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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

Roberta Pantal Rhodes on Writing

Here’s a guest post from contributor Roberta Pantal Rhodes. Her poetry can be found in the March 2012 online issue.

I’m flattered that I have been asked to write a blog about writing, or my writing process. I kind of think, gee, me, what have I got to contribute? Well, we’ll see.

In the beginning when I sent out fiction and poetry, I didn’t have an expectation of acceptance, and when it came, I was truly surprised. More often than not, rejection notices fill my mailbox, but every so often, there is a ray of sunshine, and what do you know, my writing has been accepted.

Over the years, I’ve been in many writing groups, mostly fiction. I found the groups helpful, but at times, I would change something in my writing based on a comment from a group member which I now regret. After all, it’s only someone’s opinion. Sometimes people are trying to rewrite your story. However, many times, the opinions are useful, but I think a writer has to really consider the suggestion before running to make a change.

One particular group was extremely helpful. Each of the members would take home someone else’s writing, read it, and comment. Then a group member, not the writer, would read the few pages, and everyone would take turns responding to the text. The leader, however, didn’t comment until the very end, not wanting to influence the group. The leader was exceptional in that she could zero in on what needed to be expanded or eliminated.

I think the best thing about writing is the unexpected surprise that comes after you’ve finished. You’re writing, writing, and then suddenly, something wonderful happens and you ask yourself, where did that come from?

It took me a while to realize that everything I put down on paper isn’t going to become a finished piece. I may put something aside for a while, then when I go back to it, I’m not drawn to it, it didn’t percolate, while other writing may still have that attraction and is something I will stick to and try and develop. Sometimes I get too attached to what I write and it becomes difficult “to give it up.”

Recently, I ran across a story called “Beginners,” by Raymond Carver on The New Yorker website. It was the original draft of the story with the final version retitled “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” edited by Gordon Lish. I never realized how much influence an editor can have on a story. They seem like two different pieces. One is by Raymond Carver, and the other Gordon Lish. Definitely worth checking out.

When I get stuck, not knowing what to write, I often turn to books of poetry or prose and look for lines that I can write off. But lately, I’ve been going to museums roaming among the sculptures, photographs and paintings, finding inspiration looking at the artwork.

One other thing that happens to me, when I’m writing is if I’m sitting and nothing is coming, I get up and lie down and let my mind wander, and in a short period of time, something clicks and I’m able to return to my writing.

I keep the following rejection notice on my bulletin board next to my desk;

Dear Writer,

Thank you for your submission to Orchid. Your story was carefully read. We’re sorry to report that your story does not meet our needs at this time. We’re writers, too, and understand the disappointment of rejection. Please keep in mind that we’re all in good company. The average story is rejected 25 or more time before being accepted. Some famous rejection stories: C.s. Lewis sent more than 800 manuscripts out before he made a sale; Ray Bradbury, also around 800; Gone with the Wind, rejected by more than 20 publishers; Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted bird, rejected three times by the same publisher, one of those times AFTER that same publisher had accepted it; An editor told Nabakov that his Lolita manuscript should be “buried under a large stone;” F. Scott Fitzgerld was told, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

Please keep in mind the words from Charles Baxter quoted above. Take care and keep writing.

Poem as Rescue Ladder

Here’s a guest post from two-time Bluestem contributor Dave Seter. His poetry can be found in both the Spring 2008 and 2011 print issues.

Sometimes as writers we need to salvage ourselves from misplaced criticism. This is true whether the critic simply ate a bad oyster for lunch, had a fight with their partner that morning, or felt threatened by the writer’s youth, tattoos, race, and so on. I’ll never forget my first one-on-one critique at a writers’ conference. The staff poet arrived, threw my poetry on the table, and said: What’s this? She didn’t consider it poetry, she expressed between glances at her wrist watch.

If the writer chooses to salvage meaning from criticism, there’s a parallel idea in the poem itself. The poet Mary Kinzie writes (in her book A Poet’s Guide to Poetry) that every poem is a rescue, an attempt to salvage the chosen subject using the limited tools of language. We have no choice as writers but to rescue ourselves, to shout out if necessary, but in our own voices, not the adopted voice of the critic. Life can be hard: why should writing be any different? We rescue ourselves from the crossfire, the unemployment line, and so on.

I was fired from my very first job as a supermarket stock boy. After my first day the foreman said it was as if I hadn’t learned a thing from the first week’s training. It was an outrageous thing to say—because—I hadn’t been invited to the first week’s training. Sometimes the right thing to do is simply walk out one door and get hired next door.

My point is, if there’s an edge to life, it needs expressing. For example, our society faces environmental challenges. I capture this tension by using urban metaphor in nature poems. This may be an effect of the dual influence of the poets John Clare (the first true nature poet) and Philip Larkin (social critic and curmudgeon) on my work. Poems of mine published in Bluestem (and formerly Karamu) feature: a jay needling the unrest in the heart; a raccoon caught in a cabaret act; and flames that can’t be kindled with flowers.

To give a fair impression of my skill level, I’ve also had poems rejected by Bluestem. Criticism and rejection are a necessary part of the experience. If the editor or audience can’t climb the rescue ladder of a poem, it may have a few rungs missing. This doesn’t mean it isn’t worth fixing.

While my own work tends toward traditional free verse, I’m currently reading contemporary poets Judy Halebsky (who weaves together found poetry with personal experience in a lyric that transports the reader to new worlds), and Katherine Hastings (whose sensory and emotional depth pull the reader to the center of her subject with the force of gravity). What I learn from these writers gives me another angle from which to look at my own work. Continuing to learn from each other is one way to grow as a writing community.

The Bay Area writing community is fortunate to have organizations such as the Marin Poetry Center and Word Temple Poetry Series which provide engaging, provocative speakers, as well as opportunities to practice the spoken word. It’s worth seeking out local community or creating one where it doesn’t exist. When it comes to online resources, I favor the edgy or progressive, such as Weave Magazine and Xenofiles.

I’m also partial to The American Poetry Review, in part because one of the founders, Stephen Berg, was my first poetry instructor. But this newsprint journal also serves as a portable community, one that can be clutched on the bus or spread beneath a tree. It features not only contemporary work but also the most thoughtful critical essays found outside of the halls of academia. The more we share our knowledge and invite each other in, whether in tactile newsprint or the ethereal cloud, the more we rescue each other from the outer and inner critic, to live another day on the page, and come closer to what we’re trying to say.

Keys in One Pocket, Change in the Other

When I was asked to start coming up with ideas for my first blog entry as Bluestem’s new editorial assistant, I immediately thought of a recent trip I took with my two-year-old daughter to see her speech therapist. I’m always trying to carve out spare time to work on my novel-in-progress, but killing an hour in a rehabilitation clinic’s waiting room means dealing with incessant coughing, cellphone chatter, the blaring of a television talk show, and the sharp gaze of that guy who continues to stare daggers from across the room even though we’ve made eye contact more than once. On this particular trip I was already down-and-out, tired and hating my lack of productivity, wishing my daughter could talk and I could work. Unable to gather my thoughts long enough to scribble anything down, I started reading a short story by Nathanael West called “The Impostor.”

He opens with the lines, “In order to be an artist one has to live like one.” I tried desperately to block out Ellen’s studio audience.

What could they be so damn excited about?

My worry subsided when he continued with, “We know now that this is nonsense.” Okay, I thought, maybe there’s hope. I soon learned of the struggle Beano Walsh was having, a sculptor who’d recently arrived in Paris on scholarship. This 1920s Paris, a silver-screened stupor of fast cars and faster living, was supposedly the perfect environment for an artist, much unlike my waiting room. The problem, however, was that Beano couldn’t produce anything, no matter how hard he tried. Here was this stocky guy, a little rough around the edges, rescued from a life of manual labor and holed up with a “Belgian girl” in a studio sporting little more than a pot-bellied stove. His nights were spent scrawling crude shapes on expensive sketch paper, and his days collecting truckloads of marble. He’d hack away at them until they crumbled into heaps of ruination and regret. He knew he was in trouble, so he started blaming the anatomy books. Obviously he couldn’t master human proportions because, well, the models were much too short. In a last-ditch effort to retain his scholarship, Beano decided he’d need to compose a book of six-foot models. So, naturally, he purchased a male corpse of the correct proportions. While showing it off to his friends he had a slight misunderstanding with a couple of police officers (who were curious as to why Beano had a dead body in the back of a taxi cab) and ultimately ended up spending his night in a cell with the body of a deceased sailor.

Up until this point in the story, everything had been somewhat lighthearted. I was enjoying myself. Then, I was told Beano’s evening with the corpse drove him insane. He’d be damned to live the rest of his days in an institution. The end. I couldn’t help but feel that familiar clutch of anxiousness, like the story stuck it to me in a visceral kind of way. Where Beano’s burden came from a lack of ideal anatomy, I have grad school and a family to think about, not to mention a teaching career. When do I have time to be a writer? What free moments I can possibly carve out for myself could be spent doing a countless number of other things: volunteering at a soup kitchen, or maybe building a bridge. Yet here I am devoting years of my life to what, a novel? And is it even any good? In that waiting room I had to ask myself whether or not I’m an imposter, doomed to drive myself insane in the name of creation, of artistry, and to what ends? But I needed to slow my roll.

Everyone self-deprecates.

I fell into that trap that all writers probably find themselves in at some point or another. Doubt, no matter how frightening, is part of the creation process, right? And inspiration, drive, the want to succeed, all come from a place of fear, fear of failure and rejection, or the inability to renew a scholarship. Fear will drive us to extraordinary lengths, maybe to purchasing a corpse. But the imposters are those who try to live the clichés like Beano did. It is possible to be a parent, student, manual laborer, and create something, anything, worthwhile. Here I was, surrounded by people struggling to overcome bad knees and broken arms and legs that won’t cooperate. As the man next to me compressed his joints and the woman across the room practiced her breathing exercises, I learned that I was undergoing my own kind of rehabilitation.

Maybe it really is possible to write in a waiting room.

-Aaron White

Be Kind and Take it Easy

Here’s a guest post from Bluestem contributor Leesa Cross-Smith. Her short story, “Sinnerman,” can be found in the September 2011 online issue here:

Be Kind and Take it Easy

When it comes to writing, if you find something you can do well, milk it. For example, Lorrie Moore. She is a sublime at conjuring the jaw-dropping metaphor/simile. She takes me so far into it, I almost forget what we were talking about. It’s the almost that matters. For example, in her brilliant little collection called Self-Help she writes “Cold men destroy women…they woo them with something personable that they bring out for show, something annexed to their souls like a fake greenhouse, lead you in, and you think you see life and vitality and sun and greenness, and then when you love them, they lead you out into their real soul, a drafty, cavernous, empty ballroom, inexorable arched and vaulted and mocking you with its echoes—you hear all you have sacrificed all you have given, landing with a loud clunk. They lock the greenhouse and you are as tiny as a figure in an architect’s drawing, a faceless splotch, a blur of stick limbs abandoned in some voluminous desert of stone.” Those sentences are basically Russian nesting dolls of metaphor/simile. I don’t want it to end.

In Kathy Fish’s book, Together We Can Bury It, she writes, “We say shit and stamp our feet on the pavement, shoot breath from our nostrils like morning horses.” And later, “Slide into each other like river otters.” In Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon he writes “Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.”

Ann-Marie MacDonald writes in her novel, The Way The Crow Flies, “She rejoins the crowd and watches with her friends, but she feels like an emptied glass—that crestfallen feeling of walking out from a movie theatre in the middle of the day, out from the intimate matinee darkness and the smell of popcorn, which is the smell of heightened colour and sound and story into the borderless bright of day. Bereft.” And “As abrupt as a flock of gulls, a squad of young men jogs past, white sneakers in double-time, billowing singlets and blue shorts, sweat stained cadets all sinews and Adam’s apples.”

Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series, uses such tiny folksy metaphors/similies, I find myself underlining and starring and dog-earing a lot. “Pretty as a small brown hen” and “I feel as though I’ve gone hollow as a soap bubble, and perhaps I shall burst with joy.” “She said, in a voice like metal shavings” and “the gentlemen of the Court descended upon me like a flock of parrots on a ripe passion fruit.” “Sun glinting on his hair as though on a trove of gold and copper coins.” “He stared at me intently, like a snake hoping to fascinate a bird.”

In her collection, The History of Vegas, Jodi Angel writes “The river was like white noise on a television station without reception. And “her body was wide as the open prairie” and “The highway shimmered like a broken bottle edge on the beach.” Mary Gaitskill writes in her collection, Bad Behavior, “Daisy was silent and frail as a cattail” and “Her dark hair fell across her face with the graceful motion of a folding wing.”

Of course metaphors/similies shouldn’t be overused—you don’t want to wear your reader out. Sometimes things simply are what they are and they don’t need fancying. But when it works, it really works for me. Something like Galbaldon’s “he looked like an autumn leaf, swirling joyfully wind-borne,” can really lift a piece—a little puff of air that keeps a sentence-feather from falling to the floor.

I read these, study them and try my hand at them, as well. (This is not me comparing myself to these wonderful writers I’ve mentioned. This is me sharing my process with you.) In a story of my own called “Absolutely” I wrote “His mouth tasted like thousand-page Russian novels I’d never read.” And in another called “Whiskey & Ribbons” I wrote “the thought of kissing him is there snapping back and forth like a clean white dishtowel hanging on a clothesline in the wind of my cluttered mind.” In “Sometimes We Both Fight in Wars” I wrote “His heart is a heavy, loaded gun he hands over to me, lets me spin on my finger.” And in “Making Cowboys,” “She shoved all of her feelings into the overflowing suitcase of her heart, sat on it and smashed it down so she could close it, snap it shut.”

In order to grow as a writer, my advice is to do other things. Anything, everything. Pay attention. Look for new ways to compare one thing to another, read the writers who are good at doing what you want to do. Be kind and take it easy. And when you do sit down to work, work as hard as you can. Fight for it, be open, change your mind, be awfully stubborn. Get better and submit and stand back, get out of your own way so your story light can shine.

One of my favorite spots for writing advice is Roxane Gay’s Tumblr but not only for the writing stuff, but also because of how she approaches the process, blending it so effortlessly with the rest of her life. Roxane is a genius (and I don’t throw that word around often) when it comes to being able to engage readers. She writes about writing and books and current events and she also adds a personal touch, mixing writing tips in with recipes and what she’s making for dinner that night. It’s a joy to read. That’s the thing about writing. I wouldn’t have much to write about if I weren’t paying attention to current events, reading work by writers I admire, laughing with my husband on his way home from work, making dinner for my family. Writing is one tiny part of wholeness; life, tessellated—chunky pieces of bright blue and amber and green and black coming together bit by bit to (hopefully) make something ravishing.

Your First Publication: Increasing the Odds

Enjoy a guest blog post from Bluestem contributor Joe Benevento. Read his poetry in the March 2011 online issue of Bluestem here.

Your First Publication: Increasing the Odds

I’ve been sending my poems, stories and essays out for publication for over thirty years now, and, for about as long, I’ve been advising students on how best to do the same. A lot of my advice is pretty standard stuff: 1)Follow guidelines carefully (if the word limit on a short story is 1,500, from a place that doesn’t take “genre” fiction, what sense would it make to send them your 3,257 word urban fantasy piece?) 2) Wait until you have written and rewritten your work, perhaps received some very positive feedback on it from writing teachers or others whose opinion you respect, before submitting it at all; 3) Don’t be crushed by rejection; expect rejection as a norm and part of what makes you a working writer; 4) Send your work out to more than one journal at a time, unless the publication specifically prohibits it.

However, I’ve also developed other kinds of advice, which, if not earth-shatteringly original, is at least less obvious, and maybe even controversial.

1) Don’t sell yourself too short or too long: I’ve known writers who would only send to what they perceived as the very “top” places, with “top” often being determined by obvious reputation and payment rates (i.e. The New Yorker) or by some list of best markets they had unearthed (most commonly now via the internet). I have two problems with that approach. The most practical one is that a new, unknown writer has an extremely miniscule chance of breaking into a “top” market. The second, less obvious objection is that a young writer (and, really, any writer) should submit to places where he or she actually admires the writing being published. (Have you read some of the poems in The New Yorker lately?) It is far more important to find magazines and journals where the work resonates with you, the kind of writing you aspire to yourself or that you feel you are already within the ballpark of mastering. At the other extreme, why be so desperate to get published that you’d submit about anywhere? I’ve known people who have paid $39.95 to see a copy of their piece in some trumped up anthology that actually publishes about anyone, in the hopes that most of them will pay the $39.95 to see their work in print. While one might like being the very best writer in an anthology or journal, it’s a bad goal for a young writer; it usually means the other people’s work really stinks. Instead, an aspiring writer needs to seek respectable, legitimate places to publish which are fully open to the possibility of including them. Anyone can go to or or similar sites to learn about the guidelines and websites of innumerable, legitimate literary journals.

2) Keep Your Money in Your Pocket Whenever Possible: I assume most new writers are working from a limited budget. I strongly discourage them from entering contests for the best poem or story, contests held by so many literary magazines, for cash prizes and publication, unless there is some cogent reason why they feel they have a better than the usual almost zero chance of winning such a contest. What are the odds that the first poems or stories a person has ever gotten up to possible publication speed will be better than hundreds or thousands of others submitted to the same contest, from people at different levels of accomplishment? Moreover, I encourage students and other new writers to seek out the hundreds of journals now using or other, similar submission engines without fees. You can now submit via the internet for free, saving the paper and postage of the past. Some literary journals have tried to circumvent your free ride by charging a $2 or $3 “maintenance fee” and arguing it’s no more than you would have paid for postage and paper to some journals which still do prefer the more traditional methods of submission. But why pay $3 when you can submit to an equally viable journal for free? The only exception would be if the place you’re willing to pay the fee to is your absolute favorite, one at which you think you have an especially good chance of being read with interest and/or that you would be beyond hysterically happy to inhabit. Otherwise, always choose those journals, whether print or online, that allow you to have your work read without diminishing your bank account.

3) Not all Rejections are Created Equal- If you’re new to this, you might not understand how unusual it is to receive any feedback on a rejection slip or email. It IS unusual. One usually gets a “form rejection,” thanking you for submitting and expressing regret that your piece just didn’t make it. If instead you are told explicitly that your story made it to the final round, or that one poem came “close” or that if you would rework the ending they’d be happy to reconsider it, you should be happy. You made a “cut” or two, and you are being asked, explicitly or implicitly, to try that place again. You have broken past the rejection form norm and have taken a first step towards being published. I once had a writer at the AWP conference tell me that my rejection note to him (in my role as poetry editor of GHLL) was nicer than most any acceptance he had ever received; about a year down the road he had some poems published in our journal. Take any hint of approval from any journal you respect and keep working towards making that approbation turn towards an acceptance. Editors read as many as several thousand submissions a year. If they are writing back some actual words just meant for you, be sure to send more back to them. Good luck.

Joe Benevento, Professor of English at Truman State, and long-time co-editor of GHLL, is the author of nine books of poetry and fiction, most recently, his debut mystery novel The Monsignor’s Wife. To find out more go to