August 6, 2022
By Lawrence F. Farrar
A few years back, I had a special writing experience. It was my privilege to provide editorial assistance to my friend, Akio Inoue, in preparing a short memoir for New Madrid Journal (Winter 2012; pp. 32-42) (Murray State University). The piece is entitled Hiroshima - One Man’s Memories Now, on the 77th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (120,000 estimated dead) and Nagasaki (226,000 estimated dead), I reviewed the article. The magazine (no longer in print) devoted an entire edition to relations between Japan and America.
“The summer I turned sixteen, I was living in Hiroshima . . .” So begins Inoue’s memoir. Brother away at war, food shortages, and put to work in a uniform factory. On August 6, 1945, a minor illness had taken Inoue to the Red Cross Hospital. “The last thing I remember there came a brilliant flash of light behind me.”
“When I revived, I found myself in a horribly different world. The air was thick with cries and groans. I lay on a hospital floor littered with injured people, dying people, and dead people. It was a place of pain and agony. I had been transported on an instant journey to hell.
What follows is a description of Inoue’s search for his home (gone), mother injured, grandmother never seen again, and sister suffering radiation poisoning. Many of the memories are graphic: “flesh burned by heat and radiation. Bodies scattered along a riverbank like chess pieces dumped from a bag.”
Life for the survivors in the aftermath of the bombing and post war years was extremely hard. Physical issues (radiation-related deaths of family members) and bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts. Yet Inoue displayed little bitterness. He concludes the memoir (as he did lectures for my Life-Long-Learning class at the University of Minnesota by repeating the inscription on the Hiroshima monument commemorating the bombing.
“Repose ye in peace, that the error shall not be repeated. Repose ye in peace that the error shall not be repeated.”
Yet, now in 2022, the bombing anniversaries received scant media treatment, even though events in Ukraine (threats to nuclear power plants and Putin’s posturing) seem to make them especially relevant. It seems memories fade, no matter how terrible the event.
A Potter’s House in Snow
Lawrence F. Farrar
I wonder now if you still remember
The little potter’s house so long ago.
On a soft gray day in late December;
Beyond the window, flakes of falling snow.
An old master’s work we’d come to see;
Each earthen piece displayed with quiet pride
We knelt on tatami mats, drank green tea;
And shared those perfect moments side by side.
A nearby temple bell did faintly chime;
The silent room, the old man’s work worn fingers.
We took a Nippon journey back in time,
The image of that day with you yet lingers.
Like some nostalgic treasure in my mind,
Summons longings, sadness undefined.
It takes patience to be a writer. Of course, it takes imagination, a way with words, familiarity with syntax and grammar, and lots more. But it also takes patience, an ability to hang in there and to endure the vagaries of the writing life. Whether defined as virtue or necessity, it doesn’t matter, if you have it, it works to your advantage; if you don’t, life is not always beautiful. It has something to do with emotional well-being.
Patience is surely required when the writer’s committed engagement (“Shut the door I’m busy.”) puzzles, intrigues, enamors, irritates, or in other ways draws the attention of family members, friends, or others not so engaged. (What do you mean you’re busy? You’re just sitting there staring at the screen.”) Just persevere; see it through. They’ll probably never really understand what you’re up to anyway--even if they say they do. Irritation is a wrong response, depression is wrong response, co-optation is a wrong response. The right response--you guessed it--patience. Show restraint; be tolerant.
Whether their advice is solicited or unsolicited, be patient with advice-givers. They mean well, at least most of the time. Be it from an editor, agent, or helpful neighbor; pay heed to their words, but respond with care. Hear them out, consider their suggestions, but take your time. The decision is yours; it’s your piece.
And above all, be patient with fellow writers. This appears to be a key requirement when considering the work of others in writers’ groups. While participants ramble on about point of view or about whether the lead character is appealing--or appalling--hold your fire. When your turn to speak comes around, be constructive, be encouraging--even if you must suppress your true feelings--be patient. Curb the rapier instinct--at least try. Your fellows will likely demonstrate reciprocal patience when examining your work. Patience rendered; patience received. Might not help your writing, but maybe you’ll feel better.
When the how-to manuals urge the aspiring writer to put a finished piece in a drawer for a time and then revisit it before submission, they are, in effect, counseling patience. Take your time. You’ll have a better product.
Writers spend a lot of time writing. But, in one way or another, they also spend a lot of time waiting around, a less than uplifting experience, even for those with the endurance of
Shackleton. Perhaps the truest test for the exercise of patience has to do with submissions.
Consider, for example, those guidelines that claim a response to your submission will be forthcoming in three months--or four or five or whatever it is. Keep believing it. Staffs are small, volunteer readers few, and administrative requirements burdensome. Throw in summer vacations, spring breaks, editors giving birth, internal skirmishes, even leaking roofs; in all likelihood you’re going to wait for an answer.
Be patient. Be understanding. They’ll get back to you--someday--maybe. Well, not always. Of course, the writer continues to write, but she is also waiting. As the pages fly off the calendar (pretend it’s an old movie), time passes. That’s okay, it must mean your piece is getting serious consideration. Right? More time, more consideration? There’s hope, hope being the companion of patience. But, then more months pass--still no response. Hope fades, patience atrophies. Ten months, a year -- “We regret that . . .” Alas, it seems the reward for patience, more often than not, is an expression of regret.
But don’t despair; now the writer can submit online. It will speed things up, enable the writer to monitor the progress of his piece, mollify even the most impatient. Really? Alas, terms like Received and In Progress are not particularly edifying. Response time appears to be little affected by the wonders of the submission manager. Moreover, the ability to submit electronically seems to swell the number of submissions. Consequently, consideration of new submissions stops while harried staffers work their way through apparently monumental backlogs. Be patient. Your piece might eventually emerge from the electronic pile. And if you are trying to submit, just wait, someday the logjam will end. If you lack the requisite writerly patience, there are plenty of other magazines. Unfortunately, some of them have backlogs too.
Of course, there is the lure of those journals that disdain simultaneous submissions. They’ve presumably winnowed out all but the most serious submitters, so the process will likely be a speedy one. It’s a proposition the writer hopes is true. When it’s not true, which seems to be much of the time, your story or essay, already long in gestation, is gestating further sans consideration by any other publication. When more than a year has passed with no response, your reservoir of patience will have been sorely tested. Are you ready to do this again? And again? Three years for presumed consideration by three editors. Aye, there’s a test of patience.
Long months, perhaps many long months, pass and the writer decides to inquire about the status of her submission. Patience is still a requisite. Suppress the desire to begin, “I suspect my story has died while in your custody. I hope it was a peaceful death.” Such an approach is unlikely to elicit a positive response. Perhaps it will even curse the chances of a piece that has lingered in the realm of possible acceptance.
Who wants to talk about rejection? Nobody. Everybody. It’s a shopworn topic, to say the least. But when comes to patience, it’s an obligatory one. Can’t avoid it. What is the essence of all those recommendations for dealing with rejections? Don’t take them personally say the sooth (as in making you feel better) sayers and be inspired by those stories of numerous rejections at long last offset by acceptance. (Overlooked, of course, are the more numerous stories of numerous rejections followed by more numerous rejections.) Above all, try and try and try again--in short, persevere (which seems to be patience an active voice).
Writing is hard work. Don’t worry. Be happy. Be patient.
Writing Across The Age Divide
By Lawrence F. Farrar
So now that you are retired, soon to be retired, or old enough to wish you had retired, you have toyed with the notion of trying your hand at creative writing. You’ve heard all the inspirational pep talks about it never being too late to start, but you have large doubts about their legitimacy. Well, it’s true; it really is never too late to start. Will you produce a break-through novel or a clutch of prize-winning stories? Maybe not, but who knows? Will your bank account brim with royalty checks? Not likely, but the possibility of at least a modest payoff is always there. The point is, with those dollops of reality in mind, writing in retirement can be fulfilling and fun. And there’s nothing like a little intellectual stimulation. It’s surely worth a try.
Like all writers, of course, you need to have something to say and need to say it in a compelling, literate way. But you have some advantages your younger writing colleagues cannot match. What advantages, you ask, might those be?
Well, for one thing you are likely to have access to an especially precious commodity—time. Writing, editing, and rewriting are time-consuming processes. And, unlike those poor souls who eternally search for a bloc of time to write while balancing work schedules, chasing kids, and commuting, you have the luxury of choosing the time and place for your writing endeavors that best suits you. It’s a big plus.
There is another plus. Much of what we write is the product of an imagination that, consciously or unconsciously, exploits our life’s experience as a go-to source. And, unless you’ve been in hibernation all these years, simply stated, you have more of that experience to mine than does someone thirty years your junior. You have at your potential recall a world populated in sheer numbers, amount, or volume--whatever experience comes in--with more characters, more adventures, more drama, and more insights into the human condition than someone whose life resume is still modest, at best.
There are, of course, challenges for the older writer. One is technology. If you want to write, embrace it. We live in a world of computers and electronic devices. Yet a surprisingly large number of seniors simply fail to take advantage of the benefits they offer. Whether you are submitting a story, taking an on-line course, or doing research, something more than a nodding familiarity with the internet is essential. It might be true you didn’t grow up in this gadget-filled world as have those decades younger than yourself. But don’t be intimidated; with some basic instruction and a bit of practice you’ll dazzle yourself with what you can do. “User Friendly,” once an Oxymoron, isn’t one any longer (well, most of the time).
Another challenge, once you begin submitting manuscripts, is, alas, ageism, or at least the problem of a different frame of reference between older writers and editors. It is the –ism that still occurs straight-forwardly and with little condemnation. You’ve had your turn, now it’s time for someone else; you’ll be hard to train; you’ll cost too much, and on and on. As El Guapo would put it, there’s a plethora of reasons for discriminating. Anyone who has applied for a job knows the drill. And in the writerly world, editors, agents, and others are on the lookout for those who will have time to develop a body of work or, at least, who are very much in touch with the flow of contemporary life. Be honest, but there is no need to emphasize your age. Somehow your stuff has to resonate with the gate-keepers. And they are likely to be much younger than you. There was a letter in Poets & Writers a year or so ago in which the sender argued that senior writers were at a disadvantage in writing contests since first readers were, he assumed, young and, therefore, unable to appreciate the life experience of older writers.
Whether this argument is valid or not, unless you are specifically writing for a senior audience or really trying to communicate an older person’s point of view, don’t write “old.” That means, among other things, avoiding the use of dated words and phrases. For example, to say, “she looked as if she just stepped out of a bandbox,” might leave the puzzled editor shaking his head. Huh? And no contemporary teenager is likely to say, “Gee, dad, that’s swell.” At the same time, take care in the use of contemporary words and idioms you might not fully understand, lest your writing sounds forced and artificial. Once you begin sending in your stuff, you will soon encounter the stricture many publications have against simultaneous submissions, or at least too many simultaneous submissions. The problem, of course, if you strictly adhere to this requirement, is that your piece will be seen by only one reading team and seen by no one else, perhaps for a very long time. So what? Well, you have a finite number of writing years ahead of you and the answer to that question is likely to be different if you are sixty-five rather than thirty-five. Is it better to have your story seen by one editor each year for three years or three editors in one year? The choice is yours. You have advantages, the challenges are manageable, and writing, even begun in retirement, can a rewarding endeavor. So, what are you waiting for? Go for it. Following retirement from the US Foreign Service, Lawrence Farrar wrote the first of more than 70, almost a plethora, of published stories. He is still writing.