Category Archives: Sundress Roundtable

So You Want to Start a Press? : A Publishing Roundtable

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So maybe you’ve started a literary journal or a podcast? Maybe you’ve been rejected by presses and feel that it’s time to start a place that reflects your thoughts on contemporary publishing? Maybe you’re working in an English Department that’s looking to expand their scope? There are lots of reasons for starting a press, but before you do, check out Sundress Publications’ roundtable discussion with independent press editors about the highs and low of indie publishing.

Why did you found your press?

Carly Miller: I think one of the main reasons was to figure out a way to be a literary citizen outside of being writers and past literary magazine editors. When my cofounders and I started the press, we were five MFA graduate students sitting in a deli asking ourselves what books we love and why we love them. We found ourselves discussing literary theory in conjunction with how our favorite books “work” in their engagement with the reader, how we wanted to engage in this idea of “the creative act as critical act.” Poetry engages with so many different tensions, from subject matter to craft, and we wanted to create texts that could allow the conversation to become wider through the poet’s own voices and how they engage with various tensions. So, we founded a press to engage in these moments of tension, a.k.a. contemporary poetics alongside contemporary criticism, with hopes to contribute to this larger conversation.

Margaret Bashaar: Masochism? I mean, I have always found a deep sense of emotional fulfillment in promoting the art of others. There hasn’t been a time since I was 14 that I wasn’t editing some kind of literary publication. Little in life genuinely makes me happier than finding poetry that I feel merits an audience and working to connect that poetry with an audience. So masochism, definitely.  And I like making things with my hands, and books of poetry seemed like as good a thing as any to make with my hands.

M. Mack: The phrase we use is that we wanted to fill a gap in the publishing landscape. At the time, in 2012, there was a real shortage of markets that both called themselves feminist and welcomed work from folks who did not identify as women. So we created Gazing Grain Press as a place for feminists of all genders. The landscape has changed a lot since then, which is really exciting, and we now have a number of contemporaries.

Juliet Cook: I started my Blood Pudding Press close to ten years ago now, so it’s hard for me to remember the exact details of how I felt at that time, but I know it involved a strong and genuine passion for poetry and a realization that it was mostly poets who published other poets. I had been a big fan of ‘zines in my late teens through mid twenties, then indie literary magazines in my twenties all the way until now. When I was in my early thirties, I became a big fan of frequent blogging for several years. My blog site was Xanga and my blogger name was candydishdoom. I met a few creative writers there (some of whom I’ve remained connected with ever since), right around the time when they were initially starting their own online literary magazines and/or small presses. For example, Rachel Kendall, who started Sein und Werden not long after we met and has kept it going for years now and Kristy Bowen, who started Dancing Girl Press around that time. I loved how small indie poetry presses seemed like unique artsy poetic variations of ‘zines and I loved the individualism of our Xanga blog style communication and I loved poetry and poetry chapbooks.

I think I’d had a little back burner of an inkling to start my own itty bitty press for a year or two before I actually did it, but I felt overly nervous that I’d somehow screw it up. But in late 2006, I had this sudden spurt of finishing a small series of Twin Peaks inspired poems that had been sitting unfinished in the back of a folder for about 10 years, and I felt really strongly about the poems, and thought they worked best together instead of individually, and so I decided that would be a great time to start my own small press and publish my own chapbook first, because if I had trouble with formatting, design, or anything else, I wouldn’t be affecting another poet with my fledgling difficulties. Kristy Bowen gladly shared information with me about how she formatted her Dancing Girl Press chapbooks, I followed her formatting tips, I designed my own cover art, and I took it from there. After I got more comfortable with formatting and design, I shifted away from publishing myself with my own press and started publishing multiwriter collections and individual chapbooks by others.

For years, I felt so passionately excited about choosing chapbooks, designing chapbooks, and uniquely hand-crafting chapbooks. I loved being a part of the poetry community who was not only focused on herself, but also helped support others too.

 

What were some of the early pitfalls you found?

Carly Miller: We’re only two years old, so we may still be in the early pitfalls stage. One of them is definitely funding—we started the press as grad students, who don’t make a lot of money in the first place, and we’re all trying to find jobs and stability in the real world. But we rallied, and we’re working on ways to figure out funding (a.k.a. we’re finalizing our Indiegogo campaign to run sometime during the summer).

Margaret Bashaar: Time. In the past I have over-committed myself, time-wise, and it’s been a huge problem. Essentially, Hyacinth Girl Press is two people—Sarah Reck (who is our prose editor and does all our layout and design work and runs our website) and myself. It was a struggle for us to find a balance with the number of projects we could realistically take on without overwhelming ourselves, and the chapbooks we put out suffering as a result.

Juliet Cook: I honestly don’t remember many EARLY pitfalls, aside from my initial nervousness. I remember feeling extremely drawn to, excited, and passionate about what I was doing for quite a few years.

Reading the responses above mine, about money and time, I agree, BUT I don’t remember those being major concerns of mine when I first started my press. As far as funding, I don’t expect nor do I want anyone else to help fund my press (other than buying the created chapbooks). I am an ANTI-fan of how much crowdfunding has grown in recent years. As far as time, that can certainly be a challenge, but I’ve tried my best not to take on more than I can reasonably handle.

For me personally, the pitfalls came later, when I started to feel as if my press was inundating so much of my time and creative energy, that I didn’t have enough time to read things not related to the press, to write and revise my own poetry, to submit my own poetry, and so forth. I think I have a high drive but a moderate to slow process of accomplishing certain kinds of things. I’m not a good multitasker; I’m a one focus at a time sort of person; and for various reasons, it seemed to be getting harder for me to split my focus in all the directions I wanted to and it got to the point where I sometimes started to feel bothered by my own brain’s slow pace. Over the years, I’ve heard quite a few small press editors/writers express that their press started to take precedence over their own writing—and that’s fine, if you WANT that to happen—but ultimately, I DIDN’T want anything to take precedence over my own writing, at least not on a long term, ongoing basis.

Some other pitfalls that came later for me were partly generated by social media and/or my own brain’s interpretation of certain aspects of social media. Social media, especially facebook, is so up-to-the-minute that it can rather easily cause you to feel like if you’re offline for a few days, then you’re not going to stay up to date and you’re not going to stay on top of things that are going on in poetry land. Plus sometimes on social media, certain poets or presses suddenly seem to get lambasted by a whole group of others and if you were offline for a few days, you don’t even know what generated the lambasting when you get back online, and even if some of the lambasting was deserved, it seems to quickly reach the point of fast-paced attack mode, like people are flinging an arsenal of pies at other people’s faces and the pies have weapons loaded inside and people seem to launch too quickly into taking the side of this weapon-loaded pie or that weapon-loaded piece.

Another social media related pitfall for me is that I feel like I see other small presses talking about their big influxes of chapbook sales and then I start wondering why is my press barely selling enough chapbooks to break even when other small presses sound like they’re selling more than double the amount I’m selling and so what am I doing wrong, etc. . . .

When I started to question my own way of doing things, that’s when I also started to reconsider my press—because I don’t want poetry to feel like some sort of competitive popularity contest, yet part of my mind felt as if it was starting to warp itself into that way of thinking.

Like one part of my mind couldn’t care less how I compare to others; but the other part of my mind was some mutant cheerleader doing little splits and wondering why this press’s splits and this press’s splits appeared to be spreading much further than mine, even though I didn’t necessarily want mine to spread that much further.

M. Mack: One of our favorite early pitfalls happened when we took on Meg Day’s chapbook We Can’t Read This in 2013. We had to (quickly) get permissions to print ASL sign images in the chapbook and then redesign the book with the images we got permission to use. We wrote many carefully worded queries to publishers of ASL dictionaries and spent many hours scanning and erasing backgrounds in Photoshop. We got outstanding images to use from the University of Alberta Press, for free, and that worked out great. The thing about running a press is that you never really know what is going to happen. Things happen, and you figure out how to respond. Often, you figure out that the response involves a carefully worded query.

This isn’t exactly a pitfall, but it’s important to remember that everyone involved with your press is volunteering their time and attention and energy because they believe in the work. One thing that often surprises people I talk to is that expanding a staff takes time. Expansion isn’t as simple as bringing more people on to handle a growing workload. We expanded our staff from two to ten in 2014, following six months of preparation, trying to make our processes as transparent as possible and making all of our policies and procedures as open to revision as possible, and preparing ourselves to let go of some control of our precious literary baby. Even with six months of preparing for expansion, it was a healthy learning curve for all of us. We operate as a feminist press, and it is difficult sometimes. It is important to be open about how much work is required to run a press.

 

How much marketing is a new indie press expected to do for its authors?

Carly Miller: I think we’re expected to do just as much as older presses! I mean, we definitely have to hit the ground running with promoting our books to the best of our ability, and finding ways to get the book in other people’s hands.

Because we’ve mostly created anthologies, we’ve taken advantage of Twitter by tweeting lines from the anthology. We’re always keeping an eye on our contributors, too, helping to promote a new poem or a new book of theirs. We also connected with a few reviewers and teachers who reviewed or taught our books in their classrooms. We’re also wanting to host more readings, whether they’re in San Diego (our hometown/location) or not. These examples lead me to say that we’re so lucky that our contributors want to help us in terms of marketing efforts—Angela Veronica Wong set up a Spotlight feature on Coldfront (here’s the link: http://coldfrontmag.com/spotlight-locked-horn-press-part-1of-8/) and Krystal Languell hosted a joint reading for us in New York when our first books came out.

Basically, I think authors are expecting marketing efforts, but are also willing to help with marketing because that is the landscape of indie press publishing today. We have our own set of people we contact to help us get a review or something, but we’ve also seen the power of what happens when contributors promote their own work—literally, one contributor shared our newest collection on their social feed, and one of their friends immediately bought the book. We hope our contributors want to share the book with their friends, but we’re focused more on our efforts to get the books where they need to go.

Margaret Bashaar: I think a tiny indie press is expected to do as much promotion and marketing as that press promises to do. I know some presses don’t send out review copies, some don’t bother to try to get their books in bookstores, some don’t maintain their websites with a page for each chapbook, some don’t do promos for their chapbooks, some don’t do pre-sales, some never attend AWP, some only attend AWP and eschew all other fairs and conferences, and some do all of the above and more. I think it’s a case by case basis, and I feel that as long as you are upfront with what you as an editor are capable of and willing to do, then you’re doing great. Be honest. Do what you can.

Juliet Cook: I think this is variable and largely depends on the press. The size of the press, the money of the press, the number of editors of the press, the time constraints of the press, the location of the press, the brainwaves of the press and what those waves are aiming to do.

My press doesn’t do a great deal of in-person promoting, overall. I’ve been to AWP a few times, but certainly can’t afford that conference regularly. I’ve been to smaller, more local conferences and events in my general area. But I’m limited because of location, my brain flukes, and other reasons.

I do promote new chapbooks quite a bit online (via facebook, twitter, my personal blog, my Blood Pudding Press blog, and my website), I do have an online shop offering my Blood Pudding Press chapbooks (https://www.etsy.com/shop/BloodPuddingPress), and I do send out quite a few review copies of each chapbook. I appreciate it when the authors help to market and promote their work too.

One positive thing about social media for presses is that it’s a widely available promotional tool.

One not so positive thing is it can shift your attention all over the place, looking at a little bit of this and a little bit of that and wondering how in the world you’re going to find time to focus on everything that interests you.

With everything that’s going on in social media, all at the same time, even though posts can direct attention towards your press, they don’t necessarily increase the sales of your press. Just because people like a bunch of things on social media doesn’t mean they’re going to buy all those things they like.

Margaret Bashaar: I completely agree with what Juliet says about social media—popularity on social media does not necessarily translate to chapbook sales. My top five selling chapbooks I could never have predicted. There doesn’t seem to be a very set formula for “this is what will make a chapbook sell,” and I do my best to not worry about that. I hope that if I feel passionately about a book that will translate to others and they will want to read the book.

Sometimes something totally unexpected and ridiculous happens that you could never in any way control—a chapbook that I published in 2013 was featured on Jen Campbell’s book vlog as her favorite book she read in 2015, and sales of that chapbook skyrocketed as a result. There was no way for me to control this, for me to make this happen, other than to publish a bunch of chapbooks and for them to somehow make their way to her and for that particular chapbook to speak to her.

I think it’s easier to say what will make a chapbook NOT sell. If the poet is non-present on social media, if you release the chapbook on a holiday, if the poet or editor is non-present in promoting the book. Things like that.

M. Mack: All of the marketing. (I’m kidding, kind of.) If you want to publish a book, you have to market the book. That said, you’re probably volunteering your time to publish books. Marketing is a very important collaboration between the editor and the author. Make the workload more reasonable by being smart about where you send materials. Ask your authors for ideas and feedback. Make sure you are sending materials to meaningful places. See who will accept digital press kits and digital review copies; more and more markets will. It’s often easier and more economical (and less risky, especially if you make your books by hand) to distribute digital marketing materials. That said, especially if you make your books by hand, you want to represent your books accurately in digital form by including photos and descriptions of how they are bound.

 

What are some of the differences between online chapbooks and print chapbooks? What are the benefits of each?

Carly Miller: While my press hasn’t ventured into chapbooks yet, we’ve had these conversations. Online would allow us to reach a larger audience, especially if the chapbook is available for free (think H_NGM_N Books and Sundress’s e-chaps). Printed chapbooks are such an experience, since the ones I own are that perfect size that fits so easily into my purse and make for that perfect lunchtime read. I know we’re leaning towards more of a book-arts approach with the chapbook, which isn’t currently possible with how large our anthologies are. We haven’t fully done the research to see what would be cheaper in terms of the printed chapbook to go with POD, or figured out the book-art approach, but we’re getting there.

Margaret Bashaar: A print chapbook will exist forever as an artifact. It will be a thing you can hold and touch and re-read and nibble on for as long as you want to. There is more freedom of design and obviously of material in a print chapbook. A print chapbook can be thrown at a rowdy audience member at a reading. As human beings in our current form, we read better on paper than on a screen. Can you tell I deal exclusively in print chapbooks?

An e-chapbook can be much more widely distributed. E-chapbooks have a much smaller overhead. E-chapbooks, once designed, do not need to be re-printed. They do not need you to spend hours and hours folding and binding them. There is less restriction on length with an e-book because you don’t have to force a staple through 13 sheets of paper.

I think we are still in a place where people take print chapbooks much more seriously than e-chapbooks, and while I don’t know if I agree with that notion, I do think it shows a certain commitment to a book to bring it into physical existence. Though if I’m being honest, I used to take that much more seriously than I do now, because lately a lot of presses are being funded by crowdfunding campaigns, and so it’s less a mark of willingness to put your ass on the line to put out a book in print now.

Juliet Cook: I personally prefer print chapbooks, visually and on a sensory level. I think they look and feel more unique and extra-special and one-of-a-kind and you can touch them and smell them and flip through their pages at your own pace.

I’m a big fan of online literary magazines, but when it comes to chapbooks, I definitely tend to be more positively drawn to print.

However, online chapbooks are more easily and widely accessible and thus could have a significantly wider potential audience.

M. Mack: We don’t publish e-books at Gazing Grain, but I teach them in my chapbooks courses. I think e-books can do really exciting things with design, and different people can have access to them. E-books are really great for use in classrooms. (If you want your print chapbooks to be used in classrooms, consider ISBNs or an ISSN to make bookstore ordering easier.) Print chapbooks can also do amazing things with book arts, of course. I consider chapbooks to be extremely intentional handmade objects. My favorite is when publishers make e-books of their sold-out limited edition handmade chapbooks, like Bloof and Big Lucks do.

 

What tips do you have on designing the layout of an issue or book?

Margaret Bashaar: So, you make friends with this really nice girl named Sarah when you’re both in 2nd grade and you stay friends for like, twenty years. And then it turns out that she is working for Hachette Book Group and wants to try her hand at book design, and you’re starting a press and she’s like “hey, can I do your books’ design?” and you’re like “that’s cool—I was just going to do it in Word or something” and then it turns out she’s amazing at it and that’s my advice.

Juliet Cook: I don’t have the best tips to offer. I’m a one-woman old school designer, who uses Microsoft Word to design my chapbooks’ innards AND covers and I’m not good at explaining how I do it, I just do it how I do it.

Margaret Bashaar: Okay I figured someone else might have some tips, but now that I see that we’re all sort of in the same position I’ll try to some up with something more practical.

1. Teach yourself Microsoft Publisher. It’s not the best program, but if you have the Microsoft Office suite, you’ll have Publisher and you won’t need to spend any additional money on a special program. Plus, unlike Word, it’s a program that is actually meant to be used for things like pamphlet and book layout. It is not a difficult program to figure out (I figured it out on my own in like, an hour).
2. If you have some extra scratch, spring for Adobe Illustrator/InDesign/Photoshop. They are expensive, but I am told also totally worth it if you have the money.
3. Don’t be afraid to do things simply or with old school methods. Sometimes a clean, simple, text-based cover design is better than a fancy pants crowded looking one, and sometimes photocopying is totally the way to go.

M. Mack: I’m also not that helpful here, because I have been designing magazines and books since I was in high school, and for a long while I designed publications sort of professionally for a nonprofit. But, along that time I had to learn new programs and new ways of doing things, and it is possible to teach yourself design programs. If you’re starting from scratch, look for elements in books you admire. Choose a program and learn it. The internet is amazing. I once taught myself to code an e-book with Lynda.com in a weekend. Margaret makes a good point about affordability. I use Adobe because it is what I have always used. Try out different programs that are available to you. Think about what will suit your needs. Adobe has pitfalls not only in cost but also in availability (which is related to cost). Our editors are all over the United States, and sharing design files is nearly impossible. So, think about what your needs are (and will be) before committing to a program.

 

How do you determine fair pricing for cover art?

Margaret Bashaar: I figure out what I can afford, and fair price is probably like three times that. Honestly, Hyacinth Girl Press is infinitely lucky in that Sarah Reck, our co-founder, is such an amazing designer. When I’m dealing with an outside artist I am as up front with them as I can possibly be about our budget restrictions and I don’t ever try to force anyone to lower their prices for me. If it’s not a fit due to finances, it’s not a fit. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Often, if I really have my heart set on a particular artist I will offer to buy the original piece for my personal collection, and that usually moves things along, but that also depends on my personal finances being in a place where I can buy art.

Juliet Cook: I highly value visual art, but I can’t afford to pay an artist a hundred bucks to design a cover for me, or even fifty bucks. In my own experience, some visual artists value poetry just as much as some poets value visual art, and they’re excited enough about having their art appear on the forum of a poetry chapbook and being credited in the book and receiving a free copy of the book that they don’t require monetary payment. I’ve paid some artists a small amount (in addition to crediting them and giving them a copy of the book) to create a new piece of art specifically for a cover. I’ve also purchased an existing piece of art from an artist in appreciation for being given permission to use that existing piece of art on the cover of a book. I’ve also used parts of some of my own visual art creations as cover art for some Blood Pudding Press chapbooks.

M. Mack: Unfortunately, most of us pay what we can afford. My only advice it to make sure that you are upfront with the artist with whatever your price is. You don’t want to put yourself in the position where an artist has said yes, but you can’t afford the fee. Make sure the author knows what the budget is and can include it in any conversations they have with artists. If you’re seeking permissions to reprint artwork, have a conversation with the author about budgets and expectations before you seek them. You might get lucky, but it’s best for everyone to have all of the information.

 

How do you make the most of writing conferences like AWP? How can you network at a conference without going overboard?

Carly Miller: This last AWP in Los Angeles allowed us to connect directly with our contributors and give them the book right away, which allowed us to not only thank them in person for contributing their work, but save on shipping costs once we got home. For networking, it really is just remembering that people are people. I’ve been to AWPs where I’ve had to stand behind a pillar to calm myself down before meeting some of my favorite poets, but keeping in mind that people who approach your table or have already contributed to your press have some connection with you, it allows the nerves to settle. I’ve taken advantage of book signings and making my small talk there versus chasing someone down when they’re clearly on their way to something (and yes, I’ve just run into people and walked with them wherever they were going, too). Really, just be yourself and if you see that person you want to connect with, fantastic—and if not, then hey, there’s always email.

Margaret Bashaar: I’m really bad at not going overboard at conferences, but not so much with networking as with running myself ragged selling chapbooks. I tend to spend 100% of my time at AWP and other festivals/conferences at my bookfair table talking to people about my press. I honestly enjoy doing so, but I tend to exhaust myself. I’ve found that, as an editor, the best thing I can do for my press is be present at my bookfair table as much as possible. My co-editor has never attended a bookfair or festival with me, so I am the sole representative of my press at these events. I spend money to be there, so I want to make sure I make the most of it, and that means pushing myself that extra mile to be personable and chatty and helpful. I usually take a few days off from socializing afterwards to recover, and that helps a lot.

M. Mack: Network wherever you are. Always have materials for your press with you. I embroider Gazing Grain Press tote bags for our editors to carry. I think of myself as a walking book fair table. Speaking of which, walk around bookfairs where you are exhibiting and introduce yourself to your contemporaries. If you’re walking around with everything you need if a conversation comes up, it is easier to enjoy the conference as an individual as well as an editor. I don’t think staying static at a table is necessarily the best way to promote your press. You’re also (most likely) paying your own way to the conference, so I think it is just as important to set boundaries and make sure that you are fulfilling your own goals for the event (such as seeing panels related to your latest poetry project) as it is to promote your press. Often, these things can go hand in hand. I like to introduce myself to judges of our contests after they speak on panels. I get to hear the panel, and I get to say, “Hi, thanks so much, you’re great.”

What would you say writers expect from the editors of a new press?

Carly Miller: I think writers expect professionalism in all forms. Each interaction needs to be professional and show that the work is being handled with care. I think writers want to see that the press is making an effort to get their work out into the world, and having the work presented in a way that is really beautiful (as in the physical object of the book via design, even when it’s online) and shows a sense of community-building via reviews and marketing efforts.  

Margaret Bashaar: I feel like expectations of new presses vary, and I feel as though editors more or less drive that expectation with how we present ourselves on our websites and in our initial communications with writers who want to work with us/we want to work with. It’s hard to say “this is what writers expect across the board.” I mean, I know what I, personally want from a press—I want the editor to reply to my communications in a decently timely manner, I want to be kept updated on the potential timeline for my book or chapbook’s release, I want to have open communication and conversation about my and the editor’s expectations and plans for the book and its release and promotion. So I would say the most important thing is communication.

Juliet Cook: I think that depends on the writer and the press. For me as a writer, I’m fairly open, but I would like a press to offer me a tentative time frame of WHEN the book will be published (and offer me updates if that time frame changes), a reasonable amount of free copies of the book with additional copies at a discount rate, and a reasonable amount of help promoting the book. Since that’s what I desire as a writer, that’s what I aim for as an editor too.

M. Mack: Excellence. Writers should expect excellence and respect. If you can’t prove yourself with an existing catalog, you have to prove yourself with the way you treat your authors and your books in process. I think the best way to do that is to be lovely to work with while you create lovely books.

 

What’s the most rewarding aspect of beginning a new press?

Carly Miller: It’s the moment the books fall into our hands. As soon as we have them, we’re able to send them to our contributors and say “thank you” all over again. It’s really the vision coming to life and seeing how excited our contributors are about the book, and wanting to share that excitement with others.

Margaret Bashaar: I haven’t started a new press in seven years, but I think the most rewarding thing for me when I first started HGP was probably interacting with each of my poets in person for the first time. I do my best to actually meet the people who I have published face to face, and it’s almost always a really fantastic, heartwarming thing.

Juliet Cook: Feeling like you’re being a personal part of the poetry community. Feeling like you’re creating what is meaningful to you and making a small but powerful difference to a few others.

Spending some personal time and energy and creative attention and genuine care focusing on other poets you appreciate and admire and helping their voices be heard.

Receiving meaningful tidbits of positive feedback and support directed at your press’s chapbooks’ innards as well as their design.

Having a few people who seem to actually care about and appreciate what you do and genuinely enjoy it.

Being your true creative self and helping to share a few other true creative selves.

M. Mack: The most rewarding part of running a press is directly contributing to the publishing landscape. Sometimes this also feels daunting. Pay attention when you feel uncomfortable and see if you need to make changes. One of my favorite parts is when people handle our books and ephemera and explore them. I like exhibiting for this reason—showing people how things are made. It is also really great when I bring a Gazing Grain text to one of my classes as an example of a book form and my students get excited about it. One of the most fun things for us is that Gazing Grain is a project of Fall for the Book literary festival, so we launch our chapbooks at Fall for the Book’s two annual events. Our authors and runners-up come to read, and our local editors get to present the brand new book or ephemera to the authors and get to know them. This is another good thing about going to big events like AWP, getting to see your authors and put together events for them.

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Juliet Cook’s poetry has appeared in a peculiar multitude of literary publications. She is the author of more than thirteen poetry chapbooks, most recently including POISONOUS BEAUTYSKULL LOLLIPOP (Grey Book Press, 2013), RED DEMOLITION (Shirt Pocket Press, 2014), a collaboration with Robert Cole called MUTANT NEURON CODEX SWARM (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015), and a collaboration with j/j hastain called Dive Back Down (Dancing Girl Press, 2015). Cook’s first full-length poetry book, Horrific Confection, was published by BlazeVOX in 2008 and her second full-length poetry book, Malformed Confetti, is forthcoming from Crisis Chronicles Press. In addition to her writing, Cook creates other art too, such as semi-abstract painting/collage art hybrid creatures. She is also the editor of Blood Pudding Press (poetry chapbooks in print) and Thirteen Myna Birds (a poetry focused online blog style lit mag). You can find out more at www.JulietCook.weebly.com.

Margaret Bashaar is the founding editor of Hyacinth Girl Press with co-editor Sarah Reck. Her first book, Stationed Near the Gateway, was published by Sundress Publications in 2015. She has published three chapbooks; Rungs, written with Lauren Eggert-Crowe (Grey Book Press, 2015), Letters From Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel (Blood Pudding Press, 2011), and Barefoot and Listening (Tilt Press, 2009), and has a fourth chapbook, Some Other Stupid Fruit, forthcoming from Agape Editions. Her work has also appeared in or is forthcoming from journals such as The Southeast Review, Rhino, New South, So to Speak, and Copper Nickel, among others. She hails from Pittsburgh where she co-runs the annual arts anarchy event, FREE POEMS, with Rachael Deacon, and works to destroy classism in the literary world in whatever way she can.

Carly Joy Miller’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Adroit Journal, Blackbird, Boston Review, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She has been nominated for a Pushcart and was a finalist for the Stadler Fellowship. She is a contributing editor for Poetry International and a founding editor of Locked Horn Press.

M. Mack is a genderqueer poet, editor, and fiber artist in Virginia. Ze is the author of Theater of Parts (Sundress Publications, 2016) and three chapbooks: Mine (Big Lucks Books, forthcoming 2016), Imaginary Kansas (dancing girl press, 2015), and Traveling (Hyacinth Girl Press, 2015).  Hir work has appeared in such places as cream city review, Hot Metal Bridge, Menacing Hedge, and The Queer South (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2014). Mack is a founding co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an assistant editor for Cider Press Review, and the monster maker behind What Is Reality Plushies.

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2016 AWP Roundtable 6: Manuscript Masseuses and Book Midwives – Shop Talk for Coaches, Aspiring Coaches, and the Writers Who Need Them

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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2016 AWP Roundtable #6: Manuscript Masseuses and Book Midwives – Shop Talk for Coaches, Aspiring Coaches, and the Writers Who Need Them

When a crit group just isn’t enough and you need a professional eye, how do you get expert help without breaking the bank? If you love the idea of working directly with writers, how can you set yourself up as a coach?

In this roundtable, experienced writer-coaches Kristy Lin Billuni, Linda González, and Minal Hajratwala share tips and tricks for building a thriving business, choosing the best coach for yourself, and guiding writers past their blocks and on a path to success.

 

What do writing coaches do? Do you call yourself a coach, teacher, tutor, or what?

Linda González: Coaches assist writers to expand their mental and emotional capacity to live a writer’s life. I help writers understand how their writing fits into their overall lives and then find achievable, heart-driven goals that include both the actual writing and the marketing aspect. Since I coach mostly women and people of color, I connect their platform building to a bigger vision of equity and paying it forward – they easily see that and move to a place of seeing their writing as empowering themselves and others.

Kristy Lin Billuni: I like the word “teacher,” and use it, but I never correct writers or clients when they use other, similar words for me: coach, collaborator, tutor, book-therapist, and many more. I am all these things at different moments in the work, and part of my skill, I think, is being able to understand what the writer and the project need and then filling in that role.

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What does your coaching practice have to do with your own writing?

Minal Hajratwala: Coaching pushes me to be in touch deeply with what I’ve learned over twenty-five years of writing. And I also get to learn continuously, which is fantastic for someone like me working outside the academy. My clients “teach” me things all the time, from new software they’re using to books they recommend to the latest publishing trends they’ve heard about in their genres. Often, in giving a client a suggestion or a writing prompt, I realize that I should try it myself, too. I love being in constant conversation with other writers about process, strategies, structure, narrative issues, sources — all the many complex aspects of creative work.

I have so much compassion for “my” writers as they engage in the valiant struggle — which reminds me to turn that same compassion toward myself, when I might otherwise be tempted to beat myself up about my own work, pace, or process. I only work with people when I feel there’s a good fit, so my clients also come from or become part of my wider writing community. We’re all in it together, ultimately.

Kristy Lin Billuni

Kristy Lin Billuni

What were you doing before you started coaching? How did it prepare you? What made you decide to start coaching writers?

Linda González: I was and still work at times as a facilitative consultant and trainer with organizations seeking to increase their capacity to work collaboratively with a focus on equity. It prepared me because I bring a systems approach to my coaching – seeing a writer in the midst of their own systems (work, family, etc.) – and assisting them to integrate writing as a non-negotiable practice that is their gift to the world.

Kristy Lin Billuni: I started out editing novels for a larger editing company. Some of my editing clients needed bigger-picture support, so, with my boss’s permission, I started freelancing with coaching services for those few clients. Before I knew it, I was doing a lot more coaching than editing, and I was able to launch something on my own. I took a business class for women entrepreneurs, which really helped me take myself and my business more seriously.

When I moved to a new home, a loft in the SoMa district of San Francisco, my clients responded positively to the new space. It’s really true what they say about location being a key to business success. There’s something that feels good to my writer clients about coming to work with me in my “artist loft” in a city and neighborhood associated with creativity.

That’s when I began blogging as the Sexy Grammarian. At first, it was just an experiment to see if I could bring more of my own identity to the work and to see if social media might be a good way to market. Very quickly, I found it was an ideal brand for me in many ways. It drew more of the types of writers I loved closer to me, and it repelled writers who were not a good fit. My client stream shifted dramatically from 100% referral to 50% referral and 50% social media.

I came to teaching through the sexual health education world. So, teaching sex is really what qualifies me to be a teacher. Being a writer myself is probably my greatest qualification for teaching writing specifically. I do have a good, natural editor’s eye, but I really see myself as being an equal to my clients in terms of writing skill, not an authority, necessarily. I think being a writer who sometimes succeeds and sometimes struggles makes me a very good collaborator and teacher for other writers.

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What’s the best thing about being a writing coach? What’s the hardest thing about being a writing coach?

Linda González: The best thing is seeing people shift from a scarcity mentality to one of abundance – seeing their writing life as a long-term process with small steps each day to achieve their goals. I also love to see writers embrace their authenticity and stop – or at least minimize – comparing themselves to others.

When I look out into the writing world and see my writers being published and following their unique paths, that reminds me our work changes individual lives that make a greater impact in the world. The hardest thing is to see how deep some of our limiting beliefs are about our ability to speak out truth in a world that still does not value the arts and even less values women and people of color.

It is also hard to see people decide to spend money on items or experiences that will not support them as much as coaching. It is a powerful choice to be coached and requires a solid belief that you can make your goals a reality.

Minal Hajratwala

Minal Hajratwala

What kinds of questions should a writer ask when considering a coach?

Linda González: Having been a coach for over 15 years and having had 4 coaches myself (3 focused on moving my writing forward), I suggest a writer get clear on pricing, working agreements (e.g. payment, session options in terms of time and spacing, cancellations, expectations), and coaching philosophy. My own philosophy, for example, is based on client-driven goals, multiculturalism, spiritual principles, and life experiences.

More than asking questions, I would suggest a writer ask for a sample coaching consultation to get a feel for how that coach works and if their style will help them resolve the issues they have been unable to solve with their other resources. These sessions are typically offered by coaches and range from 15 minutes to an hour.

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Do you offer any freebies for writers to get to know you?

Minal Hajratwala: Yes, I offer a free 30-minute initial consultation, and I have a free PDF of writing prompts to help people get started.

Kristy Lin Billuni: I offer every writer I meet a free 1-hour session. This has turned out to be an amazing marketing tool. I find I get close to 100% of writers who show up for the free session to agree to more paid sessions with me. It feels good to know that if I can get a writer to see and experience what I do, I can get that writer’s business.

I also just launched a free ebook on my site. And really, my site is full of free content for writers too.

It’s important to have good boundaries as an entrepreneur starting out, to not give away too much of your value for free. By having a few things that I clearly give away for free, I always have an answer to requests for discounts or freebies, and that makes it easier to draw a boundary. I’m currently using the free ebook to teach myself some best practices for selling ebooks, and I am learning a lot with that process.

Linda González

Linda González

What is your pricing structure? Has it changed? What works/ doesn’t work about it?

Kristy Lin Billuni: I charge $150 for a 1-hour session, and I’ll read up to 10 pages of content to prepare for that session if the client wants that. I mostly work in series packages of 4-12 sessions, with the price-per-session getting lower the more sessions the writer commits to. At the 12-session level, the cost goes as low at $108/session. All you have to do to get the package discounts is sign a contract, make a deposit of any size, and pay the balance by the last session. I have no requirements on time lapse, so some clients will race through 12 sessions in a quarter, and others will savor a 4-session package for an entire year. I have no cancellation or rescheduling fees.

My clients love this structure. It feels flexible and generous to them. It does make it difficult for me to predict cash flow.

I’ve recently received feedback from a trusted business coach that I should totally upend this structure and create something more strict, more like a gym model. I’m putting a lot of thought into this idea.

Minal Hajratwala: Pricing is always a work in progress, I think. My structure is similar for 1:1 coaching, partly because Kristy was my role model! I do try to give myself a $5 an hour raise every year or two on my birthday.

I also have “Manuscript Massage” (developmental editing) rates as well as several online courses for writers that I offer at different price points, from $66 to $615. I started teaching my own courses online several years ago, when I moved out of the U.S. The classes have been a fantastic way to work with writers at a lot of different financial access levels and across geographies.

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What advice would you give to a writer who’s ready to start coaching other writers?

Minal Hajratwala: If you want to be a coach, take the plunge! What do you have to lose?

But first, a caution: Make sure you’re doing it because you love working with writers on their writing. Maybe you’re adjuncting and your favorite part is the one-on-one conferences that you’re spending too much time on for too little money? Maybe you’ve been frustrated by peer groups and workshops because you’re always the one with the best advice? Maybe you’re getting requests to “pick your brain,” and you’d love to help, but not for free? Or maybe you feel passionate about the need to help a certain kind of writer or story get out in the world?

Those are all good reasons to try your hand at coaching.

The one bad reason: “I need to make money fast.”

Coaching is not the fast track to money. There is money in it, but money must not be the only reason you’re in it — or you’ll be a terrible coach, do more harm to writers than good, and burn out fast.

Ok, here’s what I’d suggest if you want to dip your toe in:

1. Write up a simple sales page on your website (if you don’t have one, set up an easy free one) that really sells your approach, background, credentials, testimonials if you have them, etc. If you have a particular expertise or niche, mention that; it’s not mandatory, though.

2. Do your research, look at what coaches with comparable experience are charging, and come up with an hourly rate that seems competitive. I personally am a fan of posting rates on my website, because it saves me time in answering queries and recalculating estimates every time, but people vary on that.

3. Set a launch date and create a launch offer. Make the intro deal really juicy and irresistible, like 2- sessions-for-the-price-of-1. (This, by the way, is better than 50% off. You want to work with folks who CAN afford your rate but need a chance to get to know you.)

4. Then turn your sales page into a short email that goes to every! single! person! you know. It doesn’t need to be fancy; you’re a word person, not a graphic designer. Tell them you’re starting up as a coach and they get a discount if they book their editing time by X date, and they can use those hours anytime in the next X months. Include your Paypal info and (sweetly) make it clear that booking a session = paying in advance. In this email, also encourage them to forward / gift / share the deal.

5. During your launch period, spend time in relevant groups being genuinely helpful to writers, without being salesy. Post links to your sales page all over your social media profiles. Bonus if you figure out how to add a cute kitten, cartoon, or meme that will make people share your info.

6. Then see what happens. If you get even one or two clients from this process, you’re in business. Study your success, learn from your failures, take a small business class to learn as much as you can about the path you’re on, and keep going!


Linda González is on the roster of coaches used by LeaderSpring’s Executive Coaching Project and Windcall Residency Program. She has been a featured writer at literary events and fundraisers, has published essays in numerous journals and in three anthologies, and is an active member of Las Comadres para las Americas and Toastmasters. She received her MFA from Goddard College, her BA from Stanford University, and her MSW from the University of Southern California. Her purpose is to work with multicultural wisdom and inspire people of color to embark on a creative journey of balance and healing for this and future generations. www.lindagonzalez.net

Minal Hajratwala is a writing coach, author of the award-winning nonfiction epic Leaving India: My Family’s Journey from Five Villages to Five Continents (2009), and editor of the groundbreaking anthology Out! Stories from the New Queer India (2013). Her latest book is Bountiful Instructions for Enlightenment (2014), published by the (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model press of which she is a co-founder. She graduated from Stanford University, was a fellow at Columbia University, and was a 2011 Fulbright-Nehru Senior Scholar. She is passionate about helping writers unpack internalized oppression and give voice to untold stories. minalhajratwala.com

Kristy Lin Billuni, AKA The Sexy Grammarian is a teacher and a writer. Since 2003, she has coached, tutored, supported, and collaborated with hundreds of writers. Before she edited her first novel, she hustled several very sexy jobs. As her editing business grew, she sensed parallels in her teaching work and her sexy roots. She embraced the idea and called it Sexy Grammar. Cleis Press just published a chapter of her novel, Turning Out, as a short in the collection Bondage Bites. Cosmo recently profiled her story in their “Sex Work” column.

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2016 AWP Roundtable 5: Writing the Tragedy of Others

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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Roundtable #5: Writing the Tragedy of Others with Ellen Sussman, Patrick Hicks, Liz Prato, Ellen Sussman, and Andria Williams.

 

What drew you to the topic of your fiction? Did you begin with the idea of the tragedy first, or the character(s)?

Ellen Sussman (author of The Paradise Guest House; Event: The Bali nightclub bombings of 2002): My husband and I traveled to Bali for a vacation three weeks after the terrorist attacks there. The country was in deep mourning. I was very moved by the spirit of the Balinese people and by the strength of their community. I was also struck by the remarkable beauty of the island. How can you make sense of terrorism in paradise? How could these very peace-loving, compassionate people move forward? By the time I left Bali, I had the first glimmers of the novel I would write.

Patrick Hicks (author of The Commandant of Lubizec; Event: The Holocaust): I was exposed to the Holocaust at a very young age and the knowledge of it completely overwhelmed me. It was, I think, the first time I realized what we are capable of doing to each other, and I had such a hard time wrapping my imagination around the idea of industrialized genocide. As I studied the Holocaust more and more, and as I gave talks about it, the more it occurred to me that many people don’t understand the fundamental difference between a concentration camp, like Dachau or Bergen-Belsen, and the death camps of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. I have strong feelings that a writer’s primary job is to shed light and offer illumination, so I began to wonder how I might write about the death camps. In the three camps I just mentioned, trains would pull into them and within one hour nearly everyone would have been killed. There was no selection process like there was in Auschwitz, and I wanted to write about this, so I began to think of creating a fictitious camp—which I call Lubizec—and it’s an amalgamation of Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec. To answer your question, I began by looking at the tragedy first and then I started to see the souls who perished. This meant I had to imagine the men who ran the camp. And from there, images of The Commandant of Lubizec came to me.

Andria Williams (author The Longest Night; Event: Fatal nuclear reactor accident in Idaho Falls, 1961): I’ve always had a slightly strange interest in nuclear power and stories about the early atomic age. It’s probably rather incongruous with my chipper, Navy-wife persona. I was relieved recently to discover what I think is the genesis of that interest: every summer of my young life, from birth to age twenty, I visited my nanna and uncle in the small beach town of Seabrook, New Hampshire. Seabrook is not only known for being “the tattoo capital of the USA” (at least, according to an episode of ‘Oprah’ on extreme tattooing my mom once saw) but also for its nuclear power plant. The town is small enough that anywhere you drive, you see the round gray dome of the plant off in the mist, reflected in the otherwise-pretty marsh that borders the town. Many times a day—to go for fried clams or lobster rolls, to get groceries, to go play Skee-Ball at the boardwalk—we’d drive past that plant. I’d be sitting in the back of my nanna’s boatlike Monte Carlo at night, slurping down a Dairy Queen, my feet swinging against the leather seats, and there would be the blinking lights of the dome off on the horizon, shimmering on the tide, silent, ever-present. I was never scared of the place (even though my nanna lived within what’s considered the ten-mile “danger zone”), but, other than the big wooden whale in front of Lena’s Seafood, it was certainly the most notable and irregular part of the local landscape.

So power plants must have ingrained themselves in my budding consciousness. When, a few years ago, I heard the story of a nuclear meltdown that had occurred in rural Idaho in 1961, my curiosity was piqued. I realized I’d had some misconceptions about our nuclear history: I’d thought that Three Mile Island was the “major” nuclear accident of our country’s history, and I’d sort of assumed that it had caused some casualties, just because it had been such a big deal at the time. But, thankfully, there were no lives lost at Three Mile Island. Instead, the nation’s first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident had occurred in Idaho Falls, Idaho in January of 1961. I dug into the story, discovering it had been painted for decades as a murder-suicide (with the claim that one of the operators intentionally yanked the main rod out of the core, “knowing” that this would cause it to blow up). This has been almost entirely disproven, though the legend remains. I grew almost righteously indignant on behalf of the three men who died there, three men who were very young, enlisted soldiers with no higher-level supervision as they attempted, in the middle of one of the coldest nights of the year, to re-start a temporarily deactivated reactor which had been giving off warning signs as to its instability for a long time. They were following orders; they were stuck in a situation that, most likely, no one could have come out of alive.

Liz Prato (author of A Proportional Response; Event: The Bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, 1988): My friend, Annie Laureau, lost many close friends in the bombing. She was a Syracuse University student in the London abroad program. She had planned to fly home with her friends on Flight 103, but ended up postponing her flight for the next day. 35 Syracuse students—eight of whom were her close friends—died in the bombing. I ran into Annie at a Chili’s the week after the bombing. She was so numb, barely a shell of a person. We lost contact not long after that, but I was haunted by what it would be like to suffer such a tremendous loss at all, much less as a 20 year old. What does that do to your ability to love? To trust? To feel joy? Finally, in 2008 it occurred to me to google her, to find out where she was and just ask her these questions. So, it was a combination of the particularly magnitude of this tragedy, and my connection to a specific person which informed my story.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks

Why did you choose to write fiction, instead of nonfiction about the event?

Ellen Sussman: I am primarily a fiction writer. I use fiction to get under the surface of who we are and how we feel. At first I was overwhelmed by the tragedy of the bombings in Bali – how could I possibly write deeply about that horrific event? But then I found my story – a young woman who was caught in the terrorist attack returns to Bali a year later to find the man who saved her. I realized that if I told her story well then I might also tell the bigger story.

Patrick Hicks: It quickly occurred to me that if I wrote nonfiction I’d have to set everything in either Treblinka or one of the other death camps. If I did this, I’d be writing history. I’m not an historian though; I’m a fiction writer who happens to care deeply about history. There’s a difference, at least for me. By writing fiction, I was able to explore the emotional landscape of the Holocaust in ways that historical accounts generally don’t allow for. In this way, I was able to get in the minds of the victims and it allowed me the freedom to use the tools of fiction to tell the story in new ways. The narrator’s voice in The Commandant of Lubizec tends to stick with readers long after they’ve closed the book, and the story works, I think, because it reads like history even though it’s fiction. It’s important to add that everything that happens in my fictitious camp either actually did happen in the real camps or could have actually happened in the camps. Through fiction, I was able to make the reader see and care about the victims in ways that historical accounts frequently cannot.

Andria Williams: That part was easy: I only write fiction!

Liz Prato: During the period of time when Annie and I lost touch, fiction was all I had. Often times people respond to someone else’s bad news by saying, “I can only imagine.” That was what I had—my imagination about how one survives that tragedy. I researched the bombing extensively, and attempted several fictional stories about it, but they all fell short on some basic level of storytelling. After I finally reconnected with and interviewed Annie, I wrote an essay about her story that was published by Salon after the convicted bomber was released from prison. But that didn’t exorcise the haunting. To help not just me, but my reader, understand the trauma and the healing, I knew I needed to remove it from the events of the news cycle, and focus on the heart. I originally thought it was going to be an entire novel, but the story “A Proportional Response” came of it, instead.

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Why did you choose your particular characters and their perspective for telling the story?

Ellen Sussman: I wanted to begin with an American so that I could bring my own innocence about Bali to the story. But I wanted her to be touched deeply by what happened – not as a bystander, but as a survivor. And then I chose an American ex-pat, a Balinese man who lost his wife in the bombing, and a young Indonesian boy who didn’t fit in. Each character opened a different door for me, one that would get me closer to telling the whole story.

Patrick Hicks: There’s a chapter in Lubizec called “Numbers” and it allows the reader to see these fully formed lives that are about to get shoved into the gas chambers. I spent a long time creating histories for these minor characters and the reader gets to know them as they are pushed towards the abyss. In this way, even those characters that appear for only a few pages have rich and varied backgrounds. That was my plan because I wanted the reader to feel wounded that they’d been taken from us. The protagonist, Commandant Hans-Peter Guth, is an amalgam of Rudolf Höss, who ran Auschwitz, and Franz Stangl, who ran Treblinka. Two of the prisoners in the novel are also given strong voices and they have the final word in the narrative. I wanted the reader to finish my novel and hear what they had to say from their perspective as survivors. That was very important to me. I also made a conscious decision that the reader would never have direct access to what Commandant Guth was thinking. I wanted to keep him at arm’s length from the reader.

Andria Williams: While I was careful to change details so that no characters in my book have any one-to-one correspondence with anybody involved in the accident, I did take the inspiration for one of my main characters, Paul, from the third man at the reactor, a 27-year-old who had who had only been working on the reactor a few weeks, and who seems to have just been a good guy stuck in a bad situation. The two more “senior” (very relatively speaking) men working the shift with him that night were troublemakers, they didn’t get along; they had a history of fighting and partying and all sorts of things that very young people sometimes get into and generally, given the chance, mature out of. Their rivalry may have been causing them to focus more, that night, on their dislike of one another, and not as much on the reactor as they should have. But this poor third guy was a family man with two very young children, and he was scrambling to do his job, and he was probably looking forward to getting home after his grueling night shift and getting into bed and being woken up by his kids bouncing all over him the following afternoon.

I changed many details, conflating this character with a completely imagined one to come to the character of Paul, whose role in the accident ends up being somewhat different. But I was moved by the idea of someone unintentionally caught up in a mess like this, trying to do the right thing in an impossible situation.

Later, partly because I am a military spouse and because their perspective interested me, I drew the women into the story: two military wives who are at odds, both trying to look out for their husbands’ interests in a way that would pit them against one another. But I wanted them to have a certain understanding, too. I love a good rivalry in fiction, a good ol’ honor code/Western type loyalty war with a smattering of respect between the two parties. This was a small-scale version of that.

Liz Prato: Annie’s story was the one that haunted me. I had no choice but to tell the story of someone with circumstances similar to hers. But I added the character of Randy, the career Navy man, after a friend’s husband who had been in the Strait of Hormuz told me his perspective on what led to the Pan Am plane being bombed. I wished I could put him and Annie in the same room together. That didn’t seem possible in real life, so I based two characters on their experiences, and then put them in a room together.

Andria Williams

Andria Williams

How did you decide when and where to draw lines about when to render facts, and when to fictionalize – both in the telling of events, and in the depiction of character’s lives?

Ellen Sussman: I didn’t do much research before I wrote the first draft. I wanted to create my own characters – not to base them on real people. After I finished that draft, I spent five weeks in Bali. I read many reports on the bombing and I studied the Balinese culture and Balinese Hinduism. My subsequent drafts relied on that research – but my characters were born in my imagination.

Patrick Hicks: It was very important for me to get the history of the Holocaust correct, especially as it related to the Operation Reinhard camps. Some of the micro-stories that appear in my novel were based on real life events, like the murder of a rabbi in Treblinka when he held up a fist of sand and let the grains trickle to the ground. According to one eyewitness, he said something along the lines of, “Do you see what I am doing here, German? You are like dust, but my people will outlive you.” He was then shot in the back of the head. That story of defiance has a lot of power for me. Also, the story of Janusz Korczak—he was an orphanage director who stepped into the gas chambers with some 200 boys in order to care for them until the very last possible moment—that too demanded a retelling. We have no idea what Korczak said or did at Treblinka, and I wanted to give him a voice, so I used fiction to create a character based on him. I’ve also got a number of footnotes in The Commandant of Lubizec. Almost all of them refer to real sources but a few are fictitious. In this way, I nudge the reader to wonder what is real and unreal. A simple internet search will tell them the truth and—who knows?—maybe a few readers will turn to these real life accounts in order to learn more about the death camps. The memoirs and historical accounts of these places are vastly more important than my little book.

Andria Williams: Because the family members of the three men who died at the SL-1 are still alive, and because there is so much murky accusation surrounding what took place that night, I wanted to be careful to present an overview of the event without actually pinning blame on any one character. I also wanted to sketch out the whole fantastical, surreal world of early atomic history for the reader: a time when optimism about nuclear power was off the charts, when scientists were indulged with a limitless budget and an open frontier for their imaginations. You had scientists dreaming up these lofty (sometimes terrific, sometimes totally batty) things and then, on the flip side, the young military technicians who actually had to work those things. I loved that tension. I wanted to give an impression of that.

In an effort to do so, I was liberal with my time frame: I sent Paul to work at Camp Century, the nuclear base built below the polar ice cap in Greenland, four months before it actually would have been completed. But I thought the reader would forgive me, because this allowed me to give an overview of some of the more fantastical elements of the nuclear age: our obsession, for the one thing, with some kind of polar ice cap war-to-end-all-wars. Of course, as history went on to show, every single battle of the Cold War was fought in a nearly tropical climate.

Liz Prato: Even though the root tragedies were based on well-researched events, the lives and characteristics of Libby and Randy are totally imagined. It’s important to make that distinction: Libby and Annie are not the same person, and Annie hasn’t engaged in the same behaviors as Libby. I tried to base her emotional truth on Annie’s and, frankly, some on my own, since by 2011 my entire immediate family (and all my aunts and uncles and grandparents) had died. I could relate to how profound loss changes you on a deep, primal level. But there are some small details Annie told me that I kept—like Annie’s best friend really was wearing an earring of Annie’s when the plane exploded.

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What did you feel your responsibilities were as a writer, and not as an actual survivor, of the trauma? Who did you feel most responsible to?

Ellen Sussman: I felt a strong responsibility to the survivors of the terrorist attacks and to the family of the victims. Mine is a personal story – I was less interested in the political story.

Patrick Hicks: I felt an enormous sense of responsibility to the victims, as well as the survivors. I had to get the history right. I just had to. And as I wrote, I kept asking myself how I might shed light on the death camps. Did you know that nearly two million people died in Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec alone? Fewer than 200 people survived these camps to bear witness and, because of this, we don’t have enough stories to make these camps feel real. There are very few pictures of these places—hardly any photos, to be honest. I wanted to use history and fiction to bring these places into sharper focus and help the reader see these death camps with better clarity. I also wanted to explore the long after-burn of emotional pain that these places caused. What does it mean to carry these images in your head? How do you start a new life after experiencing such overwhelming trauma?

Andria Williams: I felt responsible to the three men who worked the SL-1 the night of the accident, because within hours of their deaths news outlets everywhere reported, like I said, that the accident was a murder-suicide. People even speculated that there was a love triangle going on between two of the men and one of their wives, although that wife was a young Mormon woman eight months pregnant at the time and there is no evidence that she and the other man in question ever even met. Yet this interpretation of the story just will not die. It is too compelling, too sordid. And perhaps in a way it’s comforting, this notion that the magical machine didn’t fail us but one crazy person did.

I also felt a responsibility to tell an uncommon military story. I don’t think the average civilian really realizes how much variety there is to the American military experience. The Longest Night is a novel about soldiers wherein no one fires a single shot. American soldiers are carrying out so many duties, all the time, all over the globe. Some are dangerous. Some are boring as all hell. I think a lot of people would be surprised at how many things people in the military actually do.

And, lastly, though this may be muted in the novel, I felt a responsibility to the idea of the West. There’s no landscape, no place on earth more interesting to me. My main characters, Paul and his wife Nat, arrive in Idaho thinking they’re beginning new lives in a new place, a place blank enough to allow for any sort of imagination. Paul’s starting a career as a nuclear operator, and this, too, seems bold and limitless; headlines of the time, referring to atomic energy and riffing on Ecclesiastes, crowed, “There is something new under the sun!” But Paul and Nat are as much a part of the messy march of humanity as anybody. When they arrive at the Idaho testing station, it’s already been Blackfoot Indian land; a Mormon settlement; the Minidoka internment camp for Japanese-Americans during WWII; a military proving ground; and as of their arrival is the development site for all the major nuclear projects in the United States. If that doesn’t encapsulate the layered strata of history in the West—the land grabs, the power struggles, the manifest destiny and xenophobia and loss and ambition—I don’t know what does.

The 1950s is much-maligned for its supposed conformity, its cheezy optimism that you can erase any personal history you don’t like, that anything can be made sparkling and new. (Certainly, this was a theme in Mad Men.) I loved bumping that up against a place like the West, which people expect to accommodate all of their fantasies—as a place to start over, as a playground for the rich, as the handily absorbent dumping ground for both human disappointment and man-made garbage. But everything comes back around. There is nothing new under the sun.

Liz Prato: I not only feel responsible to every single person who was murdered, but to all their families and friends. And, of course, I feel responsible to Annie. Every time I talk about or write about this story, I feel guilty that I’ve co-opted her tragedy for the purpose of art. I’ve checked in with her about it a few times just to make sure it’s okay. Most of the time, I just have to remind myself that she already told me it was okay.

Liz Prato

Liz Prato

How did you approach that sense of responsibility?

Ellen Sussman: I interviewed many survivors and family members of victims. Their stories informed every decision I made in telling my story.

Patrick Hicks: I did three separate research trips to Poland where I spent considerable time at Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Majdanek. I also spent over thirty hours in Auschwitz. Of course I read many many books and memoirs, but I also interviewed a survivor of Auschwitz for three hours. What he had to say about living with memories of the camp was incredibly powerful for me. In fact, it directly influenced the last thirty pages of The Commandant of Lubizec. Readers and scholars of the Holocaust have since told me that my portrayal of the psychological turmoil is one of the things that makes the novel so memorable. What does it mean to carry the hard weight of these camps in your head? How do you start over after the Holocaust? Some wounds can never heal and, for the survivors, the past is forever dragged into the future. That sense of the past living in the present moment—of the past not being over and done with—was something that I wanted to represent in the narrative. I felt a responsibility to get that right.

Andria Williams: Research, research, and more research.

Liz Prato: I spent about eight hours interviewing Annie, for one thing, and did a ton of research. And I remained clear that I was only telling one person’s story. I know that the parents of Annie’s best friend have a different perspective. They’re still angry and permanently ravaged by grief, and even though they lost the same person as Annie, their story is entirely singular. That was one great thing about finding Patrick – he’d written a fictionalized version of the Lockerbie bombing from the standpoint of the coroner on the ground who had to identify all the bodies and body parts scattered throughout his town. Same tragedy, totally different story. I also realized that once I decided to fictionalize it, the story became something else. It wasn’t Annie’s or mine anymore. It belonged to anyone willing to take it into their hearts. Being true to the human heart is always, first and foremost, my greatest responsibility.

*

Writing about other people’s traumas can, in its own way, cause emotional turmoil. How did it affect you to become so intimate with acts of violence?

Ellen Sussman: I was a victim of a violent rape when I was 18 years old. I didn’t realize when I chose to write about the terrorist attacks in Bali that I would be forced to take myself on a very emotional journey back to that experience. But perhaps that’s one of the reasons I chose the material – on a subconscious level I needed to go there. I know what it’s like to suffer acts of violence – I know what it’s like to make a life for oneself after that moment in time.

Patrick Hicks: I always feel weird talking about this because my own little problems are so tiny in comparison. I wouldn’t have believed that trauma could be contagious, but I’ve come to realize that if you study something for long enough, it nests in your imagination and changes you. When I was writing The Commandant of Lubizec, I had these incredibly vivid nightmares of my family in Auschwitz. I could see greasy black smoke rising up from the crematorium and they were pulled away from me. I’d wake up panting in a cold sweat. This happened throughout the writing of the entire first draft and it got to the point where I was actually nervous about going to bed. Also, whenever I see the Yankees playing baseball now, I think to myself, “Oh look, their uniforms are like the ones in Auschwitz.” Once, when I was in Dublin, I was standing at a train station when a long line of school kids walked past me. They each had a yellow flower pinned to their chest for cancer awareness week, but to me it looked like a yellow star. As they boarded their train and pulled away, my heart turned to water. It’s hard to explain. I guess you could say that I see the Holocaust in color now. I’m reminded of it every day. It’s everywhere.

Andria Williams: The violence in The Longest Night is the diffuse, insidious kind. I did not have the crushing responsibility of writing about the Holocaust, as Patrick Hicks does so well and carefully and beautifully in The Commandant of Lubizec.

I see The Longest Night as being about the violence of the power differential. Every act of violence, to my mind, is a jockeying for power, and in the novel there are power struggles between institutions and workers, bosses and employees, men and women, husbands and wives, white newcomers and ‘Indians,’ people and the land. Sometimes these are manifested as violence. I wasn’t haunted by what I had to write, so much as attuned further to these themes as I was writing. I wrote the novel because I saw them everywhere and I saw them even more as I was writing the novel. It never stops.

Liz Prato: During the years when I interviewed Annie, and wrote the article for Salon, and wrote a draft of the novel that brought me to “A Proportional Response,” my dad and brother were spiraling into fatal mental and physical illness. It was such a raw and stressful time for me, I can’t separate out whatever secondary PTSD emerged from my obsession with the bombing. I did have nightmares about it, and couldn’t listen to or transcribe the interview tapes for six months. Even after I transcribed the tapes, the notes just sat in my computer for another six months. Then, in August 2009, I heard the news that Al Megrahi (the only person convicted of the bombing) was being given an early release from prison on “compassionate” grounds. It was said he had end-stage cancer with only three months to live (he lived another 2 years and nine months). My shock and outrage that he’d only spent 8 years in prison for the murder of 270 people—10 days in prison for each person’s life he took—propelled me beyond whatever emotional turmoil immersing myself in the original events might cause. Besides, if Annie could survive what she went through, then I could survive writing about her pain and loss. That’s what so much of my writing is about—surviving pain and loss.

Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman

Writing about these tragedies surely made you more compassionate to the survivors and victims. Did it, in any way, change your feelings about or understanding of the perpetrators?

Ellen Sussman: No. At one point I tried to include a character that was involved with the terrorist group that planned and executed the attacks. I just couldn’t get under his skin. I decided that I couldn’t write about him without any compassion. And so his story is not a part of the novel.

Patrick Hicks: That’s a really tough question. I don’t have sympathy for the perpetrators but I do see the larger issues of history at work. That is to say, I better understand how World War I influenced the growth of Nazism. If anything, writing Lubizec has complicated things for me because I now recognize that these agents of death had the capacity to love. They loved their wives and sons and daughters. They loved their pets. They loved their horses. And yet when it came to offering clemency and mercy to the Jews, they made a fist of their hearts. How? How could they do this? And as the years passed, did they have even one iota of regret? The answer to this question, at least for many of them, was “no.” That chills my soul.

Andria Williams: The “perps,” to use a word I enjoy, are the most fictionalized people in the novel, so my feelings about them didn’t really change. But I did start to understand how someone like Mitch Richards, basically a peon within the system but still overseeing several people, could put aside the glaring truth of a reactor going bad out of sheer desire for self-preservation. Everyone’s options are limited.

Still, that said, I enjoyed making Mitch an unlikable villain, and slightly stupid. Unfortunately, a lot of people in positions of power are just mind-blowingly stupid. It’s a truth of life, and may be far more dangerous than any nuclear reactor alone could be.

Liz Prato: Not really, because we still have such a lack of understanding about who really did it—much less why they did it. The only why I’ve ever been able to come up with is politics and war games, and I can’t be compassionate to that. I can only be compassionate to the people who’s souls are mangled by them. I’ve been watching the Frontline documentary “My Brother’s Bomber,” which follows a man’s multi-year journey to track down the men responsible for murdering his brother and the other people killed in Lockerbie by the bombing. When he showed close up pictures of the primary suspects, deep in the pockets of Kaddafi, I didn’t see human beings looking back at me. I saw cold eyes, cold souls.

*

How did writing about these events change you?

Ellen Sussman: My journey since my rape has been a long one. I thought most of the hard work was done. But writing this novel made me look at the aftermath of violence in a new way. I was so touched by the grace of the Balinese people and the way in which their belief system helped them to cope with tragedy. I don’t have that belief system. But understanding it and learning about their lives has given me a much greater sense of faith and a stronger belief in the power of community.

Patrick Hicks: I often get this question, and it’s a good one. After all, you can’t swim around in the dark waters of the Holocaust without it changing you in some way. I appreciate the beauty and temporality of life in a renewed way, and I’d like to think I’m more gentle with people than I used to be. Rather than worrying about the small things, I try to focus on the big things that make life worth living: family, community, peace. These were things the victims of the Holocaust once enjoyed and they probably took them for granted—it’s easy to do—and then something came along and smashed their lives apart. I’m more vigilant about the forces that would cause us pain and I’m aware that hatred can grow just as fast as love.

Andria Williams: I would say that writing about the SL-1 made me feel both that nuclear power is safer than I thought, and that it has more potential for damage than I imagined. The Fukushima accident happened as I was writing the novel, and what was notable about that (for me) was that the Fukushima reactor was the same kind as the SL-1: a boiling-water type reactor. It’s a design that goes back to the late 1950s. (This shows how much scientific innovation occurred during this time, that we are still using basically the same technology those early scientists developed in Idaho seventy years ago.) It was painful, while writing about the SL-1, to see people scrambling to control the reactor at Fukushima. Nuclear power is so clean and safe, you know, until it isn’t.

Writing the novel did not make me opposed to nuclear power. After all, my husband works on aircraft carriers, and the aircraft carrier is one of the most impressive and successful models of nuclear usage I can think of. But learning more about the SL-1, and trying to convey its importance to the public, made me reach a point where I think we should apply the Hippocratic “Do No Harm” ethos to our scientific innovations, as well. Should we ban nuclear power outright? No, I don’t think so. Coal, I believe, is far worse for our environment, and for its own workers, than nuclear power has ever been. But should we exhaust every possible alternative first, before nuclear or coal, in an ascending level of risk? Yes, I think so. We have other options. We are smart, even though we try to crush this intelligence at every turn in favor of whatever’s easier. We’ve had some good ideas since 1959. Let’s use them.

Liz Prato: Every time I learn about any kind of loss –whether it’s my own, or someone else’s—I’m completely awestruck that we survive. I’m also amazed by how mangled the popular narrative about grief and survival is. In reality, it doesn’t happen easily, quickly, or even completely. The reality is not so much about getting over or moving on from a loss, but about how it changes who we are, fundamentally. The real narrative is how we must make the decision to be that changed person in a changed world. That’s surviving.


Ellen Sussman is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, A Wedding in Provence, The Paradise Guest House, French Lessons, and On a Night Like This. She is the editor of two critically acclaimed anthologies, Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave and Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. EllenSussman.com

Patrick Hicks is the author of nearly ten books, including The Collector of NamesAdoptable, This London, and the critically acclaimed, The Commandant of Lubizec. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals including Ploughshares, The Georgia ReviewNew Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, and many others. A winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Award, he is also the recipient grants from the Bush Artist Foundation, the South Dakota Arts Council, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A dual-citizen of Ireland and America, he is the Writer-in-Residence at Augustana University as well as a faculty member at the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.

Liz Prato is the author of the new short story collection, Baby’s on Fire. Her writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Rumpus, Hunger Mountain, The Butter, Subtropics, and others. In 2012 she was a Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference. She teaches and presents at literary festivals across the country. LizPrato.com

Andria Williams attended UC-Berkeley (B.A. English) and the University of Minnesota (M.F.A. – Creative Writing). Her first novel, The Longest Night, is forthcoming in January 2016 (Random House). It’s received a starred review in Booklist and was listed as a “January Title to Watch” by Library Journal. The Longest Night is a fictionalized take on the US’s first and only nuclear reactor accident, which occurred Jan. 3rd, 1961 in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

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2016 AWP Roundtable 4: Little Lies/Little Truths: At the Intersection of Lyric and Narrative

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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Three practitioners of the brief lyric narrative share insights about keeping their work short AND fully realized. A lively discussion moderated by Ilyse Kusnetz will take place about how the panelist authors identify primarily with a single genre (fiction or poetry), yet also choose to write and edit short work that straddles forms. Panelists will explore how current publishing embraces not-so-easily-categorized pieces. The session concludes with attendees writing postcard stories.

Alright, fellow poets, fiction, and non-fiction writers (or combo of all three!), we’re going to treat this panel as if we’re sitting around a table, sharing our lively thoughts and reading our work to each other in short snippets.

*

Can you please tell me what you think constitutes “a brief lyric narrative” as we called it in our panel proposal? Some writers use the term “short-short” or state their work is prose poetry. Nowadays, the term “flash” is pretty flashy.

Sarah Freligh: I recently reviewed the new anthology Flash Fiction International for Brevity and found it interesting that aside from a few mentions of “fiction” in their Introduction, the editors refer to the selected pieces as “flash,” a reluctance on their part perhaps to corral these works into the small pen of a specific genre. The suggestion then is that “flash” transcends genre, that the best works are hybrids combining craft aspects of both prose and poetry, i.e. the narrative urge of prose with the lyric economy of poetry.

A prose poem, however, is not tied to conflict, time, and consequence the way a story is; the prose poem instead owes its allegiance to aspects of poetic craft, most especially sonic devices. While some prose poems ARE stories (I’m thinking here of Carolyn Forche’s “The Colonel”), most are not bound by the cause/effect of narrative and its insistence on conflict as both ignition and fuel.

Cate McGowan: A brief lyric narrative tells me a story with such lovely imagery and compressed metric language that I can divide it into lines and sell it as a poem. That’s when I know I have something.

Yes, Sarah! Note my short answer above versus your lovely explanation? I think both are relevant, but which answer do I prefer? Well, of course, yours. But note that many times I can’t take a poem and make it into a story. The way you describe poetry versus flash fiction captures the struggle I am currently having. Last week, I sent in two stories to a flash fiction journal. One was a poem on which I’d removed the line breaks. The other began its life as a story. Which one do you think was accepted? The story. Of course, I promptly changed the converted poem back to a “real” poem with line breaks and stanzas. The darn thing had no conflict, but aurally it has substance and the cause and effect to which you refer.

Sarah Freligh: Yes, an ear for the cadence and sound of language, definitely. Perhaps the shorter the piece, the more important language becomes?

Karen Craigo: I absolutely agree—with brevity, every morpheme or phoneme becomes essential. There is no room to mess around.

Sarah

Sarah Freligh

Please share a very short piece of your own. This might be a few paragraphs or a stanza (or a complete story or poem) that you think exemplifies a fully realized world or concept. It might be a work-in-progress or a published piece, whatever speaks to our theme of crossing genres in fewer words.

Karen Craigo: “Working the Retriever”

This machine we called the Retriever operated on belts. It was always moving, brought metal bins from the sub-basement, a giant room, though I never once saw it, but sent maintenance there ten times a night: a bin offline or upended, gumming up the works, patient charts scattered among the gears. I was a clerk then, six bucks an hour, good money for a summer gig that was mainly easy, if dull. When all went well, I stuck lab reports or X-rays in the record, one folder, one bin at a time. I was alone at my machine, plenty of downtime to view platelet counts or photos of kidney stones, or to note the penned-in tumor on the diagram of a breast. But sometimes, a crisis: a patient in the ER, unresponsive on the table, unspecified cause of morbidity. I had to act fast, find the chart with the allergy, the condition, the med that contradicts, and haste meant everything. Once or twice a doctor shadowed my chair, both of us rigid and listening to the old motor strain. But the Retriever kept its own time, and somewhere deep below it made a grab, haphazard, and lurched the data skyward. Finally, there on the conveyor, the bin, its fifty records, among them the one with the answer or with none, filed, one hoped, correctly, all the info laid out with care, anchored in place by a little piece of tape.

Sarah Freligh: “We Smoke” was the winner of the 2015 Sycamore Review Flash Contest, but it’s also included in my book of poetry. Like any story should, it introduces a conflict up front: the mysterious “we” (and we read on to learn their identities) are smoking in defiance of the nuns’ edict that they not do so. The act of smoking, too—I hope—becomes more significant when we learn that “we” are pregnant, unmarried young women and are carrying children that they will give up for adoption at birth. Smoking, then, is both defiant AND a denial as well as a way to cement their community. They smoke as a way to ignore Ruby the Waitress who in effect sides with the nuns that giving up their children is a good thing. They smoke in the bathroom at night at the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers, the only place where they take ownership of—however temporarily—the children they’re carrying. In the end, they smoke as a way to avoid the inevitable. So the repetend of “We smoke” provides unity in the manner of a prose poem, but also moves the narrative forward in a (I hope) story-like way, an arc if you will. “We Smoke”:

We smoke because the nuns say we shouldn’t—he-man Marlboros or Salems, slender and meadow fresh, over cups of thin coffee at the Bridge Diner. We fill an ashtray in an hour easy while Ruby the waitress marries ketchups and tells us horror stories about how her first labor went on for fifty-two hours until her boy was yanked out of her butt first and now she has this theory that kids who come out like that got their brains in their asses from Day One. She says we’re smart to give our babies away to some Barbie and Ken couple with a house and a yard with real grass and a swing set, and we nod like we agree with her and smoke some more.

Nights we huddle up under the bathroom window in the Mercy Home for Unwed Mothers and blow smoke at the stained sky while we swap stories about our babies doing handstands on our bladders, playing volleyball with our hearts, how our sons will be presidents or astronauts, and our daughters will be beautiful and chaste, and because we know our babies are not ours at all, we talk about everything and nothing while we watch a moth bang up against the light and smoke some more.

Cate McGowan: Here’s a recent short piece: “Waiting for the Northbound Trolley”

Wearing silt-stained slacks and smelling like a Saturday of swabbing decks, I stand on the sidewalk sipping my Colt. I roll up my sleeves, hair on my arms prickling in the ocean breeze, and gaze at the asphalt pinkened by a neon marquee. Venus, blue and fecund, winks and flirts high on the horizon.

At 11:42, the trolley hisses to a stop, late as always, and Miss Emmie Travis hops off, carrying a knapsack bulging with sodas and romance novels; she shuffles by me, head down, slow to begin her weekend cleaning. She staggers toward the hotel, then disappears into the parking lot. And like a lonely bugle reveille, her arrival sends me bumbling back to the ABC to buy another 40 just so I can hear the cashier girl say, “Wait. Don’t you want your change?”

*

Does your piece include little lies or little truths? A combination? (Remember, that was our panel title!)

Karen Craigo: Mine is very truthful, actually, or tries to be. Maybe I’m overstating the heroism of the medical records clerk a little—my job was seldom truly vital, almost never life-or-death, and my dealings with doctors were infrequent, to say the least. Looking it over, though, I’m struck by the almost journalistic accuracy of the thing. This was a weird, hard-to-describe piece of equipment, but by damn, I did my best.

Sarah Freligh: I like how “The Retriever” becomes a realized character through action and description.

Both little lies and little truths. I’m not saying what’s what and where!

Cate McGowan: There is no truth here, except forbidden love has driven me to drink! Really, though, in my own life, I would reckon that longing is the most painful experience a person can have. It comes in many guises: longing for lost love; longing for dead or dying relatives, spouses; longing and regret for lost opportunities. The possibility that I could have been different, could have chosen a different path at every junction haunts me. So I guess that piece is indeed a little truth, a little lie. The speaker feels such love for Miss Emmie, and yet… yet… he/she is invisible to all but the cashier. I have been in that place, for sure.

Wow. I don’t care if Karen’s or Sarah’s pieces are truth or lies. They are beautiful. One thing I note was their repetends and phrases (and Sarah points hers out, too—thanks!). And I think someone who wants to write flash needs to know those are mighty weapons in the arsenal. Karen and Sarah do that and more.

And Karen, I don’t think you are overstating the heroism of the clerk. This heroism takes the guise of patience. More than anything you are showing us that everything matters, even the (note the proper noun) Retriever, whose godlike mechanized slow-motion reminds us of how life and the world continues to move one second at a time, no faster, no slower, no matter how much we want it to operate differently. And life ends in death. I felt like I was watching a methodical angel of death.

Sarah, what can I say? That first-person plural narrator is indeed rebellious in revealing its truths. But also, the anaphora is brilliant, relying on aural effects just as poetry does. But the repetition does something else, too. By repeating over and over that they smoke, they are just pregnant girls who are trying to justify their actions and loss, make sense of how they are stuck in this awful place. The more they tell me the reasons they smoke, the less I am inclined to believe their brazen flippancy.

Sarah Freligh: Yeah, that’s the arc I was hoping for, that with each repetition “We smoke” and the revelations that follow, the reader is closer to the “truth” of these girls, closer to understanding their motivation. So maybe that’s another aspect of flash fiction, that because these pieces are just that – pieces of a longer narrative — the narrative is filled in by the reader who, by seeing the larger picture, understands more than the character can. Or will.

Karen Craigo: Geesh, I’m with the right people! Love these pieces and your explanations of them. My own understanding of flash is expanding as we write this!

Karen

Karen Craigo

Can you explain how or why when you wrote this work that you felt the need to compress it?

Karen Craigo: This is actually part of a series of poems on the topic of work and money, and just as “The Retriever” refused to do its job faithfully in real life, it also refused to fall in place as a poem. In a practical sense, a prose piece breaks up the lineated poems nicely—but I don’t consider this a poem at all. I think it feels very much like a short essay. I will say that avoiding line breaks seemed like a concrete poetry move to me—this was a conveyor belt that was constantly moving (until it broke), and thus one line or one sentence dissolves into the next without any indication—just like that belt went by me for so many summer midnight shifts, the only thing in the room for me to look at.

Sarah Freligh: Work and money, so topical. And yet few poets seem to address this anymore, the gigantic elephant in the room that unites all of us, regardless to color, ethnicity, age or gender.

Would enjambed lines create a similar forward motion, conveyor belt sensation?

“We Smoke” started as a poem. There was a stanzaic arrangement and lineation that felt as if it was working against the voice of the speaker/narrator. The form essentially was throttling possibility. Once I freed it from the imposition of form, the voice began to move into the driver’s seat and a multitude of voices emerged. There’s the nuns who appear as hearsay, “say we shouldn’t” smoke. There’s Ruby the waitress with her own two-cents worth of indirect dialogue and there is the “we” and what they’re telling each other in the bathroom at night when they smoke. In the end, what they don’t say is loudest of all, lingering in the air like the smoke must have. That voice thing, I don’t think that would have happened if I’d been occupied with line breaks and sound rather than voice.

Cate McGowan: Well honestly, the more I write, the shorter and more dense my work has become. I find my published work, including most of the stories in my recently published collection, bloated. My instinct is to cut it all down to the bare minimum, to the essence of emotion. As Chekhov once wrote to Gorky, “[S]hun all descriptions of the characters’ spiritual state. You must try to have that state emerge clearly from their actions. Don’t try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.”

Mine started out as poem, and it’s been in my discard pile for years, but it has conflict or a complication, something a story needs, something we have all said here. “Waiting” is not nearly as finished as Sarah’s and Karen’s pieces, so who knows what will happen to it? I may expand it. Or I might revert it back to a poem.

Karen’s piece does feel concrete. Her use of phrase after phrase, those long sentences that make me breathless by the time I get to the end, the slow, methodical trail of words, really all mimic the Retriever. Wow, yes, I get that!

Sarah, it’s the voices that get me every time. They usually control my own work. My narrators and characters speak to me and keep me up at night.

*

Do you have any tips for those who are interested in trying this concentrating and combining in their work?

Karen Craigo: I don’t think you can choose just any topic for the brief lyric narrative form. So many topics call for details and development. A short piece needs to be contained, pretty much, in a small space, and thus the form invites one to present an image, more or less, instead of a conventional story. I do best when something in the story is mimicked by brief prose, like this one which is an unbroken chunk of text. It is suggestive of the ever-rolling conveyor belt, and of the dense information found in a charge.

Sarah Freligh: Start with a first line that contains a conflict and a bit of mystery. There’s your flame. Now throw some dry wood on your small fire, i.e., complications. Compress time (a year in five sentences, say) or expand time (a minute’s worth of “real time” told in 250 words).
Once you’ve got your structure, what seems to you like a story, go back and examine each word. Your nouns should be vivid and specific, rather than vague and general, while your verbs should convey to the reader both the “what” of the action as well as the “how.” Why say “Sarah walked slowly into work” when you could say “Sarah trudged into work.” We get the slow walk, but we also understand Sarah’s attitude toward work. “Trudge” sounds exactly like what it is. I trudged into work too many days to count.

Finally, read it out loud for the sound of individual words as well as your syntax. Does it speed up where it should slow down, punch where it should soothe? Words do that. Phrases and sentences do that. Listen.

Cate McGowan: Yes, I cut unnecessary adverbs, adjectives, endings, and beginnings—these are all methods I learned from my buddy, Chekhov. I really obsess over each word, making sure it needs to be in a piece. As a way to improve or manipulate meaning, I creatively employ stanza or paragraph breaks, interesting punctuation, and half-scenes.

Sarah Freligh: Yes, Chekhov—one of Raymond Carver’s “instructors” and Carver was, like Hemingway, a master at omission. I recently re-read “The Lady and the Dog” and was amazed at the ending, the protagonist’s epiphany and how redemptive it was, in only 18 pages of text. Yet not a fall note in the story. That’s concision.

Cate McGowan: What Sarah and Karen say! Wow, you ladies are amazing. I also love using in medias res—starting in the middle and ending there. I avoid too much exposition. Ambiguity is necessary for any work to intrigue a reader, but it shouldn’t obfuscate meaning; it should expand it.

Cate

Cate McGowan

Have you ever felt limited by your primary genre? Does writing a shorter piece free you to explore other forms? Is there value in this? Can you explain?

Karen Craigo: My primary genre is poetry, although I’m very invested in nonfiction, too. For me, poetry is a rather honest genre, but it includes more artifice than prose does, at least when I wield it. The essay lets me get personal—lets me get honest. When you see “me” in a poem, it’s poem-me. The “I” that inhabits my essays, though—well, that’s I—me. Karen. K-Dawg, as my students call me. I go to the prose form when I’m at my most raw and honest. I almost can’t believe the personal details I’ve revealed in my prose—things that would be suggested by symbol or metaphor within the bounds of a poem, but that are full-on confessions in prose. This is not a function of length for me (although I seem to be incapable of writing long essays—far too taxing, I think).

I was a journalist for about a decade in one of my earlier incarnations. Maybe I’m constitutionally unable to be less than truthful in prose.

Sarah Freligh: I think writing short-short fiction has made me a better poet. Writing poetry has made me a better writer of fiction, short and long. I think War and Peace could be 1,000-plus pages, but also three paragraphs (Try it. I dare you).

Cate McGowan: Yes, yes, yes! I am now considering eschewing fiction and pursuing poetry. In fact, I’ve applied to a few programs. I started in poetry and always thought I stunk. Now that I have had my adventure in fiction, I am brave. I can finally pursue my heart’s desire. Writing poetry to me is more difficult than fiction. It may not be as time consuming, as I revise, revise, revise everything. And revising two stanzas is a little more freeing than revising a twenty-page story. However, the problem with poetry is that the poet has to turn the combination lock just the right way. A few turns to the right, then hit the spot, a few turns to the left, then the sweet spot again. If a poet misses the mark, the lock will not open. I have to get it right from the start. That’s terrifying. But also, yes, rewarding if I do find the right formula.

*

In your experience, is the publishing industry open to this type of hybridization or the spanning of forms? Do you think it’s relevant to classify work as a specific type of genre or sub-genre? Or is it limiting? Can you provide examples of any experiences you’ve had publishing a short-short, crossover, or not-so-easily categorized work? Are there any publishing outlets you like that are taking chances with more experimental forms?

Karen Craigo: The publishing industry seems to like hybrid forms when it comes to short work. It can be a little trickier to publish a book of short prose, I think—no one is really asking to see those manuscripts, which may be even less marketable than poetry, if that’s possible.
If I can speak candidly beyond the publishing sphere, I could tell you about a major grant I won from a state arts council several years back. I was pushing up to the deadline, nothing was coming together, and then I remembered a friend who won a larger grant by submitting her fiction as nonfiction. (The state offered a major and a minor grant, $10,000 or $5,000, and she won the major grant.) Well, guess what? I took a bunch of poems, knocked out the line breaks in about ten minutes on Microsoft Word, put one to a page, and submitted the whole mess as creative nonfiction. Bang! Major award. Ten-thousand dollars for referring to de-lineated poems as essays. Very innovative, the judges said. It was nothing I hadn’t been doing for years, though, and consistently not winning anything with those pesky line breaks in place.

Sarah Freligh: I’ll pass on this one. I think those who are more published can answer this more succinctly.

Cate McGowan: No, the publishing industry wants what it wants. I have no clue what is acceptable any more. Readers should drive the market, but unfortunately, like everything else, the corporate heads make the decisions. The public is dumbed down as a result. Heck, change a setting and some names, and you have every mainstream novel out there. I tried to read Beckett the other day and could not believe how amazing it was. And I realized that few people would read him. Why use a fork and chew when someone spoon feeds you? There are indie publishers out there trying to get the public’s attention. Flash fiction has potential because, as everyone says, in this information age with the glut of images, ideas, and stories out there, we have to catch a reader’s attention quickly AND hold that attention. A 150-word story is better at capturing the average person’s gaze than maybe a Beckett novel. Though, I do love my Beckett!

I like the online flash fiction publishers and those that take chances. I’m thinking of the New Flash Fiction Review (disclaimer, I was just asked to edit for them). University publishers, such as mine, Moon City Press (Missouri State University), are looking for innovation. Thank goodness Moon City took a chance on me!

Sarah Freligh: The short prose form is immensely challenging for the reader, but if the writer is not experimenting for the sake of experimenting—“no tricks,” as Raymond Carver once said—then the short-short can contain the world of a novel with the gut punch of a poem. But so much is left to the silence and the white space, and that can be daunting for many readers who don’t pay close attention to the text. The short form commands attention, and sadly, reading attention has become fragmented and shortened.

Ilyse

Ilyse Kusnetz

For our grand finale, let’s do three things. First, provide a short prompt to help a writer produce a postcard story or poem. The final product should be no more than 75 words, let’s say. Then, and this is a dare, write your own responds to your prompt in thirty minutes or less. If you’re willing to get a little naked, include your rough draft here—try not to tweak it too much. Let’s keep these as close to first drafts as we can so that readers might see our own messy beginnings. Last, please comment a little about your process as you wrote and produced your postcard piece. (Please note that I am not the best at explaining my processes, and I’m not expecting a how-to). I think readers will be thrilled to read about our creation steps!

OPTION A: Sarah Freligh’s Prompt

I have a bunch of picture postcards featuring people doing people things. Postcards of Edward Hopper paintings (the people ones, not the landscapes) are good for this exercise as there’s a sense of mystery to them; we write to find out what that woman, wearing only her brown shoes, is doing sitting on a chair in front of an open window.
So the prompt is, draw a postcard from the pile, study it for a minute and then write a story in its entirety on the back of the card.

OPTION B: Generate your own prompt and write to it! Sky’s the limit!

Karen Craigo: I chose Option B, just because I don’t have a handy stack of postcards (although I love that prompt!). My thinking is this: short is good for the hard-to-say, like confessions or apologies or things you don’t dare to wish. Lyrical is good for hiding in plain sight—for obfuscating the life-truth while telling the absolute lyrical gospel. So here’s my prompt: Confess the worst thing in you, but restrict yourself to metaphor for the telling. (As an aside, I’d like to note that seventy-five words is only slightly more than no words.) “A Week Before Jack”

The toddler wants in the pumpkin, which he carries from room to room. Sometimes he’ll sit on the carpet, pull the stem, bite it, then turn to me and say, Open, Mom, open. But it’s not time to open the pumpkin. Give us eyes and we lose something—reason, will. We empty through the eyes, the mouth, the top of the head. It’s better this way, I tell him, but still he cries and pulls.

I have a habit of jumping the gun, not biding my time, and maybe I’ve passed it down in my genes. The pumpkin is my confession. This poem is dedicated to every soggy-centered cake I’ve ever eaten.

Sarah Freligh: I have a bunch of picture postcards featuring people doing people things. Postcards of Edward Hopper paintings (the people ones, not the landscapes) are good for this exercise as there’s a sense of mystery to them; we write to find out what that woman, wearing only her brown shoes, is doing sitting on a chair in front of an open window.
So the prompt is, draw a postcard from the pile, study it for a minute and then write a story in its entirety on the back of the card.

Here’s my attempt in 100 words, prompted by the picture postcard of a woman happily eating an ice cream cone: “Hot Out”

Aunt Fran sounded happier in Tucson than when she lived upstate. The sun was out often. AND NO SNOW! she wrote in loopy letters that cartwheeled across the page. The temperature was 98, but that was dry heat, no humidity.

Months went by and we didn’t hear anything. Then she wrote to say she was suffocating. God must be punishing her.

My father flew out and took care of it. All the burials and the questions: Had she been troubled? What kind of mother would drown her three kids?
The water was cold, my father said. It was hot out.

Cate McGowan: I went with Option A, Sarah Freligh’s prompt. I was inspired by the Edward Hopper painting, Automat. It took me about 15 minutes, not sure if it works, but here goes (funny, our titles are similar): “Look Out”

Pedestrians purled by in clumps. Over the snowy thoroughfare, the streetlights perched like long-necked shorebirds.

She worried. Yes, she’d given him the best blowjob he’d ever received. He’d said that. They sat in his car outside the mini-mart, and then she pushed him inside her.

“Need anything else?” The waitress dropped the check on the table and didn’t wait for an answer. Evie reached into her pocket, picked at the corner of his letter nestled in there; she knew what it said—no need to read it.

She slurped her tea, studied homeward bound commuters maelstromming outside on the sidewalk. She watched them the same way one might peer into a wildlife-filled aquarium.

I like this piece better now than the one I included in question 2, “Waiting on the Northbound Trolley.” As I said earlier, I like writing to a female/male tension and conflict (thank you, Anton!). OK, I went over a little, darn it. But isn’t writing flash about breaking some rules? Imagery is important to me, as is the richness of language, so I looked at the painting, and it is like the subject’s in a fishbowl, so I tried to use water descriptions or allusions. And Evie is the perfect name for a female, after all, Eve was the first female. In a later draft, I want to include that the woman is only wearing ONE glove, but that’s for a subsequent effort. I might play with the order of things here, too. It’s non-linear, but I like it!


Karen Craigo is the author of No More Milk, forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2016. She teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri.

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Poetry Prize, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky, Her poems and short stories have appeared in many literary journals, including Sun Magazine, Sycamore Review, Rattle, Brevity, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and have been featured on Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.” Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a poetry grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006, and a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts in 1997.

Poet and journalist Ilyse Kusnetz (panel moderator) is the author of Small Hours (2014), winner of the T.S. Eliot prize from Truman State University Press and The Gravity of Falling (2006). She earned her MA in creative writing from Syracuse University and her PhD in contemporary feminist and post-colonial British literature from the University of Edinburgh. Her poetry has appeared in Crab Orchard ReviewThe Cincinnati ReviewCrazyhorseStone CanoeRattle, and other journals and anthologies. She teaches at Valencia College and is married to the poet Brian Turner.

Cate McGowan is the author of the story collection, True Places Never Are (Moon City Press, 2015), which won the 2014 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. A Georgia native whose flash been anthologized in W. W. Norton’s Flash Fiction International, she’s contributed fiction and poetry to many literary publications, including Glimmer TrainCrab Orchard Review, and the English fashion magazine, Tank. Cate’s been an editor for the Louisville Review and SFWP and an arts writer and essayist for national outlets. She’s currently the Senior Editor for New Flash Fiction Review. Named a top college professor on Rate My Professors.com, McGowan teaches writing in Florida.

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2016 AWP Roundtable 3: A Place at the Table: The Art of Creating Writing Communities

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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How do you move from being a writer in the corner to a writer at the table? Writing may happen in solitude, but careers are built on community. This panel will explore how to create accessible writing communities—particularly among marginalized, underserved and non-traditional writers—where members provide feedback and share information about craft, publication, and more. Panelists will discuss existing resources for developing platforms and cultivating support in real and virtual communities.

How do writers find communities for peer support, mentorship, and inspiration, especially if they face geographical, social, or cultural barriers? This panel will provide vital information about how to build such connections through virtual learning, social movements, local writing groups, and online platforms. Panelists include prose writers, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters who have made it their mission to build communities that are inclusive, dynamic, and responsive to their members.

 

Tell me briefly how you came to writing.

Shaula Evans: I was an early and voracious reader. I wrote plays that my neighbourhood friends performed on the stage my father built in our basement. My brother and I also made up horror stories and recorded them on a cassette player; we’d play them back in the dark and scare ourselves to death. I had a disheartening experience with a university creative writing class that turned me off creative writing for many years, but I came back to creative writing as the house writer for a theatre group and I’ve been writing in a range of forms and styles ever since. When I lived in Japan, I was editor-in-chief for three monthly journals (in English, Japanese, and Portuguese) and wrote non-fiction for a number of publications, which was my start in post-academic non-fiction writing and editing.

Ashley C. Ford: I’ve always loved storytelling, and for a long time I assumed I would go into acting. It wasn’t until my Sophomore year of college that I realized I could give this writing thing a shot. I was quite content once I changed my major to English, but when I took my first class for creative nonfiction, I fell in love.

Colette Sartor: I came to writing as an adult looking for a way out of an ill-chosen career as an entertainment lawyer. While I was still practicing law, I took classes at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and at USC’s MPW program. I finally realized that I wouldn’t take writing seriously until I left law altogether. Once I quit, I spent a year writing, taking classes, and applying to graduate school, and then spent two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop completing my MFA. It was only in graduate school, though, surrounded by a community of writers who took themselves seriously and who were as in love with the written word as I was, that I started calling myself a writer.

Leigh Stein: At 19, I moved to New York City to go to acting school, and instead of getting close to the other students in my program, I spent a lot of time alone in my dorm room posting stories and poems to my LiveJournal. I had my first short story published that year and realized that I could pursue this other thing I loved (writing).

Colette Sartor

Colette Sartor

Tell me about a specific community that has been critically important to you along the way.

Shaula Evans: I am deeply indebted to Francis Ford Coppola for the Zoetrope.com website he launched in 1998, which hosted a vibrant and dynamic community of screenwriters, poets, and short story and flash fiction writers. I was an active member in the early days of the site where I had the opportunity to learn from incredibly talented people. Those years were highly prolific for me, in no small part because of the stimulation and feeling of momentum that came from being around people passionate about writing.

Ashley C. Ford: The community of writers I’ve met and made online have been essential to any success I’ve had as a writer. I met my mentor, Roxane Gay, online in 2010. Since then, I’ve been building community as authentically as I can, and trying to be as supportive as they are to me.

Colette Sartor: Both UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and The Iowa Writers’ Workshop have been essential to my development as a writer. As a student at UCLA Extension, I worked with gifted teachers who encouraged me and supported my decision to attend grad school. I also met lifelong friends with whom I formed a writers’ group that still meets today.

It was at Iowa, though, where I started thinking of myself as a writer. The beauty of being in an MFA program is that you become part of a community where people live, breathe, and talk writing. We compared ass-in-the-chair time. We read each other’s work and argued passionately over whether our characters were believable enough, real enough, driven enough by desire. Plus, many of the people I met in grad school became lifelong friends, the way my UCLA Extension friends did.

And writer friends are an essential part of being a writer. The actual act of writing may be a solitary endeavor, but on every other level, writing can be a communal experience. I rely on my community of writers—whether from UCLA Extension, Iowa, my UCLA Extension writers’ group or my writers’ group formed by women who attended my college—for advice, support, honest criticism of my writing. I can bounce ideas off these friends, read them rough drafts and cover letters, and I know I will get honest yet supportive responses based both on the work on the page and my vision for what I want that work to become.

Leigh Stein: I found a really supportive community on LiveJournal in the early aughts, and some of the people I met there are still my close friends today. More broadly, the Internet has always been the place where I go to find community: from LiveJournal to Facebook (I administrate a private group of over 30,000 women writers) to Twitter. I’m a high school drop out without an MFA. I would not have been able to write three books without the community I’ve found on the Internet over the last 11 or 12 years I’ve been pursuing writing seriously.

 

The word community implies a symbiotic relationship; there is as much give as take. While you gained a lot from community as a writer, you’ve moved on to create opportunities for others to access support, mentorship, inspiration, and connection. Tell me about that.

Shaula Evans: I have run two workshops within the Zoetrope site (in the private office area): a creative writing workshop for writers in different media to discuss craft and play writing games (for over 10 years); and a comedy workshop that explores the theory and practice of writing comedy (for over 5 years). In 2012 I launched a public forum for film, TV, and comedy sketch writers called The Black Board which ran for two years. My current website, ShaulaEvans.com, offers support and inspiration to writers—I have plans to expand it to build on some of the features of my previous projects but for the moment I’m too busy with my own writing, a good kind of problem to have. The focus of all my community-building efforts is to create safe and inclusive creative spaces.

Ashley C. Ford: Sometimes I’m simply enthusiastically supportive of the work those in my community put out, sometimes when I have to turn down work I direct it their way, and sometimes it’s just late night gchats about what’s hard, what’s good, and what we hope for our futures. Most of being a good community-member is the same as being a good friend.

Colette Sartor: I’ve benefited so much from being part of numerous writing communities: UCLA Extension, Iowa, my private writing students, the various writing groups that I’ve sought out. I wouldn’t be able to write without my community. My writer friends give me honest, brilliant feedback that bolsters me and inspires me to work harder, write better. My writer friends and students alike inspire me with their brilliance and thoughtfulness and willingness to bare themselves for the sake of their work.

I try to give back as much as possible by meeting with students and friends to discuss their options in pursuing their writing dreams: Do they go to graduate school or stay in Los Angeles and build a community of writers here? How can they meet other writers? What writing communities exists here? I’m constantly emailing students about readings to attend, new magazines to check out, podcasts to listen to, books to read. I plaster my social media accounts with links to inspirational articles and essays about craft and literary life. I’ve created a Writers’ Resources page on my website where I list links to online writing communities as well as links to posts about craft, publication, and blogging. And I’m always willing to write recommendations for friends and students whose work I know well. I wouldn’t have gone to graduate school without the encouragement and recommendations of some very generous teachers and mentors. I want to do the same for other people who are looking to expand their own writing communities and advance their own craft.

Leigh Stein: In 2014, I was so inspired by the online community of women writers of which I was a member that I had the idea to organize a conference, so we could connect face-to-face. This idea became Out of the Binders, a 501c3 dedicated to increasing the diversity of voices in the media and literary arts, and BinderCon, our semiannual, bicoastal professional development conference. I co-direct the organization with Lux Alptraum, and we oversee a team of about 30 volunteers across the country. Organizing BinderCon has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.

Leigh Stein

Leigh Stein

What are some potential pitfalls or drawbacks of writing communities?

Shaula Evans: Some of the major pitfalls I’ve encountered include:

1. (Lack of) Moderation
Whether a writing community convenes on- or offline, it is imperative to establish a healthy culture where no one is bullied and writers feel safe to take creative risks. Good communities don’t happen by accident. It takes a great deal of work, conscious decision-making and social engineering to make a community feel welcoming—and most of that work should be invisible to the community at large.

2. Social Pressure
I’ve witnessed a number of workshop-oriented communities where there was social pressure to write in a certain way. Some specific examples:

– Pressuring writers who are not white, cis, het, male, etc., to write in a way that conforms to the expectations of members of the local dominant culture, rather than writing in their own voices and writing from their own experiences.
– Subtle encouragement or rewards for writing to please the subjective tastes of a workshop leader or workshop regulars—i.e. writing for short term peer popularity vs writing to grow or excel in one’s own voice.
– An unchecked herd instinct to mimic the style of a popular member.

The unifying theme is the problem of one or more people imposing their own writing views and preferences on other writers. Going back to #1 above, good hosting or moderation are one of the critical strategies for making sure this sort of problem doesn’t happen.

3. Gaming the (Formal) System
I have belonged to a number of writing communities that had formal review systems, where participants had to write a certain number of reviews before they could submit their work for revision. The problem with setting up formal systems is that they inherently incentivize certain behaviours; in the case of formal review systems, some writers will feel they come out “ahead” by writing the bare minimum review in order to earn their submission opportunity, which shortchanges both the reviewer and the writer whose work is being reviewed.

Good moderation can mitigate this problem, but my preferred solution is not to set up formal systems at all. (Avoiding formal review systems may run into problems of scalability for larger communities but can work well for small- and medium-sized groups.)

Ashley C. Ford: Every once in a while, there’s someone in the community who feels like competition is more satisfying than being empowering of their fellow community-members. Those are usually people who only know how to be motivated by competition, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as it doesn’t keep you from celebrating your community’s wins. If you can’t do that—bring yourself to be genuinely happy for someone else’s success—it’s hard to be a healthy member of that community.

Colette Sartor: There’s always the danger of conformity. I don’t believe that MFA programs necessarily encourage or even demand that students produce a generic kind of writing. That’s something of a myth people like to pull out when bashing degree programs. In fact, I found that my fellow grad school colleagues produced a glorious array of writing styles and stories, each with unique, identifiable voices that they maintain to this day. It’s the same with my students, both from UCLA and in my private classes: these students come in with a spark, a viewpoint that is uniquely theirs. It’s my job to nurture and encourage that individual voice, not to conform it to my vision of what fiction should be.

The danger of conformity that I’m thinking about is more individual in nature, one that I’ve encountered and succumbed to myself. When you immerse yourself in a community of writers, particularly in a writing group, you find yourself tempted to produce writing pleasing to that particular group of people, whose opinions you so value and whose praise you grow to crave. It’s human nature, to want to please those you’re close to; however, that need to please can encroach on your writerly vision, stilt your voice in an unnatural way. When I first started writing and didn’t have a great deal of confidence in my own voice or in my ability to tell stories worth reading, I found myself trying to write pretty, flowery metaphors and similes to please my first writers’ group, or to craft happier, more uplifting endings in a story that needed to be darker simply because I knew I’d get a more positive response from my group. My writing suffered for it.

The solution is to take care in building your writing community around you. Trust your writing only with those whose goal is to help everyone in your community realize each individual’s vision of the stories that person’s trying to tell. Even more important, trust yourself to know what’s best for your own work. Listen to criticism with an open yet inquisitive mind: does the person offering critique understand and appreciate your vision? Is that person’s criticism geared toward helping you advance that vision? If so, then listen away, knowing that it’s your job to take whatever criticism you find valuable and incorporate it into your work in a meaningful way that reflects your voice and style.

Leigh Stein: Money! I’m not paid a salary by the organization, but I spend about 20 hours a week administering the Facebook group, organizing events, strategizing marketing opportunities, writing our conference program, booking speakers, etc., etc. It’s obviously a project I’m passionate about, but it’s ironic that I donate so much of my time to helping other women writers advance their careers (and get paid). So much valuable, necessary work in the literary community is being done by collectives and nonprofits, and they need our financial support, not only our high-fives and gratitude. I’m thinking of VIDA, WAM!, the Belladonna poetry collective, and Brooklyn Poets, to name just a few.

Lisa Mecham

Lisa Mecham

What are your top five community resources, especially for writers who face geographical, social, or cultural barriers to access?

Shaula Evans:
1. Twitter — a great way to connect with other writers
2. The (Submission) Grinder — a free, searchable database of submission opportunities and submission tracker
3. ManuscriptWishList.com — where literary agents and publishers share what kind of manuscripts they are looking for (in astounding detail)
4. Lit Rejections’ International Literary Agent Database — listing literary agents from around the world
5. OneLook Dictionary Search —   — one of my favourite writing tools, especially for poetry

Ashley C. Ford:
1. Twitter
2. Tumblr
3. Blogs of writers you enjoy (and the blogs THEY follow)
4. Online writing courses
5. The library

Colette Sartor: Building your own writing community can mean going to graduate school, but that isn’t your only option. You can build your own writing community wherever you live. To do so, you need to meet other writers, both in your own city and around the world. This task is made easier by the numerous online resources and communities for writers. Here are a few:

– Most cities, no matter how small, have a thriving writing culture, if you know where to look. I’m lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, where there are several great reading series (e.g., at Skylight Books, Vroman’s, the Aloud series, the Hammer Museum series), as well as writing classes and seminars. The key is figuring out where the literary “hub” of your city exists. Ploughshares did a great series of articles a while back called Literary Boroughs, which highlighted literary culture in various communities. Also look at libraries and local bookstores for readings by published authors. Writers flock to readings, both for the joy of hearing beautiful work read aloud, and to meet and congregate with other writers.
– Writers’ conferences are a great way to meet other writers and to experiment with being part of a writing community. When I was first thinking about becoming a writer, I attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. At both conferences, I met writers and authors with whom I still stay in touch. Conferences can be pricey, but most of them offer some kind of financial assistance in the form of fellowships and/or work-study. Poets & Writers offers a great database of conferences and residencies to help you narrow down which conferences might be right for you.
PEN Center USA offers a wide variety of resources to writers, from onsite, affordable seminars with outstanding writers, to posts and interviews about craft, to programs like the PEN Center Emerging Voices Fellowship that provide new writers without access to writing communities various tools to help them launch writing careers—like mentorship by professional writers, seminars, public readings, classes, and a small stipend for eight months.
– There are vibrant writing schools/communities that have popped up all over the country such as Grub Street, Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and The Center for Fiction. Each of them offer classes taught by outstanding professional writers as well as other community components. Some also offer fellowships to facilitate writers in need.
– There are online literary communities like Figment and Fictionaut that offer writers the support of a literary community through discussions and chats, critiquing groups, etc. Many of them are free, or at least have free components. Take care, however, to explore the sites and make sure you’re comfortable with the tone of that particular community. Sometimes the anonymity afforded by online communities can result in negativity that is more easily controlled in onsite communities. And take care about posting work there. Many journals consider your work “published” if you’ve posted it online in a group that isn’t private.

Leigh Stein: The BinderCon scholarship program (we award up to 50 scholarships to each conference, and this fall we offered travel stipends to trans and GNC attendees, through a grant we received from the Esmond Harmsworth Foundation). Also, BinderCon NYC will be livestreamed (free!) for the first time ever, thanks to the Harnisch Foundation. Would also recommend checking out VONA writing workshops for writers of color, WAM! (Women, Action, and the Media) with chapters and events around the country, The OpEd Project seminars, and Hedgebrook (fee-free writing residencies in the Pacific Northwest for women writers).


Lisa Mecham (panel moderator) writes a little bit of everything and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Mid-American Review, Juked, and BOAAT, among other publications. She serves on the Advisory Board for Origins literary journal and as a Senior Editor for The Scofield. A Midwesterner at heart, Lisa lives in Los Angeles with her two daughters. Online at lisamecham.com and @lmecham.

Shaula Evans (not pictured) is a writer, editor and translator. Born and raised in Canada, and educated in Montreal, France and Japan, she currently resides in New Mexico after spending 6 ½ years traveling around North America in a Mini Cooper. You can find her online at shaulaevans.com and on Twitter at @ShaulaEvans.

Ashley C. Ford (not pictured) is an essayist and editor currently living in Brooklyn via Fort Wayne, IN.

Colette Sartor‘s stories and essays have appeared or are upcoming in Kenyon Review Online, The Chicago Tribune, Colorado Review, Carve, Printers Row Journal, Hello Giggles, The Good Men Project, Slice Magazine, and elsewhere. She teaches at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program as well as privately. Find her colettesartor.com or follow her on Twitter at @colettesartor.

Leigh Stein is the author of the novel The Fallback Plan, a collection of poetry called Dispatch from the Future, and a memoir forthcoming from Blue Rider Press in 2016 called Land of Enchantment. She co-directs the literary nonprofit Out of the Binders.

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2016 AWP Roundtable 2: How to Publish Your Book Without an Agent

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

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How do you place your manuscript with a good publisher if you don’t have a literary agent? Writers who have successfully done so will explain the process. This discussion will identify presses that consider unsolicited manuscripts and will explain how to use online listings to find reading periods and contests. The focus will be on submitting work without paying a fee. Panelists are fiction writers and poets who have successfully placed one or more books with a reputable independent publisher.

Publishing a book is every writer’s goal. But many manuscripts of literary merit go unread or unpublished because their authors can’t connect with the right editor or publisher. This panel will provide useful information on getting your manuscript read and accepted. We will discuss our own experiences—both the hits and the misses. We will encourage writers at all stages in their careers to act as their own agent to find the best home for their books.


Briefly describe the books you placed yourself at presses. Are they books of fiction, poetry? How did you find the presses and approach them? Was it difficult to find a press?

Joanna Sit: They are two books of poetry. The first one, My Last Century, is a collection of poems. The second book, In Thailand With the Apostles, is a book-length poem separated into parts, which can be read as “freestanding” poems as well. I sent the first book to book contests, small presses as well as bigger ones. I’d say I sent queries to more than 100 places, and the actual manuscript to about 40. This process took approximately three years, until I mentioned it to Nava Renek, who I’ve known from Brooklyn College and who had recently partnered in the operation at Spuyten Duyvil Press. She said she would take a look at it, which she did, and told me she liked it. Not long after, she showed the manuscript to Tod Thilleman, the publisher, who then agreed to work with it.

About a year later, at one of Spuyten Duyvil’s book parties, Tod and I were talking about long poems, and he told me how much he liked them. The poem, “In Thailand With the Apostles,” had been written years before, but no one was interested in publishing a long poem. So when he jokingly asked if I happened to have one in the back of my drawer somewhere, I answered, “Why, yes I do.”  I sent him the manuscript, and the book was published a year later.

Meg Tuite: The first collection I published was Domestic Apparition, and I had published over two-thirds of the stories over a few years. I sent the collection out to five different publishers and waited. I got an acceptance from two of them, but chose San Francisco Bay Press, because I liked the availability and enthusiasm from this press. I had published many of the stories without thinking of any cohesion until the editor said, “Why don’t you rework this with the same family throughout and call it a ‘novel-in-stories.’ ” I realized that it had a seam that moved through it, and it was a nice and easy transition working the collection into a novel.

I published a few chapbooks with indy presses that were also beautiful and put together with deep commitment to the craft: Monkey Puzzle Press, Deadly Chaps and Red Bird Chaps. I have had positive relationships with my publishers and have always loved the final product they have produced.

My second full collection, Bound by Blue, was published with Sententia Books. This was the first time a press was able to send out to ‘small print distribution’ and send out copies for review. And I was very much involved in every part of it. Paula Bomer, who is the publisher, loved the cover artist I chose and worked with me on every aspect of this and was an exceptional editor. She pushed me to work flash stories into short stories which was an amazing experience, considering I teach flash fiction and am always working my students to condense and hone their work. Although, I was originally writing short stories that were at least 20 pages, so she brought me back to my source, which I am grateful for.

Thaddeus Rutkowski: Each of my books has its own story. I sent the manuscript for my first book, Roughhouse, to Kaya Press, which publishes work by Asian-rooted authors writing in English. I sent it cold, though I was familiar with the press. The manuscript went onto the slush shelf, but by chance someone I’d been in a workshop with was a volunteer at Kaya. He saw my name on the envelope and passed it along to the editors, who accepted it and made a big deal about publishing their first and only unsolicited manuscript.

I sent the manuscript for my second book, Tetched, to several contests. I’d won a chapbook contest in the early ‘90s—and this new full-length book became a finalist in the Starcherone Books competition. As it turned out, I didn’t win, but Starcherone was interested in publishing the book anyway. Before that could happen, one of my adult students accepted the book for a small press, Behler Publications, where she was an editor. Tetched came out in 2005.

I kept in touch with Starcherone, which means “Start Your Own.” I even drove from New York to Buffalo to read for the publisher, Ted Pelton, who was in the English department at Medaille College. A few years later, I had put together another manuscript and offered it for the Starcherone contest. The publisher said he’d read it outside the contest and he also sent it to another reader, Lily Hoang. They both liked the book, and it came out with the support of the New York State Council on the Arts—we didn’t have to do a Kickstarter campaign.

bio photo w_ tattoo

Meg Tuite


What was the publication/marketing process like? Were you happy with the finished book, as a product? Did you promote the book (get reviews, readings) yourself? Were the publishers helpful?

JS: The process was relatively simple and low-key. I prepared my manuscript complete with table of contents, acknowledgements, and pagination. The manuscript was sent first, and later, I sent the cover art and blurbs once I had them. Since there was no editing on the publisher’s part, I had to edit and proof all the contents. Even so, there were errors in both books. Overall, though, I was happy with the finished product. I would have to say that Spuyten Duyvil, as a small press, was not very involved in promoting the book in terms of getting it reviewed. I acted as my own publisher in that way, sending out copies to book reviewers. Because of my limited experience in this area, I missed the timing of sending out the book before it came out (such as Publishers’ Weekly). The publisher did make arrangements for a book-launch party for both books, and one other reading at St. Mark’s Bookstore in Manhattan for my first book.

MT: I had a friend who wanted to write a book titled So You Published a Book. Who the Fuck Cares?

I got that from the first book. The writing of a manuscript is one thing. Getting it out there is a whole ‘nother experience. I had a damn great time with my books. My book launches were parties at a kickass pizza place in Santa Fe, Back Road Pizza, that packed the house and sold many books. But, yes, I had to do my own marketing and if you are going indy, then get ready to work it in stages. It won’t come to you. You must go and find it!

Reviews are always an excellent way to get new readers. Also, GoodReads. Look it up. You can put your book up for a FREE GoodReads giveaway and decide how many books you want to gift. This is another way to get some readers and possible reviews from unknown folk from other continents.

TR: I’ve relied on publishers during the production process. They know about art, type, printing and Web presence, while I know about the text. After the book is produced, the review/promotion process begins. The publisher has often helped me with this–my first and third books were reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus and American Book Review. Personal contacts also helped. Now, I’m working with a publicist (my wife, Randi Hoffman) to get my latest book out to reviewers.

I enjoy traveling and setting up readings, and I’ve been lucky to read in several countries and many U.S. cities. I think that having a background as a slam poet also helps. I’m no slam champion, but I can do a little performance. That little show helps to promote the work on the page.

In one case, I was planning to go to Santa Fe with my family because my wife used to live there. I contacted many local writers, and I was led to Meg Tuite, who told me to call a bookstore, where I was able to set up a reading. I asked a poet in Taos (who I knew from New York) to read with me. She brought a number of people, and it was a great event.

I’ve learned that a writer should use social media. You should have a website, as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts. I don’t have Instagram, because I don’t have a smartphone yet.

Thaddeus Rutkowski

Thaddeus Rutkowski


Would you advise other writers to take the same path to publication? If so, how would they get started?

JS: The way I finally got published was a singular one. I’m not sure the path can always be of one’s own choosing. However, reflecting on the process, I would say that talking to other writers and trying to get the word out about the work were very important factors in finally getting my book read. My sense was that the first book was the most difficult to get published, and after that, it might get easier. Maybe not. My advice, overall, is “always be prepared.” By that, I mean, keep writing no matter what. While you’re waiting for someone to publish your book, send poems out to literary journals and magazines, put your name out there. By the time someone expresses interest, you’ll be all ready.

Joanna Sit

Joanna Sit

MT: I started by checking the list of indy presses. Believe me when I say it’s a whole ‘nother job. Get ready to spend time reading books by presses and deciding which ones are sympatico to your collection, novel, or memoir. A great way to move through this is to find those books that you LOVE and write down the name of the publisher and agent. That makes the most sense to me and you also read more books, which is always a plus. FIND THEM! They are not out looking for you. Just go to one AWP conference and find yourself surrounded by over 12,000 writers and realize how much we have in common with ants.

I am a LOVER of INDIE PRESSES! They rock it and work with the writer. They trust in the abyss!

TR: I agree with Joanna and Meg. All writing activities are related. Take classes/workshops, go to public readings, read your work aloud (this makes you write something in the first place), go to conferences (if you can afford it). And, of course, do your research. There are websites that list hundreds of literary agents and break them down by the genre they handle. Likewise, there are websites, such as ones from Poets & Writers and the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP), that list small presses, their reading periods, whether they charge a reading fee, etc.

Amid all the non-happenings, something good is bound to happen. You have to be ready for it. You can’t just talk a good game. You have to back it up with good work. Yes, this is a big job. It’s a second life.

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Thaddeus Rutkowski
is the author of the books Violent Outbursts, Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives with his wife and daughter in Manhattan.

Joanne Sit is the author of two books of poetry: My Last Century  (2012, Spuyten Duyvil) and In Thailand with the Apostles (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). Her poems and translations have appeared in Five Willows Review, Ezra, Natural Bridge, Seneca Review and other literary publications. Her “Mickey Rourke Rondelets,”  appears in the anthology Wreckage of Reason II as “July 7” (2014, Spuyten Duyvil). She is working on a new book of poems, Track Works, and a ethnographic narrative, The Reincarnation of Red, about Chinese immigrants and Cantonese Opera.

Meg Tuite is the author of Bound by Blue, Domestic Apparition, Disparate Pathos and Reverberations. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize and is the fiction editor of the Santa Fe Literary Revew and Connotation Press. She lives in Santa Fe with her husband and many pets, and she teaches at Santa Fe Community College.

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Sundress AWP Roundtable 1: The MFA Years

sundress

Welcome to our first Sundress Roundtable, a celebration of exceptional, not-so-lost AWP panels which did not make the AWP final cut for 2016.

Our first roundtable is comprised of J.R. Dawson, Minda Honey, contributors, and Caitlin Neely, founder and editor, of The MFA Years, a blog which follows first and second year MFA candidates and explores their experiences.

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How has blogging for The MFA Years affected the way you perceive and experience the MFA?

J.R. Dawson: I guess that when I’m going through my program, I’m not just thinking about me. I feel like I’m thinking about the whole culture, my other friends in other programs, and those who may be interested in the program I’m in. It makes you see the whole picture instead of just going through school for your own benefit. The MFA culture is its own little world, and being able to blog about it for an audience means that I’m a part of that world. It also comes as a responsibility. I have to represent my program well and I have to be honest about uncomfortable things in my own life in order to do my job and give the reader a real tool to use. For example, I wrote about something really personal back in May, and it was so very uncomfortable, but it helped people who were in the same situation. It was good to see that by “walking through the fire” and being honest, I connected with readers.

Minda Honey: I would not say that blogging has affected my perception or overall experience. I used my blogging as a way to give potential MFAs an idea of what the experience is like rather than as a tool for me to explore the experience in real-time. Any writing to gain further understanding of my experience would likely occur in the months or years following my graduation from the program. So, I believe my experience to be fairly on par with what it would be like had I chosen not to blog about it.

Caitlin Neely: Before this, I was not an avid blogger. But I was also never good at keeping a diary as a kid. Blogging about my MFA has been great. It helps me process what I’ve done, accomplished, and how I’ve changed. It’s also helped me connect more to my program. They’ve shared a few of my posts on the UVA Facebook page and I’m glad they enjoy reading them!

What tips do you have for students who are interested in blogging about their own experiences?

JD: Don’t just write about you. People read blogs in order to connect and learn. Write about the larger scope of what is going on with you in your life. Thinking about your audience is what separates a blog from a diary.

Also, don’t try to be someone you aren’t. All of us wish we were as witty as Allie Brosh, few of us are. Just be you.

Finally, proofread. You are in a writing program. If you have a typo or a grammatical error, that looks bad for your program.

MH: Do it. The MFA Years recruits every year in the spring and you always have the option of blogging independently from your own corner of the Internet. Be honest about your experience and your feelings, but also be mindful of any limitations your department might have concerning this practice.

CN: Go for it! Blogging is a great way to think about your MFA in a new way and to chronicle your experiences. Plus, it keeps you writing even if you’re experiencing writer’s block in other aspects of your life (we all know that feel).

My big tip is to always remember the internet is forever. Even if you take a post down later on or edit something out, there still might be ways for others to access it. That’s why I give my blog drafts 24 hours to sink in. I don’t hit publish immediately after I’ve written something. And proofreading is just as important!

Are modern MFA programs doing an effective job of communicating to potential applicants via the internet (social media, program websites, etc)? In what ways can they use the internet as a way to advertise themselves?

JD: I think some are and some aren’t. I think people are still learning that this generation that is now entering college and graduate school thrive and survive on the internet. I think that program websites need to be spotless, and I know that when I was applying for MFA programs, sometimes I ran into schools where instructions were a little hard to follow and not specific enough. Having a professional, informative, clear website is really important to us. And using twitter to communicate is also really great.

But I also feel like perhaps there’s a gauche way to use the internet. If I saw a pop-up ad for a program or a Facebook ad, I’d probably give it a side-eye. Maybe getting creative with webinars, videos, that sort of thing? I would have loved to see more of that when I was applying.

MH: I believe that there is opportunity for programs to enhance their web and social media presence. I recall that during the application process that some websites were difficult to navigate or just felt light on overall content. This is actually a role or roles that could be turned over to their MFA candidates and become a chance to gain social media experience much in the same way that a program’s literary magazine gives candidates the opportunity to develop literary mag experience.

CN: Some programs are doing a great job and others are not. When I was applying to programs, I couldn’t believe the number of times I came across a program site that provided next to no information. I’m talking funding numbers weren’t even mentioned and some of them were programs I knew fully funded everyone. I’m not sure why these places aren’t shouting from the rooftops how awesome they are and how much money they provide.

Twitter, Facebook, and websites are all great ways for programs to advertise themselves. I agree with Minda. Social media is something that could be handed over to interested graduate candidates. And (self-promotion alert) The MFA Years is always happy to interview alumni and current MFA students about their program.


Minda HoneyMinda Honey was raised in the land of bourbon, basketball and horse racing—Louisville, Kentucky. She is a candidate in the MFA program at the University of California, Riverside, where she is working on her memoir, An Anthology of Assholes. Her writing can be found on Gawker and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She tends to her own little plot of the internet at www.mindahoney.com.

11655340_10101465223647081_1133941834_n (1)J.R. Dawson  is an MFA Popular Fiction candidate at Stonecoast. She holds an MS in Education and a BFA in Playwriting and English Literature. She is the founder of her alma mater’s Writer’s Guild and is past editor-in-chief of their literary journal. She has published plays, a short stories collection, and one really weird new age music demo that her parents made her release when she was fourteen. Dawson now keeps a blog, Ramblings of a Mad Woman, where she is currently attempting her Year of Writing Challenge. Follow her @j_r_dawson.

Caitlin NeelyCaitlin Neely is an MFA poetry candidate at the University of Virginia. Her work has been published in Sixth Finch, DIAGRAM, Thrush Poetry Journal, Devil’s Lake, and others. She is the founder of The MFA Years and the editor for Reservoir Journal.

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