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Editor’s Farewell

Dear Friends of Bluestem,

It’s time for me to say farewell and so long. I’ve accepted a job in the UK at University of Gloucestershire. I’ve enjoyed my time at Bluestem. I’ve loved reading through the submissions, publishing so many great short stories, essays, poems and art, and working with students and colleagues. The September 2015 online issue is underway, and it’s full of fantastic new writing and art. With the upcoming transition, it may not get posted until October… please be patient. It will be worth the wait, I promise!

If you have any questions during this time of transition, please contact Charlotte Pence.

All best,

Lania Knight

On the Value of Hearing “No,” Kindly

A new post by Bluestem contributor, Holly Wendt. Her story, “Indelible,” appears in the September 2012 online issue of Bluestem.

On the 18th of November, The Millions posted a discussion of the nuances of the rejection letter, and it is full of helpful and reassuring advice. That article is not the first of its kind and it surely won’t be the last; rejection is so much a part of writing, such a difficult and necessary part—even after a decade of sending work out into the world and hearing “no” far more often than “yes,” it’s still comforting to read about similar experiences. It’s also necessary to remind myself that the “no” can be its own kindness.

Like many of the stories about my writing life, this one begins in a classroom at Lycoming College, in a fiction class with my mentor, G. W. Hawkes.

I was nineteen, and I drafted a story, “Dreamfish,” that was nineteen pages long, and they were, at the time, the best pages I had ever written. What was striking about that was that I knew. It was the first time I’d really felt my writing in my bones.

The class workshop bore that out: the feedback from my peers was roundly positive. I went to my individual conference with Dr. Hawkes, and he was more pointedly effusive than my classmates, which was a first. Dr. Hawkes is a man of few words, an advocate of reading and writing far more than an advocate of talking about either, and so that meant something, too. I’d written a story worth talking about. For ten minutes, I was so happy, but writing is work, and I had work to do: at the end of our talk, Dr. Hawkes tore the top thirteen pages from the manuscript and gave me back what remained. That was where the story began, and the ending, of course, was not the ending.

Now I have stories I’ve been working on for years, but then, all of those brief, early morning meetings, across two separate semesters, of going over a draft and hearing “not there yet” were crushing, and each one more so. Dr. Hawkes refused to tell me how to fix the piece, too, and there were times when I wished he would. I was so sick of hearing “no,” and I simply wanted to be done with the story, even if it wasn’t finished. My one saving grace was that I was too ashamed of the feeling to say that to my mentor, so I just kept rewriting.

Finally, somewhere in early spring, the story came together, and Dr. Hawkes encouraged me to submit it for publication. He told me to aim high. He said, “Send this to The Atlantic.

At the time, I knew that was a lofty aim, but it would take years for me to quite understand how lofty. I spent ages proofreading and on the two-sentence cover letter, which Dr. Hawkes did direct: keep it short, keep it simple, and say that G. W. Hawkes had suggested I send the work there. And then I addressed the envelope, SASE inside, to C. Michael Curtis, Senior Editor, The Atlantic.

The story didn’t get into The Atlantic. This is not that fairytale.

The rejection letter, though, was kind. It was personalized, explaining briefly what the editor found admirable in the work, but also why it wasn’t quite right for The Atlantic. Curtis signed it himself.

The longer I write—the deeper the stack of rejections I receive—the more I recognize this moment for the gift that it was. I don’t know that “Dreamfish” was ever on the cusp of being accepted by The Atlantic, but, at the time, it felt like it. That piece of paper and its few words made sending the story out again easier. If what I received in the mail was what rejection was—the real, professional kind—I could accept that. Rather than hearing simply “no,” I could find my way to hearing “not yet” instead, as I had in that year of revision.

The next place I sent the story, Gray’s Sporting Journal, was, for reasons personal and familial, more intimidating than The Atlantic: though I hadn’t grown up in an expressly “literary” household, my widely read outdoorsman father had been a Gray’s subscriber since the magazine’s inception. Beside the stunning photo essays and advertisements for guided fishing trips that cost more than my car, Gray’s ran thematically tied literary fiction. My story was about fly-fishing, and again, I was encouraged to think big. The worst that could happen was that Gray’s would say no, and I’d already survived that.

Gray’s didn’t say no, but Gray’s is also a lovely, glossy magazine where space is at a premium. I needed to cut the story by nearly three pages, and the managing editor put that task into my hands. I trimmed and tweaked and bemoaned the loss of my darlings, and then I saw that I didn’t miss them. What was left was better, stronger, clearer, and in the dim winter light of the following January, the 2004 February/March issue of the magazine arrived. To this day, it is the only piece of my work that has arrived organically in my family’s hands: there my father’s beloved magazine, there his daughter’s fiction.

***

“Dreamfish” might not have been the most difficult writing task I’ve faced since, but because of where and when that story and its story happened, everything else has been possible. The thirteen pages Dr. Hawkes popped from the original draft showed me that the well of words does not run dry. I need never fear cutting what’s necessary—the writing is better for it—and every one of those not-there-yet conversations impressed upon me the importance of waiting until a story is truly ready to go out into the world. Writing well is not about flattering anyone, and I am grateful to have a mentor who absolutely refused to do so. When he praised something I wrote, it was because he meant it, and in a field as full of doubt (from outside and inside) as writing, to know I could have complete confidence in just that much has made a difference.

Since then, of course, the number of rejections I’ve received has vastly outweighed the number of acceptances. Writers often cry “it’s who you know!” in the publishing game, and I’m guilty of it, too, on my worst days, but we all know some other writer, and we all know some other writer who is struggling. No matter that including “G.W. sent me” in that original cover letter—my teacher knew someone and helped me use that to my advantage—might even confirm one part of the stereotype, there’s less, and better, in the gesture than cronyism: the connection did not get me a publication in The Atlantic. I haven’t even sent a story there since. That connection, though, did result in a minor, invaluable kindness and a measure of confidence and resilience on which I still lean, no matter that it looked, from the outside, like another simple no.

Whose Biography? A Writer’s Fact Is Always a Reader’s Fiction

A blog post by Bluestem Poetry Reader Steve Nathaniel:

Is that true?

The question quickest to hand when I hear literary confessions may be the wrong one. I decided to rethink this knee-jerk reaction after I read “Based on a True Story. Or Not” in which Kathleen Rooney discusses the pitfalls of assuming creative writing to be auto-biographical. She suggests that “if we feel as though we’ve somehow been cheated, is that on us? I’d argue that it probably is.” She goes on to explain that every reader assumes autobiography at their own peril. However, when Rooney later discusses willful deception, specifically fictitious holocaust memoirs, she doesn’t distinguish between this fraud and the fiction of Brian Russell whom she endorses. Instead of clarifying, she clouds with the vacuous judgment of the fictitious memoirs, “because they are inexcusable.” This tells me only that one poetry editor will excuse one fiction and not another. How we sort them seems to me the crux of the whole problem.

The question of why we expect creative writing to be autobiographical seems a reasonable starting point. As I see it, the more I allow a writer to conduct my emotions, the more I accept their authority. Re-reading Seamus Heaney in memoriam, I think over “Mother of the Groom” where he describes a mother’s “hands in her voided lap,” and I trust that he knows enough about youth and aging that he can speak for a mother. I trust that he has built a bridge from my bit of humanity to another, that crossing it I won’t be tricked. While there are better veins of communication from which to draw historical facts, we trust creative writers to speak, at least, with emotional sincerity, and so we trust them to speak from the authority of lived life. This is not to say that lived life is not transferable, but any artist’s ability to tell truth weakens as their content drifts from what they know.

Of course, when I speak of an artist’s ability to “tell truth,” I don’t mean transfer truth. K.R.S. Iyengar articulates the widely held view that “poetry by its very nature is untranslateable.” I will go so far to say that all communication is from one language to another; the writer’s reader is always a translator too because every person communicates from a unique set of lived images, memories, and associations. A writer can’t expect any specific image to arise in their reader. Instead, the reader populates a writer’s language with their own lived images. There is no question of fact or fiction, auto-biography or biography; every writer deals in proximity. So where does this leave us?

I make sense of it by imagining a spectrum upon which every writer situates their work. On one end of the spectrum I see writing that is so faithful to its speaker’s experience that it becomes abstruse beyond hope of access. On the other end is writing which embraces all experiences, especially those foreign to the writer. These writers discount the possibility that theirs may contradict the work of other artists who have lived the subject matter. Consider the writers on each end: they fail their audience. Instead, I think I’ll try to resist the force of these magnetic poles and strive to write in that strain.

-Steve Nathaniel

 

Digesting Márquez

A post from Bluestem Fiction Reader Tj Martinson.

Over the past few weeks, I have been studying for GRE subject test in Literature. A common strategy for this undertaking is the simple task of association. This association takes the form of taking an author and his or her body of work, condensing it into a small list of traits, and digesting it whole. Edgar Allen Poe = Gothic. The Odyssey= Epic. Jane Austen = Rich, white people complaining and this is somehow ironic. However, one name seemed to jump out from the myriad, likely owing to his recent passing this past April: Gabriel García Márquez.

For the GRE, if the name Gabriel García Márquez pops up, the test-taker is to think primarily one thing: Magical Realism. I understand the strategy behind this utilitarian approach to studying literature, but that doesn’t detract from the inherent problematic behind it. Thinking “Magical Realism” doesn’t quite capture Márquez. However, this “watering down” extends beyond the heinous GRE. Following his death, news stations and radio broadcasts paid dainty homage with something along the lines of, “Gabriel García Márquez was a Colombian-born writer, known for his popularization of Magical Realism…” Considering the audience of these broadcasts, it’s an understandable compartmentalization, but this still falls drastically short. Márquez was an incredibly influential novelist (Thomas Pynchon picked up a thing or two from him), short story master, political participant, journalist, and screenwriter, whose work has been praised world-wide, receiving the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature. Whew.

To banally attach Magical Realism with Márquez is a terrible injustice to his name. In a 1973 issue of The Atlantic, Márquez noted that his use of surreal happenings in his writing was not so far removed as it may initially appear to an American reader. Instead, he said, “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” In a sense, when we think of Márquez’s contributions as belonging primarily to popularizing or defining Magical Realism, we are heavily diluting the cultural significance of his work. He wrote to the shared consciousness of a populace, and his work represented the strikingly unfamiliar culture for a general reader in an accessible, fascinating manner.

I would urge a meditation on his Wikipedia page (cue the Wikipedia groans) to gain a sense of Gabriel García Márquez as a figure that extends well beyond his masterfully-crafted novels. For example, he was so outspoken in matters concerning U.S. imperialism that he was denied a U.S. visa by immigration until Bill Clinton lifted the ban, citing One Hundred Years of Solitude as his favorite novel. For those who are unsatisfied with gleaning information from Wikipedia, or who are understandably fascinated by a fascinating man, pick up his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale.

We, as readers or bibliophiles, develop our passion by reading bodies of work, comparing them, and learning about the context that they were written into which they were received. Although it is likely inevitable for an author to posthumously escape his entire body of work being compartmentalized by the general student of literature, we should recognize that this is not true knowledge of a subject. Knowing those key facts should tantalize us into diving head-first into the texts and gaining a sense of the magician who wrote them. Not even for the sake of parlor-trick, name-dropping knowledge, but for the sake of preserving the richness and profundity from which the bite-sized, easily-digested factoids will inevitably rear their ugly little heads.

-Tj Martinson

Writing in the Midst of Living

While I was attending AWP 2014 a couple of months ago, I picked up a copy of Seattle Weekly in this wicked little coffee shop right next to Georgetown Records. As I read it, I came across a brief announcement concerning the conference. I want to quote it at length:

I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be more fun than this national gathering of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs? All these whining MFA types with massive student loans and without jobs or the ability to write something actually useful—like code, maybe? But still, these poets, essayists, novelists, journalists, and crafters of verse will not be deterred. Perhaps their sheer stubbornness in the face of penury is worthy of our respect. And if not that, you could at least buy them a beer or three at some of the many offsite readings and gatherings that are open to us, the unlettered, unwashed, unpublished members of the general public (mere readers, in other words).

By the time I’d finished it, I was laughing. I mean, that’s some funny stuff, right? Obviously the author is being tongue-in-cheek, facetious, maybe sardonic. Yet, the thought of his potential seriousness isn’t funny, at least not to me. If anything, it’s unsettling, and not just because someone’s spinning a fat wad of heavy-handed snarkiness. I’m concerned that people actually stereotype authors in this way. Sure, a majority of us could possibly be manic-depressive alcoholics, as eccentric as we are broken, but that stereotype isn’t just reserved for aspiring Papa Hemingways and Sylvia Plaths. No, what really got to me was the line about writing “something actually useful.” I can’t even fathom that statement. How can literature not be useful? Storytelling is in our DNA. Ever since humankind had the cognitive capacity to grasp a tool it has been etching stories into cavern walls and clay tablets. Jonathan Gottschall argues that our innate ability to frame our perception in narrative form is an evolutionary perk, and he may be right. If we consider just American literature alone, stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped spark a war, and 2001: A Space Odyssey a trip to the moon. So, I ask again, how can literature not be useful?

Maybe he doesn’t get it. Maybe the author doesn’t personally know any “whining MFA types” who are actually thriving, not just in the publishing world, but in academia, and finance, and sales, and marketing, and the tech industry, and in human resources. Maybe he doesn’t know that Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, and that William Faulkner supervised a power plant. Maybe he doesn’t know that writers, the people supposedly perched upon an ivory tower throwing crumbs to congregations of squawking readers, are, first and foremost, readers. The best writers are readers, plain and simple. All of those writers with “massive student loan debt” shell out a lot of money for their love of the craft, but more so, their love of reading. Novels, poetry, articles, songs, stories, fictions and half-truths all bind us as people and as cultures. Our histories are stories. Our very lives, to some degree, are stories.

I really hope he was just trying to funny.

-Aaron White

 

Correction to 2014 Print Issue

Dear Bluestem Readers,

We regret that there was an error in the 2014 print issue of Bluestem. Marilyn Kallet’s poem on page 27, “Kitchen Rag,” should have been printed with an epigraph. Below is the poem as the poet intended. Our sincerest apologies. –Ed.

Kitchen Rag

Que dire de celles qui pourchassent l’obscurité avec leur torchon…
(Vénus Khoury-Ghata)

What to say of those who hunt shadows with a dishrag? Me,
I purchase chicken soup, add garlic, noodles, wine.

If not enlightenment, tradition. I inhale poulet perfume
and the healing art of some phantom Jewish mother

who alchemized poultry. Someone’s Yiddishe Mama stirred that pot,
if not my Southern mom. If I inhale vapors of chicken,

L’Chaim stirs me. Though poems adore the flavor of obscurity,
they will not thrive there, not in Villon’s freezing attic, nor in poor

Baudelaire’s. Someone with humid breath must be reading them,
strolling through the village with a volume of Lamartine under an arm,

or hunched inside ancient walls with her laptop stealing wi fi—then
her songs have half a chance of being born, finding someone

else’s eyes. Not Rimbaud’s, those of another young poet
who yearns to escape his tidy village, military parades,

grizzled Vets and Girl Guides. He will transport my verses like a torch
into Paris, into his thoughts and heart, into his well-toned body.

That’s another histoire. For the moment,
chicken soup begs to simmer, and I will not leave the gas lit

without striking a match. Back off, Sylvia!
Too late to die young, pointless to

towel down ragged,
                                                                                  indifferent shades.

Clearing the Palate

As an English instructor, I’ve always been an advocate for journaling. It’s something that was forced upon me in college, and perhaps for that very same reason I’ve fought to instill its importance in my own classroom. More often than not, my students will bemoan its practice, treating it like busywork. Their reaction, which I totally understand, prompts me to harp about all of the benefits journaling gives toward critical thinking, which they usually don’t understand, along with the plethora of personal revelation journaling allows us to uncover, and so on. However, I hardly keep a journal myself.

I’m the world’s biggest friggin’ hypocrite.

My latest project is an essay about my three-year-old daughter’s autism diagnosis. The past eight or nine months of doctor visits and developmental therapy sessions have been rough, and branching out into creative nonfiction, which I’m not well-versed in by any means, has been a great outlet for a lot of my joys and frustrations. It also has me thinking more about journaling. I’ve always kept a notebook (like a lot of my friends, I have an unhealthy obsession with Moleskines), but that practice is different, I think. To me, journaling is geared toward the outpour of freethinking. My notebook is much more utilitarian. It specifically contains any ideas or information that seems pertinent to a current project, like my novel or essay, for example. I have a separate notebook for each. I also keep a different set of notes for any observations that I think will prove useful down the road. Journals aren’t necessarily designed to serve this purpose.

Virginia Woolf has famously said, “The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.” I think the word “practice” is key. Journals can function in a lot of ways, such as tools for personal therapy, or ways to kick start memory in Alzheimer’s victims. For writers, they’re good practice. It’s an easy way to stick to that mantra, “Write every day.” David Sedaris, one of my favorite essayists, said, “I’ve been keeping a diary for thirty-three years and write in it every morning. Most of it’s just whining, but every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote.”

Recently, I happened upon this blog called Courage 2 Create. It’s authored by Ollin Morales, and it was initially kept to chronicle his journey through writing a novel. Although it’s all written in a public forum, the idea itself is very journal-esque. It’s inspired me to keep a day-to-day journal, one I hope I can be faithful to as the years go on.

Plus, it’s an excuse to buy another Moleskine. 

– Aaron White 

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.