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Current Issue: Winter 2014
Last week in my Internship in Publishing class, we were discussing online submission fees and our submission system, which is powered by Submission Manager, the program endorsed by CLMP and designed by Devin Emke. I’ve discussed this subject before with my class (and on this blog). For the most part, my students were untroubled by online submission fees, even when I did my best to steer the conversation into some sort of “Art is anti-capitalist!” angles. They didn’t blink.
What was odd to me was when I asked them about stuffing envelopes. No, not the kind of normal intern stuffing envelopes stuff where you get papercuts and are mailing press releases and all that other good stuff. No, I was referring to actually mailing out your manuscripts via the post office. Standing in line with a stack of ten envelopes in your hands and slapping stamps on those suckers.
I didn’t expect my undergraduates to be familiar with that. After all, they’ve grown up with the Internet being ubiquitous in their lives, and only about half my students actually want to be writers (as opposed to being editors or publishers). However, I also have two graduate students in my class, and while I am a little bit older than them, it isn’t by THAT much. And they both sorta shrugged at the concept of mailing out a physical manuscript.
When I was a graduate student in my MFA program, I used to block off Saturday mornings to mail my stories. I bought a big stack of manila and #10 envelopes from Office Depot, and made sure to stock up on stamps every time I went to the post office. Back then, I made sure to pay attention to see if postal rates were going to rise any time soon, in case I needed to snag three cent stamps to add to the SASE I needed to include with my manuscript. I suppose in that (very) small way, I was a conscientious submitter. On the other hand, I stocked up on all this stuff because I was cranking out a new story every six weeks or so, and simultaneously submitting my work to as many places as I possibly could, so I wasn’t really that conscientious of a submitter.
Let’s point out a few things here. First, constant submitters, like I was, really clog up literary magazines. My general attitude was to have a manuscript under consideration at virtually all times at every magazine I wanted to be in. It never quite worked that way, what with the cost of mailing manuscripts and the time to get to the post office and with reading periods being closed, but I tried. When one story was turned down by Journal X, I simply sent them another one, until I was all out. Second, you probably will not be stunned to read that most of those stories were never published and that my stories were constantly rejected. My work wasn’t good enough; I rushed stories out the door far too early, but even with a gestation period and revision, I doubt those stories were very good.
So I’ve never been one to think that mailing a physical manuscript was going to slow me down. And, I’m demonstrable proof that just because someone goes to the post office rather than clicking a button in a web browser, it doesn’t mean the writer takes any special care to make her/his story perfect before mailing it off for publication. Nonetheless, I wonder if we lose something if we skip those manila envelopes.
It’s hard not to feel that this is the first in what will now be a lifelong series of Crotchety Old Man blog posts, all that “back in my day …” stuff. But I think we’re capable of acknowledging that, yes, online submissions had made life easier for both writers and editors (and I’m both of those things), while simultaneously wishing, just a little bit, for the way it was. I prefer reading paper rather than a screen, a hardcover rather than an iPad. I’m certainly not alone with this feeling and attitude.
But I wonder what it means for a generation of writers who might never get beyond the screen with their writing. They might only work on a screen, finish their drafts on screen, send their work out on a screen, and then read their published work on a screen. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days, and I haven’t come to any deep or (even shallow) meaning behind this, other than it struck me as curious, and has stayed with me for several days. I recently finished a story that had been stewing, in various forms, on my laptop for almost three years. When something haunts me, I try not to shake it off. There’s just somethings that we should never let go of, and I believe paper, the good ol’ fashioned stuff, is one of those things.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Recently, writer Ann Bauer published an essay on Salon that caught the attention of the literary world. In her piece, Bauer discussed one of the elements of being a writer that is often underreported: how a writer makes enough money in order to write and, specifically, being a writer who is financially supported by a wealthy spouse, family, or trust fund. Bauer writes about two specific instances where a writer, in front of a wide audience, spouts the oft-told tale that to be a writer one has to work really hard in Dickensian poverty before making it big time through sheer drive and determination.
In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed. I can’t claim the wealth of the first author (not even close); nor do I have the connections of the second. I don’t have their fame either. But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.
One of my friends who posted this essay on Facebook, the writer Victoria Barrett, asked other writers to post their How in a public forum. She asked a series of questions: “how do you fund your writing life? Do you struggle and make it look easy? Is it fairly easy, financially? Did your parents pay for your Ivy education, your car, the down payment on your house? What’s your writerly money story, crass or not?” She poster her own answer here.
So here goes:
I fund my writing life by working full-time, which, if you’re reading this on the Missouri Review website, you probably already know. My position is nine-to-five, and mostly administrative; I’m in front of a computer most of the day and there is no free time to pull up a Word.doc of my novel and work on it. For the past ten years, I’ve worked in academia, first as an adjunct, earning anywhere from $2500 to $4000 per class at various universities in St. Louis (Lindenwood, Missouri-St. Louis, and Washington University). During this time, I also tended bar and worked twelve (official) hours at River Styx, the latter of which is where I was able to get health insurance. Also, during the summer, I was the director of the Summer Writers Institute at Washington University. All told, this combination of jobs earned me around 35K per year.
I don’t think I give the impression that my life is easy, nor do I think I give the impression that life is overly hard. That’s something that would best be asked of my students, the people that see me day-to-day these last five years since I’ve joined the Missouri Review. I wear a suit to work; I drive a 2002 Civic. Everyone has complaints about their monthly finances, but it’s accurate to say that, no, I don’t have serious money problems. I graduated from a state university through a combination of academic scholarships and my grandfather’s support. I paid my own way through graduate school. I’m unmarried and don’t have children. There is more to it than this, and even writing this paragraph, I have to resist the urge to through in caveats – wait, it was really hard because of This and This and This and That! –but it should be pretty clear: while every individual has a tale of woe somewhere in his/her past, I was a white middle class boy who is now a white middle-class man.
Thinking about Victoria’s post, I think back to a couple of years ago when I ruptured my Achilles. This was 2011. I was on crutches for months, went through rehab, and was unable to run for almost six months. All of it was pretty awful. But, I had health insurance. I paid almost nothing out of pocket for the diagnosis, surgery, and rehabilitation. That’s a privilege most Americans, let alone writers, don’t have.
I am very, very fortunate.
Last weekend, writer Fred Venturini discussed how he got published in an essay on Medium. His response? Luck. But, when he wrote about it in more detail, it was a bit more complicated. He explained how he had been writing for years, and that he found time around his life – Fred works full-time, and he and his wife have a toddler – to get the work done.
I have been asked in interviews before how I find the time to write. I always found that question strange, simply because to me, it sounds like you’re asking someone “How do you find the time to play video games? Or hunt? Or scrapbook? Or shop?” We make time for the things we love to do; we have to find time for the stuff we don’t.
Ann Bauer and Victoria Barrett are right: the story of being up before dawn is the story I prefer to tell. It’s a true story, just as Fred’s story is a true story … but it’s an incomplete story. And when we intentionally misrepresent our writer income, when we buy into this “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative, we end up putting a generation of writers and artists into a spiral of debt and servitude. With transparency, with honesty about who we are and how we work, that is something we should be able to help our students, our readers, and our audience avoid for themselves and understand all the better.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
Call for Entries!
The Missouri Review is looking for your short audio documentaries, stories, poems, and humor pieces for our 2015 Miller Audio Prize. A $1,000 prize will be awarded to the winner in each category. The award has been renamed in honor of Patricia and Michael Miller, who have generously agreed to endow our audio competition.
Your pay-by-donation entry fee includes a one-year, digital subscription to The Missouri Review, complete with a bonus audio version of the magazine. Winners and select runners-up will have their work featured on The Missouri Review’s website and as part of our Soundbooth podcast series.
Entries will be judged by TMR’s editors in collaboration with this year’s guest judge, Andrew Leland, host and producer of the Organist (kcrw.com/believer), a weekly arts and culture podcast from KCRW and the Believer magazine. He’s also a contributing editor at the Believer (believermag.com), has taught radio and writing at the Missouri School of Journalism, and has edited books for Chronicle, McSweeney’s, Vintage, and elsewhere.
Extended Deadline: March 15th, 2015.
For details, or to submit, please visit our website here.
We are looking forward to listening to everyone’s submissions!
My initial experience in a level 4 maximum-security prison was horrifying. I was a first time felon who just arrived at Calipatria State Prison, a world I knew about only by reputation. It is known for high rates of assaults on staff, including when several gang members ran up in the program office aiming high and stabbed up a captain, sergeant, and some other ranking COs. They assigned me to a cell occupied by another inmate. Insider were some bunk beds and him. AS the blue cell door firmly slammed close, it felt like would never open again. I was trapped in there with a man I had never seen before. Meeting him was the scariest experience of my life.
It wasn’t that he had an intimidating presence. He was only about 5-foot-4 inches tall, and 160 pounds. Although he was from a notorious gang, he was over fifty-years-old and retired. Plus we were alone and I had a good size advantage. On that note, I was lucky–most of the time the size advantage belongs to the prisoner who has been down for years working out religiously.
It wasn’t that he was a convicted murderer. I am convicted of second degree murder and attempted voluntary manslaughter and can handle violent people. I also understood them. Usually, don’t start none and be a man, and there won’t be none. I had that covered.
It wasn’t that I was 3200 miles from Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, my place of birth and sphere of influence. In California, anyone who carries himself like a man will be okay.
It was when he told me that he had been incarcerated for over thirty years on a fifteen-to-life sentence. That scared me to death. His words hit me with the realization that I may never ever go home again.
The judge handed me over a sentence of 55 years to life, but it didn’t feel for real. My mind dealt with it by telling itself, we will get out on appeal–that everything would be okay. However, my cellie was living proof that they don’t ever have to let you go. Forever-ever was a reality that I became sober to.
Imagine being trapped in the middle of a war zone indefinitely. Racial tension fills the air. Inmates are only housed with those of the same race. Those of multiple races have to pick a side. When a person of one race gets into a physical combat with another, it causes an instant chain reaction–a riot happens between those racial groups. Shanks come out. Correctional Officers fire live ammunition from a min-14 rifle, as well as tear gas, wooden blocks and beanbags at those , supposedly armed, with warning. In the mist of chaos and fast moving hands, they aim to stop the violence and protect unarmed victims. However, often hit are those defending themselves. I’d rather take my odds against a shank than a gun, but that choice isn’t up to me.
Everyone is punished for the conduct, even if they were in their cells when the violence happened. The prison is locked down. All visits are cancelled. The family member or girlfriend you need to see to keep you sane and human is told “No visiting today.” Their time, money and efforts on making the trip to some small town near nowhere are wasted.
During the lockdown, no packages, or canteen are allowed for up to 90 days.
Once you run out of food, you will be dependent on the state to feed you. They don’t always do a good job. The food is often cold on lockdowns because Correction Officers have to do the serving and it takes them a long time to deliver each tray to each individual cell. Dinner is served at 5:30 pm. The next meal isn’t until 6:00 am … eleven and a half hours later. A growling stomach hampers positive thoughts.
The state doesn’t provide deodorant, lotion, or decent toothpaste. (Sometimes they have tooth powder.) Running out of those items means your cellie has to smell your breath and underarm odor in addition to smelling each other take a crap. This makes living with another human being in the small bathroom space rough on the nose and mind.
Other important mental needs aren’t met. They have a counselor, but they don’t do any counseling. The traumatic experiences you’ve been through aren’t addressed, as groups often aren’t available due to lockdowns, lack of funding, and being to far from a major city for volunteers to regularly make it. More traumatic experiences happen and go untreated. Instead of rehabilitation, you are more likely to become worse.
You are cut off from calling your family. Lockdowns mean no phone calls. Even when there is no lockdown, phone usage is restricted to once a month for new inmates until they are assigned a job. Lifers are the last on the waiting list to get hired, so it may take years. Meanwhile, you get one chance at a fifteen minute call that your family has to accept the collect charges for per month.
You try to maintain a certain level of dignity, but it’s hard with all the searches. Everywhere you go, you have to clear a metal detector and be frisked. Often there are cell searches where they degradingly strip-search you.
You become uselsss to your family. You are helpless to provide for the children you love with all your heart. You become useless to help your mother as she ages and needs you. Inside of being the breadwinner, you have become the burden.
My life in prison is a physical, mental, and emotional torture that may never end and that scares the hell out of me.
Rahsaan Thomas is the sports editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He was freatued on the Missouri Review’s “Literature on Lockdown” series for his essay “I Write from a Cell.” The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, and the William James Arts in Corrections creative writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His story “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology Brothers in Pen: Storiees From The Annual Public Reading at San Quentin in 2014.
Welcome back to our many part series where we share narratives from those who teach in prison, those who write from prison, or those who previously did either. If you have taught in prison or were formerly incarcerated and are writing, or know someone who currently is and would like to be a part of the series, please send an e-mail to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. A physical mailing address can also be provided.
Today’s Writer is Rahsaan Thomas.
I was sentenced to 55-years-to-life back in July of 2003 for 2nd degree murder, attempted voluntary manslaughter and gun-use enhancements. My speech is the only part of me that is still free.
Incarceration has forced a need to write. It started with letters to loved ones. Next, I needed to write my own habeas appeal. After the courts jerked me, I found a need to help others and tell my side of the story so others won’t follow this path to hell. Now I love writing.
Writing is the one thing I can do from a cell that can make a huge difference. I am not scheduled to go home anytime soon. By the time I do, I will have missed my sons’ whole entire adult life after already missing his childhood. By then, the woman who loves me will moved on and there won’t be nothing to return to except to meet any grandkids my sons may have by then. Writing makes my circumstances worth something more than the circumstances of being a Lifer.
Two prisons ago, I was a law library clerk and I have been using the skills learned there to help others get free. The Federal courts’ one-year AEDPA deadline to file a habeas-appeal came and went before I was able to acquire enough skill to submit the best writ I could. Conditions of lockdowns, outdated books, no borrowing book policies, one law library for two full prison yards and other obstacles made mastering law in a year impossible. Therefore, although I can prove my case is a stack of lies, I lost all my appeals. However, I have been getting successful results for others with the lessons learned at my expense. Therefore, I write to fight for those who can’t read or write well enough themselves.
Since then, I have become the Sports Editor for the San Quentin News, an inmate run newspaper. My job as Sports Editor is much bigger than just keeping track of stats for the newspaper, it’s about giving prisoners a chance to make the papers for something positive. As I was quoted in the LA Times saying, “The last time I made the newspapers, somebody got shot.” I love having this chance to help others make the news for their positive accomplishments, instead of only violent acts.
Now I write to get people to see why some of us have done horrible things. I write to get people to see the changes that could be made that would make the world a better place for all of us. I write to showcase those of us who have made those changes. I write to combat hate with knowledge in an effort to breed understanding. I write to help others get the justice they deserve. I have co-written and published a book of short stories called Uncaged Stories through Lulu.com – each of my tales are focused on waking up youngsters, so they don’t end up my cellmates. I write because it’s the most powerful weapon I have that can effectively hamper oppression.
I am doing everything I can to become a better writer at San Quentin State Prison. I am a member of the Journalism Guild. I am in Creative Writing and Poetry classes. I have gotten B’s in Communication and Business Management at Coastline Community College. I have taken Sociology and English at Feather River. The skills are starting to match the passion.
So from prison I’ll keep writing until there are no more words or there are no problems to write about.
Rahsaan Thomas is currently serving 55-to-life for second-degree murder and attempted murder stemming from stopping a robbery. He is using his time positively. He is the Sports Editor for San Quentin News. He is also the co-author of Uncaged Stories. The 44-year-old native New Yorker is a member of San Quentin’s Journalism Guild. He is also a member of the William James Prison Arts Project Creative Writing class under teacher Zoe Mullery. His short story from last year called “One Bad Apple” was published in the class anthology, Brothers in Pen: Stories from the Annual Public Reading at San Quentin. Levon “Rasta Von” James, a director from Rochester, NY, is currently at work turning “One Bad Apple” into a short film.