Saturday, February 27, 2010

La Vie Bohème

In the electrifying, Pulitzer and Tony Award winning musical Rent, an independent filmmaker, Mark, and his songwriting, HIV-positive roommate Roger, burn their beloved band posters and screenplays in a last-ditch attempt at heat and light. Too poor to pay the bills, they belt out in the opening number, “We’re hungry and frozen—some life that we’ve chosen!”

After examining my bank account this weekend, I have to agree: this whole starving-artist thing seems horribly overrated.

My plan this year has been to work part-time and write. A simple plan, but far from easy. So far, my novel is still at a wonderful stall. Funds are dwindling, my job is draining, and progress on my story remains an ongoing struggle. When I first heard Rent as a double disc in high school, the irony of burning what you love in order to sustain any kind of life at all—much less one that you love—did not escape me.

It felt oddly fateful.

Books and music, anything artistic, still ignites me like nothing else. When I need to steel my resolve, I look to people who’s work I admire—musicians as well as writers—for inspiration. When I first heard Rent, I hoped fervently that I would know something of the characters’s bitter, fighting spirit. As the award winning author of Bel Canto, Ann Patchett, wrote in her memoir Truth and Beauty, “When I was young and decided to be a writer, my understanding of the job description came straight from La Bohème...I, like Puccini, imagined the garret would be in Paris, which would give the poverty a glamorous edge.”

It is no coincidence that in the generations that follow, the garret is a drafty flat in NYC’s Alphabet City, and the show is not La Bohème, but Rent: a musical based on Puccini's opera. In these shows, the artists are heroes—more so because poverty and obscurity mark their struggles.

I will be the first to say it: povery is not glamorous. While I don’t consider myself poor, and many of my friends live paycheck to paycheck without being artists, the heart-stirring struggle that precedes every well-known artist’s ascent is not at all glamorous. It’s terrifying. Terrifying, because there is no guarantee of monetary success or stability, no matter the hardship. We’re conditioned to believe that struggle is only worth it if security or recognition follows.

For every writer I have heard of, whose words I live by, for every musician who has fueled my life, there are many more whose names and work I may never know, but who are doing the good work, the hard work. As acclaimed writer Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “I just try to warn people who hope to get published that publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is. Writing has so much to give, so much to teach, so many surprises. That thing you you had to force yourself to do—the actual act of writing—turns out to be the best part…The act of writing turns out ot be its own reward.”

To all you struggling writers out there…

Love the best part.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Workshops work

It never ceases to amaze me when past students of Our Stories online workshops email me with the quick placement of the stories we worked on together. Today, for example, this came from Townsend Walker:

He took my editorial advice, he elaborated on it, he worked hard on the story, he sent it to an appropriate publication (in this case, a crime-genre magazine) and lo-and-behold: he got published.

It's so simple. Take professional advice. Work hard. Send to an appropriate publication.

Go to it!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Cover art of OS

When I first started the journal, four years ago or so, I was really interested in the debate as to whether online journals were worthy of being arbitrators of art. That was only four years ago, now every journal and their mama wants to get online or get into some sort of downloadable version--ala the iPhone app, Kindle, Sony Reader and soon to a living room near you, the iPad. I think the online journal was part of that. I also feel that we're still not where we should be as a community. With the advent of the online journal there's greater flexibility of where your staff lives, how you can take submissions and you're freed up of a lot of time you would've been doing fund raising and working the printing press where you can be interacting with your writers. The reality is that new technology requires a new thought process of how you run your business and I still feel like we're not where we should be.

All of this was a very long way of getting around to my point about the cover design. When we started I would take print journals and take a picture of them and then copy play with them in photoshop. Over the years we've manipulated covers of Meridian, the CLMP directory, cheesy self-help books, Romanian poetry anthologies, etc.. all with the thought that the difference between print and web is a function of manipulation.

This quarter I did something different. In a small way I don't want to be silent any more about what is going on, while I don't want Our Stories to become a political journal (it never will be), with my own art and eye I'd like to do more to bring issues to the public. I took three images and manipulated them on top of the CLMP directory. I took the poster of Avatar, a Tea Party and the flag of Haiti and melded them into our cover. I saw Avatar and while I don't believe it is an unamerican movie it does seem to take a stand on the direction of our humanity, on the more peaceful direction that seems corrupted by corporate interests. I think it was the first movie I've ever seen where its message seemed to paint such a wide brush against a species--humans, fighting against the military/corporate agenda. Say what you will about the message of back to nature/anti-colonial/scientific fantasy utopia (all of which couldn't be done without colonial/industrial agendas) the rub is that Avatar is fiction. It is a Hollywood movie. Its message is cloaked in metaphor.

At the same time as the issue was coming out there was a high dollar ticket conference (which is why I gave them a picture of an actual tea party and not Boston like dumpring) for the faux-populist Tea Party, a group whose sole purpose is to delegimitize the White House and "game up" the Republican party. This isn't anything new--the entire Republican party has had the same game plan since Obama received the party's nomination. If it isn't "not an american citizen" it is "radical agenda" or "weak on terror" the tea party translation is that he is a terrorist, socialist and that they--in turn--are the patriots. Not only is this bogus, garbage populism supported and fed by Fox News. It strikes me as an agenda from the Conservative party to do nothing, provide nothing, act for nothing, care for nothing, develop nothing in the name of this deligitmation, effectively saying, "he is not our president" so we won't vote for anything he does. At worst, the Tea Party is saying "he is not even an american citizen" and at much worse, I will not even care to write out here in this blog.

And finally Haiti. Real suffering, an entire nation in crumbles, rocked to its core. While these two counterpoints of political ideology--both going too far in their reach and intellectual augmentations of how they'd like to see society--bicker as an entire nation melts.

I think art has a place in this discussion and through my writing I hope to get at more of this. I haven't been writing as much fiction as I would like lately and I think that's because it seems I'm at a place where I want to talk about issues as well as what can be presented in a fictional art form.

I think that's it for now. Enjoy the issue.

Winter 2010 Issue, Editor's thoughts...

Dear Folks,

As you can see our new issue is up. It was a long time since we'd had a journal go up and the extended time off was called for to read and review all of your manuscripts. As always there was an overwhelming amount of great stories. In the end we picked Jesse Goolsby's story for Richard Bausch short story award. "Touch" by Jesse Goolsby is one of those rare stories, sad and beautiful--a story of an Afghanistan war veteran who is trying to figure out how the hell to live again. The first time I read it I was moved to damn tears. The story matters and you should damn well read it. All the runner's up are fantastic. One of the best stories I had the pleasure of reading was Louis Wittig's "What Snuggle, the Fabric Softener Spokesbear, Says As He Takes the Seat Next to You on Continental Flight 3411 to Buffalo" I cried reading this one too but for a very different reason; it's damn hilarious. The guy takes the voice of that damn plush snuggle bear in all of the fabric softener commercials and works an entire story around it. At first I didn't think he would be able to pull it off, or sustain the energy of the story for as long as he did (it's something like 4000 words) but by the time the story was done I was so impressed I threw it into our "yes" pile. Blue and Maroon by Chellis Ying is just an eerie story, obsessive and quirky. I read it at least three times to see how she did it--it's about a woman who has a male roommate and over the course of her living with him becomes disfigured and continues to be there, living in their house while he has a girlfriend. The story is subtle but overt enough so that you're confused and horrified by the ending. She does this POV switch at the very end that we didn't know what to think of but in the end I decided she pulled it off and that it was her way of truly horrifying us, very magical. Finally, last but not least was Onnesha Roychoudhuri's story "A Simple Migration" we liked this story because it was raw and emotional, she gives the dying breaths of a man who is about to die. However, the story is more of a recounting of the life of a husband and wife and their last intimate moments.

There were many many wonderful stories this quarter that did not find their way into our pages. So, while we haven't advertised our contest as such, we. 're giving honorable mentions to a number of writers here: "Benny and Nicky Go for a Ride" by Toby Soriero, "P.M." by Lynn S. Schwebach, "Crossings" by Barbara Ganley, "Throb" by Shannon Zimmerman, "One Track Mind" by David Lawrence, "The Director" by Anthony Spaeth, "Killer Bod" by Paula Paige, "Bad Joke" by Jeffrey Cretan and "The Haunting Wish" by A.N. Hegde.

There were so many damn good stories this time around and I really feel like that's indicative as where we are as a journal right now. For all of you who wrote, please keep working on it--don't lose hope, keep working at it.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Belated Valentine to Writing

I once read Stuart Dybek's story, "Pet Milk" over the phone to my boyfriend. According to writer and creative writing professor T.M. McNally, the best stories make a person "feel more than they understand." I love this story because of its feeling.

Its portrait of adolescent longing has resonated since 1986, when it appeared in the O. Henry prize collection. As a kid, I believed love was for the chosen. Guys called me so they could obssess over other women; when I was in high school, people dated, got drunk, lived. I sipped ginger beer and scoured bookstore dumpsters with my male friends, recommending songs for mixes they made for the girls they'd rather be with.

While many revered writers led famously debauched lives, I avoided experience, risk. Love was about longing, not having: the essence of James Joyce's "Araby." When the narrator in Dybek's story says that his post-college plans differed from those of his girlfriend, giving him "the feeling of missing someone I was still with," I knew exactly what he meant.

For a long time, I desired only to be placed This Side Up and handled with care. As the poet Luis Lloréns Torres wrote in "Love Without Love":

When you climb up my mansion,
enter so lightly, that as you enter
the dog of my heart will not bark.

While I now live in Dybek's hometown of Chicago because of my boyfriend, I still struggle to embrace the experience necessary to live a life filled with meaning~ and meaningful writing. What I love about "Pet Milk" and "Araby," is that they affirm that love is as much about giving as receiving. The same is true of writing: the reward is in giving yourself completely. It is because of stories such as "Pet Milk" that I choose this writing life again and again.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Advice for Replying to Editors

Advice about how best to reply to an editor depends upon whether you're accepted.

If you're not, the most helpful advice would be--don't reply. Reflect.

But if you simply must (a fruitless move since it's likely to do nothing more than depress an editor), here's what I'd say: (1) be positive, (2) be understanding, and (3) be cool.

It's happened to me: an editor explains why she's passing on a story. Once, a magazine liked my first submission but wanted me to either lengthen it or send something longer. I sent something longer. It wasn't taken. The worst thing I could've done at that point was reply. The best thing, when rejected, is to reflect. To revise. In my revision, published as "The Arsonist" last year in SLAB, I clarified that the first-person narrator was embodying the arsonist. I also mentioned in cover letters that any perceived p.o.v. shifts were intentional. It worked.

Again, if you do reply, be positive ("I really appreciate your feedback"), understanding ("with 100,000,000 submissions a month and only 0.75 acceptances a year..."), and be cool ("best of luck to your journal; I love your stuff"). Still, I'm not convinced that it's worth it to almost ever reply to a rejection. Just get back to an equilibrium, to an emotional state that vitalizes you creatively--maybe through exercise (practicing kung fu and working my left hook on a bag help for me)--and write.

Now, if you're getting something published (congrats!), an editor might email you an edited version of your writing for you to look at. Edits are highlighted, say, in red. Do you approve?

If the edits are line edits, say adding a comma here or maybe changing a phrase there, approve them. You might be happy, later in life, that you did.

It's tempting sometimes to say, "You're killing my voice" or get carried away with defending artistic integrity. I recommend reflecting first. It's extremely difficult for anyone to get published. Once you get something in, go with it. The editor is your ally, and comments given reflect time invested in understanding and trying to invigorate your writing.

Of course, if an editorial suggestion isn't working, wait a little while before responding. A day or two, perhaps. Then craft a carefully worded email that, above all, makes you seem like a nice person to work with. The world can always use another nice person.

I like to remember something Socrates is always saying to Plato in various dialogues and in different ways; it's a foundational premise to put logical investigations into perspective. To summarize ... "Any amount of time we're here is negligible in the context of deep time." Take "We" to mean anything you like--an individual, a species.

I've already expressed my belief that literary journals are cultural bulwarks in the spreading US-driven Television Culture. Works of art justify living. Still, this metaphysical viewpoint reassures me that a comma here, or even a phrase there, or even major revisions, usually aren't worth fighting for.

Emotional balance and harmony ... are.

Justin 正义


(Justin's novel Ash Dogs was a First Novel Finalist in the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. He lives in Xinzheng City, in the Henan province of China, and studies the syncretism of fiction writing and kung fu.)