Cover Letters: A brief primer

Some of you may know that I edit prose for the Tahoma Literary Review. This submission period we had a little over a thousand submissions; by the time I’m done, I will have read somewhere between 350 and 400 pieces of fiction and given feedback on a little over half of those. (We have awesome fiction readers at TLR to help with the remainder of the workload, and poetry makes up a massive chunk of those thousand submissions.)

Over the past few weeks, we’ve had some commentary and questions on what makes a good cover letter for a literary submission, so I thought I’d address that.

coverletter

First, some notes:

My policy with cover letters is so: I try to only read them after I’ve done with the submission. There are a lot of reasons for this, unconscious bias being chief among them, but because our submission engine defaults to showing me the cover letter when I open the submission, I usually will get a glance at them despite my best intentions before I get to the short story or essay itself.

Literary-magazine cover letters are different from the query letters you would write to a consumer magazine in that your piece for a literary magazine is already complete. But in some ways they are the same.

This advice is unique to this editor and to prose, but I’ll wager it covers a lot of things folks like to see in cover letters in general.

The no nos are easy: Don’t “Dear editor” me. Don’t say something like “most people think I’m drunk or on cocaine when they read my work.” And for God’s sake, do not say your writing is “picaresque,” or that it “redefines literature.” (I don’t know. This last one might be  a personal thing. *twitches.*) These are all things that have appeared in this reading period, by the way.

With that said, here are the YES, DO THISes of cover letters:

Please customize your letter. The person reading your submission is a person. With a name.

Please give me something that tells me you have actually read my magazine and/or know something of what we like to publish.*

*This is a gimme. Our editors are all online, as are our readers, and the magazine’s digital footprint is considerable.

You don’t have to tell me about your story or essay, but in nonfiction it can be especially helpful. In fiction I find people have a terrible time summing up their own work.

Please tell me a little bit about yourself. This is not a bio in third person. This is one or two lines about your most recent publications, maybe.

With all of that said, here’s what my standard cover letter for a literary submission looks like:

Dear XXXXX,

Thank you for taking the time to read my submission. I admire X publication’s [insert unique feature here]

OR

We met [XX HERE] and I was happy to hear that you [UNIQUE THING ABOUT THIS EDITOR YOU LIKE OR WHATEVER HERE.]

I’m a prose editor for the Tahoma Literary Review, and my fiction is most recently published [XXX here]. My nonfiction can be found [XX].

Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing back from you.

All best,

Yi Shun Lai

Generally, it follows very basic rules:

  • Be concise.
  • Be polite and human. Remember you’re writing to a person, not a ‘bot. I’m not a fan of the one-line “cover letters” for this reason: it looks like I’m screening for data points rather than reading for a good essay or story.
  • Please don’t aggrandize your own work or style. That’s what I’m here for, should you publish with me, and your work should speak for itself, anyway.
  • Remember that your job is to do honor* to the work you are presenting to me. So you shouldn’t, as a friend described it to me recently, feel icky or gross about it. Look at it as giving your work due credit. Start there and you won’t feel icky–doing honor to something is not the same as, um, pimping it.

Okay? In the end, I think it comes down to this: Where are you writing this letter from? Are you writing it from a position that says you want to put something new into this world of reading? Yes? Then put that foot forward.

Okay. Now. Go forth and write. TLR opens to submission again 1 January 2018. Until then, ask me any questions below.

*I stole this from Alex Maslansky, bookseller at Stories Books and Café in LA. I have used it a bajillion times and I’ll keep on using it. It makes sense.

 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What Do Your Characters Carry Around in Their Pockets? (Or, Bite Me, #EverydayCarry)

There’s an exercise I sometimes use on both myself and with writing coaching clients: What does your character carry around, all the time, in his or her bag, or in their pockets? I am obsessed with this exercise: It allows you to get in deep while seeming frivolous; it’s about the character’s must-haves, their daily dependencies.

I like this idea for myself and my friends, too: My friend Peter and I used to talk frequently about the notebooks we carried, and the pens we liked the most.

We met as adventure racers, so we would chat about the must-have stuff in our kit–knives, compasses, rolls of duct tape, things like that. As our friendship evolved, we discovered that we were both analog people who liked letters and other ways of putting things down on paper, so we that’s how we got around to discussing notebooks. I think Peter uses a carabiner for a keyring, and I used to carry one around in my bag for absolute handiness’ sake.

There were other things I carried around with the carabiner. The aforementioned pocket knife and notebook, for instance. Eventually, the list of things I carry around grew to include a first-aid kit, some stamps, pen, obviously. It was just stuff in my bag. But I noticed something really unpleasant awhile ago:

#EverydayCarry

Yes. Yes, hashtagEverydayCarry! I am sure this is not a new thing to most of you, but for me, it is new and also highly distasteful. Everyday carry is a style thing. It has its own wikipedia page. It has its own web site. People post pictures of their “EDC”–YUCK!–and, oh, horror of horrors, the individual items seem to always match each other, like some kind of…oh oh. I don’t know…hipster fashion show, if you could have a fashion show for the crap you carry around in your pockets or in your gigantic briefcase manbag thing.

Look, just look: here is the Wikipedia definition of everyday carry, and no, you cannot get me to cap it ever again.

Everyday carry (EDC) or every day carry refers to items that are carried on a consistent basis to assist in dealing with normal everyday needs of modern society, including possible emergency situations.

Here is one from Primer magazine, which claims to be a magazine that is a “guy’s guide to growing up.” (Cue retching.)

Though no true point of origin exists for everyday carry (EDC), it might just have its roots in the old school gentlemanly approach to daily accoutrements in the 18th and 19th centuries. Back then, it was not uncommon for men to carry items like pocket watches, handkerchiefs, snuff or pipe tobacco tins, wallets, and pocket knives.

Finally, here is one from Gallantry magazine. (Gallantry? Gallantry? Really?)

Boiled down to its basest* elements, EDC refers to the things that one requires to make it through any given day. So, for a caveman, that would mean something like: a bow and arrows for hunting, a small blade for skinning and field dressing meat, and an animal hide satchel in which to haul everything.

People. The preciousness. The self-importance. Say it with me. Beriberi.**

Now look. I don’t have a problem with the idea of everyday carry. I just hate the fact that it has its own name. I hate that, for the most part, the stuff listed as “everyday carry” is expensive. I hate that, on the pages that show off everyday carry from site users, it all looks new. And very, very military. Oh, excuse me. Tactical.

I have an “everyday carry.” Most of us do. You wanna see it? Here.

FullSizeRender 2

I know. it’s fugly. But it does the job. Here’s what’s in it, clockwise, from top left: First aid kit. Pouch what-stores-it-all. Pen. Knife. Tide bleach pen, because girlfriend gets messy frequently. Notebook. Calendar with odds&ends (museum cards, stamps, postcards, etc). Now, I’m not going to lie and say that some of this stuff wasn’t expensive. The pen, for instance, was $20. But that’s because I write for a living and I like to feel good when I’m doing it. But nothing matches. And I use the crap out of everything in that photo. Which is why it all looks like garbage.

I used to think I was mostly turned off by how new everything looks when people post photos of their everyday carry. Kind of the same thing that turns me off of the whole mason-jar thing now. I mean, how many people have actually used their mason jars for their intended usage? Why do they all look so shiny? Why are they décor, for poop’s sake?

But then I read this, again from Gallantry magazine:

Nowadays, EDC encompasses all those items which the modern man carries on his person day-in and day-out to ensure that he is prepared for whatever might come his way.

And I realized what it is that really cheeses me off about these sites, this definition of “everyday carry.” They are all for men. All of them. Not a single one even considers that barrage of stuff that women have to carry around. They are all tricked out in black and chrome and titanium, and oh, far be it from me to think that I can’t carry off these accessories just as well as the next guy out there, but damn. Damn. Far be it from them to admit that women probably have this EVERYDAY CARRY thing down to a rocket fucking science.

[Pushups]

“Eighteenth and nineteenth century gentlemen”? Gimme a break. Those fops–the “gentlemen”–didn’t carry anything around. You know who carried shit around, every day? Women. I mean, look at this thing:

photo: V and A Museum, London

photo: V and A Museum, London

This is a gol-darned chatelaine. Yeah, you over there, the gentleman in the powdered wig, and you too, with the gigantor multitool you claim is for “everyday use”–this is a thing women used to wear around their waists on a belt, with their household tools on it. Scissors. tiny book and pen. Keys. Letter opener. Sometimes, a thimble or a vial of scent, you know, all the better to darn your smelly socks with.

Everyday carry for women goes back years and years, you see. It goes on today. We just didn’t feel the need to pretty it up, make ourselves a hashtag for it. And we certainly don’t need to style a whole photoset of it.

Besides, you’re not fooling me, you #everydaycarry people. I know what your real everyday carry looks like, even if you are wearing a Bell diving watch on your wrist and occasionally admire your own pocket knife. If you’re anything like the men in my life, you are carrying around a too-big wallet that is going to give you sciatica, your phone, and probably a tube of lip balm.

Unless you’re Peter. Then you’re inadvertently lumped into the category of glorified packrats, but I see you. I know you use your notebook and your pen and actually have a reason for your carabiner. You’re okay, in my (note)book.

*Uh, guys? You don’t mean “basest.” That means most lacking in moral quality. So…um. Yeah.

**”Beriberi” is Sinhalese, according to some sources, for “I cannot, I cannot.” It is also a disease resulting from thiamine deficiency. Some days it is my personal mantra. I invite you to use it with me.

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

When Your People are Hurting: Part II

Part II: Far

In 2012, I went to Peru with ShelterBox. In the state we were working in, pocket communities needed shelter after their homes had come down in mudslides. And in 2011, in Arkansas, a community needed help after tornados came through their region. In Malawi in 2015, big floods wiped out farmlands and grass huts.

In each of these disasters, before I deployed, friends asked, “What’s going on there?”

I never get tired of answering this question, for a specific, singular reason: People always care.

Even in these terrible, fractured times, folks are always concerned when we tell them what we’re working on. Perversely, they are even more concerned if it’s a disaster they’ve not heard of happening, or if there’s something else happening closer by that’s been taking over the news cycle.

Here’s the hard, horrible truth about refugee or displaced persons situations, whether manmade or natural: Our attention is demanded by so much else, our world so much smaller now, that the suffering of people both near and far can slip off your radar screen before you even know it existed. So when I get a chance to let people know about things that are going on that they may not have been aware of, I see it another way to help.

It’s easy to forget that people still care. While we can’t deny that humanitarian plights are too often used as political action points, we should also remember that everyone deserves an equal chance at life, especially if they’ve been through things the lucky among us can’t even fathom having to experience.

While eyes are on the damage Hurricane Harvey has caused right now, ShelterBox is operational in eight other locations and monitoring several other crises. My teammates are working in Nepal and we’re positioning a team for Bangladesh; our partners are busy working in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and our work with the Syrian refugee crisis is in its 6th year.

The New York Times‘ Neediest Cases fund runs a campaign that costs nearly bupkus. Throughout the year, you’ll see a boldfaced phrase at the bottom of columns or scattered in other places across the paper; it reads, “Remember the Neediest!” Whenever I see this, I think of people far away from areas of terrible disaster and displacement, thinking of those who are the neediest.

Thank you for your support. Every donation helps agencies who respond to crises to be ever ready.

spinning-globe

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

When Your People Are Hurting: Part I

Part I: Near

In the summer of 1999, I was living in New York and pursuing the beginnings of a dream career. That same summer, a magnitude 7.7 earthquake jilted my home country of Taiwan. It was big enough to rattle the neighboring county to the epicenter, where both my mother and my father’s families are from.

My family and I had moved to the United States many years prior, but we still visited every one or two years; my favorite aunt lives there; I have never quite been able to extricate the image of my maternal grandparents’ house, the big house in the country, built around a lush central courtyard, from the thought of “home.” (It makes a major appearance in my novel, published 38 long years after we left.)

At my paternal grandparents’ house in the city, I learned to use chopsticks and never forgot the cool cement floor, nor the rosewood bureau at which I sat and opened every lotion bottle of my grandmother’s, smelling what it was like to be grown-up. In the front of the building, where it met the street, was my father’s surgery. Then there was a small courtyard, and then there was my grandparents’ house. We could hear murmurs of street noise, and I could go through the surgery and around the corner to the breakfast bar. When I very young, I did such things.

But when the earthquake hit, I was far away from both of those places. Later, I’d find out that the great front hall of the country house had collapsed. The house would never have the same facade, although the family salvaged as much as it could, and the local university’s architectural department came by to study the pieces and the construction of the place. The city house, farther from the epicenter, seemed to be okay.

Taiwan house, post earthquake

Taiwan house, post earthquake

All our people were safe. The dogs who live at the country house and guard its many courtyards and connecting pathways must have made horrible racket, that night.

It is genuinely awful to be so far away and not be near when these things happen.

A decade later, a typhoon struck Taiwan, and this time, I was better equipped: I’d just passed the rigorous training required to become a member of the ShelterBox Response Team, and we were deployed to help with emergency shelter. We did what we could, in as rapid fashion as we could, and I was able to come home feeling like maybe I had done something.

Two years later, tornados made their destructive ways through Missouri and Oklahoma, and we got a phone call from the leadership of a Rotary district in Arkansas. Arkansas, they said, had been completely overlooked in the national relief effort. Could we come have a look? We went, me from New York and another teammate flying the even shorter distance from his home in Austin, Texas.

yiinAR

Today is the Tuesday after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas. The same team member who went with me to Arkansas is keeping a close eye on the relief situation as it develops down there, along with another team member based out of Dallas. If all the pieces come together to spell out a story in which our aid is needed, the team will begin the task of deploying aid and helping families.

There’s something unique about responding to a disaster in which people just like you are suffering. When you land on the ground, you speak the same language; the landmarks look familiar to you; you understand the customs and the people. It is a uniquely heartbreaking experience.

And yet–and yet. We should all want for such a time, when we can do good by the people closest to us, by the people who share our cultures and our aspirations. We should all aspire to be ready to loan a hand where we can, especially in those places we frequent, among the people in our neighborhoods.

Photo: Reuters

Photo: Reuters

A friend once wrote that she was delighted to have been able to participate fully in the jury duty process: She was selected to serve on a jury, and got to see the trial all the way through. She came away, she said, enlightened, grateful to have had the opportunity to serve.

Service can be like this. It can be leveraged on us by our state, or we can choose it for ourselves. But sometimes, it lands smack on your doorstep, and then you can’t help but answer its insistent ring. Today, I’m thinking of my teammates, and how close this disaster is to them, and how glad I am that they are there to answer the calls of the people who need them.

For more on ShelterBox’s response to #HurricaneHarvey, please click here: http://www.shelterboxusa.org/harvey

 

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Me and My Headshot

Three things happened in the past few weeks or so that have me noodling about the way we present ourselves to the world.

  1. A friend, upon seeing me at a panel with my accompanying headshot, said, “Well, that’s pretty glam.” I said back, “Well…it has to be. It goes on my publicity materials and on book jackets.” “I didn’t expect that,” he returned.
  2. A friend asked to adapt my book as a screenplay. I returned the request, as far as I can recall it, thus: “I’m flattered, thank you! What are your thoughts as to royalties and rights agreements?” His reply: “Whoa, tiger.”
  3. Making some calculations one day with another friend, I said, casually, “I’m absolute shit at math. I know, I’m a terrible Asian.” Some minutes later, he said, “I have a question: Aren’t you, by making that comment, just perpetrating a stereotype?” Stymied, I said, “Ummm. Yes. Of course. But it makes people laugh.” “Ahhh,” he said, and didn’t need to say any more.
  4. Years ago (okay, this is a bonus), when Jim and I were training for Ironman, we kept on meeting people who would say, “That’s AWESOME. I’m so impressed,” or some variation thereof, and I’d inevitably counter, “No. It’s stupid.” Someone challenged me once. “But it’s great,” he said. “Such a commitment.” “And idiotic,” I insisted. “But amazing,” he returned. “Really dumb endeavor,” I said. He finally capitulated. “Okay, fine, it’s dumb.”

I find myself revisiting these events. They’ve made me consider the way I present myself, and the advice we often see to be proud, to be not afraid of the greatness we can accomplish, to [insert whatever roaring Pinterest quote you want here about being your best you, or something like that].

Oh, sure, it’s easy to encourage that. The reason we must do it is much more complex.

I am surprised every time someone else is surprised by the fact that I have a professional headshot. Or that I’m asking about royalties and things like contracts for use of my work. Or that I demand to be paid for my work. The immediate internal rejoinder is this:

  • Of course I have a headshot. What’d you think, I was going to just slap some selfie on my book cover?
  • Of course I’m going to ask for a contract. Whaddya think this is, some kind of Mickey Mouse operation?

And yet, when you look at the way I’ve presented myself over the years, it looks like some variation of the Ironman conversation, or this:

[Waits for someone else to bring up my novel. Someone asks about it.] Me: It’s just a debut novel. Tiny press. Tiny but mighty. You won’t have heard of it. It’s a very slim book. Some say it’s funny. It’s taught on some college campuses. Yes, there will of course be a second. But! [weakly] It’s a semi-finalist for a major humor prize! 

It’s no wonder folks are surprised that I’m asking for a contract, or that I have a pro headshot. I have set them up to expect something less than professional.

The last two examples I give you, I think, are more complex. They’re still about the way we present ourselves, but they’re tied up in that elephant in the room, the issue of not wanting to rock the boat because immigrants already look different. If we keep our heads down, the common wisdom goes, we’ll be safer.

(Additional background: In my parents’ culture*, it’s bad luck to praise your children, ever. It’s thought that the spirits will hear you praising them, and take the lovely, over-achieving children away. So we weren’t ever in the habit of hearing praise. And getting it always made us feel pretty embarrassed, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.)

That third one is tied up in a sentiment I read a loooong time ago in a young adult novel (was it _The Cat Ate My Gymsuit_?) about getting in the jibe about yourself before someone else gets to it. You see, it hurts less coming from yourself.**

When you look different, you’re an automatic target. Your parents want the best for you, so they tell you to keep your head down and just quietly achieve. But quietly achieving things doesn’t make you any less of a target, when you are any kind of minority in any kind of society with any kind of pre-determined ideas about who you are and how you are supposed to behave. Heck, I’ve never been a great achiever, either in the quiet department or in the regular achievement department, and I’m still trying to keep my head down. It’s baked into my DNA.

And so, you get this: “You’re loud, for an Asian.” “Over-achiever, right? Typical.” “Lemme guess, your parents wanted you to be a doctor.” “You’re a writer? Wow, that’s…unusual, for your culture.” And, of course, “You can’t do math? I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” sometimes preceded by, “Your English is really, really good.”***

And, from my family: “Shhhh. Good girls don’t laugh like that.” “Don’t get into an argument with that person. They’ll make life hard for you.” “Just let it go.”

And so we come back to the advice, every piece of blithe cheer we get that’s meant to motivate and inspire:

You are enough

You are worth it

You are beautiful

Love yourself

No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself. 

 

People, that shit is hard. You don’t just wake up one day and go, “Hey! I’m going to love myself!”**** And yet, we struggle to get there. The internet is awash on how to do so. But no one ever tells you why you should.

loveyourself

Now look, because we are logical creatures and like things to fit together, there must be a reason we are willing to do this. We don’t just up and do these things.

Here’s why it’s important to represent yourself with pride, to give your accomplishments due credit. It’s easy: It’s really very tedious to backpedal from everything you’ve ever said about yourself before. It’s also an uphill battle, and one you might not ever win.

Trust me. I know.

So here’s your friendly tip for the day: You don’t need to love yourself every day. You don’t need to go around Wonder Woman-posing every chance you get, and you don’t need to stick up those lovely inspiring quotes from Tiny Buddha or Muse or Buzzfeed or whatever at eye level all around the house.

But you need to be able to recognize your achievements for what they are. Call them as you see them. Neither aggrandizing them nor minimizing them will do any good at all.

Eventually, you’ll get used to seeing yourself with clarity.***** And that’s a very, very good thing, even if there’s no meme-quote-illustration thing out there for it.

*This is a shift. I’ve always referred to it as my culture in the past, but let’s be real. I’m very Asian-American, and my parents are very Asian.

**This makes me sound like a snowflake, but there’s nothing I can do about this.

***I confess one of the most joyous, freewheeling exchanges I’ve ever had was with a close Jewish friend. We were sat at an Ukranian restaurant having lunch. The check came and I struggled with the tip. Alan barked, “What the hell kind of Asian are you? Here, give it to the Jew!” and snatched it from me. The WASP we were with looked utterly horrified, and we laughed and laughed. It’s different if you’re saying it about yourself, do you see?

****This leads down the rabbit-warren to ever more motivational quotes. “I am a work in progress,” “One day at a time,” “Today is a new day,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

*****c.f. above motivational Work in Progress. Heh.

8 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

An Obituary for My Aunt (Of Obituaries and Passing Regrets, Part II)

Shu Chuang Wang, my mother’s elder sister, passed away April 8, 2017. She is the first adult to have been there for so much of my own life to die. She is the person we relied on when we moved to the United States. We lived in Kansas, near her family, for our first few months here, and those first few months seemed unreasonably happy, an approximation of our life in Taiwan, where our relatives lived just one door over.

 

We were one town over, and I do not have concrete memories of those months. But I know my cousins Ken and Charles, and Ah Yi and Ah Diun, my uncle, were nearby. Later, we’d meet Edward, the youngest, and with Bor, my younger brother, our playing was nearly always a noisy mess, one or two or maybe all of us getting into trouble.

I know we visited Kansas after our move to Pennsylvania, after our move to California. I know Ah Yi brought her family to come visit us, no matter where we were. I know we took crazy American-family road trips together, all nine of us crammed into one station wagon. We kids were small enough to sit in the footwells. I remember being crammed up again Ah Yi’s leg, as she rocked it back and forth to exercise, keeping herself from getting bored on the long, long drives.

I do not remember Ah Yi in trousers, ever. Ah Yi was a perpetual lady. Long after high collars went out of style, and floral prints, she wore them, and made them look like they belonged. She was the great beauty of the family, see, and she decorated her home accordingly. Bouquets of flowers; portraits of her family everywhere.

She loved them like I’ve never seen anyone love before. Her three boys, my cousins, were–I don’t know–people to admire, people who could do whatever. Love does that to someone. Love elevates you to believe you can do, and my cousins can do. Anything. Whatever they want. Nothing is too far out of reach, or beyond you, if you’re loved.

My aunt is big on personal style. Over the years, she’d say to me, “I don’t have a little girl, so I will buy pretty things for you.” And, from Kansas, boxes sometimes arrived, always in time for Christmas, with pretty things in them, or, better yet, accompanied by Edward and Ah Yi, and sometimes Charles and Ken.

Usually, for me, they were sweaters. I have kept nearly every Ah Yi sweater that still fits. My oldest is a good decade old. I got it while I was living in Chicago, and it looks to me like a roll of Life Savers. it is cheery and fun and I love it. I love it even more because my Dad refers to it as my Lobster Sweater. He thinks its striations look like the belly bands on a lobster.

This made my aunt laugh.

The sweaters are always on-point. I picture her, holding one up to the light in a department store, turning it this way and that…”Can I see her in this? Maybe not. Maybe this one. It’s cute. It’s a little trendy. I think she would like this.” I like this imagery, so I keep the sweaters my aunt got me, and I imagine that image, that thought process, every time I wear one, every time I wrap myself in one, every time I pull some lint off one.

Of the women in my mother’s family, my aunt is the most touchable, the least prickly. I don’t know if this comes from a lifetime of living with boys or what, but she never balked at holding your hand, or patting you, or saying hello with a squeeze. I love this about her.

I went to visit her yesterday for Mother’s Day, with Jim. We sat and talked to her and put some flowers in the little vase-thing and clipped a balloon to them, and then we sat on the grass and looked over the view, and when we left, we waved and said, “Bye, Ah Yi.”

She was like that, you see. You could always go talk to her, and leave, and then come back, whenever you liked. This was the feeling she gave you.

 

1 Comment »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Of Obituaries and the Passing of Regrets, Part 1

I spent a good amount of time last week editing obituaries for my day job. While such a task can feel honorary, part of the work made me sad. Not for the passing of the people, exactly–most of them were old and seemed to have lived full lives–but more for the way in which we commemorate the ones who have gone before.

Within the 21 obituaries I edited, I came across several mentions of service clubs and church activities. There was talk of having contributed to community by service on housing associations. Several had served in the military. One talked about a lifelong passion for planes (the obit itself was airplane-themed, tying the deceased’s birth to Lucky Lindy’s flight one year before across the Atlantic). Every single one of them mentioned work. Only two or three mentioned the deceased’s personality, and that, I think, is what really had me wondering: What’s our real legacy in this life? In the end, should we be aiming more for the types of notes we left in each other’s yearbooks senior year–“You were always nice to me”–than a list of accolades, which we won’t be able to enjoy in the afterlife, and which our descendants and loved ones will only be able to keep under glass and look at in the years after our passing?

hp photosmart 720

(via Kelly Davio.)

Last week, my book turned 1. Originally, this was going to be a post about the things I learned over the course of the year. I think now I’ll save that for another post–soon, I promise–and talk to you instead about a guy I knew in college, a writer named Gerald McDermott. To save you from going to Wikipedia, I’ll briefly tell you these facts: He wrote and illustrated children’s books, and he also made some short films.

He was also my first real brush with the world of publishing. He came to speak at my alma mater. I don’t remember what he talked about, exactly–I think it was about mythology, since he was an expert in that–and he also read his Caldecott-winning book _Arrow to the Sun_ to us.

Arrow-to-the-Sun

The most important fact of all is that he was generous. He was kind, and keen to help someone like me, who was interested in book publishing. We had a few e-mail exchanges after he came to talk, even after graduation, and he always was responsive. He made me feel like I could get to that world if I wanted to. In the end, I didn’t go into children’s publishing or picture books, and I think our last exchange may have been–gosh, not long after I moved to New York, I guess, so three years or so after I met him. A long time ago.

At any rate, I still remember his openness. The fact that he was so willing to help. I didn’t know or understand the Caldecott Medal when we met, but now that I know he won it years ago and was a close friend of Joseph Campbell, I am stunned that he had the time to exchange missives with a dopey college student who didn’t know any better than to not bother someone of his…time constraint.

Anyway, the day my book turned 1, I got a wild hair to write to Mr. McDermott again and tell him that I’d actually made something of myself in publishing. I think I owe some of my policy on helping new writers to him, although I didn’t really think of the connection until last Saturday.

We have the Internet now, so I didn’t have to go rooting through my desk drawers in my parents’ house looking for his business card. (I’m sure it’s still there somewhere.) I was super excited to write to him. I don’t know if I really cared whether or not he replied. I guess I just wanted him to know that he had made a difference.

And then I found out he died in 2012.

I don’t think I know how to rightly express to you what a crusher this was.

Gerald McDermott, January 31, 1941 – December 26, 2012

Gerald McDermott was a Nice Guy. He was interested in everything, and even when approached by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed college students who asked if they could be his intern right there on the spot, was unflappable. He answered all the questions and made every single one seem worth asking. He let people down gently, or maybe they were too obtuse to know otherwise, but this is about Gerald.

Gerald thought in big, bold lines and bright colors. His commitment of legends and myths to paper and film made them accessible to probably tens of thousands of people who would have never otherwise known about them. He was one of those rare storytellers who could make the most basic child’s lament come true: “I wish I could see this story in real life.” Lo, Gerald could make that happen.

Gerald had very friendly eyes. He had great laugh lines and crow’s feet, and a good beard. His e-mail style was exclamatory, happy to hear from you, even if there was never a single exclamation point.

This is what you need to know.*

Here is something else I would like you to know: If you met someone a long time ago and they made a difference, don’t wait. Send them an email, a piece of fan mail, ping them on their facebook page. Do this not because I’m sure every author/actor/whatever would love to hear from you. Do this because, if the goal of life is to make it through with no regrets (as I get older, I think this is a pretty good one), you don’t want to be stymied by something as idiotic as “Gee, I never wrote to them to tell them how great I think they are. What a wasted opportunity.”

Who would you like to write to? Why not do it, today? I don’t mean the famous types, either, guys. I mean, the people you just like, the ones who are famous to YOU. Go on. Pick up the phone. Drop a postcard. You won’t be sorry.

P.S. The guy who owns GeraldMcDermott.com now recognizes the former owner of the site by archiving McDermott’s old site on his server. I think this is such a nice gesture.

McDermott

 

*Some of you may know that the selection of McDermott’s book as a winner, and his interpretation of the tales he retold, were under scrutiny. This post isn’t about that, but you can read up on it here, if you like. It’s a worthwhile discussion to have. 

2 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“Self-motivation” is a myth, and what I’m doing about it

Hey guys. Remember when we were back in school, or applying for our first jobs, and “self-motivation” was a thing? Like, it was a quality you touted during job interviews, and that your teachers may have called out on your report cards, maybe.

Anyway. I have decided this is not really a thing. Everything, aside from basic like functions like eating and sleeping, seems to require some kind of self-motivation. Showing up to a job interview, applying for the job, seems to take some kind of self-motivation. Not falling asleep in Comp 80 class: self-motivation! Going for that donut run instead of attending Brit Lit: self-motivation!

Okay, I’m being absurd. Sure. But honestly, I can’t think of a single thing that doesn’t require some self-motivation. Even the stuff I love to do, like reading and writing, requires some self-motivation. But some days are harder than others. And some things are way harder than others, for one reason or another.

Most difficult things, in fact, seem to require external motivation.

I find myself up against two of these things lately. First, I’ve been more than lackadaisical when it comes to drafting my second novel. I’m super excited about it; I just … have other things to do. I find myself dragging my feet at the most idiotic things: it too me two and a half weeks to print out a piece of research, one of those that would allow me to draft the next few pages.

And I’ve been been embarrassingly lax when it comes to my own fitness. Part of that is due to travel; part of it due to injury; most of it is due to injury sustained because I’ve been lax about my own fitness. Basically, I’m at rock bottom.

The second is relatively easy to solve. I just go back to what I know: Set aside time. Make it sacred, and a priority. And then set a goal. So I have a browser window open right now that’ll sign me up for a half-marathon in a couple months.

The first of these is a life-long problem when I don’t have a deadline. Writing things on-spec requires bucketloads of self-motivation. Oh, sure, there may be one or two days where I’ll crank out a thousand or even a couple thousand words, but then weeks–WEEKS!–can go by with no progress whatsoever.

So I fell back on an old standby: the thermometer chart. I made one for myself when I was drafting my first novel, and it worked like a charm. Here’s this year’s version, which takes into account a few things I didn’t need to address last time around. More on those later.

IMG_6241

A lot of people, when I mention this chart, seem surprised or impressed. I’m surprised that more people aren’t doing this. It works like this: The increments are marked off each thousand words. And every five thousand words, there are little awards, like this. Sometimes they’re little: a new tube of lip balm; a new sheet of stickers. Sometimes they’re bigger, like a day at the aquarium.

IMG_6243

The progress is marked by colored bars, or doodles, on the left-hand side of the chart, like so:

IMG_6242

Now, this is a new chart, but an old project, so I’m already at 19,650 words. That’s actually way more than I thought I was at. But I’ll be starting to track progress daily from here.

I’m also planning on pulling the trigger on some accountability partners. You know, the people who e-mail you and say HEY YOU. WHAT DID YOU DO TODAY? Predictably, by the time today I get around to it, it will have been over a week since a friend emailed to say that she’d be interested in being my accountability partner. Which I feel bad about.

Actually, I think that’s probably the more efficient way to look at self-motivation. Do the shit you have to do so that you don’t feel bad about not doing it.

Anyway. Tell me about your, uh, self-motivators below. I’d be curious to hear what you do when you’re in a rut.

4 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A short story

Hello,

I woke up this morning with a memory floating around my head. If you know me in real life, it’s probably a story I’ve told you before, but I’ve never actually committed it to paper, and I want to tell it to you now.

A long, long time ago, a close friend asked her friends to meet her in New York to celebrate her impending nuptials. Now, it wasn’t quite a bachelorette party, with sashes and penis straws and belly shots, but it was an opportunity for us to get together and celebrate our friend and the fact that she was getting married, something she had wanted for a very, very long time.

The problem was, I didn’t want her to get married to this particular guy. There are lots of gory reasons why; let’s just say they were good reasons and leave it at that. Anyway, we were getting together to celebrate my friend, is the way we all looked at it. It was a nice evening night out. My friend had moved away from New York by then, and so had I, but it was nice to re-live our days together as single women tearing around town and being irresponsibly drunk. Plus, I got to meet some of my friend’s other lifelong friends, people who predated me, and I’d known my friend for close to a decade.

At the end of the night, we found a taxi cab driver who was willing to let six of us into his cab (it was his last fare of the night), and since I was staying the furthest north, I was also the last to be dropped off.

The cab driver engaged me in some conversation en route:

“She’s getting married, is she?”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t seem very happy about it.”

“I’m not.”

I can’t possibly detail the conversation that took place after this little exchange, because this is not a novel: I sat in his cab for 45 minutes, talking to him through the little transom window, about my friend and our friendship and what it meant that I didn’t feel I could go to her wedding and stand up for her union with this person.

You guys. 45 minutes. I remember the glow of 2nd Avenue; the light bouncing off the asphalt, gold in places and turning red…green…yellow in other places. Red…green…yellow, over and over again, and we talked about what friendship means and whether or not I should go to this wedding. I remember he had a piece of paper in his hands, and he folded it over and over again, and then unfolded it and started all over, as he listened and gave me feedback and talked to me about what I should do and what it would mean if I did or didn’t go.

In the end, his advice was this: You need to go to this wedding, because if you don’t, and the marriage falls apart, she’ll never know if she can trust you to support her.

In the end, I didn’t go to the wedding. My friend was hurt, and angry for a very long time. I don’t blame her, although part of me knows it was better for me not to go, and the other part of me is so deeply regretful that I didn’t go. In some ways I haven’t progressed past that night in the cab.

But of all the amazing things there were to remember that night–being near my good friend, meeting the other people who were important in her life; backtracking through time, it seemed, to a place I thought I’d left behind–I return to that conversation with the cab driver most often. His kindness; the fact that he was willing to give me some time out of the end of his night (and no, there weren’t any expectations or anything gross like that you guys); his very good advice–

I’m so glad someone out there like that exists in this world.

Now I’ve told you this story, and I hope you get as much out of it as I did experiencing it. It cemented something I was beginning to really actively practice back then: everyone has something to offer you.

photo: inquisitr.com

photo: inquisitr.com

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

HELLO THERE I KNOW I HAVE BEEN GONE A LONGGGG TIME

Hello!

I have missed you guys. Well. I have not really been gone. I have been dutifully sending out a monthly newsletter. You can see a sample and sign up to get it here.

But I actually do have something NEW to tell you. Some of you may know that I volunteer for ShelterBox USA, a disaster-relief agency. Last October, I went on my 10th deployment for them, and I made something to commemorate it. It is this tiny little book:

IMG_6198

It is a book of 10 short stories, one for each of my deployments, and they are accompanied by hand-drawn maps, like so:

IMG_6199

They are meant to be a fundraiser for ShelterBox USA. More importantly, they are meant to be a front-row seat to what it’s like to be in a disaster zone. It tells stories of the people we meet there, of what it’s like to be a witness, of the ways this experience has changed me.

So many of you have played a part in supporting our work at ShelterBox. This book, I hope, will help you to tell our story to others. In some ways, it’s meant to be a way for you to share your commitment to being a humanitarian.

The books are $15 each. Shipping and handling is $5 extra. ShelterBox USA gets $7.50 for each book sold. So far I’ve printed 100 copies, but there may be more if demand, uh, demands it. Write to me directly: yishun(at)thegooddirt(dot)org to arrange for a book of your own. And then share these stories, which are yours, too, because you have helped to make this, and the work we do, happen.

Thanks very much.

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.