Tag Archives: Writing

In My Great and Unmatched Wisdom

One Wipe Charlies

In my great and unmatched wisdom I hereby proclaim that today Opposite Day.

Never mind that Opposite Day is a fictional children’s holiday and that it’s officially celebrated on January 25. Just because today’s not January 25 and I’m not a child, doesn’t mean I don’t get to say opposite things. I get to say opposite things because I’ve said I get to say opposite things.

When my nephews were little, we never waited for Opposite Day. Instead, we’d suddenly start playing the Opposite Game. It’s just like Opposite Day, but spontaneous. We’d say hello when we meant goodbye. I’d say things like, “Tommy, you’re the smartest person I know!” Or, “Paul, you’re one good looking guy.” I was totally hilarious, maybe the funniest uncle ever to exist on planet Earth.

Sometimes our spontaneous opposite games got a little out of control, but that was the point. One time, when grandma showed up and Tommy and Paul rolled their eyes and said, “It’s terrible to not see you” she looked hurt. We had to call time-out and explain the game to her. Even after the explanation, she didn’t seem to get it.

Funny thing, even when you’re playing at saying things that are the opposite of the truth, sometimes people don’t catch on. People get confused. For example, if the media happened to be listening to us, they might get confused and literally report things we said, even though we meant the opposite. That’s especially funny. When that happens, whether it’s by accident or on purpose, the correct response is to say, “I was only joking.”

After a while, if you intermittently play the Opposite game and mix it with being normal, people won’t know when to take you seriously and when to not take you seriously. For example, the other day I made a phone call, it was a perfect phone call. I said, “Hey dude, I’ll bring you over some of that medicinal plant you’re needing for nausea. It really sucks to feel sick, and I want to help. I’d like you to do me a favor though. If you could spontaneously give my boss a call and tell him how much you appreciate my great and unmatched wisdom, that would be nice.”

To be certain that I’d communicated perfectly, I ended the conversation by saying, “I’m only joking you know. I’m quite the humorist. Never mind what I said before. You look really nice today.”

The best thing about being in charge of the opposite game is that it keeps everybody else off balance. In comparison, I’m always on my game, because I’m the only one who knows when the opposite game rules are in effect.

I remember how that worked with my nephews. At the end of the day, sometimes I’d hug them and yell, “I hate you.” They knew what I really meant.

Oh, and BTW. Thanks for reading this. I value you as a person and I hope you love yourself. You know one thing that might help. If you’d just keep this blog post to yourself. Don’t share it. Seriously. I’m joking.

 

Eight Tips for Coping with Writing Rejections

SheepWriting is hard. I know you already know that.

Reading is hard too, especially if you have to read bad writers, which is why I hope you haven’t already started thinking, “Reading this blog is hard. . .”

My point is that putting words on a page and hoping they pile up and turn into clear, coherent, and meaningful prose (or poetry) is so difficult that it creates self-consciousness and worry and other neurotic thoughts and emotions linked to being judged and rejected. And just in case you feel tempted, you don’t have to tell me that good writers never write, “My point is. . .” because my other point is that I’ve been getting lots of rejections lately.

I’d rather not admit anything about my writing rejection rate; I’d rather have you think that everything I write gets published. There have been thousands of pages, eight books, and 100+ professional articles—all published, but that’s NOT the point (I also know that using ALL CAPS is bad form, like shouting while writing, and that no one but Dave Barry, former humor columnist, GETS AWAY WITH ALL CAPS).

This summer, not unlike last summer and the summer before that, and other ad nauseam summers of my life, was a summer of writing rejections. I like to say, “There were a plethora of rejections” because I like the word plethora. But let’s not go into the details because one year I tried to count up all my rejections and it was like counting cloudy days and I got depressed and I vowed to never count rejections and instead to only count acceptances and publications and successes and smiles and sunshine, and I also vowed to write long sentences if I feel like writing long sentences, because as far as I can tell, that’s what Sigmund Freud did, and he got a couple things published.

Instead of numbering the rejections, let me share just one.

This summer I wrote a proposal for a trade book on Suicide in American. It was supposed to be a proposal for a trade book on Suicide in America. But the first version of the proposal managed to include an extra “n.” How that typo slipped in there after 43 readings, including my traditional oral reading before submitting—I cannot say.

Anyway, just remember this, Suicide in America is not the most fun topic, but it’s even a worse topic when you make a typo in the first line. After experiencing the horror of seeing the typo and correcting it, I sent the proposal out to a dozen or so agents and got a dozen or so rejections. Not the most fun outcome. However, not to be deterred, I stole some of my sample chapter material and used it in a continuing education course that I DID GET PUBLISHED (notice the ALL CAPS, BECAUSE, YES, I AM YELLING).

I thought about sending all the agents who rejected my book proposal a copy of my first check from the CE company, along with a photo of my finger, but that belongs on this list of tips and sage advice for all you writers who will inevitably need to cope with rejection.

  1. Even though you want to, don’t write a snarky email or letter back to the person who rejected your wonderful work. No doubt, the snarky email will feel good in the moment, but you could regret it later. I speak from experience. Being at conferences with people who have received photos of my finger is awkward. Instead, vent to your friends and colleagues, and thank the person who rejected you for considering your work.
  2. Listen—sometimes. Lots of trade book agents and publishers tell you in advance that they plan to ghost you, so sometimes there’s nothing to hear. But on occasion, there’s this thing that happens called feedback. You can take it or leave it, but if you want to develop your writing skills, take it—or at least take some of it sometimes. The corollary to this is that reviewers can be nasty. This is especially true of academic reviewers, many of whom have come to believe that it’s their responsibility to shame fledgling writers. My advice on that is simple: Ignore the reviewer’s tone because he/she/they likely have poor social skills and are compensating for their loneliness by trying to make you feel bad, or something like that. Ignore the tone, but listen to the content.
  3. Go Big or Go Home. Being that you’re an amazing person with fantastic ideas, don’t, as former President George W. Bush might say, misunderestimate yourself. Feel free to submit pieces to the New Yorker or the New England Journal of Medicine or other fancy publications that begin with the word New. Then, get ready to be ghosted, rejected, and humiliated. If—odds are low here—you get something accepted, you’ll be like Rocket Man.
  4. Find a Small Pond. Going big or going home is a broken philosophy, unless you finish the guidance with go home and find a small pond where you can submit your work, become a big fish, and find the positive reinforcement you crave. Publishing a short comment in your neighborhood newsletter is better than having nothing published. Look at me. I’ve got a blog. I publish here all the time. The best part of the deal is my publisher loves my work.
  5. Turn it Around. Rita and I have an academic friend who says we academics should live by the turn it around in 24 hours rule. He says that as soon as he receives a rejection letter/email from a professional journal, he starts his timer and submits the manuscript to a different journal in 24 hours or less. Never having achieved that, Rita and I try to live by something more like a 24 day rule. Either way, push yourself to revise and resubmit to someone, like my blog publisher, who’s likely to love your work and publish you yesterday.
  6. Mingle. If you’re sitting around feeling sorry for yourself, you need to get out more because, duh, you’re not alone. If you find them, you’ll discover that most writers are mostly sitting around feeling sorry for themselves most of the time. So mingle. Share your sorrows. Maybe form a writing group or a book club or a knitting clutch. Embrace the Hegelian dialectic that, although you’re plenty special, you’re also simultaneously not really all that special.
  7. Write More. There comes a time when you need to get right back on that bus that bucked you off. Nobody becomes a better writer without writing. Visualization is good for golf and relaxation, but not so much for writing. Reading is good for writing, but only if you’re also putting fingers to keyboards and digits on screens. Somebody said this already: Read, write, repeat.
  8. Practice CBT on Your Neurotic Writer-Self. Albert Ellis liked to say, “Don’t be a love slob.” What he meant was to not be too needy. He would ask his clients things like, “What the holy Hell are you thinking?” He drove home the idea that you can perform badly at lots of things, get rejected, fail, and still have, what he called, “Unconditional Self-Acceptance.” In other words (which is another phrase my editor hates), Ellis is saying you shouldn’t confuse your performance with your SELF. Let’s say you get rejected. You’ll likely feel sad and disappointed. That’s normal and healthy. But don’t use your Vita to measure your SELF.

I’m hoping you find this list of tips for handling rejection helpful. If it’s not, feel free to let me know. I’ll be sad and disappointed But I’ll get over it. I plan to keep writing anyway. I hope you do too.

A Book Review of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven

Ocean ViewThis weekend in Missoula is the Annual Montana Book Festival, so I’ve got books on my mind. In a stroke of good fortune (and thanks to Susan O’Connor and Rita), last night I got to meet David James Duncan, the author of my all-time favorite book, The Brother’s K.  Talking with DJD was ALMOST as fun as reading The Brother’s K, which, if you haven’t read yet, should be on your reading list.

Speaking of Davids and books, several days ago one of our fantastic UM Doc students and I had a book review published in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. The Doc student’s name is Ariel Goodman (not David), and I have the bragging rights (and honor) of being the co-author of her first (of many to come) publication.

Our review is of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness by David A. Treleaven. Ariel and I both liked the book. Although we take him to task a bit for less than perfect scientific rigor, overall the book is very well written and has many excellent ideas about how to safely employ mindfulness with individuals who have previously experienced trauma.

Here’s the review: Goodman-Sommers-Flanagan2018_Article_DavidATreleavenTrauma-Sensitiv

Also, thanks to James Overholser, editor of the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, for giving us the opportunity to do this book review.

Vulnerability and Magnificence from Rita

Hi All.

This comes from Rita. It’s her musing on life and death and spirituality. She tells me to warn you that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. This is true. But then again, who gets to avoid a cup of tea of life and death and spirituality.

You be the judge . . . if you want.

And if you like this, go to her blog and like it and become an email or WordPress follower.

Have a fabulous weekend.

John

Before the snow came, I burned rotten, misshapen wood. Dirty wood, not even worth cutting up for the woodstove. Wood filled with unremovable, wayward screws. Such fires are my last resort. Enduring the scorn of my carpenters, I save every scrap of wood—wood that was once a seed that grew into a tree that was […]

via Fire — Short visits with an honest God

Professional Writing 101: Dealing with Rejection

This is how it goes.

You read, gather background information, do research, and carefully write a manuscript. You put in so many hours or days or weeks that you lose track of how much time you’ve put in—which is a good thing. You re-read, edit, get feedback, revise, and do your best to produce an excellent manuscript. You upload it a portal where it magically finds its way to a professional journal editor. Then, because you can only submit a manuscript to one journal at a time, you wait.

A month passes.

You keep waiting.

If you’re lucky, you hear back from the journal editor via email within two months. You click on the email with a mix of anticipation and dread. Then, ta-da, you learn your manuscript was REJECTED.

The editor is polite, but pointedly informs you that this particular journal doesn’t recognize the magnificence of your work. To add insult to injury, your rejection is accompanied by critiques from three different reviewers. These reviewers were apparently named by Dr. Seuss: Reviewer 1, Reviewer 2, and Reviewer 3.

Some rejections are worse than others. Maybe it’s because your hopes were too high; or maybe it’s because the journal’s impact factor rating was so low. Getting rejected when the journal has an impact rating of “0” can bring down your self-esteem to a similar level.

And then there are the reviewers.

It’s important to remember that reviewers are busy, fallible, human, and unpaid volunteers. They’re also purportedly experts, although I’ve had experiences that led me to question their expertise. Many appear to have a proverbial axe to grind. Perhaps because they experienced scathing critiques in their professional childhood, they feel the need to pass on the pain. Sometimes they just seem obtuse. I’ve wondered a time or two if maybe a reviewer forgot to actually read the manuscript before offering an off-point “review.”

If you sense bitterness, it might be because over the past several years I’ve experienced an extra-large load of rejections. When the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) rejected my manuscript in less than a week, I was disappointed. But because the NEJM is the most prestigious journal on the planet, I didn’t linger much on the rejection, because rejection was expected. But when a decidedly less-prestigious professional group rejected all my proposals to present at an annual conference, I was deeply hurt, saddened, and angry. Reading the reviewers’ comments didn’t help.

At one point last summer, in a fit of self-pity, I decided to count up my two-year rejection total. I got to 20, had a flash of insight, and stopped. It was like counting cloudy days. My advice: Unless you’re especially serious about depressing yourself, don’t count up your rejections. If you’re into counting, put that energy into counting the sunny days.

One time, back when I was immature and impulsive, I received an insensitive and insulting rejection from a low tier journal. My response: A hasty, nasty, and indignant email lambasting the editor and his single reviewer for their poor decision-making process and outcome. Sending the email was immediately gratifying, but, like many immediately gratifying things, not reflective of good judgment. I never heard back. And now, when I see that editor at conferences, it’s awkward.

More recently, I responded to a rejection from a high-status conference with humility along with a gentle inquiry about re-consideration. Less than 24 hours later they discovered “one more slot” and I was in! It was a paid gig, for an excellent conference, and at a convenient venue. Bingo. Let that be a lesson to me.

Last month I received a different sort of journal rejection. It was an invitation to “Revise and Resubmit.”

Put in romantic terms, revise and resubmit is lukewarm and confusing. The message is, “I kind of like you, and you have potential, but I’m not ready for a commitment.” But if you’ve been casting out and reeling in a raft of rejections, revise and resubmit is a welcome flirtation.

I had submitted a manuscript focusing on suicide risk assessment to a reasonably good journal. It was a good manuscript. In fact, Reviewer 3 recommended publication. But Reviewer 1 spoiled my day by offering 23 substantial and picky suggestions. The editor, who wrote me a long and rather nice email, decided to go with Reviewer 1’s opinion: revise and resubmit.

Given that I’ve been reviewing the suicide risk assessment literature for a couple decades, I assumed I was well-versed in the area. But when I read through Reviewer 1’s suggestions I was surprised, humbled, and eventually pleased. Reviewer 1 had many excellent points.

Looking back and forward, I think this is what I like best about submitting manuscripts to professional journals. Basically, you get a free critique and although some reviewers are duds, others are experts in the field who provide you with a fabulous educational opportunity. There’s always so much more to learn.

The moral of this story and blog post is that the attitude we have toward rejection is far more important than our fragile egos (at least it’s more important than my fragile ego). In response to the revise and resubmit verdict, I’ve graciously accepted the feedback, engaged a co-author to help me, and we have now systematically plowed through the 23 recommendations. The result: Last week we re-submitted a vastly improved manuscript.

Now we wait.

Although I have hope for success, I also realize that Reviewer 1 may have a bit more educational feedback to offer. But this time around, I’m looking forward to it.

 

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What Brain Science Says about Becoming a Better Professional Writer

This piece on professional writing is in anticipation of our upcoming John Wiley & Sons sponsored ACA presentation on April 1 in Montreal titled: Writing for Publication: Insights and Strategies

The “Decade of the Brain” started way back in 1990. It’s been over for more than 15 years. So you would think everyone could get over it and move on. But obviously that’s not how things pertaining to the brain work. Too many neuroscientists, journalists, and other people are happily riding along on the brain science bandwagon to just let it go. Most things would be perfectly satisfied with their own decade and the attention that goes with that, but the brain is a selfish organ and obviously interested in hogging all the decades. And so the brain discoveries just keep rolling in and eager journalists keep on writing and talking about the brain, which is why the popularity of neuroscience is now officially off the map. Neuroscience’s reach has far exceeded its grasp, but such is the nature of popular things. Just think about bell-bottoms.

We still know very little about the brain. That’s partly why neuroscience excites people. The excitement is more related to our collective brains collective imagination of what neuroscience might be than neuroscience reality. This has turned neuroscience into a projective test (think of the Rorschach Inkblots). There’s some vague information or structure out there and so everyone takes some of it in, blends it with their unique personality and past experiences, and then projects hypothetical possibilities about brain science onto the blank canvass of reality. Then voila, people start talking about ridiculous things like male brains and female brains and teen brains.

I say all this as a balancing introduction that will help me not sound completely trite and ridiculous when I write,

Coming up next: What brain science says about how you can become a better writer.

Let’s pause and self-reflect here. This statement is both bad writing and bad science. It’s bad writing because I’ve transformed (through grammatical magic) the inanimate field of brain science into an entity that has something to say. It’s bad science because the first rule of becoming a better writer, although supported by neuroscience, is such numbingly basic common sense that it’s inappropriate to gift it the charade of scientific authority.

Put another way, brain science can’t talk; people talk. But if brain science could talk, and you asked it, “What can I do to become a better writer?” it would likely respond with something like:

The first rule to good writing is WRITER’S WRITE. This is what literary and professional writers have said over and over for centuries and you didn’t need me, brain science, to tell you something you already knew. (see also: https://johnsommersflanagan.com/2013/09/04/professional-writing-for-us-professionals-who-may-not-quite-be-writers-yet/)

If there’s one thing we know from brain science (and common sense), it’s that practice leads to improvement. Neuroscientists might say it this way, “Your behavior directly influences your brain structure and chemistry; when you repeatedly practice something, you’re actually creating specific neurons and neural pathways to make that something easier.” Common sense (if it could talk) might say, “Repeated practice generally leads to skill development.” Speaking (apparently) on behalf of common sense, the renowned science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote:

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.

The take home message here is simple. If your goal is writing success, then you must make time to write.

There is, of course, a caveat to this general brain-based common sense rule. Yes, practice leads to improvement, but there are always exceptions.

Sometimes, even when you practice with great effort, consistency, and sincerity, you don’t improve much. The good news about this exception is that in the world of writing there are usually fascinating reasons for why diligent writers aren’t improving . . . and I’ll get to that important content at some point in the future. For now, remember this: The first step to becoming a successful professional writer involves taking Bradbury’s advice—which I repeat and elaborate on below:

  • Write every day
  • Read intensely
  • Get feedback
  • Engage in self-editing—produce a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th draft
  • Schedule more time to write
  • Identify your target audience and then learn more about them
  • Deal with multiple distractions
  • Reward yourself
  • Get more feedback so that you can be certain that you’re not rewarding yourself when you should be engaging in more self-reflection and scrutiny
  • Read your 4th draft aloud to yourself, then read it aloud to someone you trust to get even more feedback
  • Find somewhere to submit your precious manuscript
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection
  • When you get your rejection, stay calm and integrate the feedback into your writer-identity
  • Revise your manuscript again, read it aloud again, get feedback again
  • After dealing with your neuroses, improving your manuscript, and gnashing your teeth, find the courage and strength to face your fears and resubmit your precious manuscript to somewhere that will recognize its greatness
  • Hope for the best, but prepare for rejection—again
  • Repetitively do all these things to help your brain structure and chemistry develop itself and you into a better writer who has a better chance of writing success

Before moving on I should say that I realize Bradbury was advising fiction writers and fiction writers fall within the literary writing domain. This is an important distinction. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably busy juggling numerous professional activities. These activities might include a combination of teaching, research, service, attending classes, clinical practice, supervision, and more. Traditionally, writers with literary ambitions only juggle their daily writing and reading with a job delivering pizza or waiting tables. It’s likely that you have a more rigorous and full professional life. This is one good reason why your immediate goal shouldn’t be to publish your first novel or personal memoir. You probably don’t have time for those more ambitious goals; most human services professionals who write novels and memoirs do so during sabbatical or after retirement. For now, our goal for you and your goal for yourself should be to begin taking small steps toward becoming a professional writer. The best-selling novel will have to wait.

John hanging out with Robert Wubbolding

With Wubbolding

Writing about Writing . . . Feedback Please?

Over the past several days I’ve been inspired to pursue a new project that focuses on writing about professional writing. This is the sort of thing that happens to me when I’m facing a big list of imposing writing projects . . . I decide to add one more.

But the good news is that I’m having fun and producing lots of words on this topic. My latest method for generating words is to go for a long walk with my cell phone. Then, I dictate email messages to myself through my cell phone and send them. Pretty cool. Over the past two days I’ve “written” almost 8,000 words.

There are some problems with this system, however. In particular, if there’s any wind, or if I don’t enunciate perfectly, my phone is inclined to misquote me. The result: In the moment I feel exceptionally articulate and then I when I get home and read the emails I’ve sent myself, I sound somewhat less articulate. Here’s an example:

1 thing keep in mind is: your trickster is not my sister. What is means is that are in your obstacles 4 demons are unique to us as individuals. You wear the standard prescription for all riders. Beware the single strategy you overcome writers block. He wear even if we say it, love 1 message to manage your picture.

You can imagine my disappointment at receiving this message from myself, I’m sure. If that preceding paragraph wasn’t absolutely hilarious, I might be furious at having lost whatever profound message I was trying to communicate with myself. But I have to say that reading these emails from myself makes for excellent entertainment.

This reminds me of a dream I had back in grad school. It was amazingly profound . . . but I’ll skip that and get to the point of asking you for feedback.

If you’re a current or recent graduate student, please send me your answer to one or more of the following questions:

1. What emotions and thoughts do you experience when you turn in a paper to a professor (or, better yet, a thesis or dissertation committee)?

2. When you get lots of “constructive feedback” what thoughts and feelings do you experience? This might involve you receiving a paper back with a low grade and/or lots of “red ink.” Can you share an example of what you think or feel in response to that situation?

3. When you get positive feedback, what thoughts or feelings does that trigger? Can you share an example?

4. After you’ve gotten negative or constructive feedback, how do you find the strength or courage to send in another draft or turn in the next assignment?

If you’re currently a professor somewhere, consider answering one or more of the following:

1. What thoughts or feelings do you have to deal with to get yourself to write something?

2. How do you react to or deal with rejection? For example, if you have a manuscript or proposal rejected, what do you say, do, think, or feel? What do you do to “bounce back” from rejections of your written work?

3. How do you react to success? For example, when you have a paper accepted or get positive feedback, how does that affect you?

4. What helps you write well . . . or in what situations are you likely to write efficiently.

Thanks for thinking about this with me. I appreciate it. And I’ll even appreciate it more if you send me an email answering some of the preceding questions. Send it to: john.sf@mso.umt.edu

And . . . I’m confident that whatever you send me will arrive in better shape than the emails I’ve been sending myself.

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