What Does a Writer Do in These COVID Days?

Sue's desk 42420What do you do all day? People keep asking me that. Apparently, there are folks my age who have nothing to do but look for ways to entertain themselves, especially in these odd coronavirus days. My late mother-in-law used to work out her schedule with the TV guide, circling the shows she had to see, stuff like “Jeopardy,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Matlock” reruns. In her 80s, widowed, she took care of whatever chores needed doing and settled at her table with the TV Guide and the New York Times crossword puzzle. COVID-19 wouldn’t have changed her schedule any more than it has changed mine.

Doing my accounting, I see that I have fewer restaurant and gas receipts and more online shopping receipts—I gave in to temptation and ordered a “mouth violin,” aka ocarina, yesterday. If you hear odd sounds emanating from the neighborhood just south of the Newport airport, you’ll know it arrived. As if I needed another instrument.

But things haven’t changed that much. What do I do all day? This, what I’m doing now. I work on writing and writing-related tasks most of the day. I write poems, blog posts, essays, book chapters, reviews, etc. I send my work out to publishers. I publicize things I have already written and published. I try—and fail—to read all of my email. I check Facebook a lot.

COVID has actually given me more to do because I’m attending Zoom meetings, workshops and readings several days a week. (Billy Collins, Facebook Live, 2:30 pdt weekdays!) I have a creative nonfiction class and an Alzheimer’s webinar tomorrow, another creative nonfiction class on Wednesday, a reading on Thursday, a committee meeting for Willamette Writers on Friday . . . and on Saturday, I go to St Anthony’s to record music for Sunday’s online Mass. I’m zooming so much I’m dizzy.

Not bored, no way.

I’ve also got all those instruments to practice so that when we come out of isolation, I’ll have a new and improved repertoire. And the dog needs her walk every day, we both need to eat, clothes need washing, floors need sweeping, etc. I am more than halfway through a big garage cleanup, which will probably lead to an extra trip to the chiropractor. After that, I’ll work on the pantry and then the closets and then . . .

What do I do all day? I want to echo my dad who, even in his 90s, would get angry when asked that question. “I work!” he’d shout. Officially retired, he spent his days working on the house and yard. He never did approve of people who didn’t mow their own lawns. I guess I take after him. But I don’t get angry when people ask what I do all day. I know I’m an odd duck, that thing called a writer, and most people are not writers. They know I’m home in my bathrobe and don’t understand why I’m always “busy.” They don’t feel driven to produce words every day and shape them into publishable form. Post-retirement, they look at their days as blank slates. Not me.

I hesitate to call it work, not only because I don’t get paid for most of it, but because it’s fun. I always envisioned myself making quilts in my retirement. For a while, I felt guilty because I wasn’t quilting. I used to quilt. My walls are covered with my strange fabric art, but now I quilt with words. This blog is one square, the poem I wrote yesterday is another, and the book I’m working on is a big old comforter which is mostly done, just needs some work around the edges.

So that’s what I do all day. I write, Zoom, play music, walk the dog, read, and eat. How do you fill your days? How is it different from before COVID turned the world upside down? Please share in the comments.

 

 

 

I Hereby Reject Their Rejections

In the first 17 days of this year, 12 different publishers rejected my poems and essays. That’s a lot, more than I have ever received in a bunch before. I belong to an online group that tries to get 100 rejections a year, reasoning that the more we send out, the better our chances of getting published. So far, I’m winning, but it’s a dubious honor, a contest I’d rather lose. Last year, I made it to 68 rejections, but I also had several individual poems, two essays, and two chapbooks accepted for publication. I thought I was on a roll.

Twelve rejections. After number 10, I prayed to God to not send anymore. Number 11 arrived that day. The next day looked like it would be rejection-free, but when I checked my email at bedtime, there was number 12. I cried.

In the olden days, rejections came in the mail. The “rejection slips” came in all different sizes and colors, and writers told each other that if the editor added a handwritten note, that meant they were on the verge of success. Now, most rejections come by email and they look pretty much the same. Thank you for letting us see your work. We regret to inform you that we will not be able to use it. Good luck with your writing. The chart on Submittable, the online app that most publishers use for submissions these days, changes the listing for your piece from “in progress” to “declined.” There’s nothing to hang on the wall and no break from rejection between mail deliveries.

It’s hard not to doubt your ability in the face of so much rejection. About half of my current rejections came from contests in which I did not win or place, including one I thought was a sure thing. I was a finalist in that one twice before. Ah, humility, one of the virtues. Practically speaking, I’m aware that the editors have just come back from the holidays and are clearing their desks for new rounds of submissions. It’s just a matter of timing.

It’s tempting to say my writing sucks and give up, in spite of the people who have told me they like my writing. My essay in Creative Nonfiction last year was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. My writing does not suck, and I am not quitting. I know all the reasons for rejections, including the sheer volume of submissions that make the odds very tough. Sometimes it’s just not the right flavor. They want lemon and I sent strawberry. Sometimes they just have way too much strawberry already. Sometimes they prefer rhubarb.

We like to think of our stories and poems as art, but once we start submitting them to editors, they become products. We know from our own shopping experiences that we don’t buy everything presented to us. I once published an article comparing this writing biz to shoe shopping. Sometimes the customer doesn’t really need shoes; they’re just looking. Sometimes they want shoes but not that style or that color or that size. The shoe salesman doesn’t take it personally when they walk out without buying anything. Thus it is with our writing. If one customer says no, we try another.

Think about selling vacuum cleaners door to door. If the first person says no, we knock on another door. Sometimes we have to knock on an awful lot of doors before someone says yes. But sometimes that one person who says yes tells all her friends, who also want to buy what you’re selling. Suddenly you’re selling lots and lots of vacuum cleaners. That’s what we want.

An article in the current issue of Poets and Writers magazine suggests that rejection is a good thing. It forces us to present our very best work and to keep trying harder. And I do. After decades of writing and publishing, I know the drill. Record the rejection and find somewhere else to send the work. Take another look to make sure it’s still as good as you thought it was. Tweak as needed to fit the new market, and send it out again. Meanwhile, keep the word factory going because the writing is more important than the selling.

There will be days you wish you took up a different trade. Plumbing, for example. Who would reject a plumber?

On the happy side of the biz, I have a poetry chapbook, Gravel Road Ahead, out now. You can order it at Amazon or through your favorite local bookseller, as well as at the publisher, Finishing Line Press. My next chapbook, due out March 15, is The Widow at the Piano: Confessions of a Distracted Catholic. You can preorder it now from The Poetry Box.

Whatever God has given you to do, keep at it. If you haven’t earned 100 rejections, keep trying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What? They didn’t have computers?

18334059 - old fashioned typewriter

Once upon a time, I wrote a short story for a Writer’s Digest correspondence course. The lessons came by mail in those days. The assignments–outlines, character descriptions, scene summaries, etc.–added up to a final story that’s reminiscent of “The Devil Wears Prada.” Eager young worker, horrible boss, boyfriend who doesn’t get it.

The plot revolved around the boss’s refusal to move from typewriters to computers. Our young heroine struggles with the correction tape on her electric typewriter (remember those?) and her boss complains that if she were a better typist, she wouldn’t need so much correction tape. Our girl, Colby, is mired in work and about to get fired because she just can’t keep up. But then, an angry client comes in while her boss is out. He wants his ad changed right now. Colby sneaks onto a co-worker’s new computer (an Apple?) and click, click, click, makes the changes. The client is delighted, Colby is promoted and she gets her own computer. Only in 1988, right?

It’s a terrible story, full of holes and clichés and way too many adjectives. I found it while cleaning out old writing files. I never throw away my work, but this went into the big blue recycle cart, where it is now lost among the boxes, butter tubs, and junk mail. I have also discovered reams of articles about writing from back in the olden days when I and others who taught or wrote about writing urged wannabe writers to get a computer or be left behind. It seems silly now, but I remember . . .

I learned to type on a manual typewriter with a slippery roller. The letters were attached to rods that got tangled up if I typed too fast. In my late teens, I used babysitting money to buy myself a new typewriter, blue plastic. My father couldn’t understand why I would waste my money on such a thing. It wasn’t like I needed it for school or anything else; we all wrote with pens and pencils, but I was determined to be a writer from the time I discovered words. Real writers had typewriters.

I encountered my first electric typewriter in a college typing class required for journalism students. It seemed to have a mind of its own, the keys moving so fast they stuttered out multiple letters if I breathed on them. I actually told the teacher I couldn’t handle this fancy electric typewriter. She basically told me to suck it up. I did. I got good at it, typing over 100 words per minute–if you don’t count mistakes.

On my first newspaper job in the early ‘70s, we used manual typewriters, big heavy Royals, typing on scraps of newsprint with carbon paper to make copies. We edited in pencil before sending the pages to the typesetter. I moved up to IBM Selectric typewriters in 1978 for a PR job. The letters were on ping-pong-sized balls, interchangeable for different typefaces. High tech! But you couldn’t “save” anything. You had exactly one copy, and if it got damaged or destroyed, you had to do the work over again.

Fast forward. Divorce. Temping as a secretary. Another newspaper job working on old Royal typewriters. And then, 1984, a typesetting gig at a print shop in Sunnyvale, California. The file-cabinet sized computer on which I worked used floppy disks that were eight inches square. The operating system was DOS. No Windows. No mouse. If you didn’t know the right sequence of letters and symbols, you were screwed.

Future jobs would take me through the Apple orchard and early PCs, from DOS to Windows, from Compuserve to the World Wide Web, news groups to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Now I own a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet and a smart phone, all of which I can use to write, send and receive stories, information, photos, music and almost anything else.

My short story would never work now, even if it were well written. It wouldn’t even make sense. What do you mean her boss wouldn’t let her use a computer? I probably saved that story about Colby and the typewriter on a floppy disk, either 5 ¼ or 3 ½ inch. If I could find the disk, I would have nowhere to plug it in and no program that could read it. What will happen to the stuff I write today?

A Facebook friend recently asked what we’d do if the Internet went away. Well, my blogs would disappear, along with all of my online connections, my ebooks, and any writing I did not save on paper, but when you get to the basics, writing is writing. I drafted this blog in my notebook with my new favorite pen, a Papermate “Inkjoy.” I quadruple back up everything I write and carry a flash drive in my purse, but I also print out everything I value on good old paper.

I don’t know whether to toss all those yellowing articles about prehistoric computer gear or save them as historic artifacts. I have another batch of articles about cameras that used film. I just know a lot has changed.

When I was an editor at the Saratoga News around 1995, a group of Girl Scouts came in to observe real live newspaper people at work. None of the girls knew what a typewriter was. How about you? Any typewriter memories? Or are you wondering what a typewriter is? See the photo; that’s a typewriter, similar to the one I started with. What was your first computer? What would you do without it now? Let’s talk about it.

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Text copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2017. Photo copyright micelecaminati / 123RF Stock Photo