For Freeman

November 25, 2014 — 25 Comments

I’m supposed to be grading papers, but the Ferguson news is breaking and it’s reminded me of what I’ve been trying not to think about all day, which is the fact that one of my students from back in the 90s – one of my favorites – died this weekend.

I hadn’t seen him years and I don’t know many details, but I know life had been rough for him after high school. I know he was arrested this year. I know that in most books his death will be just be another statistic. Another black man that died too young.

But I just went to my basement and got out a photo book with pictures of all my students and all of our trips and get-togethers, and I just started weeping because you can see it in the pictures what I really know about him: how funny and spirited he was, and how we had a special bond.

There he is standing under a microphone at the Motown recording studios with all eyes on him. There he is posing like a gangster with his Wendy’s hamburger. There he is embracing his classmates at the graduation dinner.

He was part of a scholarship program (the Marianist Urban Students Program at Purcell Marian High School in Cincinnati) that I directed back in the late 90s. I had 20 high school students each year, and I took them to Detroit and Cleveland and Gatlinburg, made them ride horses and make gingerbread houses, & brought them to see Colin Powell and Maya Angelou. I cheered them on at their sports games and took them to watch the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium and the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. When I got pregnant, the moms and girls threw me a surprise baby shower, and a couple of the girls babysat after my daughter was born. When I took the group to the African American History museum in Detroit, the parents introduced me to my first soul food restaurant.

As director of that program, I was young and naive, dreamy and ambitious. I was a young white girl driving to black neighborhoods clutching my ridiculous clipboard. I met with parents and grandparents. I discussed goals and devised study plans. I took the students on college visits. I wanted to change their lives.

I wanted to change their lives, but as a white girl from the suburbs, I had no idea what their lives were about. I didn’t know that they didn’t need to be changed. I didn’t understand that the “system” – what my current students call “society” – was was what needed to be changed. I didn’t understand that its history and laws and prejudices were so much vaster and deeper than my whiteprivilege mind could fathom. I thought that a study plan and a few poems by Langston Hughes could fix things up.

I wanted to change my students’ lives. But what is obvious now more than ever is that they changed mine.

*     *     *

Freeman. That was his last name; that’s what I called him.
Freeman, for what it’s worth, this is for you.

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Today is the first day of CL Bledsoe’s virtual book tour celebrating Man of Clay, a novel with elements of magical realism and a dash of steampunk. This funny, engaging story redefines what Southern Literature is capable of being. Man of Clay can be pre-ordered today!

HeadshotCL Bledsoe is the author of four poetry collections, one short story collection, and five novels, including the Necro-Files series. His stories, poems, essays, plays, and reviews have been published in hundreds of literary journals, including Cimarron Review, Barrow Street, New York Quarterly, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Arkansas Review, Pank, Potomac Review, and many others. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize thirteen times, Best of the Net four times, and has had two stories selected as Notable Stories of the year by Story South’s Million Writers Award. Bledsoe currently lives in Alexandria, VA, with his daughter.

ManOfClay_novellaRead More By and About CL:

Short Story: “Mouth”

Short Story: “Texas Never Whispers”

Poem: “The Sad Lobster Speaks”

Poems: “Roaches” and “Anthem” in Story South

Interview: By Cervena Barva Press

Interview: By Etopia Press

Poetry Book: Riceland

Novel: The Necro-Files: $7.50/Hr + Curses

Essay: “My First Critic”

Essay: “Thesis”

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to CL for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was raised by storytellers, so it was a natural progression to want to tell stories myself. I grew up in the rural South on a farm, and my dad, brother, and uncles were always telling stories. Everything was a narrative to them. If you asked if someone had seen a movie or TV show or read a book, there was no “yes” or “no” answer; instead, you got a story about the experience. And they were entertaining stories. I’ve always been enthralled by the abilities of good storytellers who can control an audience. Stories, specifically books, but movies, and comedy performances also, were the only things that really provided comfort for me when I was growing up, but more than that, stories were exciting. I had an unusual and difficult childhood, and I never saw much gain from church or school or the social conventions one was supposed to pursue but didn’t seem particularly welcoming to me. Similarly, we were poor and the farm was struggling to stay afloat. There wasn’t a lot of hope or optimism around. But stories showed people with dignity and wisdom and all those things that we’re taught matter when we’re little kids, but we learn don’t really exist in any reliable sense when we grow up. Stories reconstructed the world into something better. In a good story, there is a God—the storyteller—and s/he does care about the characters, loves them, even when s/he makes them suffer. In that sense, it’s pure escapism for me. It’s a better world, but it’s a true world because it presents people we strive to be. And, most importantly, it shows us what we can be.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

When I was a kid, I’d play “writer.” I’d gather up whatever office supplies I could get a hold of—crayons and paper, glue sticks, scissors—and sit at our big dining room table and…mostly make messes.

When I got older and more serious, I struggled quite a bit to work out the various conventions of writing novels and short stories, especially, but also poems. I didn’t realize that writing IS that struggle. I went to college to learn how to write. I worked my ass off. All around me, I saw folks calling themselves writers who lacked work ethic. Not me. I took every suggestion I could get and tried them all. I’d submit something for workshop every week, if I was allowed. I set up off-campus workshops in addition to my classwork, and provided new material for all of them constantly. This was because I was a really rough writer, but I wanted to improve.

I started sending work out to literary journals as an undergrad because that was something I understood. I’d been on the staff of one in high school, but they wouldn’t publish me until I purposefully wrote something about Jesus, which they snatched right up. In college, I cast the net pretty wide. I’d send out work to fifty places at a time. Most would reject me. I started targeting places I’d seen the grad students get published in, and I had some success. My first big publication was in Nimrod as an undergrad. That was quickly followed by Story South. I had certain journals I aimed for and loved, and these weren’t usually the popular ones. I remember the first time I placed something with Clackamas Literary Review, which I considered one of the best journals out there but I’m sure most people have never heard of. Hobart was another real coup, though it has become, deservedly, pretty high-profile. I’ve continued submitting work to those kinds of journals—solid journals that aren’t necessarily hip but publish good work. I’ve been in plenty of hip journals—and I realized pretty quickly that popularity had nothing to do with quality. The same way my high school journal wanted Jesus poems, these hip journals wanted whatever fads. I’ve never been a cool kid, but I have been guilty of trying to follow the fads on occasion.

"The writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind."

“The writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind.”

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I never really had a mentor, per se, which I regret—it was kind of one of the main reasons I went to grad school—but a ton of people have helped me, and still help me. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of publishers, editors, and other writers, and I think that most of us understand that we have to help each other. More than that, we enjoy it. I don’t want to name a lot of names, but I’ll narrow it down to two major groups of folks. The first group was centered around The Arkansas Review. I’ll expand this to include several folks not really connected to AR but who are connected to Arkansas, where I was born and raised. Several, several folks have helped me by publishing me, promoting my work, and just being friendly, because we all are either from Arkansas or are connected to it. We’d reach out to each other and share stories about being away from “home,” and we’d promote each other’s work. Along the same lines, when I moved to the Baltimore area, I met so many wonderful writers and promoters who have invited me to read or submit writing to their journals. Baltimore has an incredibly vibrant literary scene, really supportive but also wild. I love reading in Baltimore. Maybe somebody gets drunk and heckles you, or maybe somebody takes their clothes off, but they listen. And they’ll buy you a drink afterwards.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Some terrible instructor asked me, once, what my goals were as a writer. I told him I wanted to be a mid-list writer, plugging away, pumping out books on university presses without a lot of accompanying fanfare or drama. I was being an asshole, but I was also not. I am definitely more of a tortoise than a hare when it comes to writing, and the writers and artists I most admire are those who labored, at times in total obscurity, just to create their art. Henry Darger, the outsider artist/writer, comes to mind. Van Gogh. Emily Dickinson. Wilhelm Stekel was quoted in Catcher in the Rye when Holden’s former teacher tells him, “The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one.” That’s how I feel about writing and art, and I admire those who live accordingly, in the same way that I admire those who live their lives humbly. Writing, for me, is more about life than lifestyle.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Only do it if you have no choice. A friend once told me that we’re writers because we’re damaged in such a way that this is how we communicate. I have to write; it’s a physical necessity. If I don’t write, I get anxious, depressed, antsy. It’s how I process and think and live and love. If this doesn’t make sense to you, go do something else.

Having said all that, I think the greatest lesson to learn about writing is to be open, which is also the greatest lesson to learn about life. Read voraciously—not just within your own preferred genre—and write voraciously. Don’t worry about what others will think of what you’ve written until you’re revising, if even then. And be open to every opportunity you find, or that finds you.

Be kind to yourself. Write every day, except when you don’t. Fuck up and start over.

Follow along with the Man of Clay virtual book tour by heading to [PANK] tomorrow!

 

 

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This is the first stop of Lynn Kanter’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Be sure to click the banner to see the full tour schedule and follow along for new content each day!

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Lynn Kanter is the author of the novels Her Own Vietnam (2014, Shade Mountain Press), The Mayor of Heaven (1997) and On Lill Street (1992), both published by Third Side Press. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Lost Orchard (SUNY Press), Breaking Up is Hard to Do, and The Time of Our Lives: Women Write on Sex After 40 (both Crossing Press), and the literary journal Verbsap. Her nonfiction has appeared in Referential Magazine and the anthologies Coming Out of Cancer (Seal Press), Testimonies (Alyson Publications) and Confronting Cancer, Constructing Change (Third Side Press).

Lynn is a lifelong activist for feminist and other progressive causes, and has the T-shirts to prove it. Since 1992 Lynn has worked as a writer for the Center for Community Change, a national social justice organization. She lives with her wife in Washington, DC.

lill streetRead More By And About Lynn:

Novel: The Mayor of Heaven

Novel: On Lill Street

Essay: “What Did I Have”

How Lynn Kanter Became a Writer:

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Lynn for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’ve always loved words. The printed word, the spoken word, stories told in books or movies, as slogans or jests. I was the girl who studied the lyrics of the Top 40 songs and was drawn to the message more than the melody. I think becoming a writer was a natural outgrowth of my interests and enthusiasms.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I started writing stories when I was a little girl, sitting behind my father’s upright black manual typewriter, a beautiful machine that was old even then. Some of the metal keys had cushioned rubber caps that you could, with difficulty, slide on and off. The rubber had turned hard and cracked like an old pencil eraser that now can only rub holes in the paper.

I can distinctly remember as a child typing the words, “This is a story about a boy and his” – and then hesitating. Should it be his dog? His horse? I wasn’t sure. But I had no doubt the story had to be about a boy, because no one would be interested in a girl’s adventures. Now, of course, I find it sad that a young girl had already absorbed such a clear message about the value of her own stories.

The Mayor of HeavenAs a teenager, I stayed up late filling notebook after notebook with handwritten tales never meant to be shared, losing hours to the sheer exhilaration of writing. I often wish I could reclaim that unselfconscious energy and creativity. I still find joy and deep satisfaction in writing – otherwise no one would do it – but it’s much more effortful now and more burdened with self-criticism. That, I think, is the downside of getting published or working toward publication.

And I did aim for publication. In college, I papered the walls of my dorm room with rejection letters from magazines and journals. Later I stuffed a file cabinet with them. For my current novel, Her Own Vietnam, I probably could have filled another file drawer with rejections from agents, except they were all emails.

It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that my first story was published. By then I had found my subject, and it turned out to be the theme I had rejected as a child: the adventure of women’s lives.

I’ve heard of writers, like the late J. California Cooper, who said that stories and characters’ voices just came to them. I’ve never met any writers that lucky. Nor do I believe that Cooper – a hard-working writer who wrote more than a dozen plays before her fiction was finally published when she was in her 50s – meant that she literally sat around waiting for inspiration to strike.

I became a writer in the only way I think it’s possible to do so: by continually writing, continually reading, and trusting, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, that somewhere a reader is yearning for exactly the stories you want to tell.

"I'm inspired by the work of Rachel Carson."

“I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson.”

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I had a teacher in high school who took me aside after I’d turned in a routine class writing assignment and told me I could become a writer if that’s what I wanted. Over the years I’ve had numerous teachers who helped in various ways, particularly by equipping me to read and appreciate other people’s writing.

But the people who helped me the most are other writers, both aspiring and accomplished. They read my unfinished, unpolished work and allowed me to read theirs, so together we could lay bare the structure of a story and find its weak spots. Other writers have been astonishingly generous with their time, their support, and their insights about the craft of writing and the perils and satisfactions of publishing. I hope I have opportunities to pass on some of the wisdom and kindness I’ve received.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’m inspired by the life and work of Rachel Carson. She wrote books that were both lovely and compelling, and through them she launched a movement to save the earth. She did this while hiding the fact that she was dying of cancer, because she thought that knowledge might undermine her credibility, which was already under attack simply because she was female.

I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat. Like so many immigrant children, she had a difficult and painful childhood, emigrating from Haiti to Brooklyn when she was 12 to follow her parents. English was her third language. Yet she turned the unfamiliar English words into beauty and power, using them to open the eyes of the world to the Haitian experience and to advocate for change to alleviate the suffering of immigrants.

"I'm also inspired by Edwidge Danticat."

“I’m also inspired by Edwidge Danticat.”

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Read everything you can. Enjoy the suspense of “what will happen next?” and study how the author created that feeling. If you find books you love, reread them. You’ll notice and appreciate more each time.

Create a writing community for yourself. The support of other writers is invaluable – both to give and to receive. Plus, no one else wants to want to hear shop talk about the actual work of writing.

If you can, participate in workshops. You’ll learn how to give and take criticism and, most importantly, how to discern unhelpful criticism from the kind of instructive, insightful criticism that you should act on immediately.

Writers write. They don’t plan to write or intend to write; they sit down and write. Of course, the act of writing requires a good deal of researching, reading, and staring out the window – behaviors that other people might confuse with procrastination. Sometimes it is just avoidance – writing is work, after all – but I do believe some amount of daydreaming is intrinsic to the writing process.

You are a writer because you write. It is not dependent on whether anyone will publish what you write.

Protect your writing time. Consider yourself unavailable during that time, and insist that others do so as well. Many people in your life won’t equate writing with work, and will think you’re free to chat or have lunch or run out for milk. It doesn’t matter if they think writing is just a casual hobby for you. What matters is that they leave you alone to write. Making this happen is up to you.

Face the fact that you will almost certainly have to do something else for a living. If you can get a job that uses your writing skills, great – but be sure the kind of writing you do for work does not come from the same place within you as the writing you do for life.

All of this sounds very somber, but the big secret about writing is that it’s difficult, sometimes tedious, often frustrating – and profoundly fun. Enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

I have no degrees in creative writing, journalism, literature.
It’s all been on-the-job training.

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Jason Tinney is an award-winning fiction writer, musician, freelance journalist, and actor. His previous books are Louise Paris and Other Waltzes (poetry/prose) and Bluebird (short stories and poems). Three of his short stories were published in the anthology Out of Tune. Tinney and artist Brian Slagle have collaborated on The Swinging Bridge, a traveling literary and visual arts project, since 2004. He performs with, and is the co-founder of, the award-winning music groups, Donegal X-Press (DXP) and The Wayfarers. As an actor, Jason Tinney has appeared in more then thirty stage productions. He has been a contributor to several magazines, among them, Baltimore, Style, Gorilla, Her Mind, Urbanite, and Maryland Life , which won the International Regional Magazine Association’s Award of Merit in the category of Culture Feature for Tinney’s article “The March,” a first-hand account of life on the front-lines with American Civil War reenactors. Ripple Meets the Deep, a new collection of short fiction, was published in October 2014 by CityLit Press, an imprint of the CityLit Project.

Ripple-Cover-OnlyRead More By and About Jason:

Story excerpt: Ripple Meets the Deep

Story excerpt: Shave ‘em Dry

Story Excerpt: January

Interview: Baltimore Review Coffee & Questions

How Jason Tinney Became a Writer:

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jason for saying yes!

 

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

Honestly, there came a point where I didn’t know what else to do. I had been acting and studying theatre in college; I joined a band and, of course, worked other jobs to pay the rent. But I was also writing—all the time. I just made a decision that this was where I needed to focus. The solitary nature of the work, that’s a place I felt comfortable and I didn’t have to depend on anyone else to do it.

Looking back, it may have been as simple as a need, or drive—not in a confessional way—to express something I couldn’t say verbally. So, I do buy into what Samuel Beckett said: “…you don’t do it in order to get published. You do it in order to breathe.”

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I have no degrees in creative writing, journalism, literature. It’s all been on-the-job training. First, I organized. I had poems, short prose and stories, pages of dialogue. I reshaped and rewrote that material and jumped into new pieces with a clear intent. I researched—did my homework—attended literary events and networked.

I got lucky. In 2001, a small press, Hilliard and Harris, took an interest in the work and published my first collection of poetry and prose, Louise Paris and Other Waltzes, followed by a collection of poems and short stories, Bluebird, in 2003. I began pitching non-fiction stories to magazines; one assignment turned into another. I feel very fortunate.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

There are a few folks, who early on, I owe a great debt of gratitude: Rafael Alvarez, a fiction and television writer, and long-time journalist for the Baltimore Sun; writer/editor, Angela Davids, who gave my name to Elizabeth Evitts-Dickinson. At the time, Elizabeth was the editor of a Baltimore magazine, Urbanite, and offered me one of my first assignments. Dan Patrell, publisher and editor of Maryland Life magazine, and articles editor, Holly Smith—they took a chance on a freelance writer who had no experience; Dave Sheinin, a writer for the Washington Post—we met through music connections; and Gregg Wilhelm, director of the CityLit Project/CityLit Press.

All of the people I mentioned are extraordinary at their craft… they were very generous and patient with their time and took me under their wings. They were honest with their experiences, evaluated pieces I had written, and called out all the B.S. I put down on paper. I credit them for helping me learn to write.

More importantly, I’m honored, and blessed, to call them dear friends.

Larry Brown, courtesy NYTimes, “The One That Got Away”

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Larry Brown, who passed away in 2004. He was an Oxford, Mississippi firefighter who decided he wanted to write. He didn’t have any formal training—just did it, and it took him awhile, but, before his death, he created these amazing collections of stories and novels—Facing the Music and Joe, among them—that are raw and honest, brutal and beautiful. When I read these books and learned his own personal story, it felt like I had been given a driver’s license.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Plunge in. Be confident. No one else will own your voice.

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Synopsis—Vignettes of a middle-class American family told through lists, each reflecting their obsessions, their complaints, their desires, and their humanity.

A suburban family of four—a man, woman, boy, and girl—struggle through claustrophobic days crowded with home improvement projects, conflicts at work and school, a job loss, illnesses, separation, and the wearying confrontation with aging. The accoutrements of modern life—electronic devices and vehicles—have ceased to be tools that support them and have become instead the central fulcrums around which their lives wheel as they chase “cleanliness” and other high virtues of middle American life.

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Matthew Roberson is the author of three novels, 1998.6, Impotent, and List, and the editor of a critical book, Musing the Mosaic. His short fiction has appeared in journals such as Fourteen Hills, Fiction International, and Western Humanities Review. He teaches at Central Michigan University, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Matt Roberson book coverRead More By and About Matt:

Short Story: Midwestament

Poem: “Do Not

Board Member: Fiction Collective 2

Interview: The Collagist

Review: Impotent

How Matt Roberson Became a Writer:

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Matt for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

From early on I loved reading and language. I read anything I could get my hands on and went through all the genres, science fiction, fantasy, mystery. Eventually, I found myself most interested in books that could also really help me explore what it means to be human, and I went on a Vonnegut kick, and then Nabokov, Atwood, Pynchon. It became clear to me early, too, that I could express myself and tell stories and entertain with the written word in ways I couldn’t any way else, and so I always wrote.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

Writing was always just something I enjoyed, and I always got a good response to my writing when I was a kid. In secondary school and in college I wrote for newspapers, and fiction for classes. Once I started placing some of my fiction, I realized that’s what I wanted to keep doing—sharing my ideas and stories with audiences.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

So many people. Creative writers often have very strong and supportive communities, thankfully. So I had many peers reading and encouraging my work in grad school and a couple of very smart, talented mentors then and after. Cam Tatham, for one. Ron Sukenick. Then I realized that what I was writing shared a lot of interests in common with FC2 authors like Cris Mazza and Lance Olsen and Lidia Yuknavitch and Jeffrey Deshell, and I just gravitated to that clan–which is still doing some of the most exciting, adventurous, NOVEL novels around. I’m very proud to have done List most recently through FC2.

Matt Roberson raymond federman4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I feel like it’s kind of weird to say this, but I’m less interested in the lives of writers and artists. It’s their work I find important. I actually got a kick out of writers who played around with making “themselves” characters in their books, people like Raymond Federman, because they toyed with the idea of what’s real and fiction, and, guess what—there’s no clear line.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

If writing is important to you, and you want to keep doing it, keep doing it, every day, or every day you can, and read like a crazy person, and get involved in a writing community, because we don’t do this in a vacuum, and good for you, because it’s important that we love language and crafting it.

*Tomorrow, visit Book Puke to follow the tour and read an excerpt of List plus Matt’s insights from the passage: what he was thinking while he was writing, the trail of thoughts that got him there, and a whole lot more!

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Today is the first stop of Jen Michalski’s virtual book tour celebrating her new collection, From Here. The twelve stories in From Here explore the dislocations and intersections of people searching, running away, staying put. Their physical and emotional landscapes run the gamut, but in the end, they’re all searching for a place to call home.

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Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King, winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, and other works listed below. She is the host of the Starts Here! reading series, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a “Best of Baltimore” in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.

Read more by and about Jen:

Short Story: “Human Movements

Short Story: “Lillian in White

Interview: Talking about The Tide King

Novella Collection: Could You Be With Her Now

Fiction Collection: Close Encounters

How Jen Michalski Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jen for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I’m not sure it’s a question of “want.” I’ve been writing since I learned to write, and even if I never published a word again, if no one except me read another sentence that I wrote, I would continue to write. It’s as natural to me as breathing, as seeing, and definitely how I am able to organize my thoughts and understand the world. If I couldn’t write, my ability to be “Jen” would suffer as a result. It’s not about making an observation or a statement or wanting people to listen to me as some sort of authority. It’s the way I dialogue with my mind and with the outside world, a conversation.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

It wasn’t a concerted effort, at least to writing fiction. I majored in Language and Literature at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in the early 1990s, and I wrote some bad poetry during those years, but I never thought about being an “author” per se. I had always written novels, but they were more for my own enjoyment and trying to figure out who I was.

I graduated from St Mary’s thinking I would write features for magazines and newspapers, or be an editor, and I got my MS in Professional Writing from Towson University a few years later still thinking that. One of the classes I took at Towson, however, was an independent study, and I wrote another novel that someone actually read–my independent study professor, who also happened to be my advisor. She encouraged me to submit it. I sent it to a couple of places and was rejected, but I began to wonder what would happen if I wrote another novel and submitted it. Then, after I graduated, I started the literary quarterly jmww to sort of remain involved with the writing community. Over the years I got to meet other, more successful writers, and learned you could get an MFA in creative writing (seriously, I didn’t know) and all this other fun stuff. So, I started writing and sending out short stories. I guess this was about 2004, and I haven’t stopped.

  1. Who helped you along the way, and how?

My grandparents, both maternal and paternal, were very working class but voracious readers. My dad’s mother read a lot of mysteries and Ellery Queen and would give me the issues when she was finished, and my mom’s dad, who loved Westerns and historical romances, would take my brother and me to the library every Saturday morning. Coming from a family who only went to the beach, which was two hours away, one week every summer, books offered me vistas I didn’t know even existed, helped me nurture a great curiosity about people and the world.

When I graduated college, I reviewed art and books and the occasional play for The Baltimore Alternative, and my editor then, Rawley Grau, read a few of my stories and made me feel as if I had a little talent. I also was enamoured of his life as an editor and aspired to have a career in the writing arts.

These days, there are so many people–the many editors who have published my stories; Gregg Wilhelm, with whom I have worked for years to try and maintain a vibrant, fun writing community here in Baltimore; Savannah Schroll-Guz, who gave me my first break (and book) at So New Publishing; Michael Kimball, with whom I co-hosted the 510 Readings over 7 years and who has been instrumental in encouraging me to take some risks as a writer; Ed and Ann Berlin of The Ivy Bookshop, who work twice as hard as everyone else in making sure writers have a voice in Baltimore; Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc; Diane Goettel and Angela Leroux-Lindsey at Black Lawrence Press; Cynthia Reeser at Aqueous. Years of writing groups here in Baltimore, and happy hours. My family and friends and my partner, Phuong, for their unwavering support.

  1. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Without coming off as incredibly pretentious, I’ve always been struck by Beethoven, who began to go deaf around 26, when he was working on “Pathetique.” He wrote to his brothers about wanting to commit suicide but decided to continue living and creating art. At one point, he didn’t even know that his work reviewed a standing ovation until he turned around and saw everyone in the music hall clapping. If Beethoven didn’t throw in the towel, then how can the rest of us? And I think we should work in that vacuum as well, deaf and blind to applause, to reaction, good or bad.

  1. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

It is always about shouting the words into the wind, into the tempest, because they need to be purged, not because they need to be heard.

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of From Here plus Jen’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, the funny trail of thoughts that got her there, and a whole lot more!

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Today is the first stop of Désirée Zamorano’s virtual book tour celebrating her new novel. Mercy Amado has raised three girls, protecting them from their cheating father by leaving him. But Mercy’s love can only reach so far when her children are adults, as Sylvia, Celeste, and Nataly must make their own choices to fight or succumb, leave or return, to love or pay penance. When tragedy strikes in Sylvia’s life, Mercy, Celeste, and Nataly gather support her, but their familial love may not be enough for them to remain close as the secrets in their histories surface. Forgiveness may not be accepted. Fiercely independent, intelligent, they are The Amado Women.

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Désirée Zamorano is Pushcart prize nominee, and award-winning short story author, Désirée has wrestled with culture, identity, and the invisibility of Latinas from early on, and addressed that in her commentaries, which have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and NPR’s Latino USA. She delights in the exploration of contemporary issues of injustice and inequity, via her mystery series featuring private investigator, Inez Leon (Lucky Bat Books). Human Cargo was Latinidad’s mystery pick of the year.

The Amado Women has been listed among 5 Must-Read Books for Summer 2014 by Remezcla, and has been named among Eleven Moving Beach Reads That’ll Have You Weeping in Your Pina Colada by Bustle. It was selected as the August 2014 Book of the Month for the Los Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club.

Read more by and about Désirée:

Short Story: “Mercy”

Novel: Modern Cons

Travel Essay: “The Ruins of Mexico City”

Interview: “Q&A: Désirée Zamorano on the Lives of Latinas and The Amado Women

Reading: Human Cargo

How Désirée Zamorano Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Désirée for saying yes!

  1. Why did you want to become a writer?

As far back as third grade I thought being a writer was the most amazing thing in the world. Of course, I had no sophisticated sense of drafts and revising; I was simply dazzled by the stories and books I consumed. I, too, wanted to be the creator of something mesmerizing. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I wanted to enchant and entertain. As my understanding of writing and writing as a career deepened, I still clung to this goal, partly out of stubbornness, partly out of who I planned on being.

  1. How did you go about becoming a writer?

While very famous people got their MFA from my alma mater, I had financial and emotional pressures that precluded that. So, instead, I went to writers conferences, like Squaw Valley and La Jolla. As I toiled away at short stories, my sister pitched us as playwrights. Together we wrote two plays that were produced.

cover-human-cargoI really think of the Joe Jackson song, “You can’t get what you want til you know what you want.” Like everybody in Southern California, my sister and I collaborated on a couple of screenplays, but with the demands of my children and day job, I really felt I had to narrow my pursuits to what I really wanted to achieve: writing novels. Sure, the fantasy of screenplay money was sweet, but the reality was thousands more dedicated people were our competition. And I wanted to write novels.

In practical terms I did what writers before me have done: carved words out of the day. Writing is so abstract and theoretical, especially if you’re not published or don’t have a deadline or a paid assignment. I made it the most important item on my to-do list and gave myself achievable goals. When I was raising small children, 250 words a day was a goal. I increased the word count as I grew comfortable and confident. Today, the goal is 1,000 new words on writing days. (And I’m not Stephen King or Lisa See; they’re not all writing days! I like scheduling goof-up days, as well).

After feeling particularly isolated, my sister told me to find a writer group, and there was one so close by there was no excuse not to join. Finding like-minded people really nurtured what I was trying to do. Over the years the group has changed, but we continue to cheer each other on, and today, with the explosion in social media, I think it’s even easier to find your soul’s community.

Modern Cons

  1. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I am grateful for my supportive friends and family. Since publication is unsure, I certainly needed a cheering squad around me. When I finished a novel, a group of my friends read it, then we’d have a mini-book club, with praise and criticism to help me improve it. That fed my attention-seeking artist soul!

At one point I wanted to excise the desire to be a writer from my soul. The lack of success was causing me too much grief, bitterness, and resentment. It was at that point I came across Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life. It truly sustained me through the most challenging time of my writing life.

  1. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I met Dagoberto Gilb on the bookshelf of Pasadena’s Central Library. His collection of essays, “Gritos,” was riveting–about his life as a struggling Mexican-American writer, about his childhood in the same small town where I grew up. I admire his ferocity, his word play, his brilliance. I’m a big fan.

Dagoberto Gilb

  1. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Good luck! Every writer’s path is different, and you must forge your own way. My favorite words of advice come from the French film director Robert Bresson: “Make visible that which without you might never be seen.”

*Tomorrow, visit The Next Best Book Club blog to follow the tour and read an excerpt of The Amado Women plus Désirée’s insights from the passage: what she was thinking while she was writing, what research entailed, and a whole lot more!