Monday, March 30, 2015

The 50 States Project: AR, OK, WY

I was doing a column a while back for an online journal. The column sort of fizzled--not to point fingers, but they wouldn't be pointing at me--so I thought I'd revive it here. This is the original post in the series:

When I first started sending work out to journals, I soon became overwhelmed with the sheer number of journals out there. There are tons! Billions! Brazilians! And this was over a decade ago, also, when there weren’t new online journals popping up every fifteen minutes. One way I devised to help me wade through them was to create an arbitrary project: I decided I would try to get published in at least one journal in every state. It’s harder than it sounds: some states (Montana, the Dakotas, etc.) have few journals, and those are often themed or heavily biased in a certain direction. Other states, of course, have tons. Of course, the point wasn’t just to be published–-it was to be published well, to be published in good journals (regardless of their reputation). So I thought I would revive this project and track my success. And failure. So let’s walk through the process, in no particular order. Also, as I’ve pursued this, I’ve placed work in a handful of really good journals that aren’t around anymore, so I’m excising them from the list. I’m also skipping glossies or journals that are pretty much impossible (TNY, Paris Review, etc.) because there’s nothing really for me to share about them other than I sent them some work and they form-letter-rejected it. Also, this isn’t an exhaustive study of every journal in every state: it’s totally biased towards ones I like. So there.
1. Arkansas: Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies. This is a quarterly, print, university (Arkansas State University) journal run by faculty and with little web presence, though they do take email submissions. If you remember your history, you’ll recall that the Arkansas Review used to be the Kansas Quarterly, which published everybody and their famous brother.
I’m from Arkansas, and a buddy of mine was actually on the staff of the AR for a while, but that didn’t mean they’d publish me. I sent them a couple memoir pieces, through my friend, but they passed. I sent them fiction, poetry, etc., and they passed. It took me years to establish a decent relationship. More on that in a moment.
Let me deal with some possible preconceptions: AR is a good journal, by that I mean they don’t publish crap. A story about Ol’ Jimmy, the blues man who played a mean mouth-harp since his woman left him down in Memph-o probably isn’t going to make the cut. Imagine how many stories/poems/etc. like that they’ve seen, and then try something different. They publish traditional narrative fiction and narrative or confessional poetry, but AR has a very specific focus: the Mississippi River Delta. The work they publish relates to place (i.e. the Delta), significant people from the region, cultural elements, etc. What does that mean, exactly? The Mississippi River Delta is one the most impoverished places in the country. Pick a bad quality (drugs, poor education, suicide, etc.) and the Delta is at the top of the list for it. But it’s also the birthplace of many artists, musicians, writers, etc. The editors are very aware of the socio-economic, racial, and historical realities of the Delta. They publish poetry, fiction, interviews, reviews, etc. but they really like scholarly essays when they can get them. This might be a good “in” to keep in mind.
So getting back to my many rejections, remember the buddy I had on staff? He took over as the reviews editor and offered me a book no one else would take. I took it. It was a tough review, but I used that experience to build a relationship with the editor. I did another review for them, and after that, I sent along some poetry dealing with my experiences growing up on a rice farm in eastern Arkansas. They took them. Since then, I’ve had a handful of poems published in the AR and several reviews, though they’ve rejected me plenty of times also. They’ve even reviewed me. I can’t stress how important it was that I build that relationship and “get on their radar.” That’s been a very effective ice-breaker for me with several journals. Reviews, interviews, and nonfiction in general are great ways to do this. There are a Brazilion books published every year and hardly anybody reviews them.
There are a handful of other journals in the state. Oxford American is there, now, but I consider that a glossy which I’m not covering in this project. (OA really likes reportage, though, and unrecognized Southern art – music and film, especially, but also food. But mostly, they like you to already be famous.)(Of course, there’s a lot of weirdness around OA right now.)
Another standout journal in Arkansas is Foliate Oak. It’s not on the level of selectivity of AR, but it’s a fine journal that’s been around for at least five years. It’s an online journal which puts out a best-of print issue, annually. It’s also a university journal (University of Arkansas at Monticello) but is run by students. The first thing that drew me to FO was a “writers we like” list that included Kathy Acker. Okay, says I; let’s do this. (I read a couple issues online to get a feel for their aesthetic.) But this is misleading because FO tends to publish traditional narrative fiction and fairly straight-forward narrative or confessional poetry. They’ve got good taste, though. It’s a solid journal.
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2. Oklahoma: Nimrod is a print university journal (University of Tulsa) that holds a lot of contests. Of their two yearly issues, one is a contest issue, and the other is themed. Either of these can be another great “in.” I discovered Nimrod while at the University of Arkansas just by reading issues on the newsstand, locally. The way I got into Nimrod was through a special issue on the theme of family. I sent them thematically similar work to the poems I sent to the AR. On a side note, it took them a year to publish the poems, and they published one they’d actually rejected, which I’d placed elsewhere in the meantime. They also only take hard-copy subs, which is a pain. But for all its quirks, Nimrod is a standout publication that consistently publishes solid work.
Another, probably better-known journal in OK is The Cimarron Review. This is a top-notch journal that has published who’s-who of American literature. They’re a university journal at Oklahoma State University, staffed by faculty. They also tend towards fairly straightforward fare. I discovered CR, likewise, while I was at the U of Arkansas and read issues on the newsstand. I placed a memoir piece in CR about my late-teens/early 20s experiences working at a grocery store run and staffed, in part, by members of the KKK. It was culturally relevant, provocative, and didn’t cast me in the most positive light, so it took some risks. I have to say, the pieces I’ve mentioned that I placed in the previous journals probably wouldn’t have made it into CR because they were a little too regional.
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3. Wyoming: Owen Wister Review. The OWR is a 30+ year old print university journal out of the University of Wyoming, run by students. Owen Wister was the author of The Virginian, a western, but they don’t focus exclusively on western-themed work. Again, imagine how many stereotypical western stories/poems they must get and how bored they must be of them. And lest we get too uppity about westerns, let’s remember that Cormac McCarthy started his career writing westerns. (OWR has published McCarthy, btw.) I was having a hard time placing my more traditional fiction, so I found OWR. I was impressed with the samples I read online: lots of nature imagery and character-focused short fiction, and just solid writing. I placed a story with them set on a farm about a neglected bruiser-type teenager and his relationship with an alcoholic farmer. I don’t have a ton of stories like this, but I think OWR would be interested in less regional work. A few of the fiction pieces I’ve read have been somewhat formally inventive, though nothing too groundbreaking.

-CL Bledsoe

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Having Fun with Writing

This is maybe going to come off heretical in a couple places, but I want to say something about finding joy in the process of writing. There's a great book on writing fiction which you should, of course, not even bother thinking about reading called Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Where she differs from many other writing self-help gurus is the idea of focusing on the small moments, one at a time. Don’t think about the big picture so much while you’re writing—you will obsess over those things in the shower or as you’re lying in bed trying to go back to sleep a half-hour before your alarm goes off. When you’re writing, be in the moment. I will go a step further and say not only should you focus on the small picture, but focus, above all, on having fun.

Yeah, I know. It’s a hard sell. And your MFA buddies are totally going to make fun of you for not being miserable (like all true are-testes), but that’s okay. It will be our secret until you actually manage to make a career as a writer and they don’t. So fuck them. Here are the basics to get out of the way: I set a 1000 word quota--I do this with poetry (a poem a day) as well--every day. (Lamott says 500. Stephen King says either 1000 or 2000, I forget. I know a writer who does 250 or 300. Some people do chapter quotas. It doesn't matter. The point isn't writing a million words a day; it's writing a little regularly, keeping in the habit, etc. etc.) The reason I do 1000 is mostly arbitrary (I'm not good with math), but I can get a good scene and a little more out in 1000 words, usually. So, for me, a shape emerges. There you go. There’s your regimen. That’s all you need. You’re like a freaking athlete training for the Olympics, if the Olympics consisted of never making any real money at the thing you work your ass off to do. Hmm. Sorry. Maybe you can get an endorsement deal for pizza and Mountain Dew? Anyway, now to the good stuff.

The most important thing about this is finding some element of the story I really enjoy writing--that discovery is what keeps me going--every time I write. I usually have some starting place in mind, an important detail or scenario that I know will probably lead me somewhere. I give the car a push down the hill and keep my eyes open for something fun. Really, this is my goal when writing—not to impress anyone, not to fit a market, hell, not to even be good, but to find something fun. Something interesting. Because all of that other stuff is happening, anyway. (Granted, I’ve been writing novels for a while, now, so I’m kind of on autopilot at times, in terms of structure.) Maybe that fun thing means a gag, which is great, but how often do we find good gags? Maybe it means I spend a hundred words on a really nice description of…whatever. A pleasing turn of phrase. A surprising plot development. Maybe it’s 50 words, 25 words, 10 words of dialogue where I just nail this character’s accent, attitude, background, whatever. And it’s so good and so real that Goddamn. Goddamn.

Okay. Great. Hell, maybe it’s just some detail that makes me smile (like naming all the murder victims after people in my workshop). Just find that fun thing. Nothing else really matters that much. You will take that fun thing with you the rest of the day. That’s why you’ll come back to the keyboard tomorrow, and the day after, and…well, it’s the weekend after that, but totally, again on Monday…

Once I've found that fun thing, I pretty much stop, if I’ve hit my quota. It probably took me a while to set that thing up—getting the characters into the conflict that led to the great dialogue, getting them to the location where I was able to give the great description, whatever. If I haven’t hit my quota—every so often, the best thing I write is in the first 200 words—then I try to get the hell out of that situation and into something completely different so I can set up the next fun thing. Of course, it depends on the scene, etc. But, usually, it takes me a while to get going, so I’m pretty much at my quota.

Of course, one would hope that everything one writes is brilliant. Good luck with that. I will say, for me, once I get the car pointed towards that fun thing—and much of this is instinctual, sure—the writing is much, much better, and I’m really just riding out the clock until I hit my grand. And when I’m not finding it, the writing is shit. So, I change gears, move to a different section, focus on a different element of the story, whatever.

Also, it should go without saying that I’m not talking about filler. I’m not suggesting just to wax poetic about bearded trees and clouds. I’m saying move forward with your story but always be on the lookout for opportunities to explore joy. Yes, these are sometimes detours, but they are also often the best parts of the story. Maybe they take the story in a new direction. Of course, plot can be fun, right? That can absolutely be your fun thing; though, for me, it’s usually more character-driven. If you're having fun, the reader will have fun. But if you are slogging through mud, so will the reader. But hey, they’ll just quit reading.

I also don't spend all fucking day on this. I'm not going to bash my head into the wall every time I write because Jesus Christ why the fuck would you do that? I would never write again! That’s missing the whole point! But people do... This is the same thinking that makes people quit diets or exercise—they make the thing onerous and then wonder why it sucks so bad. Don’t do that. Focus, instead, on joy, on having fun. Yes, it's work, but it's work you theoretically enjoy--that it where the joy comes from. I usually allocate an hour, even a half-hour if I’m busy, but I've been writing novels for years, so don't cripple yourself with ridiculous expectations. Really, try to get to one fun thing and then quit for the day. That way, you've got that accomplishment to feel good about. Hey, I wrote a really nice description of some character’s beard, and some other stuff. Boom. Done. Go have a drink. Wait for that plane ticket to Stockholm.