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Write What You Know

I have loved writing stories since I was a child. I grew up writing short plays for the neighborhood kids and typing up my dreams and story ideas on my family’s computer. Now I am about to graduate college with a Creative Writing major this spring. Writing is something I have been doing my whole life—it is one of my deepest passions. Despite this, I still sometimes find it difficult to think of something to write.

One of my creative writing professors at EIU, Dr. Daiva Markelis, said something in my first writing class with her that stuck with me. “Write what you know.” This advice sounds simple enough, and maybe even a little boring (because a lot of people like to use writing as a tool to explore new worlds and be someone else for a bit). But writing what you know is one of the best pieces of advice I have been given in college.

Why? Because while maybe I don’t know from personal experience what it is like to see ghosts or have super powers or love someone of the same sex or unravel a murder mystery or be profiled as a minority, I know emotions and human behaviors from experience, interactions, and observation. Arguably, the most important parts of a story are the characters’ emotions and motivations; they give a depth to the characters that sucks readers in. Good, real, human emotions and motivations make your characters and stories believable and entertaining to read.

This is not to say nobody should ever write about topics they don’t personally know about. If that was the case, we would not have captivating fantasy novels like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or thrilling science fiction novels like Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Of course, the writers have never been in the situations they write about or seen these situations played out, but they incorporated knowledge they did know, as well as learned more through research, and were able to create these classic stories we all know today.

So next time you are stuck in a writer’s block, grab hold of that strong emotion you are feeling or think of that interesting person you saw on the street and begin writing with those emotions and motivations in mind. You may be surprised where those ideas can take you, or what better ideas they spark instead.

Rachel Ratajski
Bluestem Assistant Editor

The Validity of Online Publication

Nothing feels better than getting that acceptance email that says “we want to publish you” from one of the many magazines you sent your work out to all those months ago. Being published feels like a validation; others think your writing is good enough that it should be shared with the world (or at least that magazine’s readership). And then seeing your name and your writing in print is the cherry on top.

But many literary magazines and journals are turning to online publication. This means no physical form of your work for you to hold and keep on your bookshelf like a trophy symbolizing your arduous work. Sure, this change makes sense in your head—printing costs are steep and technology and the internet make it easier to publish more and share easier—but seeing your name online still does not feel the same as holding it in your hands.

I recently attended Eastern Illinois University’s Lions in Winter Literary Festival, which was an educational and entertaining experience. The last panel of the day was the Editors’ Panel Discussion, where four editors of four different literary journals (Bluestem, Quiddity, Antilever Press, and Sou’Wester) talked about and answered questions on the topic of publishing. One of the points made during the discussion caught my attention and resonated with me. The editor of Bluestem, Olga Abella, said that while it used to be looked down on to be published online rather than in print, the attitude towards online publication has shifted to a more positive note. Both literary magazines and writers are beginning to see the benefits of online publication, especially in this time when technology and the internet are crucial parts of society. It is now seen by some as on equal level with print publication.

So what are the benefits of online publication? For the literary journal, this cuts down on printing costs, which in turn can result in more work being accepted and more issues being published. This is great for those who are looking to get their work published because it increases their opportunities and chances to be accepted. Online publication also helps the writers by providing a “forever” copy of their work that can be linked and shared across different platforms on the internet. Your work will be able to reach more people than print ever could, which is usually the goal for writers wanting to be published. It is no wonder online publication is being looked at more positively now due to the benefits it provides both writers and literary magazines.

While both print and online publication have their appeals, it is becoming clear to many that online publication deserves to be on equal level with print publication. Bluestem has been publishing online since 2010, and we have been able to publish the work of many writers through these online editions. While we still print annually, the quarterly online editions give talented writers more opportunities to have their work published and allow their work to be preserved online forever.

Rachel Ratajski
Bluestem Editorial Assistant

October 2016 Online Issue

As a toddler I was fascinated by potpourri. I’m not quite sure what had me sprinting toward such geriatric interests, but I do remember stealing handfuls of the pungent dried flora from a vase on my grandmother’s coffee table.  Every time I was brought along for a visit, you would find me stuffing the pockets of my jeans with the mixture that snapped and crunched in my small-fingered grip. Now that I’m older, I find use of the term “potpourri” to be a rather lame signifier of variety, though I can think of no better way to describe our October Issue than as an intoxicating blend of petal and spice and herb… 

…and donuts.

From snakeskin and oatmeal bowls to tattoos and airplane windows, this issue reaches wide and tugs in armloads. Maria Terrone considers a simultaneous permanence and transience in the short story “Greta, Morphed,” as she reimagines Kafka for a digital age: “One day Greta Samson awoke to discover that every text message she had ever sent was tattooed over her entire body, from her brow to the web of her fingers to the soles of her feet.” Bryan Harvey grapples current events in police brutality and racial profiling in “Cowbells in Bear Country”: “They look through us like phantasms from some other era and don’t know what to do. They still think we’re a bunch of Tom Robinsons.”  Other powerful fiction in this issue comes from Betty Moffett and Adam “Bucho” Rodenberger.

Essayist Eileen Cunniffe writes of a fake news release and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in “Everything I Need to Know I Am Still Learning from Mary Richards,” and Michael Levan forms an essay in prose poems wrestling an anxious uncertainty. He writes: “The man hates to think / so frequently in lists […] / He was caught / in this obsession, but, oh, how it gave him / order when nothing could be set right enough.”

Poet Daryl Sznyter opens with the charmingly off-beat: “Marie Laveau has nothing on me./ I make art with strands/ of our hair on shower walls,” while Darren C. Demaree contemplates joy in “Donut Friday,” writing: “The blood in us is bouncing/ around in celebration/ of the sugar in our choices.” Other poets in this issue include Grant Clauser, Antonia Lewandowski, Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, Ellen Stone, Steve Wilson, and Stephen Eric Berry, working in collaboration with artist John Elkerr.

This issue, we also feature artist Felicia Cannon with pieces that ponder “ a simultaneous transition through a mental and physical space.”

No matter the genre, we hope this issue offers plenty to crunch in your fingers and bulge in your pockets for later.

John Brown
Assistant Poetry Editor

December 2015 Online Issue Blog Post

Beautiful tension. That’s the phrase I’d use to unite the work in Bluestem’s online December issue. In Mary Moycik’s short story, “Mark Slate’s Family Vacation,” she writes: “Mrs. Slate lit a cigarette. The smoke curled for a brief moment before the wind sucked it away. ‘Maybe you’re just afraid I’ll meet someone who doesn’t stuff sausages for a living.’”  It’s a family story in a less than ideal situation. In James Kincaid’s story, he creates tension exclusively through dialogue while J.T. Townley does so with this opening line: “So, it’s not like we kidnapped her exactly.”

Poet Marcus Bales takes a Shakespearean approach to dealing with frustrating neighborhood kids, writing: “To yell, or not to yell—that is the question.” Elsewhere, Sandra Meek writes, “If the seatbelt sign / illuminates; if cabin visibility is reduced to a flash-fire reel / of your own membered history, the bag will / not inflate, though / all who have remained fully / in the fully upright position will be gathered beyond”. Other poets in this issue include Martin Ott, Rachel Kennedy, and Robin Richstone.

Memoirist Penny Guisinger begins her excerpt subtitled “Marriage” with this evocative opening: “My wife catches porcupines with the trash can and the lid the way you or I catch spiders with a glass and a piece of paper.” Read the excerpt plus other essays by  Jacqueline Doyle, Lynn Houston, and Jordan Wiklund.

Art editor Alan Pocaro provides us with not only some arresting paintings by Chris Smith, but also interviews the artist to give our readers a sense of the artist’s goals and ambitions.

Plus, Sophie Grimes reviews Jordan Zandi’s debut book Solarium.


Charlotte Pence
Interim Editor

Under the Covers: A Summary of our September Online Issue

In the September online issue of Bluestem, Damyanti Biswas’s “Bear With Me”, is a haunting, provocative tale about a woman’s struggle with her past miscarriage.  It’s a modern day Yellow Wallpaper, where we see the main character left alone with her thoughts and her television set. But she is not always alone.  Occasionally she is visited by a large, friendly bear. And sometimes, they cuddle.  Biswas writes, “I wake up again, and this time, the bear cuddles me, the fur soft against my skin, paws toasty like heat pack on my tummy”.  Read it for yourself in our September 2015 online issue along with work by Debra Brenegan, Absolom J. Hagg, and creative nonfiction by
K. L. Cook, 
Elisabeth Hanscombe, and 
Umeeta Sadarangani.

Poet John A. Nieves offers a new perspective on nature and fate in “Irregular Cells”:
“I believe that the veins / in leaves know the future, / that they always point / to arrivals and departures.” While Katharyn Howd Machan writes, “Music had begun to slide away / from pulse and fingers, hands on keys / a helpless shake and slip and skip / as his hair grayed within the mirror / only his wife kept clean.” Read the poems along with others by Katharyn Howd Machan, Robert Miltner, John A. Nieves, Jessica Purdy, Kristina Pfleegor, and Jordan Zandi—who has two poems from his forthcoming collection that you don’t want to miss.

Plus, enjoy the visual creations by Brian Edmonds.

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

It’s Complicated


What do the three men pictured above have in common? If you guessed, “They’re all white dudes!” or “They’re all sociopaths!” you would be correct, on both counts. But Walter White, Hank Moody, and Tony Soprano share another important characteristic, one that demonstrates one of the best ways to complicate a character. All three men have daughters whom they love very, very much.

It was no accident that, as Breaking Bad came to a close, the last thing Walt does with his family is stare lovingly at Holly as she lies in her crib. I didn’t finish Californication, because the show’s writers decided to put the whole thing on repeat after the third season, but Wikipedia informed me that it ends with Becca’s wedding. And throughout The Sopranos, Tony tells Meadow that she’s more like him than her mother. The major plot line at the end of the series stems from Tony seeking revenge after one of his rivals says some not-nice-things to Meadow at a New York City restaurant.

I call this the “Give the Guy a Daughter” phenomenon. If you have a character, in particular a main character and especially a man, that would be very easy for the audience to absolutely and totally despise, give the guy a daughter that he loves and prizes above all else. We will forgive many sins if the man loves his daughter.

There’s probably a lot of psychoanalysis that could go into this phenomenon, especially regarding the sort of inverted “Daddy Problems” thing going on here. Also, we should probably talk about how women characters don’t get any bonus points for loving their children because it’s just expected, whereas men characters, by simply being around their children, get to revel in the audience’s good graces. But I’m more interested in the mechanics. The “Give the Guy a Daughter” concept works because loving a daughter absolves the man of some, not nearly all, but some, of his moral reprehensibility. If he loves his daughter, he can’t be all bad. But not all characters are monsters, and non-monster characters also need some complicating.

In a tweet not too long ago, Guy in your MFA talked about how his main character having an affair demonstrated emotional depth. It was a smartass remark, but something I often see in short story submissions. The main character is a little boring, maybe a husband who works as an insurance salesman, or a wife who teaches second grade. How does the writer spice it up a little? Throw in an affair. Voila! Now we have tension! Emotional depth! Lies! Perfection!

If it works for Don Delillo, it will work for you.

I brought the “Give the Guy a Daughter” thing up with some of my EIU friends a while ago, and they helped me brainstorm some other ways to complicate a character. If a woman character is spectacular in every imaginable way, make her clumsy. If the character is a total nerd, have him/her listen to hardcore gangster rap. If the character is Catholic, make him guilt-free. Minds will be blown.

I think these concepts work because melding opposites immediately creates tension, and tension leads to drama, and drama leads to a good story. What strikes me as odd is what does or does not become cliché. It seems like the “Give the Guy a Daughter” and “Affair Equals Emotional Depth” concepts could go on forever. But does anyone want to read about another alcoholic priest? Or English professor having an affair with a student? Or writer with writer’s block?

Perhaps the best way to figure this out is to catalogue some other repetitive, but not quite cliché, character complications. Readers, what do you got?

–Sean Towey

Bluestem At AWP15: Postcard Contest



Thanks to everyone who came by the table at AWP in Minneapolis to say hello. If you picked up a postcard for our 2015 contest, we look forward to reading your work! Here’s a reminder of the contest guidelines:

1. Pick up a Bluestem postcard  at AWP and write an amazing poem, story, or essay on it.
2. Mail that postcard to Bluestem Postcard Contest c/o English Department, 600 Lincoln Ave., Eastern Illinois University,  Charleston, IL 61920. Don’t forget to give us your digital contact info.
3. Top entries will be considered for publication in an upcoming contest issue of Bluestem (online and/or print).
4. One grand prize winner will be awarded $50.00.
5. Limit one entry per submitter. No submissions
considered by current or past students, faculty, or staff of EIU.
6. All submissions must be postmarked no later than
April 30, 2015, to be considered for the contest.
7. Look for winning entries on

Last year we had lots of excellent entries for our contest, and we cannot wait to see what this year will bring. Here’s a look at last years winners featured in the June 2014 Online Issue:

“Dear Dad” by Judy Halebsky
“Through the Viewfinder” by Sarah Shaffer
“The Youth Minister & His Wife Go to the Pool” by Anne Kniggendorf

“You Do You”: It won’t be for everyone

A couple of weeks ago, Colson Whitehead published an op-ed in The New York Times Magazine titled “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture.” In a glorious moment of online irony, the piece, an anti-narcissism salvo from a writer who just published a memoir about playing poker, showed up on my Facebook newsfeed at least ten times. We are now using media dedicated to self-aggrandizement to share our thoughts on the deleterious effects of narcissism in our culture. Go team.

Whitehead’s main point, which has previously been made by Charles Taylor in The Ethics of Authenticity, is that the “you do you” mindset leaves no room for criticism. If everything is relative, no one action or actor is bad or good. As Whitehead puts it: “‘You do you,’ taken to its extreme, provides justification for every global bad actor. The invasion of Ukraine is Putin being Putin, Iran’s nuclear ambitions Khamenei being Khamenei.”

I agree with Whitehead that the prevalence of narcissism in our culture is a problem. However, the piece is extremely bitter. Someone from Generation X calling someone else “narcissistic” is extraordinarily annoying, in a pot-kettle-black sort of way. My other issue with Whitehead’s piece is that it ignores the positive justifications for the “you do you” ethical imperative, which can be summed up in the phrase “Who am I to judge?” The idea is that, because we can never truly and totally understand the inner-workings of another person, we should not judge that person’s actions. It’s not that I don’t want to criticize another person, it’s that I don’t have the right.

The culture is not nearly as hopeless as Whitehead proposes. There are not a whole lot of people saying “That thing in Ferguson? That was just Darren Wilson being Darren Wilson.” Or “That thing in Charleston? Michael Slager being Michael Slager.” Or “That thing in Indiana? The Indiana State Congress being the Indiana State Congress.” We are willing to make moral judgements about the actions of others in specific circumstances.

I believe the issue is a little bit deeper, and perhaps more pernicious, than critics of the narcissism present in millennial culture wants to admit. The “you do you” mindset is only partly, as Whitehead supposes, about protecting ourselves from criticism and assuaging our fragile egos. It is also about creating a moral horizon that everyone can follow. With the rise of modernism and postmodernism, any and all ethical paradigms went out the window (some for very good reason). But there weren’t any ethical paradigms left to replace the moral horizons flattened by the postmodernists.

About the only ethical imperative left in our society is: never disallow others from being themselves. Which tells me lots of things not to do. But it doesn’t tell me a whole lot about what I should do, besides keep being me.

Our nation is very good about discussing the protection of individual rights from systematic injustice. Taxation without representation. Civil Rights Movement. Gay Marriage. But what we are not very good at talking about is what happens when individual rights battle other individual rights. What happens when a woman’s right to control her body runs up against freedom of religion?

The time is coming when “me being me” will somehow affect “you being you.” The real question is, what will we do then?


–Sean Towey

Drinking and Writing and Drinking

A writer is an anxious creature. There is the little gnawing creature at the back of your head telling you the words you insist on putting to the page are not only incomprehensible and stupid, but boring. You’re a boring person. Then there are the rejections from literary magazines, short in length and long in an ability to crush confidence. Finally, there’s Duotrope, a web site that writers use to keep track of their submissions and to predict the arrival of the aforementioned soul-crushing rejection letters.

But then there is alcohol, which provides writers with self-assurance while simultaneously disappearing disappointing memories. In my opinion, the writer’s anxiety re:failure has directly lead to the writers-as-alcoholics stereotype. Seeing as AWP, where thousands of writers gather to drink and talk about writing, is this weekend, it is a fitting time to explore what various writers have said about booze.

The following quotes are all from Goodreads.

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
—Dorothy Parker

I don’t know much about Dorothy Parker, but, judging from that quote, she seems like she was a lot of fun. Because here’s the thing about hooking up with someone because you were drinking to forget about how you want to be a writer—it could become material for a great short story.

“I began to think vodka was my drink at last. It didn’t taste like anything, but it went straight down into my stomach like a sword swallowers’ sword and made me feel powerful and godlike.” 

Sylvia Plath

Hardcore alcoholics, the type of people who maintain a near constant buzz, drink vodka. It’s odorless, clear, and pairs well with any other liquid. The amazing writer Sylvia Plath, who is unfortunately more famous for her mental instability than her syntax, nails the writer’s love-affair with drinking. It is both self-destructive (swallowing swords is not healthy) and confidence-boosting. We call this sort of relationship tragic.

“War and drink are the two things man is never too poor to buy.” 

William Faulkner

Well-played, Mr. Faulkner, well-played. Perhaps there is a direct proportional relationship between the amount of time the United States has been at war and the rise of microbreweries. If we can’t defeat the terrorists, we’ll out-drink them using our best home-grown American hops.

This might be apocryphal, but I heard a story about Hemingway driving to Faulkner’s house to tell Faulkner he had to drink less. If Hemingway is telling you to sober up, you’re in a bad, bad way.

“I drink because it’s the only time I can stand it.”

—Truman Capote

I love this quote because what is the “it”? Life? Writing? Love? All of the above?

There are a lot of great non-drinking writers, too, for example David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace. Also, no proof exists to show that the hard-drinking writers would have been worse off if they didn’t drink. It strikes me that Sylvia Plath’s poetry might have improved had she gotten sober.

Overall, I think we tend to romanticize the writer-as-drinker lifestyle. Writing, like anything difficult, is best done sober. And if you’re writing to uncover the hard truths about being human, imbibing a substance that’s greatest attribute is dulling life’s hard edges doesn’t seem like a solution.


–Sean Towey