Saturday, October 24, 2009

Writing and Memory

A question that pops up in my search stats fairly often is "Does writing really help you remember?" I've even answered the question generally, on my search engine question blog. I think it's clear that, in several respects, the answer is "yes". But today, I've been thinking more specifically about how writing helps memory as a writer.

I've been an avid journaler since the age of 9, which means that much of my life has been documented and remains available for review. That's not really memory, I know, but it has an impact in a way I might never have learned to capitalize on but for a conversation with another writer in a dive bar in Champaign, Illinois back in my early twenties. Over an unbelievably cheap pitcher of beer and quarter fish sandwiches, I mentioned my journals and he told me he was jealous.

I didn't look back at my journals much, and so his meaning wasn't immediately clear to me. When he elaborated, it forever changed my fiction writing. "You know what it was like," he said. "It's right there down on paper. You can look back and think you remember what it was like to be 17, how you felt about something in the moment, but you don't really know. But have it right know what it was like because this is what you put down right then." And just like that, I held in my hands the key to getting inside the head of a young character.

But today, I started thinking about memory and writing in a whole new way. I remembered, today, the first time I met a certain young man. Though it was more than twenty years ago, I remember what he was wearing. I remember my reaction. There are many possible reasons, including randomness of memory or the momentary import of that meeting, but I think that the reason I recall his sweater, the jeans he wore, even where he stood is that I wrote it down. Where I wrote it, what happened to those words, I have no idea. If I ever re-read them, it was many years ago and I have long since forgotten. But I have an image in my mind that I don't believe is the real one. I have an image in my mind that I think arose out of my own words. I have seen it happen with the most insignicant of moments, the turning of my gray moccasin on pale concrete after midnight, things I would never have had cause to recall decades later.

But what does this mean, this memory of the record of a memory? It is not unlike, I think, the way we sometimes believe that we remember long-ago scenes we've seen in photographs. But what is its impact, really, on memory? Does it enhance, or does it alter? And does the ability to see that moment forever as we saw it in the moment somehow eliminate some other memory, the one we would otherwise have seen through the filter of time?

Friday, October 09, 2009

Submission Guidelines...Take 'em or Leave 'em?

I've written before about the rules an aspiring writer can ignore and the ones he can't. Some of the ones that can't be ignored may seem pretty silly (in fact, they may be pretty silly), but at the end of the day it doesn't matter. If your excellent article is never published because the editor didn't like your paperclip, perhaps the editor was unreasonable..but that knowledge won't get you a paycheck or a clip. In the simplest possible terms, it would be pretty damned stupid for you to miss out on a paying writing gig because you couldn't be bothered to read the guidelines and find out that the editor preferred that pages be folded in half (or in thirds, or not be folded).

There are always those writer-hopefuls who say indignantly, "Well, if an editor is going to throw out a submission just because it's stapled, I don't want to work with her anyway!"


You'd rather remain unpublished? Well, okay then.

But for those who want to make a living writing and are willing to invest a little effort to get there, paying attention to guidelines is important. No, not every editor will toss a submission because of a minor technical violation, but you don't know which will.

I've been giving this a lot of thought recently because about a month ago, I posted an ad on Craig's List seeking submissions for my webzine. The posting brought a flood of traffic to the site, but only a fraction of that traffic made it to the submission guidelines page. The ad also brought a flood of inquiries. Maybe, given the fact that so few of the visitors from Craig's List had made it to the submissions page, it shouldn't be a surprise that the guidelines posted on that page were roundly ignored.

I received submissions approximately half the length of the pieces we publish. I received satirical pieces, though we don't publish satire. Perhaps most perplexing, I received dozens of emails and resumes with no information whatsoever beyond publishing history...although the very brief ad text said directly "we don't care about your publishing history or your credentials".

I did, I must admit, dismiss those inquiries fairly quickly. When (several times) I came across a blank email with nothing but a resume attached, I didn't even open it. I even got a little annoyed. But what really jumped out at me were the submissions--and even just email inquiries--that clearly indicated that the author had been to the site, read the guidelines, looked around at our other articles, and then attempted to submit a piece or make a pitch that FIT OUR SITE. Those submissions, because they were so few and far between, made an impression on me. Enough of an impression that if for some reason a piece didn't fit, I responded personally, explaining why and inviting the author to edit and resubmit or to submit another article.

In a nutshell, all those sloppy writers mass-submitting without reading guidelines, tailoring their pitches, or removing their paperclips are creating an excellent opportunity for the rest of you. You can make your submission stand out just by doing what you're told. Of course, the quality of your work will have to stand up to a closer look, but getting the closer look is easier for the conscientious among you when the careless so outnumber you. Make the most of that edge.