In Case of Rejection

As poet Wesley McNair braved rejections, his mentor Donald Hall comforted him with these observations:

“These feelings simply do not end! Believe me I am sympathetic with your feelings, but let me tell you that when you have published a book–which you will–nothing will happen: or at least it will seem that nothing has happened. And this would be true whether it were published by New Rivers or Atheneum. Even if something happens, then you realize  that the “something” is truly nothing. And after you have published eight books of poems, you are still convinced that no one has read you, and that probably you are no good anyway. Or at least you are convinced of that frequently. I have been going through quite a bad patch, in my feelings about my own ability, my past work, and certainly my present work.

“There is only one place, or one moment, in which one finds happiness, and it is always momentary–because that is the moment of the actual writing, and of course that is not always true.

“So I do two things: I assure you that you will publish; and I tell you that it will not make any difference! But I do have a third thing to say: it makes a difference to me!”


Don Hall to Wesley McNair: typewritten text as quoted above
Poet Don Hall to (not yet published) Poet Wesley McNair

If we hang all our hopes on any dream as the condition for our happiness, naturally, we’ll be disappointed. But it is possible to take joy in the process, the learning, the growth, these moments of creation.

I loved this line: “It makes a difference to me!” What a gift–when any of us has someone, at least one person, for whom it makes a difference.

Here’s Wesley McNair speaking about the poets’ correspondence on the United States Artists site, where you can fund artistic projects you’re excited about, or request funding for one of your own!


FIRST Robotics Fans
FIRST Robotics Participants --- almost as creative as the ones I saw in person

While witnessing my first FIRST Robotics competition this spring, I was initially impressed by the enthusiasm. It’s a high school sport! Fans rock a basketball court while nerdish guys in imaginative costumes lead cheers and dance with abandon.

FIRST Robotics competition
FIRST Robotics competition

Next I was impressed by the engineering talent as giant robotic crafts negotiated competitive and cooperative tasks.

Then best of all–the part near and dear to a writer, and found only in the printed program–the mottos. They ranged from boring to inspirational to hilarious. Here are my favorites:

  • “Drive it Like You Stole It!”  (Cobra Commanders, Cactus High School, AZ)
  • “Pass the duct tape!” (Mecha-Knights, Casa Grande Union High School, AZ)
  • “There is No Spoon” (Falcon Robotics, Carl Hayden High School, AZ)
  • “Putting Others FIRST” (Beach Bots, Hope Chapel Academy High School, CA)
  • “Don’t Stop Believing” (The Phoenix, Queen Creek High School & District, AZ)
  • “Keep it simple” (Team Paradise, Paradise Valley High School, AZ)
  • “Si Se Puede” (Si Se Puede, Chandler High School, AZ)
  • “Make it work!” (Bearded Dragons, Verrado High School, AZ)
  • “Clamp it down” (Hamilton Microbots, Hamilton High School & Space Grant Robotics–ASU, AZ)
  • “GO NUTS!” (CocoNuts, Coconino High School & Flagstaff Unified #1, AZ)
  • “Dr. Gear–Sir, We Salute You” (Critical Mass, East Valley Institute of Technology, AZ)
  • “We put the ‘eek’ in Geek” (N.E.R.D.S Nifty Engineering Robotics Design Squad, Buena High School, AZ)
  • “Pride Determination Respect” (Bionic Bulldogs, Kingman High School, Kingman Academy of Learning High School, and KUSD #20, AZ)
  • “Hey this might work!” (BioHazards, Bioscience High School, AZ)
  • “Fueled by HotPockets” (Team Thundercats, Deming High School, NM)
  • “The 10th time is the charm” (Team CAUTION, AZ Community Robotics, AZ)
  • “It’s only temporary unless it works” (Sentinels, Seton Catholic, AZ)

And there was even a meta-motto:

  • “We make Robots, not Mottos” (Boxer Bots, Vail School District, AZ)

No motto was listed for 15 of the 46 teams; 22 teams named their robots: Beach Bot, Chipper, Heather, Score, Caprica, Neo, Velcro Radical 25, Dionysus, Pocket Protector, Robobuff, Aztecbot, Anthrax, Scorpio, Marmaduke, Thundertank, Goal-E, Beth, Panchobot, I, and Viper Prime. There was even a TBD–to be determined.

For those who joined the linguistic game, these mottos and names (of teams and robots) suggest the whole adventure: the thrills and heartbreaks, the persistence and resilience, the team spirit and mutual respect. Even the organization gets into word coinage, trademarking “FIRST” (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), “Gracious Professionalism” and “Coopertition.”

A study at Brandeis University concluded that FIRST Robotics participants are “roughly ten times as likely to hold an apprenticeship, internship, or co-op job in their freshman year. . . significantly more likely to expect to achieve a post graduate degree. . . more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology . . . more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.”

But win or lose on the robotics court, and pursuing whatever careers they choose, these young engineers obviously experience collaboration, sportsmanship, revision, and celebration. Sounds like a great way to build our next world leaders.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Photos from

Composing Language

Every time I see my composer son, he raves about and demonstrates some new tool in his repertoire: something about counterpoint, some chord he picked up from another composer, some skill understood in theory but finally mastered. And almost as frequently, he reports what he said to that day’s would-be composer who wants to get there without studying composition, or even basic music theory.

Recently he compared it to learning a spoken language. Some musicians learn by immersion; they might not be able to teach it or explain what they’re doing, but they are fluent. And the great composers thoroughly understand theory. Those who revise new versions understand the traditions especially well.

So I asked him, “How long do you think it takes to become fluent in composing language? Is the basic four or five-year Bachelor’s program enough? Does it take a Master’s?”

Drew said, “It depends on what you bring to the program and these two things.” He immediately revised that to three:

1) The frequency of getting your music performed by real musicians. Crucial.

2) The amount of music you expose yourself to.

3) Writing above that which ye are able. Being willing to stretch beyond what you already know will sound good.

You know what I’m going to say. It sounds strange to say there’s a writing language, a meta-language behind the language you think you already know because you’ve been speaking a form of it all your life. But to become a fluent writer, try his advice:

1) Get your work read by real readers. Blogging, writing groups, mentors, classes, editors, publishing!

2) Read great writers. Read their work and what they say about their work. (You don’t even have to like them both at the same time.) Subscribe to journals and magazines to join the tribe.

3) Stretch. Dare to flop.

As I write this, Drew is at the piano, playing with chord patterns. He forgot one:

4) Practice privately. (Journal! And that’s really number 1.)


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Firefox 4.0 Ain’t Ready

Some companies use their customers as beta testers. Microsoft springs to mind. I give them at least a year to figure things out before I give in to an upgrade.

Today I added Mozilla to that list. Downloaded Firefox 4.0. I know: stupid to accept a Point-O anything, but this was a group I’ve trusted.

They didn’t say it was beta. I do. Now I have no pictures, anywhere, on any site. It gives me a whole new view of my own blog and the rest of the Internet, with all that alternate text.

There’s probably something I could repair if I searched longer for troubleshooting or asked support, but who has time for that? Therefore, for the first time in several years, I’m giving Safari another chance. Maybe I’ll stay.

If You Build It, They Will See It

Some people go to all the trouble of designing and producing buildings, only to make them ugly. Why not hire an architect who understands proportions? Select beautiful colors for the paint? Arrange landscaping that beautifies? Did they really save time and money by building ugly?

Birdhouse Among the Flowers

Beauty is one of my core values.

Even if beauty isn’t one of yours, consider how much advertisers spend to catch our visual attention, and remember that visual learners are in the majority. So whatever you make, you might as well make it beautiful.

I’m preparing for a new class. Therefore, I’m revising a PowerPoint ancillary beyond recognition, saving few textbook images and throwing the rest out. Not only do these slides need editorial improvements and additional content, they’re unbearably ugly. The color scheme lacks contrast, the fonts are small, and the text is dense; therefore, it’s unreadable. There’s no attention to the symbolism of color. The illustrations are cheap clip art–worse than none at all.

Beauty doesn’t always have to cost a penny more than ugliness. It does require time and caring. It’s only a little more time and caring, compared to the scope of the whole project. So as long as you’re building something, please make it beautiful.

Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Photo © DM Baker, iStockPhoto #000001800069

The Lady with the Pineapple Hair

As teenagers, we stifled giggles whenever we sat behind the lady with the pineapple hair. I theorized that she hoped its astounding height would be slimming. I also guessed that she did not own a hand mirror and had never seen her hair from the rear. This tallest of beehives was teased and sprayed with little back support, like a peacock’s display.

This was the late 70s, so the beehive had been out for nearly a decade. Such a fate seemed unfathomable when those years constituted half our lifespans. Now, of course, it’s obvious how someone could fall even farther behind the trends. (And let’s not discuss our own style of the era, the Farrah Fawcett mane.)

So what gives us away as writers of a certain age?

1) “Type two spaces after each final punctuation mark.” Gone. Now all manuscripts match the book rule: one space. It’s such a hard habit to break, I use Find-Replace to check my own work as well as my clients’.

2) “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, then tell ’em, then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Who has time for that anymore? Get attention, get to the point, get out.

Editors! We’re makeover artists. Writer friends–the handheld mirror.

What have you changed in updating your writing style?
Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011

Dialogue Skills

Can you write believable and interesting dialogue? It’s a skill we all need. In fiction, it’s a given. Drama, more so; poetry, maybe. And nonfiction? You’d be surprised. The most academic writing requires us to introduce other researchers and quote them intelligently.

Kathy Temean (who also deserves thanks for leading an SCBWI chapter) shared this great set of Dialogue Tips.

You know you’re an amateur if your characters walk on and say, “Hi, Bob. I haven’t seen you since your sister married my uncle before they died returning from their honeymoon in that shipwreck off the Faroe Islands.” If so, please begin with Kathy’s Tip 1: “Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition.” (Hey, that one also ignores my “Question the Preposition” advice.) Master all seven of Kathy’s tips and we’ll want to listen to your characters–or your fruit fly geneticists–the whole book long.