Finding Your Built-in Compass


I’m going to tell you a funny anecdote. In 2006, two years after my immigration to Canada, I wrote my first short story in English. I reviewed it twice, tweaked a few words, rearranged a few sentences, and then submitted it to The New Yorker. I promised myself if they didn’t publish it, I’d give up writing. When the days ticked on with no response, I saw it as a good sign. I imagined a round table with some serious-faced editors, wearing fedoras and smoking cigars, discussing my story, so taken by the prose they couldn’t even get back to me. After the first month, I began checking The New Yorker’s website. Maybe they’d published my story without letting me know. Maybe that was how this business worked.

Three months later, I received a form rejection email.

It was a blow to my ego which took some time to heal. Later, forgoing my promise (it’s not always a good idea to keep a promise), I wrote a new story. This time, I sent it to an obscure magazine called Tin House, certain that they were hungry for my writing.

It turned out they were not. And neither were a few other publications I blindly sent my work to. Later, my personal life dictated a shift in my focus and interests. For a while, I wrote in Farsi until about three years ago, when I returned to English. This time, I was better equipped, not only in terms of craft (which was crucial), but I also gained a better insight into the literary world. I already patronized bookstores, mostly idling in fiction and non-fiction sections, but now I gradually began levitating towards the magazine section, as if extending an olive branch. I began to read literary journals and to read about them. It was then I realized Tin House was one of the most coveted literary magazines and that getting published in The New Yorker through the slush pile was as likely as getting struck by lightning.

This personal account is exaggerated, and yet, to my embarrassment, there is some truth to it. Nothing is wrong with having ambitions or daydreams. An Iranian filmmaker friend of mine once said there’s no one in the film industry without an Academy Awards acceptance speech under their belt—just in case. But, I think, the problem presents itself when your chosen path towards your goals doesn’t agree with reality and it will lead to frustration, and possibly to the premature fulfilment of a sad promise, like the kind I mentioned earlier.

Aside from a few rare cases of genius and fluke, the writer’s path is a tortuous road paved with rejections and snubs. Lots of articles on the Internet praise tenacity and teach you strategies for sending your work out into the world. But it also helps to know where you stand in this overcrowded space. Progress is only possible when you aim higher, but first you need to know where the high is in relation to your work. When I look back at that first English piece (I must down a shot of whiskey first), I wouldn’t even dare to post it on my Facebook page, let alone imagining it published in The New Yorker.

So, continue to send out your work if you think it’s ready, but be honest with yourself. Strive to train an objective eye, bereft of ego and emotion, to see if your piece is on a par with your favorite journal’s selections. This way, you’ll accept rejections more gracefully and there will always be a chance for a breakthrough.

Read Mehdi’s short story “A Galaxy Far Far Away.”

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I Listen to Russian ASMR Videos while I Write and No, It’s not a Fetish

ASMR stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is just a cumbersome name for the feeling of pleasant tingles on your upper body that you might get from having your hair brushed, or when someone whispers softly just behind your ear. ASMR videos seek to reproduce this feeling via triggers, a subjective assortment of sounds that can include whispering, fingernail tapping, page turning, or any quiet noise the video maker believes might be pleasant to hear. Never had this feeling? In her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf describes it well: “Septimus heard her say ‘Kay Arr’ close to his ear, deeply, softly, like a mellow organ, but with a roughness in her voice like a grasshopper's, which rasped his spine deliciously and sent running up into his brain waves of sound.”

I can’t remember how I stumbled upon ASMR, but once found I knew I’d discovered something amazing, like tasting hazelnut gelato for the first time. Many videos have titles like, “Personal Attention ASMR Deep Relaxation Tinglezzzzzzzzz.” Who wouldn’t want personal attention and deep relaxation and tingles? Those are all objectively wonderful, and the personal attention aspect captures, I believe, a large part of the videos’ appeal. And while I’ll admit they can get a little fetishy (look up “ASMR roleplay” and you’ll discover videos simulating a dental exam, a lip injection, and a lice check performed by a school nurse—?!?), I think most of us watching are “tingleheads,” just desiring brief washes of gentle euphoria. The vast, vast majority of videos are produced by beautiful, usually white women with flawless skin who’ve mastered the ability to appear nurturing and sexually attractive at the same time. The most successful ASMRtists can garner views in the millions.

At some point while writing my novel, I started listening to ASMR videos in the background while I work. There’s something deliciously satisfying about the experience, like getting a massage at your desk while you work. One of the queens of the genre is Maria whose YouTube channel is called Gentle Whispering ASMR. Originally from Russia, Maria posts mostly in English, though she’ll do occasional videos in the old tongue. I don’t speak any Russian, so these videos are a perfect background while I write. They relax me. They make me feel warm and comfortable so my mind is free to wander and create without judgement, and isn’t that what all us writers are striving for? To arrive at a flow state where the words trickle down out of our fingers like steady rain? So what if I arrive at that point because a beautiful blonde is whispering to me in a foreign language about the basics of essential oils? And yes, elephant in the room, there’s probably some motherly nurturance deficit I’m looking to fill, but let’s save that for another post on mother issues, k?

Maria often begins her videos with a quiet “Hi sweetie.” Not “Hi everyone,” or “Hello world,” but a singular address to one person, invoking a private space shared by only her and her imagined viewer. The comments below her videos reflect the deeply personal connection viewers have with her, offering praise and thanks as they struggle with insomnia, chronic anxiety, PTSD, and more. There are ten-thousand ways to hurt in this world and ASMR videos have stepped in as a sort of robot nanny of the digital age. They tell us it’s all going to be ok, gently brush our cheek, and pull the covers up tight before turning off the light. Writing simulates this personal attention and connection too. It’s me reaching out from the page and grabbing the reader by the shoulders and shaking her and saying, “This is lovely! Pay attention!” It just may be that I need to bring myself into this same state of openness and nurturance in order to pass it on, in turn, to my readers. What’s wrong with a little personal attention?


Read Elizabeth’s 2018 Pushcart nominated short story “Schumpert, Texas: You’re Already Here.”


Elizabeth's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Tishman Review, and elsewhere. Her short story, “Cosmic Blues,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train's 2016 Short Story Award for New Writers and she also received three Pushcart Prize nominations in 2018. She lives with her family in Oakland, California. You can find her on Twitter: @unefemmejames.

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On Having It All

Like many writers, I’ve been drawn to the process as long as I can remember. I was the preschooler stapling together picture books made from construction paper; the middle schooler who found herself scribbling in her notebook long after bedtime; the cafe-haunting, poetry-writing adolescent. Even so, when the time came for me to take the leap from student to career, I was terrified. As a young woman saddled with student loans that were close to triple the expected yearly salary of a recent graduate with a liberal arts degree, I decided that I needed a profession that would allow me to secure a job quickly, anytime, anywhere. A creative life, to my mind, did not fit the bill, and I put my love of writing on the back burner.
Flash forward ten years and I found myself balancing a demanding working life with my role as the mother of two young children. Writing, my lifeline to sanity, felt like a luxury I couldn’t afford. Yet without a creative outlet, I began to slide into depression. I felt numb, cut off from myself and my loved ones. I had unintentionally closed the door to my true self.
The choice to enroll in a low-residency MFA program felt like coming home. But now, a year after graduation, I’m juggling three balls---writing, career, and parenting. I can’t afford to drop any of them. I know I’m not alone in this, that there are many writers out there asking these questions. How do we nurture ourselves and grow as writers while attending to family and a day job that is necessary to our family’s financial survival? How do we avoid dropping the ball?
Since receiving my MFA a year ago, the balance has been, admittedly, elusive. There are times when one part of life demands precedence. But there are three tools I’ve found to keep me as close to that balance as I can come:

Accountability
I wish I could say I’m the type of person who can make and keep goals privately. I’m not. Once the deadlines of my MFA program were no longer hanging over my head, it was too easy to let other commitments eat into my writing time, particularly the parts of my life I’d neglected while I was on the fast track towards graduation. I was making progress on my novel, but at a much slower pace than I’d hoped. As an experiment, I decided to give myself false deadlines. Meeting with a trusted friend and fellow-writer each month, I set my monthly goals over coffee. Even though I know my friend isn’t going to judge me or (gasp!) give me a bad grade, it’s working. Saying my monthly goal out loud, to another person, is perfect motivation.

Community
In addition to these monthly writing dates, a group chat with several friends from my MFA cohort gives me a place to reach out for support and commiseration at any time.
This is a place for quick questions, book recommendations, airing the disappointment of the inevitable declines, and celebrating successes both large and small. By keeping in touch, encouraging, and challenging one another, we keep each other in the game. Writing may be a solitary act, but to go it alone feels impossible. And not nearly as much fun.

Blurring the Lines
It’s Sunday morning, and once again, I’m sitting across a cafe table from another person who is just as deeply absorbed in their writing as I am. This morning, my twelve-year-old son is my partner in this endeavor. We’ve spent hours together on our weekly writing dates, sometimes discussing plot and genre, other times hard at work, each in our own world as we sit across from one another. My son loves to write and create, just as I did at his age. I hope that, unlike me, he’ll never feel the need to put his creativity on the back burner, and I hope it’s not too late for me to model the value of prioritizing all kinds of self-expression. I cherish this time spent with family, blurring the lines between one part of my life and the other, living a creative life together.
I’ve decided in this new year, 2019, I’m going to do without the resolutions. I’m rejecting the idea that change is immediate, overnight, spurred by the calendar. Instead, I’ll focus on moving forward on the path I’ve already put myself on, treading the path of habit and intention, deepening the grooves, closing the distance between writing and the rest of life. I know I can’t have it all, all the time, but in my recalibrations I’ll continue to come closer and closer to balance.

Read Melissa’s short story After.

Melissa Benton Barker’s fiction has appeared in Entropy, LadyLibertyLit, Wigleaf, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She is a Best of the Net nominee, and is the former managing editor of Lunch Ticket. Melissa lives with her family in Ohio.

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