The Loss of Author, Poet and Teacher Judith Ortiz Cofer #JudithOrtizCofer

Judith Ortiz Cofer

Poet, author and teacher Judith Ortiz Cofer died December 30, 2016 at her family home in Louisville, Georgia. A native of Hormiguerros, Puerto Rico, Judith was only 64 when her life ended. She retired as a Regents and Franklin Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Georgia in 2013 and leaves behind, her husband, John, daughter, Tanya, brother, Rolando, grandson, Elias and many extended family members. She also left us with a wealth of poems and stories to cherish.

I had the good fortune to meet Judith in 2005 when I interviewed her and reviewed her third volume of poetry, A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, for Athens Magazine. She brought me several of her books that night and we had a long conversation over pasta at DePalma’s about writing and family, plus living and working in Athens, Georgia, where we both agreed creativity floats in the air. We talked about her literary inspirations that night. Her favorites included Georgia-born writers Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker, as well as Virginia Woolf and Lillian Hellman. She told me about emigrating with her Puerto Rican family to Paterson, New Jersey as a child and how living in those two very different worlds influenced her life as well as her poetry and prose. Judith also loved living in Georgia. I enjoyed running into her at several literary events after interviewing her that night, including the Decatur Book Festival where I sat in a crowded roomful of festival attendees and savored Judith’s voice as she read her poetry.

Judith Ortiz Cofer was a literary writer who wrote, thought and spoke in both Spanish and English. Her work won many awards, including a 1991 PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation in Nonfiction and a Pushcart Prize for her memoir Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhoodand a Pulitizer Prize nomination for her first novel, The Line of the Sun. In 2010, Judith was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

Writers live in a dual world. There’s the physical world where they go through their days doing many of the same things non-writers do. And there’s the inner world where a writer is always writing, where the words flow but don’t appear to readers until they are displayed on a book page or an e-reader screen. When a writer dies, the heart stops beating and words stop flowing. But what remains, in addition to those who loved the writer as a family member, friend, or reader is the written words. Judith Ortiz Cofer’s published words still float in the air over Athens, Georgia and all over the world, including her beloved Puerto Rico. Judith the person died too young, but her beautiful, lyrical words live on in the hearts and minds of readers. The depth and music and meaning of her words will comfort us in the days and weeks and months and years to come.

#JudithOrtizCofer

 

 

You can read more about author Judith Ortiz Cofer on the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame website.

Summers of my Childhood in Athens, Georgia

Summers of my Childhood in Athens, Georgia

 

Summer 2016 has arrived and life is good as we await the birth of our second grandson. He’ll be a July baby, born in the hot, humid heat of a Georgia summer. Thinking of the tiny boy to come and his older brother George, who will be 20 months old when his brother arrives, I find myself drifting back to my own childhood summers growing up in Athens, Georgia.

The best days of my Athens summers were spent floating and splashing in the cool, chlorinated waters of Legion Pool. This huge, popular oasis located near the University of Georgia campus was filled with the shouts and laughter of countless Athens kids back in the day.

It also was the site of my first swimming lessons. I really tried hard to learn how to swim at Legion Pool. I say tried to learn because I never really became a confident, or even a proficient swimmer, despite numerous swimming lessons during my childhood.

Later, on a visit to nearby Lake Wellbrook (before it became a subdivision), I found myself drifting deeper and deeper, bouncing up from the muddy lake bottom numerous times, listening to Peter and Gordon sing “World Without Love” on the concession stand jukebox, hearing laughter and happy voices on the beach as I bounced my feet into the mud one more time and failed to break though the water’s surface. I was in too deep, holding my breath, attempting to move toward the more shallow water with my feet pushing against squishy mud.

As I finally broke the water’s surface and floundered around with my tired arms, spouting dirty lake water, I realized no one on the beach had noticed. For the first time in my young life, it dawned on me that I could sink into the water, my feet could mire in the mud, I could go down and never come back up and life would go on. Just not for me. The music would keep playing, the people on the beach would continue to drink Nehis and Cokes and Pepsi and the world would continue to revolve without me. The world didn’t need a small girl who didn’t work hard enough during her Legion Pool swimming lessons to go on.

This was a heavy swimming lesson for a young girl on a hot summer day in Athens, Georgia and it helped to make me who I am today.

beach

Legion Pool in Athens, Georgia has been open for 79 years! Visit this website to learn more about swimming in Legion Pool.

Read about the history of Legion Pool here.

Remembering Muhammad Ali

Remembering Muhammad Ali

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.-Muhammad Ali

In 1968, staff members of the Athens (Georgia) High School Thumb Tack Tribune flew to Chicago over the Thanksgiving holiday for the National Scholastic Press Association convention in the Palmer House hotel. When we weren’t attending journalism classes, checking out Chicago’s Hippie headquarters in Old Towne, or shopping downtown, we explored floor after floor of the grand, old hotel, riding up and down in the elevators, running through hall after hall, and causing way more noise than was allowed.

Finally, there was just one more place to conquer: the top floor which housed the Penthouse Suite. Up, up, up we rode. TPalmer House Hotelhe elevator stopped. The door opened and there, in the hallway stood Muhammad Ali, surrounded by bodyguards. He would have been 26 years old at the time and was stuck in that time of no fights due to refusing to be inducted into the armed forces in 1966.

We were all in awe of Ali that day. In 1964, after beating Sonny Liston in a major upset and winning the heavyweight title, Cassius Clay (his original name) declared, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.”

At that moment in time, on the top floor of the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago, I thought Muhammed Ali was the prettiest thing that had ever lived. Young, massive, strong, gorgeous, he looked perfect that day and totally unapproachable.

Of course that didn’t stop me from walking up to him and asking for his autograph, even though, as I stared up at Ali, he looked eight feet tall. I thought he’d refuse my request, but he didn’t. He took the scrap of paper from my outstretched hand and scribbled his name.

I still have the scrap of paper and the memory of being in Ali’s presence during my visit to Chicago’s Palmer House hotel. Was he the greatest? Maybe. No doubt, he had gifts that most humans can only dream about. Athletic ability. Good Looks. And he knew the power of words.

I wrestled with an alligator, I tussled with a whale, I handcuffed lightning . . . last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.

But this strong, heavyweight champion of the world, couldn’t beat death. Like many around the world, I mourn his passing and now I cherish even more those few moments in time when I stood in his presence and he signed his name.

Your Odds of Getting Traditionally Published

Your Odds of Getting Traditionally Published

Getting Published: Me

I knew the odds were against me when I decided to seek publication for my books way back in 1989. Still, I decided to go for it. Twenty years later, in 2009, I held my first published novel in my hands. My book, Gone From These Woodsa children’s middle grade novel for younger readers 9 – 12, actually was purchased on July 13, 2007. Between that time and publication day, August 25, 2009, I experienced eight months of rewriting and over a year of waiting.

Was it worth the seemingly endless rewriting and the long wait? Yes! For me, having a novel published was a lifelong dream and my top goal. Getting the call from Michelle Poploff, Vice President and Editorial Director at Random House Children’s Books, was like winning the literary lottery.

Getting Published: You

You might be wondering what your odds are of getting the call and holding your published book in your hands. As you probably know, they aren’t good. In fact, the odds of getting published are dismal. According to industry professionals, your odds of getting published by a traditional New York publisher like Random House (now Penguin Random House) are about the same as becoming a professional baseball player on a major league team.

In other words, your odds are almost non-existent. On top of that, the odds of seeing your book in print (via a traditional publisher) in today’s rapidly changing, digitally evolving world of publishing are getting worse. What can you do to improve your odds of getting published?

What It Takes and the Statistics

According to author Sheryl Gwyther, “Writers who succeed are those who persevere through first drafts that feel like pushing jelly uphill; refuse to take second-best for the multiple rewrites; do the spit and polish at the end; then cope with rejection letters and emails, and rewrite and edit again.”

Another blogger, Ray Wong, says less than 5% get published. There are hundreds of thousands of writers trying to break into the business every year. But there simply aren’t that many publication slots available.

Laura Backes, publisher of Children’s Book Insider, says editors at mid to large-sized publishing houses get upwards of 5,000 unsolicited submissions a year. About 95% are rejected right off the bat. Most of those get form letters. A few promising authors get personalized notes stating why the manuscript was rejected.

Of the 5% left, some are queries for which the editors request the entire manuscript. Others are manuscripts submitted in their entirety. Those go to the next stage of the acquisitions process. They get passed around the editorial department, presented at editorial meetings, perhaps looked at by the sales staff to get a sense of the market for the book.

The end result is that 1 – 2% of unsolicited submissions are actually purchased for publication. 

That sounds like horrible odds, doesn’t it? 

Beating the Odds

Here are several ways you can beat the odds and get your book published.

  • Hone Your Craft. It’s a phrase you’ll hear over and over again. It means read a lot, especially in your chosen genre, and write, write, write, and write some more. Then rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite some more.
  • Read and study writer’s reference books and how-to guides. I have a list  of books I recommend here.
  • Join a writing group and get critiques.
  • Join a professional group like SCBWI and read and learn from the reference material on their website and network with other members.
  • Go to conferences and listen to what editors and agents and published writers say. Network at these conferences and use the privilege you may get there to submit to the editor and agent speakers. This may be your best shot at getting your submission actually read. (Read how this worked for me here.)
  • Get an agent. They’re generally harder to get than an editor, but if you get one, you automatically rise to the upper 5% of submissions — if your agent agrees to market your manuscript.
  • Persevere. The number one way to beat the odds and get published is to persevere. Generally, the writers who put their butts in the chair and write every day for years and years and years are the ones who get published. If publication is what you want, do the work, do the time, and beat the odds!
Spring is Writing Time

Spring is Writing Time

What Am I Burning With?

One of the best ways to encourage yourself to write is to ask yourself this simple question: “What am I burning with?” I’ve asked myself this very question many times and sometimes it has resulted in a piece of writing. It might be a newspaper column or a magazine article. Sometimes it’s a poem. Every now and then, the “What am I burning with?” question results in a book.

If the burning question doesn’t get your writing engine started, you might try a writing prompt. There are many available in books and on the web. Put the words, “writing prompts” into Google and more writing prompts than you’ll ever be able to use will appear on your computer, tablet, or smart phone screen.

So, what are you burning with? And can it ignite a story? You’ll never know until you try.

 

My Breakthrough Column in The Writer Magazine!

My Breakthrough Column in The Writer Magazine!

It’s here!!! Recently, I pulled out a big envelope from my Winterville post office box. Inside, were my two author’s copies of the October 2011 issue of The Writer magazine. The magazine smelled of fresh ink as I flipped through and found my Breakthrough column, “Conference Feedback and an Authentic Voice led the Way to Publication,” on page 14. This compact 700 word column with three sections, “Breakthrough,” “What I learned,” and “Advice,” marked my article-writing debut in this magazine.

I’m a huge fan of The Writer, a monthly trade magazine for writers published by Kalmbach Publishing Company in Waukesha, Wisconsin. It was first established in April 1887 by William H. Hills and Robert Luce, two Boston Globe reporters, as “a monthly magazine to interest and help all literary workers.” Until November 2000, The Writer was published in Boston. Packed with articles that inspire and instruct both aspiring and published writers, it’s the oldest magazine for writers currently being published. I’ve been reading it since the 1980s and feel very honored to see my own Breakthrough article in the pages of this magazine.

If you’ve ever wondered how I got my debut children’s middle grade novel, GONE FROM THESE WOODS, published, the story is here in the pages of The Writer. Pick up a copy at Barnes & Noble or any of the other locations that carry specialized magazines, or subscribe online on The Writer website.

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