All posts by South 85 Journal

Cheryl Russell Blog Post

Irreconcilable Differences

Cheryl Russell

I was at Panera, waiting for my editor and friend Amy.  We were meeting to go over my novel she had finished working on. I rarely like what I’ve worked on, and this novel was no exception. But the fact she was willing to meet me and not just mail back my manuscript was a positive sign that it wasn’t a complete loss as far as novels went. As I waited, I checked my email.

One of the emails was from Amy, titled “editing notes.”  The first note started with “It seemed like there were two novels at work…” and then went on to explain why Amy believed the novel was two incomplete stories instead of one. She also stated which section she thought was the strongest of the two and why.

I wasn’t sure what to think. While it appeared I no longer had a completed novel, I did have significant parts of two, and one of those parts “shined.” Shiny was good, right?

I finished scanning the notes; most of them confirmed what I had already suspected as weaknesses that needed fixing—not anchored in a particular place in time, a weird ending (I was tired when I finished it, sick of working on it, and I ended up summarizing the ending, which ended up confusing Amy). By the time I had finished the email, Amy had arrived. Once she had settled herself into the booth, I plunged ahead.

“So,” I said. “Parts of two novels?”

“Yes,” Amy replied, and once she explained her thoughts, I couldn’t argue. She was right, there were two distinct story lines in the novel, each needing to be explored in their own right. One story needs a beginning; the other needs an ending. Amy and I began to bounce ideas back and forth while I took notes.  The section we both like best is the second half of the original novel. I now need to write a new beginning and instead of filling me with dismay, I am excited with the challenge. “What if….” gets free reign, with multiple story lines loose in my imagination.

I also have the beginning to a second novel, which means I need to write a new ending. Great news for one of my characters; he stands an excellent chance at resurrection. (I killed him off originally because I didn’t know what to do with him.)

I now feel I have stories I can get behind; ones that excite me and make me curious about how it all going to turn out. Feelings that I lost a while ago, and now I know why, thanks to another set of eyes and a detached assessment of my work.

“It seemed like there were two novels at work….” are not words I want to see the next time I send her a novel to edit, but this time,  there are two novels that need completed and sent out as independent stories, able to stand on their own.

Cheryl RussellCheryl Russell received her MFA from Converse College in 2013. Her work has appeared in Infuze, Title Trakk, Focus on Fiction, The Storyteller, Ruminate, and Rose and Thorn. She currently teaches at Malone University. She resides in Ohio.

The Tweed Coat

Richard LeBlond

It has been said that quitting heroin is easier than quitting tobacco. If that is true, then as an ex-smoker I can say that giving up either is a piece of cake compared to the addiction of the publishing junkie. After the rush of that first acceptance, there is no turning back.

My dealer is a website that opens its tweed coat (with leather elbow patches) to reveal a list pinned to the silk lining. It is a list of literary journals and magazines currently seeking submissions of poems, short stories, and creative nonfiction.

In the beginning, my dealer was a website that lists its wares alphabetically. I soon realized I would die long before I got to the journal ZYZZYVA, or the journal itself would be dead. The founders of ZYZZYVA must have known they’d end up at the bottom of alphabetized lists, willing to paint themselves into the darkest corner because they didn’t want to hear from writers who go through lists alphabetically.

Then I discovered the “calls for submission” websites, and my addiction became hard-wired. Here were journals with open submission periods fresh off the boat from Columbia, or tunneled in from Mexico.

Do I have something they might be interested in? I read the editor’s credo or gibberish. I’m an essayist, so I head for the creative nonfiction. This is where I am usually thwarted. Most creative nonfiction in literary journals is what is referred to as narrative nonfiction. It would be mistaken for fiction were it not for the label. That’s not how I write. But I do employ tiny bits of fiction to avoid beatings and lawsuits. I suspect a lot of what passes for fiction is memoir in a witness protection program.

(Storyscape Journal mission statement on the need to declare whether something is fiction or true: “it totally matters if it’s true or invented, because I need to know if I should run around screaming based on the information you gave me or just imagine myself running around screaming.”)

Essays are the stepchild of most literary journals, trailing behind the beloved poems, short stories, and fictioniferous narrative nonfiction. It is a generous journal that allows space for an essay or two. Inspired invention has priority over inspired observation, with narrative nonfiction somewhere in between.

I wade through the website list one by one, looking for connection and suitability. The submission itself is anything but submissive. It is exposure, the thrill of risk, all or nothing. The numerous rejections intensify the few acceptances, and keep in check the excesses of ego.

Even the acceptance comes with a reality check. When I see a journal calling for submissions after it has published my essay, I feel like I have been dumped. I know it was just a one-night stand; still, I gave her my heart. But she has moved on, having her own addiction to attend to.

As every junkie knows, the fix is ephemeral.  It is only days, or hours, before I return to the tweed coat, to the quest for the next fix. Payment is a little piece of my soul. Bit by bit the tweed coat acquires majority interest, and the moment of no return goes unnoticed.

 

Richard LeBlondRichard LeBlond is a biologist living in North Carolina, where he worked for that state’s Natural Heritage Program until his retirement in 2007. He continues his biological research, and has added travel, photography, and writing.  His essays and photographs have appeared in or been accepted by several U.S. and international journals, including Montreal Review, Kudzu House, Appalachia, Weber – The Contemporary West, and Still Point Arts Quarterly.

The Conflict of Writing Beautifully and Brutally

Brit Graham

Recently I’m fixed in the mire between an uncertain creature which plants itself firmly in the realm of creative non-fiction and an unruly piece which tosses its head toward full-throttled, all out verse. An ungainly things lobbing itself into every chipped wooden door frame and jabbing its uncoordinated girth into the edges of glass tables, threatening to impale itself in order to avoid my dry eyed stare. This cumbersome beast lumbers about in place of my swift and brutal fragmented shards of poetry.

The two abstracts perch at opposite ends of the spectrum. Tying them together is like drowning a cat. It doesn’t happen often. Nor does one relatively return unscathed from such encounters. Nor are all things welcomed. Non-fiction should be simple–in theory. You have all your material tossing back shots in the back of your greasy cranium. Bereft without discipline they succumb to creep-crawl spiral of loathing.

The writing. She’s not enough to be sleek and gilded like some long legged gazelle at the edge of a undulating valley of grass rippling in the gentle sun-mottled breeze. No. She needs to have teeth. A little bit of crunch satisfying the itch we can’t quite scathe. Fact is rarely beautiful. The truth hardly unfolds like the pink origami crane your fourth grade best friend diligently creased for you every eighth period. The hand model’s appendage cracks, bone protrudes like a whale breaching the surface of flesh. The ripples, stunning in a certain slant of light, but no matter how beautiful, the wound still aches rips raw decade later.

In this tangled bronze thread of narrative it’s difficult if improbable to enter the spearing shards of fragment my writing has so heavily relied upon. It is difficult to write the benign sentence. The sort that carries brown boxed cargo, containing dusty facts the reader requires in order to make the leap of association needed in order to throw their pitter-patter hearts over the blinding crags of self-pity come chapter twenty-two.

It is difficult, unwieldly for my poetry-trained brain to unhinge from the short and succinct to flush out the full rack of a sentence hiding in this particular copse of wood. Heavy-footed, he does not bend easily to the flutter or breath and brevity. A proper narrative requires order and russet-rutted risk and canary-tinged reward. One must bear down, grind one’s molars together, and drop the beast in order to dissect its steaming inner workings.

It takes a different breed of finesse to shape and deepen those pivotal moments. Honing their bark to the same sharp white-silence retort as the barrel of a sniper rifle in verse. Swift as a soot-dusted memory by line three. Filling the spaces between. That’s the hard part. For it all snow blitzing across old black and white television set, the buzz of a fly beating against the screen door, the smack of the frame batting against the house in a gale. These unnecessary everyday things are required in a piece of fiction, a large piece. Spanning several thousands of words. Grains of sand in a jar, snow buzzing against the back drop. The need for a back drop at all infuriates.

The poet relies on the delicate path, carved by the chipped hooves of mule deer, the poet capable of spotting its black rip through the earth despite the summer’s cascading grasses pitching high over it. These are the short cuts, these are the jumps from line to lone-bitten line, relying on the razor sharp proper associations for their reader to make that leap over the live-wire.

Remain diligent, creep down the path sideways, if you must, gain a little grit, perhaps some dust. Settle alongside her as if you’d been there all along.

 

Photo of poet Brit GrahamFor now Brit Graham traverses the tundra that is South Dakota, while tripping over things while stargazing in the all too brief summer months. She is the crux of an ongoing love affair between the Pacific and Atlantic. She managed to pry an MFA in Poetry from the grasp of Converse College. You can read her poetry things in publications like Devilfish Review, The Night Owl, RealSouth Magazine, and The OWL.

Monkey Typing

Writing, Like Motherhood, Is a Thankless Job

Jennifer Brown Banks

Writing, like motherhood, is a thankless job. Despite the countless hours we spend in labor formulating thoughts, worrying, sacrificing sleep, in nurturing the needs of businesses and clients, it seems that everybody’s getting fed except us.

The misconception of our real roles continues to compromise our inherent value. Writers are historians, thought influencers, educators and modern-day messengers. Writers are quite often the faceless “voices” behind powerful political speeches, brand-building commercials, and scripted movies that generate millions at the box office. Still, we are undervalued and misunderstood.

For example, the online ads that entice today’s displaced workers to become a writer and work from home because: “all you need is an Internet connection and English speaking ability.” Another ad I stumbled across recently went as far as to picture a monkey sitting at a typewriter.

Further exacerbating the problem are the numerous publications that adopt the mantra of Wimpy in Popeye: “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday, for a hamburger today!” Translated? We hope to pay you for your contributions in the future, if our operation can find a way to make a profit now.

What other workers receive compensation in this way?  As soon as you sit in a cab, before you pull off to your intended destination, the driver has the meter already running. If your hairstylist gives you a bad cut, she still wants her “cut” before you leave her chair.

And where is our National Appreciation Day? Let’s see. Congress mandates a National Secretary’s Day, a Teacher’s Appreciation Week, and even a National Ice Cream Sandwich Day. Who knew?

A National Writers’ Appreciation Day would communicate to the world that writers are note-worthy, solid, contributing members of society; as worthy as any other profession of a tee-shirt, once-a-year discount, and Hallmark card line. Not to mention, a specially designated day would go a long way in at least feeding the egos of today’s starving artists! Most importantly, it would trumpet to the world that scribes are much more than couch potatoes, pencil pushers, and dreamers…

Still, like motherhood, our love for this way of life is unconditional. No matter how messy it gets, no matter how overlooked our efforts are, we write because it speaks to our soul. We write to silence the voices in our heads, saving thousands on therapy.

We write because we believe we can make the world better in so doing. We write because it makes us proud. We write because it’s part of our legacy.  Sometimes, we even write to prove that a degree in liberal arts can actually be useful.

And for the opportunity to write, we are thankful.

jennifer banks headshotJennifer Brown Banks is an award-winning blogger, relationship columnist, and poet. Over the last decade, her work has appeared in numerous print and online publications including: Pro BloggerThe Well-Fed WriterTechnoratiMahogany Magazine, and Date My Pet.

Featured image photo:  “Monkey-typing” by New York Zoological Society – Picture on Early Office Museum. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monkey-typing.jpg#/media/File:Monkey-typing.jpg

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It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect

Patty Somlo

I thought I was better than this. Haven’t I taught my writing students to just forge ahead, ignoring the critical voice whispering, “You’re no good?” Don’t I say that when you first sit down to write, to spew out whatever comes into your head, that you are getting stuff down and this will be the basis for a good first draft? And, yes, haven’t I said a zillion times that writing and rewriting make the work sing. It doesn’t have to be perfect the first time. That’s what I’ve said and it’s what I believe.

So, why am I in this muddle? Why am I writing and feeling disgusted with myself? Why am I comparing what I’m writing to the fantastic books I have read and reread, and feeling like my work is shit? And why do I keep thinking if I wrote a different novel, started all over from scratch, it would be better than what I’ve written?

This is why. I’m doing something new. For many years, I have written short pieces, both fiction and creative nonfiction. I have published one short story collection and have gotten publishers for two forthcoming books, an essay collection and another short story collection. It is time to work on a novel. And, boy, am I finding it hard.

Some writers plot a course and follow it from start to finish. I have never been one of those writers. I nearly always begin with the thinnest thread of an idea and do my best to follow it through the dark, usually having faith that it will lead me to a good place. I have approached writing my first novel the same way. But I’ve quickly seen what should have been obvious at the start. In a short story, the path might be dark and the destination uncertain. But the path is short. A novel is a cross-country journey, one that might take a year or a lifetime.

So every day after I finish getting down at least a few pages, I have a little talk with myself. I remind myself that even with shorter work, I often go through a phase where I hate what I’ve written. A voice in my head that has helped me through some difficult times reminds me of how often I have revised rough work multiple times and ended up with a final draft that works. Another voice that sounds like my former therapist Dr. Lori suggests I just have fun and enjoy getting to know my characters and discovering their stories. Dr. Lori also says that I shouldn’t forget to breathe and visualize the path that will lead me to the end of this novel.

I listen and nod, knowing they are right. But then the voice I call the Dark Dread tells me that no one will be interested in reading this novel. There are too many characters, he says, no romance, no violence, nothing of interest to anyone but me.

But years of living with the Dark Dread have taught me to not let it win, so I argue back. I remind DD that I’ve just started getting to know the characters and they may turn out to be folks I want to hang out with for a while. There’s Michael, who lives on the second floor of the building where all my main characters live. I picture his blond hair, after he’s gotten it spiky with gel, and I think of how I like him because he blows small problems way out of proportion the way I do. And there’s Anna on the first floor, a once-famous modern dancer who’s hiding secrets I haven’t yet had time to uncover. There’s also the mysterious boy, who suddenly showed up from who knows where, before curling up on the first floor, a few feet from Carlos’s front door.

Then the voice I think of as my Greatest Fan, who’s been there for me more times than I can count, especially in the face of rejection, brings up the novel, The Help, as she often does. “Remember the sixty rejection letters Kathryn Stockett got for The Help and she didn’t give up?” she asks.

I take a deep breath and slowly exhale. I remind myself that I can’t know at this point if my novel will be a total dud or win the Pulitzer Prize. All I know is that I love to write, even when it’s hard, and this novel is what my gut tells me I need to be working on now.

Patty SomloPatty Somlo has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as a Notable Essay for Best American Essays 2014. Her forthcoming books are Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), a memoir in essays, and Hairway to Heaven Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing). Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, The Flagler Review, and numerous anthologies.