The Workshop Experience
The Famous Author by Lisa Amico Kristel
She sat in the workshop with her twelve pages before her, and she before the five others and The Famous Author too. She wasn’t nervous. She looked forward to the critique. She would use it to improve.
Years later she imagines she must have felt something in the air the minute she entered the room, that she sensed the weight of The Famous Author’s arrogance. Across the years, she can smell it.
But she is projecting a new understanding onto the memory. That day, she was fine.
When it was her turn for critique, she focused on The Famous Author’s hands holding the pages that held her words. What might he say?
The Famous Author shook his head from side to side, and he laughed. He laughed.
Hers was The Famous Author’s last one-hour private session before that evening’s wine and cheese gathering. He was friendly. He asked about her life, topics which were brought up in workshop that related to her piece. A master communicator, he engaged her. She fell into his questions. Doesn’t everyone like to talk about themselves?
Interesting that her protagonist was an insecure young man who had trouble with communication and confrontation. Interesting that she believed she’d overcome her own issues with both. But she realizes now that the method she developed as a child to hide her insecurity—to act like nothing bothered her—had worked against her. It kept her silent when she should have spoken. It made her want to alleviate tension, to make everyone in the room feel comfortable—even the person who made her feel otherwise. The only other person in the room.
As her insecure protagonist would have done, she didn’t direct the conversation to her work. She followed The Famous Author’s whims to other subjects—food, restaurants, raising kids.
His conversation had eaten up fifty minutes of her hour before he asked where she was with her project. After that day’s workshop, doubt scattered her story in her mind. She stumbled over her thoughts. “I have several scenes. They’re...not quite linked. I guess it’s…”
“A mess.” He filled in her blank.
She nodded. She sold her writing down the river. Or in this case, into the sea—the Mediterranean was a few hundred meters away.
The Famous Author offered her no other words. No encouragement. No criticism, constructive or otherwise. He slapped his hands together and stood. “Let’s get to that wine and cheese!” he said.
She answered, “I love cheese.”
He held the door for her.
Clutching her pages, she walked through and felt him following close behind.
She spent the rest of the week being a model workshop participant. Referred to each presenter as the author. Used the pronoun I, never you. Began with what I like about this piece and concluded with what doesn’t work for me. She shared meals, discussions. All the while, a perpetual buzz radiated from her center to her fingertips. It hovered over her keyboard. She was unable to write and not confident she ever would again.
On the last night, she arrived at the gala dinner dressed in blue. She moved about the ballroom making small talk. When she spotted The Famous Author, she decided she ought to be a magnanimous person and thank him.
She wove among tables and groups of chatting teachers and students and approached The Famous Author.
“I’d like to thank you for a constructive week,” she said. Perhaps she said wonderful week, but either way, she lied. The Famous Author grasped her shoulders, pulled her close, and planted his wet mouth on her lips.
The urge to wipe her lips overwhelmed her, but she didn’t give in, not there in his presence, in the crowded room. She cannot recall if they spoke more, but she is certain she pretended that his behavior was acceptable. She didn’t want to embarrass him.
Back home, she ventured small changes to her text and instantly undid them. She began to avoid writing. Even a glance at her laptop knotted her stomach. Her work was an embarrassment.
At times she wished she could have undone the entire week. Command Z.
Another workshop, two more famous authors. But this pair treated her and her work with respect. First, they saved her, and then she saved herself.
The Famous Author was right. Her writing needed a lot of work. But there are many ways to convey that information, many ways to help a new writer grow. Laughing is not one of them.
She has since edited and revised and improved her manuscript. It no longer brings her shame. She likes it, the way she used to, before The Famous Author ignored its bright spots, focused on its faults, and passed his judgment. Sometimes, when she imagines her book published, she fantasizes about including The Famous Author in a backhanded acknowledgement. It would read something like this:
And finally, thank you, Famous Author! At the gala affair after your workshop, you sealed your condemnation of this novel with one slobbery and wholly unwanted kiss. For a time, your arrogance suffocated my desire to write. Yet once held up against the generosity of better teachers, your betrayal motivated me to continue, and to prove you wrong.
She knows, however, that these words will not find their way into print. She would never let his name stain her novel’s pages.
Greatest Misses: Writers on Failure
(Un)Dead on Arrival: My Life in Failed Novels By Allison Floyd
Like many writers, I dream of holding a book in my hands, with my name on the cover. I know this isn’t the only metric of “success” (whatever that means), but as a lifelong bibliophile and stereotypical librarian, for me, Writing a Book is The Dream. The problem? I write in the short form (barely). A classic ambivalent Libra, as soon as I seem to be on the road to Writing a Book, I find it’s a cul de sac (fancy French for “dead end”). But I’ve certainly given it the old college try. This is a memorial for my failed novel attempts:
On the Cusp
My first effort, a coming-of-age novel in which the central mystery (if we may call it that) is whether our awkward heroine is a changeling. She makes a friend, who mysteriously disappears. What happened? Who knows? This tale, often set in the woods, was as an excuse to use the word “loam” over and over. I called it good at around 15,000 words, which the astute reader will observe is not novel-length. Also, nothing got resolved (just like life).
Autobiography of a Tick
This sought to be a sendup of the “vampires as romantic antiheroes” trope, experiencing a resurgence at the height of the Twilight Saga’s popularity. It was about a loser who works in the produce section of the grocery store and becomes hopelessly obsessed with a completely nondescript human being: the Beatrice to his Dante, the Mildred to his Philip (Of Human Bondage), the blue light special Bella Swan to his cut-rate Edward Cullen. He lives with two roommates, Leech and Quito (short for mosquito, oh dear), who turn out to be imaginary. He kidnaps his love interest, Darlene, an alarming development, but proves too ineffectual for much to come of it. There’s also a loving antagonist named Apotheosis Smith, the best thing in this trainwreck, but that’s basically saying ol’ Theo is the best house on a bad block. It won a contest for “best first line”. My prize: a critique from some local semi-professional writers, who gleefully ripped it to shreds, citing a lack of plot (guilty) and a preponderance of teenage angst (I was in my 30s). Originally a very padded 50k words (National Novel Writing Month), I reduced it to 10k – 15k words, which amounted to cleaning half of the litterbox.
Another attempted Twilight sendup, featuring a doubtful guest, comedic depictions of suburban family life, and psychic vampirism. The psychic vampire was Bernice, and her nemesis, also a psychic vampire, who attempted to wield his power in a benevolent manner, was Javier. Nothing happened for around 50k words (NaNoWriMo again), before I put this out of its misery.
The Woman of the Woods
I was honest about the provenance: “This is my Blair Witch Project”. And it was about as accomplished as the camera angles. I was trying to let the Blair Witch tell her side of the story (I would sympathize with her). In my version, she’s a successful influencer in the food and lifestyle blogosphere, until one day she calls shenanigans and commits a gesture of massive self-sabotage at a photo shoot, involving raw meat, flies, and heavy-handed symbolism (duh). She flees to the woods with her invisible (imaginary?) wolf, Wound Paw, where she deals summarily with a pesky group of would-be documentarians (and the mute sound guy, who may be in cahoots with her). Like our unwitting documentarians, this project got lost in the woods.
America’s Next Top Vampire
I don’t even like vampires. Blood is gross, and biting isn’t sexy. So why do I keep coming back to them in my failed fiction? If I knew, maybe my fiction would stop failing (and flailing). Anyway, this was a satire of America’s Next Top Model (already a satire of itself), about a bevy of bloodsuckers competing to be—well, you know. I submitted this abortive (and aborted) effort to Tor.com, and the rejecting editor was much kinder than they needed to be: “While there’s an obvious sharp wit in this piece, it ultimately didn’t cohere into a full narrative with fully realized characters.” No kidding. I liked the title and made a half-assed attempt to write something to attach it to. And, yes, the cast and crew went on location to Transylvania.
Bluebeard’s Bel-Air Bachelor Pad
I actually love the crap out of this, a 15,595-word reimagining of VH1’s Rock of Love in which Bluebeard’s victims voraciously compete for his affection. I stand by it (ten years later) and came close to getting it published a couple times. Attention, editors and publishers: let me know if you’re interested!
My Life with Demons and Allison Ford’s Very Important Meeting
These never amounted to more than titles, thank God, the former being another title I thought sounded cool, and the latter to be a misguided attempt at autofiction, drawing heavily from Mrs. Dalloway and Waiting for Godot, probably. Honestly, your guess is as good as mine.
The Clusterfuck Court Chronicles and Other Tales of Suburban Woe: One Librarian's Lament of Downward Mobility
Presently we find ourselves in the throes of a 35,950-word memoir (blissfully vampire-free). It feels like my most coherent attempt, and I hold out hope that I may make it book-length and find a home for it. Because, we writers are a resilient bunch. We have to be, in the face of the failures and rejection, the inner critic, and the stupid jerk who sits on our shoulders and won’t shut up until we attempt this difficult and tedious undertaking, often for no reward other than engaging in the process: getting it down on paper, hoping it might someday matter to someone, holding our book (or the Kindle version) in their hands. Onward!
What The Hell Am I Thinking?
Writers On Why They Write
For Hope and Freedom
by John Ganshaw
It must be 3 am, I wake up at this time every night, can’t remember if it’s because of the multitude of dreams racing around my head or the cockroaches and their friends using my body as a jungle gym. Everyone else is still asleep, all seventeen others in this cell. I’ll just lay here on the floor and stare up at the ceiling till it's time to take my bucket shower. I still can’t believe I am here. It’s seven months today I have been living this hell, trapped in a Cambodian prison.
The person I came to love did this to me. He was and always will be a beautiful person with a damaged soul. I close my eyes and there he is, just like the first time we met. It’s almost unimaginable what then happened. I had found out about his life as a prostitute, that he had a pimp who had owned him for the last twelve years.
I remember holding him in my arms, with him crying uncontrollably, just repeating, “I am so sorry, I should have told you the truth.”
I could have handled the truth but when he and his “owner” were confronted, it was easier to scheme, lie, and betray than to face their own truth. The pimp managed and controlled the actions of his prostitute, his prey, and his creation—my love. I guess it was inevitable that one of us would need to pay. I paid the ultimate price for trying to save a soul not ready to be saved. His pimp arranged to have me arrested through him, the accusations concocted, false charges filed that led to my arrest.
Innocence means nothing when lies and untruths rule. Tears aren’t going to change this, yet they keep running down my cheeks, a faucet that just can’t be turned off. Two weeks since I went to my bail hearing, and I wonder each day if it was granted. Taking inventory of my body, I have everything I fell asleep with. The bites and open sores on my legs and arms have not disappeared, scabies is still there, and the itching is still there. Yup, nothing was miraculously cured during the night. I might as well get up, careful not to hit my head on that fucking ceiling fan. The one that attacked me two days ago, causing a river of blood to run down my forehead and face. Don’t need to relive that again.
Since the fainting spell last week, I am allowed to go outside and sit on the concrete steps. The perimeter is surrounded by yellow caution tape, a safety measure since we are in a Covid quarantine block. Sharing my quarantine with seventeen others in the same cell. The sun is quickly rising, and soon I can go outside, like a dog into the fenced yard. We will hear the key turn, the door opens ever so slightly, and Buntha will grab me, and we will be out in the fenced-in open air. It’s so much easier to write freely when not sitting in a dark and dank cell. I’ve been writing every day for the last seven months, journal entries, letters to friends, to God, to anyone I could think of. Without this experience, I’m not sure I would have had the fortitude to even start such a venture. I wonder if I should thank him, the person responsible for where I am, for such a wonderful opportunity. My writings will always be a reminder that this wasn’t a dream but living proof of the reality of injustice.
Not even outside five minutes and a trustee hands me a note: John, I am here to retrieve you, don’t leave with anyone else but me. “Where did this come from?” I ask.
He doesn’t know but assures me he will find out. I hear nothing all morning, and when I come back out for my afternoon sunbathing, still nothing. I’ve almost forgotten about the note when I hear a guard say, “Are you John Ganshaw?”
“Yes,” I reply.
He just stares at me for a little while and then walks away. A few minutes later he returns and says, “Get ready, you are going home.”
I can’t believe it and the faucet turns on again. They give me fifteen minutes to get ready. I have no clothes to my name; a fellow inmate asks me how much money I have. I give him my last five dollars and he disappears. I rush to tell Buntha that I’m going home, and hurry back to my cell to gather my writing journals, tell my news, and spend a few minutes with cellmates. While getting organized the inmate I gave my money to appears at the window holding a pair of gray shorts in his hand. I quickly slide out of my orange gauze pajama pants and pull on the shorts. No shirt though, so one of my cellmates gives me his soccer jersey.
The guard appears as a sign for me to hurry up. “Now,” he barks.
I look at my cellmates, and though we were only together for two weeks I have such a sense of remorse come over me. They are smiling and thrilled that I’m leaving and getting out, but I feel as if I’m deserting them. So, I give some hugs, shed a few tears, and then I leave the cell and the block. I sign the release forms and I am led to the front prison gate. I never thought this day would come. I walk out with the clothes on my back and the 170,000 words written in my notebooks. These hold the memories of hope, and the will for me to survive these past few months. At the gate, there stands Va, waiting for me, and the note finally makes sense. He and another friend take me to the hospital, and while I’m lying in that hospital bed I realize how lucky I am to have such great friends, old and new, who helped me through this ordeal.
That was ten months ago. Once safe, I started to transcribe the journals onto this laptop, titling it To Live a Dream. Writing brought me so much happiness when everything seemed lost, a reason to keep fighting so I can share a story. To tell what others couldn’t. I relive each day since I left the U.S. in 2017, to begin my dream of owning a hotel and being a hotelier. I had the goal of writing and documenting my story as an ex-pat, but that didn’t start till the day after I was put in prison. That was the day Janet and Nat came to visit me and brought me a couple of notebooks along with a few books to read. It didn’t take me long to fill those first one hundred pages. For the first time in my life, I began to write about how I felt, what happened to me, and write about him. There is so much beauty in writing, and even in the darkest words there is a bright light, a love, a passion that shines. My prison experience was the catalyst for me to write. To write my story and the stories of those that shared cells with me, those without a voice have the most to say. I look back, not with a heart filled with hate, but one of gratitude for the opportunities I have been granted.
Nightmares continue to haunt me, providing a backdrop and content for the poems that I pen. I was given such a rare chance to see what others can’t, to hear the dreams and hopes that have been shattered by circumstance. I write every day, imagining those who have touched me are still looking over my shoulder, watching as the words leave my fingers, finding a home on the canvas in front of me. I hope that these stories will be shared and inspire others to write and tell what often is kept a secret. At times, all hope seemed lost, but my writing was and is the resuscitation that keeps me alive.
What The Hell Am I Thinking?
Writers On Why They Write
Writing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Yes, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly analogy has been done to dust. But so have most plotlines. As you’ll soon discover if you put more than a passing fancy into the writing game.
The spaghetti western title comparison, however, suits the writing business, because if you’re a working writer—earning your daily board and monthly room wholly or majorly from wordsmithing—then you’re going to be chowing down on your fair share of spaghetti dinners. And because, as a professional wordmonger, you’re going to experience Good weeks, Bad weeks and Ugly weeks. You’ll live for the Good weeks, perhaps die during the Bad weeks, and rage roughshod during the Ugly weeks.
The Good weeks are those glorious, but woefully-sporadic weeks when the sun finally shines on your wretched writing career like gold shines in a split-open, looted saddlebag; when money-manna and rights-purchase documents drop out of the clear blue sky like pound notes from heaven. Rewarding you, at last, for your determination, dedication and—yes, maybe even—your talent. The goodtime three C’s suddenly blossom in abundance: Contracts, as in two or more story sales; Cash, as in two or more story payments; and Complimentary Copies, as in two or more story publications.
A Good week is one when you spend more time doing administrative work than writing work; dealing with significant numbers, rather than meaningless words. Logging sales and receipts, scripting your name onto the backs of cheques (the best kind of writing there is) or noting the Paypal credits appearing on your online bank account, and reviewing your spectacular prose in publishers’ ink or pixels (and sneering at those other stories and their authors sharing the same sacred place between the covers with you). You enjoy the fruits of your labor, you feed on them (literally and literaturely).
And you think: maybe I’m actually going to be able to make a career out of scribbling and typing, writing and writing and writing and rewriting. The present looks rosy, the future is glowing, and the cold, barren past is forgotten.
You bask in the Good weeks, wallowing in your newfound, temporary wealth and warming your prickly writerly soul on the embers of tangible affirmation of all of your lonely literary efforts. Because you know—as any seasoned wordslinger knows—that the Good weeks are few and far, far between, dried up and blown away by the beginning of the following week—a Bad or an Ugly week.
Bad weeks can come anytime, from anywhere, and there’s not much, other than quitting the storied trade, you can do about them. A Bad week is one when you corral not multiple cheques or contracts or contributor copies, but rather a whole steaming string of stinging rejections. Not a random ‘unfortunately we won’t be able to use your story’, but a whole slew of negative nellies, one after another or one on top of the other. Like gunned-down cowpokes in your range war of attrition, they stack up suddenly and sometimes overwhelming. The battle of wits has turned, maybe decisively, and now you’re taking Casualties to your literary ego, rather than exulting in the feel-good three C’s.
You can handle rejection maybe one or twice a week if you’re a prolific writer pumping out plenty of stories (which, of course, you have to be to be able to call yourself a professional). You realize it’s just part of the business. Not everyone is going to like everything you write. You know it’s a documented fact that many editors and publishers are brain-damaged to a certain extent, not to mention maniacally envious of those who can, and do, write. And thus, you as an author have to pay the price sometimes for these gatekeepers’ impaired sense of talent.
Like a true pro, you chalk up the ‘R’ in your vast database of stories and shoot the spurned yarn out to yet another market from your extensive listings. You move on, quickly, resolutely, without looking back or falling off your horse. You don’t get down, you get on with it. Keep them doggies rollin’!
But when you get three rejections in one day, or seven in one week, or a whole stinking shatload of same from one particular anthology or magazine editor who you were sure would just love the multiple submissions you specifically crafted for their particular anthology or magazine; well then, whoa Nelly!, you think: maybe it’s not the editors’ or publishers’ wisdom that’s at fault, maybe your prose is the problem. Maybe you’re just not good enough to make it as a writer—now, or anymore. You really aren’t talented, or your talents have failed you.
You were expecting—counting on—those rejections to be acceptances (contracts to cash to copies). And now that you’ve been delivered the bad news, maybe it’s time to pull the pen cap or computer plug on the whole rotten word-wrangling business. Maybe it’s time to put this hobby hoss down.
You waller in the ashes of your once-promising writing career, your confidence shot. And then the Bad week gets even worse—when you get the notice (which you’ve been fearing all along given the oft-delayed payment for your work) that a well-paying publisher has gone bankrupt, or an e-zine ecstatic for your copy has shutdown leaving no forwarding cyber-address. Now, your future isn’t just in jeopardy, your present is. And that’s when you despairingly contemplate one final act of writing: a terse missive submitted unsolicited to a loved one or an unloved agent which translates something like ‘by the time you read this, I’ll already be dead.’
Comprising, and compromising, the majority of your writing life, however, (assuming you do live through the Bad weeks) are the Ugly weeks. These are the frustrating, burr-in-the-saddle, bleak weeks when you just don’t hear anything from anyone – editors, publishers, agent, or trustees in bankruptcy. No acceptances, no rejections, no payments, nor publications. A week utterly, gratingly, alarmingly devoid of any snail or electronic-mail communication related to your writing efforts. A desert wasteland of indifference which makes your creative juices run dry.
You’ve got a gross tonne of submissions sent out, you’re expecting payments on a whole passel of already published stories, and you’re pending receipt of any number of PDF files and hard-copies showing off your handiwork. But you don’t hear a goldarn thing all week, and the week after, and the week after that, maybe. The literary world is dead to your authorly aspirations. And your subconscious now daily reminds you of the writing-isn’t-real-work axiom ‘no one asked you to start, and no one cares if you quit.’
You drown in self-pity, shake a fist at the void. A blast of silence has caught you square in your sensitive prose soul and left you reeling and bitter, sucked away all your literary ambition. Why create and send out even more work, when you haven’t heard even an echo on all of the stuff you’ve already blasted out, scattergun-style, into the harsh literary frontier?
Maybe the markets and your publishers’ bank accounts are all dead. Maybe all your precious submissions were lost in-transit somewhere. And maybe your spam filter swallowed up important acceptance e-mails, or the postie is playing sadistic mind games by hoarding your contracts, cheques and contributor copies.
The thorny questions abound like weeds in the vacant lot of your once fertile brain. With one burning question in particular blazing a hole in your yearning, squirming being: should I send another reminder to that F’ing editor/publisher/agent/bailiff?
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was a spaghetti western with a thundering score and a slapdash epic grandeur. It was a movie. But first, there was the Word—in the form of a written screenplay. Thus, the title analogy to writing.
There won’t be a whole lot of gunfights, explosions and hidden treasure in your writing career, mind you (unless you’re a literary cross between Ernest Hemingway and Clive Cussler). But there will be a lot of Ugly weeks, a few too many Bad weeks, and a number of blessed Good weeks, as well. And if you stick to the word-stringing trail long enough, are successful in roping contracts for most of your stories eventually, such that you can actually pay for your daily chuck and your bedroll through prose; then you might just experience the writing career equivalent of riding off into the golden Western sunset: making it to that Promised Land watering hole of an old-age government pension.
Small Press Spotlight: Featherproof Books
Today we are talking with Jason Sommer, of Featherproof Books.
TG: Tell us a little about Featherproof Books. What do you specialize in?
FPB: Featherproof was founded in 2005-ish, focused on publishing fiction from new/interesting authors, and inspired by the 50/50 profit-sharing model of indie record labels & artists. Since then it's expanded to nonfiction, poetry, and even art books. These days we describe the catalog as being post-, trans-, and inter-genre tragicomedy. We like publishing stuff that we haven't seen before, even stuff we didn't expect to like & which surprised us. But in addition to our incredible authors who are producing singularly-great literature, our secret ingredient is probably Zach Dodson. When it comes to designing books, he's legit one of the best to ever do it.
TG: Since you've become publisher what has surprised you about running a small press?
FPB: It's actually the first thing I tell people whenever they ask about a job, or an internship... Indie publishing probably has this romantic allure about it for people who haven't been on the inside. But at Featherproof, it's mostly a small (read: nano-sized) business like any other. I'd say 80% to 90% of what I spend my time on is the same sh*t as any other small business: accounting, logistics, fulfillment, sales & marketing, project management, event planning, etc. The fun stuff (the editorial part, the reason I put up with all that other nonsense) is actually such a small fraction of what it takes to keep a small press afloat. And, of course, the fun part is what all the job- and internship-seekers wanna do. I mean, I don't blame 'em—but I'm not doing all that other crap so someone else gets to have all the fun.
TG: Outside of obvious things like limited money and time, what is the biggest challenge you've faced operating a smTG: all press?
FPB: I think in 2022, the challenge is way different than it was 10 (or maybe even 5) years ago. It's harder than ever to get people's attention. There are fewer book criticism outlets that reach wide audiences, and technology has enabled more people than ever to become publishers. And with the producer-to-reviewer ratio increasingly outta whack (and social media having transitioned to pay-to-play platforms), it's a minor miracle whenever you can get people to notice what you're doing. Especially when people can now stream any entertainment they want with just a tap of a button at home. It feels worth noting that some of Featherproof's authors now write more for TV rather than books.
TG: Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
FPB: Not YET. Historically, Featherproof has never been open for submissions of book-length work (only super-short pieces for mini books). Our books had always come from the people we knew; we don't publish a ton of books, and our friends & associates gave us more than enough material to consider. We're such a tiny operation that having an open call for submissions would completely overwhelm us. But the day is coming *soon* when that's gonna change (for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that I'm intent on diversifying the authors we publish). If someone is interested in submitting a manuscript, their best bet is to sign up for our newsletter (which goes out exceedingly rarely—like, a few times a year), as that'll be the first place we'll announce the open-submission period.
TG: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Featherproof Books? Any upcoming titles you're excited about?
FPB: We're basically a part-time business that operates like a nonprofit arts collective (without any access to the grants/funding that an actual nonprofit has). Everything we do is for the love of lit, and we've created plenty of problems for ourselves by basically never considering money as a factor in our decision-making process. So when you do buy a book directly from us, it makes a huge difference, both in terms of keeping the press alive & getting the authors paid. But that also means, if you're a writer, we're gonna help you make the book you want, not the book we think "the market" or some publishing clown thinks we should make.
Greatest Misses: Writers on Failure
A Moment in My Head by Elizabeth Devecchi
Wait. Should I start a submission piece with that word? I mean. I have always believed that you need to save those kinds of words. If you throw them about willy-nilly, nobody will listen when you need to draw attention to a dire occasion. They’ll all just assume it’s part of your syntax.
I opened my Submittable yet another time (note to self: do NOT look at browser history), paying careful attention not to click on “All Submissions.” No need to self-flagellate. “Active” would tell me everything I needed to know.
Hmmm. I seem to recall there being 16 results just yesterday. Oh, who am I trying to fool? There’s nobody in this head but me. No spirits of writers past helping to guide my fingers on the keyboard (would the ones who handwrote everything even know how to do that?), no muse … just me. And I know there were 16 results yesterday. I know each of those results intimately. I birthed them through a labor that mirrored childbirth, except they tore through my brain and out my fingertips, not through my… well, you get the picture. Anyway, I guess it’s time for a trip to the email tab. Sure, I could click on “declined” or “accepted.” It would actually be quicker to do so. But I prefer a nice slow agonizing defeat. Also, I have a mild case of writer’s block regarding my latest endeavor and taking a little extra time on mundane tasks will put off moving my self-diagnosed block from “mild” to “extreme.” Besides, those two lists are so completely mismatched that a part of me is afraid opening the “accepted” one will result in a seesaw affect, sliding the few that are there over to the overcrowded “declined” list. Great, now I am picturing this very slide in my head. Perhaps I should be an animator. Pity I can’t draw.
Off to the email box it is.
And, voila. There it is: an email from a publisher.
My index finger hovers over the mousepad on my laptop. It’s resting on an air cushion I like to call “plausible deniability.”
Crap, I forgot to see which one of the submissions was missing. Was it a short story, an essay? Was it THE MANUSCRIPT? Well, I’m not going back to look now. My finger hovers. It has become quite comfortable in its present position. It seems “plausible deniability” is made of cotton and bunnies.
The name of the publisher looks familiar. I am pretty sure that it’s one of my more recent submissions … probably not the manuscript. More likely one of the burst-of-activity pieces I vomited out on the high of my first accepted story. Woohoo! I’m officially a writer now! My odds of acceptance just went up!
Except, they didn’t. Most of that flurry of activity has already ended up homeless, adding more weight to the heavy side of the seesaw. “Thank you for submitting. We appreciate your efforts. Please don’t stop writing. Feel free to submit again. You suck. Blah blah blah.” To be fair, I am the one who always adds the “you suck” part. Plausible Deniability isn’t getting any thinner, my finger hasn’t budged.
From the first word on the screen, to the only one in my head. I guess this can be categorized as a dire occasion. My finger pulls back and I close the laptop. There are so many other things I need to get to at the moment. I need to pick up the kids. I’m pretty sure I heard the dryer play that annoying little tune it plays at task completion. And, shit, the floor isn’t going to clean itself!
Coincidentally, neither am I. I’m going to open the damn laptop again and force myself to check my email then get back to work.
What The Hell Am I Thinking?
Writers On Why They Write
Writing is Stupid
by Yuvi Zalkow
I didn't mean to start writing. More than three decades ago, when I was a young adult, still in college, writing seemed like a stupid waste of time. Such a slow and clumsy way to express yourself! Hadn't our society gotten past the written word? We've discovered all these other great ways to share feelings, through music and television and movies and video games and by running naked down the street on a Tuesday morning while holding a scalding cup of coffee in your hands.
But I was struggling emotionally during those college years and my therapist had me write some of my feelings down in a journal, especially the part about why I was cutting myself each night, these small little razor blade cuts around my arms and chest. Most of them not even bad enough to scar, but my therapist still thought it was a problematic way to express myself. So I wrote in the journal about my stupid feelings so my therapist would stop bugging me about it.
Unfortunately, I loved writing about my stupid feelings and I kept writing in journal after journal. Even after I worked through the trickiest parts of my depression and sadness, even after I stopped cutting myself and stopped working with my therapist, I kept writing. Pretty soon, I wanted to turn my feelings into a stupid story that other people could read. But I wasn't sure if my story made any sense to other people, so I joined a stupid writing group. And the group gave me some great feedback. And I learned how to write better stories that conveyed my feelings through these fleshed out characters (who occasionally cut their own flesh to make sense of their feelings). Even though it was hard as hell to write those stories, it was a stupid delight to see that others could feel those same feelings through my stories. Some days it felt like running naked through the streets with a hot cup of coffee, just like that fictional streaker I made up for a story.
Eventually, I got some of those stupid stories published.
At some point in the writing process, one of my short stories turned into a long story and soon I realized that I had a stupid novel on my hands, which was even more tedious to write than a short story. I could barely keep the whole story in my stupid brain at once and my brain sloshed around anxiously with these fictional people in their fictional lives who somehow seemed more real than real people in real life. I kept writing. I couldn't stop writing even though I thought about stopping every damn day.
I got a few of those novels published, one of them coming out this June about a guy like me struggling with his feelings and struggling to connect with all the complicated fabulous people in his life.
And here I am writing this piece about this whole journey and I’m almost getting stupidly choked up just thinking about it.
I still think writing is a stupid crazy exhausting thing to do. But it's a lot less stupid than most of the other options. And even now, more than thirty years later, I think about my first therapist and how patiently she worked with that stupid kid who was so desperate to share his oversized feelings with the world but didn't know how to replace the razor blade with a pencil.
Greatest Misses: Writers on Failure
Poetry Reading by Paul Alexander
I took my 10-year-old daughter, Scarlett, to an adult gathering of writers at an open mic poetry reading, hoping to instill some culture in her, but the only reason she came was because her friend was supposed to show up with her Dad.
The venue was in a 100-year-old converted church about three blocks from our house, nestled in small-mill-town Canada. I was the “featured poet” in a group of amateur and self-published poets, and only because I was about to traditionally publish my debut parenting humor book. I coveted my LIKES on the created Facebook event for Words On Fire! The local newspaper did a very good article about the evening which made me happy because they usually do stories on homeless shelter protests, derelict landlords, and arson. The local radio station interviewed me, but I knew that probably wouldn’t help because people in my town only listen to the Junior A hockey games and the station is so small the signal starts fading once you drive past the graveyard heading out of town six blocks from the station. Fliers went up throughout the town including city hall, the library, and at the local college. A few friends said they were “definitely interested.”
Showing Up On Time
I showed up at 6:45 for the 7 p.m. event with Scarlett and had no trouble finding a parking space next to the church because I WAS THE ONLY CAR IN THE PARKING LOT. The host of the event was not there yet. The owner of the renovated church was there. Nobody else was in the room. I meandered around in slow-motion-shock and it revealed two more people: the bartender, and a young girl who popped out from behind a partition and looked cold and nervous. She was the waitress.
On the landing that paralleled Argyle St. I watched a couple of women saunter up the sidewalk and stop momentarily at the sign in front of the old church—the sign that had my flier tacked to it. They said a guy in the local art gallery/collectable store down the hill had told them about the event. The women said they might come back after going to a restaurant. The time was 6:50 and the event started at 7:00 so how on earth would they come to the event unless they ate really fast? They left like I had a virus after saying, “Good luck.”
Welcoming words came from a microphone inside the building. Realizing Words On Fire must be starting I went in and three or four people had shown up. They were all part of the local writers’ group, not actually an audience. There was a basket inside the door. A sign suggested a donation. Yes, the people in the room were paying to read their poems in front of no one.
It was easy to find a seat in the cavernous, crypt-like, almost empty church. I couldn’t hear anything the host was saying, as if his lips were moving without sound; I had become deaf from the land, sea, and air attack of dismay echoing in my head.
Scarlett’s friend showed up with her dad who told me, “I’ll be right back.” He left.
There were many poets that went up including:
• A woman who burst into tears while reading through racked sobs about a friend who had just died in a fishing accident.
• A guy at least 70 years old reading dreary political nonsense from several pieces of paper. I stopped listening as if he was on a volume knob and it was turned down, but he was in fact reading loudly the whole time. It had something to do with Trotsky and Reagan. He finally stopped and nobody in the room would ever get back the 10 minutes he stole from us.
• A rather rotund middle aged white lady got up and read her piece from a tiny notebook. She started talking about drug addiction and nothing rhymed then she just got angry and was shouting “fuck” and “fuck you, motherfucker” and “fuck off, fuckers” or something about fucking everyone. Awful. She sat down.
• A dude got up and he was very energetic and positive. He sang a song a cappella and it literally sounded like a cat caught in a fan belt after the ignition is turned on.
It was my turn.
I told some jokes about Scarlett and heard the sane sound of laughter, and then read lines from my soon to be out book to fan the flames of Words On Fire. After 20 odd minutes wrestling for laughs I opened it up to questions.
A young “poet” asked in a cocky kind of way, “What’s the meaning of life?”
I said, “Scarlett is 10 years old and would probably answer that question better than me.”
She said, “I don’t think anybody knows the answer to that.”
Words On Fire was finally extinguished. There were only a few folks left in the room. One of the members of the writers’ group scraped around in her purse and bought a copy of my book with coins.
I told Scarlett to wait while I talked to someone, despite her being impatient and wanting to go home because her friend had left many poets ago. I headed toward one of the readers and told him how much I liked his stuff. He had read about observing mental patients in a ward for the criminally insane. It was funny and quite imaginative. And I asked the guy, “So what was your job when you worked at the psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane?”
He deadpanned, “Oh, I wasn’t working there, I was incarcerated.”
On the way home I told Scarlett that poets make a lot of money about 1 or 200 years after their death.
Small Press Spotlight: Forest Avenue Press
Today we are talking with Laura Stanfill, of Forest Avenue Press.
TG: Tell us a little about Forest Avenue Press. What do you specialize in?
FAP: Forest Avenue Press publishes literary fiction on a joyride and the occasional memoir. We began in 2012 with an Oregon focus, and while we quickly branched out to consider submissions from all U.S. residents, our catalog still has a strong Northwest feel.
Over the years, our taste has veered more in a magical direction, as evidenced by our November release, Dispatches from Anarres: Tales in Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin, and the forthcoming novel by trans author Neil Cochrane, The Story of the Hundred Promises. That could be in part because our submissions committee, when we’re open, is always searching for unusual stories that only that one specific author could write, and genre-bending manuscripts are often wows for us. A Girl Called Rumi by Ari Honarvar is a recent example of that; it’s literary fiction but there’s a mystical storyteller who conjures whole scenes with his words and wisdom.
We are a fiction press, primarily, but we have published two memoirs: This Particular Happiness by Jackie Shannon Hollis and Wife | Daughter | Self by Beth Kephart. So I suppose, over the years, the mold of what we seek has been broken and rearranged by talented storytellers. Through all of our books, though, there are currents of joy and wonder, and that’s stayed true from the start.
TG: What has surprised you about running a small press?
FAP: While a publishing house is definitely about the books, I find my priority is nurturing the authors who have written those books. It’s an incredibly vulnerable act to put a story into the world, and the industry is complex and confusing. So often I meet writers who have been heartbroken by sales numbers, or not achieving their goals, but then I realize those expectations are based on decades-old beliefs about the industry. One of the most important things I can do, as a publisher, is talk to writers about how the system works so they don’t lose hope or judge themselves against impossible standards. I would never have guessed that. How much need there is for that kind of perspective. How talking about mental health seems to be my life’s work as much or more than publishing books.
TG: Outside of obvious things like limited money and time, what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced operating a small press?
FAP: There are so many challenges in building any business from scratch. Money and time are definitely at the top of the list! Besides those, I’d say setting up systems and timelines has been, and continues to be, a major challenge. I tend to get carried away on each project, focusing on the deadlines and details, at the expense of creating a framework that can be replicated and relied on, book after book. I’ve had the luxury of operating that way, because it’s my business and my brain holds all the data, but I know it’s not sustainable or practical.
TG: Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
FAP: We’re currently open for short stories by disabled writers for a science fiction and fantasy anthology forthcoming in 2023. The call ends March 17. The project editor is Annie Carl, a disabled bookseller and author, who has a beautiful and strong vision for this collection. I’m so excited to see how it comes together. I met Annie a few years ago at the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association tradeshow, and she’s the owner of The Neverending Bookshop. It’s so thrilling to get to work with her as an anthology editor. You can learn more here: https://forestavepress.submittable.com
We are not currently open to novel or memoir submissions.
TG: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Forest Avenue Press? Any upcoming titles you're excited about?
FAP: Forest Ave wouldn’t exist without the key editors, advisors, and contractors who have put their hearts and talents into keeping the press running. I’m especially grateful to our editor at large Liz Prato; graphic designer Gigi Little; my husband, who has done everything from tech fixes to mailing books; our amazing advisory board; and our volunteer readers when we are open for novel manuscripts.
We have two forthcoming titles, in addition to Annie’s anthology, which is in its beginning stages.
The Story of the Hundred Promises by Neil Cochrane is a loose retelling of Beauty and the Beast suffused with queer optimism. I’m obsessed with this novel, forthcoming in October, and I can’t wait to start sharing advance reader copies. They’re being printed right now, which is such a magical time in the life of a new book. Neil’s novel is about to take its first full step into the world as I send it to our sales team, booksellers, and reviewers.
We have our third memoir in the queue after that, The Gresham House by Zaji Cox, slated for spring 2023. It’s a jewel of a book, and I’m so excited about it.
Greatest Misses: Writers on Failure
Mirror Interview by Benjamin Woodard
(After “Jury Duty” by Lydia Davis)
A: Not fiction, necessarily. Some stories take years, but if it’s meant to be, they usually find a home. But definitely one specific nonfiction piece.
A: My great-grandfather on my dad’s side, who died in 1950.
A: He held several positions in my hometown in central Massachusetts. He was the water commissioner, the chief of police. He opened the area’s first garage. Built one of the town’s meeting houses.
A: And he led the local chapter of the Klan.
A: The Ku Klux Klan.
A: You’re not alone in thinking that. The Klan were all over New England in the early 20th century, especially in rural areas like my hometown.
A: Post Birth of a Nation.
A: If you look at small town newspapers from the 1920s, you’ll see mention of meetings and rallies. Lots of controversy, to put it mildly.
A: If not the leader, then one of the heads.
A: Formal documentation of members was never a priority, but a few years ago, I found a news clipping that mentioned my great-grandfather as the person renting a space for a Klan meeting.
A: March of 1925, I think.
A: Oh, let me back up. Because my father still has my great-grandfather’s Klan sword.
A: It was definitely creepy as a kid, knowing it was in our house.
A: There are little symbols on the hilt: a knight’s head, the Klan initials.
A: He told me it was part of our family history.
A: He thought it was better to keep it locked away as a reminder of the horrors that our family took part in than to toss it and have future generations forget.
A: Exactly. It’s easy to gloss over the past when there are no physical records. I’m sure there are people from my hometown who have no idea their great-grandfathers were part of the KKK, too.
A: Right, the failure. The “greatest miss.” Sorry.
A: I’ve tried to write about this sword and my great-grandfather—my shame over the whole thing—at least a half dozen times. And I’m now realizing I lied in my earlier answer, because initially, I went the fiction route with it.
A: A story about sneaking into a house, stealing the sword, and hurling it into the town pond. Super corny premise.
A: Flash fiction. That didn’t work, though, so I shelved it. Maybe a year later, I resurrected the idea, but in this version, my avatar/protagonist gets pulled over after stealing the sword. The cop sees the hilt in the backseat, and he lets the protagonist go because he’s into the whole Klan vibe. Again, super corny. A grab for relevancy.
A: Also, it felt dirty to use this real symbol of hate as a prop in a short story.
A: Yes, eventually, after enough time, I decided it had to be an essay. So, like I mentioned, I dug in and started researching a few years ago. One of the librarians in my hometown helped, too. We sent our finds back and forth. I ended up amassing quite a bit of material.
A: That meeting house my great-grandfather built? Its architecture featured a symbol to let other Klan members know it was a safe haven for them. Wild stuff like that.
A: It is fascinating. Horrible, too.
A: I wish I could tell you.
A: Because who would I be writing this for? Would it be for me? For the people my great-grandfather terrorized and drove out of town? What is the audience for such an essay? I guess I’m not sure.
A: But there’s also that potential cringe factor when a white person writes about this topic, isn’t there? It can feel performative. Anyway, I never found the right foothold on the material.
A: I certainly don’t want to write anything that appears to celebrate him, but maybe part of me is afraid I’ll do so by accident? Q:
A: The story ends badly. My great-grandfather lost everything during the depression. He and my great-grandmother left their kids behind, bought a camper, and drove out to Arizona, where they lived off the land for the last decade plus of my great-grandfather’s life. I don’t think he communicated much with anyone those last years before he died, essentially penniless.
A: Oh, I relish the fact that his final years were horrible. Karma got him, though he deserved a far worse fate.
A: The story is one I’m afraid of fully confronting, if I’m being honest.
A: They aren’t excited. My dad said something about not hurting the family name, though I think he realized how silly that sounded once it came out of his mouth.
A: There’s always a kneejerk reaction to keep a secret in a family, I think. That’s very New England. We keep our shame close to the vest.
A: That could be part of it.
A: When it comes to my fiction, crazy events happen all the time. I don’t care if anyone thinks the stories are weird, or if they then think of me differently. With the truth, though, I don’t know.
A: Sometime. It is currently a failure, my greatest miss, but there may come a day where I can pull it off. At least, I have to believe there will.
A: I can’t be a coward forever, right?
Small Press Spotlight: 11:11 Press
Today we are talking with Megan & Andrew Wilt, of 11:11 Press.
TG: Tell us a little about 11:11 Press. What do you specialize in?
11:11: We publish disruptive literature. That’s to say, anything that pushes the boundaries of what a book can be. We’re interested in new kinds of narratives, hybrid-genre works, formatting & design experimentation, and discovering new possibilities for literature. We want authors to take risks and stay true to their inner selves—to write the book only they know how to write. What fascinates me about art is its ability to alter our perceptions, which changes our consciousness and shifts our perspective. Whether you’re producing or viewing art, it transforms you. After you experience a book, film, song, painting, (etc.), you are no longer as you once were. You become a different person.
TG: What has surprised you about running a small press?
11:11: Writers who believe publishing is a cure-all for everything in their life from mental health to financial stability.
Publishing won’t (and can’t) fix what’s inside of you, but the writing process can. Writing can be difficult, but for many, writing is how they remain sane in our world. The act of writing is like fusing your broken parts back together, and where there is new growth, there is strength. Write with the goal to be honest to your true self, because if you’re writing to be published it can only lead to disappointment.
TG: Outside of obvious things like limited money and time, what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced operating a small press?
11:11: We’re sure some authors would like to know that we also get rejected by gatekeepers on a regular basis. Bookstores, distributors, libraries, events, and media outlets have all told us no many many many many more times than they have told us yes. Our biggest struggle is the same as many writers. It’s Sisyphean. Staying levelheaded when you’re rolling the boulder up the hill during the day and keeping your head up when it falls down in the evening.
TG: Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
11:11: Hanna Guido, an associate editor at 11:11, is editing a new series called Nothing Exists Alone, which is open to fiction manuscripts that explore climate change as a subject or theme. Submissions are open until 3/31/2022. We are hoping to open general submissions this fall. We never charge submission fees. Financial barriers always place some groups at a disadvantage, and we aim to keep our submission process equitable and open. We are here for everyone.
TG: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about 11:11 Press? Any upcoming titles you're excited about?
11:11 Due in part because we don’t charge submission fees, we receive a lot of submissions and end up passing on roughly 99.6% of the work that comes our way. If we don’t accept your work, please keep writing. Your work will eventually find a home, and when it does, share the good news with us so we can celebrate with you!
We’re excited about every book we have coming out this year. This summer, we have an anthology centered on the work of David Cronenberg, edited by Chris Kelso and David Leo Rice; Samuel Robertson’s Illustrated Old Testament; Ali Raz’s novella, ALIEN; and a new book by Evan Isoline called DƐVDMVTH aka DEADMATH.
In addition, we have a lot more coming out this fall. One in particular that we want to highlight is CAMPFIRES OF THE DEAD AND THE LIVING, the collected stories of Peter Christopher. Peter passed away in 2008, and it’s an honor to bring back his only short story collection (CAMPFIRES OF THE DEAD) alongside an unpublished story collection (THE LIVING) in one volume. He has been an inspiration in Andrew’s life, and we hope this collection brings a new audience to his influential work.
And to all our authors, fans, friends, and supporters, thanks for sticking with 11:11. It is only with your support that we are able to continue to publish books that are like nothing else out there.
For a writer, there is perhaps nothing more vital to one’s success, nothing more near and dear to the heart, and nothing that strikes more fear into said heart than reader reviews. Writers love and fear them at the same time, which is what makes them an interesting topic to explore. And explore them, we will—being careful not to belittle or dismiss their creators—in this latest Growlery feature section we’re calling KILLER REVIEWS. Today, author Gary Anderson discusses some of his favorite reviews.
I’ve chosen to highlight two reviews for my dystopian-noir novel, The Gwousz Affair. In order to understand the reviewers' thoughts/objections to the novel, a one-sentence pitch-line will help: The year is 2049, and Bovines, rendered highly intelligent through a process known as development, have taken the reins of power and restored the previously declining USA to its former superpower status through draconian measures like forced vegetarianism enforced by a vastly expanded and empowered state police force. Against this dystopian backdrop is a straightforward murder mystery.
For the first review, it is important to note that the main character is a human PI whose love interest is a developed ewe (for you city folks, that’s a female sheep). There’s the set up, and here’s the review:
Not recommended after a meal. In fact, not recommended at all.
I didn't get very far in this book. Much of the first chapter included sexual innuendo, including mention of relationships between different species. I don't think anyone considers me a prude, but when a human performed cunnilingus on a cow I deleted the book from my Kindle. Apparently the bovines and the swine have taken over the world.
The beginning of the book was off-putting, using many words not in dictionary nor were they explained. I presume the meanings would have become clear as the book progressed.
I guess I'm just a bovine bigot.
I was perhaps inordinately ecstatic about getting this one-star review. The first thing that popped into my head was this: He must have actually read the book (or at least the first part of it) in order to have such a strong reaction to it. And doesn’t every author dream of invoking this kind of emotional response from a reader, be it negative or positive? I do. Admittedly, there is an intended shock factor in the scene he describes in such an irresistibly clinical yet somehow unscientific fashion (“a human performed cunnilingus on a cow”). In my defense, I will only say the scene was not graphic—well, let’s just say it could have been a lot more graphic. And he is certainly welcome to be offended by it.
Another thing I like about this review is that it’s funny. Very funny, I would say, even though the reviewer may not have intended it to be quite so humorous. And the last line is a killer—as funny as it is enigmatic. Let’s just say I chuckled.
The second reviewer I want to discuss did not seem offended and was able to finish the book, although he too found some of the “made-up” terms perplexing. Below is an excerpt from this lengthy (some might even say rambling) review.
not your father's animal farm
you are unlikely to read a story quite like this ... i have not ... i read much ... 182 titles in 2012 ... only 60 so far this year but i should meet my goal of an even hundred and then some. so ... i went into this not really paying attention to the snippet of a description...other than animal farm something ... something else...a detail i've forgotten...some other work or story or two was mentioned so i said yay boy howdy, let's go! cornelius is a broke private dick who couldn't afford furniture for his one room apartment. there's nothing in it. so he gets on this case to solve the big one...murder...of a domestic.
i'm still trying to get my head around the logistics, the mechanics of the bull, the inns...the outs...hmmm. heh! yeah, so i'm reading along, high-lighting words like "bino" ... "bovey" ... "hirc" ... making a note of the wiki description that is just below the page view so i pull that up and wiki is at a lose. no description. no translation...although a word or two suggests korean or other oriental connotations. thought i read something about anderson and korea. nanoo nor-oo sarung-hey.
good read. whud they call this? noir? private investigator ... gumshoe ... a brawd ... or ewe. ewe? black lips. this that the other. cows have taken over and they come from meh. meh, a planet i think, in this new cosmology. there's a couple handfuls of other sci-fi-elementi in this one ... vehicles ... variations on phones, translators ... all coming together in a story that is a hoot. the willing suspension of disbelief had no problem and i ignored the feeling of the voyeur as i read certain parts. out here on the perimeter we live a sheltered life. this was a fun read.
I love the way his thoughts percolate and bubble up onto the page. Honestly, I think is one of the best reviews I’ve read of the book. To call this stream of consciousness would be a disservice to this mind-alter(ing)ed assessment of The Gwousz Affair. I mean, anyone who can slip “yay boy howdy, let’s go” into a review is OK in my books. The (far) aside into his book-reading goals for the year is a nice touch too. But the self-reflexive final line is the cherry on top: “this was a fun read.” A fun read indeed.
What The Hell Am I Thinking?
Writers On Why They Write
A Chronological List
by Theodore Carter
The desire to write is widely acknowledged as a curse. For me, it’s better than not writing. I will do my best to explain how I let things get to this point through a chronological list.
1. Frog and Toad
I learned to read late, and because of that, Frog and Toad was one of the few books at my reading level that matched my emotional maturity. The stories feature rich characters, modernist examinations of self, and sometimes moral ambiguity. I’m still haunted by this line in “A Swim”: “We’re laughing at you, Toad, because you do look funny in your bathing suit.” Complex, jarring, and not at all the accepting, body-positive message you’d expect from a kids book.
2. You Would Not Like To Go Into This House
Dissatisfied with most middle grade fiction, I wrote “You Would Not Like To Go In This House,” a staple and construction paper-bound haunted house tale. My third grade peers liked it and several came to my desk to read it. My teacher, Lew Silvers, told me it was “absolutely great,” and I believed him. I earned a ✓ ++, and it was the first time I remember doing something well at school.
3. John Henry
Mr. Silvers’s classroom had a record player called “the listening station.” In stolen moments, I would put on oversized headphones and play the John Henry story. Like Frog and Toad’s “A Swim,” this story didn’t end easily. The myth says something about humanity in the face of changing technology, racism, and capitalism. Obviously, too much for me to grapple with at nine and still hard today. I think that’s exactly what I loved about it. I’m still a sucker for any John Henry ballad.
This painting by Alice Carter appeared on the Parker Brothers Board game. The original hung in my house growing up.
4. Stories on the Walls
My mom was a freelance illustrator and did a lot of work for Lucas Films and burgeoning Silicon Valley companies. I copied spaceships out of her official Lucas Films reference guide and colored in her discarded pencil sketches of droids. My grandparents, who lived nearby, were artists too. The walls in my house and my grandparent’s house were covered with paintings done by family members and friends. I took it for granted as a kid, but looking back, I think that I was learning how to think in scenes every time I looked at the walls.
Kesey applied the discipline he learned as an athlete to his writing.
5. Bill's Auto Glass
After my first season with the Bill’s Auto Glass little league team, I decided to become a major league baseball player. I stuck with that dream through most of college. Baseball taught me discipline and dedication. I hit a limit with my physical ability, but once baseball ended, I missed the structure I’d had for so long. Writing and sports take a similar kind of grit.
A drawing of Joyce Carol Oates from my grandmother’s sketchbook.
6. Where are you going, where have you been?
In high school, I read Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” and was told to match it with a work of art. Like the main character, I was perched between childhood and adulthood. The terror of the story resonated with me the way literature does when you read it at the perfect time. I matched it with Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” Later, I learned Oates based that story on a Dylan song. This confluence of related art made an indelible mark on me, and I will be forever grateful to Oates for this no matter what she may do on Twitter.
7. A Propensity for Obsession
In her book, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, Sarah Wilson uses the term positive neurotic behavior. She explains that sometimes we can channel obsessive behaviors into positive pursuits. I’ve enacted this through baseball, art projects, and in my writing. I will likely always need a place to put my propensity for obsession.
My partner once said, “I never know what you’re thinking about until ten years later when you put it in a story, and even then I don’t really get it.”
I feel the same way, but creating stories helps me process what I’m feeling. I’m not good at this on a conscious level, but the abstraction, taking fictional characters and creating stressors for them, helps me process my thoughts and feelings. I always emerge from a writing session feeling better than when I went in.
I plan to keep writing until I die. I don’t know what else to do. Relaxing sounds so dull. I don’t know how anyone can stand it.
New Year’s Resolutions for Writers
Before the endless pandemic, I was a member at the Prospect Park YMCA, a gym best known as the place where Bill de Blasio ducked his responsibilities as mayor of New York and occasionally got berated by constituents while sitting crisscross applesauce on a yoga mat.
Every January a crop of new members would descend upon the Y, along with old members who hadn’t shown their faces in ages but had now dug membership cards out of the deepest recesses of their wallets—the new year’s resolution crew. This was the year—and it didn’t matter what year it was—that they were going to lose weight, lower their blood pressure, get swole for beach season. This was their year, damnit! For weeks there would be a long line for the elliptical machines, and if you approached the rack of free weights you would find it as barren as the Chilean desert of Atacama. Near fights would erupt in the lap pool between the swimmers who’d internalized the flow of traffic and the confused, slippery bodies creating bottlenecks. Worse, from an amenities point of view, the supply of towels in the men’s locker room would run perilously low, compelling gentlemen of retirement age to show us exactly how gravity affects the human form in the seventh and eighth decades. The gym rats looked around and despaired at the sight of the newbies, as if they didn't know the disruption would be short-lived. It was always right around now, early February, that the resolution crew disappeared as abruptly as they had arrived, and the Y regained homeostasis.
I’m not going to bother Googling statistics on the success rate of new year’s resolutions. I think I’m on safe ground saying most of them fail. They fail because change is hard, working out sucks, meditation is boring, pizza tastes better than kale, TV has never been better, self-loathing is an old friend, porn is free, gambling is thrilling, smoking is cool, drinking is fun, and self-improvement often collides with forces beyond our control. And yet knowing all this, I’m still not immune to the lure of betterment. Last year I set a modest goal. I was going to write the first draft of a new novel. I know how that sounds but at the time it didn’t seem impossible because I’m already a writer. It wasn’t as if I was taking up a new interest from scratch. I had an idea for a book, so in my mind, it was just a matter of putting the words down. My plan was to work slowly but diligently. January 1st, I got down to business. By December 31st, I had accumulated 9,573 words, roughly thirty pages. I only know this because I opened the Word doc just now to get a count. The last time I’d really spent any time with it was a couple of Covid variants ago. Now, something is better than nothing in the writing game, but still. Coming up short by that much can only be seen one way and it isn’t through the misty eyes of accomplishment.
But it does have me wondering if any of you writers made writing resolutions for the new year. During the darkest part of December, did you think up a big goal for yourself like my dumb novel, or maybe it was to complete three new stories, or five, or ten poems, or submit to more journals, or apply to residencies, or get involved in a writer’s workshop, or attend a conference or readings? Or maybe your resolution was to read more, or read widely in different genres, by authors who don't look like you? If so, how's it going? If writers are like wannabe gym rats, now is the time real-life starts exerting its dominance over whatever willpower we have. Are you sticking with it? Is this your year, damnit? If you've slipped, are you going to get back to it? You should, you know. But if not, don’t start throwing dirt on yourself. You have to take care of yourself, now more than ever. The good thing about writing is that it’s always there. You can start up again whenever you feel like it. Maybe right after another episode of The Righteous Gemstones.
- Aaron Jacobs
Small Press Spotlight: Celebrating the Indie Lit Community, an interview with Jesi Buell
Run Amok Books is excited to take part in this year’s Smol Fair. Today, I spoke with Jesi Buell to find out more the event.
TG: Hi Jesi, you are one of the organizers of Smol Fair. Can you tell us a little bit about what it is and how it came about?
JB: Smol Fair came about because of COVID. I saw someone on Twitter bemoan the cost of participating in virtual book fairs and there not being many options for small presses to promote their works, especially with COVID restrictions. A small team of us got together (several small publishers, a publicist, reviewers, and members of VIDA) and put together Smol as a book fair that is 100% free for publishers to participate in. The general ethos is that, despite our differences, we all love literature and our team at Smol was not going to qualify anyone who wanted to participate. The only thing we ask is that the publisher has at least one book or one issue already published in order to participate.
TG: When is it?
JB: It will happen virtually March 19-26, 2022 - 24/hours a day. The official kick-off is the night of March 18th at 8p EST with our keynote featuring Brian Evenson.
TG: What can people expect at the fair?
JB: There will be discounts from over 175 presses of different genres. Additionally, there will be readings, panels, and other literary events that can be found on our Events page. There are also hundreds of giveaways to lucky winners who follow us on social (https://twitter.com/fairsmol; https://www.instagram.com/smolfair/;
and https://www.facebook.com/smolfair/) or sign up for our mailing list. We gave away tons of books and goodies last year so follow us for a chance to win!
TG: If a small press wants to participate, how can they get involved?
JB: All you have to do is sign up via this form on our website -
https://www.smolfair.com/about. We'll send you more specific information afterwards.
TG: Is there anything else you would like us to know about Smol Fair?
JB: The whole point of this event is to bring together the indie lit community and to celebrate our work. There are ways to enjoy the fair even without spending money. Check out the panels or readings, win a free book, tell your friends - we are trying to make it as barrier-free as possible so please join us and support our community!
Craft Talk Thunderdome
Two writers enter, one writer leaves.
Well...they both leave but not before hashing out the nastiest parts of the writing game.
Today's Topic: Form
Today's Combatant: Hisham Bustani
Hisham is an award winning Jordanian author of five collections of short fiction and poetry. His new collection, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, is available from Mason Jar Press. Much of his work revolves around issues related to social and political change, particularly the dystopian experience of post colonial modernity in the Arab world. His fiction and poetry have been translated into many languages, with English language translations appearing in The Kenyon Review, Black Warrior Review, The Georgia Review, The Poetry Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, World Literature Today, and The Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly.
Okay, It’s Fightin’ Time!
TG: Most writers when they are starting out are taught some version of the conventional narrative arc, where a situation meets increasing tension that builds to a climax and is followed by a resolution, all told in linear time. Beginning, middle, end. What advantages, if any, are there in approaching fiction writing through this model? What disadvantages are there?
HB: I think all those who attempt art should start with the basics, at the beginning. One should master drawing an arm in all its minute details and movements before reaching the stage of condensing that arm into a single line. That condensed line should be the embodiment of vast knowledge, technique, experience, vision, and a personal philosophy of art. These never come at the start of the artistic practice, but develop as one expands their reading, interacts with other arts, with people and society, with the world in general. Therefore, experimentation does not represent a haphazard strike based on, or situated in, a void; it is rather a deliberate choice, a departure based on the knowledge that starts with mastering the basics. It is the trust and confidence that enables one to break, bend, transform and transcend the “rules.” That confidence in trying the unconventional partially develops from grasping the conventional.
However, the basic forms are not to be understood as holy, final, or even “creative.” Artistic writing is not, and should not be, an endless repetition of a standard model. Surely, they make things easier for the reader, no effort is needed, and the reading experience transforms into some sort of entertainment, a relaxing experience at the end of a tiring day. Because of that “advantage,” many big publishers encourage that approach because it sells more, it transforms writing into a mass-consumed commodity, and that is why the novel is the most commercially successful of all literary genres. Generally speaking, it is easier to read and understand, easier to identify with, and is more “entertaining.” But is that art?
In this age of repetition, dullness, and entertainment, art should not succumb to commodification, nor to what the mass consumers or the publishing industry wants. I’d say this is outright censorship. A market-driven censorship that subtly, dangerously, tells the writer what to write, and how to write it.
Another angle to consider is that a classical format with a linear trajectory would be more like taking the readers’ hands and guiding them along an author’s predetermined path. This takes away from the text’s potential to generate multiple layers, different meanings, opening up diverse dimensions in which the reader’s own imagination and creative powers are ignited. It takes away from the creative potential of the text, its’ artistic essence.
One thing I’ve been told repeatedly by the many literary agents who have rejected my books is that my writing is great, but “too literary”. Can there be literary writing that is “too literary”? I doubt it, but I’m sure that there is writing that is not literary!
TG: How can form be played with to enhance the content of a story, or to bring the experience of the writing to a richer place?
HB: There are an infinite number of ways, depending on each writer’s experiences, languages, cultural references, readings, and interactions with the surrounding world in general, and other arts and knowledge in particular.
In my own writing, I found myself influenced by perspectives drawn from chaos theory, quantum physics, and cosmology. This is very evident in my most recent book, just out from Mason Jar Press, The Monotonous Chaos of Existence (translated from the Arabic by maia tabet). Different concepts from those sciences are utilized in developing form, like multiple histories to a single event, convergence of past, present and future, the central role of the observer in a physical event, the uncertainty principle, entropy and the second law of thermodynamics, or the wave-particle duality of matter.
These techniques are not only used in the context of characters, emotions, space, and time, but also in exploring social and political issues. One example is a story from the book, Freefall in a Broken Mirror. In this story, which discusses the pressure society places on male-female gender roles, and the complicated response of individuals to this pressure, the characters splits in half, take opposing sides, all while knowing they are one, one with themselves, and one with their surrounding societal matrix. Another story, "Stardust," delves into the role of oppressive regimes in facilitating exploitation, through different events that pop in and out of existence, like quantum foam, and multiple references including Carl Sagan, the Wachowski Sisters’ The Matrix, and the chilling speech delivered by Jim Jones to his followers as they committed suicide.
As is the case with many other peoples around the world, the modern existence of contemporary Arab societies is loaded with non-linearity. It is heavily influenced by its colonial past, by oppressive regimes dependent on foreign support, ongoing interventionism and settler-colonialism, all complicated by a skeptical look toward the future, and at least one eye still looking back to an imagined, idealized past. I think my writing techniques and the forms I utilize are the dialectical product of all of this, in addition to the arts. A wealth of techniques can be brought into writing if one employs perspectives and methods used in cinema, music, contemporary dance, painting, and photography.
TG: In your own writing, how do you utilize form to either mimic or subvert what it feels like to be a person in, for lack of a better expression, “real life”?
HB: All things are derivatives of the “real,” no matter how abstract they are, no matter how surreal the composition that contains them. This is a limitation all artists and writers have to accept and work with. Whatever we experience, imagine, or use is part of nature, our universe, and its material products and interactions. In the reader’s mind, writing will also provoke meanings, images, feelings, all derived from the “real,” from the “experienced.”
The “real” here means what scientists would call the observable universe. Art is an attempt to subvert the “real,” that is, exploring its many depths, its many expressions, its un-perceived relations and connections, its different layers. This subversion is mainly a contemplation that yields a different set of relations and connections, a different reading to what is familiar, what passes us without being noticed, what we miss as we rush through life for survival. Everyday existence is a focused gaze on what is necessary to survive. That is one sad reality that art stands at odds with.
In The Monotonous Chaos of Existence I use real photographs with real people in them who are used fictionally or semi-fictionally in a story. They become part of the narrative, but are also a strong tool for subverting the real. There’s another side to that: they also subvert fiction and create massive tensions between both the real and the imagined, a tension that the reader can use to establish their own meanings, consequences, histories.
Footnotes are also used towards that objective. The footnotes I use never interrupt the text with reference numbers. A reader will not interrupt their reading to go to a footnote, but finds them standing, waiting, at the end of the text. The reading of the footnotes will almost immediately generate a different meaning of the story. If the reader wants to research things further on their own, the result might be another incarnation for the text.
The person that is me in “real life” (the experiences, the history, the emotions, the senses, the observations, the frustrations, the society and culture I was born in, etc.) utilizes all of its potential to generate subversive forms which embed themselves back into the “real.” Both are in continuum.
TG: One way I like to think about form is by examining the actual shape of the words on the page, dense blocks of sentences, or abrupt paragraph breaks, or large sections of blank space, or the use of multimedia, etc. How does the visual aspect of a piece of writing contribute to the telling of a story?
HB: Visual aspects contribute a lot towards how a literary piece feels during the process of reading. In my book The Perception of Meaning (Syracuse University Press, 2015; tr. Thoraya El-Rayyes) one-sentence pieces take up an entire page, and are located in the middle, so the blank space above and below the text accentuates it, gives it space to breath, and gives the reader room to contemplate. In the same book, some words grow bigger and bigger, other words fade slowly into the whiteness of the page. I tend to see these techniques as performance, they add movement, color, and space into writing.
As for The Monotonous Chaos of Existence, I talked above about the role of incorporating real archival photographs related to characters in stories. Also, I chose to include comic version of one story (Vodka at the Seaside) instead of the actual text. The comic artist gave some aspects of the story visual interpretations that were very creative and innovative, and it was an implementation of my notion (in this instance: the Egyptian comics artist Mahmoud Hafez Eissa) that a reader can co-author a text.
TG: Fiction that deviates or challenges conventional form can emphasize structural pyrotechnics at the cost of emotional resonance. How do you get a reader invested in what lies below the surface area when the presentation is itself so primary to the story?
HB: Many writers and critics talk about subject and form as two distinct realms that interact or coexist and are sometimes in conflict. I see both as one, in a similar way that Einstein’s theory of relativity looks at space and time as the single entangled meshwork of spacetime. In that light, I look at subject/form as a single, organically entwined entity, without which literary writing cannot materialize. If we dropped “form” from the meshwork of subject/form, one will end up with writing, but not literary writing.
The process of literary writing evokes form from the start. We all know that literature is about how one tells a story, rather than what the story is. That’s an affirmation of the centrality of form. The first lines that respond to an internal urge to “write something” will take a certain form, or a non-form: a short story, a poem, a hybrid, a visual formation of words, the possibilities are many. Form is the response of the writer to the preliminary impulse of writing about something, that is, responding to the subject of writing. Without that response, which is a question of form, writing will be superficial, descriptive, and reflective, like a news piece.
Both literary writing and a news piece might, in their own way, tell a story and invoke an emotional response, but deep emotional resonance cannot be achieved without the creativity of form, the “how one tells the story.” News articles bring me short-lasting emotions of shock, repulsion, or admiration, but certain brilliant musical compositions, film scenes, literary writings move me to tears of respect, awe, amazement. They respond to the way a particular detail was executed, how a certain technique was achieved, how a different viewpoint was reached. They leave me in a state of contemplation, wonder, some kind of floating. Art moves a person, not tickles them.
The Monotonous Chaos of Existence is available here.
Greatest Misses: Writers on Failure
An essay by Jen Fitzgerald
On my second visit to Neem Karoli Baba Ashram and Hanuman Temple I scooped chai out of a large, ornate cistern and sat at one of the communal tables as the sun set over Taos Mountain. I sat with an old and dear friend who I rarely got to see, and nervously chattered about all the ridiculous things we knew to be absolutely true. We gave side-eye to the peacocks wandering the property, careful not to directly engage and scare them off.
This may read as a departure for me—if you only know my work. But those who know me well know I have a reverence for all things. It allows my curiosity to run, unencumbered by fear of loss. The reverence extends not just to the animate, but even the nature of the physical objects around me. How else can one approach something to understand it, if not with reverence?
Approaching something, to understand it, with the rational mind is already a severance. You’ve already cut it away, made it separate, other, to inspect it, judge it, and are likely to only deify later. Because that’s what we do with things we can’t understand—we make gods of them, ruminate over them, worship even. Anything to get them out of our minds and into some intangible realm where we can casually observe.
But what does this have to do with failure? Or even writing, for that matter? Everything, I’m afraid—everything to do with the expectations we set for ourselves and each other. If writing is a discovery, then expectations are its death.
As the light outside dimmed, the lights inside came on. More people began to congregate around us and, not caring much for noise or company, she took to me a corner with a small bookshelf to see if there was a copy of Ram Daas’ “How Can I Help?”, which was partially written there during one of his stays at the ashram.
There was a young man already in the corner, reclining and reading. He looked up at us and then all three of us looked up at the ceiling, the recessed light, and the small body banging itself around, hitting the hot halogen bulb, bouncing off, and then reapproaching as though the burn would be different; dazed or in love or lost.
It did not have the arcane beauty and grace of the moth, or any of the lumbering little worshippers of light. This poor beast hadn’t a clue what it was doing and we could tell. The young man divulged that he had tried to catch it before, to release it outside. After some brief conversation and much distraction from the now-occasionally-smoking dragonfly, we decided to make a concerted effort to capture and release it before it did itself irreparable harm.
He grabbed a cup, my friend grabbed a broom, I brought my cupped hands. We danced around the thing, showing it the door, encouraging it toward the door, reasoning with it, explaining its own situation to itself, and eventually pleading. I cannot speak for them, but I vacillated between this is craziness, to we really do need to save this little bugger from frying itself, to are these people really as determined as I am or are they just being nice? Actually, the determination was written, plain as day, on their faces. It’s part of what kept me going—not only their insistence on the preciousness of all life but their willingness to lay it out, so bare, so painfully, yet with ease.
To extend ourselves, in this way, over a tiny dragonfly felt like the kindest, most honest, and most authentic expression of my-self that I’d had the privilege to share with others.
We tripped over one another, not-so-uncomfortably laughing. My friend took the cup, I grabbed the broom—the young man had the dragonfly in his cupped hands, but didn’t move quickly enough to the door, and then, the second time he caught it, didn’t stretch his arms out far enough when releasing it, as it flew right back in. All three of us deflated a bit but were determined that this creature not meet an unkind end. We persisted for forty-five minutes. I do not exaggerate. We spent forty-five individual and collective minutes trying to corral a dragonfly and return it to the night.
Again, I cannot speak for them, but as the writer of this piece, I must. We stayed in this moment simply because we knew the pain of a lightbulb burn, we knew the pain of being trapped inside a space we could not navigate, and we knew the agony of eventually giving up, which we all assumed the creature would do, overnight, while we slept, and simply find a corner in which to die.
What we projected on to it, we saved ourselves from. It was a character: an empty yet animated vessel around which we all danced. At some level, even my two companions fill this role; all characters must. To be so unabashedly in love with all living things is terrifying. We make objects of our subjects, we animate them with our fears, judgments, regrets, joys, and surrender—we let them suffer for us because no other will sit with us, in our pain.
We were not able to “save” the dragonfly, and I seriously wish I could tell you differently. This could be a noble and heroic tale—still yet. We may have gotten nowhere, saved no-thing, learned nothing but that the entire stretch of time in which we vacillated was a sacred space. Even if the grounds had not been sanctified, the forty-five minutes I spent with those two beautiful souls was almost as authentic as I am, with myself, on the page.
The relationship I cultivate with myself, on the page, is a priceless one. It’s where I give space, take questions, answer questions, pause, think, and ruminate, and expand, and try desperately to hold onto something—something that has churned out all the other voices inside of me and waits and listens for the true tone; whatever that may be. Failure does not exist in this space—it is an apparition of the smaller self who hesitated, at first, to write the truth.
In this way, writing heals the relationship with the self; builds courage and fosters a new bond. In this way, writing can heal our relationships with others. When we recognize the pieces of our selves that we project on to them, they lose their two-dimensional quality.
I could look at that night as a failure, but progress is no measure of truth. I could look at every piece rejected, every deadline passed, or every incomplete journey on the page as “a failure.” But if I am honest with myself, what I really want is to see. To see clearly, and plainly, the truth. And I want to walk towards it with as many genuine people I can find. This feels far more important than a byline.
Small Press Spotlight: Mason Jar Press
Today we are talking with Michael B. Tager, of Mason Jar Press
(TG): Tell us a little about Mason Jar Press. What do you specialize in?
(MJP): We are one of those "accidental" presses. Back in grad school, I approached Ian to help me self-publish a chapbook of mine, so that I could have books to sell at an event. He agreed, and put it under his press, which was semi-imaginary at that point. We discovered that we worked well together and after the project was complete, we decided to ask another friend (Matt Falk) if we could publish him, as a test run. When that worked out, we decided to keep running with it and 6 or 7 years later, we have like 30 books. It's been an unexpected journey, which is also kind of the books we publish: books that surprise us and don't seem quite like they should be in our catalog, or maybe anyone's catalog. Which of course means they're exactly right for us.
(TG): What has surprised you about running a small press?
(MJP): How much I love it? I think that's surprised all of us! I came to the conclusion a while back that I'm actually an editor first and a writer second. I get so much enjoyment and fulfillment out of the editing process! And it's just about every step of it; I love helping to form books and pushing along my writers' careers in the small way that I can. I still write of course, but it's very much secondary.
(TG): Outside of obvious things like limited money and time, what is the biggest challenge you've faced running a small press?
(MJP): It's all kind of related, but none of us were trained for this kind of work, so we're all operating in jobs a little bit out of our wheelhouse. I've learned bookkeeping on the fly, Heather has created a PR hub out of nothing, Ian recently taught himself print on demand. There's a ton of stuff like that that's just waiting for us to have the time to do and energy to expend. And it takes a lot of energy to self-teach.
(TG): Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
(MJP): We're always open for cold pitches and the guidelines for that are on the website. We'll be open for Jarnal submissions in March and then open for manuscripts in April. We update our submission guidelines whenever we have something coming up, so stay tuned. We'll also advertise on social media and via email blasts.
(TG): Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Mason Jar Press?
(MJP): We are very nice people and we really really like books!
I Like Things That Are Great
A great little quote and nice sentiment to start the new year.
“I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don't respect the law. I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.”
– Brendan Behan
What The Hell Am I Thinking?
Writers On Why They Write
Trying Not To
by Seth Sawyers
Ideally, I’m not thinking about much at all. When I’m in it, when it’s right there in my fingers, it’s like whipping down a hill on for some reason an old ten-speed and I’m crossing and re-crossing the center line, fluid as a sine curve, no helmet like it’s 1997, long blond hair behind me even though my hair’s not long nor blond. I’m not thinking at all then, only reacting to the curve, all feel. I’m not the first to note the benefits of this place where you don’t think, the place where, as Bernard Malamud said, the idea is to get the pencil moving quickly.
And the only way that I really know how to get the pencil moving quickly is by telling it like it is, like it was, how it looked, sounded, how it felt, how it feels, my fingers just now on the keyboard, the whole thing like magic, like alchemy, turning my feel into your feel. When it’s there, I do a lot of looking up and to the left, to the wall, the ceiling, to nothing in particular. I’m trying to access my time machine. I’m trying to get at what it felt like to hold in my frozen hands an aluminum baseball bat up in the March Appalachian winds. Or it’s the way my brother Jake, when he was alive, would cross his arms at the bar, all the time rocking on the balls of his feet, as he watched the numbers come in on the Keno screen. Or it’s the smell inside St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Cresaptown, Maryland in say 1989, and it’s old-lady thousand-flower perfume and it’s coffee breath and it’s my ankle bones pinched raw in shoes I hate and it’s hard carpet pounded thin by a million feet and though all of that is mine and no one else’s, the magic of it is that by being very specific, it becomes yours. What I’m really doing is that I’m trying to slip a slippery little syrupy spoonful of medicine into your mouth, good for me and, I’m hoping, good for you, too.
I’m talking here about first drafts, maybe the second, anywhere I’m adding that which has blood in it to the white page. Later, tomorrow, next month, when I’ve cooled off, it’s much different. Later, I’m making sure the foundation’s level, the walls are level, the shingles overlap in the right way. All that damned architecture, the great memoirist Abigail Thomas said.
And that damned architecture’s important because of course flying downhill requires a bike, but what really matters, what really really matters, is that flying. I’m trying to get back to flying, because when I’m flying, I’m trying to break your heart. I’m trying to say: here’s how it felt for me. Did it feel like this for you? I’m trying to get you to feel something. It’s possible I’m trying to make you cry. I’m trying to have fun. I want you to have fun, too. I’m trying to worm my way around inside a smoke-filled living room or a batter’s box or maybe even a bedroom in the back corner of an apartment building long torn down. I’m borrowing winter-bare mountains, cow-pasture bonfires, New York subway rides just long enough to get you to stop thinking.
I don’t have that much, really. I’ve got these few feels in the hands, these few heartaches, these few loves, and what I’m trying to do is to get you right there with me. Together, we can do it. I think probably we can.
Craft Talk Thunderdome
Two writers enter, one writer leaves.
Well...they both leave but not before hashing out the nastiest parts of the writing game.
Today's Topic: The Sentence
Today's Combatant: Gene Kwak
Gene has published fiction and nonfiction both in print and online in the The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Wigleaf, Redivider, Hobart, Electric Literature, and in the flash anthology Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. He teaches at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Go Home, Ricky! is his debut novel and was a Rumpus October Book Club Selection, was featured in Vanity Fair magazine and Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, and has garnered starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly and Booklist among others.
Okay, It’s Fightin’ Time!
TG: In her lecture/essay The Sentence is a Lonely Place, Garielle Lutz says, “The sentence is the site of your enterprise with words, the locale where language either comes to a head or does not.” I love Lutz and think that is a great concept—language coming to a head. It means that a single sentence can be a moment of culmination and not just a basic information delivery system. Is that something you strive for in your own writing and, if so, how do you go about achieving it?
GK: A sentence tells us so much. It has the same basic DNA as a story. Beginning, middle, end. And there’s also so much about a position, a way of viewing the world, what the character’s eye is drawn toward that can be unspooled. Also, the sentence can do these acrobatic maneuvers to get you to really pay heed. I remember this Saunders’ story from his first collection where the syntax is just a bit off at this emotionally resonant moment and that odd syntax makes your ears perk up that much more. I don’t know. I go back and forth on this. On one hand, of course, I want the sentences to matter more than as just a unit of utility. But also, matter to whom? How the music sounds to whom? Because to be honest, it doesn’t even make sense that I should give a fuck about the English language. I’m in a place right now where I’m trying to be messier with the sentences. This isn’t even my tongue, so why should I care so much?
TG: Good question! Why should you care? I know that for me, English—and all that comes with it good and bad—is the only thing I’ve got to work with. Can you talk a little more about this ambivalence or hesitancy toward the English language and maybe how it shapes what you put on the page?
GK: Without getting too deep into the weeds, I’ll say this: I was born in the smack-dab middle of the country. I have the word America tattooed across my left arm. I’m a master of English and I have the turd-colored sash and wizard-sleeved robe to prove it. My favorite music is the blues. I’m as American as an American can get. The only way I could get more American is if my name was Evel Knievel. But sometimes you have a face or a name that makes people question whether you can even speak the language that you know better than them. And that kind of relationship to language can be rocky. It can cloud every engagement with possible condescension. It shapes what I put on the page now in that I’m considering more to what degree I should care and whether or not caring is even the right posture. Lots of folks from similar walks start from a position of survival and maybe it’s all right to return to that instinct. There’s a freedom in it.
TG: I think the difference between a good sentence and great sentence can often be subtle, something having to do with the texture of the words in combination. What do you see as some of the markers of a great sentence?
GK: It’s got to have a good rhythm. But also, I like a rhythm that catches you off-guard a little bit. In the same way someone like Thelonious Monk or ODB were putting together their own bounce. But I also just love a sentence that’s a tumble of who someone is. All their influences spilling out and over each other. My favorite sentences also often have this idiomatic grandstanding.
TG: “Idiomatic grandstanding.” I like the sound of that. What do you mean by that?
GK: Being unafraid of showing off who you are as an artist.
TG: Who are some of your favorite sentence writers? What about their work do you find compelling?
GK: Jenny Zhang has these sentences that unfurl in her own ways. They’re sometimes spilling down half the page and then turning on an abrupt phrase. They’re a beautiful, “give zero fucks” posture on language that I think happens sometimes when you have this weird dynamic with English, especially as a kid of immigrants. Catherine Lacey has her own swerve; she’s one of one. Raekwon and Ghostface. Barry Hannah. Sam Lipsyte. Sam is so fucking funny, which is hard to do. You can’t fake funny. Mitchell S. Jackson is one of my favorite current dudes. Just a master of incorporating those Lishian aesthetics of hyper focusing on acoustics but applying those rules to heavy content. Kimberly King Parsons takes those same skills and writes about motherhood and queer love, shit that I only know from a distance, but even at that distance I can’t help but be enamored with the way her sentences sculpt out these vivid ass characters. Hob Broun is a hero. But to be honest, I’m more into early Hob. The pre-Lish stuff. Odditorium is just one long riff. K-Ming Chang is a twenty-something-year-old genius. Her sentences do these weird spills and are often about the body and all its oddities.
TG: Lutz also says that “Such a fixation on the individual sentence might threaten the enclosive forces of the larger structure in which the sentences reside.” How do you balance the desire to write compelling prose with the other, sometimes conflicting, needs of a story?
GK: Like I said, it all depends on intent and balance. I love Garielle Lutz’s work, but in a way her characters feel more like coils of language than they do flesh and blood humans. And that works for her. I try to write people that feel like what Barry Hannah called “living tissue” but also focus on how those living people are amalgams of all the language that has passed through them: the slang, the junk, shop talk, second languages, prayers, one a.m. utterances, all of it. We’re all weirdos muttering under our breath. I think when it comes to the other elements of story, they don’t have to be in conflict. I think it’s natural to write compelling prose if the other elements also have that electricity. Are the people compelling or are they a bunch of Greg’s? Does it take place in compelling environs? Are the circumstances engaging? Then of course the prose will follow that zig.
Go Home, Ricky! is available at Bookshop.org
Small Press Spotlight: Malarkey Books
Today we are talking with Alan Good, of Malarkey Books
Tell us a little about Malarkey Books. What do you specialize in?
I don't know that we specialize in any one thing. My primary interest is in fiction, but one of the first books we published was The Life of the Party Is Harder to Find Until You're the Last One Around, which is a collection of poems by Adrian Sobol. That project sort of fell in my lap and I ended up really loving it. I guess you could make the case that we specialize in longer short stories. We have this litmag we make called King Ludd's Rag. I print it at home. There are two stories per issue and the minimum word count is 4,000 words. Most places seem to want short stuff, which makes a sort of cold, logical sense, but I want long stories. We pay $50 per story and sales from each issue fund the next one. It's been successful enough that I'm putting together the eighth issue right now. So really if we specialize in anything it's paying for writing, without relying on online writing courses, submission fees, paid feedback, and all that. It's just books/zines sales, and sometimes digging into our own pockets.
What has surprised you about running a small press?
The most surprising element to running a small press, for me, is how little difference there is between us and the big presses. The difference all comes down to money. They're not publishing better books than we are, they just have more money, which gives them more legitimacy.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced running a small press?
My biggest challenge is just time. I've got two kids and my wife and I are building a house and I have my own books to publish and promote. But it looks like we'll get the kids back in school after the holidays so I'll have some more time to work on books.
Are you open for submissions? If so, how can writers contact you?
We are open in a few different categories. All our publishing opportunities can be found on Oleada, which is an alternative to Submittable we started using last year. Highly recommend.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know about Malarkey Books?
Anything else I want readers to know about Malarkey? Just that for $20 a month, in 2022 we'll send you a new book every month, shipping included, and it comes with a free subscription to King Ludd's Rag. Novels by Itoro Bassey, Alex Miller, Joey Hedger, a story collection by Eric Williams, essay collection by Susan Triemert, an anthology of crypto-creature fiction, that's just a taste. It's the best deal in literature.
Welcome to The Growlery
On a fall Friday in 1984, as he was overdue to meet his friend Ed Devney for a late lunch in midtown Manhattan, my grandfather was waylaid by a desperate man. The man came to desperation in a time-honored way—he was flat broke. His grievance with life went beyond bad timing and bad luck. As he told it, a callous god had succeeded in stopping him from catching a break. But he was not without hope nor was he begging. This was still Morning in America and the man was a capitalist.
He produced a slim envelope with this printed on it:
Qualified Estate Appraiser
Rare Coins Bought and Sold
Donald E. Brigandi Co. Inc.
The man didn’t claim to be Brigandi and it was unclear how he came to possess the envelope, which held seven coins in a plastic case, allegedly acquired by the real Brigandi at the Harry Rosen Auction House, in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he appeared knowledgeable on the topic of collectible currency or was faking it confidently. He said their dealer’s value was $900.00 but retailing them would bring double that. There was some more vagueness for why he couldn’t unload them through traditional channels himself. Bottom line: Today only, he was taking cash bids, no checks allowed.
At the time I had a budding interest in coin collecting, though it’s possible I just liked saying the word numismatics in an annoying voice. In my bedroom I arranged on a bookshelf cardboard albums in which you organized buffalo nickels and wheatback pennies. My grandfather understood the contents of the envelope were likely stolen or bogus or both, but he got a kick out of the man’s spiel and bought the coins for twenty-five dollars. The way he saw it was that if they were real, it was a nice gift for me. If they were counterfeit, that was fine too. Then his encounter became a useful caveat about being hustled.
What does any of this have to do with a new blog about writers and writing? Probably nothing. By the way, thank you for stopping by The Growlery. I borrowed the name from Dickens. It means a place to retreat to when you are feeling out of sorts. We are going to update this page, hopefully not infrequently, with essays and interviews and other features that might be of interest to people who are interested in the writing game.
The thing is I still have the coins, the envelope patched with Scotch tape where it disintegrated over time, and I have made no attempt to see if they are worth anything. The story is just too good. Finding out if the coins are the genuine article or a fraud might gratify some desire for resolution, but what could I gain from the truth that is more important than the ambiguity? The details of the story would have no more room to stretch out in the shadowy middle ground but instead wind up tethered immobile to reality. I like to picture my grandfather, buoyant in the afterglow of his transaction, the envelope in his inside jacket pocket tucked against his ribs, as he finally made his way to the restaurant to have a bite to eat and a few drinks with his pal Ed. Did he talk about the crazy thing that just happened to him out on the street, or did he say nothing about the coins and nurse his little secret while they talked about cars or fishing? I like the idea of what New York City must have felt like in the fall thirty-seven years ago, where a desperate man cajoled an old man on the sidewalk into giving him the break god never did.
To me, if those coins have a value, it’s in the story of how my grandfather acquired them. Their provenance is irrelevant. I love the story over the truth. Or maybe the story itself is the truth. And maybe that’s what all this has to do with a writing blog, after all. If you’re the kind of person who also prizes the story over the truth, or who isn’t interested in locating the difference, then you might like what we post here.
- Aaron Jacobs