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 Offing, New 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."
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."
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 lyricism—an 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: www.lakeforest.edu/academics/faculty/goluboff/
Read Benjamin's poem, "Austin Dickinson Orders Trees for the Beautification of Amherst, Mass, 1877"
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.
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."
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 mind—publication, book reviews, and interviews—I 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 chance—through a series of well-thought discourses—to 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.
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 email@example.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.
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.
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.
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 essay On the Island of Quicksand.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Scratch-offs and Monster Truck.
As poets and writers, every now and then we fizzle out. We take to the page and…nothing happens. We struggle to get words out and it feels much like trying to squeeze light from solid rock. Our head feels heavy. The blankness of the paper (or the screen) stares at us, mockingly. On more than one occasion, I’ve thought that I’d written my last very poem. Yes, that is entirely overdramatic, but it is also true to how I have felt (and will feel again) in those cyclical moments of frustration: when the desire to express is there, but the ability is seemingly not. Sometimes that period can stretch for weeks at a time, months even. But, somehow, I always seem to come out of it. And deep down, I always know that I will.
Reflecting on my own experience, I find that simply wanting to produce a poem is not enough. I count the days and notice how long it’s been since the last poem. I feel guilt and shame. I feel nervous. None of that helps. The need to write, and I mean need, in that instance, is pure fabrication. It has to be authentic. I believe we are compelled to write by a shadow of us—a feeling, a thought, a memory—that aches to be given form outside of the mind. As much as the body goes to sleep when it’s tired, as much as it eats when it’s hungry, it writes when it wants to be heard. So I wait for that moment, with intention. I show patience, which in this context, is also an act of faith. The best thing I believe anyone can do during a bout of writer’s block is wait. Not waiting in the sense of being still and idle, but waiting as in keeping lookout for a due arrival.
To some that may seem like a surprising statement. I often hear about how writing is a “practice”—it involves routine, dedication, resilience. All of that is true. It is a good idea to attempt to write every day, to work the muscles so to speak, but I relate that more to mechanics, to knowing how the gears of a poem work together and how to build that gorgeous machine. These motions can aid in breaking through a slump, of course, but it’s not necessarily the satisfying writing nor the important writing (though it sometimes can be or build into it) that we often look for when we pick up a pen or start typing away on a keyboard, the work that leaves us with the sense we accomplished “something” of note. But don’t worry, because the important work will make itself known when it’s ready. It will insist upon its existence. You just have to be listening.
Cortney Lamar Charleston is a Cave Canem fellow, finalist for the 2015 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize and semi-finalist for the 2016 Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Beloit Poetry Journal, Gulf Coast, Hayden's Ferry Review, The Iowa Review, The Journal, New England Review, Pleiades, River Styx, Spillway, TriQuarterly and Bird’s Thumb.
Read "Regarding the Conversation Between Black Body and Sound."
I recently began teaching writing full-time, and this is the first summer in at least a decade that I don’t have a Monday-to-Friday, 9-to-5. Staring down the blank runway of my calendar at the end of May, I was simultaneously grateful for the elusive “time to write” and terrified that I would squander it. Lucky for me, the guidance I needed walked right across my lap. Jim, a three-year-old tiger cat who never lost his kitten fuzz, and his brother-from-another-mother, Jeff, a tuxedo with a trademark tuft where his tail should be. If you were to watch them try to fit their eight legs into one windowsill or chase a shadow across the wall, you might not think of them as competent guides. They are, however, masters of daytime management. Here are some annotated highlights from The Kitties’ Guide to the Writing Life.
Establish a Routine
To make the best of the time between your morning bowl of crunchies ‘n’ bits and nighttime ocean-fish with gravy, set up a rotation of activities. For example: morning nap, mid-day chasing tails, early afternoon sun-stretch, late afternoon nap, pre-dinner meowy hour. Set an allotted time for each and stick to it.
The “keep a schedule” advice has been repeated countless times, in just as many variations. (See Maria Popova’s round-up of some of the greats.) Most of the “day in the life” features I read, however, are the time-logs of brilliant people whose lives are by definition anything but routine. Whatever quirks or restrictions they adopted are validated by their publication lists. Jim and Jeff offer models for even the humblest of days. Through their snoozy patterns I learned: 1) My schedule can be set by no expectations other than my own. 2) A routine is freeing. Knowing that I am working within an hour allotted for research, for example, releases me from worrying that I should be spending that time revising (or that Susan Sontag would be journaling now, or Thoreau would be out for a walk…)
Bonus Tip: Leave a buffer in between planned activities, in case you get absorbed in a project or in that recurring dream where you’re floating on a sea of tuna in a catnip canoe.
Report to Your Stations
Find your favorite spot for each part of your routine. You might choose a lap (Jim) or a tipped-over file box (Jeff) for your morning office hour. When you rotate to your porch later, the wind tickling your belly fur will be enough to get you into the mood for your morning stretch.
“80 percent of success is showing up,” or so says the adage attributed to Woody Allen. That’s easy when an employer tells me where to be, but less so when it comes to writing. I’ve tried to follow Jim and Jeff’s examples of making the best of what a space can offer. At my desk I’m in the posture for on-a-deadline writing or revising. The library inspires me to dig into the research phase of a project. A park bench, the front stoop, or anywhere with a breeze frees up the flow of a brainstorming session. Check out a local guide or list of places to write if you need ideas.
Bonus Tip: Find a fuzzy friend to meet you at one of your favorite spots. Companionship and accountability make bug-patrol or post-crunchies curl-up more pleasant and productive.
Even the most productive routine needs to be broken. If you hear the can-opener, go to the kitchen.
Unexpected opportunities pop up, even in the summer: calls for submissions, public readings, etc. As I scratch my head over whether I should break from my action plan to pounce on one of these diversions, I marvel at how the cats snap from snoring to meowing at the counter in the flick of a can-tab or twitter of a chickadee. How do they calculate their response so quickly? They don’t. Sometimes they score prime quarry---a shred of tuna. Sometimes they fly face-first into the window screen. Many of the small successes I can chalk up for the summer sprung from deviations from my to-do list. Whether I got the hoped-for results or not, my routine, and my fuzzy companions, have always been there when I’m ready to return to them.
Bonus Tip: If you get an unexpected chance to pitch a story or a blog post, jump on it, and consider adding kitties.
Emily Avery-Miller writes and teaches in Boston, MA. She loves tracking tech buzz, geeking out in museums and exploring new trails. Her prose and short fiction have appeared in Art New England, Bird's Thumb, Literary Bohemian and others.
Read Emily's essay Eye Contact.