Want to Get Published? Write Something Good.

While it certainly is no secret, I usually don’t mention that I have an MFA in creative writing.  I’m not embarrassed or even particularly modest.  I just find that people then expect that I am an expert on writing—when I have NO IDEA what I’m DOING.  Don’t misunderstand.  I get the basics.  And I can even discuss critical theory with relative ease (gee, isn’t that an exciting coffee topic?)  But I didn’t discover any magic, no hidden secrets of the trade, no certain paths to success.

In fact, I can only remember two clear points of wisdom passed on to me from my advisor.

1.  Want to get published? Write something good.

            2.  Want to be a writer? Don’t be a teacher.

The first came after I asked questions about the publishing world, like how did I know the publisher was reputable, etc.  He then told me that there were plenty of books on the market for that sort of thing, and then he reiterated his original point: Want to get published? Write something good.

I’ve somewhat made peace with that.  I also recognize that “good” is a relative term.  There is a market for just about anything.  If I’ve really absorbed what works in that market, then I might actually publish in that space.

It’s the second that I truly struggle to understand.  I’ve been a member of the National Writing Project, a group of collaborative teachers and writers.  I do believe that being both a writer AND a teacher are possible, but I also realize that energy is a finite commodity.  The beginning of the school year always knocks me left of sideways.  Here in the third solid week of instruction, I am still falling asleep in my easy-chair by 4:00pm.   When he said, Don’t be a teacher, he really meant that doing both is nearly impossible.  I could be less of a teacher, show lots of movies, do hand-outs all day, try to save my energy.

But I really can’t do that.  Just as I am intrinsically a writer, constantly trying to absorb experiences so that I can write about them later… I am also a teacher, thriving on the challenge of new minds, enjoying their enthusiasm, desperately caring that they receive a skill that might empower their futures.  Somehow, someway, I have to find the wellspring of energy so that I can do all the things I WANT to do each day, and all the things I NEED to do as well.

In defense of Princess Leia

The following is a first draft I plan on submitting for consideration in a journal of Star Wars cultural impact–What do you think?

My daughter’s name really is Leia.  People always hesitate: “Leah?” they say.  “No,” I say, just that right amount of polite and forceful. “Lay-ya.  Just like Princess Leia in Star Wars.”  I let it sink in, and then I smile in huge hopes that this person in this instance will show even an inkling of humor.  This person, a Barbara or Elizabeth or Melissa, never has a problem buying a key chain with her name on it.  She also invariably responds by looking down her nose and admitting that she has never seen it.  Living in the Midwest, there is sometimes a strange and stubborn refusal to enjoy anything too much, and naming a child after a movie character—why, that’s plain frivolous.

Maybe I’m exaggerating.  Perhaps I’m projecting my own thoughts in explanation to the various responses I’ve seen.  Perhaps the aforementioned Barbara secretly rolls her hair in buns to cover her ears and then proceeds to scold her man with that perfect touch of bitch and sex.  Barbara might even think Leia is the best name she has ever heard, and the raised brow is really her Midwestern enthusiasm.  And right now, I really sympathize with Barbara’s mother, and the terrible weight and anxiety that is part of choosing a name for a creature you do not know, a person with infinite possibilities.  I don’t want to say that Barbara’s mother chose poorly.  I don’t want to offend the numerous Barbaras out there that are perfectly lovely people.

Names are heavy things.  When pregnant, I felt this terrible burden to make the RIGHT decision, nothing too pretentious—and here I’ll be listing names that probably belong to some reader who thinks Leia is the worst name ever, and I’m sure I will offend by passing judgment on her particular name, but then, that is why names are so difficult to choose—like ‘Charity’ or ‘Grace.’  After all, with my genes, how likely would it be that my offspring would actually possess those traits?  It always struck me that the irony of choosing those heavy names left the child little choice but to rebel against any insistence to be like said quality.

What if I chose a name with NO weight, like ‘Jillian’ or ‘Jessica,’ names that some mother somewhere else had agonized over, hoping to achieve the perfect balance between stolid and reliable without being generic?  But then there are millions of women named Jessica alive today; I have a cousin named Jessica.

There lies the crux: names become entangled in our associations.  My cousin would enjoy a distant relation that shared her name, but the honor implies a depth in a relationship that doesn’t really exist.  I like her well enough.  I like candy bars, too.  I didn’t name my daughter Baby Ruth.

A good friend of mine travels frequently to Kenya, visiting her adopted son’s community.  On one such occasion, her arrival marked the auspicious birth of a calf.  She laughs a little, but she is honored because they chose to name the cow for her.  A cow has value; it means food, prosperity, comfort.  And strangely, my association with her has changed how I feel about her name.

Unfortunately, as a middle-school teacher, hundreds of perfectly good names are ruined forever by booger-picking, slobbering, snorting, farting gems that belong to some other mother.  Amanda was out, thanks in large part to the name-sake who had the uncomfortable habit of chewing on the corner of her papers; Miranda had a tendency to flutter her lashes at every male student; Christina screamed at me at least twice a day because I was ‘picking’ on her.  Yes, being a teacher crossed many names off my list.

So why Leia?  Why choose the name of a fictional character from the largest blockbuster ever made?  Maybe because when I was a little girl, I secretly dreamed of being a woman who could say, “Someone get this walking carpet outa’ my way?”  I wanted to be a woman who had the courage to rescue herself from evil servants of the Dark Side.  She was a woman admired by both men and women in the audience.  Leia would never stay in an abusive relationship.  Leia would never stand for sexual harassment on the job.  Leia could change her own oil and fix her own flat.  I wanted that for my daughter.

It definitely crossed my mind that I might be opening my daughter up to ridicule.  But I also knew from first-hand experience that there is no saving my child entirely from that.  Middle-school and life are full of jerks.  If for just those few moments my daughter could remember that she was named for a women of honor and power, perhaps then she would have the courage to face her own Storm Troopers.

            By the way, my daughter’s middle name is Presley… but that’s a whole other story