Thursday, September 29, 2011

Work in Progress: Is Writing "Fun"?

I remember the first day of a workshop when we were going around the table getting to know each other, and several people had recently taken up writing, noting that they were bored with their present careers and that they enjoyed writing.  “Writing is fun,” several of them said.

I kept my smile in place, but inside, something recoiled in horror.  “Fun”—it seemed such a curious word for the constant, endless, soul-sucking struggles with the muse, with the marketplace, with the self.  It struck me that no matter how long the list I was asked to give to describe writing, “fun” would never be a word I would choose.

For months I worried this over.  What did it mean that I didn’t think writing was fun?  What was wrong with me?  Why was I doing something that I didn’t consider fun?  I even stuck into a short story a moment mocking a character who calls everything “fun.”  I remembered an old episode of This American Life that stuck with me, something exploring romantic relationships and a Russian woman saying something along the lines of this: “All you American women, you want a man who ‘makes you laugh.’  What’s so funny all the time about life?  Nothing.”  (Imagine a very scornful Russian accent.)

This is not to say that there aren’t things that I love about writing and the writing life: the thrill of nailing the exact right word, the moment where you see what should happen next and it’s good, the SASE in your mailbox that’s a contract instead of a rejection, the life I have where it’s perfectly normal to take a walk and think weird thoughts about imaginary people, hearing a bit of unusual dialogue and sticking it in a novel, the odd scrap of research falling into exact place to perfect the story’s metaphor, knowing that reading books and stories is part of my job, seeing my novels on a library shelf.

But when I think of “fun,” I guess I think of pleasant mindlessness, and writing is anything but mindless. 

I’m probably making more than I should of one simple, nervous moment at the beginning of class with an inscrutable teacher sitting in the front of the room.  But even so, why did these comments shake me so much?  Why am I thinking about that one word all this time later?  I don’t doubt my choice to devote my life to writing (I mean, I don’t doubt it more than a thousand times a day, which seems average). 

Am I missing something?  Is everyone else having fun?  It wouldn’t seem so, given the conversations I tend to have with other writers in which we bitch about agents, publishers, never enough time to work, and our “stupid novels.”  

Or was it apprehension I felt, seeing these students standing at the sunny edge of a field, about to plunge into the beginning of a scary, dark path, knowing that I was about to lead them deep into the tangled woods and then simply leave them there at the end of the semester?   
I guess I don’t think roller coasters are “fun” either.  But I remember vividly every single one I’ve ridden.

Sun Magazine Giveaway

Congratulations to Susan S. of Silver Spring, Maryland, who will soon be enjoying a year of The Sun magazine in honor of Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday!  Thank you all for entering the contest.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Crab Orchard Review Reading for "Due North" Issue

A call for submissions from the fabulous Crab Orchard Review (and I would say that even if they hadn’t recently published my story “The Chicago Brother”!):

Crab Orchard Review is seeking work for our Summer/Fall 2012 issue focusing on writing exploring the people, places, history, and changes shaping the states (and *District of Columbia) in the U.S. that make up the northern mid-Atlantic and Northeast (*Maryland, *Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) and the northern Midwest east of the Mississippi River (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and *Minnesota).

*We know we’re stretching boundaries and regions with the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, and Minnesota, but we would like to see what those places bring to this exploration. We’ll head a little farther west next time around.

All submissions should be original, unpublished poetry, fiction, or literary nonfiction in English or unpublished translations in English (we do run bilingual, facing-page translations whenever possible). Please query before submitting any interview. For general information about submissions, click the following link for our regular submission guidelines and subscription and single copy orders.

The submission period for this issue is August 17 through November 5, 2011. We will be reading submissions throughout this period and hope to complete the editorial work on the issue by the end of April 2012. Writers whose work is selected will receive $25 (US) per magazine page ($50 minimum for poetry; $100 minimum for prose) and two copies of the issue.
Mail submissions to:
Due North issue
Faner 2380, Mail Code 4503
Southern Illinois University Carbondale
1000 Faner Drive
Carbondale, IL 62901
United States of America

Include SASE for reply or return of work.

Address correspondence to:

Allison Joseph, Editor & Poetry Editor
Carolyn Alessio, Prose Editor
Jon Tribble, Managing Editor

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Link Corral: New Story on Redux; Short Novel Contest; Win a Year of The Sun

Be sure to check out Dana Cann’s great story “Clockwise” on Redux: A Literary Journal.  (Secret insider info:  I first met Dana when he was in one of my workshops at the Writer’s Center.)

“On the night they died, the Wynn family, each in his or her bed on the second floor of their house on Maiden Lane, dreamed of the children—of Tina Wynn, the girl, and Brandon Wynn, the boy—flying, clockwise, through the rooms and hallways that formed a loop on the first floor. It was the same loop the children had run when they were small, chasing one another or being chased by their father or their mother or, on occasion, both. But tonight they did so in their dreams, and they did so in the air, without touching the ground. And all the while the gas from the cracked furnace seeped up the stairwells and through the floorboards and vents, which brought the heat from the furnace’s flame to the rest of the house.”

Read the rest here.


Grassic Short Novel Prize from Evening Street Press

Our idea is to emphasize the power, skill and enduring value of the short novel form: limit 90-150 pages.

For example:                         
(pages given vary with edition)

Conrad, Heart of Darkness  (90)
’Connor, Wise Blood   (140)
Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground   (96)
West,  Miss Lonelyhearts   (95)
Chopin, The Awakening    (150)
Camus, The Stranger   (150)
Hesse,  Siddartha   (145)
Twain, The Mysterious Stranger   (100)
James, The Asper
n Papers  (100)

[Editor's note: Quite an intimidating list!]
$500 and publication by the Evening Street Press will be awarded for the best short novel manuscript. The contest is open to writers who have already published books as well as those for whom this is a first book. The winning writer will receive 25 copies from a press run of 250. Submissions accepted May 1, 2011 to December 1, 2011.

Manuscript Requirements
--ms. must contain between 90 and 150 pages (45,000-75,000 words)
--ms. must be typed (single spaced)
--ms. pages must be numbered and a table of contents included
--include an acknowledgements page
--include one cover page that contains the title, your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address
--include a second cover page that contains the title only
--your name must not appear anywhere else on the ms.
--SASE for results--manuscripts will not be returned
Reading Fee
The $25 reading fee includes a one-issue subscription to the Evening Street Review.  Make check or money order payable to Evening Street Press. We reserve the right not to name a winner.

You may submit more than one manuscript.  Send multiple submissions in the same envelope, marked “Multiple.” Each manuscript must include a $25 reading fee. Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, but we must be informed immediately if the manuscript is accepted elsewhere.

Mail entries (no email submissions, please) to:
 Evening Street Press
7652 Sawmill Road #352
Dublin, OH 43016-9296.

More info:


Don’t forget to enter the drawing for a free subscription to The Sun magazine, in honor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s birthday.  Details here.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Link Corral: Oops & Finding Literary DC

I can’t believe I made a mistake…rather, I can’t believe I made this mistake:  In my post last week about the stages of a writer, I totally forgot the last one, so please imagine that you also read this last week:

--Art:  the perfect marriage of creative ambition and skill; the moment of supreme and beautiful confidence in which the words on the page match the vision in the brain; the magic.  Think: virtually unachievable, but for some writers, the only thing worth striving for.

All I can say in my defense is that this mental lapse shows me that clearly I’m waaaay too mired in the worries of Stage 3: Career.


D.C. is a soulless company town with the only company being Government.  Not so!  There’s a vibrant and unique literary community here if you know where to look , and the first place you should look is this excellent “Guide to Literary DC” that novelist Carolyn Parkhurst wrote for the Poets & Writers website:

“I never expected to end up in Washington, D.C. My feelings about politics and government are a lot like my feelings about photosynthesis or the circulatory system: I acknowledge their importance without wanting to spend any real time dwelling on them. When I moved here as a recent college graduate in 1992, it was because my boyfriend was attending grad school in College Park, and because I figured that as a writer (a title that was more hopeful than descriptive at that point), I could live anywhere. But the city worked its charm on me in the usual ways—an unexpected glimpse of the Washington Monument in the middle of a humdrum day, a rain of petals in my hair after a springtime walk—and somehow, all these years later, it’s the only place that feels like home.

“For me, the city is full of the kind of literary landmarks that no one else really cares about, the personal ones, my own life becoming a transparency laid over the larger map: the group house on R Street, through whose mail slot slipped hundreds of manila SASEs holding rejection letters from publications big and small. The food court in the Old Post Office Pavilion, where I ate lunch nearly every day the summer I interned at the National Endowment for the Arts. The strange little wedge-shaped Starbucks that seems to inhabit a traffic island in nearby Rosslyn, Virginia, where I wrote the last pages of all three of my novels. The bench at the National Zoo where I went to write a few times during a summer when I was on the run from the temptations of Wi-Fi. The house in Glover Park where I learned, on an ordinary day at home with my five-month-old son, that I’d sold my first novel. The Thai restaurant we ordered a celebratory dinner from that night. The nearby Whole Foods that was offering a special on irises, prompting my husband—the same guy I moved here to be with—to bring home eleven separate bouquets of them.

“But if I can manage to drag myself out of my own story for a moment, I can identify some of the other important places as well, the ones that have relevance to a larger group of writers and readers. It’s a beautiful, vibrant, creative city, whether or not you’re interested in learning more about the circulatory system.”

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Scott!

Only one man could get me blogging on a Saturday…of course I’m talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald!  Happy birthday, Scott!

Since I’m always gabbing about The Great Gatsby, here are a few quotes from elsewhere:

“‘You know, you’re a little complicated after all.’ ‘Oh no,’ she assured him hastily. ‘No, I’m not really — I’m just a — I’m just a whole lot of different simple people.” – Tender Is the Night


“Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy.” – The Crack Up


“Here’s to alcohol, the rose colored glasses of life.” – The Beautiful and Damned

There are more here, on Flavorwire’s piece, “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Guide to the Good Life,” which also has some great photos, including the most AWESOME Christmas photo of Scott, Zelda, and little Scottie.  (You must check it out; scroll down.)

I really should celebrate by giving away a bottle of gin, but the shipping issues seem rather complicated and possibly illegal, so instead, I’ll give away to one blog reader a year-long subscription to The Sun magazine, one of my faves.

The usual rules:  Email me your name and address—be sure to put Scott in the subject line—by Wednesday, September 28, at 5PM EST (cocktail hour!).  One lucky winner will be selected at random to receive the subscription; your emails will be deleted, and I won’t use the addresses for anything else.  Yes, it’s okay to enter if you know me.  Yes, it’s okay to enter if you don’t.  Email address:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Work in Progress: Life Stages of a Writer

There is taking your writing career seriously and there is writing.  Both are important for a writer hoping to make a mark on the world, to get published.  I have a friend who asserted the continuum of how one approaches writing goes something like this:

--self-therapy:  We write for ourselves, for an audience of one, because it feels “good” and we have “something to say”; we’re bleeding out words (think journaling and Anne Lamott’s shitty first drafts)

--craft:  We see that there are techniques and skills that will make our work better; we begin to study and learn and think about HOW we’re telling our stories, not just WHY (think classes, writing groups, MFAs)

--career:  We are striving to be a Writer, to make money, to get published, to keep getting published; we meet lots of other writers and remember their names, not always because we admire their work but because they direct a reading series and might be looking for someone to read next fall (think AWP, conferences, Facebook, agents & editors)

While it may seem as though some of these stages are preferable to other stages, that isn’t necessarily the case.  A writer with larger ambition probably needs to be able to move fluidly through all three stages; a writer who is content to write a memoir of his/her life and self-publish it for family members may never leave the self-therapy stage, and that’s fine.

What I’ve been thinking about is how easy it is to get trapped in the third stage and think that you’ve already fulfilled the first two and therefore you need to focus only on getting published, to think of your career.  On paper, we know the dangers of that strategy.  On paper (or in class) I’m the first to say, “Write the story you want to write,” and, “Worry about the marketplace later.”

In practice, the marketplace is always in our face, whether because we’re on Facebook with a lot of writers who are all getting published left and right or because our family asks every two minutes, “When will your novel be published?” or because we’re asking that same question in our heads even  more frequently than the family members.

Right now I’ve decided to spend some time in stage one for a little while.  I am writing the story I want to write.  I don’t know where this work is going, or what the larger goal is.  These stories are hard to face, challenging for me to think about, and yet feel somehow necessary.  As a result, I’ve written not one but TWO short stories that are 35 pages long.  (We all know what the marketplace thinks of that!)  As a result, I alternate between utmost confidence and utter terror at over all this time I’m “wasting.”  As a result, well…I’m trying not to care about results; I’m trying to care simply about the writing, about the story I “have to tell.”

“Quit worrying about whether or not it’s good and worry about whether or not it’s true.”  ~~Carolyn Forche

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Nature of Art: "Trouble in Mind" by Alice Childress

On Sunday, I went to the play Trouble in Mind at the Arena Stage theatre in DC.  The play was originally written in 1955 by Alice Childress, an African-American playwright/actress (who later went on to write novels).  In 1955, the play was produced Off-Broadway and won an Obie Award for best Off-Broadway new play of the season.  Of course producers wanted to move the show to Broadway.

Tiny “problem”:  the play was about race relations, and the ending was seen as too bleak.  Childress struggled for two years to find a way to end the play that would satisfy the producers and still feel true to her experience.  She couldn’t do it, and the play never made it to Broadway, and in 1959, Lorraine Hansbury and A Raisin in the Sun became the first Broadway play written by a female African-American playwright.  (Trouble in Mind wasn’t even published until 1971.)

On Sunday, Trouble in Mind was produced in its original 1955 version, and it was fantastic.  The storyline revolves around a play within a play and, on the surface, explores the issue of the demeaning, stereotypical roles that black actors are forced to play if they wish to make a living in the theatre.  Of course, the deeper level plunges us right into race relations in American culture …both in 1955 and, still, today.

The play met my (very high) expectations of what good theatre should be:  sharp, smart, and uncomfortable.  I was laughing and squirming in my seat at the same time.  I was so mesmerized that I never once checked my watch.  I cried during one riveting monologue (and I wasn’t the only teary audience member).  The actors were perfectly cast, each of them—even the non-speaking stagehand was memorable.  Days later, I’m still thinking about the production.

And even with all of that, what really stood out to me was just how excellent the play was itself, the writing.  So many illusions delved into, ripped out and laid bare, in two hours.  Not one character gets off easy.  I would have believed this was a contemporary play, set in an earlier time period to make certain, hard truths more palatable for a modern audience.  (By the way, it’s impossible for me to imagine a better ending.)

You have to ask, why was this play virtually forgotten?

Or, you could say instead:  Art follows its own path and always prevails.

Here’s the review from today’s Washington Post:  It is, I think, one of the best plays about racism ever written.”

And here’s how to get tickets if you’re in the DC area.

And here’s more information about Alice Childress.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Dose of Anne Lamott

“We write to expose the unexposed.  If there is one door in the castle that you have been told not to go through, you must.  Otherwise, you’ll just be rearranging furniture in rooms you’ve already been in.  Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut.  But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words—not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.”


“Thus, good dialogue encompasses both what is said and what is not said.  What is not said will sit patiently outside that stuck elevator door, or it will dart around the characters’ feet inside the elevator, like rats.  So let these characters hold back some thoughts, and at the same time, let them detonate little bombs.”


“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people…Besides, perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California).  Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up.  But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.  Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground—you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip.  Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get.  Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.”


“My students assume that when well-respected writers sit down to write their books, they know pretty much what is going to happen because they’ve outlined most of the plot, and this is why their books turn out so beautifully and why their lives are so easy and joyful, their self-esteem so great, their childlike senses of trust and wonder so intact.  Well.  I do not know anyone fitting this description at all.  Everyone I know flails around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work. You are welcome to join the club.”

Of course, this is all from Anne Lamott’s fabulous book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  It makes me so happy when I get to be the one assigning this book to a student who hasn’t read it before…they always love it!  

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Dose of John Gardner

“Really good fiction has a staying power that comes from its ability to jar, turn on, move the whole intellectual and emotional history of the reader.  If the reader is a house, the really good book is a jubilant party that spreads through every room of it, or else a fire.”


“Subtle details change characters’ lives in ways too complex for the conscious mind to grasp, though we nevertheless grasp them.  Thus plot not only changes but creates character: By our actions we discover what we really believe and, simultaneously, reveal ourselves to others. And setting influences both character and plot:  One cannot do in a thunderstorm what one does on a hot day in Jordan.  (One’s camel slips, or, from homesickness, refuses to budge; so the assassin goes uncaught, the President is shot, the world again is plunged into war.)  As in the universe every atom has an effect, however minuscule, on every other atom, so that to pinch the fabric of Time and Space at any point is to shake the whole length and breadth of it, so in fiction every element has effect on every other , so that to change a character’s name from Jane to Cynthia is to make the fictional ground shudder under her feet.”


“…too much neatness in a novel kills the novel’s fundamental effect.  When all of a novel’s strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike.  The novel is by definition, to some extent at least, a ‘loose, baggy monster’—as Henry James said irritably, disparaging the novels of Tolstoy.  It cannot be too loose, too baggy or monstrous; but a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not much use.”


“…every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death….If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”

The last three of these quotations are from The Art of Fiction, and it’s likely that the first one is too, though it’s also possible that it might be from On Becoming a Novelist—both books by John Gardner, both books still impossibly good and relevant all these years later.  I wish I had met him, that he hadn't died too soon.  The beginning of this video includes memories of Gardner as a father, as related by Gardner’s daughter and son:

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Guest in Progress: Carollyne Hutter on That Voice in Your Head

I’d like to meet the writer who doesn’t have one of “those” voices in his/her head.  I know you know exactly what I’m talking about…and here are some strategies for dealing with that pesky intruder.  (Mine loves to show up at 4 in the morning.)
Silencing the Saboteur
by CarollyneHutter
Although it can be unpleasant, criticism is essential to a writing life. Most writers I know are in critique groups—the feedback is so valuable.
Sometimes criticism can cross the line and be destructive to a writer’s work or sense of worth. The most caustic critic can be the voice in a writer’s own head. My friend Eliza King, a talented life coach, calls the voice “the saboteur.” She gives this advice about dealing with the saboteur:
The saboteur is the voice of our internal critic or the voice of self-doubt that often appears when we are trying something new, and stretching into new, unfamiliar places in our lives. The saboteur comes in and tells us that we are not good enough, competent enough, etc. . . to be who we'd like to be and urges us not to take on the new challenges we are undertaking. 
“If we listen to this voice, it eventually takes us on a one-way trip to our worst fears of our possible future. So do not attempt to argue with the saboteur: it will not be convinced! 

“The saboteur comes from old survival patterns in our past that may once have kept us safe, but are now no longer necessary and end up holding us back from living fulfilling lives. The saboteur often masquerades in a familiar voice, like a family member's or teacher's voice, so that it really presses our buttons. When the saboteur appears, you feel foggy, confused, resistant to doing anything, and overwhelmed. Who needs that?
“To minimize its influence practice these two steps:

1.    Identify and name the voice when it shows up in whatever guise.  ‘I hear you, saboteur! I recognize your voice and you are not the expert on the truth about me.’

2.    Create your own way of banishing it that works for you.It will never disappear for more than a few hours but you can shut it up for awhile. It can be especially strong when you’re tired or off guard.

“Some examples of ways to get rid of the saboteur: Flush it down the toilet;Shove gum or taffy in its mouth; lock it in a cupboard; put it in a jar with a tight lid; make it weed the garden...

“Be persistent in banishing the saboteur so you can plan your next step and live your life with more peace and hope for your future.”

I would like to add two suggestions to Eliza’s great comments about dealing with the saboteur:
1.    Make goals.The saboteur is all about the past. When you make goals, you’re focused on the future. Keep the goals simple and attainable.

2.    Celebrate all your accomplishments, even the so-called “little” ones. For example, I regularly write for a terrific children’s social studies magazine, APPLESEEDS. APPLESEEDS is doing an issue on weather and my editor assigned me to two articles:  one on the National Hurricane Center, which was a delight to do. And a second article on weather experiments for kids. I froze when I saw this assignment: Hey, I’m a writer, not a scientist. But despite my reservations, I pushed forward and gathered various weather experiments. Then I invited a bunch of kids over to test the experiments. (To our surprise, we couldn’t get some of the experiments to work and others had to be modified.)

After we were done testing, I wrote up the experiments and emailed the article to my editor.Then I stopped at the grocery store and bought cupcakes. The kids came over and we celebrated finishing this assignment!


About:  When she’s not sending her saboteur out to weed in the garden, Carollyne Hutter is a freelance writer/editor/communications manager, specializing in environmental, scientific, and international development topics. She also enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction for adults and children (early readers, picture books, and young-adult novels). Please visit her website——to learn more. You can contact Carollyne at

About:  Eliza King is trained in Co-active Coaching by the Coaches Training Institute, one of the most rigorous and respected training programs in the coaching industry. She loves working with people who are in transition or want to make a change in their lives. Her gift is seeing people for who they truly are, and helping them be courageous in seeing themsevles and in living that vision.  For more information:

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The New Shenandoah: A Great Transition Online

I was a little alarmed when I found out that one of my favorite literary journals, Shenandoah, was moving to an online format, but the debut issue—fully up and running as of September 1—shows me to be a silly worrywart.

It’s a beautiful site, easy to navigate, with thoughtful extras, like a “Poem of the Week” e.e.cummings, “poem”) and a classic piece from Shenandoah’s storied history ( Richard Wilbur’s “Poetry and Happiness”).

Alyson Hagy’s short-short “Self Portrait as a Trailer Full of Mules” immediately made me want to read out loud in exactly the way Whitman immediately makes me want to read out loud.  Denise Duhamel’s poem “Lower East Side Boyfriend” turned me instantly nostalgic for that gritty, eighties, New York scene (even though I never lived in it!).  And I must give a shout-out to Converse graduate Philip Belcher, for his thoughtful review of Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman.

I was also interested in the interview with short story writer/novelist Rebecca Makkai (though I might have suggested moving to the end the opening questions about her past life as a Washington & Lee student, including her time spent working as a student assistant at Shenandoah, as I almost stopped reading, wanting instead her thoughts on writing and her work).  My patience was rewarded:

“My strongest advice for young fiction writers is to remember that above all, you’re telling a story. When you first start out, you can get so caught up in wanting to sound like a writer, and wanting to describe things beautifully, that you can forget no one is even going to listen to what you have to say unless you have a fascinating story to tell. Everything else – the schedule, the revisions, whatever rain dance you have to do before you sit down in your chair – is so individualized to the writer; but the story-telling part is essential and universal. And, weirdly, so easily neglected.”


“…there’s no race to be the youngest published writer out there, and I’ve seen a lot of writers try to skip over some crucial rites of passage because they’re so anxious to make a name for themselves. They usually end up disheartened and stuck. For most writers (but of course not all), it’s essential to master the short story before moving on to the novel, just as filmmakers will start with shorts. This isn’t because of anything intrinsic to the story form, but rather because completing many short pieces gives you the opportunity to stand back and look at the entirety of a finished work – one you didn’t spend years of your life on – and assess it as a whole. You can play with structure, rewrite the entire thing, or just chuck it, and that’s a lot harder to do with a novel.”

I’ve just grabbed for the quick glittery parts here in this post, and there’s so much more to this excellent journal.  You can (and most definitely should!) find Shenandoah at

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Link Corral: I'm a Kindle & No-Fee Short-Short Contests

Link Corral:  No Fee Short-Short Contests & I’m a Kindle!

Esquire Magazine is holding a short-short fiction contest to celebrate its 78th year of publication.  And they do mean short—each entry must be exactly 78 words! 

“Ten winners will be flown to New York for a fiction workshop, taught by Colum McCann, and literary party. Grand Prize winner receives a full scholarship for the advanced fiction workshop at Aspen Summer Words (June 17 to 22, 2012). All entries due by October 7, 2011. Must be submitted electronically at

Be sure to check out Colum McCann’s intimidating example of a 78-word sotry that packs a wallop.  Details here.


NPR is holding another round of its three-minute fiction contest:  “For Round 7 of the writing contest, submissions must have a character come to town and someone leave town. Each piece of writing has to be read in less than three minutes, so no longer than 600 words. This round will be judged by author Danielle Evans.”


You can subscribe to Redux: A Literary Journal on your Kindle!  There’s a monthly small fee (which I am powerless over; it simply appeared), but how brave new world to subscribe on a Kindle.  Of course, heading over to check out the great new story that was posted yesterday is always free…as is an email subscription.

Redux: A Literary

And, ahem, you can also subscribe to Work in Progress on your Kindle:

Now all I need is a Kindle!

Monday, September 12, 2011

South85: New Journal ISO Submissions

The Converse College Low-Residency MFA program is behind South85, a great new journal.  The submissions period opens TODAY!  Here's the scoop:

South85, a brand-new, online literary journal, will begin accepting submissions September 12, 2011 through April 30, 2012.  Fiction, poetry, and non-fiction submissions are welcome.  Submission guidelines are available on the journal website:  South85’s premiere issue will be published in Spring 2012, with a second issue to follow in Fall 2012. 

This online publication was founded by Rick Mulkey and Sarah Gray, with Gray serving as editor.  The editorial staff includes Kathleen Nalley, Noel Miller, Kyler Campbell, Nick Hinton, and Austin Turner.  Stephen Gray handles website design and administration.  The journal website also features a weekly blog that discusses the writing life.

South85 is looking for, “new, emerging, and well-established writers...[and] work that demonstrates a strong voice and/or a sense of place.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/01 ~ 9/11/11

When I take the train in to New York City, I still look for those two buildings out the righthand side of the train, and I suppose I always will.  I drive by the Pentagon often and in my mind, see the gouged wall, the wreckage of that immense fortress.  And living in this area, I am mindful that the torn field of Pennsylvania might have been D.C.

I wrote this piece for The Sun magazine’s special September 11 issue, which was published in November 2001.  They edited my piece a bit, but I’ll present my version.  I would say that, honestly, this still reflects perfectly how I feel about that too-real, unreal day. 

Sinking In

            I was visiting my aunt in New Jersey, riding the 8:50 a.m. train into New York City.  Three guys boarded and announced, "A plane hit the World Trade Center."  Heads snapped around to stare.  "My neighbor was watching TV news," one said, "I don't know nothing else."  The guys talked about the Giants and Jets and Vinny Testaverde in strong Jersey accents.  If there had been a cartoon bubble above our heads, it would have read, "Commute home now fucked."  "Which tower?" someone asked; no one knew.  Anyway, either tower would mean commute fucked.

            A stop or two later, more people boarded.  "A jet plane," someone said.  The cartoon bubble now read, "Impossible."

            We stopped at Summit where many of us changed trains.  I thought about calling my aunt--who worked at the World Trade Center--but the line was long at the pay phone and there was the train already.  And what would I say?--"Get off the phone; someone said an airplane--a REAL airplane--hit the building, possibly your building, possibly you."

            On the new train, a man said, "Two planes.  Two commercial jets."  I said, "That's no accident."  The man gazed out the window at the blue sky, as beautiful and crisp as a sky could be, and said, "Can't be weather-related."  He told a story about two planes that collided over Brooklyn sometime in the 1960s.  But he interrupted himself to touch one finger to the glass--there was a quick glimpse of the towers of the World Trade Center, white smoke billowing off the tops.  "Movie," I thought, even as I said, "Oh my God."  My aunt worked on a floor somewhere in the nineties, maybe the hundreds, of Two World Trade Center.  I'd been to her office on a previous visit; we'd joked about watching helicopters pass by the window during dull meetings in the conference room.

            The train stopped at Maplewood, and an announcement on the intercom told us no trains were going into the city today, that we should cross the tracks to get a train back home.  I waited in line at the pay phone as I watched people around me smack their cell phones into their palms, trying to force them to work.  Not that the pay phone was much better--though I was able to leave a message for my boyfriend back in the D.C. area.

            I studied the train schedule.  My aunt had taken the 7:00 a.m. train (her footsteps over the guest bedroom had awakened me).  That train put her in the World Trade Center at 8:40 or so.  I'd talked about going into the city with her--we'd ridden home together on the train the previous night, eating bad-for-you snacks and working on Monday's crossword puzzle.  But as I said to her, "I'm not really a morning person."  On that train platform, that seemed like a vacuous, stupid thing to have said.

            Redial, redial, redial--people punched buttons on their cell phones, something getting through.  "The Pentagon's been hit, the south building's collapsed, the north building's collapsed."  Was I supposed to believe any of that?

            An elderly woman standing near me stared at her train schedule.  "There's a westbound train arriving at Maplewood at 10:45," she announced to no one in particular.  I gently suggested the train may not stick to its printed schedule.  She didn't look at me, saying, "I hope my husband is watching the TV and thinks to call and cancel my doctor's appointment in the city."

            I would offer to take my aunt's two cats since my uncle (who was out-of-town) had never really liked them.

            The train arrived.  People pushed off.  We pushed on.  Some of these passengers had SEEN the World Trade Center getting hit from across the river at Hoboken.  They had seen it.  No longer was this about a neighbor's television or a staticky voice on a stranger's cell phone.

            No one talked much, except to answer a few direct questions.  No one cried--maybe one man who abruptly gasped out, "Thousands of people just died in the last few minutes!"  People read their books and magazines; regular commuters don't ride trains without something to read or do.  Even the people who had seen it were reading.

            When I got off the train, I spoke to the conductor:  "You're holding up well on a very stressful day."  He replied, "Oh, this is a day like the others.  There's always something."  I assume he'd forgotten saying that by the time he got home that night.

            At my aunt's house, there were nine messages on her answering machine.  One was from her father-in-law in California.  He said, "Rita called me and she woke me up and she's fine."

            I cried.  I believed it.  But I didn't really, really believe it until she got home that night and we stood in the kitchen, our arms around each other, crying, holding on.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Work in Progress: “A System as Ancient as Leeches”

This is a recent quote from a writer friend referring to the policy held by many lit journals that refuse to read simultaneous submissions.  Yes, I know that many do read simultaneous submissions—and THANK YOU for that.  And I’m not going to rant about the lit journals that still don’t, because I get that lit journal editors and their staffs are over-worked and underpaid.  I get that email submissions make it easy (and cheap) to submit to 20 different places at once, and so there must be an overload of submissions.  I also get that the frustration of feeling that everyone’s a writer and no one’s a subscriber would have to wear on you, as you read nine million short stories in the second person that all sound the same and could be lumped into two categories: “bad” and “very bad.”  I also get that when it’s your journal you get to make the rules (spoken with the thrill of launching my journal Redux this week!).

What I’m here to say is, who cares?  Simultaneously submit anyway.  And no need to mention it.

You know they know we’re doing it.  You also know that given the response times of many journals, I would be well into my dotage if I had to wait 9 months—summer of closed markets—8 months—summer or closed markets—a year—6 months and so on before I placed a story.  By that time, the iPhones my characters are using are obsolete.

Now, if I know that a journal is notably quick in its response time and asks for no simultaneous submissions, I would respect that.  And definitely, if I had a relationship with an editor—or was trying to create one with a shared memory of those cocktails at the hotel bar at AWP—I would not simultaneously submit.  But otherwise, life’s too short.

I rationalize my rule-breaking by considering that in recent  memory various journals have:
--rejected my same story twice, months apart
--never responded at all (this happens roughly 10% of the time, I’d say)
--ignored my follow-up email asking if they still have my story a year later (now I rarely bother with those follow-ups and just assume the story’s lost)
--taken more than a year to respond
--sent me a rejection for another writer
--rejected the story I responsibly withdrew five months prior
I love literary journals, and I love seeing my work in them, but they don’t always feel as though they’re on my side—and nor should they be.  They have their own agenda, and I understand that.  As writers, our agenda is slightly different than theirs.

I also aid my case by keeping meticulous records, and I ALWAYS  let a journal know immediately if I need to withdraw a piece from consideration.  I also do not blanket the world with submissions; I carefully select journals where I feel my work would fit, and carefully choose which stories to submit where.  I subscribe to and read journals.  I donate money to a beloved favorite.  From time to time I’ll send along a complimentary note to a journal editor when I’ve enjoyed a particular issue.  In short, I do my part to be a responsible literary citizen.

Several years ago, I was at a conference, speaking on a panel of lit journal editors and writers.  The topic was the usual “how to get published,” and the inevitable question came up:  “Should we simultaneously submit our work?”  I kid you not:  Every writer on the panel immediately said, “Yes,” at exactly the same time every editor on the panel said, “No.”

And there you have it: if you’re a writer, it seems that the answer on this one is “yes.”

(Okay, I sent out my stack of stories last week, so hurry to slap me on your black list before you forget…and that name’s spelled ZYK, not YZK.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Benefits of Low-Residency MFA Programs

I've been meaning to write up my thoughts about what I’ve learned from teaching at a low-residency MFA program and how that model can be exactly right for the right writer, but this piece by David Jauss pretty much says what I was going to say:

“One all-important advantage of the low-residency model is that it allows for much more individualized attention.  Whereas a teacher in a traditional program typically has 30-45 students per semester, a teacher in a low-residency program usually has only five, and he or she works one-on-one with those five students, critiquing five monthly packets of work by each during the course of a semester.  Because the teachers work with so few students, they’re able to critique considerably more work by each one, and to provide considerably more extensive and intensive critiques as well.”  (Read the rest.)

While Jauss is writing about the Vermont College of Fine Arts low-res MFA, the points are valid for any low-res MFA program.  I mention this because the deadline to apply for the Converse College Low-Res MFA, which is where I teach, is coming up: October 1 (February 1 if you’re not quite ready just now). 

We’re a small, personal, tightly-knit program, where writers thrive (in my humble opinion).  Just to show you how intensely personal we are, I hereby promise that if you end up at Converse, I will personally make sure you get a trip to the famous Beacon Drive In for a Chili Cheese A’Plenty, which is a cheeseburger topped with chili topped with a giant handful of fries topped with a giant handful of onion rings.  If you’re a vegetarian don’t worry—you get a Fried Pimento Cheese A’Plenty.

Oh, yeah—and you’ll be part of a fabulous community of writers devoted to helping you improve your work.

More info on Converse here.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.