How A Writer’s Craft can be a (more) Anti-Racist Textbook, Part I

Let me just say, I’m reading The Anti-Racist Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom by Felicia Rose Chavez, and I’m looking forward to reading Craft in the Realy World by Matthew Salesses, two books that came out this year that are rethinking creative writing pedagogy in the light of anti-racism. I’ve read articles by both writers, and as I dig into their books, I’m thinking specifically about my creative writing textbook, A Writer’s Craft, and how it may or may not dovetail with these ideas. At first, I thought I might wait until I had finished both books to write about them, but it seems necessary to acknowledge how important this moment is for creative writers, and also how anti-racist creative writing pedagogy builds on critiques of the workshop model that have been ongoing for years.

One main reason I decided to write A Writer’s Craft was because I wasn’t satisfied with the book I was using at the time and how often it talked down to students or prescribed rules. So I set out to write a textbook that teaches craft and yet is also open to new ways of thinking and talking about craft. That’s one reason I chose to title the book “A Writer’s Craft,” not “The Writer’s Craft” or something more prescriptive. I wanted to suggest that the book presents the thoughts of a writer about craft, but not a definitive statement on craft — even though any book makes a claim for a certain level of authority.

In the Introduction, I include a “Note to the Instructor,” where I encourage you to present you own views, to argue with the positions I take in the book, to engage in a productive dialogue with the book, to assign chapters out of order or to bring in supplemental materials. These are things I have always done with the textbooks I’ve used. By including this in the Introduction right before my “Note to the Student,” where I encourage students to take an active role in their learning as well, I give students permission to read the “Note to the Instructor” and to see that everything in the book should be part of this conversation in which they can be participants.

Another choice I made when putting this book together was not to include an anthology of stories, poems, essays, and plays. The main reason I did this was because of the cost. Obtaining the rights would drive the price of the book higher, and I want a book that is affordable. But the other reason is that I always felt I should use the readings in a book I had required students to buy, but I also felt limited and restricted by those readings. This choice allows instructors to use examples from online magazines or anthologies, where they can choose very recent writing that is a good fit for their students: to represent their communities and/or to challenge their stereotypes or notions of what a literary text ought to be.

I didn’t write A Writer’s Craft specifically to be an anti-racist textbook, in other words, but it can be used that way, which is something I want to encourage. As I read more deeply about the anti-racist workshop model, I’m planning a series of posts that go into more detail on these and other choices in the book, on how in a second edition, or through the supplemental materials I can provide in A Writer’s Craft Community, the book can be more openly anti-racist.

I have a number of ideas of what I’ll write about in these posts, and I’m excited to discover more as I continue my reading. Two posts I’m planning soon are: some thoughts on craft and some thoughts on how I arrived at my own teaching practice. Look for those soon.

In Praise of Kind Rejections

I had one of the kindest rejections of my poetry book manuscript this week from NewSouth Books, who unfortunately is no longer publishing poetry, though they put out one of my favorite collections a few years ago, Jacqueline Trimble’s American Happiness. They could have not even read my query and just written to tell me that their focus had changed and no longer includes poetry. Instead, they also wrote:

We value your friendship and dedication to Southern literature, and hope to work with you for decades to come in bringing the South’s best and brightest writers to the forefront. Clearly you are among their number; these poems you’ve given us the opportunity to read are staggeringly beautiful.

Words like these keep you going. They’re a reminder that every submission you send out, whether it’s a poem or a book, may be read by someone, and even if they can’t publish it, your work may have an influence. From the other side of the editor’s desk, it’s a reminder that every time a poem is sent back, it sends a message. I know from experience editing Poetry South why a personal note isn’t always possible, but it’s a good reminder to write one when it is. Thanks to NewSouth for taking care with their submissions and taking the time write.

Submitting Poems

One of the benefits of completing SubTracker is that I’m getting back into submitting my poems again. I never stopped completely, of course, but my submissions slowed down when I made the decision to leave behind my old system and get to work on a new way of tracking them. Now that I’ve committed to the switch and gotten SubTracker running well enough to distribute it, I can focus more on getting my own work out the door. Two snow days with freezing temps (rare in Mississippi) haven’t hurt.

Over the weekend, I added to my pages on SubTracker on this site with a page on Importing Data into SubTracker, Using SubTracker, and Modifying Subtracker. It is my hope that these will help people get started, and I see that a few downloads have already occurred.

One thing I did this morning might be very helpful. I opened the Submissions_Out query for editing, and removed the sorting in the query itself. This will let me sort the query results in more ways, for instance by date submitted. I did that this morning, and went back to some of my oldest submissions. I was able to clean up a few things, like marking one as returned because I hadn’t received a response in the time they said I would and another because it had been marked as “completed” in Submittable and wasn’t showing on my Declined list. I also queried a few journals that had held onto my submission for six months to a year. This kind of housekeeping is important to do, and SubTracker will make it even easier than my old system, thanks to this sorting.

While I was working with my Submissions_Out query, I next sorted it by title to see which titles were out at more than one place. The ones that were only still out at one place or that had been stuck at places longer than I wanted, are titles that I will submit to more places soon. I don’t go crazy with simulataneous submissions, but the way things go these days, it’s best to have titles out to at least a few places at a time and to keep resubmitting as things come back to me. Sorting this query by title will help me do that. And of course, the Submissions_In query will tell me when a title isn’t submitted anywhere at the moment. I don’t have many of those right now, though I did go through and “retire” a few that I’m not planning to submit again or at least not much.

Having SubTracker working helps because A) it’s good to have a system that can do these things to keep better track of submissions, B) now that I’ve committed to it, I know I don’t have to keep records on two systems, as I did during my transition, and C) if I’m not working on the database, I should have more time for writing and submitting.

SubTracker Now Available

It’s been a long and interesting journey to take my old SuperCard project for tracking submissions and transfer my data to a LibreOffice database. After getting things working to may satisfaction, I’ve spent the last week or two tweaking the database and making it look a little nicer, then I deleted my data, so I can make it available to others. SubTracker, as I am now calling it, is downloadable as a Zip archive that contains the database and a Readme file.

Posting the file on my website is the first step in allowing others to use the database to track their own submissions. I have set it up to work well for me, but I have also made it fairly easy to modify by creating lists where you can change or add to the Kinds (poem, story, book, chapbook, etc.), Genres (poetry, fiction, CNF, etc.), or Types of places (magazine, book publisher, fellowship, etc.). You could even use this database to track MFA program applications, readings, artist residencies, etc.

Next steps will be to add a discussion of common issues, such as how to import existing data into the database. If you haven’t been submitting for long, it will be easiest to enter data manually, but if you have years of submissions and you’d like to bring them into the database, it is possible to do so with a little planning.

Help on how to use LibreOffice or OpenOffice to navigate the database will also be forthcoming. Your questions and comments will help me know what help is needed. Though I can’t guarantee support for something I’m making available for free, I do want to answer questions here on my blog.

I hope SubTracker will be useful to you and make your writing life a little easier.

New Review of A Writer’s Craft

It’s always fun to find a mention of something you’ve done. The other morning, I came across a recent review of my textbook, A Writer’s Craft. As it turns out, a site called Lost In Book included it last month (Dec. 20, 2020) in their round-up of 7 Best Creative Writing Books for Beginners. Thanks to the author Eruslan Yilmaz for including it at #3, right after Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction and Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story. It’s not totally clear whether their numbering is a ranking of just list of the best seven books they found. Mine is the first in the list that is multe-genre, and they note that it begins with chapters that discuss writing practice common to all the genres, then has chapters on individual genres, including digital media and literary citizenship to provide  “a comprehensive understanding of creative writing as a discipline and fostering creativity.”

Many thanks to Eruslan Yilmaz and Lost in Book for featuring A Writer’s Craft.

What I’m Up To: Jan. 2021 edition

January is always a tough month on my blog. Despite the New Year’s resolutions to post more regularly (that I’ve mostly stopped making), life gets pretty busy. That’s true, even more than usual, this year. Besides the normal start of the semester flurry of getting classes online, getting students in classes, admitting new students, etc., there was, of course, the inauguration and all the news from Washington as a distraction.

Closer to home, the normal tasks of a department chair, like putting together the summer and fall schedules while juggling classes and students for the current semester, were complicated with a major revision to our English major that our department has been working on for the last two years. That meant writing up 17 proposals to revise our major and create five concentrations (instead of 3): Literature, African American Literature, Creative Writing, Professional Writing, and English Teacher Ed. We realigned our requirements, added new classes in Digital Writing and Black Women Writers, and modified existing classes to create Professional Writing, Applied Linguistics, and Young Adult Literature. And Spanish and Philosophy got into the act with a few curriculum and course changes, including a new course in Spanish to substitute for study abroad by working with local native-Spanish speakers.

Most of the work to get to this point was done in the Fall and earlier, but writing everything up in proposal format took a fair amount of time. We then had our department meeting to vote on all proposals, and then put it all together to send to the dean and on to the curriculum committee.

In the midst of all this, we had a faculty member resign (for unrelated reasons), so we juggled his classes and I put together a proposal to hire his replacement. That position announcement, for a tenure-track Assistant Professor in English / Creative Writing Fiction is now on our school’s website.

So I apologize for not posting more about the normal subjects on this blog. Hopefully, I’ll be able to get back to those soon. In the meantime, I have a few last details to figure out for our fall schedule!

More Fun with Libre Office Base

As I wrote last, I’ve had some success moving my submissions from my old self-made system to a database, using LibreOffice Base. I was able to set up database tables for my Titles, Places (Magazines, Book Publishers, Prizes, etc.) and link those with a table for each Submission (one title per submission, though I can see all the submissions I’ve made to each Place when I view the place). So I can view everything I’ve ever submitted, and it all works reasonably well. That’s a huge success. I was even able to design a couple of forms to view each Title and Place with their corresponding Submissions. The problems started when I went to link those databases and write a “form” to enter data.

Here’s the thing about databases that makes them powerful but also takes some getting used to. Each entry in a table needs a Primary Key, which is a unique identifier, usually an integer that is created automatically when you add a new record so that no two recrods have the same primary key. I was able to add primary keys to each of my tables and to cross-reference the existing primary keys for Titles and Places when I brought in my Submissions, but I’m still not used to relying on them, so my databse design is a little wonky. It will be easy enough to fix, but it has taken me awhile to admit that I need to fix it.

I’ve learned that I can create a form with a List Box control that can look up information from one table and store other information from that table. In other words, my list box can allow me to select a title from the Titles table and put the corresponding TitleID primary key in the Submission record, and I can do the same thing for Places. That’s great, but because I’m not used to working with databases, I wanted to store the TitleID, Title, and Genre for each submission, and couldn’t find a way to do that. I could only look up and store one field at a time.

A helpful person on an OpenOffice forum told me I was going about it all wrong, as I was beginning to suspect. (LibreOffice is one implementation of OpenOffice, so they’re essentially the same thing.) I shouldn’t store the Title in both the Submissions and the Titles tables, but should rely on the TitleID and use a databse query to pull the other information from Titles when I read Submissions. Or at least, I think that’s what s/he meant, though I could be explaining it wrong. It gets a little confusing, and I know I have some reading to do to figure out how to use the Query feature, though the helpful person from the forum did send me a couple of examples that are close to what I’ll need (thank you very much!).

I can go back to my Submissions table and delete the fields for Titles, Places, Types (of places), and Genres (of titles). Then a Submission record will just have SubmissionID, PlaceID, TitleID, Date(s), and Response, but none of that pesky text. I’ll have to figure out how to use a query to show me the information I need on certain forms and learn more about subforms and form tables to show the data in the format I want. I have more work to do, in other words, before I can have my database working the way I want, but it can be done, just not the way my non-database brain would have thought.

Incidentally, I’m glad I exported the data the way I did. As I was setting things up, I linked my tables together in Relationships with Primary Keys and Foreign Keys, which is essentially the database terminology for referring to another table’s primary key in a table, and setting them up so that when the primary key gets changed or deleted, that also gets done to the foreign key in the linked table. I got a few errors as I did this and had to search to find out why. As it turned out, some of my Titles didn’t had an empty TitleID field in the Submissions record. Why? I found a couple of misspellings and a few titles whose name had been changed over time. In my old system, the old name could still be out there and wouldn’t be updated. Moving to a relational database should fix that problem. In my Submissions spreadsheet, I could find the empty fields and figure out which TitleID they should have held. Unlike a computer, I can see my old title and remember what the new title is or correct the typo and then look up the right number.

If I hadn’t included the title with each submission when I exported it, then it would have been a lot harder to find and correct the errors with just numbers for identification. But databases work better with limited and accurate information, so the work I’m doing now to clean up my information and set it up correctly will make it all work much more smoothly in the future.

In the process, I may decide to change Genre to Genre and Subgenre and set up two small databases for those, so I can use IDs so I can store those in the database instead of storing text. Then I could have Poetry as genre and Translation as subgenre, for instance. Or Poetry as Genre and Book as Subgenre. I could do the same for Type of place. I could also set up a database of submission Responses to limit those but also make it possible to add options. But we’ll see if I get that ambitious right away.

Now is the best time to do a lot of this, though, since I haven’t started actually using the database yet. But it’s also the start of a new semester, so I have lots of work to do on my syllabi and lots of classes to figure out in my department and students to help sign up for those classes. I can’t devote a whole day to it, in other words, as I could over break. But I can work on it off and on for the next week or so, and I might have a database I’m ready to use and ready to share before too long.

New Base for Submissions

One current project has been to finally get the data from my old submission tracking system transferred into LibreOffice‘s Base database program. As I wrote awhile ago, moving over 30 years worth of submissions from one platform to another is a monumental undertaking. Back when I moved from Hypercard to Supercard, there was a conversion program, since Supercard was wooing Hypercard users. Hypercard was Apple’s free software to create programs and databases on stacks of virtual index cards. When it was abandoned, programs like Supercard and Runtime Revolution filled the gap, though they were hardly free. To be fair, both are priced for developers, not really for hobbyists, and Runtime Revolution now has moved to LiveCode. Supercard still isn’t 64-bit and is too expensive for me to pay to upgrade for personal use, so I’m finally making the move over to a relational database for tracking my submissions.

This took writing a fair amount of code to export all the text in my Supercard stacks in a form that I could input into the database. Fortunately, I had done a lot of programming in SuperTalk, the scripting language of Supercard, so I knew how to write to a file and how to read what I wanted to read from each card. There was some trial and error to get everything to work right — I’ll spare you the details, since no one else will probably ever have to do this, and if they did, their Supercard stacks would undoubtedly be very different from mine.

Once I had three text files for Places, Titles, and Submissions, I could import those into LibreOffice’s Calc spreadsheets, and then from there copy them into Base. This is a good time to acknowledge that I’ve sent out 523 titles to about 550 places (there are 564 place records, but I know a few are ones I’ve never actually sent to yet), resulting in 3,413 submissions sent out in 923 groups. Since I’m a poet, I usually sent out 4-5 poems in one group, so I thought it might be helpful to track those groups together. One group, for an issue of a magazine I guest-edited, had 55 translations, but most are 5 or less and a few are 6-10. I created a table that lists the groups of submissions by date, though I’m not sure if I’ll need to use that.

*Geek alert*

If you haven’t zoned out already, here’s where I get even more technical. Copying the data into Base was deceptively easy, but I did learn a few things that might be helpful for anyone doing that. What I realized was that some of the lines from my Calc spreadsheet didn’t copy in, so I was missing some data. It took awhile to figure out where the problems were, so I’ll explain what I found.

First, there was very little help on how to import data into Base, but The Frugal Computer Guy’s tutorials were invaluable. I plan to go back and watch more once all my data is imported and I’m ready to start working with it. He showed me how to copy a Calc spreadsheet into Base, which I probably would never have discovered on my own, at least not without a lot of searching in the online Help, which like for most open source programs is okay, but wonky, hard to navigate, and missing some key info. For instance, no one tells you how to format the spreadsheet for importing boolean data. The documentation calls the data ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (and that there’s an option for how to display an empty field). But it doesn’t say what the Calc file should look like.

It turns out that boolean fields in Calc need to be right justified and say either TRUE or FALSE (or empty). I only learned this by creating my table in Base and then copying it back into Calc after I had changed the info for a few rows to Yes and No (checked and unchecked). I also had to be sure to format the cells of this column to Boolean in the Calc file. Similarly, I had a problem with importing dates until I formatted the Calc column as a date.

Still, I had issues with the import of text. One thing I learned was that I couldn’t have any quotation marks in my text or Calc went haywire. I replaced all the quotes in my comments fields with asterisks, though I could have just left them out, I suppose. Thank you Replace All! I also thought that Base had an issue with the string ” / / ” so I replaced all of those, which were indicating line breaks in my original comments. Now I’m not sure if that was really necessary.

The main issue that caused loss of data was that the length of certain fields (Calc columns) needed to be adjusted. I eventually set the length of my Comments field to 1000 characters after checking the character count of some of my longest comment fields. I’ve added comments to individual submissions now, so I can track what was said better, and the comments from each Place won’t get so long, though I doubt I’ll go back and move the old comments. I might do that for some recent ones, though. I had another field set to be 1 character long (from when it was going to be a boolean value), so I changed that to be 10 so it would accommodate any word I want to use for how Places accept submissions. Testing the lengths and looking at the data to see what was coming in and where it wasn’t working took awhile, but I finally have all my Places in. Now I just have to fix my Titles, and I’ll be okay.

One other trick I learned in Base is that to get a blank copy of a table (which is where you put your data — because Base indexes every new record with a number, you need to start with a blank slate every time you import new data in (unless you’re adding to what you have), so I did this a lot while fixing my import). To get a blank copy, right-click on the table and choose Edit. This will open the interface where you can add fields or change the length or format of fields. Do that if you need to (and save), then click Save As and give the table a new name. That will create an empty copy of your table where you can import data, starting from 0, the first record in any Base table.

End Geek Zone (sort of)

Once my import is complete (and fixed), I will have a database table of Places that lists the name, address, and other information for each publisher, magazine, prize, etc.. I’ll have another table of Titles with their information, and I’ll have a table with an entry for each submission that links a title with a place and has a field for when it was sent, when a response was recieved, and what the response was.

Then I can create a Form for Places, Titles, and Submissions, which I can use to view and enter the data in my tables, and the forms for Places and Titles can have subforms that display the submissions for each Place or Title by reading the Submissions table, so I can see what has been submitted where and what the response was by going to the Place or Title. I may even be able to add the response from this subform without a separate Submissions form. That’s something I’ll be working on — how to enter new data.

I can also create a Query to show me all submissions that are currently Out or all submissions sorted by title, so I can see which titles aren’t out anywhere. I’ll be working on a way to run a Report to show me the titles that are in, but if I can’t do that, I can always get that information from the full report by sorting or filtering it. And I may be able to filter out the titles that I’ve marked as Accepted or Retired (some that I no longer send out anymore).

All in all, Base will make a good home for my submissions, and the bulk of the work in transferring it over is done. Then it will be a question of learning how to work with the data in a database. And the good news is that if I ever have to do this again, I can copy a Base table into a Calc spreadsheet and export it from there without all the programming that I had to do to extract my data from Supercard. Here’s hoping that LibreOffice stays around for awhile, though, and I don’t have to do this again.

Once I have things set up pretty much the way I want them (at least the basics), I may post a blank copy of my database that someone could use to track their own submissions. It’s not quite ready for prime time, but it’s getting close. Check back in the new year!

Happy Holidays!

The holiday season is always in interesting time for academics. On the one hand, we have a break from classes for a few weeks — this year is longer than most due to shortened COVID semesters — and we need it for working on syllabi for the next semester and dealing with all the fall-out of the previous one. We also enjoy having a little time with family. This year, it’s a little different, too, as we (along with many others) are staying home for Christmas and not doing our usual holiday travel, though we’ll all gather on Zoom at some point.

For me, the holidays always mean a change in jobs, as I transition from academic to publisher and warehouse manager. My college office transforms into a shipping department (of one) for sending out copies of the two magazines published by our MFA program, Poetry South and Ponder Review.

This means downloading all the contributors and subscriptions for each magazine from Submittable and creating a spreadsheet with their addresses, so I can mail merge them to labels, indicate the number of copies, and then start stuffing hundreds of envelopes. These get sorted, addressed, and taken to the post office. International shipments take the extra step of customs forms. In a few days, all are taken to the post office, and I can clean up the mess in my office — the one step I haven’t gotten to.

It’s a fun change of pace, and it’s nice to send people the product of our labors. Now I can turn back to reading submissions, contacting students to make sure they’ve signed up for classes, reviewing enrollments, and working on my syllabi. And there’ll be time for eggnog, presents, and all the other holiday fun, even if some of it will be different this year.

2020 Craziness Just Keeps Coming

As if COVID-19 wasn’t enough, this year is ending on a completely crazy note. Like many people, we stayed home over Thanksgiving and only visited family later, visiting my wife’s mother and not seeing anyone else. We did a Zoom call with my family on the big day and then ate dinner with our son at college (all of us on Zoom — he had cafeteria leftovers while we ate our fresh cooked vegetarian meal). But that wasn’t half the crazy 2020 had in store for us.

I’ve survived a semester teaching fully online and even directed a writers’ symposium that was fully online. All of that is starting to feel normal. But the craziest part was getting grades turned in while the campus where I work was dealing with a ransomware attack.

We’ve fared very well, with no loss to our major systems, which were back up and running within hours. PCs in offices were what was affected most, and though we hope we’ll be able to recover that data, offices were closed until hard drives could be replaced and computers disinfected. Faculty computers are still off limits, but I’m hopeful that mine will be okay, since I use a Mac and I’ve heard they weren’t infected and their files weren’t encrypted. If that’s wrong, I have most everything on my home computer or in the cloud, so I’ll be okay with minimal loss of data anyway, and since many of my colleagues were working remotely this semester, their PCs were off, so they are probably also in good shape.

It all happened at the very end of the semester, but we were able to get our grades in and communicate with students with very few hiccups. Our IT department has worked overtime to get us back up and running, and everything is going to be okay.

That’s what we keep saying about this crazy year. No matter what 2020 throws at us, somehow we’ll make it through, and there is light at the end of the tunnel. I know that’s not the case for everyone, and I feel very fortunate that I still have my job and my family, and it looks like we’ll make it to 2021 as long as we can stay healthy, wear our masks, avoid groups as much as possible, and keep dealing with everything this year sends our way.