How I Found Inspiration in Baltimore

What, no book? Then scram!
No book? Then scram! Benches are for readers.

I am not a fan of cocktail parties. I just don’t understand why I need to dress up in a suit in order to drink wine. Yet, every year I am tossed headlong into the Cocktail Party Lifestyle. I am a member of The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and I am expected to attend the organization’s annual district conference.

I’m a bit of a black sheep at these things for more reasons than my dislike for cocktail parties, however. For one thing, CASE conferences mostly cater to college representatives; I represent a secondary school. Also each college usually sends a brigade of representatives (aka a built-in group with whom to socialize at cocktail parties); I attend these thing alone.

But don’t get me wrong. I like CASE conferences. There are usually a lot of interesting workshops to attend and the food is always excellent. And, because a person would look pretty stupid drinking wine in a suit at a Red Roof Inn, the CASE event organizers always  select a beautiful hotel – the kind with one of those cavernous lobbies that you’d “ooh” and “aah” over if you weren’t so focused on looking sophisticated in front of the bellman.

So the conferences are great.

But as soon as the sun goes behind the yardarm – or whatever it is those Ivy Leaguers like to say – the bar opens and the beautifully suited people start getting tipsy in front of their work spouses. That is my cue to go to my room, watch TV, and enjoy the splendid isolation that I can rarely get anywhere else.

See how great the conferences are? I learn a lot, I eat well, and I can nurture my inherent loner instincts.

In the days leading up to last year’s Baltimore Conference, however, my usual anticipation was replaced with grumpiness. The reason was my writing. I didn’t have writer’s block; it was more like “writer’s meh.” That is to say, I was writing, but not all that well. At times the quality of my prose bordered on the craptacular.

I plugged away, however. Every night I would seal myself up in my office and work like a dog, but the results were always pretty much the same. I found the pattern so vexing that, in a fit of pique, I made a grim promise to myself: I will spend every moment of my coveted CASE Conference Evening TV Time writing. By the end of the conference weekend I vowed to have a solid picture book draft.

Normally I compose all my stories in my home office on my computer. I don’t own a laptop or an iPad, so to fulfill the promise I made to myself I would have to write my story using pen and paper. I’ve never done that before; I use pen and paper all the time, but only for notes, doodles, and story outlines. Another concern: I would be writing in an unfamiliar hotel room. Would the room be comfortable enough to write? Would it be too comfortable? I spent a lot of time finding that comfort balance in my home office and was doubtful I would find the same balance in Baltimore.

But what was done was done. I made a vow. I’d have to try.

So I checked in and kept the “oohs” and “aahs” to myself because I am a Sophisticated Traveler. Then I put on a tie and attended the workshops on How To Build a Better Alumni Magazine. As the speakers droned on, my colleagues and I took copious notes.

“Focus groups,” my colleagues tapped on their iPads.

“A story about a rat,” I wrote on my notepad.

“Increasing circulation,” my colleagues tapped.

“Named Scampers,” I wrote.

“Utilizing your strategic plan,” they tapped.

“Scampers and the Scientific Method,” I scribbled. Now that’s a darn good title.

On it went. By the time that yardarm expression was being bandied about, I had my story outline and was heading – more like sprinting – to the elevator to get down to business.

I peeled off my suit and donned some comfy sweats. Then, to my amazement, I watched my pen fly.

The new environment and the new method of writing I was so worried about didn’t impede the creative process at all. It invigorated me. It was the shot in the arm I had been searching for.

It was then I remembered Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Every evening I had been writing away without success in my home office. What I should’ve been doing was looking for a way to change things up. Baltimore and a ballpoint pen was change enough. I was dumbfounded by how prolific I was.

By the time I finished the first draft, my stomach was filled with happy little butterflies. I was giddy.

Without pause, I burrowed into my second draft. That draft was accompanied by calisthenics of a sort. I paced the room, I read rat dialogue aloud as if I was a Shakespearian actor. I spun around in the desk chair with delight.

When I was done, I was starving. I had been working without a break for hours.

“I deserve a drink,” I said aloud to myself.

Myself agreed.

Without pause, I grabbed my CASE conference ID tags and headed for the exhibitor room, where the cocktail party was being held.

I was the only attendee wearing sweatpants. I also was the only attendee without shoes – because I (correctly) assumed that the journey down to the party would be entirely carpeted.

To their credit, the wait staff made its best effort to ignore me, but I had no trouble flagging down a glass of Chianti and a giant handful of bacon-wrapped shrimp. I munched and imbibed and trembled with joy.

Then, as I stood there alone, rumpled and shoeless, and looking, I presume, like a hobo who wandered into Gatsby’s West Egg home, I decided that cocktail parties weren’t that bad after all.

My Second Repost: My Rejection Collection

It's like that scene at the end of Miracle on 34th Street, only depressing.
It’s like that scene at the end of Miracle on 34th Street, only depressing.

Is it really a “repost” if said post is from so long ago you haven’t read it before?

Yes. Yes it is.

Sorry about that. On the upside, it will appear new to you, and isn’t that the important thing?

Enjoy!

***

A few years ago, an aspiring writer acquaintance of mine decided to share his feelings with me. Just that afternoon he had received a rejection letter and he was, to put it mildly, miffed. The editors at the publishing house were stupid, he said. And someday he would show them just how stupid they were. He would keep this rejection letter and file it away. Then he would rub that letter in their stupid, stupid faces when he was a big success.

My first thought upon hearing this monologue was, “Should such an angry, spiteful person be writing for children?”

I decided not to share that particular thought, though. Instead, I told him that I, too, keep a careful list of every rejection I ever received ­– which is true. (What I didn’t tell him was that my list exists for professional reasons rather than personal ones. I use it to avoid accidentally sending an editor a manuscript she has already rejected.)

On another occasion, I listened to another aspiring writer explain her state of mind upon receiving her own rejection letter. Her emotions ran the gamut from self-pity to self-loathing.

My first reaction to her was, “Why is this person writing at all? It’s killing her.” And, yes, I kept this thought to myself, too.

While both of these writers’ reactions were outwardly quite different, they were similar in two significant ways: First, their responses were strongly emotional, which ­is exhausting. (My philosophy is, if you must to do something to exhaust yourself, at least let it work your core.) Second, both writers found it necessary to understand and articulate the reason why they were rejected.

There can be hundreds of reasons why your story gets rejected, so fretting about why, in my view, is a waste of time. That said, if you must have an explanation to put a painful rejection behind you, my advice is to refrain from blaming either the editor or yourself (which, as I mentioned earlier, will prompt strong emotions, is exhausting, and does not count as exercise). Instead, choose a reason that involves math: The odds are against you.

Never forget that thousands of wannabes are vying for maybe a dozen available slots on a publisher’s list. There’s a reasonable chance that you’ll never get the brass ring, no matter how good you are. It stinks, but it’s true. The best part about using this particular rejection explanation is that it is – at least on some level – always correct.

So now that you have your reason, get back to work. ‘Cause there’s no chance you’ll ever get published if you don’t write and send stuff out. Being dogged is the only way to tilt the odds a bit more in your favor.

My very first children's book rejection letter. Ah, memories!
My very first children’s book rejection letter. Ah, memories!

For the purpose of this post, I did something I had never done before ­– counted up all the children’s book rejections on my list. I once heard that Dr. Seuss accumulated as many as 43 rejections before his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published. That’s a good number, but I knew I had it beat. I guessed that my rejection total would be around 75.

I wasn’t even close. It was 114.

It gets better. I once received a rejection a day for three consecutive days – an event I found so impressive that I had to mention it on Facebook. “Never before,” I wrote, “have I been so successful at failing.” My friends offered me hearty congratulations on my achievement. A few of them even encouraged me to beat this record. (I did not disappoint; a few months later I got three rejections in two days. So WOO!)

Needless to say, if I got upset every time one of those letters arrived, I would have given up this writing thing a long time ago.

This past September I offically became a Published Author. It is my sincere hope that this fact will help me get my second book accepted a bit faster than the first one. If it doesn’t, however, I won’t fret too much; fretting is exhausting and I really should be working on my abs.

A Natural Cure

I saw what you did to that cat and, well, I just wanted to thank you. I also want a peanut.

I love the idea of sitting in an Adirondack chair on a sunny day with a pad and a pen. There’s something so romantic, so wonderful about writing in nature.  So, once in a while, I give it a try.

And then the pollen goes up my nose. And the bugs bite. And the sun get too hot and my hands get sweaty, and, since I’m a lefty, I smear the ink with my sweaty hand – which is not such a big deal because I’m not writing anything worth keeping anyway, because every time a leaf crinkles, I look up in eager anticipation of finding that feral cat that I oh, so wanna hit with a rock because NO ONE menaces my squirrels without hearing from me, buddy!

Ahem.

So I guess what I’m saying is that, when I try to write in it, nature distracts and annoys me.

Otherwise nature and I have no real problems. It often delights me. When the weather is right, I could stand around in nature all day interacting with it in the most genial and stupid ways. For example, the other day I caught myself waving at a squirrel. He didn’t wave back – that would be asking too much, I suppose – but he did seem to take the gesture in the spirit in which it was given and that pleased me no end.

Better still, I have discoverd that actions such as these improve my writing.

I have the bad habit of chaining myself to my desk. Even when my brain refuses to work, I stay put. In general this could be defined as good self-discipline. You can’t just sit around and wait for the muse, after all. It never shows up when you want it to. Since the words aren’t going to write themselves, I muscle through.

But every writer reaches a point when good self-discipline evolves into something that looks a whole lot more like masochism. Nothing’s gonna come no matter how hard you try.

So I pry myself away and tell myself it’s not procrastination if I deliver myself back to the desk eventually. Then I take a walk and wave at squirrels. Doing so restores my overall sense of well-being. It provides the second wind I need to get back to my awful, awful writing and make something that at least resembles progress.

Better yet, such a walk allows me to pursue my new hobby: feral cat chasing. In the grand scheme of things, saving a squirrel is always more important than a well-written paragraph.