Tales of the Unexpected

This morning I read one of those “Where do your ideas come from?” threads, which are always a delight. Some accounts are pointed and precise (“I had this experience, and Book X arose from that experience”), some are redolent of metaphysics (“I open myself up to the Higher Mind and let it fill my imagination”), and some are fraught with shenanigans (“I leave sugar cookies on my nightstand and the noggin goblins bring me ideas”). It can be an imaginative exercise in its own right, though I think if we’re being honest with ourselves–or at least when I’m being honest with myself–creative fecundity seems to abide by two principles.

The first (for me, at least) is The Ebb and Flow, which follows laws that can be at once understandable and utterly mysterious to us. We just started the semester here, for example, which means I’m doing my best to get my teaching off to a flying start, preparing and overpreparing for every eventuality I can think of. In my composition classes, for example, we’re just about midway through our planning for the first formal essay, and I’m already drafting materials for the second. It’s pretty pragmatic stuff, and it means that the creative currents, at least in terms of poetry and fiction, are running slowly at the moment. I think that’s a normal and natural part of the process: ebb and flow, drought and flood, feast and famine. Sometimes our minds are preoccupied by other things, so when we lower the bucket into that spring-fed mental well it comes back empty. There are plenty of tricks to get those currents moving once again, but in some cases it’s simpler to concede and adapt to the pattern of our creative lives. I generally try to get one or two more sizable projects up and running during the more flowing moments and hope that the current will carry me to the next generative stretch.

The second is more exasperating, at least for me, and sometimes seems more pernicious. I’d call it The Unexpected Guest, although in my creative life it’s something more akin to a series of serial visitors. I know some writers who conceive of a plan and go at it from start to finish, then edit and expand, rethink and revise with single-minded purpose. In contrast, I tend to be at the mercy of fleeting obsessions, with one impulse preoccupying me for a short while before cascading into the next. It’s exciting and delightful at one level–the cascades keep on going for as long as I chase those impulses–but pretty dang annoying at another. It takes real effort to take those waves without being bowled over, but that’s the only way I can see a project through from start to finish.

Close to the end of the summer, for instance, I started lining up the components of a poetry collection that suddenly emerged from the shadows, a theme I’d been unconsciously fleshing out for months but didn’t really recognize as a coherent whole until I had written and revised about four pieces. The moment the bigger picture crystallized, however, I was able to sit down and lay out the ideas for other poems that would belong to that collection…until the idea for a novella intruded. So I set the collection aside, figuring I could chip away at it poem by poem, and drew up an outline for the novella and started in. As I set down the first few pages I grew increasingly fond of my main character and got a much better handle on their motives and voice…and then an idea for a series of hypnosis recordings arrived. I think you get the point. Back in the day it was called the pressure of ideas; today we might call it hyperfixation, though in my case it’s a decidedly subclinical thing. I can interrupt the pattern anytime I like, though it involves an act of will on my part. And at times it’s difficult to commit to that intervention, because it always feels far better to have too many ideas than too few.

Over the next couple of days I hope to see those recordings through, as I’ve done too much preliminary planning to shrug off the possibility. Then it’s back to the novella, I think–until some new impulse rolls in and bowls me over.

Tracking Numbers

As someone who just spent twenty minutes following up on a step in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness proceedings at the behest of the student aid hierophants, only to be told I am not at all eligible to do the thing I was specifically instructed to do, I have fairly strong opinions about data analysis and associated forms of number-crunching.

There are, of course, useful numbers. When a story or poem is rejected, especially with kind words from an editor, it can be comforting to know that your piece was one submission out of 250, 500, or 1000. There are Clifford Garstang’s Perpetual Folly rankings, indispensable resources for gauging the relative difficulty of placing a story or poem in any given publication. And there are the numbers I track on my own computer, which tell me what percentage of my fiction and poetry I’ve published. I’m not much inclined to get too bogged down looking at spreadsheets (I just use Word documents for tracking, truth be told), but anything that offers me a sense of the overall lay of the land is valuable.

I think there are also some advantages to be reaped from a bit of amateur analysis, too. When I look at patterns of acceptance and rejections, for instance, I can usually see errata–outlier stories that I probably ought to revisit before considering starting the submission engines again. I’m currently revising just such a story, one I find quite beautiful but (to my thinking) falls in the Neither Here Nor There category. It has speculative elements, but it’s not horrific enough to be salable horror, nor is it fantastical enough to be salable fantasy. It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but I figure any evaluation that prompts me to re-imagine the shape of an unpublished story probably arises from an intuition worth pursuing.

And at bottom it does my heart (such as it is) some good to look at a chronicle of rejections that ended in an acceptance. It took me a sizable quantity of saved-up gumption to start submitting my fiction back in the day, and while I’ve landed a couple of pieces in lovely homes on the first go, I think one of the more important writerly lessons we have to learn is pure, dimwitted persistence. I think it’s more than sensible to set a piece of work aside after a dozen rejections, but the creative marketplace really is–really and truly, no foolies–predicated on that elusive quantity called fit.

The fact that a story or poem doesn’t land right away does not mean it’s garbage. It just means a single reader (perhaps a screener, perhaps the editor themself) is not picking up what I happen to be laying down. And when I imagine that uncontrollable facet of the work in those terms, I sleep a little easier at night. I just get back to telling the best stories I know how to tell, and trust in time and persistence to tend to the rest.

Ringing in 2022

(adapted from Simon Wilkes at Unsplash)

Here’s an older poem I wrote and posted on another social media site once upon a time. Not a bad fit when looking at the year ahead.

After midnight grab your coat and shoulder a cold
that tugs at you as though it might venture one last
anxious question, the kind blatantly meant to make
you stay for civility’s sake. But now is not
the time for courtesies or deferrals: we must
watch the depleted year yield up its final fires
in refineries behind us, watch the pale plumes
of votive smoke climb like ivy or some serpent
searching for a skin that fits. As we chase down dawn
let us be grateful then for this, our singular skin,
this spirited skin that carries us from the cold
toward a sunrise we’ll wear like the bruises we bear,
this indelible skin on which we’ll inscribe the lines
of each pledge and confession we’re ready to risk,
this forgiving, exquisite, articulate skin
that feels the new year, finds itself marked but unmarred,
and tells us to rise up and risk it again.