June 22, 2015 § 13 Comments
A guest post from Jennifer Berney:
It sounds quaint to say it now, but a decade ago, before the internet took over the world of publishing, I used to get excited for the mailman’s arrival. Most afternoons, he left me nothing but bills and credit card offers, but sometimes I opened my mailbox and spotted one of the bright red self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that I’d been waiting for.
During that era, I printed short stories every Sunday afternoon, stuffed them into manila envelopes, and sent them off, several at a time, to various literary journals. I purchased red envelopes for my SASEs, in part because they were easy to spot in the mailbox, but also as a kindness to myself. I couldn’t control whether the SASE contained an acceptance or a rejection, but I could ensure that it was packaged in a way that pleased me.
In those days, the process of submitting and waiting for a response wasn’t so unlike the work of writing itself. There was a ritual to it, a set of superstitions. It took discipline to muster up the nerve to send out my work, just as it took discipline to sit down and write. Both the act of writing and the act of submitting required stores of patience—I often revised a story multiple times before deciding to abandon it, and it often took nearly a year for any given rejection notice to arrive. Neither the writing process nor the publication process ever offered instant gratification, and yet they both felt important, character-building, and mutually supportive—the rejections pushed me to try harder, and the occasional acceptance kept me from losing hope.
I took a long hiatus from submitting my work, and when I returned just over a year ago, I discovered that the world had moved online. I no longer need a stockpile of red envelopes, and I no longer wait for the postman. For the most part, this is convenient. Electronic submissions save me time and expense. However, I find that there’s a surprising emotional cost. Because news of publication might arrive in my inbox at any moment, that sense of anticipation—once confined to my thirty-second walk to the mailbox—must now spread itself over the course of the day. Furthermore, there is no rhythm or regularity to the replies I receive. When I submit to an editor these days sometimes I hear back hours later, or sometimes months, or sometimes never. I wonder constantly how to train my brain to bury that anticipation, that curiosity. It’s hard, I find, to focus on the writing itself when there might be news awaiting me just two clicks away.
The process of publishing no longer complements my writing; it competes with it. And, of course, it’s not just the submission process that has changed. Now that most of our work appears online, writers are now privy to all sorts of information that would have once been left to mystery.
When I published my first short story in a small literary journal in 2005, I assumed that some people subscribed to it, that it arrived in their mail and landed on their coffee table. Probably plenty of these copies went unread, or were read selectively, but it seemed likely that some people—a few of them at least—would read my story. I would never know how many, or who they were, or what they thought, or if they caught the typo on the second page of the story—an error I’d noticed too late. I would never know these things, and in some ways it was better that way.
Today, when an essay or story goes live, I have access to data that I can track from moment-to-moment. I can see how many people liked it, tweeted it, or otherwise shared it. I can track how many people clicked over to my blog. If I were bold enough, I could probably ask the editors how many visitors clicked on my story. I can read not only the comments that appear below, but comments on the website’s Facebook page which are often less kind. All of this information means that my readers are less imaginary, more immediate. When comments are kind, they are gratifying, but when they are critical they add yet another layer of chatter to my brain, more voices in my head that I must contend with every time I sit down to write. These voices are louder than the snail-mail rejections, which never contained any clues or explanations. The voices of internet critics speak in no uncertain terms; they carefully enumerate all of my sins.
I do not wish we could go backward. The digital age has offered writers so much—it has allowed us to find each other more easily, to build meaningful communities; it has brought more good work to more people. But while online publishing has undeniably enhanced our writing lives, it has also complicated them. All of the opportunities for submitting and promoting our work, for making connections, for tracking responses—all of this perpetual anticipation and over-stimulation can leave me feeling like an old rubber band stretched nearly to the point of breaking.
When I began writing in the first place, it was because it helped me avoid the constant feeling of being worn thin. And so, at the end of the day, writing itself turns out to be the only antidote I’ve found to the chaos of the information age. Now more than ever, the blank page provides a source of comfort and stillness and silence. The act of engaging with that page, of diving deep to fill it with words, has become the only way I know to quiet the voices of distraction, or ease the feeling of vulnerability that comes from sharing your stories, your truth, and your secrets with the internet.
Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. She is a contributing blogger at Brain, Child, and her work has also appeared in The Manifest Station and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.
June 12, 2015 § 4 Comments
A guest post from Vermont College Postgraduate Writers’ Conference director Ellen Lesser:
When Pamela Painter and I first brainstormed about adding Flash Fiction to the workshop lineup for this summer’s Postgraduate Writers’ Conference at Vermont College of Fine Arts, she noted that writers often imagine they don’t need to work at and study flash the way they do other genres. They think it’s easy because it’s short, I remember her telling me.
Painter, who’s been an ambassador for flash as both an award-winning author and revered teacher, will share her approaches to perfecting the form in her intensive small-group workshop in August. The Conference, held on VCFA’s Montpelier, VT campus August 10 – 16, still has a seat open at Painter’s table. Here’s her take on the experience awaiting her workshop participants:
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner said that when writers deal with particular small problems, the work can approach perfection. This is so true of Flash Fiction. I expect that many of the flash stories from the workshop will end up being publishable. Three-fourths of the students in my last class [in Emerson’s MFA Program] have published their stories. They have written and revised small gems that do not need another word, another scene, a double ending.
In this workshop you will be reading work submitted for the class, you will be introduced to exercises that consider interesting and tighter ways to execute character and conflict, texture and detail, and you will be given an exercise to help you finish each story after the workshop is over. I want you to be as excited about Flash Fiction as I am, and to consider Flash Fiction as something you will write the rest of your life.
In short, it’s going to be an invigorating and valuable work-out, as part of a week’s immersion in craft and community. Interested writers can visit the webpage at www.vcfa.edu/pwc for all the details, and email me, Ellen Lesser, at firstname.lastname@example.org, to see if we still have a spot for you.
Ellen Lesser is a fiction writer and member of the MFA in Writing Program faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she also directs the annual Postgraduate Writers’ Conference. She aspires to write shorter stories.
June 11, 2015 § 13 Comments
When I was 30 I got a job mentoring public school students. Once a month I was supposed to choose a “Great Story” from my work experience and write it up for my boss, who would send it to his boss and on up the line in order to show that we were doing good things with our grant dollars. I had taught college writing for the previous seven years and have a master’s degree in fiction writing, so the expectation was that I would turn in the best and brightest great stories each month.
I didn’t write the best stories–my experiences were great, but my writing had the bland, brittle flavor of a saltine. Each of my essays was a series of short declarative sentences that summed up events and emotions as though it was a police report. In one staff meeting, my boss lauded a colleague’s colorful prose, commented on the value of a liberal arts education, then looked at me uncomfortably.
My most productive time as a writer was college. I had to write every day. If I didn’t I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake cursing myself for not sleeping, counting the hours until I needed to be awake until I gave in, booted up my computer, and let the words flow until I was able to melt into the pillow, completely at rest. I had stories I had to tell, and my body wouldn’t let me rest until I did.
Eight years transpired between my writerly insomnia and my struggle to spit a few sentences onto the page for a work assignment. In the interim, I’d been a not-so-productive MFA student and a writing instructor who drafted one story and one essay in three years. At any time during that era, I’d definitely have qualified for a diagnosis of writer’s block and strong scolding. “Just do it” or “If you really have to be a writer, you will be” are the most common tough-love admonitions for “blocked” writers. For me, tough love was not the solution. I’d taken the advice to “just do it” and I always hated whatever I forced myself to write.
It takes more than free time and discipline to write well. Good writing requires wit and emotional strength. I always understood writer’s block as having the desire to write but no ideas, or having ideas but no discipline to sit and write. No ideas is frustrating, but usually comes to an end. Inability to sit and write, for me, was a form of fear. Fear of not knowing where the story would go or if it would be good, and, more importantly, fear of the emotional depths that the writing would take me to. When we write we live each character’s life. It takes a firm foundation to go to those depths. As a college student, my foundation was as strong as could be. I was a privileged young woman with supportive, high-quality teachers. My parents paid the rent and tuition.
In the last months of my MFA program, anxiety about the future ruled my sleep. I would wake up and find the front door open, or that my shirt was inside out and backwards. That June, my mother had emergency surgery to remove a tumor and spent two weeks in the hospital fighting off infections. For almost four years, she tried chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I made her my first priority in life.
Months into the first round of chemo, I imagined a scene: two sisters climbing a mountain until they came to an orange tree with unusually large, bright fruit. When the fruit fell to the ground, it rotted immediately. When picked directly off the tree, it was perfectly delicious. This, I decided, was the seed of my new novel. I decided to move the scene from a mountain to my current location, eastern Indiana. I told friends about it. I was so excited to get started. But I never did. I wrote few pages of description and thought through the characters and their lives, but I didn’t do the sustained writing that’s required for completing a novel. What I did write during that time: a short story about a young woman living alone in a new town whose mother (a ghost) has come to live with her. It was me imagining my future life. I also participated in a non-fiction exercise with my students, writing an essay based on a list. Mine was a list of all the people who’d died in my life and all the ways my mother had influenced my experience of those deaths.
That’s it. For four years. I wanted desperately to write, beat up on myself for not writing, was humiliated by my lack of output while friends and peers celebrated fresh drafts and publications. That should be the definition of writers block, but it was something other than laziness or plain fear. I simply had nothing to give. I was, during that time, emotionally and physically exhausted. I was an empty husk. I did not go forth into fictions from a secure place. My life was plagued by fear and uncertainty. I felt no impulse to bring more of those things into my life via writing
I kept a journal of my insane dreams. I revised a story I’d written in grad school. None of these projects had the delicious “weight off my shoulders” feeling I’d always had after writing a fresh draft. My best moment came one Friday night alone in my apartment, when I sat on the couch with my laptop. For the first time in years, I wrote new fiction: a pivotal scene in the novel, when the protagonist hears a fall festival storyteller’s tale that leads her to believe she’s cursed. I held that moment and that scene in the back of my mind through the last months of my mother’s life. It was a tiny shred of evidence that I could write again someday.
My experiences in the elementary school and my mother’s death combined into material that I could only address from a non-fiction perspective. I hand wrote on legal pads, more pages of simple declarative sentences piled up on each other like bricks. A dear friend encouraged me to email her a paragraph a day of writing, and wrote back that she was moved, that they were beautiful. I bought a house and began to reestablish the sense of security I’d always found necessary for writing. Eventually I eased myself back into fiction by dabbling in a genre I’d never read much of. I saw it as a folly. It was fun. It got the proper muscles working again and gave me confidence.
I’m still not back to the can’t-sleep-if-I-haven’t-written level of writing practice, but I’ve written pieces to conclusion, published them, and received positive feedback. It is surreal after all those years of feeling writing was lost from my life. I will never again judge or wonder at a writer who has hit a fallow patch, or chosen to focus on another priority. We need a full inner well to write from. Sometimes life empties the well. That’s not failure, or the end. It’s a promise that there will be something new to write about when the well is refilled.
Rachel J. Mack is a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Alabama. She’s recently published essays with The Billfold and Rappahannock Review.
June 8, 2015 § 6 Comments
At the Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference last month, my name tag read “Irene Smith Hisname.” My married name, my professional name, the name I’ve used for almost three decades. It’s a perfectly nice name (I maintain it’s Yiddish for “homeboy”) but it’s not the one I use for writing.
Did I say that CNFWC15 was fabulous? That it made the terrors of pitching and platform and publication feel like an expanded conversation with people I really like? The conversation began with a Facebook page where I found useful tips about what to bring to the conference. Besides layers and comfy shoes, bring copies of your book. (I don’t have a book.) Bring postcards and bookmarks with your book cover on them. (Still no book.) Bring business cards. Yes! I do have cards, and I brought them to Pittsburgh.
My card is for my day job, and reads “Irene Smith Hisname, Psychologist.” Whenever I had a chance to give my card to someone I had to write “Irene Hoge Smith” on it, and explain that I was born with that name, and that I write using that name. That’s the name that would let someone find the things I write now. Personal things. Sometimes funny things, often really not. Things that I don’t want my patients to trip over accidentally.
The irony is that I couldn’t wait to give up the name I was born with, along with almost everything about my first twenty years. “Irene” was a grown-ups’ joke (“I’ll see you in my dreams!”) but the Lindas and Marys and Debbies I went to school with couldn’t even spell it. And don’t get me started about Hoge. Somehow my parents thought my grandmother’s maiden name would be a good middle name for a little girl. I wasn’t sure if they hated me or were just crazy (there is a book in that). My grandma was Ida Mae Hoge back in Texas. A family story said somewhere along the line the name had been changed from Hogg, and maybe we were related to Governor Hogg. You know, the one who named his daughter Ima? That part’s true. The other daughter named Ura? Never happened. Are we related? Almost certainly not, and even if we had been I didn’t want the name. The H is for Helen, I said once I started school. I did have an Aunt Helen, after all, and anyway I had my fingers crossed.
Smith was at least simple and there was something reassuring about it being so ordinary.
I had been anxious to re-invent myself, leave behind the scared and scruffy little girl, with last week’s clothes and hair in her eyes and a baby sister on her hip. I wanted to get what I have now, a different name, a degree and a profession, accumulated reassurances that I have a right to exist on the planet.
And now that profession is the reason I need another name. I’m in a writing program with other therapists here in D.C. and you would not believe how crazy (pardon the expression) we make ourselves over this stuff. Is it okay to write about patients? Should we tell them or not? How to disguise the details and keep the story? Writing about ourselves is even trickier and I’m not sure if we’re more anxious to hide our most personal sides from our patients or from each other.
I’m not the only one here who started out thinking I’d write about my work and ended up writing about my mother. Writing about her meant remembering a lot of pain and confusion that I thought, once upon a time, I could just leave behind. I wouldn’t have it any other way now, and if it means I need another name—well, I have a spare, don’t I? Easy. Except not.
Donald Winnicott, the analyst who told us about the good-enough mother (surprisingly rare, in my experience), the transitional object (that’s the teddy bear), and the false self (I wouldn’t know anything about that) wrote that artists are caught in a conflict between the wish to hide and the wish to be known. I do wish to be known. I want to tell my stories. But maybe I also want to be able to hide. Hide behind Hisname, behind my degree, behind my profession.
So what name do I bring to the next conference? How confusing is it to wear a name tag with Hisname and remind people to look for my other name, my born-into name, the name my mother gave me along with so much baggage. Without the baggage, of course, there wouldn’t be a book.
Another thing Winnicott wrote was “it is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
Irene Hoge Smith is writing a memoir about her lost-and-found mother, the poet FrancEyE (also known, in the early 1960s, as Charles Bukowski’s mistress and muse). She has studied with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore (at Kenyon Review Summer Writing Workshop) and Mark Doty (at the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop). Her essays have appeared in the New Directions Journal and Amsterdam Quarterly. She lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington, D.C.
June 4, 2015 § 1 Comment
Among the countless decisions I needed to make when I launched Thread, my independent literary publication, was whether or not the issues would be themed.
Topping the do it side was that themes provide prompts for writers, natural organizing principles for editors and stimuli for art.
On the don’t do it side, there’s the risk that a theme might not appeal to writers and readers, that it raises the challenge of blurry definition boundaries and the pressure to find and fill each issue with thematic work.
I seesawed for months before making the final choice not to go with themes for Thread. In the end, my decision had less to do with being for or against themed content and more about what I believe about how we read, write and process personal narrative.
It appears that I believe three things:
Publications have built-in themes. At the café where my students read their work aloud for family and friends on the last night of our workshop, my smart-phone camera snapped an accidental photo of a rag rug on the floor. The image – and its serendipity – got me thinking about the beauty in multi-colored, braided cords, how we talk about finding the invisible thread in our work, how we recall our life in short strands, and how a needle has to break through material before it can bring fabric together. The metaphor began to work for me. When I chose the word, Thread and its subtitle, An exploration of human experience through essay and image, I was committing the publication to a persona right off the bat, one that I hope conjured a collection of poignant and provocative personal narratives that expose and interconnect us.
Writers write thematically. A theme can act as a prompt to help a writer find a way into a personal narrative that she or he may have had trouble accessing. Themes can also be just the kick needed to get writing. But there’s just no getting around the fact that the best personal writing explores what a writer is curious about; what captivates and invites us in. I believe that we are drawn to one or two, possibly more themes in our lives. Theme is what we are talking about when we ask, “What is this piece about?” Some writers know their themes. Some discover them while writing. Some don’t have a clue about what their themes are, and some simply don’t care. But I like to think that identifying themes in our work can go a long way toward self-discovery. Themes either express a burning question in our life, encourage us to articulate something we didn’t know we knew, illustrate our passion or uncover something true or simply entertaining. Like personal mission statements.
Themes present themselves in a curated body of work. I’ve been struck by the discovery of unconsciously selected themes that pop up once an issue is released. In the Spring 2015 premiere issue, self-discovery. In the summer issue, losses and finds. At this writing, I’m working on the Fall 2015 issue and the theme isn’t yet clear. But I’m waiting like an excited child in line for ice cream for the moment when it does, when it reveals itself.
I want to publish work that wants to be written; stories that pull a writer to the page out of that desire to dive in. Believing this makes sending rejections my least favorite part of this process, but so far, it’s the only part I don’t enjoy. Everything else about publishing Thread has turned out to be the deepest professional joy I’ve ever known.
Stitching Thread together is the result of a dream to publish essays and photographs that make us think, feel and connect. Like that braided rug: a chance to repurpose material from our lives to make art.
A NOTE TO WRITERS: Thread accepts submissions all year. For now, there’s no fee to submit. The writers and photographers, including its solo editor-preneur, offer their work for the love of the art and the joy of publication.
It’s my hope that the publications’ companion live reading series in Chicago (see Thread at Curt’s Cafe South) will help make Thread self-sustaining so that I can pay writers and photographers in the near future.
June 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
A flash opportunity, friends: For years, the Blue Earth Review has been publishing quality fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction. This summer, we’re hosting our very first flash CNF contest. We like tightly crafted prose that surprises, delights, moves, or otherwise makes an impact in a small space.
Submit up to two pieces, each 750 words and under, for free.
Winner receives $500 and publication, and all entries are considered for publication in our fall issue. Deadline:August 14, 2015. Submit!
Michael Torres and the entire Blue Earth Review team
June 3, 2015 § 12 Comments
When I’m at a residency, I get up very early, usually around four. I don’t go on social media, or argue in comments sections. I lie in bed and think about what I’m working on for a little while, then get up and brush my teeth in silence instead of with podcasts. I go to whatever place I’ve made “my” place (at Atlantic Center for the Arts it is this small and beautiful library, pictured right), and write until the sun comes up. Then I have coffee and cereal, then write some more.
Around noon it’s naptime. Sometimes there’s a class in the afternoon, or I meet with another writer to discuss our work, or there’s lunch with other writers around a big table. Dinner is cooked by someone else–in fact, I do not have to plan a meal or think about groceries or make a list. That’s always the most surprising freedom–how much mental space is opened up by not spending any time thinking about food, by sitting down to a meal I know will be delicious and healthy and taken care of by someone else.
In the evening I watch the sun set and write some more, enjoying the dusk turning into darkness and the sounds outside becoming nighttime sounds. I walk back to my room, passing studios with lights on as other writers work through the night.
It’s like camp for grownups.
Artist residencies are one of the great gifts we can give ourselves, and one of the greatest things that foundations and organizations do for writers. It’s lack of responsibility, mild-to-medium structure, very mild networking, and open time. It’s where we can discover what our process is like when we’re not squeezing our process into the all-too-small spaces in our lives.
Generally, residencies fit into one or two of four broad categories:
Pay-to-Play: If you’ve got money, you can go. Residencies like Wellspring House and Cambridge Writers Workshop ask for a resume and work sample to demonstrate seriousness of purpose, but they are open to writers of varying skill and experience levels. It’s often possible to apply for a grant from your own local arts council to cover the expenses.
Juried: There’s a serious and sometimes highly competitive screening process. Writers submit some combination of work samples, project proposals, resumes and recommendation letters. Usually these residencies–like Headlands and Atlantic Center for the Arts are free or the cost is low. Some, like Jentel, even offer a stipend, or have fellowships available to defray the cost of travel or childcare.
Workshop-based: The teacher is frequently the draw for residencies like Omega Institute (where Brevity’s Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore will be teaching Mindfulness and Writing July 10-12) and Dani Shapiro’s Sirenland workshop.
Wide Open Space: The writer is on their own–it’s your project time to use as you wish, and “productivity” might mean pages or it might mean long walks, deep thought, and a new understanding of your own process. Residency big dogs like the venerable Yaddo and The Macdowell Colony are structure-free but provide meals; Writing Between The Vines is free of even other artists.
Many residencies are a mix. For example, Ragdale provides meals and fellow artists, has a moderate fee, and is highly competitive. The Kenyon Writers Workshop is a juried pay-to-play that’s focused on workshops and generating assignment-based work.
If you can, you should. It’s astonishing how much we are responsible for in our daily lives, and how little falls apart when we step away from our ‘duties.’ Not all of us can take two months, or even three weeks, but residencies like Omega’s Mindfulness and Writing and Hedgebrook’s Vortext are three-day weekends that can refocus your work, re-energize your process, and reassure your writer self that yes, you’re doing it right.
There’s a great list of writing residencies at The Write Life, and I’ve found the directories at ResArtis and the Alliance of Artist Communities to be terrific resources. If you’ve had a residency you found transformative, please tell us about it in the comments–one of the best ways to find a residency is from another writer’s willingness to share a place they love.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. So far she’s applied to five residencies for 2015-2016, and hopes to get one. Fingers crossed!