Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Romance Writing gets a Grant

From the AP wire, Yo:

Nora Roberts' foundation is giving $100,000 to a college in Maryland and the school says it will offer an academic minor in romance literature and start a writing course in the genre.

full link here:

http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=13727108

See, writing pays.  Right?

Thursday, May 26, 2011

MSW

Now I have two degrees. An MFA and an MSW. Time to get paid!




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-www.alexissanti.com

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Small, Good Thing

Alright, alright. I gotta admit, some of these pics collected at Gizmodo are pretty funny.


Hat tip to Matt Bell.

[Cross-posted at Save The Matches.]

The Blockade

I have had serious brain block lately. Perhaps some of you other writers out there have had similar experiences. So as it has been remarkably sunny of late, I decided to collect all of the mirrors from the house (as well as from the houses of a few of my neighbors – I’m sure they won’t mind) and piled them in my back garden in a concave assembly [con-cave, think of a cave, damp and dark and internal; con-vex, think of Lex Luther, whose head was shiny and protuberant and bulging and round and evil]. I wrapped myself in muslin from toe to neck to prevent sun blisters. I caked my face in putty and put packing tape over my glasses to avoid going blind. Then I crawled into the mirrored structure and curled up into a ball. Sun is very good for the thinking.

And here I am still, just within reach of the wi-fi. (At least I think it is our wi-fi – I don’t recall naming the network ‘Kemal’s Kebabs’.) Please forgive me any typos I may commit in this piece, for I cannot see the screen.

‘Did it work?’ you’re asking me. Ah ha ha well. Have a look:

Decomposition is one of the things that the sun does best, and I in my place have taken on this mantle, to dismantle the following compostures:

Furriers : Furriers are fur, they are people, they make things for people to put around themselves, the people, they take things off other things and put them on other other things. Furriers use fur – they make fur, fur you. Furriers = furry.

Barriers : Barriers get in the way, constantly. They are always there, or at least somewhere, trying to stop you from getting elsewhere, where you really, really want to be. Barriers have nothing to do with being buried (or interred), and quite a bit less to do with berries, be they blue, rasp or boysen. Here find a joke about a famous Barry, most likely Bond or White.

Sorcerers : Sorcerers don’t mess. They go straight to the ­_________, from whence come all of their film-ready powers.

Warriors : You know what these guys do. They are amongst the best known of mongerers. The question put forth by the sun, which is beaming, bursting blood vessels, melting everything, is: do they worry? I would worry. But this isn’t about me.

Terriers : A symbol of opposition and internal conflict, for they do not tarry one iota, the little yippy beasts.

Couriers : Delicious. These are people who deliver curries to your front door, like heaven’s guardians descending with an armload of manna. Or not. There are two types of couriers, those who cycle and those who motor, and they are very different creatures. One is lank of limb, sinewy, bare-headed, mad, wreckless; the other is bulking, padded, shielded, guarded. They sit at the front of traffic like black knights, strangling their machines into protest. They don’t like you and wouldn’t mind if you passed into the other world through their assistance. They don’t shave very often, and it is a rarity to witness a female amongst their kind, if ever it should be witnessed at all. They cloak themselves, they are heavily clad. Their actual size is indeterminate. They could be beanstalk cyclist thin. When off their steeds they hold silence, divorced from their thunder. They seek not the light. They know not the glory of the sun. They draw not from its power, nor neither know its sustenance, its beating, relentless sustenance. Its omni-powerful, all-knowing, fierce sustenance. They bring not the curry to man.

I think I am unblocked now. Can someone please help me out? I think it is very bright in here, and I could use a drink of water. The address is – uh, the address … is somewhere near Kemal’s Kebabs. Please do not tarry.

[This and more at Knits a stinK.]

what must remain

Steve Yates eloquently addresses the book industry, tv preachers, the necessity of fiction, and End Times in a wonderful post over at Fiction and History.

We three salesmen shared the horrors and rumors and amazements after a reasonable lunch. We looked, in our suits, the same as salesmen after lunching in so many other decades in Manhattan. So long as we kept our cellphones in our pockets, and smiled at the sun, or stared in wonderment at the placards, or in sadness at our aging hands, we were like businessmen lounging in so many other decades in America’s brief imperial tableau….

This is the stuff and these are the times for great fiction, such as the body of work that is Joseph Roth’s. Late in Empires, when end fears run rampant, that is when the light is best, the moment is most poignant. Why fiction? It compresses emotion and narrative and polishes aside the temporal to shine the universal, what we lovest well and what we loath, and what must remain, like it or not.

Click the link, read the piece. You won't be sorry.

[Cross-posted at Save The Matches.]

Friday, May 20, 2011

On The Rapture

At first, jokes were my inclination too. I mean, dude was wrong the first time around, right? Who else, when they first heard of the May 21st-ers, immediately thought of the scene in Six Feet Under­ when the pick-up full of helium-filled blow-up dolls gets into a wreck and loses it’s, um, load, causing a believer to mistake the dolls for Christians being called into the sky?


Sure, there’s plenty to laugh about here. Or cry about as the case may be. Studying the Bible’s numerology is apparently big business. Even Frank Black has weighed in:


Harold Camping’s radio network is worth over a $100 million, according to NPR. People who faithfully count on his words as God’s truth, have given up on planning for the future. Again, from NPR: "We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won't have anything left," one believer says. Some, though, want to plan for their pets’ futures come May 22, and apparently a group of wise-ass pet-lovers come atheists (and potential geniuses) calling themselves “Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA” are happy to oblige for a small fee.

Eventually, as popular opinion began to strengthen into a flood of holier-hipper-&-smarter-than-thou tweets and tongue in cheek articles, May 21st started to feel less funny to me. I don’t know. I think maybe I’m cowed by certainty. And this much is certain – hivemind coalesces on this one: May 21st-ers are idiots.

I guess there’s something off-putting to me about a group of people being so certain that another group of people’s certainty is stupid. It feels stupid. It feels elitist. And it makes me uncomfortable. It even has kind of a Keyser Söze feel to it.


I grew up in a Holiness family. I saw buns shouted down. As I kid, I played church for fun. Yeah really. And you know what, that’s because all the jumping around, singing, clapping, and raw emotion was fun for a kid. There wasn’t television at my grandmothers’ house (Or pants. Or aspirin…), but church services lasted deep into the night. We kids slept on quilted pallets beneath those wooden pews. I’m no holyroller, far from it. But there’s enough of that old-time religion in my DNA to feel uncomfortable with making fun of it.

My great-grandmother died at home with a tumor in her breast because she trusted that God’s will be done. There are people who laugh about that too. I mean, not directly about my Granny Connelly because, though I’m not the fighting type, I’d kick your motherfucking ass. I don’t laugh at this stuff. And I damn sure don’t laugh about it in ignorance. Imagine the faith it takes and the difficulties the people who make these very hard choices live with, from the rest of the world, and yes, from their own inner-wrestling. Call them idiots, but first ask yourself what kind of strength and conviction it takes to live your ideals, whatever they are.


It’s much easier to sit on the sidelines or Thetwitter and laugh. It is easy to laugh about something you don’t know and could therefore never understand. It’s harder to give someone a chance to be human.

Who knows what happens today, much less tomorrow? Coming from one who appreciates irony (despite my take on this one), what would be the greatest irony of all, perhaps? For a bunch of hipsters to mistake the kind-hearted simpletons floating into the sky for blow-up dolls?

I’m no May 21st-er, that’s for sure, but I feel oddly thankful today. The May 21st-ers have given me the gift of remembering to make today count. And all the rest that we get around this sorry old beautiful planet we call home.

And finally, because what Rapture blog post would be complete without it:


[Cross-posted at Save The Matches.]

Hello Our Stories-ers

My name's Kelli, and thanks to the kindness of Alexis, our Editor in Chief and all-around good guy, I'll be posting around here periodically the next few months.

I don't have much in the way of introductions, but you can find a couple of my stories here, here, and, of course, here. I usually blog over at Save The Matches and have been known to tweet my troubles away. If you're not one of my students, I'll be happy to tweet at you too.

Alright, thanks for reading. See you around.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Please leave a message

Well here’s a bit for you: I was going to write a piece for you all today. I had been planning to tell you that, Coming out of an ether dream, I scanned the room to regain my place and found that I was alone. I would have informed you that I was in my paper dress, and that the blanket was still neatly tucked around my torso, going to show just how deep I had been under. There was to be talk of my hand running over the rectangular patch of shaven skin on the left-hand side of my chest, freshly bubbled with scar. A drawn-out rousing would have ensued, and I would have struggled to bring myself to a seated position.

There was going to be a reckoning and a remembering, an internal parsing of detail and wonder at the silence sandwiched between the business of the hospital hallway to the left of me and the general human traffic of the outside world to the right, the latter represented in sight only by the waving top of a tree against a patch of drab sky. There would have been one of those scenes where the patient, confused from the doping, would have staggered from his bed, stuck his feet into his slippers, spent minutes trying to find his clothes, looking for his wallet, his keys, his phone, so that he could get out of there. That would have been me.

This is where things were going to start to get funky, starting with me picking up the hospital phone, dialing 9 for an outside line and punching in my own cell phone number, not easily recalled given my state. Cue the humming, the humming, the humming, followed by a pause. I would have gripped the telephone receiver tighter and, confused, would have half been waiting for me to pick up on the other end of the line. Something was to have been wrong. Then the humming again, the humming, the humming, and a rattling in my chest. I feared the worst — I was relapsing, the surgery had not gone well, aliens were attacking earth from inside me, I was to have been confused. I would have gathered the will to set the hospital phone back on its hook, then would have sat on the bed to recover. The humming would have thankfully ceased.

This was going to be the point at which it was going to have dawned on me. I would have gone to pick up the hospital phone again. I would have held it to my ear, and I would have started to redial — slowly, tentatively – my number. I would have held my breath and waited, bracing myself as my chest once more began to vibrate and throb and (there would have been no use trying to deny it) to ring. It would have been confirmed: my phone had been closed into my body, with my heart. Perhaps, I would have thought further, with a shudder, it had even replaced my heart.

I would have been too dull and dazed to have ended the call. It would have kept ringing and ringing, and I would have considered the various consequences, all of them dire, I would have thought, even though I am not and would not have been a doctor. They warn you not even to keep your phone in your pocket, don’t they, I would have asked myself, I mean, not in your front pocket, anyway, not if you are a man and you have any desire to procreate at any point in the future. That’s what they say, I would have said.

And still the phone would have rung and rung in my chest, and I would have experienced visions of phone as heart, visions which would have made no real sense, visions of digits, fives, eights, zeroes, marching up and down my aortas and wandering into capillaries, bunching up against one another, coagulating, forming whole numbers. I would have sat horrified. Not for long, though, because after a certain number of rings, I would have been taken to my voice mail. I would have heard myself saying, I’m sorry, I’m not able to pick up my phone right now, but if you leave your name and number I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

What would I have done, reader, in actuality? Would I have hung up, knowing that to leave a message would serve no purpose? Would I have sobbed down into the thing at the madness involved? Or would I have just left a message, as a sort of official record, my first message to my new heart, to be replayed and treasured, lifetime in and out, for posterity? That’s why I haven’t written you this story, dear reader, and for that I am sorry.

[From the files of Knits a stinK.]

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jason Sanford's "Never Never Stories"

We don’t publish genre stories at Our Stories but that doesn’t mean we don’t read them.

Interested in something a little off the run-of-the-mill-literary-path? Go check out Jason Sanford’s “The Blue Room” at Daily Science Fiction. It begins:



The plains rolled out before Aiesha, all buffalo grass and forever sky drowning to the dusk's easy light. Aiesha sat on the weather-worn porch of her grandpa's farm house, flipping page after page of her history textbook--unread, the words blurring to elsewhere. Away! they whispered. Go! they sighed.


Jason Sanford has a new story collection of science fiction available as an ebook and we think you should check it out too.


Never Never Stories includes works which have won the Interzone Readers' Poll, been nominated for the BSFA Award, longlisted for the British Fantasy Award, and printed in numerous magazines and book anthologies including Year's Best SF.

Who is this Jason Sanford, anyway?

Well, he co-founded storySouth and if you are a writer from the South or write about the South, do yourself a favor and head over there asap! Jason also runs the magazine’s Million Writer’s Award, which annually awards 10 stories that have only been published online. Prize money for writers who publish in online literary magazines legitimizes all of us out here writing and publishing in the ether. This is one of the many reasons we love and admire Jason and think you should support him in all of his endeavors. Not to mention the fact that he writes a slammin' sci-fi story.

Monday, May 16, 2011

At a poetry reading at Duffs

Why not? Hot tea with my amazing wife. Listening to poets talk to one another and discuss the writing life.





-www.ourstories.us
-www.alexissanti.com

Our Stories New Issue up online


New Issue of OS up online!

Short stories by: Guinotte Wise (2011 Flash Fiction Prize winner), Jeanne Gulbranson, Brian Bienkowski, Mark Maynard.

New Feature Stories by Pushcart prize winning author, Ana Menendez and novelist Cara Hoffman.

And a marvelous interview with Cara Hoffman, author of So Much Pretty.

Finally this issue is rounded out with Alexis Santi's essay on the purpose of literary journals, the state of the nation and talking to vampires.

Check out the essay now <>

abilities for your needs, Editor's Essay (Spring 2011)


abilities for your needs

by

Alexis E. Santí

Editor's essay




I BELIEVE IN THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF A LITERARY WORLD THAT DOES NO HARM OR AT LEAST, A LITERARY WORLD THAT ONLY HARMS CONFORMITY. I believe the process of writing is sacred and that the pen is mightier than the sword. I come to this work as a humanist and someone who believes that the most important tenet of humanism is that the populace should not be alienated by its culture or the individuals who are chosen, hired or self-appointed to be arbiters of that culture. The arbiters of that culture are the ever-changing media landscape that includes the traditional print, TV, and web based reporters. I believe the literary journal is part of that media, albeit a small player in the conversation. Literary journals are the arbiters of poetry, short stories, essays and the like and should be a reflection of the exchange of ideas and culture read by the masses.

We began this century watching a symbol of American power brought to the ground by a terrorist organization. We were then fed this trauma over and again by a sensational media who instead of accurately processing it, or allowing us to understand the true ramifications of the world we now live in, reported conjecture and presuppositions. We ate this up and continue to eat this up and have yet to come to terms with 9/11 a decade after the event that changed our lives forever.

Not two years after 9/11, the body politic and a lazy fourth estate undermined basic truths and sold us a dallying ruse of “maybes” and “sort ofs” to launch a war. We fought this first postmodern war based on a past fact that Iraq had gassed its own citizens a decade or so in the past (back when we didn’t give a damn) and made up intelligence to ensure that we could spend billions on a fool's errand. Sitting in Washington DC in 2003 I watched our country go to war based on at best an “oops” and at worst “systematic war profiteering”. The media failed us, the free market world failed us and they continue to fail us and therefore alienate a population.

I do remember who got it right though. I read dozens of indie newspapers, fancy things just invented called “blogs” that quickly debunked Powell’s speech, correctly highlighted no links to al Qaeda and presupposed that we were going to war based on hyperbole. Information and knowledge was gained therefore by those without money and status who could articulate truth. We had the need for accuracy in reporting and bloggers and independent journalists had the ability to feed that need through alterative channels of communication.

The fact that our government lied to us and our media continues to misinform a significant portion of the population and that we--to this day--do not intellectually understand who it is we are fighting against and what their goals or our goals have been in this war on terror, has had a debilitating and I’d say alienating effect.

Our way of dealing with being this misinformed, has led us to look for answers in metaphor instead of factual information. You ask for an example and I will strike a wooden stake to the heart of the summer hit coming to us in 2011. The fourth season of True Blood. We love our vampires because they are the terrorists in the American social and cultural consciousness. Our desire to understand a terrorist is summed up when we watch the charming Sooki Stackhouse talk to a vampire. We console vampires, hug them, care for them, save their lives, kiss them, sleep with them, we’re defended and saved by them, coddled by them and etcetera etcetera. These all-powerful, pale faced walking undead turn people into minions to do their bidding, and at times even turn a few orgasms. They are, similarly to the way terrorists have been covered in the media, killers that without reason kill with animalistic accuracy. We know that terrorists walk into public buildings, where we are most defenseless and use their last act in life to kill others. We are told they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be talked, dealt with or negotiated with so instead we talk to the vampires. We have no idea who they’ve been, before being a terrorist and being a terrorist is their only identity. Unlike the Cold War we even lack the language of defections or asylums for these people and what language we do have to describe them as cryptly “underground cells” and “safe houses” or being “activated” is all Bram Stokers’ work. So instead of being informed, we instead watch the terrorists on the big and small screens. We attain some semblance of peace getting to watch True Blood, or the Twilight series, that someone, even someone as annoying as the female lead in Twilight, can communicate with a vampire and that she can be defended against other vampers at the same time. A therapist would tell you, and my educational background is in equal parts writing and counseling, that if you want to truly come to peace you need to deal with what’s real. America, you need to deal, for real.

So now we have closed a chapter of our war on terror with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and even before President Obama got to pivot off his birth certificate the media was asking for Bin Laden’s. I am going to suggest something quite central to the theme of this essay: we are tired of presuppositions that lead to nothing. The man is dead but it does not make it any easier for us to understand why we continue to spend billions of dollars destroying and then rebuilding a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and billions of dollars rebuilding a country that did. We are tired of our basic needs being alienated in all facets of communication in society. I believe that there is a groundswell of change afoot in this country and that art, true art that speaks truth to power must be part of that change.

Let’s return to literary journals, since I am an editor of a journal and this essay is appearing in such a journal. Literary journals are some of the basic arbiters of art; we lay in the bottom of this hierarchy. Some may call this position the gutter. I like to call it the grassroots. For the purposes of this essay let’s settle on something in between, perhaps the back alley. This back alley world of a literary marketplace is where writers are for the most part snidely turned away from the “great literary party” that is happening on the other side of the media curtain. I think most of us think of editorial boards of literary journals as the dickish bouncers that get to turn masses of people away without ever giving a reason. Those that are picked, the stories that are the most elegant, flashy, cocky, good looking; the red carpet is rolled out, the paparazzi glitzes them pop, popping their lights and the door opens, the string instruments playing and finally the door begins to close as a stripped down lady holds the round card above her head, her presence a statement that one round has finished and the next yet to come. The problem that I always have had with this system is that I believe it willfully ignores everyone who is turned away in such a stalwart, alienating fashion that it makes me question the entire purpose of the arts.

I see the work that we do at Our Stories in a way like grassroots organizing. I believe there is power in providing feedback to everyone who comes to us with their story and giving them some honest feedback about their work. I believe the reason for rejecting a manuscript at other literary journals is clear 100% of the time in the mind of the person who is sending the rejection. Why literary journals prefer silence than to assist a writer in even the briefest one sentence way, “Your first page had too many spelling errors,” or “Didn’t go anywhere.”

It continues to baffle me how some literary journals get away with on one hand being held up as the great arbiters of culture while on the other hand ripping off so many people off with such a brazenly arrogant business model. If any other for profit business took a contest fee that had no guidelines for what they would receive for that fee, no odds at winning and no disclaimer about how many people would actually be published from those open submissions to the contest then the business would be thought of as no better than a Nigerian scam. The police would be called in, an investigation perhaps. Something would occur, I mean, come on, even the lotto has to publish their million to one odds, right? What sort of masochists are we artists, who adore these scammers and hold them up to everyone we know as great leaders in the literary world, sending them a check in the mail in exchange for getting the finger every time we send them a story?

I had a talk with Dana Gioia the other day, the literary critic and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, he’s a firebrand of his own sort and I deeply admire his work. I wrote him asking for advice regarding Our Stories, as to what direction he thought we should go, because honestly, it is a hard lonely thing running a literary journal that gives feedback to every submission they receive. For those of you who don’t know Gioia he wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” almost a decade ago that made big waves and it still strikes me as relevant to understanding the world of arts today. In it he wrote: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.” How poetry became such a subclass Gioia spends a great deal of time discussing the decline of poetry in the general public, the discontinuation of poetry in newspapers for example but to me his greatest point comes in his corollary that at the same time that there is a rise of poetry programs and the MFA that there is a dearth of poetry read by the everyday man. He postulates, quite accurately I believe, that poetry became the stuff of academic departmental suites, divorced from the every day work. “Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia.” I fear the literary work of the short story, ie the “art story” is rapidly following in the same footsteps of its cousins across the halls of MFA programs. His advice, in sum, about Our Stories was to keep going, keep fighting and expand if possible. I intend to follow that advice and this essay is part of that literary expansion. There will be other ventures coming soon from Our Stories including contests for first book prizes and perhaps—just perhaps—a new virtual wing at Our Stories that reviews poetry.

I believe and still believe that when those with abilities are able to help those with the greatest needs in doing so we make a better society. This is why I founded Our Stories, that there exists a portion of writers in the world for whom the options of feedback and MFA programs are out of reach. It is up to the graduates of MFA programs to help future storytellers, future writers to get it right. All we’re doing at Our Stories is letting you hear our trained thoughts on a matter.

We do not come to this work with deep pockets or the notion that we will retire early from these labors. I have watched many socially motivated organizations with big endowments fail. I have seen corporations throw money around trying to fix schools or businesspeople try to run socially minded organizations with a neutered accountant’s zeal. I abhor the false logic of trickle down economics just as I abhor waste, abuse and corruption in systems where their intents are to support every part of society. Yet, I am not a socialist, far from it.

I believe in the system of laws and want to set out this philosophy separately from the philosophy of organized chaos or anarchy in society. I believe we are capable of taking care of one another but that not all government is a bad thing. I am a contemporary writer and thinker, there is nothing wrong with wanting to solve say, for example the health care problem on a nationwide scale; we are capable to do it without reverting to plots, sub-plots or delusional subversions. People have abilities and others have needs. I do not believe in large-scale revolutionary change, I believe that different methodologies are to be used on micro levels in tandem. I believe a mix of socio-political philosophies are required to address different problems in society—that we are complex thinkers and America is a complex country and that an all or nothing approach in every situation is counterintuitive.

In my opinion, our literary world, since this is where I hang my hat six days a week, is failing and no one really cares that the emperor has no clothes. We need to do something about it and all of us need to chip in.

I believe systems such as EditRed and Zoetrope where a large-scale flat system of mentor/writer/mentor can only take one so far. For those unfamiliar with these systems of literary review, by submitting one manuscript for review on their sites you must “engage” and do reviews of someone else’s work. Not only do I see this as ripe for internal abuse (having participated in Zoetrope I found many of the reviews to be unhelpful) but this also brings about the critical literary question: whose reviews are worth a damn? What, my friends, makes a good literary reviewer of work? In these sorts of ventures, like EditRed and Zoetrope the arbiter of work, who has no credentials or understanding of how to give feedback can be quickly reduced to a cheerleader. The failure of these sites is that if you receive a “good” review, where does that take you? So what, a nice guy from Topeka dug your poem? Does he work for a literary journal? How does he know what gets published? Even if they “like” your stuff they might not be able to help your manuscript get into print. This is, in my opinion, why having an MFA is the basic form of literary credentials to do what we do. Now not everyone can get an MFA, it’s extremely hard to get into, costs a lot of money to do and the options after graduating and making a career of this is daunting. However, with that said—there are lots of MFA grads out there that have experience and talent to help your work.

Next, I reject huge grab bag classes of creative writing that insist that as long as a student submits a story and the rest of their online class says, “great work” that progress is being made. Again, I believe people have abilities and others have needs. We can bring MFA graduates who dream of teaching creative writing to small groups of emerging writers and work cooperatively at a fair wage. Writing is hard but developing skills at being a great reviewer of your own work is even harder. I don’t believe Hemingway was just being an ass when he said the best tool for a writer to have is an automatic shit detector. To me the only credentialed degree to get that shit detector is the MFA.

Okay, now I hear what you’re going to ask next, “Just because someone has an MFA or just because they work at a literary journal does that mean their criticisms are valid?” Well yes and no. Yes, the MFA is a place where these skills can be developed but not everyone develops those skills during their MFA. The ability to review manuscripts should be something beyond just affirmations. There is a craft to reviewing manuscripts, and not everyone who has the MFA degree is imparted with this knowledge. I believe that literary journal staffs have an edge on their colleagues who are solely credentialed with a degree, because in order to reject a manuscript they have to, or rather they should, always have the knowledge as to how why they are rejecting a manuscript. A good reviewer at a literary journal very quickly is able to read first couple of the pages of the story and see something that causes them to cringe. In fact, 99% of the time this is the case even for stories that we have accepted. On the other hand, at your basic MFA program there is likely scant attention paid to the craft of reviewing stories and giving feedback. I was lucky, I was taught to do so as an undergraduate (this is how I got to be friends with Josh Campbell) and I had a group of core friends in my MFA program who were obsessively kind in reviewing each other’s manuscripts (this is how I got to be friends with Kendra Tuthil.) I did not receive any lectures on providing feedback in graduate school unfortunately, and I have not heard of an MFA program that makes this a pedagogical cornerstone of their program. I personally run all potential staff members through a series of trials to determine whether they have the skills to join our crew. Not everyone learns these skills in MFA programs but everyone on our staff has them.

To come to a fine point, I believe the best combination of literary review that you can receive on your manuscripts is as follows: 1) they should have an MFA (MA in creative writing, PhD, etc.) 2) they have been a “decider” in the field of the literary arts. And 3) they should have the verbal and written skills to accurately relay what their thoughts are on improving your manuscript. And 4) they should do no harm to you as a writer personally or professionally. I believe this is what you should be looking for when you want your work reviewed.

Our Stories has not offered “class style” workshops yet--that is--until now. We are going to be offering a new sort of workshop, a regional workshop where 5-7 students (first come, first served) will work with an instructor. I will be teaching in Saint Louis. Steven Ramirez will be teaching in Chicago. MK Hall will be teaching in New York City. We will be teaching for 10 weeks from July until October and then we’ll be starting more workshops after that. I’ll hire more staff to do so. We will for the first time venture into a literary marketplace where students are to share their opinions of a stranger’s writing. However, there’s a catch—the Our Stories instructor will be giving the student feedback on their craft of giving feedback. The regional workshop is our iPad. It bridges the gap between the traditional MFA workshop that you can spend tens of thousands of dollars receiving and the one-on-one online workshops that we already offer. It is built upon the combination of editorial review at a literary journal, the careful critique of those educated by some of the best programs in the country and those committed to train you in the craft of feedback and literary review. In short, it is the way I’ve always thought the craft of creative writing should be taught.

In conclusion, there is a credo known in the industry by good-natured folks as “Yob’s Law” which essentially is all about the idea that money should flow to the “writer”. It rejects the notion that stories should be accompanied by submission fees to be published and it rejects the concept of contests and such. While we do charge fees for our contests we believe we are in line with Yob’s law that ensures that money flows towards writers or in exchange for money a service of a review. In addition, we ensure that money flows to the staff of our literary journal, the often overworked, underpaid staff earns money for their abilities and by filling someone’s needs. Finally, I sleep easy knowing that I do not sell the dream of getting published but that my staff gives honest assessments to 100% of everyone we don’t publish. I also pay my staff a fair wage for the work that they do. This is (if you will allow me) Santí’s Law: the literary marketplace should equally support art and the future development of art in a grassroots model which brings qualified and learned opinions and support to those that need it the most. We do this at the same time as not exploiting labor so that the management of art remains humble and true to good works.

This is what Our Stories is all about and this summarizes what I believe is my philosophy of what I built over the years with the incredible help from my staff. I know. I know. I take myself too seriously. I take Our Stories seriously. But isn’t it about time we started taking something seriously? Thanks for your time. We’re not going anywhere, check us out.

Thank you.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Umlauts and their friends

Jakob Johann von Uexküll was one of our greatest biosemioticians. With a name like that, you’d probably end up a biosemiotician too. His son Thure did, a chip off the old block he was, and he wore his kull umlaut with pride. Something happened with the third generation, however, a family rift in miniature, it appears: Jakob von Uexküll’s grandson and namesake seems to have lost his umlaut. Where did it go? We know that he studied at Oxford — was it stolen there? Did Jakobjuniorheimerschmidt (his name is my name too) lose it at a boat race? What happened?

Well luckily Jakob is currentlly rumoured to live in London, my own place of residence, so all I would have to do is pay him a visit and ask him, straight-forward like, ‘Where’s your dots?’ Why, I could go this very day. Unfortunately, I know neither where he lives nor where he works, and even if I did, I am very shy, and would most likely be unable to sum up the courage. So I will just guess, and Jakob, if you’re out there, write me a note, will you, and tell me whether I’m close here.

I love a good umlaut myself, particularly over a ‘u’, its natural mate. Looks like eyes and a nose, doesn’t it? Surely you don’t think that passed the Germans by, do you? I also like the sound it requires you to make: ‘euh’, approximately. Fitting, isn’t it, that this is pretty much how you would expect a person to pronounce EU? I’m just typing aloud here, people.

Apparently the ‘diacritical mark’ for umlaut proper is known as a ‘trema’, but really, who gives a toss about that, except for the fact that it could also be a slangy word for an earthquake — but they don’t really have earthquakes in Germany, do they? So let’s move on (except to add that the word ‘trema’ comes from the Greek for ‘orifice’. Creepy, right? I mean, so an umlaut is a symbol for a double orifice. I don’t think we’re talking about nostrils here, and if it’s eyes they’re on about, then you can forget it. My eyes are not holes, not yet anyway, and I’d like to keep it just like that, lest we forget what ‘vowel’ rhymes with.).

Perhaps Jakob the Younger was won over to the side of the diphthongs. He’s a writer, you know. And there is a familial parallel between these two stories, you realize. In a distant age, all vowels were one vowel, and all manner of things was well in the land of light. But there was a terrible rift the details of which history will not release from its grasp, and they split into five (and sometimes a mystical sixth), eventually becoming English. The vowels in this new language were sometimes wedded, and became known as diphtongs, but never again would they know the Edenic unity of their unknown, shared past. Meanwhile, back in Germanic lands, the vowels grew wary and suspicious, and some began to don a pair of eyes in order to keep watch over their new enemies.

I’m winded now with the effort of regaling you with the sad tale of the broken vowels. Jakob, get back to me when you have a moment.

[From the bowels of Knits a stinK.]

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Recommended Reading: Tim Bascom "Community College" ~ Witness

Appearing at Witness, Tim Bascom's "Community College" is a brilliant, funny, moving piece of nonfiction. The narrative voice is mostly objective while at times almost exasperated and sarcastic but thoroughly feeling and human throughout. The story unfolds through a sort of role call for class attendance. The narrator tells us who hasn't come from the class, who has come, and meanwhile readers are treated to a very original, gripping read and wonderfully vivid, fleshed out character. Check it out.

Recommended Reading: Richard Froude "The Girl Who Fell Through the Ice" ~ Witness

Richard Froude's "The Girl Who Fell Through the Ice" also appears in Witness and tells, in passages of vivid moments and experiences, a timeline of its narrator. The structure of the piece is fractured by white space and time but made coherent through connecting imagery and metaphor patterns. It explains the writer's imagination and growth and suicidal thoughts, and ends with an affirmation of storytelling. Highly recommended.



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正义

Ash Dogs, a novel

Friday, May 6, 2011

On the Benefits of Harsh Criticism and Tough Love: One Writer's Path Toward Recovery

By Kendra Tuthill

Let’s start here: there are no benefits.

I am a recovering writer. There, I’ve said it.

On my 21st birthday, I read Catcher in the Rye. I had run away from home and skipped out on school, so this was my first exposure to Salinger. Naturally, like most teenagers, although I wasn’t one anymore, the book astounded me, but not for its literary importance. It blew me away because suddenly I felt, “I can do this!” I started writing my first novel that day. A few months later, I brought it to Bob, a writing instructor from the community college I attended four years earlier.

Though I’m sure he doesn’t recall it, when I was eighteen, I submitted my first short story to his Creative Writing course. It was an end-of-civilization piece called “I Feel Fine,” about a young man named Paul who had a sort-of life-mentor named Louis. In the story, Paul has a dream about the planet as a living, breathing thing and he watches as it’s covered with pavement. Soon, he finds himself inside this gigantic ball that he simply cannot breathe without, only to find that it, too, is being paved over. He’s suffocating. He wakes from the dream. He’s in a corn field. He runs back to Louis, tells him of the dream. Paul is crying; he feels he’s realized the true end to life on planet Earth and needs to stop it from happening. He asks for advice and the advice given: write a story about it.

Okay, it was a cheesy ending, but it was my first story, ever. My instructor had a very neat way of running his workshops and I still feel to this day that he’s come up with the most beneficial structure out there, although it has some natural and unavoidable flaws. Each student submits a piece at his own will, when he’s ready to submit it. Then Bob makes copies, taking off the names of the writers, turns these into a fat book and each reader gets a copy. During the class critique, no one knows who wrote it. So, as the writer, you cannot convince yourself that the harsh criticism or even the amazing praise you receive is a result of your awful or absolutely winning personality.

Well-aware that the authors are anonymous to us, but not to the instructor, as Bob begins the critique we have the tendency to see it his way. We love the teacher, yearn for his approval. We want to be agreeable little writing disciples. Suddenly the poem we read last night and didn’t get seems not so bad after all. Or we realize that the story we read and thought was so fucking awesome really does have a lot of flaws in it.

As I said, that was the first story I had ever completed. I had written it and re-written it several times before handing it in. I was eighteen years old.

And this story was ripped apart. The critique was a horror show. I wasn’t given useful information as to how to become a better writer, or how to make it a better story. If I was, I certainly couldn’t hear it. Instead, through tone of voice, and intentional mis-readings of the work, all I could understand was that I had no business writing at all, that I was stupid, even, for tarnishing the community college literati with my dumb ideas and lack of skills.

I held my breath, my face hot from embarrassment and left crying. It wasn’t just the story that was torn, but my entire idea of the future had been ripped from my grip. I didn’t have any amazing drawing skills, never felt myself to be particularly good at anything other than daydreaming and thinking. I grew up in a family that had some money, although they were rather conservative about that fact, but it was blood money as far as I was concerned –Daddy War-Bucks money. (My father is in the business of engineering smart bombs –an oxymoron, in my mind.) So, I wasn’t going to follow in his footsteps. As a child, I wanted to be a singer. Music was the only thing I really cared about. I had a tape-recorder I seem to remember carrying with me everywhere. I recorded myself singing so I could learn to be better at it. I pushed it against the television speakers to record songs from MTV and my favorite film at the time, Grease II, so I could memorize the songs and sing along. I made mixed tapes. I could listen to the radio all day long and be completely happy –singing in the kitchen or the car. Every song that came on, I knew the lyrics to and could recognize within a note. Apparently, I had the habit at the beginning of each one to scream out, “Oh, this is my favorite song! Turn it up!” “Every song is your favorite,” my mother told me. Anything I did, I could do it happily so long as I did it singing. I wrote songs on my Casio keyboard (the best birthday gift ever). In school, for career day I dressed the way I thought rock stars dressed. My favorite question to answer was, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” My family and I would go on long trips up to New York or Michigan and sitting in the backseat, it was impossible to bore myself. First, I had my walkman, of course, that I sang along with, of course. But when my mother would tell me to stop, finally, I would pick a subject to think about and run with the daydream for the next six hours. When it wasn’t, “What would I bring if I could only bring one thing to a deserted island?” (a walkman, obviously) it was, “What will life be like when I’m a rock star?”

At the age of ten, my mother sat me down for a serious talk. I couldn’t “carry a tune with a wheel barrow,” she said, and that I had to quit it, just quit thinking about it, talking about it, singing about it. She couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to get serious. I had to think of other careers.

I remember bursting into tears and running outside, then, too. I don’t know where I planned on going, but I just wanted to run. Instead, my brother caught me as I raced across the yard. “Mom said I’m not allowed to be a rock star!” I cried out, punching at his chest to let me go. He said he agreed with my mother. Remember when he gave up playing the drums? When you get older, you just have to.

Crushed is barely the word for it. In her tough love, her harsh criticism, she ripped the world from me, literally disallowed me to sing in the kitchen anymore, along with other musical activities I loved to do. And the dream went through a horrendously long abortion. It was a dream that didn’t want to let go, that wanted to dream itself into existence, but was now met with major resistance –not just my mother, but now my own self-criticism. What I had learned, really, was that I had no business singing. I simply was not one of the greats. I was not special enough.

My mother told me that being able to sing was a gift, and it was a gift that God had not given me. From there, the only thing she ever said I was good at was writing.

Since then, I have only tried singing in front of an audience once. Tried. Key word. I couldn’t make it through the song. My knees shook until I had to be given a chair to sit in. I propped my foot on another chair and my guitar in my lap. I was so nervous, so sure that I could not sing, that I kicked the chair over and off the stage. And I haven’t tried since.

According to my mother I was very “bright,” and a “good little writer.” It’s no wonder to me at all why I chose to write. Had she told me I was a “good little singer,” a good big singer is what I might be today.

So, after Bob’s class, I could not think of myself as a writer anymore. I remember thinking over and over –“You were wrong, Mom! I am not a good writer! I was not given the gift.” And now what the hell was I supposed to do? Other than obsessing over music, I spent my youth writing. I just never wanted to be a writer. Seemed boring to me. Since the age of seven, I had written in diaries, nearly every day and, most likely, about how I was going to be a famous singer one day. (Damn, I would love to see those now.)

I didn’t just leave class crying. I left the college all together. Hell, I left the state. I wrote in a journal each day as was my habit, but the writing dream, which had replaced the singing dream (because I felt it had been more practical and actually kind of fun) was gone –until that Catcher in the Rye moment.

Of course, I had absolutely no concept that this book took Salinger ten years to write just to make Holden sound incredibly immature, so the idea that, “hey, I could do that,” is wonderfully funny to me now. But, I finally returned to Virginia, to Bob’s class, with my new novel in hand, to see if maybe now, maybe now he would see I had that gift. Maybe he accidentally overlooked it before?

I gave it to him. That night, I wrote him an email asking for it back. He refused. We wrote back and forth until two in the morning. I begged him not to read it, not to show it to the class. They were going to laugh at me, pick me apart. He continued to refuse, as he wrote, because he had already read it and it was great work.

Ah, man! The fear, the excitement! The approval I had always wanted! For the next four years, I barely slept four hours a night. I was going to be a writer! A real writer! I seemed to get praise everywhere I went. I read every book on writing I could find. I studied the classics. It’s like I was on speed, really. I learned what was good writing and what was bad writing (and with time, was the first to point out the difference). In my writing classes, I now served as the second teacher, my teacher’s right-hand-writer. I started a ‘zine –it was actually widely read, and a website forum on writing. I studied grammar. I critiqued stories. Friends asked me, me, for references for some job they wanted, some university they wanted to get into, some competition they wanted to win. My stories made people cry and laugh. Ryan Adams read one and told me he wanted to read more, wanted it to be a novel! A tv show producer wanted my stories. I was invited to a dinner with Beth Henley. I was introduced to Toni Morrison. I wrote two more novels. I won awards. I wrote, directed and produced a film. I wrote plays that won competitions. I got a scholarship! I graduated with Honors and was admitted to the George Mason MFA program. Hell fucking yeah!

I had some successes. Despite the list above, I would not allow myself to believe that even one of those successes was truly great. The truth of the matter was that I still believed I didn’t have the gift, but through hard work, I had skirted around God’s laws of bestowment. I was like the Olympic swimmer born without legs. Maybe I would have to work five times as hard, but if Bob said I could do it, then hell, I could do it and I would. Because I carried this perspective with me, not one success sent me over that edge into thinking I was hot shit. Underneath it all, I still held onto this idea that the ability to write was a gift and I was not gifted. The truth of the matter was that I had fooled everybody into thinking I was good at this. For example, I wrote four novels, but for fear of being rejected, none of them was sent to agents or publishers. My film was ambitious (and the first one I had ever made in my life) and the only film festival review of it was pretty awful to tell you the truth. The awards, well, now –how many people really entered those contests –really? Ten? Twenty? And the MFA program, well, I mean, didn’t the professors already know me? So what if only fourteen students a year are accepted out of the four hundred applicants. The professors knew me. They showed preferential treatment.

In long, self-destructive bouts, I erroneously convinced myself of all of the above.

Bob has a brother, a twin brother. Not metaphorically, for real. While I am dying to give you his name, I won’t. Whether he deserves to be exposed as a critic and not an artist, I’m not sure. For all I know, he too has since made his way down the recovery path. I don’t want to be unfair, despite the unfairness I experienced.

Here is a summary of my experience in the MFA program. In one class, I was told that writing could not be taught, that it could only be intuited. I thought to myself, quite angrily, “then fucking intuit how to teach the class,” and “what the hell am I paying ten grand a year for then?” In another class, where I met Alexis, I tore apart a piece of his writing so horrifically he has told me he could barely write an email after my critique. The next semester, I took a novel writing class. Despite my harsh criticisms of other writers’ grammar or story development, I still, as mentioned, did not think of myself as a great writer. I never did, never have. What had happened is that I had become nervous. I had taught myself how to fix stories, how to critique them and in the process had scared myself out of actually writing them. Hell, I could find a flaw in anything! Give me Hemingway. Give me Toni Morrison. I don’t care who –I will find a typo. I will find a mistake. You can only imagine, on the inside, what I was doing to myself. Even so, accidentally, and without my awareness, I had given a certain professor, the one whose name I am not mentioning, the impression that I thought I was amaaaaazing.

And one day, he aimed to prove me wrong. (After seven years of contemplation, this is the only excuse I have for him.)

The novel was called So Long, Jefferson Carl Moody. It was a truly complicated piece for me to write. The writing of it involved a good deal of research, and it was written in an omniscient POV, something I had never tried to do until then. In the story, there’s a twelve-year-old girl who finds herself outside a New York City subway station only to take a walk in an uncertain direction and end up at a carnival. From there, she works with the carnies, turns into a con artist, travels all around the country, and becomes a “slave” to a woman named Hag who she believes is her mother…until three years later when she sees her face on a milk carton. She realizes she has been living someone else’s life, not hers. In fact, she had been missing all those years. In the crowd of the subway station, she had lost her mother and her memory. Greatly influenced by the works of Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison and TC Boyle, it was a colorful, adventurous piece about broken identities, about realities replacing one another and delusions we hold in order to protect ourselves from the truth. I had nervously re-written that first fifty-page chapter seventeen times from beginning to end. In the class, we were allowed to hand in up to fifty pages. Shaking, unsure, I handed it in and waited two weeks for my class critique.

Fifty pages of shit? Fifty pages of this fucking shit,” my professor said, as he walked into the room. He threw (quite literally) my novel on the table, the pages flittering about, as if he didn’t want to even touch it. Then he opened it up, read out random lines mocking them with a childish tone. He said, “we don’t write children’s books.” (It was clearly not a children’s book –but even if it had been, who the hell is “we?”) He said that “Toni Morrison is a fad,” that “post-modernism is post-sensical.” “And what about this?” he would begin again, ripping apart another section, sometimes hitting the page with the back of his hand in disgust. Alexis, I remember, pointed out a paragraph he liked –the only student willing to speak up, and our professor’s response was, “Yeah, well, but still. It’s not bad, but…” and he went on to prove to us (as he set out to do), that I had no business writing books.

The paragraph above took maybe a minute to read. The critique lasted maybe an hour. The…okay, I’ll say it…trauma, lasted nearly seven years. Just as Alexis had trouble writing an email because of my criticism, I had months to prepare for my best friend’s wedding speech and when the time came, I could not get out a single sentence. Everything I wrote was stupid. It was shit. I was so fucking stupid for ever thinking I could be a writer. I quit the MFA program, and left for another state. Now, I couldn’t even write a journal entry, not even one that would never be seen by anyone but me. I’m trying to interview T.C. Boyle and Laurie Anderson and nothing comes out right. My father said to me one day, “Isn’t it about time you gave up this writing thing?”

For the first two years after that fateful critique, every morning I woke jumping out of bed with my hands to my head –fifty pages of shit? Fifty pages of this fucking shit? I had to go to a doctor to get rid of the nightmares. I couldn’t hold it together. I’d lie on the floor of my Portland studio apartment with a knife in my hand recruiting the guts to stab it through my chest.

Not knowing what else to do with myself, I got into another MA program for fiction writing and decided I would go –but I wouldn’t listen, just go to the classes, get the degree, and don’t listen. I was afraid it would kill me. One class was a novel-writing class where I know for a fact that I received a good deal of praise –I know it intellectually, I have red-ink evidence, but what did it matter? I wasn’t listening. I involved myself in theatre, simply because if I failed at it, I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to be a playwright. After I received my degree, I gave up writing completely in order to become a trucker.

I had some things to think about.

For example, the difference between an artist and a critic, a subject brought up to me by my former roommate and now a published novelist, Vanessa Veselka (Zazen. Red Lemonade). The critic, she would tell me, is just a “scared artist.” When we lived together, I had such a fear that she would sniff me out –that I no longer knew how to be an artist –I was just a scared one, a critic. The only thing I was good at anymore was finding mistakes. And I was so terrified of making mistakes that I could no longer write.

In order to be on this path of recovery, I have had to forget everything. Forget that I wanted to write. Forget how to spell ellipses (spellchecker did that one for me). I had to allow myself to write emails and press send without editing them first. I’ve had to give myself permission to fill this blog with wases and bes and thats and hads and woulds and plenty of adverbs. I had to be okay with giving new friends the impression that I couldn’t put a sentence together. One new friend, before I began this path to recovery even once called me, “you know, sort of slow.” (I laugh at that now. Slow, not exactly. Timid, definitely.) I had to let writers talk to me as if I had no idea how to write, had never written a story in my life, had never been in an MFA program for that very thing. I even had to re-learn how to speak. So afraid I had been that I would use a word incorrectly or form a grammatically incorrect sentence that, over the years, I developed stage fright, even in the company of just a single person. I watched “bad” movies, wrote novels in my head –full novels, that I would never write. I dreamt up another life for myself, one with babies and marriage and a house made out of found objects. If someone asked me what I did, I never answered, “I’m a writer.” No, I was a “trucker.” After awhile, I realized that I was holding a secret, a secret that ballooned inside me. All the guys at the terminal and the truck stops, they all thought I was a trucker. They really believed me! But I was an imposter. The truth: I was a writer pretending to be a trucker.

But, finally, I was not a critic pretending to be a writer.

And pretending to be a dumb-witted truck driver was one of the best things I could ever do for myself. I didn’t put pen to paper for a full year. I only read kids’ books. As a reader for Our Stories, for the first time ever the most important question I asked myself about a piece was, “Yeah, but was it interesting? Was it passionate? Moving? Did it flow?” Spelling, grammar, omitting the wases, the writer will figure out. Writing is risky. Did the writer take the risk or hold back?

Susan Shreve, the professor who said, “Writing cannot be taught,” and that it could only be intuited, was half-right. (If I had listened, I would be 30,000 dollars richer right now.) However, after being involved in this art form for fourteen years, I can tell you that to be a writer or a singer, a painter, a filmmaker –whatever you want to be, does not require some heavenly gift bestowed to some and not to others. Writing can be taught. It’s taught in the form of rules and guidelines and, too often, in the form of “this shows good taste in literature, and that, bad taste.”

What cannot be taught are fearlessness and passion. Fearlessness and passion drive the intuition. Without them, your stories careen off the page. If you want to write, all you need to have is the desire and a pen and the ability to dream. To write is to dream, is to know how to have fun. If you write to impress, you may just do so, but in the process you lose the dream. By dream, I don’t mean your goal to be rich and famous for doing something you love to do. By dream, I mean “the imagination,” that expansive space where anything can happen, where stories and paintings take root. The imagination will be replaced with the fear of seeming stupid and childish –but the imagination is childish. When you decide to write to impress or to avoid criticism, and not to have fun, one day you’ll find you have run out of “good” ideas. You’ve stopped trusting your passion and have started to write with your intellect. You have become so critical that you have killed your babies before they’ve had the chance to be born. You become afraid of being silly, of tarnishing that serious and all-so-important world with your art, and for that reason your amazing, blow-you-away work will never see the light of day.

I no longer want to be a serious artist. I am proud to say that the idea of being a serious artist bores the hell out of me. To be a serious artist is to replace the fun –the fun you had singing in the kitchen or building a fort or putting on a play for your neighbors – with a degree or a review or a paycheck that says you can do something that you know, quite clearly, you most certainly cannot do anymore.

Make the art first. Do the work afterwards. And, for crying out loud, when you’re done, send it off and let others relive the joyful experience you had creating it.

As Julia Cameron says in her book (which greatly inspired this blog), The Artist’s Way, being a recovering artist is much like being a recovering alcoholic. Going to the bar with all your old bar-friends only results in relapse. They’ll tell you that you’re wrong for being silly and fun and not critiquing yourself and others to death. Their perspectives will hold certain gravity, as you’ve held them yourself for so long. It’s familiar and easy and, ultimately, self-destructive. While recovering, you must protect yourself. Stay away from the workshops until you can definitively say, “I’ve come here for another perspective on the work itself, not to find out whether I am truly cut out to be a writer.” If you go to the bar or the workshop or the coffee shop too early, their tactics of trying-to-convince-you-to-stop-following-a-dream-because-they-have may actually convince you. In this case, the alcoholics represent the critics, those who will, as Cameron writes, sit you down and give you well-meaning, practical advice on why you shouldn’t have fun, why you shouldn’t sing or write or paint. They’ll hand their fears on to you in the form of –“you know, getting published is highly unlikely,” and “you’ll never make money at it,” and “no one will listen to you unless you have an MFA or an agent.” You may be tempted to believe them. For this reason, I have recently chosen to stay away from other critics posing as artists. They no longer love to write, they only long to be known as great writers. They don’t want to write novels, they want to have written novels. I won’t even go near a coffee shop if I risk the chance of an acquaintance asking, “so, what’r ya workin’ on?”

As my friend Vanessa says, I’ll only share my work with people who like to read.

I’ve taken off a month in order to dream. The dream is a secret that comes in the form of a film script, a novel and a children’s book. I’ve told no one this until now. The script seemed to finish itself in a matter of one week. I’m sloughing off the title “writer,” as it seems to invite reckless criticism. Keeping the art secret, it grows. It is a sensitive thing in its fetal state. But while not being exposed to light, it seems to expand and I have found - for once in a very, very long time, that writing is a fucking blast.

I am a trucker with a big imagination, and that’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s it.

Thinking this way, well, it takes the edge off.

One day, I may even be able to sing.

Interview with Alexis E. Santi ~ Editor in Chief and Founder of Our Stories

Alexis E. Santi earned his MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Fiction where he smoked cheap cigarettes with Richard Bausch and listened intently to everything Alan Cheuse uttered. In 2005, he founded Our Stories because of his commitment to helping emerging writers find not only a home for their work but to legitimize the work of countless others who feel that their work would be otherwise ignored. Since graduating from Mason his own work has been published inWord Riot, In Posse Review, Dark Sky Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, Cubista Magazine, Revista 22 and The Plum Ruby Review and a few other places here and there. He has masthead credits for over a dozen newspapers, newsletters and other publications. Previous to founding Our Stories, he served on the boards of Phoebe, So to Speak, United and THEL. In 2006 he was one of two Americans awarded the Romanian Cultural Institute's translation grant and lived in a castle for three months.

More can be found at www.alexissanti.com

Here is an interview with Alexis. Enjoy! ...

Q: Could you share something about your writing process? When is a draft, if ever, "done"?

My own process of writing entails usually a quick fast draft that came on in a rush of inspiration. It has actually been a long time since I worked on a new draft of a short story but that's how it occurs. It's similar to my process of writing poetry, whereas the piece was inspired or naturally evolves. The process of revision is another ball of wax entirely. I usually sit on a draft of a short story for a month or two and just let it sort of age properly in my mind. When I go back to revise the story I try to pretend that it is someone else's story entirely. That way I don't have to feel so attached to what I wrote. I ensure that the original is saved properly in a folder. I never overwrite my original drafts because I'm horribly paranoid about losing my material. I think a writer has to have a sort of obsessive self-interest that is hidden away inside of their work. While at the same time if something is lost then I write from the feeling of where my characters are in their draft. Writing from feeling is one of the many things I learned from my mentor Richard Bausch.

Working on novels is a completely different process. I tend to be much more methodical, planning ahead three or four chapters ahead of time and writing from a place where I'm in control to some extent of what is coming next. It isn't that I don't believe in first thought best thought it's just that in a novel when I write I'm deeply concerned about the revision process. The novel is a long hard war that takes the proper sort of provisioning. The first novel I wrote Song of the Midnight Rider required a complete revision over the past 24 months that took a lot out of me. You learn the hard way in novels; it's a hard brutal process. I'm in the middle of it now, working on novel number two. I want to say one more thing though; you should never, workshop a novel. I did this once when I was in grad school at Mason and that novel died by a thousand cuts from my peers and professors. Vonnegut said there are two types of novelists, bangers and peckers. The pecker does a few pages, revises those pages and rewrites as if the drafting process is an active process. I'm a banger. I hit a draft hard and then revise when I'm done.

To get to your question though, a draft is just a draft—the writing can always be different the only finality comes when you the writer decide to let it go never to return to it. Malamud used to have a draft he'd send to magazines, another draft would be sent when it would be accepted, another draft when it went into an anthology and another when another edition of the anthology came out.

Q: Having gone through hundreds of submissions over the years, could you say something what it is in a story that wows you into considering it for publication?

Gosh, that's a tough question. If you look at what we've published over the past six years you can see that the writing is strong and very different. To me, really, publication is an afterthought. Seriously. I know I'm an editor for a journal and I have to make decisions about what we publish but what separates us from other journals is not what we publish. I mean, I love everyone that I publish, I love all of those stories that you can see but to me what is that matters to me is the stories that we didn't publish.

I've talked about this a lot in other interviews or in my quarterly essays on the website and essentially what I believe is that the currently system of the literary journal market place is one based on 95-99% alienation and 1-5% satisfaction. So those stories that we've published over the years, they're the 5% of satisfaction or success that a writer feels. They pump their fist up high and say, I did it! Yes! And that's like totally cool but that seemingly ignores the fact that the entire rest of the race that just occurred. That's just the photofinish, right? I mean what about the other three hundred people that didn't make it to the finish line? What about those stories? Aren't they important? Don't they tell us something about those authors, don't they count for damn well something?

The goal of Our Stories has nothing to do with publication, in fact, the idea of creating a journal was REALLY an after thought in this venture. We began as a half baked idea for charge people money to edit their short stories, a concept that never got off the ground but only came about with the establishment of a good looking literary journal that promised to review every submission. I wanted to pass on the skills that I have developed in the past fifteen years of my life to writers who were circulating stories and just never knew how close they might be getting to the finish line. To respond from a place of trained and seasoned authority to help in some small way another draft come to light. That action honors the individual, it honors the artist and it helps further the craft of writing. The Buddhists say that to be in service to others is the greatest goal that a human being can have. At times in my life I have come to this service from a place of anger, foolishly raging against a system that I believe is inhumane and practices a sort of panzi scheme on their greatest admirers. As we are now crossing into our sixth year of actively running this humanistic literary submission system, I believe I am finally settling into a place where I hope only to be of service to others on some level and am letting go of my frustration. My only hope is that when a story comes to us that a writer realizes that we hope that they see a perhaps even greater benefit than getting published and that is ensuring that their draft was heard and that they have a chance at publishing it either with us or another journal in the future.

Q: Has Our Stories changed in ways you never could've anticipated when you first set out to give this unprecedented workshop service to the writing community?

Well, as I referred to earlier Our Stories itself was the afterthought. The idea was that we'd review your story and if there wasn't anything wrong with it we would consider it for publication at this sort of off shoot called Our Stories. The original name of the website was called Slush Stories but the original design of Our Stories journal was the same as it was. In fact, in our iPhone app the icon that we use was the original design of the journal. So that's the first thing that sticks out, at first I didn't know what I was doing.

The next thing that I didn't anticipate was that we'd start running workshops at Our Stories. I knew that we could edit drafts and pinpoint issues with a story but I didn't think we'd actually offer an online workshop, though it was very logical and seamless transition.

I think what has struck me though, through the years is that we haven't grown at the pace that I thought we would. Since there are no other journals like us that offer feedback to every submission that they receive I assumed that people would get it. That there'd be sort of a mass uprising of people out there saying, "You know what?! I send $25 dollars to other magazines and wait five months and all I get is a rejection!! Those guys at Our Stories have the right idea!!" But sadly, if I can just be really honest here, I haven't seen that sort of mass migration hit us. It has been very hard to ensure that we pay our staff and keep the lights on. We haven't solidified the connections between ourselves and other journals and only now today do I feel that we're getting some things right. For example, we're now showing people what they'll get with our OSTV features and using twitter and Facebook effectively. It's been a hard thing to manage the journal and be a marketing agent at the same time. I blame myself a lot in not getting Our Stories out there enough, in not stretching every single contact that we could. I just really hope the work load starts swinging the right way because I don't know how to keep running this journal, editing the stories that I can and keep up with my own editing, writing and personal life.

A huge surprise actually came recently. Ana Menendez, one of my favorite writers and one of the nicest human beings on the planet asked us to publish one of her short stories in this coming issue. It's a story about Jose Marti, the Cuban patriot and poet who is one of my idols—so this was like me getting to tick off two major life goals right at once, being solicited by a famous writer I love and getting to publish a story on a subject that I feel deeply about. Now, if I could just land that Mario Vargas Llosa interview I'd be set.

Oh, one more thing. The staff, you guys—you guys have surprised me. When I first started doing this six years ago I did it alone, in the dark with a few friends that I'd met at different parts of my life. All of my staff members I deeply respect, to the extent that I'm amazed at the work you've done, your willingness to chip in and fantastic work ethics. When you first started with us Justin I didn't know you from Adam and now I feel that you have become one of the clearest voices at Our Stories who has consistently risen to every challenge. Without all of you and I do mean all of you, Our Stories would have died a long time ago.

Q: What's next for you, your writing, and Our Stories?

Well, for Our Stories we just launched our iPhone application—please—download the app, it is free and please review it if you can. Next, we're going to start offering regional workshops where you work face-to-face with a group of students in your city. I'll be hosting workshops in Saint Louis twice a week and MM and MK will be in NYC and Steve and Want in Chi-town. We're hiring new staff members to begin offering workshops in other cities as well. I'm also bending a little bit on the OS Contest stuff, we're now taking contest submissions for general feedback at a reduced rate. So, like, right now there are two ways to submit to the contest: general feedback for $15 dollars an entry and $25 for page by page feedback. We will never EVER offer a contest where the writer does not receive feedback, if we violate that cardinal rule of Our Stories then you better believe I have lost my damn mind and all of you better start knocking my door and put me in a straight jacket.

As far as my own writing, well my first novel (the one I told you I'd been revising for 24 months) is now with six agents at the moment. My fingers are crossed but I'm trying not to get my hopes up. Getting an agent is VERY VERY hard to do, mostly because the market is so overly saturated with amazing writers and not enough cash to be moved around. Publishers are extremely picky these days and agents know that. That being said, I think there's an opening for Our Stories to well get into the publishing business. We just started offering novel workshops where we read the first 50 pages of your novel and then help you revise it. Considering that most agents will either only ask for the first 50 pages or stop reading after the first 50 pages we think this is a good thing. It is a logical next step that Our Stories will begin not only offering full manuscript reviews for a premium price but that Our Stories will begin publishing select titles of the literary short stories and novels. How we go about doing this has been of much debate in my mind but I know for sure that we will be launching some sort of first book competition this year and the winning manuscript will become an Our Stories title. There I go again, talking about my work takes me back to Our Stories. Sheesh.

Okay, in other news about my writing I am 130 pages into my second novel that is about a man who must return his father's body back to Cuba to bury. I still write poems for friends, essays and short stories. I have been horrible at circulating my own short stories and really need to get back on that. There's not enough time in every day and not sleeping doesn't sit well with me or my wife. Speaking of which, Leslie and I are going to Cambodia this summer for three weeks to do some research and documentary film work on the human trafficking situation in Cambodia. My wife is a musician, a brilliant piano player and songwriter whose work literally sends chills through me every time I hear her play. Her next album is all about the situation across the world where women are bought, sold and exploited. The songs she has written so far are deeply powerful and all money that is raised by the album will be going to an organization that combats these issues. It's one of those win-win-win situations that I believe helps set the world right.