>Now I have two degrees. An MFA and an MSW. Time to get paid!
I BELIEVE IN THE BASIC PRINCIPLE OF A LITERARY WORLD THAT DOES NO HARM OR AT LEAST, A LITERARY WORLD THAT ONLY HARMS CONFORMITY. I believe the process of writing is sacred and that the pen is mightier than the sword. I come to this work as a humanist and someone who believes that the most important tenet of humanism is that the populace should not be alienated by its culture or the individuals who are chosen, hired or self-appointed to be arbiters of that culture. The arbiters of that culture are the ever-changing media landscape that includes the traditional print, TV, and web based reporters. I believe the literary journal is part of that media, albeit a small player in the conversation. Literary journals are the arbiters of poetry, short stories, essays and the like and should be a reflection of the exchange of ideas and culture read by the masses.
We began this century watching a symbol of American power brought to the ground by a terrorist organization. We were then fed this trauma over and again by a sensational media who instead of accurately processing it, or allowing us to understand the true ramifications of the world we now live in, reported conjecture and presuppositions. We ate this up and continue to eat this up and have yet to come to terms with 9/11 a decade after the event that changed our lives forever.
Not two years after 9/11, the body politic and a lazy fourth estate undermined basic truths and sold us a dallying ruse of “maybes” and “sort ofs” to launch a war. We fought this first postmodern war based on a past fact that Iraq had gassed its own citizens a decade or so in the past (back when we didn’t give a damn) and made up intelligence to ensure that we could spend billions on a fool’s errand. Sitting in Washington DC in 2003 I watched our country go to war based on at best an “oops” and at worst “systematic war profiteering”. The media failed us, the free market world failed us and they continue to fail us and therefore alienate a population.
I do remember who got it right though. I read dozens of indie newspapers, fancy things just invented called “blogs” that quickly debunked Powell’s speech, correctly highlighted no links to al Qaeda and presupposed that we were going to war based on hyperbole. Information and knowledge was gained therefore by those without money and status who could articulate truth. We had the need for accuracy in reporting and bloggers and independent journalists had the ability to feed that need through alterative channels of communication.
The fact that our government lied to us and our media continues to misinform a significant portion of the population and that we–to this day–do not intellectually understand who it is we are fighting against and what their goals or our goals have been in this war on terror, has had a debilitating and I’d say alienating effect.
Our way of dealing with being this misinformed, has led us to look for answers in metaphor instead of factual information. You ask for an example and I will strike a wooden stake to the heart of the summer hit coming to us in 2011. The fourth season of True Blood. We love our vampires because they are the terrorists in the American social and cultural consciousness. Our desire to understand a terrorist is summed up when we watch the charming Sooki Stackhouse talk to a vampire. We console vampires, hug them, care for them, save their lives, kiss them, sleep with them, we’re defended and saved by them, coddled by them and etcetera etcetera. These all-powerful, pale faced walking undead turn people into minions to do their bidding, and at times even turn a few orgasms. They are, similarly to the way terrorists have been covered in the media, killers that without reason kill with animalistic accuracy. We know that terrorists walk into public buildings, where we are most defenseless and use their last act in life to kill others. We are told they cannot be reasoned with, they cannot be talked, dealt with or negotiated with so instead we talk to the vampires. We have no idea who they’ve been, before being a terrorist and being a terrorist is their only identity. Unlike the Cold War we even lack the language of defections or asylums for these people and what language we do have to describe them as cryptly “underground cells” and “safe houses” or being “activated” is all Bram Stokers’ work. So instead of being informed, we instead watch the terrorists on the big and small screens. We attain some semblance of peace getting to watch True Blood, or the Twilight series, that someone, even someone as annoying as the female lead in Twilight, can communicate with a vampire and that she can be defended against other vampers at the same time. A therapist would tell you, and my educational background is in equal parts writing and counseling, that if you want to truly come to peace you need to deal with what’s real. America, you need to deal, for real.
So now we have closed a chapter of our war on terror with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden and even before President Obama got to pivot off his birth certificate the media was asking for Bin Laden’s. I am going to suggest something quite central to the theme of this essay: we are tired of presuppositions that lead to nothing. The man is dead but it does not make it any easier for us to understand why we continue to spend billions of dollars destroying and then rebuilding a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 and billions of dollars rebuilding a country that did. We are tired of our basic needs being alienated in all facets of communication in society. I believe that there is a groundswell of change afoot in this country and that art, true art that speaks truth to power must be part of that change.
Let’s return to literary journals, since I am an editor of a journal and this essay is appearing in such a journal. Literary journals are some of the basic arbiters of art; we lay in the bottom of this hierarchy. Some may call this position the gutter. I like to call it the grassroots. For the purposes of this essay let’s settle on something in between, perhaps the back alley. This back alley world of a literary marketplace is where writers are for the most part snidely turned away from the “great literary party” that is happening on the other side of the media curtain. I think most of us think of editorial boards of literary journals as the dickish bouncers that get to turn masses of people away without ever giving a reason. Those that are picked, the stories that are the most elegant, flashy, cocky, good looking; the red carpet is rolled out, the paparazzi glitzes them pop, popping their lights and the door opens, the string instruments playing and finally the door begins to close as a stripped down lady holds the round card above her head, her presence a statement that one round has finished and the next yet to come. The problem that I always have had with this system is that I believe it willfully ignores everyone who is turned away in such a stalwart, alienating fashion that it makes me question the entire purpose of the arts.
I see the work that we do at Our Stories in a way like grassroots organizing. I believe there is power in providing feedback to everyone who comes to us with their story and giving them some honest feedback about their work. I believe the reason for rejecting a manuscript at other literary journals is clear 100% of the time in the mind of the person who is sending the rejection. Why literary journals prefer silence than to assist a writer in even the briefest one sentence way, “Your first page had too many spelling errors,” or “Didn’t go anywhere.”
It continues to baffle me how some literary journals get away with on one hand being held up as the great arbiters of culture while on the other hand ripping off so many people off with such a brazenly arrogant business model. If any other for profit business took a contest fee that had no guidelines for what they would receive for that fee, no odds at winning and no disclaimer about how many people would actually be published from those open submissions to the contest then the business would be thought of as no better than a Nigerian scam. The police would be called in, an investigation perhaps. Something would occur, I mean, come on, even the lotto has to publish their million to one odds, right? What sort of masochists are we artists, who adore these scammers and hold them up to everyone we know as great leaders in the literary world, sending them a check in the mail in exchange for getting the finger every time we send them a story?
I had a talk with Dana Gioia the other day, the literary critic and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts, he’s a firebrand of his own sort and I deeply admire his work. I wrote him asking for advice regarding Our Stories, as to what direction he thought we should go, because honestly, it is a hard lonely thing running a literary journal that gives feedback to every submission they receive. For those of you who don’t know Gioia he wrote an essay entitled “Can Poetry Matter?” almost a decade ago that made big waves and it still strikes me as relevant to understanding the world of arts today. In it he wrote: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.” How poetry became such a subclass Gioia spends a great deal of time discussing the decline of poetry in the general public, the discontinuation of poetry in newspapers for example but to me his greatest point comes in his corollary that at the same time that there is a rise of poetry programs and the MFA that there is a dearth of poetry read by the everyday man. He postulates, quite accurately I believe, that poetry became the stuff of academic departmental suites, divorced from the every day work. “Once poets began moving into universities, they abandoned the working-class heterogeneity of Greenwich Village and North Beach for the professional homogeneity of academia.” I fear the literary work of the short story, ie the “art story” is rapidly following in the same footsteps of its cousins across the halls of MFA programs. His advice, in sum, about Our Stories was to keep going, keep fighting and expand if possible. I intend to follow that advice and this essay is part of that literary expansion. There will be other ventures coming soon from Our Stories including contests for first book prizes and perhaps—just perhaps—a new virtual wing at Our Stories that reviews poetry.
I believe and still believe that when those with abilities are able to help those with the greatest needs in doing so we make a better society. This is why I founded Our Stories, that there exists a portion of writers in the world for whom the options of feedback and MFA programs are out of reach. It is up to the graduates of MFA programs to help future storytellers, future writers to get it right. All we’re doing at Our Stories is letting you hear our trained thoughts on a matter.
We do not come to this work with deep pockets or the notion that we will retire early from these labors. I have watched many socially motivated organizations with big endowments fail. I have seen corporations throw money around trying to fix schools or businesspeople try to run socially minded organizations with a neutered accountant’s zeal. I abhor the false logic of trickle down economics just as I abhor waste, abuse and corruption in systems where their intents are to support every part of society. Yet, I am not a socialist, far from it.
I believe in the system of laws and want to set out this philosophy separately from the philosophy of organized chaos or anarchy in society. I believe we are capable of taking care of one another but that not all government is a bad thing. I am a contemporary writer and thinker, there is nothing wrong with wanting to solve say, for example the health care problem on a nationwide scale; we are capable to do it without reverting to plots, sub-plots or delusional subversions. People have abilities and others have needs. I do not believe in large-scale revolutionary change, I believe that different methodologies are to be used on micro levels in tandem. I believe a mix of socio-political philosophies are required to address different problems in society—that we are complex thinkers and America is a complex country and that an all or nothing approach in every situation is counterintuitive.
In my opinion, our literary world, since this is where I hang my hat six days a week, is failing and no one really cares that the emperor has no clothes. We need to do something about it and all of us need to chip in.
I believe systems such as EditRed and Zoetrope where a large-scale flat system of mentor/writer/mentor can only take one so far. For those unfamiliar with these systems of literary review, by submitting one manuscript for review on their sites you must “engage” and do reviews of someone else’s work. Not only do I see this as ripe for internal abuse (having participated in Zoetrope I found many of the reviews to be unhelpful) but this also brings about the critical literary question: whose reviews are worth a damn? What, my friends, makes a good literary reviewer of work? In these sorts of ventures, like EditRed and Zoetrope the arbiter of work, who has no credentials or understanding of how to give feedback can be quickly reduced to a cheerleader. The failure of these sites is that if you receive a “good” review, where does that take you? So what, a nice guy from Topeka dug your poem? Does he work for a literary journal? How does he know what gets published? Even if they “like” your stuff they might not be able to help your manuscript get into print. This is, in my opinion, why having an MFA is the basic form of literary credentials to do what we do. Now not everyone can get an MFA, it’s extremely hard to get into, costs a lot of money to do and the options after graduating and making a career of this is daunting. However, with that said—there are lots of MFA grads out there that have experience and talent to help your work.
Next, I reject huge grab bag classes of creative writing that insist that as long as a student submits a story and the rest of their online class says, “great work” that progress is being made. Again, I believe people have abilities and others have needs. We can bring MFA graduates who dream of teaching creative writing to small groups of emerging writers and work cooperatively at a fair wage. Writing is hard but developing skills at being a great reviewer of your own work is even harder. I don’t believe Hemingway was just being an ass when he said the best tool for a writer to have is an automatic shit detector. To me the only credentialed degree to get that shit detector is the MFA.
Okay, now I hear what you’re going to ask next, “Just because someone has an MFA or just because they work at a literary journal does that mean their criticisms are valid?” Well yes and no. Yes, the MFA is a place where these skills can be developed but not everyone develops those skills during their MFA. The ability to review manuscripts should be something beyond just affirmations. There is a craft to reviewing manuscripts, and not everyone who has the MFA degree is imparted with this knowledge. I believe that literary journal staffs have an edge on their colleagues who are solely credentialed with a degree, because in order to reject a manuscript they have to, or rather they should, always have the knowledge as to how why they are rejecting a manuscript. A good reviewer at a literary journal very quickly is able to read first couple of the pages of the story and see something that causes them to cringe. In fact, 99% of the time this is the case even for stories that we have accepted. On the other hand, at your basic MFA program there is likely scant attention paid to the craft of reviewing stories and giving feedback. I was lucky, I was taught to do so as an undergraduate (this is how I got to be friends with Josh Campbell) and I had a group of core friends in my MFA program who were obsessively kind in reviewing each other’s manuscripts (this is how I got to be friends with Kendra Tuthil.) I did not receive any lectures on providing feedback in graduate school unfortunately, and I have not heard of an MFA program that makes this a pedagogical cornerstone of their program. I personally run all potential staff members through a series of trials to determine whether they have the skills to join our crew. Not everyone learns these skills in MFA programs but everyone on our staff has them.
To come to a fine point, I believe the best combination of literary review that you can receive on your manuscripts is as follows: 1) they should have an MFA (MA in creative writing, PhD, etc.) 2) they have been a “decider” in the field of the literary arts. And 3) they should have the verbal and written skills to accurately relay what their thoughts are on improving your manuscript. And 4) they should do no harm to you as a writer personally or professionally. I believe this is what you should be looking for when you want your work reviewed.
Our Stories has not offered “class style” workshops yet–that is–until now. We are going to be offering a new sort of workshop, a regional workshop where 5-7 students (first come, first served) will work with an instructor. I will be teaching in Saint Louis. Steven Ramirez will be teaching in Chicago. MK Hall will be teaching in New York City. We will be teaching for 10 weeks from July until October and then we’ll be starting more workshops after that. I’ll hire more staff to do so. We will for the first time venture into a literary marketplace where students are to share their opinions of a stranger’s writing. However, there’s a catch—the Our Stories instructor will be giving the student feedback on their craft of giving feedback. The regional workshop is our iPad. It bridges the gap between the traditional MFA workshop that you can spend tens of thousands of dollars receiving and the one-on-one online workshops that we already offer. It is built upon the combination of editorial review at a literary journal, the careful critique of those educated by some of the best programs in the country and those committed to train you in the craft of feedback and literary review. In short, it is the way I’ve always thought the craft of creative writing should be taught.
In conclusion, there is a credo known in the industry by good-natured folks as “Yob’s Law” which essentially is all about the idea that money should flow to the “writer”. It rejects the notion that stories should be accompanied by submission fees to be published and it rejects the concept of contests and such. While we do charge fees for our contests we believe we are in line with Yob’s law that ensures that money flows towards writers or in exchange for money a service of a review. In addition, we ensure that money flows to the staff of our literary journal, the often overworked, underpaid staff earns money for their abilities and by filling someone’s needs. Finally, I sleep easy knowing that I do not sell the dream of getting published but that my staff gives honest assessments to 100% of everyone we don’t publish. I also pay my staff a fair wage for the work that they do. This is (if you will allow me) Santí’s Law: the literary marketplace should equally support art and the future development of art in a grassroots model which brings qualified and learned opinions and support to those that need it the most. We do this at the same time as not exploiting labor so that the management of art remains humble and true to good works.
This is what Our Stories is all about and this summarizes what I believe is my philosophy of what I built over the years with the incredible help from my staff. I know. I know. I take myself too seriously. I take Our Stories seriously. But isn’t it about time we started taking something seriously? Thanks for your time. We’re not going anywhere, check us out.
>This is one of my many works of art that is inspired by the work of Jackson Pollock.
When I first went to college I was of humble means. Being unable to afford the cool posters, I came up with an alternative. I took an old bed sheet and splattered it with the paints my mother had in the basement of the house. Through the years I have done half a dozen or so, they decorate walls
Four years ago in September of 2007 my step-father suddenly died. I began working on this piece of art after he passed in October of 2007. I let it sit his barn for three years and then did not touch the piece for another year, setting it in his closet, letting it gather.
This past year the day that the tsunami hit Japan, in the midst of such a change in the world I finished the piece of art. The image of the piece has been donated to a poetry journal where all the proceeds will go to the Red Cross in Japan. The original piece hangs in our dining room.
IT ONLY TAKES ONE MISTAKE. After one mistake in a manuscript, they can reject you. Definitely if it happens in the first sentence, foooghetabouit. That’s what we think when we’re reading through your short stories. We’re looking for just that one mistake and then we’re ready to move on. Well, not really “Us,” because, at Our Stories, we read every page in order to give you honest feedback. However, I mean “Us” as a literary community. Rather “Us” as the collective editors out there in the free world. I’m letting you behind the curtain and I want you to pay attention.
It takes one huge mistake somewhere on the first couple of pages. Some sort of confusing line, or a word order issue. An unclear sentence or two that leaves us scratching our heads. You can’t get away with too many of them then the ball game is over. Maybe your character’s dialogue seemed too dramatic, too confusing. Or your story goes nowhere in the first three pages and that editor is thinking about the other one hundred and fifty two stories they have to read before they go to bed tonight. Maybe because you decided to do a flashback inside of your flashback. Or you used flashback at all. I certainly can’t stand flashback.
Maybe you get rejected because the font looks extremely childish. Because you decided to use a cover letter in front of your story. READ and FOLLOW the submission rules! Maybe your bio is near the beginning of the story and they can tell you’re trying to overcompensate. Maybe you don’t know how to use a break, or you use too many breaks. Some editors would reject you because all of your paragraphs and spacing are not aligned. That you have no pattern as to where your paragraphs end and how wide the margins are. You put things oddly. Your grammar is a mess. The writing was rushed WW and the sentences were too long and you said and too many times and you don’t have a clue that you are using run-on sentences and your audience just needs a chance to rest. Phew. You’re using quotes for dialogue. You’re not using quotes for dialogue and prefer italics. Listen up! You’re not using italics for dialogue you’re too old-school and underline instead.
Because you know nothing of poetry. Because you’re too poetic. Some would reject you because your first lines sound stock, too simple. Or that you’re trying to overplay your hand at language as opposed to tell us something straight ahead. Some would reject you because you dropped too many shock and awe bombs on the first page and forgot about the art of language. Some would reject you because you wrote something sexist, homophobic, racist and well, maybe you should’ve been rejected for that if it had no point whatsoever. Some would reject you because you had too many points you were trying to make. Some would reject you because you never got to the point.
Some would reject you because you decided to take Chekov’s gun out too early, or that you decided that that the gun was really a bazooka tube. Or because the gun came out too early and it never went off. The ending isn’t dramatic enough, where is the gun?
Some would reject you because they think you’re culturally ignorant. Because you are culturally ignorant. Because they have no idea what your aesthetic is all about. Because they haven’t read anything from Latin authors or African American authors or Asian authors and the just don’t know. They haven’t figured out that all literature has to be workshopped from the aesthetic that it comes from. Because you’re PoMo. Because they are too PoMo.
Maybe they read the New Yorker too much or not enough. Maybe they stopped reading the Atlantic and never looked back.
Because you’re not writing about terrorists. Because you are writing about terrorists. Cuz’ your grammar sucks, see? Because your writing is too informal. Some would reject you just because they thought your name reminded them of an ex, a mortal enemy, a bad character on TV, or maybe the doctor that treated their VD.
Some would shoot you the old email stock bullshit, trite rejection email because they had a bad day themselves, after they received some same old email stock bullshit, trite rejection email.. They only publish their friends. Some would reject you because, you know what, because they decided, just cause. Some would reject you because they don’t really know literature or how the short story is supposed to work and they haven’t a clue. Some would reject you because they were behind on their reading and needed to catch up. They read too fast. They read too slowly. Someone spilled coffee all over your story and they couldn’t read it so, rather than ask you for another copy, they decide they probably should reject you. Some would reject to feel better about themselves. Some would reject you because your address was New York City and that scares them. Some would reject you because your address was in Wichita, Kansas and that scares them. Or maybe because you are too Southern, too northeastern, too California new-agey and that editor doesn’t get it. Or because you’re too Cormac McCarthy. Because you’re too Eugene McCarthy. Maybe you’re too gay, too straight, too damn conservative, too damn liberal, 2 many emoticons OMG WTF IDK TRU DAT.
They don’t accept anything longer than 6000 words. They don’t accept anything over 1000. Too brief. Jealously. You’ve already published too much. Dark. Too much light. You blew the opening, you have no ending. The ending is too dramatic: get rid of the guns. Too much like Carver. Too drunk. Too much like Eggers wants to be. Too much like Eggers should be. You’re not Jhumba Lahiri.
Because you take yourself too seriously. You need to lighten up in your writing. It’s repetitive and high-minded and it thinks it can actually make a difference. Because your grammar sucks. Too ambitious don’t set it in Greece, set the story in New Jersey! You think you can make a difference. Idealistic. Because your writing is too informal. Too repetitive. Because you are some sort of arrogant, cocky jerkface editor at some no name literary journal with bizarre editorial policies and some sort of high minded, holier than though attitude that thinks everyone should sing koom-by-ahhh-my-lord-and-get-a-long crap fest.
It’s a wild world out there in English letters and they do all this. We reject people for some of these reasons but the thing is–we have to tell you what we were thinking when we read your manuscript. Honest to God, that’s what we do. Sure, I’d say others journals read your work, at least till they find that one mistake, the first mistake and then they have their reason. Once they find the reason to reject you, well, your manuscript goes in the recycling bin and then they mail you back your SASE. They don’t have to tell you any thing at all. That’s the way it works for everyone else. Not us.
Our Stories literary journal has been giving personalized feedback to every short story we’ve received for five years. Every last one. That’s a lot of stories. We’ve made a lot of friends. We’d like you to tell your friends about us. We like people. We like stories. We read every page and go through your entire story so you know what we thought. You should try us if you never have. We just gave you about a hundred reasons why you should—it might be worth it. We don’t claim to always be right when we send a rejection notice to someone, but at least you know why we came to our decision. Heck—maybe, just maybe after all the money that we took out in loans to study this stuff in MFA programs and the years of working on this literary journal—we might be able to help. There may just be some thread of feedback that may help, if not with the next draft, maybe the next story you work on.
Don’t buy into the literary panzi scheme: Learn to Receive. We have abilities for your needs.
I’ll be on the blog or find me, I mean “Us,” on Facebook. Include links to these here.
Alexis E Santí editor in chief and founder
If you are looking on how to sign up to do a workshop with me go to the Our Stories website by following this link>>>MORE. If you would like to know about how the Workshops got started at Our Stories read on, friends.
We’ve been doing workshops now for the past four years this March, this gives me a bit of pause to have been doing it this long. Time flies.
I was in Korea at the time when I decided we should try it out. I remember emailing MM and JK and the lot and having a lot of conversations with Leslie about the idea. I mean, Our Stories is a unique journal, we’re the only people who actually review and edit manuscripts that are sent to us as contest entries. That’s sort of a big deal. That also means is the staff has the experience and the ability to do a workshop, working through multiple revisions of drafts.
In the first year of running Our Stories I began noticing an odd trend. I kept seeing the same names over and over again entering their stories into our contests. Whereas, for me if I entered the Chatahoochee Review Contest once and then after I received a little tare sheet without even a smiley written on it and not even a receipt for my $25 dollars, like hell I was going to enter again. Who has the money? Who has the time?
So what I saw was that people who were entering our contests were entering again and again. As if they were—perhaps—getting something from the experience, that they saw value in the experience as opposed to a scratch off loto ticket.
So in March, when Leslie and I were in Korea and I had not a lot to do besides watch Battlestar Galactica with her in bed and order room service from the Hilton five star kitchen (I admit, I gained a few pounds) I decided to start mocking up a web page for the workshops. I emailed my staff, some sort of frantic excited email and they gave the thumbs up.
Pedagogically, I wanted the workshops to be one-on-one workshops. I’d always wished to have that perfect experience with just one professor when I was in my MFA, where the professor would go through my entire manuscript multiple times, page by page. My experience of reviewing manuscripts in graduate school compared to my undergraduate experience was poor at best. A little back-story, Josh Campbell (assistant managing editor) and I did our BA’s at Hobart and William Smith and we learned from Paul Cody (MFA, Cornell) that to review someone else’s work was almost a religious act. You had to be trusted to work through every page of someone’s manuscript and not just tear them down to prove that you were smart—you had to give them something to build them up. This to me, from a very early stage was an essential piece of the Godly act of writing. You have the art of creation, the art of presentation and the art of communion. We celebrate those that create and those that can then take that work and be able to read it beautifully such as a Maya Angelou or a Richard Bausch for that matter and then, to me, my holy trinity is rounded out with the art of communion: to read and give feedback to another author. To take their work, read it with care—attempt to gaze into their world for a moment and tell them what we see and how it can be improved. So the act of doing a workshop, the chance to do three revisions on someone’s manuscript instead of just one like we did for our contests, it seemed damned logical.
So I went to work and I did as usually do when I’m inspired is I live with the computer in my eyeballs and barely sleep and a few dozen hours later of web design and Photoshop. By the end of the week I’d built a very large wing in our website called Workshops at Our Stories. It went live and we were off. Within two weeks we had two people signed up. The rest has been a very rewarding and amazing experience.
So here’s how it works at Our Stories. You sign up with whoever you like by emailing them and asking them what their schedule is like or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll ask for you. Don’t be shy, no one is going to bite. And we set it up and see where to begin. Chances are if you’ve never entered a contest with us you don’t know what the big deal is all about. We have some examples of reviews we’ve done on the website and as soon as I can grab a free weekend I’m going to do some video documenting of what our reviews actually look like, which I know is hard to conceptualize. However, if I can outline it here in general:
• You send us a story and we send it back with comments all over the manuscript.
• We tell you how your story opens, what it feels like to us (the opening is the most important part of the manuscript.
• We go page by page through the short story and give you feedback on such things as dialogue on how your plot is working, what your story feels like to us. How the tension is going. Where do we see dead space in your story. All this and much more, every story has different needs. Similar to a patient on a table.
• Then when we get to the end of the manuscript we get to the very end and give you a big overall feedback of the story, what works what doesn’t.
This is also what you get in a contest entry (with the exception of our flash fiction contest, where you receive overall feedback instead). The only real difference between our workshops is how many drafts you want to do and how many stories you’d like to do. Our basic package is the Standard Workshop, where you can work with three stories and three drafts of each story. In between drafts we encourage you to write us an email, called the “clarification email” where if you have lingering questions before you start your next draft that you shoot us an email first. We want to make sure that we give you our attention not only to your writing but to you as you process our feedback.
I have worked with writers for four years and everyone comes to the work with me at a different stage. Some have MFA degrees and are looking for a refresher to open their eyes. Some have never written a short story before and want to use the workshop as a motivator. Some have fought with the muse for decades and are just looking for a helping hand. One thing brings them all together—the passion to work on their writing and the belief in themselves.
I am honored to work with other writers. I keep in touch with my former “students” frequently, recently I was told that one of my students that worked with me gained acceptance into an MFA program. And I have documented in a few posts at the Our Stories blog of former students who have published their work someplace else after working with either our contests or workshops. Their victories are our victories. The point has never been to be the best literary journal in the country, the point has been to be the most helpful literary journal in the country.
So, there’s the history. Four years of work. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to write us. Best of luck and write well.
I applaud Damon Winter and his amazing prose, he is articulate and a fantastic artist. I want to take a moment and respond to the article and include some of my own photos which were used with the hipstamatic app.
I am a long time user of Hipstamatic, meaning I’ve had it for the past nine months or so, which is a long time in the life of an app. This is an important and thrilling conversation to be having about the role of camera phones in the photography world. This is important because, over time, these photos from camera phones are going to continue to crop up everywhere, no pun intended. No longer are the pictures from phones grainy, pixelated images–they are now mega pixel shots that can be edited with apps like the Photoshop app and then “effected” as an after effect. Hipstamatic shots are a unique bird though, they are pr-effected shots, meaning that the photographer doesn’t “do” anything with them after the picture is shot. The app allows you to choose the film, the lens and a flash. You swap them out like a, well, excuse me, a photographer would. The irony should not be lost on the audience that Hipstamatic shots are supposed to mimic some of the past niche lenses that have since fallen out of fashion, including the Helga or Robo Glitter lenses of a forgone era. They are supposed to mimic the Lo/Fi retro effect on an iPhone, a somewhat post modern statement, I know. However, consider the fact that this world of Lo/F lenses and cameras that did exist at one time in a greater popularity than the scant attention that their real life counterparts receive today–has given them a renaissance. The folks at Hipstamatic are smart, dead smart. They know that there’s something to the past lenses that have been all but forgotten. Their application has continued to develop in a sort of cheeky old take with new technology. Whether they will ever venture into the field of reproducing Lo/Fi camera phone pictures from the recent past of, “I just wish I could get back my Motorola Razr camera!” remains to be seen.
My take on this issue is as follows: Damon’s picture is quite amazing, period. The lighting is spot on and the perspective he captures is incredible. He has an amazing eye. The thing that is: “camera phone sucky” about his picture has nothing to do with any of that though–it’s the damn crummy border that he used: a throw back to the camera paper of the 60′s called “Inas” that’s what gives the picture a truly amateur camera phone effect. (Upon close inspection, it appears Damon faded the border of his shot as the camera paper that the photo is on is not a Hipstamatic paper, it still looks poor.) Just so you know, Damon had choices, as it the life of an app photographer! He had two other “film papers” he could have chosen, to achieve a better effect in my estimate, the “blanko” film and the “Inas 1935″ that would have eliminated the border. Just as he had many other choices. The border he chose crams the shot into a sort of shit bird mounting that you just don’t like to see in the art shots that these cameras produce (there, I said it”cameras”.) Let me put it another way: his shot is like the the Mona Lisa sitting on mildewed cardboard paper, doesn’t matter how much you dig it–it looks cheap.
Folks, the bottom line is camera phones are here to stay. As the cameras continue to improve in functionality one can never ignore the portability and ease of use. Do you really want to carry two cameras around? Consider the fact that your camera can’t access the internet, you can’t instantly share your photos with anyone until you plug the camera in? I mean, stone ages, dudes. Shucks, Damon could’ve took his 20 amazing shots, edited these pics if he wanted to, sent it into this contest, checked his email, let people know he submitted to the contest on Facebook, texted his mom letting her know he had a shot at winning a contest, all while listening to Lil’ Wayne kick it and STILL had time to get to target practice. This brings the question–should Damon have to work harder in developing this effect? Is he not, in fact, posing as a great photographer because he needs to work on it longer in a dark room and such with chemicals and ugly paper? My only response: why should he? I do not mean this statement to insult those that came before us and whose craft of film making, the work of processing photos in a dark room–the skills of rendering physical pictures on paper. No, I hold these men and women in the highest regard. We are aware and respect the fact that these shots take talent, skill and an earnestness that can not be attained in the world camera phones. However, this should not exclude the talent and the eye for photography that is rapidly developing in an increasingly wireless and converging technological world. This is the moment in the photography world that is much the same as the advent of color to films or sound before it. Those who only cling to the past and are unable to adapt typically scorn all things new with the fervor that they are heretics. Mellow out people, this stuff is here to stay.
I think that sums it up: Damon, chose a different background next time, brother controversy stopped.
Alexis E Santi
>Originally published in the Democratic Underground in December of 2003. The article is no longer live on their website. I decided to post this after the new TSA regulations came out to ensure we scan every passenger.
The War on Odor & The War on Terror
Those who like Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are familiar with the character Kilgore Trout. Trout, a failed science fiction writer, whose brief stories are referenced in Vonnegut’s books, are full of sardonic wit. In God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, one of Trout’s stories appears; a story of a country that is at war with odor. A country, where millions are spent fighting odors, chemicals are developed to neutralize every odor. Time, money and manpower goes into a full-frontal attack on the scourge of the earth, odor. Finally a dictator assumes power that has an answer, a perfect solution to win the war against odor. He is assailed as a genius, his solution: cut off everyone’s noses.
Terror’s purpose is to cause fear. Thus, a fundamental part of the war on terror must be to destroy fear. Yet, fear is inherent in all man thus, we must overstate the obvious: we cannot destroy fear.
But, what if we could find a nose in the war on terror, a nose on fear that we could cut off?
We live in a world where the very word terror seems as if it was just invented; everything has now become a function of terror. Terror has become the most popular, pervasive, ear-catching issue in our society today. Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are the worlds top terrorists, or sponsors of terror. Protesters in the streets of London raise placards accusing Bush and Blair of being themselves terrorists. At the same time the protesters themselves are considered a brand of terrorists. Eco-terrorists vandalize Humvees in a car lot. Lee Boyd Malvo and John Mohammed, the DC snipers, are prosecuted under anti-terrorist legislation. Email spammers, cyber hackers, also now seem to be considered terrorists. Sellers of bootleg CDs, and knock-off Kate Spade handbags, are also supporting terrorists. Terror has become the most pervasive issue in our culture, and the direction our foreign and economic policy is headed over the next generation. We are in the midst of a war, a war that will cost countless money, time and manpower: A war on terror.
There are three logical ways to search for the nose on terror; they are by confronting terror on mental, physical and cultural battleground.
The easiest way to confront terror and its cousin, fear would be by eliminating it inside of us – in some sort of Clockwork Orange science experiment; destroy the very nature of fear inside of us. Now, this won’t happen, but what I think can happen is to adapt to the notion that our world will always be invaded by terror, that we are not ever 100% safe from the madness of the world. The clearest example of this mental shift is the lives of the Israelis, living, working and thriving yet not knowing whether their bus is next. The events of September 11th initiated the American public into the global world of terror and we have been playing catch up ever since. So the nose here is understanding the world we live in now.
Physically there are two fronts where we can confront terror; they are publicly and privately.
Publicly, large masses of men and women of the armed forces can invade nations. This is, well, expensive, and does not exactly go after small groups of individuals in the war on terror. Whatever side of the political spectrum we fall, we cannot argue with the fact that full-scale wars are not a very cost effective way of battling roving terrorists. The second way, which remains eerily out of the news, is clandestine operations working across the world, silently confronting terror. The world can only hope that appropriate anti-terrorism units across the world have already begun to collaborate and embed themselves into the terrorist culture, with the goal of muting their attacks on innocent citizens. Here, the nose that we’ve been showing the world is our military might and it remains bloodied so-to-speak.
Finally, confronting terror must happen culturally in the United States. We relied on the breadth of our population to win both World Wars and the Cold war. The resiliency of the American society is woven into our ability to adapt and tap into the diversity of our population. Today, soldiers are dying in the Middle East because their language training is so insufficient that they can’t read roadside signs that say “Caution, Bomb!” in Arabic. America more than ever must begin to educate our population regarding the history, culture, region and languages of the world and specifically the Middle East. If we are to assume that the immediate future of American Foreign Policy will be centered on the Middle East, and Global politics then we have much to do. American diplomatic, military, civic corps, and the American public will be forced as a new generation of multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, politically savvy citizenry. Their mentors will be their neighbors, the grosser, the cab driver, the professor long shunned by his home country – their new country is calling on them to provide a service to their country, educate and build America’s best and brightest.
It is only by utilizing the breadth of our population that America will achieve its full interests in the War on Terror. We have the population, the ability and the vast understanding. The United States must now more than ever adapt to a global world based on an aggressive understanding of global politics, history and the multiplicity of languages and cultures. Ignorance unfortunately is no longer bliss, ignorance is in fact, the very nose of terror that we must cut off.
With a bandanna rolled over our eyes we strike with a heavy stick to knock the Pinata down (aka Roadblocks)
WE START OFF OUR STORIES WITH VAGUE NOTIONS. We think things like, I’d like to set a story right before WWI in a German training camp. Or something like, I remember my mother crawling into bed with me and crying after she had a fight with my father. The trailer at the movie theater reminds me of the last time I saw my sister alive. That’s usually how it starts. A vague notion where you decide that the way you see the world means something. We all do this. I don’t care whether you have your MFA or you’ve never written a story before. We all capture moments in our lives that we believe are significant, that a we believe—for one reason or another—that there is a story behind what we saw in our mind’s eye.
For some reason, us descendants of Sisyphus; the writers of poetry and prose, decided that writing things down would be where we got our kicks. Other people become stand up comedians, others become painters, or musicians, sculptors—you catch my drift, all of us artist types are telling stories. However, the true laborers (in my opinion) are the writers, the ones that metaphorically put pen to paper, hands to the keyboard, index finger to the iPhone—drift caught. We set off, deciding with sure-fire audacity, “I’m going to write that down.” And just like that we’re spun arond three times fast, dizzy and confused and start off. With a bandana rolled over our eyes we strike out with a heavy stick to knock the piñata down. To nail that damn story with our big stick so that we can be rid of it.
The truth is when we start writing—be honest here, folks—when we start writing we don’t know what the hell we’re doing. We start imagining things that include the setting and try to picture the world these characters we’re trying to sketch out. We use our senses and try to sniff things out, we reach our hands into the grass and feel, we’re served some deep dish and taste what the story has to serve us. We are truly lost. All we have is the vague notion that the story is out there, somewhere. So we lurch forward, taking our wild swings at a story, trying fitfully to get at what is encased inside that stupid flimsy paper mache so that we can have it spill all over the page.
What I notice is that often (with us emerging writers) is that we make choices that can corrupt the process of telling the story. We make really bad choices through no fault of our own we do this. And when I say us I include me in the process, I know I do this. Show of hands, who does this—see that’s a lot of people out there! The reason we do this merits an essay by itself but simply put: we make bad choices because we believe the artistic process should not be “messed with”. First thought, best thought, drift thrown again and drift caught? It’s like we believe that the original idea for our story is this perfect little ET alien that we gotta let sit in our closet and not talk about. Ignore it and it’ll be cool. I mean, just let that weird dookie looking thing chill and let us tell the story in whatever way we want, cause homie, if you mess with it too much it’ll just disappear, get sick and stuff. The story will die if I talk about it! I am here to tell you the following: bullshit. You have to look at what choices you make in telling your story, you have to have a moment in your creative process where that pencil pusher devil on your left shoulder gets a chance to add some things up. You gotta do the math for a second and see if it totals out. Because, folks, hear me out already, if you don’t take a moment and reflect you will have wasted your talents on a story that is DOA: Dead On Arrival. I know that’s cold. I know. I know. But I’m giving it to you straight. Let me give you some examples that I recently saw. The details have been changed to protect the author’s original idea.
I read a brilliant short story this quarter about a kindergartner who takes her homework and burns it in a bathroom. It was hilarious at every turn but since the story was told from a first person present (from the 5 year old’s voice) it was entirely incoherent for me to understand what was actually happening. Next, I read a very compelling story about three cowboys who were stuck in the middle of the desert surrounded by coyotes. The trouble with this story is that the story was told by a third person narrator that sounded so academic that I thought I was in Cambridge and not in the Mojave. And finally, if my point is still not clear, I read a story about a woman who had attempted suicide but since the story was told in the first person past tense it became boring, since I knew she was alive and well, reciting the manuscript.
Now, with that being said, I am not saying that these can’t be done. Seriously, it can all be done—it’s just that if you start off on the wrong ways you have to write to a level that is sheer brilliance. So, for example, about the suicide attempt, there is the potential that the story can be amazing. However, the writer has to make the voice of the character so interesting, so incredibly beautiful that we are horrified that they would ever want to take their life. It’s always possible to tell that story but it takes, I’d say, 10 times the work. In the end, take a breather instead.
Now, the very hard part of the job as editor at Our Stories is reading these stories that are brilliant, smart, and hilarious—yet—have an enormous logic flaw inside of them. There is literally no worse news I can give a writer when this occurs. The only thing the writer can do is revise from the very foundation. Not good. This is not the sort of feedback I relish in giving. In fact, I almost wish I did not see it at all and I could just tell them that their plot needed “work”. If only other journals gave that little, right comrades? I digress.
Let me get to my point. Here’s the deal, Power Rangers, when you first start writing your story—somewhere after you get that brilliant epiphany that gave you the idea of your story and before you write the second page of what you believe is the “the best story you’ve ever written.” you need to pause. Take a breather. Get up out of your chair and stretch. Go outside. Have a smoke. Have two smokes while no one is looking. Then, before you walk back inside to your computer ask yourself whether you’re handling the story in the right way. Think about whether if you changed the story to a past tense whether it’d be better. Decide whether the voice of your 1st person narrator is someone who your audience would like to spend the fifteen pages with. Analyze whether your 3rd person narrationo is up to snuff. And if you have doubts then it’s not too late. You haven’t taken too much time out of your life to look back at that point.
I think before the second page is the perfect time to question these things. At that point you can still write the story in two, three different ways. I remember Richard Bausch would tell us examples of novelists that would write hundreds of pages in one or two ways and then decide which they liked better. You can at least take a couple pages and work this out. I know it’s a lot like asking a bull to stop bucking, like a bird to stop flapping, like a duck to stop . . . drift caught again, bing! What I’m saying is to just take a moment before you make a mistake that ends up throwing all of these roadblocks in front of you where they’re not needed. You owe it to yourself to open up the closest, spank that dookie headed ET and see what they say—don’t worry, you can throw them back in the closet when you’re done getting what you need.
Okay. That’s it for now. Enjoy the Fall 2010 issue, I love all of the stories we published this quarter, they all show us something beautiful. We’ll be back when there’s snow on the ground and we’ve found our third annual Richard Bausch Short Story prize. For those of you applying to MFA programs good luck. Write well.
So I’ve been doing this i365 thing for a while. September 1st marked the 6 month marker so to speak. I’ve collected what I think are the top picks here in my MobileMe Gallery.
If you think there’s a picture missing that you’ve really liked then drop me a line. Thank you all for being so supportive and for helping me do this thing.
Six Months of i365
I’m also looking for a gallery to host a shin-dig when this is all done. If you have advice, suggestions of places, etc.. just let me know. I’m a fish out of water when it comes to the art world.