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Guest Posts, writing

Butterfly of the Moment

March 22, 2017
writer

By Liane Kupferberg Carter

After graduate school I drifted into a glamour job as a publicist for a well-known book publisher, where they paid me a pittance to write press releases and book jacket copy. It was fun for a while, until I went to my high school reunion and someone said, “I thought by now I’d be reading about you in the New York Times Book Review.”

“No,” I said, cringing. “I’m the publicist who makes sure other writers books get reviewed there.” I’d been editor in chief of our school yearbook; my poetry had been published in the school literary journal. My classmates remembered me as a writer; I was the one who’d forgotten.

So I signed up for a fiction writing class at the New School in Manhattan with an instructor who’d once written for the New Yorker. I’d never written short stories before. I turned one in; the next week, he returned it with a note: “I have several strong feelings concerning the story’s marketability. Rather than go into them here I ask that you telephone me so that we may discuss those possibilities.”

He wanted my permission to give the story to his agent, Candida Donadio, a name I knew from my work in book publishing. She was legendary, a hard drinking, potty-mouthed, tough old broad who’d been the agent of her generation, representing Thomas Pynchon, Mario Puzo and Phillip Roth. I felt like a fraud. I’d written exactly one short story. But I told the instructor yes.

A week later Candida sold the story to Cosmopolitan magazine for the dazzling sum of $1500. She invited me to a celebratory lunch at the Russian Tea Room. I’d pictured her as a cultured, elegantly dressed older woman; the maitre d’ showed me to a table where a short, heavy-set woman with hair coiled in an unfashionable bun atop her head sat chain smoking.

“Why you’re just a baby,” she rasped. We shook hands. I could barely breathe, let alone eat. I was kneeling at the altar of literature. All through lunch she fed me publishing tidbits. The first book she’d ever sold, she said, had been a novel by Joseph Heller called Catch-18. They changed it because Leon Uris was already publishing a book called Mila-18. “He switched it to ‘Catch-22 because Oct. 22nd is my birthday,” Candida said.

What was I doing there? I was an imposter. This was a fluke. Should I come clean? “You know,” I ventured, “I don’t have a body of work to show you yet. This is my first story.”

She cackled. “You’re full of shit,” she said. A month later she sold my second story to Cosmopolitan.

It’s not supposed to be this easy, I thought. And of course it wasn’t. Over the next few years I wrote several more stories, amassing a collection of encouraging rejection letters from the New Yorker and the Atlantic. Each Christmas I sent a gift box of fruit and cookies to Candida’s office. “You’re a honey for thinking of me, and I send you in return good wishes for the New Year in which I hope to see a novel by L.C.,” she wrote.

I produced that novel. Candida hated it. She returned the manuscript to me with a note so crushingly painful it still makes me shudder. It ended, “I regret so much. And after all the years of pears and cookies. Lordy!!”

Eventually I scraped myself off the floor.

Even if I wasn’t a novelist, even if the most high-powered literary agent on the planet told me I was full of shit, I was still a writer. Isn’t a painter still an artist even when no one buys his canvases?

“It is necessary to write,” Vita Sackville-West said, “if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.”

I still fill the days with words, because I cannot imagine doing anything else. Writing calls me home — to myself.
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Liane Kupferberg Carter is the author of the memoir, Ketchup Is My Favorite Vegetable: A Family Grows Up With Autism (Jessica Kingsley Publishers.) Her articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Brain, Child, Brevity, Literary Mama, and The Manifest-Station. For more information, visit her website at http://www.lianekupferbergcarter.com/, follow her on Facebook athttps://www.facebook.com/LianeKupferbergCarter/ and Twitter at @Lianecarter.

 

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Guest Posts, writing

Writing About Us

March 6, 2017
writing

By Kathleen Harris

In my freshman year of high school, I’d written something that my English teacher deemed “exceptional.” I was called to her desk after class, and praised for my creativity. A kind and encouraging letter was sent home to my parents as well, highlighting my potential.

I’d been writing since I sensed the pull of words — somewhere around age 4. Not short stories, of course, but angular, awkward attempts at words — and their accompanying stick-figure illustrations — to highlight my frustrating attempts at communication. In our Queens apartment, my mother would find torn envelope flaps, seventies singer-songwriter album sleeves, and my parents’ own high school yearbooks, all adorned with my pencil-scratch efforts at language.

As a child, I knew that words could be soft and loud. Words hurt, and they healed. They allowed me to escape into books containing bright, colorful pictures, and enabled me to get lost in the mystical lyrics printed on double-fold album covers. I’d take stacks of books to my Raggedy Ann-covered twin bed, hugging them to my small chest and leaping over the sharks I thrilled myself into believing were swarming in the churn of parquet bedroom floor below. I was on a life raft, safe in my room, happily adrift with words. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, writing, Young Voices

The Broken Container

December 13, 2016
container

By Raisa Imogen

Last year, I was in Paris during the terrorist attacks, and I don’t know how to tell that story. Similarly, I don’t know how to tell the story about Trump’s recent election. But there seems to be a strange and shivering thread between the two events. Both violent, painful, chaotic. Yet Paris was somewhat contained. This election is not, the common mantra being: “we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

We tell stories to make meaning of trauma, to contain pain so we can better examine it and give it value. But sometimes we are in such distress that the container cracks. We can no longer write or speak in the same way, we can no longer contain the pain or carry it comfortably.

Paris: the cherry glow of sirens, the bitter cold, windows slamming shut, a vacant Eiffel tower. Alternatively: my friend who calmly held my hand, the family member who made a quiche, a café filled with people drinking champagne the next day.

Either it becomes a story of horror and fear, which you’ve already heard, or a story of healing and bravery, which feels mawkish and insincere.

I think we dislike narratives which exist in gray, uncertain space. We want them to have logic, to land on one side of a binary — tragedy or comedy, conflict resolved or broken open, a character whose biggest desire is fulfilled or wrenched from them completely. Climax, falling action, resolution.

But trauma, especially when it first occurs, isn’t a neat and tidy narrative. Sometimes there is no narrative at all.

The New Yorker recently featured a piece where sixteen writers weighed in on the election. As my friend Marie Scarles observed, “There are so many different versions of why Trump won, and so many ways for us to imagine the future. Should we pay more attention to poor whites? To Muslims? To women? To LGBTQ? To racists? To immigrants? All seem urgent, but none can be held as the be-all-end-all.”

We are searching for a straightforward answer, an immediate ending so this can be over and done with.

After the election, hunched over my carrel in the library and unable to write, I got a text message from my father: “Trauma turns us into animals, which means story-telling turns off. We revert to fight, flight or shock.” But sometimes, maybe our storytelling tendencies shutting down is a good thing. Maybe it allows us to survive. Narratives can be healing, but they can also be dangerous.

By attending to many different perspectives, perhaps a new story will eventually arise, something both nuanced and messy, something which contains many strands. Perhaps it will be a story of hope, but a particular kind of hope, which Rebecca Solnit describes as, ”an ax you break down doors with in an emergency… [it] should shove you out the door.”

For now, we are living in uncertainty. The story is that there is no story, at least no singular one. Which means there is no singular conflict, no one resolution. I wish I had a coherent story to tell about Paris, but I don’t. For me, the container is still broken open, as it is now for America post-election. This means we must listen to each other, and listen carefully.

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Raisa Imogen was born in Portland, Oregon, grew up in Chicago, and is currently studying at the University of Bologna in Italy. Her poetry can be found at www.raisaimogen.net and at The Kenyon Review.

 

Join Ally and Jen Pastiloff for an intimate online course about what it means to be a woman at this time. Space is very limited. Course runs Jan 12-Feb 9, 2017. Click the picture to sign up or to get more info on the course and its perks!

Join Ally and Jen Pastiloff for an intimate online course about what it means to be a woman at this time. Space is very limited. Course runs Jan 12-Feb 9, 2017. Click the picture to sign up or to get more info on the course and its perks!

 

 

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Join The Manifestation Retreat: Manifesting Under The Tuscan Sun. June 17-24 OR Sep 9-16. Email retreats@jenniferpastiloff.com or click the picture above.

Guest Posts, writing

Notes On Not A Memoir

October 2, 2016
memoir

By Janet Clare

The black hearse crossed in front of our car on the way to my first chemo appointment. “Think it’s a bad omen?” I asked my husband, “like a black cat?”

That was nineteen years ago so it wasn’t a portend of things to come. I was, and remain, one of the lucky ones. And, don’t worry this isn’t a cancer-survivor memoir. This isn’t even a memoir. I didn’t have a rotten enough childhood to write a memoir. Not perfect, mind you, but it wasn’t a locked-in-the-closet, raped-by-my-father, thrown-from-the car by a drug-addled-mother kind of upbringing. No alcoholism, no overtly deviant behavior. Misunderstood? Certainly. It was the ‘60’s. Everyone was misunderstood.

It was a time of long hair and dark clothes, of seriousness and hopefulness, unrest and social progress that we innocents thought would never end. The world was expanding and we thought it would go on forever, and ever better. A time when some of our dreams for a more civilized, humane and liberated country actually came true. We never imagined fifty years later it would all go to hell. It seemed impossible. But at some point our country put on the brakes to enlightenment and skid to a frightening stop. Then backed up and went the other way. But this isn’t a treatise on political angst, either. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Women, writing

Our Becoming

September 23, 2016

By Carol Reedy Rogero

“There is no tidy end to any story, as much as we might hope. Stories continue in all directions to include even the retelling of the stories themselves, as legend is informed by interpretation and interpretation is informed by time.”  Garth Stein -A Sudden Light

The End. Those are two powerhouse words not necessarily written at the culmination of a book or story. Two words that elicit impassioned pleadings of “More, More” at children’s story-time. I can close my eyes and remember my own children reciting those words and then begging for a repeat of a favorite tale or questioning its end with a chorus of “what happened next”.  As an adult reader I’ve stared transfixed by the print on the last page of a book and felt an actual pang, a physical longing for more. I’ve ached for the adventure to continue, the pleasure to remain, the unanswered to be answered, the gutted feeling to dissipate and for the smile in my heart to keep radiating warmth.

Some stories have epilogues or sequels, but not all do. Or do they? Is there always a definitive point on that final page where there is no more that could or should be added? Fiction may often seem to have natural stopping points, resolutions or tidy endings but what about the narratives of our lives? What about the non-fiction realities we’re born into, exist in, grow and create in? While we may have lived, loved, and walked away, did those particular stories really end there? Have they been put to rest, packed away, buried or burned on a funeral pyre? Or do chapters of our narratives continue to live and breathe in hibernation? Are they continually regenerated and assimilated into our “becoming”? Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Women, writing

The Bits That Matter

September 12, 2016
funny

By Pauline Campos

I used to watch comedians like John Leguizamo and George Lopez in complete awe. While everyone else was laughing at the punchline, I was sitting there wondering what kind of hell had to be paid for penance back home for that last laugh in public. Either their families were just really understanding, lived under giant rocks, or somehow, these performers had learned how to honestly not give a fuck when it came to familial judgement. Forget Supermann. To me, the people who could write the words that needed to be written to share their truths in such a way that could draw in an audience of strangers and bring everyone together with laughter? These were the people I wanted to be.

Then I grew up and started writing seriously. I was self-editing myself too often, at first, and hating it. I wasn’t trying to make anyone look bad, mind you…just share my own truth and experiences. Sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes it isn’t. And it drove me crazy to keep taking out the good bits that I knew needed to stay in. These were the parts that brought it all together; the bits of my own story that my readers would be able to relate to. On the blog, it eventually became easy to just say FUCK IT and hit publish…no one reads I’m related to reads here, usually. Most times, if I have written something in which someone can identify themselves, named or not, I clear it with them first. Then I had to learn to pretend I had temporary amnesia every time I wrote a new advice column for Latina Magazine because relating with your reader about that time we were both The Other Woman tends to make for some awkward Sunday dinners with the Tias. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, writing

Guidelines For Submission

July 13, 2016
writing

By Katie Lee Ellision

When an essay I had written about my father was accepted for publication in 2013, I decided on a rule for letting him know about it. I would send him a finalized copy of the piece before it went live or to print–not so that he could decide whether or not it would be published, but just so that he knew what I had written and where it would be. I thought this was fair to both of us. So when I got the final from the editor, I called my father up, though we hadn’t been speaking much at that point.

I won’t spend time on the details about why my father and I hadn’t been in regular touch—that’s a much bigger story I’m writing. What I do want to talk about–and for a long time I couldn’t talk about anything else–is his reaction and its effect on me and my writing.

When I called to tell him about the publication, he was congratulatory and eager to read it.

“So…” he said, “is this about you and me when you were a kid or…?”

“Just read it, dad,” I said, and he said okay. Continue Reading…

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, writing

Converse-Station: Maggie May Ethridge and Zoe Zolbrod

May 10, 2016
writing

Welcome to The Converse-Station: a dialogue between writers. I read an advanced copy of Zoe Zolbrand’s book, The Telling, and I couldn’t put it down – This writing is fantastic and the book deserves the praise it is receiving. So when Maggie May Ethridge approached us about publishing an interview between her and Zoe, I was over the moon with excitement. Here is their conversation. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff

When Zoe Zolbrod sent me her new memoir, The Telling, I couldn’t help but have the impression I knew what this story would be like; it’s a story of childhood molestation, and there is often a narrative that goes along with the subject. I was wrong. It’s a narrative Zolbrod has done her best to shake free of: you can feel in the writing how she again and again strives to tell the story true, tell it as it really was for her. This isn’t the same as telling something factually, of course-journalism is very different than a creative retelling of a true experience. This isn’t journalism, this is literature.

Zolbrod’s The Telling takes the reader through her experience being molested at age four by an older cousin who comes to live with the family, moving through her teen years, her twenties, and then into her adult married life as the mother of two young children. This timeline is very effective, illuminating the way that something profound yet baffling can seep into a life without overtaking it, so that Zolbrod wondered if she was over or under-emphasizing the effect the molesting had on her. This open curiosity drives many of the best passages in The Telling.

This is the subtext, the subconscious, the present and past and how they blur and move from underneath the pen that tries to press them down, the child as memoirist vs. the adult as memoirist, the way the rest of life that has nothing to do with one specific event still seeps into the picture, because nothing is life stands alone, an island, unaffected by all other choices we make. If that were true, we wouldn’t bother healing.

As I talked with Zolbrod, I reflected that often memoirs on sexual abuse are so difficult to read that I can’t read them twice. I read The Telling twice. The way that Zolbrod puts forth her abuse alongside her young twenties, alongside her adult, mother self, allows the most painful memories to have context and relevancy for her entire, empowered life as a woman, and not feel like a single knife, stabbing again and again through the paragraphs.

Zolbrod’s story is not only emotionally resonant, it surprised me as a reader by also being simply a good story. Zolbrod also happens to write sex exceptionally well, and from an empowered point of view that I don’t see reflected in our culture enough. Zolbrod unabashedly enjoyed sex, and writes with all the gusto, flavor, passion and joy of a great food writer, delightfully extolling the virtues of rolling orgasms and hyperfeminine men. Zolbrod goes after life, and you can feel this urgency in her sentences, including sex, men, female friendships, family relationships, art, literature, travel, food; we are taken along for the ride with an insightful, honest, tender yet definitely straightforward guide.

You can buy The Telling now.

Ethridge: What does your writing history look like?

Zolbrod: I have a novel that came out in 2010 called Currency. I worked on that novel over a decade by the time it came out. I’d also had a few short stories come out, and I have a MA in writing.

Ethridge: What made you decide to move to non-fiction?

Zobrod: I wrote some essays and liked writing in that form, but I really thought of myself as a fiction writer. When I started to promote Currency, I started a blog and wrote a few essays, and I found so much satisfaction in writing about topical issues and writing from my own point of view and connecting with people over my shared experience. I published some essays at The Nervous Breakdown and they had a thriving comments section and that was very satisfying…to be able to sit at your day job and connect with writers. I got more in the habit of writing personal reactions to things, and I found that I was writing often about sex crimes, because I was having such a strong reaction to them. Particularly when the crime of Jerry Sandusky was in the media, that he had abused all these boys and turned a blind eye. I wrote an essay on Jerry Sandusky and revealed in two or three sentences about my own experience…I was shaking and terrified. I don’t know what I expected, but I got incredible support. It felt ultimately liberating to say this out loud and be met with support and not scorn or disbelief.

Ethridge: What made you decide to write about your whole story?

Zolbrod: I was revisiting the material already, mulling it over, particularly some old journals. I wanted to put the energy I felt around it into a novel, and this is also at a time where I wasn’t doing very much writing because I was adjusting to parenthood. It became clear that the essays I was writing had more energy than the fiction. I was trying to code the truth, and I realized that the power was with the personal experience, and I should follow that instinct.

After that, I’d carve out time to write, and sometimes I just couldn’t. There are so many ethical concerns, so many blocks, so I spent a year or so not doing much writing at all. And then what happened, I don’t know- I just decided I’m going to do this, I have the right to do this.

Often ‘writing as therapy’ is used as description for an insult, but I think for me it actually was in some way, powerful, and I think that the writing is good, and it was very meaningful to me to be able to feel some of these emotions that are very hard. I didn’t want to dwell, but ultimately it was really beneficial to me to feel some of those emotions.

Ethridge: How did you work through your ethical and other concerns with writing about your molestation?

Zolbrod: At first I was really defensive, in particular I thought about the cousin who did this to me, and then thought about him going to prison “If you don’t want someone to write about him being a sex offender, don’t molest children” and I thought, “He’s on the sex offender registry, and that is something that anyone can find in google.” But then…it’s iffy. Other people can be implicated…I changed names, I tried not to psychologize anyone else, or assume what they were thinking or feeling, I only included things I thought were core and necessary to the core of my story. I think my biggest asset was that my father is such a generous person, and he gave me his blessing despite the fact that I was talking about some really difficult things. Things he’s not proud of or happy about- he’s a wonderful person.

I gave my father the chance to read it in final manuscript, and I told him I’d consider altering anything he couldn’t live with, and he didn’t take me up on that offer. He didn’t want to effect the editing process, and he’d deal privately with anything that would make him wince.

Ethridge: What was your experience as a reader of memoir before this? What were your influences writing The Telling?

Zolbrod: I hadn’t been a memoir reader before writing The Telling. I was probably contaminated by the view that memoirs are ‘uncool’ or less literary, which I think had effected me without doing my own examination. But as I entered this territory there were a few that I came to love, and I now I do love memoirs. There’s a lot that can be done with the form- Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments, was one of my early guiding lights, about her relationship with her mother. Something about it really freed me. It alternates between a more current voice and the past, which is something I do. I love The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, I learned a lot from that, The Adderall Diaries, Another Bullshit Night In Sex City, Claire Bidwell Smith’s Rules of Inheritance, and recently I loved MOT by Sarah Einstein.

Ethridge: Did you have a plan, an outline when you began writing, or were you just writing it as it came out?

Zolbrod: I had a some kind of plan before I began writing the book…Vivian Gornick’s essay ‘The Situation and The Story’ helped me think about how to write my book. I always knew I wanted it to be a braided narrative, with several different timelines, I knew I wanted to structure it around the times I told. I felt fairly confident in the structure, it came to me, I worked hard but I never veered from the basic idea of interweaving these time frames. Trying to get the research in there, I wrestled with it a little bit. Early on I knew I wanted to include the research.

Ethridge: It was very effective, the way you used the varying stages of your life allowed me as a reader to have some kind of breathing room, so that I could read about the molesting and not feel like I had to run from the book. Sometimes books about really hard things are difficult to finish, no matter how good the writing. Your story was absorbing, had a wonderful narrative.

Zolbrod: One of the things I’ve talked about elsewhere… who wants to read about a child being abused, like you’re bringing something toxic into the world. So it really means a lot to me that you felt what I was trying to do. I want people to know that this is an empowering book, an adventure.

Ethridge: Do people reach out to you about being sexually molested after reading your book?

Zolrbod: Yes. One the one hand it makes me sad, but it is something of a comfort that I was less alone that I thought. So many of us have this experience, so few of us talk about it. It’s kind of a conversation stopper, so even if you don’t feel like you’re hiding it, there aren’t many places to discuss it. I feel badly whenever I learn that someone has had an experience like this in their own life, but also I feel a little less alone and I think other people feel less alone too. We can compare experiences, and how common thy are, feeling less isolated. I’d love for people to feel more seen,  hopeful.

 

Ethridge: As you wrote The Telling, did you have an idea of who you were writing to?

Zolbrod: I think I wrote the book for myself, for when I used to read, looking for some reflection of my experience and I didn’t find it. I hope to offer that for someone else who might find it useful. I hoped to dispel some myths about child sexual abuse…everytime there is a case in the news, there’s so much misunderstanding about who is vulnerable, who does these things. I’ve seen in my own community when a child can spot some warning signs and know something is inappropriate and disclose what is happening before…I hope the book can aid in that.

Ethridge: Did writing about your molestation change the way you address this subject with your own children?

Zolbrod: The writing and research I did around the book affected the way I talked to my kids. Something I wouldn’t have realized, we can periodically ask our kids as part of a conversation about bodies and privacy, you can ask “Has anyone ever tried to touch you there?” Giving children an opening to say something, an opening that wouldn’t have occurred.

It’s part of our story- it doesn’t have to be the whole story.

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling (Curbside Splendor, 2016) and the novel Currency (Other Voices Books, 2010), which was a Friends of American Writers prize finalist. Her essays have appeared in Salon, zoe-zolbrod-portraits-by-elizabeth-mcquern-oct-2015-1b1Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, The Chicago Reader, and The Rumpus, where she is the Sunday co-editor. She’s had numerous short stories and interviews with authors published, too. As a public speaker, she’s given talks at universities, workshops, and conferences on topics such as narrative voice; the differences between writing fiction and nonfiction; balancing paid work, parenting, and writing; child sexual abuse; and writing about trauma.

Born in western Pennsylvania, Zolbrod graduated from Oberlin College and then moved to Chicago, where she received an M.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Program for Writers. Aside for periods of traveling in Southeast Asia and Central America, she’s almost always worked full time, making her living as an editor of comic books, text books, and other kinds of books and educational materials, despite her difficulties with spelling and proper nouns. She lives in Evanston, IL, with her husband and two children.

Me,eyebrowsup!

 

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of the memoir Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From A Marriage (Shebooks, 2015), a poetic remembering of her marriage as it was before and after her husband’s diagnosis of bipolar. MME has work in Guernica, The Rumpus, Marie Claire and many others. Her novel Agitate My Heart is in last edits. You can find her at Flux Capacitor.

 

 

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Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. This will be her only international retreat in 2016 and is her favorite retreat of the year. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

 

Join founder Jen Pastiloff for a weekend retreat at Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts Feb 19-21, 2016. Get ready to connect to your joy, manifest the life of your dreams, and tell the truth about who you are. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was? Jennifer Pastiloff, creator of Manifestation Yoga and author of the forthcoming Girl Power: You Are Enough, invites you beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty. Note Bring a journal, an open heart, and a sense of humor. Click the photo to sign up.

Guest Posts, Women are Enough, writing

Women are Enough: The Debut Authors

March 12, 2016

With Sharon Guskin and Virginia Pye

SHARON: I remember sitting with you on a couch at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, talking about the IMG_6226 (1)books we were working on, as authors at colonies do, and bit-by-bit the confessions started to come out (I don’t remember who confessed first, do you?): both of us had been writing for over twenty years, and neither of us had published a book. I had written two unpublished novels and was starting a third; you had written even more…we’d both had some early encouragement that didn’t pan out. So I was pretty discouraged, and also struggling a bit with feelings of shame. I knew famous writers from the New York writerly scene (briefly dating one Pulitzer Prize winner and sharing coffees and dinners over the years with others); many of my best friends had published a few books already, to great acclaim. I remember thinking, what was wrong with me? Then I met you and your work was good — you read a short story for the residents at the colony  — and yet you seemed to be in the same situation….so it was confusing and also oddly encouraging.

What was that meeting like for you?

VIRGINIA: I really liked meeting you, and after I heard your story, I knew we were kindred spirits. I think I’d written five or six novels by then. Four had been represented by agents and had come close, but no dice. I was definitely discouraged, but because I taught creative writing and was head of a literary non-profit, I had to keep writing and trying to get published. I can see now that a side benefit of encouraging other aspiring writers was that it made me practice what I preached. That’s how it was when I met you: if you were going to keep trying, I had to, too! But, I won’t lie: it wasn’t easy.

SHARON: Why didn’t you quit?

 VIRGINIA: Like you with your author friends, I had put myself in the company of authors and publishing professionals. I would interview authors on panels and at their book talks, always pointing the spotlight on them, when, of course, I wanted it to shine on me someday. But I believe in Karma. Because I was a good literary citizen to others, they have since returned the favor. Like you! Inviting me to do this interview alongside you as your debut emerges. I feel happy for you and eager to support you. Jealousy and envy does nothing to help build a writing career.

So I’m curious, what kept you going? How did you find encouragement for your work, even without a publishing contract?

SHARON: I’m just stubborn, I think. The fact that my amazing agent had faith in me and loved my last unpublished novel was encouraging. And some of the nice “no’s” from editors were helpful, too. My friends and family were very supportive, which made a huge difference. But when we met, I was pretty scared. That’s why meeting you was inspiring and also daunting — on the one hand, I was terrified that I’d end up in your position, and on the other I felt, well, if she can keep going, then I can keep going.

Artist colonies have always been wonderful for me. There’s a sense of community there; we’re all in the same boat, trying to create new work.

VIRGINIA: Yes, we were simpatico from the start. I was sympathetic to your plight, but also impressed by you. Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of successful writers have unsold earlier manuscripts in their drawers. There really shouldn’t be any stigma. In fact, we should share a secret handshake or something. But, as you said, we don’t exactly want to be stuck in that camp with each other forever.

How did you feel when your writing buddies started getting contracts?

SHARON: I really had to tackle envy head-on. I know it’s natural to feel these things, but the jealous mind is entirely useless — it doesn’t do a thing but make you miserable and get in your way. So I spent a lot of time learning how to be happy for others and letting go of my own neediness and desire for success. And it’s still a process, of course…the powerful part of not succeeding, though, was that I began to focus on why I wanted to do this. What was my intention? And I realized that there was a story I wanted to tell, about these extraordinary cases that the professors at the University of Virginia were studying, these children who seemed to remember previous lifetimes… I thought people might want to hear about these cases, and think about how we might or might not live our lives differently if they were true. When I focused on my intention to tell that story, all the career anxiety fell away.

How is life different and not so different for you, Virginia, now that you’ve published two books?

VIRGINIA: A huge weight was lifted when I was offered a contract for River of Dust. I no longer had to justify that I red phoenixwas a writer. I could just do it. I love having my books out there. Other authors groan about book tours, but I’ve been ridiculously gung-ho, even with my second novel. I enjoy visiting book groups and am more than happy to chat with anyone about my writing, or theirs, or other books that we love.

In Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel, her protagonist, who is a writer, says, “I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.” That’s really what it comes down to: writing truthfully, which is a lot harder than it sounds.

In my case, my earlier novels told contemporary stories about American women who resembled me in basic ways as wives and mothers living in cities and dealing with everyday problems. While each book tried to find its truth, in the end I had to write stories set in a distant place and time, far from anything I had ever experienced first hand. River of Dust and Dreams of the Red Phoenix are about Americans in China in the early twentieth century. My characters are good-hearted but hapless, and way out of their element. It took putting my stories in another world for me to find the emotional heart and truth, especially of my female protagonists. The Japanese suddenly attack or Mongolian bandits swoop down to steal a child, and the mothers in my novels are forced to become fully alive and challenged and real.

How were you able to find the truth in your debut? You’ve worked with an editor, Amy Einhorn, whose books are highly successful. You revised over many months and even years. Were there moments when you wished you could just get your novel out there because you were so eager to be published? Or are you glad you waited?

 SHARON: Amy took the book on when it was really very different, very flawed, and we went through three whole Guskin_cover_final-4drafts over a number of years. To be honest, I needed help figuring out how to get this book to work. I couldn’t do it on my own. And I was really lucky that I received help in this case, but it wasn’t easy. I added and took out over a hundred pages at various points in the process.

So I never had any regrets, but there were times, for sure, when I wished she would just sign off on a draft. When I’d look at her editorial note and groan — oh, no, she thinks I haven’t nailed this yet…in retrospect, I’m very happy she was so hard to please, as I’m proud of the book that we ended up with.

It’s true she has had many successes, but I think that’s because her storytelling instincts are so strong. There’s no formula, at least as far as I can tell. The only formula is no formula.

How is it different being an older debut author? Both of us started writing in our twenties; would it have changed your life to have been published back then?

VIRGINIA: Who can guess? Like everything else in life, we can never know the opportunity costs.

But I can say that one clearly good thing came out of publishing later in life: River of Dust is by far a better book than the previous ones. And Dreams of the Red Phoenix might be better still! You improve as a writer with practice. So there’s plenty of consolation in that. In the end, what matters more than success in publishing is writing the best books we can write.

How about you? How different would your life—and your books—be, if you’d been published earlier?

SHARON: Some people can write good books very early, they have that facility, but it took me a great deal of time and effort to figure it all out. And while I was plugging away all those years, I discovered the freedom that comes from not identifying oneself with success or lack of success — when I was in my twenties, at some level I believed that my worth was tied to these markers of external or material success, and it made me pretty anxious. And I don’t believe that any more, which turns out to be a much calmer place to be.

Do you have any advice to people still plugging away?

 VIRGINIA: That’s it: just keep plugging away. Remember there’s no deadline on writing a great book. And read well. Study how other writers have tackled their stories. Cheer on your peers. And try to have the writing itself remain the biggest satisfaction.

SHARON: Oh, great advice. Also: watch your mind and what you’re feeding it– Are you spending too much time on social media or reading things that have no meaning or value for you?  Are you spending too much time fantasizing about success or worrying about other people’s achievements? Keep connecting to your intention, what it is that you want to bring into the world, why you want to write this particular book. Keep bringing yourself back to that, believe in that, work hard — and keep going. You really might get there. After all, we did.

 

sharonSharon Guskin’s debut novel, THE FORGETTING TIME, is available from Flatiron Books/Macmillan. www.theforgettingtime.com

Virginia_Pye_300dpi

Virginia Pye’s novels, RIVER OF DUST and DREAMS OF THE RED PHOENIX are available now from Unbridled Books. www.virginiapye.com/virginiapyebooks.html

 

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Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. This will be her only international retreat in 2016 and is her favorite retreat of the year. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

 

Join founder Jen Pastiloff for a weekend retreat at Kripalu Center in Western Massachusetts Feb 19-21, 2016. Get ready to connect to your joy, manifest the life of your dreams, and tell the truth about who you are. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was? Jennifer Pastiloff, creator of Manifestation Yoga and author of the forthcoming Girl Power: You Are Enough, invites you beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty. Note Bring a journal, an open heart, and a sense of humor. Click the photo to sign up.

Join founder Jen Pastiloff for a special Mother’s Day weekend retreat in Ojai Calif, May 6th, 7th, & 8th, 2016.
Get ready to connect to your joy, manifest the life of your dreams, and tell the truth about who you are. This program is an excavation of the self, a deep and fun journey into questions such as: If I wasn’t afraid, what would I do? Who would I be if no one told me who I was?
Jennifer Pastiloff, creator of Manifestation Yoga and author of the forthcoming Girl Power: You Are Enough, invites you beyond your comfort zone to explore what it means to be creative, human, and free—through writing, asana, and maybe a dance party or two! Jennifer’s focus is less on yoga postures and more on diving into life in all its unpredictable, messy beauty.
Note Bring a journal, an open heart, and a sense of humor. Click the photo to sign up.

courage, Guest Posts, Self Image, Truth, writing

Ghosts

February 28, 2016

By Helena Montanez

The thing is, you don’t have to be told that certain things are for white people.

You just know it. Or at least believe it, in the way you believe other seemingly simple and absolute truths.

The sun will rise and set every day. Queerness is for white people. The sky is blue. Only white people can be mentally ill (and normally in the form of depression, or, say, something that can be used in court to explain why a man shouldn’t be held fully responsible for his decision to shoot up a public place). The world is a sphere. White people need more thrills from life, so they mess around with ridiculous stunts like skydiving, and/or the occult.

The reality of these things aren’t as simple; there are all sorts of factors that come into play to create them, such as gravity, lack of proper representation, and the like.

Still, none of that changes the fact that I, as a queer poc with social anxiety who happens to be interested in otherworldly things, am what shouldn’t exist, what some might even go so far as to claim doesn’t exist, because I’m probably making it up, trying to be as “other” as I can be. There’s a limit to how different a person can naturally be from what is the traditional norm before it’s labeled as a ploy for attention, and the bar for that limit is quite often set impossibly low.

In fact, a common consequence of this is the person in question doubting themselves and their diagnoses, sometimes believing that they’re just making it all up, that it’s all in their head (though, of course, the nature of mental illnesses is that it too lives in the mind). These sorts of doubts can be difficult to rid yourself of, even in a span of years, and especially when you can’t see yourself, in people like you, in the media.

I think that’s why I was determined to go on a school trip to take a ghost tour in Virginia City.

It was a good trip, all in all. I’d always been interested in history, and Virginia City is full of that, both good and bad, and readily apparent in the old buildings that line the streets, the boardwalks lined over the partially collapsed tunnels that run underneath the city. You could feel it in the air as we walked from place to place, as the tour guides told us stories of people and times gone by, as they asked ghosts to appear and make their presences known. Still, something about it all bothered me slightly.

The reason why didn’t hit me until later on. Maybe it’s ridiculous, but I’ve always believed in ghosts, or if not ghosts specifically, then at least some sort of entity, whatever you’d like to call it. And more than that, I believe that though they don’t have the same physical form, they’ve still got some semblance of being, and are deserving of respect (of course, there are evil spirits out there as well, but without knowledge of their stories or how they ended up that way, I’m more inclined to feel pity or sympathy towards them, even if they might feel that is worse).

I felt that certain people didn’t always show the proper respect towards the ghosts. In particular, in one part of the city there was allegedly the spirit of a young girl, and they didn’t necessarily act as if she were just that, a child, albeit a ghostly one.

It occurred to me that the ghosts and I have a few things in common, on a few basic levels: we’re not always treated like people, don’t always command respect, and though our reasons for being unable to tell our own stories differ, we often have to rely on others who aren’t like us to do so.

I’ve wanted to be a writer for some time now, despite the fact that I don’t know very many Mexican American authors, and even because of that. And during the tour, I felt a strong urge to learn more about the stories of the people who’d lived and died in that city, and to share their stories with more people, perhaps to bring some of them some sense of justice that they didn’t get to have in life. In the end, I suppose, my wish is the same in both cases: to give a voice to the largely voiceless.

Helen Montanez is an aspiring writer, currently a junior at Sierra Nevada College working towards a bachelor’s degree in English, and well on her way in achieving her goal of ascension to “local strange cat lady” status.

 

March 13 NYC! A 90 minute class for women, girls and non-gender conforming folks (we encourage teens 16 and up) and all levels that will combine flow yoga, meditation, empowerment exercises, connection and maybe, just maybe, a dance party. This will be a class to remind you that you are enough and that you are a badass. It will be fun and empowering and you need no yoga experience: just be a human being. Let’s get into our bodies and move! Be warned: This will be more than just a basic asana class. It will be a soul-shifting, eye-opening, life-changing experience. Come see why Jen Pastiloff travels around the world and sells out every workshop she does in every city. This will be her last class before she has her baby so sign up soon. Follow her on instagram at @jenpastiloff and @girlpoweryouareenough. Jen is also doing her signature Manifestation workshop in NY at Pure Yoga Saturday March 5th which you can sign up for here as well (click pic.)

March 13 NYC! A 90 minute class for women, girls and non-gender conforming folks (we encourage teens 16 and up) and all levels that will combine flow yoga, meditation, empowerment exercises, connection and maybe, just maybe, a dance party. This will be a class to remind you that you are enough and that you are a badass. It will be fun and empowering and you need no yoga experience: just be a human being. Let’s get into our bodies and move! Be warned: This will be more than just a basic asana class. It will be a soul-shifting, eye-opening, life-changing experience. Come see why Jen Pastiloff travels around the world and sells out every workshop she does in every city. This will be her last class before she has her baby so sign up soon. Follow her on instagram at @jenpastiloff and @girlpoweryouareenough.
Jen is also doing her signature Manifestation workshop in NY at Pure Yoga Saturday March 5th which you can sign up for here as well (click pic.)

 

Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

Join Jen Pastiloff in Tuscany Sep 17-24, 2016. There are 5 spaces left. This will be her only international retreat in 2016 and is her favorite retreat of the year. Email barbara@jenniferpastiloff.com asap. More info here. Must email first to sign up.

Converse-Station, Guest Posts, Interview, writing, Yoga

THE CONVERSE-STATION: Novelist Stephen Policoff Interviews Poet, Short Story Writer & New York Literary Lion Tim Tomlinson

December 26, 2015

Welcome to The Converse-Station: A dialogue between writers. With the site getting so much traffic (my Facebook page is reaching over 18 million people) I can think of no better way to utilize that traffic than to introduce the readers to writers I love. The dialogues created within this series have stayed with me long after I’ve read them on the page. Enjoy. xo Jen Pastiloff

 

Turnabout is fair play, or so they tell us.  Last November, my friend and colleague Tim Tomlinson interviewed me on the eve of the publication of my 2nd novel, Come Away (Dzanc Books, 2014).  And now, I am returning the favor, letting Tim discourse on his amazing and inspiring work. ~ Stephen Policoff 

 

SP: I have read and loved some of your poems and short stories—which, by the way, always seem to be published in cool and interesting magazines.  Do you have a preference for one form or the other?  Are there certain subjects which evoke one form rather than the other?  Do you work in—or plan to work in—other forms as well? Novel? Memoir? Screenplay?

TT: Many thanks, and yes, I’ve been fortunate to have my work appear in some pretty cool venues: Pank, and Heroin Love Songs, and Down and Dirty Word.  Not quite the same register as The New Yorker, or The Atlantic.  But sometimes the unwashed of today wear tomorrow’s tuxedos (or we know some people who will).

I go back and forth between poems and fiction. If I’m supposed to be doing one, I do the other. This way I get an illicit thrill and simultaneously court disaster—story of my life.  All my subjects—from the pleasures and perils of various forms of inebriation, to the pleasures and perils of the coral reef—appear in both forms.  Sometimes the poems begin as notes toward something. Blueprints, or maps.

There’s “B.A.R.” the poem (Soundings Review), then “B.A.R.” the story (Blue Lyra Review). I wrote the poem first, it got published second, but both uncoil from the same trigger event.  Writing the poem gave me the story.  The story opened up the incident, I built backwards. In an old interview, Denis Johnson talks about the stories that became Jesus’ Son—how they grew out of drafts of poems that, he felt, didn’t fully work.  The first story in that collection, “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” opens with the lines of the poem from which it springs.

Many of my stories are linked—the ones featuring the protagonist Clifford Foote.  When I reach “the end,” I’ll call the collection a novel-in-stories, with the title Work Until Failure.  At least a dozen of its “chapters” have already been published, and you’ve probably seen one or two.

And in between the poems and the stories, I’ve done something entirely new for me: Yolanda:  An Oral History in Verse, will appear in October, 2015 with Finishing Line Press. It’s a collection of accounts I gathered from survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda, then reconfigured into poems.  (In November 2013, the islands of Leyte and Samar in the Philippines were devastated by Haiyan, known locally as Yolanda; well over 10,000 died—the official number is lower, but there’s a cynical motivation for that.)

 

SP: I know that you teach writing about music and assume that music has been a tremendous influence in your life.  Could you tell us a little bit about the ways in which music influences/is a presence in your work?   Bonus Question: If you could be a piece of music which would you be?

TT: I take heart from music, and from the stories of musicians. Bob Dylan’s Chronicles I opens with his encounter with prize fighter Jack Dempsey. Obviously, the suggestion is that a career in music (or writing, or painting, any of the arts) is analogous to getting in the ring. You will be hit, you will be knocked down, you will lose. But you have to keep fighting. Chronicles I is structured around a series of walls that Dylan hits, and his accounts of how the walls affected him, and then how he got over or around them. As Tom Waits says, any way’s the only way. With writing, you can get hung up on—I do get hung up on—rules and templates and the way things are supposed to be. But often the thing you need to do is the thing you’re not supposed to do, the thing that breaks the rules. Dylan’s work teaches that, over and over again.  Blood on the Tracks is a great example—the non-linearity of the narratives, the multiple points of view, and the asynchronous events happening simultaneously.

At the moment, I’m reading interviews with Joni Mitchell. She says that she dipped her toes in the lake of jazz, and then Mingus came along and shoved her in all the way. That’s how I feel with poetry. I always wrote it (despite Philip Levine begging me not to), but I was much more committed to fiction. Teaching—the needs of my students—is what pushed me into poetry’s lake (which I should probably call Innisfree). I couldn’t teach without doing, and I couldn’t do without sending out, and suddenly I was having more success placing poems than placing stories. And I thrive on encouragement.

In reference to music itself: I love how certain music induces moods, and I love to write out of moods. Yearning, melancholy, abstract rumination. One morning while we were living in London, I was listening to Erik Satie’s “Gnossiennes” (Pascal Rogé, piano), and two poems emerged, damn near fully-formed.  They were  “Broken Things” (http://www.mandala.uga.edu/recon/poet-broken-recon.php) and “Mescaline”(http://saxifragepress.com/tag/tim-tomlinson/).

SP: Bonus Question: If you could be a piece of music which would you be?

TT: “In a Sentimental Mood,” the Sarah Vaughan version, the Nancy Wilson version, and/or the Ellington/Coltrane version, not all at once.

SP: Travel, too, seems to be a huge factor in your life, especially travel through Asia (?).  Could you tell us a little about how travel/living and working in other countries has affected your life—and your writing especially?

TT: Even as a kid, I wanted to be the boy who ran away and never went back. (I have a story called “Runaway”; it appears in the current issue of Tomas, the literary journal of the University of Santo Tomas, in Manila.) William O. Steele’s Flaming Arrows and Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain planted the seeds. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn cultivated them. On the Road and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test—these led to first, and probably premature, harvests. When I was eighteen, I wound up living on a research vessel in the Bahamas. I say wound up because there was never any plan except to be available for opportunity, the wilder the better. Now I think of my time in the Bahamas as analogous to Percival in the Grail Castle: there I was, in the midst of all that splendor—the islands themselves, the people, the water, the coral reefs. But I was too dazzled to ask the right question. In The Story of the Grail (Chretien’s), Percival flubs his visit to the Grail Castle, and if I remember correctly, he winds up back on his horse staring at drops of blood in the snow. I didn’t have a horse, so I went to college (in some respects, an exchange of one wasteland for another).

Asia came much later. My wife is from the Philippines. We started visiting the Philippines for extended periods pretty much every year since 2003.  I started teaching summers in Thailand.  Then we had two glorious years in China with NYU Shanghai’s Liberal Studies program—the original NYU program in China.  We did a lot of travel in China, and throughout the region—Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and up and down the Philippines. We made our first visit to Tacloban, on Leyte, during that period, and then of course the typhoon struck. That wiped out the place where we’d stayed, and we felt we had to give something back to a place that had made us feel so welcome. Out of that comes Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse.

Flannery O’Connor says that a writer has all the experience she needs by the age of seven. That’s true for some work. But all the time I’ve spent in Asia has opened up new material for me. Raymond Carver divided his life into the Bad Raymond years, and the Good Raymond years. And he often took Bad Raymond behaviors into Good Raymond settings. “Cathedral” is an example. I have Pre-Asia Tim, and Asia Tim. I’m putting the one into the other and having fun with the collisions. Pre-Asia Tim isn’t exactly a bull in a China shop, but he is a worm, and a weasel, and a dog, and a monkey.

SP: What about yoga and your relationship to it and how does that connect to your work (if it does)?…that one is a serious question.

TT: Yoga provides a foundation for my life. Without it, I don’t think I’d be doing the writing. Regular practice results in incremental improvements, and not just in executing the asanas. But because the asanas get better (easier to achieve, to hold, to transition in and out of), a more general sense of well-being occurs. I think it’s a lot like learning an instrument, except it’s the body, and the mind, and the life, that’s the instrument.

When I began a regular practice, thirteen years ago, almost everything beyond the simplest basics seemed way beyond my ability. A lot of what seemed impossible then is a part of my daily practice now. Headstand, for example, or some of the binds. The lessons you learn from the practice translate into your everyday life. And when you encounter a yoga problem—and you always do; as one of my teachers used to say, yogis seek discomfort—you find a solution, eventually, through the breath, which can mean the breath literally, or, more figuratively, daily sustained effort (although yoga teachers tend to scold too much effort).

You can see how all of this applies to writing. You fail, you fail better. You don’t nail the headstand, and you don’t nail the sestina, the first time out. But you come back to the problem and you give it your breath—it is your breath—and you don’t experience it as a failure, you experience it as another day in the practice. Then, one day, you’re in headstand in the middle of the room. And the next day, you have a book.  NB: my collection of poems, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, will appear late in 2016, with Winter Goose Publishing.  To me, a collection seemed much more impossible than a headstand in the center of the room.

SP: Tell us a little about New York Writers Workshop, and your role there.  Can you tell us about how The Portable MFA came to be?

TT: New York Writers Workshop is a collective of writers who teach. We’re based primarily in New York City.  We formed in 2000, incorporated in 2001.  Our first slogan was Think Outside the Yellow Box—Gotham was our local “competition.” Now it’s Coming Soon to a Continent Near You—in July 2015, I bring New York Writers Workshop’s Pitch Conference to Australia. We’ve been in China, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Mexico, and in many locations in the US, including Kansas and Alabama.

The Portable MFA in Creative Writing is our craft book. It covers fiction (the chapter I wrote), poetry, drama, and a few different forms of non-fiction. It’s enormously flexible—it’s on high school creative writing syllabi, college syllabi, and grad school/MFA syllabi—and it’s moderately successful—4th printing, over 20,000 copies. We’re very proud of it. I’m a co-founder of the organization, and I’ve been the president since day one, basically because I’m the only one who read Robert’s Rules of Order. Our mission is to help writers, at whatever stage of their game.  So we do community outreach in programs for inner city youth in trouble with the law, and we do pitch conferences for writers with manuscripts but without publishers.

We have a phenomenal staff—poets Loren Kleinman, Hermine Meinhard, Mary Stewart Hammond, writers in dramatic forms such as Emma Goldman-Sherman, Ross Klavan, Neal Rowland, novelists Yvonne Cassidy, Sally Koslow, Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, graphic novelists Laurence Klavan and Alissa Torres, multi-genre writers like Charles Salzberg who’s got almost as many books as Joyce Carol Oates, and Jacqueline Bishop, who paints, quilts, and photographs in her spare time away from novels, short stories, poems, and oral histories. If you can’t tell, I’m very proud of this group. We’re the little not-for-profit that could.  Ah, and I should mention our two other divisions:  Greenpoint Press, run by Charles Salzberg, publisher of fine fiction and non-fiction, and recently featured in PW, and Ducts, the literary webzine of New York Writers Workshop, with an archive that’s starting to rival the Paris Review.

Stephen Policoff

Stephen Policoff

 

*Featured image is author Tim Tomlinson

Family, Gratitude, Guest Posts, Women, writing

The Summer Mink

November 16, 2015

By Jennifer Rieger

While most of my school friends spent their summers attending various camps and enrichment programs, I spent my vacation in the little mountain town of Cresson, Pennsylvania. God’s little acre, my grandmother called it, but to me, it was a town of freedom and ease. This comforted me as a child; I liked being in a place where people stopped me in the market to tell me how much I resembled my Aunt Diana, or told funny stories of my parents growing up. In Suburbia, USA, I was a nobody.

My father was a Postal Inspector, and the nature of his career took us all over the country—Wisconsin, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois, Philadelphia—but Cresson was always the constant. The town is approximately seventy-five miles east of Pittsburgh, and if you blink driving through, you’re sure to miss it. It’s known for its scenic landscape and crystal spring water, as well as its creamy custard and front porch gossip. Years prior to my own existence, wealthy railroaders and even Andrew Carnegie would vacation in the decadent Queen Anne-style Mountain House mansions to escape the sweltering city summers. Those years are long gone, and the thriving little mountain town of railroaders and coalminers has become a bit depleted, and many struggle to get by.

While both sets of my grandparents lived in Cresson, it was an unspoken understanding that my sister and I would spend our summers with my mother’s parents. I didn’t question decisions like these—I knew better. There was an interesting complexity to my grandmother that the observant conversationalist could discern in a matter of minutes. She loved fresh-squeezed orange juice, clothing made with quality fabrics, porcelain dolls, and her granddaughters. As for the town itself, she possessed a love-hate relationship. An army bride at sixteen, my grandfather whisked her away from Texas and brought her to Cresson, to his family, his life. She willingly followed and gave him a daughter, but never let him forget the sacrifice she made leaving her family behind, even if they were desperately destitute.

I suppose that’s why she needed the mink coat.

Minnie Hudson had a mink, and wore it when there was even the slightest chill in the air—yes, even in the summer.  Each Sunday in church, Grandma would stare down that mink like a gentle, skilled hunter stalking prey. She never bad-mouthed Minnie for wearing it, never openly judged her for possessing such an obvious extravagance in a blue-collar town. I watched her, the all-consuming envy gleaming in her sparkling green eyes. At the end of each service, Grandma would make her way to Minnie, feigning a casual conversation. If Minnie noticed the number of times Grandma’s pained, arthritic hands reached out to nonchalantly caress the coat, she never let on. I noticed though. The way her hand would linger a little longer, the way she would sigh when they parted, the way she would look at the sky as we walked home—I noticed everything. And I wished I could buy her that coat. Her crooked hand grabbed my little one. Let’s go into Altoona and get your ears pierced baby doll, what do you say? I know your mother said no, but tiny diamonds will look so pretty. I nodded, smiled, and kicked the rocks of the gravel alley all the way home. Grandma kicked some too. Continue Reading…

courage, depression, Gratitude, Guest Posts, writing

Navels Are Natural

November 8, 2015

By Caroll Sun Yang

Do you, you feel like I do?                                                                                           

Do you, you feel like I do? — Peter Frampton

Being an artist is like being a wrung out rag, making and mopping up messes, bunched up in the corner, oft hung to dry, wearing history on our sleeves, smelling of our own mammal ripeness and occasionally being thrown in with the real wash. We who soak in alphabets, images, and sounds know that all arts demand that we uphold a fundamental oath to act as shaman, seers, provocateurs, infants terrible, politicians, romancers, therapists, charmers, jokesters, witches, pioneers, maniacs, hookers… and all of this sexily to boot. If we fail at these tasks, oh arduous hours flecked with blessed golden play, then our lives will seem utterly wasted. Our creative callings failed. Leaks in the hot tin roofs. Ancient toilets stopped up. Lives less lived. Muzzled. We are about to blow!

If I seem melodramatic and insecure, it is because I am. In this lowly state, I let my mind wander off to pasture. Chewing the cud, metaphorical green juice dribbling down my shirtfront, prostrate in bed, covered in ancient fawn quilting à la Salvation Army, cats fighting at my feet like warm lumps of tangling frisk. My gut consists of Mr. Pibb carbonation dancing with a cheap chile relleno burrito all laced with psychotropics. I burn. I feel strong. Full of jitterbugging ideas jostling into place. Visions. Sounds. Alphabets. Maybe my aura is finally lava.

I am typing on a cellular QWERTY pad, words tumble after one another on an eerily lit screen sized smaller than a maxi-pad (great metaphors abound), my skull and brain propped up on two pillows, growing heavier with each word, double chin at attention, heartbeat slowing to a meditative rate, legs like dumb sticks. My life has been reduced to thumb typing essays on the same devices that boisterous MTV and Tyra Banks reality show participants showily make use of. Their devices announce: “Meet at the holy hell wrecking ball platform wearing sneakers and bathing suits at 8 a.m.! Get ready for a raunchy, mad blast! Today is elimination day.” Or “Be fierce! Today you will walk the runway for anonymous couture designer, winner will be treated to anonymous jeweler’s jewels and full body massages!” My humble cell announces no such sport. At 8 a.m. I am usually shuttling children to school, teeth unclean, sunglasses hiding yesterday’s raccoon eyes, donning paint splattered tee and torn pajama bottoms, breasts swinging free, naked feet, throttling through any drive-through Starbucks. My text messages read like this, “Where r u?” to which I might respond with “Ded.” Or on a decent day, “Writing. XO.”

I run with a pack that the uninitiated might describe as “eccentric” or “off” or “bat shit crazy”. We artists do not pace in straight sober lines, solving problems like accountants, optometrists or soldiers do. We professional imaginers pace the ground raw in drunken lines, darting in and out of reality, occasionally leaping from the sheer thrill of “breaking through”. We inventors, theorists, artists, writers, musicians… struggle, but in the name of what exactly? Exactly.

We are generally benign, somewhat opinionated, obsessive nerds. While the universe propels forward, infinite events occurring simultaneously, we feel caught in its sway. It is our job to mark time/space in unique ways while attempting to engage others. Sometimes we will fail at this; many hours will be lost to intense examinations of life, but some hours we will make magic- magnificently warping perceptions. On days when I feel especially wrung out, halted and alone- I seek out my fatherly path pavers. Continue Reading…

courage, Guest Posts, storytelling, writing

Finding My Voice

November 7, 2015

By Kathy Bernier

All those years when I was trying to find my voice, and come to find out it has been inside me all along.  It was the thing I was trying to get away from and it would never let me go.

It’s the deep gritty mud that clings to my rural roots.  It’s hair on my legs, and the sound of coyotes calling from way down back on a hot summer night with all the windows open, and the taste of the first spring radish.

It’s breathing in the warm sweet barn smell first thing in the morning, and looking out the bathroom window at the dark silhouette of the fir trees when I get up to pee at one in the morning, and wishing there were enough money in the checkbook to just pay somebody to do stuff and take a day off from worry once in a while.

It’s squeezing my eyes tight and pretending it’s the glare of the sun when I help load the yearling goat that I delivered on a stormy night last summer into a crate headed for the slaughterhouse, repeating the tired old “you can’t keep them all” mantra and knowing it was the only way and refusing to let myself hear the panic in his bleating while I try to swallow the panic in my soul.

It’s giving myself the okay to say words like shit and even the eff word out loud even though I love God.  I know he’s listening, but he hears them whether they’re in my heart or in the air, so what the hell.  I guess that’s what the voice is, really.  It’s the words that God put inside me.

It’s not words I chose, I can tell you that.  I wanted my words to be all smooth and polished and chic and sophisticated.   Every one just right, every one pithy and impeccable with the swoop of a cartoon princess veil and a rock star chef and an Olympic giant slalom skier oozing from their pores.  Edgy in a cool hipster round-framed glasses kind of way. Continue Reading…