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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Monday, September 29, 2008
Monday, September 22, 2008
We writer types sit around in workshops and writing groups and such, talking endlessly about tone and voice and point of view, and it's all very interesting of course – at least to us. Then there's this.
My 10 year-old son, home sick from school (but not too sick) is quiet for an hour, reading at the breakfast table. A few times he asks what a word means (frieze). But mostly he is silent, still.
Finally, he looks up, near triumphant. He's read a fairly dense eight-page article by Tom Verducci in the current issue of Sports Illustrated about the history and impending tear-down of storied Yankee Stadium. (Last night our family intermittently watched the final game played in the House that Ruth Built, lumps in throat.)
"Wow, that was a great article! Hey Mom," he says, "It was so cool. It's written like it was the stadium talking."
Indeed. The piece begins, "I am dying. It's O.K. You need not feel sorry for me. I have lived a full life…" and goes on for some 4,000 words in the same vein. (I'm guessing here, but can't you just picture Verducci wondering how to make an article about the legendary stadium stand out from the thousands of pieces he knows will be written this month? He reaches into his voluminous craft bag, considers if writing in the stadium's voice will be enough to make the article a must read. It is.)
So, there's writers opining about POV and feeling as if we are discussing something rather esoteric and incredibly valuable. And then there's a10 year-old taking an hour to read something he did not have to read, then happily identifying and explaining – in case I missed it -- how the choice of POV influences how a piece is read. Priceless.
Saturday, September 20, 2008
I often don't take notes when I'm listening to an author talk about craft issues, opting I'd rather the ideas and images wash across my open mind and leave what impressions they may. But the other day, when I sat in on a poetry talk by Baron Wormser, I found myself scribbling.
Wormser is a former poet laureate of Maine, author of several books of poetry, a memoir and a quirky short story collection about the poetry life. More importantly, Baron was the poet I came to know off the page, in his position on the faculty of the Stonecoast MFA program. When I arrived at Stonecoast, I was a bit of a nonfiction snob. Poetry seemed indulgent or at least ancillary and certainly not central to being a prose writer.
Did I mention I had a lot to learn?
When I found that my first MFA nonfiction workshop would be jointly lead by Richard Hoffman and Baron, both poets as well as memoirists, I was a bit miffed. Fast forward two years to my final MFA residency. One of the people in the audience for my reading whom I wanted to most impress? Baron. Over the years, he'd worked some kind of quiet magic on my attitude and my prose. After my reading, when Baron told me my prose was solid enough that he didn't even edit it in his head as he listened, it was high praise indeed.
Here's what I gleaned from Baron's talk the other day at Warren County Community College (first in an upcoming visiting authors series). By the way, I believe everywhere it says "poets" or "poetry" one can substitute "creative nonfiction writers" and "creative nonfiction".
• Poets dwell in the field of feelings, and are always investigating that domain.
• Poets are "first responders" who admit their vulnerability, contrary to how we normally act.
• Transience, the idea of time passing, is the basic theme of all poetry.
• Walt Whitman's work embodies one of the crucial elements of poetry – bringing together contraries, for example, "sweet hell" (not just contrary words, but contrary feelings and images).
• Poetry – indeed all writing – comes through our senses.
• Metaphor translates any feeling to sensory expression.
• Best gone American poets to read: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath
• On Plath: "As if Lady Macbeth sat down to write poetry."
• Poem to read: For the Union Dead, by Robert Lowell
• Book to read: Her Husband, by Diane Middlebrook, about Plath's marriage to Ted Hughes.
• Living American poet to read: Hayden Carruth.
Friday, September 19, 2008
I'm a huge believer in print media's ability to rise to the competitive challenge of digital media – that is, I believe in the print industry's editorial capabilities. Business-wise, maybe not so much. If my experience this morning is any indication, I might have to start believing those doom-and-gloom "print is dying" forecasts. Here's why (condensed for the sake of not boring you with the entire 18 minute exchange).
I dial 1800-NYTIMES, enter the seven or so different numbers required to reach a live operator.
Me: I'm currently a 7-day-a-week home delivery subscriber; in fact, I've been a subscriber for about eight years. But $40 a month has gotten to be a problem. Any special promotions or anything?
NYT: No, I'm sorry.
Me: What about all those special prices I see? I recently saw one for about $25 a month. Isn't there any break for current, loyal, long-time subscribers.
NYT: No, those specials are only for new subscribers. But I'll be happy to pass along your comments to our customer service department.
Me: I can't understand why you reward newcomers but never reward current subscribers.
NYT: Sorry about that.
Me: So, if I were to cancel, I could call back in a week or two and get that special deal as a new subscriber?
NYT: No, you can't get that for 90 days after you cancel.
Me: What about if I got just the Sunday paper?
NYT: That's $18 a month. But I'd suggest you get the Saturday-Sunday service, which is only $22 a month, because right now there's a special for Sat-Sun subscribers who want to upgrade to 7-day-a-week service, at no additional charge for the first 12 weeks.
Me: Well, why don't you just switch me to Sat-Sun, then give me that upgrade?
NYT: Oh, our computer system won't let me do that all at once.
Me: OK, then I'll switch to Sat-Sun now, and call back in a day or two to upgrade.
NYT: Oh no, you'd have to wait longer than a few days to do that.
Me: Like a week or so?
NYT: Well, I can't guarantee that special will still be going on then.
Me: When does it end?
NYT: We don't have that kind of information.
Me: You know, for an industry in which newspapers are closing down every day and laying off thousands weekly, you folks certainly aren't making it easy for people who actually LOVE the newspaper to continue to support it.
NYT: (nervous titter) I can understand your frustration.
Me: You know, I subscribe to a lot of magazines, and last month I got a $28 renewal notice for one, and the blow-in card in the current issue had a rate of $15 for new subscribers, and so I called their 800 number, and they immediately offered me the $15 rate.
NYT: Well, I'll pass that along too.
I can't blame the patient and polite woman at the other end of the phone who is simply trying to earn a living in a presumably thankless job. So I thanked her, took the Sat-Sun deal, and hung up knowing I had knocked $18 at least off our monthly expenditures, even though the Saturday Times is rarely invigorating reading. But I'm holding out for that upgrade.
I love newspapers. I love the New York Times more than most people love their lattes in the morning. I want it in my hands, physically, every day. But I've decided I'll read it online on weekdays now. Which is too bad for a lot of reasons, but the one that saddens me most is that my 14-year-old already had developed that sit-down-with-the-newspaper habit (sports, weather, and national news), and the 10-year-old was right behind (science and food). They'll move online a lot more readily than I will, of course. But the question is, will they really? If the paper's not spread across the breakfast table, or on the kitchen counter after school, on perched on the hassock after dinner, will these kids – of the Nintendo, Wii, texting generation – ever seek it out, even online?
When I was in high school, anyone could pick up a free copy of the New York Times from the social studies room. You had to get there before third period though or they'd be gone. At home, my parents subscribed to the two local daily newspapers, one of which just announced it will probably be out of business by January.
That daily exposure to newspapers had a huge influence. I'm willing to concede that 30 years from now someone, somewhere, may well be saying that about their favorite news aggregation sites.
I suppose I hope so. I also hope that upgrade deal is still there when I call the Times next week. I hope the Times is still there.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
►Okay, I'm heading out to a poetry master class (some people just have too much time on their hands, right?), and after the class, I'll have an hour lull before the evening readings, which is when I plan to read my copy of New York magazine, starting with this the sky-is-falling piece that so many publishing and media sites are buzzing about.
►At lunch yesterday with a new novelist friend, I was telling her that one of the reasons – in addition to excellent prose and fine storytelling -- why her latest book was such a satisfying read for me, is the place I found myself both physically and psychologically when I sat down to read it. So it is with complete simpatico that I read Erika Dreifus's post about what one of the late David Foster Wallace's works meant to her.
►Even though I have a background in public relations, I still keep picking up great new (and new media) tips from Publicity Hound, relevant to positioning and developing one's "brand." I keep passing these along to friends with books to promote.
►Contests. Good, bad and sometimes, very, very ugly. Poet Stacy Lynn Brown recounts a tale which starts with a familiar hanging-in-there-and-continuing-to-submit scenario, leading to an eventual contest win that came with a publishing promise…then it turns depressing: deceit, lawsuit threats, disillusionment, and other unsavory situations. And, she names names. There's a response from the small press she indicts, and I suppose only the two of them know the "real" story. Still. Those who enter contests (me included), might take note.
Monday, September 15, 2008
In that spirit, I make my confession. I never knew that there was a free web tool to compress those horribly long URLS into those wildly efficient and mysterious ones that begin "tinyurl". Then a few days ago, I admitted as much to a colleague, who I was sure would be appalled at my ignorance. Instead, she simply told me, in one easy step, how it's done -- no eye-rolling. Since then, I have mentioned this to at least a dozen other folks, nearly all of whom said, "Oh, how do you do that?"
So here's how: copy and paste the annoyingly long URL into the little box over at tiny.cc, click on the Compress button, and viola, a new URL appears, beginning with "tinyurl" and -- here's the really nifty part -- it's already been placed in your clipboard so that you can then immediately return to whatever it is you were writing and insert the new, shorter (tiny) URL.
I don't really know or for that matter care why this freebie feature exists - there's no obvious advertising supporting it. And maybe some of you are doing the eye-roll right about now. That's OK. I know plenty of folks aren't, so this is for them. You're welcome.
Friday, September 12, 2008
That noise you heard this past week was the sound of writers who work at home exhaling when the school bus pulled away. Christina Katz has clear advice: Now, put your writing first. Katz, with an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, maintains a busy writing life and has developed a niche promoting professional development for mothers who write. Over at Writer Mama, Katz is giving away cool gifts on the blog for writers every day this month (you don't have to be a "writer mama" to win). Today's give-away is a book in which one of my essays appears. Katz's newest book, "Get Known Before the Book Deal: Use Your Personal Strengths to Build an Author Platform," is about to be released.
LR: Christina, you run three websites, write books and freelance journalism, and are a tireless cheerleader to thousands of what you call "writer mamas." Which came first, and how does each activity feed the other?
Christina Katz: A long apprenticeship as a freelance writer came first, followed by teaching, followed by having a baby, followed by my first e-zine and website, Writers on the Rise, followed by editing an anthology of my students’ writing, followed by teaching via e-mail, followed by more prestigious freelance gigs, followed by an invitation to appear on Good Morning America, followed by my first book, "Writer Mama, How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids". Thank you for reminding me what the lead-up was like, Lisa. It’s good for all of us hard-working writer mamas to remember that success is not an overnight occurrence!
LR: When you are immersed in a project, do you put other projects aside, or do you go from back and forth?
CK: I am one of those folks who juggle a lot. What makes us all different is which projects we choose to juggle. I am a slow writer, not a prolific writer. I enjoy working with others as much as writing, so I balance writing with teaching. I enjoy working with the same students over time, so I’ve developed a series of classes from absolute beginner to ready to land a nonfiction book deal. I have students who are getting book deals now, who took their first class with me years ago. I get a lot of satisfaction being a long-term partner in a writer’s process. It’s win-win-win.
I also speak and conduct live workshops -- the most time- and energy-consuming of all I do. So when I’m writing a book, I cut back on live appearances out of necessity. I don’t mind being tied to my desk when I know it’s a temporary situation.
LR: "Writer Mama: How to Raise a Writing Career Alongside Your Kids," – packed with writing career essentials, work/family advice, resource guide, humor, work plans, and more -- reads and visually resembles a website, deep and rich with offshoots and asides. Was that your intention, or did it organically evolve?
CK: Interesting question. The idea that the content would resemble web content never occurred to me. I set a very high standard for Writer Mama, since it was my first book, and so did my two editors. But the process was 100% a book-writing process, which evolved organically.
With book-writing, we are talking about a long, arduous process compounded with the anxiety of the first-time author, learning to jump through new hoops. Nonfiction writing always involves a lot of research, interviewing, compression, and rewriting. It’s almost never written on the fly, off the top of the head and then turned. There is nothing easy about writing a book unless, perhaps you’ve written five or ten already. Then, just like anything else, it can only get easier.
The upside was that I took what I learned from the first book-writing process and had a bit easier time with my second. But that first book. Phew! It was just a lot of hard work, a lot of long hours, a lot of sleep lost…and did I mention that I had a toddler who became a preschooler as I worked on it? I worked hard for the benefit of my readers, determined that the book be enjoyable to read. If the reader is happy, I’m happy.
LR: Ever feel boxed in by the moniker "writer mama"? Or that others in the writing world see it as a negative?
CK: I have never felt boxed in by “writer mama” because both writing and motherhood are inherently evolution-oriented. I’m not one to get caught up in debates about semantics; life is way too short. Besides, writer mamas are such an incredibly diverse group, I have no delusions that I am the ultimate or original mom writer or anything like that. Seriously, how could I be? We’ve been around forever.
Writers have always written about our life circumstances. I took my life circumstances, identified others like myself and then did my best to offer sound, practical, measured advice about how to go as a writer from ground zero to successful. That advice works for everyone, not just writer mamas. Becoming a mother has been instrumental to my writing career, but motherhood is not static. Every stage leads to another. And as writers, every single project we undertake is a stepping-stone to the next. I’ve had a few people take a swipe at me and at writer mamas in general. I’ve learned since becoming an author that this just comes with the territory.
LR: As a writer who is also a mother, what is your current biggest challenge?
CK: A big challenge at the moment has little to do with writing -- balancing my many roles with being a member of the sandwich generation. Fortunately, I know that some great writer mamas have written on the topic. Since my daughter just entered first grade, I have six+ hours a day to work, so I'm grateful to have the “luxury” of working a full day. I feel quite fortunate. Prioritizing and reprioritizing time has become less a challenge than a habit.
LR: For parents who write at home (and without jobs outside the home), September brings a huge block of kid-free writing time. What are some pitfalls, and tips to transition from cramming in writing here and there to a more opened-up schedule?
CK: The challenge of juggling constantly changing schedules is compounded when you have two or more children, a spouse and a writing career. But if you don’t factor your writing career into that equation, it will never gain momentum. Develop the habit of prioritizing and reprioritizing all the time, just like you find rhythms in your kids' schedules, cultivate your writing rhythm.
Once the kids are out the door in the morning, get your writing done first. Don't volunteer your time away until you've created a business plan for what you will accomplish this school year and set it in motion. Some things will likely have to give, because career/family success is all a matter of energy management. When you know what your personal and family priorities are, and all the cards are on the table at once (in the weekly family meeting I suggest), it’s easier. I consider my commitments just as important as my daughter’s and husband’s. If you don’t, trust me, they won’t either.
LR: For many who write part-time, so much of the work available is low-paying, sometimes non-paying (literary markets, small niche publications, upstart websites), and/or comes with long droughts between good-paying gigs. Advice?
CK: In any career, you have to pay your dues. Writing is no exception. Writers must be willing to take 100% responsibility for our writing careers. That’s total responsibility for your success with no finger-pointing allowed. Ever. When I meet a writing student who takes 100% responsibility for her attitude, I am in heaven. I am sure editors feel the same way about writers who write for them.
I would say the three key factors in success are not “out there” but in the writer’s control at all times: managing your time, having goals and leveraging past successes. To be successful, you must do these things consistently. At the very least, you must have a business plan or a list of short- and long-term goals.
With practice, you learn to instinctively scope out the best opportunities with the most potential for repeat success and you can avoid the cul-de-sacs you described above. Once a writer has paid her dues, she typically realizes that 100% of the choices were in her hands all along.
LR: Talk a bit about your new book, "Get Known Before the Book Deal."
CK: I skimmed the surface of platform development in Writer Mama but there was a lot more to dive into on the topic. I’ve developed and built my own platform as a writing-for-traditional-publication specialist, and over the past seven years working with others as an instructor, I noticed the need for platform development among my students. I developed two platform-development classes and a presentation, which I was offering around the country before I landed this book deal. So, Get Known was a natural extension after Writer Mama, only for a wider audience.
For years, there has not been enough information on platform development and suddenly, there is a flood of it everywhere, not all necessarily comprehensive, useful or well organized for folks who don’t have a platform yet. Get Known discusses platform development in-depth for writers who are not yet authors, and I think it is going to save a lot of writers from wasting time and money. Getting known doesn’t take a lot of money, but it does take an in-depth understanding of platform and then the investment of time, skills and consistent effort to build one. I show how to avoid the biggest time and money-waster, which is not understanding who your platform is for and why – and hopefully can save writers from the inertia that can result from either information overload or not weighing the big-picture.
The style, tone, and structure of Get Known are all very different from Writer Mama, which might be a bit of a shock for folks who read and liked my first book. But ultimately, I needed to let Get Known be its own book. My hope is that readers will gain a fundamental understanding of platform and how it works in the publishing industry. Stay tuned to see if I succeeded.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
First, the good news. It feels quite good to have accomplished something this important; mind you, I should clarify, something this important to me. An MFA is not important to a lot of editors, potential employers, friends and of course, it's not important at all to the world at large. But it was (is) to me. Checking off – and enjoying -- one of the bigger items on my life list, yeah, I'm savoring that a little bit.
A little more good news: While deadlines will always be my friend, keeping me productive and focused, it's great to not predictably turn into a lunatic precisely every third week when the mentor packet is due. [Turning into a lunatic once every 28 to 33 days anyway is another story.] It's wonderful to have control once again over my reading list (the stack of books earmarked "to be read after the MFA" was getting dangerously, depressingly large.
Still more good news: Rather than feeling my world has shrunk with the loss of the on-going writing community an MFA provides, I feel rather an expansive sense of possibility. Having writing acquaintances, and in many cases, good friends, in far-flung locations, involved in such a varied assortment of creative endeavors, well think of the opportunities for interaction, feedback, collaboration, support and comradeship.
And even more good news:
♦ My family is glad to have me back, mentally. When I'm writing or on deadline, I still close the office door (which translates in my house to: If you come in or knock your hair better be on fire), but the person who emerges every few hours is less stressed. ♦ It's a good feeling to know that my kids, both starting new schools this year, watched Mom set out to do something difficult, at age 46, and despite setbacks along the way, she finished what she started. Not that they'd ever admit it, but I know it's somewhere in each of their subconscious.
♦ I can get to all of those writing projects, which over the past two years I'd mentally labeled "after the MFA" and at the same time, my writing confidence has never been higher, a happy confluence.
♦ I can accept assignments that would have once conflicted with critical end-of-semester requirements, say yes to projects extending beyond a semester's timeframe, and book the family vacation without regard to the scheduled dictated by the MFA's residency.
And now for the not-so-good-news: What the hell is it again that I am supposed to do now?
Actually, I might have gotten this feeling a full 8 weeks back, not too long after pomp and circumstance stopped playing, except for one of those "good problems" life sometimes throws at me.
Here was the plan: Attend final MFA residency and graduation; take week-long family vacation in Maine (deferred two years, need I say why?); spend rest of summer hanging with kids -- take a breather, completely reorganize office, and make tidy lists of things to do in September. Work on the resume, but keep things simple. Of course I'd write, but I'd let my mind wander, sketch out only really rough drafts, play with poetry, decide which nonfiction book proposal to write first (I've narrowed it down to two!), and read anything my literary heart desired.
What is it they say again about making plans?
Even before leaving New Jersey for the final MFA residency, the owner of a website I do some editing and research for asked me to help develop a new editorial model and build and edit a news blog – interesting project, additional income. What could be wrong? Just the timing. I'd need to start right after the family vacation.
Which I did for a few hours each morning while the kids played Wii before heading to the pool. Then a writer I like, with a new gig editing a cool website, asked if I'd do a personal essay on a subject dear to me. I said yes, of course. Days later, another writer friend, also with a new editing job for a promising new print magazine, asked for an essay on another equally interesting topic. Yes again, of course.
I am NOT complaining, folks. No freelance writer with any sense complains about being ASKED to contribute to media ventures they admire, by people they like. In fact, I was – am -- grateful. It was a little more than I wanted to cope with in August, but what the heck, the kids had some camp programs going and what's a little more Wii and Nintendo time anyway?
That's when an artist asked me to evaluate a book project and outline editorial, marketing, and publishing options. In between, a piece of narrative nonfiction I'd submitted to a (paying) literary journal was accepted and the editor was keen to work on the changes before her college students returned. Yes, and yes again, of course.
Again, NOT complaining. At this point, all work = more cash saved toward paying down a larger chunk of the MFA student loan, thus lowering payments when they start in a few months.
Still, there went all that planned ruminating, rest and reorganization. Oh, I worked on the resume, and I made some lists. I thought about my next moves and even set up September and October coffee dates with writers, editors and others kind enough to let me pick their brains and bounce ideas. I did not reorganize the office. Come to think of it, I have never crossed off "completely reorganize the office" from any list I've ever put it on at any time in my adult life.
It wasn't the end-of-summer I'd planned, it wasn't the way I'd envisioned relaxing after the exquisitely wonderful grind of the MFA. It's all okay. In fact, had I not gotten so busy, so "distracted", I might not have realized that "I'll get started on the next phase of my life after the kids go back to school in September" is not in fact a viable career strategy.
So, the kids have been in school for three days now and I'm not in all that different a place than I thought I'd be. Maybe the personal work projects are not so neatly lined up as I'd hoped. The lists are not as ordered and color-coded and deadline-oriented as I'd planned.
But the good news is that, except for a two-week period when outside deadlines simply made it impossible, I kept writing. The creative stuff, the this-might-make-it-into-the-memoir stuff. New stuff. Revisions. Half-a-notebook of ideas. This is not insignificant. Scads of MFA-grads let the writing go.
So, eight weeks after the MFA, I’m doing okay.
I just need to know: If I try, say for an hour a day for the next three months, to "daydream" about what's next, will I feel as good as I thought I'd feel had I gotten those 5 weeks of summer-time R&R? Nah, probably not.
Best use that hour to write, huh?
Monday, September 8, 2008
The Brooklyn Book Festival is this coming Sunday, and if my heel spurs cooperate, I'll be running around – OK, walking slowly – to take it all in. On the schedule are dozens of readings by fine writers which interest me, but bearing in mind my family might tag along, I've also checked off a panel on Writing Funny, two that target food and eating in prose, a Six Word Memoir reading, and my dynamic friend, poet Patricia Smith who can enthrall anyone.
Writers who combine magazine and other journalism work with books are of special interest to me, and most especially when they live practically in my backyard. And while that's usually nearby Montclair (where it seems one cannot turn around without bumping into a writer or other media sort), sometimes it's nice to see another Jersey girl doing well – like Jancee Dunn, from Chatham, about 10 miles away.
Congrats to my fellow Stonecoast alum, Raye Tibbitts, who is taking on the editor-in-chief post for the print magazine edition of Motherwords, with the end-of-year holiday issue.
An author reading addict? If you haven't already (I know I've mentioned this at least once before), think about signing up for BookTour. You get a weekly email listing author readings, appearances and other new-book-related events in your area -- free. Authors, book publicists, or event planners should be posting your events there – also free. Doesn't get much better than free on a Monday morning.
Have a great (and productive) week!
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
The other sadness is one that, thankfully, comes along a lot more often than once a year, but not as often as I would actually like it to. It's a kind of sadness that feels great, in the end. And, it's the kind of sadness I bet all of you also get, and are sort of grateful for: the sadness that descends when you come to the last words of the last chapter, on the last page of a book you love.
I know it's coming of course, and sometimes I purposely slow down my reading to delay the inevitable. Often, before I get to that bitter end, I already have another book I'm pretty sure I'll like as much waiting on the shelf. I've usually already Googled the author and have that "I loved your book" email half written. Undoubtedly, I've told several book loving friends why they have to read the book.
And more often than one might think, the too-soon-to-be-over sadness accompanies not the big important books by major authors, not the ones sitting atop best-seller lists or the ones every literary pal has declared a must read. It's the other kind I get attached to. The quiet memoir. The dusty biography. The nearly obscure novel. The underrated essay collection.
This time around, it was Gregory Martin's memoir, Mountain City. A tiny, population-depleted Nevada town, grandparents and aging, Basque immigrants and mining legacies, the blessings of interdependence, odd extended families and familiar strangers, an elegy to a people who love and cope with a certain landscape, land and where one's planted. Best of all, it's a mostly non-linear narrative, my favorite kind. Mountain City is the only published book thus far from Martin, whom I discovered at Nonfiction Now last fall. He is at work on a novel and had some good advice for writers at the end of a Q/A interview I found on Argonaut.
There's a cure for this particular strain of melancholia, of course. I'll read something else. Write. Read it all over again – and soon. And finally, just sigh, wrapping myself in the luxury of being susceptible to this terrific kind of sadness again and again and again.