Evolution of the Poem: at the barre …

pia04937orig1Recently, I was combing through old poetry, and ran across an early draft of my scifaiku poem “at the barre …”, complete with a list of markets that had rejected it.

Now, I love the completed version of this poem, which reads:

at the barre
the graceful arms
of a spiral galaxy

— first appeared in Rattle‘s Issue 49, Fall 2015, Tribute to Scientists

And I was excited when this scifaiku won an award, placing second in the 2016 Dwarf Stars Award given by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

But the poem didn’t start out that way. In fact, the early versions were downright terrible.

My inspiration for this poem came from my daughter, who was taking dance class at the time. One of the ballet positions – fourth, if I’m remembering correctly – had one arm curved over her head and the other curled around her front. She reminded me of a spiral galaxy.

So, I began to research spiral galaxies, and discovered that their arm positions determine whether they are classified as spiral galaxies or barred spiral galaxies. The shape that reminded me most of my daughter was barred – an SBc.

I thought this was a nifty comparison, and conjured a row of little galaxies standing in front of a ballet barre. Such a lovely image should be easy to put into words, no?

This is an early draft of my poem (yes, I actually sent this out):

spiral galaxies —
intergalactic dance troupe
in “b” position

Um, yeah. It’s my poem, and it doesn’t even make sense to me.

But I knew I liked the concept, so I hung in there and kept editing. Barre was a lovely word to use because it both evoked the ballet and gave a nod to barred spiral galaxies. Once I put that word in there, I could take out the line about “b” position (the “b” stood for barred anyway), and I didn’t need to use the word dance. Elimating that clunky verbiage allowed the poem to flow from there.

So, please, my poet friends, hang on to your poems that speak to you, even if they start out rough. Haiku or scifaiku, in particular, can be deceptively tricky to write. Some short poems practically write themselves, but not this one. “At the barre …” needed distance, perspective, and research to come together.

Photo credit: That’s spiral galaxy Messier 81 above, as imaged by NASA/JPL/Caltech/University of Arizona/Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics/NOAO/AURA/NSF.

Four Ways to Outwit Writer’s Block

The key to outwitting writer’s block is to attack when its back is turned. Ironically, when you lull yourself into a safe place in which you don’t expect to produce writing of value, you will make a breakthrough.

How do you accomplish this? It helps to know why you’re stuck. Here are four common types of writer’s block and ways to get around them:

1) You can’t write out of fear of failure.

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page. Shouldn’t writers be able to produce verbiage 24/7? Don’t worry; this happens to everyone.

Write in a different genre, try a new poetic form, scribble something just for fun. Give yourself permission to take your writing less seriously.

As an undergraduate, my professor stressed the importance of long, narrative poems. I became so obsessed with literary quality that I couldn’t write! I didn’t publish any new poetry for nearly ten years.

Instead, I switched to working on creative nonfiction and magazine articles. I started a family-friendly science blog. While researching topics for my blog, I stumbled onto scifaiku – a curious and oddly specific poetic form. Before my conscious mind could take over – and remind me that I couldn’t write poetry any more – I began to crank out scifaiku. It was so wildly different from narrative free verse that it slipped past my mental filters. That was eight years ago, and I am now a published short-form poet, with awards for both haiku and scifaiku.

2) You can’t write because you don’t know where to begin. You have too many ideas!

The best way to escape this block is to write outside of your comfort zone. Tailor your work to a specific market. Search for “poetry contest” or “fiction contest” on Twitter and hit up calls for submissions in places like NewPages.

I made my first speculative flash fiction sale (apart from microfiction) to Mad Scientist Journal, a publication that seeks stories about – you guessed it – mad scientists. I wrote about a sweat sock researcher who got arrested for hiding in a communal dryer. Quirky? Sure. But it helped me to get past my writer’s block AND I made a sale.

3) You’re out of ideas.

Take a writing break. Don’t write anything – not even a shopping list – for a few days. Muses hate to be ignored. Similar to not chasing after a promising date, running will scare your muse away. Ignoring them has a way of making them return to woo you with flowery words.

4) Your writing career has suffered a setback that causes you to doubt yourself.

If this is your situation, you have my sympathies. Writing is a solitary business and nothing is harder than facing a word shortage when you have doubts about your ability to produce quality work.

If steps 1-3 fail, start another creative endeavor, one entirely outside the field of writing.

In 2015, I finally broke into a paying poetry market that I had been trying to crack for months. But by the time my work was set for publication, the editor was embroiled in controversy and some poets boycotted the journal. I found the whole situation so uncomfortable that I couldn’t write poetry. Again!

So, I turned to crafting. Instead of writing small poems, I made tiny wreaths, hanging adornments instead of adjectives. It took a few months – and over 100 ornaments – but finally, the shock wore off and the lure of writing called again. Only now, I also have to keep track of an Etsy shop too!

Do you have a technique for outwitting writer’s block? Let’s talk about it. Tell me in the comments or tag me on Twitter (@MamaJoules).

Have you painted your rock today?

  When my daughter was about two, she was invited to a party with the big girls up the block. She was so excited! One of the craft projects led to the girls decorating a rock.
Now, there’s nothing exciting or special about this rock. It is plain, smooth-faced gray stone, the kind you might find all over your neighborhood, especially if you live near me. I happen to like rocks, and this one has done little to pique my geologic interest over the years.

But I was wrong about it. This stone is special to my daughter. Princess brought the whole force of her creative self upon this rock. She painted it, spread glitter on it, and glued gems to it. For five years now, I have kept this craft masterpiece in my kitchen, on the window ledge by the sink, so I can look at it when I am doing the dishes. It reminds me that things aren’t always what they seem – and that my perspective might be quite different than someone else’s.

If we are honest with ourselves, I think we all have a plain grey rock in our lives. Something that you – and maybe only you – are excited about. Maybe it’s your new fuzzy socks or a song you like. Perhaps it’s an art technique or an artificial intelligence algorithm. Whatever it is, it’s something that makes your heart sing. Something that makes you feel creative and alive and special and chosen.

Too often, I think, we let other people’s views of what we should or shouldn’t like or do color our actions. Others see our passions or interests as plain grey rocks instead of the fine igneous masterpieces that they truly are. And instead of fearlessly throwing ourselves into our passions like only a toddler can do, we walk away, a little sadder, the world less bright than before.

Now is the time to reclaim your passion. Have you painted your rock today? 

Coming to my Senses

I write a monthly naturalist column as part of my volunteer work at a local nature sanctuary. These mini essays are posted near the trailhead to help visitors enjoy their experiences at the nature center. January is kind of a tricky month, because, at first glance, there’s not much to see. The trees are lifeless, the ground is muddy, and the animals are all holed up because it’s cold.

So, I decided to write about using your four senses – sight, hearing, smell, touch – to really experience nature. (You can’t use taste – it’s a nature sanctuary and you aren’t supposed to eat anything!)

I also thought I’d include a haiku poem of mine to illustrate this point, so I scoured my files for a winter-themed poem that focused on sound.

What a rude awakening! Not only do I have very few haiku written about winter, I have just a handful of haiku written about sound, and most of those are spring-themed. I am partial to frogs and woodpeckers, so frog calls and rat-a-tat-tatting show up with some frequency in my poetry. But I am seriously lacking in sensory imagery apart from visual.

I think, for the next month, I am going to focus on sound in my haiku. Care to join me? What sense are you ignoring in your poetry? If you write haiku, does a certain season dominate your work?

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Keeping it Real

I have a confession to make. I’ve been following the reality train wreck that is True Tori. I’m not going to provide any links here – that televised fiasco doesn’t need any more promotion. Either Tori Spelling and her husband are going through an actual marital crisis and have decided to document their troubles in real time, or, more disturbing, they’ve invented a marital crisis to milk on reality TV. Either way, the idea that their children are living through this messy, murky, very public pseudo-reality is highly disturbing to me.

However, as a stay-at-home mom and writer, I have some sympathy for Tori. A couple of years ago, I wrote a weekly green living column for a local online newspaper. During the school year, with my youngest in preschool a few hours a week, the job didn’t conflict much with my mommy duties. But during the summer, with three kids under twelve to herd and a weekly column to write, I was swamped. I found myself looking for any way to combine my two jobs. Could I interview the invasive species sculpture artists that I bumped into while taking the kids to the local butterfly garden? (Yes. You can read that column here.)

My kids and I did a lot of fun activities together that summer, but they weren’t happy about it.

“It’s like you were home, but you weren’t really there,” my older boy observed.

Ouch.

I have the utmost respect for working moms. And having been a stay-at-home mom, I know what a difficult and isolating job it can be. Women who successfully combine the two are amazing.

I was not amazing. I couldn’t even handle a part-time job mixed with full-time parenting.

And so I wonder, as I watch Tori Spelling flail and founder, if she’s completely lost the line between work and home. Is she wreaking havoc in her life for the sole purpose of selling her story? Has selling reality become more important than what is actually real?

I can see how it can happen. And I was lucky – I wasn’t in very deep, just writing on nice, happy topics that weren’t personally damaging to my family. But that experience still left me wary of writing about myself.

My new rule of thumb is that I can write non-fiction, but only after it’s happened. I’m not going to warp reality in order to write about it unless I can do so in a way that doesn’t involve my kids.

How do you keep your writing life from negatively impacting yourself and your family? Do you have any writing rules to keep you grounded?

Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

Self-Doubt

I didn’t win.

Recently, I entered a popular humor writing contest. I read the rules multiple times; I made sure that my entry conformed exactly to the guidelines; I was certain that I had captured what the judges were looking for. I was wrong.

My take-away message? I’m a loser and I’m not remotely funny. I even have the contest results to prove it!

Okay, I know that I’m over-reacting, but rejection still stings. When I first started out as a writer, I experienced this feeling of displacement a lot. Every returned manuscript, every rejected pitch, every contest loss, made me doubt what I was doing and wonder if I should throw in the towel.

Experience has taught me that there’s a niche out there for each type of writer; the goal is to keep plugging away and trying new things until you find your place.

I’ve had some success as a poet, but I went through ages of self-doubt before I hit my stride. For years, I tried to write long narrative poems because I thought that was what journal editors wanted. And maybe they do. I’ve never been comfortable writing longer poetry though. I don’t even like reading it. Give me something over ten lines and I want to edit it down into three.

Discovering a vibrant short form poetry community on Twitter was a godsend. I’ve learned to let go of my poems and stop worrying so much about publishing them. Enjoying the process of writing has primed my mental pump.

But it still hurts to lose. Expanding my writing into a new genre has opened up a whole new avenue of self-doubt.

So, I’m going to spend today wallowing in self-pity and chocolate. But tomorrow, I’m going to dust myself off, hold the line, and continue writing. I trust that eventually I will find my place.

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Inspiration

What inspires you to write?

As a haiku poet, I tend to find myself inspired by nature. And as a mom of two school-aged kids and one preschooler, I spend a lot of time driving. So most of my haiku inspiration lies in things I see through the windshield of my car: trees, clouds, farm fields, a nearby pond.

My process for writing scifaiku is different. I go to a dreamy place in my mind when I write science fiction. Often, I am inspired by new scientific discoveries. Some days, I browse Wikipedia for inspiration. I always follow up with more technical references when I find something that appeals to me. I try to do my homework to make sure that my poems are scientifically literate!

But sometimes, inspiration finds me unexpectedly. One day, I was shopping at the craft store and found this on the wall of a toilet stall. 

Where do you find your writing inspiration?