Interview with Andrew Bertaina

The week that SNR contributor Andrew Bertaina spoke with Sierra Nevada Review, he had just found the holy grail: one of his flash fiction pieces had recently been published by Tin House, one of America’s most prestigious literary journals. Bertaina spoke with one of SNR’s managing editors about this latest publishing success, his writing process, and his feelings on the future of the printed page.

Michael Fischer: Walk me through the conception of “One Person Away From You.” What were you trying to accomplish with the piece? When you sat down to write it, what was the goal?

Andrew Bertaina: When I think about that piece—which I actually wrote a number of years ago—the process of writing it involved waking up really early in the morning and writing. Which I almost never do, for various reasons—kids and stuff—but even back then I didn’t do it. And I found that my attention is a resource that gets used up throughout the course of the day. When I wrote that piece, I found that when I woke up really early in the morning I had a really clear vision and singular voice that carried me through. I wrote it over the course of about a week’s worth of time in hour-long writing sessions.

I think if I have a skill or talent in writing it’s conveying a feeling of loneliness, and I think that something about being up in the morning and having no one else up in the house with me and then doing things—there’s a part in there where the narrator hears somebody showering next door. That was just apartment living, which I was doing myself at that point in time: up early in the morning, and you’re feeling that sense of loneliness, and then hearing someone else’s shower go on, or seeing somebody across the way in your apartment building, and that immediate experience of not knowing anything that’s going on with them at all, and then imagining your way into their life. Which I feel is a part of what we’re up to in fiction anyway, crossing over that barrier.

MF: When you say you were writing in one hour increments, did you get a whole draft in one hour or did you literally write it in pieces?

AB: I wrote it incrementally over the course of about a week. And then of course I always go back and edit things. It’s hard because people talk about, “How many drafts do you do?” And I’m like, “I’m not sure,” because I’ll read through the beginning over and over and over. The first paragraph often gets read 20, 30 times or something like that. Because I feel that you have to read your way into the piece in order to get the voice, and I find for anything longer, I have to do that. In the course of about a week I had my rough draft.

Plot-wise, not a lot changed, which is often true for me. I write on an inspiration and I just go from point A to point Z, and then I spend the majority of the time after that first draft fixing sentence structures, pulling up or pulling out metaphors and things like that.

MF: You mentioned finding the voice of a piece. I think writing convincingly in the voice of the opposite sex is something that many writers just can’t do well. How did you approach that challenge? Were you very conscious of writing through the perspective of a woman, or did you just let the voice flow and trust that it was going to be authentic?

AB: More the latter, though I am always hesitant. It’s funny because this is a piece that I had workshopped and one of my friends said, “Did you just follow me around for a day?” And it was a female friend. I was very close friends with my mother and I was very close to my sister growing up, so part of it is that I have an easier relationship often with women. I think my primary relationship for a long period of time in my life was my mother. In some ways, my experience of her was the loneliness of being a single parent. I think just seeing that, when I start writing in that voice—which like I said, if I have a thing that I often do it’s often writing about loneliness—I feel comfortable.

Beyond that, some feelings are universal to the human experience and I would say that loneliness is one of them. So I’m probably going to try to capture that more than I might try to capture what it feels like to go out shopping for clothes or something like that, which, honestly, I just don’t understand. But if I’m capturing an emotion, that transcends gender and I’m comfortable in that space. All that being said, yes it is challenging, and the majority of my narrators are male in part for that reason, because I do think it’s difficult to do.

MF: I want to talk about the idea of judging—or not judging—characters when you’re writing. The narrator here is such an easy target in a lot of ways, but she’s written with real empathy. She comes across as weird and obsessive but also heartbreakingly normal and universal at the same time.

AB: I’m not a particularly visual reader. In some ways though, my writing has a lot of images and metaphors in it. I follow the voice and I think of the construct of language and think of what the language is trying to convey. I think what that character might think, but I don’t think particularly about how the character might come off. I’m almost surprised afterward when people will be like, “Oh, I can’t believe X or Y.” Actually, I find it somewhat strange when writers say, “I was just responding to the voice; I didn’t know what was going to happen next in the story.” But sometimes that is, in fact, the case.

You’re just writing a voice and then thinking the thoughts that this person would think and not worrying about that particular perception of them. And again, there’s an internal sort of dialogue that we all have in our heads that’s not externalized, and so in some ways this character is just externalizing something that, in reality, they would never say to their friend or somebody on the street. But hopefully what you’re doing in a story is making that internal voice that we all have that’s narrating our lives—sometimes in really problematic ways, which is true for this character—and maybe that does make them an easy judge. But I hope that would be the vehicle that would have someone reading it and not thinking, “Oh well this is clearly the way they are in the world.” This is the way they think about the world, but may not be the way they are in the world.

MF: What respective roles do you feel each of the minor characters—the women from upstairs, the woman on the subway—play in the overall arc of what you were doing? 

AB: Well, the obsession of the narrator is forming a connection with someone who’s now gone, so now this person is going about forming obsessive connections with anybody in the world. So you’re seeing that made manifest, how desperate the person is to connect, and then how little it’s happening. Particularly if you live in a big city, you can be sitting so close to somebody—and I suppose this is true everywhere—where you’re literally touching their leg, hearing everything that they’re doing, and yet they can know nothing about you. I wanted to juxtapose those things over the top of each other because this person is being denied a connection with people who seemingly could give it, and yet there’s no real connection there; it’s all imagined. Which is again what the narrator is doing with the ex as well.

MF: You’re a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast, so you’re on both sides of the submission process. When it comes time to submit your own work to literary journals, what’s your thought process and plan of attack?

AB: In some ways, I would say I probably do it wrong. I probably don’t do it well. But I think it depends on where you’re at in that process, and what you’re trying to accomplish. What I did do at first, when I had only like one publication credit, is I just did a lot of research. I hate to say it, but you’ve got to do a lot of research and figure out all the literary magazines that are out there. Look at them and say, “Do I actually want my work to appear in this magazine? What does it look like? Is it online or in print? Do they pay their writers? Can I find a couple pieces that are similar to mine?”

My aesthetic is definitely that good writing is good writing. I’m sometimes annoyed when a journal says, “We only except X or Y kind of stories.” Well, the history of fiction is the history of writing in a variety of different forms. To me, good literature is good literature, whatever form it takes, whether its experimental or extremely traditional. When I was starting out, I sent my stories to fifteen or twenty places (after doing some research). I just got excited about writing and in that process got some things published. And over the course of time, now I’m submitting to what I consider to be the top fifty journals or so. I give the piece a rundown and then just move down a list, a spreadsheet that I have that’s not very sexy, but that I spent a lot of time putting together.

It’s really hard work and spreadsheets and things like that. It depends partially on what you want to accomplish, and where you’re at in your writing and what you need. The best way is probably to just start at the top and just work your way down, but that may not be the right thing if you’re just starting out. You might just want to see your name get out there and get things published and get excited about writing. I’m not sure there’s a right way other than to do your research.

MF: You recently had a piece published by Tin House. What was the emotional experience for you, placing a piece somewhere that prestigious, in the kind of journal everyone is trying to get into?

AB:It’s funny, I was listening to a podcast about the way that we experience pleasure in our lives. Say you have a trip planned. You’re supposed to plan it way out in the future so you have time to look forward to it. The story in Tin House, the editor over there, on Thursday was like, “We’re accepting this piece. We’re going to publish it on Friday.” There wasn’t even any time for me to be like, “Yay, I’m doing this thing.” It was just scrambling, emailing him my bio at like 6 p.m. and the next morning around 9:00 it was up. It was such a narrow span of time, and then the piece is out there and you get however many Facebook likes and three of them are family members. And then it’s like, “Wow, nothing changed.” Whereas in some ways I wish I’d had more lead time on it because it was really quick.

On the other hand, I have something coming out in Threepenny Review, which I’m very excited about, in 2017. I think I found out about that in February. And that seems so distant that it’s like, “Oh.” But in both cases, I’m excited about it. I love it. I’m excited to see who’s in Threepenny Review that month and be like, “Oh look it’s little me,” next to these writers who are, in my mind, extraordinarily famous. But yeah, it doesn’t really change much.

I think that’s the perception that I had when I started the publication process, is that once you start to get published, people are going to be banging down your door. But it’s not the case. I mean it’s exciting, but yeah, life just goes on. If you’re going to keep writing, you’re going to keep writing stories, and if you’re not, you won’t.

I think literary fiction will always have a place, but it’s always going to be a smaller place in society. It’s a bit of a niche interest even though it’s a strong interest of mine. I have a writer friend who always says, “Celebrate what’s to be celebrated.” I try to keep that in mind as time has gone by and I’ve gotten less excited by getting published than when it was first happening. I think that despite that, your life may not change, but it’s important to celebrate, even if you’re not particularly good at it. Go get a drink with a friend and say, “I got a story published,” and be proud of it. That’s something I’ve gotten a little better at, is being proud and sharing work with people I interact with during my day, which I wouldn’t always do. Saying, “Oh by the way, I’ve got something coming out.” And that’s nice.

MF: Speaking of writers you think of as famous, who are some writers that you’ve admired over the years?

AB:It’s a boring answer, especially for a white male to give, but David Foster Wallace is definitely the person who I read in my twenties who made me think, Man, this is amazing, what people can do with writing, but my mind just doesn’t work this way. It works in a literary sense, but I don’t have a philosophical, mathematical interest like he does that allows for some of the things that he’s able to accomplish in fiction. So, he’s definitely a writer whose work I keep coming back to and that I teach in my class.

I love Zadie Smith—I love her nonfiction more than her fiction actually—and I do read more nonfiction now than I used to. And I love it when people read contemporary writers. I love Tolstoy, I love War and Peace, but Steven Millhauser’s short stories are amazing. Charles D’Ambrosio is someone who I find that I recommend to people. Kelly Link is someone who starts to transcend that form; you get the literary fiction mixed with what would traditionally be genre.

Those are a sampling of writers whose work I look to, but I tend to emulate when I read a lot of somebody, and then I don’t like it because it always feels a little bit like a cheap pastiche, you know? When you’re reading a master in a form, then for you to try to write the same story and it has a tendency to just feel like, “Here’s a master doing it and now I’m getting my feet wet and trying it out.” At this point I’ve been writing long enough that I have a little bit of my own style, a little bit of my own voice, and I have some things that I do—which sometimes they’re different in fiction and nonfiction, though I don’t always draw a huge distinction between the two—that are my own. And I think that it’s good to read broadly for that reason, because I think having one voice in your head is not going to serve you well.

In my graduate program, it did annoy me because my classmates were always like, “Why do we have to take English literature classes and read? I want to focus all my time on writing.” And I’m definitely the person who says, “Yes, absolutely, you have to make time to write.” So many people don’t make time to write. If you want to write, you’ve got to write. But you really need to read quite broadly, and you may be able to relax it a little bit if time starts to get tight, but you need that baseline. I spent years of my life reading really, really intensely, in order to build up a baseline that set the stage for me to get into writing, because I wasn’t particularly interested in it in undergrad. It was really after undergrad, having a few years off and just reading broadly, that I got interested. It gave me a perspective on how one might go about writing.

MF: You’re a circulation specialist at the American University library, so you have a closeness to the printed page in your daily life that the vast majority of people no longer have. How are you thinking about the hand-wringing that goes on over the future of publishing and the printed page in the digital age?

AB:I think literary fiction is going to be around. You can find articles from a hundred years ago or longer about how nobody reads anymore. People are reading; people are consuming text. They’re doing it online more than the printed page, but again I think there’s going to be a subgroup of people who just get really interested in literary fiction and those are the people who are writing and reading and consuming it, and I think that that’s okay.

I have my own feelings about the role that, say, commercial fiction plays in actually making enough money so that publishers can take a chance on literary fiction. I’m at the circulation desk and I’m checking things out. And they’re college students; they’re mostly checking out books for papers. But sometimes people come in and check out commercial fiction, and I wind up having an argument with my colleagues about whether one should be reading commercial fiction or literary fiction and what those differences are—things like that.

So, I definitely have a dog in the fight, but I don’t get particularly concerned about the difference between digital and printed page. Because I do think people still read and will continue to read. It’s a long answer for saying I’m not too worried about it.

MF: When you submit, is there a part of you that would rather see your work published in a physical journal?

AB: Yeah, I do prefer to have something come out in a journal that I can have. Aesthetics do matter to me, so it’s nice when it’s a nice journal. Like the issue of Sierra Nevada Review that my piece is in is a very nice, very beautiful issue. So I do actually prefer that, though it’s nice to have a piece come out and then be able to immediately share it with everybody, say, “Here, I wrote something, here’s the link.” I have a preference for a journal, but I can see some of the nice parts about having something digital.

And if every journal goes online in the future, I think we’ll adapt and it’ll be okay. But I don’t think that they will, because there’s always going to be this market for a physical journal. It unites the pieces that are in it more than an electronic journal does. When I’ve had my pieces in strictly electronic journals, the pieces feel less connected to one another and less related than when they appear in a physical journal. I think you can see the aesthetic more. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I think you’re more likely to read a physical journal, multiple stories right in a row, and see the connections and conjunctions between them than you will if you’re reading something online.

MF: Talk a little bit about your writing community. Do you have anything where you live or online? How do you situate yourself within a community of writers?

AB: I don’t much, which is partially a result of having young children, which means my time is very focused in that direction. After I graduated, I was the one who started a writing group with some people who I thought were talented, and we kept that up for maybe two or three years. I had almost stopped writing, and I had one or two publication credits to my name, and I ran into one of my friends from the writing group at an event. My friend said, “If you’re not planning time to write, just write short things that are 500 or 1,000 words.” And so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do that.”

So, I went home and I wrote four short pieces, in I think one sitting, and those have all wound up getting published. I’m not particularly involved. Hopefully I’ll get involved more as more time comes up. But I think those connections are worth seeking out, because I think I almost would’ve just said, “Well, maybe I’m just not going to write” if I hadn’t had that conversation with a friend.

I think if you’re a writer you need to be active in having a writing community. The MFA experience I had is very unique, but you are going to lose those connections once you get out in the real world. It’s finding those people whose opinions and writing you value, so even if you’re not always plugged in you have people who are checking in with you about your writing, your thinking. But by all means, I think if you have more time it’s great to be involved in your local literary community, and that’s something I will build up as time goes by, because I think there is a value in that.

MF: Do you run your pieces by anyone when they’re in drafts or do you just trust that you’re at a point where you know when things are ready and what needs to be fixed?

AB: I run them by people briefly, but not substantively anymore. I just write things to what I feel is completion, and then I’ll ask people to figure out if there’s anything glaring to it. At this point I usually draft four or five times and then—I don’t know if that’s good or not, but I know that’s what works better for me. The pieces that I’ve touched less—and like I said it may have something to do with the way that I write, which tends to be by inspiration—it’s better for me to really trust that first draft and just edit it a lot than it is to go back and take everybody’s feedback.

Because I’m writing shorter things now, that’s easier to do. It’s funny, I tell my college writing classes, “You have to be your own best editor.” By all means it’s lovely to have those voices in the room in an MFA program, but at some point you leave that, and hopefully you’re carrying the best of those voices with you in your own mind. You have to be the best reader of your own work. So at this point, I’m the primary reader of my own work. That story that appeared in Tin House; I didn’t send it to anybody else. I just wrote it, edited it, and sent it out.

MF: What’s your long-term goal for your writing? More flash fiction, a novel?

AB: I think flash and then stuff that’s slightly longer. Right now, I don’t have the time and investment that it takes to write a novel because like I said, something longer I think you have to read your way into. I don’t think I can read my way 200 pages into something every morning. Not that you’d have to go that far, maybe it’s reading your way into a chapter.

Maybe I’m a reflection of the culture in that I’m not seeing the necessity for it. I like to have short bursts of inspiration. Why write a novel when you can express all those ideas in about five pages? And that’s where I’m at right now. But who knows? The reality is, when I started out—everybody wants to write a novel, right? So five years from now, I may be in the middle of a novel and look like a liar. I’m not going to say never, but it’s not what I’m interested in right now.

 

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, D.C. He obtained his MFA in creative writing from American University where he also now works as an instructor. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The ThreePenny Review, Tin House Flash Fridays, Hobart, Apt, Isthmus, Sierra Nevada Review, Sweet and Catamaran. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.

 

An Interview with Wyl Villacres

I recently sat down with writer Wyl Villacres for a wide-ranging conversation about his work, his life, and why he’s sick of running into Irvine Welsh.

Wyl Villacres is a bartender from Chicago. He’s the author of the chapbook, Bottom of the Ninth (WhiskeyPaper 2015), and his stories have appeared in The Rumpus, McSweeney’s, and Hobart Pulp, among others. Wyl was included in the 2014 Best of the Net anthology and was a notable selection for Best American Essays in 2015. He holds an MFA from Sierra Nevada College, along with a tremendous amount of student loan debt. Follow him on Twitter: @Wyllinois.

In part one, Wyl and I speak about his writing process and a few of his better known pieces, including Fire, The Bees, and Diet of Worms from our 2016 issue. We also talk about going to church with girlfriends’ parents to score brownie points, always second-guessing one’s work, and how to digest lazy workshop criticism.

In part two, we delve deeper into Wyl’s outlook on life, politics, and race. We touch on why Wyl doesn’t submit to journals that charge reading fees, the role live lit performances play in his work, and the time Wyl got arrested during Occupy Chicago.

DIY Poetry Scene – Part IV

I have a colorful chat with the the founder and inspirational muse of Poetry in the Port, Damian Rucci.  Rucci, a “no-holds-barred” visceral poet, details his experience in creating a lasting and impactful poetry scene as well as some tips on starting your own readings!

Poetry in the Port occurs on the first and third Thursday of every month at 7pm at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, NJ. Poetry in the Port is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.

Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Poetry in the Port, it is beneficial for local businesses as well!

Check it out below!!

DIY Poetry Scene – Part III

I sit down before an early spring Words on Main event to speak with the bi-weekly spoken word reading’s founder, Cord Moreski. Morseski, a poet and a teacher, details what it is like to start your own poetry scene and helpful information if you are interested in starting your own!

Words on Main occurs on the first and third Friday at 7pm at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park, NJ. Words on Main is a showcase of local writers and poets. The night begins with a featured readers set and followed by an open mic.

Hosting your own open mic is vital to allowing your community see the talent that is in the neighborhood. In the case of Word’s on Main, it is also beneficial for local businesses!

An Interview with Brenna Womer

We at the Review are just as excited as you are for the 2016 edition to hit the shelves! Get hyped   for its release with a little interview with Brenna Womer, one of this year’s awesome contributors. Check out what Brenna has to say about writing inspirations, her piece “Frâiche” that we’ll be publishing, and which review is right for you.

What was the first experience with writing you had?

From a young age I had the desire to keep a journal and would go through phases where I’d commit to writing an entry every day. But I was inevitably dissatisfied with my inability to give adequate weight to my experiences, and often, I ended up tearing out the pages days later and ripping them into tiny pieces because I was embarrassed. Writing was stressful because I expected everything I wrote, every idea I had, to be spectacular. I quit writing for years, then picked it back up in college with fiction, and after a few semesters I learned it was okay to just get my ideas down, to play around with words and characters. When I took the pressure off myself, writing became fun.

What are some authors that you’ve read that have helped you to develop your writing style?

Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From was the first collection of short stories I ever read and I was greatly influenced by his use of domestic settings and his masterful creation of tension between characters. My stories are very character-driven and I strive to write characters as complex and relationships as tumultuous as Carver’s.

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt will always be one of my favorite collections. I love Aimee Bender’s portrayal of characters, often women, during periods of disruption and adjustment. I also enjoy her discussion of female sexuality—what sex means to different characters and how they use it. These are themes I like to explore in my own writing.

In Junot Diaz’s book This is How You Lose Her—another of my favorites—not only am I immediately drawn in by the voice and his use of language, I admire the bold way he writes about class, race, sexuality, and masculinity. He consistently tackles difficult themes with honesty and authenticity, and his stories always leave me in awe.

**

What inspired your piece “Fraîche”?

“Fraîche” was actually born of a prompt in my graduate fiction workshop. Our assignment was to write a story using a borrowed form, and because eating is something I love so much I consider it a hobby, I thought I would try to write a story in the form of a menu.

What was your writing process for this piece?

Well, I began with the idea of a menu, and because I’m interested in relationships, periods of adjustment, and sex, I thought I would have the main character on a first date. I am a woman and I’ve been on dates, so it just felt natural to write this from a female’s perspective. I honestly didn’t even realize the story was in second person until I was finished and read back over it. I love to read second-person stories but haven’t written many myself, so I was relieved by how painlessly the point of view was established. I’d like to think second person helps alleviate some of the main character’s angst in this story because of the POV’s innately perceptive and instructional tone.

I didn’t have a strategy for weaving the menu items into the narrative, so I started looking through recipes for meal ideas. As I put the menu together, ingredients started sparking my own memories, so I decided I would write the story as a string of word associations and disjointed, worried thoughts as they might occur to someone on a first date as they read down a menu. It really was a fun piece to write!

**

Where’s the weirdest place you’ve ever written?

Oh goodness. The other day I had been revising a memoir piece at a coffee shop for about four hours when I finally made myself pack up and go. But I kept writing in my head and while I was driving home I had this idea for a sentence, so at a stoplight I opened up my laptop on the passenger seat and typed manically until the light turned green. Cops use laptops while they’re driving, so that makes it okay, right?

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

As I touched on when I was telling about my journaling failures, putting pressure on yourself to be endlessly insightful and eloquent will do nothing but foster self-consciousness and frustration. Start with a prompt and see where it takes you. If there is a character you want to flesh out or a place you would like to describe but you don’t yet have a story they fit into, just write what you have. The notepad in my phone is filled with random ideas, notions, and mini character sketches I jot down while I’m at work or happy hour or eating dinner, and when I’m stuck on a story or looking for inspiration, I scroll through those notes. Also, it’s fun to look back at the notes and find the seed of a now 10-page story.

My biggest piece of advice, though, is to pay attention. Be nosy. Listen in on conversations, watch people, ask a lot of questions and be sure to listen to the answers, and if you are curious about something, don’t just let it flit by without pursuit.

How do you know the literary magazine you’re sending work to is the right fit?

Reading literary magazines is the best way to figure out whether you think they would like your style, and it’s also a great way to keep up with how the writing community is evolving. I’m very fortunate to be a part of the English Department at Missouri State University where the Creative Writing faculty is very focused on keeping up with what’s new and exciting in the writing world. And because they are, one of my professors decided we needed a literary magazine library. It is a great resource, and if I’m wondering whether or not my writing would fit with a particular publication, my first move is to run downstairs and see if we have their magazine.

If you don’t have access to the publication, at the very least you should be able to find something on their website, most likely under the submissions tab, that will give you an idea of what they like to publish. Our library didn’t have a copy of Sierra Nevada Review, but when I read on their website that they prefer work that is unconventional and experiments with form, I thought they might be interested in a flash piece in the form of a menu. And I’m so happy they were!

Be sure to pick up our 2016 copy this summer, and look for Brenna’s work in the poetry section!

Signing out,

H


Womer_image

Brenna Womer is a Creative Writing graduate student at Missouri State University where she teaches composition and serves as an Assistant Editor of Moon City Review. Her work is forthcoming in Grist’s Online Companion and the Sierra Nevada Review and has been published in NEAT. and Midwestern Gothic.

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Hayden Takahashi is an English undergraduate student at Sierra Nevada College where she currently serves as an Assistant Editor with the Sierra Nevada Review.

DIY POETRY SCENE- Part II

Part Two:

An Interview with Allyson Dwyer

Check out the conversation I had with local playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer!  Hailing from Matawan, NJ, Allyson talks to me about what it is like being a writer in an up and coming scene as well as what Beatles album she feels her writing most embodies.  Allyson is a frequent open mic reader and a featured poet at both Damian Rucci’s Poetry in the Port and Cord Moreski’s Words on Main, the two local poetry readings at the Jersey Shore.

Enjoy!

Tara

Writing Scared

by Brandon Dudley

Something I learned very early in the Sierra Nevada College MFA program, thanks to my mentor Alan Heathcock, was how helpful fear can be in the writing process. According to Al, he knows he’s doing something right when he’s nervous hitting the submit button on the work. That’s something I’ve tried to remember every time I send out a story.

Fear, at its best, means the writer is tackling something close to their core. They’re tapping into something important and meaningful and harboring genuine emotion. They’re exposing something true about themselves.

That doesn’t mean the work is necessarily in any way autobiographical. It could be about getting stranded on Mars, or getting attacked by a bear, or being hunted by a witch (you’ll have to forgive the movie references, I’m writing this on the day of the Oscars). But the subtext is true; the emotional core of the story is true.

It’s something I’ve noticed editing the Sierra Nevada Review this year. The stories that risked some form of exposure, that created some genuine fear in the writer before they hit submit, those were the ones we enjoyed, admired, and, with many, accepted.

Something else Al told me early on resonated here as well: “The greatest grief of human experience is that we are all separate.” We are all bound within our own bodies, and the closest we can get to true empathy—to understand the world as another person sees it—is through storytelling. And that’s what made it so obvious that those writers were exposing something true: we felt that connection. The separation was erased, just for a moment, because the writer was willing to put a crucial piece of themselves on the page.

I thought about that often as I read the work submitted to the Review. All other elements being equal, the stories that risked exposure in some way always rose to the top. By exposing themselves, by subjecting themselves to that fear, these writers were more likely to bridge the gap separating them from the reader. It doesn’t always work, of course, because our experiences vary so widely that what resonates in one reader might not in another. But more often than not, that bravery lifts the reading off the page and creates a genuine empathetic experience. And the work that risks little or nothing? Well, it feels like reading little or nothing.

By writing to expose yourself, you’re actually writing toward others. It doesn’t push people away, as I’d at times feared, it invites them in. Instead of making them recoil, it makes them want more. We are people greedy for connection, and the best way to make that connection is to take risks, to lean into your fears, and write until it scares you.

DIY POETRY SCENE – Part I

Part One:

So You Want to Start Your Own Poetry Collective?

ONE OF THE perks of being in a low-residency MFA program for an aspiring poet is that she belongs to a community of writers. The low-residency program at Sierra Nevada College is undoubtedly a sanctuary for me, an aspiring poet in said MFA program, and provides not only useful tools for my studies but also allows me to enter an intense program surrounded with like- minded individuals. But when the residency ends, when the silent shores of Lake Tahoe are but specks of cloud dew on the plane, I am back in New Jersey and am searching for a continuation of a poetry scene. It’s great to be able to curl up in the corner of my tiny apartment five blocks from the boardwalk of Asbury Park, listening to the Atlantic Ocean instead of the Lake while studying. There is a sense of personal gain, as my corner is now plastered with poems I need to edit or thoughts I need to put to poems. But a girl can only have a conversation with a wall for so long before she wishes for her words to bounce around the streets of her city.

Asbury Park is the Detroit of the Jersey Shore. Once a bustling resort town, it now exists in the shadow of its former self, with Bruce Springsteen echoing through the vastness of Convention Hall. Topping the state’s list of most dangerous cities in the Garden State, it is now just beginning to see a revival. There is a bustling downtown that was not present ten years ago, a new hotel opening in the heart of the boardwalk area, and droves of hipsters gentrifying and spreading their influence faster than plague rats. Famous for its music history, there is also a lot of art and great food to be found throughout the revived areas. This is the all necessary to make any great scene, so the lack of a writer’s group or poetry collective has been a serious concern of mine. I just needed to meet the right people.

Before the beginning of my last residency, I was invited to a local poetry reading by friend and mentor Laura McCullough. She was reading from her forthcoming collection, Jersey Mercy. I happened to be free that night (from the chains of corporate retail slavery that night) and wanted to check it out. The reading was at Espresso Joe’s in Keyport, about twenty or so miles north from my little corner. I had the foresight that if I went I would be able to speak with those like-minded individuals, who also felt like there was a serious lack of a scene at the Jersey Shore.

Cue Damian Rucci. A native to the Bayshore (which includes aforementioned Keyport), this no-holds-barred poet is kicking ass and making poetry his life. Poetry in the Port, his bi-weekly series on Thursdays at Espresso Joe’s, features poets and an open mic for all types poets, whether seasoned or recreational. In his ruffian stature and words, I found a warm embrace to join his fold since he greeted me with a similar desire to reinvent the Jersey poetry scene. Damian, as the backbone to the collective I am part of, will be featured in this blog series as it progresses.

When I am not busy listening to the talents of my clan twice a month on Thursdays at Poetry in the Port, I am at Dino’s on Main in Asbury Park for Cord Moreski’s hosting of Words on Main. Cord is another local poet and collective leader, a kind and intelligent lover of all things words. Every other Friday, Cord gathers with fellow writers at an Italian eatery on Main Street in the city. He follows the same format as Damian, a set of featured poets and a free-for-all open mic. Cord will also share with us some words of wisdom in the coming weeks.

Chelsea Palermo, another New Jersey native and poetess, is the ringleader for the Ministry of Artistic Intent. A talented writer with a beautiful reading voice, Chelsea hosts this monthly workshop in the confines of the Waterwitch Coffee shop. The workshop invites local poets and writers to host a workshop within the group. After the workshop, attendees are invited to share some words with an open mic. We will hear about her tips in creating a poetry scene later in the blog.

The first video blog will be an interview with active playwright and poet, Allyson Dwyer. Allyson is a currently an MFA candidate at Augsburg low-residency program in Minneapolis, Minnesota for playwriting. She will also provide some insight on what it is like to be a writer in a burgeoning poetry/writing scene.

With this blog, I hope to to show you how to create your own local poetry scene within your community.  There is much more than a sense of inflated ego that comes with presenting your art to the world! Hopefully one day you can make a collective that has the power to melt people’s faces off.

Or at least singe their emotional receptors!

tara

Hello From the Other Side: Some Editorial Observations

by Brandon Dudley

As a writer, the submissions process feels a lot like feeding a picky toddler. You offer them the best meal you could possibly make, a meal that includes so much of what they love that there’s no way the child could turn down.

But they just spit it right back at you.

And you don’t know why. You never know, because they barely speak to you. Once in a while, you might get a couple words of explanation, but usually it’s the equivalent of,  “I like this some days but not today.”

So you throw up your hands and go back to the kitchen.

I joined the staff of the Sierra Nevada Review because I was hoping to figure out what goes on inside . And I’ve figured out a few things that might be helpful, or at least comforting, to other writers.

1. Luck helps.

Sometimes, when submitting your work, you just get unlucky. You wrote a beautiful story in second person that just happened to be too much like the second person story we accepted a month ago. You could never know that the reader who happened to get assigned your submission hates dark, twisted pieces, or that we’ve just read one too many depressing stories about dead cats, or we’re just not in the mood for another weird sexcapade again.

So don’t take it personally. Of the 1,300 people that submitted to us between September and February, only about 35 were accepted. That’s an acceptance rate of .027 percent. Even at a small lit mag like ours the odds are long, with or without luck. If you keep working at it, though, luck will eventually break your way. That said….

2. You can help yourself get lucky.

There are things you can do to help improve your luck. Some have been covered ad nauseam on other writing web sites: keep the cover letter short and sweet; format your work properly; follow all the submission guidelines; read the magazine before submitting; polish, polish, polish; etc.

Follow all that advice. You are not the exception to that advice.

This has been covered before, too, but it can’t bear repeating enough: you must grab the reader’s attention right from the start. Because lit mags face a constantly growing pile of submissions, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll get the chance to recover from a weak opening. If you’ll allow me another metaphor, it’s like going on a date. You need to be on top of your game from the time you sit down at the table. You don’t get to be boring and derivative all through dinner and then hope you can wow them with a toe-curling goodnight kiss.

You have to grab the reader right away. Impress us with your language, your plot, your characters, your dialogue. Because we’re looking, desperately, for something to hold on to. We want stumble across something beautiful and tell everyone: Look at this! We really do.

So start strong. That means don’t start with a character’s name, then ramble on for a page about their traits and backstory. That doesn’t make a reader care about the character or the story. Show us the character in some unique and interesting light, or throw us into a conflict from the first line. Impress us with a lyrical, short description of the setting and plants us in a place so deeply we feel like we’re there, then populate it with interesting characters and compelling situations.

Start the date out right, and maybe you. That said…

3. You do not need to shock us to get our attention.

It’s surprising how many submitters go for the gross or strange right off the bat. Usually, this just backfires.

You want to start your story with a graphic scene of violence? How about sending in that piece about the weird and probably illegal act with the dog? You want to start your submission with an anthropomorphic penis riding a camel? Guess what? So did the last submitter (except it was a burro). We’ve read all those stories.

If we can go back to the date metaphor, this strategy is sort of like sitting down at the restaurant, opening the menu, then asking your date if they want to have sex on the table.

All I’m saying is a little foreplay would be nice. Build up to it. Makes us care about the characters, the plot, the conflict, before you throw the truly crazy stuff at us. We’re not prudes. We like the weird. And to be honest, sometimes we like it right from the start. But the key thing is it has to be done well, it has to exist for a reason, and it has to be done for more than just shock value.

In the end, the only thing you can do is your best work (weird or not). Polish it until it shines, send it in, and while you wait, start it all over again on your next piece. More than anything, this gig has taught me patience is key. Great work gets turned down for so many reasons, many out of the writer’s control. But great work will get recognized in the end.

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

Writers in the Woods Interview Series: Rebecca Makkai

by Carly Courtney

Rebecca Makkai is the Chicago-based author of the novels The Hundred-Year House, winner of the Chicago Writers Association’s Novel of the Year award, and The Borrower, a Booklist Top Ten Debut which has been translated into eight languages. Her short story collection, Music for Wartime, was published in June of 2015. Her short fiction was chosen for The Best American Short Stories for four consecutive years (2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008), and appears regularly in journals like Harper’s, Tin House, and New England Review.

You can purchase Music for Wartime here and on most online book-retailers: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525426691

What is your favorite story from graduate school?

I have a Master’s in Literature from Middlebury College in Vermont. You go every summer for five summers and then you have a master’s degree… but I met my husband there! He was literally the first person I met: I got out of the taxi with my suitcase, and he was the first person that I met. I was like, “He’s really cute!” Then “No, you’re just thinking that because he’s the first person you met at graduate school,” and then I ended up marrying him. We had some wonderful professors, and because it was a summer program, they were from all different institutions. Oskar Eustis, who was, at the time, was already a theatre director (now he’s the director of the Public Theatre in New York- he’s a major director), taught my contemporary modern American theatre class and it was incredible. This is a guy who does not himself have even a college degree, but he was the most dynamic professor that I’d ever had. I remember him, on the third day of class, talking about “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” and he just started openly sobbing, tears falling down into his beard (he had a big bushy beard), just totally unembarrassed, sobbing about this play. It was one of those classes I would retake in a heartbeat. It would be my first choice of any class I’ve ever taken. I was so excited to get up the mountain to hear him speak that I got a speeding ticket!

 

Have you ever published anything you were positive you’d get in trouble for? What was it? What happened?

I’m terrified about a lot of stuff I’ve published. Once your stuff is out there, you do get really bad reviews, it’s inevitable, and sometimes very publicly. Unfortunately, on a bad day, that voice can be in your head as you’re writing. “This is what people aren’t going to like about it, this is what people are going to mock it about, this is who will be offended by it.” You do really have to turn that off. I’m really scared about the book I’m writing now because it’s about the AIDS crisis and that’s not something that I was personally affected by. I know that there will be reviews that question my right to tell that story, or are really eager to point out any way that I got it wrong, and I just have to be okay with that. I thought a lot about whether it is what I really want to publish, and it is. I can’t control what story I want to tell any more than people can control their dreams; you tell the story you want to tell. I just have to be okay with the fact that I’m doing the best I can, I’m trying very hard to get it right and to do justice to the people whose story this is, and I’m going to try my best not to upset anyone, but just the fact of its existence, there is going to be some people who have an issue with it.

What was the weirdest place you’ve ever written? Did anything come of it?

I think you have to be able to work in all different places, you can’t just be able to work in your one special spot. I’m sure I’ve written in weirder places, but what sticks out in my mind is when I wrote a whole story sitting on the floor of an airport during a flight delay. It was very short, I wrote the entire thing right there. It’s a story in my story collection called “Everything We Know About the Bomber.” It was right after the Boston Marathon bombings, right after they caught the one brother and killed the other. So, CNN is playing this endless loop in the airport of basically every photo they could obtain of these people, every fact about their lives, so that’s basically what I wrote. I wrote this really short, weird story that was not directly about them, I changed all the details, but it basically just reads like this absurd news report of all these details, everything we know about this one bomber. I don’t think I would have ever written it somewhere else, I wouldn’t have written it if CNN hadn’t been in my face, I don’t normally write watching CNN, but I guess this is what happens if I do, and it was published in a literary magazine and it’s in my story collection, so good things came from it.

 

Do you have a favorite story in your story collection?

You know, I have to tell you something. I’ve been touring for this book for almost a year and no one has asked me that! I think I do. There’s a story in there called “Good St. Anthony Come Around,” and it is actually, in a very different way than my novel in progress, about the AIDS crisis. It’s set in New York city, it’s about artists, so it’s very different than the novel. It’s the last full story that I wrote for the collection. I wrote it as an entry into the world I was going to be writing about in the novel, I thought I wanted to write about [the AIDS crisis], I wasn’t sure, I was trying it out a little bit with this story. And I really love that story! It’s not a story that other people pick out as their favorite, though. It cracks me up; there are certain stories that people always bring up in interviews, and that readers will talk to me about which stories they like, and some of them never get mentioned. Not that people didn’t like them, maybe they’re just quieter stories, because if I do bring them up I get the “Oh yeah!” but they just don’t get mentioned, and “Good St. Anthony” is kind of one of those. People will occasionally bring it up, but it doesn’t seem to stick out to other people the way it sticks out to me. I think it’s probably that it might not really be the best story in there, I like it a lot, I think it works, but for me I like it because it’s what I’m obsessed with right now. It’s the world that I’ve now dove into, and this was the beginning of that. I think I like it for other reasons than just its artistic merit.

Do you think it’s a good exercise to write a story about what you plan on writing a novel about?

Not necessarily, no. It’s not something I’ve ever done before, or something I ever plan to do again. I have to say, it wasn’t entirely deliberate. It wasn’t like I said, “I’m going to write this story because I’m going to do this novel.” I didn’t realize back then how very much my novel would be about AIDS. I thought it was only going to be a small part of it, and partly it was the writing of this story and the research that convinced me that my novel should be more about that. The only risk of that for a lot of people might be that you write your interest out of it. If you write the short story, and if it worked, then why write the novel? Except for the fact that both are about AIDS, everything about the story and my novel in progress is completely different, different city, different characters, different themes, different tone.

What is the most inspiring book you’ve read in the last 5 years?

I don’t read books for inspiration, I might be inspired artistically, but I don’t read to be told how to live my life or to feel a certain emotion. Sometimes you read to be deeply disturbed or to be mildly entertained, so I’ll answer it in the sense of being artistically inspired. This happens every time I read Alice Monroe, who most people acknowledge is our greatest living short story writer. Every collection of hers ups the ante for me on what I realize is possible in short fiction, and it makes me step up my own game. For that reason I’m usually terrified to read her because every story I read of hers it’s like, “Oh no, I made more work for myself because I have higher standards and new ideas.” But of course I’m still going to read her, I just space it out a little bit. The last collection of hers I read was her last collection called Dear Life and it had stories in there that just blew apart… not my conception of what a story can be, she’s not doing anything that experimental with form or tone, but more these little moves she makes that if you look at them from a craft perspective as a fellow writer, you can see what she’s doing, even if you don’t know how she did it. It’s like being a magician and watching a magician who’s way  better than you, to the point you can’t figure out how they did their tricks, but you know you have to try,  because now that you know that its possible you want to do that too.

If you were a super villain, what would be your goal?

Do I have to be a villain, does it have to be a bad goal? I think I would have pretty good goals: free alternative education for everyone, and do away with Monsanto. Maybe some people would see those as evil, but that’s the thing about villains, they believe they’re right. Nobody thinks they’re a villain. But, for me being like, “Yeah I’d do away with Monsanto, and I’d have Montessori schools for everybody, and all the food would be organic,” someone else might see that as the most villainous plan ever.

Who’s your favorite author to follow on twitter?

There are certain people who are just hilarious, and there are certain people you just grudge-follow, the people who just humblebrag a bit too much. You like to follow them for the wrong reasons. There are people who are just genuinely hilarious and relatable on social media. One of them is Danielle Evans, she’s a short story writer. She only has one book out so far, called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. She’s just really funny, on Facebook especially. There’s a writer, Jami Attenberg, who lives in New York. It’s partly that she’s really funny, and partly that she has these hilarious pictures of her pug that you kind of can’t look away from.

Do you listen to music when you write?

No. I really feel strongly about it actually. I know plenty of writers who do, I don’t judge them for it or anything, but I always advise my students not to. You need the musical part of your brain engaged with your writing. And if the musical part of your brain is busy listening to Beyoncé, or even to Bach, you’re not tuned into the rhythm of your own sentences. I know some people argue that the music helps infuse their writing with a sense of musicality, but I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think you’re borrowing the rhythms of Bach to put into your sentences, that doesn’t make any sense. I will occasionally listen to music before I write, but it’s more to recapture the mood I was in when I started writing a piece, or listen to a piece that has always meant something to me in relation to what I’m writing, but I do feel like it messes with me. Especially if there are lyrics. It’s like having someone shout in your ear; you don’t realize it, but it really is! If there are writers out there and it works for them, and they are serious, published, amazing authors, I take their word for it. When students say it works for them, I don’t believe them for a second, and I try to convince them that they’re wrong. Especially if they’re not doing well. If they’re making a lot of grammatical mistakes and the sentences aren’t flowing and I’m writing “awkward” in the margins a lot, then I say, “Hey listen, I think I know what your problem is: take the headphones off! Jay-Z is not helping you write this story.”

I know your novel in progress has a cult element: have you ever interacted with a cult or cult members in real life? Was it a preexisting interest?

I was never in a cult or anything, but I will say I had a very weird religious upbringing. My mom was ostensibly protestant, but she and my dad were also both, and still are, deeply into astrology and reincarnation. I kind of don’t want to believe that stuff, but it’s weirdly accurate. I would test her on it, and it was really, bizarrely accurate. My dad got into this, not cult, but occult religion. Occult, to some people, means Satanist, but occult just really means that there are secrets within it, and you have to get to different levels before you can learn the secrets. It’s called Anthroposophy, and he and his wife are really into that. My sister became an evangelical born-again Christian in college, and she’s 10 years older than me, so that was a big part of our household. This isn’t a religious thing, but I just like to laugh about it: my mom sent me to Amish farm camp one summer, so I was exposed to the Amish. And then, my sister started letting these Mormon missionaries into our house, and then the Mormon missionaries were coming once a week, and then we were going to a Mormon church for a month or two. I came out of it completely agnostic, like, I’m going to look at this all from the outside, I’m not in on this anymore. My sister is still really, really religious. It is a little bit of a rift between us. We still get along, but we really don’t see eye to eye on that. I also had a friend in high school who had grown up in a cult in Ohio. It was a boarding school, so when she went home she was still a part of this “group.” Actually, I did also write a story about a cult, but it totally failed. I think because it didn’t really work and I was still interested in [cults] that I felt like bringing it into my novel and seeing if I could make that interest work there.

Did you like “The Cat Poem” from All Def Poetry?

I liked it, but I didn’t think it had a lot of substance to it. I think a lot of spoken word poetry is very performative, which is great, that’s the point, but sometimes we get so into the performative aspect that we forget the person isn’t really saying anything, but it was cute.