Monday, November 30, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: Samuel Beckett on Persistence

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

—Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
Thanks to Legendary Cow Skull Cindy for the suggestion!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: Robin Abrahams on a Career in the Arts

I think there are only two kinds of people who make those "If you could be happy doing anything besides acting, do it!" or "People become writers because they have no choice but to write!" One kind are the people in the field who want to feel special, called in some way, or at least not to feel so bad that they are 30 years old and don’t have health insurance. There isn't any shame in being 30 years old with no health insurance—but there’s no great romance or meaning to it, either. Really, you could have taken the real estate class and become a leasing agent. You chose not to, which is fine, but it really is a choice. The muse invites you to dance, she doesn’t mug you in an alley.

Robin Abrahams (Miss Conduct) is my favorite advice columnist. She manages to be both sensible and very funny on every topic, both manners-related or, in this case, not. Check out her blog and her new book.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: William Stafford on What Makes a Successful Poem

[R]eaders do not like to extend credit to poets: a poem must have early rewards. It must be eventful in language; there must be early and frequent verbal events. Content, or topic, is not nearly enough, of course. A poem is an experience in the reading or hearing; the eventfulness of a poem comes in the experience of the reader. And in those events for the reader there must be coherence; one experience must relate to and enhance the next, and so on. Readers should not be loaded with more information and guidance than a lively mind needs—puzzlement can be accepted, but insulting clarity is fatal to a poem.

—William Stafford, You Must Revise Your Life

Monday, November 9, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: Annie Dillard, via Alexander Chee, on Persistence

Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science, it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between myself and them is that I’m writing.

On the basis of this quote alone, I will be attending the event for this title presented by the Harvard Bookstore, Grub Street, and The Cambridge Center for Adult Education on Friday, November 13th, at 6:00PM at the Brattle Theater. Five bucks gets you in to hear Elizabeth Benedict and contributors Chris Castellani, Margot Livesey, Jay Cantor, Julia Glass, and Jim Shepard talk about mentorship and influence. Check it out!

Special thanks to Kevin for suggesting this quote.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hooked on Form

I've noticed lately that a lot of my writing is falling into forms with relatively fixed structures: a how-to, a braided essay ("Faith and Reason"), two micro-essays, a collage ("Pictures of You"), a list ("Catch and Release"), and a chronology ("A Brief History of My Hair and What Was Said About It," just accepted for publication in Sycamore Review).

I tend to decide on the structure of a piece early. When I don't, or when I've got a structure that I haven't yet recognized, I struggle a lot more with both content and organization. Settling on a form, whenever I manage to do it, gives me a road map for completing the piece.

A well-defined structure dictates a lot of choices for the writer—particularly choices about what must be left out. If a paragraph or section or detail doesn't fit in the structure—it disrupts the timeline of a chronology, it can't gracefully be expressed in as an instruction, it's too long-winded for the target word-count—then it must go. No stays of execution on compassionate grounds. Throw in additional restrictions, like second- or third-person narration or limiting the piece to the present tense, and if the essay doesn't exactly write itself, nevertheless the way forward is both clear and narrow.

Formal constraints make explicit the kinds of choices writers make all the time. For newer writers especially this helps us understand what those choices are, gives us an understanding of the effects they produce, and gets us in the habit of making them consciously. I think that in order to grow as a writer I will have to venture beyond my road maps, but for now I'm satisfied that experimenting with form is a valuable learning experience and my time as a structure junkie will not be wasted.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: David Bayles and Ted Orland on Perfection

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those of the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the "quantity" group: fifty pounds of pots rated an "A," forty pounds a "B," and so on. Those being graded on "quality," however, needed to produce only one pot—albeit a perfect one—to get an "A." Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the "quantity" group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes—the "quality" group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I cannot say enough good things about this book. I've read it twice and now and have recommended it to every writer I know plus a couple of software engineers. I expect that I will read it regularly, as a kind of refresher course, in the future. If you want to practice any kind of craft and find that you are the biggest obstacle to your own work, this is the book for you.

I particularly love this passage. Perfectionism is my nemesis—I'm so afraid of failing, as if writing something badly would cost me anything more than the time spent. I need frequent reminders that the only way to get better at writing it to write, that even failing is a step forward.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: A. Alvarez on Doneness

As someone who writes prose for a living and poems when I get lucky, I assure you that the two activities are curiously different. No matter how many times you rewrite prose or how easily it seems to read when you are done with it, prose is never quite finished. There is always a word ill-chosen or out of place, a repetition you missed, an adjective that could be cut, a comma that should have been a semicolon—something to set your teeth on edge when you reread it later in cold print. Poems don't work like that. They are as intricate as the giant locks on a bank vault: each one of the dozens of tumblers has to click into place before the door will swing open. A poem, I mean, isn't finished until every word is precisely weighted and precisely placed, and if the poet is serious, he knows, to his sorrow, when he has it wrong and it won't let him rest. Once he's got it right, however, he knows with equal certainty that there is nothing more to be done; he has produced something that, for the time being, is as near perfect as he can make it. And that is a satisfaction worth sweating for.

—A. Alvarez, The Writer's Voice

Monday, October 19, 2009

Monday Morning Quote: William Stafford on What a Writer Is

In an effort to post more regularly, read more widely on craft, and inspire myself to make every week a good writing week, I'm instituting a new feature: the Monday morning quote. Each week on Monday I'll post a quote about writing—or reading, or art more generally—in this space. Sometimes I'll have something to say about it; sometimes I'll let it stand by itself. Suggestions and contributions welcome!

Here's this week's quote:
A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.

—William Stafford, Writing the Australian Crawl
I love the way this gets at the indirect nature of the process and the very dotted line between the original intent and the finished product. It reminds me, too, how much the pleasure of writing is the surprise of seeing what comes out on the page.

I owe my introduction to William Stafford to Ellen Steinbaum's blog, Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe, which I recommend to you and which includes a lovely post that is particularly relevant in this, my contest-mad year: Confessions of a Poetry Contest Judge.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


I wrote a snarky little satire of a rejection letter as a bookend to my posting on acceptance, but I've decided I'm not yet ready to murder my fledgling writing career.

Instead, I'm going to talk about how much I actually like my pile of rejection letters. When I used to send out my work in batches of one or two, the wait for a response seemed interminable and the rejections were bitterly disappointing. Now I send out so many that it is, as my fellow Cow Skull Julie once said, kind of an empty day when there are no SASEs in the mailbox.

For someone like me, who is good at starting essays but not so awesome at finishing them, it's positive reinforcement to look at my pile of rejections (an inch thick now!) and realize that I've actually completed essays that I don't despair of entirely and that I'm doing the work of sending them out and getting them in front of editors. When I look at those letters these days, I see that I am keeping myself in the game.

Go me!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lily Beth, Queen of the Mulch Pile

Thanks to Ed for the picture!

Monday, August 24, 2009


In her book Bird by Bird Anne Lamott writes about discussing publication with students in her writing classes:
...I try to make sure they understand that writing, and even getting good at it, and having books and stories and articles published, will not open the doors that most of them hope for. It will not make them well. It will not give them the feeling that the world has finally validated their parking tickets, that they have in fact finally arrived.
All this is true. By the time each of my essays was published I was several months or even years removed from the day-to-day of wrestling with its structure and diction and imagery. The journals arrived and I felt happy to see them but a little distant. It's like running into old work friends from a particularly all-consuming job long after we've all moved on to other companies: the fondness remains, but the intensity has drained away. I find this leaves me with a much clearer view of my essays' sins and virtues, but no desire to revisit them. Actually, I feel positively grateful not to have to work on them anymore.

Acceptance, however, is another matter entirely. The thrill of a total stranger—someone not related to me by blood or marriage or friendship or the fact that she is in my writing group and has read fifteen drafts of an essay and wants nothing so much as to never to see it again—saying she likes my writing enough to publish it does not pall. I've gotten form letter acceptances and I've received personal emails that refer to my "fine work" or say they are "charmed" by a humorous essay. And every time, while I don't think the world has validated my parking ticket, I do feel like I got a gold star pasted on my forehead for the afternoon. It's not a durable or lasting thrill, and it doesn't help at all with the next day's work. But as an occasional shot of encouragement in what is a sometimes a lonely activity, it's more than enough.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Games Dogs Play

One of the most fun things about having dogs is that they love to play.

Even on their own, dogs play inventive games. Ed, who provides Lily Beth's doggie day-stay, told us about a game the dogs had made up on their own one day this spring. All the dogs would dig a big pit in Ed's yard, and then one dog would get in it. The other dogs would jump over the pit and as they did the dog inside would jump out and try to bite them. They played this over and over. Ed says the game is called "Dog in the Hole."

But dogs like to play with people, too, and the process of figuring out what the game is—something fun for both players—is a collaborative one. Our dog tries one action, sees how we respond, and then reinforces that response positively or negatively by continuing to play or walking away. We do the same, and together we shape each other's behavior into patterns that come to have recognizable rules and variations. The play is fun, but I think the cross-species communication that goes on in developing and elaborating the game is the best part of all.

Ben and Lily Beth have come up with something we call "The Game," which is a combination of fetch and keep-away. When Ben gets home from work, LB greets him at the door with one of her stuffed toys in her mouth. They go out to the front yard and Lily Beth gives Ben the toy, he throws it for her, and then he chases her around the yard to try to get it back. Sometimes Ben gets tired of it first, sometimes LB does, but it's become one of those routines that demarcate the transition between work and home, and I think they both look forward to it.

I have finally figured out how to use the video setting on our digital camera. The intent of the video below was to capture this routine for posterity, but, alas, we're having a heat wave and neither Ben nor LB was at the top of their Game.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My Kind of Writers!

As I mentioned, there are some really terrific writers in my workshop, and it's a great group of people. My one worry was that my fellow writers would be Deeply Serious and my desire to eat food that is bad for me and find the Fresh Produce store would reveal me to be the self-absorbed philistine and glutton that I am.

"No, no," my fellow writers said. "That's the other writing workshops."

Many of them are already familiar from previous visits with the town where our workshop is held. Thanks to them I now know where to get:
  • excellent fried seafood and fabulous onion rings
  • foot-long hotdogs
  • the best gelato in town
  • heavenly made-to-order pasta dishes
  • a nice salad when one really needs vegetables.
I've also stocked up on pastel oxford shirts and insanely comfortably cotton pants.

Best of all, though, I've made some new writer friends.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Nunnery

I'm staying at an inn just a block away from the center that offers my workshop. My room is known as "The Nunnery," and perhaps you can see why:

Most of the room (which is perhaps 6' x 12') is actually in the photo, and you can sort of see the dormer that angles over the bed. But it's cozy and comfortable, the owners are delightful, and if I have to go out into the hall to get to my bathroom, it's a small price to pay for a not-crazy-expensive room in a seaside town in August. The Nunnery got its name from a previous inhabitant and workshop attendee, a former nun, who noted that it was about the same size as her room at the convent.

I'm doing too much writing in my little room, which is making it harder and harder to sleep there. I guess that's why the writing lab at the workshop is open 24 hours a day.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Life at Writing Camp

So, the writing workshop is awesome, and actually a lot more like camp than I expected—a pretty satisfying mix of structured activities and free time.

There's coffee and fruit and pastries at 8:30 and then I'm in class from 9:00 AM to noon each day.

"What?" asked Ben, when he heard I only had three hours of class a day. "I thought it would be like boot camp: 'Drop and give me a metaphor, maggots.' 'I want a literary allusion and I want it now!' 'You call that irony?'"

"Three hours a day is a lot," I said.

"I sort of imagined a Rocky-like montage," he said. "You know, pictures of you all sharpening your pencils, then a shot of you all writing in your little notebooks. Except the music is a customized version of Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger,' like that Starbuck's commercial."

It's not quite like that, but it's still pretty intense. I have the afternoon to write and prepare for the next day's class, and then there are readings and artist talks every evening. My instructor is great, and my classmates are interesting people and really good writers. I'm determined to make the most of my time here.

The only bad news—and it's really only bad news for the Cow Skulls—is that I haven't managed to find a new topic, so be prepared for more of the same. Sooner or later I will write my way out.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Off to "Camp"

I've arrived for my orientation session at the writing workshop I'm attending this week. Since I signed up in March I've been referring to it as "Writing Camp" in an unsuccessful attempt to feel less intimidated.

As I stood by the car getting ready to leave this afternoon—worrying about my clothes (trying too hard? not trying hard enough?) and worrying a lot more about the fact that I haven't written a word in the last two weeks—I said goodbye to Ben.

"I'm nervous," I said.

"What are you nervous about? It'll be fun."

"What if nobody likes me?"

"Then you'll have something to write about!"

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Workshopping Comments from McSweeney's

On today's New Pages blog there's a link to this on the McSweeney's web site: Comments written by actual students extracted from workshopped manuscripts at a major university".

My favorite:

"It's your story, your voice, your choices, and I don't want to question
them, but why these words?"

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Change Is Good (But Hard to Come By in Italy)

We're recently back from a trip to Italy, and one of the things that has not changed since our last visit is the Italian shopkeeper's unwillingness to part with his or her euro coins. There is no apparent shortage of these coins, only a deep and nationwide reluctance to give them out.

When we made small purchases, even if we paid for them with a 5€, the smallest denomination of paper note, shopkeepers would frown at the proffered bill as if it were mildly insulting. Did we did not have anything smaller, they demanded.

Ben, infinitely nicer than I, always fished in his pockets to find a 1€ or 2€ coin, as I stood beside him hissing, "Don't! We need those."

And we did need them. In Italy coins are necessary to pay for almost all parking, for public transportation, for tipping chambermaids and concierges, and, most importantly, for restaurant tips. While American waiters will usually give you your change in denominations that facilitate tipping, in Italy it wasn't at all unusual for change from our meals to consist of a single large bill, leaving us with the option of tipping ridiculously or not at all.

And so getting—and keeping—coins became my obsession. When I paid for coffee or museum entrances or bottles of water, I always pulled out the bill in advance so I wouldn't have to open my purse and reveal my mesh change pocket full of precious euros. When shopkeepers asked me if I had something smaller, I lied outright.

"I'm sorry," I'd say with a shrug, "the ATM only gave us these." I tried to look regretful, as if I had hoped that the ATM would, like a slot machine, cough up a shower of coins but instead, to my great disappointment, only gave me these lousy tens and twenties.

Our tour guide at the Borghese Villa, where we were supposed to bring exact change for our entrance fee so she could pay for us en masse, speculated that this parsimony dated from shortages in the days of the lira. There's an interesting article here on Italians' difficulty in switching to the euro in 2002 and some of the reasons for and fallout from that switch.

Whatever the reasons, by the the second week of our trip I was confiscating the change from all transactions. We used a lot of it for tips and parking on our last few days, but I nonetheless returned home with a small mountain of gold and silver. Our bank won't exchange it into dollars, but that's OK: I'm ready for our next trip.

Me at the Trevi Fountain
Me at the Trevi Fountain, assuring myself of a return visit to Rome.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Writing Nightmare

"Thanks for walking the dog this morning," I said to Ben when I finally got up at 10:30. "I slept really well, except for a nightmare I had at the very end."

"What did you dream?"

"I don't remember, just that it was about writing."

"What's a writing nightmare?" he asked, then gasped melodramatically. "'That essay is coming from inside the house!'"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Craft Books

Not knitting, not macramé, and no glue guns involved. I'm on a mission to find great books about the craft of writing.

As previously noted, I am a sucker for just about any writing advice book. And I've read a lot of them—books about how to get your butt in the chair, books about how to keep it there, books of writing exercises, and books about how to trick yourself into writing without realizing it.

But now I want specifics. I'm taking a class right now and I learn more about craft. Last week I got some feedback on a work in progress that said I was splitting the tone and content in a way that worked well for the piece. And I thought, "Oh, riiiight . . . tone!" Not that I don't know what tone is, but I am not thinking about it explicitly when writing or revising. And I should be.

So I want to get more conversant with my craft. I believe this will make me a better writer and better able to manipulate the elements of my essays to do what I want them to do. And I think it will make me a better to the Legendary Cow Skulls.

Part of this is explained by my crabbed little engineer's soul, which believes that there's a mechanical explanation for absolutely everything—that it;s possible to say something like, "If you do X, it will have Y effect on your prose and on your reader." And while I know that overstates what's realistically possible, if you believe that writing can be taught (and I do) then it has at least some basis in truth.

There are not a ton of books about the craft of creative nonfiction, or at least I haven't found them. My favorite so far is Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Also, on my instructor's recommendation, I've picked up The Portable MFA, by The New York Writers Workshop.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

John Webster, You Are No William Shakespeare

Last month I went to see the Actors' Shakespeare Project's The Duchess of Malfi. This was the company's first production of a play by someone other than Shakespeare—in this case John Webster—and I was looking forward to seeing it. And I loved everything except . . . the play. The performances were outstanding, the production gorgeous and highly stylized, the staging innovative (a long narrow corridor with the audience on either side) and psychologically appropriate to this claustrophobic revenge tragedy. Absolutely everything was up to the ASP's usual high standards of excellence, but I found myself counting up the bodies in the last act to figure out how many more people still had to die before we could go home.

I had never read any of Shakespeare's contemporaries in college and always assumed that part of the reason that Shakespeare was produced today and most of them are not (outside of academia) is that we have made such a cultural fetish out of Shakespeare. But The Duchess of Malfi is reputed to be one of the masterpieces of early seventeenth century English theater, so I'm revising my opinion and now think it's because Shakespeare is just better.

Compare these famous lines from from King Lear:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods,
They kill us for their sport.
with the expression of a similar sentiment from the final act of The Duchess of Malfi:
We are merely the stars' tennis balls, struck and bandied
Which way please them.
These words are uttered by the only remotely complex character in the play as he is dying, and I'm sorry to say I had to resist the urge to laugh.

I went with my friend Kevin who, I think, liked the play better than I did but acknowledged that he devoted some mental energy to trying to imagine how seventeenth-century English audiences would have reacted to the play (his conclusion: the depraved and outrageous doings of those crazy Italians always made for a good night of theater). I say that if you have to attempt time travel to enjoy a play then it may not have aged all that well.

I'm clearly in the minority on this. The reviews of the play were uniformly positive—and I am glad because I love the Actors' Shakespeare Project (I'm a subscriber) and want them to do well. But I will not be running out to buy The Works of John Webster any time soon.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Another Legenday Cow Skull in the News

Three cheers for Carol, whose Suburban Study blog has just been picked up by! It's also available on the Wicked LocalTM Medfield site.

Congratulations, Carol!

Cow Skulls Rule!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Giving Up On a Book

A few weeks ago I mentioned to Kevin that I was having a hard time getting through the novel I was reading, and he asked why I didn't just put it down. He mentioned a former professor of his, who said that if you didn't get anything .

Now, not reading books you don't want to read is one of the two great pleasures of the post-English-major reading life. (The other is reading whatever the hell you want again, the way you did when you were a kid). But I feel bad when I do it. Part of this is my penchant since childhood for anthropomorphizing inanimate objects—yes, I'm worried that the book will feel bad—and part of it is feeling bad for the author.

And this mixture of obligation, compassion, and hope gets me through a lot. I will put up with sentimental chick lit; with memoirs whose narrators seem to lack the basic self-awareness needed to write a memoir; with books that attempt big things and fall a little short of the mark.

There are books I've seen all the way through to the end and been very glad I did, and others (which shall remain nameless) where I closed the book and thought, "Well, there's another several hours I won't be getting back."

When, if ever, do you give up on a book?

Monday, January 12, 2009

Doggie Adorableness

Lily Beth in the snow:

Thanks to Ed for the video!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


One of the dorky little pleasures of my production-line submissions schedule (25-30 copies of a different essay every two months) and the time-scale for responses from a lot of literary magazines (geologic) is the selection of stamps for my self-addressed stamped envelopes1. Initially, I just tried to have a different stamp for each essay so that when the rejections came back I could tell what was being rejected before opening the envelope.

Lately, though, I've been trying to tie stamp selection to the theme of the essay. For "Faith and Reason," my essay on adopting from China, I found a lunar new year stamp:
For an essay on breast cancer, an obvious choice:

This month I'm sending out a piece on my conflicted feelings about suburban yard maintenance (I swear it's more interesting than it sounds), and so I was absurdly pleased Saturday morning at the post office to find this:
I said it was dorky...

1 When I referred to these as SASEs (pronounced say'-zees) in my writing group, everyone, without exception, looked at me as if I had three heads. Am I the only one who pronounces it this way? I'm trying to figure out where I heard it, and my best guess is the PBS TV show ZOOM. Sing it with me, you children of the seventies: "ZOOM! Z double-O M. Box 3-5-0. Boston Mass. 0-2-1-3-4. Send it to ZOOM!"

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Final Top 10 For 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
The Courage Muscle, by Monique Doyle Spencer
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
The Death of Vishnu, by Manil Suri
I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass
Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar
Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Age of Shiva, by Manil Suri
The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers

2008 was a year of old friends. Novels from Ursula Le Guin, Marilynne Robinson, and Julia Glass (whose reading at Porter Square Books I attended) are as close as you can get to a lock on the top ten for me. I had also previously read Joan Didion and was familiar with Monique Doyle Spencer through her very funny essays in the Boston Globe.

2008 was also a year of friends-of-friends: two of the books on the list were recommendations from other readers that I would have never picked up on my own. Memoirs of Hadrian was recommended by Michelle on a round-the-table-what-are-you-reading discussion on the first night of a class. It fit in very well with my current fascination with all-things-Roman in anticipation of a Rome vacation this year. (And, though it's not a book, if you, too, are fascinated by all-things-Roman, let me recommend Garret Fagan's History of Ancient Rome course from The Teaching Company—Ben and I both loved it). And, thanks to a recommendation from Don, I finally finished a Richard Powers book, after starting at least three of them previously. Powers is one of those massively brainy authors whose work I always feel I should love but which instead tends to leave me feeling battered by the author's big brain. The Time of Our Singing was different.

Finally, 2008 was a year of a of new friends. I bought The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao after seeing Junot Díaz's interview with Stephen Colbert, in which he came across as modest and smart and geeky and completely adorable. It's not the sort of book I'm usually inclined to read, but it blew me away and, although my list is unordered, I will confess here that it was my favorite book of the year. Read it. I found Manil Suri, math professor and novelist(!), through the serendipity of the "New Fiction" shelf at my local library. The first two books of his projected trilogy are on this list, and I suspect the third one would be as well if it were published. Maybe next year.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are omnipotent.

                                                                  —Calvin Coolidge
The topic of persistence came up a lot in 2008. The quote above is one of Ben's favorites, and the year started with me promising to get it printed and framed for him. I'm going to get around to that any day now, pal; I promise.

This spring, I read Michelle's posting on Ron Carlson Writes a Story, which cited as his best advice: "All the valuable writing I've done in the last ten years has been done in the first twenty minutes after the first time I've wanted to leave the room."

This fall, I subscribed to the Southeast Review Writing Regimen. One of the benefits was having access to podcasts of author readings at Florida State University, and I was particularly struck by one statement made by Ann Patchett in her post-reading Q&A. "My great genius as a writer," she said, "is the ability to stay in my chair."

The universe has spoken: this is the year I make a non-vague writing resolution (since "Write more" hasn't really worked out in the past). So here it is in a nutshell: two pages a day, six magazine submissions this year.

I decided on two pages because it seemed small enough to be doable. Even on a comparatively lousy day, I should be able to slog though 500 first-draft words. Six submissions is the basic schedule of the submissions service I use and this will keep me from having to pay them to do nothing for me for two months.

My boss has told me about the key questions he was taught to ask about every consulting project: Where are we going? How will we know when we get there? Measurement, that's how. So unless you are reading an RSS feed you will notice a new box to the right, labeled "2009." I'm going to track how many pages I write, how many submissions I make to literary magazines, how many contests I enter, and how many acceptances and publications I have. While the latter two are pretty much out of my control, the first three should give me a good idea of how I'm doing vis-à-vis my goals. At the end of the year, pages written should be at least 500 (two pages a day x five days a week x 50 weeks—yes, I'm taking off for vacation) and submissions should be at least 150 (six essays, one every two months, x 25 magazines each submissions batch). I don't have a specific contest entry goal, but let's say ten. That would still be an improvement over last year's four, and it's always good to have one easily makeable goal.

Napoleon Hill, one of the first self-help authors, is famously quoted as saying: "A goal is a dream with a deadline." Here's to working to make some of my writing dreams come true.

Happy New Year!