Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day!

Poem in Your Pocket DayApril is National Poetry Month, and today — the one day only special! — is Poem in Your Pocket Day. Just select a poem, carry it with you, and share it with others throughout the day. You can also share your poem selection on Twitter by using the hashtag #pocketpoem.

I’m carrying two poems in my pocket today:

Anne Barngrover‘s “Memory, 1999.” This poem, which appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, is this year’s winner of the Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets. And it is stunning. Anne is the author of two just-released volumes of poetry, Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books) and co-author of Candy in Our Brains (CutBank), and she is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing-Poetry at the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.

Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come.” It’s my all-time favorite single poem, and appears in it’s entirety in my third novel, The Four Ms. Bradwells, where it is also, coincidentally, my poet character’s favorite poem.

Robert Frost said, in a January 1, 1916 (my birthday! although I wasn’t born yet…) letter to Louis Untermeyer, “A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”

Both the poems I’m carrying in my pocket today are completely complete.

Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day! – Meg

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Kelly O’Connor McNees: First I Was a Quitter

Kelly O’Connor McNees guest posted here when her first novel, The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, an Indie Next Pick and O Magazine Summer Reading List selection, released. I’m rerunning that post in celebration of the publication of her third novel, Island of the Doves, which released earlier this month. – Meg

Island of the Dove CoverLike Caroline Leavitt, I learned as a young kid that I had a knack for writing. In elementary school, teachers told me my stories were imaginative and insightful, and I knew I was on to something. I can still remember standing at my fifth-grade teacher’s desk and defending the title of one of my stories when she questioned its relevance. The story was about two friends who are constantly fighting but in the end come to peace because they realize they aren’t the same. I wanted to call it “Seesaw.”

“But there’s no seesaw in the story,” my teacher said, confused.

Ten-year-old Kelly sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s a metaphor.”

So much confidence! I look back on that from where I stand now and think, where did that confidence come from? (And can I get some of it back, please?) The answer is that nobody had told me no yet. Adults were, generally, kind of impressed by what I could do, and they told me so. So I kept doing it, kept churning out the pages, and while the practice made the end product better, what I really loved was the act of doing it, the sitting in a room and making up a story, the bending of sentences into shapes, like a clown making balloon animals. I didn’t worry very much about who would read my work or what they would think. I knew it was good.

Then I went to college, and college treated my confidence like a wrecking ball treats a building. My fellow English majors all seemed to come from families with more money than mine, to have grown up in places with outstanding schools. In writing workshop, classmates compared their writing styles to the styles of contemporary writers I had never heard of. All the male students seemed to be writing about fishing trips with their fathers, but the stories weren’t really about fishing, they explained. They were about what it means to be a Man, with a capital M.

Oh, I thought, glancing in terror at my own collection of stories. One was about a couple of street performers in the Florida Keys, training their son to take over the act so their house trailer wouldn’t get repossessed. Another was about an old widow who works at a department store makeup counter and feels appalled that the young women of today are so unencumbered by the rigid manners and hair arrangements and girdles of the past. At the end, she comes to work without any makeup on and lies down in the mall parking lot to take a nap.

In short, my stories were wrong, wrong, wrong. They weren’t stories about me, and they weren’t stories about anything that began with a capital letter (Gender or Freedom or Knowledge). They were just stories about people I made up in my head. So I concluded I wasn’t a writer after all.

I stuck with the classes but didn’t enjoy them. I entered a few contests but never won and interpreted that as a message from the universe that I should quit. In that especially narcissistic way that adolescents have, I thought quitting would be this monumental moment—how could I quit writing?!—but it wasn’t. I stopped. No one noticed.

I was sad. I tried to live life the way everyone else seemed to be doing it. I tried to forget how much I had liked writing. I got jobs, I quit jobs. I read approximately ten thousand novels.

Then I met my husband. In one of those early-relationship conversations where you reveal embarrassing stories about yourself, I confessed my secret past. “Well, I think you should try again,” he said.

“Nope,” I said. “Nope, nope, nope.” I was nothing if not committed to giving up.

I said nope for about five more years and kept hating my jobs. Then my husband’s job took us to an out-of-the-way town in Ontario for two years where winter is approximately fourteen months long. I found work as a nanny and, for some reason I probably will never know, started reading about Louisa May Alcott. I was writing a novel about her in my brain for a while before it occurred to me to copy the words down on paper. For a long time I just called it a “project” or “this thing I’m working on.” I had to sneak around before I figured out what my cheeky little self was doing. Eventually I had a novel and, amazingly, it got published.

I still feel like I have no business being a writer, but who cares? Over time I have come to realize that everyone in those writing workshops was full of shit—the teachers and the students. I had some great teachers—really, really great teachers I admire—but they were full of shit in the way that all writing teachers have to be. Because the teachers are in the front of the room, they have to tell us what the rules are. They are paid to know the rules. But the only real rule (and some of them are honest about this) is, Does the story work? Does the reader care what happens to the characters? Does the reader keep turning the pages?

And speaking of being full of shit, I was definitely full of shit. What a quitter! What a baby! I gave up on the one thing in life I really loved to do because some frat boys wrote stories about fishing. Well, never again. Writing is a business full of rejection and to keep going, you have to find a way to push past it. I can’t control whether my novels will continue to be published, but I can control the act of writing them, of improving my craft and creating the best novels I know how to create. I can quit quitting and get to work. – Kelly

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8-Quote Bouquet in Celebration of Earth Day

Beatrix Potter's Moss Eccles Tarn, Near Sawrey, England

Beatrix Potter’s Moss Eccles Tarn, Near Sawrey, England

Can you identify what is different about this collection of quotes to celebrate the 44th anniversary of Earth Day?

“You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.”
- Jane Goodall

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
- Margaret Mead

“The threat to the planet is us. It’s actually not a threat to the planet – it’s a threat to us.”
- Margaret Atwood

“A careless way of sauntering across the earth and breaking open its treasures, a terrible dependency on sucking out the world’s best juices for ourselves—these may also be our enemies. The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.”
- Barbara Kingsolver

“It will never rain roses: when we want to have more roses, we must plant more roses.”
- George Eliot

“My world, my Earth is a ruin. A planet spoiled by the human species. We multiplied and fought and gobbled until there was nothing left, and then we died. We controlled neither appetite nor violence; we did not adapt. We destroyed ourselves. But we destroyed the world first.”
- Ursula K. Le Guin

“Everything in the universe has a rhythm, everything dances.”
- Maya Angelou

Here’s a hint about what’s different:

“We are either going to have a future where women lead the way to make peace with the Earth or we are not going to have a human future at all.”
- Vandana Shiva

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Katie Hafner: On Writing, Publishing, and Tea

Harpers calls Katie Hafner’s sixth book, Mother Daughter Me, “an unusually graceful story,” and Kirkus calls it “heartbreakingly honest.” KJ Dell’Antonia, writing for The New York Times, says it’s “the most raw, honest and engaging memoir I’ve read in a long time.” And if six books to her name isn’t enough, Katie, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, has also worked at Newsweek and BusinessWeek, and has written for a long and varied list of publications including Esquire, Wired, The New Republic, and O Magazine. In her post here today, she takes an unusually graceful and honest look at the way a book makes its way from hardcover to paperback. Enjoy! – Meg

Mother Daughter Me Paperback Cover

Mother Daughter Me Paperback Cover

Who knows why publishers often drag their feet when it comes to bringing a book out in paper. Some people even argue that all three formats – hardcover, paperback and ebook – should be published simultaneously, to give readers their choice. I have no particular opinion on that, but I do believe that for many books, the paperback is what truly matters.

Here is my message to you: Even if sales of the hardcover of your novel, memoir, short story collection or volume of poetry fail to soar, do not give up. You can always try again with the paperback. For paperbacks are, without a doubt, a book’s second chance at life.

The hardcover of my memoir, Mother Daughter Me, came out last July, and while sales were just fine (well, not on the level of, say Anna Quindlen, but fine enough), it’s not really a book meant to be read as a hardcover. Perhaps because of the subject, I’ve always envisioned it in paperback, in part because it’s a perfect book for book clubs, many of which will buy only paperbacks.

I expected Random House to wait the customary year before publishing the paperback, but I decided to push for it to come out sooner, preferably – and for obvious reasons — in time for Mother’s Day.  So I was more than pleased to hear that the paperback pub date was April 8.

Mother Daughter Me Hardback Cover

Mother Daughter Me Hardback Cover

One obvious question for Mother Daughter Me was what to do with the cover image. I was in love with the hardcover image, which showed a ragged rip through the three words of the title and straight down the center of the book. By itself, that tear might have seemed just confusing. But the truly ingenious move on the designer’s part was this: she taped the page back together, with a film that looked and felt like real Scotch tape (and could be mass produced by the printer). It obviated the need for a subtitle, because that awkwardly patched-together page told a reader everything she or he needed to know about what the book was about. I loved it. In fact, I loved it so much I lobbied for that to be paperback image.

But the folks at Random House refused to use that for the paperback. And they were right. That cover is most compelling when people are holding the physical book in their hands. But the sad truth is that many book browsers see jackets as PDFs these days. Not only did the tear not jump out, but the textured tape was lost altogether, and the book faded to the background in an Amazon and Goodreads sea of brightly colored covers.

I resigned myself to a different image, but I worried. And sure enough, the two candidates my editor sent me were just plain wrong. One showed a broken plate, which looked just plain angry. Another showed three hangers, which could either connote “Mommie Dearest” (not at all the message of my book) or abortions (ditto on that one). So I fought back. Both designs, I told my editor, were terrible — off-putting and off the point.

Random House is a vast ocean of a place, and I’m a small grain of sand to them. After the hardcover was published, I became the publishing version of The Disappeared. But for some reason, my editor paid attention to my objections, and the designer came up with a third image. The moment I saw it, I knew it was perfect. It shows three teetering teacups on a stack of saucers. The teacup on top is teetering just a little bit, which, in my mind, signifies the fragile emotions conveyed throughout the book. Yet the picture is also whimsical, and playful.

Cross Promoting with Mighty Leaf Tea

Cross Promoting with Mighty Leaf Tea

Then there’s the idea of tea itself. Given that authors are expected these days not just to write their books but to market them, too, I decided to scour eBay and Etsy for teacups resembling the top one — bone china, with a delicate Royal Windsor floral pattern that I could swear I’ve spotted during tea drinking scenes in “Call the Midwife.” In an amazing triumph of cold calling, I managed to strike a collaboration with Mighty Leaf Tea, which is promoting the book by sponsoring giveaways of the book together with boxes of tea. And to every independent bookstore I visited while on tour for the hardcover, I sent a beautiful teacup with a paper flower made from pages of the book nestled inside, along with a box of Mighty Leaf/Mother Daughter Tea. The tea was a lucky stroke, lending itself beautifully to my little marketing effort. (This is just a hunch, but I’m pretty sure Cheryl Strayed didn’t send a smelly hiking boot to bookstores – then again, she didn’t need to.)

The paperback came out a week ago. Random House is still largely indifferent to the book, which is to say it that “Mother Daughter Me” is unlikely to become the next “Wild,” with or without the hiking boot. But a lot of people are getting a nice cup of tea out of the deal. And oh yes, a good read, too – just in time for Mother’s Day. – Katie

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Sandra Gulland: Getting Around to It

Sandra Gulland’s fifth novel, The Shadow Queen, “will remind readers why they fall in love with the past,” says Death in the Floating City author Tasha Alexander. She goes on to say, “Gulland uses her meticulous research with consummate skill, rendering vivid the luxury and squalor of Louis XIV’s France and breathing life into fully formed characters that tug at the heart. Masterful.” Sandra is also the author of the internationally bestselling Josephine B. Trilogy, as well as Mistress of the Sun.- Meg

Shadow Queen CoverShortly after I turned forty—a shocking thirty years ago—I had what I guess one could call a mid-life crisis. I am a cheerful person by nature, but I was in the dumps. Of course I turned to a book (as I always do in a crisis), a cheesy self-help book whose title I can’t recall.

I remember only one thing about this book, but that one thing sparked a turning point in my life. The author suggested that I imagine the words on my tombstone.

I puzzled about that. I was a free-lance book editor, a vocation I loved, healthy and happily married with two wonderful children (Carrie and Chet). I had an unruly vegetable garden, was co-editor of a community newsletter, The Community News & Confuse, and volunteer principal of a vibrant parent-run alternative school. We had chickens, two pigs, a calico cat (Beans), and a dumb but loveable Golden Retriever (Digger).

Driving down a country road, the words that would be on my tombstone came to me. They were: “She never got around to it.”

I would never get around to writing.

I had always told myself that I would write some day, but I was forty, and if I didn’t begin, that day might never come. I didn’t want to be the person who “never got around to it.”

I began by putting writing at the top of my To Do List. First thing every morning, before the family awoke, I wrote. (I cleverly pre-set the coffee pot to start brewing at 5:30 a.m., and the scent lured me out of bed.)

Sandra Gulland author photoIt was only the start, but I persevered, writing two unpublishable novels over the following years. By degrees, and with the encouragement and support of my husband Richard, I became more committed—driven, one could say—reluctantly cutting back on my community and editorial work (one can’t do everything, alas!) in order to have more hours to write.

I was happy—I was writing!—but it seemed a futile endeavor. All I had to show for my work was a thick file of rejection letters. When I began writing about Napoleon’s wife Josephine, I was convinced it would never be published. Richard said, “It doesn’t matter! Keep writing.”

And so I did—and I hope never to stop. – Sandra

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Julia Glass: The Not Quite Yes

Julia Glass has a new novel, And The Dark Sacred Night, just out yesterday–and I always welcome an excuse to rerun her 1st Books post about her early days of writing. Julia has won the Nelson Algren Award (three times!), the Tobias Wolff Award, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Medal for Best Novella, and the National Book Award. Entertainment Weekly says of this new novel, “Glass has a knack for weaving together multiple lyrical narratives before delivering the ultimate emotional punch. The only regret you’ll have at the end of this particular story is that it’s over.” – Meg

And the Dark Sacred Night (4/1/14) by Julia GlassI started writing short stories in my late twenties, after ten years of striving to succeed as a painter. Having failed to snag the waitressing gig that was de rigueur for a struggling female artist in New York City, I’d figured out how to pay my rent with the word skills I’d always taken for granted: I was a proofreader and copy editor, a writer of faux travelogues (rhapsodizing over each and every Caribbean island without setting foot on a single one), and a pet columnist (don’t ask). In the seams of my patchwork life, I read novels and stories obsessively, devotedly, and—living alone, traveling far and frequently by subway—for hours on end. I subscribed to the New Yorker and the Atlantic because—yes, Reader, this was a long, long time ago—every issue included two brand-new short stories, often representing a writer’s “debut.”

Language sustained me no less than oxygen; making pictures began to feel oddly parenthetical. I spent my Saturdays mooning through the airless, timeless stacks of the Strand Bookstore, rather than the bright, sparkling galleries of uptown museums. What, I had to ask myself, was wrong with this picture? Even my paintings—scenes in which literally colorful people went about inscrutable tasks among strangely animated objects—suggested that what I wanted to do, more than anything else, was to tell stories. Never mind that I hadn’t written fiction since high school.

I still can’t figure out why this formerly stellar student did not apply for MFA programs or embrace the growing cosmos of the writer’s workshop. Chalk it up to a mix of necessary frugality, Yankee determination, and not a small pinch of grandiosity. Honestly now, had George Eliot or Jane Austen required an MFA? It’s easy to say, in retrospect, that clearly I didn’t need the degree, either, but one benefit I missed out on was a community of fiction writers—and the likelihood that I would have been published sooner. I worked on my stories in isolation for seven years, and it’s a wonder I didn’t quit.

Early on during this period, I was a full-time copy editor at Cosmopolitan magazine (which also, incidentally, published two short stories in every issue, by the likes of Laurie Colwin, Laurie Moore, and Elinor Lipman). Most nights, I worked on my stories by longhand in my Brooklyn apartment; during weekday lunch breaks and on weekends, I’d use my office typewriter to transcribe the final drafts. And then I would send them out to every reputable literary quarterly I knew of (Grand Street, Triquarterly, Sewanee Review et al.) . . . each story going out to no more than one journal at a time (a rule that some schoolmarmish writer’s guide warned me I must follow), along with my no-gimmicks cover letter and diligently postage-paid SASE.

Six afternoons per week, my hopeful heart throbbed as I opened my rickety mailbox. Each time, for weeks or months on end, it sank: not at rejections—how I began to long for rejections!—but at the general silence. Some stories never came back. Once in a blue moon, having been held hostage for two months or more by the faceless editor whose approval I craved, a story would return to me in my carefully addressed manila envelope, a teensy form rejection tucked under my paper clip. Without exception, the stories looked as pristine as on the day I’d sent them out. I’d page through, hoping to see a coffee ring or doughnut crumb haloed by grease, any proof that a human being had read these words. (One bizarre cruelty of the now-defunct SASE protocol was that my rejections came to me with my handwriting on the outside, as if I were telling myself to face the mediocrity of my own imagination.)

Increasingly desperate, I realized I had nothing to lose by sending my stories to the big guns as well. I found the name of the fiction editor on the masthead of my current Atlantic; as for the New Yorker, where the omission of a masthead seems to declare, “Don’t bother us geniuses here, lowly Earthling,” I went to a party where I met a successful writer who shared the name of her editor there (though she told me not to use her name by way of reference).

I sent my next finished story first to the New Yorker. Not two weeks later, there was my SASE in the box, mocking me yet again, far sooner than usual. But this time, clipped to my manuscript was a full page of typing, on letterhead stationery, signed by the editor to whom I had addressed the story. He said many kind things about my story—things that showed he had read it, really read it—and then he told me why he couldn’t take it. He told me, and I will never, ever forget this, that I had “talent to burn” (a phrase I puzzled over at first, never having seen it). And he told me to send him more.

I wept. I think I’d been sending out my stories for two or three years at this point, and finally, finally, FINALLY, somebody had read one and responded. He spoke about my characters as if they were flesh and blood, their emotions as if they mattered. My protagonist actually frustrated him; he thought her too “hapless.” (Was I too hapless? I remember thinking.) I called one of my best friends and read the letter over the phone.

I went back to work on the story, responding to the editor’s comments, and sent it to the Atlantic. Again in record time, I received a reply: this time from an editor junior to the one on the masthead. It was another rejection, but it was several sentences long, most of which were encouraging and kind. Throughout her letter, the editor wrote in second-person plural, as in “We thought your descriptive powers quite novelistic” and “We’d love to see more of your work.” The royal we? I’d take it. Pages of my manuscript were bent, soiled; this in itself was cause for celebration.

This one-two punch of hopeful highbrow rejection gave me energy, yes indeed, to burn. People who cared passionately about fiction, who wanted new writers to publish, who had the power to make that happen, were on my side. Or that’s how it felt.

For the next four or five years, this dance of rejection, revision, resending, rethinking, rebounding continued. In all, I sent fifteen or twenty stories to my correspondents at each of those esteemed magazines. Once, the editor at the New Yorker asked me to revise a story and send it back to him. With obvious regret, he rejected it again. But I did not give up. (Remarkably, over all that time, as I continued to send my stories to the quarterlies as well, I received only one reply from any of them that gave me any hope: a scrawled sentence—Sorry, please try us again—on the miserly form rejection. The initials that followed were illegible.)

Finally, I won a modest prize and saw my first short story published in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. I was 37 years old. After that, no doubt because of it, I started getting real replies from the quarterlies. Two of them took stories of mine. Meanwhile, I came to realize that it was time to attempt a novel. In her rejection of an absurdly long story entitled “Collies,” my now-longtime correspondent at the Atlantic had praised it but remarked that it looked like the beginning of novel. And that’s what it became. It became Three Junes.

It still astonishes me that, without a community of fiction-minded peers or any writerly context other than my work as a “pet journalist,” I persevered through seven years of nothing but rejection. Like, what part of NO didn’t I get? But there’s stark, impersonal rejection, and then there’s the I-am-determined-to-one-day-accept-you rejection. What I think of as the Not Quite Yes. I know now that the letters I received from those two editors at those two magazines (who, in their own way, persevered on my behalf) were probably what kept me going. To this day, I have never been published in the New Yorker or the Atlantic; as recently as two months ago, I’ve received further rejections from successors of my two correspondents of a quarter-century back.

We are past the era of SASEs, of weekend forays to borrow the office IBM Selectric, of (alas) fiction in the pages of nearly every mainstream magazine worth its pulp. But this much remains true: As long as there are fiction readers, there will be editors and publishers of fiction who passionately want to hand the first yes to someone who’s weathered a tsunami of no.

How perfect it felt when I discovered that the editor who loved and bought Three Junes—let it be noted that every other editor who saw it said no (however politely)—had been a protégé of my correspondent at the New Yorker. Nothing thrills her more than putting a writer in print for the very first time. In the world of literature, there just may be a God. – Julia

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