
and miles of vineyards? I didn’t.
When I was planning this little road trip, it seemed like an awfully long drive (about six hours) to do in a day, only to return home the next day; I generally turn into a pumpkin after three hours in the car. But my 17-year-old cat had a tough summer healthwise, and I didn’t want to leave him alone too long. So I decided to just see how this whirlwind, long-drive one-nighter went. And it went fine. Great, in fact. To my surprise, I enjoyed the driving and even took a longer route the second day, adding about a half-hour to the trip home**. 

The Best Western in Lodi is right by the truck stop, but
actually really nice. Tiniest lap pool I have ever seen.
Over the last two years I’ve done more than 10 road trips to support my new book, The Trouble with New England Girls. This has made me ponder a lot about the economics and logistics of out-of-town readings, since I live in southern Oregon, a long way from everywhere. Pretty much every out-of-town reading requires an overnight stay, so I experimented with one-nighters and two-nighters, and even a three-nighter, to see what felt best for me. To my surprise, I prefer one-nighters and long drives over two-nighters and shorter, broken-up drives. It may be because I’ve had two high-maintenance cats the past few years (one with diabetes), but staying away a single night is much easier on me psychologically than arranging to be away for two or three nights. And I’m always amazed at how much I pack in during a one-night, two-day trip; when I get back home, I always feel like I’ve been away much longer. And the longer drives are (counterintuitively) bothering me less as I get older.

And did you know the Deshmesh Darbar Sikh Temple
is also in Lodi?
And then there’s the money side of it; of course one night in a hotel is half the price of two nights. We writers have to think about this stuff. Out-of-town readings sometimes don’t pay for themselves. But sometimes they do; sometimes you even turn a profit. In the long run it feels like a wash, and that’s fine. And there are many intangible benefits to doing these readings: meeting interesting people, seeing fascinating places I never expected to run across, and making connections with other writers that often lead to readings and opportunities later on. (For instance, I met Stella Beratlis last year when I read with her at another series in California.)

So here’s to the one-nighters, and pistachios fresh from the orchard, and the Sikh Temple in Lodi, and chickens in the road, and the modern Gold Rush feel of Marysville, and Mt. Shasta with its lenticular clouds. And poets traveling through it all.

We don’t have a Cost Plus in southern Oregon,
so I got a German food fix in Stockton. 

And here I thought Red Bluff's claim to fame
was consecutive days over 100 degrees.
Not so! They have some fantastic orchards
and roadside fruit stands.

The massive burn scar from the Delta fire north
of Shasta Lake is still horrifying a year later. 

I still maintain that the Weed airport, just north
of Mt. Shasta, has the best rest stop on I-5.

* If anyone was at my reading with John Sibley Williams a couple of months ago in Medford, that was why I rudely left the podium for a moment during the Q&A, went to my seat, and brought back a Tootsie Roll and a protein shake I’d stowed in my purse. In the past I would have just suffered, but I could see you were all friends. So I just ate the damn Tootsie Roll and felt much better in a few minutes.

** Southern Oregonians, take note: To bypass that 2-1/2-hour stretch of I-5 from Sacramento to Red Bluff that I always find a bit depressing, take highway 99 north out of Sacramento, bear east onto highway 70 through Marysville, and hook up with 99 past Chico and into Red Bluff. Miles of orchards, rolling hills, and roadside fruit stands. An unsettling view of Oroville Dam high on a plateau. Great vistas that will answer the question of how Butte County got its name. Way fewer semis.