Monday, December 17, 2007

Hard News

I woke this morning in the wake of this last year in
my writing. I was not depressed or frightened,
but I knew it was time to take a cold look at the
realities of the attrition---personal and greater.
Here is the accounting:

(Personal): I worked for at least four months on the
fine-tuning of the fine-tune of my second novel, Going
Through Ghosts; then fine-tuned that fine-tune for two
months. I wrote my third novel, Scylla. I compiled a
collection of ten years’ essays, Trajectory. I wrote
three NPR commentaries; twenty-six Wordsmithing
columns; three essays to submit to High Country News’
back page; three essays for Inside/Outside; two essays
for Mountain Living magazine; and created three blogs,
one a collective effort. I submitted my first novel,
Sisters of the Dream to two presses and one agent for
the possiblity of re-issue. I sent Going Through
Ghosts to one agent and two presses; Scylla to two
agents. I sent four essays to Mountain Gazette; one
interview/review of House of Rain to Four Corners
I earned $2315. for my writing.

Sisters of the Dream was turned down for
re-publication. In both cases, the editors wrote: “I
love this book, but we have had to tighten our list
and re-releases are not selling.”
Going Through Ghosts was turned down by one agent and
one editor: “You are a wonderful writer, I just
didn’t fall in love with the book.” A peer reviewer
at a university press wanted me (among some biased and
some legitimate concerns) to convert an
ensemble/community book to a book focused on the
relationship between the heroine and her lover.
Scylla was rejected by two agents: “You are an
astonishingly gifted writer. I didn’t fall in love
with the book. (One agent wrote: “This book should
do wonderfully in the hands of the right agent. You
need to find a more literary agent.”
Trajectory was taken by an acquiring editor who was
then told by the marketing director that “This kind of
book won’t sell.” It was then rejected by a peer
reviewer at a university press.
The new editor at High Country News conjectured that I had made up one essay.
The NPR commentary editor rejected all submissions as
“Not right for us.”

I am not alone in this escalating attrition.

(General): Two fine editors (a small press, a
university press) tell me they can no longer “afford”
to publish books they feel proud of. They have not
made that decision themselves. They are under
pressure from marketing and, in one case, a new owner
who knows nothing about publishing, but is hugely
One respected writing center is in shambles; in part
because its parent university is being run on the
business model.
Two respected writing conferences will no longer be
held; one because of student attrition, the second
because its parent college is being run on the
business model.
Our local publisher, Northland/Rising Moon, was
purchased by investors, its catalog retained, but the
actual business and workers terminated.
Most other writers tell me similar stories.
As Barry Lopez said at Ed Abbey’s memorial service:
“The news is hard.” That was in 1989.

Yes, I know the stats on Americans relationship with
reading; yes, I know even the big box bookstores and
corporate publishing are hanging on frantically. But,
one of those editors whose hearts are being broken and
I talked for hours about the disappearance of the
women who were once writing the Western terrain and I
believe I have become one of them.
At this time, I
don’t want useful advice. While there may
be something I haven’t thought of in terms of getting
my life work out to others; there seems to be nothing
to be done about the greater story.
I’m willing to sit in that silence. And see what
Writing this down was awful and illuminating.
I'll send it to a few trusted people in the
Seeing it in black and white---one year's
losses---made me feel a little less crazy.
And, the bigger question is: How do we care for
each other in this?
The biggest question was posed by one of my editors in response to my accounting: "It's not how we care for each other; it's how do we get others to care?"

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Unseasoned Wishes

We go toward Winter Solstice. Sun and moon are the
markers for any holy days I keep. These wishes use up
no trees, no fossil fuels, nothing but your time.
Life is gift enough. ms

"algorithim: A finite sequence of well-defined steps
for solving a problem.
Named by 9th century Persian astronomer and
mathematician Abu Jafar Muhammand ibn Musa, who
authored many texts on arithmetic and

"There is no mystery waiting for the asking.
No one can bring in the harvest alone.
The hour is late and it demands hard questions.
It's gonna take a fierce love
To get us home before the sun goes down."
---Fierce Love
song by Charlie Murphy

We tilt fiercely toward Winter Solstice. December 21 is the shortest day and longest night. It is not a
mystery. It is the late hour filled with hard questions.
We come into longest night of the year, while we humans hover on the edge of a night longer than any we
have known. A night marked not so much by darkness, as by absence. Bees, frogs, birds. Kansas without
sunflowers. Vermont without maple trees. Polar bears without ice.
Humans without a finite sequence of well-defined steps for solving the problem.
“What can we do?”
I hear that question at every reading I give, in the writing circles I teach. A woman in our class at the
Hassayampa Institute for Creative Writing in Prescott last July spoke for many of us:
“I tried to sit in the town square this afternoon and I had to leave. Even in the shade, the heat was unbearable. It wasn’t
this way five years ago.”
She looked at me. I stayed quiet. “I know, I know,” she said, “we can’t go on living the way we are. My friends and I talk about it all the time. But I don’t see all but a few of us making big changes in our consumer habits. What are
we going to do?”
The room was quiet. Our circle was made up of bright, passionate women and men who believe in the
power of the written word. Not one of us said, “We have to write to educate people.” Not one of us said,
“We need to write to break our own hearts.” Not one of us said, “Let’s all take an hour and write about this, then commit to giving up something we know we don’t need.” We didn’t rush into anything that would have briefly relieved the harshness of our hard questions. And we were together in the ten minutes of silence that seemed to last forever.
Finally, a young guy spoke. “I wanted to say something, fill the space, figure out something we could do NOW to help. But, while I was quiet with all of you, I realized I almost never slow down. Almost never.”

Algorithim: Clearly defined First Step: SLOW DOWN.

Light shrinks. Earth’s rhythm slows. Wise animals go to ground. And, everywhere you look, there are
messages to get busy, busier, busiest. The perfect X-mas tree. The perfect menorah. The perfect holiday
dinners, parties, snacks, cookiesboozeediblegifts---the perfect plan to not gain weight over the holidays.
The perfect gifts. The perfect decorations. $50,000 worth of X-mas lights on a Scottsdale real estate office;
six people taking five days to decorate the armory-sized building.

Slow down. Sit outside a mall and watch your neighbors race in to shop. Watch for laughter. Watch for
tenderness. Watch for joy.
Join the crowd, but walk slower than the others. Slow your breath. Wait in line and watch. When the
frazzled sales clerk apologizes for keeping you waiting, say, “It’s o.k.” Mean it.

Find the places where your local artists offer their gifts. As you watch light play on a delicate silver
bracelet or a porcelain bowl, know that you are in the presence of slow work, the gift that is indeed
perfect, the gift that is a cairn on the long way to our greater home.