Arse Poetica (Or, A Shitty Metaphor)

March 12, 2018 § 9 Comments

zz brandeisBy Gayle Brandeis

When I was a freshman at the University of Redlands, I took a seminar called “Construction and Deconstruction of the Self.”  The professor, Kevin O’Neill, was always asking provocative questions—how would life be different if we procreated with our hands?  What if our backs were our sex organs—how would clothing and furniture change?  What would we do if we woke up in a differently gendered body?  One morning, he asked us whether we look in the toilet after we poop.  Only one person in the class said no, claiming he had evolved to a more spiritual plane.  Kevin didn’t believe him.

“We ALL look in the toilet after we poop,” he said, “because it’s something we created.  Our bodies want to see what they have created.”

I like birth as a metaphor for the creative process, but it’s a bit of a cliché, plus it’s not accessible to everybody (make that every body). I can see how another bodily function could be an apt metaphor, too, one we all share. You may have heard of the children’s book Everyone Poops? It’s true, we do.

Think about it.  The creative process is a lot like the digestive process.  We take life into our bodies.  We let it travel through us.  We absorb what we can.  We express those things that need to come out.

Bear with me here.

Sometimes poems and stories come out in a messy, smelly, gush. Sometimes we are surprised by their colors, by the kernels of life embedded inside. Sometimes we strain and strain and all that comes out is a little pebble of language, maybe nothing at all.  Sometimes a piece of writing slides from our bodies and we feel cleansed and light.

Does this make you uncomfortable?

Shit does make people uncomfortable.

I amicably parted ways with my former agent, a woman I really like and respect, after she wanted me to remove any reference to Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, from my memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis. While the memoir is centered around my mom’s suicide, it also explores my own complicated history with illness; this aspect of the story gets to the heart of my relationship with my mom unlike anything else, but my former agent was concerned the bodily chaos in the book would make people uneasy; it made her uneasy. I was similarly taken aback when, before my book was released, I read this passage in an essay about medical memoir:  “…inflammatory bowel disease, which threatens life as well as its sufferer’s sense of self and sexuality, has never found its way into a great memoir. It seems unlikely that no worthy writer has had these diagnoses. Maybe some conditions just aren’t inherently memoir-worthy.”

I can’t say whether my memoir is “great”, but I steadfastly believe we shouldn’t declare any material from our lives unworthy of memoir—we should be able to talk and write freely about every aspect of the human experience, even the most disagreeable, shitty, ones. If we don’t, we perpetuate silence and shame.

After I had surgery to remove a length of diseased small intestine, I devoured books by authors with Crohn’s disease— Meaty by Samantha Irby and The Man Who Couldnt Eat by Jon Reiner, which both mine our shared illness for great comic and dramatic value, as well as Matthew Siegel’s poetry collection, Blood Work, and Chris Kraus’ autobiographical novel, I Love Dick, which address the authors’ Crohn’s experience with tremendous honesty and craft. These books made me feel less alone; they helped give me courage to take that part of my own story out of the shadows.

Let us embrace all parts of our lives in our work, including the parts that are uncomfortable and gross, the parts we’re told to not discuss in polite company. Polite is overrated. Polite keeps us from our truth. Let us write words that still steam from the heat of our body. Let our lives become rich, dark, fertilizer; let us see what grows from the dirt.


Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. Her other books include the poetry collection, The Selfless Bliss of the Body, the craft book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, and the novels My Life with the Lincolns, Delta Girls, Self Storage, and The Book of Dead Birds, which won the Bellwether Prize of Fiction of Social Engagement. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.

A Review of Bill Hayes’ Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me

March 9, 2018 § 3 Comments

HAYESBy Jodie Noel Vinson

One mid-winter day, as I am walking around a frozen lake with my husband, a lifelong insomniac, we spot a muskrat. The small mammal is glassy-eyed and shuddering in deep snow with his pathetic hairless tail looped over bare toes.

He should be sleeping in a cozy burrow, but like some misguided groundhog he’s awake, looking for spring. As we stand there pitying the muskrat, I am aware that my husband’s empathy is greater than mine, stretching out beyond what I feel, like some force field of warmth and compassion beaming its way across the snow bank to the blinking creature. My husband’s years of isolated nights, I realize, have brought this confused rodent as close as kin.

I’ve seen this cross-species empathy before. And I wonder if insomniacs, nature’s enemy, always side with the underdogs who find themselves in hopeless situations, battling the relentless cycles and seasons of life, those that won’t conform to their bodies’ habits and needs, to which their bodies, in turn, refuse to succumb.

When he moves to New York City at the start of his book Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, Bill Hayes immediately recognizes his insomniac self in the “haggard buildings and bloodshot skies, in trains that never stopped running like my racing mind at night.” His unique empathy extends not only to the city as an abstract concept, but reaches the individuals who inhabit its streets, especially at night.

Hayes’ forays into the city are almost always rewarded with a smile, a nod, a conversation, or even an invitation. Just as the empathy of the insomniac springs from a sense of isolation, perhaps empathy for the outsider on the streets of New York is born out of the fact that many drawn to that city feel themselves to be one. Hayes describes leaving his restless bed and strolling through a park, surprised to find other insomniacs inhabiting benches as if they were armchairs, reading books beneath street lamps. Here Hayes finds an affinity with his fellow nocturnal wanderers, the balm of companionship taking the edge off insomnia’s acute isolation.

Hayes moved to the city after losing his partner, Steve, who passed away suddenly after going into cardiac arrest one night in their San Francisco apartment. At the time of the incident, Hayes had sank into a rare deep sleep—a chilling irony that haunts him through the wakeful nights that follow Steve’s death. But this isolation is also what draws, or drives, Hayes into deep intimacy with New York City and its residents, relationships he establishes through his camera lens. “Can I take your picture?” is a constant refrain in Hayes’ book, and the resulting photographs stare up from the page, each an open invitation for connection.

Eventually Hayes forges a relationship with a fellow insomniac, the neurologist Oliver Sacks. The book becomes a tender remembrance of a great genius who learned to fall in love for the first time at the age of seventy-five. Hayes records his memorable interactions with Sacks in the form of journal excerpts interwoven with conversations with the strangers he meets in the city’s subways and streets.

Through Hayes’ lens, Sacks is a charming, musing intellect, whose fascination with the mysteries of the brain and the natural world are trumped only by the wonder he feels as he learns to share his joy with Hayes. “Billy! Shouldn’t one be on the roof? The sun is setting!” Sacks cries over the phone at one point, precluding any greeting. “Yes, one should!” Hayes replies, and Sacks rejoins: “I will meet you there!”

Sacks’ everyday reflections, as recorded by Hayes, serve to ground the younger author’s constant search for connection in the larger questions of life’s meaning, especially as Sacks begins to face death after his liver cancer diagnosis. “I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life,” he bravely remarks to Hayes.

Sacks’ question, “How much can one enter, I wonder, another’s insides—see through their eyes, feel through their feelings? And, does one really want to…?” is answered in Hayes’ relentless empathy for strangers, and through the story of his deepening relationship with Sacks. Hayes affectionately depicts Sacks gradually learning to share his life, from lap swims to salmon, music to marijuana (the neurologist enjoys describing his vivid hallucinations whenever the two share a joint).

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?” Sacks asks Hayes as their intimacy builds, and the reader can easily imagine the two insomniacs living happily together in the village Gabriel Garcia Marquez describes in chapter three of One Hundred Years of Solitude—a village plagued with communal insomnia.

Of course, the joy of infectious insomnia is that, unlike real insomnia, the inflicted are not alone. In the magical realism of Garcia Marquez’s novel, the village inhabitants walk around dreaming in a state of “hallucinated lucidity.” Not only do they see images from their subconscious come to life in their wakeful state, some, we are told, can see the images dreamed by others

While Insomniac City is inevitably book-ended by the ultimate isolation–death–the reader does not feel Hayes is alone at the end of his book. It is too easy to imagine that, after many wakeful nights without Sacks, who passed away in August 2015, the author will eventually drift off to sleep. And that, just as he begins to dream, he will hear a familiar voice crying, “I will meet you there!”

Neither does the reader feel alone while reading this book. My copy of Insomniac City was procured from my local branch of the public library. On page 65, overlaying one of Hayes’ black and white photos captioned “Just out of jail,” in which a lanky African American man looks back with relief and wonder in his eyes, a previous reader left a flower, its yellow petals pressed delicately between pages. This small offering from a stranger felt entirely fitting in this book, itself a gift to the lonely wakeful world.

Jodie Noel Vinson received her MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College, where she developed a book about her literary travels. Her essays and reviews have been published in PloughsharesCreative NonfictionGettysburg Review, Massachusetts ReviewPleiades, Nowhere Magazine, RumpusRain Taxi, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among other placesJodie lives with her husband in Seattle, where she is writing a book about insomnia.

A Review of Natalie Singer’s California Calling

March 8, 2018 § 2 Comments

416snBBQdtL._SX304_BO1,204,203,200_By Rebecca Fish Ewan

When I volunteered to write a review of Natalie Singer’s debut book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, I had one fear. What if I feel like the sad local girl California dumped in favor of this smarter, prettier, Canadian import? I wanted to be bigger than this. Sure, I did, but I still marked my territory by noting, in the email to her publisher, I’m fifth generation Californian.

Then the advance review copy arrived.

I’m supposed to be shopping for gifts, but instead I’m holding this gorgeous book in my hands, devouring the micro essays that stitch together a story of a young woman falling in love with my home state.

Wow, she’s brilliant, I think as I turn another page.

So, let’s consider the plot line: She pulls a book off a library shelf. She dreams of California. She has parents. Divorce. She moves to the Bay Area. Goes to college. Has boyfriends. Sometimes they go on hikes or sail. She’s a nanny for a while. Writes for newspapers. There are lizards. The radio plays.

This is the story, but it’s also not the story. California Calling is the longing to belong. It’s the struggle to feel real in a place famous for its fictions. It’s the sting of otherness. Jewishness. Loneliness. How to make people feel welcome. Or not.

I read memoirs to feel connection, to see how other writers navigate between their changing identities. I want to simultaneously occupy the author’s recalled world while inhabiting the geography of my own memories. California Calling gives me all this and much more.

I love the book’s craft, how its hybrid form brought me the story in bits. Reading each tiny chapter, I sensed how Singer stalked stories. I felt brought along to serve as witness. Some chapters are factual nuggets about Yosemite rock falls, desert pup fish or the phallic Coit Tower. (It’s a fire nozzle! I hear my firefighter spouse holler from another room.) Point of view shifts throughout. I peek over Singer’s shoulder at Her-Then. Or she turns to face me, and I become You. Other times, the You becomes an ex-boyfriend. Or she sits with me on a cozy couch handing me aphorisms like See’s Candies: “Silence is a disappearance…Interrogation is a taking possession of one’s being…your loneliness finds corroboration in nature…one of the most valuable responses to trauma is testimony.” Space contracts and expands, from discomforting intimacy (really, Natalie, this boat privy is too small for both of us while you masturbate) to a remote aerial perspective above pine forests as we look for the spot where a girl once crossed over into California. As an infrequent quilter, I admire the deftness with which Singer threads together the pieces, some just a single sentence—“I wanted to be reconstituted”—to create a cohesive picture of a woman becoming Californian.

The book is packed with delicious language, and I lost count of how many times I read simply to savor a sentence’s flavorful landscape. Long ago, I went camping in Arizona with another teacher and two carloads of teenagers. Not a mom yet but more maternal than the guy, I suggested we feed the kids after a full day of hiking around Wupatki ruins. “Who needs food?” he said, sniffing the wind that blew across the red rock terrain. “You can eat the air.” I ate the air on every page of California Calling, delightfully familiar California coastal-fog-saturated salt air. My iodine levels rose reading this book.

I love California Calling for all its references, from Rocky Horror Picture Show to Bella in Twilight to Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain. They felt like safe invitations into a woman’s busy mind, a woman who built a life from her ability to connect rather than disassemble—a mind occupied with assimilation, immigration, and belonging.

I rarely read books twice. There are just too many books on earth and I’m a slow reader. With California Calling, I want to do the thing my daughter does with television shows she loves. She binge-watches every season and the moment she comes to the end, she starts from the beginning again. Like chain smoking stories, I need to finish up my gift list, maybe shower and change my clothes. Then I’ll light the beginning of this book with the hot ember of its ending. As Singer writes: “If our childhood truths were really fictions, to begin again all we must do to grow up is make more space for myth.” So, what’s this book about? Beginning again.

Rebecca Fish Ewan, founder of Plankton Press (where small is big enough), creates Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines. She has degrees in math, landscape architecture, and creative writing and is a writer/poet/cartoonist. She teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University and lives with her family in Tempe. Her work has appeared in Bikequity, Brevity, Femme Fotale, Hip Mama, Mutha, Punctuate, Survivor Zine, and Under the Gum Tree. She has two creative nonfiction books: A Land Between, an ecocultural history of the Owens Valley, and By the Forces of Gravity, a forthcoming memoir of cartoons and verse (Books by Hippocampus, June 2018).

Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

March 7, 2018 § 11 Comments

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my memoir, so I started to study—along with novels and short stories—the memoirs I loved to figure out what techniques other memoirists had used.

I came up with this list as a starting-off point:

  • Physical description. This can include any relevant personal detail such as clothes (pink sunhat, red mittens), physical features (chipped tooth, big ears), gestures, how someone moves or walks (loping, limping), how someone sounds (when she/he sleeps, walks, talks, laughs, has sex), tics, facial expressions. Think unusual, specific, different.
  • Comparison/contrast. It’s especially helpful to use this when you have two main characters. Ann Patchett does this particularly well in her memoir, Truth & Beauty, by comparing herself to and contrasting herself with her friend Lucy Grealy. You can compare/contrast two characters’ physical selves, behavior, decisions, careers, personalities, habits, lifestyles, values, morals, beliefs, upbringing, families/backgrounds, language, types of partners each chooses, motivations, goals, the list is endless.
  • Obsessions and special possessions. Think about something a character collects or loves, an object she/he prizes or has special meaning, and/or something the character spends a great deal of time focusing on, hobbies, talents.
  • Quirks and pet peeves. In my memoir, I wrote about a character’s pet peeve when people slouched, which led to mentioning that character’s own strict, straight posture.
  • Everyday possessions. What does your character carry in a wallet or purse, a gym bag, the glove compartment, the car trunk? What objects does this person keep in a dresser drawer, or any drawer or closet? What is the character’s home/personal environment like? What is unique about it?
  • Documents/letters. Do you have documents related to your character? This could be business, real estate or any kind of legal documents, medical records, police or court records. What about letters? Perhaps business letters, but what about personal letters? Letters written by a character do a great job of revealing how the character thinks, the relationship between that character and another person, and in part what the character’s “voice” is like. What about calendars, diaries, journals, notes/articles/papers/books written by a character?
  • Speech/dialogue. Does your character have an accent? A favorite saying? Use slang or curse words? Have common phrases? Think about patterns of speech, diction, memorable comments the character made, stories the character likes to tell. Are there scenes you remember that show a conversation between two characters when there was something important at stake? What was not being said? How and when does/did this character use silence?
  • Photographs. Think about what the photo reveals, as well as what is absent from the frame.
  • Background. Consider someone’s family of origin, family size, religious upbringing, religion as an adult, culture of the character’s youth, socioeconomic level, education, political leaning, home state and city/town and how these might have influenced the person.
  • Major life events. What major events have happened in this person’s life that shaped the character? This could be anything from what was happening in the world (war, cultural shifts, political movements) to something happening in the character’s personal life (examples: death, marriage, divorce, job loss, arrest, assault, falling in love, heartbreak, mental health issues, sickness, recovery, addiction, graduation, pregnancy, birth, separation, grief, finding one’s calling).

This list is of course just the beginning. If you need some memoirs to study, I recommend these from my shelf of favorites: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking; Ann Patchett’s Truth & Beauty; Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling; and Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping.

Most importantly, keep paying attention, and keep writing.

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of the memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017) and a forthcoming poetry and prose chapbook, None of Them Home (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2018). She has an MFA from Queens University, and her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Zone 3Fiction Southeast, Cider Press Review, and The Louisville Review, among others. Her website is           

What I Learn From Submittable

March 2, 2018 § 15 Comments

zz priddyBy Jan Priddy

The old process of literary submission by printing cover letters and essays, addressing large envelopes and SASEs, driving to the Post Office, and paying postage, is going, going, gone.

Most journals now accept submissions through an online portal such as Submittable. It is an efficient system for both writer and journal. Online, I enter my name, address, and email, paste a brief cover letter into the space provided, attach my text as a doc or pdf, pay a small fee, and click SUBMIT.

My essay shows up on my record at Submittable as “Received” in my “Active” folder. When someone at the literary journal opens my attachment, the listing indicates it is “In Progress” until a decision is made. I cannot tell if anyone is actively reading it, but finally, without me doing another thing, my submission moves either to my “Accepted” folder or the “Declined” folder. A few days or a few months from click, I receive an email announcing acceptance or rejection.

Alaska Quarterly, a late holdout for paper submission, experimented with Submittable last year. It recently posted on its website: “The volume of submissions was 3 times more than we expected, however. In response we are now in the process of building additional editorial capacity to review on-line submissions beginning in the fall of 2019.”

This morning when I checked Submittable, a submission from five months ago was still merely Received. A few minutes later, the form rejection email arrived, and Submittable had moved it from the Active to the Declined folder. My document was opened, read, and rejected in minutes. Okay. Fair enough.

Editors are mostly unpaid, and readers are never paid. They are entitled to make snap judgements, just as general readers do.

One acceptance arrived six months after I’d given up, another suggested where else I might send that particular manuscript. That is rare. Nearly all responses are rejections, and nearly all rejections are mere form.

The convenience of online submissions allows limited insight to editorial process. Another website that I use to track all my submissions in one place, Duotrope, reveals more. Duotrope tracks statistics of submissions, rejections, and acceptances for my essays, as well as overall statistics for each of thousands of journals based on hundreds of thousands of submissions.

A few journals respond in days, but most routinely need months. Some journals are clear about their process, others are more secretive. Submissions to Calyx, for example, pass through a series of readers in a vetting process that is made fairly transparent on their website. When Howard Junker was editor of ZYZZYVA, responses used to arrive by return mail, but now Duotrope lists the journal as “among the slowest” to respond with no online submissions accepted. Editors change and policies and tastes with them.

According to my Submittable record, Hippocampus opened my essay within days of submission, but Duotrope’s statistics suggest I will not have a decision for another a month. Perhaps longer. Editors receive more submissions than they anticipate, student readers are between terms, or someone needs more time to decide.

I have doubts about all this helping me negotiate the aspect of writing that is least comfortable to me: submission.

I should be years past hanging on every query. Except I am not.

I hang on every one. Most days I check Submittable and Duotrope more than once. My personal records on Duotrope list 610 submissions since August 2006, and an acceptance rate of 6.9%. A note on my stats page assures me this is “higher than the average for members who have submitted to the same markets.”

I want to do better. Of course I do. And I know this is all a waste of time, this checking and rechecking, but I cannot help myself.

Just now one of my stories is short-listed by such a journal with a .25% acceptance rate on Duotrope—one story accepted of the four hundred submitted in the past year. A couple of weeks ago there were over a hundred stories pending, this week my story is one of twelve still under consideration. I dread seeing their email in my in-box. Acceptance or rejection? I write this while there is hope.

I said to my husband over breakfast this morning: The day is bright.

Jan Priddy’s work has earned fellowships, awards, and publication. Aside from nonfiction, her last project is a novel about recovery from grief, and her current work is science fiction short stories. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, She lives and teaches writing in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon. Her new blog is

On Losing My Ability to Read and Write

February 28, 2018 § 26 Comments

27990335_10155488201457496_1176715735_oBy Rae Pagliarulo

Right around my birthday this past January, as I was on my way to a friend’s house carrying a pizza for dinner, I slipped on a sheet of ice, flew into the air, and landed on my head. My first thought was not about the excruciating pain I was in. Nor was it about the pizza that was lying next to me, upside down and probably oozing cheese everywhere. My first thought was, “Please don’t let me have a concussion. I cannot lose my ability to read or write. I can’t.”

A day of willful ignorance later, I went to the doctor. While I didn’t have any apparent physical or neurological damage (a fact that I will be grateful for until the end of time), I did have a shaky, scrambled, and definitely concussed brain that needed tons of rest in order to heal. I gulped as my doctor ticked off all the things I wouldn’t be able to do for the next one to two weeks.

No listening to music (except for soothing meditation music with no beat and no excitement). No television or movies. No podcasts. No going outside. No figuring things out. No knitting. No cooking (unless it was something insultingly easy, like heating up soup from a can). And finally – no reading, and no writing.

The thing I had dreaded was suddenly a reality, and I realized that if I wanted any chance of returning to my state of near-constant mental processing and multitasking, I had to take these instructions very seriously. After all, I make my living as a writer and an editor. My ability to write well is, without question, what I am proudest of. If I couldn’t get my brain back to normal, what would that mean for my life? What would it mean for my identity?

It became painfully clear one day into my “black-out” that my writing life was not only the most important thing to me – it was also something that elicited the darkest, most negative thinking about myself I could imagine. With a quiet house and only my rattled, loopy brain to keep me company, I came face to face with awful thoughts about myself – ones I had previously been able to keep at bay thanks to Netflix binges or happy hours.

This darkness I was facing started to feel like another person in the room whose sole purpose was to remind me of all the ways I was failing. Now that I was expressly prohibited to read or write, I realized how much I missed it, and grew painfully aware of how short I had fallen of my own expectations.

You take all your writing friends for granted. When’s the last time you gave them really good comments on a piece they were working on? When’s the last time you sent them something halfway decent?

You’ll never finish another manuscript. You could only write your MFA thesis because you had someone breathing down your neck the whole time.

All you do is talk about your relationship with your father. Don’t you have anything original to say? Doesn’t anything else interest you?

You only care about sharing things you’ve had published on Facebook so you can get likes. You’re so hungry for validation. Strong people don’t need that. But you do.

You act like you’ve got all the time in the world to write and create things. You waste all this time watching movies and screwing around. Why can’t you work with a little urgency? Don’t you know time is running out?

I started to find myself stuck in a negativity loop all day long. I couldn’t write to convince myself that I was good writer. I couldn’t read to get inspired by other people’s excellent writing. I couldn’t even dictate a halfway-coherent narrative using my voice-to-text app because I kept getting tired and confused. The only weapon that could defeat my darkness was something the Buddhists call maitri – loving kindness towards oneself. And it became clear as the week wore on that I was in desperately short supply.

I wish that I could say that before I recovered from my concussion, I was able to tap into this well of kindness and silence the dark other-person who was hell-bent on convincing me to give up writing for good. But I can’t. Peace only came when I was finally able to read half a page in a book, and I cried from happiness. It came when I slowly wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to do once I was better, and then called my mother and breathlessly read it to her like a manifesto. Once I was able to process language again without severe headaches, and an unpleasant fuzzy sensation that made my eyes heavy and my reflexes molasses-slow, the darkness got lighter. Slowly but surely, I was useful again. I was thinking again. I was myself again.

Now that, a few months after the fall, my symptoms are nearly gone, I’m thinking about how to use that period of darkness to learn something. Sure, being intensely mean to myself probably wasn’t productive (and I’m betting it didn’t help the healing process either), but I can’t deny that there was a kernel of truth in each of those vicious accusations.

Having a full and meaningful writing life – and being proud of my identity as a writer – does mean sacrificing time and energy for my writing partners, so I can give them thoughtful feedback, and so I can reasonably expect the same from them when I need it. It means motivating and pushing myself because I don’t have teachers and classmates keeping me accountable. It means writing about all of the connections that exist in my world, even when they stray from the topic that tends to serve as my identifying narrative. It means doing the work without worrying when I will share another by-line. And yes, it means doing it every day, and doing it while I can, because whether I get hit by a bus or just fall on another sheet of ice and find myself fuzzy-brained and useless once again, time is, quite literally, running out. All the more reason to get to work – and hopefully practice a little maitri while I’m at it.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.



Things to Do While Waiting for Literary Agents and Editors to Read Your Manuscript

February 26, 2018 § 8 Comments

zz-goudarziBy Sara Goudarzi

  • Support other writers. Go to Jenny’s book launch. Instead of listening to her read, think about how the big five will outbid one another at auction for your debut novel. Make sure to thank Reese Witherspoon for turning it into an HBO mini-series at your launch.
  • Paint an accent wall to distract from the gnawing doubt in your gut. Did you know green enhances creativity? That should help you start a second novel. Carve your new work in tiny letters on the wet wall with the tip of a mechanical pencil. Pull your couch against the wall and place a chair on it. Steady yourself on the chair and write. Write like no one is watching. No one is watching. Creativity is a balancing act.
  • Watch the paint on your accent wall dry. Fall asleep while doing this. When you wake up, look around frantically. Who drew those seven penguins on the wall? It’s a sign: Penguin Random House it is. Kiss each of the penguins for good measure.
  • Detach yourself from the outcome. Stop fixating on rejections and learn to be more Zen. Gin is a sure way to help you agoniZe less ABOUT what’s not in your controLlllll. Stock up. Or is it stick up? You can’t tell, but that sure is making you laugh uncontrollably.
  • Resist the urge to turn up unannounced at agents’ offices. Limit yourself to Instagram and Twitter stalking. Physically showing up is a bad idea. Unless you wear a hat. Hats are good. And big sunglasses. Always stand behind a tree. But don’t pee. Never pee on a tree outside an agent or editor’s workplace and never let the intern see you on his way back from grabbing coffee. If your eyes meet, smile at him but pull your pants up first.
  • Ask wall penguins about aggravated stalking jail time and criminal trespassing. If they can’t help you, browse the Internet.
  • Use Jenny’s paperback launch to introduce yourself to the industry pros. While Jenny is reading yell: “Book. Book. Mine.” When everyone turns around to look at you, point at the elderly woman sitting next to you and shake your head in dismay.
  • Write crime novel. Forget writing another literary masterpiece. Use Jenny’s book as a roadmap to write genre fiction. Pull pages apart to understand how the story fits together. Or, tape the pages on your body in the shape of a dress. Ask wall penguins if you look nice.
  • Paint accent wall again. Ask your mom for paint money. Go with a blue this time. It’s soothing.
  • Write, but don’t send, letters. Cut and paste individual letters from your rejections to create ransom notes for agents and editors that you imagine kidnapping. Don’t send the notes—this form of therapy is just to help you cope with your feelings.
  • Watch blue wall dry. Make yourself pants with Jenny’s book pages this time and cry a little because you wish you hadn’t painted over your bird friends. Or are they mammals? World’s mysteries are endless.
  • Ask Mom to start a publishing company. Of course you know she already has a job as a dental assistant but how long does she want to work for the man? Yes, you do realize the dentist is your father. But what about filling the cavities in literature? Stop yelling at your mom.
  • Contact lawyer. No you didn’t really mean to kidnap (that’s like two words “kid” and “nap”) anyone. You don’t even remember dropping those in the mail. You were sending out a post card for a free snack box, the ransom notes must have slipped through. Whoops!
  • Get ready for a chance of a lifetime. You’ll see your favorite agents on the 13thand 27th. Make yourself a nice suit for the court dates. How you present yourself is everything.


Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer. Born in Tehran, she was raised in Iran, Kenya and the U.S. Her work has appeared in National Geographic News, Scientific American, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, The Adirondack Review and Drunken Boat and featured in a poetry anthology. Sara is the author of Amazing Animals and four other titles from Scholastic Inc., recipient of a 2017 Writers in Paradise Les Standiford fellowship and a Tin House Writers Workshop attendee. She recently completed her first novel and is at work on a second.

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