Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Writing Lessons

            This weekend I will attend the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation, Inc. conference, which I consider the highlight and culmination of my writing year. Almost fifteen years ago, at the invitation (insistence?) of Brandi Barnett, I joined a little writing group called The Inklings. One of our first activities as a group was to join OWFI. I recall attending my first awards banquet at that conference. Certain that the judges had never read such error-free, grammatically correct writing, I was prepared and excited to receive the awards and accolades bestowed on the contest pieces I’d submitted.
            Disappointment doesn’t adequately describe my reaction to being completely shut-out that year...or the next...or the next. Embarrassment might be more accurate. After all, I’d been teaching English for nearly twenty years at that point. I should’ve known what I was doing. But as they say, “Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.” So that year—and in many subsequent years—I got experience. And these are some lessons that experience taught me:
1) Connection will always trump perfection. Creative writing isn’t an academic endeavor. While I could compose one humdinger of a research paper or literary essay at the time of my first contest, I hadn’t found a way to truly connect with the reader—hadn’t found my “voice.” And while perfect grammar might connect with a reader’s brain, “voice” connects with the heart. (Okay, my inner-English teacher is screaming here. If I don’t indulge the old biddy, she’ll never shut up. Grammar can’t be completely tossed out the window. If the spelling/usage/mechanics are awful, they get in the way of a great story. The so-called “rules” can be broken, but there should be a reason for doing so, and the writer should know she is breaking them and why.)
2) Writing is VERY subjective. What truly is one judge’s (or reader’s) treasure is another’s junk. Anyone who has ever entered contests or pursued an agent or submitted pieces for publication—or read book reviews, for that matter—knows this. So if one judge finds your entry less than enthralling but you consider it Nobel Prize material, submit it again. Another judge just might agree with you.
3) Writing isn’t for sissies. If you have a fragile ego, writing probably isn’t for you. The only way you’re going to improve is to listen to “constructive” criticism from people you trust. Through the years, I’ve received many comments on contest entries. Some I took to heart and found my writing improved as a result. Some I completely disregarded. If you write solely for personal satisfaction and have no intention of ever allowing another set of eyes to see your work, that’s fine. I’m not addressing you. I’m talking to the ninety percent of writers who want someone to read what they’ve written.
4) Don’t quit. Of all the contest entries I’ve submitted over the years, I’ve received only one that was unnecessarily rude. But this nasty, egotistical judge gave me probably the best advice I ever received. She said, “You can hate me, you can disagree with me, you can say I don’t know what I’m talking
about. But the one thing you cannot do is quit.” She was right about all those things. I hated her, disagreed with her, thought she didn’t know what she was talking about. (See above lesson.) I also followed her advice. I went back to the drawing board. I read books on writing, I revised, I re-wrote. I entered that manuscript two more times in contest. It never won anything...but the comments got nicer. Three years later, that particular piece, Beyond the Farthest Star, was published by an independent publisher. In 2012 it won OWFI Best Juvenile Book. I’m not writing this to brag—okay, maybe a little—but to prove the point that while quitting can be an option, it will never get you the results you desire.
            So I’m off to the conference, of which the contest is only a small part. There will also be  friends, famous authors, agents, editors, and workshop presentations. From them, I’ll learn a lot about the ever-evolving world of writing and publishing. And if I return home with nothing but “experience,” well, that’s okay. Because when you think about it, these “writing” lessons are also pretty good life lessons.       


Monday, April 21, 2014

Cut Flowers

Roses and lilies...a favorite combination
      A lot of people don’t like cut flowers. My late grandmother-Big Mama-was one of them. I didn’t learn about this until after I once sent her a floral arrangement for her birthday. Of course, being the typical grandmother, she thanked me profusely and made a big fuss over them. But my mother later told me of Big Mama’s preference to see flowers outside in their natural state. 

      I agree with her to a point. I’m not a fan of those stiff, perfectly arranged, funeral-looking concoctions. But over the past few years, grabbing a couple of bunches of flowers at the supermarket and loosely “arranging” them has become a guilty pleasure of mine. And I don’t have to feel too guilty. I figure a few cents a day is a fair price to pay for an instant pick-me-up. Maybe if I could grow one of those lush cottage gardens with a profusion of color right outside my windows, I’d be more inclined to leave flowers in the ground. But since my thumb is more brown than green and my space is limited, I derive pleasure from nature’s beauty brought inside where I can view it often and up close and personal.    
Yellow lilies, instant pick-me-up on a drizzly day

These were growing on the side
 of my house. I saw them and enjoyed
them a lot more  when
 I brought them inside.
        It might not be normal, the lift I get each morning from walking into the kitchen and seeing an explosion of color. I love watching roses or lilies or tulips slowly unfold from tight, compact buds into large and impressive blooms. Perhaps I'm overthinking it, but I find a life lesson in how mature blossoms seem willing to open up and receive more light, becoming more lovely in the process. Talk about aging gracefully. Much can be learned from a bouquet of cut flowers.

The pleasure doubles when cut flowers
remind us of love and friendship.