The Fossil Record

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The Familiar Spirit of the Place

It is the familiar spirit of the place;
It judges, presides, inspires
Everything in its empire;
It is perhaps a fairy or a god?
When my eyes, drawn like a magnet
To this cat that I love… 

The Cat by Charles Baudelaire

It has been harder to focus since losing my cat, Elektra, to bone cancer in January. When she found me—in 1996 in New Haven, Connecticut, the runt of the litter, she couldn’t have been more than eight months old—she placed her two front paws on the leg of my jeans and meowed up at me. Later, I would learn how rare it was for her to behave in that way.

Elektra was skittish around other people. She’d hide under the furniture when I had company, coming out only after they’d gone. It took a long time for my friends to gain her trust and even then she had her limits. She would let them pet her for a few minutes before telling them to stop with a warning hiss. But me, I had her trust from the beginning. And she wasn’t a big talker. She only spoke up when she had something important to say. She’d yowl with her mouth half-closed after leaving her litter box to tell me she’d done her business and that I should clean it up now. Right now.

During our sixteen years together, Elektra became a part of my writing ritual. In the early morning hours as the sun came up, I would prepare her breakfast and she’d eat while I made my coffee. Then I’d walk to my desk with Elektra padding beside me. As I wrote she’d sit on my lap with her two front paws on the desk and she’d stare at the screen and then look up at me. In the last two years, she started curling up in the circle of her tail on my desk and watching me work. When she napped, which was often, she’d use my arm or hand as a pillow while I typed with my free hand.

I love cats because I enjoy my home and little by little, they become its visible soul. –Jean Cocteau

In this way, she sat with me as I wrote my novel, The Blood of Saints. She taught me the most important lesson a writer can learn: patience and stick-to-itiveness. Every morning, we got up together and made our way to that desk to work. Sometimes, on my slow days, and I had them, she was at that desk before me, waiting with a look on her face that just might’ve said: Get with the program, we have a routine here, and you’re late. Cats are creatures of habit. They like routine, a predictable schedule. Many writers are like this, too. We each have our own idiosyncrasies that get us in the chair or, in the case of Nabokov, standing at a lectern, writing on index cards.

When Elektra was diagnosed in September of last year, they gave her two months. But the cancer didn’t affect her quality of life until those last few days in early January. She still chased her toy mice around the apartment, she still adhered to our writing routine but with just one small change. She’d ask me with the slightest, softest full-throated meow to lift her up onto my desk because she couldn’t leap anymore. I like to think she stayed around long enough for me to finish the edits and hand the manuscript in to my agent.

I’m still learning to navigate my mornings—my days—without Elektra with the rituals I have left. I had to put aside my new novel, started while she was still alive. I’ll return to it at some point. The book I’m working on now, I’m co-writing with Camellia. This helps. In a way, Camellia is at my desk with me even though she’s still sleeping—my crack of dawn writing schedule is too early for her. And we have this blog, which is another kind of writing, one that we’re managing together.

In time I imagine that new writing rituals will evolve. But for now, it’s just me and the coffee at my desk.



Learning to Embrace Rejection As A Writer

One of my writing goals for 2012 has been to conquer my fear of rejection. How exactly am I attempting to do this?

Submitting a lot — and keeping track. Before, the prospect of rejection felt so terrifying that I would submit short stories to only one or two literary journals per year. I figured I could handle at most a couple rejections each year without risking a shattered heart. At that rate, though, it could take decades to get even one acceptance. So I challenged myself to up the ante.

Since December 30, 2011, I have logged 31 short story submissions. That many submissions requires keeping good track of which story is pending at which journal and for how long. I began by using a word document that serves as both a current submissions list and future submissions planner. Then I discovered Duotrope.

Duotrope is an amazing resource that serves as a real-time database to log your submissions, rejections, and acceptances. The site maintains individual listings for thousands of literary markets — including print and online journals. Duotrope also aggregates users’ submission stats (while still maintaining users’ privacy) so you can see how many submissions are pending at each literary magazine, average response times, and average acceptance and rejection rates among submissions reported by Duotrope users. Combined, Duotrope and my word document enable me to feel like a have a firm grasp of my current submissions and my next steps.

Acknowledging that rejection is a part of the writing process. I don’t fall in love with every book I read. So not every reader or editor will fall in love with every piece I write. Even the most amazingly brilliant piece of fiction will be rejected by someone. I try to think of accumulating rejections in the same way as adding to my word count — a sign of progress.

Pretending that it doesn’t hurt (too much). There’s no way around it — rejection hurts. You pour your heart and your mind and your time into a piece of fiction, make it as good as you possibly can, send it out into the world — and it comes back to you with a big NO. That stings. And in the past, I’ve let that sting reach deep into my self-confidence and enthusiasm for writing. Which only makes it hurt more. This year, I decided to pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt, with the thought that if I pretend that rejection doesn’t hurt, perhaps in time it won’t.

Reminding myself that I’m not alone. Whenever a rejection does get me down, I head on over to the blog Literary Rejections on Display or LROD. If you want concrete evidence that you’re not alone in getting rejected, LROD is the place to go. LROD includes hundreds of real rejection letters received by the blog’s author and readers with personal information removed. LROD takes literary rejection — which is so personal and painful — and makes it a shared experience. With snarky commentary about the rejections themselves, the blog encourages us to laugh about rejection — which is something I can definitely get behind.

Using rejection as inspiration. Every author gets rejected at some point in their lives. Some more than others. On a fundamental level, the difference between those we get to read in print and those we don’t is simple — persistence.

When I get a rejection now, I immediately prepare myself to resubmit. If it’s a personal rejection with suggestions for what worked and what didn’t in the piece I go ahead and, where applicable, revise. If it’s a form rejection, or I think the piece is still ready “as is,” then I pick the next potential good fit and submit away.

So far, out of my 31 submissions since December 30, 2011, I have received 17 rejections — including one where my piece was a finalist in a contest. But the most recent response I received — number 18 — was an acceptance. My first ever acceptance from a literary magazine. My short story The Girl Who Flew will be published in an upcoming issue of CALYX Journal. And the most important part is, I never could have gotten the acceptance had I continued to be so terrified of rejection that I barely submitted. In order to get that one acceptance, I had to embrace a whole lot of rejection.


Dead Letter Office

One of my favorite R.E.M. albums is Dead Letter Office, a collection of rarities and B-sides. I love it for its quirkiness and raw, drunken honesty. Also, for its bravery. It’s a window into their process, a peek inside the song incubator where ideas are still unformed and vulnerable. And the artist is, too. Guitarist Peter Buck wrote the liner notes, telling the stories behind each outtake. For the song, Burning Hell, an outtake from the album Fables of the Reconstruction, Buck explains:

Sometimes you write a song without even trying to. Sometimes those songs are the very best ones. That’s not quite the case with this one however.

My novel, The Blood of Saints, has its own outtakes, saved in a separate document. One of the last cuts I made is a paragraph narrated by David, the American-born son of a Sicilian immigrant named Salvatore:

My father was a storyteller.  I never used to think of him in that way, but that’s how I think of him now.  As a boy, he’d tended fig and almond trees with his father in Sicily. They were peasants, living under Mussolini. Years later, in Connecticut, he worked construction, building highway overpasses, and finally, he worked as a machinist, grinding parts for military aircraft.  But he was always a storyteller first.

A lot of those early drafts contained placeholders like the above. Placeholders are reminders of some unfinished business of character or plot–moments to return to later as the shapes of the lives of your characters come into focus. You leave them, write through what happens later and then see what might still be missing or not. I cut this from the novel because it was no longer needed. Like stakes beside a young tree removed when the trunk is thick enough to withstand the wind on its own.