Poetic Crossroads

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“At the Crossroads” by Thomas Guignard, Flickr Creative Commons

I’m pretty excited because today I’m having a blog exchange with writer friend Annie Neugebauer. I’m also excited because its the first time I’ve had a poet guest on my blog! To be honest I can’t remember exactly how, where, or when I met Annie, but from the beginning I was drawn to her blog for it’s varied and interesting content and also as a writing resource (she has a series called “The Organized Writer” and another called “The Decorative Writer”—all about writer spaces), but one of the things I love most is that Annie writes amazing prize-winning poetry and she’s a horror writer. And to be honest, both those things frighten me as a writer. (Okay, I couldn’t resist the joke, but it’s true. I am a mediocre poet, and I’m such a wimp I’m afraid to even read much horror.) Now Annie and I are co-workers, too: we are both bimonthly contributors to Writer Unboxed.

My post at Annie’s is part of her Decorative Writer series, where you can see photos of my home office. Check it out!

 

Last year, I found myself staring at the fast-approaching deadline to a national poetry manuscript contest. (A poetry manuscript is an unpublished book-length collection of poems. The winner’s prize is $1,000 and publication.) It was a well-respected contest that I had entered once or twice before, but for some reason that year I was procrastinating, and I wasn’t sure why.

Route Fatigue

I had two different manuscripts “ready to go.” One was a memoir collection of poems about me and my relationship with my father, whose alcoholism eventually led to his death. Obviously, that one was intensely personal. It was a mix of traditional form poetry, rhyming, and free verse poems. I knew it was a good manuscript; it had placed second in a state poetry manuscript contest two years before. But almost winning did something strange. When my name wasn’t called, I felt relieved. Sensing that something was wrong – but having no idea what – I shelved the collection for the next year.

My second collection was less narrative and less personal. Instead, it focused on life theories, true but less intimate anecdotes, and it mixed those together with poems about Pandora and the surrounding Greek myths. The theme of the collection was hope. It was almost entirely free verse, which is what most prestigious judges/contests are looking for these days. (Don’t get me started.) It had some great poems in it, but my gut told me it wasn’t quite cohesive enough as a collection.

Perhaps it was my subtle doubts about both of my manuscripts that had me hesitating. I suddenly felt I couldn’t justify a $20 entrance fee for something I knew I wouldn’t win – that’s $40 to enter both. (Hey, I’m a poet; I’m not exactly raking in the dough.) I knew that my use of rhyme was out of vogue enough to discount the first manuscript, and I knew that the lack of cohesion was enough to discount the second. Despite my husband’s encouragement to send both and “give it a shot,” I felt it was useless. Why bother?

The deadline loomed. I pouted. I decided to skip that year. Even if I knew how to fix either manuscript, it was too late this go-round.

Changing Course

Three days before the deadline, I woke up perfectly awake. If you don’t know me well, you might underestimate that. Trust me; I’m the polar opposite of a morning person. So for me to wake up and my brain be not foggy – that’s something on its own. But not only did I wake up perfectly alert, I woke up with an idea fully formed, sitting right at the top of my head. What if I combined my two manuscripts?

It was a mad idea. They were both full-length, so to mesh them into one manuscript I’d have to cut half of all of the poems. (Ouch!) And yet… once I’d thought it, I couldn’t let it go. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. At the root, both manuscripts were actually about the same thing: the dual nature of hope. And cutting so many poems might allow me to get rid of the rhyming ones that, though I adore them, really worked against me for the judges. I called my mom (she’s a great sounding-board), and as soon as I started explaining the idea out loud, I felt excitement bubbling. It was crazy, but what did I have to lose? I saved both original versions an extra time, just in case, and then I printed them off so I’d have hardcopies to play with.

I wish I had a video of the next few hours in my office that day. I must have looked like a madwoman, muttering to myself, shuffling through binders, tossing pages over my shoulder. I went through each manuscript as fast as I could so my subconscious would do the work. I threw out every poem that I even suspected needed to go. If it rhymed, it was gone. If it was weak, it was gone. If it didn’t fit in with my new, more cohesive theme, it was gone. If something nagged at me about it, it was gone. I didn’t let myself second-guess for even a moment – a trick accomplished by promising myself I could always put them back in later – and pages started flying. My floor was coated in poems. Good poems, solid poems, even poems that had already been published on their own. If I hesitated for a moment on a poem, I cut it. It felt like an exorcism.

Once I had cut a total of 121 pages of poetry down to 50, I set to work mixing them together and getting them in order. The poems from the first manuscript were easy to do, because they told a story, so they went in chronological order. The poems from the second manuscript were a little trickier, since they were about Pandora, but it didn’t take me long to realize how beautifully that myth spoke to my experiences with my dad and his addiction. I started “clumping” poems that spoke to similar things. I had a beautiful poem about Hephaestus, for example, who was the god who created Pandora, and how after creating her he had to let her go. It fit perfectly with the poem about my leaving home for college, which left my dad by himself in a house that used to hold four.

A New Path

In the end, I put the entire collection together in a day. I wrote eleven new poems to fill in some gaps and flesh out the new intertwined stories and motifs, but they flew from my fingers like they’d already been written. My personal story brought the myths to life in a new way, and the myths leant my personal story a new level of sophistication and universal meaning. It felt exquisitely “meant to be.” I gave it a new title that brought out the best of both books and sent it off to the contest on the last possible day. I knew that even if I didn’t win I had something special. The real clue was that I didn’t miss any of the cut poems, and I knew I would never, ever go back to the original two manuscripts.

The new manuscript received an honorable mention that year, which put me in the top five in the nation. It’s the biggest honor I’ve received for my poetry to date, and I couldn’t be more proud. I’ll continue to polish that manuscript and send it to other contests in the next couple of years, and maybe I’ll get lucky and hit the right judge at the right time – who knows?

But what I really gained from the experience was much more than acknowledgement or bragging rights. I learned how to trust my artistic instincts. There was a reason I didn’t want to submit those two manuscripts, and that reason was that I knew, deep down, that I could do better. I learned to take greater risks. I learned how amazing it feels to let old work go, even if I still like it.

Most of all, I learned how truly in control I am of my own narrative. I’m not chained to what I’ve done and exactly how I’ve done it. I am free to tear down and rebuild, to restructure and recreate, to go back and reinterpret again and again, because this story is mine. And somehow, in making it more fully my own, I’ve made it more fully everyone else’s, too. I think that moment when we reach the crossroads of fully realized self and fully accessible public consumption is what art is all about, don’t you?

 

Annie lives in Texas with her husband and two cats. She describes herself as “hyperactively organized” and she willingly shares “that neurosis” with other writers at The Organized Writer. While you’re there, check out her current projects, and browse pictures of writers’ offices at The Decorative Writer. She posts new blogs two to four times a month, and she loves to read comments! You can also connect with her on Twitter @AnnieNeugebauer and on Facebook. She also writes a bi-monthly post for Writer Unboxed.

In Writing, Tell the Truth

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Today I’m very happy to have my friend Jessica Null Vealitzek as a guest on my blog!

Jess and I met online, connecting over writing and a mutual love of good books when she first got involved with Great New Books, where she is one of six contributors (by the way, if you haven’t seen this blog, you should check it out). We started talking about writing and reading and publishing (we were both writing novels). Fast forward to the current day, and Jess just last month debuted a wonderful first novel (that I just finished reading and loved!): The Rooms Are Filled. In addition to Great New Books, Jess writes for PDXX Collective and has her own blog at True STORIES. She also contributes to the anthologies Three Minus One and The HerStories Project. (Did I mention that Jess also has two young children?)

Please welcome Jess with a post about something near and dear to her heart.

 

In Writing, Tell the Truth

I often think back to one particular assignment in Ms. Jenewein’s Expository Writing class my senior year of high school. We had to interview someone and write an article.

I chose to interview a friend’s father because, starting with almost nothing, he had worked hard to become quite successful. I asked him questions, typed up the answers, and turned in my profile. Probably B-worthy. Fine by me.

Ms. Jenewein handed it back with something like, “You can do better,” written at the top.

Excuse me? It was a perfectly respectable article. I’ll take the B, thank you.

I walked up to her desk, article in hand, hoping to talk her out of making me re-do it. She asked me why it was so dry, why she didn’t feel she knew the subject of the interview. Finally, I crinkled my nose and quietly admitted, “I don’t like him very much.”

“Aha!” she said. “Write the real version. He’ll never have to know.”

The final article, the one I earned an A for–the one I was proud of–was called, “Interview with a Vampire.” (The movie was big at the time; I was being clever.) Ms. Jenewein hugged me and said, “This is the result when a writer tells the truth.”

Russian proverbI have never received another piece of advice more useful. Tell the truth. Readers know when you’re lying, when you’re fitting the story into the words you want to say, or don’t. You know it, too. And when, in the midst of writing, you hit upon a truth you didn’t even realize was there, it’s golden.

That happened to me just a few years later, in college, and it was an experience that has served as one of the more important moments in my life, both creatively and personally.

I sat in my dorm room revising a creative nonfiction piece, a letter to my alcoholic uncle I’d been working on for some time. The piece was dear to me, as was my uncle. He was a poor father, a poor husband, he was in and out of rehab, he borrowed money, but I loved him—we all loved him. He was a goofy, playful, charming man and I’d always felt a special bond with him. Once when I was young, he pulled me aside at a Christmas party and told me how much I meant to him. It was one of my most cherished memories. His slide into homelessness had been devastating.

I wrote all of this in my letter to him. And because he once wrote me a card that said, “I am proud to be your uncle,” I ended with, “I am proud to be your niece.”

Something about the piece, though, didn’t feel right and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I stared at the words. Then I found myself picking up the pen and writing: “I found out later that you were drunk the time you told me how much I meant to you.”

I continued writing almost without thought: “You were drunk. But that’s okay.”

And it was. It was okay. At the time, this was a revelation—that not only my uncle could be flawed, but our relationship could be flawed and I could still love him and be loved by him. Instead of writing the story I wanted to tell, I’d told the truth. I felt lighter. And my letter was much, much better.

There are loads of books that use many pages explaining how to write. In my opinion, it comes down to just three things: Read a lot. Write a lot. And tell the truth. These don’t ensure you will be a good writer, but you can’t be one without them.

It’s such a tall order and yet so absolutely freeing: simply tell the truth. It will be more than good enough.

pic-screen-shot Jessica Null Vealitzek is the author of The Rooms Are Filled, the 1983 coming-of-age story of two outcasts brought together by circumstance: a Minnesota farm boy transplanted to suburban Chicago after his father dies, and the closeted young woman who becomes his teacher. You can read more about Jessica and her book on her web site.