Read Her Like an Open Book returns from the Year of Living Stressfully

 

Hello book-loving friends. I’m glad you’re still here.

You may have noticed that Read Her Like an Open Book was much less active for the past year or so, with only intermittent posts. My blog was quiet because my life was not. I changed careers and was busy getting my freelance writing-and-editing business, Argus Editorial Services, on its feet. I was also developing a photography sideline, Inner Light Photography. Both my mother and my mother-in-law experienced health issues due to advancing age. (My 87-year-old mother passed away in January.)

And, frankly, I was suffering from a condition that began in 2016 and developed into a disorder in 2017. You may know it as Post-Trump Stress Disorder. As a news junkie, former high school Journalism teacher, and even more former attorney, I simply could not ignore what was taking place. But my preoccupation with keeping up with the daily drama (and trauma) took a toll on this blog, which I regret.

I decided last month that, with its five-year anniversary approaching in June, I would revive this blog, which means so much to me and has more supporters than I thought. I’m happy to report that when I approached several dozen writers about contributing to my weekly guest author feature, they responded with enthusiasm and many encouraging words. So far, I have received firm or tentative commitments to participate from over 40 authors.

In the coming months, you’ll read essays, interviews, and reviews by the following  writers: Robin Black (whose previous essay is the most-read post in the history of this blog), Chantel Acevedo, Karen Bender, Jessica Anya Blau (who will be interviewing Jane Delury), Michelle Brafman (interviewing Mary Morris), Gayle Brandeis, Siobhan Fallon, Wendy J. Fox, Stephanie Gangi, Lauren Grodstein, Yi Shun Lai, Krys Lee, Karin Lin-Greenberg, Margaret Malone, Marian PalaiaJodi Paloni, Keija ParssinenElizabeth Poliner, Anne Raeff, Elizabeth RosnerGina Sorell, Rene Steinke, Amanda SternThrity Umrigar, Ellen Urbani, and Mary Kay Zuravleff.

We’ll start tomorrow with a wonderful essay by Bernadette Murphy about reclaiming your life by overcoming your fears. Watch for a new guest author post every Tuesday.

You can also follow the social media accounts connected to this blog: there’s a Facebook page and a Twitter account, which is personal but mostly limited to book-related tweets. And I would certainly appreciate your sharing the word about this blog if you are so inclined.

This blog has always been an expression of my literary activism and feminism. My goal, as always, is to bring more attention to all the great literary fiction and memoirs by women writers. (And to encourage more men to read fiction, especially literary fiction, and even more especially by women authors.)

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Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on the role of patience in publishing

Faulty Predictions  KLG

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review, posted on September 26, is here.)

In this essay, written for Read Her Like an Open Book, Lin-Greenberg considers the need for patience and persistence in publishing in light of our increasingly impatient culture.

I: Patience, a History

Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and the free items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.

There was a book that was extremely popular in my elementary school’s library, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and everyone in my third grade class would wait for weeks for their turn to check it out. The library had two copies, the spines on each book reinforced with tape, the edges of the pages rounded from so many readings.

Speaking of the library, there was a section labeled “For Sixth Graders Only,” which contained books with “mature” topics. We would have to wait until our elementary school educations were nearly over before we could even touch those books. Each time I entered or exited the library, I stared at those shelves, thinking of how much longer it would be before I was allowed to read the books. Some of the books I remember residing there were Forever by Judy Blume and The Long Secret (the sequel to Harriet the Spy), and my friends and I spent a lot of time whispering about what might be in those books. (Incidentally, I must say that those gods and goddesses from the Greek myths I was reading in third grade were up to more trouble than most of the characters in the “For Sixth Graders Only” books.)

During junior high, one of my parents would drive me to the Hollywood Video store up the street from our house on some weekend evenings. I’d always go right to the shelf of new release VHS tapes, and more often than not, the movie I wanted was checked out. So I would walk through the comedy section, pick an older movie to watch, and come back the next week and hope the video I wanted was on the shelf. Sometimes it would take a month before the video I wanted was actually available.

I could go on and on about what I waited for during my childhood, but I’ll just give one more example. For my birthday one year, I got a rock tumbler. I plugged it into an outlet in the bathroom and let it run continuously for six weeks. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom and watch the barrel rotate, listen to the rocks clank as they fell to the bottom of the tumbler. Every week or two I’d stop the machine, wash the rocks off, and pour in a finer grade of abrasive grit. The rocks got smoother and smoother, until, during the last week, I poured polishing grit into the tumbler with the rocks, and finally, what emerged six weeks after I started were rocks that were shiny and beautiful.

II: Patience, Revisited

And now? Well, if you want a video, you can likely stream it. If you want a book that’s checked out of the library, you can download it to a device. If you want to know what’s so scandalous about a book you’re not supposed to read, you can Google a synopsis. I am willfully refusing to look up rock tumblers. I don’t want to know that there’s some special chemical that can now polish rocks overnight. I hope there’s not. I hope there are still things that people have to wait for.

III: Waiting

When I began to submit work to literary journals when I was in my mid-twenties, I was unfazed about the long wait times between my submissions and the responses I’d get from editors. After all, I’d been the kid who was delighted when, after waiting for two months, I got a bumper sticker in the mail with the logo of an orange juice company printed on it. I don’t like getting my stories rejected, but I do like getting responses to work I’ve sent out in the world. I have now been submitting work to journals for twelve years, and I’ve gotten used to the slow influx of rejections, some of them coming six, seven, eight months after I’ve submitted. I don’t feel impatient waiting for them; it’s just part of how things work. And once in a while there’s an acceptance, which is certainly something worth waiting for.

Last semester, I talked to the students in my Writing Short Fiction class about submitting work to literary journals. I showed them a packet I’d put together of rejections I’d gotten over the years. Then I pulled up my Submittable account on the screen at the front of the classroom to show them how electronic submissions to journals work. I pointed at the dates when I’d submitted my stories and said that for some of them I’d been waiting almost a year to hear back.

“If you wait for a long time, are they more likely to say yes?” asked one student.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Sometimes it just takes that long for them to get through the work that’s been submitted.”

“But now you have a book coming out,” said another student, “so that means that these submissions listed up on the screen, they’ll all get accepted, right?”

“Oh,” I said, “no. Not at all. I still get rejected all the time.”

My students looked surprised. Or sort of surprised, but mostly sad. I imagined they were thinking how strange and unfair publishing was. Not only do people get rejected regularly, but you have to wait a long time to get this news. How terrible.

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

Several weeks ago I accompanied two student editors of my college’s literary journal to a conference for editors of undergraduate literary journals. For two days, I was in a room full of ambitious young people who cared deeply about reading and writing and wanted to edit the best literary journals they could. One student editor, a freshman at an Ivy League university, gave a presentation about the pressure of publishing. She talked about attending a prestigious summer writing workshop for high school students when she was sixteen. One evening a few of the students were sitting on the lawn outside a building on campus where a famous literary journal was edited. The other students—all of them still in high school—were competitively comparing where they’d been published. They were boasting about their contest wins. The young woman felt miserable and dejected because she hadn’t been published yet. She felt so far behind her peers. When she returned home from the workshop, she started entering contests and didn’t win. She felt like a failure.

Oh my god, I thought. I wanted to leap up on top of a table and scream that someone who’s sixteen has all the time in the world. They don’t need to worry about getting published. They don’t need to stress out about contests. Sure, enter contests if you want, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t win. It’s a cliché, but you win some, you lose some. That’s how life works.

But I also understand that it’s not how life works for some kids. Some kids have only known success. And, hey, that’s great, but if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to get pretty familiar with rejection. Even if your work is good, you will inevitably get turned down at some point. While I listened to this young woman speak, I realized that the current epidemic of impatience wasn’t just confined to people not wanting to wait for individual rejections. It also involved people thinking that if they didn’t publish—and maybe if they didn’t get a book contract—before they were out of their teens, they had failed at being a writer.

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with.

So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

Many of my students have asked me how my life has changed since my book was published. “Not much,” I tell them, and they always look disappointed. “I mean,” I say, “it’s a good thing to have work out in the world. But it’s not like winning an Oscar. It’s not like overnight my life has completely changed.”

But here’s one thing that has changed: people have been asking me how they can get published. No one asked me this before my book came out. And, well, I don’t have a secret formula. I submitted, I waited, I revised. I kept working. I took old stories out of the collection and replaced them with new ones each year. I submitted individual stories to journals and the collection to contests. I entered dozens of contests for seven years.

People have come up to me after I’ve done readings and asked for my advice about publishing. I’ve had adults do this, and I’ve had college students do it. I ask if they are taking classes and what they’ve been writing. Most of the time, people aren’t writing much but they have fantasies of being a writer. One man had a penname picked out already. One student—a biology major—said he’d never actually written a story before, but he thought it would be really cool to get some fiction published.

I try to be encouraging and direct people to resources like The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers magazine. If they are students, I encourage them to take writing classes. (I’ve also been told, however, “I don’t have time to take writing classes, but that’s okay because I already know how to write.”) As I’ve talked to more people who want to be published, this is what I’ve learned: a lot of people want to be published, but they don’t want to put in the work to get published. They don’t want to be patient, to work on their craft for years, and then to wait months for responses to their work. They just want to be published and they want it to happen quickly. And here’s the problem (and I apologize in advance for sounding like a curmudgeon): now anyone can be published. I’m talking Facebook, personal blogs, Twitter. These forums are great in many ways, but they also give people instant gratification. Post a photo of your cat on Facebook and within minutes you can get dozens of “likes.” Publish a piece in a print journal and you’re lucky if you even hear from one reader who enjoyed your story.

When I’m dealing with strangers who ask for publishing advice, I just stay positive, encouraging, but when I’m talking to my own students, I can be a little tougher. This is what I tell them: I think the first questions, the questions that should come before “How can I get published?” are “How can I get as good as I can possibly get as a writer?” and “How can I learn more?” I tell them not to worry too much about publishing yet; publishing is the very last step, and in some ways it’s the least important. Getting better is the most important. It’s certainly what I care about with my own writing. I think if I only cared about publishing I’d have given up by now because of all the rejections over the years. But getting better, well, that’s something I can do on my own, something I can keep working on. I can keep studying published stories and novels I admire, I can keep revising and editing my own work, keep pushing myself to do better.

VI: Tumble On

So some final words of advice about publishing: Be patient and be persistent. Keep working on your stories until they’re as strong as you can make them before you send them out. Don’t worry if you’re turning seventeen or twenty-seven or eighty-seven and you haven’t published yet. Let’s go back to the rock tumbler. Let’s turn it into a metaphor. Think of your stories as those rocks that go into the tumbler. They’re dull and dirty when they start, but give them time and steady attention and what happens? They go from rocks to gems. Don’t send your writing out until you’ve worked on it over and over again, scraping away what’s not working, polishing every sentence. Be patient, give yourself all the time you need, and don’t send your work out until it shines.

Karin Lin-Greenberg, 2014 winner of Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, on Patience and Publishing

WIN A SIGNED COPY OF FAULTY PREDICTIONS! Leave a comment after Karin’s post AND then copy the text directly below and share it on Facebook or Twitter. That’s it, you’re entered. The winner will be randomly selected on December 10.

“Win a signed 1st ed of FAULTY PREDICTIONS by Karin Lin-Greenberg (Flannery O’Connor Award winner) http://wp.me/p3EtWm-pz via @Austraphile”

Karin Lin-Greenberg in classroom  Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review, posted on September 26, is here.)

In this essay, written for Read Her Like an Open Book, Lin-Greenberg considers the need for patience and persistence in publishing in light of our increasingly impatient culture.

I: Patience, a History

Much of my childhood seemed to be about waiting. I owned a book called Free Stuff for Kids, and on each page there was information about something—a bumper sticker, a button, a poster—that kids could send away for and get for free in the mail. Corporations usually sponsored these free things, and the free items advertised their products. I didn’t mind the advertisements. I just thought it was fun to write a letter requesting a free button and then, six to eight weeks later, find a button declaring I loved a certain brand of cereal in a padded envelope in my mailbox.

There was a book that was extremely popular in my elementary school’s library, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and everyone in my third grade class would wait for weeks for their turn to check it out. The library had two copies, the spines on each book reinforced with tape, the edges of the pages rounded from so many readings.

Speaking of the library, there was a section labeled “For Sixth Graders Only,” which contained books with “mature” topics. We would have to wait until our elementary school educations were nearly over before we could even touch those books. Each time I entered or exited the library, I stared at those shelves, thinking of how much longer it would be before I was allowed to read the books. Some of the books I remember residing there were Forever by Judy Blume and The Long Secret (the sequel to Harriet the Spy), and my friends and I spent a lot of time whispering about what might be in those books. (Incidentally, I must say that those gods and goddesses from the Greek myths I was reading in third grade were up to more trouble than most of the characters in the “For Sixth Graders Only” books.)

During junior high, one of my parents would drive me to the Hollywood Video store up the street from our house on some weekend evenings. I’d always go right to the shelf of new release VHS tapes, and more often than not, the movie I wanted was checked out. So I would walk through the comedy section, pick an older movie to watch, and come back the next week and hope the video I wanted was on the shelf. Sometimes it would take a month before the video I wanted was actually available.

I could go on and on about what I waited for during my childhood, but I’ll just give one more example. For my birthday one year, I got a rock tumbler. I plugged it into an outlet in the bathroom and let it run continuously for six weeks. Sometimes I would go into the bathroom and watch the barrel rotate, listen to the rocks clank as they fell to the bottom of the tumbler. Every week or two I’d stop the machine, wash the rocks off, and pour in a finer grade of abrasive grit. The rocks got smoother and smoother, until, during the last week, I poured polishing grit into the tumbler with the rocks, and finally, what emerged six weeks after I started were rocks that were shiny and beautiful.

II: Patience, Revisited

And now? Well, if you want a video, you can likely stream it. If you want a book that’s checked out of the library, you can download it to a device. If you want to know what’s so scandalous about a book you’re not supposed to read, you can Google a synopsis. I am willfully refusing to look up rock tumblers. I don’t want to know that there’s some special chemical that can now polish rocks overnight. I hope there’s not. I hope there are still things that people have to wait for.

III: Waiting

When I began to submit work to literary journals when I was in my mid-twenties, I was unfazed about the long wait times between my submissions and the responses I’d get from editors. After all, I’d been the kid who was delighted when, after waiting for two months, I got a bumper sticker in the mail with the logo of an orange juice company printed on it. I don’t like getting my stories rejected, but I do like getting responses to work I’ve sent out in the world. I have now been submitting work to journals for twelve years, and I’ve gotten used to the slow influx of rejections, some of them coming six, seven, eight months after I’ve submitted. I don’t feel impatient waiting for them; it’s just part of how things work. And once in a while there’s an acceptance, which is certainly something worth waiting for.

Last semester, I talked to the students in my Writing Short Fiction class about submitting work to literary journals. I showed them a packet I’d put together of rejections I’d gotten over the years. Then I pulled up my Submittable account on the screen at the front of the classroom to show them how electronic submissions to journals work. I pointed at the dates when I’d submitted my stories and said that for some of them I’d been waiting almost a year to hear back.

“If you wait for a long time, are they more likely to say yes?” asked one student.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “Sometimes it just takes that long for them to get through the work that’s been submitted.”

“But now you have a book coming out,” said another student, “so that means that these submissions listed up on the screen, they’ll all get accepted, right?”

“Oh,” I said, “no. Not at all. I still get rejected all the time.”

My students looked surprised. Or sort of surprised, but mostly sad. I imagined they were thinking how strange and unfair publishing was. Not only do people get rejected regularly, but you have to wait a long time to get this news. How terrible.

IV: The Kids Are Not Alright

Several weeks ago I accompanied two student editors of my college’s literary journal to a conference for editors of undergraduate literary journals. For two days, I was in a room full of ambitious young people who cared deeply about reading and writing and wanted to edit the best literary journals they could. One student editor, a freshman at an Ivy League university, gave a presentation about the pressure of publishing. She talked about attending a prestigious summer writing workshop for high school students when she was sixteen. One evening a few of the students were sitting on the lawn outside a building on campus where a famous literary journal was edited. The other students—all of them still in high school—were competitively comparing where they’d been published. They were boasting about their contest wins. The young woman felt miserable and dejected because she hadn’t been published yet. She felt so far behind her peers. When she returned home from the workshop, she started entering contests and didn’t win. She felt like a failure.

Oh my god, I thought. I wanted to leap up on top of a table and scream that someone who’s sixteen has all the time in the world. They don’t need to worry about getting published. They don’t need to stress out about contests. Sure, enter contests if you want, but don’t kick yourself if you don’t win. It’s a cliché, but you win some, you lose some. That’s how life works.

But I also understand that it’s not how life works for some kids. Some kids have only known success. And, hey, that’s great, but if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to get pretty familiar with rejection. Even if your work is good, you will inevitably get turned down at some point. While I listened to this young woman speak, I realized that the current epidemic of impatience wasn’t just confined to people not wanting to wait for individual rejections. It also involved people thinking that if they didn’t publish—and maybe if they didn’t get a book contract—before they were out of their teens, they had failed at being a writer.

The Internet has made us impatient by bringing instant gratification to our daily lives, and I think it’s also caused problems with making people too informed about some things. When I was in high school, I didn’t know what literary journals were. I didn’t even know what they were in college. The first time I encountered one was in graduate school, where there were a couple Glimmer Trains on a table in the graduate English office. I picked up one of the journals while I was waiting to register for a class, and then it clicked that stories are published in journals before they are republished in story collections and the yearly best-of anthologies that I was familiar with. So, okay, I was exceptionally naïve about publishing for a long time, but I think knowing too much can cause trouble. Because of the Internet, young people today know all about journals and contests and submitting work. They know who else their age is getting published. Publishing can become competitive, a race. And it’s not a race. Sometimes it takes a long time before work is ready. I’d be pretty embarrassed if the stories I wrote when I was sixteen were available for anyone to read on the Internet. When I was sixteen, I loved writing, but I still had an incredible amount to learn, and I’m so glad I didn’t feel pressure to publish. I’m grateful I had many years in which to write and learn and explore and grow, and I didn’t have to worry about proving myself with publication. I’m glad I didn’t even think about publication throughout high school and college. This is not to say that someone who is sixteen shouldn’t be published. I’m just saying it’s not a race, and there’s no banner at the finish line that says, “If you are old enough to vote and don’t have a book out yet, you’re a loser.”

V: But How Can I Get Published?

Many of my students have asked me how my life has changed since my book was published. “Not much,” I tell them, and they always look disappointed. “I mean,” I say, “it’s a good thing to have work out in the world. But it’s not like winning an Oscar. It’s not like overnight my life has completely changed.”

But here’s one thing that has changed: people have been asking me how they can get published. No one asked me this before my book came out. And, well, I don’t have a secret formula. I submitted, I waited, I revised. I kept working. I took old stories out of the collection and replaced them with new ones each year. I submitted individual stories to journals and the collection to contests. I entered dozens of contests for seven years.

People have come up to me after I’ve done readings and asked for my advice about publishing. I’ve had adults do this, and I’ve had college students do it. I ask if they are taking classes and what they’ve been writing. Most of the time, people aren’t writing much but they have fantasies of being a writer. One man had a penname picked out already. One student—a biology major—said he’d never actually written a story before, but he thought it would be really cool to get some fiction published.

I try to be encouraging and direct people to resources like The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers magazine. If they are students, I encourage them to take writing classes. (I’ve also been told, however, “I don’t have time to take writing classes, but that’s okay because I already know how to write.”) As I’ve talked to more people who want to be published, this is what I’ve learned: a lot of people want to be published, but they don’t want to put in the work to get published. They don’t want to be patient, to work on their craft for years, and then to wait months for responses to their work. They just want to be published and they want it to happen quickly. And here’s the problem (and I apologize in advance for sounding like a curmudgeon): now anyone can be published. I’m talking Facebook, personal blogs, Twitter. These forums are great in many ways, but they also give people instant gratification. Post a photo of your cat on Facebook and within minutes you can get dozens of “likes.” Publish a piece in a print journal and you’re lucky if you even hear from one reader who enjoyed your story.

When I’m dealing with strangers who ask for publishing advice, I just stay positive, encouraging, but when I’m talking to my own students, I can be a little tougher. This is what I tell them: I think the first questions, the questions that should come before “How can I get published?” are “How can I get as good as I can possibly get as a writer?” and “How can I learn more?” I tell them not to worry too much about publishing yet; publishing is the very last step, and in some ways it’s the least important. Getting better is the most important. It’s certainly what I care about with my own writing. I think if I only cared about publishing I’d have given up by now because of all the rejections over the years. But getting better, well, that’s something I can do on my own, something I can keep working on. I can keep studying published stories and novels I admire, I can keep revising and editing my own work, keep pushing myself to do better.

VI: Tumble On

So some final words of advice about publishing: Be patient and be persistent. Keep working on your stories until they’re as strong as you can make them before you send them out. Don’t worry if you’re turning seventeen or twenty-seven or eighty-seven and you haven’t published yet. Let’s go back to the rock tumbler. Let’s turn it into a metaphor. Think of your stories as those rocks that go into the tumbler. They’re dull and dirty when they start, but give them time and steady attention and what happens? They go from rocks to gems. Don’t send your writing out until you’ve worked on it over and over again, scraping away what’s not working, polishing every sentence. Be patient, give yourself all the time you need, and don’t send your work out until it shines.

Photo at top left courtesy of Siena College.

Guest blogger Monica McFawn on storytelling: “Why I Don’t Write Them Down”

M-McFawn  Bright Shards of Someplace Else

Monica McFawn won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Karin Lin-Greenberg, whose book I reviewed recently). Her debut short story collection, Bright Shards of Someplace Else, was published by University of Georgia Press on September 15 to enthusiastic reviews from the likes of NPR, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly. McFawn’s fiction has appeared in the Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review,Web Conjunctions, Missouri Review and other publications. She teaches writing at Grand Valley State University outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. My review of Bright Shards of Someplace Else is forthcoming. 

 

“You should write that down!”

I’ve heard this for years.  I might be sitting with a group of acquaintances, empty wine bottles and plates on the table.  I might be in a car with a friend, talking to pass the time.  I might be at work, at night, regaling a coworker with a story that extends past the hour when we both should be getting in our cars and heading home. It’s a compliment, I know, so I always smile while simultaneously shaking my head. Despite the fact that I’m a writer, the majority of stories I’ve told won’t be committed to paper.   It isn’t because I think the stories aren’t good enough.   In fact, some of the stories I tell are polished to a sheen, any crude transitions or slow spots worn away by years of telling, of watching listeners’ faces.  Still, I believe the fact that I don’t write them down has paradoxically helped me become a better writer.

Long before I had the notion to be a writer, I was a storyteller.  I grew up in a household where both my parents told stories, and monologues, rather than dialogues, were the primary form of interaction.   As I kid, I was bullied because of my crossed eye (“maybe if we hit her in the back of the head we can knock it straight” was one memorable taunt) but I believed that I was being mistreated simply because they didn’t really know me. The problem was, as I saw it, that they had never heard me tell a story. As I walked through the halls, I practiced stories I might tell, stories that would make it clear that I was far too self-aware, ironic, and subversive to ever be the target of a bully.    A story, I thought, was a perfect, round package of my selfhood, far better than one side of a conversation, which was so easy to misconstrue.

I still see stories as a shortcut to understanding, a better method for learning about someone than the shapeless one-offs that back-and-forth conversations demand.  Why not just tell a story, and hear a story back? At any one moment, I have two or three stories in heavy rotation for just this purpose, with a few others that are semi-retired, though the right circumstance will bring them bubbling forth.  One of my favorite stories dates from 2008, and I’ve been worried, as I’ve gotten older, that perhaps 2008 marked the last time my life was colorful enough to produce a story.  I’ve known adults who’ve only told stories from their youth, as if they only persisted into adulthood to serve as a living record of their glory days.   But fortunately, 2013 was a good year for stories, so I have a few fresh ones to trot out.     People find these stories amusing, shocking, or strange, but no matter how strong the reaction, I never commit them to paper.

One of the main reasons is that I don’t want to lock a story down in one form.    Even the phrase “write it down,” seems to imply that the stories must be dragged down from the ether and pinned to the page.  The stories, in their mutable, airy form, maintain their dynamism.  I never know, exactly, how I will tell that same story to any given audience.  There are short versions of each story and long, minutely detailed versions.  There are versions that emphasize my bumblings and those that emphasize my cunning.   Each time I tell a story, I refine the delivery and tighten the structure.  The story—what actually happens—is the only thing that doesn’t change.  But by telling the same story over and over, I’m able to see the myriad possibilities in any story, the way the plot dictates so little of what the story actually is.  As a fiction writer, this has been a useful lesson, since the “idea” of a story is so secondary to the tone and richness with which it is told.

Whenever I tell a story, I launch into it with great enthusiasm, even though I’ve told it before.   I’m an old magician who has somehow retained the ability to be dazzled by my own tricks.  I have to be dazzled, or I won’t tell the story well. I can’t fake it, so somehow, as I’m telling it, I have to tap into whatever was compelling, strange, or moving about the original experience, no matter how long ago that was.  This ability to draw from the same well over and over has been one of the most useful things for my writing.  Often, when I’m beginning a short story, I’m exhilarated by my concept and ideas.  But after weeks or months of struggling with the writing, I begin to doubt my idea, and the whole story seems stale, dry, and not worth telling.  At that moment, I imagine that this story—the one I’m writing—is the only one I’m able to tell, and someone is waiting for me to tell it—someone I need to charm.  I force myself to find the place where it still sparkles, and I begin writing again with new courage.

After all this talk about stories, I think I need to tell one, one that I never planned on writing down. It’s short and seemingly insubstantial, but it has stayed with me for years.   It goes like this:  I’m an undergraduate student, taking an Anthropology class in a large lecture hall.  I flopped down in my seat one day to see the professor is different from normal. Rather than a woman with crimped blond hair, it’s a shorter, dark haired professor.  A sub, I figured.  The lecture was already in full swing when I entered class, and I found myself struggling to make sense of it.   The woman kept going on about rocks.

Sediment this, limestone that, what was the point of this? Probably these rocks were made into spearheads for some tribe or something. I let my mind drift, as it often did, until it was time for break.  The professor was handing back tests during this time, and everyone got their test back but me.  I marched up to the professor and demanded my test.  She asked my name and scanned the roster.  “You’re not on my roster,” she said.  “Well, I’m in this class alright.  So someone made a mistake.”  I leave her to fix it, mumbling to myself as I sat back down.  Sheesh, what a disorganized sub.  The professor resumed her lecture, still talking about damn rocks. I looked up at the clock, hoping we’d be let out soon.  I felt a sudden vertigo.  The clock was on the wrong wall!  Normally it was on the right, now it was on the left.

In a flash, it occurred to me that I might be in the wrong class.  I turned to the student next me and asked if this was Anthropology 105.  “This is Geology 305,” the student responded, side-eyeing me with haughty disgust.   The different professor, the lack of being on the roster, the subject matter—none of this had tipped me off.  After over an hour in the wrong class, only the clock struck me as wrong.

Why do I tell this story?  I think its because I love all the ways I rationalized what was different, how I tried to make the rock-loving brown-haired professor fold into my scheme of normality.   There was something strenuous about my justifications, yet at the same time I was too lazy and inattentive to see the obvious.  I also love the point in the story where I turn to the student next to me.  At that moment, when I saw the clock on the wrong side, my whole sense of reality tipped.  My familiar Anthropology class had become someplace foreign and strange, and when I turned and asked the student what class I was in, I was also sharing what felt to me like a shocking epiphany.  But the student was bored, blasé, annoyed—I was just some confused underclassman.

That disconnect between what I was feeling and how it was received seemed to me both hilarious and profound: isn’t that how it always is? Many of the characters in my fiction experience this same disconnect of perception, so perhaps it was a good thing that I told this story so many times, turning over that same absurd, poignant moment again and again.   Now that I’ve written it down, though, I will have to find a new moment like this in my life, something sparkling, like a piece of quartz, I can carry with me and share.

2013 Flannery O’Connor Award winner Karin Lin-Greenberg on her FAULTY PREDICTIONS

KLG Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review of September 26 is here.)

Tell me about the Flannery O’Connor Award application and selection process and how it led to the publication of this collection.

The Flannery O’Connor Award is sponsored by the University of Georgia Press and each year two winners are selected and their books are published the next year. All the collections submitted are first sent to four or five preliminary judges, who each read their batch and then pass on a certain number (I believe about ten manuscripts) to the series editor, Nancy Zafris. Then Nancy chooses two collections from the collections given to her by the preliminary judges. Once my collection was chosen, I worked with Nancy on revisions to the stories and then worked with a copy editor on smaller issues. Finally, I was able to give some input into the cover and design.

I love the wide range of characters in your stories: high school students (“Editorial Decisions” and “Half and Half Club”), college professors (“The Local Scrooge”), two Chinese immigrant women engaged in a power struggle (“Prized Possessions”), a bus driver coping with drunk and disorderly college students on Halloween (“Designated Driver”), an emotionally distant brother reluctantly helping his sister find a bridal gown during the annual Running of the Brides sale at Filene’s Basement (“A Good Brother”), a pair of senior citizen housemates on a crime-stopping mission inspired by one’s psychic messages (“Faulty Predictions”). What inspires or comes to you first in your stories, an idea about a particular character, a specific conflict, or a theme you want to explore?

Each story happens differently for me, but one element I never start with is theme. I believe themes emerge, especially in revisions, but I think it’s dangerous to start out a story intending to write about a certain theme. I tell my students to let the literature folks think about theme and for the creative writers to worry about telling a compelling story.

Sometimes I start with conflict. For example, for “A Good Brother,” I was reading an article about the Running of the Brides, and I thought, “Who would be really pissed off by this?” And then I came up with the character of an uptight brother that has to take his sister shopping for wedding dresses. And not only does he have to go shopping for wedding dresses, but he has to be in the middle of all this chaos and has to miss a golf outing for this event. Once I came up with the protagonist who’d be disturbed by this event, the conflicts kept unfolding.

I asked the same “Who would this really piss off?” question when I wrote “The Local Scrooge.” For three years I lived in Ohio and would sometimes go to an ice cream place called Jeni’s in Columbus. They have this menu in brightly colored chalk on huge chalkboards with all of these unique ice cream flavors (like goat cheese with fig and wildberry lavender) that I found exciting, but I started to think about a type of character who would find these kinds of flavors exasperating. Then I started thinking about what else would bother this character, and I realized that complicated drinks in coffee shops would drive him crazy. And then, thinking about coffee shops and ice cream shops, I knew that this character would abhor tip jars, and I started to ponder what sort of character could be so enraged about tip jars that he’d—very inappropriately—bring one to his job. I came up with a college professor demanding tips from his students. So one thing just kind of leads to another oftentimes as stories unfold for me, but stories can really start anywhere or with any sort of spark.

You have so much empathy for these wonderfully eccentric and very human characters. How do you get inside these people and decide how to present their flawed attempts to fix themselves, others, and/or the circumstances they find themselves in?

I think fiction can really teach us—as both readers and writers—empathy. I’m most interested in characters who are flawed and might make bad decisions, but whose motivations we understand. I love being able to inhabit characters’ minds, which is why I generally stay away from the objective point of view. I think the big question I ask when writing is “Why is this character this way?” For example, the grandmother in “Prized Possessions” is judgmental and critical, but ultimately, as her backstory is revealed, I hope readers come to understand that she just wants to be appreciated by her family and to have an important role in the lives of her grandchildren.

How did you choose the title story? Is it the central story thematically, your favorite story, or just a good umbrella label for the collection? (“Prized Possessions” and “Half and Half Club” also seem like they would have been appropriate titles.)

I looked at the list of all the titles of the stories in the collection, and there were some that could just be crossed out as the title of the entire collection because of either their vagueness or specificity (“Bread,” “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” “Late Night With Brad Mack”). I contemplated the titles that were left and decided that “Faulty Predictions” applied to all the stories. I think all the characters believe their lives or relationships are going to progress in a certain way, and something happens in each of the stories to contradict these “predictions.”

I noticed in the Acknowledgements that three stories (“Late Night with Brad Mack,” “Half and Half Club,” and the title story) have not been previously published. Are these your most recent stories? If so, do they reflect any particular/current preoccupations and/or approach?

Yes, those were three most recently written stories. I tried to get them published before the book went to press, but I just wasn’t able to with the time constraint. I wrote all three of the stories when I was teaching during the 2011-2012 academic year at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Boone is a fairly isolated town in the mountains of western North Carolina.

The second semester I was at App State, the poet Toi Derricotte visited and gave a reading, and she read a poem based on an experience she’d had as a young woman on a train. There was a character in the poem who didn’t realize that Derricotte was black and made a disparaging comment to her about another black passenger on the train. She spoke about how some people are in the position of always being aware of race, while others don’t ever think about race at all or believe they can be flippant about it.

After she read the poem, Derricotte asked the audience how many people thought about race on a daily basis. She asked for a show of hands. About three or four people in a room of maybe sixty students raised their hands. The raised hands belonged to the few students of color that were in attendance. I realized then that I’d been thinking about race a lot more in Boone than I ever had before.

Boone was probably the least racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived in some small towns and places that weren’t very diverse, but I’ve worked at colleges and universities that were able to draw somewhat diverse faculty and students. But the faculty, students, and non-university people who lived in and around Boone were almost all white.

I’m half Chinese and half Jewish and I’m pretty sure there was no one else in Boone like me. So I set “Faulty Predictions” in Boone and created a character who hasn’t known anything but this fairly homogenous town. She has a granddaughter who’s mixed race, and she wants to connect with this girl but can’t allow herself to. This woman is clearly a racist, but I also wanted to show that she is a product of her environment and living in an isolated place and not being exposed to people unlike her has, in a way, ruined her.

I wrote “Half and Half Club” right after I wrote “Faulty Predictions,” and that story is also concerned with race, once again in an environment where there isn’t much diversity. So, yes, I definitely see connections between these two stories. “Half and Half Club” is also one of the longest stories I’ve ever written, and I think I was writing toward a novel; lately I’ve been wanting to tell larger tales than a short story can contain.

How did you and your editor decide which of your stories to include in Faulty Predictions? I see from your website’s list of stories that you have many others.

The stories in the collection are the stories I’d submitted originally. Nothing was swapped out. Nancy Zafris and I worked on the order a bit. The first and last stories stayed where they were, but we shuffled everything else around, trying to make sure stories that were similar (in terms of characters or point of view or types of endings) weren’t right next to each other.

Before I submitted the collection, I did a lot of thinking about what stories to include because, as you mentioned, I do have other stories. When I first started submitting to prizes for story collections in 2006 when I graduated from my MFA program, I included every story I’d written that had ever been published. I thought that publication was a stamp of approval and meant the story needed to go in a collection. But over the years I’ve thought a lot more about how collections work, and I’ve also realized that because my stories are set in many different places and have a lot of different types of characters, they need something to hold them together. I tried to choose stories that have a similar sensibility to include. I think these stories are alike in terms of voice and tone, and they all have (I hope!) something funny in them.

 How do you find time to write while working full time as a professor at Siena College?

I certainly write more during the summer and other breaks from teaching than I do during the school year. I do, however, get inspired to write when my students are excited about a topic we’re discussing in class. For example, last semester I taught a class on experimental fiction and we read several stories that were written so they progressed backwards chronologically. Several of the students in the class tried to write their own stories whose chronologies worked this way, and I so appreciated the way they grappled with the form and its challenges. It made me want to go home and try my hand at the same technique.

 What books have you particularly enjoyed recently that you recommend?

A book I read recently and loved was Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Brunt does such a great job of creating a teenage character who feels realistic and vulnerable and true. And the ending of the book is a real knockout. I don’t want to give anything away, but that book had the most emotionally affecting ending I can remember reading in a long time.

I also recently read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which I actually tracked down because of your glowing review on this site. That book and the characters have stuck with me, and I keep thinking about the incredibly effective way Ng employed omniscient point of view to allow readers to know and understand the secrets the characters keep from each other. It’s not a point of view I’ve ever been able to use successfully, so I’d like to go back and reread and really examine how Ng accomplishes what she does.

Right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s an epistolary novel, entirely in the form of letters of recommendation written by a professor of English and creative writing. It’s hilarious because it does such a good job of depicting some of the particularly ridiculous aspects of academic life.

 

2014 Flannery O’Connor Award winner’s FAULTY PREDICTIONS is guaranteed to please story lovers (I predict!)

Faulty Predictions   karin lin-greenberg sienaedu

Faulty Predictions

Karin Lin-Greenberg

University of Georgia Press: Sept. 2014

172 pages, $25.00

 

This collection of ten short stories announces the arrival of a talented young writer with a distinctive narrative voice. Karin Lin-Greenberg, a professor at Siena College in New York, won the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it’s easy to see why. She is a gifted storyteller. (Previous winners include Amina Gautier, Ha Jin, Antonya Nelson, Rita Ciresi, Mary Hood, and Bill Roorbach, so the judges have a good track record for finding talent.)

Unlike so many story collections today, which tend to the dark and cryptic, Faulty Predictions pulses with a bemused energy. Lin-Greenberg’s stories examine the foibles of a wide range of characters. A group of high school journalism students is confronted by an injustice (“Editorial Decisions”); a glib TV talk show host goes to drastic lengths to connect with his college freshman son (“Late Night with Brad Mack”); two Chinese-American mothers are rivals for power in their close-knit community (“Prized Possessions”).

In the title story, two elderly women housemates are on a mission to stop a murder at a Halloween party on a college campus, with unexpectedly poignant results.  “The Local Scrooge” concerns a curmudgeonly college professor who proves to have a soft spot for babies, something he wants to keep secret in order to maintain his reputation, but in the age of social media that proves difficult. In “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” the title character is a big city businessman who opens a sophisticated coffee shop (with a floor-to-ceiling glass facade!) in a small northern college town, engendering the resentment of the determinedly unimpressed locals. A variety of complications results ensue. But perhaps the locals have misjudged him.

In these ten stories, Lin-Greenberg displays impressive insight into human nature and empathy for regular people trying to make sense of their lives and circumstances. She also possesses a nicely dry wit and a gift for realistic dialogue that pops off the page. Remember her name; she is a young writer worth watching.