Maureen Langloss, "Their Bodies, Their Selves," April 18, 2017

          My body has known pain. Two torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Three knee surgeries. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Three childbirths. Graves Disease. Concussions. Sinus surgery. Trigeminal neuralgia. Four years of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. One year of high-dose antibiotic treatment. Five root canals. Pneumonias. Hemochromatosis. Regular phlebotomy.
          Constant corporal bombardment and yet, for years, every time I met with my writing pal, novelist Eliza Factor, she’d wisely say of my early drafts, “Don’t forget the body. You’re all in the head.”
          I’d stare at the pages and then look at my stomach—always my stomach—and wonder what the hell she meant when she said to write from the body. It wasn’t as simple as adding an elbow to the paragraph or describing how a character moved. It was much deeper.
          Over time, I realized I needed to get inside my character and wear her around. Last year, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey hosted an exhibit that allowed visitors to don a robotic suit simulating the experience of being elderly: goggles to impair vision, acoustic effects to dull hearing, devices to stymie movement. If only there were a character showroom where writers could try on everything from teenage girl with first menstrual cramps to forty-year-old man with hair loss and bipolar disease.
          Even if these suits don’t exist, we can create them in our mind’s eye through research, experience, and empathy. We can ask ourselves questions, such as what are my character’s stomach juices doing? Does his brain turn letters backwards? Where does she hurt? Does anxiety gallop in her chest? The combination of things happening in my body is specific and unique, as is the combination in yours. I now try to make my characters’ bodies specific as well.
          I also consider my own motivations for creating this specific body because I want to avoid blinding a character or amputating her leg for purely symbolic purposes. Giving a character a disability for the sake of metaphor or to advance a theme not only smacks of ableism, but also makes a character less believable, less true.
          Once I have located the body and begun to weave it into my writing, that same body usually leads me more organically into my character’s soul. I start asking how having this particular physical experience impacts my character’s reactions, perspective, objectives, fortitude, prejudices, and understanding of others.
          It was not until I gave the main character of my draft-novel a cold that I finally got to know her. I could better understand her vulnerabilities, desires, and failings when she was full of phlegm. She had put up guards around herself; once she was blowing her nose, these guards fell away. Soon she was crying in front of strangers, letting the grief out of her that had been her central obstacle without my even realizing it. As Virginia Woolf writes in her strange and wonderful essay, “On Being Ill,” “What wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view.”
          To give another example, I’ve been struggling for months with a sexist jerk of a character. He’s my story’s villain, but I knew I had to humanize him. As soon as I gave him migraines, constipation from his pain meds, and a child struggling with learning disabilities, he became a stronger character. He was more nuanced and easier to write. I developed a tenderness for him that deepened with each draft until I felt such empathy for him, for the things that had brought him to his objectionable viewpoint, that he is now one of my favorite characters.
         Of course, I’m not suggesting that one inflict physical pain or disease on every character. We can write positively from the body as well. We can explore the energy or attitude our character brings to a situation after just having had great sex or an exhilarating run or a cup of chamomile tea. Writing from the body also entails being aware of the privileges and advantages healthy characters have, of how wellness shapes who they are. And, even if a character does have corporeal problems, her issues need not be splattered across a bloody page. They need not be mentioned at all. Merely knowing about them, having walked in the simulator suit, will permit richer characterization and subtext. Still, sometimes we need to shatter our characters to build them. Here’s the hammer; have at it. 

Read Maureen's story "Chorionic Villus Sampling with the Virgin Mary."

Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine and a Nonfiction Reader at Indianola Review. Her work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb,(b)OINK, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Timberline Review, and Wigleaf. Find her on Twitter@MaureenLangloss or at maureenlangloss.com.

Jennifer Fliss, "Writing in the Time of Despair," April 4, 2017


          As with many, this election has established an uncertainty and an imbalance. Why is what I write important? I am not a journalist. I am not explicitly fighting the regime.
          Months ago, my approach to this essay was very different. I was defeated. Stories would not come. Sentences reduced to two words and even those words were not very inventive. The one word that echoed was how. How to go on as a human. As an American. As a writer. As an artist. As an ally. As a terrified mother.
          I wondered, what can I write now? Is not everything in the political sphere more important? Lives are in upheaval. In writing forums, I see hundreds of writers saying “I can’t write right now.” I myself left for a writing residency directly after the U.S. election and came back with little to show for it but pronounced anxiety.
          When we think of historical moments, in particular ones that consisted of great danger and sacrifice, we often think back on art. As Churchill (despite his downfalls) said, if not for art, then what are we fighting for?
          I don’t think of the old paper bag, marker-covered history text book or a droning high school history class. I think of novels. Stories. Paintings. Photographs. In short: art. Art transcends. Very rarely do we revisit newspaper articles of the time. What we are left with, in the aftermath of bombs or genocide or the evil yoke of slavery is a canon of emotion built around a framework of facts. It is true novels are not bound to the conventions of fact like journalism is (or should be). But the emotion is purer. For the writer, no piece of art can come with a void of emotion.
          I am not only rallying only for fiction. Write your memoir. Your essay. Your piece of creative nonfiction. Your manifesto. A letter to a friend. To your child. To your future self.
          Primo Levi did not survive the Holocaust, but his writing did and continues to be read. Khaled Hosseini, Afghan-born writer of The Kite Runner; Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, who wrote the heart-ripping and true Hiroshima Diary; John Lewis’ March series—a graphic nonfiction series based on the civil rights movement; Zora Neale Huston on the inequalities of black women in the early 20th century; Tim O’Brien on Vietnam; Miriam Tlali and Nadine Gordimer on apartheid South Africa; Marjane Satrapi on her experiences in late 1970s Iran.
          These writers have contributed art to the world. Though we cannot replicate their tenor, we hear their voices via their writing. And their art has become the thing that makes their experiences and, by extension, the experiences of their time real and accessible to generations now and going forward.
          I am not saying I am anywhere near the level of the aforementioned writers. This really isn’t about me anyway. However, of late, I’ve realized that I have dedicated my life to an art that has had the power of a million firearms, but with fewer deaths at the end of its point. I will keep writing. At least for my daughter, and myself.
          I still feel overwhelming fear about where the U.S. is headed. But, I have gained an even greater appreciation for those who continue to write in the face of such uncertainty. I love writers. Specific writers. All writers. I mean it. I have glimpsed our seething underbelly and find your words and plots and rising action and climaxes to be things of beauty with which to paint this pocked landscape.
 

Read Jennifer's story "Just the Air That They Breathe."

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website, www.jenniferflisscreative.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

Z.Z. Boone, "Knowing When to Give Up," March 21, 2017

         
          Some years ago, I tried to write a novel about the abduction of a female college professor by one of her colleagues. I didn’t really like the story, and the characters—as I look back—were flat and static. I spent almost three years on that book, because I was convinced it was going to make me rich. Provide money for the things I really wanted to write. In other words, I wasted a good chunk of my writing life playing literary lotto.
          Eventually, I got smart. I quit.
          As an assistant professor in the writing department at a state university, I’m occasionally asked by students how they will know when it’s time to give up on a story or poem. The worst answer—one I’ve heard numerous times from members of the teaching profession—is that you must never give up. Art is struggle, they preach, and unless you’re struggling, you’re not an artist.
          Bad advice. Sometimes a writer needs to throw in that proverbial towel, give up the ghost, fling her hands in the air and shout, “Enough!” This is not to say that any talented person should abandon creativity for, say, actuarial work. But often, or at least occasionally, we get off to a false start and the very best thing we can do is recognize it for what it is, and shake ourselves free.
          Allow me to offer three quick tips on trying to decide whether or not to turn you back on  a writing project. They go from the least to the most important, from “think it over,” to “dump it like a pair of tight-fitting tap shoes.”

1. If a writing group made up of respected peers tells you your piece isn’t working, they’re probably right. Don’t ask them how to fix it; they won’t know. But find out precisely what it is they react negatively to (vague language, an inconsistent protagonist, weak imagery,) and if you can’t revise (or at least justify) the problem satisfactorily, it may be time to move on.

2. Struggle does not always equal art, and writing need not resemble dentistry. If you find that you are not in some way emotionally resurrected by your labors—if you find yourself in a constant state of artistic apathy—don’t expect the reader to be any more involved than you are. Writing should be an escape from the personal miseries of life, even if that’s exactly what you’re writing about.  

3. Every piece of writing needs to have “a spine.” It needs to say something important in a fresh and original way. If your main character is passive, if there’s nothing he wants, if she faces no obstacles and makes no choices, if today is just a day like all others, your story has no spine. Ditch it.

          I’m not saying it’s desirable to leave a trail of half-written stories as your legacy. But unless you can instill your work with passion and drive, unless you can write the kind of piece you yourself love to read, you’re simple wasting time by making marks on paper.

Read Z.Z.'s short story "My Summer at Camp." 

Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in Bird's Thumb, New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z. lives in Connecticut where he teaches at Western Connecticut State University. 

Sarah Cimarusti, "Echolocation," March 7, 2017


Just to be clear: I wanted to be a dolphin trainer first. Though, I had suspicions that my compulsory recordings and verbal foam could possibly amount to something, as long as I didn’t outpace myself and prematurely call myself Oz. When you read enough to know what dedicated writing entails, you know that there’s much to lose and fear and drink. It wasn’t until recently that I arranged cutout words and snapshots into a chronological collage that made remote sense to me.

In the beginning, there was music. My father was a tenor who sounded like Rush’s Geddy Lee, and a rooster of a front man, strutting lit-up stages in unnecessarily tight, leather pants. He played in cover bands before meeting my mother, who fancied herself an eccentric songwriter. She wrote songs with my dad while I rolled around in her womb. Everything about her was music; she carried a tambourine in her purse and tied silver bells to the ends of her hair. My parents were amateurs in love who planned to travel the country together making Christian rock music. Life happened, shit happened; they so-called settled down and felt unsettled, declaring bankruptcy the year I was born.

One of my first memories is dancing in my diaper to the sound of an organ, then cymbals, cymbals, cymbals. My dad wore headphones the size of earmuffs and recorded music on a keyboard. Fantasia played on television. My living room had a pool of orange carpet, and I was an angelfish, swirling around the sound and color.

I wanted to be my parents before anything else, even a dolphin trainer. So, I wrote songs and dabbled in piano, barely mastering the point where you play a different rhythm on each hand. I inherited my father’s voice and mother’s writing hands. There is something about singing your own words that makes you feel like a full moon.

My room was a paper palace. I splayed out on the floor and printed my songs on scrapbook paper that I taped to the walls. And of course, there were the journals. Dream journals. Journals I scribbled hearts into and filled with the names of shaggy-haired skater boys who thought I was too loud and wore too much makeup. I dedicated an entire journal to my mother and her deteriorating health. Shortly after she and my father separated, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She began to introduce herself as the sick, single mom with three kids. I wrote about her symptoms, then drowned myself in Spongebob Squarepants re-runs.

Every letter that anyone ever wrote me hung from a rainbow colored string I stuck to the ceiling, and I’d fall asleep listening to the fan and soft brush of dangled secrets, half-dreaming underneath my version of stars. Stars that read: “Hi! You R Awesome.”

In high school, I discovered poetry and a soul sister, whose chest used to turn tomato red every time she read at slams. Speaking of tomatoes, no one aimed them at her because she threw words like sucker punches. When I listened to her, it was like seeing the same ghosts someone else sees. Her bravery encouraged me to share some work I had hoarded in the paper palace. I was an ornery thing in neon orange Converse; poetry to me was all about defiance.

I took a whack at our class’ graduation speech. My toughest English teacher adjusted his glasses and told me it was too negative, that the speech wouldn’t sit well with anyone. I submitted the speech anyway, and a panel of three other English teachers selected my work. It was a hearty victory; the first time I grew the ovaries to defend something I wrote.

I started to choke on my words and toggle with the morality of writing during my early 20s. Studying English literature, but also social work, I learned a little about analyzing people’s demons, the cagey systems we all rattle around in, and that there is a real call to serve the human heart and soul. The trouble was, I didn’t receive the call to social work. Not even a text.

In servitude, you’re supposed to have this infamously thick, scaly skin, but what happens when people’s stories seep into your pores? What if you’re made of feathers?

I keep asking new questions, and that helps. For a while, I’d ask, write, then cower in my desk and wait for something the size of a piano to fall on top of me.

Eventually, I forgave myself for wanting to be a dolphin — I mean a writer — which was when I truly knew I was one.
 

Sarah Cimarusti is an editor for a plumbing/HVAC publication. She lives in the Chicago burbs with her boyfriend, two rabbits, and a back-sassing green cheek conure named Khaleesi. Her essays have appeared in Jersey Devil Press, Bird’s Thumb, and Bayou Magazine.

Read Sarah's essay "Whoopie Pie."

Lois Levinson, "Redefining Yourself as a Writer," February 21, 2017


I am a poet.  Over the years I've identified myself, at various times, as student, teacher, mother, lawyer, volunteer, birder, and by other passions and pursuits. When I retired from my law practice I had a list of hobbies and interests I planned to pursue:  piano, swimming, bird watching, and, of course, writing poetry. Where I had dabbled, I wanted to achieve proficiency.  I had been writing sporadically—short stories, essays, poems —since I was a child, but had never pursued writing as a serious matter. Now it was time for poetry to emerge from its status as clandestine hobby.  

I was aware of the proliferation of adult education classes for aging boomers but was hesitant to take a writing class, much less a poetry workshop.  Like many who become serious about writing at a later age, I had never studied creative writing in college.  There was that nagging anxiety:  What if what I've been writing isn't really poetry after all?  Did I want to take that risk?

I don't believe that writing is a solitary pursuit.  My advice to anyone seeking to redefine yourself as a poet or writer is to seek out a community of writers for inspiration, education, encouragement and support. I've found that it is vital to nourish your writerly soul with the camaraderie of others who love writing.

If you live in or near a metropolitan area, chances are there are writing workshops available to you in non-academic settings. Four years ago, I signed up for my first poetry workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. I took a deep breath and plunged into an "intermediate" poetry workshop. Imagine my relief when my first poem to be workshopped was received, by both instructor and class, with respect, interest and encouragement.  Yes, it really was a poem, and it became a much better one after workshopping and revision. I've been hooked on Lighthouse's workshops and the fellowship of other poets ever since.

Poetry is by nature self-revealing, and it brings you closer to those with whom you share it.  A poetry workshop is an exceptional way to get to know fellow poets. Your instructors and fellow poets will help you advance your writing skills, give you honest criticism, encourage you to take risks, even to publish and take pride in your successes.  And you will do the same for them. As you write, share, workshop, revise and take pride in your work, it will become a crucial part of your identity. You will begin to call yourself a poet.

Lois Levinson is a member of the Poetry Book Project at Lighthouse Writer's Workshop in Denver, Colorado.  Her first chapbook, Dancing With Cranes, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Bird's Thumb was the first journal to publish her poetry.

Read Lois' poems "Ephemeral Pond" and "Migrations."

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Tad Bartlett, "Not So Lonely After All," February 7, 2017

 

          It’s Writer Gospel: “Writing is the loneliest profession.” Picture the writer in her garret, cold and alone, battling against a sheaf of empty pages.
          I offer you my Writer Heresy: Horseshit. Writing may be the most collaborative of the artistic modes of expression. The myth of the Solitary Writer holds us back.
          While opportunities to collaborate are all around us, still our myths cause us to deny them.
          One of my very closest writing tribe, Emily, and I went through a period where almost every word we wrote we exchanged. Not just line-edits and craft comments, but probing give-and-take on intent and meaning and character, dissections of the bones of the work. Several years in, I commented how grateful I was for such a deeply collaborative space in each other’s process.
          Her response was quick and definitive. While it was nice for me to comment on her work, it was her work only, and my work was my work only. The end.
          On a certain level she was right. Whatever my questions of her work, she answers the questions and makes the decisions. Of course.
          But, of course, This, as well: My project as a writer is to tell stories that enable people to reach through their particularized lives to gain reflection on what it is to live among others. While being an individuated human is complicated, we are never doing it alone. If my writing is to express that, it is unnatural to expect to generate that expression from a point of aloneness.
          This manifests on multiple levels for me. When I returned to writing after too long, an acquaintance of mine, Maurice, and I started meeting monthly to trade drafts of the (terrible, horrible, no-good) novels we were drafting. We learned from each other. Maurice’s novel was his novel and my novel was my novel, but they would not have been the same had we not engaged in that process.
          Two years later, Maurice and I joined a handful of others to form a multi-genre group, the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance. We share our newest and rawest work in a trust-filled environment. We discuss intention and process; we share news about conferences and workshops; we put together readings by ourselves and others. We push each other to develop as writers, to further our respective greater projects. My writing would not be what it is without this process.

Tad and Maurice

          I’ve also engaged in direct collaboration. A friend of mine with whom I had been in theater in college and had traded (terrible, horrible, no-good) poems with back then, J.Ed., suggested we work together to construct a writing routine. Harkening back to our theater days, we created characters and had them correspond. I would get into character, open an email from his character, read it and respond to it in character. Within three months, our characters improvisationally corresponded a novel-length narrative. Then for seven years J.Ed. and I collaboratively edited and rewrote to turn it into something “finished.”

          All of us in collaboration—Maurice, J.Ed., Emily, Terri and my whole Peauxdunque gang and I—talk constantly about this world we’re living in, these conflagrations, about how to process it, and we talk about writing and writers and the greater conversation. Then we go back to our spaces and write. The things we write are our things, but they would not be the same without the part that comes from being together.
          Writers collaborate all the time with workshop partners, editors, agents, and partners and spouses. (I tried to collaborate with my cats on this piece, but they wouldn’t let me sit in the chair they were occupying. Cats are not collaborators.)
          Truly opening yourself to collaborative possibility requires sublimation of the ego. I owe the respect to the narratives I capture to work them as hard as I can, and to test them against the insights and talents of the writers in my communities.
          My work succeeds best when I try to strip it from the thoughts that This is a great idea I’ve had, Dig my rhythm. Embracing collaboration gets me closer. (But it’s not easy. In my direct collaboration with J.Ed., there were loud arguments, me striding around a block while forcefully advocating to J.Ed. on the other end of the phone for my vision—hardly a sublimation of the ego).
          Our intentions as writers are targets, aspirations, and as writers we constantly miss the mark. But this is the final way collaboration can aid us. If we are truly in collaboration with each other, then we can hold each other to the path when we stray.
 

Tad Bartlett’s work has appeared in the Oxford American, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Carolina Quarterly, Stockholm Review of Literature, and Bird’s Thumb, among others. He received his MFA from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans. Tad is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.

Read Tad's short story, "Anti-heroically Yours." 

Sarah T. Jewell, "Seven Steps to Organizing a Writing Group," January 24, 2017


Step 1: Know Your Community
Are there existing writing groups in your community? If so, attend them. Give it some time, get to know the group and be a regular if you can. Does the group meet your needs? Are there opportunities for leadership in the existing group? Perhaps you can influence the group to shape it into the right group for you. Or, if necessary, you can create your own group, but then you will be more informed about your competition.

Investigate other clubs where you are likely to find writers, such as book clubs (where there are readers there are often writers!). What genres do people in your community like to read?

When I first moved to Jersey City, I started attending workshops with Jersey City Writers. I attended workshops for a year before I developed a poetry workshop within the larger group with the approval of the co-chairs Rachel Poy and Jim DeAngelis. Even though I only regularly attended this one writing group, which most closely met my needs, I also attended other writing groups in the community such as Jersey City Slam and Wordsmithing, to foster partnerships and see where we could collaborate.

Step 2: Conceptualize the Group
Do your homework about how other writing groups function and think about the choices you will make. One great resource for doing this comes from the Writing Center at UNC-Chapel Hill: 13 Ways of Talking About Writing Groups (nice nod to Wallace Stevens). Will you simply critique each others’ work or will you also do spontaneous writing in the group? What do you do in the event that someone fails to show up on his or her assigned day? Answering these questions allows you to define the scope of your group and decide on logistics. While you will want to consider some of these questions on your own, before you initiate your first meeting, keep in mind some decisions you may want to make with the folks who show up to your meetings. Additionally, sometimes the group will evolve over time.

For example, the first few weeks I organized my poetry group, we workshopped two poems and then had two prompts, but I soon realized that members preferred a bit more time to critique the poems, and only work on one prompt a week. 

Step 3: Choose a Venue/Platform
The key word here is partnership. If you are meeting in a physical venue, you will likely have to negotiate terms. If you meet in a cafe or bookstore, are your members buying enough coffee or tea for the owners to justify having you in their space? Can dues of the group support rental of any facilities such as a co-working space? Perhaps a library or community center would be willing to offer their space to your group, but make sure you establish the terms clearly.

I tried a couple places before I found a great partner in Gia Gelato & Café  in Jersey City. The owners Debbie and Angela are very supportive of the arts and were happy to allow us space during peak brunch time on Saturdays. In return, we offer them regular business as we purchase food and drinks.

These days, it is also important to consider virtual venues as well. If you are in a more rural community, perhaps this may be a better option for you. In that case, get to know your virtual community and investigate different platforms, such as Basecamp.

Step 4: Advertising and Marketing
There are many ways you can advertise your group, such as social media, local newspapers and community papers, and bulletin boards in libraries, bookstores, and cafes. Try and saturate your community with your campaign so it is hard to miss. Also, try to be creative and think of your audience when you prepare the materials. Are you trying to emphasize the supportive and collaborative nature of your workshop? Or, if you have a strong publication background, perhaps you want to focus on your own education and credentials as a leader of the group. 

When I first started my group, I was lucky to already have the larger group to help me advertise a poetry specific workshop. I did not advertise my credentials to lead the group initially, as I did not have as many formal ones when I started and I wanted the group to be collaborative. Now that we are offering occasional workshops on form, I am highlighting my publications and expertise as well as that of the members offering the workshops.

Step 5: Only Connect
Listen to the members who show up to your meetings. Allow them to influence your decisions on how to organize the group, but make sure you are focused on the goals you originally set out for the group.

Step 6: Be Reliable
Whatever your frequency of meetings is, it is important to offer meetings at a regular time and space, or it is likely the group will fade. If I found I couldn't run the group one week, I would invite a regular member who seemed to show leadership a chance to shine. This kept the momentum of the group going, and made the members feel more invested in the success of the group.

Step 7: Be Open to Growth and Feedback
Periodically monitor the group and ask for feedback. What is working in the group? What could be improved? Perhaps the members would like to invite speakers to the group, or they would like to host an open mic to showcase their work. Try not to take anything said personally, and respond in a positive, constructive way to the feedback.

One thing I found in my poetry group is that the members wanted more serious study of the craft of poetry, so I responded by hosting a lesson on line breaks, and also by organizing a series of workshops on form offered by members in the group with different expertise than me.


Sarah T. Jewell is a Jersey City Writers moderator and founder of the weekly Jersey Plums Poetry Workshop. She has published in Bird's Thumb, Halfway Down the Stairs, and Cross Poetry Review. She has a chapbook forthcoming from dancing girl press. She posts weekly poetry prompts at www.stjewell.com

Read Sarah's poem, A Prayer for Provenance.

Georgia Bellas, "On Becoming a Poet-Thief," January 10, 2017


Easy Hypnosis for Poets

Sit down and relax. Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re getting sleepy, very sleepy. Your eyes are heavy, so heavy. Your eyes are closing, closing. Your eyes are closed. I’m going to slowly count to three and when I reach three you will open your eyes and read the where, when, and how below. You will then steal poems. You will not stop. Your mission is to be a poet-thief. You will not remember these instructions, only the need and desire for poems. Seek poems. Gather poems. Distribute poems. One…two…THREE...

Where To Steal Your Poems

From every baby you meet
From leaves drifting in slow swirls
From your friends’ dreams
From toenail clippings
From your mom’s button jar
From the rumblings of your tummy
From a spoonful of honey
From the dictionary
From hair in the bathtub drain
From a snow globe that you’ve just shaken
From the sound of rain on the roof of your car in a grocery store parking lot
From bees humming
From pocketfuls of rocks gathered at the beach that you curl your fingers around while looking out the window

When To Steal Your Poems

When the moon is caught in the branches of a tree
When your refrigerator is empty of pickles
When you wake from a dream and your heart is pounding
When someone asks you what you do for a living
When trees are covered in ice and you can see your breath in the air
When chicks peck their way out of eggs in a kindergarten classroom incubator
When you blow out all your birthday candles
When you see a dead deer on the side of the road
When your neighbor sets off Roman candles by the woods at the end of your street
Every time the sun rises and sets, even when you can’t see it
When you read the news and weep
When you’ve lost all hope
When you bleed

How To Steal Your Poems

By walking in a cemetery, studying the headstones, and rubbing your fingertips over the names
By licking an ice cream cone while digging your toes in lakewater mud
By flying a kite and failing, failing, failing until one perfect moment when it lifts and hangs, suspended
By ringing your bicycle bell again and again and again
Through remembering
Through acts of resistance, small and tall
With your heart in your teeth
With open palms
With shoulders heavy with worry, with care
Carefully
Carelessly
Ceaselessly
Any way you can.


Georgia Bellas is a writer, artist, and filmmaker. You can follow her teddy bear, host of the award-winning weekly Internet radio show "Mr. Bear's Violet Hour Saloon," on Twitter @MrBearStumpy.

Read Georgia's poem, "I Will Google You Forever."

Photo credit: Dan Nielsen

Photo credit: Dan Nielsen

Catherine Fletcher, "Science, Wonder & the Days Ahead," December 27, 2016


When I think of writer’s block, I often think of the classic image fed to me by mainstream media: the frustrated novelist, head in hands, surrounded by crumpled pieces of paper.  My favorite version is Billy Crystal’s Larry in Throw Momma from the Train who, after spending most of the film trying to complete the opening sentence to his new book (“The night was…humid.  Foggy.  Dry yet raining…”), is thrown into murderous rage when the titular character disdainfully completes his sentence with “sultry.”  The experiences of actual writers have been more complex.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge became trapped by the success of his youth and developed a mean opium addiction.  In his later years, he bemoaned his inability to craft poetry while still managing to write essay after essay. Mark Twain suffered an eight-year block in the midst of writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn but finished the book in three months after he gave up on a plot point he had previously considered essential to the story.

In my experience, the blocks and slumps that writers undergo are often as individual as the writer.  I have experienced my fair share of slumps—sometimes due to exhaustion from putting most of my creativity into my day job; other times due to unresolved emotion underlying the piece on which I was working.  I’ve known other writers who have been unable to escape patterns of past expression; been stymied by the influence of “great” writers; or just living rather than reflecting.  I’ve noticed most of these slumps happen not during the initial writing of a poem or story, but rather the editing.  Writing is rewriting and it can be a bear. 

I am actively in the middle of rewriting a full-length play, several poems, and an essay.  Earlier this fall, I also hit a slump.  I was tired after a busy spring and summer, it’s true, but most of this slump has come from an unexpected place: current events.  The Brexit vote, the campaign season leading up to the US presidential election, the election results, the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, among other things have left me concerned and anxious.  After the recent siege of Aleppo, words have been failing me regularly.  At the beginning of the year you could find me writing for an hour or two early in the morning.  Now, troubled by what incidents might have transpired overnight, I just turn on the computer first thing and click through news websites. 

One reliable salve for my feelings of writerly inadequacy traditionally has been to retreat into the world of nature and science.  This can be challenging since I live in New York without an easy way to escape the city, but I’ve been able to clear my head in the past by noting the flowering patterns of the plants in the churchyard garden down the street, finding constellations on the occasional clear night, or visiting the deep-sea submersible at the Hall of Science in Flushing.  I’ve also created virtual adventures for myself, listening to the “voice” of the planet Neptune recorded by Voyager 2 and marveling at a sculpture controlled by honeybees.  Perusing engravings of diatoms has sent me deep-sixing into the teenage version of myself who was awed by the architecture of unicellular marine organisms and the incredible rate of a rabbit’s heartbeat found in my biology books. 

The world is still an amazing place, for all its flaws, and its wonders do continue to provide inspiration for my writing.  Lately though the first chapter of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has become something of a touchstone.  An account of the period after her husband’s sudden passing and during her daughter’s life-threatening illness, she begins that story with the terse four sentences she wrote right after he died while waiting for his dinner.  Didion then confesses that for months afterward she wrote nothing other than those sentences.  “Life changes fast.  Life changes in the instant…”  I read the book a decade ago; more than ever, those terse sentences of hers ring in my head.

Some days I’m able to write; other days I am not.  Four sentences.  Six paragraphs.  Three pages.  I’ve stopped counting.  I record what I can.  If any of my words happen to be beautiful or my musings insightful, wonderful.  But I’m not betting on it.  For the next few months I anticipate making notes, quoting sources, and occasionally finding solace in marvels like the many ways to map the human brain or the fascinating roles color plays in nature.  Whatever happens, I trust that the odd assortment of observations I am collecting—must collect in my notebooks ultimately will enable me to make sense of the events that currently are unfolding.


Catherine Fletcher is a New York-based writer.  Recent poetry has appeared in The OffingNew Contrast, and Ekphrastic Review.  She previously served as the Director of Poetry Programs for the New York-based organization City Lore.  She is currently a fellow at Arizona State University's TWP Science and Religion program.

Read Catherine's poem, "Hot Spots."

Jeff Toth, "Out of Orbit," December 13, 2016

       
          When I’d started my MFA, I thought of myself as this infant planet, all compressed carbon and lava and stardust as I solidified my commitment to a creative life. I was done with the 9-to-5 at call centers, pharmacies, and even a bank that was also a café. I was done suppressing the sensitive artist inside. Already in my early thirties, I decided “now or never” was the battle cry, and I went for it. My creativity found a home, and it was never moving out. I filled journals, binders, filing cabinets with writing. Two and a half years in, I began work on a novel–A NOVEL–that would become my graduate thesis–MY GRADUATE THESIS. Then 2014 happened and a new formation of this planet: fatherhood.
          Just a week shy of the end of the spring semester, my daughter was born. There was joy. There was crippling fear. Would writing survive this major change? I reached out to a mentor of mine, and she threw me a lifeline.
          “Here’s what you’re going to do,” she said. “Whenever you feel scared or overwhelmed, you’re going to write about it–to me. Send me an email that says ‘Dear Megan’ at the top, and just go.” So I did, and her selflessness kept my creativity alive. I was a father, and I was still a writer.
          On the night of August 18th, everything changed again. We went to sleep before midnight, my wife just back from her first shift after maternity leave. We were both exhausted from what we thought was going to be the first day of our new normal. Around 4:00 a.m. a raging fire began to devour its way into the kitchen of our third-floor walk-up from the wooden porches at the rear of the building. It was set by an arsonist.
          The details are nearly infinite, and they’re permanent. If this were a post about how to survive a house-fire with your family, I could deliver a Time Life commemorative collection of hardbound volumes. As it is not, there are two things I should make clear: We all made it out alive (even the two cats), and that infant planet, already in a state of turbulent change, was knocked clear out of orbit.
          I took off a semester from grad school to start laying a foundation back under our young family. Dealing with the insurance process alone was almost a full-time commitment, let alone finding a new home that wasn’t a hotel. I managed to save what little I had of my thesis from my damaged laptop, and when I returned to school in the spring, I practically limped to the finish line.
          For the next year and a half, my thesis was all I wrote, all I ever worked on. I stopped being a writer and became some combination of student and survivalist. My writing nook was gone. My books were gone. I even fell away from my usual writers group that I had been with since before grad school. I was all page counts, deadlines, and finding quiet corners in cafes to do this work. The joy of creating faded into this nomadic pursuit of an obsolete plan. The pain was real. The nightly fear of going to sleep with my daughter asleep in another room was mind-altering. The guilt of not seizing every last free minute to write was crushing.
          But time went on as it does, and wounds began to slowly heal as they do. The guilt lingered for a while, too, but I’ve gotten better at casting it aside. I give myself permission to stop clinging to the old plan, to be a human and focus on all the important human things. Life doesn’t care about any carefully calculated orbit; it just does its beautiful, random thing. We have to live and deal with whatever gets thrown onto our path. We have to feel it deeply, let it do its damage, survive it. Creativity, like any other form of energy, can’t be destroyed, it can only take different forms. I knew I had to leave myself open to whatever those might be.
          I still have long periods of quiet, of waiting, watching, and listening. As life moves forward, between the deep, restful breaths of my sleeping daughter, lava cools, stardust settles, and the sun rises as I sit in my new nook, at my new desk, and settle back into orbit.  
 

Jeff Toth recently earned his MFA from Columbia College Chicago. His work has appeared in 3Elements Review, The Vignette Review, and onstage with 2nd Story.

Read Jeff's essay, "Friday, January 31, 1986." 

JToth Profile.JPG

Benjamin Goluboff, "Confessions of an Anti-Confessional Poet" December 1, 2016

         
           It is certainly a good thing that there is no longer an orthodoxy in contemporary poetry. Anything goes. Formalists new and old browse peaceably on the slopes of Parnassus with nth-generation free versers. The Oulipist lies down with the Slam Poet. No center, no party line: it’s all good. Readers and writers should celebrate what's come to look like a Maoist approach to poetry: let a thousand flowers bloom.
          And yet, centerlessness notwithstanding, certain broad commonalities persist. A kind of Average Poem haunts the reviews and quarterlies whose features are familiar to us all. These include a fondness for absurdist juxtapositions, a resonance to nature understood as landscape, a good deal of melancholy weather, and the projection of a central consciousness named I who reflects, generally, on his or her experience with irony or ruefulness or grief. The Average Poem of the moment, that is to say, stands in the long shadow cast by the Confessional Poets of the 1950s and 60s.
          The confessional mode is an old and honorable dimension of poetry, as old as the lyric impulse itself. It probably dates from the moment when Sappho saw the man who got her girl, and thought he seemed to be a god. I’ve read a good deal of confessional poetry, and I am not at all interested in writing any.  In a way this is regrettable, for I have much to confess: my colorful ethnic childhood, my unreasonably happy second marriage, my intrepid neglected children, the privilege I’ve enjoyed even as a small-time academic to learn and reflect about interesting things in the world outside myself. But I decline to write about myself in part because of a personal distaste for self-display, in part because there are so many other things that interest me more.
          Since I began writing poetry, recently and late in life, my subjects have come from lifelong interests in American literature, music, flora, photography, and military history. Many of my  poems have been biographical narratives, which I've written, somewhat compulsively, in suites or sequences. There are 23 poems about Ho Chi Minh, president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, seven about legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller ("Hound Dog," "Kansas City"), eight about General Curtis LeMay, architect of the United States firebombingcampaign against Japanese population centers in the months before Hiroshima. The list goes on.
          These poems combine facts about these people with a good deal of invented detail and circumstance. Ho Chi Minh, who in historical fact had worked his passage to London in 1914, then worked as a plongeur in George Escoffier's kitchen at the Ritz, is carried back to that year and city, in my invention, when he listens to "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in Hanoi shortly before his death in 1969. In my Bird's Thumb poem "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1887" Emily Dickinson's brother whom I imagine, perhaps unkindly, as an aristocratic fop who doesn't think much of her talent, diverts himself from grief at her recent death by listing the botanical names of the trees he'd like to see planted on the campus and commons.
          Many of my poems explore photographs: Cartier-Bresson's portrait of the very old Ezra Pound, W. Eugene Smith's photograph of Thelonius Monk rehearsing with the Town Hall band. Photographs, I'm sure I surprise no one by saying, are fascinating for the way they combine precision and ambiguity, how they gesture to absent things outside the frame, and make invisible things apparent. And for me at least, photographs carry a special pathos for the way they suggest the irresistible momentum of time and mortality.
          A few years ago I finished a suite of seven poems on photographs by or about Allen Ginsberg. The photos I chose include one of Ginsberg in the 1980s sitting on the porch of the house where Jack Kerouac was born, another from the 60s of the poet at the falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, N.J., yet another where Ginsberg talks with Bob Dylan backstage at Princeton's McCarter Theater. These photographs are the occasion to exercise a traditional lyricisman opportunity to make interesting pictures and sounds. More importantly, the pictures make possible an interrogation of the contradictions in Ginsberg's character: Allen Ginsberg as poet and narcissist, mystic and freak. And like the other poems mentioned here, the Ginsberg poems rigorously exclude anything about me.
          I think of what I've been writing as anti-confessional poetry, and I see it as a liberating exercise for the imagination. Writing about oneself seems, by contrast, confining, like going back and forth over the pages of one's own diary. If confessional poetry can be celebrated on the basis of its supposed universality (questionable: is Sexton's or Snodgrass's cri de coeur always in tune with one's own?) then anti-confessional poetry must be valued for its particularity, its exploration of a concrete world beyond the self.


Benjamin Goluboff's collection, Ho Chi Minh: A Speculative Life in Verse, and Other Poems is due out from Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017. Goluboff teaches English at Lake Forest College. Some of his work can be read at: https://www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/

Read Benjamin's poem, "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1877"

Sherry Stratton, "What I Cling To" November 15, 2016


I am not a writer. The more I have to write about—the more I wish to write it—the more I am not a writer. After my brother’s death last year in deepest winter, I went through his neat, handwritten phone list and started to call people. One or two each day. This served as a break from my phone calling related to the other death duties: the myriad medical creditors, Citgo, Visa, DISH. In both categories of calls, any exchange might make or break my day. I told my friend, a poet, about “Mary from Pick 'n Save” who Steve met in the pet aisle at the grocery store. I didn’t know Mary, but Steve had told me about her. I called her, told her I was Steve’s sister. She asked, “has he died?” We talked nearly an hour: about Steve, about her connection to our home town, about Sheena—Steve’s cat that is now mine. We were saying goodbye; I could hear Mary sniffling, and she said, “one more thing: kiss the cat for me.” My friend said, “you have to write about that.” 

At my writing group, each month lacking a new piece of writing to present, I tell stories instead. One such story: about receiving a letter out of the blue, forwarded from the Wisconsin funeral home, from a stranger—a musician who saw Steve’s obituary and felt a kinship. In the letter he asked if he could purchase one of Steve’s CDs. Seeing the effect Steve had even on people who didn’t know him, I was blown away for days. The group tells me, “you should write about that.”

The next summer, I visit the lakeside cottage that Steve had made his home and now we—what remains of our family—are turning back into a summer place. I call Mary again. I have the program from Steve’s memorial for her, can I stop by? She says yes, gives me directions. Mary in turn has something for me and for Sheena, an old toy from the 1940s: a wind-up music box with springs ending in wooden balls attached at the top. Attractive to cats, she says, and the tune is soothing. She tells me that she intended to give it to Steve and didn’t get the chance. I suspect it’s a family heirloom and ask if she really wants to give it away. Yes, she assures me. Next I stop at the gas station convenience store, hoping to meet someone else from Steve’s phone list, “Tracy from BP.” Steve had said she was the first person outside his family that he’d told about his diagnosis. But I strike out; Tracy has moved north. I tell my friend these stories. She says, “you really should write about this.”

Last month I told the writing group that I’d like to meet at my house next time. We usually meet at a coffee shop, but I wanted to have them at my place—in summer, when we can sit on the porch. It took a bit of bravery to make this invitation; I tend to be a nervous host, on my own. Plus, I don’t really have the time (after all, I don’t even have time to write). A week before the meeting, I send out directions. Optimistically, I add, “I may even write something!” As the date approaches, I think about that. These days, much of my time is spent with, or for, my elderly mom, ensconced in assisted living nearby. And I still have not gotten all the tasks of my new life under control since my husband’s death nearly five years ago. Probably never will. Stuff has been happening right and left, and there is no way I will write something. And now, the meeting is today. I spent some of the morning and early afternoon preparing snacks and stowing them in bowls and trays in the fridge. I organized, made notes. Cleared off counters and tables and laid out glasses, napkins, dishes. I was on a schedule, and writing did not appear on the schedule. It was not essential. And then it was 90 minutes before my friends would arrive. I had in my head just an opening line for the blog post I’d committed to write—eventually. The assignment was to “Share your creative process . . . any topic related to writing.” My theme: all the reasons I have for not writing—very good reasons that I cling to—mean simply that I am not a writer. I sat down and started to write.


After a career in technical writing, Sherry Stratton has focused on the subjects closest to her heart. Her work is forthcoming in Punctuate and has been published in the anthology Songs of Ourselves: America’s Interior Landscape (2015), Portage, A Prairie Journal, and elsewhere. Sherry is copy editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. 

Read Sherry's essay Accidental Visitor.

Photo credit: Angela Just

Photo credit: Angela Just

Barbara Harroun, "On Writing, Rejection, and Janis Joplin," November 1, 2016

Joplin knew more about rejection than anyone ever should, and while high school was boot camp for most of us in regards to this subject, for her it was out and out war. Janis returned home for her tenth high school reunion and a reporter pestered her, trying to root out if she’d always been different. The moment that broke me was when he asked if she ever went to prom. She replied no. “Were you asked?” the reporter pressed. Janis, with feathers of fuchsia and purple in her hair, her oversized glasses slipping down her nose, seemed to crumple. “No, I never was. I don’t think they wanted to take me.” There is a pause, and pain is writ all over her face, until she cracks a smile and riffs, “And I’ve been suffering ever since.” In the January preceding her death she wrote to her family:

After you reach a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition, or as I see it how much you really need—need to be loved, to be proud of yourself…I guess that’s what ambition is; it’s not all a depraved quest for position and money, maybe it’s for love. Lots of love.

At the age of her death, 27, I was exiting Purdue’s MFA program. I was beginning to learn about rejection in terms of writing and teaching. I wanted to be a beloved rock star, if I’m honest—loved and admired and embraced for my writing. I hadn’t thought much about what it meant to work as a writer. Now, I see the finished work, once I send it out, as being of me but entirely separate from me. It’s my work. It isn’t me. If I do my job properly, then readers will immerse themselves in the piece and I will disappear entirely. I want readers to feel recognition and connection to my writing, not necessarily to me. Joplin did not have this luxury. Her art needed her entirety. There was something in Joplin’s letters home that returned to me how naked rejection can make us feel, and how unloved and unworthy. At 27, the rejection letters, returned to me in my own self-addressed, stamped envelopes seemed to rip out my heart and spine for days, and if I’ve learned anything, writing is a business where you have to show up with your spine intact and learn to protect your heart while simultaneously keeping it open.

I used to think of rejection as a door slamming in my face. Now, I think of it as a door to walk through. I read the letter/email of rejection and let the door slam, let it have 15 minutes of quiet that I fill with grumbled profanity and fretting and giving in to uncertainty and insecurity, and then I try to go for the doorknob with curiosity and humility and without my ego. I ask myself: 

Is the story/poem/essay finished? Have I served the story/poem/essay fully? Have I done the hard work?  Or does it need to be re-envisioned further? If it needs to be revised, has the editor been kind enough to give additional direction? Do I agree, if feedback has been provided? 

Is the story/poem/essay finished? Have I served the story/poem/essay fully? Have I done the hard work?  Or does it need to be re-envisioned further? If it needs to be revised, has the editor been kind enough to give additional direction? Do I agree, if feedback has been provided?

Do I need time, space, and distance from the piece before real revision can happen? Or has the essential story been lost in revising? Do I need to go back and reread saved drafts before proceeding?

Was this the proper forum for this piece? If so, how long do I have to revise and resubmit? If not, I challenge myself to find three additional publications that might be a more suitable home if I think and trust the piece is ready. This challenges me to always be reading and investigating not only new literary journals and magazines in print, but online, and to find new writers I might not otherwise be exposed to. It also means I have to be willing to work to labor the piece into the world beyond just writing it—I have to advocate for it.

Have I taken the fine sandpaper to it? Have I polished and proofread and edited to the best of my ability? Have I removed all of my clunky fingerprints? Have I made immersion possible for the reader?  

As writers, we have to determine for ourselves why we continue to create art, what drives our ambition. Maybe Joplin was right, that it is about “lots of love.” And I think I keep creating because it’s an act of love for me. It’s where I find myself. And maybe it’s about loving the world we inhabit with others—however terrifying, confounding, and breathtaking.

Barbara Harroun is an assistant professor at Western Illinois University. Her most recent work is forthcoming or appearing in Per Contra Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Watershed Review, and Text Magazine. Her favorite creative endeavors are her awesome kids, Annaleigh and Jack.

Read Barbara's stories "What We Tell Ourselves" and "
Disembarking."

Jon Riccio, "(I Write) The Questions That Ponder the Artist" October 18, 2016


One of the biggest carry-overs from my days as a fundraising professional is the concept of donor stewardship. This is accomplished by being as gracious and transparent as possible regarding the impact of their gift and how it moves the organization that much closer to meeting its objectives. Stewardship operates under the basic principle of advancing a cause for which you are a passionate caretaker. Substitute “author” for “cause” and you find an abundance of opportunities to promote the writers whose work holds a vested meaning to you. Of the platforms that spring to mindpublication, book reviews, and interviewsI find the last aspect an endeavor as equally rewarding to the stewardship recipient as it is to me.   

Since 2014, I’ve interviewed more than two dozen poets for Fairy Tale Review, The Volta Blog, Sonora Review, and CutBank Online. Three of these journal “homes” came about simply because I expressed my interest. Here was my chancethrough a series of well-thought discoursesto steward poets who advocated equality, dazzled linguistically, and broadened my understanding of image and form.

The vast majority of writers want their insights disseminated; the social-media verbs share and retweet confirm this. As such, the goal of any good interview is to engage your responders in ways that let them express the facets unique to their work, often discovering new windows into generative and revisioning processes alike. The stronger your questions, the more thorough your finished product, which serves as an excellent marketing tool for the writer and journal, while giving you a publication credit as well.

I usually come up with ten questions, the bulk of them based on close reading of the text, leaving room for additional inquiries culled from the poet’s bio and/or artistic statement, should the journal ask for one, as is the case at Fairy Tale Review. Sometimes I work with a word limit or a specific set of expectations to highlight components X, Y, and Z. A quick touch-base with my publisher (and conveyance of such guidelines to the poet) determines the appropriate route. 

An interview’s biggest pay-off? Formulating the questions that allow me to be as creative as I want, these volleys akin to sharing a seesaw with my favorite writer-of-the-moment, their depth stewarding my improvement as a poet.

A college friend said I’d make a good talk show host, what with my curiosity and tendency as the loudest cheerer of our classmates, qualities I now apply to the interview canvas. The poetry universe is really one huge beach with room for enough sandcastles so that everyone can find a home. Whether they choose the drawbridge, cornerstone, or turret is up to them. Interviewing sees me as their door-to-door steward, constantly visiting poets far from my aesthetic base, helping them achieve the larger readership they deserve.

Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. His work appears in apt, Bird’s Thumb, Booth, Cleaver, CutBank Online, Hawai’i Review, and Redivider, among others. A 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee, he received his MFA from the University of Arizona. 

Read Jon's poem, Speaking in Calendars.

Brooke Bishop, "Hate to Write? I Did, Too." October 4, 2016


They say, “Writers don’t like to write. They like to have written.” Well. I say that’s bullshit. After years of tears, white-knuckling, and avoidance, I am now a writer who likes to write. You can like to write, too.

Here’s how to get stuff done in that time you've set aside for writing, with less pain, and more joy: 

Step 1: Identify your symptoms of inspiration and fear.

Symptoms of inspiration are pretty easy to spot, but difficult to put into words. For me, a feeling of flow, confidence, and elation come to mind. Anything that feels like love.

While some of our fear is verbal, it mostly acts on us in invisible, instantaneous, insidious ways. Some of my symptoms of fear are monkey mind, humorlessness, a sense that there’s not enough time to get everything done, and distractibility. If it’s not actively love, it’s fear.

Step 2: Identify your uppers and downers. 

Uppers are actions that move you from fear to inspiration. Some of my uppers are taking a brisk walk, taking a shower, spending time with nature, and reading certain blogs. If these things feel like treats, it’s because they are!

Downers are things that further entrench you in fear. For me, these include perusing social media newsfeeds and watching TV. Sometimes you may confuse a downer for an upper, thinking that that beer will actually inspire you. But that’s just the fear monster talking, because when you’re in your right mind, you know it will actually just drag you down.

Step 3: Do whatever you want to do. 

Thanks to the awareness amassed in Steps 1 and 2, freedom naturally leads in the direction of inspiration. When I suddenly notice I’m compulsively checking facebook, craving a pound of chocolate, or itching to binge-watch Say Yes to the Dress, I tend to snap out of it more often nowadays and choose to take a walk or read a book instead.

Step 4: Repeat Steps 1 through 3 regularly. 

Confronted with a hamper of dirty clothes, I used to say to myself, “But dammit, I already did the laundry!” Of course, I didn’t “already” do the laundry. Rather, I have to do the laundry “again,” and will continue to have to do the laundry again and again as long as I value having clean clothes to wear.

Lastly, I’ve found it helps to accept that you won’t always get it right, nor do you always want to (sometimes we just want to be very very naughty, don’t we?), and that that’s okay, and that being a coward from time to time won’t kill you. Again, the goal here is not to set rules, but to trigger awareness so that free will can be fully felt and exercised. The goal here is freedom. Because from freedom springs creativity, and a free, creative life is indeed a life worth living.

Try it out. Send me an email at brooke@brookebishop.com and let me know what you think.

Brooke Bishop is a writer, director, story consultant, and educator. She is a Founding Author of the critically acclaimed interview-based storytelling project How Love Lasts. A version of this piece also appeared on her blog brooke bishop where she writes about living a life after anxiety. She lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her partner, where the grass is actually greener.

Nancy Correro, "How to Emerge from a Writing Slump? Excavate." September 20, 2016


We’ve all been there. As writers, we’re always in search of inspiration. It could be that we’re writing already, but come to a stone wall we’re unable to chisel through. Rationally, we know we will eventually break through, we’ll discover the right word or middle or ending we were trying to excavate in our mind. It can be maddening. Everyone experiences this frustration. To remember that it is only temporary helps, but when we’re in the middle of it we often don’t have that realization. That is why it’s important to try to keep the right tools at hand so when the stone wall appears, there is an easier way through it.

Writing is a lonely job, and being too isolated can be a problem. Yes, we need the solitude in order to write, but when I feel the stone walls getting thicker, and I notice I am looking for other things to do like cleaning out closets and drawers, that is when I know it’s time to get out, and see friends. Live life. One of my professors once said, “You all need to get out and do something. Your poems have no life. You can’t write about life until you’ve experienced it.” He was right. That day none of the poems were engaging. Get out and enjoy life then go back to the page and excavate.

Some people are superstitious about letting others read their work before it’s “finished.” I have several groups of friends and professional acquaintances that I trust with my work. It’s not easy to find people willing to take the time to read my work. It’s a busy world, and we all have busy lives, but this is essential to improving my writing. It can also be a way to break through the stone wall, and find those fabulous trinkets on the other side. Fresh eyes during revision is essential to fine writing. Many of us no longer have access to a poetry or fiction workshop anymore. It’s important to nurture a relationship with other writers to continue to improve craft, but most importantly to help in seeing the work in a new way—to see it from another angle.

Finally, and this is my favorite way to crack the stone wall, give yourself a prompt and a deadline. I’m part of a group that takes turns giving a word or phrase prompt every day—Monday through Friday. Of course, the amount of work can be altered and agreed upon. I’ve written more in the last month than I’ve written in a long while. My nose is held down to the sharpening stone—there are people who expect a response from me daily. We then email our work to one another, and we write helpful responses back. Sometimes it’s only a line I can keep, or a paragraph, but often it’s an entire poem or short story. Happy excavating, dear writers.

Nancy Correro holds an MFA from McNeese State University, and is pursuing a PhD at Georgia State University. She finds inspiration while hiking the Big Creek trails. She is the recipient of the Joy Scantlebury Poetry Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Panoply, and Sadie Girl Press.

Read Nancy's poem,  Dreams from the Strand.

Michelle Ross, "Submit Your Best Work Only," September 6, 2016


We’ve all seen the phrase in literary journal submission guidelines: “Submit your best work only.” I used to be annoyed by its pervasiveness. It’s the King Kong of submission guideline clichés. And what does it even mean? Are we supposed to thrust our stories, poems, and essays into an arena and let them duke it out? Then submit only the last piece standing, while the other pieces—the losers—cower in the dust?

That’s more or less how I once interpreted that phrase. I fretted about the impossibility of the situation it presented to me as a young writer who understood that some of my stories were better than others. After all, they can’t all be the best, just as all children can’t be above average. And we don’t subscribe to abandoning children just because they’re not the best.

But what this phrase really means is something different. Rather than is this the best piece I’ve ever written, “submit your best work only” prompts us to consider questions such as these:

Have I put in adequate time reading and writing to acquire the skills needed to write this particular piece well?

Have I put my heart and guts into this piece?

Have I carefully edited and proofread?

Have I enlisted fellow writers to offer criticism?

Am I proud of this piece?

Is this piece worth a reader’s time?

The phrase “Submit only your best work” is really about integrity and professionalism. Editors would rather risk sounding cliché than omit these words because they hope to dissuade some of the many writers who submit work that is unworthy of an editor’s attention. I’m not talking about work that is subjectively off the mark. I’m talking about the surplus submissions through which typos run wild like packs of coyotes. Or: a character’s name shape-shifts from one page to another—first it’s Claire, then Louise, then Claire again. Or: dialogue is punctuated strangely, as though the writer has never before encountered dialogue on the page or, more likely, never paid attention. I’m talking about a highly successful writer submitting a half-assed story that the editor suspects the writer wouldn’t dare send to some of the journals in which they’ve been previously published. I’m also talking about work that lacks urgency and intrigue—work that is proficient, even great at moments, but overall ho-hum. There’s no crime in producing ho-hum writing. We’ve all done it. But is it worth trying to publish just because you wrote it?

If you’ve got a piece for which you cannot respond to the list of questions above with an enthusiastic “yes!” then one option is to seek out the kinds of journals that don’t care so much about quality, the journals whose submission guidelines include lines such as “That piece that has been rejected eight dozen times, it may just be a great fit for us! We love the kind of messy, unpolished work that other journals decline!” Those journals are out there.

Of course, once a piece of writing is published, particularly if it’s published online, it may be in the world forever. This is perhaps another question we should ask ourselves before we submit: if this piece gets accepted and published, am I likely to feel good about it (or at least not want to stab the computer monitor when I reread it) weeks, months, and years from now?

Michelle Ross's debut story collection, There's So Much They Haven't Told You, won the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award and will be published in early 2017. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer and serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review.

Read Michelle's story Sex Ed.

Cyn Vargas, "Submit. Rejection. Submit. Repeat." August 23, 2016

Rejection. I got rejected by my high school's star quarterback when I asked him to senior prom. I knew I didn’t have a shot, but I asked him anyway because I’d rather hear the no for sure than to wonder later what if he would have said yes by some miracle. I asked. He politely said he wasn’t going, but thanks. I saw him at prom with one of the most popular girls at school and that was that.

When I first got serious about submitting, I decided my first rejection was going to be by a top dog, so I submitted to The New Yorker. The. New. Yorker. A literary quarterback. This was back when they still sent rejection letters. I knew I wasn’t getting in and just wanted to feel it. I wanted to process it all before really putting myself out there. But still, when I got the rejection letter I cried. I let myself feel the rejection. It stung. And I let it sting and then I went back to submitting because that’s the only way to feel better. To get back to it. You can’t let one place dictate your writing career. You keep at it.

After that rejection, I kept writing. I did a lot of research to see what places my stories would fit best because sometimes it’s not that your work isn’t good or that they don’t “like” it, it’s simply not the right fit. Don’t send an essay to a magazine that just takes prose. Don’t send a story that is too short or long or is about love or aliens to a place that doesn’t want that. READ the magazines you are submitting to. If you don’t you are wasting their time and yours.

I have a spreadsheet of all the places I have been rejected AND accepted. There are magazines I still super-really want to get into and I keep trying. I send them new work when I think it’s a good fit. Some magazines I submit to only once and figure the sting of their rejection wasn’t as strong as I had anticipated, so I focus my energy elsewhere next time.

If you are writing and researching and having a life (like I hope you are), you only have enough time and energy to spend on submitting. Make it count. And just know rejections will happen, but so will acceptances. It’s all worth it. Now go and write something amazing and then send it somewhere and then go back to writing some more.
 

Cyn Vargas’s short story collection, On The Way (Curbside Splendor, 2015) received positive reviews from Library Journal, Newcity, Shelf Awareness, Heavy Feather Review, and elsewhere. Her prose and essays have been published in the Chicago Reader, Word Riot, Hypertext Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, Bird’s Thumb, Chicago Literati, and elsewhere.  www.cynvargas.com

Read Cyn's essa
y On the Island of Quicksand.

Tina Garvin Curtis, "The Hierarchy of Expression" August 9, 2016


What is my portfolio but an example of the urgency in which I operate? I am the meticulous surgeon that grafts my English, my own flesh, onto the page. However, in so doing, I realize the necessity for new skin. This new skin comes in acrylic on canvas, watercolor on paper, or pixels in print. Truthfully, the narrow path, the mastery of a single art form terrifies me, perhaps that driving force for me is fear. Fear of being one big misunderstanding. Without this turning into a full blown confessional essay, there seems to be an inherent necessity to articulate, by any means or medium: urge. The process in which I approach the poem begins with the tactile. My poem “Savannah” reconciles the relationship of rhetoric and palpable pain.

Savannah
Embedded in the bulrush and cliff brakes some
better left unsaid things some better
left to die things taste like warm brass
feels cool peach on bee sting some better left
unrung rings purpling round her eyes embedded in
her comb’s finer teeth a better
song nestled in her namesake

With my poetry a piece often begins with the tactile while my visual art begins with a word or title first, the name of a city for example, a mixed media abstract painting featured in The Empty Mirror Literary and Arts Magazine entitled, “Chicago” has the image of a wild onion bursting from the complex underearth. The word “Chicago” is a variation of the word “Chigagou,”an Algonquin word for “onion field”. It is with this urge to create, and a quiverful of boundless internet resources, that I can transcribe a poem into Gaelic or I can skillfully render a photograph and make it into something uncomfortably close to magic. However it seems freedictionary.com cannot define the force which culls the interdisciplinary arts in me. I can access the annals of the poet/painter via WIFI séance to aid in the articulation of, “why?” Yet, why am I not content to express myself in words alone? Why in an America where MFA programs churn out unemployable algorithms for “good poetry” do I get to call myself a poet? Of course, these insecurities are growth hormone for my creative endeavors. For I am always the salmon bowing and capering upstream toward an extinction of one, making my work in this lifetime especially URGENT. I jot down all those words, synonyms for: urge. Even now as I write this and near my word count, I am thinking I should include article references or influences but that would imply that someone had previously said it best. I am a poet, painter, and photographer because words alone cannot convey my mortal urgency, because the Hierarchy of Expression implies that there is an ascension required to arrive at truth. 

“Boxelder Boughs" Photograph

“Boxelder Boughs" Photograph

Sound. The sound of small bells being struck. The resonance being felt on a cellular level. So that as our ears listen every cilia sways to the rhythmic ting of our own hearts. That ever present ting. Can words reverberate in our eardrums? Can words effectively mimic the ting? As a writer, I type the word “bell”. Imagine the metallic ting of the clapper striking the bell itself and reverberating through the hollow. 

“Robert’s Blossom” 16” x 20” print on archival paper

“Robert’s Blossom” 16” x 20” print on archival paper

Tina Garvin Curtis is a creative force that emits poetry, essays, paintings, and photography. In addition to these emissions she is Art Editor of The Tishman Review. Her work has been published in Bird's Thumb, The Offing, The Tishman Review, and others. She tweets @TinaMGarv.

Read Tina's poem Savannah.

Dan Nielsen, "Flash Fiction and Online Press Prestige" July 26, 2016


On Writing Flash Fiction
Internet literary journals are better than print literary journals—the writing is as good, they are  free, and you can comfortably fit hundreds of them in your pocket.

A rejection is better than an acceptance—if it results in a rewrite. A successful story requires five rejections/rewrites.

The main function of a story writer is to help editors make amazing magazines.

“Prestigious” online journals receive too many submissions. This is a burden for them. Take pity. Send your best work elsewhere.

Simultaneous submissions are great—three is best—five is max. When a startup is putting  together their first issue, and accepts something of mine in a day or two, I am thrilled. It’s way better than being “In Progress” on Submittable for a year. And what better kick than informing Tin House that, once again, they’ve been beaten out.

FLASH is the only prose I write. Modern life, when we’re lucky, affords us the luxury of self-imposed constraints. I love the idea of telling a complete story—3rd person—past tense, where something transformative happens to believable and compelling characters who move the plot through dialogue. All in fewer than a thousand words. I get excited just thinking about it. 

Online fiction writers belong on Twitter. I’m saddened when I read something I love and I cannot immediately contact the author and hundreds of potential readers while providing a link for instant access. This should always happen. Because it’s magical.

The Process
Begin with the name of a character. Don’t make it up. Find it. The first sentence is action.
Rewrite the sentence. Rewrite that sentence. Write another sentence establishing place. Add another about what the character wants. And something explaining why this is not likely to happen. Rewrite everything. Rearrange. Eliminate anything overly clever. Find better, simpler, and more specific words that allow no hint of unintended ambiguity. Introduce another character. Here comes the conflict! 

It’s FLASH, so at any point you can change something that necessitates changing everything.
And that’s fine. Because it’s fun. It’s what we do.

When you hit 1100 words—stop! Read it aloud while marching in place, and then again while marching around the room, and yet again while marching around the block. This should get you down to around 800 words. Concentrate really hard until the counter is at 750, and you’re done. 

Send it three places—Duotrope works best for me—and hope for speedy rejections so you can make it better, and better, and better.


Dan Nielsen spreads his limited talents thinly so as to cover writing, music, art, and stand-up comedy. Old credits include Random House and University of Iowa Press anthologies. Recent work has appeared in The Ottawa Object, Lockjaw Magazine, The Fem, Semaphore Magazine, and Minor Literature[s]. He has a website: Preponderous.

Read Dan's flash fiction S
cratch-offs and Monster Truck.