TMR Editors’ Prize
Our new, enhanced online anthology
Current Issue: 36.1 (Spring 2013)
Featuring the winners of the 2012 Editors' Prize as well as work by Cara Blue Adams, Jennifer Anderson, Aaron Belz, Jerry Gabriel, Darren Morris, and Brad Wetherell... along with a conversation with Steve Almond and William Giraldi and a look at the art of Al Hirschfeld.
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- Links: The Game of Death, Missouri Review Audio Competition, Annotation | Carmen Maria Machado on Announcing the Winners of The Missouri Review’s 2013 Audio Competition
- blogspot.com on Links
- Paula Cappa on Short Story Month, Day 17: “The Chrysanthemums”
- banana on Announcing the Winners of The Missouri Review’s 2013 Audio Competition
- Michelle Zuppa on Short Story Month, Day 17: “The Chrysanthemums”
Author Archives: Maura Lammers
A few years ago, I applied to give a talk about my faith for a retreat through a Catholic church on Mizzou’s campus. The application instructed me to write a short essay about my faith, and to detail an obstacle I had to overcome in order to reach where I am today. In italics, an added note advised: Do not write about an obstacle you are currently facing. It is better to write about something from your past that you have already overcome. It made sense to me – you need distance in order to tell the story right. You need the emotional detachment and wisdom that time supposedly offers.
I can still remember exactly what I wrote about on that retreat application. In short, I had a rough few months during my senior year of high school and made some poor decisions that still make me cringe today. I wrote an essay describing the ordeal and how it connected to my faith. I was chosen to give the talk at the retreat, but a few months beforehand, I dropped out. A chronic fear of public speaking and an even bigger fear of sharing my story with a group of peers convinced me I wasn’t ready yet. It turns out, two years of distance still wasn’t enough.
Fiction is my bread and butter, but on the rare occasion when I try to write an essay, I inadvertently return to that note on the retreat application. I ask myself the same questions. Am I ready to write this story from my life? Do I need to be safely out of range from the emotions of a particular event in order to write about it well? Do I need detachment in order to write clearly, or will that make my writing hollow and remote? I raise these questions because I don’t have an answer. If I did, I would write nonfiction much better than I do now.
I ran into a similar problem recently when I decided to submit the only completed essay I’m proud of to a few journals. I wrote the essay last semester for a class called, oddly enough, “Writing the Spiritual Narrative.” Before I sent it out, I reread the essay for the first time in about six months, and I was struck by how much I didn’t like it. The writing wasn’t bad, but my perspective had changed. My essay detailed my on-again, off-again relationship with both Catholicism and bouts of depression, my struggles with prayer when I left the church, and how this culminated during my study abroad in Scotland. At the time that I wrote the essay, I had not been to church voluntarily in almost a year, and I was in the middle of a typical “what am I going to do with my life” crisis, which colored my work considerably. At the time that I reread the essay, I had resolved much of my quarter-life crisis and also made a cautious return to my old church. Every word of my essay was still true, and yet I wanted to rewrite it on the spot. Nothing in my past had changed, but the way I interpreted my past had changed.
As a fiction writer, if I reread something I’ve written six months ago and decide it needs fixing, I can manipulate the story however I want. The narrative only lives inside my head and my characters are the ones who change, not me. But I find that when I try to write nonfiction, I get stuck because the narrative of my life is not linear or tidy, and if the narrative of my life has changed, then so have I. I wonder how I’m supposed to write about my life when time and maturity will offer so many shifts in my point of view. If I can ever document my life in an honest and satisfying way, despite these shifts.
The question of truth and authenticity comes up a lot in conversations about nonfiction, and I know I’m just adding more noise. Anytime I sit down to write about my life, I am only writing about how I feel at this given time, and therefore, my work is still truthful and authentic. It’s not necessary for me to place a disclaimer on all of my essays, or for me to feel badly about growing up. The meaning I glean from writing about my life should matter the most. Eventually, I’ll put these questions about distance and time to rest. In the meantime, I think I’d better stick to fiction.
I don’t come from a family of natural-born storytellers. That is, we don’t have Irish ancestry, and we aren’t fishermen. During holiday get-togethers we sometimes share somewhat exaggerated memories of childhood hijinks (like the time my brother hog-tied my sister and locked her in a closet because she wouldn’t play hand-hockey with him) but these stories are usually fleeting. On the average night, we like to argue about politics until my mom gently changes the subject by offering us more food. Overall, we keep our big stories to ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s simply a different manner of communication. But because I’m the only writer in my family, I care about our stories.
This past summer my family made a trip to Casper, Wyoming for a reunion with my dad’s side of the family. My dad is one of seven kids and I’m one of sixteen grandchildren, which made for a chaotic week of catch-up and drinking in the backyard while swatting flies. During this week, I hit a storytelling goldmine. With help from photo albums, beer, and nostalgia, my grandparents, aunts, uncle and dad swapped stories about growing up in Casper in the same small house where all of us stood. Meanwhile, I sat on the sidelines scribbling quotes word-for-word into my notebook or squeezing shorthand versions of local legends into the margins. I acted as a scavenger of sorts, gathering up scraps of stories from my family’s lives for my own devices, to color my fiction with real-life details. I listened, but it was as a bystander, not as a niece or daughter or granddaughter. I think about this often, and wish I could take back. It turned out, this week in Wyoming was the last time I would see my grandpa alive.
In the week before he passed away, he had been hospitalized for what seemed like a minor infection, and I wasn’t worried. This was my tough-as-nails, mountain man grandpa. Three years ago, he had two incredibly painful knee replacement surgeries done at the same time “just to get it over with.” Five years ago, he was kicked out of a hardware store for being “unruly.” The man was a force to be reckoned with at any age, and I knew he wouldn’t go out without a fight. I was right about that, at least. My grandpa died on a Friday in January, surrounded by his children and some of his grandchildren.
By 5 a.m. Sunday morning, we were on the road from Kansas City to Casper. That night when we arrived at the hotel, my dad pulled me aside to ask if I would write something about my grandpa. He wanted a “narrative” of my grandpa’s life that we could print up and pass out at his funeral. “Not an obituary,” my dad told me. “Something longer, that tells some of his stories.” I said yes immediately. During the drive to Wyoming, I had spent hours rolling through a catalog of memories and the handful of stories my grandpa told last summer. I wanted to write something about him, based on the scribbled pages from my notebook. Instead, my dad’s offer allowed me to write (and learn) more about who my grandpa actually was.
Over the next few days, I asked a lot of questions. I met with my grandpa’s sister, Donna Lu, and asked about my grandpa’s childhood. What were his parents like? Was grandpa as ornery as a kid as he was in adulthood? Sitting down with my grandma, I asked about how they met. Where did they go on dates? What is the secret to a successful, 53-year marriage? With my aunts and my dad, I asked about what he was like as a father. What kinds of adventures did they have together? What were grandpa’s most meaningful pursuits?
It occurred to me that although I had always known my grandpa was a true character and a strong family man, I knew very little about what had happened in his life. After three days of mini interviews, I had six typed, single-spaced pages of stories from my grandpa’s life – stories I had never heard before. I never knew that my grandpa grew up on a farm in Nebraska, that he lied to the nuns at his Catholic school and cut class to go pheasant-hunting with his friends, that he played semi-pro baseball and got into brawls with the umpires over bad calls. He embarked on a road-trip to California with a buddy but stopped in Casper because he only had $5 left in his pocket, and stayed because he met my grandma at the local Knights of Columbus Hall. In the basement of his business, Lammers Do-It-Yourself Store, he built a meat-locker where all his hunting pals kept the game they shot in the mountains on ice. For years, he had an unofficially reserved seat at the back of church, which he secured each week by arriving 30 minutes before mass started. I never knew any of this, because I had never thought to ask.
Two nights before the funeral, I sat down to write the narrative. One thought would not leave my mind: our lives are so full. We are more than blood and bones and bodies – we are stories. Our heads and hearts archive our best and worst days, the people who moved us, the experiences that changed us, and the places that anchored us. If we don’t write our stories down, if we don’t tell someone our stories, then we let part of our history disappear. But more importantly, if we don’t ask the people we love these questions, then we are at fault.
In my grandpa’s case, six pages of notes barely served as an outline for the hardships and joys he experienced in his long life. I can’t imagine how many stories I missed out on. In the future, I won’t make the same mistake with anyone else in my family. It doesn’t matter whether any of them are storytellers. It is my duty as a writer to ask and listen, write down and remember every word, and ensure that no one’s story goes untold.
As a senior set to graduate in May of 2013, in the past few months, the most common question I receive is: are you applying to grad school? It’s a fair question to ask, considering a large percentage of my English/creative writing friends are applying, or planning to apply to a variety of schools all over the country. Though I’ve tossed around the prospect of an MFA since freshman year, my answer to this questions is always some variety of, “Not now, but maybe in a few years.” This decision took a long time, a lot of research and general soul-searching to make. However, this fall semester I came to the realization that cemented my decision to not pursue my MFA right now: I need to take some time off from writers.
- You gonna take time off of me?
Initially, when I typed that sentence, I wanted to say “undergraduate writers,” because I thought: “Hey, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe this is just one aspect of the ‘lost, confused, identity-crisis, annoying-as-hell twenty-something’ bubble that every undergraduate student at any university in any field of study experiences. Maybe I just need a break from undergraduate writers, not writers in general.” But I have a gut feeling, and this gut feeling, mingled with reports from friends who have attended or are achieving an MFA right now, reassures me that this is not an isolated undergraduate phenomenon. So, I can say, with confidence, that I need to take some time off from writers because, quite frankly, I’m sick of writers.
I’m sick of verbal acrobatics, both in conversation and on paper. I’m sick of sentences crammed with strategically obscure vocabulary in order to make the writer look smarter. I’m sick of hearing a haphazardly-written first draft of a short story called “postmodern.” I’m sick of holier-than-thou writers who know they are better than the writer they are workshopping and offer visibly half-hearted feedback as a result. I’m sick of the realization that all of “the best writers” in my classes wear the same kinds of shoes. I’m sick of the worship of famous writers (“all hail DFW – or David Foster Wallace for you Philistines!”) as tragic demigods who my fellow young writers claim they could never become and yet imitate constantly. I’m sick of every writer I know desiring fame, when in actuality, none of us, or at least very, very few of us, will achieve the kind of fame we dream of when we turn in our final drafts.
I’m calling bullshit, on all of it. I can no longer tolerate writers and their bullshit that has taken all the joy, truth, and beauty away from an art form I so dearly love. And since the bullshit is probably here to stay, considering it has only gotten worse the older I’ve grew, my best solution is to run for higher ground for the next five years or so, until I’ve recuperated enough to withstand another dose of bullshit.
Before I went to college, I knew I wanted to write, considering it was (and is) the only real talent I possess. But I heard that the worst thing you can do if you want to be a writer is study English or creative writing. Study something else, anything else, that interests you, I was told – biology, math, history, anything – and the knowledge you gain will inform and enrich your writing. For a long time, I planned to major in journalism, but I chickened out at last minute and chose English anyway. I don’t by any means consider it a mistake that I majored in English and creative writing. I’ve had too many inspiring teachers and non-bullshit writer peers to believe that. But I do think the advice I heard holds some weight. It’s not simply that studying something other than writing can enrich and inform your work – it’s that studying writing for so long and with so much depth inevitably distracts you from what writing should actually be about. Thus, the bullshit occurs.
Though I may be disenchanted with my fellow writers, the culprit is not only the bullshit, but (more importantly) the fact that the bullshit takes all of us farther and farther away from good storytelling. A non-writer friend who understands my frustration sent me this article the other night, and I loved it so much I read portions of it out loud to her and swooned as though the article was a love letter. It’s a letter/assignment from Kurt Vonnegut to his students at Iowa, asking that they read Masters of the Short Story, choose three stories they loved the most and three they loved the least, then write a report on each. In this report, they must pretend to be an editor at a journal where each story is up for publication, and they must write about which stories deserve publication. Vonnegut specifically instructs his students how to write these reports, and these instructions particularly struck a chord:
“Do not do so as an academic critic, nor as a person drunk on art, nor as a barbarian in the literary market place. Do so as a sensitive person who has a few practical hunches about how stories can succeed or fail. Praise or damn as you please, but do so rather flatly, pragmatically, with cunning attention to annoying or gratifying details. Be yourself. Be unique.”
Sometimes, when I finish reading a story that leaves my mind empty or buzzing from the pretension, I’m tempted to simply write at the bottom of their draft: “Just tell me a story.” This is, at the heart, the purpose of writing. Don’t try to be an academic constantly drawing conclusions or parallels, or a wordsmith drunk on her own cleverness, or a jaded, seen-it-all barbarian desperately trying to write the one story he knows he hasn’t read yet. Don’t try to be anything else that will soil your identity, first and foremost, as a human being. Don’t even bother trying to be a writer. Just write. Just tell me a damn story.
Throughout June, I edited the first draft of a novel for a friend of a friend. He was a first-time writer and I was the first person to read his 600+ page novel. Though I’d never edited a novel before, my creative writing classes and current position here at The Missouri Review convinced him I was up for the task. When we first met, the author asked me if I was a tough editor, and I told him yes.
“That’s good,” he said. “I don’t want you to go easy on me. I want you to be honest.”
“Okay,” I told him. “I’ll tear it apart.”
“Tearing apart” is the nickname I have for my editing style. To define tearing apart: when the constructive criticism for a piece of writing purposefully outweighs the praise. If I’m tearing apart a manuscript, I won’t return the document to the writer until I’ve filled all the margins with notes. Although I always make sure to highlight great moments in whatever I’m reading, I relentlessly search for weak moments. I nit-pick over word choice, circle unimpressive images, cross out irrelevant sentences, and engage the writer in my notes by asking questions about the story as I go. In general, I won’t stop editing until the manuscript is covered in colored ink.
Often, when I return a document and the writer sees my edits, they look like a truck just backed over their foot. Their gut instinct, always, is that my edits are solely negative and that I hated their writing. Once the writer reads my actual comments and realizes that I didn’t write “YOU SUCK” in the margins, they don’t seem quite so pained. In the case of the author whose novel I edited, when I met with him a week ago I gave him a three page outline addressing the main issues he needs to fix in his final draft, then discussed these issues at length for two hours. By the end, he said, “Honestly, I thought you were going to be meaner.” The fact that he felt this way, even after I suggested he cut entire chapters from the novel, illustrates the benefits of tearing apart a manuscript. Even though I recommended major cuts, I offered so many suggestions for revision that the author didn’t feel stunted. Most importantly, the amount of detail and attention I gave to each page proved that I cared about his writing. He trusted my opinion because he knew I cared.
Undoubtedly, there are professional editors, professors, and even fellow students, who edit the same way I do. This “tear it apart” idea is not unique to me, and probably carries many other snazzy names. However, during the three undergraduate writing workshops I’ve had, no one has ever torn one of my short stories apart. Yes, I received plenty of positive and negative feedback for each story. But no one ever handed me back a story covered in elaborate edits and said, “This is all right, but it’s not great yet. Let’s work on making it great.” This isn’t because I’m a talented writer. Rather, it’s because no one will look me in the eye and bluntly tell me what’s holding my story back from reaching its full potential.
While I’ve encountered many helpful fellow students in my past workshops, every workshop inevitably contains at least one person from the following two groups: the Cheerleaders and the Naysayers. The Cheerleaders focus on the positive aspects of a story either because a) they aren’t experienced enough to recognize the weak points in a story, or b) they don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings with negative comments. The Naysayers, however, are writers who either a) can’t intelligently articulate their negative thoughts apart from saying, “I don’t know, this just fell flat,” or b) won’t offer thoughtful criticism because they think the story is simply a hopeless case. Whether it’s through overly positive or overly negative feedback, Cheerleaders and Naysayers produce the same result: vague, useless editing.
With my own work, historically, the Cheerleaders compliment the details or the overall tone of the piece. The Naysayers sometimes argue that the description is overwhelming. I’m quick to tune out the fluff and the snide remarks, and once the workshop ends I gather everyone’s notes in a pile and put them away with the draft. It’s not until months later, when I pull out the same story for a final edit and read with a more detached gaze, that I always notice the mistakes no one brought up during workshop: shaky plot points, wandering thematic elements, and too-neat dialogue. These are the kinds of mistakes that become more apparent during a second read-through or, arguably, a slow tear-it-apart first read. In these moments, I wonder if the Cheerleaders and Naysayers (as well as my uncategorized peers) actually felt my writing was great – or if they all suspected my story was a hopeless case, and were just too polite or lazy to tell me so.
This kind of bad attitude, this need to privately dismiss our peers’ imperfect first drafts, is what leads to poor editing in workshops, which eventually manifests itself into unexceptional writing. It’s true that only a handful of the writers in my past workshops will ever see their work published in a prestigious journal. It’s true that many of us will never finish writing a novel, much less see it in print. It’s true that most of us received an A for effort, regardless of whether our writing was flawed or flawless. But to dismiss any individual work as a hopeless case is nothing short of unfair. No piece of writing is a hopeless case. If an editor reads closely and analyzes the details, tears it apart page by page, he or she can always help lead the writer to a more fulfilling final draft. It’s not just about finding mistakes. It’s about investing the time and energy to show the writer that you believe in their work. Even if it means using a lot of ink.
On a recent trip home to Kansas City, I stopped by my local Barnes & Noble to pick up a birthday present for my boyfriend. While standing in line to pay for the book, I heard the unmistakeable wailing of a child throwing a tantrum. I was notorious for my tantrums during my terrible twos, and because of that, I not only appreciate tantrums, but like to think of them as an Olympic sport for kids. And the little girl who got in line behind me deserved multiple gold medals.
“Mommy, I want a book!” She screamed, her red face splotchy with tears as she tugged on her mother’s sleeve. “I want a book! I want a book! I want a book!”
Some people close by shot disapproving glances, some passersby winced, and the employees behind the counter stood with fake smiles plastered on their faces. But I couldn’t stop laughing. I’ve seen kids throw tantrums over toys, clothes, candy, you name it – but I have never seen a kid throw a tantrum over a book.
I let the family go in front of me so I could watch them. While the mother paid for something at the register, the dad stood with his arms crossed, glaring at his shrieking daughter. A little boy, probably around seven, stood quietly beside him. All the while, the little girl kept crying and screaming, “I want a book! I want a book!”
It would be unfair of me to make assumptions about this family. For starters, it is very possible that this little girl throws a tantrum every time she walks into a store. Maybe she had just thrown a tantrum ten minutes before, over an Elmo doll or an ice cream cone. Maybe she already has a hundred books at home she has yet to read, and her parents are sick of buying them. Maybe her parents simply don’t have the finances to buy her a book every time she wants one. (Although the mother’s Coach handbag, and the family’s matching tall Starbucks hot chocolates suggested otherwise.)
But even with all of this in mind, as I watched the family leave the store, all I could think was: “For Pete’s sake, just get that kid a book.”
I won’t be a mother for quite some time, and I am in no position to give anyone parenting advice. But I was a little girl myself not too long ago, and I understand what made me the young woman I am today. Around my own tantrum-throwing age, I would drop an armful of books in my mom’s lap and stand there until she pulled up on the couch next to her and read to me. As I grew older, I developed a stutter, and my speech therapist required that I practice reading out loud. Most nights, my mom would sit on the edge of my bed and listen while I read Dear America and Pony Pal books out loud to her. Throughout elementary and middle school, I took a book with me everywhere I went, and read in class when I finished my homework, or under my desk when my teacher wasn’t looking. And my parents bought me books. For birthdays, for major holidays, for no reason at all – my parents gave me books.
I would not have developed a love for reading if my parents, and especially my mother, had not taken the time to show me the magic of books, and to encourage me to read. Because of them, I spent my childhood exploring old Boxcars, Magic Treehouses, Hogwarts, and the uncharted territories of my own imagination.
But when I think about the generation behind mine, and even the generation my own phantom children will someday belong to, I get scared. We’ve all heard the statistics about “kids these days.” They watch more TV, spend more time on the computer, and play more video games than even my technology-obsessed generation does. They prefer anything with a screen and moving pictures to black and white words on a page. And it’s only going to get worse from here.
Here’s a thought: as that family left the store, they passed by one of the unmissable Nook displays that dominate the entrance of every Barnes & Noble. I always run past them because Nooks (and Kindles) tend to raise my blood pressure. Recently, I discovered a Nook commercial (which you can view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1KkZN6qUS-s ) that shows a little girl falling asleep in bed, reading The Cat in the Hat on her Nook. Because clearly, Nooks are better suited to teach children how to read than parents are. Why spend quality time with your daughter or son when they can cuddle up with a digital Dr. Seuss?
I would like to believe that if those parents stopped by the Nook display and offered their tantrum-throwing daughter a Nook, she would have turned up her nose at it – because even kids know the difference between an actual book and an overpriced reading device. But who knows. She might have started screaming, “I want a Nook!” and thrown her Starbucks hot chocolate on the floor.
Despite my disdain for the Nook ad, they did get one thing right: we need to read forever. Chances are, if you read this blog, you are a writer, or a lover of literature. I know I don’t need to lecture you to read more. But because we are writers and readers, it is our duty to be advocates for reading, and for books. We need to throw tantrums over books, over the stories that thrilled us when we were first learning how to read, and the stories that thrill us today. Somebody has to get kids, and all our technology-loving peers, excited about reading. It might as well be us.
Personally, I promise that if I ever see another little kid throwing a tantrum over a book, I will not only buy them a book, I will buy them two. Then I’ll probably throw a tantrum myself, just for fun.
As the contest assistant for the Editors’ Prize contest this year, a large part of my job involves answering questions sent to our contest question inbox. Since we are nearing the deadline to our contest (eight days!) I thought it might be helpful to post some of the most frequently asked questions I receive. That way, instead of frantically sending me an email at 2 a.m. when you’re ready to submit your work, and sitting at your computer biting your nails and waiting for my response all night long, you have an immediate reference to use instead.
So here you go – the most Frequently Asked Questions regarding our contest.
When is the deadline?
October 1st . If you are submitting online, you must do so by midnight of the 1st. If you are submitting a printed manuscript through the mail, then it must be postmarked by October 1st. Otherwise you will be eaten alive by a pack of ravenous wolves.
When will the winners be announced?
The winners of our contest will be announced on our website and blog in January 2012. The winners will be notified beforehand, so there won’t be any surprises. (Although all the winners will be invited to Speer Morgan’s surprise birthday party. Shhh… don’t tell him.)
Can I submit more than one piece per genre?
Sure you can! If you submit them online, then just make sure to upload them separately, and be aware that you will have to pay an entry fee for each submission. Ditto for mail entries.
Are international submissions accepted?
Absolutely! We want ‘em, so send ‘em!
My short story was published in a student literary magazine (or on a blog). Can I still submit my work to your contest?
Unfortunately, no. If your work has been published in print or online, we cannot accept it. However, in the case of the blog, if you can remove your work from the blog, then we will still accept it. So take your masterpiece off your Tumblr and submit it!
Help! I tried to upload my manuscript, and my payment went through, but not my manuscript! What do I do?
Don’t you worry, now. Just email me (see below) with your manuscript as an attachment, and I will add it to our database. Consider that mystery Scooby-Doo’ed.
Can I put my name on my submission, or is this a blind contest?
Our Editors’ Prize contest is not blind. We ask that you include your name and contact information on the first page of your submission. Or, you can use a title page if you prefer. The formatting is really up to you. Just make sure your contact information is easy to read and does not distract from your writing. So that means no size 18 Wingdings headers and footers. Please and thank you!
I sent in the wrong copy of my story. Can I resubmit it?
Only if there are major differences between your original story and the one you submitted. Meaning, if the “wrong copy” of your story is wrong because you made a few typos, or forgot to rename your protagonist Steve instead of Prince William – then you don’t need to worry about resubmitting. Mistakes happen, even in the best writing. Your story will not be deemed unworthy of our prize because of a few comma splices.
However, if you sent your poetry collection “An Ode to Laguna Beach” when you meant to send “An Ode to Jersey Shore,” then absolutely, you may resubmit. Upload your new manuscript online, just as you did before. You will have to pay again, but we will give you a refund for the second payment. Simply email me and explain the situation, and we will take care of it. If you are unsure whether or not you should resubmit, then just ask me.
Will the contest accept simultaneous submissions?
Yes, we will. However, you must make sure to contact us immediately if your manuscript is selected for publication at another journal, so we can withdraw it from our contest. We don’t want to end up in a love triangle with your manuscript and another journal – it’s just too painful.
If you haven’t submitted to our contest yet, then hop to it! And if you have any questions, no matter how absurd or silly they may seem, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you don’t, then I will be out of a job. So ask away!