May 22, 2018 § 10 Comments
Author Steve Almond’s four-year-old daughter Rosalie interviews him about his depressing new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country :
Rosalie Almond: What’s wrong with you?
Steve Almond: I have a new book out.
RA: The one about stupid stories?
SA: It’s about bad stories.
RA: Like something bad happens?
SA: Not exactly. There are bad stories in which something bad happens. But when I say “bad stories” I mean stories that lead to bad things happening. Stories that are untrue or that are cruel, stories that make people want to break things, rather than build things.
RA: I don’t get it.
SA: Okay. Here’s an example. If I said to you, “You can’t trust people with green eyes, because they will steal your toys. You have a right to play with your toys, don’t you? But if you see a kid with green eyes, you shouldn’t be nice to them, because they just want to steal your toys.”
RA: Why do they want to steal my toys? What did I do to them?
SA: I understand. But okay, wait a second.
RA: I hate them!
SA: Wait a sec—
RA: People with green eyes should die!
SA: Okay. Time out. That was just an example. People with green eyes don’t want to steal your toys.
RA: But you just said they did!
SA: Right. But that wasn’t true. It was just a bad story I told you.
RA: Why did you say that if it wasn’t true?
SA: Because when you tell a bad story a lot of the time people will listen to you, and that gives you a lot of power. Someone who wants to become a famous radio host, or even the president, can tell bad stories as a way of getting attention. They can say, “People with green eyes want to steal your toys!” And, “People who read books think you’re stupid!” And, “You can’t trust people with dark skin!” It doesn’t matter if those stories are mean and untrue.
RA: It doesn’t?
SA: Not if it helps you get power. If you can find people who feel frustrated and angry and who are in pain, bad stories make them feel good.
SA: Because now they have a good reason to feel angry. If they feel like they don’t have enough toys, or they worry that they might not get dessert, or if they see other kids who have more than them, those things make them angry. Bad stories give them a reason to feel angry. And someone to blame.
RA: But why do other kids have more? That’s not fair.
SA: You’re absolutely right. It’s not fair. In a fair world, we would divide things up more equally, right? There wouldn’t be people with 100,000 chocolate cakes and other people who don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread. But if you’re a person with 100,000 chocolate cakes, you can distract people from how greedy you are by telling bad stories, by saying, “The reason you don’t have enough money to buy a loaf of bread is because some dark-skinned person from another country who doesn’t even speak English stole your job!”
RA: But I don’t have a job.
RA: Do I have to get a job?
SA: Someday, sure. But for now, I think it’s good for you to just go to pre-school.
RA: Because I can get a job later?
SA: Right, that can happen later.
RA: Will things be fair when I grow up?
SA: I don’t know. I hope so. But the only way they are going to get fair is for people to stop telling bad stories. They have to start telling good stories, which are stories that make people feel nicer and more hopeful and more generous. Stories which make you feel like you can understand how someone who looks different from you, or prays to a different God, actually wants the same things as you. Like they want a safe place to live and good schools for their kids to go do and enough to eat and a good doctor to go to if they get sick. That’s what all of us want, right?
RA: Not the doctor. They do shots!
SA: That’s true. But sometimes shots are the only way to help someone who is sick, right? Remember when you and mama got the flu?
RA: We couldn’t fly on the plane to California. We had to come later.
SA: That’s right. You were so sick. But if you get a shot, you don’t get the flu. Good stories can be like that, too. They can be like a shot that keeps us from getting sick, or helps us get better. So a good story is a true story that helps keep us safe, even if it’s a little scary. Like if we want to keep the planet from getting too hot, we have to use less gas. Or if we want to have a government that helps people we have to vote for people who want to solve problems. Or if we want people to have enough to eat and good schools and good jobs, we might have to take a little bit away from the people who have 100,000 chocolate cakes.
RA: Can I have dessert tonight? I never get dessert.
SA: You already had dessert, my love. You had a lollipop.
RA: I did? Really? Is your book over yet?
RA: Yeah, I want to read a different book now. One of my books.
SA: Okay. I don’t blame you. I like your books better than mine, anyway.
RA: So why did you write your dumb book, anyway?
SA: I guess because for writers the stories we write are the ones that get stuck in our heads. Stories that won’t go away unless we write them down. That’s just how it works.
RA: That sounds boring.
SA: It is boring.
RA: I told you so.
Steve Almond is the author of ten books, most recently Bad Stories. His daughter Rosalie has no plans to read the book.
March 20, 2018 § 31 Comments
- Marked the rejection on my list and reassured myself that it was only one
- Thought: two isn’t bad. Imagined the soaring joy of acceptance that would come with the next notification.
- Reread essay and decided I still liked it.
- Repeated to self: “Rejection is just another step on the way to success.”
- Read too much into the “In Progress” notification on Submittable.
- Ate chocolate.
- Reread the essay. Found words, phrases and whole sentences that could be cut. Clawed in anguish at the proverbial bosom. Cut the damn words.
- Sent the essay to another batch of journals. Checked Submittable in a non-obsessive way.
- Was able to quote from memory all of the variations: “We’re sorry, read with interest but, not for us, not the right fit, pass this time, good luck.”
- Ate more chocolate.
- Made another list of journals and sent the essay to a dozen of them. Nothing grim about it. Nothing at all.
- Castigated myself for ever imagining the soaring joy of acceptance.
- Watched Netflix during designated writing time.
- Reread the essay and decided it was awful. Got a friend to read it. Didn’t know if they were just being nice by saying they loved it.
- Sent out another batch.
- Considered whether “Received” or “In Progress” held more possibility. Decided both were inscrutable and, possibly, sinister.
- Went to Costco to stock up on chocolate.
- Marked off the rejection on my list and wondered if it would have been better if I had chosen another color besides red for my color-coding system.
- Determined that two Costco-sized bags of chocolate-covered blueberries were, in fact, inadequate for my needs.
- Resorted to sports analogies: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
- Made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t check Submittable any more.
- Checked Submittable.
- Reread the essay, decided it really wasn’t so bad.
- Got a pair of trusted eyes on the essay. Sank into the depths of frustration and despair when told, “It needs something.”
- Repeated to myself my first writing teacher’s encouraging words: “We’ll throw a party for the first person to get 50 rejections!” Half-way there!
- Realized that my only success might be in failure.
- Sent the essay out again because I was like those zombies I watched but shouldn’t have. Nothing could stop me but a blow to the head.
- Read articles claiming that sugar is the cause of all ills. Read articles stating that chocolate has 4 grams of protein per half cup.
- Decided that I couldn’t please everyone else and maybe couldn’t please anyone else but myself. Pretended that this made me powerful instead of lonely.
- Gave myself a stern lecture about doing the work for the work’s sake. Very nearly believed it.
- Decided that the essay did need something. It needed me to not give up on it.
- Checked Submittable.
A knitter, gardener and avid dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch and Hippocampus, and she is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.
March 5, 2018 § 4 Comments
As AWP draws near, first-time conference attendees and veterans alike stand over half-filled suitcases, frantically scrolling weather apps while trying to pack for the snowstorm on the way to the airport, the tropical humidity in which they will land, and the convention-center air-conditioning (setting: Meat Locker) in which they’ll spend most of their time.
The questions are endless: What do I wear to the Dance Party? How many minutes per room must I spend for two simultaneous panels, one containing three friends and a recent ex, and the other two mentors and a dream agent? What’s the proper conversational opening to a group of editors, 3/5 of whom have previously rejected my work?*
The Brevity Editors are here to help! Pooling our years of experience (25 years, 8 years, 6 years, and 1 ½ days), we present the Definitive AWP 2018 Packing/Preparation Guide:
- Cute summer dress because Tampa! Fleece blanket to use as shawl in over-air-conditioned conference hotel. (May substitute manpris and higher basal body temperature)
- Brand new sandals/mandals for walking shoes with cute summer dress/manpris. Band-aids. Iodine. Antibiotic ointment. Last year’s sneakers.
- SPF 188.
- Bathing suit for the Marriott hot tub. T-shirt to wear over bathing suit. Additional t-shirt to wear over t-shirt. Water shorts.
- Notes on elevator pitches to hone on the plane.
- Hormone replacement regimen because perimenopause! And Tampa!
- Virginia Woolf tote bag. No, F. Scott Fitzgerald finger puppet. No, both. None. OK, just the finger puppet. Pageboy wig. Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Vintage lunchbox.
- Airplane reading: Friend’s manuscript you owe feedback on. Student papers to grade. Six oldest New Yorkers from the pile. Entire lit mag slush pile. Lincoln in the Bardo. Infinite Jest.
- Business cards with your old email on them. Call Office Depot to determine if new cards can be a) fast b) cheap and c) attractive. Begin penciling in new email on each card. Call department secretary to see if you can have your old email back.
- Ten copies of your book. No, eleven. No, three. No, none. No, twelve. Bring one and forget it (and student papers) on the plane.
- VGA to HDMI to VHS to BluRay to hamster wheel to clean coal adapters for panel. Post-it notes, index cards, and six colors of dry-erase markers for other panel.
- Power Point of key panel slides on your phone in case of laptop failure. Power Point of your WIP on your phone in case of literary agent in elevator.
- Hand-held folding fan steeped in cannabinoid oil and lavender. Look chic and mysterious as you fend off imposter syndrome, panic attacks and neurological disaster.
- White-noise app. Noise-canceling headphones. Earplugs. Note from last year reminding yourself “[Roommate] SNORES.”
- Flash cards with photos of keynote speakers so you can recognize them at cocktail party. Self-ejecting jet pack in case emergency party escape is needed. Portable smoke machine because go big or go home.
- Novelty hand buzzer.
- That Starbucks gift card you got four months ago from a student you thought hated you but didn’t after all, and that you’ve saved for “a special occasion.” Please note: lobby Starbucks closes at 2PM.
- Nine pens.
- Color-coded, strategically-plotted, much-folded-and-re-folded printout of schedule, including personal plans A, B, and C, with pop-up 3-D flowchart and Venn diagrams. Leave on table in lobby Starbucks at 1:58 PM.
- Xanax. Pepto Bismol. Extra-strength Tylenol. Tylenol PM. Tylenol with codeine. Nyquil. Advil. Advil PM. Benadryl. Calamine lotion. Quaaludes.
- Printout of Sober AWP meeting list. Downloaded version of Big Book. Sponsor’s cell number. Therapists’ cell numbers. Pocket guide to 12 steps. Mindfulness meditations. Blindfold. Cigarette.
- Wine. IT’S A PRESENT.
- Chapbook from your favorite poet, so you can “casually” bump into them and “just happen” to have their book on you and they’ll be so delighted they get your deconstructed villanelle fast-tracked at Poetry.
- Updated CV. Just in case.
- Entire choreography to Beyonce’s “Lemonade” (memorized and practiced obsessively instead of panel prep) for the dance party or just making people uncomfortable in elevators.
- List of key points for MFA or no-MFA debate because that never gets old.
- Emotional support pack mule.
*(Answers: Orange; 26/32+17 minutes navigating from Ballroom A to Grand Salon C; “How ‘bout those liminal spaces?!”)
February 26, 2018 § 8 Comments
By 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.
October 23, 2017 § 24 Comments
by Margarita Gokun Silver
I don’t have to be the one to tell you that you are invisible. You know it yourself. Store clerks pay no attention to you, doctors ignore your symptoms, and your children never call as often as they should. But that invisibility cloak will seem like a common cold in comparison to the arthritis when you start looking for an agent – or a publisher – for your memoir. Unless you are a celebrity or a certain former Presidential candidate, you’ll be overlooked, laughed at, and rejected. Since I know first hand what it’s like to be dismissed by agents and snubbed by what they always refer to as “market”, I’m here to give you a few pointers you can use when looking for your own representation.
- For Pete’s sake, don’t write about your life. No one cares. Even if you survived the insides of a volcano, traversed the Sahara dessert on foot without any water, or climbed Mount Everest in one day – no one will give a damn. Instead, go the library or a bookstore and look for memoirs written by men. Then Google their sales figures and write the same thing. Because if a men’s memoir made a lot of money, you may stand at least a chance to be considered.
- If your name dates you to a decade when your potential agent’s parents (or grandparents) were born, change it. Go for something more current, something that says 21stcentury. Google all the wave-making millennials and borrow one of their names. If that doesn’t work – take a name that sounds like a man’s name. This, at least, should get you in the door.
- Do something ridiculous. Dress as if you are thirty (scandalous!), eat dinner at 8pm instead of at your usual, early-bird time, or date a few men or women who could be your grandchildren. Document all that on Instagram and Snapchat (forget Facebook – that’s for grannies). When you accumulate a platform – a fancy term for voyeurs – of five or six digits, send your memoir to an agent.
- Go work for the Trump administration. I know, I know. But art requires sacrifice, right? Hold your nose and ride the scandals until your name is out there. Then ride it some more. With luck, you can maybe help Mueller and sell your memoir in one swoop.
- If all else fails, do what Trump himself did. Attach yourself to Putin. Insist that he was your real father – considering all the plastic surgery the guy’s had he could’ve easily fathered the Beatles. Or claim he was your lover when you, as a young’un, climbed the Berlin Wall and got arrested by dashing Vladimir on the other side. The wild, Communist-inspired sex you had that day became the experience you never forgot and the little Vladimir, oops Johnathan, you had given birth to nine months later looks exactly like his Daddy (minus the botox). If Putin’s name retails you at least a quarter of the number of newspapers it now sells, you’ll have a bestseller on your hands.
One of these should work. Trust me, I know. I haven’t tried any of them and I’m having the hardest time selling my memoir.
Margarita Gokun Silver is a writer living in Madrid, Spain. Her essays on the topic of her memoir have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, and O: The Oprah Magazine, among others. She hopes that her agent is there, somewhere (and maybe even a reader of this blog).
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.