Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Power of YES: Why Community Matters in Your Writing Life, guest blog by Joan Gelfand

Do you know the story of how John Lennon fell in love with Yoko Ono?

While visiting an art gallery—Lennon himself was a sketch artist as well as a Beatle—he spotted Ono on a ladder installing her one-woman art show: a huge sculpture of the word YES.

Joan Gelfand, guest blogger, poet, writing coach
There is a children’s book called Richard Scarry’s Please and Thank You. The book is an object lesson in teaching children the consequences of their actions with the help of a cast of lovable characters—Lowly Worm, Pig Will, and Pig Won’t.

Pig Will does what’s asked of him. Lo and behold, guess what? Pig Will gets the goodies. He gets to participate, have fun, and be an all-around happy guy.

Pig Won’t, of course, always finds a reason to say no. You guessed it. Pig Won’t doesn’t get the goodies.

Simple as this sounds, Pig Will has power.

When people see that you help out, not only because you want to build your reputation, but because you are a team player, you are also cheerfully having a “Pig Will moment.” You are “paying it forward.”

Not all of our Yeses or positive actions are immediately followed by fabulous outcomes. But haven’t you found that taking positive action—on balance—has benefited you?

The Big, Scary “Yes”

In 2004, I quit my corporate job to write a novel, had a setback, and was just starting to establish myself as a poet. Like many writers, I was busy! I still had a daughter at home, I was running a small business, and my writing projects had projects.

When a writer friend told me about the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA), I was thrilled to meet colleagues and friends who were in the same boat! Soon after joining WNBA, members received an email. The current president was stepping down and, if someone didn’t take the reins, the chapter would fold. Wow. Okay. I was new to the group, but with the support of another member, we said “Yes,” and took on the presidency. Boy, did I get an education! I learned how to plan events, communicate to a group, and get things going. Together, we doubled our membership! Somehow, I found time in my busy life to help WNBA.

Two years later, I was asked to be the incoming national president’s vice president. Now, that was a serious ask! It meant two years as VP, two years as president, and two years as Immediate past president. I was loathe to take on a six-year commitment. I wanted to get back to my novel. My husband strongly advised that I take the position.

Since that time, I’ve had five more books published, four of which were directly related to my leadership role in WNBA. The other one certainly took into account that I had a national platform.
The point here is not about happy endings, it’s about why community matters in your writing life. 

Community

Doesn’t it seem to happen that just when you are feeling stretched thin, crunched for time, and really not in the mood that opportunities to say YES! present themselves?

What I want to say is that it isn’t always so obvious when the right time is to say “Yes.” Building your platform is not exactly like party planning.

Sometimes you need to say “Yes” exactly when you would be inclined to say NO!

Sometimes you make that extra effort to build your platform at exactly the time when you want to pull in your oars, hibernate, isolate and…. WRITE!

But winning writers, remember, are a breed apart. Winning writers who follow the “4 C’s” are  firing on all burners; building community, working on craft, maintaining commitment, and moving forward with confidence.

A note on teams: Remember that you don’t have to go it alone. When I took on the presidency of WNBA, I had mentors. Past presidents, executive board members, and chapter members were all sources of great inspiration and encouragement for me. “Yes!” 

Joan Gelfand’s new book, You Can Be a Winning Writer: The 4 C’s of Successful Authors: Craft, Commitment, Community and Confidence, published by Mango Press July, 2018 is on Amazon’s #1 Hot New Releases. The author of three poetry collections and an award winning book of short fiction, Joan is the recipient of numerous writing awards, commendations, nominations, and honors. Joan can be found writing and coaching writers at EcoSystms co-working space in SF. http://joangelfand.com 



Other recent posts about writing topics: How to Get PublishedGetting the Most from Your Writing WorkshopHow Not to Become a Literary DropoutPutting Together a Book ManuscriptWorking with a Writing MentorHow to Deliver Your MessageDoes the Muse Have a Cell Phone?Why Write Poetry? Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe VillanellePraise and LamentHow to Be an American WriterWriters and CollaborationTypes of Closure in Poetry

Monday, August 13, 2018

The American Scene in Literature


There was a lively movement in the visual arts in the United States in the mid-twentieth century called The American Scene. This celebration of North American culture, landscapes, social life, and work reached its peak around 1930 with such paintings as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, the murals of Thomas Hart Benton, the jazz-age cityscapes of Archibald Motley, and the Midwestern regional canvases of John Steuart Curry. The paintings and sculptures of this period boldly celebrated American life in a realistic style.

Grant Wood, Dinner for Threshers, 1943 (detail)
There were parallel developments in all the other arts in North America, and literature was definitely part of this movement. But this artistic focus on the New World was something of a revolt against what had previously prevailed in U.S. art. Again, literature was very much involved in this rebellion.

Before the rise of American Scene writers, literature in the United States was very much dominated by the sensibility that all that was typically North American was provincial, backward, and conservative. In novels such as Henry James’s The Ambassadors and Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, everything that is Continental is sophisticated and forward-looking, while everything American is backward and narrow-minded. 

Henry James and Edith Wharton

Undoubtedly James and Wharton were accurately portraying the Puritanical sensibility they found in bourgeois American life. But the only alternative they could envision to that chauvinism and small-mindedness was the Old World sophistication of Europe.

The visual artists of The American Scene, on the other hand, were inspired by the work of Mexican muralists such as Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, who embraced the imagery and revolutionary history of their country over the abstractions of modernism.

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry, Detroit Institute of Arts (detail)

A parallel surfaced in North America writing, where authors began finding complexity and depth in local stories and in uses of language that were distinctively American. This movement was sparked by Sarah Orne Jewett’s tales of coastal Maine in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896); and by Willa Cather’s earliest novels of the Midwest, including O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915). African American writers began celebrating the music of Black English and the beauty of Black culture, initially in the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose volumes of poetry, notably Majors and Minors in 1895, were some of the key works in this movement to celebrate North American life.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

So what do these literary currents mean for writers today? These two movements seem like polar opposites: the one exposes North American provincialism in favor of European savoir faire (Henry James, Edith Wharton, etc.), and the other lifts up specific U.S. regions and cultures (Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, etc.). But in some ways these currents that flow in opposite directions bubble from the same source. Both are seeking authenticity and freedom. The pro-European-sophistication writers seek these values by rejecting the narrow-mindedness of the Puritan worldview. The American Scene writers are praising more or less the same qualities in what is of the people, by the people, and for the people. As writers and literature enthusiasts today, we can appreciate both the revolt against provincialism by James and Wharton, and the truths and dynamism of regional and multicultural expressions in the writing of Jewett, Cather, Dunbar, and those who came after them.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Rework an Unfinished Project or Start Fresh?

Often as a writer you’re confronted with a choice between reworking a previous project that you set aside before completion, or starting from scratch with a new project. How do you decide which one to work on, particularly if your time is limited?

Part of that choice depends on how much effort you’ve put into the unfinished project. If you’ve devoted years of research into the historical background for a piece, and if you’ve already substantially drafted the work, I can see the rationale for not giving up on that project.

But to me the most important factor is whether the characters are speaking in your thoughts. A writer should be like Joan of Arc, hearing voices. 

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ultimately, you listen to the conversations and arguments that your characters are having in your thoughts, as odd as that may sound. A piece of writing is alive if you can hear the characters speaking and see them doing things. If that isn’t happening, no amount of research, background, or planning can rescue a piece of creative writing.

I would suggest not getting fixated on securing a return on investment for a previous project, unless that project is alive and talking. In fact, you might complete a new project that is vital and active more quickly than trying to resuscitate a work that you no longer have a feel for, even if it is partially complete or researched.

Not all literary projects get finished, even if you devote years to them. Even if you finish a manuscript, it sometimes doesn’t turn out the way you hoped, and it can’t be sent to an editor or a producer, or it doesn’t get the response you’d wished for. In those cases, the best thing to do is to cut your losses, and start with a new project.


The good news is, ideas for literary projects are not numbered. They’re like waves: there’s always a new one arriving on shore. Not all waves are perfect, but there isn’t a limit on how many occur in your lifetime.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry