Chera Hammons: Poet and Writer

"…a slow shutter on ambulation…"

Thoughts on Research

Hello, friends! I meant to blog over what was Spring Break for most local folks, but I didn’t have internet for awhile during and after the “land hurricane,” and when I got it back I had to prioritize some other projects on which I’d fallen behind. Friday, my day off, was spent with my husband repairing and strengthening the fences that had been affected by Wednesday’s 64 mph sustained winds (with gusts to 84… It was brutal). We were lucky– things could have been much worse, and were worse for many people.

Anyway, I’m here now, and I’m talking to a colleague’s composition class tomorrow about research. Namely, the importance of specifics, and how I use research in my own creative writing.  This is a guess, as I haven’t technically kept track of it, but I suspect that I spend about 25% of my writing time actually writing; 25% reading new publications, reading submissions, networking, submitting work, and taking care of other, related business; and 50% doing research.

I love research because I’m a curious person. I grew up without the internet, and it still seems miraculous to me that I can find the answer to nearly any question, even the most random one, within a few minutes. In the course of writing various projects, I’ve researched many current events / contemporary issues, as well as things like why onions make people cry,  saddle making, laws regarding home burial, the birth rate of mustangs, how sound behaves in space, the timeline of development within a turtle egg, wild animal baiting and its consequences, and courtship etiquette during the Dust Bowl.

I never know where my research might take me, but I know that it is important. It helps my work to be true.

Not to mention the added benefit of knowing all the Jeopardy! answers, because I have filled my brain with such a strange but wide range of facts…!

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Brief Update

Hello, readers! Please accept my apologies, as I have been dealing with life and its many consequences. Between being busy, there have been migraines and some sickness, some breakdown of appliances (the dishwasher in particular appears to be cursed), and last week, we lost my grandmother to a long illness.

She wasn’t like other grandmothers– I never saw much softness in her– still, until last Tuesday, I had never known a world without her in it, and I have felt disoriented since. She had severe dementia and hadn’t recognized her family members for awhile, so it was really like she had been slipping away slowly for a couple of years, and her passing was simply the next step. But I don’t know if that made it any easier.

She was raised on a red dirt farm in Oklahoma and was one of the toughest people I knew. She was the last of her siblings, the last of her friends. It comforts me that she believed my mother, who cared for often her in her illness, was her own mother towards the end. I like to think that means she felt safe.

I will feel more normal, I suspect, when I can write something about it, but right now, it’s still too soon, and I have learned it is not helpful to rush how one processes loss. Loss is always complicated.

Please check back soon. I will write a real blog entry (a more cheerful one!) again in the next few days. In the meantime, I wish you good writing and good health!

Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom

Happy Tuesday, friends! I have some great news: I have signed with the wonderful Torrey House Press to publish my suspenseful literary novel Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom. The novel is set in Northeast Kingdom, Vermont, which is the coldest region in the state. The protagonist is an aging woman who is chronically ill. Like me, she has Lyme disease. When she is abruptly left on her own, she must figure out how to protect her land and what she loves from danger. There are horses, dogs, coyotes, bears, poachers, and all sort of surprises. Readers so far have told me they couldn’t put it down. One reader told me she wants a sequel (okay, I have to be honest– that particular reader was my mom! Seriously, though, my parents are super supportive of my writing, and I appreciate them. Thanks, mom!).

My husband Daniel, whose doctoral thesis Animal Ethics and Theology was published by Routledge a few years back, and who currently writes genre ecofiction, first pointed me in the direction of Torrey House, for which I am grateful. I am careful about where I send my manuscripts. My choices largely depend on what I need for the book to accomplish in the world. Everything I read about Torrey House impressed me. Among other things, the press is conscientious, it cares about the same issues I do, it’s run by women (yay!), and the books are all attractively designed. It seemed perfect. So I submitted the book and let time pass, and then I got an email that led to a phone call. I stood at the window and watched the sun set over the canyon while I spoke to an editor about publishing my book.

I am so thrilled this press is willing to give my book a chance. They’ve been amazing to work with and their books are gorgeous and important. Publishing novels has been a lifelong dream of mine. I’ve outlined and begun writing at least twenty novels I’ve never finished over the years; I always got to about 12,000 words and stopped. I’m sometimes too harsh a critic of my own work to write things longer than poems, because I can start to get more and more unhappy with what I’m writing, and then I get discouraged and abandon it. But this time, I told myself I’d finish my novel no matter what. For me, that meant it had to be on point all the way through. And now, miracle of miracles, I will be able to share it with other people. More than that– I hope it will be the first novel of many.

To say I suffer from imposter syndrome would be an understatement. I am one of those unfortunate people who distrusts good news; I always wonder, at first, when I receive some recognition, if it’s a mistake. Right now I have two personally important books coming out at dream presses in 2020 (besides Monarchs at Torrey House, I also have a poetry book– Maps of Injury— forthcoming from Sundress Publications), and I’ve poured so much time, energy, and love into them, I’ve run empty in my daily life a few times. The anxiety is trying to take hold. I keep asking myself, “How can this be?” Right now, 2020 seems like a long way off. Here’s hoping life as we know it (actually, preferably, a better version of it) can continue for at least the next two years or so–

At any rate, I have decided to enjoy the prospect of publications ahead without worrying so much about everything. I decided to write my first novel, and then committed to doing it, so I can decide this, too. I wrote at least 700 words every day when I was writing Monarchs, and those words slowly but surely became a book. Every day that passes now brings it closer to something I can hold in my hand.

To anyone out there, reading this– If you’ve been thinking of writing your own book, but the task seems too daunting– Start small. Set a daily or weekly goal you know you can reach, and don’t quit until you reach it. Start anew every day. You can do this. And guess what? Once you’ve done it once, you’ll know you can do it again.

Revision is Re-vision

Dear readers: I know I missed making an entry (is that what this regular random spewing of thoughts would be called?) last Friday, but I have not forgotten about you! I have been busy revising my literary novel. Enough time has passed since I last looked at it that reading it this past week has been like reading it for the first time.

If you’re a writer, some time away from your drafts is a gift, because time allows you the distance you need from your work to be objective about it. Time allows you to “forget” your own work enough to approach it more in the way a reader would, and you will thereby notice inconsistencies and weaknesses that you didn’t see before.

I used to find revision tedious, but now it’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I hope that you will learn to love it, too.

The greatest thing I learned in grad school is that revision = re-vision. In other words, it means seeing your work again. Revision, unlike copy editing, is less about correcting grammar or punctuation and has everything to do with structure and ideas. This is where you see if your work communicates the message you intended. Read your work aloud; is there anything that causes you to stumble? If so, why? Is your meaning clear? Should anything be rearranged? Should there be more detail in one place? Less in another?

For prose, you might ask yourself if there is enough of a reason for an event to occur. Characters should have reasonable motivation for their actions. For poetry, you might ask if there’s a more specific word, a more vivid image or comparison, maybe something that can call back to an earlier point in the poem. For both, revision is where you identify your strongest, most important themes and adjust the rest of a piece to support them.

Revision, in short, is what can take a good piece of writing and make it great. It’s one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. Wield it. Value it. Understand it. Keep it sharp.

So I’m Trying to Write Through Personal Trauma…

Dear readers: I spent a lot of time this week working on writing a personal essay. It took so much time because writing it was a genuine, chewing-fingernails-to-the-quick kind of difficult. You see, the essay concerned a Very Sad Thing that happened in my past. This thing has loomed over me every time I sat down to write for years, but it was too painful to turn and face. So I would end up facing it halfway, and the results often weren’t very good; they didn’t say everything I intended. I usually ended up throwing them out. But this week, I finally decided to try to write through the Very Sad Thing and get it out of the way, once and for all. Because my writing is often how I process experiences, good and bad, and emotion: love, anger, fear, grief, sometimes all of those together. I know myself, and it felt like I couldn’t fully process this event until I really sat down and wrote about it.

If you know what to search for, you can find an article in the Albuquerque Journal detailing a murder at a drive-in restaurant in that city. It says the victim, a man with a family and a reputation for kindness, was found near the restaurant dumpsters by a coworker. There was no known motive for the killing, and the murderer was never caught. The victim still had a weak pulse when found; the article doesn’t mention that. I only know because one of the first people who stumbled upon the scene was my ex-husband, a truck driver, who developed PTSD as a result. That tragic day changed everything– for the victim’s family, who lost a husband and brother, of course. And for the two of us.

So I wrote the essay, I changed the names, I tried not to cry and after I had finished, I had a sort of meltdown and deleted it all, just like I always had before. Because writing about past trauma can put you right back in that trauma, as if no time at all has passed, and the scars revert to open wounds. This is not something to be done lightly. And this is why trained counselors or psychologists should guide groups of people who are writing about their traumatic experiences as therapy. I decided I would never try to write about it again, because I seemed incapable of doing it well.

The next morning, however, the strongest emotions seemed like they had been depleted, so I restored the file from my file history and revised it, trying to view it more as a Writer, someone telling what happened, and less as the person who experienced it. Thinking of it that way gave me just enough distance. This time, I was able to say exactly what I wanted to say. And it finally felt like the dark cloud that had been looming behind me for so long was getting smaller, not because its significance had diminished, but because I was getting farther away from it. I was reorienting myself to the disaster.

Sometimes, when a person experiences trauma, it takes a long time to process it in a way that allows them to translate it into something others could understand. Sometimes a person can’t do it alone. Sometimes it takes a long time to know what they themselves want to say about it; they have to come to understand its many complexities and implications first. Sometimes, a writer has to write something over and over and over, and it will never be right, until one day, it is. In the meantime, we should practice kindness– to others, as well as to ourselves. This world can be hard, but we are in it together.

Unplaced Poems: “What I Taught Them”

Hello, readers! I hope everyone’s holiday season went smoothly, and that all of you came through it in one piece– or, if not, in at least a few salvageable pieces that can be glued back together.

I’ll admit I took a bit of a break from the blog, but I have now returned– so you see, your confidence that I would come back was not in vain. Today’s entry won’t be a complicated one; it’s just about something I sometimes think about (gosh, we’re off to a good start, aren’t we?).

I’ve discussed with poet friends before an interesting observation: that the poems to which audiences tend to react most favorably at readings often seem to get the least amount of attention from journal editors. I haven’t been the only one in my group of friends who has noticed this. I’m really not sure why this may be, though I can tell you that, when picking poems for a reading, I tend to go for the ones that have strongest emotional impact, perhaps at the cost of some complexity or nuance that might be more accessible to a reader than an audience member, for whom a poem only occurs once. I’m wondering if other poets out there have noticed something similar.

Anyway, in tribute to my favorite “unjournaled” pieces, I thought I’d start sharing some poems from my books that audiences seem to enjoy, but that never got picked up by journals. This week’s is “What I Taught Them,” from The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City. It got some personal rejections from places like Blue Mesa Review, but it never got picked up, though I love reading it because it’s a piece that gets both (good) laughs and “ooohs,” which are mother’s milk to a performing poet.

“What I Taught Them” from The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City by Chera Hammons

A man I’ve never seen before is chasing my two horses,
running them across the pasture and waving his arms at them
while his slim girlfriend watches, black sunglasses astride
blowing blonde hair as she raises her phone
to document his bravado, the shorts that flap in the wind
and his fleshy arms arcing out like wings that have been plucked.
The horses, because I have taught them to trust,
seem more surprised than frightened at first,
flying over the yucca in bursts, then turning to see
if the man has been satisfied, but he keeps coming at them.
They are used to standing still and lifting their feet for the farrier,
who files down their rough edges every eight weeks.
They know to take the bite of the vet’s needle without flinch or kick.
That is why, if this man wanted, he could walk up to them,
rub the swirls of hair under their forelocks,
breathe them in, their wildness and joy and
the sun and sweet-hay smell of their windswept coats.
It is why he is able to sweep them away
for sheer nothingness, giving them no reasons.
I would hurt him if I could, this man
who has no idea, who says he was running
because he wanted to run,
not chasing my two horses on my land
because the woman who came with him
is impressed by that sort of thing.
I follow him to his shiny white car with its dealer plates,
watch him drive slowly away because he is not sorry enough.
The horses pace as I walk back to them, eyes white-rimmed,
and I worry they will fear me again,
having just been treated unfairly.
But they recognize my voice and let me step among them,
lay their warm heads against me for comfort,
snorting and blowing from their flight.
Then— this is how much I love them—
they ask if they did what I would have wanted of them,
and I say yes.

For a video of the poem being read, click here.

From Potboiler to Promising

Good morning, friends,

I don’t have much profound to say today, as I’ve been feeling unwell all week– first with a mild cold, and now with a hovering migraine, which I am staving off as best I can with coffee and Tylenol and darkness. I am in quite a bit of pain, actually! So please forgive any typos. This week, I managed to crack the 20,000-word mark in my YA novel and do a fair amount of research for what comes next; write two poems; revise the query letter for my first novel; and read submissions for poetry journal One (through Jacar Press). I intend to close out the week today and tomorrow with a few submissions of my own. I expect some rejections any minute now which will free up more work for me to send elsewhere. (That’s how rejection works, in case you didn’t know!– Each rejection is an opportunity to send work to a journal that might provide a better home for it than the last one would have. So remember that.)

I wanted to take a moment to talk about the importance of having other people– people you trust, who will also be honest with you– read your work. Even if you are already a famous, award-winning writer, for some reason reading my humble blog post right now instead of working on your next great masterpiece, this is true. Everyone has a different level of experience and a different perspective to offer, so guess what– even the opinions of friends and family who aren’t experienced writers themselves can tell you if your work communicates the message you intend it to. You will learn, with experience, what sort of critique is helpful to you, and what isn’t. When you try something someone suggests to you, if you end up not liking the change, you can always change back. Often, other people can see things that you can’t, simply because you can be too close to your own work.

I finished a literary fiction novel last year, and had sent it around a few places, but have been trying to find a publisher in earnest only the last four or five months. I have a 50% “success” rate with agents, by which I mean that my query letter 50% of the time has triggered a request from an agent to see the full manuscript. I gave up on agents fairly quickly, however, because I realized early on that the story does not have mainstream appeal, though the writing style itself is good (and this has also been what the agents I dealt with have told me). Though sales are always nice, of course!, I am predominantly interested in craft and expression with this book. I have opted to try to find a small press instead, one that specializes in this type of novel (literary fiction with elements of suspense / noir and wilderness / survival), and is perhaps less driven by factors affecting the mainstream market. The protagonist of the book is an elderly, chronically ill woman, someone who would traditionally be ignored by society. When her husband is murdered, she must defend her property from poachers on her own. She is an unreliable narrator and often doesn’t do what she “should.” She is a character who is trying to adjust to life changes, trying to survive, and sometimes makes bad choices in an effort to do so.

I hadn’t allotted the book a great deal of importance, aside from personal significance, I suppose because I wrote it mostly for myself, and it is my first novel, so I very much wanted to have realistic expectations. (For the record, I’ve often felt I would be more successful if I had a bigger ego– I’m just not sure how to go about nurturing one.) But when I told my talented editor friend about the book, and he asked to see the synopsis, he pointed out that it deals with important issues such as isolation and care of the elderly and chronically ill; it has a subversive aspect in that the female character successfully takes her husband’s place; it has a concern for the environment and the treatment of animals. “These are the elements you should be marketing,” he told me.

And magically, a light went on. My perspective changed. These are the wonderful moments as a human being, I think, when the world shifts around you, not because the world itself has changed, but because your viewpoint has. This is why the risk of showing your work to someone you respect, making yourself vulnerable, is often worth it. Suddenly, I understood that my little book had more weight than what I myself had been giving it. The issues I had cared about when actually writing it had shone through. I remembered why I had written it in the first place. Sometimes we get so involved in the business of our own lives, we forget ourselves.

I have revised my query letter accordingly, and it is ready to send to several small presses I have my eye on that are opening January 1st. Many thanks to my friend, who took the time, despite having a busy week of his own, to look at my work. I will keep everyone posted with the results.