Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Critique Recovery 101

Writing contests: the thrill
of victory...
...and the agony of
critique
         As a battle-scarred veteran of many writing contests, I’ve had my share of wins and, in my opinion, more than my share of losses. I’ve also received my share of critiques. Here are some strategies I’ve developed over the years for dealing with critiques that can make me feel like either a budding John Grisham or a withering writing wannabe.




1. Be appreciative.
 I’ve never judged a writing contest, but I’ve graded approximately two million student essays in my day. I’m thinking the experiences must have a lot in common. Both can be thankless jobs, and, generally, the compensation is minimal. Not all contests offer critiques or comments, so be thankful for the ones that do. Appreciate the people who took the time to read and often comment on your submissions (even the ones who weren’t astute enough to recognize a Nobel Prize winner in the making). And for the record, I've found most judges to be considerate, encouraging folks.
2. Repeat over and over to yourself: The critique is my friend.
While cleaning my desk the other day, I ran across this quote among some notes I’d taken at a conference: “Nobody ever got better by being told how great they are.”
I apologize to the creator of this quote, whose name I failed to record. There is so much wisdom in these words. If you’re fortunate enough to receive feedback, take advantage of it. Read it, digest it, nurse your bruised feelings, and then experiment with the suggestions. If they don’t work, toss ‘em. Not all suggestions are nuggets of wisdom. But some of them are, and if the feedback does work, you’ve taken a big step forward on your writing journey. From personal experience, I can tell you that many critique suggestions I’ve taken to heart have resulted in an award in a subsequent contest.
3. Can you say subjective?
Bear in mind that responses to writing—like responses to all art—are personal and subjective. I recently wrote what was—in my mind—a touching and inspirational short story. In the very first contest I entered it, I won first place (and $100. Yay!). I received the following comments: “Very powerful. Well written. Good details.” But the judge didn’t like my title because it seemed “... at odds with the generosity of spirit that marks the end of the story.” I agreed. I changed the title and entered it in a different contest ... with a different judge. No prize this time. And in the comments, the judge—who obviously came from a totally different mindset than the first one—gave my ending a 2 out of 10, explaining that it showed my main character to be “vindictive and completely delusional.” Huh? What about that “generosity of spirit”? Was this the same story? I promise I’m not bitter, just a little confused. But it proves my point that what can be a love story to one person can be a horror tale to another.  And I know I’m not the only writer to have experienced this.
In my English-teaching days, we addressed the matter of subjectivity by instructing student writers to “consider your audience.” In some contests, you might be fortunate enough to do that. If a contest you’re entering lists the judge(s), do research. Find out what you can about the judge’s background, what he himself writes or prefers to read. If you discover his own writing style leans more toward artsy and experimental and yours comes right out of the Elements of Style playbook, you might save yourself an entry fee and move on to the next contest—there are lots of them out there. Unfortunately, many contests don’t identify the judge(s) in advance. But many contest sponsors publish former winning entries. Give those a read and see if your entry is a good fit. Over time, you’ll start to recognize those contests which in general exhibit a preference for your particular style and/or subject matter, and you can use subjectivity to avoid post-critique stress.
4. Don’t quit.
On one of the most negative (as in downright nasty) critiques I ever received, I got the best advice I ever received: Don’t quit. And that’s what it boils down to. If you love writing, why let someone else rob you of that pleasure? With today’s technology, social media connections, and self-publishing opportunities, there is nothing to stop anyone who wants to from writing. You might not win a contest, get an agent or a Big 5 contract, or make the best-seller list. But you can write. And with that in mind, I’m closing with another quote I love by Florence Foster Jenkins in which I’ve substituted the word write for sing.  In response to her critics, Ms. Jenkins said, “Some may say I cannot [write]; but no one can say I didn’t.
 
        How about you? Have some strategies/insights that keep you writing?

 

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

"If the World Had a Front Porch..."

            Basically, I’m a city gal. Growing up on the outskirts of Houston spoiled me for urban conveniences. These days, I still like living within a few blocks of all the essential destinations in my life: supermarkets, shopping centers, my bank, my doctor, my church, and a Braums’ ice cream store. But my mother was a country girl, and frequent childhood trips to her tiny East Texas hometown established a few rural roots in me—at least enough to give me an appreciation for country music (some) and a yearning for a big front porch.
My grandparents' front porch.
Its appearance has changed some
since I was a kid, but the good
memories remain constant.
            In 1995, Tracy Lawrence came out with the hit “If the World had a Front Porch.” With the exception of a grandfather who taught the singer “how to cuss” (I never heard my grandfather utter a single curse word), that song tells so much of my own front-porch experience. My grandparents’ big porch was replete with the swing (why have a front porch if you don’t have a swing?), the rocking chair, and the yellow light bulb that attracted swarms of kamikaze insects. I never witnessed the birth of puppies on the porch, but I recall a couple of litters being cradled in boxes there. On hot summer nights, my siblings and I, along with a passel of cousins, would play games or collect “lightning bugs” in the yard, while the older folks sat on the porch to catch and shoot the breeze. Often, one of the kids was recruited to sit on top of the ice cream freezer while an adult cranked the handle. There were also truckloads of watermelon consumed on that porch.
            With so many good memories, is it any wonder I’ve always longed to own a big front porch? And yet I never have. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in one of those midcentury houses with a front porch the size of a postage stamp. The houses my husband Bill and I have owned all had porches the size of the envelope—a little larger but still not big enough to serve any useful purpose. It seems that until recently front porches all but disappeared. In the suburban sprawl of the fifties, folks retreated behind the walls of their houses to seek privacy and to watch TV. In the sixties and seventies, they ventured back outside, but instead of lounging on the porch to sip iced tea or lemonade, they retreated to backyard patios to barbecue. In the eighties, those patios became decks—often with the added luxury of a hot tub and/or a pool—and that trend held steady through the nineties and into the new millennium. These days, outdoor kitchens ensure that most of our socializing remains in the back yard.
            Lately, though, I’ve noticed a revival of the front porch. With the resurrection of the Craftsman and bungalow styles, lovely porches are once again gracing the fronts of new houses: porches large enough to provide shade and comfortable seating for several people; porches where folks can sit outside and greet—or meet—their neighbors.
            I don’t think my dream of owning a big front porch will ever become a reality. Bill and I have lived in several different houses throughout our married life but have been in our current one for twenty-five years. We’re so settled in, it would take an act of God to remove us (maybe not such a remote possibility with Oklahoma tornadoes and earthquakes). But  Bill insists his next address will be the ground. I’m thinking more along the lines of “the home.”
...my porch "wannabe"
(But, hey, it works.)
My dream porch...
            So what do you do when a dream eludes you? You improvise. Located between an exterior garage wall and the sidewalk that leads to our front door is a patch of land originally intended as a flower bed. Problem was, nothing but a boxwood hedge and a couple of yaupon hollies would grow there. When the hollies were bushes, summer sun burned up any flowers I planted in that spot. When they grew into trees, too much shade became the culprit. So about fifteen years ago, in a fit of frustration, I covered that patch with pavers and made my own “front porch.” It’s a poor substitute for a rambling veranda with the obligatory swing, but Bill and I use it for a cozy place to read or chat on the phone or to enjoy some fresh air. And it’s a great place to wave or yell “hello” to neighbors. 
            In regard to that aforementioned “home,” when the time comes and if I have anything to say about the matter, it will have a big front porch. I think that will make a nice transition into my final and eternal abode—which, of course, will have a HUGE one.
            Have any front-porch thoughts or memories you’d like to share? 
 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

What Do You See?

      Several years ago, I was preparing a PowerPoint to introduce John Knowles’s A Separate Peace to my students. This award-winning novel addresses the struggle between good and evil both in the universe and in the individual’s heart. I told Brenda Price, our ever-helpful school librarian, I wanted pictures that would represent this struggle. We sifted through images of the most heinous acts in history, of the vilest villains, of the most corrupt institutions. We also sought out the acts of incomparable courage, the heroes, the saints. In the course of our search, she took from a shelf In Their Name, the book commemorating the OKC bombing. We leafed through it quickly but then lingered when we came to the iconic photo that had spread all over the world after the bombing—the one of Baylee Almon’s lifeless little body so tenderly cradled in a fireman’s arms.
In photos from OKC bombing, do you see
evil? goodness? despair? hope?

      As we studied that emotionally charged photograph, the question came to us simultaneously: “Does this represent the good or the evil?”
      It was a difficult question to answer. Difficult, because in that image we are reminded of the vilest, basest, most depraved acts of which mankind is capable. And in that same image we are shown love manifested in selfless sacrifice and heart-wrenching compassion—the noblest of human actions and emotions. 
      That day in the library, Brenda and I came to the conclusion the photograph represents both—the best and the worst of humankind. But as that image continued to invade my thoughts through the years, I came to another conclusion. Whether we see in that picture hate and despair in a hopeless world or whether we see love and hope in a struggling one depends on what we carry in our own hearts.

                                         Double Exposure
                             Lifeless baby,
                             victim of hatred,
                             cradled with love
                             in a fireman’s arms

                            Timeless image,
                            quintessence of grief,
                            testifying
                            to man’s condition

                           Ageless question—
                           goodness or evil?—
                           answered only
                           by the viewer’s heart

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

"They" as a Singular Pronoun

            In perusing the Review section of the WSJ last Saturday (4/11/15), I came across the headline “Can We Take ‘They’ as a Singular Pronoun?” I realize the admission of the slightest interest in such a subject puts me in a class of weirdoes right up there with crossword puzzle competitors (watch the documentary Crossplay) and Trekkies. But a one-third page article was dedicated to this question, so there must be a respectable number of us around.
            The article reported that the question had been discussed at length in the “Ask a Lexicographer” session at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. I could be wrong, but somehow I can’t imagine these conference attendees posting Facebook pics of themselves lounging in the hot tub while sipping drinks with little umbrellas. Talk about an intimidating group. Surrounded by such esteemed literati, I would have been too terrified to utter a word. I break out in a cold sweat just knowing the group exists. And, as if a society of editors weren’t already intimidating enough, check out the acronym: ACES. I wonder how long it took the charter members to come up with that. (Come to think of it, probably not long.)
Problem solved. The ACES have spoken.
            But as it turns out, ACES members proved not to be the stuffy traditionalists I’d envisioned. The consensus, it appears, is that not only is it acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun but it is preferred over the cumbersome alternatives of “he or she,” “he/she,” or “s/he.” As an amateur writer, I’m glad to have this issue resolved. As a former English teacher, I’m experiencing mild guilt over all those times I marked “they” with a big, red PAA (faulty pronoun-antecedent agreement.) Notice I said "mild guilt." I’ll get over it, as I’m sure all my former pupils have.
            The English language is a complex and evolving organism. What works in one century . . . decade . . . year, doesn’t necessarily translate well to the following. The use of “they” as a singular pronoun has been gaining momentum ever since the 1970s, when the generic “he” became too sexist. And women of my generation learned quickly to stop saying “thongs” when referring to our sandals.
            Despite my lighthearted jabs at ACES, I’m actually very grateful the society exists. Something as malleable and yet so critical to civilization as language needs a watchdog to ensure change stays within reason. Otherwise, pandemonium will ensue and what then? Participles dangling precariously like the last autumn leaf on a tree?  Infinitives split with all the destructive force of splitting the atom? The elimination of “whom” from our vocabulary? It’s a slippery slope.                

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Grammy Dee the Groupie...NOT!

            In the lingo of the entertainment industry, I consider myself more of a “seat-filler” than a “plant.” More of a person designated to occupy a seat and make the place look full rather than someone situated in the audience to drum up excitement. It’s not that I don’t enjoy being entertained. But be it a lecture or a rock concert, I tend to internalize my enjoyment rather than joining in enthusiastic audience participation. I mean, go beyond a little hand-clapping, head-nodding, or foot tapping, and I’m waaay out of my comfort zone. So what are the odds that last week a seat-filler like me would find herself filling a seat right under the noses—literally—of the entertainers in a popular Nashville restaurant?
            I should’ve been suspicious when my daughter Kristin and I were told there’d be a forty-five-minute-to-an hour wait and then our name was called within ten minutes. And when the two of us were seated at a table for six, a foot from the stage, I should’ve declined. But I’d perused the menu during the previous ten minutes, and my mouth was already watering for chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and home-made cobbler. I couldn’t risk an actual hour-long wait. And the stage was bare, so maybe, I thought, we could eat our meal and make a quick exit before the show began.
            Nope. We’d barely scooted our chairs under the table when two performers—let’s call them Jim and Bob—appeared on the stage. They tuned their guitars, adjusted the mics, and checked the sound system. Satisfied that all was well, they stepped down. I breathed a sigh of relief. Still time to eat and make our get-away. But rather than go do whatever else he needed to do, Jim decided to visit with Kristin and me...well, mainly Kristin. Go figure. But even after she informed him she had a husband and two kids and she was there with her mother, he hung around to tell us about his career playing with TimMcGraw and give us a free, autographed CD. Okay, something was definitely up.
            About the time our food arrived, Jim and Bob returned to the stage and cranked up the music. And about the time I’d sweetened my tea, the waitress came over and asked if we minded if a few of Jim’s family and friends joined us at our table. And so it was I found myself right in the middle of a mini mosh pot pit.
            The pressure was on. Front and center, in full view of the entertainers who were stomping and strumming their hearts out, and surrounded by Jim’s partying friends and family, I couldn’t have felt more awkward if I'd been seated on the stage. I did the only thing a hungry seat-filler could do: I dug into my food.
            To be fair, Jim was a nice guy and an accomplished musician. As it turns out, he was also the writer of several hit country songs which he performed and I enjoyed. And while I might not be the most rambunctious of fans, I’m a polite one. I didn’t heckle, I applauded when appropriate, and I chewed my food quietly. Kristin and I stayed for the entire program, and I tipped generously—at least enough to cover the cost of the CD. What more could a performer want from a fan? Had Tim McGraw himself been on the stage, I might have been a bit more rowdy. But I doubt it.
Performers in background were closer than they appear.
 

           

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Not Your Ordinary Madonna


            The winter months in Oklahoma always present a conumdrum for me. Minus the yardwork and outside activities of summer, I have plenty of time to write, but the post-holiday letdown and the bleak and bleary landscape don’t provide much in the way of inspiration or ideas.  It’s sort of like when you’re working, you have money but no time to shop. Then when you’re not working, you have time but no money. 
            But this past weekend, friend Nancy rescued me from my winter malaise with the suggestion we take in the “Madonnas of the Prairie” Exhibit at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I found plenty to write about there.
            The exhibit was organized and curated by Michael R. Grauer at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Texas. The more than one hundred works are tributes to the women of the American West—both native and transplanted—from the late 19th century through the present. They depict a wide range of artistic styles as well as varied notions about the women, either past or present, who embody the western spirit. They also elicit an array of emotions.
            I was amused by the renditions of the “Cow-Boy Girl,” a popular image in the early 1900s and a by-product of the rise of Western fiction. No longer a passive object of pity or adoration, this woman could plow, ride, shoot, and bring outlaws to justice with the best of men. And as the paintings suggest, she could do it all with flawless hair and make-up. Talk about “I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan”! Eventually, at the hands of advertisers and commercial artists, these rough and ready women evolved into a sort of Western “pin-up” girl. Found on calendars and in ads, this booted beauty with her denim short-shorts, cinched waist, and perfectly coifed hair was clearly more fantasy than fact. But she still proved herself extremely competent in boosting sales of just about anything.
Madonna, framed by a windmill
"halo," keeps a vigilant watch.


 
            Many of the paintings inspired me, especially the “Madonnas,” for which the exhibit was named. Borrowing from Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, artists such as William S. Jewett, George Caleb Bingham, and Emanuel Leutze depicted pioneer women in a holy light, often framed by “halos” of real world objects such as the blades of a windmill or the opening in a  wagon cover. In many of these works, the women strike poses of either determined strength or of patient waiting.
            For me, the paintings by far the most moving were those that reflected the hardships western women endured. You have to look at only a few to grasp the severity of the challenges these women faced day in and day out. In one particular work, a woman stands hunch-backed in front of her sod house tending a withering garden. Around her stretches miles and miles of prairie, with no sign of another human being. I thought that of all the trials the women faced—relentless toil, sickness, hunger, uncertainty—isolation might have been the most devastating. And I might not be too far off the mark with that conjecture. As one of the placards in the exhibit explained, that era of history accounted for an unusually high rate of suicides and mental illnesses.
            As you can probably tell from this post, I’m no art critic. I can’t comment on style or technique or medium with any degree of expertise. But I know what moves me, and this exhibit did. If pressed to name the emotion I experienced most from it, I would say gratitude. Gratitude for women who were survivors; women who faced danger with courage and fortitude; women who carved out a better life for themselves, their families, and their descendants.
            The exhibit will be on display until May 10. If you want to be amused, inspired, moved, and infused with gratitude all within a matter of a few hours, be sure to take it in.

 
No Cow-Boy Girl here. If this side saddle had been
on a real horse, I would've never stayed on!
 

             

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

That Awkward In-Between Age

                                                                                                                                                   
            I just “celebrated” another birthday. With this one came the problem of classifying myself according to age. Middle-aged didn’t really seem honest unless I’m planning to live to one-hundred-thirty. But “senior citizen” or “elderly”? That would be my mother. I gave it some thought and decided I’m a ‘tweener—someone between middle age and death. Here are some of my observations about this awkward in-between age. 

            Transportation: My latest car-buying expedition convinced me I’m too old to ever again consider a ground-hugging sports car. I’m over the “need for speed,” and zipping along at 85 mph with only a few inches between the asphalt and my ass no longer carries the thrill it once did. However, I’m not yet ready for an over-sized tricycle or a motorized wheelchair, either.   

        
'tweeners have to make lots
of choices: Fashion or comfort?

            Fashion:  A recovering shoe addict, I’m learning to manage my obsession of buying the latest styles, regardless of the pain they inflict. But as any addict will tell you, although the urge can be controlled, it never completely goes away. I’ll bypass rhinestone-embellished gladiator sandals for Clarks only if it’s cold or I’ll be doing a lot of walking. I haven’t succumbed to wearing jeans with elastic in the waist but don’t object to a little lot of stretch in the fabric. And those As-Seen-on-TV-waist-extender buttons? A great alternative to Spanx—especially on a hot day. (Right, Shel?)
 


 Appearance: I’ll admit it: I’m vain. Even at this age, I worry about my appearance. I buy the wrinkle creams and the teeth-whitening toothpaste, and, yes, have even given Botox and fillers a try. I’m fine with my hair being gray, but I’m not ready to crop it above my ears or perm it into wash-n-wear curls. As a ‘tweener, though, I see maintenance taking over my beauty routine. By the time I apply ointments, floss my teeth, take medications, and insert eye drops, my bedtime ritual has already run thirty minutes past my bedtime. Should a beauty routine interfere with beauty sleep? It’s a dilemma. 
 
Beauty or...
maintenance?












            Manners: I try hard not to harp on the shortcomings of younger generations. In many ways, I think they’re smarter than ‘tweeners were. I hope I haven’t reached the point where I consider it my God-given right to interrupt someone because I’ll forget what I was going to say if I wait for them to finish speaking. Or to pull into traffic at my leisure and expect others to look out for me. However, I have caught myself holding up the line a time or two while trying to decipher the coffee choices at Starbucks. 

Snack A or Snack B?
(A no-brainer. Snack A, of course!)
            Food: Sadly, I’ve come to the stage where eating certain foods just isn’t worth the consequences. Not only the consequence of weight gain but also of heartburn. A juicy hamburger for lunch followed by a greasy pizza for dinner are things of the past for me. I’m trying to teach myself a slice of cantaloupe is as good as a hot fudge sundae (like that’s ever gonna happen), but I haven’t yet reached the point of having a bowl of Raisin Bran for supper. 

            Exercise: My exercise regimen has downgraded from jogging and competitive tennis to a lovely Pilates class and power-lifting a wine glass to my lips while I soak in the hot tub. But I hope I have a few years before participating in chair calisthenics. I came across some exercises in a magazine that required jumping. I gave them a try and was pleased to find I can still get both feet off the ground at the same time, albeit not very high. However, I also discovered that landing hurts my knees, so I’m looking for something that will give me the same results and allow me to keep at least one foot on the ground. 

            Technology: I know a few computer basics and how to text-message. But keeping up with the latest technology grows more challenging every day. I don’t understand half the advertisements on TV about computers or phones or tablets. The other day a salesman at Best Buy showed me an iPad on which I could download 500,000 apps. I couldn’t bring myself to tell this young geek—and I use that term with all due respect—that by the time I downloaded 500,000 apps, I’d be wearing wings and circling that great cellular satellite in the sky.  

            s-e-x:  From time to time, I’ll read about which generation experienced the greatest changes in its lifespan. Some claim it was our grandparents who lived through the Industrial Revolution. Others say it was our parents who ushered in the Technology Revolution. I contend ‘tweeners have faced the greatest adjustments with the arrival of “the pill” and the Sexual Revolution. We went from spelling out the word sex...in whispers...in gender-segregated company...to marching in demonstrations calling for “free love.” And that was all within a range of about fifteen years. Now, yet another “pill” is insisting all the fun doesn’t have to end just because we’re getting on in years. We can massage our mates with exotic oils right after we rub in our arthritis cream.  

            Advantages: For all the adjustments ‘tweeners have to make, there are also advantages. For me, grandchildren would top the list. Acquiring patience is another. Until recently, I was an “annual” gardener. Spent a fortune on blooming beauties at the nursery only to bring them home and watch all the blossoms fall off a week later. Lately, I’m learning that good things—like daffodils and tulips and peonies and roses—come to those who wait. Other advantages? Realizing how quickly time flies and taking the time to live in and appreciate the moment; preferring the scent of fresh basil or honeysuckle over that of pricey perfumes; discovering the luxury of an uninterrupted night’s sleep. Another favorite—learning I don’t have to have all the answers in order to believe.

Grandkids--the best advantage of being a 'tweener!