On Keeping a Notebook

“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”

So writes Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which seems to be frequently assigned in graduate-level English classes, so that I was able to snatch this quote off the internet as soon as I determined this morning to write about notebooks. Apparently, when she wrote this piece, keeping a notebook was rare (although no, it wasn’t), or the distinction between notebook and diary had to be made explicit. As far as this quote goes, I say: speak for yourself, Joan.

But to say “speak for yourself,” to Joan Didion is so much a tautology than I can scarcely think of another example, unless it were, say, “Spell it out, Sesame Street.”

I keep a notebook and admit that I am lonely and a malcontent (perhaps another tautology?) but I dispute “resistant rearranger of things” because I’m not sure what it means, and “presentiment of loss” as a child because, in the case of my childhood, it was not a presentiment, but an observation.

I have been thinking lately about notebooks, not only because they are the only things I hoard – I have come to terms with that – and not only because I recently, after several stressful weeks at the day job, rewarded myself by breaking out the fanciest notebook in my hall closet collection.

It is this one, a Japanese notebook from the bookstore Kinokuniya across from Bryant Park. I would say more about the brand but alas, the product information is in Japanese. This notebook weighs too much and costs too much but otherwise, it fits all the criteria for an ideal notebook. It does not impede the flow of writing. It lies flat. The paper is soft enough to be pleasant to the hand resting on it. (The paper in this Kinokuniya notebook is the softest thing I have ever felt that is not fabric, skin or fur.) It is quick to seize ink. It resists a tear (in both senses.) And the notebook itself is sturdy enough to survive the apparent turmoil of the life inside of my handbag.

In the Poetry Folio newsletter released today from Atticus Review that landed in my inbox this morning, poet Michael Meyerhofer reminisced about his favorite notebooks to keep, the free pocket-sized notebooks issued from the bank in the small farming town he grew up in – “twenty or thirty blank pages about as long as your index finger.” He took a stack of them with him to college and maintains an appreciation for them even as electronic note-taking has gradually replaced them. He writes that sometimes all we can do is “fill these tiny little pages while we can.”

A few weeks back, I attended a members-only night at the Whitney Museum, where I learned that the Whitney has a great many members. The Whitney is in its final weeks of an exhibit devoted to Edward Hopper. I learned in the gift shop that Edward Hopper used to roam the city armed with notebooks purchased from the five-and-dime. Edward Hopper! Now here’s a “lonely and resistant rearranger of things”! He found, in the clamor of a relentlessly bustling metropolis, images of solitary and faceless office workers, viewed through plate-glass windows, caught in a melancholy stillness. We might envision Hopper, passing such a scene on the elevated train, which he reportedly rode sometimes all night, grabbing his dimestore notebook to rough out a future painting.

Or we might envision, as a savvier and presumably less melancholy and presentiment-of-loss-afflicted merchandising executive did, reproducing these Woolworth notebooks used by Hopper, with their old-timey typeface announcing their old-fashioned titles – “Ledger,” “Cash,” “Journal” – to sell in the Whitney gift shop for $18.50.

I’m not here to decry the cost. My Kinokuniya notebook — with its more daunting title “Life” — cost even more than that. But I am wondering what is the appeal of the reproduction of a once-cheap, utilitarian notebook. Why has such an object been elevated to the status of a museum gift shop item? The notebook was not designed by Hopper, or touched by Hopper but only implicitly endorsed by Hopper.  And even that implicit endorsement is a long stretch. He probably used those notebooks because they were handy. He was a broke artist. He was more interested in the message than the medium.

I don’t know what a buyer of one of these notebooks hopes to be purchasing. Perhaps she just thinks it’s cute. Who am I to judge? (Okay, I’m judging a bit.) But it took me years of this notebook and that one, the here-you-like-to-write gifts and the singular bliss to be found in day job supply closets, to realize what suited notebooks suited me and why. The imperative is that it does not impede the flow of writing. So I have smaller notebooks, pocket-sized ones, old-fashioned reporter notebooks that can fit in one hand while you use the other to write, lightweight notebooks for a weekend trip, steno pads bought at office supply stores if I forgot to bring anything and yes, of course, tiny free pamphlets.

I suppose I would encourage anyone who hopes to channel inspiration by purchasing a reproduction of the kind of notebook Hopper favored to instead find her own notebook. As Cavafy encouraged his readers to find their own Ithaka.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

But if you were wise, on that journey, you kept a notebook.

My Year in Reading 2022

Hallet’s Cove, New Year’s Eve, 2022

I’m still working on expanding my reviewing, and was fortunate to land a new gig, so I’m looking forward to more in the coming year.  I reviewed three books this year. They are therefore disqualified (and indicated in italics) from my top ten. I’ve also ordered several books written by friends but they may still be in the TBR pile, or not yet finished.

So, with the downtime I had at my disposal, excluding periodicals, and listening to podcasts excluded, here are the books:

For research

Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical – Anthony Bourdain
Terrible Typhoid Mary – Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Deadly – Julie Chibbaro
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
Open City – Teju Cole
Feral City – Jeremiah Moss
New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History – Erin Meister
The Power Broker – Robert Caro
John Winthrop – Francis J. Bremer
Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy of the Transformation of Modern Art – Judith E. Stein
The Architecture of Happiness – Alain de Botton
Mark di Suvero (edited by David R. Colleens, Nora R. Lawrence, Theresa Choi)

Work on the work-in-progress progresses, so I have started on readalikes. I’ve realized that there really is no way to tie in Typhoid Mary to the conceit of my book, but I have now read enough on her to consider myself an amateur expert. Halfway through the year I shifted my focus to Mark di Suvero, subscribed to Art in America, downloaded every article I could find at NYPL, and solicited a box of di Suvero family papers from the Smithsonian. And still I know so little that eking out 500 words took all I had.

All that said, The Power Broker occupied weeks and weeks of reading, even with using the audiobook. That book is long. I also saw the David Hare play, Straight Line Crazy, so I’m just about as up on Robert Moses as I am on Mary Mallon.

Reading resolution for this category: Continue with Mark di Suvero. Read other living Queens authors extensively for a workshop I hope to hold, with grants I hope to be granted.


Five Tuesdays in Winter – Lily King
The Last True Poets of the Sea – Julia Drake
The Latecomer – Jean Hanff Korelitz
An Honest Living – Dwyer Murphy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carre
Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra
Fellowship Point – Alice Elliott Dark
Natural History – Andrea Barrett
Shrines of Gaiety – Kate Atkinson
About Face – William Giraldi
Trust – Hernan Diaz
Trust Exercise – Susan Choi

I was surprised to see so few novels on my list, again, The Power Broker took up a lot of my summer. I was sad to leave the Lily King and the Kate Atkinson off my top ten list, but the memoirs below just nudged them out. The Marriage Portrait is in the queue.

Reading resolution for this category: See Queens authors, above. Otherwise, I will probably graze indiscriminately.


Bluets – Maggie Nelson
H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot
Also a Poet – Ada Calhoun
The Lost Children of Mill Creek – Vivian Gibson
Easy Beauty – Chloe Cooper Jones
The Odd Woman and the City – Vivian Gornick
Reading resolution for this category: Don’t really have one? Crying in H Mart is waiting for me at the Astoria Library.


Animal Bodies – Suzanne Roberts
Orwell’s Roses – Rebecca Solnit
Like Love – Michele Morano
Hysterical – Elissa Bassist
Festival Days – Jo Ann Beard
All the Leavings – Laurie Easter
Bright Unbearable Reality – Anna Badkhen
Reading resolution for this category: I hope to review more in this category. I focus on collections published by indie and university presses.


Craft in the Real World – Matthew Salessas
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain – George Saunders
How to Write One Song – Jeff Tweedy

Reading resolution for this category: I am starting 2023 with a poetry workshop which has two rather daunting required texts, so, dare I say, I am good here?

Other nonfiction

Islands of Abandonment – Cal Flyn
The Strange Case of Dr. Couney – Dawn Raffel

Reading resolution for this category: I realize that this category is composed of writers with whom I took workshops in 2022, both of whom were super-kind and thoughtful.


The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter – Gillian Cummings
Long Rules – Nathaniel Perry

Reading resolution for this category: More, more, more.

Cozy old things and mysteries

Cheerfulness Sets In – Angela Thirlkill
The It Girl – Ruth Ware
The Madness of Crowds – Louise Penny
Dying to Tell – Robert Goddard

Reading resolution for this category: this is the “something fun to read” category. It defies resolve.

Happy reading in 2023 to all!

Mark di Suvero meets the Golden Gate Bridge

I haven’t been posting as often as I would like because I’ve been buried in research for my book about the history of the section of Astoria you can see from Chateau le Woof. The project was previously known as “Summer of the Dog Cafe” but it seems to have morphed into a book and it involves Hallett’s Cove, the former Sohmer piano factory where the dog cafe occupies part of the ground floor, and Socrates Sculpture Park, founded by Mark di Suvero, and Spacetime, the red warehouse which di Suvero uses as workspace. Teaching myself about the Puritans, the history of pianos in New York City, and the rise of public art and then trying to turn it into prose has been a slow process! It took me forever, it seems, for example, to come up with the opening paragraphs of the chapter on Mark di Suvero, but here they are for your appraisal.

In 1941, a family left China to sail across the Pacific, fleeing a war that would not be fled. Although they had been living in China for years, the family was Italian. The father, a naval attaché, was Venetian, as was the mother, a former Countess. With them were their four children, each of whom faced radiant destinies: an activist lawyer who would establish a law school, an art historian, a poet and a world-renowned artist.

Let’s envision the future artist, nine years old, on the deck on the S.S. President Cleveland. His hands, wet with ocean mist, grip the railings as the Cleveland navigates from the great Pacific into San Francisco Bay. Here it is at last: America. America, named for an Italian explorer, just as he was, Marco Polo di Suvero. Perhaps he claps with excitement. We focus on his hands because his early public work will be of hands, clutching, opening, pointing.

Days of gazing at the endless blue of ocean and sky are suddenly broken by the terrible bright splendor of this span of steel, stretching across the bay for a mile, so long that the bridge never stops being painted. The last brush stroke on the south end in San Francisco serves as a signal to commence the next coat on the north end in Marin County. The color of the paint is International Orange. It flares into the eyes of the blue-blinded boy, himself an international fruit, an Italian raised in China entering America under a suspension bridge with towers so tall that they routinely disappear into clouds as though seeking the release of heaven. The bridge was begun the same year he was born, but it is only four years old, like a younger brother.

International Orange is a reddish orange firmly associated with the Golden Gate Bridge. But it is abundant on earth. We find it in the clay soil of Georgia, in the heart of a peach, in marigolds and goldfish, butterflies and autumn leaves, Irish setters and redheads. We find it in flames. But the color really belongs to the sky, in the grace of the sun rising and setting.

But who could imagine dousing a monument of steel with such a fierce, celestial color. The future sculptor Mark di Suvero, first encountering America, was too young to formulate such questions. He was just a boy, and what he most likely thought was “Golly, look at that!” or, more likely, “Che meraviglia!” But that encounter, and that thought, would direct the rest of his life, shape the course of the lives of dozens if not hundreds of other artists, and heavily influence the landscape of a certain stretch of Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, New York.

Maybe for the dog days, a collage, a prose poem

I find the last month of the summer a hard one, I find all holidays are hard when everyone has others. “We always go to my cousins at the lake house,” a woman sighs in my office elevator. “It gets bigger every year, with all the babies, And Aunt Barb.”

The same woman just wept in the Weight Watchers meeting. “It won’t be Thanksgiving without Aunt Barb’s blackberry pie!”
My therapist reminds me, “Don’t say ‘everyone.’ You don’t know ‘everyone.’” She also says “make plans.” Even though all those others at the lake house just go. They are not here to make plans; they will be back after two weeks, say their out of office emails. They don’t plan, they didn’t plan to lose their family so young, they do not need to seek gatherings. They bang pots and pans to keep the deer away from the plumpening blackberry bushes. Aunt Barb prefers to quilt on the screened porch; it is too hot to knit.

Make plans. Like the other doctors say ‘lose weight, don’t eat carbs.’The professor born in Hollywood told me that to succeed in Los Angeles “You have to look a certain way.” Her hand, ringed but not lacquered, rested on my screenplay, unread, un-even-so-much-as-ruffled, why bother? since its author was so very ruffled.

Her eyes sweeping me from head to foot in case I miss her meaning, sweeping from my forehead scars to my feet which can’t bear stilettos.

Make plans. No carbs. You don’t know ‘everyone.’ Or, in that regard, ‘anyone.’

In England they say “the summer hols” to indicate this time when everyone is away and if they have made plans, well . . . looks like you were not included. Even though I don’t know everyone, even though I’m exiled from the California beauty fray. Even though stilettos can’t bear the weight of me, even though I lack an Aunt Barb, the last month is as tart-tough as a blackberry pie with those seeds, those seeds that stick in your teeth forever.

Make My Heart Come All Undone

I was in San Sebastian when I took this photo.

I was in San Sebastian, with its endless beauty and tranquil charm, its plentiful pintxos and varying skies, its cute little shops that are closed for so many hours of the working day that you wonder how they stay in business until, after a day or two, you stop wondering that, you stop thinking like an American, focused on profit and how to maximize it, and start thinking more than a San Sebastian, focused on how to enjoy the life you have been given.

A few days ago, I walked across the bridge from the Old Town into Gros. Once of the first things I saw, beyond the vast and unbeautiful performing arts center, was a surf shop. “Surf San Sebastian!” encouraged a t-shirt adorned with little fishes. Sweet. Then a surfer walked past me, clad in a wet suit, carrying a surfboard. Then another surf shop. Then another surfer. I crossed the boulevard and sat on the wall by the beach, and watched the whole bay of them, out on the waves, whatever the collective noun for surfers is. Communion? A communion of surfers, paddling, leaping and falling for just a few possible moments of transcendence.

I watched them for a long time, my heart a precious thrashing thing. I have always loved surfers, which is strange for a stout ungraceful girl from the land-locked midwest. And I have always loved surf music. Dick Dale and Jan and Dean, yes, but especially the Beach Boys. Even I found this odd, in my odd adolescence. My stepsister, captain of the pompon squad, fashioned a sprightly dance routine to “Be True to Your School” for the halftime entertainment of the Kirkwood Pioneers, but I preferred the slower darkness of “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl,” which is neither a tribute nor a love song, since it mentions no actual qualities of the girl in question, but masks a darkness beneath its kind melody, like a bloodthirsty cradle-will-fall kind of lullabye: “Little surfer, little one/make my heart come all undone . . .”

Sometimes in my teenage years I would select this album, “Endless Summer” (even its title a blend of promise and threat), from my collection of Springsteen and Costello, La Traviata and Beethoven’s Ninth, and weep into the false sunshine of the hideous yellow shag carpet my stepmother had chosen to adorn the girls’ bedroom. I heard the shadow in the sunshine before Brian Wilson’s mental problems became public knowledge, before I came to terms with the fact that I would have to reckon with my own on my own, since my parents considered them little more than adolescent indulgence.

And this is as far as I got in my musings before I returned to my budget pension on the boulevard above the little glove shop that was never open, so I couldn’t buy my sister the pair of driving gloves I saw in the window. I returned to my stark room and saw the stark news.

I have been in Spain for ten days now and there have in that time been two mass shootings in the United States. This most recent slaughter of children is covered differently here. There is no braying about the right to bear arms, no hypocritical clucking over “mental health,” no admonishments not to “politicize this tragedy” for those whose politics help these tragedies to occur, but no weepy hand-wringing, either. The latest news from the Estados Unidos is presented at most with a raised eyebrow, but in a straightforward manner, the footage shown between footage of the war in Ukraine and some incident in Brazil, the latest development from another country of violence.


“Let me tell you about winds,” Almasy says to Katherine Clifton as they shelter in a car from an Saharan sandstorm in The English Patient. “There is a, a whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.”

I’ve been thinking about The English Patient because it’s one of my movie obsessions but also because I am in the room above the kitchen in the old house here, part of the original structure, a sheep shed, that was all that was here when the owner, Georgina Howard, bought the property. This house reminds me of the villa where Nurse Hana shelters with Almasy, now the English Patient, to allow him to die in relative peace. As the medical convoy moves on, Hana watches from a high window in the villa, chopping off her long hair into a chic bob the way women do in the movies. Disparate characters come and go, a thief called Caravaggio, a Sikh bomb defuser and his sidekick Kevin Whately (that is the actor’s name, I only ever think of him as Kevin Whately) all with their different knowledge, expertise, striving and grief. They come together for a time, and then they part ways.

Let me tell you about winds.

In my room with its view of the roof over the dining room, and then of the valley beyond, I heard the winds around dawn. The nearby wind sounded like the whoosh of the ocean. The approaching wind sounded like a rapidly-arriving locomotive. Not a whirlwind from southern Morocco – Morocco, like all the rest of the world, is far, far away – but a fierce eddy from somewhere that, when it arrived, bent the trees long ago matured into strange undulations like modern dancers.

And then it raised itself up and away.

A few days ago we had a straight, hard rain, after a thrilling prelude of thunder that purred and echoed across the valley. I grated cheese in the kitchen with a keen eye on Chef Carol, who disguises her expertise beneath a mask of amiable vagueness.  What’s in the risotto? “Oh, it’s got some shallots and some . . . I chopped . . . did we say 7:15? With risotto, you have to be very precise.”

Outside, the rain stopped. Georgina thundered down the stairs and swept into the kitchen.  She is not one to enter a room with hesitation but strides into the action mid-gesture with an urgency to impart, like a herald in a play. But you would not expect a docile demeanor from someone who twenty-odd years ago saw a Basque shepherd’s hut and willed into being a creative manse (or, in Basque, etxe). The central courtyard between the houses is a kind of stage, one where I would happily set a play, a romantic farce, if I wrote plays happily, which I do not.

Georgina cried, “Elizabeth! There is a word for the smell of the earth after the rain! Petrichor!” She rolled the R, so I thought the word must be Spanish or Basque. “Petrichor! From ‘petra,’ meaning earth and ‘cor,’ meaning . . . oh . . .”

From ichor, the term used to describe “the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used in a 1964 article written by a group of scientists, which is why we have never heard of it.

“How would you use it in a sentence?” asked one of the writers when we brought petrichor along with the risotto to the dinner table.

I couldn’t think of how to use “petrichor” in a sentence that would not also include the words “smell” or “rain,” which tells me this was not a word clamoring to be coined. I also wonder how these scientists, finding the phrase “the smell of the earth after it rains,” insufficiently pithy to their needs, fell so easily onto “ichor.” Now there’s a word I’d like to use in a sentence. “How do I get this ichor stain out of my dress?”

There is a laurel tree embedded in the patio courtyard. Georgina constructed the patio around it, decided that the tree would be part of the family. In Greek mythology, Daphne, pursued by Zeus, transforms herself into a laurel tree to preserve herself from his lust and other ickiness.

The poem The Laurel Tree by Louis Simpson contains these lines:

“Is there a tree without opinions?/Come, let me clasp you!/Let me feel the idea breathing.”

And ends with these:

“The dish glowed when the angel held it./It is so that spiritual messengers/deliver their meaning.”

The Sheep Are There. The Sheep Are Not There.

Today across the valley I heard the distant drone of a chain saw. Aside from car wheels on a gravel road, as the song would have it, this is the first mechanized sound I have heard since arriving, and it was far-off and faint, could easily have been the buzz of a bee around my head. It is so quiet that the buzzing of bees is a prominent sound, along with the bells and the baaing and the birdsong. The bells of the sheep clang when they move but yesterday, I didn’t see them move. I looked up from my laptop or my notebook — I was writing on both — and there were sheep in the meadow. The next time I looked up, the sheep were gone.

I mentioned this at last night’s delicious dinner of chicken over couscous. I hear the bells, I see the sheep, I see the sheepless meadow. Someone suggested a sheep TARDIS. I suggested that this place is magical, which it surely is.

We also discussed our next Spanish destinations. I offered up Pamplona, which our hostess Georgina described as a place where she gets her licenses renewed, adding, “Pamplona is Spanish. San Sebastian is Basque.” A return to San Sebastian had been next on my agenda, so I simply canceled Pamplona, which I may do on a day trip, and added a day in San Sebastian, to make it a three-day home base. After that, Bilbao. But it is hard to think of an “after that” when now is so exquisite.

This morning’s lesson was on “character.” In our morning writing session, I filled out a character I had briefly sketched in yesterday’s assignment, “setting,” and added her to the scene. This alarmed my fellow writers when I shared — how had I written so much in twenty minutes? — so I will stick strictly to the assignment tomorrow. But in the meantime, I have perhaps the opening of a short story, if I wrote short stories. I’ve written less than a handful, and only one is published, but this place is magical, so anything could happen.

Other local fauna, wishing someone would paint him like one of your French girls.

Xavier, my Savior

The beach at San Sebastian, not far from my hotel, the SanseBay, which is easy to find once you know how to get there

“Don’t you love her accent?” said the Irishwoman to the Brit.

She could only have been talking about me, since I was the one talking. I had been the one talking, truth be told, for quite some time, a jet-lagged dialogue fountain since the five of us had arrived at the Pyrenean Writing Retreat and been revived with a glass of wine (or several). I’d arrived in San Sebastian on Sunday, after quite a long journey that began in Astoria when I dragged my suitcase to the Q102 bus stop, took the bus to the E train, the E to the Airtrain, the Airtrain to the airport, JFK to Madrid, Madrid to Bilboa, then a bus from the Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian, where I was once again dragging my suitcase through a charming, unfamiliar town, where I was thoroughly lost.

“Is easy!” the text from the hotel read. “Cross the river to the Cathedral Buen Pastor, go straight to basilica Santa Maria and go up stairs we are in calle mari 21 very easy.”

It wasn’t easy. My phone was dying because I hadn’t had time to recharge it at the Madrid airport since I spent 90 minutes in line to get into Spain. I didn’t see any stairs and I mistook one basilica for another. Furthermore, despite several weeks of diligent study on Duolingo, my Spanish was crap. I could talk about universities and professors, drinking coffee and having a tall daughter, but I couldn’t ask for directions.

The wide avenues and plazas were full of families out to tire the kids on a Sunday afternoons and pleasantly tired, painted marathon runners. Cafes bustled.

“Perdon, hablo ingles?” I asked a passing family.

They didn’t really, but they helpfully called the hotel, and then haltingly told me that it was a 20 minute walk, which I refused to believe. (It was.) I was handed off to a man with a bicycle, and then I handed myself off to a man I stopped (“Perdon, hablo ingles?” “Yes, of course.”) who happened to be an English teacher. He delivered me to the door of the hotel, which was by then worriedly awaiting my arrival, since the call from the family. They had called me to check on my progress but of course, my phone was dead.

I was so grateful to the English teacher – Xavier, my savior – that I gave him the copy of CENSORETTES I had brought along on the trip in case any of my fellow students at the retreat wanted one. This left me with two books, THE GREAT GOOD PLACE by Ray Oldenburg, which is research for the dog café project, and THE ART OF SYNTAX, part of Greywolf Press’s THE ART OF series. And, of course, THE POWER BROKER by Robert Caro because you can’t write a history of New York City, even a tiny fragment of it, without referencing Robert Moses. One of his great works, after all, is the Triborough Bridge, which ends in Astoria. I downloaded it as an Audible book, my second-ever audiobook. It is 66 hours long and of course, it is eating up massive amounts of space on my phone. Hence, it keeps dying.

The next day, another bus brought us deeper into the heart of Basque country, and then we were collected by van and brought to the retreat, which is unspeakably lovely.  

My view, with my trusty writing mascot Curtis, for the next five days

After a night of chatting, I fell into the bed of my room above the kitchen, a charming room that made me feel like some intrepid mid-century traveler, a female Patrick Leigh Fermor.

This morning we had our first workshop, with the savvy and kindly Diana Friedman. The topic was SETTING. She generously used the opening of CENSORETTES as an example of an effective setting. My fellow retreaters were very kind, but I had no copy to give them, thanks to Xavier.

But at least now I can say I have international distribution.

System of a Poet

by guest blogger Hattie Jean Hayes

Hattie Jean Hayes is writer and performer of many things, as well as a poet, but I asked her to write a guest post about her submission strategy, since she has such a successful method, far from the “dreamy, impractical” stereotype. Although I am behind on my posts for April is Poetry Month, Hattie was gracious enough to share some of her tips with my readers,

I didn’t begin submitting my work “in earnest” until February of 2021 when I set a goal of submitting a piece of writing every day. By the end of that month, I’d logged 32 submissions on the calendar. That “sprint” broke me of my anxieties or reservations around submissions, and I continued submitting through the rest of the year. My year-long goal was to see 12 pieces of writing accepted for publication; a total of 21 were accepted. I’m on track to surpass that number in 2022. If you’re trying to challenge yourself for a single month or grind on submissions all year, you can use these practices.

1. Inventory

I use two tools to inventory all my creative projects: Google Sheets and Notion. I use a spreadsheet titled Creative Project Dashboard to log my in-progress and completed projects, including short stories, novels, essays, scripts, parody songs, original musicals, and poems. Once I begin working on something, it’s allowed to be recorded here – if something is just an idea, it stays in Notion.

Every category of project gets a different sheet, and every sheet has different columns. My stories and essays, for example, get these columns: title, status (in progress, complete, awaiting feedback, editing), synopsis, length, and where I’ve submitted it. The poems get a similar treatment, with the synopsis column replaced with a “spawn point” signifier, so I can remember if something was first drafted during NaPoWriMo, a workshop, etc. 

Inventorying my work allows me to track where I’ve sent things, and it means no project is forgotten. There are hundreds of items listed in my document, and when I’m putting together a submission for a journal that will review five or six pieces, it’s helpful to have a list of all my work, so I can say “Wait! I haven’t sent that one out in forever and it totally fits this theme!”

I log all my projects in Notion, a note-taking app/website similar to Evernote. Just use whichever productivity app you’re likely to actually use. I like Notion because I can easily create and move different “pages” in that dashboard. I keep a list of ideas for each category of project, and I put early drafts of the projects themselves in Notion. I really like the flexibility to use dashboards in Notion to track where I am with revisions, or record a bunch of feedback from a workshop and see it at a glance. This is not an ad for Notion, I just like it!

My Notion also has lists of all my accepted and published work, so when these pieces go live, it’s easy to copy and paste the live links onto my website. I have a page in Notion where I record third-person biographies of various lengths since this is something you need to have on hand for submissions.

2. Research

I don’t rely on Submission Grinder or Duotrope to find and record submissions, only because I find it overwhelming. Sometimes I use the aggregators on ChillSubs.com or in Submittable to look for open journals, but that’s usually when I have a specific piece that hasn’t found the right home, and I need to expand my view a little. 

My primary means of finding places to submit are social media. I’m in a submission group on Facebook that introduces me to a lot of new journals, and I use Twitter’s bookmarks feature to flag journals I want to read and submit to. 

I have a bookmarks folder on my browser for lit journals, and when I make a new bookmark, I name it “SUBMIT XYZ TO [JOURNAL NAME]” so I’m not confused about the bookmark later. If there’s a journal I’m eager about, and the submission window isn’t open, I set a calendar reminder – with the name of the piece I want to submit – for the day submissions open. 

I don’t think you need to be a devoted fan of a literary journal to submit to it, but I do think you should get a feel of the tone and some of the published work. I think I’m most successful when I’m mindful of how my writing will fit a particular journal’s readership. My “best” writing isn’t always the best for the job.

3. Submit

This is probably the most customizable part of the process. When it comes to actually submitting, YMMV! Do you like month-long “sprints” where you send work out every day, or even shorter, day-long marathons? Do you want to fill your calendar with reminders of submission windows, and submit as they open up? Or are you going to focus on one piece of writing, and shop it around until it’s snapped up? 

Whatever works for you is good! Make sure that you follow guidelines about submission formatting, and respect any rules around simultaneous submissions. Consider creating a document like mine for short bios/publishing history. 

4. Index

Indexing your writing is just inventorying, again. Once you’ve submitted a piece, index the places you submitted to. There was one poem I submitted to 40 different journals in 2021. By the time it got accepted, I had 9 journals still considering it, and it was so handy to have a list of journals that needed to receive that sweet, sweet withdrawal email. 

Log your kudos: were you nominated for a prize? Did your mentor say something complimentary about the piece? Put it in there! If you decide to stop submitting a piece while you revise it, make a note about your different drafts. Once you place it, you’ll want to remember the “before” and “after” so you can see what changed. And if you decide to axe any pieces, consider indexing them into a “graveyard” where they can be cannibalized into new writing later on. I began logging my projects this way in 2016, so I have six years’ worth of ideas (good and bad), drafts (good and bad), and completed pieces (mostly good! some bad) on record. That makes me a hell of a lot more confident when it comes to getting published, and when I get rejected, it’s another data point.

Hattie Jean Hayes is a writer and comedian, originally from Missouri, who now lives in New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, HAD, Janus Literary, Sledgehammer Literary and the Hell is Real Anthology. She is working on a novel and several much sillier projects.

Dear David

Dear David,

Today I logged off work a minute early, because daylight is still precious, and I wanted to get out into it. I also wanted to walk by the Ukrainian Church which I have written about before, and which I can see from my living room window and which has been, if you get right down to it, most of my world view for the past two years. I face my monitor eight hours a day (not counting what I write when I write because I must write). If I turn my face to the right, I see the little altar of candles I have created to keep my spirits up. If I turn my face to the left, I see through the window the Ukrainian Church – that is, a little sliver of some magnificent stained glass window on the far left and then three stories of indifferent taupe brick and many many dull dormitory-like windows that I realized only during the pandemic were actually windows for a dormitory, for the monks who live there.

Yesterday I thought of visiting the church when I logged off work to set a candle in front of the locked gates. Remember after 9/11 all the makeshift altars in the neighborhood for all the cops and firemen who were then our neighbors? Remember our neighbor Joe the Fireman? I still remember cooking dinner on a Friday evening, on what must have been the 14th of September because the 11th was a Tuesday, and hearing a car door slam and Joe’s deep voice saying “Thanks.” He was thanking someone, probably a fellow fireman, for the ride home. He had been at “the pile” – remember that they called it “the pile”? – since Tuesday. His house had lost either 12 or 17 guys. I don’t remember. I remember calling down to him from my kitchen window, “Thank God you’re alright!” and I remember the absolute exhaustion in his voice as he stared up at a voice just as I was shouting down to a shadow.

Anyway, David, two other people had had my same idea, because there were two candles in jars in front of the gates. Unlit, because it was raining, and not inside the gates, because I have never seen those gates open, except when expelling a congregation, not open even during the Ukrainian Festival which shuts down that whole block of 31st Avenue so that beribboned braided girls can clog on wooden platforms while their counterparts, stiff, solemn boys in short vests, wait their turn to click and leap.

So, not the warmest church, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, no tentpole revival meetings or pancake breakfasts, but this is Astoria, after all, and the Greek Orthodox folks aren’t welcoming to outsiders, either. I walked on a block to see Con Ed soldering some metal plate over some hole they had dug up. They have been doing this for months, tearing holes into the street and then patching up, only to tear and patch again. I have theorized – since there is no one to talk to – that they are doing this because of the number of free-standing houses they are tearing down so that real estate developers can erect high skinny buildings where the shabby faux-Victorian houses used to be. Perhaps a greater strain on the Con Ed grid has inspired all this manic drilling and patching and ca-thunk-ing as traffic drives across the metal plates at night?

Anyway, someone was sealing a metal plate over a hole of the crew’s own making, and I watching the arc of the sparks, as one will watch arcs of sparks. A man in goggles saw me and shook his finger at me. He pointed two fingers to his own eyes, then to me. I walked away from him, a few steps before one of his begoggled colleagues shouted, “Don’t look at that! It’s bad for the eyes!”

You said, David, the last time I wrote about this church (see post “Saint Behind the Glass”) that you had never noticed the church, despite living so close to it for so many years.

Four years ago, before I left my terrible job, a fireman died on the set of a movie in the Bronx. His funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and attracted hundreds, if not thousands. Firemen and policemen, on motorbikes and on foot, filled Fifth Avenue, 57th Street, and other feeder roads. I was working in the GM Building at the time, at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, and was coming into the GM Building from an appointment. I rode the elevator with a Young Turk of Private Equity who tapped both his foot and his phone.

“Is that the funeral for the fireman who died on the set of the Ed Norton movie?” I asked.

“Is what what?” he responded.

I explained: the roads shut down, the hundreds of uniformed men everywhere you looked, the absence of traffic, the sound of tolling bells.

“Huh,” he said, his thumbs still on his phone. “I didn’t notice.”

“Huh,” I responded. “And still there are so many people everywhere.”

“Isn’t it funny how I didn’t notice?”

“Funny is one word for it,” I said, and stepped off the elevator.

I wish this made me a hero, but of course I’m not a hero, and he no doubt dismissed me, as all the young people in my former and current department do, as some weird old dame (if they even use the word “dame”!) But that is a topic for another discourse.

I guess this topic is what to look at, whether or not it is bad for the eyes.

Longer letter later, as we used to say —