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From Planet Opinion, Published in Planet Weekly, Thursday, October 28, 2008

24 Jan

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When I lived in Tuscaloosa, I was fortunate enough to write a column for The Planet Weekly. The paper was actually a bi-weekly, and of course I wasn’t paid a penny for my columns, although I was allowed to retain all rights to the essays so long as I acknowledged they appeared first in The Planet Weekly. My time with the paper was a good time, and I did benefit from the experience in that it kept me writing consistently about topics I normally would never have considered if I hadn’t had a deadline for a byline.

So as I go forward this year, I thought I’d post some of those essays as I am working on combining them for a book. Since this is January, I couldn’t think of a better one to begin with than this one on Goals. It is neat to read this now and to see the goals I have achieved and the ones I am still working on, as well as the ones I either gave up on or shifted my focus to other areas. Then again, when setting goals, flexibility is important. But I do believe for aspiring writers there are work habits espoused in this essay that can help.  I hope this makes a difference in your writing year, and that you will share that difference with your CommentsJPEG BookCover God'sNWCD AutographingTBIBjpegalligatorstewfrontcover96dpi1.jpg

http://www.theplanetweekly.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=400&Itemid=53

 I do not believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are too easily made and too easily broken. I do believe, however, in carefully setting ……

PLANET OPINION

C.D. Mitchell

Goals

     I do not believe in New Year’s resolutions. They are too easily made and too easily broken. I do believe, however, in carefully setting and planning goals. Every January I look in my journal at the goals I set for myself on New Year’s Day. I believe in short-term and long-term goals. So each year I reset my short-term goals and assess my progress towards my long-term goals. For my long-term goals, I usually set five and ten year benchmarks. This past year I was blessed to achieve my ten-year goals that I had set back in 1997.

     It is time to start over.

     We need to have a vision of ourselves and what we hope to achieve. After we set our goals, we must have faith in our ability to make our goals reality. Because only hard work and dedication will ever pay off, you must have a work ethic. Tenacity and honesty go hand-in-hand. Your will to achieve your goals must outweigh your resistance to those goals, and only you can assess that will.

Honesty with yourself is vital when setting your goals, whether long or short-term. Your goals must be reasonable and attainable, yet they must be a challenge. You have to be honest with yourself both when setting goals, and then later, when you assess your attempts to make your goals reality.

     A thin line separates the gray area that exists between confidence and arrogance. Success will be seen with bitterness and jealousy, and you will learn that your friends will be eager to claim your success has fallen into your lap. They will fail to acknowledge the hard work you have done to achieve that success.

     I measure my success by how closely I come to accomplishing my goals. Here once again is where honesty with one’s self becomes vital. If you did not attain your goals for the year, you must ask yourself why. Is my failure due to my effort, or circumstances I cannot control?  If the failure is due to my lack of effort, is my goal that important to me after all? Have I set a goal that really doesn’t matter? If missing my mark is not due to a lack of effort, then have I set a goal that is unattainable? Or have other factors that were unforeseeable intervened — factors that are not likely to occur again?

     Once again, you must be brutally honest with yourself when assessing your efforts to achieve your goals and when assessing whether your goals are attainable. Perseverance is the one thing we have absolute control over. If after assessing your efforts you decide the goal is still important to you and worth the effort, then perseverance comes into play.

     Goals are unattainable without perseverance.

     There must be a relationship between your long-term and short-term goals. They must work together. One of my long-term five year goals is to win a major writing competition. In order to achieve this five-year goal, I have set an annual mark of entering at least thirty contests each year. Over the course of five years, that will place my writing in 150 contests. If at the end of five years I can look back and say that I faithfully entered my writing into these contests and still did not win, then the fault is mine. I will need to do something to improve my writing, or give up altogether.

     But I will have made a reasonable effort towards accomplishing this goal.

     So after all this preaching, what are my short and long-term goals?

     My ten-year goals are to be a tenured professor in a creative writing program of national importance and to own my own home. I also want to have at least four books of fiction and nonfiction published by that time. My writing income should be enough to sustain me at that point although I will continue to teach because I love teaching.

For my five-year goals I want to be employed in a tenure track job in a creative writing program of national importance in a town where I will feel comfortable completing my life and career. I want to have an agent and have my first books of fiction and nonfiction published and my second books of fiction and nonfiction written and in the hands of my agent. I want to have won at least one major national competition with both my fiction and nonfiction. I want to be debt-free.

For the coming year I have set my annual goals that I hope will help me achieve my long-term five and ten-year goals. I will submit my stories relentlessly to contests. To document my efforts, I will record each submission and make sure that I have entered at least thirty contests before the year is out. I want to have my first book published this year and to finish my memoir. To achieve this goal I have submitted my fiction manuscript to several publishers and contests and will aggressively submit this manuscript the rest of the year to contests, publishers, and agents. I will attend writer’s conferences where publishers and agents are present and available for manuscript consultations. This will put my work in the hands of people who will either buy it or tell me what I can do to make it more marketable. While attending these conferences I will study with some of the best writers and teachers of writing in the country in order to continue to improve at my craft.

     I will work diligently to finish my memoir and to submit the essays and the finished manuscript for publication. After I finish the memoir — which is over half-written — I will begin a new novel that I hope to have started before the end of this year.

     In order to find a tenure track job in five years and to be tenured in ten, I will aggressively apply for tenure track jobs listed with the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Higher Education Jobs Web-site. I will send out at least fifty job applications every year. I have already met this quota for the coming year and will likely double my effort before the month of May has arrived.

Once again, here is where honesty and perseverance pay off. In order to land a tenure track job, I will have to have at least one book published. I cannot just go out and publish a book. Having a book accepted for publication isn’t like saying I will go outside and cut down the fifty trees that line my backyard. The act in itself depends upon someone else. However, if I persevere and diligently send my work out for consideration and constantly strive to make myself a better writer by studying my craft, by reading the works of other great authors, by attending writer’s conferences and visiting with agents and publishers, I know I will achieve my goals.

     In 1997, I was tired of building houses for a living. As a goal, I decided that within five years I would return to graduate school, and that within ten years I would be teaching at a major university. In 2002, I began graduate studies that culminated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree from the University of Memphis in May of 2006. I began teaching at the University of Alabama last fall.

     I did not achieve these goals without hard work, perseverance, and sacrifice. And these goals are not something that will ever win me a national award for effort or achievement. But they were goals I set for myself and worked hard to accomplish, and I can look back now with satisfaction at the past ten years. Once again, honesty is the most important quality of all. You must be honest in setting your goals; you must be honest in assessing your efforts to achieve those goals, and you must be honest with yourself when assessing your willingness to sacrifice in order to achieve those goals.

     I have adopted some lofty and difficult tasks for myself over the next few years. As I said earlier, there is a thin line between confidence and arrogance. I believe arrogance is expecting your goals to occur without making the necessary effort. Confidence means having faith in the old adage that good work habits will outdo talent every time. It means that I have carefully thought out my goals and the steps necessary to achieve those goals, and that I am well on my way to making sure my goals become reality.

     I am not a dreamer. I set a goal and chart a careful path and do everything I can to stay on that path. That path will lead to success, and that success is defined by me.

     So you may laugh at my words today. I wouldn’t blame you if you did. After all, the goals I have set would challenge many writers with far more talent than I have. But I haven’t set my goals based upon my meager talents. I have set my goals based upon my willingness to do the work and make the sacrifices necessary to make those goals reality. You still may not be convinced, especially if you don’t know me personally. But those who do know me will be coming to my home in five years to get an autographed copy of my first book.

 

CD Mitchell can be reached for comments or questions at: mitchell461961@yahoo.com

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The Story Behind the Stories: Healing Waters.”

30 Sep

The Story behind the Story: Healing Waters

Healing Waters was a story I have wanted to write for a long time. I have always been fascinated with the healing springs we have all over Arkansas, from Eureka Springs to Hot Springs. Hot Springs is an especially fascinating area. I love how one can walk up to the fountains within the national park while carrying their own jugs, and each fountain is labeled as to the disease it purportedly cures. There has to be other hot springs in and around the area that are not located within the national park.

Ginseng has also been another of the Arkansas native plants that have fascinated me. I remember fishing at Lee Creek  up around Devil’s Den and seeing the hill folks walking out with sacks of the herb. I recently traveled to Lee Creek and posted pictures of my old fishing holes.

But what finally served as the catalyst for this story was a picture taken by Chicago Photographer Jennifer Moore. The picture was of a lady standing in the ankle deep waters of a pool in a creek. Jennifer had sent me the picture and asked if I’d be interested in doing a story, and this one was born. Here is a link to the picture as it appears on Jennifer’s website:
http://jmooreart.com/artwork/2731364_Untitled.html

The picture gave me an idea for the story I wanted to write—a story that would include the healing springs and one of the most fascinating herbs in the state—ginseng.

I immediately began researching the springs in the state and the growing and harvesting of ginseng. I had an idea of how the story would go, and the basic structure of the story is what I began with. I just wasn’t sure how to end the story.

While in Neil Connelly’s Forms of fiction class at McNeese State University, I did a paper on the Indiana Review and the stories within. That paper taught me the best way to end a story was on an image or action of a character. The image or action should somehow sum up, or stand as a metaphor, for the heart of, or for a major theme of the story. Many times I will have an idea for a story, but not know where to end or begin. When that happens, I just start writing, from the beginning, and I trust in my own editorial skills to help me edit the story later. One tactic that seems to work well for me is to begin at the point where the greatest tension of the story is created. Or instance, in a story titled Alligator Stew published in Real South I began the story in the first draft giving exposition about all of the characters. Later, the main character receives a phone call from his daughter’s boyfriend. He tells the father to say good-by to the daughter as he is about to kill her. The father then has to wait for what seems an eternity to learn what happens. I switched the order of events when editing to allow the phone call to happen in the first paragraph.  Then as I am revealing the back-story, the tension is always there. The reader is expecting you to get back to the issue and resolve it, and the time you take away from the issue truly represents the time the character is left hanging in the story.

So I decided to begin this story with my ginseng farmer catching a girl crawling through his fence and onto his property. He believes she is stealing his ginseng, but the photos are inconclusive. This creates tension. I wrote the story through to one possible ending where he sees her swimming in the creek and jumps in with her. I liked that ending because he had not been swimming since he had helped his wife in the creek before her death. The act of swimming seemed to be a good act that stood for his change in thinking.

When I sent the story to Jennifer Moore, the original ending had my preacher stripping his clothes and diving in. Jennifer commented in an email that she had seen that one coming. I knew that ending had to go, because foreseeability is the kiss of death for literary fiction. An ending, according to John Dufresne, must be unforeseeable, but also inevitable. The reader should never be able to guess what will happen, but when it does, they should nod their heads in agreement that it could not have ended any other way.  I didn’t have that ending yet, and I knew I needed to end on an action that somehow summed up the story. The planting of the ginseng seeds seemed to be a running theme for faith as the story took shape, so I started brainstorming on how to end the story with the planting of the seeds.

Extensive research was necessary to make sure I had the right biological information, and my new friend, Madison Woods, the author of  a blog titled “Where fantasy Meets the Wild Ozarks” was a tremendous source of information. My former biology teacher, Ms. Sandy Tedder, knew I was writing a story about ginseng and sent me this link to Ms. Woods’ blog:

http://www.wildozark.com/to-find-american-ginseng-in-the-woods-find-the-indicator-plants-first-ozarks-nature-wildozark/

Ms. Woods was kind enough to read and review the story for biological accuracy, and she even provided some additional details I picked up from her website—for instance the reference to maidenhair and christmas ferns. A link to her blog is posted on the blog page of my website.

I also did a bit more research on the crystals that are found in and around the Hot Springs area. I wanted to use those in the story also, but had problems finding a way to make them relevant. I firmly believe if something appears one time in a story and it can be removed without requiring a change anywhere else, it should be edited out. I talked about the crystals but made no other reference to them in the story. Then I realized as I was revising the end that I could refer to her eyes shining like crystals, and that allowed me to leave the reference in the story.

I had originally worried that none of my readers would catch that she was an apparition at the end and not a real being. If they thought she was real, they would have criticized my preacher for not going in to get her. But he hadn’t swam in the creek since Little Daisy Belk had died, and he wasn’t going to jump in for this stranger, even if he had the hots for her. For some reason, although I think there was a possibility of romance there, I liked his steadfastness in not swimming in the creek at the end, and not questioning what he had witnessed. To me, his not questioning whether what he saw was real was the greatest leap of faith he made during the story. Seeing the ginseng up on the side of the creek bank also allowed him to focus elsewhere, and to think of Daisy.

This is a story I could easily go back and make a novel of, and perhaps one day I will.

CD Mitchell: Why I Write Southern Sacrilege

5 Aug

Why I write Southern Sacrilege

By CD Mitchell

 

I wrote my first story when I was ten years old. It sucked, but all first drafts suck, and I have several stories in their tenth or fifteenth revision that still suck. I have a book coming out soon, but that doesn’t make me a good writer. In fact, when I teach college composition, I always tell my students I am no different from them—I am simply a struggling writer seeking to improve every day—constantly trying to understand why I feel this urge to spell out my thoughts and feelings and to spill my guts to the world so they can judge and label me.

Growing up in the south has shaped me into that creature that many writers do not want to become—a southern writer. The proverb is that one should write what we know. I know life in the south, as I was born and raised there. That is what I write about. Unlike many others who would shun this title, I not only seek it out, but am proud of it. I am not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath with other southern writers before me, but to simply imagine myself as a “southern writer” is nearly as great as the dreams I had as a child of playing in a World Series for the Cardinals or flying F-15’s against the Communists.
Due to bind luck and sheer determination, I will have a story collection released in September, 2013. My stories are steeped with religious themes and sexuality—even a bit of erotica–and none of them have the kind of ending that would send a Bible-thumping Pentecostal shouting down the aisles over “Gawd’s” many blessings. In fact, I have been accused of writing these stories to piss off preachers, and one lady even suggested that to write stories like this a preacher must have really hurt me.

So I got to thinking and wondering why religion is so prevalent in southern literature and in my own work.

To my ancestors, religion is a family business, just like carpentry. Nearly as many of my fifty odd first cousins went into religion for a living as they did carpentry and the building trades. My mother carried us off to church every time the doors opened, and she refused to let us go to church anywhere else. As children we used to play “Church,” and being raised in a Pentecostal church is a bit different from any other religion. They are over-bearing, obnoxious, judgmental, condescending, loud, enthusiastic, and wonderful people. They believe that each soul has a special calling and work to do for the lord. At a recent family reunion, one of my “Christian” aunties grabbed me and pulled me off to the side.
“Son,” she said. “I have felt a special burden for you lately, and I have been praying for you every day. When are you gonna give in and follow the lord’s calling for your life?”

She was one of the many that believed I would make a great preacher. But like the comedian Rodney Carrington noted, I’d have been a great preacher, just a bad example.

“I have found my calling,” I replied. “And I am doing the lord’s work with a dogged determination.”
“Oh, thank you, Jesus,” she said. “And what is that calling, son?

“God has called me to go out and do shit on Saturday night to give you people things to pray about on Sunday morning.”
“Git away from me you rotten scoundrel,” she said. She laughed as she walked away, but I don’t think she meant it.

I should have told her God has called me to write about the insanity of religion.

My family believe in fearing God, and they believe in scaring children into worshipping God. Many nights I went home scared to sleep after a Sunday night service.
Recently I revealed this truth to my mother, who simply replied, “Well, if you’d been right with the lord, you wouldn’t have had any reason to be scared, would ya?”

They had a clichéd, one-line response, usually including some reference to scripture, for every situation

After giving a friend a copy of an anthology that published one of my stories to place in the waiting room of his office, I was later told he removed the book because the opening paragraph referred to an incident of incest. He feared the story might offend some of his more conservative clients. I am sure the last entry of my new story collection, where the preacher gets bent over in the baptism tank by his head deacon while they engage in anal sex after baptizing souls all Sunday, will not be placed in the waiting room either.

Someone even asked me why I had to write “such blasphemy?”

I wasn’t sure, but I think I found my answers in the essays of Flannery O’Connor.

While traveling recently I stumbled upon Andalusia, Miss O’Connor’s home. I immediately performed a U-turn and drove up the long driveway. I had visited Rowan Oaks and the Hemingway/Pfieffer museum, but neither affected me the way that walking on the grounds of Andalusia affected me.

I walked into the front door and grabbed a pen to sign the register. The historian began his speech, and I asked him to wait, as I was a bit star-struck at the moment. I wanted to remove my shoes, as I truly felt like I was walking on holy ground. The greatest insights I received from this visit came later as I read her essays collected and edited by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald into a book titled Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. On page 142 I found an essay titled “The Church and the Fiction Writer” that held all the answers to my questions.

In this essay, Miss O’Connor speaks of the Catholic Church, but any religion could be substituted. For me I substitute all religious organizations. My interpretations of Miss O’Connor’s words in this essay are my own—the same way that believers interpret and twist the Holy Scriptures to support their own beliefs. I welcome comment or dissension on my interpretations of these holy scripts.

Miss O’Connor seems to say on P.145 that the church believes that, whatever the religious writer CAN see, “there are certain things that he should not see, straight or otherwise.” She observes that it is supposed by believers that writers should write fiction in a way to “prove the truth of the Faith, or at the least, to prove the existence of the supernatural” (145).  This would require the fiction writer to substitute the “parochial aesthetic and cultural insularity” of the church for his own vision of his art, and is also one of the gravest forms of censorship.

This seems to be exactly the response I have encountered. Because my first story spoke of incest, someone may be offended. But as a former prosecutor and defense attorney, I can tell you that any southern circuit court docket is loaded with such cases. I suspect the same is true for the north as well.

But Miss O’Connor notes that “what the fiction writer will discover…is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interest of abstract truth” (146).

The artistic writer will reveal his truth as he sees it, and he will refuse to allow anyone else to substitute their version of the truth for his. If the reader is not satisfied with my version of the truth, they can always read a book by Joel Osteen. O’Connor explains that such a writer “in so far as he has the mind of the church, will see from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery.” But on P. 146 she notes that “to the modern mind, as represented by Mr. Phillip Wylie, ‘this is warped vision which bears little or no resemblance to the truth as it is known today.’”  She suggests that the problem for the Catholic fiction writer is discovering the “presence of grace as it appears in nature” and not allowing his faith to become “detached from his dramatic sense and from his vision of what-is.”
Hemingway spoke of writing true sentences. O’Connor speaks of writing true nature, and that grace must appear from these observations, not be imposed upon them by the writer—that is, if the writer seeks to create true art. When O’Connor speaks of writing “nature,” she speaks of writing as the real world exists—not writing subject to a superimposed religious aesthetic.

Her words further indicate a belief that the Catholic reader—substitute Religious reader here once again—has separated “nature” and “grace” and “reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché” and that he recognizes “nature in literature only in two forms, the sentimental and the obscene” (147). Here she makes an incredible comparison of the sentimental to pornography. She defines sentimentality as “an excess, a distortion of sentiment usually in the direction of an overemphasis on innocence.” That overemphasis tends to distort sentimentality into its opposite, the obscene.   O’Connor notes that we come to grace because of our fall. I believe she is saying that sentimental writing omits the concrete reality of our sins in order to arrive at a “mock state of innocence.” She compares this process to pornography, which she claims separates “the connection of sex to its hard purpose, [reproduction]  and so far disconnects it from its meaning in life as to make it simply an experience for its own sake.” O’Connor says in essence, that pornography is simply another form of sentimentality. However, although I believe the religious reader will embrace the pornography of the imposed religious aesthetic and the sentimental nature of the fiction forged by this imposition, they refuse to accept this writing—I refuse to call it literature–as being as obscene as any form of pornography!

“When fiction is made according to its nature, it should reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality” (148). Grace must be revealed, she seems to be saying, by the true situations we face everyday. I can tell you from my own experience, the one-line clichéd answers tossed at me whenever I questioned religion do not fix these situations. “A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it” (150).

Any good preacher would here, after offering his verses as authority and his explanations as guiding principles, announce he was closing before offering his altar call.
My stories pull no punches. Make no apologies, and respect no persons. I write about life as I see it, and I write about the people that religion has failed. “It is when the individual’s faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life” (151).

On the last page of her essay Miss O’Connor explains that “the serious fiction writer will think that any story that can be explained by the adequate motivation of its characters, or by a believable imitation of a way of life, or by a proper theology, will not be a large enough story to occupy himself with” (153). If mother’s one-line clichés can explain away the heart of the story, why write it? I believe in the last paragraph of the essay, that Miss Flannery O’Connor instructs the writer who aspires to write true fiction to go beyond the point where religion has the answers: “…the meaning of his story does not begin except at a depth where these things have been exhausted” (153).

After submitting Job to horrendous trials in order to win a bet he made with the devil himself, God replaced all he took from Job with excess and abundance. If God had not rewarded Job, the story would have been completely different. I write about those God forgot to reward after their trials, those whose mistakes have left them suffering from burdens from which they can find no relief, or who suffer from burdens that, like Job’s, were created from no fault of their own. These are the characters who are truly challenged to find grace. If the reader’s faith is not strong enough to read these stories and receive the messages contained therein, then perhaps the stories can somehow bring them, to a closer walk with God. If not, they will find themselves as lost as the characters I have created. Of course, they can always read a book by Joel Osteen.
Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof!