Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

How do you keep track of your work? (09/15/09)



Featured writer: David S. Johnson



Contributors this month:
Arlene L. Mandell
Becky Povich
Betty Rodgers
David S. Johnson
Don Edgers
Elaine Webster
Marilyn Petty
Susan Bono


Tracking in a Trackless Land

by David S. Johnson

It tiptoes its sharp and slick and armored body across the mud. It approaches me without fear. I feel its sharpness try to invade me. I jump and shudder and scream. "Shit!" It's likely the green crab screamed the same as it scurried into the creek channel and the safety of the fallen mud bank. I'd been standing so long in the mudflat counting worm holes that the crab assumed I was a part of the landscape. I am not. I am only a low-tide visitor and now the tide is coming in. If I can just get one more sample. Just one more observation. Just one more enumeration. Just one more. I don't feel on track as I haul myself up the mud bank and cringe as I hear the cordgrass break and roots rip from the sediment. I walk out of the marsh, banished by the tide. As I enter the upland woods I notice the leaves are starting to yellow, like a caution light that fall is coming and everything will stop.

From May to November, I am ruled by the tides. I keep track of the tides with a whiteboard and keep track of progress with a calendar. But no matter how well laid my intentions or how prepared the plans, I miss something. I can't keep track of it all.

I am scientist who fancies himself as a writer, one who has difficulty navigating the roadmap to publication that starts with a blank page. I linger, labor, and finger for the right written word, only sometimes to give the finger to the wrong words that linger like filthy vagrants on my clean page. There are many undeveloped embryos of ideas and aborted manuscripts that yearn for development or a rebirth. These are kept in files smattered across my computer's desktop, in file folders on flashdrives, or on yellow legal-pad pages whose bottom corners are curled where I've nervously rolled them while in thought. I can't keep track of it all.

I watch deadlines run by just out of the reach of my fingertips like a child that runs into the street. When this happens I feel like I have failed for not being more attentive or diligent. When I try to write, the tide of time and pressure and life pushes in before I feel like I can even get started. I can't keep track of it all.

And I shouldn't try to keep track of it all. As long as I make it through the day with a full belly, a rested head, and a beaming smile from my girlfriend I will be fine. Besides, just like tomorrow's low tide there will be another opportunity to get back on track.

To keep track of David Samuel Johnson this month, check the marshes of Northeast Massachusetts. Or Cape Cod. Or Boston. Or Salem. Or Rochester, NY. Or Baton Rouge, LA. Or Mississippi. Or Portland, OR.

Four Full File Drawers

  by Arlene L. Mandell

I guess I'm old fashioned. At last count I had 420 poems, 28 essays and 37 short stories, which equals four crammed-to-overflowing file drawers with a folder for each item, except when I've changed the name of the piece. Then there might be two folders.

Everything's in alphabetical order most of the time. The word count is on the outside of the essay and short story folders. Inside each folder is a list of everywhere I've sent the piece, with a big circle around acceptances. If the poem has been incorporated into a collage, I keep a copy of the collage version too.

This system has worked well for the past 20 years so I think I'll keep it.

Arlene L. Mandell’s one-woman collage exhibition, "Poetry in Collage: Words, Images, Feathers & Glitter," is on display at Friends House in Santa Rosa.

Writer, Organize Thyself

  by Becky Povich

I attempt to keep track of my writing in all the customary ways. Notice I use the word "attempt." I am at a loss as to what has happened to me throughout the years. In the past, I took pride in myself for my fabulous organizational skills. If I needed to locate a particular piece of paper, a call for submission, a memo, short story, anything important that had been printed, I would take a few steps in my home office, open the precise storage container, whether it be a file cabinet, a 3-ring binder, expandable folders, or decorative boxes, and voila'…..it would be there. I was acutely talented at this in previous, multi-tasking, hectic jobs I held outside the home, as well.

Somehow, though, my efforts to keep track of my work has only resulted in messy piles of papers on my desk, alongside stacks of junk mail and bills, plus catalogs and magazines strewn all over my office floor. Then there are also the hundreds of notes to myself: Notes scribbled on tiny post-its. Notes marked on the kitchen calendar. Notes jotted in the date book I carry. Notes scrawled on and torn through those thin, useless paper napkins typically found in donut shops and coffee houses.

Then there are those computer files. After days, weeks, or months of working on various projects. After hundreds or thousands of words typed onto my keyboard, deleted, copied and pasted, deleted some more, endlessly rearranged……When I cannot possibly come up with one more compelling sentence, any attention-grabbing dialogue, or one tiny, mesmerizing word, all I have to do is click the "Save" button, inhale deeply and let out a huge sigh of relief, and the computer keeps track of everything for me. Oh Happy Day!

Now if I could just figure out how to keep track of all my random thoughts without first writing them on paper.

Becky Povich strives daily to write “good stuff” and somehow keep track of it all. Both tasks are quite intimidating.
Her blog is www.beckypovich.blogspot.com.
She can also be reached at Writergal53@aol.com.





Keeping Track

  by Betty Rodgers

I am a habitual organizer. I keep track of my vitamins in a "pill-minder," Sunday through Saturday, one day at a time. Blouses in my closet hang sleeveless first, then short-sleeved, polo, three-quarter sleeve, long-sleeve, turtleneck. A friend who helped me move decades ago still comments on the orderliness of my kitchen and dresser drawers. Dishtowels and undies folded just-so and stacked by style. Come peek in my pantry...canned soups in one row, tomatoes in the next, canned tuna, jams and jellies all lined up where I can reach in and grab. Spice drawer? Alphabetical, of course.

I've always thought it much more practical to stay organized, making it easier to find what I'm looking for, and because it helps me remember what I have. Perhaps it's a sign of laziness, creating much less work and stress...a real time-saver. (I don't have to remember whether or not I took my vitamins today.) Or perhaps it has something to do with my Presbyterian upbringing...all things decent and in good order.

So naturally this habit found its way into my writing routine. I've owned a file cabinet most of my adult life. Before I owned a computer, my writing was infrequent, carefully typed, and kept in a file folder entitled "Poetry and Prose."

Along with the computer came the opportunity and motivation to write more, and everything is now saved in files under the heading, "Betty's Writing." Due to the threat of hard-drive woes, I also print each poem, essay or story and place the three-hole-punched pages (in chronological order, of course) in white plastic binders with the years marked on their spines.

On the bookshelf behind my desk lean the spiral notebooks taken to writing classes and workshops, and in the drawer of my desk is a fat file folder marked "Starters" with scraps of paper bearing scribbled first lines, notes and ideas. Today's file is named "TL 090915 Keeping Track."

Keeping track? I'm a master. So then why is the top of my desk such a mess?

Betty Rodgers is eagerly awaiting the turning of the leaves on tree-lined Harrison Boulevard near her office in Boise, Idaho.

She can be reached at bettykrodgers@msn.com.


Tracking in a Trackless Land

  by David S. Johnson

It tiptoes its sharp and slick and armored body across the mud. It approaches me without fear. I feel its sharpness try to invade me. I jump and shudder and scream. "Shit!" It's likely the green crab screamed the same as it scurried into the creek channel and the safety of the fallen mud bank. I'd been standing so long in the mudflat counting worm holes that the crab assumed I was a part of the landscape. I am not. I am only a low-tide visitor and now the tide is coming in. If I can just get one more sample. Just one more observation. Just one more enumeration. Just one more. I don't feel on track as I haul myself up the mud bank and cringe as I hear the cordgrass break and roots rip from the sediment. I walk out of the marsh, banished by the tide. As I enter the upland woods I notice the leaves are starting to yellow, like a caution light that fall is coming and everything will stop.

From May to November, I am ruled by the tides. I keep track of the tides with a whiteboard and keep track of progress with a calendar. But no matter how well laid my intentions or how prepared the plans, I miss something. I can't keep track of it all.

I am scientist who fancies himself as a writer, one who has difficulty navigating the roadmap to publication that starts with a blank page. I linger, labor, and finger for the right written word, only sometimes to give the finger to the wrong words that linger like filthy vagrants on my clean page. There are many undeveloped embryos of ideas and aborted manuscripts that yearn for development or a rebirth. These are kept in files smattered across my computer's desktop, in file folders on flashdrives, or on yellow legal-pad pages whose bottom corners are curled where I've nervously rolled them while in thought. I can't keep track of it all.

I watch deadlines run by just out of the reach of my fingertips like a child that runs into the street. When this happens I feel like I have failed for not being more attentive or diligent. When I try to write, the tide of time and pressure and life pushes in before I feel like I can even get started. I can't keep track of it all.

And I shouldn't try to keep track of it all. As long as I make it through the day with a full belly, a rested head, and a beaming smile from my girlfriend I will be fine. Besides, just like tomorrow's low tide there will be another opportunity to get back on track.

To keep track of David Samuel Johnson this month, check the marshes of Northeast Massachusetts. Or Cape Cod. Or Boston. Or Salem. Or Rochester, NY. Or Baton Rouge, LA. Or Mississippi. Or Portland, OR.

How do you keep track of your work?

  by Don Edgers

Back in the Dark Ages (pre-computer era), file cabinets containing file folders were the norm. As a teacher I used lesson plan books, and large calendars to track what actually happened in each class.

Then came the 20th Century Enlightenment with its PCs and Macs. One would suppose a paperless technology would eliminate file cabinets and calendars. HA! I still keep track of my work by placing hard copy in file folders stored in filing cabinets; however, I also use file folders in my computer. Copies of these files are stored on diskettes, CDs and flash drives.

When I send queries, proposals or submissions to agents, publishers or magazines, I use a large calendar where I write (in red) where I sent it. Responses are entered in green with deadlines in red. Paper correspondence is pinned to a bulletin board with the date written boldly in black.

So, as I slog along in the 21st century, this old dog still clings to tracking my work via 20th century methodology. It still works! But, thank God for today's technology, as complicated as it is.

Don keeps track of his work in Port Orchard aka Cedar Cove, WA.
www.anislandintime.com


How do you keep track of your work?

  by Elaine Webster

Is this work? If it is, why are my files loaded on the laptop, so I can carouse with them on vacation? I not only loaded them, I did it with joy and anticipation. Now with files traveling between desktop and laptop in several versions, soon to be thousands of miles apart, at different editing stages, how do I keep track of my traveling companions? What if I corrupt them? What if they corrupt me? Now, that's a scary thought. Maybe I'm corrupted already. Who knows? What if I e-mail them as attachments across the ocean and they become unattached and drown? Is that possible? I'm not sure if my heroine can swim. I never asked her.

This is September, the month that well organized, color coded, alphabetically and numerically filed Virgos love. It's our birthday month and we shine brighter than any other time of the year. We look at the mess on our desks and our desktops and our eyes glaze over. We remember when we could find anything, right away. Can we find solace in that place again, or is it lost forever?

Simplicity, that is the key. Organized simplicity is even better. That's our goal here. So, this is what you do to keep track of those precious commodities we call work.

I keep everything digitally. I have a clean Elaine file sitting prominently on my C drive. I have sub folders that cascade down, at a slight angle, like a staircase descending into infinity. Each folder has a name and a year: memoir, poetry, short stories, fiction, non-fiction, web work, essays. Each yellow icon is a tiny compartment that holds everything that has come out of my brain during the specified period. I make a new set of folders each year, then backup. I back up on a CD, which I take somewhere else, just in case the house burns down. Now, if the world blows up, none of this will help. But what are the odds?

Then there's paper. I do like paper. I know I should save trees, but there's nothing like a pencil and paper. I can doodle while I think. Have you ever doodled on a computer? I guess you can, but it's not the same. I do own one file cabinet and several of those plastic compartmentalized accordion files. They come in colors, which as I've already said, Virgos love. My memoir is green (my favorite color) and I file all my notes and feedback from my memoir writing group. Don't lose those, they're invaluable. Well, you can lose the ones you don't like. In fact, they make great cage paper for my birds. Not that I would poop on them, but my birds can't read, so they don't know any better. The plastic folders have one more advantage. If you take them on an airplane and there's a water landing, they float. That could come in handy for your heroine.

Elaine Webster, is a staff writer for the on-line publication, Greener Living Today www.greenerlivingtoday.com. She’s part of the Memoir Writing group in Sebastopol sponsored by SRJC and Steve Boga is the instructor. She lives in Windsor, CA.
Her e-mail address: Elaine@mediadesign-mds.com.


How do I keep track of my work?

  by Marilyn Petty

I have a system. My system keeps track of folders and files inside filing cabinets, in stacks on shelves, in boxes, accordion files, behind cupboard doors. Order and neatness is the watchword of my system. Everything has its place. Everything is in its place. And my system delights in tormenting me.

Out of sight, out of mind, it chortles. Why disturb the tranquility of tidiness with paper clutter just to satisfy the gods of chaos who urge you to indulge in messy, joyful creativity. Be sensible. Think about it tomorrow, if you want, but don't meddle with the system. Keep track, but don't muss.

Marilyn Petty is a prisoner of her own system in Santa Rosa.

Closer

  by Susan Bono

Back in the mists of time, when I first began to write, keeping track of my work wasn't much of a problem. My writing was a lot like our ancient cat, whose persistent cry guarantees I'll heed him. My youthful poems and stories demanded to be fed, admired, let in and out. They announced their presence in the middle of the night, and during the daytime, usually managed to be underfoot. As irritating as that kind of closeness can be, it served a purpose. I thought it would always be like that with my writing.

But my relationship with all my scribbled journal entries, the many poorly labeled computer versions of unfinished drafts and the actual finished pieces themselves has grown more subtle as the years go by. I may have grown as a writer, but some eternally stunted part of my psyche can't seem to function without that early attitude of urgency: "Hey, I'm here!" "Feed me now!" "Don't forget me, even for a minute!" I tell myself that if my work tried a little harder for my attention, I would manage it and the rest of my life better.

My work rarely, if ever, makes demands of me. It doesn't complain in any obvious way of my neglect. I can go for weeks without the slightest sense of connection or obligation to it. And because my writing is so accommodating, it rarely gets priority when I'm setting my schedule. It's really true about the squeaky wheel. My creative work, docile and vulnerable as my wheelchair-bound mother, depends on me to keep track of it.

I've just moved my mother to a care facility 10 minutes away from my home. She didn't ask me to. In fact, she doesn't ask me for anything and doesn't really seem to know who I am, but the physical distance between us was beginning to weigh on me more than my feelings about her condition. It's been only a couple of weeks, but I think we're both benefiting. Moving her 80 miles closer feels like the kind of change that could improve my relationship with my writing, too. My visits with Mom are now briefer but more frequent. There is a lot to be said for that kind of intimacy. Because I am more involved in her daily life, it's easy to picture Mom waiting just where I left her. And so it will be with my writing, whenever I decide to move us closer.


Susan Bono is getting ready for a move in Petaluma, CA.

Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000—2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devil’s-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so he’d know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. David’s dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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