August 28, 2017 § 8 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
Earlier this summer, I attended an exceptional writing conference, hosted by a highly respected literary magazine. The week-long event was scheduled meticulously, with several hours of in-class time each day, afternoon craft discussions, and nightly readings from our critically acclaimed faculty members. From 8 AM to 8 PM, we were on the move and engaged pretty much non-stop. Upon reviewing our daily schedule, I noticed that towards the end of the week, there was a special session carved out so that those who had received scholarships to attend could publicly read their work for the rest of the students and faculty. While I thought it was wonderful that the scholarship recipients had a chance to share their work, it made me wonder – what about us, the students who had paid to attend?
During lunches and dinners, classes and talks, I had come to very quickly bond with my fellow participants. They were smart, engaging, welcoming, and so diverse – people from all over the country, with such different styles of writing and vastly different lives. On the bus on the way to class and over coffee in the mornings, we hungrily asked each other, “What kind of stuff do you write? What’s your process? Where can I read your writing?”
I realized that if I didn’t make myself very annoying to the organizers, we wouldn’t have the chance to share our work with each other, and we would leave the conference without something I specifically go to conferences to gain – a writing community. I knew that while it was invaluable to spend several hours each day with a prolific, brilliant, and widely published author, after the conference was over, that author and I wouldn’t become best friends or long-distance writing pals. (I mean, a girl can dream, but let’s be real.) The greatest long-term benefit I would derive from this event would be from my peers – the people that I would keep in touch with, send rough drafts to, visit when I end up in their cities randomly. We were all learning, growing, hungry to improve our craft, and working to build our own networks of writers and creatives who, as we progressed in our journeys, would help and support us in very unique and intimate ways. I became a persistently buzzing fly in the ears of the organizers until I was granted unofficial use of a vacant room for a couple of hours.
Out of 30 conference participants, 20 signed up to share their work. We went so far over time, an employee of the building actually asked us to leave (citing that we hadn’t actually booked the room – details, details), and we were forced to continue the rogue reading in another un-booked room the next day. In the end, all 20 readers got 7 minutes to share their work – and boy, did they share.
I knew for sure that I would be blown away at the nightly readings from our faculty members – after all, they were highly successful authors. It was a sheer delight to hear them read their work, but again – I was not surprised at how delighted I was. Similarly, I knew that each class session and craft talk would leave me with pearls of wisdom, incredible insights, and advice that I could apply to my writing and my life. On those two counts, I was pleasantly affirmed each and every day of the conference. However, the sheer brilliance and emotional fortune of the student reading surpassed every expectation I had. I knew I was arguing for something important and worthwhile, but after I got a sneak peek into those 20 writers’ souls, I suddenly felt like I had stumbled into a new family, a group of people that I grew to know impossibly well after only four short days.
Each person read work that truly represented who they were and what they cared about. I was moved to tears by a short story about a young man struggling with poverty and incarceration; I was doubled over laughing at the missive exploring robot fashion accessories; I was swept away by lilting and verdant meditations on nature and beauty. Political poems, essays good enough to grace the pages of Rolling Stone, fictional worlds I couldn’t invent if I tried – my colleagues delivered one hit after another, and by the end of our two-day marathon, we were hugging, and crying (OK fine, I was crying), and complimenting, and celebrating. To cement the long-term effects of this love-fest, I collected every single reader’s email address and created an unofficial conference mailing list, so we could keep in touch moving forward.
Up until the close of the conference, my fellow writers thanked me for organizing the reading, and even though I said “you’re welcome” about a hundred times, I wish I had said “thank you” back even more – if they were not willing to show up and read their work, and if they did not place a high value on student sharing, I would have been bugging our very busy conference organizers for nothing. I was grateful to get a public shout-out from the organizers during one of our evening events as well. I want to be clear – the absence of a student reading did not sour the incredible benefits I gained from this conference. When I relay my experience to others, I beam with pride and excitement that I was even considered to attend. The week I spent there was truly a unique (and perhaps once in a lifetime) experience, and regardless of what was missing, I am unendingly grateful I had the chance to attend.
But I hope that next year, when it comes time to plan this wonderful conference once more, the organizers remember that while gaining insight and feedback from accomplished, brilliant authors is incredibly important and inestimable, allowing students to share their work – whether they paid to attend or were granted scholarships – sends the message that we are held to the same standards of excellence, that we are similarly valued for our contributions and opinions, and that no matter where we are in our journeys, we are seen and recognized as writers, one and all.
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 Philadelphia Stories, 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 is the Writing Life Column Editor at Hippocampus Magazine, and works as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.
August 16, 2017 § 37 Comments
By Shanon Lee
Sometime after having a baby, and making a fateful decision to ditch grad school to pursue a writing career, I had this notion that writing while mothering would be easy. I imagined working from home would be orderly, convenient and efficient. It was simple. I would write in the quiet moments before our hectic morning routine got underway, during the baby’s naptime and after everyone had gone to sleep at night.
I had to learn the truth the hard way.
That some day’s the muse doesn’t come, or if it does – I may not be prepared. That writing requires mental and emotional labor I am not always equipped to manage. That great writing rarely happens when you are sleep deprived. That writing while mothering is draining.
I am consumed with guilt when I choose writing over spending time with my children, and racked with anxiety when I ignore my impulse to write. By now I understand, as much as I adore my children, I need dedicated time and space to artfully compose the stories I am called to write. New challenges emerge while trying to accomplish this.
Reading Black, White and Jewish, was my first glimpse into a writing motherhood – albeit bad one. In the book, Rebecca Walker detailed the neglect she suffered while being raised by a writer for a mother. While literary icon Alice Walker attended writing residencies for long stretches, she left her daughter alone at home – prematurely forcing her to become independent.
In one heart-breaking passage, Walker described how her mother paid a neighbor to take her back-to-school shopping in her absence. Without parental guidance, she experimented with drugs, became sexually active at a young age and had an abortion at age 14. As raw as the stories in Walker’s memoir are, I know it will never be my children’s reality. My compulsion to write will never drive me to neglect them.
Yet, even though I could not identify with her mothers choices, I understood the impulse to retreat into isolation to create. I have often fantasized about what might happen if I could focus on writing without the demands of rearing children, working and managing a household.
Women like Alice Walker knew there were options for writers who did not forgo motherhood to pursue a writing career. They knew extended solitude was necessary to create their best work and set out to find it. They understood the benefits of immersing themselves in the world of writing, surrounded by their peers, if only for a moment in time.
They knew there was a space for us.
Alice Walker worked on her first novel during her residency at MacDowell. At some point, she attended Yaddo too. Susan Cheever, Mona Simpson and Susan Minot have children and are also among Yaddo alumni. Writing mothers including Jane Hamilton, Karyn Kusama, Dani Shapiro and Annette Gordon-Reed have all attended Hedgebrook. These women honored their passion by negotiating time to devote to their writing and other moms can too.
I am convinced that attending a writer’s residency does not have to disrupt our entire life, or permanently scar our children. Writer-in-residence programs now offer short stays and even virtual options for those who need it. Weekend writing seminars and workshops are an alternative for those who cannot commit to a full residency.
In November of 2016, I attended a weekend writing seminar in St. Petersburg, FL. It was the first time I travelled away from home alone to write. Their dad held down the fort and our kids had a blast while I was gone. At times, it felt as if I missed them more than they missed me. Most importantly, attending the seminar allowed me to bond with my peers and learn skills that took my writing in a new direction.
This year, I completed a summer writing residency that did not require travel, but offered one week of private accommodations to write in peace during the day. I will continue to submit applications to notable residency programs like Hedgebrook, in hopes of being able to completely break away from my daily obligations and just write for two weeks.
My definition of being a great mother has expanded to include being someone that protects her identity as a writer and satisfies her impulse to create. By carving out space in my schedule for dedicated writing time, I am honoring my purpose and the legacy of writing mothers that came before me.
Shanon Lee is a Survivor Activist & Storyteller with features on HuffPost Live, The Wall Street Journal, TV One and the REELZ Channel’s SCANDAL MADE ME FAMOUS. Her work appears in The Washington Post, The Lily, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, ELLE, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and Redbook. Shanon is a Women’s Media Center SheSource Expert and an official member of the Speakers Bureau for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). She is the writer, producer and director of Marital Rape Is Real. Learn more about her work at Mylove4Writing.com.
August 4, 2017 § 20 Comments
By Katrina Otuonye
I took part in a reading with The Porch Writers’ Collective in Nashville last week, and I read for about 10 minutes from a collection of nonfiction I’m working on. I think it went well, even though I was a little nervous, though a bit less than usual. Practice does actually make perfect. But the first couple paragraphs, getting over the dry mouth, mentally smoothing over the shakiness in my voice, my little animal brain kicked in, the one that always says, “What are you doing?”
The voice comes from a little preppy version of me, in a pleated skirt and my hair up, in a bow. She sits cross-legged on my shoulder, filing her nails. I’ve been meditating and going to therapy to help with my anxiety and latent feelings of not-good-enough-ness that have followed me around for nearly 20 years now (thanks, middle school). Before, that voice was usually buried deep, deep down and now she’s emerged. This is bad, because she’s a bitch. This is also very good because now she’s shown herself, so I can crush her.
All of this is happening while I’m reading my work, which I’m rather proud of. I’m proud of my ridiculous memory and that I get to write about my experiences. I’m proud that I’m a damn good writer, that I got to read my work. I plan to keep sending out my writing and publish my book.
But in that present moment, licking my lips, reading my work, little preppy me speaks up. She says, “You’re too nervous. You’re never going to finish. This isn’t going to work. You should stop right now and walk out the door.” I actually pictured myself gathering my papers and dashing out. I didn’t speak to the voice, I know that in some twisted way, this voice is attempting to protect me. It’s just that we all so easily have these little spoken or unspoken worries circling all day every day, whether or not they’re fully acknowledged.
I keep saying little because that’s what these worries are—they’re diminutive, but powerful. They can’t take over unless you let them. I keep saying you, but really I mean I. I mean me. They are the imagined voices of the people that don’t care all that much about me, but still sort of exist in my orbit. I care way too much about those people. I’m working on it.
In 2014, Lupita Nyong’o gave a speech at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event, about representation and her hopes and dreams when she was younger, not of being a great actress, but of having lighter skin. Even as she started to accept herself, started to become more comfortable with who she is, she said, the hardest part was allowing herself that acceptance because, “I had begun to enjoy the seduction of inadequacy.” Sometimes it seems easier to think, “woe is me” and give yourself permission to stop trying. It can feel better to place yourself in the hole first, at the very bottom, where you believe everyone else will put you anyway.
In relationships, or the confusing situations I keep finding myself in, it’s the voice that says, “Well of course he ghosted you, why did you think he would text you back, what about you made you think that he would show up?” It is a sad and dangerous hole, and I can tell you your life will be 1000 times easier—my life is easier—when I stopped trying to analyze and police the motives of others in an attempt to apply the unknowable and uninteresting to my sense of self-worth. It has no bearing. This feeling that we’re not quite good enough, that I am not enough, it keeps us in the dark. It keeps us from loving fully and honestly. It keeps us from being vulnerable, from being ourselves, from honoring our values, feelings and instincts. Listen to your better angels. They’ll always steer you in the right direction.
So while I was still reading, I had a little smile on my face as I thought, screw that, I’m not leaving. I just started. And the little me went away, because I moved forward. Because often the people who don’t have my back (real people, not my damaged subconscious) are playing small and trying to bring me down because they don’t like the sight of me striving, writing, editing, revising. At the reading, I was too focused on telling my story to pay her any mind. I was still nervous, I still tripped over a word or two and changed a couple phrases on the fly, but it was me and it was my work. I did it, and it was good, and I knew exactly what I was doing.
Katrina Otuonye is a writer and editor from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She holds a BA from the University of Tennessee and an MFA from Chatham University. Katrina’s work has appeared in publications such as Tarpaulin Sky Press, Litro Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, and The Toast, among others. She’s currently retweeting to her heart’s content @katrinaotuonye, and writing a memoir and a collection of creative nonfiction. You can find more of her work at katrinaotuonye.com.
July 10, 2017 § 6 Comments
By Pete Candler
Please, please, do sit.
[Wait for applause to die down.]
I didn’t get here by accident, you know. Get to being a writer, that is. If you thought I meant this place, whatever it’s called, well then, yeah, I did get here by accident. I was looking for the Mothlight.
People think that being a writer is so glamorous, but I want to tell you something: I drove myself here tonight. I parked the car myself. (Do they even have a valet at this place?) And then I walked myself from the parking lot.
Now since the emcee tonight apparently forgot to introduce me, I should probably tell you a little bit about myself. One thing I’ve learned from being a writer is that you can’t assume that people know or care who you are. So: I am a writer. I write fiction and essays and stuff. In the course of my career, my work has been turned down by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Poetry, The New Yorker, and The Sewanee Review. My occasional pieces can be found on award-winning websites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, and I am currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic.
You may think that being a writer is a whole lot of sitting around staring out the window, contemplating the sublime beauty and mystery of the cosmos, hobnobbing with other writers in white linen suits, swilling gin martinis with literary agents and high-powered editors from Knopf and FSG, but let me tell you something: writing is a lot of work. You have to read a lot. And write, too. You have to read stuff that’s already been written, and then try to write new stuff that other people won’t read.
I’ve had to read a lot to get to where I am now, standing before you. I read a lot of articles on how being a writer is the most miserable job anyone could dream of, so horrible that only a writer with a vivid imagination could think it up, and how you only ought to do it if you are really good at it or you have the drive to become so, or you basically enjoy suffering. Well, it’s pretty obvious one of those things applies to me, or I wouldn’t be up here giving a public reading of my work, now would I?
It’s not all fun and games, either. I mean, I’d love to ruminate on the beauty of the yellow-bellied sapsucker or the dung beetle all day, like anyone else, but there is work to be done. There’s a lot of research involved, too. For instance, I googled myself sixty-two times today.
You think googling yourself is easy? It’s hard to see all those nasty things that are not written about the stuff that you’ve never gotten published. People say—and I trust those people, because they say this sort of thing—that you should never read the comments online. Well I’ve learned my lesson the hard way. Once I had a brilliant article that was not published and the comments were so—well, I’ll be honest, they made me feel a little ill. There was no substance to them whatsoever.
I once had a fake twitter account set up in my name, and that was a challenge. Man. There were like four followers, each with a face like an egg, and the fake me didn’t sound anything like I would sound if I had ever published anything.
I read lots of articles too about how writing for a living is only for a select few, how most people who attempt it never make it to the big time and the rest toil away in relative or absolute anonymity, bearing up daily under the weight of soul-crushing despair. Well here I am, living proof.
And what’s more: writing is an exercise in self-knowledge. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re alone in front of a computer screen, staring at your rejections on Duotrope, which, as a bonus, is helpful for understanding the concept of infinity. For example, I learned today that my vocabulary is roughly 21,500 words, which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that that number includes words like “dilatory” and “obstreperous.” I also learned that my surname means “Fish Slayer” (or possibly “Weasel,” these things are not 100 percent accurate, you know?). On top of that, I discovered that I could identify 16% of the world’s famous works of art, 0% of the nine greatest opening lines in literary history, 100% of a lineup of Disney characters, and that if I were a mixed breed of dog, I would be a Shit-spaniel. My rapper name is Dead Honky, and I’m not really Nova Scotian at all. I learned that the first word I would read this morning would determine what I had for lunch. And do you know—lo and behold—that word was “rejection?”
But let’s be honest. That’s not why you’re here, is it?
[Do not look at people in the eye as if you actually want them to answer this]
Presumably you’re here to listen to me read some work of brilliance that I am going to lay before you like a votive offering, a sacrificial token of my religious devotion to art. But you’ll have to settle for the turn of phrase “a sacrificial token of my religious devotion to art,” which is kind of like a little work of genius right there, so I’d say you’ve already gotten your money’s worth. Because as for that work-in-progress, it’s complicated. Someone once told me that great works take time, and mine is taking lots and lots of time, so it kind of follows that it’s a truly great work that I’m sure you’ll be willing to wait to pay for. And another person once told me, just days ago—that doubt is an indication of your talent, and let me assure you, by that calculus, I am a fucking genius.
So, wait. Just wait. Come to think of it, I should have waited for the 10:25 slot. That’s a good time. People are just a little bit drunk by then and not falling over, trash-talking drunk. Just tipsy and loosened up enough to laugh or cry when they’re supposed to.
Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight. I have been here all week.
Pete Candler’s scholarly and creative work has been rejected by a wide range of some of the finest and most illustrious journals in the land, including Modern Theology, Poetry, and The New Yorker, which once returned an unsolicited manuscript (circa 1997) submission with no note or letter but with a simple but thorough slash through the pages. Candler lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he writes fiction and essays. He is currently preparing a manuscript for rejection by The Atlantic. His twitter handle: @tweetcandler
July 7, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Eunice Tiptree
With workshops all morning, afternoon talks, and readings every evening, the eighty writers attending the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop in Gambier, Ohio, had little time for the terror of the blank page, no time to wallow in self-doubt. The Kenyon summer classes are “generative,” meaning that participants are asked to sprout new work each day over seven days, from prompts designed to jar you out of your comfort zone, producing “seedlings” that grow into full works over the months that follow.
But it was mid-week, and my group, the eleven tired souls gathered around the workshop table in Rebecca McClanahan’s literary nonfiction section, were starting to flag. As someone who has attended the Kenyon Workshop since 2004, I well knew the signs. Our group needed a boost.
As it turns out, Rebecca’s assignment provided the vehicle. Her instructions were to “Choose a non-literary text, pattern, or template from commerce, art, music, contemporary culture . . . Then, either employ that pattern as a shaping device, or incorporate the pattern into your piece in some way.”
Taking a walk in the afternoon on the bike path by the small Kokosing River winding below campus, my mind sifting and rejecting ideas, I felt trapped in my own doldrums. Then as if a gift from a cloud-free afternoon and the swirling water of the river, the perfect template appeared to inspire my fellow writers. We needed to hear a speech, and not just any speech, a speech in the style of Winston Churchill:
Speech to the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop Upon the Occasion of the Midweek Writing Doldrums
I say to those who joined this workshop, we have before us an opponent of the most testing kind, our fatigue and self-doubts. We have before us many, many long hours before this workshop ends. You ask, what is our aim? I can say it: It is to write, by day and night, with all our might with all the strength that God can give us; to write against the monstrous effects of fatigue and burn-out never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human frailty. I can say to this workshop, to all those who have joined us in this struggle, “We have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their best, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defeat the storm of incoherent and shapeless language, and to outlive the menace of the blank page, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.
At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of this workshop. That is the will of the Kenyon Review family. We participants and instructors, linked together in our cause and in our need, will defend to the death the cause of writing, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of our strength.
Even though large tracts of our minds and many old and famous tropes have fallen or may fall, we shall not flag or fail.
We shall go to the end; we shall write in the halls and cottages.
We shall write with growing confidence and growing strength; we shall defend our craft whatever the cost may be.
We shall write on Middle Path.
We shall write in the fields and in the streets
We shall write in the hills.
We shall never surrender our talents, until, in God’s good time, our growing capabilities stride forth to produce polished and complete drafts.
Eunice Tiptree transitioned from fiction to literary nonfiction at about the same time she began transitioning from male to female in 2010. Her essays have appeared in Brevity, Crack the Spine, Weave, and elsewhere. She has also published poetry in Straylight, Rock and Sling, and Inscape Magazine. Before transitioning, she was a journalist specializing on the space program. She currently is putting the finishing touches on a memoir of her transition, three years in the making.
June 21, 2017 § 3 Comments
Sara Goudarzi shares her decidedly brilliant application letter:
Dear Tonawanda Writers Conference application committee,
I’d like to be considered for a writing fellowship to attend the 17th annual TWC this summer. I’m currently polishing my novel, which I’ve been working on for as long as your conference has been running, maybe longer. That’s just one example of how dedicated I am to my craft.
My literary speculative crime novel tells the story of a suburban man searching for his missing wife. Soon he realizes that he’s hunting for more than just his partner but also for their pet hamster that’s gone rogue. As he journeys through the subway stations of New York City looking for the fetid rodent, he comes across his wife’s hooker sister (who in a twist turns out to be the protagonist’s aunt) and saves her from playing the ukulele in a boho dress for money at Union Square. In the process of journeying through a hidden underworld he collides with a psychic cat and an orange-haired thief out to kill him and embezzle money from the U.S. Department of Treasury. Will Josh be able to use his time traveling superpowers to find Fluffenuget, save his marriage and avoid the downfall of the nation’s economy?
I think your committee has the vision to understand the uniqueness of my narrative written in the style of Raymond Carver—with whom, according to ancestry.com, I share two percent DNA and whose third cousin’s grandson I hung out with and chatted craft for a couple of days—unlike all those “literary” agents who are ignoring me. They’ll be sorry, believe me. Especially when I land that seven-figure book deal and M. Night Shyamalan turns Marmota Annals into a movie.
Giving me this scholarship could, actually will, put your conference on the literary map (let’s face it, you’re not exactly Bread Loaf). And if you don’t, you’ll be haunted by guilt for all your days after I win all the literary prizes. This is Pulitzer, Man Booker material. All I need is someone to realize it and to help me with edits, which you can do. In fact, I’ll be happy to just email the opening 450 or so pages to you for some light revision, maybe some structural work and you’ll see, it’ll blow you away like the kite in The Kite Runner—see what I did there? That’s the kind of clever wordplay you’ll find in my MS.
So please consider giving me the fellowship and don’t be like all those dumbasses that passed on signing The Beatles. Marmota Annals could be your I Want to Hold Your Hand.
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and editor. Born in Tehran, she was raised in Iran, Kenya and the U.S. Her writing has appeared in National Geographic News, The Christian Science Monitor, Scientific American, Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, The Adirondack Review, The Globe and Mail and Drunken Boat and featured in an upcoming poetry anthology. Sara is the author of Amazing Animals and four other titles from Scholastic Inc. She recently completed her first novel and is at work on a second.