Monthly Archives: March 2014

Readings Aren’t Writing and the Scene Is Not Selling

Here’s a guest post from Bluestem contributor Matt Pine. His fiction can be found in the June 2012 online issue.

I’ve got two things to say, and they don’t talk nicely to each other. Let me place them side-by-side.

1) Readings in bars, readings in basements, chit-chat, applause, praise, nervous introductions, that drunky-urgent talk part of literature, is great. Both in Chicago and San Francisco, the two cities I know, it’s been (surprisingly!) easy to meet writers and poets and artists and publishers and literature enthusiast. Readings! You should go to these if you don’t already. You only stand in the corner like a muttering loaner for a moment. And then, after an awkward ‘Hello, how are you, your poem is like a Thai massage for my heart,’ you make friends who are talented and supportive, friends who will invite you to read and who will publish your work. Friends whose work you admire. Friends who you will be proud to know.

2) The socializing part of literature is a complete and total waste of time. I mean, everyone knows and says and repeats and explains and justifies and bemoans and National-Novel-Months around the fact that writing takes time. And you know what’s not writing? Being a scenester.

To Repeat:

Go to readings. I mean it. My undergrad was in history, and my day jobs have been in offices, so if it wasn’t for readings I would know no writers. If you go to enough readings, you will get invited to read. You will get invited to submit to magazines. We all sometimes think of literature as a game, and this is a great way to score points. But never say this out loud. Sometimes you will even sell a few copies of your novel.

Don’t go to readings. I mean it. Because it’s not just that it’s a Friday night or a Saturday night or a Monday night or a Tuesday night drinking, when you could be more profitably sautéing kale and memorizing the thesaurus. It’s that, at some point you start saying to yourself, “Why didn’t I get on Janey Smith’s list of people he’d like to fuck? We’re casually friends! I go to his readings! (Which are awesome, btw.) And I know so many people on that list!” That isn’t a productive thought to have, not even for a second. (Although on that article, the comment thread is like artisanal vitriol – seasonal, locally grown – with notes of envy, distain, and lust.)

Your local lit scene is vital. Really. I mean, you can’t just write-and-write-and-write into a void. You are, after all, writing to get read and published. And so are so many other people. You are not adversaries. You are a community. You will support each other and buy each others’ books.* You will teach each other, and you will find beauty in the way others assemble words. Art is hard and comrades are good. (*No one will actually buy your book, nor you theirs. Although sometimes, a trade is possible.)

Your local lit scene is a time-sucking whore. Really. Did you know that vampire bats don’t actually suck blood? Instead, they cut open a vein and
then crouch beside the wound lapping blood like a kitten. That’s the lit scene. But instead of a vein, it’s a high-school-drama-insecurity-jamboree-where-social-engineering-is-as-valuable-as-writing-chops.

Why was that even hyphenated? Because all tied up into one complex yet surprisingly consistent morass. I mean, at some point, you’ll meet someone who is charming, and organizes events, and who is at practically everything you go to, and sometimes the person recognizes you, and sometimes the person is a little standoffish, and this will make you crave approval even more, and then you’ll see this person read, and you’ll say to yourself, “Well, maybe that was good? Did I miss something? Um… No. That was… I have to say it… Mediocre… And I am disappointed to discover that was the art created by the person who seems so valuable to this art scene.” And you will realize that the fixtures of our community were not installed by talent alone.

And at the same time you will feel guilt about harshing on someone’s work. Because this person will have given you beautiful nights and some great
memories and introduced you to work that lingers.

And at the same time, you will say, “Damn, I’ve been thinking about this person a lot. You know what I should have been thinking about instead? The imaginary people in my next novel. I believe, last I visited them, they were on the verge of a dangerous epiphany. I really should return to my desk.”

So… go, don’t go. It’s awful and it’s all we’ve got. Also, please invite me to read at your next event. And buy my novel.

Biting My Truant Pen

For a lot of people, I think, the writing process can be very ritualistic. There’s much more to it than the simple mantra of the Comp I classroom: pre-writing, writing, and revision. The rituals aren’t something that can be taught, for they come with time and experience, developing on an individual basis. I soon learned that I like to have a clean workspace, fresh cup of coffee, and some music before beginning any kind of project. However, there always comes a point in time when my rituals border superstitions. Sometimes my workspace needs to be clean. I get into this state of mind where I can’t write until I’ve prepared my desk like an altar. It’s a religious experience, but not the gratifying kind. It becomes gratuitous and wholly unnecessary, yet I feel compelled to go through the motions, droning on like a kid in Catholic school. If I don’t do everything correctly, well, there’s definitely no way I’ll be able to get any work done.

That’s not crazy, right?

The logical part of me knows obsessing over such small, inconsequential details can mean one of two things, that either I have OCD, or I’m stalling. What’s really going on is that I’m inert, locked in this state of stillness. Raleigh wrote History of the World in a prison chamber before his execution, so why can’t I type out a few pages on my Mac with a dusty desk? Augusten Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors, says that the best cure for writer’s block is to write about it, which is an oxymoron, sure, but not bad advice. He says it’s like taking an Alka-Seltzer. Free-writing will sometimes work for me, but I primarily like to read something inspiring, watch a good film, or listen to really depressing movie soundtracks (if you’re not familiar with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, give The Assassination of Jesse James a try).

Youtube can also help. Big Think has a great series of videos on all sorts of subjects, the writing process being one of them. I really like this particular one with Margaret Atwood. When asked about her writing process, she mentions rolling barrages in WWI, which was when a soldier crouched and another shot from behind, then jumped over the back of the crouching soldier, and so on. I can picture this endless, violent wave of people playing leapfrog with guns. On a good day, my output is kind of like that. On others, I’m stuck paddling upstream. It’s like my kayak is balanced on a large rock and I’m chopping away at a different kind of wave, one that’s cold and whipping me in the face. If I stop struggling and let go, I could drown, yet paddling furiously and getting nowhere is exhausting and counterproductive, much like performing meticulous rituals. Giving in to the inertness is probably the worst crime a writer can commit.

So, take your Alka-Seltzer and get back to work.

– Aaron White

You Gotta Have Friends

Here’s a guest post from Bluestem Magazine contributor Ruth Foley. Her poetry can be found in the September 2012 online issue.

Writing is, for the most part, a solitary pursuit. Some of us need complete silence; some have managed to carve out our own sanctuary at home; some of us turn off our phones or use programs to limit our internet access or go so far as to head out on retreats in order to be productive. Even those of us who prefer to write in a public space—a coffee shop, for example, or a library—often allow the background noise and the presence of other people to fade into the background, creating a sort of sensory bubble in which we can work.

And it makes sense, I suppose. Many writers tend to lean toward the introverted, introspective end of the scale. I know that I seldom feel as if I’ve fully processed any important event until I’ve been able to write about it, and I usually can’t write about it until I’ve had some sustained time to myself. Sometimes, I even need to get a little bored.

The thing is, hanging out with other writers can be awesome. If you find the right writers, ones you’d want to spend time with even if you didn’t have writing in common, you’re likely to find yourself in the middle of a vast pool of resources and support. I found my community in two places. The first was my M.F.A. program, which also happened to be the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who truly understood what I did. Entering the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine forced me to prioritize my writing, yes, but more importantly, it introduced me to a group of seven other women writing in multiple genres, women who became some of my closest friends. We went through the program together, complained to each other, shared each other’s successes and fears, and are still in touch on a daily basis despite the fact that we’re not able to see each other regularly—one of us teaches in China; several of us are scattered through New England; and two of us live in the Midwest.  Poets and Writers is a great first step in looking for the right M.F.A. program for you.

My second community came about as an offshoot of my time in graduate school. The poet Jeanne Marie Beaumont came on board at Stonecoast just as I was graduating, but encouraged me to explore the Advanced Seminar at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH, which she was directing at the time. There, I met another group of poets with whom I felt—and continue to feel—connected, so much so that ten of us branched off and formed our own seminar. We meet for a week every summer to concentrate on our work, but we’re also in touch frequently—again, answering questions, working collaboratively, sharing complaints and fears. The poets from Stonecoast and The Frost Place have been essential to my work. They’ve helped me get a handle on chapbook and full-length manuscripts, offered advice on individual poems when I get stuck, challenged me to extend myself. Many of them have become family. I was already blessed with a smart, well-read, funny family and now I have a smart, well-read, funny family who understands me as a writer. Who could ask for more?

I realize, however, that there are obstacles to these particular paths. Earning an M.F.A. is not an inexpensive proposition, and the costs involved with taking a week-long retreat can be prohibitive as well. There’s also a considerable time investment to consider—I know several writers from both programs who made great sacrifices to be there, be it finding a way to ensure their children were cared for, getting the time off from work, or somehow making room in their schedules for the work that needed to be done outside the seminar week itself. The good news is that there are other ways of building community—and they’re free, or at least inexpensive.

First, find a reading series near you. Odds are good there is at least one—at a local college, in the closest major city, at a library. Put your Googling muscles to use. When you find one, go. Don’t go to read—just go to listen. If you’re lucky enough to have multiple readings to choose from, go to as many as you can. Go more than once. Approach a writer you like and introduce yourself. Thank him or her for reading. If there’s a featured reader, and someone passes a hat around for donations, put in a buck or two. Or buy a chapbook. Give a little of yourself to the community and the community will find you.

Second, look online. Writing blogs are a good place to start—leave a comment, or participate in a group writing challenge. Since I’m a poet, my best recommendations are for poetry blogs, but a quick Googling of “creative writing prompts” will lead you to thousands of potential blogs—find one you like and read a while. Robert Lee Brewer posts a poetry prompt every week on his blog “Poetic Asides” on the Writer’s Digest web site, but you can also go smaller. Diane Lockward’s blog “Blogalicious” offers discussion and prompts (and she just released a fabulous book, The Crafty Poet, which includes both prompts and responses from her guest poets and readers alike). Adele Kenny’s blog “The Music In It” is regularly updated with new posts. Finally, our friends at Poets and Writers have regular prompts for prose writers and poets at “The Time Is Now.”

If you find a blog you like, see if they’ve got any links to recommended blogs—odds are good, for example, that if you like Diane Lockward’s blog, you’ll like at least one of the blogs she recommends. Just like at the reading, try to give more than you get—read, comment thoughtfully, try to keep self-promotion to a minimum. As your community, be it real, virtual, or a combination of both, develops, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get feedback on or publicity for your own work. And best of all, it will involve writers who want the best for you.

Burmese Days and the Quiet Debris of Acceptance: An Anecdote

Here’s a guest post from Bluestem Magazine contributor Carolyn Zaikowski. Her work can be found in the September 2011 online issue. 

There’s a copious amount of lovely advice from veteran writers about handling rejection. Not so copious are musings about what gets triggered when work is accepted. The acknowledgement that acceptance, too, can be swathed in the life-debris of one’s personal psychology or social environment is not a conversation that’s often had. It’s assumed that acceptance is a euphoric pinnacle, the exhale after epic ascents up the publishing mountain, or, in some cases—especially when full manuscripts are at play—the unadulterated manifestation of a dream.

I’m sure many experience acceptances this way, and that’s beautiful. This anecdote is an offering to those who’ve had a more complicated experience. I wish to announce that yes, it’s okay and normal to have shameful, complicated, even panic-stricken reactions to acceptance!

My reaction to having my first manuscript accepted triggered more emotional unfurlings than any rejection I’ve ever received. I’m positive I can’t be the only one whose reaction to an acceptance was so thorny. My first manuscript, a semi-experimental/hybrid novel called A Child is Being Killed, was rejected so many times. This had to do with the usuals: Bad timing; presses that didn’t fit; editors who didn’t have the resources to publish everything they wanted; the fact that the book deals with traumatic themes and is written in a style some find inaccessible. I was about to stop submitting it and toss it in my locked chest—I actually have a locked chest—filled with discarded journals and writing projects.

When it was actually accepted, I started shaking and crying, not in the way that’s associated with excitement or a dream coming true, but the kind that accompanies having experienced trauma, sudden events that break the safety of your assumed narrative. The kind of shaking and crying that takes place in your reptilian brain, where physiological panic is activated. Unfortunately, you can’t logic yourself out of this state. When you’ve learned to be terrified of surprises, even happy ones, you hold body-memories of good things gone awry. The unpredictable pains of my past don’t make me special, but they’re why I’m panicked by surprises. To my survival’s biology, it just doesn’t register that happy surprises are different from terrible ones.

Meanwhile, my pre-frontal lobe was blasting meta-commentaries, summoning shame. The thing I wanted was going to happen, but I couldn’t navigate it happily—simply put, I felt like a brat. But I’ve learned there’s great risk in trusting, then handing oneself over, to happiness. Weary hearts know that something good or safe can be taken away on a whim. Often it feels safer to not bother with, or believe in, the good thing at all. These were not histrionic, self-indulgent notions; they were sincere veils upon my experience of being accepted. I only truly accepted my acceptance and consented to happiness when I held the book, the physical proof, in my hands over a year later.

Twisting this story further was my living situation at the time. When my book was accepted, I was living in a safe-house in Thailand, teaching undocumented Burmese political exiles. One of my Burmese students had been valiantly studying and writing essays for a lengthy application to a democracy studies training program from which she’d been rejected three times. She kept applying because, if she didn’t get accepted now, she’d be forced to return to the sweatshop she’d worked at most of her life as a child slave, sewing clothes for hours a day in violent conditions for little to no money. In the most profound way, this was her final chance. She’d taped her application pages to her walls. She’d stayed up nights obsessing, knocking on my door to practice her interviews and make sure the English in her essays was flawless. This situation was unspeakable—and not comparable, by any stretch, to anything I’ll ever contend with, even in my worst moments.

One morning, she burst into my room, shaking, in tears, carrying a laptop. All she could manage was a stilted mutter about needing me to read her email. She had been accepted. She asked if it was real or a cruel joke, if she was reading wrong, if they’d accepted the wrong person, if they were going to realize and take back their promise.

The very next day, I got my acceptance email. I found her, asked her quietly to read it. Asked her, in a clandestine voice, if I’d seen it right, if it was an awful mistake. She hugged me. For a bit, we shook and cried together.

There’s simply no escaping the vast, unjust gap between the violent, international political oppression that constantly threatened to destroy her, and my privilege to return home to relative comfort and the nearly absurd elitism of a book publication. She, too, deserves to tell her story, has risked her life repeatedly to tell it. Still, she had generous, real love and happiness for me. And I for her. My personal history and the agitated trenches of my nervous system interacted so perplexingly with our context, my glaring privilege, and my desire to honor her emotional generosity and our connection.

I can’t come to conclusions about any of this. Self-condemnations regarding melodrama, plus simplistic guilt over my privilege, are the easy way out. The only thing I can think to offer, which feels excruciatingly incomplete, is that being alive is so vastly permeated by having and not having. The conditions matter in which we are accepted or rejected. When we get or don’t get to tell our stories, personal and social histories are at play, matrix-like, whether or not we know or admit it. Maybe what matters is that we just keep fighting on behalf of the exquisiteness, the inherent worth, of our own and each others’ stories. The world needs to be safe enough for newly told stories—especially when, like my student’s story, they’re the literal ones of life and death.

Diligence is the Mother of Good Luck

I wasn’t terribly familiar with AWP until a few years ago. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs was founded as a nonprofit organization in 1967 to advocate on behalf of creative writing in higher education. AWP hosts an annual conference, this storied gathering of writers young and old, and I was lucky enough to attend last week in Seattle, WA. There were writers from all over the globe, from enthusiasts to professionals, not to mention some of America’s literary rock stars like Ursula K. Le Guin and Chuck Palahniuk. If you’re having a hard time conceptualizing the sheer magnitude of a symposium this size, think Comic-Con, but for creative writing programs. It’s this massive congregation of fans sharing stories with other fans. There are panels and parties, readings, a book fair, and did I mention parties? For us writers young and old, it’s also a great place to network and recharge our literary batteries. It was hard not to revel in this super-charged atmosphere.

While a writer should draw inspiration from all these outlets, it’s just as easy to crumble under the presence of such talent. A writer can walk into this convention with publications under her belt, perhaps a book or two, and be met by hundreds of other writers who also have books, maybe even awards and interviews, merchandise, television shows, cult followings, you name it. I was constantly reminded of that age-old debate about whether success has more to do with luck or talent. NPR recently ran this story about whether art is successful because of the talent poured into a piece or because of luck, that set of seemingly intangible factors the universe dumps on us indiscriminately. The results of an experiment conducted by Princeton professor Matthew Salganik show that the success of art, or any endeavor, is largely left to chance.

Is there a universal standard of “good?” According to these results, not really. For anyone who prescribes to this theory, I think it’d be perfectly reasonable to curl up in a fetal position. Although to some it may seem like an oxymoron, this is an instance in which Cormac McCarthy may be able to cheer us up. In a 2009 interview with The Wall Street Journal, he says this about fallow periods in his writing:

I don’t think there’s any rich period or fallow period. That’s just a perception you get from what’s published. Your busiest day might be watching some ants carrying breadcrumbs. Someone asked Flannery O’Connor why she wrote, and she said, “Because I was good at it.” And I think that’s the right answer. If you’re good at something it’s very hard not to do it. In talking to older people who’ve had good lives, inevitably half of them will say, “The most significant thing in my life is that I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.” And when you hear that you know you’re hearing the truth. It doesn’t diminish their talent or industry. You can have all that and fail.

Composing any piece of creative writing is hard enough as it is, let alone actually getting the work published. But AWP reminded me that luck, while instrumental, doesn’t determine skill, and really it isn’t all that important. It takes a backseat to conviction, certitude, and good ol’ fashioned grit. It’s easy to flourish and succeed when you’re participating in a community that truly understands, truly empathizes with the struggles and hurdles a writer faces in her career. More so than the convention center saturated with genius, I was able to draw inspiration from a collection of people who genuinely care about fostering and maintaining craft.

-Aaron White

AWP 2014 Postcard Contest

2014 Postcard Contest Guidelines:
1. Pick up a Bluestem Magazine postcard at our table (N2) at AWP in Seattle and write an amazing poem, story, or essay on it.
2. Mail that postcard to “Bluestem Postcard Contest” c/o English Department, Eastern Illinois University, Charleston, IL 61920. Don’t forget to include your digital info.
3. Top entries in each category will be considered for publication in an upcoming issue of Bluestem (online and/or in print).
4. One grand prize winner will be awarded $50.00.
5. Limit three entries per submitter. No submissions considered by current or past students, faculty, or staff of EIU.
6. All submissions must be postmarked no later than March 31, 2014, to be considered for the contest.
7. Look for winning entries at www.bluestemmagazine.com.