The Art of Medicine in Metaphors

51W5fiDabHL._SY380_This is a bit of a belated post. Last summer, I was contacted by James Borton to see if I was interested in helping put together a manuscript for a call he had done on illness narratives. By the end of the year, and after countless hours of work, we had a book. An anthology to be exact. The Art of Medicine in Metaphors – A Collection of Poems and Narratives came out in January and it makes my heart feel good to see the stories out and in the public. These are people, myself included, writing about illness, injury, and death. These are family members, patients, and care-givers. That’s part of what makes this collection unique. We have doctors writing poetry alongside patients writing poetry (or narratives).

In putting together the collection, I had to read the manuscript several times (it was with these stories in mind that I created the cover painting). It began with reading the Chicago Manual of Style and figuring out things like how to create a table of contents, how to number the pages, and what is the difference between a prologue and a preface. If you are a writer, I suggest you spend an evening reading it over. It is eye-opening. Even armed with this knowledge though, it was a steep learning curve when the manuscript got accepted by Copernicus Healthcare. There was formatting in the document that I wasn’t even aware of. Each time I looked over a new e-version of the manuscript, I found additional errors. We even had outside proof-readers. I guess, no matter what, there will still be some issues but it is worth the work to make sure you have put out a quality product.

What we ended up with was a quality product. When my sister proofread, The Art of Medicine in Metaphors – A Collection of Poems and Narratives she found it overwhelming. It brought up a lot for her. To me, as a memoirist, that’s the highest honor a work can receive. To have a reader say, I feel so much when I read this that I have to take it in a bite at a time is huge. To know that there is a community that has developed out of this work  makes my heart happy. The comments that have started to come in on Amazon and the reviews on multiple blogs and websites prove attest to the book’s reach. The collection is $14.95 and is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and many other booksellers.

First year of MFA done!

I started working on this post about a week ago. I wanted it to be some sort of grand wrap-up with everything I’ve learned over the past year. What a pain in the ass that turned out to be. It was also an uninspiring prompt. Instead, I will post things as they come to me.

One of the greatest lessons this year is to find a writer friend who will talk about your work openly and honestly. I was preparing to present a piece for Graduate Student Day and was stuck. For about a week, I kept trying to rewrite it but it didn’t seem interesting to me anymore. It was a nonfiction story I wrote last fall and I just wasn’t happy with it anymore. Instead of continuing to agonize over it, I sent it to one of my friends. She is a nonfiction student in program and took the same course with me. She was also in the poetry class with me so she had a pretty good idea of my style/voice. Her response was that the work wasn’t in my voice and that I was missing the body (so much of my work is focused on bodies yet here was a piece on reproduction that totally ignored it). She was right and I needed that kind of honesty from someone familiar with my work.

The piece was originally two stories wove together. Then I had a very vivid dream that I realized was related (I dreamed I gave birth). When I wrote the dream down, it was powerful and compelling in a  way that the original piece wasn’t. Then I started writing other sections that were related. By the end, I ended up with a braided narrative with the dream as a recurring sequence. It was in my voice and I was proud of it.

I think that can be part of the danger of MFA programs (or writing classes in general). You start writing for the assignment and lose part of yourself. I have to remember to play and be flexible with my work. I lost my voice but then I found it again and it is stronger than ever. If you don’t have a peer to read your work, find one and make sure it is someone who will be honest with you. The worst feedback (and the most common) is “it’s good.” Find someone who can articulate why it’s good or where they got lost/disconnected.

I’m looking forward to getting some writing done this summer. Next semester I am taking a longer nonfiction class so I want to go into it with a clear idea of my thesis project. There’s a great book that’s been helping me with that. I’ll post about that in a couple of days. Happy writing!

Workshop

Workshop: verb -ˌshäp 1. to pick something to death.

Ok, so my definition is a tad hyperbolic. In the wake of several rejections, I have also had to face workshopping almost every week. I appreciate my teacher’s and classmates’ feedback, I really do. I think it makes me a stronger writer and gives me new perspective. It is hard to step back from your work and see the bigger picture. Sometimes you just need fresh eyes on it. It’s just, sometimes, I wish a piece of my work could be good enough. Mind you, I don’t have any sophomoric fantasies of being awarded a medal in the middle of class, but it would be nice to promote less conversation regarding missed opportunities or what could be fixed. I guess that is a fantasy. I’d like to think of it as a goal too. I can only keep doing my best work.

I often wonder about what it is about the printed word that leaves is less open to commentary. As an English major, I often pick literature apart but I don’t make judgement calls on whether something is bad or good. Is it the finality of printing that changes the conversation? I don’t have a ready answer for this but I wonder what others think.

Drunken Boat Rejection

I’m leaving for Charlotte tonight and then it is off to Boston tomorrow for a quick visit before the semester starts. In the meantime, here’s the rejection I got from the Drunken Boat. Strange that it was emailed to me at almost 1 am. That did not help me sleep. Fairly standard automated reply.

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for sending us your submission. Unfortunately, our readers felt that it was not a good fit for Drunken Boat, and we will be unable to publish it.

Sincerely,

The Editors of Drunken Boat

30 Below Results (Not Me)

Thought I would share my latest rejection letter.

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for entering “Title” in the 30 Below Contest. We were grateful for the opportunity to read and consider your work, and we regret that your entry was not one of our winners or finalists this time.

An announcement of the winning stories will soon go out to the magazine’s readership, and in January we will publish the winning stories. In addition to the winners, many of the finalists’ stories will also be published. This year’s 30 Below Contest has brought forward a remarkable number of works by notable new and emerging young writers whom we are delighted to feature.

We are grateful to you for taking part in the contest, and we hope you will keep Narrative in mind for your work in the future.

Again, thank you for your entry, and please accept our kind wishes.

Sincerely,

The Editors

Expect to Write Crap

Recently, I read a really terrible short story. I mean really bad. To be fair, everyone writes crap when they start out. It is called paying your dues. The trick is to know when your writing is terrible. I’ve been writing since I was twelve. I had years of writing absolute garbage. As a writer, you read more and you write more and you start to improve. That’s just how it works. Consequently, I think this is where most people get discouraged and give up writing.

Sometimes I still write crap, but I am at the point where I can (generally) recognize when my writing stinks. There is such a push to become published that many writers submit work that is painfully not ready yet. I’m not trying to be offensive and I do applaud these writers for producing something and putting their work out there. Most people can’t get past the blank page.

That being said, here is some advice for the new writers out there. This is just my opinion so feel free to disagree. If you balk at this and you are a beginning writer, consider why you are resisting. It’s like Alan Rickman says in the trailer for Seminar, “if you’re being defensive, you’re not listening.”

1) Exclamation points: Use these sparingly or, preferably, not at all. If someone is yelling, find a way to convey it through their word choice and body language.

2) Semicolons: Use these sparingly too, especially if you don’t know how they are supposed to function in a sentence. Semicolons are used to link two complete sentences. The semicolon indicates a close relationship between the two sentences. Check here for more info.

3) Adverbs: If you are using lots of adverbs (verbs ending in ly), your writing is not strong enough. Don’t tell me she picked up her teacup daintily. Tell me she pinched the cup with the tips of her thumb and forefinger and extended her pinky. You can use some, just don’t overdo it. It will really stick out in a flash piece or short story.

4) Use quotation marks. I’ve seen this several times. Some writers think it is original or cool to omit quotation marks around dialogue. This just makes it harder for the reader to separate what is said from the action that is taking place. Here’s an example of a section of text from Sarah Waters’ novel Tipping the Velvet: A Novel with all of the quotation marks removed:

I can, I said with a show of carelessness, but I’m not sure that I shall. I turned to my mother, who sat sewing by the empty grate. You won’t mind, will you, I said lightly, if I go back again tomorrow night?

Pretty hard to follow right? It does not come off as clever or avant-garde. It is just confusing.

5) Each action does not need to be in a paragraph of its own. Movement is difficult to write, I’ll admit, but making each movement a paragraph of its own makes it hard to follow. Action aside, try to shy away from single sentence paragraphs. They are alright every now and again but become unbearable when there are a lot of them.

6) Make sure the subject is clear. If I say that the fence ran past her, I am not saying that she was running past the fence and the background became a blur. What I am saying is that the fence is literally running by her. The reason for this is the fence is the subject of the sentence so the verb ran is showing the action of the fence not of the woman.

7) This is primarily for non-fiction writers: don’t name drop. No one really wants to hear about that yacht trip I took with the Princess of Monaco…well, not unless something really interesting happened. Otherwise, the reader just thinks I am bragging.

8 ) This should go without saying but don’t be racist. I get that some characters are racist and that it can be part of characterization. My thought is though, if there isn’t a reason for it don’t include it. Be aware of where you are writing from. I recently read a piece with a privileged, white main character working in retail who believed he had suffered as much as a migrant worker. This could have been used to show more about the character and his skewed perception of the world, but it was presented in a serious manner with no hint of irony. One issue I’ve come across a few times is the word Oriental. Oriental is a term used for objects not for people.

So that’s it for now. I wanted to get up to ten but I’m tired from too much turkey. A disclaimer to this is that you can get away with a lot more in a novel. Why? Because it is such a lengthy work that some of these writing issues go by unnoticed. The story is generally more involved and sweeps the reader past such problems. That is, if you can get the reader to get past the first few pages. There are exceptions to these rules, I know. Sarah Waters uses adverbs but she’s Sarah Fricking Waters. I think a lot of beginning writers equate experimenting with rules (breaking them that is) with voice and originality. All I can say is don’t worry about your voice, it is something that will develop with time. In the meantime, just keep writing and try to create polished pieces that are easy for the readers to follow.

Claflin Conference

On Thursday, I went down to Claflin University to present a panel and reading at their 10th annual Claflin University Conference on Contemporary English and Language Arts Pedagogy in Secondary and Post-secondary Institutions. Man that’s a long name. Anyhow, it was my first panel and I was fortunate to be presenting alongside some very talented students from USC. Like I do with all presentations, I write everything out I want to say. I ended up skipping a ton of it because it was just too dense. In the future I think I will use bullet points. Scanning blocks of text is not something I can do quickly so I end up saying um a lot to grant myself time. Lesson learned.

Another thing that I learned is that there seems to be a place for everyone’s style. Maybe that sounds silly or obvious even. There were six of us that read our work and each of our styles was drastically different. We all received positive feedback and had others approach us afterwards. I don’t know, I just found it very encouraging. I don’t have to force myself to be something I am not because the field is so open to different voices.

In other news – I just got my copy of Poets & Writers magazine. Fearless Books has a call for poetry. They have a $10 reading fee and that doesn’t include anything. That concerns me. I could see paying a couple of dollars to, say, The Colorado Review but $10 and no freebies seems like a lot especially for something that is only printed in ebook format. I am equally leery of the Indie book awards these kinds of publications post because those too are paying competitions with a lot of winners. Am I just being old-fashioned? What do you think?

Acceptance?

I just sent off a submission to Narrative Magazines’ Thirty Below Story Contest. The entry fee was $20. This is the first time I have ever paid for a submission. I don’t mind though as it is a contest with cash prizes. Entrants also get three months of backstage access to Narrative Magazine. Very cool. I really like that they include something extra. My last few submissions have resulted in rejections so here is hoping this one goes through.

So I’m glad I got that done. This past weekend was fall break and I planned to spend most of it writing. I didn’t. I finished a collage for my creative nonfiction class and revised a short lyric essay. That was it. Since Thursday I’ve been in a dark mood. I just don’t want to do anything. I’m tired and burned out. It seems that I always find myself feeling resistant at this point in the semester. I really wish I could get past it.

On a side note, the Writer’s Digest Yearbook is out. It is The Writer’s Digest Guide to Creativity this year. I haven’t read all of it but I did find a great article on creating mini-writing retreats. That’s when it hit me. I told my husband about the cubicles on the quiet floor of Cooper Library last week. I didn’t even think about using them myself. Sometime this week I will schedule a writing session there. Maybe a homework session too. Less distractions.

Norman Mailer Rejection

At the beginning of the year, I submitted to the Norman Mailer 4-Year College Writing Award for Creative Nonfiction. Last week, I received this rejection from them. It’s a bit of a bummer because I will not be able to enter the contest again. The email came in on my cell-phone and I had to keep scrolling through trying to figure out if I won.

October 13, 2011

Dear Brandi Ballard,

Thank you for participating in the 2011 Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award for Creative Nonfiction competition. On behalf of the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the National Council of Teachers of English, we honor your commitment to the craft of writing.

Norman Mailer produced extraordinary writing in many genres, and he was a true pioneer in the emerging realm of creative nonfiction. Evaluation criteria for this award reflected qualities of writing he pursued across a lifetime: originality; insight; clear voice and style; artful arrangement of elements and materials; and overall aesthetic, emotional, or intellectual effect. While your work is not among those very few pieces selected for national recognition, by entering the awards contest you have distinguished yourself as a student who takes this challenging genre seriously and is committed to high levels of achievement.

One way that we can help you find a broader audience for your work is to invite you to submit it to the National Gallery of Writing. It takes only minutes to submit your work, and if it is accepted, it will become part of the portrait of America’s writing spotlighted on the National Day on Writing. It will remain online in the National Gallery through next June, thus reaching readers from around the world for most of the year ahead.

Thank you for participating in the Norman Mailer Four-Year College Writing Award competition. Great luck to you pursuing your gift as a writer. We hope that the resources of the Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony and the National Council of Teachers of English can be of service to you across your life journey.

Sincerely yours,

Kent Williamson, Executive Director
National Council of Teachers of English

Lawrence Schiller, President and Co-Founder
Norman Mailer Center and Writers Colony

I am not sure if I am going to submit work to the National Gallery of Writing or not. Maybe. Does it count as a publishing credential? I suppose so as they have to accept it. I would need to read through the submissions and see. Rejection sucks but I am in an excellent writing program now. The $10,000 prize would really have helped me next summer when I won’t have an income.

Rejection…Scholar Style

Here’s a rejection for a research paper I recently received. Thought I’d share. Changes are italicized. Figured it would be rude to put somebody’s name out there.

Dear Sigma Tau Delta Member:

Thank you for your submission to “The Sigma Tau Delta Review: Journal of Critical Writing.” As always, we had a high number of quality submissions, which made the editorial selection that much more difficult.

At this time we are unable to publish your work. We hope, though, that you will submit new material for next year’s edition. We encourage you to also consider presenting your work at the Sigma Tau Delta convention next spring. Be sure to look for the next call for submissions and consult our website, www.english.org, for further information.

Once again, thank you for considering “The Sigma Tau Delta Review” as an avenue for publishing your creative work.

Sincerely,


Editor of Publications

- On a side note, I finally figured out how to get WordPress to send me notifications of comments. Here I thought it would be a default setting. No more delayed responses. Per a user request, I have posted my USC statement of purpose under the writing resources tab. -