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A Word with the “Success” People

It’s nice to think that if we just keep trying, we’ll be successful. There’s a recurrent meme these days, if that’s the right phrase, that points out the number one marker of successful people is that they don’t give up. No kidding. Successful people didn’t give up before they became successful. Obvious. Tautology. What bugs me about this is that it’s waved about as though that’s all it takes. Not giving up. And that’s not true.

For every “successful” person who did not give up, there’s a crowd of strivers who have never given up and will never be “successful” in a corporate or financial or celebrity sense. Like Willy Loman, they try so hard, but they can’t make things work out in the way they dream. Not everyone can, and that’s just a simple fact. The problem is with the way success is measured. I think it can be an important growth moment to realize that a certain strived-for thing will never happen. Let it go. Move on to something else. Don’t surrender at the first sign of trouble, don’t be a quitter, but consider all the facts.

When we read the articles that say most of us give up just before we achieve success, we need to understand that no one can know that. There is no certain way to know if success was just about to come after the next effort. At some point, we have to accept that we are not going to be ballerinas. Our ankles are too thick. No amount of practice is going to change that physical fact. There are realities that we cannot change. Instead of beating the crap out of ourselves for being failures, we can decide not to buy that model of success.

As a writer, I can’t measure success in terms of copies sold and royalties earned. If I do that, I’m a failure. Every writer has to decide where the borderland of success lies, and I admit that for me, it’s in the validation of publication. For Diane di Prima, it was “simply to have lived and done the work.” I’ve always loved that. I believe it. There’s tremendous satisfaction in the writing, in the act of doing. It’s a success all by itself.

We’d all like to have more money, pots of it please and thank you, but that is not the only way to measure success. In fact, for almost everyone, it just can’t happen. Making money isn’t my gift. Corporate success isn’t my dream. An intersection of dream and gift might get us somewhere. And therein, mayhap, is the rub, as Hamlet might say. So few of us identify the gift and learn what it can do. We try to layer someone else’s idea of success over our own lives, and it just doesn’t work. We’d all be better off, individually and collectively, if we knew what we’re good at and what to do with it. If something isn’t working, stop doing it–that isn’t failure: it’s awakening.

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Writers Are So Insecure

Or, maybe it’s just me. But I don’t think so. It isn’t often that someone comes along and proclaims, “I am a great writer,” as Sylvia Plath did. Mostly, there’s a miserable struggle going on. We have a conviction that we are writers, but we torture ourselves with the suspicion (sometimes certainty) that we aren’t very good.

People might think it’s false modesty, but I’m not talking about those types, the ones who can set up a conversation so that all kinds of compliments flow, compliments they humbly believe to be deserved. I write things and sometimes, I think they’re really good. I’m all confidence. So, I send them out to a journal for publication, and when they are returned, as most submissions are, I look at them and think, “Of course this got rejected. It’s crap.”

Writers aren’t like contestants on American Idol, those who can’t sing to save their lives but have been told by family and friends that they are great singers and born to do this. No, writers hear the encouragement and praise, and we take pleasure in the sentiment, but we are pretty sure that the people we love are just being nice. We think they have to say those things. It’s their job.

Where we really get trapped is when someone we don’t know says something glowing about our work. We start looking for the excuse for it, thinking they’re just being nice, but then realizing they have no reason to be so. It’s scary territory to stand there with the idea that maybe this person really does approve or endorse or appreciate the work. We’re sure it can’t be true, but we can’t find the reason to suppose that, and so we’re left running a little tape in our heads that keeps coming to the spot where this person is just being nice, but hoping they’re not. It’s exhausting.

This week, I received some really lovely comments about my long poem. The specifics of those comments told me that I had succeeded in some of the things I had set out to do in that poem, and that’s extremely gratifying all by itself. When I try to expand that to allow for the general praise of the work, I get on the little hamster wheel that runs that tape.  I always tell people that the writer is the first and most important audience for the work. I don’t ever tell them that they’ll have a terrible time learning to believe that their satisfaction is justified. Good luck with that.

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What Happens To Us When We Don’t Write

The great and noted Irish writer Edna O’Brien said this week that if she found out today that she couldn’t write anymore, she’d die tomorrow. I don’t think she means that she’d take matters into her own hands. I think she just means that it would be the end of her. There’d be nothing so dramatic as a heart that suddenly stops beating. But, it is a heart sickness.

Any of us who has a passion for something will become heartsick if we can’t do it. And if we’re being honest, most of us are probably heartsick most of the time. The day-to-day drudging, the demands of whatever, sucks up all the energy, all the imagination, all the time. It happens slowly enough that we don’t really notice. We just get tireder and tireder. Sicker and sicker. Sadder and sadder.

When I cannot write because I’m so busy making a living, I begin to tell myself that I’m not really a writer after all. I tell myself that if I were really a writer, I would pop off tomorrow from despair. Ergo, it matters not that I am not writing. It’s a sick thing that the mind can do to a person.

But when I manage to shove everything else, with some force and violence, out of my way, and begin to coax and plead with the words to come back, I begin to feel my heart healing. When I can keep at it, I begin to wish I could feel like that all the time. I remember that it is possible to feel productive and happy and solid. It happens when I do the thing I do.

I’m not so arrogant as to say that I was born to write. But I know that writing is my thing that I do. The planets align for me when I do it. We should all do what makes our planets align.

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Orwell is in a Constant Spin

The other day, I read an Irish Times article titled, “English Language is Literally Spiralling Exponentially out of the Control of Pedants.”  I had a lovely laugh at its cleverness. The long-term misuse of “literally” and the emerging misuse of “exponentially” are among the many, many things that drive me, a proud pedant, into a spin. I can only imagine what poor George Orwell is doing in his grave. Spinning himself into a fine dust, that’s what.

The article’s author, Donald Clarke, observed that “a word now seems to mean what a lot of people think it means.” That is to say, that people think they know what a word means, and they use it to mean that, but it doesn’t. “Exponentially” does not mean “quite a bit” or “pretty fast.” It is a very specific kind of increase, but the word is being rendered meaningless (except in algebra class), by the crowd that got their hands on amazing, awesome, and incredible. I am a pedant, when it comes to words, and pedant does not mean “unimaginative,” as I have seen it defined. It means strict. The thing is that I love a neologism or a fresh use as much as anyone. New use and fresh use are not misuse.

Disrespect and party are not verbs. They’re nouns. Bring and take are not interchangeable, and neither are floor and ground or roof and ceiling. These words have specific meanings, and here’s one reason why it matters. People will say that others know what they mean, so what difference does it make. Well, it’s because they only think they know what it means. If neither side of an exchange knows what a word means, how can either one be sure that they both mean the same thing by it? Words are very dependable things, but people are not, so when they fling out an “exponentially” to make themselves look informed, they embarrass themselves because people who really do know what it means and how to use it see right through the facade. Communication requires as a starting point that all sides agree on using language a certain way.

The other day, I heard a judge on a cooking competition say that there was a “discourse” between the two components of a dish. But she was making a complaint. She meant “discord.” “Discourse,” in that context, would have been a positive thing. It would have suggested a conversation or interaction, but she wanted a word that suggested a disconnection. I was embarrassed for her. Don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means, and be bothered to find out what it means! How hard is that? I once had a college-level student (and I am not making this up) who was astonished when I told her to look a word up in the dictionary. She did not know that a dictionary has definitions in it. I swear. College-level.

This isn’t about the evolution of language. Words are alive, and sometimes, definitions do evolve and new words emerge. But the current vocabulary disempowers the words it flings around. If everything is amazing, then nothing is. In fact, when someone says something was amazing, I know it wasn’t. I have invoked Orwell here because of his cogent essay “Politics and the English Language.” In 1946, he wrote, “Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way.” Amen, George.

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Nothing but Myself to Recommend Me

In one of my favourite novels, Jane Austen writes about “a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him.” It would be wonderful if people would look for themselves and judge another’s merits. Isn’t it strange that people don’t value their own judgement? They’re so uncertain about it that they need the validation of three referees. Who knows where that magic number three came from, but in my experience, that’s how many we need. Everybody asks for three. I suspect they do it because they’ve seen somebody else asking for three, and so it goes.

We apply for jobs or grants or residencies, and agencies don’t trust their own judgement. In fact, they’d rather avoid personal contact. It’s really odd, this whole keeping a distance thing. I make claims for my own merits, and I understand that some fact checking might be necessary. I don’t want to end up in Catch Me If You Can. But it’s especially easy now to see if I did teach all those courses and publish all those things. Those are the accomplishments, those and the education. Those are the things that qualify me for the job or grant or residency. But, very ironically, those things are not the focus of investigation. Only one of my many applications has ever required proof of a degree.

I have nothing but myself to recommend me. In the end, as Austen’s Persuasion shows, even if we have rank and possessions, we still have only ourselves, for good or bad. Today, yet again, I have sent out requests for people to write reference letters for me. I wish I were past that. In a very real way, reference letters don’t prove anything. Letter writers might be fabrications. I wish I were measured by my merits as I describe them, rather than how someone else describes them.

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Wading Through Grant Processes

When I was working on my PhD, I remember thinking that anyone who could complete an SSHRCC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) scholarship form should automatically get said scholarship. I got one on my second try, thank you very much, and it was worth it, but I often think that application processes are made daunting intentionally, to weed out the uncommitted. It takes mental and physical energy to do these things, especially knowing that–most likely–there’s no reward.

I applied to the Canada Council three times, all for the same project, before I got a grant, and I kept working on the project all that time. When the grant letter finally came, I had to read it a lot of times before I understood it said what it said. My brain assumed it was another formulaic rejection letter. I put it down and then came back and read it again before I told anybody. That project is finally complete, the final report to the Council is sent, the file on that grant is closed. So I can apply for another. Oh Yay!

This summer, I am applying for grants from two agencies. The provincial one defines “project” very differently from the way I do (or any dictionary does), so I was having a terrible time figuring out how to word it. My planned manuscript is about half finished, but the forms warn that the project cannot commence before the grant start date. It turns out that writing the last half of a project is a project. Thank you, Jill, at AFA. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to definitions, and I’m also painstakingly honest, so you can see my predicament. I want the money, but I don’t want to lie. Hurray that I can apply with a clear conscience.

That application is now submitted, all its four copies, with all its pages of information, its detailed balanced budget, its project description, and its accompanying writing sample. It weighed so much it qualified as a package, so I had to pay $10 to send it. Now, I turn my attention to the second application. I’m asking the Canada Council for $20,000, over two years, and I want you to try to imagine the detail required in an application for that much money. To a writer, that’s a boatload of money.

The application requires a two- or three-sentence summary description, plus a lengthier description, which may fill up to two pages. Striking the balance in these two components is very difficult, but very critical. The summary has no room for anything beyond specific points, yet it must have something in it to engage an unknown assessor. The detailed description, at the moment, is a whirling mass of passion and data. My son says I’m to find a way to mention that the last time they gave me money, I finished and the manuscript is about to be published–that’s The Hungry Grass. He has a point. It adds to the balancing act. I’m going to try to wrestle it to the ground over the next few days.

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Casting the Net

Robert Frost wrote about trees as those who talk of going but never get away. I think of those lines often, not only as a lovely poetic moment, but also as a caution. I’ve been talking for several months, maybe even a year, about the urge I feel for my next major writing project. Some of that time has been spent trying to ignore the idea, to resist the idea, hoping it would go away, or at least back off, but it won’t. I’m not going to lie: it’s a daunting prospect.

The writing phase is a long way off, and I know it will be creatively and emotionally difficult. But first, I have to do the research phase. The very idea makes me go pale. But I don’t want to be like Frost’s trees, talking talking talking. I’ve got to pull up one firmly planted foot and step out into the work of it. I did that yesterday, and it was scary and exciting. I cast my bread on the waters: what if it doesn’t come back? What if the waters throw it back with force?

I sent an e-mail to a person I do not know, asking for help making the contacts I’ll need if I’m going to have a chance of accomplishing my vision. That e-mail was a commitment. What comes next, I don’t know, but over the next few months, I’ll be setting up plans for a month of research next June. I’m putting together a grant application and searching for accommodation. The logistics, all of the not-creative work, are vital. No funding means no research time. Here’s hoping.

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Go Ahead and Ask

I’m always telling students that one serious difficulty facing the writer is that nobody cares if you don’t write. It’s a solitary business, and nobody else is affected when we don’t produce. That only happens when we do. But it’s tricky when someone does ask how the work is going. We often make the mistake of thinking that it’s a serious question, that someone really cares.

Only after we expound passionately for two or three minutes do we notice the look in your eyes and think crap–you were just being polite. So, we mumble our way into silence. Sometimes, it’s really stressful to be asked because the writing isn’t going anywhere at all, and we want to scream at you to stop asking because nothing’s happening and it makes us feel like useless failures. When that happens to me, I respond with some ultra vague generalities. I might say it’s coming or that I’m thinking about something.

The other night, around a table with friends, someone asked what my next project would be, and I started talking, forcing myself to believe that those friends really cared about the answer. They asked some questions. I believed they cared. And I have to say it’s nice to be asked. If you know a writer, ask how the work is going. Risk being shouted at in frustration. Risk a wail of despair. Risk a passionate two minutes. Try to care. Try to make us think you care. It only takes a few minutes, and it means a lot. It’s the cheapest fuel there is.

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No Limits to Perfectionism

I wish I had understood very early in my life that I am a perfectionist. So many incidents and frustrations might have been avoided, if I had known that fact and how to use it. Some people think that it’s a thing from which we should seek to recover, like alcoholism or Catholicism. Not me. I embrace my perfectionism.

Simply knowing that’s what it is that’s driving some reactions and impulses does, in fact, help me to control it to some extent. I understand that not everyone is a perfectionist, that little details don’t matter as much to everyone. And, miraculously, when it is someone else’s work or world or home or clothes, I can let it go. A bit. I can understand that this someone else knows but does not care, and because I know it is my perfectionism at work, I am able not to care so much.

Still, I am stuck with it when it’s my work or world or home or clothes. I had a friend once who said that my apartment always seemed as though I had just vacuumed. I didn’t say it, but it seemed that way because I had. But, my place is always dusty. I hate dusting, and so I rarely do it, because I can’t just dust one room or one thing. Perfectionism is very complex.

This topic has come up because I have written a long poem in seven syllable lines. My reader commented on there being some lines that weren’t, but that they didn’t disrupt the rhythm. I couldn’t leave well enough alone. After all, this is my work. I re-read every line, tapping out the syllables (tapping out the syllables has seven, by the way). Not only does that much tapping make the wrist start to ache, but I found about thirty lines of 2290 that needed an additional tap. I fixed them. I blame their existence on my inability with numbers.

At dinner on Wednesday, I mentioned these thirty lapses to my companion, who gave me a look, and I explained that it isn’t easy being a perfectionist. I said I hoped I would be able to keep myself from doing another count before the poem goes to press. But I won’t. I know me. And I want it to be perfect.

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Keeping Things in Circulation

Along with staying in both new and familiar places, my plan for my recent travels was to listen. It wasn’t easy just to take time to be somewhere and not be working madly on something, and I had to keep reminding myself that my task was listening. Everywhere I went was worthy of that kind of attention, and it was really helpful to grant permission to notice and appreciate and nothing else. I can’t really say nothing else, because I did think about work in terms of new ideas, but that didn’t interfere with the listening. It was all quite restorative.

While I was away, my book-length poem, The Hungry Grass, was accepted for publication, which will happen next year, and the fact that the meeting was held while I was in the very place in which the poem is set came as a sign of validation. It reinforced for me that my writing is a worthwhile undertaking, that I’m right to do it. I know it can be important to write even if no one else will ever read a word, but for me, there are career and professional considerations as well. I won’t go into the personal need to be read. That acceptance letter had more than one effect.

I had been thinking about what to write next, and the acceptance made that decision seem more pressing. Until the manuscript was placed for publication it was still in progress, in a way. So, I thought about the next big project, and I managed to do that with greater calm than I have before. There are two, maybe three projects, that I’ll be working on over the next year or two. One is something that I had allowed to languish, and its back with some enthusiasm. I’m really looking forward to getting back at it. That’s one effect.

Another effect of the news is that I came home with a renewed energy for submitting poems to poetry journals. I used to be exceedingly businesslike about keeping things in circulation, but I’d gotten lazy about it. As I write, all of my remaining unpublished poems are once again out in the world seeking placement. I feel happy about that. It’s so full of possibility.

Of course, it’s full of danger, too–the risk of submitting work is that the work might be rejected. That always makes me sad, but the more I appear in print, the less power those rejection slips have over me. That alone is an excellent reason to keep sending things to editors. My mother used to say that water draws water. Publication draws publication.

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