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Back in 2003, I moved from Boston to St. Louis to start graduate school. If there is a clear moment in my life that I can point to and say “this changed everything” (and I’m not sure that I can), then that would be the moment. When I left Ohio State in 2000, freshly armed with my BA in Literature, I wanted to be a writer. And even though taking time off from school was sorta the plan, it was really after I spent three years working in the private sector, and I came to Missouri for graduate school, that things changed in permanent way. MFA program, River Styx, Missouri Review. Twelve years have passed since I drove around a bend and saw the St. Louis Arch, crossed the Mississippi, and my so called writing life blossomed.
By now, of course, you have very likely heard that I have resigned as managing editor, and that today is my last day with the Missouri Review. This weekend, I’ll head home to Ohio to visit family for a few weeks, then up to Yellow Springs to teach in the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, then, finally, I head to D.C.
Why the move? Here’s why:
Yup. I gotta go see about a girl.
The last few weeks have been pretty hectic, and I’ve had very little time—none, in fact—to reflect on my time in Missouri. I am staring at an eight hour car ride to Cincinnati on Saturday, so perhaps then, when I’m coming up on Effingham, Illinois, I’ll have more coherent ideas about the meaning of these last twelve years.
“I don’t know what I think until I write it down” has been attributed to Joan Didion, though a variation on the same idea can also be attributed to Flannery O’Connor (“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”) and both are saying essentially the same thing.
Over the years, I’ve read other people’s posts about leaving an organization, and often, it’s a list of accomplishments and a bunch of thank yous. Which is fine. A lot has happened since I came here. We had an old website that looked like this. Our submission system was an Outlook mailbox. We’ve published roughly two hundred authors in our pages since 2010. We rebooted, and in many ways began, our social media presence, including this blog, which has been an outlet for our thoughts on what’s happening in publishing without being reactionary or dull. My blog posts have, I hope, shed light on the literary magazine world and the process that our editorial staff goes through because transparency and misunderstanding continues to make the writer/editor/reader relationship sometimes becomes combative when a simple explanation is all that is needed.
And, of course, I am grateful to Speer Morgan for hiring me and being a mentor and friend. This staff—Evelyn Somers, Dedra Earl, and Kris Somerville—is wonderful, and I’m proud to have been their colleague. Two dozen graduate editors have worked here, and their contribution has been invaluable, with ideas like Literature on Lockdown and Working Writers Series (Alison Balaskovits), building our Twitter and Facebook voice (Rob Foreman), shaping our poetry in print and online (Marc McKee, Katy Didden, Austin Segrest, Chun Ye). There are undergraduate interns and office assistants that had been here for more than just two semesters, and seeing Sara Strong and Maura Lammers and Kyle Burton and Brad Babendir over the course of their college career has been amazing.
Once I start listing names, I feel I need to include everyone, and that would turn this into a blog post that is solely a list of hundreds of names. And I’ve only mentioned the staff so far: I haven’t even gotten to the writers, who make this magazine exist by sending us their work, or the editors and writers I’ve met from the litmag world who make this work so gratifying. It was at AWP Denver, when I was brand new, that I marched up to Andrea Drygas (Ploughshares), Cara Adams (Southern Review), and Tyler Meier (Kenyon Review), to name just three editors, and asked them for all the advice and guidance they could give me about how to run a magazine.
Those three, by the way, all have left their respective magazines. Managing editors don’t stay long!
How can I encapsulate these six years? How can I tell you about having drinks with Phong Nguyen and Daniel Stolar and Amina Gautier at a rooftop bar in Chicago? Or about Matt Sailor inviting me down to Atlanta to meet Georgia State students? Or when my book was accepted for publication? Or when my students get accepted to MFA programs? Or when Ashley Ford bearhugged me? Or playing basketball at AWP? Or having no one show up to my first reading my hometown (true story)? Or meeting people for the first time after talking to them on Twitter for months? Or going to San Francisco and Seattle and Minneapolis for the first time in my life? Or all the hundreds of other moments, too great to list here, too private, too personal, too numerous?
I just don’t know. But it’s all because of this writing life.
I’m afraid of losing you. I’m afraid that when I drive away from this job and this city on Saturday, that a part of the writing community that has meant so much to me for the last twelve years is going to forget me. That my contribution has stopped, that my work is over, especially since I don’t know if my next step is going to be direct involvement in the writing world in any sort of public way.
But, in person, talking to my friends this week, I feel buoyant. I’ve moved around before, and the relationships that matter always thrive, no matter the distance. It was true when I left Ohio, when I left Boston, when I left St. Louis, and it will be true again when I leave Missouri. My relationships are important to me, and while there is so much I want to say, I think this piece that summarizes an essay by Andrew Sullivan says everything better than I could. If you know me, really know me, then you know how meaningful my friendships are, and how important you’ve been, and continue to be, in my life.
I’m thrilled to be heading to D.C. Moving has been a drain on my time, and once I’m settled, I can get back to my novel (revision #843!) and new stories, and reading books again. Being in a city is going to be invigorating, and Politics & Prose is a short walk from my new place, and I will be living again in a city with NBA basketball (okay, look: that’s exciting to me, all right?). I won’t be hard to find.
This is where I say something smart or witty or deep or insightful or something as a way to close out this final blog post. As TMR’s managing editor, I’ve written 207 posts, some lengthy and some short, and right now, I’m at a loss as to how end this. Because it doesn’t really feel like the end, and it doesn’t really feel like the beginning, and I refuse to say something corny about journeys and all that. I will miss this place and this magazine and this role. But I’m ready to go. And I know I’ll see you again soon.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
When I started my internship at the Missouri Review, I didn’t know what to expect. Despite my “superlative” qualifications of being able to quote both J.D. Salinger and Jhumpa Lahiri on the fly, being a self-proclaimed expert in feminist critical theory, and having the ability to read for a whole day on the couch while only being sustained by water and a plethora of junk food, there was little my ardent reading did to prepare me in knowing about details of publishing that were vital to a literary magazine. Before starting the internship, a multitude of questions would barrage my brain within a perpetual series of how’s : How does a literary magazine actually function? How does the Missouri Review make decisions about what pieces to include? How does the world of publishing differ from the world of a writer? How does publishing and writing intersect with each other? How do you become a managing editor of a literary magazine?
Luckily, I write this blog post after being an intern at TMR for almost three months now and can assure you that I have a much stronger understanding of literary magazines and publishing, but I didn’t gain this understanding just by experiencing interning at a literary magazine, as merely witnessing how a literary magazine gets published doesn’t necessarily mean you are learning about the process or anything about the industry of publishing for that matter. I was able to learn more about publishing, literary magazines, and TMR as a whole because of how my experience was shaped into one that questioned and explored the effects of every decision made. The importance of not only answering the “how” of a question, but also the “why” of a question was emphasized to me through the surprising intersectionality between my experiences at TMR and a feminist theory piece I had recently read by Shulamith Firestone titled “The Dialectic of Sex.”
For those that are well versed in the words of Firestone, I am in no means suggesting that TMR is a radically liberal magazine, that hopes to use the ideology of Marx and Engels to overthrow the patriarchy and create a society free from the shackles of sexism–but oddly enough, they are similar in how they both approach their goals in a dialectic way.
Firestone proposed that the first step in eradicating sexism was to change the way people approached getting rid of it. She urged that in order to change people’s approach, the intellectual patterns of Marx and Engels should be adopted—not because of the way they viewed the economy and definitely not because of the inherent sexism within their ideas, but because, to quote Firestone herself, “they attempted for the first time to put historical and cultural change on a real basis, to trace the development of economic classes to organic causes. By understanding thoroughly the mechanics of history, they hoped to show how to master it.”
Marx and Engels not only demonstrated how there were flaws in economic systems, but by looking back onto what parts of the past created this system and what elements of the present sustain it, they were able to critically think about the issue at hand and explain why what they viewed to be this flawed structure existed, bringing them a step closer in explaining how to get rid of it. Firestone also adopted this method to not only explain how sexism existed, but why it did in the hopes that this finer understanding would make it easier to remove sexism and create an inclusive society. In turn, I believe that TMR embodies this dialectic method by not only showing how decisions are made at a literary magazine and in the field of publishing, but why they are made in the hopes of creating a more successful magazine.
Along with reading manuscripts, my time in the internship class of TMR has been spent cultivating and analyzing a series of questions, as well as answers to those questions, in order to better understand how and why the magazine functions in the way that it does:
Why was this the certain cover for an issue? Aesthetics is of course a factor, but also to create something that is timeless, affordable, appealing, and that relates to the content of the issue. The analysis of a cover always sparks more questions, and makes one think: Was this the best choice for the cover? What parts of the cover’s design worked well, and which parts didn’t work so well? How can we learn from the parts of this current cover that didn’t work so well to improve the choices made for the next issue’s cover?
Are online submission fees inherently classist? It is classist in the sense that having a submission fee assumes that all people submitting to the magazine have the funds to create a bank account and have a debit or credit card, which isn’t the case. Despite this, part of me feels that this fee is necessary to support the magazine, but that feeling brings up another question: Is this three dollar fee really necessary to support the magazine? Would we be able to create a system where the online fee is taken away for a couple of months, in order to create a time of the year where people who can’t afford the online fee are able to submit, yet still have the rest of the year have paid submissions so the magazine can gain revenue? What problems exist within that proposed system?
Why does VIDA matter in the world of publishing? VIDA is important in the field of publishing as it highlights how difficult it is for women to get published. Doing this forces literary magazines and publishing agencies to asses themselves and see if they are publishing predominantly more male writers than female writers. As an intern who reviews manuscripts, it makes me question if I am doing the same thing, and makes me more observant when reviewing submissions. It also allows me to acknowledge the sexism that exists in the field of publishing, and wonder why it exists. Is there something intrinsically unsatisfactory with the way females write that makes their writing get rejected, some deeper psychology behind it all? Are some publishing agencies purposefully rejecting female writers? Is it fair to accept certain writers over others in order to diversify the literature that is published by literary magazines and publishing firms?
As evidenced by my answers to the questions above, some questions just lead to more questions and contemplation instead of a concrete answer, yet I would argue that the analysis and existence of these questions, instead of the concrete answers themselves, has been the most fulfilling way to learn about TMR and the field of publishing. Analyzing and attempting to answer these questions with my fellow interns creates an enriching learning experience that not only identifies aspects of the magazine, but explains why they are there, and generates discussions that debate whether certain aspects of the magazine should continue to exist. These discussions are important and are what allowed me to notice the parallel between what I was discussing at TMR and with Firestone’s writing. Just as Firestone wanted to spark a dialectic conversation of the origins and perpetuations of sexism in order to create an inclusive society, these discussions within my TMR internship class promote a dialectic conversation on how aspects of the magazine originated and why they continue to exist in an effort to make a magazine that creates a positive impact for its society of readers. Whether it be discussing the design of a current issue’s cover, highlighting sexism in the publishing industry, or identifying ways that our magazine may cause barriers for certain people that wish to submit their work, it reminds me how we all as readers, writers, and individuals should recognize and positively shape the impact that our writing and actions have on society.
I realize positively shaping our impact so that it benefits society is a huge call to action. Do I hope for all literary magazines, readers, and writers to band together in an effort to eradicate the microagressions of society they may subtly perpetuate? No, not necessarily. But should we all at least think about the idea? Think about the deeper impacts of our actions in something as seemingly harmless as publishing a literary magazine, writing a new piece, or reading without analyzing the content of the story? Yes, absolutely yes.
I am not famous, or important, or even particularly unique. But I do get emails from writers asking to interview me, though not about my art, which I would be happy to discuss. Instead, these writers want to interview me about my life and my family history in order to feed their own creative projects, particularly when they have a Gypsy woman character who shares some superficial similarities with me. The first time I received such a request, I’ll admit, I was terrified, then flattered, then terrified again when I realized this request comes with an artistic and cultural responsibility I am not prepared to undertake, and as such, necessitates a careful response.
Maybe there is a place for the gloss of my story, just so you might understand, but this is a cautious tale with not too many admissions, because after all, this is not my interview. Like many Roma, I can trace the brutality and desperation I’ve lived through directly to generations of oppression and hopelessness. The Roma have inherited trauma just as we have inherited our skin tone, our multi-colored eyes, and our family trades. On the surface, I am a living, breathing stereotype: I work as a fortune teller, dancer, and energy healer just as the women in my Romani family did as far back as we can remember. I learned these trades at my grandmother’s knee, sitting on the floor of her trailer, parked in a rough-and-tumble trailer-park that used to flood every spring. My mother and I would wade through the dirty, snake-riddled water with thick black trash bags pulled up to our chests just to get to her front steps. I slosh through, cursing at those fat water snakes that darted through the muck-silken ripples, always hoping I’d have to fight one just to make my mother and grandmother proud of my heroism and courage. That never happened, but I can shoot and knife-fight, I can track an animal, work the family trades, and I’ve travelled the world, and though they may not always understand me, my family says they are proud. So far, on paper, I am a Gypsy dream.
But I was also a quiet girl who spent her time in the library instead of at recess; I was tested and determined to have a high IQ and college-level reading and writing skills before I was 10; I attended Hollins University, an all-women’s college where I won an award for poetry; I’ve been published in a national magazine; nominated for a Pushcart; I taught college English during my MFA; and I’m currently finishing my thesis after taking a leave of absence to care for ailing family members, because that’s what Gypsy girls do, take care of their families. None of this fits the mold that gadjé culture made for me, but everything I do is what a Gypsy girl does because I am a Gypsy girl. But like many Roma, I have been reduced to the outsiders’ idea of what a Gypsy is. So I was singled out in school and pelted with rocks until bloody on my first day, so I was given detention for “witchcraft” and “giving the evil eye,” so I was sexually harassed so often that I was absent about half of every school year, so I was raped and beaten more times than I can count since I was too young to know what such things meant, so I was taught to use my body to get what I needed to survive because my body was expendable like so much garbage, so I was told by my friends’ mothers that I was lucky I was pretty, because how else would a girl like me get through life?
When I was a child, I expected I would grow up to be Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, a sex object abused by the men who owned her because they wanted her, because her body was not her own, and ultimately destined for tragedy. I expected this would happen unless by some miracle I could write myself out of that destiny and into a different life. So I wrote, and wrote, even when I was told over and over that only my body had currency, even when I was told this by a few grumbling colleagues in my MFA, at which I had earned a place with my work and not my bikini. Even then, I wrote with the kind and meaningful support of my advisor, professors, and peers, and always with the fire I swallowed long ago. I gave blood to the Esmeralda archetype that was foisted upon me, knowing full-well that Esmeralda danced her way into the flames by choice, if you can call it choice. I knew that all of Esmeralda’s power and all of her undoing came from her fuckability, the hell-fire of desire she inspired in the white men who wanted to possess and break her, and did.
Most of the people who write to me are just that, white men who want to take my story and make it theirs, snuff-out my voice and write me an edgy elegy from the ash. They want to use my story to validate their fantasies of a genuine Gypsy girl. I have no interest in endorsing any of that noise because I write against it. I write. This is not to say that I truly think the people who write to me asking for these kinds of personal interviews consciously have such nefarious intentions—often the writers are very well-meaning, trying earnestly to do something good with their work. They write to me, “I want to be inclusive and have a Romani woman character, but the trouble is that I’m a white guy, as white as white can be.”
The trouble is that I am not all Roma. I get plenty of emails from Roma who subtly and not-so-subtly imply that I am not a “real” Roma because of my education, my mixed-blood, my choice to reclaim the slur “Gypsy,” or even my fondness for swimming. There are so many Romani clans and cultures, with so many differences and grudges between them, that there are few commonalities among us but that we are all a globally persecuted, misunderstood people. We are an ethnic group, but we are consistently denied that designation, and the periods of slavery and genocide that we have endured in the Americas and in Europe often go unacknowledged. We are consistently romanticized, demonized, and dehumanized as bands of criminals, free-spirits who made unusual life style choices, or even magical creatures. We share the burden of these stereotypes that actively undermine our fight for human rights. Though we have a shared origin in 10th century India, we have no nation. This makes it difficult for us to gain representation in the UN and in humanitarian organizations that work to protect marginalized people against systemic racism, ghettoization, forced sterilization, hate crimes, unlawful deportation, poverty, and the other injustices that Roma all over the world endured for centuries and still endure today. We share this pain, but it is not easy to express it. Our governments turn against us, the gadjé ignore us, or actively silence us with Molotov cocktails. Though our language shares a Sanskrit root, there are so many dialects and differences among us that we cannot always understand each other. This makes us very lonely in a world that seems so determined to misunderstand us as a whole. Our customs vary wildly from one clan to the next with the exception that we define ourselves against gadjé, the non-Roma. We are a private, secretive people because we are afraid, with good reason, to make ourselves known and therefore vulnerable. This is why, if we are able to hide our ethnicity (and many of us do not have that luxury), we do. We are a diasporic people scattered by the violence of our oppressors—this is our universal, this is our common ground. No one will elect me to represent us, to unite us, to speak for all of us—no one will crown me Queen of the Gypsies, even if such a title existed. (And it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.) I am a controversial figure, even in spite of my unimportance. This liminal space that I inhabit is hard enough for me to write, and I live it every day. What makes a stranger think he could write it for me?
The trouble is that I am not a muse; I am an artist in my own right, and if you want to learn about me, then read the many essays, stories, and poems I’ve published. Keep an eye out for my book. And if you want to learn about the Romani people, then read the many works written by the many Romani men and women who have overcome so much to write them. There are good reasons that we, Romani writers, publish our stories instead of simply telling them into the void—we publish to share our voices, to educate others, and to speak for ourselves and our people. We publish to legitimate ourselves as professionals, academics, and artists in a world that does not see us as legitimate human beings deserving of even the most basic human rights. We publish to protect our intellectual property when we have not been protected. We publish to own our stories when so much has been ripped from us. If you want to be inclusive, then read and support the writers you want to include. Don’t ask to take our lives for your own gain. I won’t play your Gypsy girl going up in flames.
The trouble is, if I give these interviews and say, “Yes, dear Internet stranger, here is my history. Here are the assembled experiences of a real Gypsy girl. Make of them as you will,” then I am tacitly approving whatever that writer creates from me, no matter how problematic it is, no matter how inexpertly navigated the terrain might be, no matter how many offensive stereotypes it enforces. And I would be endorsing all of this while giving away the only thing I have to my name—the songs of my blood. This, I cannot do for anyone, regardless of color, sexuality, status, or gender, no matter how well-intentioned the request. Esmeralda respectfully declines her interview.
If you are a Romani person reading this, and if you have received such requests, I am not necessarily saying that you shouldn’t oblige the well-meaning inquiries into your life. Perhaps sharing your story in this anonymous way is exactly what you want to do. Perhaps that is the safest option for you, and the kindest to your family and community. Or perhaps your drive to tell stories is simply different from mine. But consider this, my phen, my sister: it is your story and you are allowed to own it. Publishing your story on your blog is enough to stake your claim. Protect what is yours in whatever way you need to. Our people have guarded our stories for good reason. Look at dear Papusza, the grandmother of Romani writing, and how her words turned on her and her people because the gadjé who published her framed her poems so carelessly, manipulated her metaphors, and used her songs to further oppress her community. I am proud of our literary Grandmother but my heart aches for her exile. She sacrificed herself to show us how a Gypsy woman can be an artist and how much can be taken from us still. My blood-grandmother lived through WWII in Nazi Germany as a Romani girl, one of the persecuted ethnic groups, and though millions of Roma and Sinti died in the Holocaust, O Porrajmos (The Great Devouring, as we call it), we are still denied acknowledgement, and on the few occasions that our loss is acknowledged, it is rarely as “genocide.” Our basic status as people is undermined—our persecution continues—Roma are still dying because of representation and ignorance. Our stories are vital, and you have the power to decide when, how, and to whom you tell them. Make sure you do what you need to do, whatever that is. I trust that you know what you need, just as I know that I need to write my own stories, and if I’m going to give an interview, it’s going to be about the work I’ve done. I will not be sacrificed and exsanguinated like Esmeralda at the stake. My art is my identity, my liminality, and the most genuine reflection of my existence. The Gypsy archetype looms over every story we record, but through our records, we give blood to the archetype and write ourselves human.
Jessica Reidy attended Florida State University for her MFA in Fiction and holds a B.A. from Hollins University. Her work is Pushcart-nominated and has appeared in Narrative Magazine as Short Story of the Week, The Los Angeles Review, Arsenic Lobster, and other journals. She’s a staff-writer and the Outreach Editor for Quail Bell Magazine, Managing Editor for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, Art Editor for The Southeast Review, and Visiting Professor for the Cambridge Writers’ Workshop retreats. She is a freelance writer and editor, a yoga instructor, and also works her Romani (Gypsy) family trades, fortune telling, energy healing, and dancing. Jessica is currently writing her first novel set in post-WWII Paris about Coco Charbonneau, the half-Romani burlesque dancer and fortune teller of Zenith Circus, who becomes a Nazi hunter. Visit her online at www.jessicareidy.com.
Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com
Today’s Working Writer is Nora Boxer
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a writer of fiction, poetry, and hybrid work who has also dabbled in the visual arts. I graduated with an MA in Fiction from the University of Texas in Austin in 2010. I received the 2010 Keene Prize for Literature, a $50,000 juried award, for my short story “It’s the song of the nomads, baby; or, Pioneer,” about a pregnant woman who goes off grid in Taos, NM.
Prior to my time at UT Austin, I lived in Taos. I originally went there for a 1-month stay in an Airstream, on the land of a photographer who had a couple of trailers she rented out to writers. I ended up staying in New Mexico for 4 years, and was the editor of the literary journal Chokecherries for SOMOS, the Society of the Muse of the Southwest. During this time I also received the First Annual Writer’s Travel Scholarship from the now defunct www.equivocality.net. This award was granted by a private patron (one of the early developers of WordPress) who believed travel and writing are interrelated, and the prize was a free round-trip ticket anywhere I wanted to go in the world. I spent six months in East Africa working with HIV/AIDS nonprofits.
After UT, I moved to Berkeley, into a tiny house with an even tinier writing studio, where I completed a novel. The book is about a woman in San Francisco’s electronic music scene who is diagnosed as HIV+ and ultimately becomes involved with a women’s tribal activist group in Kenya. Through friends, I was networked to a Bay Area-based agent who I ultimately fired. After the Yes! of the Keene Prize, this turn of events with my agent was disheartening, and not one I would have foreseen. I have yet to try again to secure another agent.
Since receiving my MA, I’ve been a resident at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony; the Elsewhere Collaborative; and Maumau Artists’ Residency in Istanbul, where I worked on a project influenced by travels to Rumi’s tomb in Konya. I’m very interested in residencies and in programming and space that supports other creatives, and wrote a side thesis on these topics in grad school. Recently I’ve begun working locally with the Birdhouse Arts Collective to develop a local residency at the Omni Commons in Oakland though the project is still in its infancy.
I have been freelance-editing manuscripts as a side gig for the past few years as well as coordinating the local county fair poetry contest. My poetry has appeared in several journals, such as Prism Review, Sugar Mule, and OVS. I have worked as a writer-in-the schools and in the nonprofit world, though in the past year I’ve ended up in a P/T administrative gig I dislike. In my 20s I lived for two years at Green Gulch Farm, an American Zen Buddhist center. I currently teach fiction in the adult-ed program at San Francisco City College.
I’ve loved a lot of things about my path as a writer but I am still struggling to “emerge”.
Firing your agent must have been a hard decision. How did you come to it, and what has kept you focused on writing since then?
My agent was referred to me by a friend who used to work in publishing in San Francisco. The agent was also Bay Area–based, and had worked as an acquisitions editor for many years, but not in fiction. He had, however, acquired a certain book during his career that made him sound like he could be a great fit. My sense at our initial meeting was that something was “off” — I didn’t like the comparables he wanted to pitch for my book, and specifically asked him not to use one of them — but I somehow convinced myself to trust the process and to ignore my uneasiness. Fast forward two months and we had only gotten three brief rejections, with no word from the other 10+ editors my agent had sent to. My unease was daily at this point. Then a very nice rejection came in, from Chuck Adams, actually, saying there were many things he liked and respected about my book but that it didn’t quite fit his list. He had referred me to someone at the PEN/Bellwether Prize, Barbara Kingsolver’s Socially Engaged Fiction award, but the deadline had just passed and the award wouldn’t happen again for another two years.
Underneath was my agent’s letter he’d written. It compared me to the book I’d specifically asked him not to compare me to; it had typos in it; and it clearly showed he had little to no personal relationship with the editor he was writing to. At that point I freaked out and all the mistrust I’d managed to stuff down came rushing up to the surface. I called two writer friends, one with multiple books out, and another who’d sent a book around New York a few months prior. They both told me this should not be happening; that I should not have been sitting around waiting for two months; that a good agent will have the connections to push you through to be read much faster.
I called a meeting with my agent and dissolved the relationship. I learned the hard way that a Bay Area agent won’t have the connections needed, like a NY or even an LA agent would. Like many unrepresented writers, I had succumbed to “agent fever” – this kind of panic, scarcity, or confusion about getting representation, like you’re almost begging. I know now it has to be the right representation.
We never even heard anything from the majority of editors my agent sent to. However, I felt like “used goods,” like my book had already been sent around (sort of) and how was I going to explain this to a new agent? Simultaneously, I ran out of money, my landlords repurposed the room I’d been using as a writing studio into a guest cottage (they were extremely kind to have given it to me rent-free for 2 years, with the understanding that this would eventually happen), my back went out, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and I ended up in a somewhat trying job as I re-entered the workforce in a rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.
I’m ready to secure new representation. I’ve gotten over feeling like damage was done. During this time I’ve also had to come to terms with the part of me that wants to stay hidden. Writing is such a private act, and then publishing is such an exposure. But if I don’t get over my fears about that exposure (many of which are irrational) then I don’t get to give to others what I have to offer via my writing. Without giving that gift, everything withers. I’m trying more and more to recognize that it’s not about me – it’s about the work.
The past year has been the least I’ve written in a decade. An old friend has recently offered me the use of his backyard shed to write in a few times a week. I’m headed there right now after I answer these questions, actually. I’m working on a story about gentrification, the loss of wild and creative spaces, and owl wings.
What is your writing “network” (grad students, mentors, etc.?) and how do you sustain it?
I’ve never had a long-term mentor. I was lucky to study with Carole Maso as an undergrad. I took a writing workshop with Martín Prechtel that was highly influential, and I still teach his “language reversals” exercise and work with it on my own. Jim Crace taught me about reworking the opening page until the right rhythm emerges in the language, so that the story can flow through.
I went to the Squaw Valley Writers’ Conference in 2011, right after I moved back to the Bay Area, and many of the writers I met there connected me to local reading series and events. I had the good fortune to be in workshop at Squaw with Kelly Luce; we’ve sustained a friendship and it’s been great to see her succeed this past year. I know Robin Romm from my undergraduate days and our paths have continued to cross over time as well; I always enjoy her company. I’ve also stayed in touch with a few folks from a shared residency at Byrdcliffe.
Taos, where I lived from 2004-2008, is definitely the most supportive creative community I’ve been part of. I really felt that the multiple generations of writers and artists in Taos supported one another, rather than competed. I remember applying for the Gift of Freedom, A Room of Her Own Foundation’s big award, and opening up the results email to see my neighbor Summer Wood’s face. It was the best way ever to find out you didn’t win an award, and it was also so Taos. I lived on a property with nine cabins that was just down the road from the D.H. Lawrence ranch. Aldous Huxley had supposedly written one of his books in a cabin, and Ram Dass’ Be Here Now was collated in the main house. There was also a dual outhouse on the property that wasn’t in use but that couldn’t be torn down, because rumor had it that at one point Lawrence was in one side and Huxley was in the other. The late great musician Diane Izzo lived on that ranch too and we became fast friends. I’ve always had friends in other creative disciplines, maybe more so than writers. I’ve also always been attracted to the sense of artistic continuum over time.
How has your working life (exterior) sustained your writing life (interior)?
For the most part I have been able to find a good balance, though I’ve never made very much money. I’ve been a writer in the schools, gone to a number of residencies, and worked for SOMOS. I’ve been editing in various capacities since 2005. I was a Zen student at Green Gulch Farm for two years right out of college, which was an interesting way to enter the workforce, to say the least. The past year has been more of a difficult balance. I’m teaching fiction now at SF City College, and I coordinate the poetry contest at the Alameda County Fair, which is a charming, if surreal job. I’m editing manuscripts from time to time. And I am working (volunteering) to develop a local artists’ residency at Omni Commons in Oakland. However, none of these gigs pay much, so I’m also working three days in an admin job at the moment. I’ve been there a year, and this is the first time ever where I feel like there’s a gap between who I am and what I’m doing. I’m 41; I’d like to close that gulf. My three long-term goals are to write and publish, to teach creative writing in a more full-time capacity, and to be part of creating and administering an artists’ residency. All that energy is sprouting right now in various forms, but the day job is paying the majority of the bills at the moment.
What books have you recently read that have blown you away?
What has interested me most of late is cultural history and/or memoir regarding the formation of creative spaces. Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Peter Coyote’s Sleeping Where I Fall, Martin Duberman’s Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. I read Shoes Outside the Door, about the early days of the San Francisco Zen Center, but it focused on Baker-Roshi’s affair and was too sensationalized, missing much of what could have been told instead. Still, it was very interesting to learn things I didn’t know about how this space I’d been part of had formed.
Sometime during the tail end of writing my book I heard advice to stop reading novels while you work on your own, and I did. The last novel that really moved me was Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds – he was my classmate in grad school but a poet, and then he emerged with this great novel. Poets always write the best novels, in my opinion! Kevin is another great case for how unnecessary our obsession is with pigeonholing writers into genre.
Writers I love and feel a kinship to include Janet Fitch, Kate Braverman, Anne Carson. The poet Jean Valentine has been a huge influence, and I also love Merwin, and Rumi, whose tomb in Konya I went to in 2013. I’ve also been reading more short stories lately, since I’ve been teaching again. Suzanne Rivecca’s really good. I’m teaching Ha Jin, Michel Faber. Right now I’m reading Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I might teach him next semester.
Nora Boxer can be found online at www.noraboxer.com
Each year, this university’s English department awards several scholarships. Most of them require typical martial facts (name, numbers) and writing samples, while one includes a prompt. This year’s prompt: “If you could select one literary text that every English major should read, what would you select and why?”
The question seems simple—all one has to do is reach over to the bookshelf and pick a favorite at random—but the modifier of literary, seemingly slipped in so frivolously, skews the earth’s axis and hurls the cosmos into the ocean. What exactly does it mean to be literary? How can we define or, even, show it?
I think the answer can be found in the texts themselves. I’ve been reading submissions at TMR for a year now. Most of the job is analyzing stories and trying to put into words why they do or don’t function well. Sometimes it’s fairly easy: there is no characterization, or the style relies on clichés. Other times a story is perfect mechanically, but it lacks the indescribable quality of great writing, a unified force of magic that, I suppose, we describe as “literary,” the popularly pithy label like the hundreds of others we invent to try to express the matter that lies in the area between life and literature.
I’ve read in many places and heard from many people that “literary” is only a term used to market books. That’s a fair argument, though I think it’s too easy of an escape to the question of what makes something literary, and I don’t want to fall into the whirlpool of genre fiction debates and how some works are misunderstood, etc. etc. This adjective also isn’t just limited to books, as by now it’s accepted that genres like film and music and television can be well written, that they can transcend from the “ordinary” into the “literary.” But the adjective does come from the word literature, and it’s the genre whose works have longest lingered on our tongues and minds.
It’s easy to say that the components of literature must be present and masterfully executed to make something literary: vivid writing, developed characters, a complex plot. But what does that make of descriptive poetry, or a play?
A few months ago I read Clare Cavanagh’s translation of Nonrequired Reading by Wislawa Szymborska. It’s a collection of newspaper columns in which Szymborska reviews various books that don’t usually get critiques (self-help books, an annual calendar) and uses them to muse on life. The micro-essays are terse and vivid, and they generate the cumulative feeling of having flipped through a poet’s notebook. But does that mean they’re not literary because they were published in newspapers, or because there are no sustained characters or plot, because the pieces don’t have many unifying qualities besides a premise and an inquisitive tone? Of course not.
So the aforementioned components can be present—they usually are—but they aren’t required. The effect, of magic and discovery, is required. For something to be literary, it must a regenerative force, a carefully constructed mirror, without a smudge or any the maker’s fingerprints. Every time somebody returns to a literary text, they see something different in it, an effect reliant on the present condition of the reader and the depth of the text. And every time somebody else goes to the text, they see similarities, but they detect different components. Both people see the eyes, but one sees the hair and the other sees the chin. Only the mirror-maker has the complete image, for their completion contains an intricate depth, as well as a mystery of having explored and created it.
Some of our great mirror-makers are those deigned as literary authors. Shakespeare, of course, so skillfully implemented wordplay and interesting interactions and opposing ideas that his plays and sonnets continue to engage readers and scholars today, more than four hundred years since he wrote them. Flannery O’Connor merged concurrent literal, symbolic, and religious narratives in each of her Complete Stories. The writings of Willa Cather and Robert Frost, to take two other genres, can easily be read on literal terms, while masterful craft—ambiguity!—lurks behind their printed letters.
It should be noted that in the end the artist does not have full control over how they will be branded, whether their work earns them immortality, or even what readers understand of their writing. Of course, authors labor to limit confusion and misunderstanding, and to open certain parts of their writing to questions, whether to reflect life’s qualities, or to the imagination, or to complicate narrative, or to do whatever they want their art to do. But that’s not to be confused with confusion because of poorly-drawn scenes and characters. The mastery, of course, must be there.
The starchy observer might, again, argue that I’m being some sort of elitist by using these terms—literary, art, poetic—but it’s not mere labeling, or oppression. I doubt that the writers I mentioned earlier sat, with pen in hand, to develop an inspiration, thinking, I’m going to make this one literary, really literary—so it sticks for a long time. Greek bards didn’t recite hexameters to fossilize their echoes on eternity’s bookshelves. If one’s goal is to craft an emotional mimesis, to make their work like life, which has no certainty and definitely no neat resolution, then they will do so, and the label will come afterwards if they are successful. But it’s simply a label, and it’s the effects and qualities of that label that we’re after. Only time, like with all things, controls the rest.
When Henry trudges into the rain at the end of A Farewell to Arms, there is no full resolution to his story, or his life. He has enough momentum to walk off the page and join us, for some time, strolling in our minds and our world. When Riggan leaps out of his hospital room window at the end of Birdman and his daughter comes in moments later, looking through it first at the ground and then to the sky, we have an ambiguous, open ending. The magic prevails. The suspension of disbelief continues to mesmerize us. The story lingers in our consciousness for much longer, and it becomes something more than a 300-page novel or a two-hour film. It becomes something magical, something so intricately constructed that it has a reality of its own. That, I suppose, is when we know that something is literary, that it, like the great mysteries of life, has the substance to survive the unyielding passage of time.
Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae
Today’s blog post comes from author Erika Dreifus
Not long ago, another writer paid me what I considered to be a supreme compliment. Essentially, she said that I write well on personal subjects without “oversharing.”
The comment pleased me, but it puzzled me, too. That’s because I’ve received plenty of criticism for being—well, let’s just say a bit too forthright with my words. And no small amount of that disapprobation has come in response to words on the page (or screen), rather than those flowing from my vocal chords.
But I do try to disclose judiciously. Therein rests the pleasure; the comment suggested that I’ve been at least somewhat successful in meeting that aim. When I considered it more carefully, I discerned some patterns that may have helped me earn my fellow writer’s praise. If “oversharing” concerns you, too—I’m well aware that not everyone experiences this particular anxiety—these five tips may be helpful.
1. Try the second-person point of view.
I know. You’ve heard that some editors detest the second-person point of view. You’ve heard correctly. But sometimes, it’s a technique that works. And sometimes, editors agree.
Some of my most autobiographical writing, in poetry and prose, has succeeded (I think) because it employs a mediating, distancing “you” to create what might be best described as a “safe space.” A space in which I’ve waded though some difficult material a little less fearfully. A space in which readers, for their part, might be a little less overwhelmed with the insistent thrum of what Joan Didion termed an “aggressive,” albeit admittedly sonoric
Case in point: the four-essay sequence I call the “Sunday in the City series,” a quartet that stemmed from an assault I experienced in early 2009. Initially, and instinctively, I drafted all four essays using the second-person perspective. (One, later published in a column featuring first-person work only, was adapted for that venue.)
As I worked, I came to see these deeply “personal” essays as being at least as much “about” the people they cited and alluded to as they were about me. And I didn’t think that was a bad thing. In fact, again recalling Didion, I perceived a benefit: an easing of the pressure embedded in the first-person entreaty to “listen to me, see it my way….” A chance—for both the readers and for me—to breathe.
Still not convinced? Will you perhaps try the third-person point of view instead? At the very least, it may get you started working on difficult material.
The third-person perspective sure seems to have helped the pseudonymous Anna Lyndsey, author of the new, buzzed-about memoir Girl in Dark. According to this New York Times T Magazine piece, when Lyndsey began writing about the strange illness at the heart of her story, “even the act of writing ‘I’ was enough to make her wretched. So she wrote in the third person instead. ‘The girl in the dark did this, she did that . . . it was a bit like a fairy tale.’” Notably, “[i]t was only after an agent, who had heard about her situation, asked to read her work and requested she change voice that Lyndsey entered her own story.”
I can’t help wishing the agent hadn’t made that request. I’d love to see the original—and to know if Lyndsey might, in fact, still prefer it.
2. Move beyond memoir.
Pro tip: “Personal” isn’t always a synonym for “autobiographical.” I write about many subjects that matter to me deeply, that I probably wouldn’t write about at all had they no links to my own experiences or viewpoints. But I’m not, primarily, a memoirist. Nor do I aspire to that title.
In fiction, I’ve sometimes transferred to characters the role of dealing with subjects that, for various reasons, I haven’t addressed in print in my own voice. Take, for instance, how lingering distress over an incident that I witnessed many years ago emerged some time later in the history belonging to one of my characters (a character who happened to be different from me in innumerable ways—male, a Baby Boomer, a spouse and parent, etc.).
But fiction isn’t the only alternative. Which issues matter to you? Which ideas get your blood going? What would you love to read more about? Maybe—just maybe—others may have addressed those topics, too, in ways you can analyze and discuss in writing. Maybe you needn’t re-invent the wheel.
For example, last year, rather than writing all about my own status as a woman who hasn’t had children, I pitched a review-essay on books relating to that topic. Yes, I wove into the final piece some of my autobiographical thoughts and circumstances. But the essay wasn’t about me. And that, I suspect, considerably reduced any risk of “oversharing.”
3. Take your time.
No more thought pieces. That’s it. Let’s keep our thoughts inside, think on them, our thoughts, let them become ideas even. Then write. Ok?
— Jennifer Gilmore (@jenwgilmore) January 27, 2015
Some writers seem to have an instant opinion on every single event (or pseudo-event) that makes the news. They consider themselves thought leaders and cultural commentators. In some select cases, they may merit such titles.
But too many insta-pieces suggest that, above all else, their authors simply love the sounds of their strident voices (or maybe the sounds of their equally strident computer keys, clicking away). Subject-matter expertise, reflective prose, critical reading and examination of other sources—sadly, too much insta-punditry lacks these staples.
I can be as susceptible to clickbait as the next person. But I’m getting better. These days, when I see certain headlines and bylines, I don’t think, There’s something I want to read. There’s something that might make me think about an issue in all of its complexity. No. I think, What is this person spilling from her guts/preaching about this time? And then I move on to the next item. Because sometimes, less really is more. Sometimes, it really is a matter of quality, not quantity. Sometimes, readers really don’t need to hear your every thought on every subject. Certainly not immediately.
I’m not saying one should never write a timely, self-inflected opinion piece. We all know that editors look favorably on work with a current “hook.” (As it happens, being child-free/childless also energized this pegged-to-the-news commentary.) But I do think that, for many of us, there is value to the notion of “everything in moderation.” And in taking one’s time.
4. Check (with) your sources.
A great deal of my published writing has connected, in some way, with my family history. Much of this has to do with the history of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s, met and married in New York, and became the parents of an only child (my dad).
My paternal grandmother, who passed away in 2002, loved to talk and share stories. These days, she might be considered “an oversharer” (I cringed whenever she regaled companions with tales of my toddlerhood toilet-training triumphs). I believe in my bones, as the saying goes, that she would bless my telling her stories. Moreover, much of what rests behind this material is historical—and it’s “public” history, about persecution and war and immigration.
But that’s not the case with everything I write that may be inspired by family background or circumstances. Which is why, whether it’s a short story rooted in my maternal grandparents’ not-so-amicable divorce, or a poem written the morning after my young niece’s lead performance in her school’s winter musical, I share my work. With my mother. With my niece’s mother. (In that vein, if you write about her own offspring, you might pause and review Andrea Jarrell’s recent Washington Post piece titled “Why I’ve Quit Writing About My Children.”; at this point, not even receiving her children’s blessing is necessarily enough for Jarrell to proceed toward publication.)
In some cases, I’m asked for a simple change. In others, there may be a request that I not to attempt to publish the piece. Not now, anyway. Although I may sometimes wish they’d opine differently, having others “vet” my work this way helps avoid the sort of overshare whose impact may go beyond me to cause trouble or pain for those I care about most.
5. Confide in (trusted) others.
To an extent, this point overlaps with #3 and #4 above. So I’ll keep it brief:
Sometimes, we write to exorcise demons, large and small, acute or chronic, direct or intergenerational. But sometimes, sharing what’s obsessing us—over coffee with a close friend or in a 50-minute therapy hour—alleviates the pain sufficiently. Sometimes, when we hear ourselves articulate aloud what the problem is, we don’t need to take the story any further. We have shared it sufficiently—taking it further may indeed risk an overshare.
Ultimately, I can’t help suspecting that any tendencies I have to avoid oversharing may be due in part to some nature/nurture circumstances. In my case, for instance, having been born to parents who put a premium on privacy—you will never, ever find my parents on Facebook—likely has something to do with the lingering lure of discretion.
Then, I recall the cautionary lesson imprinted in my first after-college job, in which I worked for a government agency in Washington. We were routinely advised to think carefully before we spoke: “Imagine what you’re saying repeated on the front-page of the Washington Post.” That something dire might result was implicit.
Which raises a related point: I held that job during the presidency of George H.W. Bush. In other words, I’m a Gen Xer who came of age before email, before the Internet, before texting and blogging, and so on. Some Gen Xers have obviously embraced “viral” culture more freely than others; I’ve always been a bit of a “late adopter.”
Finally, there’s the fact that before I entered an MFA program, I’d already earned a PhD in history, which means that I’d spent a lot of time immersed in lives and worlds other than my own; I’d already learned how to read, think, and write beyond my own life and times.
But as the points above suggest, you don’t need nature, nurture, or six years of doctoral study in history to avoid oversharing in your writing. That capacity rests within every writer’s grasp. We all can reach for it. If we wish.
Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories (Last Light Studio) which was named an ALA/Sophie Brody Medal Honor Title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature. She writes poetry and prose in New York, where she also works as Media Editor for Fig Tree Books. Visit her online at www.erikadreifus.com and follow her on Twitter (@ErikaDreifus), where she tweets on “matters bookish and/or Jewish.”