Guest Blogger Arlene Mandell writes:
“Found tiny brown frog in bathroom sink.” Both the frog and the notation in my journal made me smile. This reminded me that not all entries must be “worthwhile” in the service of self-analysis or material for lofty literary purposes.
I’m seventy-three, have been writing for most of my life, and have cabinets, folders and computer files filled with work. Quite a bit has been published. And there’s plenty that hasn’t been. Recently I’ve been giving myself permission to snip, toss and DELETE anything that hasn’t worked thus far and may not be worth expending any more energy on.
For example, there was the stack of dusty manuscript copies of Slow Kissing, my first novel which I shipped from Closter, New Jersey, to Santa Rosa, California, fourteen years ago. No matter how many times I revised it, it just wasn’t very good. One rainy morning I hauled the copies to my recycling bin. Then I took the ultimate action and deleted Slow Kissing from my computer’s memory with only a twinge of nostalgia for Claudia, my protagonist.
This brave action inspires me to urge other writers to at least contemplate the unthinkable. Have you been slogging through a multi-year project that has squeezed the happiness from your writing self? But you don’t yet have the courage to toss it out? Do consider putting it aside and writing something funny, silly, and/or inappropriate.
Or borrow a tactic from Lynda Davis, a Man-Booker-prize-winning writer who sometimes pens a one-sentence story. For example, Tropical Storm: “Like a tropical storm, I, too, may one day become better organized.” After writing a sentence like that, you should reward yourself with a cappuccino or a walk in the woods.
Another way to brighten your writing life is to take a piece of work that has been rejected many times and ruthlessly edit it, keeping only the liveliest bits. Then send out the shortened version. My “Kaleidoscope” poem, written in 1989, was just published in the April 2014 issue of Waterways: Poetry in the Mainstream. (The poem had been reduced from 67 to 23 words.)
Perhaps you write about serious ecology-related subjects, like global warming or endangered species. Consider detouring to another nature-related topic, such as those tiny odoriferous black ants that swarmed over your kitchen counter after you set down a single piece of unwrapped fudge. According to the extermination company that charges $160 a visit, these ants are invading the nation. Once you admit to hosting this horde, others will want to share their own ant horror stories. You might even end up with an ant anthology.
Another tactic is to pick a subject that no one, to your knowledge, has ever written about before, such as an ailing hot water heater with an ominous Tick Tick Tick that reverberates through the pipes, as though counting down the seconds of your life. Then describe its replacement, a shiny new hot water heater with a little white light that goes blink, blink, blink.
The lyrics to a song from the 40s just popped into my head:
“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think. Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink. The years go by as quickly as a wink. . . .”
Obviously if your main focus is on the Holocaust or memory loss, it can be difficult to switch to fluffy stuff for an hour or two, but good for your mental health.
Should you share any of these suggestions with your writing group? Only with extreme tact. For months I’ve held my tongue as a fellow writer reworks a piece that just isn’t very interesting. I’ve wanted to offer my Thai mantra, mai pen lai (which means let it go) but wouldn’t want to hurt her feelings.
One of the poets writes verses that make no sense at all. I tried, “Um, those blueberries rolling through the courthouse?” But she feels no need to explain. This may be her unique quirkiness or a profound symbolism I’m too dense to comprehend.
Might you consider deep-sixing an ending? Some of us (probably not you) have a tendency to add a summary paragraph or a cute little coda to every piece of writing, just in case the reader may not get the point. A cigar-puffing city editor once gave me a gruff piece of advice as he slashed my copy: “When you’re finished, STOP!”
Arlene Mandell, a retired English professor who lives in Santa Rosa, CA, was formerly on the staff of Good Housekeeping magazine. She has published more than 600 poems, essays and short stories in newspapers and literary journals. Her work has also appeared in 24 anthologies.