Stepping Out – A Balance Sheet

Two years ago I celebrated the release of my first book of poetry, Voice Break, on my fiftieth birthday. It was self-published, which made it seem like less of a milestone than landing a book contract—yet it felt like a milestone, nonetheless. I had been opening rejection letters on two novel manuscripts (some with encouraging comments) for close to twenty years. I’d even had an agent for a time.

Like many writers, I’d turned up my nose at self-publishing. The word wannabe can’t help but tag behind. Yet I decided to take this step after one of my advisers in Pacific University’s MFA program read my manuscript. In essence, he told me to come up with a musical cover and publish it. I’m pretty sure he was envisioning a chapbook, but I decided to take advantage of the growing frenzy over CreateSpace to see if I liked the way the process worked. I figured I didn’t have much to lose. The manuscript was quirky, and I sensed it wouldn’t sit well with a traditional publisher. It was probably too short to boot.

In the end, I found the process unexpectedly gratifying. I loved having editorial control! I loved choosing the cover and other design elements. And I loved the absence of deadlines—it wasn’t finished until I thought it was finished.

Once the book was released, I put on my PR hat and managed to capture a little attention in the news. I ended up selling copies to friends and a few generous strangers, but I must admit, my sales never proved to be brisk.

Meanwhile, I began to face a second manuscript, The Ballad of the New Carissa and Other Poems. As there aren’t a lot of ballads being written these days, I figured it would also be hard to place. So I repeated the process with CreateSpace and pretty much ended up with the same results. As an aside, both books were covered by media outlets in Eugene and Newport, Oregon. I was happy with that.

Problem is, poetry doesn’t sell. About the time I was waiting to learn how my own sales would go, I encountered an article in Publishers Weekly, entitled “Measuring the National Book Award Sales Effect”, which focuses on how many additional copies an award winner could expect to unload. I was surprised to learn the winner in the poetry category, David Ferry, had sold roughly 2000 copies of his book Bewilderment. While Ferry’s numbers had actually tripled due to his badge of honor, this number was sobering indeed.

Even so, I don’t regret stepping out. Poets have always found creative ways to make their work available. Or they have enlisted tiny presses to do it for them.

I can recall weeding books during the nineties in the Ballard branch of the Seattle Public Library, where I worked as a librarian, only to stumble upon an early effort by Sherman Alexie (I can no longer remember which one it was). It caught my eye, because Reservation Blues had just made him a star. I think I stood there imagining his early days as a writer, the loving attention he put into the book I held in my hands—one I probably wouldn’t have noticed if Reservation Blues hadn’t come along.

My two books are now housed in a couple of libraries. And due to print-on-demand technology, they are still available for sale through online vendors, should anyone else ever decide to take an interest in them. To my mind, this benefit of the print-on-demand process is probably the best reason to go the self-publishing route. A book can conceivably take all the time in the world to make its way into the consciousness of readers (instead of being remaindered and forgotten). The downside, of course, is that self-published books tend to be ignored by sponsors of literary contests, not to mention librarians and reviewers. I’m still wondering if anyone ever solved the riddle presented in Voice Break, a riddle that also serves as a turn of sorts. In any event, I’ve gone on to test the traditional route. I’ve already enjoyed some success with placing individual poems in literary journals. Perhaps this will ultimately lead to a third manuscript worthy of a good old-fashioned publisher.

Poetry may not sell, but it certainly isn’t dead. Last week I attended a Meet the Poets gathering in the Mission Hills branch of the San Diego Public Library. I was there to share one of my poems, which had recently been published in The San Diego Poetry Annual. The room was packed. Our moderator, Curran Jeffery, quickly ascertained for the record that most of the people in the audience were not poets or writers, but had attended solely to listen to the twenty or so of us preparing to read.

The Muse in Crystal Cove

Crystal Cove. Sounds like the setting of a Nancy Drew novel. The Secret of Crystal Cove. The Mystery in Crystal Cove. The Clue in the Crystal Cove Cottage.

Crystal Cove Beach CottagesAs a writer, I like to get away. The Crystal Cove Beach Cottages in Crystal Cove State Park, located near Newport Beach, California, seemed to be the perfect setting for some impromptu writing—or at least an impromptu picnic celebrating the first sunset of daylight savings. It is a rickety old place an organization called the Crystal Cove Alliance is in the process of restoring to its old world charm. There is even a mysterious set of North Beach Cottages, currently boarded up, but noted on the map as being a part the Phase III Restoration Project. How many old stories lurk behind these walls, I wonder?

One of the North Beach Cottages

One of the North Beach Cottages

It is hard to find inexpensive retreats in Southern California—especially if one is looking for antique flair. Yet the managers of the Crystal Cove Cabins are trying to keep the prices down, even as they attempt to infuse the place with appealing touches. Problem is, the reservation process is a free for all. Those wanting to book a cottage must log on to ReserveAmerica.com on the first day of the month and duke it out with all the other romantics looking for a cheap getaway. And don’t be in any hurry to get there.

Here’s how the reservation system works:

“Beginning at 8am PST sharp on the first(1st) of each month, the entire seventh(7th) month in the future, is opened for reservation opportunities…”

If this sounds too stressful, there is another option. You can scan their calendar for cancellations, and then register.

The view from my dorm room.

The view from my dorm room.

The second approach recently worked for me. I was able to land a dorm room on a Sunday night for $50 plus tax (fortunately, I work a night shift on Mondays, so I could fit this impromptu trip into my schedule). My room, while relatively modest and small, had a view of the ocean and easy deck access. The strip of beach below was long enough for a decent walk, and the state park even boasts a beachside restaurant called the Beachcomber Café (on that particular Sunday afternoon, the place was packed).

Beachcomber's Lodge

Beachcomber’s Lodge

My room was located in the Beachcomber’s Lodge, one of the dorm-style cottages. This dwelling offers a number of private rooms that share three bathrooms and a kitchen. One can also rent an entire cottage at a much higher price. I was worried I might feel shorted in my dorm room, as I hate vying for bathroom and kitchen time. Yet there did seem to be plenty of space for all, particularly on the two private decks. As the beach scene below proved to be somewhat frenetic, the decks were a welcome feature.

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The Crystal Cove State Park also offers a campground, miles of hiking trails, and various educational opportunities. Indeed, the Crystal Cove Alliance “is dedicated to the protection and preservation of the entire park, which includes 3.2 miles of pristine coastline and 2,400 acres of Moro Canyon backcountry.” It is a gem of a place, a laudable change of scenery for anyone living within an hour or two—and well worth the extra hassle it takes to actually land a reservation.

Is the research process actually easier these days?

Most people seem to feel the Internet has made research faster and easier. That might be true—for quick and dirty searches. However, writers wanting to ensure their sources are credible may be turning to flimsy websites in an attempt to get their work done.

I had the opportunity to contemplate this problem when I found myself trying to answer the question, “Are ovaries glands?” For the record, the word “gland” worked better in my rhyme scheme than the word “ovary.”

Like most modern people, I started with Google—actually plugging in this question, word for word. I could have just grabbed the Wikipedia article that appeared at the top of my list of search results. I was happy with the answer. Actually, the second hit also revealed a worthy answer, another Wikipedia article. My third hit came from WikiAnswers. Ask.com provided the fourth. And the fifth site had heart: “Ovary Glands – Ova Achiever.” This site sells stuffed body parts. No joke.

Yes, I could have punted and trusted the information I found on Wikipedia, as it is often accurate. No doubt writers do this every day without reprisal. Yet most writers consider their art form to be a risky business. After all, we regularly put ourselves on the line, exposing our guts to the world in the form of poems, stories, articles, and ultimately books. The last thing we need is to get something wrong because we didn’t dig deeply enough to verify a certain point, as simple as that point may seem.

In any event, I make my living goading college students to think about where their sources are coming from. So I forced myself to move away from Google and try a research database (if you don’t know what a research database is, check out one of my soapbox lectures: The Information Landscape: Thinking About Research Databases).

For this question, I turned to the Gale Virtual Reference Library. It contains many of the reference books older folks once used in pre-Internet libraries. The contents of GVRL will vary from library to library, as librarians handpick the titles included in a particular subscription.

One great thing about this database is that it allows the user to run a keyword search on all of its titles simultaneously. This certainly becomes a faster process than spending time in the stacks browsing the indexes of one heavy tome after the next. However, there is a noticeable drawback. GVRL often contains a lot less titles than a typical print reference collection. FYI: print reference collections are still in existence—in case you miss the old system.

So I ran my search on GVRL, and I must admit the digging process felt clumsier (this time I entered the words, “ovaries” and “follicles”). Instead of locating a succinct answer to my question, I found myself wading through a number of articles packed with medical jargon. It felt like the information I needed was in there, but I wasn’t completely sure.

I tried eliminating the word “follicles,” but I pretty much ended up scanning the same murky details.

Finally, I decided to broaden my topic. I switched to the word, “gland.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science finally delivered an entry that set my mind at rest, “Other endocrine glands include the thyroid gland, the parathyroid glands, the testes and the ovaries, the thymus gland, and the pituitary gland.”

I know, I know. Nobody wants to do this—especially your kids. Yet most writers put a lot of time and effort into developing their craft. They spend a lot money on workshops, MFA programs—books about writing. It’s a shame most people don’t bother to learn how to become competent researchers.

Where can I find a research database? 

Almost all college libraries subscribe to research databases. These search tools are often password protected, only available to students and college employees. However, some college libraries may allow walk-in use for the general public.

Many public libraries provide research databases for their users. Here are a few examples.

Works Cited

“Glands.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Science. Ed. K. Lee Lerner and Brenda Wilmoth Lerner. 3rd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2004. 1826. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.

Rolfing and Plantar Fasciitis

It’s tough to know when to throw in the towel on a physical activity that may be tearing up the body. While tennis or running or dance comes with benefits that can’t be measured, the time spent on activities such as these could very well be deducting time from some undefined pursuit meant to take place down the road. Engaging in a physical passion becomes a balancing act between resting in the joy of exertion and assessing the damage.

Some six years ago, at the ripe old age of 45, I wondered if I would have to curtail my hiking. I was camping in the Anza Borrego Desert with some friends, and we tackled Whale Peak, which is a modest, squat sort of peak, albeit a hill that offers impressive views. By the time we made it back to camp, we had put in close to 9 miles.

The next morning I could barely walk. I was in shock, harboring thoughts like, Already? My feet hurt, I was less able to keep up, and I wondered if I was going to become one of those people who could do little more than putter around the house.

While I never went to a doctor for an official diagnosis, a friend and former nurse suggested I might be dealing with plantar fasciitis. Plantar fasciitis, according to The Gale Encyclopedia of Fitness, “is a condition in which the plantar fascia–the arch tendon in the foot–becomes very painful, swollen, irritated, or inflamed when tiny tears occur on its surface.” It tends to develop in middle-aged people who have traditionally been very active. It can also be a problem for those who are overweight.

I started looking for solutions, and it wasn’t long before I encountered some useful advice, suggestions like: wear larger shoes, add inserts to cushion my feet, and stretch regularly (particularly the Achilles tendons, calf muscles, and hamstrings).

While all of this helped to some degree, I found myself scaling back. I let go of tennis, which was really bothering my feet, and I watched my hikes grow shorter. I began to exist inside a smaller box—I began to accept that fact. And I allowed myself to live with an out of shape feeling, which I hated.

Then last fall I tried to figure out – yet again – what I could do in order to stay fit. This time I tested the treadmill, with the hope that I could jog on it safely.

Things did not go smoothly. In the beginning I dealt with the expected getting-in-shape soreness. That I could accept. Yet my feet quickly became painful—I literally hobbled out of bed. And while the overall soreness went away after a couple of weeks, my feet kept screaming. Despair over the possibility that I was stuck with a sedentary lifestyle was sinking in fast.

Meanwhile, I’d been seeing a rolfer for several other trouble spots. I wasn’t expecting him to help me with my feet, but one day this dilemma came up in casual conversation. To my surprise, he immediately suggested he could work on it. He told me something else, too, something that really eased my mind. He said the pain was mainly due to lactic acid build up (the same phenomenon that causes overall soreness when a person returns to exercise after being inactive). This surprised me because my feet seemed so wobbly and sore—I thought I was dealing with a problem that was causing serious debilitation. I’d been backing off on everything, so that the pain would back off (so that I wouldn’t injure myself even further). But lactic acid? Well, I knew about that.

Rolfing, according to The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, is “a holistic system of bodywork that uses deep manipulation of the body’s soft tissue to realign and balance the body’s myofascial structure. Rolfing improves posture, relieves chronic pain, and reduces stress.”

It is a bit of a commitment. Most practitioners ask their clients to schedule a series of ten sessions, as rolfers employ a methodical process that eventually covers the entire body. In other words, each session builds on what was done during previous sessions.

I actually went through this series over ten years ago, but I’ve continued to see my rolfer for tune-ups. He’s particularly worked wonders on my cranky lower back. Because of this, I was happy to let him take on my feet.

He explained why he thought it would help. He believes manipulating the fascia in the feet helps to stretch it out, as well as relieve lactic acid build up. This all sounded well and good, but I didn’t expect much. I’d been grappling with this soreness, with mixed results, for too long.

I am pleased to note his treatments on my feet have delivered some remarkable results. I can now work out and feel normal – almost pain free – the rest of the time. Even better, I’ve resumed the sort of workout I enjoy doing, putting in 3.5 miles on the treadmill four to five times a week. I’m in shape again and no longer worrying about living a sedentary life (for the moment, anyway).

Of course, I never had an official diagnosis from a doctor, so perhaps I got it wrong about the plantar fasciitis. All I know is, the moment my feet touch the floor in the morning, I don’t notice them.

Atkins, William A. “Plantar fasciitis.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Fitness, Ed. Jacqueline L. Longe. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Health and Wellness Resource Center. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.

Wells, Ken R. “Rolfing.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine. Ed. Laurie J. Fundukian. 3rd ed. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2009. 1940-1943. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 15 Jan. 2014.