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April 2015 Contributor News

Bluestem is excited to announce our past contributors’ newest accomplishments! Check out what our writers have been up to!

Jerry Bradley’s story “Derangement” appeared in the Print 2014 edition of Bluestem and has been collected in an anthology called A Shared Voice. He is better known as a poet than fiction writer, and his 3rd collection of poems, Crownfeathers and Effigies, came out in 2014 from Lamar University Press.

Eric Burke’s short fiction piece “Mineral Rights,” which appeared in the September 2012 Online issue of Bluestem, has been included in a video of his short works titled “Fog.

Sarah Jubar (previously Kendall)’s fiction piece “Turducken” appeared in Bluestem in December of 2011. She is currently working on a novel, and her most recent publication “How to Tolerate the Dawn” (flash fiction, nominated for a Pushcart Prize) appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Short, Fast, and Deadly.

Michael Lauchlan, whose poem “Evensong” appeared in the December 2014 online edition of Bluestem, has a new poetry collection! You can read the press release for Lauchlan’s new book Trumbull Ave. here.

Sandy Longhorn, whose poem “Seized with a Small Fever” appeared in the Spring 2014 Print edition of Bluestem,  has a new book: Alchemy My Mortal Form.

Jim Meirose‘s short story “The Rowboat” appeared in September 2014 edition of Bluestem. His new novel Mount Everest will be published by Montag Press in 2015.

Matt Pine, whose fiction “Winter Vacation” appeared in the June 2012 Online issue of Bluestem, is starting a new weekly lit-web-type-think. It’s called How It Feels To, and he is currently seeking submissions. He wants to solicit short pieces on how it feels to… Well, how it feels to do anything. Like clean your apartment. Or roll out a yoga mat. Or teach a child how to hold chopsticks. Or how to hold chopsticks yourself. Any form is welcome.

Doug Ramspeck has appeared in multiple issues of Bluestem, the latest being the December 2013 Online edition with his fiction piece “Three Crows.” Ramspeck’s latest book of poetry, Original Bodies, was published in December 2014 by Southern Indiana Review Press and received the Michael Waters Poetry Prize.

Bradford Tice, whose poetry also appeared in the Spring 2014 Print edition of Bluestem, also has a new book available–What the Night Numbered.

Joe Weintraub, whose work appeared in the Spring 2012 print edition of Bluestem, had a productive year in 2014, with fiction published in Midwestern Gothic (Summer 2014), Oyez Review (Spring 2014), the special “Chicago” issue of Chicago Literary Quarterly (2014), and the special “TV issue” of Chicago Literati; here is the final story, “Braverman and the Dancer from Soul City.

Poetic License

I recently finished reading Colin Barrett’s Young Skins, and it’s really, really good. And I’m not just saying that because he’s Irish and my Dad’s from Dublin. There are a lot of people calling him “a great new voice” (by the way, maybe we should stop bestowing the whole “a great new voice” compliment so often. A quarter of my books have that line tagged somewhere on the cover).

Beyond the array of alcoholic, sexually downtrodden and existentially confused narrators, it’s Barrett’s semantic prowess and lyrical sensibility that make Young Skins excellent. Here’s an example:

“They were beyond the farmsteads now, into reefs of bogland infested with gorse bushes. Bony, hard-thorned and truculently thriving, the gorse bushes’ yellow blossoms were vivid against the grained black sheen of the sump waters, the seamed bog fields.”

See how Barrett hits the hard “f” sound of “reefs” and “infested,” and then repeats the hard “b” of “bushes” and “bony”? Also, I love how he uses a comma instead of “and” to connect “sump waters” with “the seamed bog fields,” because it preserves the sentence’s fast-paced rhythm.

Here’s the first-line to his story “Diamonds”:

“I left the city with my connections scorched and my prospects blown, looking only for somewhere to batten down for the winter to come.”

It’s a great hook, right?

As I read through Young Skins, I constantly thought to myself that Barrett must have trained as a poet. His writing showed a superb sense of rhythm. I looked him up on the interwebs, but Young Skins is his first book, so there isn’t a lot of information on him. I will reward knowledge on Barrett’s poetic undertakings with extraordinary gratitude and a blog post dedicated to a topic of the finder’s choosing.

I started thinking about poets who write fiction and “fictors” (“fictioners?”) who write poetry. I remembered that James Joyce published some poetry, but I think the consensus is that the human race is better off concentrating on his works of fiction.

Roberto Bolaño wrote poetry, and a poet’s understanding of imagery shines through his work. Here’s a line from The Savage Detectives: “You must cultivate a garden in the shadow of their grudges and resentments.” The concrete concepts of “garden” and “shadow” are lifted to a higher register by “grudges and resentments” to form a gorgeous metaphor—beautiful growth in the midst of petty artistic squabbling.

I’m sure there are a ton of other examples of poets kicking ass in fiction, and I would love to hear some names because they are probably people I want to read. I’m currently in a poetry workshop with Dr. Charlotte Pence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that all fictioners should take a stab at poetry. There is something about rhyme, rhythm and image that bypasses language’s semantic properties, somehow taking the reader directly to the heart of the matter. It’s like poetry has access to a soul-destined superhighway unavailable to “prosers.”

Most of all, I have a whole new appreciation for writers who take the time to write poetic prose. Thank you.

–Sean Towey

What I’ve Learned About Submitting Short Stories as an Associate Fiction Editor

If you’re a student in the creative world, you have probably been asked to read for a literary magazine. A professor or graduate student approached you and said, “Do you know how much reading for a magazine will improve your writing?” and your eyes lit up and you agreed to spend a few hours per week reading the bushy-tailed submissions of fellow writers.

Reading for Bluestem improved my writing. By articulating what I did and didn’t enjoy in the submissions I read, I more closely defined my own aesthetic. I also figured out some of the short story subjects that felt tired. For example, I never need to read another story about a Creative Writing professor. Also, the plot line of “weird guy meets weird girl and they have weird sex” is about as exciting as a first-paragraph detailed description of the main character.

When I became the Associate Fiction Editor, I read more carefully because I had actual responsibility. I had to consider the magazine as a whole, as well as my own individual tastes.

Here’s the main thing I learned—everyone who wants to be a writer would benefit from working as an editor at a literary magazine. So go out and do it. There are 5,000 magazines out there, and I’m sure one of them could use your services. Beyond helping your own writing, you’ll also have the opportunity to provide other writers with the sheer joy of publication, of feeling that your work isn’t the absolute worst drivel to ever end up on a word processor.

Below are some practical tips on submitting to literary magazines that I’ve learned during my time at Bluestem and by collecting rejection letters. Keep in my mind these are my own personal opinions. There are several other great places to find tips on the submission process. There’s a Latin phrase that works well in this situation—tantum quantum. It directly translates as “tantamount” or “as much as,” but there is also a “if it works, use it” implication. If you find this advice helpful, great. If you don’t, forget about it.

You’re not submitting a story

It sounds weird because of course you’re submitting a story. You’re probably submitting lots of stories.

From my perspective as an editor, you’re not submitting an entire piece of fiction. You’re submitting two pages of writing at a time that add up to a story by the end. If I get to the end. I will read the first two pages very carefully. If those hold my attention, or have something that keeps me reading, I will read the next two pages very, very carefully. If I get bored, or if something stops making sense, there’s a good chance I’m going to move on to the next submission. Or get lazy with my reading.

This has some consequences. One, if your piece depends on the close parsing of irony and understanding layers upon layers of symbolism, if it’s a piece that would make T.S. Eliot and all the New Critics smile from the grave, it’s probably not going to do well, unless the writing is also interesting/humorous and has an intriguing plot. If I only understand the piece’s brilliance by reading it through to the end, there’s a good chance I’m not going to read it through to the end.

Size Matters

When I see a piece over 4500 words, my chest tightens and I go cross-eyed. I usually read submissions late at night, once I’ve finished my own writing and homework, and a longer piece is as appetizing as climbing K2 after running a marathon. There is more to a short story than its length, and I’ve read wonderful longer pieces in short story collections. But when we’re talking about submitting to literary journals, I would do whatever it takes to keep the story under 4000 words.

Cover Letters

I’ve heard editors say they never read cover letters. I almost always read the cover letter before reading the piece itself.

In my experience, previous work for the Foreign Service is usually a bad sign. Some publications is a good sign. I appreciate the honesty of a writer who says up front that he is yet unpublished. Most importantly, the cover letter should be concise. Tell the reader the length of the piece and where else you have published work. If the magazine has any other requirements, for example, Midwestern Gothic only publishes Midwest writers, then put that information toward the end of the cover letter.

The most important thing is to avoid arrogance at all costs, or anything else that would give the reader a poor first impression.

A Brief Note to NYC Writers

I just returned from a trip to NYC over Spring Break, and I get it. New York is way cool.

But, here’s the thing. I read at least one submission per week from a Brooklyn-based writer that is entirely about the craziness of living in New York City. Brooklyn writers tend to also include the specific neighborhood in which they reside, like Greenpoint, in their addresses, which strikes me as almost royally arrogant.

As cool as Brooklyn is, there are a lot of other writers with creative hair styles writing about how cool Brooklyn is. Also, there have been a ton of other really, really talented writers who have written about NYC. Are you doing a better job than Colson Whitehead, Don Delillo, and Toni Morrison?

So, that’s what I’ve got. As always, keep writing, reading, and submitting to Bluestem.


–Sean Towey

The guy who wrote “Things I can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One” is an asshole. But maybe so am I.

Unless you’ve been hiding under rock, or you don’t spend your days reading blog posts published by free weekly newspapers about the writing world, you’ve heard about and/or read Ryan Boudinot’s “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One.” In the blog post/rant/first-year composition essay, Boudinot outlines his major gripes against MFA programs.  I say “gripes,” instead of “arguments,” because arguments tend to have some semblance of logical coherence.

Several people have written wonderful responses to Boudinot’s piece. The best point out that Boudinot is an asshole. For example, his thoughts on MFA students who choose to write memoirs: “In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” It is very poor taste to talk about the work of former students that way, and Boudinot is being rightly ridiculed for it.

For those of you looking for your daily dose of patriarchy, Boudinot reminisces about how he told a (male) student who asked for extra reading to dive into Infinite Jest, 2666, and Gravity’s Rainbow.

The best responses to “Things I Can Say” point out that Boudinot raises some decent points. There are a lot of people with/earning MFAs who aren’t good writers, and, for a variety of reasons, will probably not become good writers. Personally, I loved his idea of “woodshopping,” where a writer spends several years just writing, without any expectation that anyone will ever read the work. Because that will definitely prepare you for the current publishing market.

Instead of rehashing all of these arguments and counter-arguments, I want to bring up the concern fueling many of the MFA debates—the current MFA/PhD system seems unsustainable.

In 1975, there were fifteen MFA programs. In 2009, there were 153. According to Poets & Writers, there are now 218 (some of those are in other countries).  There are four MFA programs just in Chicago. And it doesn’t end there. There are now around thirty PhD programs in Creative Writing (Full disclosure: I will be pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing in the fall).

To top it all off, for those of you who do not regularly check your Duotrope account, guess how many literary magazines are listed? If you said 4,998, you’re correct. That’s more than three times the number of people who died on the Titanic.

Here’s another point—almost every time I go to a reading, fiction or poetry, the questions from the audience rarely bring up theme, or plot, or what the piece is trying to say about being human. The questions are about craft. How do you write strong summary? How do you get dialogue to pop? How do you stop writing about how horrible your mother is?

If there are way more writers than readers, the system is unsustainable. The thing with writing is you need both readers and writers. I’m imagining a dystopian society where everyone writes but no one reads, except for the sole purpose of stealing craft.

Of course, you can read to steal craft while reading to broaden horizons and learn about the human condition. Also, I have a hard time thinking the country is worse off for having a lot of people with MFAs. Workshops teach way more than writing. You learn about bias, how to articulate your opinion, how to convey meaning, and how to take criticism, among other skills.

Still, I’m a little worried. I can’t help but think that 218 MFA programs and 5,000 literary journals point to something not so pretty about our nation. To the part of our society that spends a lot more time speaking than listening, to narcissism’s constant buzz, to the inability to run a functioning democracy. It concerns me that I’ve read more stimulating debate from literary types about MFA programs than about how the country has been at war for fourteen years.

But, I’m part of the problem. I want to be a writer. I want to be heard. I. I. I.

–Sean Towey

Even If It Hurts: The Cold Harsh World of Creative Writing

 At one of the many meals shared during Lions in Winter, Edward Kelsey Moore, an accomplished cellist, spoke about some of the differences between the music and writing worlds. Moore felt that writers tended to not take criticism very well. He recalled attending a weeklong writing workshop and hearing his fellow students call one of the professors “mean.” He had no idea what they meant. Compared to his music teachers, the professor had been like Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society.

One of Moore’s music professors regularly berated students in public. If a student did not perform to the professor’s expectations during a private session, the student had to give a public performance in front of the department several days later. The professor would stand in a corner, chain smoke, and look generally unimpressed.

Not one to believe the first thing I hear, I called Michael Towey, my younger brother and a percussionist at Central Washington University, and asked him about his worst experience with a professor.

As a young, impressionable, eighteen-year old fresh-person, Michael met with his Music Theory professor so she could do some quick evaluations before the class began. After the meeting, she told Mikey that she was shocked he had made it as far as he had, that he had absolutely no ear, and that his chances of succeeding in the music program were basically nonexistent.

And that was before the class even started. I asked Mikey if he had seen Whiplash. He had not because he was worried it would hit too close to home.

Michael will graduate with a B.A. Percussion Performance this spring, and he’s applied to several graduate programs, and he’s awesome.

Compared to the music world, Creative Writing workshops are like semester-long Caribbean cruises. Very few mean things are said. And when they are said, they are couched within layers of compliment-frosting. I’ve never heard a professor tell a student that she should give up on writing altogether. It’s usually along the lines of “I love the castle-setting, but maybe this story doesn’t need three pages of direct dialogue?” or “the conflict between the mother and daughter is really interesting, but I’m not sure I buy that the daughter would literally eat the mother’s heart while it’s still beating.”

Creative Writing workshops are really, really nice. And safe and cuddly. They’re the teddy bears of academic classrooms.

I’m not saying that Creative Writing teachers should be as mean as some of their musical counterparts. For one, musicians learn technical skills easily appraised by experts. Writers tell stories, which are more difficult to evaluate. To make it even more complicated, young writers tend to tell very personal stories. It’s easy to tune a violin. It’s a lot harder to tell someone that her main character, which is based on her childhood best friend who died of cancer, is totally unbelievable. One is a judgment on how much the person has practiced. The other sounds like a judgment on the person as a human being.

However, once I started sending my own work out to magazines, I realized how different the publishing-writing world is to the Creative Writing classroom. The actual writer-world is extremely competitive and almost entirely lacking in compliment-frosting. For publication, the stories can’t be pretty good, or the best story in a room full of twenty year-old writers. They have to be near-perfect.

We need to bridge the chasm between the environments of the Creative Writing classroom and the actual writing world, even if it hurts. Especially if it hurts.

A Critical Take on the Critical Introduction

My time at Eastern Illinois University is quickly coming to an end. And while the other students in my cohort are busy slogging through literary theses chapter by meticulous chapter, diving into subjects like Object Oriented Ontology that roughly 150 people in the country will understand/find interesting, I’ve been drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes and writing short stories.

 It’s a tough life.

 In order to keep the Creative Writing students from having too much fun and also because anyone with an English degree needs to write something inaccessible to large segments of the population, English Departments across the nation require a critical introduction to creative theses. What is a critical introduction, you ask? It isn’t exactly clear.

But from what I can tell, there are a couple of different takes.

Option A: Placing your work in context

This is the best option for anyone writing genre fiction. Because one of the interesting things about Sci-Fi, Western, Horror, whatever, is that there are a lot of different and particular conversations happening within these genres. What are the rules? How can the rules be broken? How does your work follow/not follow the rules of whatever genre? And, what is gained by writing within a specific genre as opposed to writing “literary fiction,” which is a fairly unwieldy distinction?

The goal for this type of critical introduction is to demonstrate that you understand the landscape that your own work will inhabit. You know the literary geography.

Option B: Studying the Masters

Not everyone writes genre fiction, and studying the geography of “literary fiction” is like trying to sail the seven seas with a twelfth century world map.

In this particular predicament, it’s best to pick a set of writers that you find influential to your own work, and to study the shit out of them. But this isn’t a typical English graduate seminar paper. Instead of critically engaging with irony or investigating the issue of “empathy” in two contemporary texts, the critical introduction needs to study how certain authors use point of view, or the amount of summary vs. scene, or humor, or the million other things that go into a short-story/novel. It’s a study of craft, rather than theory.

At the end of that craft-study, you show how the craft-choices of those writers influences your own work. What are you copying, and why?

Why do we do this?

This is the real question. Both options for the critical introduction are good for writers. We should know the landscape of our work, and we should be aware of our influences. And articulating this knowledge is a good way to better understand our own writing.

Here’s the thing, though. The term “critical introduction” implies that the creative work itself isn’t critical. It’s like English departments decided that writing “creative” work isn’t tough enough to warrant a Master’s degree, despite the fact that creative writers take literary theory courses. If we’re going to make the creative writers do critical work, shouldn’t the lit theory people have to write some creative work? Why is this a one-way street? I would love for my lit-theory comrades to write “creative introductions.” Maybe they could write poems about the fifty or so people who will actually read their work.

But that’s not even my main problem with the critical introduction. My main issue is that the assignment itself is a hybrid mess of a thing. The critical introduction isn’t a creative piece and it isn’t a seminar paper. In order to pass my thesis, I need to write a type of paper that I have never had to write before.

There are a couple of different solutions to this dilemma. First, we could stop making creative writers do a critical introduction and substitute it for some type of oral exam that would show the writer reads and is engaged with the writing world and whatever else we need to prove. But the other option is to offer creative writing courses that are not workshops, where the goal of the course would be the type of craft-study that would lead into a critical introduction at some point.

And, if we could figure all of this out before mid-March, when my thesis director wants a copy of my critical introduction, that would be great. Thanks.

–Sean Towey

On Really Really Long Novels


I have listened to writers name-drop the titles of Really Really Long Novels (RRLNs) like a New York City up-and-coming rapper boasting connections to Jay Z on a mixtape. The casual mention of a minor character in Gravity’s Rainbow. Discussing the relationship between Ivan and Alexei in The Brothers Karamazov. And when this name-dropping happens, usually two or three beers into a first-encounter, it sounds like what the writer really wants to say is—I’m better than you and the little novels you like to read. Crime and Punishment? I fart in your general direction.

Sadly, I am one of those people who have spent an entire summer drinking whiskey and slogging through Infinite Jest. I have smiled at the bottom of my bookshelf, where four books take up all the space.

While reflecting on my love for RRLNs, I recalled a scarring event from my childhood. I was around twelve years old, and I had read every book in the “juvenile” section of my local library, and I realized that there were a finite number of books in the world. To my twelve year old brain, the concept that I could end up reading all of the books was terrifying.

I didn’t have a lot of friends as a kid.

Here’s the logic that got me into RRLNs. If I read four normal-sized books, that would mean four less books in the world I’d be able to read later on in life, and I would end up an old man flipping through copies of Readers Digest. But if I spent the time to read one RRLN, I would still have three books left to enjoy in my old age. So, there I was, renting the one-volume edition of Lord of the Rings and practicing Elvish on my pet goldfish.

Over at The Millions, Mark O’Connell writes about his own relationship to the RRLN, claiming that novels like Bolaño’s 2666 work a type of Stockholm Syndrome on their readers. They are often so difficult and dense for so much of the time that when the reader comes across an easily digestible scene he weeps with joy. The reader had expected more intellectual torture, and so any kindness puts the author in a savior-like light.

Allison Flood of The Guardian also discusses RRLNs, shooting back at Ian McEwan who claimed that few RRLNS “earn their length.” Flood goes on to list a number of wonderful, but very long, novels.

I have several good reasons for loving RRLNs. I love being totally immersed in an extraordinarily detailed fictional world. Ulysses is to Wise Blood as World of Warcraft is to Donkey Kong. As far placing the reader in a flushed out space, there’s no comparison. When I read a RRLN, I feel transported to an entirely different universe, not just another world. Novels like Infinite Jest, to me, seem depthless. Also, with any great RRLN there’s a certain amount of sentence-level mastery and serious dazzling. The reader wouldn’t keep going without a sense of semantic prowess, the sheer wonder at the writer’s use of words. In my opinion, Murakami’s 1Q84 demonstrates verbal magic on every page. And that’s why I kept reading.

But there are some not good reasons I read RRLNs, one of which is showing off in front of writers two or three beers into a conversation. Another is I like how the heft of RRLNs bows the shelves on which they sit.

In the end, my love of RRLNs is like a lot of things in life. It’s roughly one-half unadulterated childish discovery and one-half ego-fueled show-boating. And that’s alright with me.

–Sean Towey

It Is Finished

The best part of being an editor at a literary journal like Bluestem is reading all of your wonderful submissions. Honestly. It’s time-consuming, and tough, but it beats the hell out of worrying about the monetary nuts and bolts of running a magazine.

At the end of the day, I’m a little amazed at the sheer number of people who write, who spend the time and energy to tell stories, and I’m convinced story-telling points to some precious gem of human nature, something we should harness and use to end all wars. Or at least use to keep Joe Buck from ever calling another sports event, ever.

The most difficult part of my job is reading a piece that I know is going to be awesome—when it’s finished. It has unique characters, a great plot, strong overall writing, but the ending falls apart, or the unique characters fail to develop meaningfully, or the piece is just plain confusing. Whatever it is, the piece isn’t done.

That’s the worst. Really. Because we as editors are praying to the writing gods for the piece’s success. We want to run a great magazine, and we can’t run a great magazine without great stories and poems. So, knowing a piece is going to be great when it’s done, but it’s not done, is brutal.

I once read a story about a young writer visiting Tennessee Williams. Mr. Williams was working on a short-story that had already been published. When the young writer asked him why, Mr. Williams replied, “Because it’s not finished.”


I definitely struggle with knowing when a piece is done in my own writing. Usually, I feel like a piece is finished when I can’t possibly stomach looking at it any longer, when I can no longer tell if the piece is really good or absolutely terrible. I do think, in stories I’ve published, I got a certain feeling in my gut when reading it, like it all came together in some weird, twisted way that I didn’t totally understand, even though I wrote it.

Luckily, this is a common problem. The fine people at Lit Reactor have some helpful hints for knowing when a piece is finished (like reading it aloud, which everyone should be doing, all of the time). Another blog suggests letting the piece sit for a few days before going back to it.

Most importantly, have some friends who are strong readers. By strong readers, I mean a couple of different things, not just someone who reads carefully. A strong reader articulates exactly what is and is not working in a piece. They don’t want to crush your hopes and dreams, but they aren’t worried about hurting your feelings, either. They share with you, and with editors, a common goal—wanting to read great stories and poems.

–Sean Towey

The Interview (but nothing to do with James Franco and/or North Korea)

This is it, family and friends—Lions in Winter is coming to Charleston. The literary event promises to be the cultural extravaganza of south-of-Chicago Illinois, and we at Bluestem could not be more excited.

I will be interviewing our featured speaker, the horrifyingly talented Stephen Graham Jones, for the magazine. In preparation, I’ve been watching Charlie Rose spar with some of the best writers out there, and I’ve also listened to the BBC’s interviews with Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro. In my younger days, I wrote for some small Pacific Northwest newspapers, so I’m fairly comfortable asking strangers a series of questions.

Below, I have written my interview battle tactics.

Be Prepared:

This should go without saying, but after watching one painful interview, it needs to be said. When interviewing an author, you’re going to want to read the author’s work. Or, if you work for a really important company, you’re going to want an intern to thoroughly brief you on the author’s work. You should also read other interviews with the author, in order to avoid asking repetitive questions. How many times was David Foster Wallace asked about the footnotes? Does that number justify the bone-marrow level annoyance of having to use two bookmarks when reading Infinite Jest?

 Don’t Ask “Craft” Questions:

You know what Charlie Rose rarely does? He rarely asks authors questions about how they write. He asks questions about what they write, and who they are, and how what they write and who they are converge in ways concordant and not.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but hearing writers talk about the specifics of their craft has some strange, pornographic pull to it. For young writers especially, there is a mindset of “If I just read enough about how other authors write, I will suddenly become an actual, living and breathing writer.” Which isn’t true. You have to develop your own process, and becoming a writer has nothing to do with whether you write in the morning or in the afternoon, in a Moleskine journal or on a manual typewriter. You become a writer by writing. A lot.

So let’s stop asking authors about their personal craft during interviews. Send the author an email. Or tear out a page from the back of your Moleskine, write down your craft question, and mail it to her.

Keep it Corralled:

Here’s what you don’t want—three hours of an awesome conversation between you and one of your favorite authors that you then have to transcribe, word by one-thousandth word. You’re going to sit down at your computer and think, “Man, for how nervous I was, I was really pretty articulate.” And by the second page you’re going to think, “HOW DID THAT PERSON NOT SLAP ME FOR SOUNDING SO STUPID?”

As the interviewer, say enough to keep the conversation interesting, and that’s it. Don’t be the guy at a Lit-Studies Conference who uses the Q/A period to explain his thesis to a room of strangers. Allow the author enough space to work out intriguing responses to your well-prepared questions, but don’t let the author ramble. An interview is a ramble-free sort of situation.

And there we have it. Make sure to register for Lions in Winter. And, of course, please keep submitting your fabulous fiction/nonfiction/poetry to Bluestem. We can’t wait to read it.

–Sean Towey

On Internet Writing

In thirty years, an entire section of the MLA Handbook (20th ed) will be devoted to Internet Writing. What are now considered cultural faux paus, like favoriting your own tweet, will become immortalized in the granite block of official style. Future English professors will reminisce to their students about the halcyon days when the internet was fun.

Unfortunately, the MLA’s internet writing guide does not currently exist. After I agreed to write regularly for Bluestem’s blog, I searched the interwebs for tips on internet writing. The experts say to put the most important stuff at the top and cut out any extraneous content. Keep the article short and the paragraphs shorter. Add lots of links to other pages.

Most importantly, internet writing has an audience not of readers, but of scanners. On the internet, the audience does not fully commit to a piece of writing. The reader is not sitting down in an armchair with a magazine she has spent the time and energy to locate and purchase. The internet’s greatest boon for writers, its ability to generate an unbelievable amount of content, serves also as its most pernicious bane. After reading a paragraph or two, our potential reader might prefer to do something else, like click on that link beckoning on the far right of her screen promising endless videos of baby goats playing on a sheet of aluminum.

Strong writing has always hooked and maintained a reader’s interest. However, prior to the internet, a piece of writing only had to be more interesting than other pieces of writing, television programs, or playing Solitaire on Windows 3.1–the cards invading the screen after a successful game. Now, a piece of writing has to be more interesting than Youtube. A Herculean task, indeed.

That we read on the internet differently than we read print is not new information. Which makes me wonder why so much of the writing on fantastic sites like the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Millions continually refutes common wisdom regarding internet content. These sites publish great pieces, but pieces that could have easily been published on a magazine’s glossy pages. For the most part, it’s not internet writing. It’s writing that happens to be on the internet.

The type is often small and the text compressed in the middle of the page. Try as I might, I find it incredibly difficult to read through even the most well-written, interesting articles and stories published without regard to how people read on the internet. I have to really, really try to not check social media, or consider clicking the ads tailor made to my buying habits sitting to the right of my screen. And I’m a graduate student in English.

I don’t intend to argue that every piece published on the internet should easily translate into a Buzzfeed list. It’s possible to publish internet content that actively works against the “scanning” done by internet readers. For example, the site Narratively informs the reader how long a piece takes to read. Also, the story pops up on a different browser window, making it easier to concentrate on reading.

In order for writing to remain relevant, we as writers need to better match our content to the form. The internet’s a different beast, but a beast we should embrace. Instead of maligning how internet changes how people read, we should change how we write to better suit the internet. After Gutenberg invented the printing press, a lot of monks copying the Bible by hand lost their jobs. I’m sure they complained.

Let’s avoid being like the monks.

–Sean Towey