spec fiction
the KIS.list: January 2002


Vol. 17, Contemplation on Completion

Brooklyn, New York

A few months ago, someone suggested I pitch the KIS.list to print publications. They envisioned a syndicated column in magazines and/or newspapers nationwide. This idea interests me, and I thought I'd put it off until later, but then I decided, why not do it now. It took more work than I expected it to. I had to write a pitch, cut six KIS.lists down from 1500-2000 words to 600-800 words. Then I had to write cover letters and tailor the pitches to the various publications. I completed each of the elements in a few weeks. Then, on Friday, I said, 'this is it, I'm putting these packages together tonight.' I ended up working on those pitches from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. When I was done compiling the packages, I thought, 'Whew, no wonder people just float through life. It's hard making yourself available for opportunities.'

And the reality is, the task itself isn't hard at all. Any time you pitch something or apply somewhere, there is a list of tasks. For the KIS.list pitches, I had a list of things I had to complete. As I completed them, I scratched things off the list. It's simple task fulfillment. Ironically, the simplicity of the task doesn't make it any less challenging to complete. The challenge of completing projects happens in the mental sphere.

[An aside: No one really talks about completion as a necessary component of art, but it is. I actually think that one of the hardest elements of creating art is completing it. The first draft, the raw creativity, is the fun part. Then you have to go back through and look at your themes and cut the fat and pull out the hidden moods, movements, meanings. With visual art, there may be a mental and physical struggle. You've covered the canvas, but the piece is not working. Maybe you sit and stare at it as a friend recently told me he was doing. 'This piece is driving me crazy' he said. 'It's like this huge puzzle and I keep staring and staring trying to figure out the key.' Maybe you keep adding colors and strokes all the while feeling like you've failed yourself. And if you stop before it satisfies you, the piece isn't complete. Without completion, art isn't whole, the work isn't done.]

Both my sister and I are in the midst of applying for grad school. My sister is a visual artist. For the portfolio aspect of my sister's application she needs to:

• organize her artwork
• choose pieces to apply with
• get slides made of her work

And that's just the portfolio element of her application. 'I hate doing applications,' she grumbled on the phone to me. While I don't have as strong a reaction to applications, if they look too complicated, something in me just shuts down, and though I may have made a verbal agreement to myself to complete it, I procrastinate and let it sit unfinished, preferring to move on to 'sexier' tasks.

When you stop to think about it, filling out an application is not the most difficult thing you'll do in life. We do more complicated things daily. Is it simply the unfamiliarity of the task that intimidates us?

I think applications are so challenging because we are putting ourselves up to be judged. In gathering together pieces of ourselves to complete an application, a pitch or a submission we are confronted by the possibility—often the likelihood—of rejection. Wrapped up in the application process are questions of self-esteem, personal value, the strength of your artistic development. Ultimately, completing applications, etc. comes down to a question of worth. As we submit ourselves to various fellowships, publications, programs, and schools there is a little voice inside us questioning the worthiness of our work while simultaneously questioning whether the application itself is "worth" the work.

The Worthiness of the Work

Out of the six entities I pitched the KIS.list to, I think I'm an exact fit for only two of them and an almost fit for two more. Two of them—both women's magazines—I only sent pitches to because someone else suggested it and, well, you never know. The two I'm an almost fit for, one of them employs highly-paid experts to write the articles in their magazine ("It's a long shot," my friend who suggested I pitch to them said, "but if you get it, you'll be paid") and the other is sort of a "we're hip and irreverent" publication, so I don't know if my "everybody can do it" attitude will chafe against their principles.

But I remember what Sue Shapiro (who I referenced in Volume 10: The Universe post) said, if they don't want what you're selling, at least you'll introduce yourself to some new editors. I'm running with that perspective. I'm not stopping to examine and cross-grill myself. I'll edit the pitches and the submissions, and send them out. I'll let the editors decide if the KIS.list is worthy of their publication or not. If I decide now, that the KIS.list is not a fit for those publications, I'm taking my ownself out of the game.

Applying is like laying yourself bare to the universe. Sure, it makes you feel vulnerable. But it also offers the opportunity to stretch in new directions. Either by accepting your application or by teaching you something about the application process.

Is it worth the work?

From where I stand, any application that can grant you a deeper relationship to your art form (or studies or life) is worth the work. I mean to be writing full time next year, so an application to a graduate school is worth the work, an application to a two- or three-year fellowship is worth the work.

The funny thing about applications—all applications—is they become less daunting the more you do them. I have mentioned before that I've never received a fellowship before, but I have not mentioned that I've applied to at least 10. In completing those 10 applications, I have lowered my emotional response to completing them. I've learned to dissect the requirements and assess how quickly I can turn around an application. An application that took me a month to complete a few years ago, can now be completed in three days. Why? Because I'm not stressing the implications of rejection. Because I have already completed stories ready to submit, I have approximately four different personal statements on my hard drive that I can edit to fit whatever the application requires. Armed with these things I can jump into the application without looking back.

When I finally decided to complete applications to MFA programs, I found out that of the three I planned to apply to, one of them was already closed to new applications, one was due on January 15 (one week after the day I called to get application information), and the other was due on February 1st.

For a few hours, my mind was in a complete whirl. How the hell am I going to pull this off, I wondered. But when I took a few breaths and looked at the application, it was pretty simple.

On day one I emailed recommenders to secure recommendations. I also planned to download the application, but my computer wouldn't print it, so I had to visit the school to pick it up.

On day two I picked up the application, filled it out and ordered transcripts from my old schools.

On day three I printed out my "writing portfolio" (I previously chose one story to use in all writing applications this year), altered an old statement of purpose to fit the application requirements, mailed out recommendation forms to the people who agreed to write the recommendations (per the school's suggestion, I included an enveloped already stamped and addressed to the school so as not to inconvenience the recommenders).

With the deadline four days away, I put the application in the mail and let out a huge breath. I am relatively certain the recommendations and transcripts won't arrive until weeks after the deadline, but the school doesn't have to know it's due to my lateness. Recommenders and schools often delay sending transcripts and recommendations. A week after sending the application, I received a postcard in the mail stating that the school received my application and it would take them four weeks to process it. Hopefully the transcripts and recommendations will get there by then.

What I have to fight to complete applications is my own sluggishness. My own reluctance to be disciplined. My own naysayer who says, you're going to do all this work, then you won't even get in. Or you'll get in, but then you'll have to take out all these loans and that's not worth it. You're not going to get your free ride. But I don't know that, do I? I don't know if I'll get a free ride until I apply.

That's the funny thing about opportunities. Many of them happen to you, but many of them happen because you applied.

•My first commercial article was published because I sent in the article.
•I went on my first international trip because I applied for study abroad.
•My year-long fellowship was granted to me as a result of my proposal.
•I moved to New York by applying to grad school.
•I got a job because I applied.
•I'm going to Brazil because I applied to get the visa.

That's how it works with applications. If the opportunity interests you, you apply. You just do it and keep doing it until something gives. All these years of applying to fellowships have not given me any money or time off, but they have given me a facility for completing applications. I'm not afraid of them anymore. I look at the parts, I see what I already have, I see what's feasible to do, and then I do it.

Whenever I ask my father if I should apply for something, he says, don't disqualify yourself by not applying. Apply first, then if you decide not to go, so be it… but you need a wide campus of opportunities to live your life out of. Me, I need options. I applied to three grants for next fall (two of which I've been previously rejected from twice) and one day I realized, it is completely feasible for me not to get any of these grants, and if I don't get them, am I willing to look for another job?

So here I am again. Pushing against the lazies to send my work to universities so I can have one more option to avoid the 9-to-5 world. If I get any of these various programs I've applied for, I'll be gifted with a one- to three-year respite from the work-a-day world. I'll have the opportunity to continue pushing my creativity and developing my craft. Is that worth it? Certainly. It's worth the world.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

: : : August 2001 - present : : :

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Publications: 5
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0


I rarely enter contests because I don't like paying the fees and often the stories aren't published in an arena that contributes to my career. I recently entered the Ursula K. LeGuin contest for imaginative fiction. I was not a finalist, but I got a handwritten note saying length worked against me. The author of the note suggested 500 less words might have made me a finalist. Despite not becoming a finalist, I really appreciate the feedback. That story has already been accepted into an anthology, and if I can make it stronger, it has the chance of being nominated for an award after it's published. So next week I'll be cut cut cutting away. I'll put this contest "rejection" under publications, since the winners will be published in Rosebud magazine. It's now 4-5.


Vol. 16, Kwanzaa in Art, Writing, and Life

During my childhood, Kwanzaa was the only holiday my family celebrated. No birthdays, no New Year's hoopla, no Christmas. Kwanzaa was a time of morning candle lighting and discussion of the Nguzo Saba (the seven principles of Kwanzaa) and evening cultural celebrations. One of my most memorable Kwanzaa moments was in the early 90s. My brother and I were home from college. My mother was there; I'm not sure who else was present. We lit the candles and read the quotes for the principle of the day. Then came the moment when we were supposed to talk about how we could use the principle of the day in our lives. My brother volunteered to speak which was a big surprise because both my brothers resisted any participation in Kwanzaa (and in every other family centered event). He said he had decided to practice Kujichagulia (self determination) and quit school and move back home. I looked over at my mother; we were both shocked at the news. I thought it was a very smart move on my brother's part. Besides my parents always encouraging us to think for ourselves, he was positioning his decision to come home as an act of Kujichagulia. What could my parents say?

As we are in the midst of Kwanzaa, I decided it'd be a great lens for looking at writing and creating art.

To strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation and race.

I think unity is the one thing that is an objective measure of mastery. Do all the parts work together for the good of the whole? A master artist knows how to pull the strings into a tight weave. Seemingly disparate elements and unconnected events, come together at the close, drawing you through well-crafted art.

Umoja is essential. A powerful character displays unity of thought, action, and deed with the intentions of the story. The character's actions must be in unity with his/her motivations. [Similar to the key to living a powerful life. Your actions must be in unity with your goals, dreams, desires.] And the actions that make up the plot must be in unity with each other. How many times have you seen a movie where you were swept into the story, then something ridiculous happens, and you're groaning at the implausibility of the act? In that moment of disjunction, the writer lost his or her grip on the viewer. Suddenly the reader/viewer becomes conscious of the story. When we are aware of the story, then something has failed. We are no longer IN the story. It's like seeing the strings in a magic trick, the magic and art of the moment is ruined.

In my novel-writing group, a writer was working on her outline. She had characters flying from here to there, moving from this coast to that. It was entertaining, the locations were exciting, but the actions didn't ring true. She was moving the characters around like chess pieces, at her whim. Their actions reflected HER desires, rather than the dictates of the tale. When she started to let the story tell itself, the actions became a tight ball. Each action sprang naturally from each character's motivation. Simultaneously, the characters became more tightly connected. Unity makes a story have its own force of action. It creates a flow in life and art.

To define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.

After a few weeks in Clarion, I kept getting the same comments: your characters don't make any decisions. Things just happen to your characters, what choices do they make? Of course, it's o.k. to write a story about someone whose life or environment overwhelms them, but it must be a conscious decision. To allow my characters to speak for themselves, to allow them to choose a course of action and let the consequences ripple from their decisions was a difficult shift for me to make. Similarly in life, it can be easier to float through and blame our discomforts on others. We like to blame our lack of achievement on past failures, rather than defining and creating a life worth living for ourselves. In fiction, Kujichagulia is having a plot happen THROUGH a character rather than TO a character. Let the terrors fall because of a choice made, let the success come through a path chosen. Happenstance can only be interesting for so long.

To build and maintain our community together and to make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems and to solve them together.

Let every character pull their own weight. Let every character contribute to the building and maintenance of the story. Does your main character really need three best friends, four grandparents, and 12 houses? Does the comic relief add to the story? Alternately, does the culmination of the story address all the plot lines. Are they all braided together in a tight weave? Does each problem inform the other, causing waves and ripples to each corner of the story? Does each problem bring a new level of resonance to the final outcome?

Now, I know this is outside of the realm of "make our brothers' and sisters' problems our problems," but I tend to think of everyone contributing when I think of Ujima. In his book Bullshit or Fertilizer, Pierre Bennu (www.exittheapple.com) takes a zero tolerance approach to people who aren't helping to build or maintain you as an individual. I can't help but include it here:

"Get you phone book right now.

Get a black sharpie marker.

With the exception of family, go over anyone's name who is not helpful/supportive to your goals. All your friends should have something to do with "IT," even if it's just encouragement. If they don't inspire you as much as you inspire them, they are vampires feeding off your spirit.

It sounds harsh, but just see how refreshed you feel when they're not calling you anymore.

My suggestion: cut off anyone who tells you, "you can't."

(Yes, her, too)"

To build and maintain our own stores, shops and other businesses and to profit together from them.

Hmmm, I don't think I can make cooperative economics fit for fiction writing. As an artist, I deeply believe in supporting other artists financially, as well as, energetically (showing up at shows, offering praise and encouragement, checking in on their artistic progress). Within groups of artists, so much growth is possible when each person shares the wealth of their gifts with the others. In creating my novelists group, I am getting support from writers to keep moving forward with my novel, but simultaneously I am sharing what I learned by teaching them about outlines, encouraging them to take risks, and insisting that we all just keep moving. Now, four months after the inception of the group, two people are a few chapters away from the first draft of their novels, three people are one third towards the completion of their novel, and two others have completed outlines that map out their novels. We did this by coming together in a community and sharing resources and encouragement. Alone, none of us would have made it this far. (In fact, we've all tried to do it alone, and failed for various reasons. The biggest reason is that when we get stuck, we have nowhere to turn.)

Also, passing on contacts, can be another way of cooperative economics, passing on job opportunities, agents' phone numbers, and calls for publications. In another scenario, I have met three groups of people working on three distinct projects on the same topic: catcalling. So I put them all in touch and they organized a forum to discuss the topic. At the forum, one moderated, another took notes, another arranged sound and filming. Each person's ideas are benefiting, sharpening, and tightening the concepts of the others' projects. Each individual project is spurring the other artists on to realize their projects. Together we can set up systems to help foster progress and growth in our artist communities.

And, while I have my Bullshit or Fertilizer out, Pierre has this to say about cooperative economics:

"Don't think of your friends as customers.

They're your friends... and they're probably artists too. They might buy your CD but then you're going to have to buy theirs when it comes out, so it's really just a recycling system.

If you want to develop an audience/readership you've got to move outside of your circle of friends, no matter how supportive they are. Go to a new town; enter a new scene. Your friends will support you. That's what friends are for."

To make as our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.

Nia is self explanatory, and relevant on so many levels. It's important to know your Nia as an individual. Who are you? Because you are, what is possible or present in the world? What is your energy? What do you offer to friends, family and acquaintances? Who are you as a writer/artist? What are you attempting to foster, create, support, advertise with your work? Who are you attempting to reach? What energies are you attempting to multiply? What is the purpose of the story you are writing? Does the tone support the purpose? If it's a happy story with a morbid tone, does that defeat the purpose? Do your characters and plot points support your purpose? Are you achieving your purpose?

To do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than when we inherited it.

That is beautifully worded. It is so profound in its simplicity. As a writer, as a human being, all you have to do is as much as you can, in the way that you can. Write stories in your voice, using your ideas, to the best of your abilities. It reminds me of these guidelines I found on a poster, and then later in a book entitled "How to Find Your Mission in Life" by Richard N. Bolles. He says, among other things: "we need... to unlearn the idea that our unique Mission must consist of some achievements which all the world will see, and learn instead that as the stone does not always know what ripples it has caused in the pond... so neither we nor those who watch our life will always know what we have achieved by our life and by our Mission. It may be that by the grace of God we helped bring about a profound change for the better in the lives of other souls around us, but it also may be that this takes place beyond our sight, or after we have gone on. And we may never know what we have accomplished."

I think it's so amazing how one piece of art can mean absolutely nothing to one person, and that same piece of art can be the thing that stops someone else from committing suicide. And we, as the creators of that art, don't know how the work is going to impact anyone. Even after 15 people say they don't like it, it may still be a masterpiece, it may still be the key to someone's salvation. Art is amazing that way.

The simple directive of "as much as we can, in the way that we can" can free so many people, to just do what it is in them to do. In Richard Bolles's world, our missions on Earth are threefold, the first two elements are shared by everyone on earth [interestingly the second element is "to do what you can, moment by moment, day by day, step by step, to make this world a better place"], the third is yours and yours alone. It is:
a. to exercise that Talent which you particularly came to Earth to use your greatest gift, which you most delight to use,
b. in the place(s) or setting(s) which God has caused to appeal to you the most,
c. for those purposes which God most needs to have done in the world (these he defines as create more Truth in the world, more Beauty in the world, or more Perfection through Service to others in the world)

What a relief to view as our mission/responsibility to do what you most delight doing in the places you most delight doing it as a contribution to the world. Bolles says our missions are "written in our members." I say, create on.

To believe with all our hearts in our parents, our teachers, our leaders, our people and the righteousness and victory of our struggle.

Faith is the principle that allows artists to spend huge amounts of time with masses of raw material believing it will become art. Faith is the principle that inspires teachers to spend time with rowdy kids and therapists with "unreachable" mental patients. It's the belief in the outcome, the belief in the "righteousness and victory of the struggle." Without it, a book would not be written, a country would not be established, a marriage would not be consummated, and none of us would keep on living day after day after day.

As my aunt and cousin have reminded me throughout Kwanzaa: may you practice the Nguzo Saba on this day and every day of your life.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam

: : : August 2001 - present : : :

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0


No acceptances and no rejections this week.