Three Strikes and . . . You’re Rejected

IMG_8742During the past year, I was invited to join a writing group. At first, I was resistant because I didn’t consider myself a real writer. All of the others in the group are either working on their MFAs, have an MFA, working on novels, or have been published.

My claim to fame? This blog. That’s it. But, my friend countered every one of my concerns, claimed that I was a writer and encouraged me attend one of the meetings. So, I did.

It was a little intimidating at first because they had the advantage of knowing each other already. But, of course, I was being silly because they were great! Over the past year, I have really enjoyed getting to know them.

At the last meeting, I read a short piece. Everyone seemed to love it and encouraged me to submit it for publication. There are, it seems, a bazillion online magazines available to those that desire to be published. You just have to convince the magazine that your piece is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Apparently, that is really, really hard to do.

However, I thought, “What the hell?” After receiving some online magazine recommendations, I did it. I submitted my piece to three lucky ducks. And. . . . . . . . I waited.

One by one the declinations came in (as expected). I mean, come on! It was my first time trying. It would have been a complete fluke to receive an acceptance on my first submission. Just so you know, these wonderfully smart, witty, clever writers in my group receive rejections once in a while too. And, that’s hard for me to believe because they are really talented.

So, I’m back to self-publishing. Here is the piece that I wrote for the group and I hope you enjoy it.

Bad Boys and Bad Books

“Who could ever really be attracted to a character like that? He’s really despicable. And, the plot? The plot is horrible and that’s being kind,” my friend exclaimed in an extremely irritated voice.

“Then, stop reading the book! You can’t get that time back,” I and the others at the tabled responded.

“I know. You’re right, but I can’t stop.”

With all of our most powerful best friend mojo, she still could not be persuaded. She had to finish it, and possibly read the two sequels. It was a national phenomenon and she wanted to know what it was all about.

Why would my friend put herself through this? Why couldn’t she dump this book? Why didn’t our mojo work?

I’ve experienced the sensation of making that one emotional and undeniably intense connection with a story where it grips me in its unrelenting embrace for hours and hours. Then, reality slaps me in the face with “Mom, I’m hungry. Mom, I need clean clothes.” My response? “MOMMY’S READING!”

I know my friend has experienced this same feeling with a book to the point where her family is wandering around in dirty clothes dumpster-diving for food. So, for God’s sake, why?

Then, it came to me. Bad books are like bad relationships. Hear me out.

The first encounter: You walk into the bookstore with a purpose. You’re looking for latest cerebral recommendation by the Fresh Air book reviewer, Maureen Corrigan. But, wait. Your eyes lock on to something. It’s a picture of a seductively styled monochromatic necktie. Something in your brain is triggered. You recognize this cover and then you remember that everyone wants one. Well, shouldn’t you want it too? Then, your heart starts pumping violently when you realize that it’s calling to you. It wants you too! So you flirt with the book by cradling it gently in your arms, flipping through its pages, and smiling coquettishly as you read the jacket cover. Then, you think, “Screw the so-called ‘good’ book. I want this one!”

The rose-colored glasses are cracking: It’s a cold and windy January afternoon and you have nothing to do. You grab your cup of coffee and sit in your favorite worn leather chair so you can have some alone time with your current book.  After the last time together, you were a bit disappointed. Expectations are high that it will be better this time and you will have a meaningful connection. You inhale sharply, your heart races, and you open the book anxiously. After a few pages, you realize something. “This son-of-a-bitch hasn’t changed one freakin’ bit!”  You slam the book shut, throw it on the floor and storm out of the room.

Best friends have gone by the wayside:  Pretty soon this novel is coming between you and your besties. You start declining offers to do things with your friends so you can eagerly get back to your book. Then, they eventually stop inviting you out afraid that you will talk about or bring along your annoyingly bad book. When you do attempt to whine to your friends, they beg you to dump this irritating novel and find one that treats you better. This is the last straw, they’re tired of being ignored and exhausted by the constant droning on and on about how awful it treats you, how unbearable it is, blah, blah, blah. You’re now this close to being one of those girls in high school that dumps their friends for the boyfriend.

The voice in your head is getting louder: Every minute you spend reading this sad, horrible book is a minute wasted. Pull yourself together, chica! You could be spending your precious time reading a novel that makes you smile, feel warm inside, long for your next encounter, that leaves you breathless and that welcomes you with a warm embrace the next time you caress its pages.  

The end is near: You are not a quitter, damn it. But, then, you finally have an epiphany and it forces you to see the relationship for what it is: an emotional tar pit. It must come to an end. You tell yourself that it’s better for everyone – you, your gal pals, your family, and your friends on Goodreads. You sadly place the book in the donation pile and sulk. It’s the weekend so you hole up in your house in your favorite reading chair and wallow in self-pity, red wine and a container of mocha chip ice cream. You begin to ruminate. “Why did I fall for that obvious and seductive cover? Why couldn’t I see the book for what it really was? Why didn’t I listen to my friends and end it early? What if I never find another good book that treats me right?”

I used to be like my friend. I would put up with a crappy book to its horrible conclusion due to my pathological need to finish things. Then, one day, as I was forcing myself to read a particular mystery novel that came highly recommended, I had an epiphany.  Books are for enjoyment and this book was NOT enjoyable. That’s when I said to myself, “You have to schedule appointments to go to the bathroom, get little sleep at night and you’re wasting time reading this twaddle?! What the hell is wrong with you!?”  At that moment, I made the decision that this horrendous, unreadable book was no longer my master. I tossed it into the donation pile unfinished.

That, my friend, is freedom.

What do you think?

An Evening with a Critic

A couple of nights ago, I attended a small gathering at a local university where we were treated to an evening with Maud Newton who happens to be a highly respected book critic, author and blogger. A friend of mine who is in the MFA program at this university invited me to attend and I was very delighted she did.

Being in the presence of actual* writers and MFA students is overwhelming and intimidating. Overwhelming because writers have a language all their own that I can’t understand. I suppose it’s not really a revelation since most professions have their secret languages with specialized acronyms and buzzwords. (I could mesmerize you with insurance jargon, but I’ll spare you.) Embarrassingly enough, I did accidentally discover that I had been using MFA incorrectly. It actually stands for Masters of Fine Arts and not Mother F@#$in’ Asshole. I’m a quick study though. I’ll get it.

Also, writers are really, really intelligent people. So, in addition to using their secret language, they can be intimidating by their effortless use of brain-scrambling words. Words that don’t come up in my daily life and would probably raise eyebrows at my dinner table. Words like hyperbolic and bucolic. I did make a mental note to look up bucolic as soon as I got home from the lecture. (It sounded like a terrible ailment. “Did you hear that Sharon is bucolic? Poor thing.”)

Maud was not what I had expected. She was maybe thirtyish (you don’t often hear the name Maud unless it’s shouted in a nursing home) and petite with a dark brown bob and smart-looking glasses. I found her to be interesting, witty, lovely, real, smart, impressive and introspective. She made me want to be a part of the literary world, to learn the secret language.

After her presentation was over, there was the usual Q&A session. She acknowledged someone in the back and he asked her the question, “What do you think the role of a book critic is?” Or maybe it was closer to, “What do you think your role is as a book reviewer?” It was something along those lines.

We all want to ask the brilliantly conceived question that makes the audience sigh with jealousy, but this was not that question. I’m not that knowledgeable of this new world that my friend has introduced me to, so maybe it was a good question (. . . nah, I still don’t think so). She gave it the old college try (a few times) only to leave the inquisitor dissatisfied. What did he really want from her?

In my mind, I stood up and provided this answer:

Begin scene, aaannndd. . . . . . ..  ACTION!

A review of a book or essay is, at its core, an opinion. It’s usually a well-informed opinion, but an opinion just the same. It’s like a movie review. I peruse the movie reviews in my local paper, listen to Bob Mondello and Kenneth Turan on NPR, and follow Roger Ebert on Twitter. Over time, I have discovered that my likes and dislikes of movies are similar to Mr. Ebert’s (not always, but mostly) so I tend to lean more on his reviews for insights. “Will I or won’t I plunk down my ten dollars for this movie? What does Ebert think?” (I really should have WDET bracelets made.)

Regarding books, I would think it’s a similar process. You start by reading the pans and praises of multiple critics to find the one or two that speak to you. You read the positive review by the critic, read said book the critic recommended, and like it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. If these three actions frequently result in a happy reader (you), then you have successfully found a person that responds to the written word just as you do. (By the way, you can have more than one go-to critic.)

You may have to kiss a lot of frogs (or read a lot of drivel from both the critic and the author) in order to find your prince or princess. But, it will be worth it.

It’s a beautiful relationship because there are only so many reading hours in a day and who wants to spend them reading pure junk? Let your bookish better half do it (or multiple better-halves). Now, you are free to read only the good, the profound, the thrilling, and the poignant page-turner.

A book critic’s relationship to us as book consumers is not black and white nor should it be. Can they make us read a book of poetry or a novel? Of course not, but they can offer some sound guidance and then it’s up to us to either heed it or discard it.

[Standing ovation from the crowd and then Maud asks me and my friend to have coffee with her.]

End scene, aaannnnd….CUT!

The evening was fantastic and I’m glad that I’ve been introduced to this world of writers and avid readers.

Since I’m currently in the market for a personal book critic, I have gone to her website to investigate what she recommends in the way of authors and books. These are the books that I have added to my ever-growing list: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark and A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews.

Only time will tell if it will be a good match.

*I make this distinction because I don’t consider myself an actual writer. I’m a poser. I was a math major for crying out loud.