Spring Issue Release!

Dear Readers,

Our latest issue has arrived! Devour it here:

Spring reminds us of patterns and eternal cycles, of particular motive forces and metamorphoses. “Spring is the time of plans and projects,” Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, recalling for us in English (does it work in Russian, too?) the mechanistic as well as seasonal valences of “spring,” both connoting a potential energy. Once again we proliferate tasks. We plan. We tinker. Here in our own backyard of a past, Anne Bradstreet wrote of spring as the just reward for the winter-ravaged pious: “if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

We’re afraid Bradstreet’s puritanism bores us (“my mother told me as a boy/‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no/Inner Resources’”). Here we are and it’s spring and we are hungrier than before. We are not the pious collecting our patient reward, but barbarians energized around a wild pagan fire. What a profligate expense of energy!

OxMag too is cyclical and this is the end of one cycle and the start of a new one—like Yeats’ gyres, widening, unwinding. As we do each year, we hand the reins to more capable people flush with stores of energy. It seems proper to introduce them.

Carly Plank will take the helm as the new Editor-in-Chief. Carly is a second year master’s student in creative writing. Her creative nonfiction has been published in 34th Parallel and her fiction has been published in 3288 Review. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Aquinas College, located in her hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Justin Chandler steps up as fiction editor. Justin is pursuing an MA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing. He is currently working on a novel. In addition to his work with OxMag, he serves as editor on The Ryder Magazine’s yearly fiction issue. He prefers fiction about pugs.

Isaac Pickell will MC poetry. He too is a second year Master’s student in creative writing at Miami.

Katy Shay takes the reins as CNF editor. Katy is a graduate assistant at Miami University. She loves creative nonfiction, comics, zines, music, nature, justice, witchcraft, feelings, and goth looks from the late nineties.

And lastly, we thank Joe Squance, our managing editor; the Miami University English Department and all the faculty who have helped us this year; our events coordinator, Michelle Christensen; our genre editors Andrew Marlowe Bergman, Josh Jones, and Ian Schoultz, and all of our readers. Lastly, but most importantly, our submitters, without whom we’d have nothing at all to read and no magazine.

Keep writing,

Evan Fackler and Jess Marshall

cream city review: Genre Queer

The cover of cream city review’s last issue, Genre Queer, depicts a person (he/she/they/ze/zir?) on its cover. This person, arms exposed and covered in tattoos, radiates a warm glow, cactuses grow from the bottom of the magazine and raise their arms towards the person and from the glow emanates words. These words move away from the person, sometimes you can read a full sentence sometimes you cannot. The word faith is repeated over and over again. The cover is exciting: hand drawn and handwritten in a world that seems increasingly hostile to the analog. In short: the cover is different. And difference is the way I would categorize this glorious collection of short stories, essays, poems, interviews, drawings, and genre-defying/busting creations.

The titular “genre queer” folio that is within this book is introduced by way of definition and inclusion, defining the words genre and queer and allowing for a list of self-identifying titles (presumably from the authors) including: transsexual, ftm, genderqueer, two spirit, working class, the list goes on and on.

This section opens with the wonderful line drawings of TextaQueen which combine genre, such as the fifties style monster movies, with fluid gender. TextaQueen’s art are at once a celebration of the many different ways to be and to not be in the case of the zombie-esque Gandhi Returns. This energy — creative, funny, exciting — keeps up through the section that offers us poetry, prose, essays, and short fiction which examines, not only the fluidity/multitudes of gender and gender identification, but the fluidity/multitudes of genre.

“Identification,” by Trace Peterson, asks the question, “Can I see your ID?” over and over again, giving us the varied responses of Trace. The piece starts out straight forward, “Can I see your ID?” “Here it is. I changed my sex so I don’t look like this anymore, but you get the idea.” Veers into humor, “Can I see your ID?” “Oh you know, like Laverne Cox but the Swedish/French WASP version.” Turns to the amply frustrated: “Can I see you ID?” “Shit fuck piss cocker puss cunt Waco dominant fallopian gyno-bot womp decal mother trucker wall detroit czechoslovakia dromedary fuckhouse.” And throughout offers insight into the frustrations Trace faces as people try to identify her: “Can I see your ID?” “Yes, I agree the vagina is the most transcendent possible thing to have.” Peterson’s work fluidly moves through a variety of responses which both show the struggle of identification through the eyes of the laws and the difficulty of identification on the level of the person. The piece is sharp, funny, and thought provoking.

Claire Harlan Orsi’s piece, “Pronoun Discomfort: A Situational Analysis,” is my new obsession. Orsi thoughtfully moves us through their choice to change their pronoun. Orsi pulls on many threads, coming out as they to family, friends, and Facebook, and showing us all the moments of rejection, confusion, frustration, and humor that ensue. The prose is clear, brave, and honest making the reader trust every word Orsi writes. Orsi breaks down, situation by situation, moments in their life and the difficulties faced when confronted with the stickiness of pronouns and the societal preoccupation with pinning a person into “he” or “she.” Each section begins with the word, “Situation,” a tactic Orsi says was inspired by an international student at a writing center who, “used a similar schema to depict her efforts to negotiate English-language conversations.” Orsi points out the many difficulties of trying to navigate this similarly liminal space. Each “Situation” presented pokes at a kind of hard truth, and like all hard truths its truth is intuited yet impossible to pin down: “Situation: I narrate my own life to myself, catch myself using ‘she.’ I don’t admit this to anyone. Does it mean I don’t really want what I say I want? Is it simply a matter of condition? Or am I not real, even to myself?” “Situation: Facebook, in addition to a range of 51 genre options allows users to change their preferred pronoun to they…I shouldn’t need one of the major structures of the techno world order to validate my gender but I am surprised by how good it feels, ‘Capitalism knows me too well,’ I write on my Facebook wall, because there is nothing good that doesn’t also make me feel guilty.” The whole essay is infinitely quotable and an important, honest, and vulnerable piece of work.

The selection of poems, drawings, essays, interviews, short stories and all can and should be enjoyed by a variety of people. I have folded over nearly every page in the magazine, filled the margins with exclamation points and check marks. Other notable moments: Lois Baer Barr’s nonfiction piece on Still-life, the tremendous art of Izzy Jarvis (which I did not fold over because I want to cut it out and hang it on my wall), the short fiction of Kelsey Ronan which harkens back to a Michigan past that looks much different from its present, and the work of Aaron Apps, “Children remain Childish Mostly,” which is both critical of and generous about the “greasy fuck storm” of the internet and the violence that is inherent in our system, “…but maybe we need to be more careful with our language even though it is mostly impossible in this greasy fuck storm where little intervenes into the dumbness of children.”

Cream city review: Genre Queer from the cover makes a promise to their reader that they will experience something different, something that is maybe not easy to define in the binaries that we often work with, within and without. This issue delivers on that promise, blurring the lines between genres. “In this special folio, cream city review celebrates the textually inventive, the playful form, the bent and queer border.” After reading this great issue, you will celebrate it too.

-Katy Shay

Winter Issue Release!

We’re happy to announce the release of our winter issue, Past ImPerfect!

Featuring work from Sharon Black, m.h. burkett, Vanya Erickson, Lynn Gordon, Meredith Davies Hadaway, Taylor M. Meredith, Dennis Must, Saramanda Swigart, Ashley Tobin, and Helen Wickes.

The Writer’s Workshop: A Survival Guide

As writers, you have all taken part in some sort of workshop, whether it was meeting up with a group of friends at a local coffee shop, sharing your work digitally via Google Drive, or commenting on the work of your peers in a more formal academic setting. Participants swap papers, read one another’s work, and reconvene to discuss opinions, highlight points of agreement, and expand upon areas of disagreement, all the while working to help the author achieve his or her goals. The writing may be left to speak for itself, or the author may play a more central role by directing attention to relevant concerns and questions.

Sounds like a foolproof system, right? Nothing bad can happen; you’re among friends, or colleagues, or both! Don’t be scared. They’re here to help you. However, the workshop environment presents a number of unique challenges that are not present in other arenas where writers share work. Public readings are nice, because readers are somewhat shielded from immediate criticism. There is a culture of courtesy and respect at such events because attendees are present by choice instead of necessity. A writer reading their work to the public can be compared to a basketball player getting playing time in an NBA game. You might not be considered “one of the greats,” and you might only play for a minute or so, but you’re playing in the NBA. Come on. For one minute, you’re not riding the bench. Your ambition has not been wasted. Yeah, you may mess up. You may even lose the game for your team. But you put on the uniform and you played on a national stage. You have a captive audience, as a writer does at a reading.

But workshop is different. Because nobody’s work is automatically positioned above the rest, a fight for supremacy often naturally ensues. Like benched players at practice, vying for just a chance to play in the game, it’s natural for writers in a workshop to feel competitive. Everybody’s been telling you the job market is shrinking, publishing deals are hard to come by, and rejection letters will pile up by the handful before an acceptance graces your inbox. As a writer, you face hundreds of seemingly insurmountable obstacles every day in the form of words. Do yourself a favor and don’t let unsavory workshop dynamics add to that load. Here are some tips to help you and your work survive workshop relatively unscathed.

All participants:

Check your ego, along with your literary preferences and preconceptions, at the door, please. Grab it, along with your coat and its sleeves stuffed full of tender emotion and longing for warm, fuzzy feelings, when you leave.

Respondents:

Don’t try to sound smart. You’ll miss the point completely—especially if you’re having one of those incoherent days that befall overworked, sleep-deprived people every so often. There’s no need to spend a minute elaborating on something that can be expressed in ten seconds. And please don’t be scared of offending anybody, because doing so is just another way for thoughts to be lost in translation. Remember, everyone should have checked their egos and emotions at the door.

What to do if you dislike a submission: Find something to appreciate. Something must be working. Wrack your brain. Is there one decent line? One decent word? What does this contribute to the piece? Summarize the piece so the author knows you read it with good intentions and an open mind. Have something to prove? Workshop isn’t the place, folks. Try your personal blog, or, if you’re not shy, Facebook. Then, when in doubt, do as the new critics do: use textual evidence to support your viewpoints. You don’t have to be best friends with the author. In fact, empty praise deserves to be abhorred. But sometimes every writer needs a “job well done” in addition to more constructive feedback (as long as you’re not completely lying). Treat workshop like a day at the office. You might get a leg up by pleasing the right people, but you won’t gain anything by acting unprofessionally.

Authors:

Hold tight to your intentions and filter feedback accordingly. Let your story be the net, trapping the ideas worth keeping; the others will slip through the holes during revision. Repeat: it’s not personal, it’s business. Well, okay, it might occasionally be personal, but, above all, it’s business.

Take accountability for the quality of your work. Did you give your writing the quality time it deserves? If you aren’t sure of your characters’ intentions and deepest desires, how do you expect readers to be? Any cut corners will become apparent in workshop. If your writing is genuinely un-workshoppable (if people just don’t understand the complexities of your artistic aesthetic), then go, young protégé, onward and upward; submit to experimental literary magazines and small presses. Make a name for yourself!

Firmly believe that no one is out to get you. Even if they are, your work won’t benefit from any such acknowledgement. Everyone is busy and everyone has bad days. If a response you receive is too short or too simple, chalk it up to a bad day. Your work might (shockingly) not have been at the top of the list of priorities in the daily life of the respondent. But you don’t know their struggles, so give them a break. Direct targeted questions towards that person if you really must know what they think of your work. Yes, you are probably attached to your writing, but your writing is not attached to that person. Don’t be swept up in the brilliance or ignorance of one idea or another; don’t let rhetoric sway you. Strip away the faces of the criticism, focus on the content, and have faith that other perspectives exist.

Let your work rest. Do you still feel like your work is worthy of accolades? Do you still feel cheated and want validation, or at least another educated opinion? Don’t keep riding the bench. SUBMIT, already!

-Carly Plank

The Intonation of Shame

The impossible dream for most writers is to actually make money writing.  I can’t imagine how many times I’ve been told through my years of studies that I’m working really hard but I’ll just end up in food service—by the way, I worked in restaurants for fourteen years and still really miss that work, so this is not to say that a career in food service is unimportant or unfulfilling (though at times it can be very thankless).  The point is that still when I say I want to make a living as a writer, I am brushed off by family and friends as if I’d asked for a unicorn for my birthday:  “Great dreams, kid, but let’s be realistic.”

Over the past year, this has been further complicated by colleagues and peers.  I have said on many occasions, “If I have to make money writing calendars and Valentines’ cards, that’s what I’ll do.”  But then comes a sort of slut-shaming of writers; “If you take a job like that, you’re a sellout.”  Nobody ever says that phrase, but it is intoned.  If you take a job where you are producing anything less than your greatest works, you are not to be a respected writer.  At AWP last year, I overheard a conversation that went something like this:

Person A:  I just got offered a job writing for Buzzfeed!

Person B:  Ugh, don’t tell me you’re going to write those stupid lists.

Person A:  No, I’m going to write articles.

Person B:  As long as you don’t write those stupid fucking lists.

Without knowing either party, I was super stoked for A, then felt really bad for A, then decided that B was being incredibly judgmental when they should have been happy for the friend getting a job writing that actually included getting paid.  I was bummed for A.  Whatever you feel about those lists, congratulations seemed in order. Over the last year a fellow fiction writer posted an article to several poets’ Facebook timelines including my own; the article was about a small group of poets that were getting work at weddings and corporate events for writing personalized haikus on demand.  The group members in the article were making money doing something fun and it actually involved writing.  I remember one response to the article was that we shouldn’t espouse the corporatization of poetry.  Beyond the fact I don’t think this group of poets was “corporatizing” anything, it still begs the question:  Why would that be so bad?

And then there’s the other side of the spectrum.  A woman recently asked me how to publish her children’s books (which she had not completed yet).  As I started to answer—this is the research you need to do, these are some options—she interrupted me, wanting to know how she could make just “a little money” off the project.  I shot her hopes down immediately.  “You can’t go into writing to make money.  No one makes money.  For every Stephen King there are a million good writers that don’t make a dime.”  This is the reality I realized I had accepted for her:  Even calendars and cards are too hard to make a living at if you aren’t willing to put in the time, research, and effort, so buck up sweetheart cause unicorns won’t be making an appearance before the cake.  I’ve known this woman a long time, and she goes through bursts of creative energy evidenced by abandoned kilns, canvases, and metal working tools in her garage.  For her, I don’t think there is a way to make “a little money” let alone a living because she doesn’t have the commitment to hard work and rejection that is required of a writer.  There is no doubt she is an artist, but for now she needs to have her dreams crushed.

That’s the thing.  In today’s writing community, there are those who prefer to be elitist, see their work as pure and above monetary compensation (well, not above it, but there have been no excellent offers yet).  There are those like me, that are willing to pump out droll to get a reference, the experience, some edge.  But it isn’t an impossible dream to make money as a writer—it isn’t even impossible to make money and maintain your artistic integrity—just don’t knock others who are writing for a living though not creating writing you enjoy, because somebody enjoys it, and that’s why we can get paid.  As a writing community, we should understand these struggles.  Leave the shame, and instead, support each other.

-Jess Marshall

Issue 35 Update

Dear Readers,

We’ve been losing our formatting battle with issuu.com, the site we publish our new issues through. Until we can get things figured out there, we thought it’d be best to offer issue 35 direct to you, as we would want it to be viewed. So below, please find a .pdf file of our Fall issue. Share it with your friends!

Download Issue 35: Lonesome Harvests

cheers,

The Editors

OxMag Issue 35 Out Now!

Dear Readers,

It has been a warm fall here in Ohio. The pleasant weather of our late harvest has meant the fruits of long, hard labor have exceeded expectations in a year we found ourselves worrying. Quite frankly, we’re stunned. The challenges of the planting season, the wet, cool temperatures of June, have meant that even while the harvest hasn’t been as bountiful as in years past, we’ve found ourselves surviving, and even thriving, here at its close. Two weeks ago, the tomatoes were ripped from the ground, withered by a frost that tricked us into believing we must close up our houses. We turned to the power of the written word to fill the table our own gardens had left wanting, and in solidarity with each other we have thrown open our windows and doors again. And today we celebrate a fine feast under peaceful, even if at times lonely, skies.

Has this harvest been lonesome? We’re afraid it has been—at times terribly so. But today we offer this brief missive as thanks-giving for what we’ve dug bare-handed from the earth, even if that digging has broken our fingernails. Because here in the end-that-is-not-an-end we find, somewhat miraculously, a community, a feast we can offer one another.

This issue tells stories of such lonesome harvests, and the tables we gather at once we return from our muddy fields.

It also presents the winners of the inaugural Golden Ox Award for Prose and Poetry, Geramee Hensley and Kailash Srinivasan. We find ourselves swept up in the kinetic movement of Srinivasan’s prose in “Half Smile,” with its single long paragraph, while Hensley’s “Quiet,” true to its title, allows us much needed pause in our ever cacophonous world. Like these works, harvests too are charged with moments of such desperate, frenetic energy and such deep, exhausted quiet. We welcome them, and the work of the rest of the writers in this issue, to our table.

All the best,

Evan Fackler & Jess Marshall (Editors-in-Chief, Oxford Magazine)

Issue 35 features the work of Gay Baines, A.S. Coomer, Thomas Gillaspy, Geramee Hensley, Wulf Losee, Don McMann, Suzan Mikiel, Ned Carter Miles, Allen M. Price, Joseph Pritchard, Zachary Riddle, Hilary Sideris, Kailash Srinivasan, and Dr. Ernest Williamson.

The Longitudinal Process of Craft: An Interview with Chris Bachelder

Interview conducted by Justin Chandler

Chris Bachelder is the author of four novels: Bear vs. Shark, U.S.!, Abbott Awaits, and The Throwback Special, which was serialized in The Paris Review and will be published in the Spring of 2016 through W.W. Norton. He currently lives in Cincinnati, and teaches at the University of Cincinnati. In early October, Bachelder led an intensive, four-day Sprint course, titled “A Slow Sprint: A Study of Patience and Pacing,” for students in the graduate fiction workshop here at Miami.

You’ve lived in Ohio for 5 years, and this is your third time visiting Miami for a Sprint Week. Other than the outrageous amount of money, what keeps you coming back?

The students are always eager, gracious, and talented, a real pleasure to work with. I like the combination of brevity and intensity, and I find especially appealing the rigorous focus on reading and craft. As a bonus, I get to spend time with Professor Luongo, an old friend, and Professor Bates, a new one.

How much of an effect does place, the place of a writer in an actual, physical environment (Ohio as opposed to Florida as opposed to Massachusetts), have on a writer and a writer’s interests? We think of age, life events, the passage of time, as having an effect, but what about physical space—does it have an effect?

Most certainly it does, both in ways we can articulate and ways we cannot. I take it as a given that our worldviews and predilections and habits of mind are substantially shaped by the landscape we grew up in. I’m not talking politics or culture. I’m talking about how our minds work, and what we think and expect of the world—it must be unique for the person who grows up in the shadow of a 14-000-foot mountain, or at the edge of an ocean, or on the plains, or nestled in some valley.

Having said that, however, I haven’t to this point in my career been very interested in, or focused on, setting. It’s not what brings me to writing, and I’ve not written carefully about a certain place I’ve lived. The truth is, I’ve moved all over the place, and I suppose I don’t feel a real attachment to any one place. In my first two novels, the setting might be described as “America”—a satirical and cartoonish version of America. And lately I’ve been most interested in occupying the mind and the domestic space. My forthcoming book is set in a chain hotel.

Your “style,” if that word means something, has certainly shifted over the course of your career. Without trying to load a question, I wonder if you might speak to that: what do you see as a development or movement in your own writing, novel to novel?

It’s convenient, and I suppose fairly accurate, to split my career thus far in half and say that my first two books differ significantly from my last two. My early books used ostentatious formal experimentation and a kind of manic elaboration of an absurd satirical premise. In their movement the books were restless and antic, and in their premises they were conceptual or idea-driven. The canvas was large. My recent books are quieter and much more interior. The concerns are not overtly political or cultural but rather domestic. I’ve become interested in the radical expansion of small moments. The forms and premises are not conventional, but there are fewer structural and formal experiments, fewer flourishes and gags. I think the more recent work is more immersive, thoughtful, and character-driven, less jittery. The canvas has gotten small, and concepts have receded. The split occurred essentially when I had children, and you can make of that what you will. There are certain constants, though, chief among them a fundamentally comic sensibility.

Implicit in changing style is a sense of, maybe, a newer appreciation for what the novel can or ought to do, and a recognition of what it may be incapable of accomplishing. In hindsight, do you see your earlier work as failing to achieve something, or misguided, or is it just different?

For many years I was afflicted with my sense of what the novel ought to do. I thought it should—it must—take on the big world, respond to injustice or stupidity, be politically and culturally engaged. My first two novels grew out of this sense of obligation. I’m proud of the books—I don’t see them as failures or follies. I certainly admire their energy, but I guess I think they are somewhat limited in their effects. They strain for gravity beneath the disjunctive structure. Part of that is just being a young writer who is figuring out a lot on the fly. And part of it is the strain of wanting the novel to be and do a certain thing. For whatever reason, I don’t have the same sense of obligation anymore. My political beliefs have not changed significantly, but I haven’t felt the need to prove it on the page. If anything, my current mode is to find significance where someone would least expect to find it. I hesitate to call this progress or improvement or development. It’s just the way I’ve changed. The work is certainly less edgy and engaged and righteous, but I also think it’s more dense, attentive, psychologically astute, and tonally complicated. You could frame that as a loss or a gain.

Is this mode, for you, still political? That could be either generally—in the sense that everything is always, inevitably political, or in a specific sense of this mode offering unique rewards for the writer and the reader.

It might be true that everything is political, as some say, but then it would also be true that the category ceases to be very interesting. I couldn’t really make a case for this mode being explicitly political or engaged, but I’ve just come to find such delight and value in small-canvas work that is genuinely attentive to the world. Lydia Davis has a little chapbook called “The Cows.” It’s 37 pages of careful observation and speculation about three cows in a field. Is that political work? I don’t know. It’s work that assigns value to the act of watching, and to creatures you could easily drive right past without a thought.

We’ve spent all week talking about taking time, letting the story breathe. What about patience as an approach to writing do you find so valuable?

Well, I think patient writing tends to be convincing writing.  It convinces readers that the world is real.  And I think when writers move patiently through a story, they see more, they are more attentive.  They surprise themselves, and thus surprise readers.  Patient writing invests objects with power and meaning—a kind of glow or hum.  The tired old stuff of the world is redeemed when it is carefully observed.  I find that everyday objects, even what we would think of as trash, can be tender or moving when writers pay close attention.  An old boot, a stained popsicle stick, a chewed pencil.  Also, we talk often about mood or atmosphere in fiction, but it’s not always evident how those abstract qualities are achieved.  I would speculate that mood and atmosphere are created and developed largely through pacing.

You’ve read and been talking about graduate fiction all week with us in conferences. The editors of OxMag have recently started posting, on the blog, statements on what they look for when they read, a sort of template for writers considering submitting to OxMag. I’ve found them pretty enlightening. I was wondering if you could take some time to answer that same question—what do you look for when you’re reading fiction? What’s a piece have to have, or be doing, for you to say Yes?

That’s a good question. What I tend to fall for are qualities of syntax and style.  I value precision, rhythm, control, agility, as well as indirection and restraint.  Wit.  Vividness.  A peculiar angle of vision.  I vastly prefer the genuinely peculiar to the merely zany.  I don’t necessarily want a big voice, but I want a distinctive and authoritative voice.  I want to enjoy what’s happening on the page, and I care less about what might happen next.  As I said the other night in the Q&A, I read primarily to be arrested, not propelled.

The culture in which we write offers unique difficulties. In some ways, American culture today seems averse to the kind of time and attention it requires to devote to long facebook posts, let alone novels. To what extent does this influence you as a writer? And if it doesn’t, how do you cultivate the ability to disregard those sorts of outside concerns?

I struggle to give and sustain my attention. I feel it drifting off and splintering. Compared to ten or fifteen years ago, I feel far less capable of reading a long book or reading for hours at a time. It certainly affects my reading and writing, and yet I believe that reading and writing are the best antidotes. Because our minds tend to flit all over the place, I’ve found literary value in going against the current, in bearing down on small moments.

If you could interview one author, who would it be, and if you only had the chance to ask one question, what would it be?

I would ask Paula Fox about a mouse that runs across the kitchen floor in the middle of the night while her characters sleep in the novel Desperate Characters.  It’s page 143.  I’ve always loved that mouse, that moment.  It’s an astonishing moment of narration and point of view and observation.  The novel was published 45 years ago.  I would be curious to know if she remembered that mouse, if it meant anything to her at all.

That’s an awesomely specific answer. Care to elaborate?

Just thinking about point of view, it’s incredible that a writer would keep the camera rolling, so to speak, after her characters fall asleep. It’s fierce evidence of the reality of this world. When our characters are unconscious, the universe doesn’t just fall away or cease to exist. That’s especially true and important in this particular novel, in which the outside world is ominous and threatening. I just love that Fox narrates a quiet house at night. It seems both menacing and tender, and it makes her characters seem so vulnerable.

Was there ever a moment when you weren’t sure whether you would continue writing? If so, what was it, and how did you move past it?

Between projects I always have my doubts about whether I’ll be able to enter something deeply again, or whether I can find a way to bring something alive. But it’s not as if I’ve ever thought it isn’t a worthwhile thing to do, and it’s not as if I’ve ever considered quitting. I go periods of time without writing, and I have plenty of worries about it, but up to now I haven’t felt the urge to give it up.

I think a lot of readers wonder about how writers wake up and put word after word on the page day after day. What motivates you?

I just like making things. If I weren’t a writer, I would want to be a carpenter or a woodworker. I like putting things together to make something solid. The process of making—the demands of precision and accuracy and wit and rhythm—is as important to me as any subject I might choose. I’m not someone who just has so many stories I need to tell. I just want to build things that have a certain heft and elegance.

 

 

Creative Nonfiction Should Be About Cats: What I Read for When Reading Submissions

When approached to discuss what I look for in a creative nonfiction submission, my immediate response was: “Are they writing about cats? If not, then Bye, Felicia.” Seriously, you have no idea how indescribably happy I would be reading all about your crazy cat lady ways and the beautiful felines that illuminate your lives. Sadly for me (although maybe not-so-sadly for you), I know that’s an unrealistic expectation.

So what do I really look for when I’m reading creative nonfiction? Well, first things first: Did you get my attention? Not unlike my hopeful attempt to catch your attention through my crazy cat lady anecdote, a label I proudly wear, starting your own piece with a well-crafted beginning is a surefire way to make sure that I make it all the way through your narrative. Like I tell my college freshmen in our composition class, the set-up to their piece is one of the most important ways to ensure that your audience reads the whole thing. An effective opening, I think, catches its audience’s attention and hints at what I’m going to read about later in the piece. Sure, that sounds easy enough. And yet, you’d be surprised at how often my students resort to cliches: “From the beginning of time,” “Today’s society,” or “Oxford English Dictionary defines X as…” These ineffective hooks exist in creative writing, too: “‘Twas a dark and stormy night,” for example, or “My mama always told me, ‘Life’s like a box of chocolates.’” I’d rather read about a cat that has absolutely nothing to do with the story than dialogue from characters I don’t even know or the weather happening during the moment you’re introducing us to. What I’m trying to get at is the more finessed the set-up is, the more likely I’ll be able to get deeper and deeper into your narrative.

In terms of content, I need to be able to believe what you’re telling me. Not only should I be engaged through your compelling set-up, then, but I should also be reading about something nontrivial that doesn’t fall flat as the narrative progresses. Defining significance is obviously subjective, but if the moment was one of importance, I need to feel and understand why. The submission doesn’t have to be out-of-this-world strange, which isn’t to say that it can’t be, but it should be compelling and engaging. Most of all, it should be believable. I want a glimpse at a moment that made you uncomfortable, that made you grow, that made you struggle, that actually happened. A story about becoming a cat, for example: Cool, bro. I really hope that happened to you (and let’s face it, I’d be super envious if it did), but there’s a fine line between a dream about being a cat and literally becoming a cat.

What isn’t believable is your impeccable memory for entire conversations that happened among the characters. Not to throw shade or anything, but creative nonfiction, to me, requires a certain amount of introspection and relies more heavily on the events that drive the plot forward. Passive dialogue is your friend. “‘Meow,’ the cat said,” versus, “The cat meowed.” While I hate to take agency away from your cat, or whoever else is making an appearance in your submission, I get a little suspicious when I read long conversations or directly quoted monologues. I’m more concerned about what actually happened and how it affected the characters in the midst of these things.

Of course, these are all merely guidelines: I realize and acknowledge that there isn’t an exact formula we can use to create the perfect piece of creative nonfiction. And honestly, I trust your judgment to write something that works and your skill to craft an engaging text, but I also trust my ability to culturally situate your text. That’s my job as a literary critic. (I know, I’m saddened by the inability to be a professional crazy cat lady, too.) Ultimately, I think what I’m trying to say is: “Are you writing about cats? If not, then Bye, Felicia.” I just want to know all of the cats.

-Joshua B. Jones

The Core Is Not the World: What I Read For When I’m Reading From Submissions

Three things you must have for a quality dinner party: a working stove, a frying pan, and curry powder. The difference between real life and a good story is that in real life when the dinner guests start talking politics or the elegance of the lyrics of Taylor Swift the prepared host turns the big burner on, sets the frying pan on the heating burner, and pours the curry powder into the pan. In a few moments your place will fill with the smell of a porch sofa two days after a thunderstorm and it will cause your caustic guests to remove themselves. In a story you still burn the curry, but the guest you despise the most, the one talking up the benefits of a Trump presidency or christening Taylor Swift the Joni Mitchell of today’s generation, is the one who rushes to the kitchen to save you from your passive-aggressive plan.

In considering the answer to the question of what I’m looking for when I’m looking at submissions, I’ve had to accept that the most honest answer is that I don’t know. I could make appeals to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and his famous characterization of pornography: “I know it when I see it,” but what I’m looking for is more than that.

I view each sentence in a story as a promise made by writers to their readers: this matters. Whether the story is high literary (whatever that actually means) or genre (which is easier to characterize, but equally nonsensical), everything in it should matter, even if how it matters isn’t obvious or immediately discernible. We read so that we may better know each other. At the same time, reading takes time, and time is something that most people have in shorter and shorter supply today.

People work longer hours for less pay. They carry cell phones which field not just calls and texts, but also emails, SnapChats, Tinders, Grindrs, Tweets, Instagrams, Facebooks not to mention the calls from student loan collection companies.

If I’m going to publish a story, that means that I believe that the story can cut through all that—we do, after all, publish online.

Don’t tell me about the color of a person’s hair unless it means something. A lot of people have pink hair. Pink hair does not help a story by being there, it can only help your story if it helps your story. What does it matter if it’s raining outside if nobody gets wet? Cut through the noise. Cut through the chatter. Introduce me to someone interesting.

I had a friend in my first fiction workshop who told me that she didn’t get plot, she only wanted to write characters. I suggested to her that maybe she didn’t need to worry so much, that maybe the core of every plot is the consequences of the characters behaving like themselves.

So go out there and host a dinner party and invite the people who’ll not get along and throw curry powder in the frying pan and fight and care maybe even learn something even if it’s the wrong something. It’s not enough to have the characters behave in a certain way peculiar to them, and have a set of consequences peculiar to them, it also needs to mean something.

I think I’m finally getting to what I’ve meant to say all along: what I’m looking for when I’m reading submissions is a story that makes me care about as much as the characters care about themselves, a story that follows them to an uncomfortable space, and one that is there with them when they get out.

-Andrew Marlowe Bergman