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Writing by numbers

The end of December is here, a time for reassessing the literary year. Readers are posting their favorite books of 2018 and writers are revisiting their goals. A writer’s number of rejections has become the new brag statistic, especially on the Facebook board Binders Full of Rejects, a spinoff of the Binders that popped up after Mitt Romney’s tone-deaf comment about “binders full of women” in the 2016 election. The theory is that the more you submit, the more you will publish, and the competitive nature of the Binders site has inspired many to post their rejections with same pride they would an acceptance.

In that spirit, I have been examining my literary life in a more quantitative way. I’ve been logging “books read” for about 11 years now, but this was the first year I set submission goals and kept track of my status in meeting them. But for both books and submissions, the numbers only tell part of the story.


Reading …

I read 54 books last year, which includes audiobooks listened to in the car. Adding audiobooks to my repertoire has not only increased reading quantity but its breadth as well, and that to me is the more important result. I’ve been focusing my audio listening on a genre I’m trying to break into, historical fiction, and from these books I’ve learned a great deal about the mechanics of pacing and the demands of character.

Among my favorites this year were two by Anita Shreve, Stella Bain, about an amnesiac nurse during World War I, and Fortune’s Rocks, the story of a 15-year-old girl, Olympia Biddeford, whose love affair with a 40-ish married man in 1899 alters the course of many lives. Shreve’s death from cancer in March, at age 71, was a wrenching loss for the literary community; I can only imagine how many nuanced and moving stories of hers will remain untold. Her last book, The Stars are Fire, was set in Maine after World War II and stands among her finest.

I also was captivated by Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa LaFaye, a fictionalized account of the 1936 Labor Day hurricane that wiped away most of the Florida Keys. LaFaye chose to set her story on a fictional Heron Key and also moved the storm to July, but the novel is rich and moving nonetheless. Researching the author, I was dismayed to learn that she, too, had perished from cancer, in February.

Imogen Robertson’s A Paris Winter, set against the backdrop of the Paris floods of 1910, tells the engaging story of a London emigre who is taking art lessons on her own in the city of light when she becomes the victim of a pair of grifters. Although one element of this story was left dangling, I was nonetheless enchanted with the characters and the breakneck pace.

My favorite, however, was Agate Hill by Lee Smith. She’s a Southern writer whose memoir, Dimestore, is also a must-read. In Molly Petrie she has created an orphan heroine as strong as Jo March and as vivid as Dickens’s Pip. How can you not love a girl who hides herself away in a cubbyhole to write down a household’s gossipy secrets? Set before and after the Civil War, the story is marred only by its ambiguous ending.


… and Writing

I set ambitious goals for myself in 2018 and, although I didn’t meet all the numerical targets, there were some big-picture victories.

Because I’d written 22 book reviews in 2017, I upped the ante to 24 this year. Unfortunately, I didn’t come close, writing only 15. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent most of the summer on the last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel/memoir, My Struggle. At 1,157 pages, Book Six was not only the longest in the series but also the most ponderous. Knausgaard’s typically frank and quotidian musings are interrupted mid-book by more than 400 pages of academic digression into the life of Adolf Hitler and a poem by Paul Celan. The effect is rather like finding a student term paper shoved into the middle of a suspense novel. The observations, despite occasional flashes of insight, arrive with all the narrative punch of a Wikipedia page.

But I stuck it out, despite the fact my editor did not want yet another Knausgaard review.

I’d also hoped to write more blogs, setting a goal of one a week, or 52. Counting this one, I wrote 24, not quite half that – but still way more than the two I eked out in 2017.

Other categories found my output also falling short. I submitted one literary piece eight times, for eight rejections, despite the goal of 24. But that was twice the volume of the year before, when I only submitted four times.

I had better luck placing my freelance articles and op-ed pieces. I had hoped to write six travel/arts pieces, instead placing 13, or more than twice that (and one more than in 2017). Op-ed essays – for which I curiously had no goal at all – came in at nine, eight of which have been published, including a letter to the editor that made the New York Times in April.

But perhaps my most important goal was to submit 42 more agent queries in my continued search for representation for my novel. When I signed with agent Christine Lee in July, it was after 32 queries in 2018 and 91 overall, a testimony to the power of persistence.

That one achievement, of course, was far and away more significant than all the other missives sent out into the world. But the point is: If you don’t try, you’ll never get anywhere.

Sifting through these numbers, a few scattered observations float to the top. I have a lot of opinions and so op-ed essays, often written at a white heat, are a good fit. I enjoy writing about travel, history, and art. Literary magazines are harder to break into than newspapers. There were some surprises, including an out-of-the-blue offer to write an institutional history.

As I ponder erasing the whiteboard of 2018 goals, I wonder if the numerical system is really the way to go. Maybe a better motivator would be a list of what I want to write in 2019. Or maybe I should create monthly or weekly goals, rather than having to stare at those hard numbers all year. One thing is certain; while success cannot be guaranteed, failure will be – if we don’t send our work out into the world.


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File this under Indexing and Journal


Both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson practiced a deliberate form of inspiration, by referring back to their old journals for ideas. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. describes the transcendalist’s method: “… Emerson spent a good deal of time methodically copying and recopying journal material, indexing, alphabetizing indexes, and eventually making indexes of indexes.” Emerson found these indexes particularly useful for his lectures, because they tied together his many thoughts on a subject in one place, for easy reference. Thoreau, too, revisited his journal entries, particularly as he drafted and redrafted Walden, which would undergo seven iterations before its publication in 1854.

I had both men in mind this month as I began, rather haphazardly, to start an index of my journal. I began by picking a volume at random. One notebook – I use the Apica brand, ranging in size from 5.5 by 8 inches to 7 by 10 inches – typically covers three or four months. Immediately as I leafed through the first, ideas for stories, dreams, thumbnails of people, and old memories rose to the surface. Each time an interesting subject heading arose, I started a new file card. Eventually I had about 20 of these, ranging in topic from people’s names to story titles to various nouns.

A typical card I headed with my grandmother’s name, and the following subheadings: Her aprons; Love/grief/cemetery visit; Memories of; Attitudes and superstitions (“Superstitions” would soon get its own card); Garden; Money. One subject card I headed “Handwriting, cursive,” after finding  two rather elaborate entries on this, in 2011 and 2013, including one in which I practiced the Palmer method I remembered from school. Other card headings included Ice; Thoreau; and Writing, General.

Among the abandoned projects I thus unearthed was an essay about my great-grandmothers and a novel I started in 2013, about a man who collects dictionaries.

The most haunting entry, in 2014, described a dream my sister had about her own suicide. Two years later she would die of cancer, although I had no idea then she was sick – although this suggests she may have suspected it.

This exercise appears to have several benefits: 1. The compilation of related material into one place, for  future reference. 2. Comparing ideas, good and bad, for writing projects. 3. The discovery of material within the journals that might still have life. 4. The assurance that, despite our daily anxieties, a wealth of material exists, waiting to be found, connected, and rewritten into a new form.

I’ll leave you with writing advice I gave myself in March 2014:


Write in my journal every day – check!

Attack this book as though it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ll ever write.

Pursue whatever writing project I want.

Face the earth in all its substance every day with every pore of my writing self open, absorbing, receptive.

Trust that my critical/revision/editing self will be dogged, will be immersed, and will not stop revising too soon.

Celebrate the opportunity to write without giving in to guilt, depression, or despair.

Tell myself, just for now I will not doubt my ability or my determination.

Continue to read and review with the idea of learning from others.

Not a bad manifesto for the new writing year.

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