The Stories We Share

Survivor (as in “Eye of the Tiger”) is to play a free show in Los Angeles later this summer. I stumbled upon this exciting news the other day while browsing Thrillist LA’s list of (they say) every free outdoor concert in LA. It was mid-afternoon, June gloom burned off, the sky clear blue, the asphalt in the parking lot outside my office softening at a warm 90-something degrees.

Meanwhile, I sat shivering inside at my desk as I do every afternoon, clutching a mug of jasmine tea and wrapped in my sweater against the AC which blasts like we’re all penguins here and the company means to keep us happy with native habitat temperature.

With numb fingers, I jotted down the date of the show and pulled up YouTube for a dance party down memory lane. My favorite Survivor song is still, as it has been for nearly thirty years, “The Search Is Over.” I cranked the volume. My shoulders swayed. I softly sang along. When the tune ended five minutes later, I found a YouTube mix channel to keep me grooving in my cushioned ergonomic-knock-off chair all afternoon. Survivor led to Journey, led to Heart, to Foreigner. It was a totally ‘80s dance party. I want to know what love is, I want you to show me.

And then my boss popped his head into my office.

“Having a flashback?” he asked, leaning on the door jamb.

“You can blame Steven,” I replied.

 

Steven was my first crush. He was smart, cute, a grade ahead of me, and his family’s house was up the street from mine. Maybe because we were heading in the same direction, or maybe because I was younger and someone asked him to ensure I arrived safely, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was that Steven walked me home from camp every afternoon the summer before fifth grade. I was a little awkward. I hadn’t yet learned how to be cool in close proximity to a crush. I yearned for the ease of conversation like in pre-school days, before we all differentiated into genders with crush-worthy eyes and unreasonable desires. I longed for a third party to break the ice. Nevermind. I got something better: a song.

Steven had a lovely voice. On the winding hills of West Lake Shore Drive, in our Velcro high tops, wet bathing suits hanging from our backpacks, my pony tail swinging, lips red and sticky from the afternoon’s Italian Ices, Steven a shoulder’s width away, he began to sing.

How can I convince you what you see is real
Who am I to blame you for doubting what you feel
I was always reachin’, you were just a girl I knew
I took for granted the friend I have in you

I spent the summer memorizing the words to the song he said was his favorite, and wondering if there was a secret message he was trying to relay to me through them. The next year I discovered Duran Duran and bought my very first cassette—a-ha—at the mall with some allowance money. Of course I listened to the Beatles, and I had been singing Simon and Garfunkel with my dad since forever. But that summer before fifth grade I was blissfully between kid and tween. Steven was my first crush; Survivor my first band. The story of that summer is embedded in the track. The Search Is Over.

I was living for a dream, loving for a moment
Taking on the world, that was just my style
Now I look into your eyes, I can see forever
The search is over, you were with me all the while

 

“See?” I said to my boss after telling him the story. “You can blame Steven for the dance party.”

“Music and scents,” he said. “They always bring me back.” Joan Jett began to rock the computer speakers. My boss told me about Amanda and the first band he loved.
There’s a little movie of long ago that springs into our minds when we hear a song or smell something familiar. We all have these stories that bang around in our chests, waiting to be tapped with the right reminder. Every event in our lives is recorded in the proverbial black box. Once retold to another, it sparks a memory in the listener whose own story then flutters against his ribs. Look at Humans of New York, or listen to the recordings at StoryCorps. It doesn’t take long to feel blessed to hear the narrative people share. To feel honored to be witness to their stories. To feel connected.

 

Recently, I found myself in a Facebook crossfire between strangers linked through a mutual friend. The strangers were from different states, different times of the friend’s life, and on opposing sides of the political battlefield. Seventy-five comments later, the conversation jumped to another thread like wildfire leaping a fence. The ammunition built as more strangers united by the single friend took sides. Useless clichés and commonplace platitudes were thrown back and forth. Each side barely listened to the others’ shibboleth.

We have to have these debates. Our evolution depends on it, and the vitriol is part of the passion. But rhetoric aside, beneath the politics and other dividing lines, don’t we all have the fluttering wings of stories yearning to release? Beyond the hierarchy of supervisors and employees, doesn’t the whiff of Thanksgiving dinner or the bridge of a song recall some elemental, specific, human experience that we each once had? And aren’t they all, despite the nuanced differences, essentially the same? Love. Sadness. Awe.

Our humanity is not expressed in politics, but in the narratives of our lives. Humans have shared them with one another since time began. Songs and storytelling have existed in wealth and desperation, from the beginning of history to the present day, in every corner of the globe. The common ground of our shared human experiences is the thread that stitches us together, despite our egos, our dogmas, our fears.

If there’s any hope for humanity—not the species, but the spirit—it is here: in the tales of first loves; in the songs that lift our spirits; in the emotions we all know. And in the stories we share.

Bookstore

My favorite Boston bookstoremy singular favorite in a city purportedly abounding with more bookstores per square mile than any other—is like a reversed Narnia wardrobe. When I think of it, there’s a wide glowing window display and thirty minutes disappearing faster than a J.P. Licks frappe. Those thirty minutes would be, of course, window-browsing moments. Step inside Harvard Book Store and delightful minutes in the shop would translate to hours gone by in the outside world.

In my thirteen years as a Bostonian, I often bathed in the warm glow of the Boston Book Store display. Nothing fancy: no bells, whistles, or tourist traps splayed with the university logo. Just a series of windows along the Mass Ave. sidewalk set with new releases, best sellers, and staff picks. Curious portals to new worlds and ideas.

Despite the adage, I found cover art mattered. So did font. A book in the window with an interesting cover could pull me through the heavy front door into the stacks. If I didn’t have more than a few minutes on my slushy commute, I’d scrawl titles in my journal. Middlesex. Me Talk Pretty One Day. The Lovely Bones. Often, I did find minutes to spare for an inside browse around current titles. A jaunt downstairs to the used collection. I’d wander around a bit until a cozy section seduced me, and there loosen my scarf, unbutton my coat, let my bag fall to the floor. Sometimes I stood propped against a bookcase as my eyes scanned the spines. Many times I’d tuck away in a corner, fold myself small on the floor, limbs piled together, so other patrons could step over me while I travelled through narratives of other lives, other eras.

Time slipped by in those visits. In the face of books and stories, the universe felt endlessly expansive. But, eventually my stomach would rumble and my feet start begging to get out of those damn boots. In the last few minutes I’d stop at my touchstone, Fiction – W: every visit I was sure to check the Jeanette Winterson shelf. I don’t know why I did, but because of her I discovered other writers nearby: Sarah Waters. Alice Walker. Jeannette Walls. Ah, the beauty of a bookstore.

All over Cambridge and Boston were independent book and music shops alike, and cafes to sit and read. The streets were lined with shops offering respite from the cold. Shelves stacked with imagined worlds to warm the soul. It was a glorious place to live for a girl like me, amid a culture of people who loved books, music, and cafés.

Meanwhile, Starbucks had arrived. Up and down Mass Ave., independent cafes—along with their weekly open mics—began to close down. Napster showed up, and record shops shuttered. Even through this shift, bookstores remained, and I remained oblivious to the corporate restructuring of the book and music industries taking place across the rest of the country. Despite the intellectual colonization that was streamlining America’s interests, Boston’s book and literary culture thrived.

Sometime in the mid-aughties, I left New England. I had a combination of bitter cold weariness, dark days depression, and an itch for something new. Barely sure where Los Angeles was in the general scope of “southern California,” I headed west. On the way, my best friend called from San Francisco.

“I can’t wait to hear you tell me how much you love February,” she said.

Sure enough, two months into SoCal living, I texted her from Santa Monica. It was February. The sun was hot on my shoulders. I was barefoot on the beach. I was smitten with the Golden State.

I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight years now. I love this town, and I love February—I’ll shout it from the Hollywood Hills. (I probably have.) There’s inspiration tucked into every side alley. Songs and stories in every guest house. I could write through the endless summer about all the things I adore about this town. But oh, I do so miss those Boston bookstores.

Here in L.A. I understand why people leap to Amazon. I understand the one-stop-shop online easy-peasy lemon squeezy la-dee-da. It’s cheap. It’s fast. It’s practical.

One Friday evening last autumn I had a hankering for a particular book. I skipped out on a yoga class to hit the library before it closed, but I didn’t check the listed hours and ended up standing alone in the library parking lot staring at the locked entrance. That night I drove the streets of North Hollywood, Burbank, and Studio City, searching for a place to buy my book. The one shop I knew about was open, but on their Barnes & Noble shelves I couldn’t find what I wanted. To reclaim the fruitless evening, I called a friend and the night ended with margaritas. The next day I clicked to Amazon.

Now, to be fair, Los Angeles does have bookstores, and a few excellent ones at that. The problem is like good wine, which I try to stay away from it since I can’t afford to be ruined by good taste: Boston spoiled me. Bookstores were part of my daily commute. The city provided independently curated collections every half block. They seduced me even when I had no thought of books in mind.

Here in L.A., bookstores are destinations to drive to. Events for which I need to clear my calendar. In Los Angeles I never just happen upon a bookstore. I am never seduced.

I suppose this is a call to action. Bookstores in Los Angeles—and perhaps in your town as well—are not just going to set up shop on the broken sidewalk next to our parking meters. They’re coy. They sit in out-of-the-way spots and wait for us to find them.

But you remember, don’t you, the way time used to slip as your eyes scanned the spines? The way you stumbled upon new authors because you, like me, had a touchstone in Fiction – W. How you heard your name calling from the covers and the fonts laid out near the front entryway under the bold sign “New Releases”?

As it turns out, there is one bookstore near my house. I sometimes bike past The Illiad on my way to yoga. A few months ago, I climbed the ladders up to the top shelves, crooked my head to one side, and read every spine in search of the titles on my semester reading list. It is a used bookstore, and scented with that familiar mustiness of old pages. There are stacks in disarray at the front desk which is attended by delightfully unkempt introverts.

I’ve always been torn about buying used books and CDs: no payment for the writer, for the artist. And yet: it is a bookstore. Bookstore means unbuttoning my coat and laying down my bag. It means walking through the Narnia wardrobe and losing myself, unintended, in an ever-expanding universe. In this world of virtual shops and productive shopping, The Illiad is a heaven of exploration and hidden treasures.

In the end, I found all but five of the books on my list. For the rest I used the Amazon gift card I received over the holidays. This is the way I intend to do it for now on—local, independent bookstore first, even if it is inconvenient or a little out of the way; independent online retailer second—many brick and mortar stores, including the Harvard Book Store, are also online retailers; Amazon as a last resort.

After all, as writers and book lovers, it is not enough to have a stack of tomes next to the bed. We must support our literary culture, and at the very least, find and support one place of book lover refuge nearby. Because some nights are for margaritas. But some are for books.

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Forgotten Places

Lately I have been feeling a little sad, concerned about the future of San Francisco. I consider myself very lucky to live in a place that has always been considered a hot spot for the liberal, the arts, museums, and endless good coffee, teas, poetry, and music. After all Lawrence Ferlinghetti considers it his city. But recently powerful new players are moving in and the not so well off are seeing themselves leave the city they love. As a writer I am becoming apprehensive because although I may not live in San Francisco forever, I will always consider it to be my most precious of muses.

Any artist can tell you that inspiration can come from anywhere but what makes an artist an artist is taking the strange, the forgotten, the insignificant and creating something new with it. Don’t get me wrong. There are times when I want to escape the smell of piss on the sidewalk, the people pushing me on the subway without saying “excuse me” and the guys asking me for change on every corner of downtown. There are times when I’m overwhelmed with my own life and these nuances of the city don’t help at all. Even drained at times, creatively wise. That is when I know it is time to take a vacation, if I can afford it at the time.

But it is when I’m on these vacations that I suddenly realize that there is no place like home and then I start missing the fog that lulls me to sleep, my meet ups with friends at my favorite tea lounge, my ripe plantains that I can only get in the Mission that just happens to be right across the street from one of my favorite older book stores in town.

And then I start to think of forgotten places. How our environment as artists have such a big influence on how we talktherefore how we write, the smells, the kinds of interactions we have on an everyday basis, the architecture that surrounds us, the good and the ugly and how both qualities inspire us to write. Maybe that’s the beauty about being a writerthe ability to see ugliness in beauty and beauty in the ugly.

You might say c’est la vie, but I say when you see your talented musician friends facing eviction, your favorite bookstores shut down, and all the mom and pop restaurants, including the boutiques where they know your name, close down, it makes me disheartened and angry. For there are places hidden, out of sight, maybe even a little covered in mud, mundane looking from the outside. And how many places like this have we passed by thinking it was nothing more? Never taking the time to look deeper, to open the door that might perhaps lead to a new taste of food? A new experience that may lead to a new poem?

I don’t want these mom and pop places in San Francisco to become secret doors or passageways covered in ivy, rotting away, telling us that a long time ago someone cared enough to build them, but have been long forgotten for better things, current things, things that take your time away from being curious.

Creativity can be a fickle companion at times because we have all felt as if we exhausted it. Maybe when in reality we have simply just stopped being curious. Curiosity comes from the different, from the offbeat, from the variant, not from the trending, from being and looking like everyone else. This is what alarms me. For in San Francisco you can have one corner selling mangos, and next, you might have a biker bar, and down the street there’s the knitting club, all while you are drinking South African wine and listening to Tito Puentes playing his Latin jazz.

Perhaps it is your lucky day wherever you live and you will stop riding your bicycle or car, and you will look at something that has caught your eye, and you will tilt your head, will hear it speak to you, and approach it with caution. Today might be your moment to discover something forgotten or on the verge of becoming extinct.

 

The Sad Eyes of Virginia Woolf, by Debbie Styer 2013

B-B-B-Bennie, the Muppets, and Virginia Woolf

A few months ago, I caught myself on a Saturday evening at the dining room table while the kidlets watched Season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had emerged from some noodling on my guitar, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse in time for that Sunday’s MFA reading conference on the book.

Somewhere in Woolf’s incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into “Bennie and the Jets.” A choir of Muppets echoed him every time he said “Bennie.”

“Bennie,” Elton sang in unblemished, un-effected falsetto.

“Bennie! Bennie! Bennie!” the Muppets sang in muppetly ragtag fashion.

My attention shifted from the book to the showhow could it not?and then the scene changed.  The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculously unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star’s next act: “The greatest talent in the history of the universeElton John WAHHHHHHHH!”.

The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on “Good-bye Yellow Brick Road.” Animal on drums. Dr. Teeth on keys. Janis on guitar. Zoot on sax. Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses. And he was so young! Elton is thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.

What is the point, I wondered. The Muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that had seemed divinely inspired that morning and suddenly, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Amateur. Sophomoric.

And meanwhile Virginia Woolf lay open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty’s forward is the second copy I’d bought that month. The pages were yellowed, underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I could distinguish my scribbles from hers, I preferred this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. My MFA program is making me picky about publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration.  I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout January with the book in my hands and drool on the pages, unsure if it was the writing or the font that always put me out.

Since twelfth grade I’ve half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have several times seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn’t get it, didn’t get her. I simply couldn’t get through a Woolf book. If not for this particular requirement for the reading conference, I would have waded into To the Lighthouse. And for this reasonTHANK GOODNESS for required reading.

After three days with my new Harcourt edition, To the Lighthouse illuminated Woolf’s genius. Perhaps in my earlier years I was simply not ready for her. Woolf writes through external events and her characters’ internal experience with inspiring deft. Her fluidity is like water undulating through cavernous rock. What is the point? I again wondered. How does any writer step up to her bar?

In To the Lighthouse, Woolf captures the mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling of them through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves. She catches each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that so nimbly expresses characters’ subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate. Intimidating, actually.

And so I found myself wallowing in that same question I had with Elton JohnWhat is the point?and just before I smothered with despair, Woolf sealed the deal and entirely endeared herself to me. As I lamented that I would never be the writer she was, Woolf turned her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist.

For this I must show you with her own words:
…before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn’t this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants’ bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn’t paint, saying she couldn’t create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them. 

…Then, (Ah! this “Then” is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her…, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current. 

So, at the encouragement of Woolf (and despite my own doubts), I’ve continued. The MFA reading conference came and went, and in the months since To the Lighthouse I have continued to move through my self-doubts. I imagine this dance with doubt will be a long process. Perhaps a lifetime. But if Woolf wrote about artistic doubt through her character Lily, she must have experienced it first-hand herself. If she and I have that much in common, then I can hope we also share a gift for language arts.

Recently, I began work on a creative non-fiction piece about a difficult topic. By its nature, there’s an internal journey of questions seeking answers. Although the seeking is (I hope) a fascinating exploration, I want my future reader to stay rooted in the external world of the story’s setting. The books laid upon the dining room table. The kidlets in the living room singing along with The Muppets. My story is a delicate dance of internal and external experience, a writing skill I am just beginning to explore. So where I was once intimidated, and later comforted, by Woolf, now, as my hand steadies, she is my teacher in craft. To the creative process and the honing of skills I say this: bring on Elton and the Electric Mayhem band. There is room for countless songs on this stage.

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Hadestown the brand new musicalthat opened on Broadway April 17, has had one of their very public evolutions of any musical I know of. It started as a song cycle traveling around Vermont in 2006, and from there became a star-studded concept album with a cult following. Subsequently it was an off-Broadway show. Then it struck Canada. Subsequently London. Each step along the way, it has been under public scrutiny.

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However, what’s most amazing about it’s that each and every time it is evolved, Hadestown has just gotten better.

When I fell in love with the series as a concept albumat 2010, ” I understood Anaïs Mitchell’s folk-inflected score was beautiful, and the assumption — that the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice reimagined as an anti-capitalist parable — was persuasive.

However, I wasn’t convinced it’d function as a theatrical series. The central metaphor of capitalism as death was abstract, and the mythical characters much better as archetypes than as psychologically distinct human beings, so that I feared literalizing the entire thing by placing it onstage would break everything to bits.

At the Broadwayproduction of Hadestown, sumptuously led by Rachel Chavkin of Natasha, Pierre, and also the Great Comet of 1812 fame, the metaphor is a little bit incoherent. The narrative is a bit shaggy, and a few of the characters are a bit flat. However, Hadestown in its final shape, revised and workshopped and thoroughly thought through, climbs above the sum of its parts.

Rating: 4.6 out of 5

Does Hadestown have rush tickets?

It creeps beneath your skin and stays there so ably that at the theater, you can actually observe the cult after developin real time. After the house lights came up for intermission at the performance I saw, three unconnected men and women that weren’t sitting collectively said”holy crap” in unison. The man in front of me that he had witnessed the series five times already; counting previews, Hadestown had been on Broadway for about three months and officially available for only five days. Then the lights came back down, and the audience all turned back into the stage, waiting for the climax where we’d all gasp as you possibly at precisely the same instant – because this series is, at the literal sense of this word, breathtaking.

Hadestown handles mythic cycles of death and rebirth with as much aplomb as it will contemporary questions about making art in a capitalist world
Hadestown has arrived on Broadway. Like many of its mythic antecedents, it is the product of many metamorphoses, and its present manifestation feels lush, sensual, and formally exciting, and of course, in certain moments, witchily prescient.

The gods, or even more inclined Ms. Chavkin and her creative team, have saved “Hadestown Broadway” on its way uptown – via Edmonton and London – by turning it into something much warmer, or even ideally warm. The narrative is clearer, the tunes express that narrative more straight and the larger subjects arise from it naturally rather than demanding immediate attention such as overeager undergraduates.

Hadestown is the very honored series of this 2019-2020 Broadway season. In addition to this show’s eight Tony Awards, it has been honored with four Drama Desk Awards, six Outer Critics Circle Awards including Outstanding New Broadway Musical and the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical. The series is already the highest-grossing musical at the background of this Walter Kerr Theatre and has been selling out every day.

Hadestown marks the first time in more than a decade that a woman has become the solo author of a musical: composing the songs, lyrics, and publication, and that is the fourth occasion in Broadway history a woman has accomplished this creative feat. The series originated as Mitchell’s indie theater job that toured Vermont that she subsequently turned into an acclaimed album. Together with Chavkin, her artistic collaborator, Hadestown has been transformed to a genre-defying fresh musical that combines contemporary American folk songs using New Orleans-inspired jazz to reimagine a sweeping ancient tale.

I Have Writer’s Block, FML

You know those days, where you sit down to a blank page and everything is going right?

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Every sentence feels plucked down perfectly from the ether—those writers that you thought were bullshitting when they said: “Oh, the story came to me from somewhere else, as though it were a gift—I was just the medium,” you feel like you know *exactly* what they’re talking about!

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It WASN’T bullshit! Your characters are realizing themselves perfectly, and not even one of them is being a brat—you’re not even making any typos! You’ve got a pot of coffee and every song that comes on Spotify is the *perfect* writing song… and before you even realize it, you’ve pounded out 50 pages of your best work and forgot to shower! You love those days, right? They make you feel like you’re DOING THE DAMN THING, that you’re a REAL, LEGIT WRITER, and you’re doing what you were put on this planet to do!

This is NOT one of those days, friend.

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This blog post is about the days where you sit down to the blank page and have a Jack Torrance moment:

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Those days where you want to punch every successful writer in the face for making it look so easy. The days where your characters suck and they’re not doing what you tell them to do. When you realize you latest story reads like an episode of CSI. And not even the Vegas one. Like CSI: Miami.

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How bad are your puns? Do you like The Who?

 

Where you’re one pair of Raybans and a Ginger Murder Machine away from throwing your laptop out the window and quitting—you suck at this! What’s the point?

 

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We don’t think Best Buy is going to cover that.

 

…I mean, you don’t even have any coffee. You know what you have?

 

Writer’s Block.

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FML.

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So…what IS writer’s block? Why do we get it? Most importantly, how do we make it go away?

There are a lot of reasons a writer might encounter writer’s block.

 

1. You’re Bored.

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You may be “playing it safe” with your characters or narrative—and because you’re staying inside your comfort zone, you’re bored. Remember, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”—Robert Frost.

Solution Suggestion: On a small slip of paper, write down 10 unusual objects. Write down 10 things that make you uncomfortable. Write down 10 things that scare you. Write down 5 things that comfort you. Put all these things in a jar. Cover it and shake it up. Pull three out and work them into your narrative. Repeat as necessary.

2. You’re stressed or distracted.

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Solution Suggestion: Pinpoint the source of the stress or distraction. If it’s because of external demands on you, clear a few things from your plate, delegate some tasks, and see if not having a looming responsibility helps you to focus. Have kids? Ask a partner, friend, loved one, or trusted babysitter to give you an afternoon on your own. (We know that’s a task in & of itself!) Distracted? Take a walk to clear your mind, or go for a drive. Take a nap. Meditate, or take a 15-minute yoga break. Write in the same place every day? Shake up your writing routine and take your laptop or tablet somewhere new. Have a snack. Play with your kids or your pet for a while. It’ amazing what will come to you once you take the “I must write!” pressure off yourself.

3. You’re scared.

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But what if…they hate it? I’m no good? They laugh at my soul laid bare on the page?

Solution Suggestion: Somebody probably WILL hate it.But that somebody doesn’t have to be you. The only way to get a better draft of your work is to finish the FIRST draft of it. If it was easy, everyone would do it. No one ever promised that being a writer would always be fun—like anything else that’s a skill, a craft and an art, it’s partly the gifts you’re born with, partly the tricks and tools you pick up along the way, and partly the sheer drive to do this one thing and do it well. In the words of Ovid, “Love and fortune favor the brave.” Or, if you prefer, take your cue from Sugar at The Rumpus: “Write like a motherfucker.” Your first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be written. Your first publication doesn’t have to be the peak of your career, either. Neither does your first chapbook, your first novel, or your first collection. Or your 5th. 15th. Every day you complete something, you get better at what you do. So stop being so afraid, and start being the writer you know that you are in your heart.

Remember, writer’s block is going to happen. But it doesn’t need to define you or destroy you. The next time you look down at your pages and say,

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Take a moment to pause, and look around:

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Because once you give yourself some space, shake things up a little bit, and keep at it, your moment of writer’s block could become the crossroads of your work, where suddenly you realized EXACTLY what you needed to do. And that, my friend, is why we write through it, right?

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For more article on writer’s block and solutions to combat it, check out iO9, Chuck Wending’s Terrible Minds blog, or tips from the OWL Lab at the Purdue Writing Center:

http://io9.com/5844988/the-10-types-of-writers-block-and-how-to-overcome-them

http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/07/19/25-ways-to-defeat-the-dreaded-writers-block/

https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/567/01/

 

Why We Said No, or “No This Time” Doesn’t Mean “No Forever.”

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Creating superheroes, one decline at a time! Silver linings, right?

Recently, this article by Liz Kay has been making the rounds of the internet—and for good reason, it’s a very thoughtful article that really helps a working writer frame the declines they’ll inevitably receive and put them in perspective. We believe in transparency at our publication, so we wanted to take a cue from Liz’s post and let you know Why We Said No, or more to the point why “No This Time” doesn’t mean “No Forever.”

 

1. No, Really, It’s Not You

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This is how we feel, every time we see an e-mail from Submittable in our inbox.

Remember that our editorial staff is comprised of students, staff, and alumni of Antioch University’s Creative Writing MFA Program. Meaning: we’re all just like you, working writers, trying to make a go of it. We read blind, with only a few key staff members knowing whose submission is whose. We promise: it’s not personal. The editors who declined your work probably didn’t even see your name until they let your piece go. When we read, it’s all about the work, and the OTHER work that’s in the queue that it’s up against. As the reading period progresses and the few slots we have available fill up, the competition gets fiercer.

 

2. The Damnable Math of It

Here at the Lunch Ticket headquarters, we just wrapped up the reading period for Issue #5. Between February 1 and April 30, we received 1,321 submissions in fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, translation, YA writing, and art. A little math (not our strongest suit, but thank goodness for calculators) breaks this down to an average of 220 submissions per category—with fiction and poetry being a little heavier than the other genres. Lunch Ticket publishes between 10-15 features per category—meaning that we accept about 2% of the submissions that come in. So if your piece is in the top 5%, there’s a chance that even if we love it, even if there’s someone on the team advocating for it—it still might not make it to publication, just because of the damnable math of it.

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3. Timing Is Everything…Or Nothing. We Know, Helpful.

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The timing of your submission can be important. Or not. It’s hard to tell, sometimes, and honestly, a lot of what happens with your submission has to do with the OTHER writers submitting, and their patterns, which we can track, but not always predict. Submissions that come in early in the reading period might mean that you’re waiting longer to hear from us, which can be 3 months, or more, depending. But early submissions mean that all the available slots are open, so strong work submitted early can be a smart submissions strategy. However, a lot of submitters choose to submit at the tail end of submissions, when their work is likely to remain in the forefront of the readers’ minds. The downside to this submission strategy is that the later in the reading period, the less available slots, so you’re vying against more authors with fewer open slots on the line-up.

 

4. Submissions Are Voted In, Or Out, Democratically

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Each reading team is made up of 3-5 readers and a genre editor. Additionally, we have a team of “tie-break” readers, as well as the managing editor and editor-in-chief. Occasionally, pieces are bounced between genres—such as a story that might be better suited to the YA category, or a hybrid piece that we bounce to another category for a second opinion. Your work might have reader voting for it, but still might not make the final cut. Why? Maybe your piece is like another story that we’ve already accepted, and the two pieces don’t dialogue with each other. Maybe it got 2 votes and it needed 3 to be accepted. Maybe at the end of the reading period we only had 2 slots available and 3 pieces on the shortlist. Every reading period is different, every set of readers is different, and every submission is different. Whenever time permits, we try to include a personal note to authors whose work almost made it in, to let them know that their submission was on the right track. The long and short of it is, even pieces we love, we sometimes have to let go, and every reading period, we have to make really difficult decisions. If you like a magazine and what they’re doing, trust that the editors are trying to curate the strongest collection for their upcoming issue, and while YOU may be a perfect fit, sometimes the piece you sent in wasn’t the right piece at the right time.

So, we said “No,” because of math and timing and the democratic process? I GIVE UP, LUNCH TICKET!

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except….

 

5. When We Say We Want To See More Of Your Work, We Mean It.

Just because we weren’t able to publish this piece, doesn’t mean that we won’t ever publish your work—we understand that every submission is subjective—but when we encourage you to try us again, especially if one of our editors has included a personal note—we mean it. We’re all working writers ourselves, so we know how deeply frustrating this process can be. But we also know that if you keep trying, if your work is a fit for the magazine, you’ll hit the right piece at the right time. And no matter what, remember, just because it didn’t match what we were looking for doesn’t mean that it’s not absolutely perfect for someone else.

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So, what can you as a writer, take away from all this? That your work is worth it—always—even if Lunch Ticket, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, or the West Podunk Review didn’t say yes to publishing it. It’s worth it as long as you believe in it and keep sending it out. Editorial staffs change, readers and editors themselves may have a change of heart, and your work is in a constant state of flux. As long as you’re writing and editing, you’re getting better at your craft, whether or not you know it. And as long as we’re reading and putting together issues, WE’RE getting better at what we do, too. If you like a magazine—whether it’s Lunch Ticket, or any other fantastic literary journals out there—and you think that you’re a fit for them, KEEP TRYING. And if it’s not a magazine you’re invested in, or you think the piece you sent out might need some tweaks, or it’s just a better somewhere else, then keep your chin up, and…..

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Both Sides of Submittable

Most writers start out on one side of the screen, but the more committed we become to our craft, the more we realize the importance of participating in the literary community we’d like to be a part of—and for many writers, this translates to a donation of time and effort by working on a literary magazine (usually unpaid, except in the rarest of circumstances or forays into Bizarro World.)

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Once you end up on the other side of Submittable, you start to notice…certain things.

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(No, James Franco hasn’t submitted his work to Lunch Ticket. YET.)

But those things you notice, once you’re on the other side of Submittable…those things are useful, too. For when you’re back on the submitter side of the screen!

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(This is how you might look, once you figure out how working for a literary magazine makes you a better writer, and helps you target your submissions better.)

Here are the top 5 things that working on a literary magazine will help you with, when it comes to submitting your own work:

1. You Will ALWAYS, always, ALWAYS read the guidelines.

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TV *does* rule, but don’t be her. Just…don’t.

It’s like tipping, after you’ve worked as a server. You know how rude and inconsiderate it is NOT to do it. So you won’t. And if you discover you made a guidelines error after the fact, you’ll make sure to correct it, so you’re not wasting anyone’s time. Because once you’ve been the person sending out “Does Not Comply” declines and re-assigning re-submissions, you’ll want that hour of your life back.

2. You Notice Problems in Your Own Work By Seeing Those Problems in the Submissions Queue.

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You will see the same problems, over and over again: flat characters, undeveloped narrative arc, poor suspension of disbelief, lack of imagery, purple prose, reliance on sentimentality or clichés, typos, poor grammar, predictable plotlines, unnatural dialogue, Courier New font…and when you sit down to edit, you’ll be more attuned for looking for those flaws first, that you’ll see them more readily in your own work, because you’re able to read faster and more efficiently.

3. Get On Their Level.

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This is the flipside of point #2—not only will you see a lot of writing that doesn’t work on some level, you’ll be the first to read pieces that simply Blow. You. Away. You’ll see risks that pay off, peers that are producing work that you can’t even wrap your head around, and getting first crack at stories that stay with you, poems that sing. And you’ll feel like you’re not worthy to be evaluating these writers, or in the privileged position of accepting their work, because they’re so much better than you are, and you have so much to learn from them. So do that.

Get on their level.

4. There’s No “I” in “Team”, Even If There Is In “Writing.”

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You will learn the art of compromise, and how to evaluate work that may not be to your taste. You’ll learn to make the distinction between your preferences and strong work. You may love confessional poetry, but if one on your team loves narrative poetry and another one likes language poetry, you’ll learn how to spot strong pieces in those forms. And who knows…you might even branch out and try something new in your own work. But that new-found versatility will make you an asset in the workshop, and it’ll make you be more comprehensive in editing your own work, and the work of your peers. It’ll also give you a crash course in magazines whose editorial staffs have an aesthetic preference, so you can target your own submissions more efficiently.

5. You Will Have More Empathy.

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Sure, you’ll still get depressed when you get a rejection of your own…but you’ll handle it better, because you’ll know that sometimes it’s really *not* personal, and it’s simply a game of numbers and timing. You’ll appreciate that editor who wrote a quick note to praise something in your piece that didn’t work. You’ll get irrationally angry about the form decline that simply says “Not for us,” because you’ll know how easy it is to update that (Thanks, Submittable!) But most of all, you’ll appreciate every acceptance or “This was really close, please try us again!” that you receive because you’ll have waded through *literally* hundreds of submissions on your own, and had to whittle those hundreds down to 10, maybe 15 acceptances if you’re lucky—you’ll have more empathy, because you’ll actually see what editors deal with, day in and day out, each reading period, just because they love the writing.

The Pay Is Terrible and The Work Is Thankless—Volunteer to Work For a Lit Mag!

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Preserving the Arts and Building Your Starving Artist Street Cred Daily!

Mind the Gap

Hello, fellow scribblers!

We need to talk about what you are going to do next. I, myself, am nearing the end of my MFA experience and have to make certain life decisions. Like what to do with a time in my life called Post MFA. I believe this is something like menopause; a state that will last until I die.

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It is time to embrace this change of life.

It is time to face the fact that while I don’t actually feel like a writer, I will soon have a certificate that says that otherwise.

It is also time to tell the government that the joke is one them: I won’t be repaying these loans anytime soon!

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As a writer, this is a weird time.

There is a lot of PRESSURE to do two things:

PUBLISH,

and

PUBLISH.

You could say that I am starting to feel the pressure.

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Perhaps I am making things too hard.

Perhaps what I need to do is listen to what Ira Glass has to say about this time in my life: The Gap

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Some gems from Ira Glass not found in the video:

“If you are not in a situation where you are failing all the time, then you are not in a situation where you can be super lucky.”

“Learn to abandon the crap.”

“You will be fierce, you will be a warrior!”

“You will not get published, get over it. That is not why you are doing this.”

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So, what am I supposed to do?

I think what Ira Glass wants us to think about the post MFA not as a curse given to me by my mother, but as just a beginning to getting down to some serious business.

Well, Ira Glass, I’m tired.

Tired of slogging through a novel that is not working at the moment.

Tired of making sure I have “met the requirements for graduation.”

When does it get better?

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Where do you find the strength to keep “being in a situation where I am failing all the time so that I am in a situation of being super lucky?”

J.K Rowling said in her speech to Harvard Grads in 2008 that if she hadn’t failed so miserably at life after college she could not have stripped away everything that didn’t matter and just do the one thing she knew how to do: write.

What the Post MFA really is, is a time to fail.

What I need to learn is that I need to be OK with failure because I am not doing this to get published, I am doing this because I love this.

GAWD!!!

How cheesy is that?

When I think about it, J.K. Rowling and Ira Glass are right: failure is a good thing because it sets you free from the pressures that you put on yourself, like publishing right after your MFA.

I’ve learned about 10,000 new things in my MFA, and I should use the time after my MFA to try them all.

And keep trying

And quit worrying about publishing

It will happen

It happened for those two, why not me?

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Let’s Do Math Together!!

Hello!

How are you, my fellow laureates?

It’s getting to be the end of the submission cycle for winter/spring journals. We are tired people. So many submissions!

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It’s also that time of year when we all pull out our calculators, or ask someone, anyone better at math to crunch the numbers, or we just give up all around and try and Google it.

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It’s not just tax season, people.  It’s the time that writers check their email by the minute waiting for the accepted/rejected emails. It’s also the time when, when you read for the fiction team, and you cry a little when you look at ALL the submissions that have JUST come in that day, and you wonder why you agreed to do this in the first place.

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So, let’s crunch the numbers for Lunch Ticket, shall we?!

Fiction gets 14 slots to fill in the upcoming issue. We have split it up so that we have 10 slots for fiction over five pages long, and 4 slots for flash fiction, or fiction less than four pages long.

As of today, when I did all the maths, Lunch Ticket has received 218 fiction submissions, and counting.

And now it is time do some magic!

(also called math)

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If we do the mathemagic, then we see that with just the submissions we have now and the slots we have, every piece has a 6% chance of filling that slot.

However, so far, we have only accepted 8.

I say again, we have only accepted 8.

This makes our acceptance rate 3.36 %.

Which makes our rejection rate almost 96%.

Granted, the rejection percentage will come down when we close to submissions. If we project our stats, I think our acceptance rate might go up to around 5%, thus lowering our rejection rate a bit.

Doing some more mathemagic, let’s look at who we are accepting:

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So far, we have accepted 5 men and 3 women (one person submitted with just their initials, so who knows?).

Our acceptance rate for men is about 3.3 %, but for women we have barely cleared 1%. These are the numbers that our literary magazine looks at when accepting new pieces. We are trying very hard to have our final count be 7 women and 7 men. We just have a lot of sorting to do until we have our final numbers.

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Why, as a writer, are these numbers important? Because we spend so much time writing our own stories that we forget that other people are doing the same. When we turn to the business end of writing and getting published, if we want to increase our chances of getting published, it helps to know where we would have the best chance of that happening.

Transparency in numbers is hard to find for other lit mags. However, Bartleby Snopes has a good breakdown of their own stats. When I compared their data with ours, our rates of rejections and acceptances are running pretty close to each other.

What does this mean?

It means that an acceptance rate around 3% is pretty standard for just about every literary magazine. This means that it is still tough to get your work published with online lit mags such as ourselves.

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So, we need to do what Dory tells us, and just keep swimming. While the numbers are daunting, it should remind us all that our personal fiction needs to be the best it can be in order to be published. All we can do is just keep writing.

 

 

 

 

 

Get Your Book Banned

Hello!

Welcome back, you crazy Bannagahammers!

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While licking my wounds from my latest rejection, I’ve been taking a LOT of Buzzfeed quizzes. Evidently, I am not very 90s (which was weird since that was the decade of my youth), however, when I took the “What Era of Rock Are You?” quiz, I got 90s indie rock (very confusing);

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 If I were to be a 90s teen girl icon, I would be Laney Boggs (not surprisingly, I also have no idea who this is).

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Everyone knows that if I am going to be a 90s teen girl, I would have been Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.

The Grey’s Anatomy character that I most resemble is Lexie Grey (I don’t know this person since I don’t watch this show); and in a past life I was an ancient Grecian philosopher.

You get the idea.

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I then took all the “How many of these ____ books have you read?” quizzes.

When I took the banned books quiz, I had read almost the entire list. And that started me thinking about why so many of the books I adore were on that list.

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 Did I read them because they were good books, or did I read them because they were banned?

What gets a book banned?

I went here and found out that there is really no rhyme or reason why books get banned, but there were some major themes that most people cited for the reason they wanted a book banned.

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Offensive language:

Books that have been banned because of “offensive language” include Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a bunch of books by Henry Miller because they were written by Henry Miller, and Sherman Alexie’s book An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian were all banned for using offensive language. But, it’s more than just swearing a lot.

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It’s how you swear, and how your characters swear. If you and your people use words society has a problem with, ones that speak to a larger problem like the N-word, people are going to become sensitive and are going to judge you on how you use it. When you’re a writer, swear words are no longer words you can just drop because you are frustrated and mad, they carry all the connotation and weight that made them swear words in the first place.

Sexually Explicit Content:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved has a yellow card for having sexually explicit content, as does Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaiden’s Tale. 

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Beloved and A Handmadien’s Tale are not books that I think of as overtly sexual. However, they do deal with complicated feelings about sex and intimacy from a point of view that is not the standard one. We already know the story of the characters above: Fabio is a swarthy wild-man who lives by his wits and brawn, the Blonde is a plucky girl whose father dies and she has to head west to find a teaching job; they can’t fight their attraction and start doing it like monkeys; and at the final moment Fabio turns out to own the entire town and is filthy rich. They live happily ever after.

Or, something like that.

It is the “happily ever after” that people like. If you step away from this in your fiction, prepare to get your book banned.

Homosexuality:

Probably the fastest way to get your book banned is to have some sort of homosexual connotation to it.

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The most recent brouhaha about a homosexual book was And Tango Makes Three, which is about two male penguins who do not have sex with each other, but do bond as a couple, who are given an egg to raise by the zookeeper, which hatches, and who then raise Tango, the hatchling, as their adoptive daughter. This kerfuffle  has already been made fun of quite well:

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  But, still, it was just a book about penguins. Naked Lunch has actual homosexuals in it and it has been banned on and off since it was published. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman has a red mark, as does Howl by Allen Ginsberg. People have tried to ban The Color Purple not because it deals with issues like incest, but because of its homosexual content. 

Violence:

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Here, as in most things American, the rules are little more lax when it comes to violence. However, some interesting books have been sidelined for being “too violent.” Jack London’s Call of the Wild is a pretty good example. What gets a “too violent” label are memoirs or manifestos like Malcolm X’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, or The Words of Caesar Chavez by Caesar Chavez. Anything that might rile up the status quo can be threatening, and could possibly get your book banned.

Religious Viewpoint:

This is a pretty straightforward reason. However, it’s a free-for-all that depends on who is doing the condemning. Books get banned for religious reasons because they anger certain groups of people, like Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses or the Harry Potter series. It really all depends who is doing the banning. Bizarrely, Twilight is usually banned on religious grounds, and not for being “overtly sexual.” 

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Drugs:

Books banned on the grounds of excessive drug use are usually getting banned for other reasons, like Howl and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous is the poster child for a book banned due to including excessive drug use, and even though the book predates Lifetime movies, it really should have been one because it shows the main character, Alice, falling into despair because of her teenage drug use.

 

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What does it all mean?

I think that if people want to ban your book, you’re probably doing something right. What I think you’re probably doing right is exploring a thought or a feeling that is uncomfortable and complicated, and in so doing exposes some hypocrisy that resides in us all. I saved my best example for last: Lolita. In 1955, the Sunday Express called Lolita “the filthiest book ever written.” Yet, on the cover of the copy of Lolita that I have, Vanity Fair’s blurb says that Lolita is the “only convincing love story of our time.”

Think about that.

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Nabokov told Playboy that “I think my favorite fact about myself is that I have never been dismayed by a critic’s bilge or bile, and have never once in my life asked or thanked a reviewer for a review.”

Truth.

When asked about Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, authors who have not had their books banned to the extreme that Lolita was, Nabokov says that “in neither of these two writers  [Hemingway and Conrad] can I find anything that I would have cared to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile, and the same can be said of some other beloved writers, [to be] the pets of the common room.”

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It all depends if you want to make cute and cuddly art or not. To make a really great book is to risk being banned. So, follow these rules, and your book will probably get banned:

It is how you swear and your characters swear.

Deal with complicated feelings about sex and intimacy from a point of view that is not the standard one.

Just make your character gay.

Have all the violence you want.

Don’t worry about the religious vote: it will come, no matter what you do.

Do all the drugs you want.

If it gets banned, your book will live on because people will be talking about it, wrestling with it, and, especially, thinking about it for a very long time. Your book will live on long after the people who banned it do.

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Glitter Pen 2014

Hello, fellow pen dancers!

Let’s talk about the hardest part of writing. And no, it’s not giving a reading, like I said last week. Submitting your work is terrifying.

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Putting your work out there to be judged and scrutinized seems to be the most nerve wracking part of the business of writing. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I’ve been reading fiction submissions for the upcoming issue of Lunch Ticket. And since doing all this reading, I’ve come to realize that not everyone shares this fear.

Some people have no problem putting their work out there.

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Isn’t he amazing? What makes him so brave? How come some people have no fear and others, like me, stay in the shadows?

NO MORE!

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I surveyed (read: messaged on the Facebook) some very successful writers for some tips and secrets to submitting your work and getting it published. What came back a lot was what Winston Churchill said about World War II:

Never, never, never give up.

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He also said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This seems to sum up trying to get published. However, there are some small tips that can help our efforts in getting published.

So, let’s keep going.

1. Follow directions.

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No matter how confusing you think they are. Even if you think they are pointless or cannot understand why they would require you to send it in the way they want it, it will be the first one rejected. Read the submission requirements before submitting your work. And especially if you’re sending in money to a contest, it’s in your best interest to be thorough. Just before you hit that submit button, double-check again.

2. Do not get creative with your query or submission letters. No funny stuff!

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Just say no to glitter pens or anything that might be “eye-catching.”

It won’t work.

They will laugh at you.

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3. Be persistent in your submission numbers.

I have a friend that I know has submitted at least 25 times to one literary magazine, and was rejected every time. She does not let a rejection deter her, though. Just because you can’t use glitter pens does not mean you can’t be shameless when submitting. Just keep submitting. You never know, maybe the 26th thing you submit will be the golden egg. You never know unless you keep submitting.

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5. Find magazines that publish work you like.

We’ve talked about this before, people: READ the magazines that you want to submit to. Even within my MFA community there is still an attitude that you don’t have to read all the magazines you submit to. Submittable has seen to it that submitting has become one of the easiest things you can do, even easier than spending an hour reading the magazine.
Another reason to read the magazines you want to submit to is so that you know the little things about the editors, like if they’re a boy or a girl and have preferences about the little things like being addressed by certain pronouns.

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Don’t be a princess. Get your hands dirty, put your back into it.

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6. No matter what, never, never, never give up.

Winston Churchill was a wise man. No matter what you do, just don’t give up. Have complete conviction in your work. No matter how many times you get rejected, just believe that there is someone out there who will understand your work if you are persistent enough to find them.

 

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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.

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2. You mumble while you’re up there

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(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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Anyway. Back to the secrets to a good reading.

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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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

36.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/10/22/121022fa_fact_sedaris?printable=true&currentPage=all#ixzz2wZSN1S4g

An embarrassing truth: macabre interests

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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.

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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

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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!     [http://www.vh1.com/celebrity/bwe/images/2011/09/shiny_happy_peeps-1316794893.gif]

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?

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It really is overwhelming…

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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.

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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:

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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).

f

 

 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.”

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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.

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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.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_pdFG93jw1LI/TBalnn1Od_I/AAAAAAAAHUo/rDPQrRpMsc8/s1600/danielle+steel+books2.JPG

We all want to be her:

http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/07/danielle-steele-proust-questionnaire-friends-forever/_jcr_content/par/cn_contentwell/par-main/cn_pagination_contai/cn_image.size.danielle-steel.gif

 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.

http://www.lovethispic.com/uploaded_images/18343-Titanic-Jack-Rose-Spin.gif

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Wait!

I know what you’re going to say:

http://media.catmoji.com/post/vzbg/cat-astronaut.jpg

BUT!

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.

STOP!!!

http://www.jayforce.com/music/the-supremes-stop-in-the-name-of-love-yoroku-saki-remix/

 

You would be wrong!

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

or location

http://im.rediff.com/money/2013/may/28odd-homes1.jpg

 

Or even avocation…

http://artists.ultimate-guitar.com/profile_mojo_data/9/0/3/0/903003/pics/_c691552_image_0.jpg

 

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

We would not have a lot to read:

http://galaxyzooblog.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/bargastitle.png

 

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.  

http://www.balondekor.cz/assets/images/hlavni-nabidka/dospeli/fakir/fak22.jpg

 

Consider Catcher in the Rye, what is that story about, really?

http://www.brown-liquor.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/catcher-rye-full-300×198.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.

Wait!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Is that what the book is really about?

http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2012/08/14/catcher-in-the-rye-bd2b890bf098c45932a2e5d6662144fdc1644e9b.jpg?s=4

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…

Empathy

http://www.lifewithdogs.tv/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/9.17.13-Dog-Elephant2-590×378.jpg

 

 

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.


http://www.geh.org/fm/mismis/m196900290001.jpg

 

SO?

 

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

 

Simple:

Let everyone see your heart.

http://d7c2b0wpljtwf.cloudfront.net/var/ezwebin_site/storage/images/media/images/e-anatomy/heart-pictures/atlas-of-anatomy-of-the-human-heart/4391373-1-eng-GB/atlas-of-anatomy-of-the-human-heart_medical512.jpg

 

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.

http://astrobob.areavoices.com/files/2010/11/Astronaut-6-1024×639.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?

 

 

What Would Dolly Parton Do?

Hello fellow Word Processor Mavericks!

When I first was asked to write about voice I thought I had drawn the short end of the stick. What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about voice?

Photo: http://blackgoldhockey.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Confused-Baby.jpg

Photo: http://blackgoldhockey.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Confused-Baby.jpg

What does it mean to have an “original voice?” And how do I get one of those?

Let me lay some knowledge on you:

In her essay, What is Voice in Creative Writing, Paulette Bates Alden quotes Eudora Welty:

In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty talks about how from an early age, she always heard the sentences on the page in a voice “…saying it silently to me.  It isn’t my mother’s voice or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly I listen to it.  It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself…  I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers – to read as listeners – and with all writers, to write as listeners… My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books.  When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes.  I have always trusted this voice.”

 

 

Photo: http://images2.fanpop.com/image/photos/13800000/Bert-reading-Twilight-harry-potter-vs-twilight-13896899-193-135.gif

Photo: http://images2.fanpop.com/image/photos/13800000/Bert-reading-Twilight-harry-potter-vs-twilight-13896899-193-135.gif

What does she mean?

That quote is jam packed with little bits of goodness:

“It is human, but inward, and it’s inwardly that I listen to it.”

“To read as listeners.”

“Write as listeners”

I have always trusted this voice.”

Photo: http://www.autostraddle.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/the-muppets.jpg

Photo: http://www.autostraddle.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/the-muppets.jpg

But, I still didn’t get it.

What does this little voice have to do with a distinct voice?

And then this happened:

Photo: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lzuykuHSYI1r1c3jbo1_500.gif

Photo: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lzuykuHSYI1r1c3jbo1_500.gif

The hair! The makeup! And we are not even talking about Dolly Parton, (though Dolly’s hair in this gif is especially epic). It all dazzled me for a moment and then I remembered something that Dolly had said:

“Figure out who you are; and then do it on purpose.”

Dolly is right. If you know who you are then it makes it a lot easier to have a voice. I think that Dolly is more succinct than Eudora, but they are saying the same thing; if you are true to yourself, then it makes listening to that little voice a lot easier because there is not a lot in the way. This is why Dolly is able to be so amazing: she knows who she is, and she sticks to it. She wrote “9 to 5” on her Lee Press On nails and was nominated for an Oscar for it.

Photo: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lsrtjxOJcj1qftpcmo1_500.gif

Photo: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lsrtjxOJcj1qftpcmo1_500.gif

She wrote “I Will Always Love You”

Photo: http://media.tumblr.com/fb4f97967f55126af5140da698787388/tumblr_inline_mmn4mu7opu1qz4rgp.gif

Photo: http://media.tumblr.com/fb4f97967f55126af5140da698787388/tumblr_inline_mmn4mu7opu1qz4rgp.gif

Here was a woman with a voice. (All the puns intended.) She is a country girl and she does not stray far from this idea. She listens to the little voice in her head and she doesn’t let anyone get in the way of that. She could have been another lady country singer with big “assets,” but she is more than that because she doesn’t let anything get in the way. Dolly hasn’t changed down through the ages.

From the 1970s

Young Dolly

To today:

Older Dolly

Dolly and Kenny

On a not-so-funny aside when I lived in Asia I had to sing “Islands in the Stream” with my boss at a kereokebong. This was the most awkward moment of my life.

Photo: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lre1x0Zezz1qfd46o.gif

Photo: http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lre1x0Zezz1qfd46o.gif

 The real trick to voice will lie in how each of us goes about retelling this tale. We should all do as Dolly Parton does and chose a way of telling that keeps the retelling true to who you are as a writer. We are looking to become aware of our “authorial voice”. If you’re a poet, what does Snow White look like as a poem? For all the CNFers, what would Snow White look like as a personal essay? Do you feel like you always write about the country, or do you write about the city? Are you more interested in zombies and aliens?

Photo: http://fc08.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2012/174/2/7/the_zombie_snow_white_princess_by_clocktowerman-d54le07.jpg

Photo: http://fc08.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2012/174/2/7/the_zombie_snow_white_princess_by_clocktowerman-d54le07.jpg

These things that preoccupy us, the zombies, the country, sex, and the city; these are the things Dolly was talking about when she said “figure out who you are; and then do it on purpose.” When we know our preoccupations, we know why we write about them and we become more of an authority on the subject. This authority colors our writing and, I think, makes it better.

For brevity’s sake, if you’re doing something wild and crazy like a poem or a personal essay, you could just do the first paragraph or a first draft of the poem. What we’re after is not quality but an awareness of how and why we choose the words we do, the way we tell our story, and the parts of the story that we deem important.

If you would like to see what a different interpretation of Snow White looks like, here is Donald Barthelme’s twist on the old classic:  Snow White

Please leave your responses as replies to this message. I think it would be interesting if  we can all see each other’s responses.

Please leave your responses as replies to this message. I think it would be interesting if  we can all see each other’s responses.

 

AWP: A Field Guide To and For the Dangerously Reclusive

It’s that time of year again, fellow scribes!

For anyone who loves books.

For anyone who loves writers.

It is time to heed the call…

Photo: https://encrypted-tbn1.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcTclXdvr2XuasdohEKtXmWyP7FPDE3JMKy51ORXcXVfFU5xx3ZS2A

Have no fear!

There is a party for everyone, and writers and book lovers are no exceptions.

It’s AWP, my zebras!!!!!!!!!!!

Dancing Zebra

They say it’s not a party. The party line is that it is a “conference” that brings together All Writers and Writing Programs (why it’s not called AWWP, I don’t know). I would say that AWP is a writers’ party with a conference problem.

Everyone comes to this.

Writers:

Big,

Photo: http://cdn.mhpbooks.com/uploads/2011/11/jk-rowling-pottermore-website.jpg

Photo: http://cdn.mhpbooks.com/uploads/2011/11/jk-rowling-pottermore-website.jpg

(J.K Rowling hasn’t, that I know of, been to AWP, I just like her expression in this photo)

And, small (but, not for long),

Jamie Moore (headshot)

(This is Jamie Moore and she has a book, Our Small Faces, out with ELJ publications. You should buy it, just saying.)

Publishers:

Big,

Penguin-group-logo

Mostly, thank the heavens, it’s a lot of small presses,

blog-boob_cover-hughes

[Hey Rhonda!!!!!]

Like Hawthorne Books

or

SoftSkullPressLOGO

or

AStrangeObject

In a later post, we will talk about the pros and cons of the small press, but for now they represent the most flourishing part of the book publishing industry. These presses vary wildly in what they publish, who they publish, and when they publish. There are presses that have been around for a while and ones that are just starting out. And they will all, for the most part, be at AWP. This represents your best chance, as a writer, to talk to people who are in the business of publishing.

They represent the real American wild west attitude. They publish what they want, they do it themselves, and they don’t have a major conglomerate overlord to answer to. If the writing is good, they will work themselves to the bone to publish it.

Photo: http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/graphics/cowboys.jpg

Photo: http://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/graphics/cowboys.jpg

AWP doesn’t just have a book convention. It also has panel discussions, and it has big names who come to give talks and be involved in discussions. Admittedly, the panels can be hit or miss. Some are run really well, and you walk away from them with some insight.

Photo: http://modcloth.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/awp-panel-recap.jpg?w=530&h=464

Photo: http://modcloth.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/awp-panel-recap.jpg?w=530&h=464

Other panels are not so good, and you find yourself more interested in the hairstyles of the people sitting in front of you than you are in the disembodied speaker who doesn’t go up to the podium because he is either too shy or too nervous which makes his voice warble like a wee song bird and causes you to check Facebook on your phone. One. More. Time.

Photo: http://blairpub.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/in-a-panel-at-awp.jpg?w=440&h=440

Photo: http://blairpub.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/in-a-panel-at-awp.jpg?w=440&h=440

AWP also has a lot of guest speakers, as well. These people tend to be the “big names” of writing. I guess you’re a big name if you sell over 100,000 copies of your book, or you win an award everyone has heard of, or they make a really awesome movie that wins an award that everyone has heard of.

Photo: http://www.cherylstrayed.com/images/306228_3539152391885_1064661654_32603092_2039821807_n-330.jpg

Photo: http://www.cherylstrayed.com/images/306228_3539152391885_1064661654_32603092_2039821807_n-330.jpg

I didn’t go to Cheryl Strayed’s last year because I wanted to go to see Jeanette Winterson. I waited in line. I got a pretty close seat. I talked to other fans of Winterson who love her work as much as I do. Winterson was supposed to share the hour with another author who got snowed in at another airport, so she couldn’t make it, but you would never have known it from the way Winterson handled it. She lectured on what made her a writer for an hour, and it was mostly off the cuff, and it was all awesome.

JeanetteWinterson(Jeanette barely cleared the podium)

AWP is also an excuse to go somewhere new. I am a West Coast person, from birth to death, but I wanted to go see Boston, where AWP was last year. I thought I was going to get out more, but it was snowing pretty heavily, and it made sightseeing seem like more trouble than it was worth.

Boston

Google maps told us that the place we were staying was “a short walk” to the convention hall. So, if urban hiking in the snow does not sound like your idea of a good time, stay at a hotel that is super close to the convention center, otherwise vaya con Dios.

I did get out a bit:

Cheers!

Cheers!

Photo: http://barsbyal.com/user/cimage/c-norm-03.jpg

My friend and I yelled “Norm!!!!!” when we walked into the bar. The hostess did not bat an eye, and no one looked up from their conversations. We thought we were pretty funny. We had a beer and talked to a local bar tender who told us where to go if we wanted to have a good time in Boston, but we told him we really only had time for the beer before we had toPhoto: http://barsbyal.com/user/cimage/c-norm-03.jpg

So, we have all these people who don’t get out much together in one place, and what do they do? AWP kindly offers a dance that starts at 10.

DanceAWP

This was either the best or the worst part, but they had an open bar with beer and wine until 12 AM. They had one bartender who could care less, and let me double fist it as fast as I could. And then this happened:

DanceAWP2

And then they started playing some 80’s music so this happened:

DanceAWP3

And, finally, this:

DanceAWP4

(Your guess is as good as mine.)

The moral to that story is that you should always be responsible with beer and wine, even when it is free. Anyway, the funny part to the whole thing is that at exactly 12 AM they turned the lights on and told everyone to go home, probably so people wouldn’t get too crazy. #whatweretheythinking.

Anyway,

I digress.

AWP is a quickie camp for writers. Come meet and mingle with your tribe. These are the people who love words as hard as you do, they are toiling with their own words and everyone there understands this struggle. You won’t have to explain yourself to anyone because we will all understand why you are here.

So, this year, the year of the horse, 2014,

come to Seattle,

be with your people.

 Venus

Come see me and my people at the Antioch University LA booth. Not to brag, but we are pretty awesome. We work hard, and we are passionate about our program and will gladly talk your ear off about it. I’ll be manning the booth on Friday, I think. We are all going to have matching T-shirts, like a sports team, or Starbucks.

AWPBernadette

[Thanks Burnadette, you look good!]

You have the opportunity to make many new connections if you visit all the booths. Those connections, thanks to Facebook, can last a long time. If anything, it is three days to hang out with your people and enjoy their company.

AWPOthers

[Thanks Marcia]

All joking aside, the best part of AWP is when you get to meet an idol. This is me and Jeanette Winterson. She hung around after her epic lecture to sign books and take photos with us little people. I got to ask Winterson a question: “What is the best part of writing?”

She answered: “Wrestling with myself and the world, and sometimes winning.”

OMGGGGG!

OMGGGGGGG!!!

 How about youdear readers? What is the best and worst part of AWP for you?

Comments? Concerns? Jokes?

Leave them in the discussion section!

The Best Idea For A Novel Ever!

Hello fellow pen slingers!

To kick off the inaugural blog post here on Free Lunch I want to talk about the one question that bothers writers the most:

Where do you get ideas from?

I surveyed my writing friends quite scientifically (think Facebook) and asked them what question they get the most. “Where do you get your ideas from?” was the front-runner followed closely by “How do I get published?” I thought I would try to answer the one question I can help you, dear reader, with.

Photo: http://staff.xu.edu/polt/typewriters/vanburen.jpg

Photo: http://staff.xu.edu/polt/typewriters/vanburen.jpg

In all honesty this is a perfectly valid question and I think that we, as writers, feel the need to answer as dramatically as we can so that we can be real writers. Writers with a capital W.  

Photo: http://staff.xu.edu/polt/typewriters/vanburen.jpg

Photo: http://staff.xu.edu/polt/typewriters/vanburen.jpg

But, really, what do you say? Here is a list of places I’ve said my inspiration has come from:

 

I got this one fortune cookie that told me to do it:

 

Photo: http://www.oddee.com/_media/imgs/articles/a210_c1.jpg

Photo: http://www.oddee.com/_media/imgs/articles/a210_c1.jpg

I was messing around on Google search:

Photo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-tgHqDXFxL70/UVxqXUSbelI/AAAAAAAAFGs/IDz8Vl7fOu4/s640/fist-pump-baby.jpeg

Photo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-tgHqDXFxL70/UVxqXUSbelI/AAAAAAAAFGs/IDz8Vl7fOu4/s640/fist-pump-baby.jpeg

 

Drugs and/or alcohol were messing around with me:

 

Photo: http://cdnimg.visualizeus.com/thumbs/5d/fa/pary,girl,glitter,party,poison-5dfaaff15450fc1923516479ba250532_h.jpg

Photo: http://cdnimg.visualizeus.com/thumbs/5d/fa/pary,girl,glitter,party,poison-5dfaaff15450fc1923516479ba250532_h.jpg

 

God whispered the plot in my ear:

http://ionetheurbandaily.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/morgan-freeman-god.jpg

Photo: http://ionetheurbandaily.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/morgan-freeman-god.jpg

The truth for all writers is that inspiration is much more complicated than divine intervention. Good ideas, the kind that lead to novels, movies, or dance routines come from a nebulous place that can be hard to put your finger on.

Stephen King says that he came up with the plot for Misery in a dream on an airplane. It was so vivid he had to sit down at the airport and write the first fifty pages.

Photo: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-Nhv2aLZK3cM/URaeGfRpreI/AAAAAAAAUQk/CBbDJvALpjY/misery.jpg

Photo: https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-Nhv2aLZK3cM/URaeGfRpreI/AAAAAAAAUQk/CBbDJvALpjY/misery.jpg

Some dream.

King says , “I’ve always used dreams the way you’d use mirrors to look at something you couldn’t see head-on, the way that you use a mirror to look at your hair in the back (Epel, 24).

Photo: http://cocktailswithmom.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/face2.jpg

Photo: http://cocktailswithmom.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/face2.jpg

How do the rest of us go about looking at the back of our heads? What can we do to have the same trust in our dreams? How do we know the difference between a sit-down-and-immediately-write-fifty-pages-about-it dream and a nonsense I-ate-way-too-much-chili-last-night dream?

Photo: tanks funny-potato!

Photo: tanks funny-potato!

Maybe what Mr. King was getting at is the need to listen to your brain when it is in a more relaxed state; when, theoretically, your creativity flows more freely. I know something else the flows very easily. I’ll give you a hint:

Photo: Retuers; drugol.livejournal.com

Photo: Retuers; drugol.livejournal.com

Ernest Hemingway is famous for saying “write drunk, edit sober.”

 

Photo: http://rachelwritesabook.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/hemingway.jpg

Photo: http://rachelwritesabook.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/hemingway.jpg

Of course the rest of us mere mortals don’t look quite so heroic when we try to write drunk.

 

Photo: http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m19dmo4JUQ1r6wmteo1_500.png

Photo: http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m19dmo4JUQ1r6wmteo1_500.png

I think there must be a better way of accessing that altered state without the dire consequences of “going too far.”

Photo: http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lvw6ma3ViJ1r7gq2to1_400.gif

Photo: http://31.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lvw6ma3ViJ1r7gq2to1_400.gif

Speaking of going too far; Hunter S. Thompson once said “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol and violence for anyone, but they have always worked for me.”

They were all after the same thing: Hemingway with his drinking, King with his dreams, and Thompson with his …anything he could get his hands on… These men are perhaps best known for their honesty about their (sometimes absurd) attempts to hear their muse.

They were all after that spark of creativity. We have all felt the need to go to ridiculous lengths in an effort to “listen to our muse.”

 

Photo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_FEZc22SfAy4/TCWX58vyfWI/AAAAAAAABgk/wzM67kx4omM/s320/absinthe.jpg

Photo: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_FEZc22SfAy4/TCWX58vyfWI/AAAAAAAABgk/wzM67kx4omM/s320/absinthe.jpg


While we make fun of Thompson’s epic consumption of mind-altering substances, Hemmingway’s prodigious drinking, and King vast inhalations of Coke in the 80s,  I think it is more important to recognize that all three men were dedicated to their craft. All this drug and alcohol use was just smoke and mirrors, cloaking what was really important about these guys. It isn’t about how these men searched for their muse, rather, it is that they showed faithfully up to listen for her.

They wrote…

 

Photo: http://media.npr.org/assets/artslife/books/2010/07/stephen-king-on-writing/stephen-king-on-writing-d1d225f2c6e25fcd45dce87de1f77d4d6e695e5f-s6-c30.jpg

Photo: http://media.npr.org/assets/artslife/books/2010/07/stephen-king-on-writing/stephen-king-on-writing-d1d225f2c6e25fcd45dce87de1f77d4d6e695e5f-s6-c30.jpg

and wrote…

Photo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Ernest_Hemingway_Writing_at_Campsite_in_Kenya_-_NARA_-_192655.jpg

Photo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Ernest_Hemingway_Writing_at_Campsite_in_Kenya_-_NARA_-_192655.jpg

and wrote some more…

Photo: http://www.scenario-buzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Hunter-s-Thompson_California_1972_by_Annie-Leibovitz.jpg

Photo: http://www.scenario-buzz.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Hunter-s-Thompson_California_1972_by_Annie-Leibovitz.jpg

Until they were sick of it…

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But, they still wrote. And they kept writing.

No. Matter. What.

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So, how do you get your ideas?

How do you look at the back of your head? What works for you?