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Not Writing time

Wendy Wimmer Stars French horn

I have a funny little OCD problem: I can’t concentrate if resources are being wasted. For instance, if the light is left on in the bathroom, I’m incensed. I will think of nothing else until I can turn it off. Similarly, the dishwasher can drive me to distraction. We live in an old house, the kind with a kitchen that can fit on the head of a pin, and as such, our dishwasher is the kind that you roll over to the sink and hook up through a long hose and an elaborate series of janky blocades that we then install so that the leaky faucet won’t cause water to flow Niagara-style down onto our hardwood floors. Once you hook it up, you physically turn on the water full blast on hot, where it then stays “on” until someone turns it off. In theory, there’s some kind of mechanism inside the dishwasher that stops the water from flowing freely, except that doesn’t stop the water from dripping at the hose/faucet connection NOR does it stop the water from flowing, Victoria Falls-style from the point at which the faucet connects to the sink. Yes, there are more problems at play here than our microscopic kitchen, but basically it just means that the dishwasher must be babysat like an incontinent bulldog and the instant that the dishwasher moves from the rinse cycle into the heated dry cycle, the faucet must be turned off, lest all havoc ensue.

My entire life, I suspect, is spent in avoidance of ensuing havoc. I firmly believe that havoc is waiting for all of us, just around the next corner.

And yet, with all of my attention to the wasted utilities, I think nothing of days and weeks and months passing by, with my little creative projects languishing. I have a friend named Jen Larsen who published a real book last month. A real and honest book! I am possibly mentioned in that book.  In fact, this friend of mine was in shit-you-not People Magazine, along with a photograph that was taken by yours truly (but not credited, thus alas I am not ultra-famous by association, my backwards name was not pressed up against Jennifer Aniston on the very next page). It is a very very good book. You should go buy three copies at the very least (you need one for yourself and two to pass along to friends who you absolutely will realize must read that book.) In fact, buy it from your independent bookstore and if they don’t have it on the shelves, ask them why the hell not and explain that you want to buy at least three copies and you intend to tell your neighbors to do the very same immediately.

It’s a little intimidating having fancy writer friends, who do things like write books, who actually know how to write books without crying in a closet.

I had a bit of a meltdown, dear reader, I confess. It happened a few months ago. I declared to the dear boy that I wasn’t meant to be a writer, not the fancy kind of writer anyway, and that maybe being a tech journalist was Good Enough. It certainly pays better than being a fancy writer, so why do I get all of these inflated ideas about being a fancy fiction writer anyway? Maybe I’d just learn to play golf better instead. And he took me by the shoulders and said “Cut it out.” And then I said I would cut it out, and at some point, I started cutting it out and finished the first draft of my novel.

Then I took a month off from thinking about it, took a short story workshop with the awesome guys at Barrelhouse (which you should also do, immediately. Look, you come here to read a blog post for free, you’re going to get a few homework assignments. I think that’s a fair trade) and then Christmas and New Year’s happened and then I went on the world’s longest press junket and then I sat back down, opened up my novel and thought “Well, fuck.”

It turns out that the second verse is very much not like the first. Second drafting? That’s apparently where the hard work happens. Man, I conveniently forget about that all the time. Thus, this is what I’m working on now. I realized that my life is too busy for novelizing. I realized that when things get in the way, I tend to push my creative work aside and let the rest of it wash over me. Something drastic was called for.

So I took a drastic step: I evaluated everything that was Not Writing time and decided what was essential and what wasn’t. I stepped out of all but the most crucial social engagements. I chose to quit a writer’s group that would have required attention to one short story a week. I stopped doing pottery. That one hurt the most, actually. I really enjoy doing pottery, even though it’s such a predictable middle-aged woman thing to do. It takes a lot of time, though: It eats up at least one night a week and most of the time, an entire Saturday. Two entire chunks of personal time that weren’t being spent maintaining crucial relationships, keeping my clothes clean or any other of the crucial time sucks that writers fight with on a daily basis.

The first 8000 words of my novel went out to three trusted readers for a sanity check/organizational questions first read. They gave feedback (well, two of them did) and now I’m onto the second draft. If you don’t hear from me for awhile, that’s where I am. Drafting like a motherfucker.

Until then, my short story “Where She Went” is now live at the fantastic Per Contra for your reading enjoyment.

 

 

What I did on my summer vacation

 

This summer, I have been awash in the fiction world. At least, as awash as I ever get, which is probably a bit more like a Wet Nap dabbed lightly over my brow.

In June, I attended Writer Camp in Indiana once more. Last year’s was so magical that I couldn’t resist applying, especially when Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon were up for return appearances. Also, Jean Thompson! Whose writing is near and dear to my heart and whose sharp prose I admire immensely. It was touch and go, however, with scheduling because the small conference had the annoying reality of scheduling Lynda Barry’s workshop at the same time as Jean Thompson’s workshop. I mean, I’ve worked with Lynda Barry before and she is amazing and seriously, up there next to Mr. Rogers in my sacred shrine of human deities, but Jean Thompson? How could anyone decide between these two fantastic writers? Unpossible!

I made a rash decision when I applied, deciding that it would be foolish to forsake a new experience just to bask in the magic that is Lynda Barry once more. It’s a bit like feasting in front of starving people, after all, to soak up all the Lynda Barry awesome for myself and leaving none for others. I put the X in the box for Jean Thompson’s workshop, with Lynda Barry’s workshop as my second choice, and then put no further thought into the matter. I think perhaps I was hoping they would change the conference schedule to fit my mental anguish and offer the Barry workshop during a more convenient time.  For me, of course.

They didn’t. And while it was painful to see those people hunched over their spirals in Lynda’s workshop (including Mr. Chaon himself) while I passed by and turned into our cramped little conference room, I do not regret this decision.

I do, however, regret that there was a time slot of the Writer Camp agenda given soley to the purpose of crafting journals. Not writing journals, dear reader, making them. With glue. By folding papers. I mean, I know I jokingly call it Writer Camp but arts and crafts? Really? With all due respect to the organizers and the leader of that class, it was heartbreaking that journal making had the luxury of a time period all to itself while Lynda Barry and Jean Thompson were fighting it out, gladiator-style, on the agenda. And I’m sure that there was some grand master plan of evil genius (because again, I am greedy and I recognize this), but still. Gluing stuff. I fled that class in the middle of the first meeting, I’m afraid. While I found it interesting on a Martha Stewart level, I had taken an entire week’s vacation from my day job to focus on writing fiction and I decided not to spend precious minutes of that time gluing shit to cardboard.

In the Thompson workshop, my story (“Where She Went”) was the first on deck for Day One. I got fantastic feedback from Jean and helpful comments from the class, specifically from a few individuals who turned out to have enjoyable treats for workshop themselves. It’s so funny how that always happens, but I guess it makes sense.

As things always happen, I had submitted the story to a few places when I was getting it cleaned up to send with my application for Thompson’s workshop. And last week, that older version of the story was chosen by the fantastic Per Contra. I have since sent them the tweaked post-Thompson version, which I think is tighter and more agreeable.

Which reminds me: I need to update my BASS database, as well as run some new numbers on the Top BASS Markets and whatnot. I just got the new BASS last week (Shout out to the rock star Roxane Gay! Can’t wait to read your story! Congratulations on hitting the big show!) That will be forthcoming, although admittedly it’s on the backseat until I come to a procrastination point in the novels that I’m working on. I’m also cleaning up my published and unpublished short stories for publication in a collection, sort of a one-two punch with the novel. And it’s already the end of July, which is distressing, as I’d like to have everything set by the end of the year. Oh plans, plans, they are such attractive things.

Which reminds me (part two): the enchanting Paper Darts (see my AWP blog post) has selected my first ever flash fiction story “Lower Midnight”. I was able to read about a paragraph and a half during one of the many Writer Camp readings and gave a plug for Paper Darts to the conference attendees, sight unseen, but seeing it published is even better than I expected. I am in love with the illustrations. Gorgeous work. I bow at the feet of the illusionists behind Paper Darts and moan “I’m not worthy!” and then scuttle off to the corner to stroke the curly smoke pictures when no one is looking.

Whither the farmer’s market

I have at least five friends who have their own Wikipedia entries. I think at some point, I’d like a legitimate Wikipedia entry of my very own. I would also like to specify that I would like it to be about literary things and not because I tried to assassinate Elmo the Muppet or fell down a well.

Above is Ian, who is famous in the world of cheesed pasta dinners.

I’m in Madison this weekend, to take advantage of some of my Wisconsin tax dollars at work and to visit a few friends in town. Friends who both have their own Wikipedia entries and some who do not. So far, however, the majority of my so-called creative seclusion has involved perusing mid-century modern and Scandanavian design shops and wishing that I had a million dollars to spend on vintage teak shelves and very low furniture. (A white leather Eames recliner for $500! How does that even happen?!). Tomorrow, I’ll hit the lovely Madison Farmer’s Market before heading to Lynda Barry’s workshop. I’m not going to lie: the fact that the Madison Farmer’s Market started in late April had a lot to do with my driving down to Madison for this writing thing.

That’s the heart of it. I talk big game about putting words on paper, but I don’t move my ass until there’s some hippy asparagus on the line.

Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more

I’m having what The Boy calls “a crisis of confidence”. I don’t know that I would call it that. I think I would call it that I sometimes hate writing. And it’s not even that I hate writing. One doesn’t write for a living and then write after the work day is complete if one hates writing. Right?

Here’s what it’s like: I have this story in my head. Or eleven thousand stories. And then I try to put them into Scrivener with my clumsy attempts at prose and it feels like I’m trying too hard and the words come out totally wrong and I ruin it all. I ruin it. I get my jammy hands all over it and I destroy that perfect thing inside my head.

Let me introduce you to my Muppet doppleganger, Don Music.

This fear– no, this certainty– that I’m going to fuck it all up? It causes physical pain. And it’s not that I don’t like to write fiction every night after work, but rather, I want to avoid that sensation. And who could blame me? When you burn your hand on a hot stove, you don’t keep touching the damned burner.

I look at the people in the writing life — Tim Pratt, Roxane Gay, Wendy McClure, and so many others — and they are getting shit DONE. They write and write and rock and roll and it’s like it ain’t nothing but a thang.

This week, I’m going to see Lynda Barry and Dan Chaon at an arty thing in Madison. And Chaon’s going to ask if I’ve published anything and I’m going to say No. Hopefully I can restrain myself from whining at him again. Probably not. Maybe at least I will manage to not cry on Lynda Barry this time. Ok, probably not.

(Speaking of which, I have a film of Chaon reading the titular story from his recently released fantastic Stay Awake collection of short stories. The video is seemingly locked on my iPhone, as apparently it’s too big to transfer off through the various technologies. Apple, I love you, but seriously — don’t give me the ability to record a 30 minute video if I can’t get the phone to release the file.)

Because I can’t stand myself when I’m being a Sensitive Artiste, I do have the illusion of productivity– Kylos Brannon, the former art director at Barrelhouse and illustrator of my short story “Billets Doux” contacted me recently. He is doing a residency and would like to work at adapting that story into a video project. So, by nature of sitting on my ass, at least someone is doing something with my writing. Thank God for Kylos keeping me honest. I also have about ten new submissions out, including an entry into the delicious Paper Darts short fiction contest. I had to write something fresh for that, since I tend to write marathon short stories and they needed something under 800 words. I think I managed it in 796 total, which for me is amazing. I envy Jen Larsen’s ability to fucking nail the flash fiction every damned time.

Tell me, dear reader, how do you keep yourself going during these supposed crises of confidence? How do you get your inner perfectionist to shut the hell up? The comments are dying to hear your secrets.

 

Sounding my barbaric AWP

I’m a bad blogger. For those folks who won the contest (Ainsley, who chose Black Clock; Angela, who chose a Narrative VIP backstage pass; and Dawn, who chose a subscription to the very wonderful Missouri Review), you should hopefully all have received your first and perhaps even second issues by now and are enjoying the wealth of words in your various johns. I highly recommend the john for reading short stories. You know you’re going to read something when you go in there, and if you don’t read a lit journal, then it’s just going to be Real Simple or Marie Claire or Nylon. Your brain and soul will thank you for picking up an issue of Pank instead.

(True confession time: all of the above are currently in my john right now. My apologies to Pank, as it truly doesn’t deserve such company.)

I spent last weekend at AWP in Chicago, where I hung out with old friends and some new ones too. I fell in love with the creative forces behind so many new journals(new to me, anyway) and also had a great time fighting my way through the masses in the basement of the Chicago Hilton. Some high points:

  • Staking out a front row seat for the Jennifer Egan reading, only to have Liam Callanan randomly sit next to me in the seat being saved for him. Somewhere on the AWP website, there’s undoubtedly a photo of us clapping. I am almost certain that my eyes will be crossed, drooping and perhaps my fly will be open. Actually, I think I was wearing a dress that day, but it’s still possible.
  • Giggling with Molly Backes on the fourth balcony of the Margaret Atwood keynote.
  • Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood. Sure, it was only twenty minutes of basking in her fantastic self, and from my vantage point, she looked like a Fisher-Price Little People (specifically this one) but it was still glorious.
  • Dan Chaon, waving his arms around as he saw me approaching and then telling me that Lynda Barry said to say hi.
  • Going to Wendy McClure’s reading at The Hideout and then skipping another reading to go out and eat plantain and steak sandwiches with her and her husband. Because sometimes it’s the small table that matters instead of the big filled room.
  • The Paper Darts journal. You guys, it’s so beautiful that I want to have its babies. I’m serious. Go buy issues 1 and 2. Now. Don’t wait.
  • The AWP Karaoke Idol party. It was actually worth waiting out in the cold, because I met crazy awesome poet girls Sun Yung Shin, Loretta Clodfelter and Anh-Hoa Thi Nguyen.
  • The “Who’s Oldest” mutha-fucking walk-off with Anh-Hoa. I’m not telling which of us is older, but apparently non-drunk partiers attested that neither of us looked as old as we were.
  • I may be a fiction writer at heart, but man, I need some more poets in my life.
  • I got my nails done AND a cocktail for ten bucks!
  • The ladies working at the Weiner Circle bought me my hot dog and cheese fries. That’s right, the bitches tipped ME (although with the $27 in cab fare to get to and from the Weiner Circle, this was merely a symbolic victory.)
  • I am so fucking glad that I didn’t book a hotel room in time to get a room in one of the conference hotels. It was so peaceful in my little hotel off Michigan on the other side of the river. Plus, I got free breakfast every day.
  • Quiet time on Saturday away from downtown with Kate Harding, where we talked about writing process, the blogosphere and dogs over ridiculously delicious peppery brunch fare.

Less awesome things at AWP:

  • I think I had to face off the minotaur in the bookfair. Seriously, what was with the Southeast room ghetto? There had to be fire code issues there, with the narrow aisles and overcrowding.
  • Who picks a room that only seats 30 for a session with Dan Chaon? DAN CHAON. Yes, yes, I’m a big fan girl, but come on. Simple math.
  • It was SO hard to pick things to go to! There were so many sessions that were awesome, seemingly at the same time as every other awesome thing that ever was. However, this is minor griping, because the only solutions are to stretch out the conference over more days (not realistic) or reduce the number of sessions (please no). Or, you know, let me schedule everything so that nothing I want to attend conflicts with anything else I want to attend.
  • Not getting to go to the Barrelhouse party because I wandered around Chicago like a lost little lamb until they had reached capacity (bittersweet, per above).
  • Only getting to see Tom Williams –my undergrad fiction mentor–but once across a crowded Irish pub (thanks to skipping the reading mentioned above). Ah well, there’s always next AWP.
  • I tried checking out the Bull: Fiction for Thinking Men table, only to be totally ignored by the staff and literally elbowed aside so that they could speak to male attendees. Then not a week later, the editor is stating that they are mystified as to why they don’t have more female writers. Um.

All in all, AWP was very enjoyable and a check mark in the positive category. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to go back to Indiana this year (although Dan Chaon, Lynda Barry AND Jean Thompson? Hmmm) but I am tentatively in for AWP 2013 in Boston.

Did you go to AWP this year? What did you think? Did you get a chance to traipse through the Chicago art museum up the street to Dream Academy’s cover of The Smith’s “(Please please please) Let me get what I want” by any chance?

If so, I want to be your friend.

 

How to subscribe to your favorite lit journal for absolutely free

Well, that was eye-opening!

It seems that my question of why writers don’t subscribe to the literary journals they hope will publish their stories is actually not so simple. There’s really two issues: why aren’t writers READING the journals and why aren’t people subscribing to them. Let’s break down both sides of that coin.

Marne Grinolds pointed out that she reads journals at her local library. She wrote:

I know (because they have told me) that some editors feel using this tactic is somehow cheating, but I don’t see how you can make that argument stick. Wise journals already charge more for institutional subscriptions than they do for personal ones, and there’s certainly no way I could afford to subscribe to the hundreds of lit journals my library can.

And I thought I was lucky for getting to see The Killers for free two weeks ago at VMworld, but Marne has it made — she has access to hundreds of lit journals RIGHT THERE AT HER FINGERTIPS. I agree with Marne that this does count: you’re consuming the periodical, regardless of who actually paid the bill. Those writers are getting read, those pages are being flipped. That’s why the books were put on this earth, right? I guess the spirit of my argument was assuming that people who would read journals would also be subscribing, which I totally conflated. More on that later in the post.

Kate Maurer brings up a valid point:

I already don’t have time to read all the journals that arrive. I am a writer who is at my day job 35 hours a week (a schedule I was lucky to get and that involved taking a $3,000 annual pay cut to eek out five extra hours a week to write), and as an editor in a non-literary field, a good deal of that time I am reading things that I wouldn’t read if I didn’t have to pay the bills. In the remaining time, I try to find the wherewithal to read books and journals plus actually write my own work and revise it and submit it and fight through all those familiar forms of self-doubt, etc. (plus do all the things normal people do when they aren’t at work) Meanwhile I feel guilty that I don’t read more books or journals, buy more books or journals, attend more local live music shows, go to the art theater, go to more readings, comment on the work of any number of writer friends who are waiting on me, participate in more community activism, or do any number of things that support things that are important to me (even though I already do more of all of the above than many people). But I don’t think this means that I am not entitled to be a writer or to attempt to publish my work in whatever venues are available to it.

I totally get that. I’m busy too. I work with words for a living, do an excessive amount of airport time, and also, the new season of Bored To Death is starting soon. Even more time-consuming, I am writing a novel, trying to read books for enjoyment and to stay on top of the lit world (my To Be Read book shelf is staggeringly behind, mostly because my friends keep publishing books and I will always read one of their books before, say, Jonathan Franzen or something) as well as reading my ten to fifteen lit journals that I get per year (my subscriptions plus the ones I buy on newsstands). I have a very sad pile of them sitting right now on my desk next to me. When I can’t see over the pile anymore, I start putting them in the john, because I know that I’ll read at least half a story a day just out of sheer boredom. I also tend to take one with me on planes to read during those times when it is not safe to use portable electronic devices, and then I leave it in the seat back when I deplane. (I’m not trying to sound especially altruistic, I only included that last bit because I don’t get to use the word “deplane” enough.) Anyway, I know you’re busy. We’re all busy. We do what we can. And if it’s important, we make sure it happens. It takes about twenty minutes to read a short story, yes? If you read one short story a day, you’d consume two lit journals a month just on your coffee breaks and your brain would be happier than if it spent that time catching up on the Dance Moms TWOP forums.

And by “you” I don’t mean Kate, I mean me because my god, I’ve got to stop watching Dance Moms.

Robin Kalinich said

I’m an aspiring (and most failing) writer, and I consider subscribing and reading lit mags almost as important as the writing itself.

Hallelujah! I thought I was the only one. Can you imagine a professional athlete saying that they didn’t have time to go to the gym? A basketball player whining that the hoop was too high? Or a dancer who said that it was impossible to find time to practice dancing? Would you feel bad for them if they didn’t make it into the pros? No, you wouldn’t, because they clearly didn’t want to hone their craft. (I certainly know what the dance teacher on Dance Moms would say.)

There are a lot of demands on our time, pretty much like every adult in the free world. But you know, the concerts will still be attended, the bills will still get paid, the commuting time will still happen if you read a journal now and then.

My favorite came from Chris Roberts, who said

Either Wendy is ninety years old or operating in an alternate state of reality. More unreality. Slush pile? Really? Hint: it’s 2011, not the Roaring Twenties. It’s such an droll, antiquated term that it leads me to believe that Wendy worked at a literary magazine office located under a rock. “Slush Pile Whisperer” That’s a hoot. I guess W. is going to break out into the Charleston…cut a rug dinosaur!

Chris gets extra points for using the word “droll”. For what it’s worth, I ended my editing duties on the Cream City Review in 2008 when I completed my Masters and while it annoyingly still used paper submissions (oh look, I talk about reading the slush pile here), my editor friends who are using Submishmash have recently referred to unsolicited submissions as the slush pile. Is there a different term in vogue these days? Also, RAWWWR! I think I have officially made it in the literary world now that I’ve had an angry young writer call me a dinosaur. Now where are those fat Alice Munro-esque royalty checks?

Shannon, however, really gave me pause. Here’s her comment in total:

This comes across as coming from a really privileged position.

I think it is more than fantastic that you can do all of those things with your money. It is, I envy that a little bit.

That said, there are a lot of writers like me who are the breadwinners in their households, who are the working poor, who are otherwise not in a position to financially support literary magazines when a lot of us are on the verge of being unable to financially support ourselves and our families. I don’t honestly think I would have ever even started to even try getting work published if I had to wait until I could afford to subscribe to every magazine I like.

If it is suddenly common sense to say, screw you poor folks, that doesn’t honestly sound like the kind of literary world that has room for me or anyone like me. And it’s not one I’d like to be a part of even if it would have me.

Is it a privileged position? I spend about $100 a year on lit journal subscriptions, and then tend to buy probably five to ten issues throughout the year off the racks in indie bookstores when I travel (shout out to Sam Weller in Salt Lake City and Myopic in Chicago!) that probably add up to another $100. Honestly, I can’t think of another craft that only costs $200 a year.  I have a friend who runs marathons. She goes through $100 pairs of shoes every three months. I have another friend who makes less than $35K per year who spends $12 just about every weekend going to see a different movie at an art house cinema. Hell, a Netflix subscription alone… That adds up to a LOT of journal subscriptions, you know?

But Shannon’s right. I am speaking from a place of privilege. I can afford these journal subscriptions probably a lot easier than my friends can afford their running shoes and weekly movie addiction. When I was in college, and shortly after that while I worked in nonprofits, it was a different story: we were so broke that we considered Rice-A-Roni to be really treating ourselves because that stupid flavor packet somehow made 20 cents worth of rice and pasta cost $1.50. And whenever I got a Barnes & Noble gift card for Christmas, I still spent it on single issues of Glimmer Train and Story (now I’m really showing my dinosaur status). Yeah, I know from poor, and thank you Shannon for reminding me of that.

That’s why I’m going to give away some subscriptions to lit journals. Really, I’m not giving them away so much as investing in the journals and the community, but if you feel weird about it, you can think of it as a starter subscription that you can renew in the future when you’re starting to make some more dough. I’ll be using Random.Org to select winning entries and then will give away as many subscriptions until I’ve given away at least $100 of lit journal subscriptions to broke writers.

Here’s how to enter!

Leave a comment with just four easy answers:

  • What was the name of the last lit journal you read?
  • What was the last journal where you submitted your work?
  • Your email address in the blog comment system (just make sure you use a real email address and only I can see it, promise), and
  • Which lit journal would you like a subscription to?

That’s all. Easy, right?

Who’s eligible for this giveaway

Writers who are too poor to buy subscriptions to lit journals and don’t have access to fabulous libraries such as Marne’s. I’m not going to ask for proof of income — this is totally on the honor system. I mean, don’t kid yourself: if you’re stopping at Starbucks more than once a week for a mocha, be cool and leave the prizes to the people who are really hurting in this godforsaken economy.

Also, to keep things fair, if I know you, you’re not eligible for this contest. Sorry it has to be that way, but I’d be happy to give you some lit journals next time I see you. I promise not to give you the ones that have been in my john.

Multiple Winners!

This contest will go until Oct 14 when the prizes will be awarded, with the first winner getting a subscription of their choice. If the first winner’s subscription is less than $100, I’ll draw again, and the second winnner’s subscription will similarly come from that $100 pot. I’ll keep picking comments until I’ve purchased at least $100 of subscriptions for as many commenters as possible. Also, you can comment as many times as you want, but only your first comment on this entry counts. Does that make sense? Ok, that’s how it will work. I hope I’ve covered everything.

Ready, set, go!

*The little metal thing on the photo at the top of this was not a campaign button for the current Wisconsin governor, whom I most definitely do NOT support, but rather a thing I wore at some charity event where I was volunteering to help walk people back and forth to different places on campus. Regardless, the holiday card still makes me laugh.

Why writers are parasites: A writer’s debt to the literary community

Once upon a time (actually, two times) I was the person who read your submission to a lit journal and decided yes, it was worth the fiction editor’s time or no, it started with an alarm clock going off so please no no no. I actually really liked reading the slush piles. It was a little power trip and also, for a brief period, one of the editors called me the ‘slush pile whisperer’, because everything I pushed to the second round made it into the book.

What I learned from reading the slush pile: people lie on their cover letters (I can use Google and no you weren’t in Glimmer Train), past performance was not a measure of future results (there was some stanky fiction coming from people with impressive pedigrees) and also, the submitters clearly weren’t reading the journal. I’m not exaggerating: we had more submissions than subscribers. I  mean,  I was a subscriber and I wasn’t submitting, and I knew lots of other people who were subscribing (past authors we had published, professors, alumni, etc) who also weren’t submitting. So who the hell did these slush pile authors think they were? I mean, sure, one or two, but like 90% of them weren’t even reading the journals.

Can someone explain that to me? How can a lit journal be good enough to support your work but not good enough for you to read the work inside it?

I have a very controversial opinion that has made me somewhat unpopular among my writer friends and it is this: if you don’t subscribe to at least five lit journals while you’re trying to get published in lit journals, then you’re a literary parasite.

I’m not trying to be provocative. I earnestly don’t understand the logic. From where I sit, there are two possible arguments:

Writers are writers. We write for readers and also, we’re often broke because we now have thousands of dollars in student loan debt for a graduate degree that doesn’t usually come with a high paying job. Hell, even professors barely make above the poverty line without tenure, and I know people with PhDs who are fighting tooth and nail to get full-time work. In theory, there are readers out there, readers who enjoy fiction and poetry with no designs on ever creating it themselves. I want to believe those people are out there, but perhaps they are magical unicorns or maybe they only subscribe to The New Yorker.

Writers are readers. If a brain surgeon had never himself experienced brain surgery, no one would think twice (and maybe would be concerned if he had) but unlike brain surgery, you’ve absolutely got to experience the work of your fellow writers as a consumer. Ok, maybe that’s arguable, but let’s just choose to accept that one fact for the moment. Writers got to read.

So, if you’re submitting to Journal A and you don’t have a subscription, why exactly is that? I can think of a few reasons:

  1. You’re already subscribing to too many other journals who have already or won’t publish your work.
  2. You’re broke.
  3. You don’t like that journal.
  4. You just saw a call for submissions, liked what you saw on the website and plan to subscribe at some point. Maybe.

What did I miss? I totally understand #1, but I have no patience for #2 and #3 (which doesn’t even make sense but I’ve heard it several times when I’ve asked writers this question), and I want to give everyone the benefit of the doubt and think that it’s #4 and then something else comes up and/or they’re flakes.

You know those writers who moan loudly about the deaths of their favorite markets for submitting and yet, never supported those great little journals in the first place? They just spam editors with their work and demand to be noticed in the slush pile without having the courtesy to read and support other writers. A slush pile shouldn’t be larger than the print run of a magazine, you know? Who the fuck is going to read it?

It’s parasitic. Yes, writers tend to be poor, but they also are probably typing away (as I am right now) on a MacBook, possibly sitting in a hipster cafe drinking four dollar lattes. Four damned coffees could pay for one subscription, and that is a sad truth. Suck it up. No one owes you anything. Robert Olen Butler and Amy Hempel might be courted by lit journals left and right, but unless they’re coming to you, then you owe it to the journal to really understand whether your work belongs in those pages.

Full disclosure: I subscribe to seven lit journals, am a member of AWP (which was a stupid spend of my lit dollar, quite frankly, because I could have gotten like five journal subscriptions out of that) and, looking at my PayPal history, have donated to four different online publications in the last six months. I do it because I take responsibility for my role in this community. And you should too. You read my work and I’ll read yours. That’s only fair.

I think it is a shame that Pank has to resort to a frickin’ tip jar. I mean, come on guys. A tip jar. I’ll bet if every writer who submitted to Pank actually subscribed, they won’t need to be begging for your spare dollars.

Writers who don’t subscribe to at least five lit journals are like that guy at the party who spends all evening talking about himself. And the slush pile that I used to cull from? A party full of boors.

Or maybe I’m wrong. I hope someone will enlighten me in the comments and tell me why I’m completely wrong and being unfair. Please. Seriously, I want to understand why writers don’t subscribe to the lit journals they hope will publish them.

 

The top five best BASS markets for women writers (and five not-so-great)

This one’s for the ladies!

We’ve already covered how over half of all BASS stories came from the same 12 sources from 2005 through 2010, so let’s move to my pet peeve about the literary community: the potential for bias against writers who are women.  I posted this graph in a previous entry, but since it’s handy, let’s take a look at it again.

 

 

One could interpret these results one of two ways–Either females aren’t getting chosen for the BASS (with the exception of 2010, when even with the margin of error in the Not Obvious column, there’s no clear bias for either gender) or the stories that are published or mentioned in the BASS are a cross-section of what’s out there and women authors are not getting published as often as men in the journals that the BASS is using to collect its fiction. You decide what’s going on here.

The five most female-friendly BASS sources (and the bottom five too)

I took at look at that top 42 BASS markets (ie. where 80% of the BASS stories are originating) and stacked them based on percentage of female authors versus everyone else (Male author names as well as Not Obvious names). The five publications with the lowest ratio of female authors listed in the BASS (We’ll call them The Boys and Girls Club):

  • Virginia Quarterly Review (23.5% female)
  • Granta (25% female)
  • The Paris Review (25% female)
  • The Southern Review (26.7% female)
  • Zoetrope (29.2% female)

It is my responsibility to defend some of these publications as potential victims of the data gathering process, as all of these publications have authors who had names which were Not Obvious male or female names (see table after the jump), and Granta and  Zoetrope especially could have much higher female ratios within that margin of error. I hesitate even to include Granta in this list at all, because with only two female names and two Not Obvious against four male authors, it might even be a perfect split and then it’s super unfair to list them here. So please remember, this is not an indictment of these publications, just a measurement of my perception of their entries in the BASS.

Conversely, these five publications have the highest percentage of female authors in the BASS (let’s call them the The Girl Scouts)

  • New England Review (84.6% female)
  • Alaska Quarterly Review (75% female)
  • The Sun (71.4% female)
  • Ninth Letter (71.4% female)
  • Missouri Review (71.4% female)

The delightful spouse has actually suggested that I go one step further and buy a year’s backlog of a few of the BASS top 12 and compile a census to compare ratio of gender published to gender selected so that one COULD validate the hypothesis  that the BASS selection was a statistically random sampling of the stories selected for publication of those markets.  But  I’m not sure that I’m that crazy yet, as I do actually have to work for a living to keep the lights turned on.

I should also point out that it’s entirely unreliable to assume that because New England Review has such a high percentage of female authors in the BASS that they must be publishing more female authors in general. Not true. It’s also possible that they (or any other of the journals listed in either The Girl Scouts or The Boys Club) have the opposite bias in their overall publishing schema but the females (or males) they do pick are so exceptional that they defeat the journals own bias as well as get noticed by the BASS editors. We just won’t know unless we actually did a standard deviation calculation and some predictive calculations (did I mention that I have a Six Sigma certification? It’s true. And yes, that makes me a little weird.)

The Top 12 BASS Markets by Gender

Want to see how the Dirty Dozen play out in the war of the sexes? I thought you’d never ask.

While The New Yorker does not have an impressive female-to-male ratio of authors in the BASS, they have had more female authors listed/published in the BASS than any other publication. Woo girl power!? Of course, of The New Yorker‘s 39 females, Annie Proulx and Alice Munro make up 30% of that figure with 12 stories between the two of them.

In fact, many of the women authors are consistent players. Matt Bell dropped a hint that he’d be interested in seeing who the teacher’s pets (that’s my term, not Matt’s) of BASS were, so I will compile that data for a future post, including what the numbers look like when you take out the more famous writers and see who is left.

Before the ladies in the room start drafting up submissions to Glimmer Train and Ploughshares, please remember: this is not indicating that these publications are skewed or biased toward female authors anymore than it indicates that Tin House or Zoetrope are biased toward male authors. It’s simply a study of how those hungry BASS editors are nibbling from each market.

Speaking of how the editors are picking stories, I think I have a kindred spirit in Susan Gibb, who caught onto something hinky in the Michael Chabon-edited Best American Short Stories ’05.

As I mentioned, in February I read the 2005 Best American Short Stories and did brief reviews on the twenty selected stories here on Spinning.  Last week I decided to read through the 2005 Best American Mystery Stories, something I was looking forward to since my roots are in the genre and I hadn’t read or written mystery in quite a while.  Kind of strange, but I realized that the fifth story in BAMS, Old Boys, Old Girls by Edward P. Jones, was one I had just read in BASS.  When I checked the index, I found Dennis Lehane’s Until Gwen.  This story was also in the BASS collection.

It seems to me that there are so many stories published that it struck me as kind of a really, really amazing coincidence that two different guest editors (BASS, Michael Chabon; BAMS, Joyce Carol Oates) would, out of all those stories, select the same two to include in their separate collections (both are published as part of a Houghton Mifflin series).   When I remembered that Joyce Carol Oates was one of Michael Chabon’s selections in BASS, I checked the BAMS for Chabon and confirmed he was not included.

Susan Gibb also warned me that I’m probably never going to get a story in the BASS after this. Yeah, this is a serious risk that I’m taking, but I want to believe that the BASS editors are can withstand a little inspection without taking it personally. And since it IS my goal to have a short story in the BASS, I’m simply taking a page from Sun Tzu and trying to get a better understanding of the playing field.

As always, for my two data-hungry readers, there are tables at the bottom of this post just waiting for you to love them after the break!

(Continued)

Words of wisdom from Ira Glass on fixing broken writers

This is a true story: my friend Wendy (a different Wendy, I promise I’m not talking about myself in the third person or that this isn’t that split personality deal I talked about in this entry) once met up with me on Chicago’s Navy Pier a couple of years ago. We were drinking overpriced strawberry daquiris and getting sunburned. She was all glowy and beautiful, even more than she normally is, and then she casually mentioned that she’d just come from interviewing Ira Glass.

So, not only is Ira Glass amazing and talented and wise and hilarious, he also is a beauty product not yet approved by the FDA. Take that, Lancome.

Here. Everyone needs a little Ira Glass in their lives. He’ll make you better looking and also he just might have the answer for broken writer syndrome.

Why women writers will always experience gender bias

This post from Max Barry is too good to not share. It starts like this:

This has been a great year for male writers, with women shunted aside for major prizes and all-new hand-wringing about why it is so. Because, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but male writers get taken more seriously. Also, stories about men, even if written by women, are considered mainstream, while stories about women are “women’s fiction.” This despite the fact that women read more than men, and write more, and are over-represented generally throughout publishing.

Let’s go to V.S. Naipaul for the sound byte:

I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me. And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too.

I mentioned this particular quote to a fairly successful male writer last month and he took a little umbrage to the suggestion that women writers are being underrepresented by the award and anthology circuits. Being a white guy writer, he has a harder time seeing the bias. I encouraged him to prove me wrong with cold hard facts, sir, and I would join his umbrage! Umbrage for all! Wait, I have some facts, I can whip up a handy graph right this minute from the last 6 years of Best American Short Stories data.

So much for the umbrage.

(We both agreed that V.S. Naipaul is cranky and old and probably smells like couch cushions.)

Thankfully, my generation of male writers isn’t suffering from Naipaul-esque sentiments, or at least they aren’t saying them out loud, but I have a hard time understanding why this divide exists.

Then I polled a few writers on who their favorite authors were, and the female writers answered with a mix of male and female authors while the male writers (with one single exception) replied with a list of male names. And these are men whose work I enjoy and who, if asked, would likely label themselves as being open-minded to equality, would vehemently defend a female writer’s work and might even use the term “feminist”.

Here’s a random listing of the favorite authors on five Fictionaut profiles, which is a bit more formal and premeditated than my informal poll at Writer’s Camp. Can you guess which of these respondents are male and which are female? Click the * to see if you guessed right.

Ernest Hemingway. Raymond Carver. T.S. Eliot. William Carlos Williams. Charles Bukowski. a few Billy Collins. a few Jack Gilbert. Walt Whitman. Emily Dickinson. Roberto Bolano. *

I, Lucifer by Glen Duncan is one of my favorite books. Also, The Once and Future King written by T. H. White, Chuck Palahniuk, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolfe, Anne Sexton, Jim Morrison, David Mamet and many many more. *

I love James Salter, Charles Baxter, Mona Simpson (mostly for her short story “Lawns”), Samantha Hunt, Amy Bloom, Maile Meloy. I buy lit journals with any pocket money I ever have, and Lolita will probably be my favorite novel forever and always.*

Iain Banks, Candas Jane Dorsey, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Carroll.*

So many: Aimee Bender, Louise Erdrich, Jayne Anne Phillips, Kurt Vonnegut, N. Scott Momaday, Francine Prose. Some favorite books: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Tinkers, Four Corners, The Great Gatsby, on and on…*

Did you guess right?

This has much to do with what Max Barry called the problem of Dogs and Smurfs.

Male is default. That’s what you learn from a world of boy dogs and Smurf stories. My daughter has no problem with this. She reads these books the way they were intended: not about boys, exactly, but about people who happen to be boys. After years of such books, my daughter can happily identify with these characters.

And this is great. It’s the reason she will grow into a woman who can happily read a novel about men, or watch a movie in which men do all the most interesting things, without feeling like she can’t relate. She will process these stories as being primarily not about males but about human beings.

Except it’s not happening the other way. The five-year-old boy who lives up the street from me does not have a shelf groaning with stories about girl animals. Because you have to seek those books out, and as the parent of a boy, why would you? There are so many great books about boys to which he can relate directly. Smurf stories must make perfect sense to him: all the characters with this one weird personality trait to distinguish them, like being super brave or smart or frightened or a girl.

I get it now. Women writers are Smurfette, in a sea of dogs who are male by default. George Elliott figured this out years ago, this is no surprise.

Remember my informal poll of sensitive male writer types? It’s worth noting that on Max Barry’s list of 20 favorite books, there are but a few Smurfettes.