How a Person Should be at a Reading, or Otherwise and in General

Hello, word workers!

We need to talk. We need to have the talk…


Nobody wants to talk about this with other writers, but the best form of communication is honesty. Writers, when you read your work to other people, make sure to make it good. I know, I know, this is the hardest part of writing, being asked to turn around and PERFORM it.

Awkward does not even cover it.

We toil in obscurity…

We do our best work alone…

We are the observers, not the observed…

How do you kill it?

Let me tell you a fact: I have been to many, many readings. I have been to big readings. I have been to small readings. I’ve been to readings in doughnut shops and I’ve been to readings on boats. I can count on one hand the number of awesome readings that I have gone to. They all have one thing in common, the reader/author acknowledges the audience.

Before I talk about what makes a good reading, lets talk about what makes a BAD reading, because we are all guilty of this so we should just be honest and get it out in the open:

1. You only look at the paper in front of you.

2. You mumble while you’re up there

(I’ve never really been able to understand what Dylan is talking about and for the longest time I thought it was me, turns out he just mumbles all the time.)

3. If you’re not mumbling, you’re talking too fast and can hardly understand yourself.

The more we do these things in combination with excessive sweating and standing in one position the entire time, the more awkward the audience will feel and the less they will listen to your words.

FYI, David Foster Wallace had a terrible sweating problem so he used to wear a bandana to readings and now the bandana is iconic. So, it helps to think practically about your sweat problem.

I know!

I really do know!

Public speaking is hard and hateful to someone used to being in the wings rather than in the spotlight.

I’m here to help you, and so are these guys:

From left to right; Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chuck Palahnuick. These guys know how to do it right. When I first started writing I went and saw Chuck read at a local venue in Eugene, OR that held a couple hundred people and it was full. Chuck came out, explained that he had gotten Mono by accidentally drinking from Quentin Tarantino’s water mug on The Late Show with Jay Leno. Even though he prefaced the whole performance with the fact that he had been sick, he still entertained us. The way he did it was very simple.

I usually start a reading with “Hello. How is everyone?” This allows you to break the ice and allows your audience, even if it is just your mom, the feeling that they are participating in the reading.

Anyway. Back to the secrets to a good reading.

Lidia here models one of the secrets: Wear a costume.

Lidia is in a swim suit because her book The Chronology of Water is about how she found herself, and one of the ways she does that is through swimming. As a member of the audience you are much more likely to pay attention if the author is in something out of the ordinary.

The next secret to a good reading: Party favors.

This is Chelsae Cain and her daughter passing out finger puppet monsters at a book signing. Chelsae does not necessarily need to do this since she is an author whose Heartsick series about Gretchen Lowell, a very nasty serial killer, is regularly in the NYT bestseller list. She gives away little baubles because her fans are important to her, and she remembers when she went on her first book tour and no one came to the readings.

Chuck really goes above and beyond when it comes to party favors:

Here is Chuck with an autographed blowup doll that he used to give away to people who asked him a question when he was touring with Choke, which is about a sex addict.

The added benefit of these party favors is that your audience will go home and blog about what a good time he or she had at your reading, as is the case with the lady with the autographed bloody stump.

Here is another tip: Practice your piece until you don’t have to look at a piece of paper.

If you do need to look at your work, make the font

this big so

that you barely have to glance down. This is a size


All of this is about audience participation. If people leave your reading having had a good time, they are more likely to remember what you said, buy your book, and talk about you on their blogs.

It’s all about creating an awesome atmosphere.

Last, but not least, think long and hard about how much liquid courage you need to make it through your reading. It is only very rarely  that people will remember your words and not your actions.

The trick to a good reading is to be as awesome as your words. If you realize that you have to get people to pay attention to you in this day and age, you will have a head start over other authors who don’t. It doesn’t have to be an awkward experience: it could, if you want, be pretty amazing.

I Am Cold

My mother moved in with me once icicles began to form like claws on my fingertips. She held my hand in her gloved palms and wept, the tears falling softly, moisture; wet, formless, lovely, freezing into tight ice with contact. Does it hurt? She had asked me, her eyes so full of motherly love that it should have been enough to warm me, but it wasn’t, nothing was. No, I told her. And I wasn’t lying, either. The cold killed most of my nerve sensors. Oh David, she said softly, still holding my icicle fingertips, like they were beautiful iridescent crystals, still crying her wet tears, rainwater into my icy hemisphere, oh David, David, David.

When the cold began, I hardly noticed it.

I am cold, I thought.

That’s how it started—a slight chill, a brief rising of arm hair, a tiny sensation running little feet up my back. I showed up to a summer night’s party in a grey cardigan, a spring cardigan, one might say. Light knit, low V-neck, breathable material that a decent breeze might even crawl through, but it was a very pleasant May night, no breeze. A comfortable seventy-five degrees, might even be considered cool for May in the desert of California. But when I left my apartment that day, I felt cold. It crept up my spine like a quick shock of electricity and settled right atop my shoulders, and I carried it there for the rest of the night.

I was cold, and then I met Abi. She was beautiful, standing there, alone, an exquisite wallflower in the corner of a very drone party, a very monotonous, warm-champagne-in-your-flute-glass type of party. I was walking towards the center of the room, where it was warmer, where the body heat inevitably finds itself in the eye of the human heat storm. I walked past her, intent on being warm, not even meaning to strike up a conversation. She looked so young, so fresh, a moist layer of sweat making her shine in her summer dress; fanning herself with a printed party plate, her bangs sticking slightly to  her forehead.

I like your sweater, she said. Her grandfather had one just like it, she used to wrap herself in it when she was a little girl, visiting him in his small house, reading books on his lap while he looked past her, watching reruns of Bonanza. The soft fabric of his sweater tickling her cheek, smelling vaguely of Vaseline, always draped over the arm of the couch before she went home that evening.

Bonanza, now that’s fun to say isn’t it? Kind of tickles your tongue, warms the tip of it if you say it fast enough.

We left the party together, me in my sweater, her in her bare arms, the moonlight reflecting off of her. On the way home, I put the heat on, just a little bit. But the windows were a little foggy, others driving home were probably doing the same thing and Abi only smiled.

By July, I was still chilly and still with Abi. Her hair used to wrap around me in bed like a scarf and I would dig my face into her neck, feel my hot breath trap beneath all that long dark hair, making my cheeks pink with perspiration. It was a lovely feeling, especially as that chill had stuck. My spine stung with a cold that kept going to my shoulders and began to reach down to my arms with icy tendrils, taking hold of me. Abi thought maybe it was a summer cold. She would wrap her long legs around me and her arms, smooth and soft and always smelling faintly of vanilla, would hold me tight into her chest, soft and beating beneath me with the heat rising from us.

As the summer continued, hot, hotter than it’s been in years, so hot the news anchors talked of records, I went around in a thermal shirt and thick white socks, long jeans. Abi hardly noticed anymore, but at any social gathering I felt eyes following me around the room, looks of surprise as I would zip up my sweater, or pull on the ends of my sleeves. I didn’t care, I was cold. I found myself ordering a hot tea instead of an iced one, or a soup at dinner instead of a summer salad. It was just a chill, hardly anything to talk about.

See a doctor, my mother said when she came to visit me in August. A doctor? What’s he going to prescribe? An insulated coat? I’m just a bit cold, I don’t feel ill Ma, I feel fine. In fact, with Abi, I feel great. She had come to meet her, it coincided with her annual trip from Omaha. One trip home there and I probably wouldn’t need a sweater ever again, Abi would joke. Over dinner that night, my mom and Abi eating sushi and ice cold beers, me sticking to sweet and sour soup and wontons. My mother told Abi that as an infant, I would scream and thrash my arms if she tried to swaddle me. Hated it, hated blankets, hated footsie pajamas, that boy’s feet sweat so bad he’d leave marks like a giant slug. It seemed my chill was fascinating, especially to Abi. But only because she kept trying to warm me up.

Ma, it’s not Cancer, I told her, trying to put her hundred dollar bill back in her white plastic purse.

Before my mother left she slipped a hundred dollar bill in my hand. In case it’s the money keeping you from seeing someone. What if its pneumonia, or cancer? It would have sounded ridiculous from anyone, but with my mother’s heavy southern accent and her pink cowboy boots with her orange sun dress and her wide-brimmed black visor hat, it sounded absurd. Cancer? Ma, it’s not Cancer, I told her, trying to put her hundred dollar bill back in her white plastic purse. But how do you know? That crazy disease does things to people’s bodies, crazy awful things, and cancer is always your last idea, but it’s always cancer. Always. I nodded. When a mother gets in her head that you have cancer, you go see an oncologist and get it written down on paper that you’re healthy as spinach.

Abi called her uncle down in LA. Lucky for me, he was an oncologist and was willing to do a physical and write me up a doctor’s note. He asked me, while I sat in the paper thin medical robe, why I thought I had cancer. I told him I am cold. Later, as I stood by the fax machine, listening to its bells and whistles as it prepared its delivery of my cancer-free note to my mother in Omaha, I listened to the oncologist as he marveled to Abi at seeing someone in thermal sweatpants and a sweatshirt during a heat wave in September. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him, but it’s not cancer. Might I suggest a psychiatrist?

Abi booked an appointment with a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist office kept the thermostat at an inhumanely low setting. I asked the receptionist if she didn’t mind raising the temperature. She looked at me like I was out of my mind and with raised eyebrows said, Sir, you do know that we are experiencing an unusual heat wave. People have died in their homes from the heat. I asked Abi to go down to my car and get me a thick scarf I kept in the trunk. When the doctor ushered me in, I felt her eyes rush to my neck. My thick grey wool scarf making her pull at her already loose blouse.

Any trouble sleeping?

Only sometimes, only if my toes are feeling really cold. I have to have warm feet when I sleep. I have specific socks I use, they’re made for skiing.

Skiing? You wear skiing socks to bed?

There was no denying that she was getting a whole load of strange information but upon conclusion to our session, she recommended a full physical. I told her I saw an oncologist, that my mother made me. After that, she recommended a second session to discuss my mother.

It was still hot in October, at least that was what people were saying, I was still cold. I had started to wear a jacket over my usual thermal and sweatshirt. At work, they told me I was making others uncomfortable, asking if this was some kind of joke. I shook my head, I told them I was just cold. They told me I was violating their policy on professional attire. I assured them that beneath my coat and sweater, I had a button-down shirt. They told me to get a plug-in heater at my desk and hang the coat and sweatshirt in the break room. I inquired about more formal sweater wear and they just nodded and waved me out.

I quit in November. The heater was not strong enough to keep me warm and I was still cold. My teeth chattered while I worked at my desk. I found it difficult to concentrate. Upper-management left copies of their policies on work attire on my desk each morning. My co-workers stopped sitting with me at lunch. And what was worse, my desk was situated by a window, one which didn’t properly seal and constantly allowed an irritating draft to sneak in. I decided it best to find a job where I could work at home. This way I could wear what I want and keep the heater up.

Abi took to wearing layered clothing. That way when she came over, she could take off her light jacket and sweater and wear a tank top. She shed her layers like animal skin, leaving traces of her self around my apartment, each article of clothing that I would pick up and rub to my cheek, still feeling a bit of her warm skin against it. She would always ask me how I was feeling as she would crawl into my lap, her arms draping around me, already beginning to chase away the cold, and always I would answer her, I am cold.

We had already seen two more doctors since her uncle and they all shook their heads and like the oncologist, pointed me towards psychiatric evaluation. By the end of November, I had already seen two additional psychiatrists and one psychologist, they each in turn directed me back to physical medicine. I gave up, resigned myself over to this cold and allowed it to come and settle.

By December, I could no longer travel outside my home. Abi brought me groceries and my mail when she came to visit. She cooked me soup and made me hot teas and helped me keep my down comforter around my shoulders as I moved from room to room but by January, we had our first episode.

Abi climbed into bed, a T-shirt and loose cotton pants. She slept in light pajamas as the heater made her sweat as she slept. I rolled towards her as always, craving the warmth of her touch, when she jumped back. David! I looked up at her. What? Her face looked surprised, her eyebrows slanted as she studied me. You’re freezing cold. I stared at her. I know Abi, I’ve been cold since May. She shook her head. No, I mean to the touch. You feel like you just stepped out of a deep freezer. I sat up in bed. What do I usually feel like? She shrugged her shoulders. Normal, I guess. I tried to move closer to her, but she scooted away. Don’t be upset, David. But you’re really really cold. Like touching an ice cube for too long. I nodded my head. I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say. She leaned over to kiss me. I knew it was affectionate, I knew her lips would be warm and taste of summer. I wanted that kiss, but her mouth tensed and when she pulled her lips off mine, they were blue. She touched them softly, her fingers to her mouth, and then she looked at me, a bit of fear printed on her cheeks. David, what’s happening to you?

That was the last night Abi slept with me. She still came by, did everything as usual, but when she wanted to hold my hand, she would take out a pair of gloves she kept in her pocketbook. And when I wanted to hold her, cuddle and feel her heat, she would put on one of my sweatshirts and sweatpants, wrap her neck in a scarf and remind me gently, not to touch her face.

February brought heart-shaped candy and singing teddy bears, but it also brought our first icicle. Abi was sitting next to me on the couch, reading a magazine. The sun was setting low and I was looking through a medical book on bizarre diagnoses, when a bit of shining light was thrown across the room. What is that? Abi looked around. What is what? I asked. She pointed her finger to the wall where a small flashing light was playing beneath a picture frame. Right, that over there, it looks like something is catching the sunlight. I looked around, moved my hand down and there it went, the light was gone. I moved my hand back up and there it was again. I turned my hand over and there it was, small, spectacular and on the tip of my index finger. A tiny little icicle. Ice, I said, completely dumbfounded. Abi looked at me, looked down at my icicle and then back at me and it felt clear I was beginning to lose her.

Less then a week later, my right hand was covered. Tiny bits of ice forming like measles or chicken pox. Abi called three doctors to come meet me at home. Each of them called another three and soon there was a steady stream of doctors wanting to get a glimpse of the man with the hand of ice. They brought me gifts. Heaters, insulated coats, exotic tea bags, thermoses, homemade chicken soup, a ski mask. They even created a discussion board, a website they named David and Goliath of Cold.

By the end of March, I asked them to stop coming. I didn’t want them to see my left hand, now beginning to sprout its first bud of ice. Abi kept coming though, she sat next to me and put aloe on the cuts incurred by my fingertips. She dressed them in bandages, careful to always wear her gloves. She’d gaze at me, as if she was missing me despite the alarming and physical fact that I was sitting there right in front of her. David, she said. Look. She pointed to the space in front of me and I saw it, the air of my breath hovering, cold and visible in front of my mouth. And then she cried, holding my freezing legs against her, a blanket between her cheek and my lap, the only thing preventing her from getting frostbite, from me feeling the heat off her skin.

In April, my mother came. Ma, I said, before opening the door. I need you to be ready for this. Okay? I heard her on the other side. I could hear the impatience in her shifting feet. Is it cancer, David? Is it? Tell me. I can take it. I sighed. I almost wished it was. No Ma, I told you already, its not cancer. It’s, well, it’s something else. Something entirely else. I looked at my apartment, at the frost on the windows, on the broken thermostat. Did you come as I instructed? I waited for her answer. She was quiet. She must be dressed for spring. Mother, what are you wearing? She knocked again on the door, pounded actually. David, I’m your mother. You open this door you hear me? No nonsense about what I’m wearing. Let me in there. I breathed deeply, my breath still and foggy in the air. I opened the door and it rushed at her and hit her hard on the face, the cold.

I wanted to help her into her coat, but I only made her colder. She changed right there in the hallway. Opening her suitcase, pulling on her pants under her dress, sweater, then sweatshirt, then coat. At least she had brought it all. Abi had called her, had told her to. She wouldn’t have listened to me. She kept shivering in my hall as the cold of my apartment rushed to escape. She kept saying, My lord. My lord, My lord, My lord! There was nothing to do but watch her layer on and layer on.

She sat near my bed those nights, staring at me, wondering at me. You know I love you no matter what? I nodded. My limbs were getting harder to move, but I didn’t want to tell her this yet. I was starting to suspect that my blood circulation was poor, that my bones were sprouting icicles of their own. She stayed with me as the frost took over, singing lullabies to me each evening. Covering me in electric blankets and ushering Abi’s hot soup into my shivering mouth. She kept me as warm as a mother could, but May came and the ice hardened. I felt myself burning cold all over. I pointed to the mirror on my closet door as best I could. No, no David, you don’t want to see this. You just let it come. Let the cold come. And it did.

Talya JankovitsTalya Jankovits earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University. Her work has appeared in The Citron ReviewRecovering the Self: A Journal of Hope and Healing, and her short story “Undone” in Lunch Ticket was nominated for the 2013 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters and is working on her second novel while seeking representation for her first.

The Anatomy of the Madeleine, an Owl, and General Hospital

Hello, fellow truth seekers!

Today, we are going to talk about something all of us (hopefully) have: Memory. As writers of words, I think we come  back to our memory whether we want to or not.  What we do with our memory seems to arbitrarily separate us into genres these days: fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. But I am just going to go out on a limb and say that we’re all doing the same thing; trying to make sense of our memories.

I’m talking about a specific kind of memory:

The kind of memory that I am talking about is the kind that  Virginia Woolf calls “moments of being.” They are the moments that stick with us. These are the moments in life that we have no real reason to remember, they don’t have a beginning, middle, and end; they exist as a self-contained moment. Like Woolf says, they are moments where we just are.  The weird memories are especially potent because we have no idea why we still remember them. Literature is full of these inexplicable moments that authors return to over and over.

Consider the Madeline:

Eating this little cookie explodes Proust’s memory wide-open to the time that his mother gave him the cookie when we was younger:

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Proust wrote six volumes of Things Remembered, this excerpt is just the beginning of page 48 of volume 1. Thanks for reading allllllll of that. The reward for reading this excerpt is that it is the best example of what Woolf was talking about. This is Proust’s “moment of being,” and he has excavated every last layer of that memory. 

What is the result of this exhaustive effort? Proust remembers a time when he was happy.

A simple truth.

It all started with the madeleine. More importantly, it is the taste of this humble cookie that sets Proust’s memory off. The cookie is what causes Proust to investigate why he remembers the cookie. If you are interested (and you should be) in Proust’s exploration of what the cookie meant to him read the rest of Things Remembered.

According to Woolf, it is the why of the memory that authors excavate over and over. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is another exemplar of a book of memories written by an author who will never stop searching his memory for the why of his memories. O’Brien says “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end…” The whole book is all about the odd little fragments of the the things his fellow G.I’s carried in their packs as they marched across Vietnam. Vietnam becomes O’Brien’s “moment of being,” where he tries to find the truth of what happened to him there:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. .. The pictures get jumbled, you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”

A harder truth: War

O’Brien advances our conversation about the use of memory in story because he talks about the differences between the happening-truth and the story-truth: Here is happening-truth: “I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and afraid to look…” Here is the story-truth: “He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.”

As authors it is our duty to our memories to find the story-truth. What Proust and O’Brien do very well is that they explore their memories no matter how mundane or traumatic they are through story in the hope that the find the why or the story-truth. As fellow authors, we would do well to treat our own memories with the same fine-toothed combs that both these authors do. There is story gold in every author’s memories, we just have to figure out the best way to get it.

For Proust and O’Brien, that medium was fiction, but more and more, the medium that has quickly taken over as the realm of memory is creative nonfiction. CNF is a funny umbrella term that holds a lot of different kinds of writing; memoir, essays and biographies are sheltered under this term. Why, I have no idea.×411.jpg

David Sedaris is another excellent example of a writer who mines his memories for the truth. Sedaris has many awesome essays about his personal life. In his essay “Understanding Owls” Sedaris wonders at what kind of person he actually is. He does this by telling the story of trying to buy a taxidermied owl as a present for Valentine’s Day:

The taxidermist knew me for less time than it took to wipe my feet on his mat, and, with no effort whatsoever, he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I really am: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy, and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking, breezily, Well, it was a long time ago. Worse still, I would flaunt it, hoping, in the way a Porsche owner does, that this would become a part of my identity. “They say he has a Pygmy,” I could imagine my new neighbors whispering as I walked down the street. “Hangs him plain as day in the corner of his living room, next to the musket he was shot with.”

Read more:

An embarrassing truth: macabre interests

Through the use of this memory of a creepy encounter with a taxidermist who might be a little too into his job, Sedaris uncovers a story truth about himself: that he is a person who is fascinated with the taboo and the macabre.

Lidia Yuknavitch is a friend of mine who wrote an awesome memoir called The Chronology of Water. This book has the strongest story-truth that I know of, and, in fact, I don’t think there would be a truth in it if this wasn’t told as a story.

“When my mother tried to kill herself the first time I was 16. She went into the spare bedroom of our Florida home for a long time. I knocked on the door. She said, “Go away, belle.”

Later she came out and sat in the living room. I went into the spare bedroom and found a bottle of sleeping pills – most of which were gone. Alone in the house with her, I scooped up an armful of vodka bottles and pills and brought them to her in the living room, my eyes full of water and fear, my mind racing. She looked at me more sharply than I ever remembered, and more focused than I’d ever seen her. Her voice was weirdly stern and two octaves lower than the southern cherry slurry drawl I was used to. She said, “Stay away; this isn’t anything for you, I’m not talking about anything.” She turned her gaze to the television. General Hospital was on.

A sad truth: You could hate your mother

In whatever genre you decide to express yourself in, finding your story-truth in your memories is the job of the writer. Virginia Woolf would have you look at the memories that you circle back to again and again. Proust shows us that these memories do not have to be explosive to be worth exploration. O’Brien shows us that to find the story-truth of those memories can be more powerful than the happening-truth. David Sedaris shows us that you don’t always look heroic or altruistic when a truth is discovered, but it’s still worth the exploration. Lidia Yuknavitch shows us that the story-truth will set you free.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Tim O’Brien:

“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

What is your story-truth?

Spines of Unwritten Novels, A Love Affair

We meet again, fellow logophile!

Many of us have just gotten back from the Shiny Happy People Convention, AKA AWP, the all writers and writing programs convention. So many smiling faces. So many familiar faces both wandering the vast isles and behind the booths. I have gotten more than one request to do a recap of AWP 2014, but I think I will let the awesomeness of my previous post stand (Hey! throw in a comment if you have anything you want to say about AWP!), and tell you about the most important part of AWP: The small presses.

It was just like this!     []

While my friend and I roamed the aisles and aisles of small presses and schools with MFAs my friend asked me the best question ever: How do you know who to talk to?

Who do you talk to indeed. Who do you talk to when there is more than one hall dedicated to the convention? In the sea of small presses, schools and independent do-it-yourselfers, who do you talk to regarding your work?

If you write environmental creative nonfiction in urban settings (Hey, Jennifer!), do you have to ask everyone at the convention if that is something they read?

It really is overwhelming…

Where do you start, was also my friend’s problem. Since I have been to AWP and other conventions like it (Wordstock in Portland, Oregon), I was pretty sure I had an answer for her.

Dear friends, you need to start reading more small presses. AWP is a convention full of people publishing. The trick to being ready for the insanity junket that is AWP is to read books put out by all these houses before you go to get yourself familiar with who publishes what. For example, I am a fiction writer so I spend a lot of time reading small presses that publish fiction. Over the years I’ve learned what small presses publish writers who write like me, and so, when I go to AWP, I make sure to talk to those guys.

I love these guys! I sign up for their quarterly every year. Every three months I get something new in the mail from them. I really look forward to this because it seems like the only thing that comes by mail for me these days is bills. But, just about every time I have forgotten that I have signed up for this I get a new volume that makes me smile every time.

You have to open his head to get at the chap books.

This also has the added benefit of making your bookshelves look AMAZING! On a funny aside, I went to the McSweeny’s AWP off-site party in Seattle and no one from McSweeny’s showed up for their own party. The joke was on them, though, because they had graciously provided an open bar until midnight, so I drank as much top-shelf whiskey as I could manage. Thanks, guys!

Reading McSweeny’s leads to other presses, because if you look up the authors you like in the anthology chances are they have been published by other people as well. Read all the works by the authors you like, wherever they have been published, because this will give you an idea of the aesthetic of the presses. This will give you an idea of where would be a good home for your work. A small press called FC2 is how I found an author who is now a friend: Lucy Corin. She put out a book through them called Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, which I loved, so I read everything she wrote. Recently, McSweeny’s published her latest book, which is also amazing.

look how beautiful this book is!

Once you do that, you can start seeing the circle of people you think you should submit your work to.

Don’t be afraid of other influences, too. I went and saw Andrea Gibson on a whim because all my friends were going to see this slam poet and everyone was telling me how much I was going to LOVE her.

“I don’t do poetry,” is what I told everyone.

And then…

Andrea Gibson

made me cry my brains out.

Who knew?

At the end of her performance I went up to her table to see what she was selling, and so I bought one of her books of poetry, and looked up the rest of people this small press published, and read them all as well.

awesome books/ awesome people

And now my world expanded a little but once again. I love this press: the books they put out are just as awesome as the ones from McSweeny’s.

How do you go about finding small press books like McSweeny’s and Write Bloody? If you are lucky enough to live in an awesomeamazing place like Portland, get your lucky behind down to Powell’s to see what this guy has curated:

Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section of the local independent bookstore, Powell’s. This guy has spent years curating books that would not necessarily receive shelf space at chain bookstores. He has most of FC2’s, McSweeny’s, and Write Bloody’s books. He has many presses that I have never heard of, and ones that I have no idea how else to find. He also owns his own small press called Smashwords. 

What if you don’t have access to Kevin Sampsell’s constant curation and connections? Well, Powell’s is online, so you should go there and look around, chances are you will find something cool. If you simply must walk into an independent bookstore, and keep your money in your community, there is a website for that. Second, another good place to look is other literary magazines (beside the one you are currently reading).



 Places like the Atlas Review or The Citron Review are great places to start reading people who write like you do, since you are reading this blog. If you write really sensitive poetry or music, there is a review for that! Seraphemera is a great publisher that is looking for that kind of thing. Do you write punk fantasy? Mandem would probably like to see your stuff. Don’t be embarrassed that your write fantasy! These are your people. Not only are they looking to publish you, chances are that you are going to read and connect with other writers they’ve already published. This is where you are going to find your readers and develop your “reader base.”

A “readership base” is something to think about when deciding who to hit up with your new manuscript about a man in search of the American dream, or your manuscript about the dolphin in search of the American dream. Because they might be willing to take a chance on the dolphin manuscript if that’s the audience they cater to.

These are the things you need to think about when you submit. The resources go on: Asymptote, Weekenders, Whiskey Paper , The Blue Hour, The New Poet, and check out The Adirondack Review, as it is just so dang pretty. Not only do you begin to see who publishes work that looks like your own, but you are also supporting your community, keeping your tribe going by buying their books and anthologies

It’s true that small press books cost more than a paperback from Random House, but when you buy a book from a small press or an anthology from a school, you aren’t just buying a book, you’re supporting the people who will support you.

We all want to be a name. We all want to be sold in airports and supermarkets.

We all want to be her:

 But, this is not the reality for most of us. The reality is that there is a large and flourishing community of hard working people who love books that don’t get sold at supermarkets, perhaps because they do not get sold at supermarkets.

get it? its a small press.

The spine of every unwritten novel is the small press house. Remember this when you send your work out. These people are dedicated and hardworking just like you. When I see you in Minneapolis for AWP 2015, you are going to know the people behind the booths because you will have been reading them all year long. They will be happy to see you, and to talk to supporters who love their work as much as they do. You really cannot go wrong. After all, it just takes some of your time and internet access to find something that you’ll really fall in love with.






But I’m an Astronaut! (AKA write what you know)

Hello, fellow scribes!

We meet again.

Today, I want to talk about something that has been bothering me for a while because I just now (after years and years) got it. All you have to do to be a good writer is write what you know.



I know what you’re going to say:


I’m an astronaut!

I only know about space related things like physics,

or aliens.

I can’t write about anything else because I don’t know about anything else.



You would be wrong!

If the idiom “write what you know” was limited to vocation

or location


Or even avocation…


(By which I clearly mean dressing your cat up like White Snake)

We would not have a lot to read:


It would just be an exchange of information, and that’s boring. If we just wanted to sit around and exchange information all day then phone books wouldn’t have died out. We want something more out of what we read, so how do we put it into what we write?

According to J.D. Salinger you need to have fire

between the words.


Consider Catcher in the Rye, what is that story about, really?×198.jpg


Catcher in the Rye is about a boy named Holden Caulfield who is kicked out of his latest prep school and decides to run away to New York before his parents find out what has happened.


Is that what the book is really about?

Would this book be as popular as it is if it was just about a rich kid afraid to go home and face the music? Would the rest of us relate to Holden if that were the case?


Here is the secret to Catcher in the Rye and the many many books out there that we all hold beloved…




That’s it.

It is the ability to reach out across the void and see the kindred spirit in the other, be it elephant, dog or that other person across from you on the bus.




How do you take what you know and make it so it matters to everyone?



Let everyone see your heart.


We have all been in love:

We all know about war.

We are all going to die.

(Thanks David Haglun, I died a little bit inside too when I found out about the movie.)

The human experience is vast and there is so much to say about it.

(Or you can just read ANYTHING by Shakespeare!)

Being able to tell us all your fears, for example, about love, death or war brings us closer to you the author, and more importantly, it brings us all a little bit closer because we share an understand of the other person.

Just remember a good writer has empathy, even if that author happens to be an astronaut.×639.jpg


I’ll leave you with Holden telling us all what makes a good author:


“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

How about you? Where do you find your empathy?



Earth Mother; Dimensions; Me Versus the Dainties

Earth Mother

My earth mother told me to
rub cocoa butter on my gray
winter legs, and never fake
bake with UV rays. Her skin
is vitavega-flawless, all but
chapped hands from years
working elbow deep in organic
dirt, and nicked from chopping
homegrown beets. She puréed
green beans and carrots for our
baby lips. She pinned cloth
diapers, scrubbed in soaps of
glycerin-scented lavender, rinsed
in a tin pail. She punched down
grainy bread thick enough for
sopping barley soups. Our garage
sale jeans became patchwork quilts
sewn with strips of Daddy’s plaids
and her skirts. Summers we flew
through cattails to reach our secret
swimming hole, then we’d strip
down and skinny-dip, hoping only
crickets and katydids would witness
our flat, bare chests. And if any boys
came along, she’d hear long before.
She’d lift herself out dripping, then
grab our clothes and hide. As they
emerged from underbrush, she’d chase
them away—a crazy mama bear protecting
her den. (But when she grew our hair out long,
we called her Goldilocks.) She taught
us to respect the spirits of the land,
but also love our bodies—drink H2O
aplenty and never give in to tanning beds.



The first, a point.
The second, a shape.
The third, a Toshiba television

viewed with black-rimmed glasses
that are uncool in Basic Training
but enable Bengals from Nature

to leap from the screen and into
your bowl of Lucky Charms
your heart-rate accelerating

to that danger level, cardio-
attack zone. The fourth, space.
The fifth, time?

The sixth, fractals or spiral-elliptics?
The seventh, possibly the internet
and it’s all a matter of perspective

and subjective, like a variety show
with tone-deaf judges. A banner
of hallucination and your inner Oedipus

punching the King in the mead gut,
landing him somewhere between
‘That’s horrible, absolutely dreadful,’

and ‘I love it. I think you’re a star.’
But the audience is crickets and Mars
doesn’t get Mediacom, though

that’s where Atlantis is, beyond the
Straits of Magellan—a time-traveler—if ever
one lived. And how about Plato? What

does the panel say about Socrates
and his endless patter about caves
and hemlock for the love of Athens.

Because you stand here, in a hall of
mirrors, with Ethos on your back
and Pathos at your side, Logos

hopped the L-train from Brooklyn
back to Cambridge, where most
statesmen are trained in the

finer forms of speech and other
trivial manners. So stand
at Attention and wait for your name

your number your fifteen minutes,
then salute Sophocles and Aristotle
with their punk haircuts and vegan

life choices, their beatnik rap-stylings,
but they’ll never last because it’s
your name lit in 120-volt flash-bulbs

on the Broadway sign. Enjoy
your imminence while it lasts and
Congratulations! you’re going to Vegas

where dreams lie along I-15 like road-kill
and prom dresses, and full dance cards
from Vanity Fair, where Siegfried’s

tigers run a gambling ring. So, bottoms up,
Salud & Shalome. And may luck be a lady
—five dollah for you—our special, tonight. 


Me Versus the Dainties

In the third grade we dressed
up as trees. I was a bur oak
in a forest of junipers.
The bur oak doesn’t even
sound pretty—like a pricker
stuck inside your gym sock.
Missouri’s native species
with full, strong branches,
provides plenty of shade.
Junipers—those slender
columns can fit into tight
spaces. In health class, we learned
about body types: ectomorphs
are thin, wiry. Mesomorphs are
muscular, lean. Endomorphs
store fat with ease. Then, there’s
just plain obese. And if 31%
of kids in my state are fat,
why was I the only bur oak?
Grandma talks about girls of
her day. They were dainty.
With hourglass figures—perfect.
Most of them wore Size ZERO, like
that’s even a size? Plates were smaller.
Less sugar. Less fat. More exercise. Frankly,
girls just cared more about appearance.
She says ‘heavy’ girls were called
apples and pears, but those are fruits
which are supposed to be healthy.
She says I’m ‘big-boned.’ But
according to the skeleton diagrams
in my biology book, our bones
are all the same size. Unless you’re
a giant, which I’m not. I’m plush.
I’m fluffy. And grandma wants
to get me on Weight Watchers, as if
she’s not already eyeing everything
I eat. She says her friends took water pills
to rid their bodies of excess fluids.
Isn’t it bad to be dehydrated? I heard
a story: someone left a bottle of weight-loss
pills in a windowsill and they turned into
worms. We give Moxie, our basset, pills
to get rid of her worms. I see on the news,
drugs that could kill you, or make you wish
you were dead. But at least you’d be skinny!
Grandma tells me about a guy—he had to be
buried in a grand piano box, he was too big
for a coffin. Carnival-goers paid admission to
peak at the freak-show fat ladies. Recently, doctors
did gastric bypass on a man that weighed almost
a ton. Then, they removed enough skin to make
a whole new person. None of them had learned
how to count calories. Our health teacher preaches
against anorexia and bulimia, the dangers of binging
and purging. But I can count the ribs of the Calvin
Klein girl—twelve on each side. And the fat lady
sang, but didn’t make it past round two, despite
the judges saying she had a beautiful voice. So,
what should I do about my heavyweight boxing
dad and our high-carb dinners? And what does it
even mean when labels say ‘partially hydrogenated?’
And why do I feel like the incredible human balloon
in a world where everyone else is shrinking?

Jennifer J. Pruiett-SelbyJennifer J. Pruiett-Selby is a teacher and mother of four (soon to be five), with a Master’s degree in English from Iowa State University. Jennifer currently lives in very rural Iowa where her column {just a word} appears in the local newspaper. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Red River Review, Matter Monthly, Leaves of Ink, Four and Twenty, Touch and The Voices Project.