State of the Read

About a decade ago, I worked third-shift as a communication assistant at a relay center for the deaf, which meant that I mostly got paid to read books and watch television on my girlfriend-now-wife’s laptop because with the exception of awkward live phone sex internet radio shows and pranksters singing Grease songs, the deaf don’t make a lot of late night calls. Thus, I read something like 60 books that year and was very proud.

So when I saw that I’d only read 27 books this year, I was disappointed. But I made excuses! I was finishing my last year of grad school! I had so much other reading to do! Oh yes, other reading.

Of those twenty-seven books, six I read twice for a form & technique class. One of those I read four times (Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn—51AmSd4FyZL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_probably best book I read this year.) That brings us up to 36 books.

I listened to The Martian on road trips twice, so that makes 37.

I’m a reader for New England Review and read about 20 short stories a month. That’s 240 stories at about 15 pages each which is 36000 and at an average book length (thank you, Goodreads) of 300 pages, that comes to another 12 books. 49.

Another 175 stories for Outlook Springs, (whose line-up for our first issue is looking amazing) so that’s another 8 books. 57.

An average of two stories per week for 30 weeks in workshop, each read twice. That’s another 6 books. 63.

outlook_duocoverAnd I can’t even begin to quantify the random stories I read this year, here and there, in journals and magazines I subscribe to. And hell, I took a class about The New Yorker with Nicholson Baker and read large swaths of that magazine’s history.

And my own thesis, nine stories I read at least a dozen times a piece. Should I tack on another twelve books for that?

I think, what I’m getting at, is that the feeling I had that year when I read sixty books is a feeling that I’ve strived to replicate in my life—to be surrounded and infused by literature—and that I think I’ve done, with this incalculable sea of words in which I now swim. Only now, my interruptions aren’t deaf people calling technical support in Indonesia.

Must Believe in Ghost

As I wrap up my MFA (which means a new subtitle to this blog is in order!) there have been a lot of lasts lately, like my last workshop which is this Thursday, my last day of teaching, my last Read Free or Die, the last time I’ll see people from my cohort who are going off to wherever their careers are taking them. (I have it on good authority that the place everyone goes to during the first several post-MFA months is Deep Depression, and from there, on to their careers.)

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Making words with my lips and teeth and tongue at Read Free or Die.

But there’s also some firsts which is ending my MFA years on a rather high note. As you may have seen, I was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I just found out on Tuesday that my story “Must Believe in Ghost” has been accepted for publication in The Normal Schoolwhich is a magical magazine and if you’re not reading it, you should. I met them at AWP last spring and was immediately impressed, got a subscription, and began avidly reading their fantastic work (which is beautifully designed, by the way.)

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“Must Believe in Ghost” primarily concerns the content of this photograph.


I MUST BE IN THIS!
, I said, and sent them the one story I had that I thought would really fit their aesthetic. DING! DING! DING! (See, kids, it pays to read a journal to understand its editorial inclinations and target your submissions, rather than carpet-bombing your story to everyone.)

I’ll update later when it’s out and available, or you can order a subscription now! It’s only like $12 a year. CHUMP CHANGE! Flaunt your affluence! Make it rain! Then, when April or May rolls around and I’m all getting in your grill to go buy my issue, you can be all, hey man, I’ve already been grooving on these sweet, sweet narratives!

 

Punchline Pushcart

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Literary accolades from a farmer’s market always taste fresher than store-bought.

decomP magazinE, which published my story, Punchline Number Nine, published back in February, has nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. I’ve heard writers “joke” that everyone has a Pushcart, implying that they’re meaningless, which would make a nomination eve more meaningless—a tiny pocket void filled with lint sort of off to the side in the armpit of the regular void, I guess.

A) Say that to the Pushcart people.
B) This was my first publication.
C) I’m twenty-three lightyears away from thinking of myself as a successful writer.
Therefore:
D) I’m ecstatic as all heck.

This is the appropriate facial expression of subdued excitement, correct?

This is the appropriate facial expression of subdued excitement, correct?

However, I have no idea how to behave about these things. I’m bad at accepting regular, everyday compliments. How to properly demur, show the appropriate level of both humility and excitement—that fence-balance between of-course and I-can’t-believe.

I know the chances of actually winning are pretty low, but I am proud of my little nomination. And come to think of it, the writers that joked everyone has a Pushcart didn’t have Pushcarts. Interesting.

Reading Free, Free Readings

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I made this.

Later this month, I’ll be reading at my final Read Free or Die event. This is also, almost, my favorite poster that I’ve designed since I took over that duty.

Then, next month, I’ll read from my thesis as the last act required before I am officially a Master of Fine Arts, or, as I’ve been corrected, a Mother Fucking Author.

Thesisposter_JerEmJay

I made this too,

After that, I’ll be on by own, writing without a deadline, trying to make ends meet by designing books and their covers so I don’t have to get a jobby-job, maybe teaching if I can swing a fiction gig, fingers crossed that I’ll start getting stories published, and begin work on the novel.

I’ve gotten seventeen rejections in the past month. All of them felt pretty awful, except today, I got my second tiered rejection from the New Yorker. Since they usually don’t even respond to the slush, I’m considering that a big win.

Insert pithy last line to round out this post which has ostensibly no connective tissue.

Greetings from Outlook Springs

In case I haven’t mentioned it here, I’ve donned the mantle of Interdimensional Ethnograper Fiction Editor at the freshly minted Outlook Springs. We’re a biannual literary magazine posing as a small town in another dimension, or another dimension posing as a literary magazine. We’re on a safari to catch the elusive lovechild of Welcome to Night Vale and Tin House, if you can imagine such a beast. And if you can’t, try, write a story about it, then submit it to me.

Literature for your sad, corruptible, mortal heart.

Literature for your sad, corruptible, mortal heart.

For fiction, we’re thinking along these lines:
Send us stories we can’t put down. Our emphasis is literary fiction: “the human heart in conflict with itself,” as Faulkner famously said. But we aren’t biased against genre. To the contrary! Experimental, science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, magical realism, minimalist, maximalist, etc., etc., are all welcome into our home, so long as there is an emphasis on character and language rather than on cleverness and conceit. Let us reiterate: character and language are important. We want sentences radioactive with the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly—the world as only you see it. Surprise us. Break our hearts. Humor is always a plus. Humor and heartbreak together? Oh, boy. That’s a dream come true. Outlook Springs isn’t looking for merely competent stories—stories that are technically proficient but emotionally cold. Zap us with life.

So yeah, everything from gritty realism through lambasted absurdism, as long as it’s heart is beating so loud it travels back through time and drives Edgar Allan Poe to write a creeptastic story about it.

Welcome to Outlook Springs

Welcome to Outlook Springs

We’re a biannual print magazine. We do not charge submission fees. We pay our writers. We have big plans for our little town.

Check Submittable for nonfiction and poetry guidelines. Also, you can check us out on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram. Our official website will be up soon, but you can already sign up for our newsletter. Or send us a telegram.

Redefining Normal

I’m not interested in a literary fiction versus genre argument, because that argument is basically dead and lovingly illustrated by Edan Lepucki: literary fiction is a genre with its own rules and conventions just like any other genre. The overly-long title and adultery are litfic’s version of the YA love-triangle and chosen-one narrative.

But what I do want to do is use this example to talk about cis straight white guyness. For a long time, genre was genre and literary fiction was literature. It was the sort of neutral category. Hell, it basically is. Go to a bookstore. There’s the literature section, which takes up much of the store, and mystery and scifi and whatnot have their own little sections. But it’s changing. Surely but slowly, those lines are blurring and good. And all the better that we continue to define literary fiction as its own genre.

The problem that’s been bouncing around my head lately is how that’s a great analogy for what’s going on with social justice movements and discussions of privilege. For a long, long time now, we’ve had the privilege of our society treating us a neutral, as normal. Cis, straight, white, maleness is the literary fiction of culture. We’re just literature. Everyone else has been relegated to the sides of the store.

But now, people are actually starting to have conversations (and really, have been having these conversations for a long ass time, but some of us are just finally starting to listen) about the privilege we get from not being “genre.” Just as Lepucki outlined the conventions of litfic, the conventions of cis, straight, white, maleness are starting to be defined, outlined, discussed. And so far, the results have not been pretty.

Sure, there’s been some good rib-tickles, like Stuff White People Like, and we laugh. HAHA, I *do* like camping and Moleskines! But when men as a group are discussed, suddenly we have #notallmen belittling women’s lived experiences. We get GamerGaters doxxing and sending death and rape threats to women gamers, developers, and journalists. When discussing the very real danger black people face just leaving their houses, white people have to hedge the criticism of institutional racism with #alllivesmatter.

purpose (1)There’s a part in Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions where Kilgore Trout goes into the bathroom and someone has written on the stall door, “What is the purpose of life?” And Trout writes underneath, “To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator if the Universe, you fool.” Which has always invoked to me that I should be mindful about what I’m telling the Creator of the Universe. Because we are defining ourselves and the kind of world we live in every day with every decision. Every word, every action, every stupid, insensitive tweet, defines the Universe and tells the next humans in line what kind of a culture we have here.

So when I see cis people being shitty to the non-cis or gamer dudes threatening women, or white people shitting on black people for daring to speak out about how our culture has been shitting on them, I can’t help but think, “What the fuck are you doing? What are you telling the Universe?” Really? At a time when being white, being straight, being a man, is finally being defined in and of itself, and not generally accepted as neutral or normal, this, THIS is how you’re choosing to define yourself?

Listen up: we are not neutral anymore. We don’t get the best placement in the bookstore anymore. We’re sharing with genre now, and it’s about goddamn time. We were never special except by our own often violent insistence. Culture is renovating, redefining and we can help or we can see what’s left when all is said and done. Because if we don’t start defining ourselves now, in a positive way, in a way that doesn’t reinforce the imbalanced status quo, we’ll be left with the scraps.

So If you don’t want “white” to be synonymous with “racist” then do something to stop racism and stop making excuses for it. If you don’t want “male” to be synonymous with “sexism” then stop being sexist and stop making excuses for sexism. If you don’t want “straight” to be synonymous with “homophobic”. . . then start sharing your shelf space.

Allow Me This One Cosmology

I’m a model agnostic of the Copenhagen Interpretation when it comes to most things. But when people I care about have passed, both in my life and merely those few public figures who influence me, there is one pleasant model in which I choose to indulge.

I choose to believe in a great nothing from which we come and to which we return. It stands outside of manifest creation; it is timeless and formless; a pool of pure potential from which our souls emanate and to which our souls return after our journey to Earth. These formalities of actually happening we call our lives.

Like the hero’s journey, the divine bit of us must manifest in a body, go out into the dark unknown of life, learn our lessons, capture the great boon, and return these gifts back to the nothing from which we came.

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
~ Oliver Sacks

When those I love must leave, I prefer to think of them as having returned home. And all of their warmth and love and intelligence and all the good they represented to me in this life, all of that has been reunited with the greatness that spawns the world.

So when people like Oliver Sacks pass on, I get to believe that his genius is hereon written into the fabric of the universe, that everything that comes will have the DNA of his soul woven through it.

It’s only a single model of the universe and the place of our lives in it, but it’s a comforting one that allows me to see everyone who has been lost to continue living.

If That Ending Was Feminist, I’ll Eat My Own Heart.

I’m finding myself irrationally angry about this second season of True Detective. (I’m sure there’s a True Defective or Trule(ly Bad) Detective pun lurking around here.) I absolutely adored the first season. Lovecraftian craziness plus esoteric philosophy, plus Cary Fukunaga’s beautiful cinematography? Yes, please!

But, as Velcoro might say, “This season can buttchug a hoarde of termites.”

I defended the first-season accusations of sexism because there seemed to be this overarching critique of masculinity and the possession/ownership of female bodies throughout the show. Sure, the female characters were wives or prostitutes, but there were conversations about how men try to control female bodies, and critiques of the men trying to control them. It was subtle and clever and poignant.

I thought I’d found a kindred spirit in Nic Pizzolatto.

But this season? Absolute failure. All the women are only defined by their men, be it whores or mothers. Even Bezzerides was introduced to us through sex (an unspoken kink so weird she freaked out her partner) and ends up a mother in the end. In between, she inhabited every bad detective/masculinity stereotype: hard-drinking, gambling, emotionally-unavailable. It was such poor character development that I wouldn’t be surprised that her character was male until two days before they began filming. And worse, in the first episode, her dad tells us that her entire personality is a reactionary construction against him. She’s literally not even herself. She’s anti-dad, laden with masculine clchés and then after she traumabonds, she gets turned into a mom.

A friend shared my thoughts and was insulted that she didn’t “get” how “feminist” this season was. If this season had been set in 1950, sure, it’s feminist because we let the women out of the domestic sphere. But in 2015? Every woman shouldn’t be defined by their desire (or lack there of) for sex or ability to make babies, which is ultimately what Pizzolatto did to his season two female characters. His female characters were essentially prostitutes or moms with nagging-wife syndrome.

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Jesus, Nic, you didn’t kill me, but I am fucking wounded.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the quality of a show drop off so drastically in a single season. Pizzolatto managed to shoehorn every detective cliché in this season while keeping to the douchy stereotypes of poor writing. The plot was ridiculous and convoluted. They killed the gay guy while the two straight guys sent their women-folk off to safety while they died their pointless man-deaths. Human beings behaved in ways no human beings behave. It was a nightmare with brief moments of interest. I hope to see a supercut of this season. Could probably edit this monstrosity of saddest bars in the world with overly long how-sad-am-I-alcoholism closeups and helicopter tracking shots down to a solid two hours and even that couldn’t save this show from some of the dialog Vince Vaughn must have lost a bet to have to read.

I don’t even know what to say. I feel like I had a really fantastic first date dinner with Nic Pizzolatto and when we got back to his place, he bragged about how he stiffed the waitress on the tip. Everything from the first season I thought was a clever examination of masculinity and sexism was a lie? A fluke? Was Pizzolatto just @GuyInYourMFA all along?

Shit, Nic, give me a call. I will help you with this. Step one: no one says “filth.” Step two: women are more than the potential uses of their genitals. Step three: Profit.

Sure, I’ll watch season three, if Pizzolatto gets one, but it will be like my approach to most of season two: patiently waiting for it to subvert my expectations, but ultimately, watching only out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. That, and plain trainwreck rubbernecking.

Man, I need a drink.

I Smell Cigar Smoke

Hey kids,

This is the close-but-no-cigar, always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride post.

I’ve gotten really nice personal rejections from places like ZYZZYVA and I just received a tiered rejection from The New Yorker, which I was overjoyed about when one considers that they don’t even respond to something like 70-80% of their slushpile submissions. I’ve been a semi-finalist for three major contests. Slowly, my publication and accolade list is less and less resembling the wastelands outside Night Vale.

Of course, this is balanced against the dozens of nearly wordless form rejections. But nevermind those. They’re not the ones that throw me off my game.

Emily Hahn smoking a cigar in 1964.

Emily Hahn smoking a cigar in 1964.

It’s the almosts. It’s the 300+ day rejections that made it through three reads and onto the final editor’s desk. It’s those yellow envelopes and emails that come with a hint of cigar smoke and no cigar.

I know it shouldn’t matter, that those should be the ones that make me think, YES, I’ve got this, and push harder. But they’re not. They’re the ones that make me think that maybe I’m not actually good enough at all.

I think of it as smart kid syndrome. You can coast for a really long time with minimal work by just being smart. Writing is the first thing that I’ve really applied myself to long after it stopped being easy, long after I had to put in actual work to be good. And for that effort to feel wasted, to still not be good enough, that’s the hammer.

The best description of writer’s block I’ve ever heard came from Dan Harmon who said all it is is the gap between how good you are and how good you want to be and the only way to bridge that gap is to prove yourself right. You’re a shit writer and you’ll never be amazing. Prove it. Write shitty. Because writing shitty is the only way you get to where you want to be.

And I have to remind myself of that every time one of those close calls come rolling in. Because they’re the reminder of that gap, of how much more work I need to put in to build that bridge. Because no one’s wandering around handing out cigars. You have to make those fuckers by hand out in the hot sun.

So hey, let’s get rolling.

Occult Means Hidden

In a discussion about “selling out” versus “remaining true” in art, I questioned the very idea of selling out. I don’t know what that means. Not really.

Implied in those words is the idea that by monetizing your art, you’re somehow polluting it, diluting it, lessening it somehow.

But this is capitalism! We live in this system. We may not like the game, but as the old joke goes, it’s the only game in town.

So I half-jokingly suggested that there’s no secret society harboring “true” yet commercially unsuccessful works of art. There’s no Knights Templar or Freemasons of writing unpolluted by the poison of marketing.

But what if there is? And what does that writing look like? What is the difference between what people want versus what they’ll pay for?

11255170_1430153200638984_1878013264_nIs truth any less truthy if it also makes a buck and allows its author to buy food and shelter and smart phones? Is the Venn diagram of true art and commercial art to separate circles or is there an overlap?

I can already see people gearing up their arguments, something about how this is why genre writers make more money than literary writers and so forth. About who the gatekeepers are, who decides what’s good art and what’s commercially viable art. About the Literati and the Illiterati.

These are dumb questions. These are procrastination questions.

I should get back to work.