Monday, December 31, 2018

Anjali Sachdeva: In Praise of Old Stories

 In the 35th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Anjali Sachdeva, author of All the Names They Used for God (Spiegel & Grau), explains why she finds reading old stories alongside newer ones instructive.

When I was in the sixth grade I checked out a book from my school’s library entitled Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It was at least 2 inches thick, cloth-bound, falling apart at the seams. The stories were all classics, from writers long dead, though as a middle schooler I had never read them before. Images from the initial stories stick with me to this day: a jealous husband burying his unfaithful wife’s lover alive; a ferret with a bloodied mouth disappearing into the bushes. The unabashed drama of these stories, just at the verge of being maudlin (and sometimes beyond the verge) was entrancing. I returned the book to the library at the end of the week, as required, but could not get the stories out of my head. But when I tried to check it out again, the book was gone, and it never returned to the crowded little shelves of my school. 

Those old stories attracted my attention for a lot of reasons. They were scary and more grown-up than most of what I read. But also, they functioned differently than the stories most authors write today. Often times they included a frame story that modern sensibilities (and editors) would find superfluous and slow: a traveler sitting down by the fire to tell his tale to another guest at an inn, or a retrospective narrator gazing back into the past. They held the mark of older oral storytelling traditions, in the same way that early films contained holdovers from stage performance. But there was a fearlessness to them, an unabashed emotion and showmanship, that I found—and still find—irresistible. I sometimes feel as if modern stories are driven by quieter and more efficient electric engines while the older stories derive their power from a smoking, clanking boiler that shoots off the occasional spark.

This is not to say that I don’t like new stories. Every year I read many stories by contemporary authors that I love, that I want to return to and read again. And every year I read a few stories by contemporary authors that take me by surprise. In each of those surprising stories, the author has employed some technique I haven’t seen before: a particular manipulation of voice or of structure, a dive into subject matter I would never have considered interesting in less capable hands. Not all stories I enjoy do this, of course; some are simply using traditional patterns in a masterful way. But stories that change the game make me rethink my own writing, make me realize all the possibilities I’ve been ignoring, and push me to search for those other possibilities that are still out there, unexplored or at least unpopular.

What we tend to forget is, old stories can do that too. If you buy a collection of stories written in the last ten years, you’re unlikely to find one that’s telling a story the way O. Henry did, the way Kate Chopin or Ralph Ellison or Willa Cather did. Writing, like fashion, has its trends. I always want to know what new writers are doing, and given access to a limited number of books in a year I’d probably always choose to see what’s new. But happily, I don’t have to choose, and neither do you. I’m grateful for the lessons in writerly possibility that old stories have given me, the way they force me to examine my assumptions about how a story should work. I know that reading them has made me a better storyteller, and I know they still have more to teach me.  

Friday, December 28, 2018

Chaya Bhuvaneswar on Writing Under Difficult Conditions

In the 34th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Chaya Bhuvaneswar, author of White Dancing Elephants (Dzanc Books), discusses continuing to write while in labor and in the aftermath.

Writing on the day I went into labor for the first time wasn’t hard. There were strange sensations, sure, but nothing to get panicked about. Eventually, after nearly an hour of moaning while writing (and not even because what I was writing was erotic, per se), my partner convinced me to call the Ob-gyn, who in turn laughingly convinced me that I might want to “come in.” The labor itself, thanks to providence, wasn’t hard either. By then I was already far along, also quite adrift in my own head, satisfied with a denouement of a novel in progress that felt so natural, I was confident of never losing iteven if it would be hours before I could write again!I thought, all naivete. (It would be weeks). My active labor lasted fewer than ten minutes, and joy was mine, long, wet and slightly quiet on my breast, those eyes regarding me, so deep, my partner turning back from the window, where he had retreated, scared, to look at this darling. I never wanted to stop holding this baby. I wondered how I could be so selfish as to ever want to write again.

Prompted by reminder emails, calls, voice messages, weeks later I tried to return to the page. By then the task of “turning in” (a manuscript under contract, to a publisher) felt utterly beyond my reach.
“Baby’s sleeping” became words that might allow me to write. So was the imperative to “lose the baby weight.” These two activities competed, vicious, for my waking life. In the lobby of our building, though in theory only: happiness. A glossy gym. A lockable conference room, with pad for laptop and laptop charger, where I could sit for “hours” undisturbed, if I could bear the guilt of the nanny being without me, with the baby.

I tried and cried, tried and struggled, also on the phone negotiating a move to another Northeastern city. Between the three activitiesmoving, working (full time, as a doctor), and the unpredictable, often terrifying process of learning how to be a mother (with my spouse traveling much of the week, to that other Northeastern city, where he worked full time)I don’t know how I wrote.

But I have words, pages, lingering from that time. Ideas. Structures and reworkings of myths. Short stories I wrote in bursts, then revised over several coming years, including into my next pregnancy, which was only slightly easier (and followed, again, by a second attempt to “finish that book” by a deadline that fell six months postpartum, while I was going through still another city move, and still working full-time, this time in public health rather than clinical medicine). I couldn’t really finish any project, during that time. But I still wrote every day and thought about writing most of the minutes and hours that I spent watching other small people claiming my body, drawing from it, needing me.
What I learned most, about writingit can make postpartum insomnia (a disruption of sleep borne of waking up so many times to nurse, then sleeping lightly so as to hear the baby monitor) thrilling. It’s a fun thing to do if you happen to be waking up at 4 a.m., after a night of very little sleep, to pump milk anyway.

I wrote while crying and alone, in dreadful little lactation rooms that were really janitor’s closets. I wrote when we struggled through bad latching experiences and even worse-tasting formula. I wrote when conflict with extended family stressed out our little family even more; when we had moved and exhausted postpartum, my partner did all of the work and shouted at me, to where I sat with the baby in the bassinet, rocking it while writing in a notebook on my lap. I wrote. I knew I didn’t have a choice, per se, and gloried in that fact, and glory still. I wrote.

“Words alone are certain good”especially when you’re singing, as I did, to small children. Yes, I never again had, nor will have, the same kind of guilt-free, peaceful writing “studio”like the converted closet where I sat, so content, writing through the earliest stages of labor, when I was pregnant with my first. I know I have to write, and that is all. I know that even when my postpartum body had so many other tasks (as my current self does, years later) I could not stop writing. 

Friday, December 21, 2018

Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum on Stargazing and Writing Short Fiction

In the 33rd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, author of What We Do with the Wreckage (University of Georgia Press), discusses finding inspiration through a skylight.

When I was ten, I discovered Orion. Not that spotty character of Greek mythology, but the constellation bearing his name. My family had moved that summer—our third move in as many years—this time to Lincoln, Nebraska. We leased a 1920s era Sears, Roebuck and Co. kit house that—like my family—had been uprooted from its original neighborhood and relocated to a bare plot of land on the low-rent side of town. The house had many charming features (a front porch ceiling painted sky blue, a heavy wooden banister along the staircase—perfect for sliding down, glass doorknobs from another time), but my favorite was the skylight cut into my bedroom ceiling. At night, lying in my bed, I could see Orion through that square of glass. There he was—the hunter—body outstretched, glittering belt and sword at his waist, standing guard in the bewilderingly oceanic Mid-western sky.  

Orion the hunter’s mythology is muddy. He may or may not have been the son of a god. He raped a woman and was blinded in punishment. Helios, the god of the sun, restored his sight; but eventually, his bluster and violence led to his death. His body was set among the heavens, where every winter he stalks the sky, hunting there, despite the darkness and the cold.

Hunting for stories
I didn’t know this story when I was a little girl looking for Orion through my skylight. If I had, I think I would have felt something other than comfort in seeing his shape there in the black square of my night. Instead, I made up my own stories about him—stories more like fairy tales than anything else. My Orion was a hero. He rescued rather than ravaged. He restored rather than wrecked. These stories were the ones I needed to hear, and so I wrote them—not on the page, but in my head—soothing myself through my childhood anxiety with fiction, ordering the uncertainties of the world with narrative.

That year of looking up at that narrow square of sky and finding story is the one that made me a short story writer, I think. My rootless childhood turned me into an outsider, an observer, a seeker of connection—all requirements for the writer. But also required of a short story writer, in particular, is the ability to look at a sky muddled with stars and zero in on the single constellation. What I love about short fiction is the acuity it necessitates, the sharp gaze, the polishing. In writing short stories, I spend a great deal of my time squinting into the vast expanse of possibility, and then narrowing, narrowing, narrowing my focus.

For years, I kept on my writing desk a one-inch in diameter, round picture frame. Inside the frame was a tiny disc clipped from a magazine page, an abstracted bit of image. The point, of course, wasn’t the image itself, but its reminder to cut away everything that didn’t belong in the story. That—as I see it—is the crux of my work in telling stories: to see with clarity the burning center, and then to slice and shear away everything else.

If I were to give advice to my own younger self—or to any new short story writer—it would be to spend more time thinking about how to see the complexity of a whole constellation through the narrow frame of one window.

Now, as an adult, I have left the Midwest and made my home instead in the far northwestern corner of the country. In the winter—when Orion is visible in the northern hemisphere—the sky here is often hidden behind a quilt of clouds. On the rare clear winter night, however, I still find myself looking up and searching out Orion. There he is—Betelgeuse, Rigel, Bellatrix, and Saiph. And, though I didn’t know to look for it as a child, I can now spot the Orion Nebula there, too. From my vantage in my front yard, the Orion Nebula appears to be simply a brighter point in the blade of Orion’s sword, but it's actually a stellar nursery. Looking at it, I know that I’m watching something incredible. New stars are forming up there—light and beauty coming together through a process of collapse and compression and fusion.

The metaphor, I think from my spot on the ground, is just too good.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Why Audrey Kalman Reads Mary Oliver in the Morning

In the 32nd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Audrey Kalman, author of Tiny Shoes Dancing (Terrella Media), on a helpful daily practice.

“The first words seem so portentous. But they must be.” With those admittedly florid sentences, I began the session that would evolve into an ongoing morning writing practice.

It was 7 a.m. on Aug. 4, 2016. I was attending a writing retreat that offered participants the option to gather every morning for silent writing. Anyone interested in giving up an hour of sleep for their craft congregated before breakfast in a big, chilly room where someone would light a fire in the pot-bellied stove. We sat on lumpy couches or hard chairs in front of narrow countertops. I chose a spot on the floor and used a large wooden coffee table as my writing surface.

This writing experience was new to me, and revelatory. Not that I’d previously ignored the advice you find in almost every result from Googling “writing habits of successful writers,” which boils down to “write every day.” As someone who has written professionally for most of my adult life, I’ve learned how to be productive.

But this wasn’t about productivity. It was about dreaming.

I returned home transformed by those four days. I continued rising early and sitting in silence, now at my kitchen table. I wrote for as much time as I could before starting my day. I did it for two days, then a week, then a month.

I’m still doing it.

I reflected on the value of this practice as another NaNoWriMo drew to a close recently. I have nothing against National Novel Writing Month, but it’s a practice with a very different goal and different tactics.

The approach practiced at the retreat suggests avoiding spoken language before beginning to write—no listening to the radio or exchanging pleasantries with your partner. The idea is to foster a connection with one’s dreaming self, the part that comes alive in the night and that feels to most writers like the closest they will get to a direct connection with the wellspring of creativity that fuels their work.

The retreat leader suggested reading poetry if you want to read anything before you begin writing. Of all the writing forms, poetry probably comes closest to the realm of dreams. I chose Mary Oliver, to whose work a friend had introduced me several years earlier, and began reading a poem every day from New and Collected Poems, Volume One.

For me, the spareness and vigor of her language, her natural imagery, and transcendental themes set the perfect tone. You might choose different poets. The point is to prime the mind at the same time you’re quieting it, warm up the writing muscle, and find the silence so you can hear the stories inside you, begging to be told.

Making time and space for a writing practice that sparks your creativity isn’t easy. Morning works for me because my kids are grown. I’m a morning person and my husband is a night person, so all I have to disturb the morning silence are the cats, who do not require thoughtful conversation, or any conversation at all.

You may have early morning obligations—toddlers to wrangle, presentations to prepare for work, aging parents to care for, another half hour of sleep to chase. But you don’t have to rise early and you don’t have to read Mary Oliver. You could write in the evening. You could read Maya Angelou or Charles Bukowski, W.H. Auden or Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson or Adrienne Rich.

But no matter the time of day or what you choose for inspiration, I urge you to explore creating a daily writing practice that’s about more than word count.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Camille Acker on an Individualistic Writing Process

In the 31st in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Camille Acker, author of Training School for Negro Girls (Feminist Press), looks for but doesn't find a writing formula.

As a younger writer, I wanted to be given the secret formula for writing a book. I would go to talks of some of my favorite writers to hear how they did it, ready to take notes so I would remember how I could do exactly what they did.

One favorite writer said he got up every day at 5 a.m. to write and didn’t leave the chair until late afternoon. I tried early rising a few weekend mornings, until a couple of weeks in, I turned off the alarm and never turned it back on. Another favorite writer worked at a full-time job and stayed after work hours to craft stories. I tried staying later than even the cleaning crew at my corporate office job until I could no longer bear to be at trapped in my cubicle for 12 hours.

I felt ashamed of my writing habits. I must be lazy if I couldn’t sustain the early morning writing. I must not really want to be a writer if I couldn’t make the sacrifice of staying a few late nights at my job. I berated and bullied myself for years.

Then, I went to workshops and grad school where I began to find my true voice, telling stories set in my hometown about the diversity of the black female experience. I weaved in 1980s and 1990s popular culture, wrote in the wry and wise voices I heard from the women in my family and made no apologies for reckoning with race, class, and gender in the everyday lives of my characters.

Just as I came to embrace the individuality of my perspective, I began to accept the individuality of my writing practice. I realized that everyone pursues their craft differently and that the only thing I need have in common with the next writer—even the writer I greatly admire—is that we both kept writing.

I used to envy friends who were lawyers or in finance who knew that A Higher Degree + Years of Work = Success and Money. Creative careers follow no formula and neither do daily practices to produce creative work. We want so much to be given a game plan, a step by step, “Ten Easy Steps for Becoming A Writer.” The work challenged me enough, why wasn’t there a way to make the process easier?

Excavation: Digging deeper
But when we write, we are excavating, digging deeper into the way we experience the world, are other matters entirely. I learned to be open to even the fallow places in my practice when the words would not come and my characters were tenacious in remaining one-dimensional. I learned to allow the rhythms of my writing time to vary rather than laboring to match the movements someone else makes in their writing life, to twist my creative self into unnatural postures.
chipping away at our curiosities, and mining personal, familial, or cultural pain. Our tools for the excavation are the same: time, persistence, courage, and an open mind. How the dig will go and how primed the ground is for it

That doesn’t mean the work is easy. When I reach the midpoint of a story or the scene in the novel that must be written but I'm not quite sure how to write it, forcing myself to stay put can yield a breakthrough. I know that if I work past the thirty-minute mark in a writing session, I’m likely to discover a way into the story that I hadn't imagined when I sat down.

I’ve added to my creative toolbox over the years. Sometimes jazz fuels my writing sessions and other times, punk is what I need. Occasionally, I chant to myself as I write or type at the top of the screen No one else is reading this in order to get past the imaginary criticism I can hear in my head before I even hear the voices of my characters. I have a home office but sometimes the only way I can see my way through the writing is at a cafe surrounded by other people pecking away at their laptops.

I discovered no secret formula, but the closest I’ve found is to be gentle with yourself and to be the writer you are.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Jendi Reiter on Choosing Relationships That Support Their Writing

In the 30th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Jendi Reiter, author of An Incomplete List of My Wishes (Sunshot Press), discusses the powerful influence writing can have on a writer.

In the Tarot, the Tower card signifies a disruptive, fundamental change. Richly robed figures tumble headlong from a crown-topped edifice struck by lightning, as droplets of fire rain from a black sky. Yet the building stands on a sturdy rock that has likely weathered many of nature's assaults.

Conventional Tarot readers may dread this card, wanting to give clients good news. But it's one of my favorites. I even have it on a T-shirt.

Writing is hard because our deepest intuition is a force as disruptive—and vital—as the lightning that cracks the Tower wide open. Some cherished beliefs or relationships may not survive the personal growth and truth-telling that the creative process brings forth. Fear of such changes is often the real reason for writer's block, for me and other writers I've known.

Difficulties balancing "writing" and "life" aren't always financial or time-management problems, or even codependence. There's a deeper layer that writing-advice books don't usually acknowledge. We may be correctly perceiving the risk that our work will take us places that our family, friends, community, or religion doesn't want us to go.

Case in point: When I began writing fiction in my early 30s, I thought I was a Christian woman, and now I'm neither. The narrator of my first novel, Two Natures (Saddle Road Press, 2016), simply took over another project and insisted that I tell his story, which somehow felt like my own, despite the superficial differences in our backgrounds. Writing in the voice of a sexually adventurous gay fashion photographer made me realize I'm transmasculine/nonbinary—an option I didn't even know existed till my novel research brought me into a diverse and welcoming queer community.

What does this mean for my happy marriage to a straight man? We're still figuring it out, but it does slow down the process of writing the sequel...and I have to be kind to myself about that. You're not always a "better person" for choosing to preserve relationships—a truth that feels transgressive for writers socialized as female. On the flip side, don't doubt your commitment to the writing, just because you're being careful about its real-life impact.

"Problems with your novel are really problems with your soul," my first fiction-writing mentor, a virtuoso of the literary short story, used to tell me. As an evangelical, she meant that I was blocked and depressed about Two Natures because "sodomy dishonors God." I'll always be grateful for her encouragement of my writing as a spiritual vocation—and I'm still unraveling my shame, fear, and anger from the abusive theology of the community where I first felt the Spirit move. No wonder the book took eight years to finish!

The card that precedes the Tower is the Devil: a giant hairy goat-headed fellow who holds a nude man and woman in bondage with chains round their necks. But interpreters often note that the shackles are loose enough to escape if the human figures weren't so passive. I've learned to welcome writer's block as a sign that some situation in real life is entangling me in chains of my own making, and I'd better break them before the unsustainable structure comes crashing down. In that sense, my Christian mentor's advice is still golden.

Re-committing to my writing flushes out relationships where I'm being gaslighted—made to feel unclear about my perceptions, ashamed of my emotions, obligated to ignore my gut instincts, or forbidden to set boundaries. When I'm in a toxic relationship, I become afraid of my own mind, which arrests the journey into the creative unconscious.

Jesus reportedly said, "If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell." (Matt 5:30) This unsettling text has been weaponized against queer people, as a command to cut off a vital part of ourselves—our embodied identities, our capacities for love and pleasure. As with the Tower card, though, I've found the good news within the disruptive shock. It's a promise that I can survive without an attachment I once thought essential—if the alternative is that I'm slowly dying within it.

After the Tower comes the Star, the card of inspiration. An angelic woman, nude and unashamed, pouring the infinite water of life into a pastoral pool. On the other side of writer's block, when outworn supports have crumbled, lies not isolation but a clearer and stronger empathy for myself, my characters, and the world into which I release them.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Victoria Patterson's Letter to Her Beginning Writer Self

In the 29th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Victoria Patterson, author of The Secret Habit of Sorrow (Counterpoint), shares some insights gained through experience.

You have no idea what you’ve undertaken. That’s OK. You’re going to love writing. No matter what happens, it’s yours. But here are some ideas and thoughts.

Don’t suppress who you are—your oddities, wackiness, your un-literary background. You’ll end up closing off the source of your most true impulses. If you alter who you are because of fear of not succeeding, or of not fitting into a capricious market, you’ll hate yourself, and then your work will suck anyways.

Stop asking others, “Do you think I have talent?” It’s like asking, “Should I buy it?” i.e., “Should I buy myself?” No matter how difficult, no matter the obstacles, no matter the years it takes, be willing to trust yourself.

Learn to honor yourself through your failures. Let them contribute to a stealthy self-respect, steadiness, and poise, which will be integral to your work.

Praise your adversity-bred toughness. Many writers have abandoned their craft due to the necessity of rejections.

It’s not that exciting. Learn to appreciate the drudgery. It’s a requirement. The grind becomes part of your ability to write well.

One of your best teachers will be yourself: by copying sentences, paragraphs, pages and pages in private notebooks, from authors you revere. Don’t worry. It’s not imitation. Go hog wild. Copy as much as you want. The magic of these sentences will cast a spell, impelling you toward your own expression.

Try not to worry too much about angering people. Chances are they’ll be angry at what you didn’t predict, and the things you fretted over won’t matter.

Your deficiencies and weaknesses will paradoxically become the best and worst qualities of your prose. Don’t despair. Whatever you don’t or can’t overcome, you can let it be purposeful and useful to your work. But to do this, you have to be aware and alert, otherwise, it’ll hide in your prose, diminishing it, and you won’t even notice.

Don’t use talent as exhibitionism, withholding behind language. Move deeper, risking vulnerability and foolishness. Don’t fall for the easier, flashier accomplishment.

A commitment to your work is not a pledge to achieve fame or success. Try not to dwell over the fate of your work. Instead brood over the writing.

Remember that your truest appreciation comes from silent, absorbed readers.

Learn to live for the next thing you write, and the certainty and thrill when your own work speaks back to you.

Don’t fall for the constant fatuous exhibitionism of social media, a need to be in public view as conspicuously as possible. Most of your time must be reserved for privacy.

Don’t be afraid to write badly, just do it in private, where mediocrity and badness can flourish, and where you don’t have to strain not to be trite, sentimental, or clichéd. You have to loosen up and write badly. Unless you’re willing, you can’t write well. You’ll need lots of privacy for your inevitable bad writing.

One of your greatest attributes is your urgency to write, that vital seed of determination, interest, need, and desire. It’s all yours. You might not know what the story means yet, but you are impelled to tell it, and this fundamental element propels a reader’s interest and can’t be faked.

Be glad that your stories are hungry. If the motivation is trivial to the writing, the story will lack the passion that generates interest, no matter how beautiful the prose.

Try not to worry about intellectual expression or academia. Your respect and delight in the incidental and prosaic details of life are more helpful, as well as your ability to perceive through emotions.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Sherrie Flick on Organizing a Book Tour

In the 28th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Sherrie Flick, author of Thank Your Lucky Stars (Autumn Press), offers advice to writers on putting together their own tours.

Your new book stands forlorn on the remote publishing island called No Marketing Department. It wants to be saved, but no pleasure boat skirts the horizon. My book Thank Your Lucky Stars escaped on a DIY reading tour to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, and Maryland. Here’s some advice.

It doesn’t start the moment you publish your book. It begins with its author living a good, empathetic life. Be a supportive writer friend to others. Attend readings. Buy books. Bake cookies. Some of these people will offer up a couch or a ride or a slot in their reading series in your future.

Some people call this Networking. Other people call it Not Burning Bridges. I call it Being a Nice Person.

After you’re a seasoned writer friend, and after you’ve gotten your manuscript accepted, you’ll need a website and a social media/newsletter presence that isn’t just about your book. This should be in place long before your publication date.

Work ahead. Many universities schedule a year in advance, as do many popular reading series and bookstores. When you query, even if it’s to a friend, practice good email etiquette. You never know where that email might be forwarded.

Be sure to have a readily available press sheet, a two-sentence pitch, and an e-ARC or hard copies ready to forward, if requested.

I contacted some venues cold, of course. Some never get back to me. Some requested a book and never got back to me. One university’s funding fell through, and one slot in a reading series was mysteriously revoked. Sometimes it’s impossible to sync up available reading dates with your driving schedule.

I choose not to dwell on the weird and sometimes disappointing circumstances around setting up a book tour. Some venues say yes, some say no. Look to the future. Maintain objective perseverance. Rejection is part of the game, just as it’s part of publishing.
When the going gets tough

Know that you’ll probably need a spreadsheet to keep all this straight and to keep your publisher in the loop.

Once you have some readings scheduled, always carry a box of books in your trunk or some extras in your luggage, even if you’re reading at a bookstore. For similar reasons, invest in a phone credit card swiper.

Think about funding. For I Call This Flirting, my debut chapbook, I was able to get a local Opportunity Grant to support the travel from Pittsburgh to Chico State for its release. For my current tour, my fourth, I have combined paying and non-paying gigs in each geographic region so there’s always a small net gain. Not all paying gigs are at university reading series. Sometimes you can tack on a university visit, a student conference, or a community center class to supplement your income stream.

Consider how much you like to spend time with strangers. I’m not an extrovert, which is why I try to set up readings where I have friends, which also increases attendance. But sometimes I splurge on a hotel instead of staying with my host or friends because I need to recharge.

Know what’s expected of you. Put details into your spreadsheet. Practice your reading in advance. Have a pre-set 10/20/30-minute reading ready in case your time changes once you arrive. Show up early. Never go over your time. Mark your pages so you don’t flip here and there saying: “I should’ve marked some pages.” A good reading sells books, and short organized readings sell more books than readings that are too long and disorganized.

Consider if you like long road trips. A book tour looks easier on the calendar than from rush hour on route 70.

Bring along things that make you happy. I bring my own coffee, Melitta, and a little jug of milk. My husband Rick loves to join me. Having a supportive partner is extremely helpful, but remember to orchestrate time away from the book events or you’ll both lose your minds.

Once you’re done reading, signing books, thanking your host in person, and going out for drinks and dinner, send a thank you card. Send a card to every venue and every person who hosts you. It will make both you and them feel good.

Be a nice person. Connect with friends. Travel the country. Plan a book tour. No search and rescue team is coming to save you and your book. Sometimes that’s okay. Build the boat yourself.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer on Having One Foot In and One Foot Out

In the 27th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer, author of The Water Diviner (University of Iowa Press), examines an approach that applies to both psychotherapy and fiction writing.

Many years ago, in a small, softly lit office that smelled vaguely of burnt coffee, I had a long discussion with someone about the importance of empathy. I was young and naïve at the time, and I was training to be a clinical psychologist. The discussion was with a supervisor, whose name was Bill. He had untidy gray hair, a way of looking at people sideways, and many decades of clinical experience. Bill told me that a psychotherapist needed to have a particular kind of empathy. “One foot in and one foot out,” was how he described it. Participating in a client’s experience was essential, he said, but more was necessary. A therapist also had to observe the experience of her clients—from outside, as it were. If she had both feet in, she would be unable to see what a client needs to understand in order to change. It took me many years to cultivate the kind of empathy Bill had talked about. I think what helped me the most in this endeavor was writing stories.

When the characters in my stories first come to me, they are incomplete. I imagine this is how characters come to most writers. Sometimes they appear as though through a fog. Usually, though, they will have some feature that is well-defined: a singsong voice, an odd habit of patting at the air, facial scars that look silvery in sunlight, a tendency to stare open-mouthed, a lop-sided gait, or an aura pungent with Old Spice. I begin with these features and as I write, the characters come to life.

Beautiful downtown Laramie
This fellow who pats at the air becomes Daniel Perera. He’s a devout Buddhist, an immigrant from Sri Lanka. He’s in his sixties but his ascetic vegetarian diet keeps him trim. His Tamil wife was killed in Sri Lanka’s civil war. Now he lives in Laramie, Wyoming, preparing taxes for ranchers who sometimes arrive at his office after a day of hunting, in pickup trucks loaded with elk or moose carcasses. Daniel has developed some obsessions. The ranchers’ mud-splattered boots bother him. He is convinced he can smell animal blood on their clothes. He counts things too much and he is sometimes irrationally afraid for his safety, but he gets by. He is about to marry a white woman, a middle-aged Christian widow. He doesn’t yet know that her grown children are planning to sabotage their relationship. What do they think of his odd habits and his obsessions? How will Daniel react to their malevolence?

It is only by immersing myself in the lives of characters like Daniel that I can explore their desires, conflicts, and fears. In order to write stories about them, however, I must also observe them: the way they relate to others, their place in a plot, and what events and experiences might transform them. The whole process of writing stories is, I think, rather like doing psychotherapy. One must have one foot in and one foot out.

Writing, like doing psychotherapy, also inevitably makes one more self-aware. I love writing about characters that I initially believe to be quite different from me. These are characters with backgrounds I do not share, who face situations that I have not encountered in my own life. Sometimes I get ideas from news articles or from events friends describe to me. Other ideas come from events I observe, on the subway, on the street, in stores, or in my neighborhood. I see an orange melon falling to the sidewalk by a bodega and splitting open. A blind homeless man huddled in a nest of grimy blankets flinches, startled by the pulpy thud. What comes to his mind in that moment? What does he feel? I’ve never been homeless or blind, so I can only write about him by finding some buried part of myself that might resonate with his experience.

I reach into the past, to the time when I first moved to the U.S., when I felt I had no access to home. I think about times when I’ve felt alone, or out of place or unable to understand what was going on. Little by little, by reaching deeper into myself, I begin to see how the world might seem to this man who starts, not knowing what has happened nearby. No matter how alien characters may initially seem, writing makes them akin to me. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Story Prize Anthology: 15 Years of Great Short Fiction (Coming in March 2019)

As we announced at last year's Story Prize event at the New School, Catapult Books is publishing a fifteenth-anniversary anthology that will be out in March 2019, just in time for the event at which our fifteenth group of finalists will read and we'll announce our fifteenth winner.

The book includes the stories that each of the first fourteen winners of The Story Prize read from at our event, introduced by quotes from their on-stage interviews, excerpts from their TSP blog posts, or judges' citations.

Here's the list of stories:

Edwidge Danticat, “The Book of Miracles” from The Dew Breaker
Patrick O’Keeffe, “The Postman’s Cottage” from The Hill Road
Mary Gordon, “My Podiatrist Tells Me a Story About a Boy and a Dog” from The Stories of Mary Gordon
Jim Shepard, “The Zero Meter Diving Team” from Like You’d Understand, Anyway
Tobias Wolff, “Bullet in the Brain” from Our Story Begins
Daniyal Mueenuddin, “Saleema” from In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
Anthony Doerr, “Memory Wall” from Memory Wall
Steven Millhauser, “Snowmen” from We Others
Claire Vaye Watkins, “Ghosts, Cowboys” from Battleborn
George Saunders, “Tenth of December” from Tenth of December
Elizabeth McCracken, “Something Amazing” from Thunderstruck & Other Stories
Adam Johnson, “Nirvana” from Fortune Smiles
Rick Bass, “How She Remembers It” from For a Little While: New and Selected Stories
Elizabeth Strout, “The Sign” from Anything Is Possible

More on this, including some of the backstory, when the book comes out in March. For now, as the promo of the top says, you can preorder and save 20%.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Karen E. Bender's Advice to a Young Writer: Thoughts on the Structures That Hold up the House of the Story

In the 26th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Karen E. Bender, author of The New Order (Counterpoint), shares her thinking.

You start with honesty.

There is the truth that you want to hide, that you think others will turn away from. Combating shame is your currency, your work. It doesn’t have to be a dark truth, though it can be—you can describe a joyful truth, a crooked truth, a funny truth, something that hasn’t been said about the world and that you want to hear. Everything that hasn’t been said—you can say it. Writers reinvent the world, create ways of seeing, through their precise way of depicting what is around them. All you need is your own insight and bravery. You are combating the lies in our culture—all the clichés, all the ads, all the statements people say to explain their world but not yours, not exactly. And lies are so grating because you secretly know that your experience is valid, and that it is right, too.

The world feels different when you describe it with that specificity, that correctness. It feels brighter, lighter—mostly, it feels real. When you describe the truth about the world, the world snaps awake.

So tell a truth in whatever way you want to. You can tell it through fiction, in which honesty is not literal but is emotional, and needs to feel true. You can tell it through nonfiction, which is literal truth created by you.

Your truth may not be other people’s, and that is fine. It’s not supposed to be. But others may hear your version and say, yes. That is how I move through the world as well. That moment, that connection, is what bonds writers and readers, what nourishes you as a writer, more than anything—it’s the closest we get to knowing what it is to be another person.

You shape the world with your truth. It’s waiting to be shaped by you; this is your opportunity.

You say it.

Then craft.

This is the funnel for your honesty. The way you shape it into a precise container. For art isn’t unshaped life, it is life that feels more vibrant than life. What is the question you want to answer, how are you going to shape your story to answer it? How are you going to use all of the tools at your disposal—sensory detail, dialogue, scene, plot? Play with these craft elements, use them. Don’t feel that you can only be good at one element of craft. If you are a sensory detail person, you can also become a dialogue person. You may hate thinking about plot but it can become your friend. Read many different authors and see how they use these tools. Also, read sentences out loud and see how the words feel as you say them, how the rhythm of the sentences resonate in you.

Then patience.

Being a writer means that much is out of your control. Magazines may accept or turn down your work. Readers may connect with your work or dismiss it. You can’t control how others respond to your manuscript. But you can control your process of revision, how you nurture your work. Take the time to write a story once, twice, as many times as you need to reshape it. Do it again. Be resolute. Be ambitious. Be fearless. As a writer, your power is in your patience. That’s what you can control—the process, your vision, your words.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Announcing The Story Prize Judges: Jo Ann Beard, Ron Charles, and Veronica Santiago Liu

The Story Prize is pleased to announce its 2018 judges: author Jo Ann BeardWashington Post book critic Ron Charles, and bookseller Veronica Santiago Liu. The judges will choose the winner of The Story Prize from among the three books we'll select as finalists and announce in January.

About the judges

Jo Ann Beard is the author of In Zanesville, a novel, and The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals, magazines, and anthologies.

Ron Charles is a book critic and feature writer at The Washington Post, where he hosts the Totally Hip Video Book Review. Before coming to The Post in 2005, Charles edited the book section of The Christian Science Monitor in Boston. In 2009, he won The National Book Critics Circle Award for Excellence in Reviewing. In 2011, he won first place for Arts & Entertainment commentary from the Society for Features Journalism. In 2014, Charles served as a judge for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. He also hosts a quarterly interview series called Life of a Poet, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress.

Veronica Santiago Liu has been involved in community arts organizing for 24 years, most recently as founder and general coordinator of the 60-person collective that operates Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria. She has received individual grants for writing, the development of an arts and music fair, oral history, and various publishing projects, and she sits on the Diversity Task Force of the American Booksellers Association, the advisory board for Healthy Families Washington Heights, and the community advisory board for freeform radio station WFMU. Prior to becoming Word Up’s first paid staff member, she was a contributing editor at Seven Stories Press, where she worked as managing then senior editor for more than a decade.

The Story Prize event at The New School will be on March 6, 2019, so save the date!

Friday, October 26, 2018

Maria Romasco Moore Pairs Stories with Images

In the 25th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Maria Romasco Moore, author of Ghostographs (Rose Metal Press), shares a story written about (and on) a vintage photo.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Curtis Sittenfeld's Breakthrough Experience

In the 24th in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Curtis Sittenfeld, author of You Think It, I'll Say It (Random House), reveals her writing and reading habits.

Describe your writing practice. 
I usually write for a few hours in the morning. I'm very lucky that writing is my full-time job, meaning that since 2005, I have signed contracts for books I haven't yet written and am working toward a deadline. I work from home after my kids go to school, in an office, and I write outlines so that I have a sense of the overarching structure of a story or novel. I try to stay offline when I'm writing, and sometimes I succeed.

Describe a breakthrough you’ve experienced. 
From 2005, when my first novel was published, until 2016, when my fifth novel was published, I wrote very few short stories. Occasionally, I wrote one based on an assigned idea from a magazine editor, which was fun but less organic than working on an idea that I alone had come up with. In spring 2016, I wrote the story "Gender Studies," which was purely my idea and in fact an idea I'd been thinking about for a few years, concerning a woman who loses her driver's license while on a business trip. It felt a bit like this was my first story written as a full-fledged adult rather than a still-confused post-MFA student (to be clear, I'm a still-confused adult, but my grad school experience, which concluded in 2001, now seems like a long time ago). I believe that writing five novels, and also just getting older, had helped me sharpen certain skills that I could apply to short stories. That story was accepted by The New Yorker (after I'd been intermittently throwing myself at the magazine for 20 years, without ever having a story accepted), and it was as if a dam had broken (in my work, not at The New Yorker)—I then wrote several more stories in a period of a few months.

What are the most difficult conditions you’ve successfully written under? 
The Trump Presidency.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well? 
It varies based on the reason my writing isn't going well. Sometimes I need to revise my outline. Sometimes I need to do more research by reading or by interviewing someone. Sometimes I just need to try harder to tune out distractions or fight my own bad habits (hi, Twitter). If I'm being undisciplined, the first step tends to be admitting to myself that I'm being undisciplined and trying to put a plan in place, whether it's deciding what scene I'll tackle when I next start writing or what my goal is and schedule will be for the next few weeks or months.

What are your reading habits like?
I read mostly at night, though sometimes if I'm reading for research for my fiction or to prepare for an event, I read during the day. Though I read more fiction, I'll read whatever intrigues me—some of the books I've read recently are the short Norwegian novel The Story of a Marriage by Geir Gulliksen; the YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli; the essay collection My Own Devices by the rapper and writer Dessa; and the forthcoming memoir about weight (and lots of other things) The Elephant in the Room by Tommy Tomlinson.

What new story collections are you looking forward to reading?
Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker and Better Times by Sara Batkie.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Adrianne Harun's Nine-Part Writing Advice

In the 23rd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Adrianne Harun, author of Catch, Release (Johns Hopkins University Press), focuses on the practice of writing.

Not long ago, I noticed that any advice I had to offer about a writing practice had as much to do with mental and spiritual health as with putting words down on the page. I worried about that for a bit, not wanting to slip into proselytizing or, perhaps worse, unwanted mothering. But, apparently, the latter is my unabashed bailiwick, even when it comes to the writing process. So here goes:
  1. Be kind to yourself. Don't judge. Don’t shame. Don’t bully. Most of us wouldn’t be a fraction as unkind to others as we can be to our writer selves. Remember, writing is a choice, not a single route to self-definition.
  2. Truth matters. We sometimes circle difficult material, not quite wanting to expose ourselves. Or we want to be clever in ways that inadvertently obscure. Or we veer off into tangential investigations. Research quiets me, and not in a good way. When I feel the need to wander away from a story that is proving inadequate or troublesome with the excuse of “research,” all trembles to a stop. I have “work to do,” diving down one cyber rabbit hole after another, gathering notes and scraps along the way. “Useful?” I’ll scribble. “Correct? Really?” Fiction isn’t reality. It’s a form of truth-telling. Try not to drift down too many byroads, worrying about how smart your story will be or who you might offend. Just tell the truth.
  3. A scene or action won’t be fully inhabited unless it is emotionally resonant. Be equally honest emotionally. Your readers will appreciate and engage more readily.
  4. Honestly, anything taken in excess will make you sick. Limit/get the hell off social media. Go cold turkey for a couple of weeks, and you’ll feel as if you’ve taken up marathon running—light, strong, and a little sanctimonious (a little’s okay).
  5. Don’t let personal history rule your narrative, unless personal history is your narrative. In that case, give that personal history its own agency and clarity. (My agent is laughing right now.) But truly, backstory, like a too-long date with an acquaintance obsessed with his glorious or “interesting” past, can deaden and delay a promising story relationship.
  6. Add structure to your life. Working through revisions with story shape in mind is akin to suddenly having an architect beside you while you scrutinize your sagging DIY project. Considering structure and form and contemplating where and how light and air get into your story can illuminate for you where the holes lie, where the story flails and/or is supported.
  7. Move around purposefully. Give your characters more to do. One of my dear writer friends used to proclaim, “If you want action, go to the track.” But it’s not action a story demands as much as a sense of purpose, that seductive inner propulsion that comes from having something utterly necessary to do.
  8. Sing. The glories and rhythms of language define us and our characters and elevate even the most mundane exchanges. Really, can you imagine living without music? Pay attention to the resonance and accuracy of your prose, sentence by sentence, word by word.
  9. Finally, find humor wherever you can. Humor enlivens and quickens fiction. Wonderfully, a funny passage also makes a reader pay closer attention even when the subject itself (see #2 above) is uncomfortable.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Niles Reddick on the Business Side of Writing

In the 22nd in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Niles Reddick, author of Reading the Coffee Grounds (Aakenbaaken & Kent), discusses the nonwriting part of the job.

Many years ago, Inman Majors (author of several novels including his newest, Penelope Lemon), a good friend and former co-editor with me of “The Distillery” (now defunct), jokingly said to colleagues and students, “Don’t give up your day job,” referring to writing and working. As the years have passed, nothing could be truer. While I often joke that I couldn’t make one month’s mortgage payment with what I’ve earned in royalties from my fiction, I have been fortunate to work in higher education and write “on the side.”

Writers love ideas and are inspired by all sorts of things. For me, it’s family like my aunt who collected road kill and made what she called art with it, or her pouring peroxide in tea because she believed it gave her more oxygen; friends like Poet Laureate of Tennessee Maggie Vaughn and her eccentric behavior, like writing a poem about a moon pie; or just the random person in a drive-thru with a tattoo of a heart on an arm that has grown flabby and stretched over time and now looks like Mick Jagger’s lips. The creative writing is the best part of the process.

The toughest part of the process is finding the time to take care of the business of writing: submitting, tracking submissions, getting rejections and resubmitting, promoting and marketing, networking, and keeping up with the business of it all when one has a full-time job, family, community obligations, and much more.

I don’t require a lot of sleep, so I am an early riser at 4:00 a.m., even on weekends and without an alarm clock, and I was like this as a child. Imagine what a nuisance I was to my parents and siblings. I enjoy some strong coffee, read, and edit, and then go to my university office two hours before the workday actually begins to write and do many of the ancillary tasks required of the postmodern writer. It has become a complicated process, a process that takes a substantial amount of time, and the older I get, the more I realize how valuable that time is.

Twenty or so years ago, writers sent submissions in the mail with a self-addressed stamped envelope and waited some time before finally receiving a rejection and beginning the process over again. In fact, one didn’t need a spreadsheet to track all of the submissions. Now, while there are a few publications out there that still take snail mail submissions, most don’t and a writer can send several submissions per email, even simultaneous submissions to several editors and publications, and responses from editors don’t seem to take as long as they once did. It some ways, the business of writing is much easier and increases a writer’s chances of becoming published.

Currently, I’m juggling seventeen unpublished stories that are each submitted to approximately five literary magazines and journals all over the world. There are several stories in progress, several stories that were never published that I go back to from time to time to revise, and several pieces that were never finished and probably shouldn’t be. I recently discovered a box of writing from my undergraduate days, and it’s a miracle I was ever published given how bad that writing was. In addition, I am pushing information out to an unknown audience on Twitter, pushing information out to multiple Facebook groups, and updating a website I pay for from my main job’s salary. Even though there are tax deduction advantages from website costs, free review copies, speaking engagements for which I do not charge, and advice I offer to others who contact me, the business side of the creative process can be taxing.

When I leave this world, I hope to leave something behind. Sure, I’ll appear among the weekly birthday lists on Facebook, and I imagine there will be “friends” who will wish me a happy birthday, not knowing I’m gone, until my Facebook account is turned off. At some point, my Twitter account may be gobbled up by a hacker who sends out porn or political messages even though it’s tough to tell the difference sometimes. Once my family forgets to pay the hosting service for my website, it will be quickly removed within twenty-four hours. The business side of the creative writing process won’t survive without me working it, but I hope some of my writing will.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Kimberly Lojewski Writes A Letter to Her Young Self: On the Dangers of Magic Portals, Nyquil, and Renaissance Faire Carnies

In the 21st in a series of posts from authors of 2018 books entered for The Story Prize, Kimberly Lojewski, author of Worm Fiddling Nocturne in the Key of a Broken Heart (Burrow Press), learns from her own experience.

Dear Young Aspiring Writer Kimberly,

I’m writing to let you know that we’ve finally published our first book! You always believed that it would happen. You persevered and it did. Your very first story collection.

You are not twenty-three like you planned. But forty years is not so old. You’re still in the game. You are only, like, twenty-two years behind Mary Shelley.

Things to keep in mind over the next few decades… no, whiskey does not make you write better. No, obsessively visiting the haunts of dead writers will not imbue you with some magical writing powers. Nope. Crystals won’t work either. Nor will spiritual pilgrimages, or hot air balloons, or playing guitar in the moonlight. You’re going to have to actually write. I know, I know. It’s not what you were imagining.

You will have to make your peace with the editing process, young buck. There is literally no way around that part. Believe me, you’ve tried. They just won’t publish your stuff without it.

MFAs are a good time, full of well-learned folk and lots of talking about writing, but you will have to pay back all of those student loans one day. You really will. I’m serious. Can you please find an adult to explain the risk v. reward system to you? And maybe not buy that eleventh pair of boots, like you’re just spending monopoly money?

On the subject of every boyfriend you’re going to have, they will never “love you the way dry roots love rain.” Stop. Just stop reading so much Carl Sandburg and ee cummings. Put the Wuthering Heights down. And when you get to college, don’t start reading Bukowski. He’ll only give you a predilection for snarky drunks who cheat on you.

Eesh. And the bad news is that even though I’ve kept pretty much all of your juvenile writings and journals… they aren’t quite as deep or probing as we once believed. Just a lot of obsessing over boys really. I hate to break it to you, but they will probably never be published posthumously.

Things that are not going to work:

Medieval fare: Crossing swords: 
Your novel about a girl named Dew Rain who runs away to join the medieval festival. You will never finish it, but you will run away to join the medieval festival and be rudely awakened to the fact that those people are carnies with fake British accents.

You’re thinly veiled copycat series of Sweet Valley High called Sweetwater Valley featuring brunette twins named April and Delilah. I know it seems like a foolproof plan, but the original wasn’t very good to begin with. Besides, Sweet Valley High fizzles out sometime in the nineties.

Also, the one about the teenager who falls through a portal into Ireland? That never takes off either. Yah, I know you really want to write some leprechaun dialogue, but it turns out magic portals aren’t considered a legitimate plot device. I know. I can hardly believe it either.

Lastly, there may come a time when you have a psychotic reaction to Nyquil and decide to write your entire memoirs in a three-day stretch and then send them out to everyone you know. Scrap that idea. Totally scrap it. Stay away from the Nyquil completely. If you get bronchitis, go straight to the hospital. And throw your laptop out the window.

Aside from that, buckle up and love and hate the next twenty odd years. You’ve got lots of living to do. For now, just know that you’ll get around to the writing one day.


Mature (you’ll definitely come to dislike that word though)
Published Author Kimberly