The submission process must be the most impersonal part of a writer’s career. The author has just spent days, weeks, or even years writing, editing, and workshopping the best piece of fiction they can muster. But without an audience, it’s just a piece of journal writing. Professors and other writing professionals will encourage the author to “get your work out there” and “you need a few rejection letters under the belt.” So this piece of written human soul gets crammed into an email and whisked away to a faceless submission editor.
Finding places to submit work to is the first part of this impersonal interaction. The best way to find a literary journal that will like your work is to read journals that have similar work to yours. The problem is, that the pieces that they are publishing may either A. be much stronger and more practiced or B. not anything like what you write, in terms of style. SmokeLong Quarterly is my favorite online journal, but my written work has not measured up to their level so far. I find this uneven balance when I am submitting work where I’ve either spent a lot of time reading a journal and realized that there’s no way my work stacks up. Or I’ve never heard of the journal, and think they must just be publishing anyone, why would I bother. Scanning through lists and call for submissions can feel like job hunting with incredibly vague parameters.
However, the worst part of this process is the rejection email. There’s never a right time or place to receive the email and it’s never quite worded the right way. A rejection email that sticks out in my mind said, “while we loved the absurdist normalcy of the piece, we regret to inform you…” I appreciated the time it took for them to write something personal about my work, but it left me questioning what that meant. I spent the next few days workshopping the email, trying to get a positive deconstruction of the narrative and what the character was trying to say to me. Needless to say, I didn’t get anywhere.
Being on the other side of this as a submission editor had a similar disconnect. We had almost three hundred fiction submissions. Three hundred is a relatively low number for some journals, but it set a record for Superstition Review. I found myself stuck looking at a neverending list of titles from strangers. They show up like an excel database, or some customer list. It’s very different than sitting across from someone in a workshop.
Writing the rejection email I ran into a similar conflict. Based on the rejections I’ve gotten the email should do the following; thank the writer for submitting, tell them no, and ask them to read the journal anyway. Which always feels inauthentic when on the receiving end.
The value in submitting can’t come from personal connection. Instead, it has to come from a place of personal growth. Only by submitting (and being on the other end) can an author learn to make mistakes and to take risks. Keeping a piece of writing private keeps it safe and for some people that’s enough. Exposing a piece of writing forces the author to grow their craft and skill by releasing that inhibition. Social media has exposed the extremes of our society. Most often, we only see something that is of extreme success or extreme failure. Small failures have to happen for any professional to grow. For writers that comes in the form of rejection letters. These are only small failures, and they must be overcome in order to grow. I hope that Superstition Review gets six hundred fiction submissions next semester and that many more small failures get to occur.
Have you heard? Les Kay has written his first full-length collection of poetry, At Whatever Front. The poems are “lively, moving, rhythmically tight, and often sweeping, with a kind of lyrical activism” according to John Philip Drury, author of Sea Level Rising.
Terese Svoboda’s 7th collection of poetry, Professor Harriman’s Steam Air-Ship, is now available here. A powerful and versatile writer of both fiction and poetry, Svoboda has been featured in our magazine twice. Her fiction was published in Issue 7 and we interviewed her in Issue 5.
In July 2015, we published Laura Esther Wolfson’s essay After the Autobiographyhere on our blog. Then we recently heard the good news that it received a “notable” listing in Best American Essays 2016. That brings the number of notable listings her work has received to five. Congratulations, Laura!
To read her past work published in Issue 14 of our magazine, click here.
My car rolls to a stop at the red light. I’m on my way to stake out a position in the carpool line at my daughter’s school. I look to the left, and see a boy on a bicycle, zooming down the sloping sidewalk. It’s February, and he’s wearing a puffy blue parka. A backpack bounces up and down on his back and he’s got a wide grin on his face, and eyes intently fixed on the sidewalk in front of him. There is something about the boy that stirs me suddenly, and I feel overcome with the need to write. Not about him. I am overcome with the urge to dive back into my work-in-progress, and to make some progress, after weeks of uninspired dabbling – you know the kind, opening the document, changing a word here and there, deleting a line, hitting ‘save’. I don’t know why the boy ignites this need to write in me, but he does. My fingers tingle. In the carpool line I lever the driver’s seat back and open up my laptop. I exhale. I start to write. It’s that easy.
It’s not, though. I wish I could say that from that point forward my fingers flew across the keyboard and the words poured forth. Writing isn’t like that. There are so many in-between times; there are moments when you feel mired in the soul-sucking everydayness that is so often life and can’t see the way up over the edge and out of it. Inspiration can be so elusive, so demanding of time and space. The older I get, the less my brain can contain all at once. The older I get, the more I seem to take on, the less time and space there is available to me – for me. The less time I have to create, the more frustrated I grow, the less I feel like who I want to be, really and truly, 24/7: A writer.
February turns into March, which turns into April. Two questions bother me:
How can you call yourself a writer, if you are not writing?
What was it about that boy on the bicycle?
I’m all about self-affirmations lately. Not à la Stuart Smalley, not yet, but the kinds of affirmations that make you accountable to others. It’s May now, and last week, I told someone that I was, first and foremost, a writer. I tend to keep that information bottled up inside, private, the way we keep our political affiliation, or our religion private. I have tried to work on this, because I’ve been a writer for almost my entire life. Own it! I tell myself over and over again, so I do, when I can.
I am a writer, I said out loud.
“Oh?” this person replied, head cocked to one side. “That’s so nice! What are you writing?”
And, just like that she morphed in front of me into the boy on the bicycle. He turned to look at me. What ARE you writing? he seemed to be asking as he whizzed on by, this time in a t-shirt and jeans. And, more importantly, why aren’t you doing it?
Writing is not easy. The mechanics of it might be – the act of stringing together words to form sentences, but wading through the negative noise to get the mechanics to work for you – that’s the daunting part. I’m in that in-between space now. If I stand on my very tippy-toes I can see the edge leading out of this place, but I’m still working out how to reach it. The process of transitioning away from the noise of the semester, and into reclaiming the time and space I need to create, is a hard one for me. I liken it (unoriginally) to peeling off a scab, or (more originally) recovering from jet lag. I have to cut loose all the weighty odds and ends I’ve been carrying with me for months, and re-enter a world where I belong, but which feels unfamiliar at first – all right angles and unusual shadows – until one day everything shifts into place again.
One May five years ago, during this recovering-from-jet-lag, transition-to-writing period, I wrote 20,000 words in just under three weeks – most of them while sitting in the carpool line at my son’s school. That is not my usual writing space, but the ritual of that process became such a part of me that my mind would begin racing almost before I had put the van into ‘park’ and turned the engine off. In the summers, when I am most prolific, my ritual is to get up earlier than my family, make myself a pot of tea, and to sit at my desk in my home office. If I start early enough, I can get in almost four hours of writing time before my family begins to stir. With that first cup of steaming tea poured, I feel the familiar urge to write – to create – take hold of me.
Mired in final exam grading, and assessment report-writing, and used car shopping, I fantasize about going on a writer’s retreat, somewhere remote and extraordinary. It would be just me and endless pots of tea and the words would stream out from my fingertips like sparklers on the 4th of July.
If I can just get to June, I tell myself, I’ll have the time to write.
In the meantime, I block out word count goals in my calendar. 20,000 words by Week 2, 30,000 by Week 3, and so on until I reach a decent goal for a working draft. Word counts are like mile markers, I tell myself out loud while I lace up my sneakers for a run. If I can map them out, I can get there.
Two miles out, two miles back. The landscape is thickening around the edges, settling into early summer at last. A quarter of a mile from home a neighbor crosses the street with his little white dog. I stop to pet her. She scrabbles against my legs, licking and wiggling. Sweat tickles my back. I wish the neighbor a good night and, as I pull away, picking up speed down the hill towards home, something unexpected happens: I feel a shift – something comes loose. In the most marvelous of full-circle ways, the little white dog has made me think about the boy on the bicycle, who has made me realize this: that the most valuable writing, not unlike the most valuable living, takes root in the everydayness — in the midst of the most mundane, in the absolute ordinary.
Most of us would be lost, wandering around aimlessly, without signs. Enter, exit. Push, pull. Take a ticket. Some people who know me might say I am an inflexible rule follower with no sense of adventure or humor, but I have a wild streak. For example, I walked up to the convenience store and considered the sign: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. So I took off my shirt and spray painted my upper torso black but the cashier threw me out despite my protests. What constitutes clothes? Must they be made of cloth? I mentioned that Lady Gaga wore a gown made of raw meat. My argument was shown to the curb, so I rapped on the glass door until another minimum wage attendant shuffled out and I inquired if flip flops and tank tops were acceptable. He shrugged, not seeming to have a problem with that wardrobe choice, so I went home to put on some real clothes, came back and bought my energy drink, two unlucky lottery tickets and read the front page of the scandal sheet while standing in line, which technically is probably illegal, since I wasn’t going to buy it, but what are they going to do? They can’t make what’s in your mind or what you see illegal, can they? Technically it’s probably stealing but is it really? Plus, there’s no rule (or even a sign) that states that your eyes must remain forward while waiting for the cashier to make change. Some women have eyes in back of their heads, but I don’t want to go down that road. Also, because of this digital age, part time cashiers are terrible at basic arithmetic and fewer and fewer can even make proper change in their heads. My bill was $7.43 with tax so I gave the girl a ten-spot and three singles and she acted flummoxed, horrified and said I had given her too much money. She seemed angry with my explanation that I just wanted a crisp five dollar bill and a few coins as though that was somehow more taxing for her brain. She reached under the counter for a calculator and freaked out when she discovered the batteries were dead. I hate to have singles crowd and clutter up my life and wallet. Plus, I am an active political advocate for abolishing the penny. Ironically we should all stash our pennies till they become obsolete and then they will be worth something but if everyone does it they will continue to have no real value. Life is filled with such ironies and paradoxes.
I am the last person in America to not have automatic deposit or an ATM card, at least that what my friends say, not my real friends. My real friends know who I am and don’t judge. The idea of paying bills online is so beyond me I believe more in the feasibility of time machines or the lost continent of Atlantis. Besides, I like going to the Post Office and picking out the various specialty stamps. I especially love the jazz musicians and famous poets and baseball legends. Every other Thursday, when I get my paycheck, I drive over to the bank. Often I am the only customer in line. I remember back in the good old days there would be long lines on Thursdays and it was almost impossible to find a parking spot and people would grow impatient and eat their lunches while fidgeting in line but now the tellers look bored and are more friendly, welcoming the few patrons who actually come into the bank and they know each of us by our first names. There is a sign on the door that I believe is not so subtlety directed at would-be bank robbers that I don’t remember verbatim but the gist of it is that it’s against bank policy to wear masks, hoods, sunglasses or anything that covers your face when entering the bank. Footnote: when a man walks into the bank wearing a Ninja Turtle mask it’s a safe assumption that he also is carrying a gun unless it’s Halloween and he has fake nun chucks. It says it’s for the safety and comfort of all patrons but everyone knows the deal. Plus, there are cameras all over. Nothing is secret in America anymore. You can’t get away with anything. You can even get speeding tickets when there are no cops around. They put microchips under babies skin the instant they are born and the government, of course, can trace are whereabouts by our cell phones. Some convenience stores have signs over the lottery tickets that say the premises are under recorded surveillance but I don’t believe it. I think the sign is just for show. Fake cameras with no film. Scare tactics so you don’t stick-up the joint. And out of human compassion, they offer an 800 number to call if you think you have a gambling problem. So, in summer I put on more clothes for the convenience store and in winter I take off my warm head and facial gear to cash my checks. I love how the world dictates how I should dress. It’s nice that there are dress codes that are designed, in essence, to protect us from harm and health hazards and signs everywhere, when to slow down, when to inform us deaf children are at play, when to beware of dogs, when the seedy hotel, indeed, has a vacancy.
The fancy-schmancy restaurants dictate that I wear the appropriate attire and in the olden days they had spare crass sport jackets for men who came ill suited (get it) for dinner. I went out to a restaurant for my birthday, not my real birthday but my family birthday, and printed in bold letters on the menu was a directive that I should tell my server if I had any peanut allergies. I was curious why it was linguistically phrased as though one could have more than one peanut allergy. I called the waitress over and excused myself but said shouldn’t the menu say “a” peanut allergy because I was confused how a person could have more than one peanut allergy and she asked if I was telling her that I had a peanut allergy and I told her I didn’t, that it was a grammar, not a peanut, issue. When I was a kid, no one used to have peanut allergies but now it’s swelled to epidemic proportions. And every other person must be Glutton Free. What happened? A sore leg is now a stress fracture and being lazy and disinterested is an Attention Deficit Disorder. There used to be no such thing as anxiety or depression; you were just blue, down in the dumps. There must be something to this modernization of naming things. In fact, it’s poetic, as poetry was originally “the naming of things”. I learned that from my poetry teacher way back. Our society is becoming more poetic. Yeah! So the waitress blinked multiple times, overly dramatic, as though she wanted her eyelashes to inform me I was being a dope. She told our table she’d be back to take our drink orders in a minute. It’s nice that they don’t want folks unknowingly consuming stuff that would make their throats swell, turn their faces bright red and make them gasp for oxygen during their meals but what if you don’t know about your peanut allergy until you consume peanuts in their restaurant. So much in life is nobody’s fault. I won’t even go into the fact that for some reason, on the back page, it says I should tell my server if I am lactose intolerant or to inform the manager if I require special service. I always want special service; that’s the idea. At the finer restaurants the servers don’t wear name tags. I guess they figure you don’t care about the plebian’s name or that the patrons are smart enough to remember the server’s name when they introduce themselves. On the drive home, I notice there are no more stationary billboards only electronic gizmos that change their messages every twenty seconds and traffic signs that alert us on the highway about delays and accidents and there are Amber alerts for kidnapped children. I want to know less, not more. That’s what I want.
When I was a kid, not that I believed in God or anything, but churches were serious places, no sense of humor or fucking around. Now the clergy try to be clever, comedic in a way that might guilt you into attending services with signs like: “I don’t know why some people change churches; what difference does it make which one you stay home from?” or “There are some questions that can’t be answered by Google,” or my favorite slogan, cloaked in Anti-Semitism: “Christmas: easier to spell than Hanukkah.” I guess all the clergymen got together at some convention when they experienced a major drop-off in church goers and said we need a new strategic plan, a marketing brand. Comedy works and maybe we should be more inclusive while we’re at it. Nah, just kidding…I wonder if the banks will succumb to comedy to make would-be robber chuckle and decide not the stick-up the joint. Smile: You’re on Candid Camera; We Can Use This Same Photo for Your Mug Shot! People don’t take things seriously enough anymore, but then again we don’t really have stuff like the Black Plague and Leprosy and Concentration Camps but in their stead we do have unstable, unemployed college drop-outs who live in their parents’ basements and gun down children and entire populations without clean drinking water and a world that makes it illegal for people who love each other to be legally married. And let’s not forget suicide bombers and doomsday anti-government preppers. Maybe they know something.
I love those stories of love letters written by a lovesick teenage draftee in a foxhole during a war that never reached the intended person and shows up half a century later, having been accumulating dust in some dead letter bin. The Post Office makes a valiant effort to deliver it, news station cover the event, cameras galore, but alas, the woman is usually long dead and the story evolves into the fantasy of unrequited romanticism. We want to believe such rare love still exists. We want to believe the written word has that power over us. The woman leaves for a short errand and never returns to her Paris apartment so the mail carrier returns the next day with the letter to nobody home and a half century latter some great granddaughter inherits the dusty, untouched farm house and enters it and finds a primitive Van Gogh and handmade toys from Germany and first editions of the Great Russian novelists. On the door was a hastily scribbled sign: “Back in an hour”. I guess the ultimate sign is that which one wants etched on his gravestone. My poetry teacher, on his deathbed, whispered to me what he wanted: Never Mind. I guess that sums up life with an exclamation point and makes people realize you can develop a sense of humor even after you’re dead.
From Thoreau’s glacial puddle to Muir’s tectonic Sierras to Annie Dillard’s little creek, nature writers have sought for over 200 years to bring landscape into their essays with all the power of real characters. Arguably, with his landscape-laden Desert Solitaire, Ed Abbey launched modern nature writing. Those of us today who would write of nature, especially in the West, still have a vast supply of natural wonders and beauty around us to bring into our work. How can landscape become a character? Let’s ask what makes for memorable human characters.
First, more than cardboard cutouts, characters have texture and depth, and a good author will turn to several senses to capture these finer points. Sharp vision is always useful. But nature reaches us, often vividly, through touch, smell, sound, even taste in ways that humans cannot. Imagine caressing an alligator bark juniper with your eyes closed. Listen to how wind songs differ sliding through junipers vs. pines. Did you know Ponderosa pines are unique? Their bark smells like vanilla.
Second, great characters are alive, vibrant, never still. And so with Nature. Behind the pretty scenery, nature teems with dynamics for an author’s use. Nothing is static. Evolution is a work in progress, rending, rebuilding, creating wholly new forms from the shards. Even the lowly lichen, neither plant nor animal, sits there seemingly immobile on its granite boulder, quietly dissolving its host.
Characters have moods. To give Nature moods is anthropomorphic. But the experience of Nature creates moods in others, in other characters, in the reader. The trauma and threat of violent storms are the easy parts. More challenging to the writer are Nature’s softer tones, the quiet promise of morning dew in Spring, the foreboding of a temperature shift in the breeze. As with humans, subtle mood changes wrought by Nature can run deep with meaning.
Characters interact with each other. Dominance, dependence, synergy, all abound in the intricately woven fabric of the natural world. The easy ones for the writer are the least interesting, when some natural element forces an altered path, a behavioral change in another character. The blizzard that drives a ship off course, a canyon that redirects the wanderer. More important are those bits of landscape that bring fundamental moral or intellectual change in a character. A mountain standing there, infusing strength into a quailing man, a bee alight on a columbine suggesting with fragile beauty the depth of our dependence on wilderness, the Milky Way blazing in darkest sky, telling us how infinitesimally small and insignificant we really are.
If we write the land into our essays as character, and the character that land interacts with most deeply is the reader, then we will have truly created art.
Do you have a recent story that might be enriched if you brought in the natural world?