M. M. Adjarian
People who glamorize the writing life should be hanged, drawn and quartered for their demon-spawned lies. Writing is unsexy dog work, a ceaseless plodding of word after blasted word. And it’s unforgiving. Progress for most comes in stingy half-inches rather than expansive miles. Joyce Carole Oates and Stephen King are among a tiny handful of individuals as famous for their prolific output as they are for the hypergraphia — a kind of verbal OCD —that drives them to the literary excesses behind their fame.
I’m still quite not sure why I do it; maybe I’m an undiagnosed masochist. Or maybe it has to do with an addiction to the writing process itself. When I try to describe that addiction to friends, they smile, as if to humor an idiot child or a woman too far gone to listen to reason. No person in her right mind would hunker down alone in her apartment to sit in front of a computer for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch; or just to get neck cricks and cause more damage to half-blind eyes that have made a mockery of five different bifocal prescriptions in less than 10 years.
But what do they know? Sitting in my black IKEA recliner, laptop perched atop my thighs and locked into focus mode, I can stare at the screen and let my gaze turn inward rather than react to the endless stream of fuss and noise around me. My heart rate slows, beating in time to the slow-pulsing cursor on my screen. I go into a kind of trance where the only way I can tell the time of day is by noting the changing pattern of light and shadow outside my window. For a short time, I know a rare commodity: peace.
Psychologists would characterize this relaxed alertness as the alpha wave state associated with waking dreams and meditation. Synapses fire in the synchronic harmony of identifiable patterns; the alpha state is just one of them. What I actually experience is a corporeal forgetfulness where eating, breathing and even excreting don’t seem to matter. Those body parts engaged in the writing act — eyes, arms, fingers —become appendages of a consciousness seeking expression through the medium of language. I am blissfully, gloriously, canceled out into temporary non-existence.
The best part of the process is what Robert Olen Butler calls “dream-storming.” That happens at the beginning of almost everything I write, when I just let images, voices and/or memories, however faint or fragmentary, rise up from the primordial stew of my unconscious. Listening to instrumental music like jazz — which I’ve always loved for its improvisational nature — helps. What I eventually manage to set down often make no sense, even to me. But dream-storming is the best way I know to access material that my snippy inner critic might otherwise sniff at because it’s just not good enough…or is just too weird for anyone else to see.
The hard part is actually trying to make sense of that surrealistic tangle. The first thing I typically do is to take that material and distill it into a brief opening sentence/paragraph that offers insight into a narrator, character or situation associated with whatever it is — an essay or story — that I’ve decided to write. After that, I let my imagination take over and use dream-stormed material to structure the narrative. Because my notes are so fractured, it sometimes it feels like I’m using broken crutches and a lunatic map to hobble along into oblivion. But it’s a method that has yet to fail me.
Maybe it’s just the need to see something — anything — on paper and realize that all those voices, images and memories in my head don’t necessarily mean I’m crazy. Or as crazy as I thought. When I’m not busy climbing the walls at the start of a project, it’s actually kind of exciting not knowing where I’m going. Ray Bradbury never knew where any of the narratives he started would end up. And he did just fine.
Of course, when the process of deciphering, reorganizing and revising goes too slowly, I want to rip out my eyeballs by the roots and throw my computer out the window like a titanium Frisbee. Instead I go into my kitchen and bake bread. Pounding dough can be quite therapeutic and far less expensive than paying therapist or making Apple even richer than it already is.
When I have to leave my trance to take care of the tedious business of living, the mood shifts and not for the better. Like a she-bear roused prematurely from hibernation, I can become sullen and cantankerous. No matter how few kinks I’ve managed to unbend in my writing or how much hair I’ve yanked out in frustration, I have no wish to emerge from my alpha wave cocoon.
Writing is a tortured nirvana. But it’s one I wouldn’t give up for anything in the world.
M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in such magazines as the Baltimore Review, Verdad, South 85 Journal, Eunoia Review, The Missing Slate, Serving House Journal, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly, Grub Street and Pif. When not blogging at her website, austinwritinglife.net, she engages with Twitterdom under the name @palabrist.
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South 85 Journal‘s staff is gearing up for our next issue, Fall / Winter 2017, which we will release on December 15, 2017. Usually, we open our reading period for the Fall / Winter issue on September 1, but we are trying an earlier schedule this time. We are accepting submissions starting today! As our journal grows in popularity,the number of submissions grows, and we feel a modified schedule will allow us to give each submission the attention it deserves.
Go to our Submittable page to submit today through November 1.
Since our reading period is now open, we would like to announce who will be working on the upcoming issue.
Returning to Staff
Thank you to the following staff members for continuing their involvement with South 85 Journal:
● Melissa Sherrer (Managing Poetry Editor)
● Anthony Reese (Managing Prose Editor)
● Aaron Dargis, Russell Jackson, Reed McFarlin, and Chris Menezes (Poetry Editors)
● Shianna Whitner (Fiction Editor)
● Courtney McQueen (Artistic Director and Poetry Editor)
● Jonathan Burgess and Samantha Moe (Non-Fiction Editors)
● John Newlin (Review Editor)
● Stephen Gray (Webmaster)
Joining Our Staff
We are always excited to welcome new staff to the journal because this means new ideas and fresh perspectives. We would like to welcome:
● Zoraida Pastor (Poetry Editor)
● Ashley Sfeir (Fiction Editor)
● Sarah Gray (Contributing Editor)
Of course, Sarah Gray isn’t really a new staff member. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of South 85 Journal! With Rick Mulkey on sabbatical, she is serving as the Associate Director of Converse College’s Low-Residency MFA Program and our Contributing Editor. You can read more about her position in a past blog post. We are excited to have her back, and we look forward to her fresh ideas as well as her wisdom and experience.
We’d like to wish those staff members who aren’t returning the best in their future endeavors. I am sure they will be successful in whatever they do.
● Monica Torres (Non-Fiction Editor in 2015 and Poetry Editor since 2016)
● Gwen Holt (Fiction Editor since 2016)
● Susanne Parker (Fiction Editor for the Spring / Summer 2017 issue)
Now that you have all the updates, thank you for continuing to support our journal – by reading, submitting, and telling others about it. We look forward to bringing you the next issue. In the meantime, write like mad, and if it’s good, we want to see it!
South 85 Journal
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Michael Lee Johnson
I edit my life.
Clothesline pins and clips
hang to dry
I turn poetic hedonistic
in my early 70’s,
reviewing the joys
and the sorrows
of my journey.
I find myself wanting
a new review, a new product,
a new time machine,
a new internet space,
a new planet where
we small, wee creative
creatures can grow.
Michael Lee Johnson lived ten years in Canada during the Vietnam era. Today he is a poet, freelance writer, editor, publisher, and photographer who experiments with poetography (blending poetry with photography). He has been published in more than 935 small press magazines in 33 countries. For more info, visit http://poetryman.mysite.com/.
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Devin Murphy’s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is forthcoming with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins on September 5th, 2017. This month, we sat down to speak with him about the impending work, writing and real life inspiration.
S85: Do you write every day or only when inspired?
DM: I try to write every day, but with constantly shifting family and work obligations, it doesn’t always happen. On days I can’t write, I try to edit or read something that will fuel my writing and keep inspiration close at hand.
S85: Is your novel The Boat Runner one of those books that “wrote itself,” that is to say, did you find the need to continuously prompt yourself to progress the story or did it simply unfold before you?
DM: This novel started when a secondary character in a short story became way more interesting to me than the story. At that point I kept giving myself little prompts, or questions to try to find out who he was and what he wanted, and following those answers led me through the first draft.
S85: Do you keep and notebook or a journal, where and how do you compile your thoughts for writing?
DM: When I was younger it was spiral bound journals, but that has moved into Word documents that span hundreds of pages. These serve to catch all the random moments or ideas that could function as seeds or scenes in potential stories. I have been known to write on my hand in a pinch, which I’m now painfully aware of as my small children hold up their marker covered palms and say, “Daddy, I’m working.”
S85: Do you write in drafts? How much do you usually write before you begin to rewrite?
DM: I often use my journals to gather moments and character sketches together and try to draft out complete stories. I have to go back endlessly to dig deeper, ask harder questions, and hunt for the true subject matter and voice to emerge. I use the same process for novels, but it takes much more endurance and patience.
S85: How would you say The Boat Runner is working as an “allegory of our time” to use Nickolas Butler’s words?
DM: I wrote about the terrible swell of nationalism in late 1930’s Germany, and how the rhetoric of that movement prompted action and dire consequence that shifted the world and displaced people from their homes. Now it seems those tricks of rhetoric are screaming back into our mainstream and we have exiles and refugees adrift on a mass scale once more.
S85: Would you say your writing has an emphasis on character or story?
DM: Story. I need to see an image or an action and then ask who to populate that action with.
S85: Are your characters based on observation?
DM: In part. I observe those around me, draft composites of people I know, and then put them in different scenarios until some unique essence finally emerges. Then, I can go back through the text and figure out how to make it that particular character’s story.
S85: How about your political views? Have they made any difference to you artistically or professionally in terms of your writing?
DM: When I was young, my father, a philosophy professor, gave me books about St. Francis and the Buddha, both compassionate beings who explored the world before casting judgments on others. I liked that model, and try to use it in my writing: don’t judge, try to understand. For years I wanted to know all about the craft of writing, my own heart, and the hearts of those I wrote about. Now I want to know about the workings of the world, so history and politics have become pillars of my writing.
About the Author
Devin Murphy’s debut novel, The Boat Runner, is forthcoming with Harper Perennial/Harper Collins on September 5th, 2017. His recent fiction appears in The Chicago Tribune, Glimmer Train, and The Missouri Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and New Stories from the Midwest as well as many others. He holds an MFA from Colorado State University, a PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Bradley University. He lives in Chicago with his wife and children.
About the Interviewer
Mel Sherrer is a performance poet and teacher living in San Marcos, Texas. She is the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal.
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Interview by Katie Sherman
Not every agent has a tradition track to literature. Marcy Posner, for instance, gained an appreciation for the written word during her time as a librarian. From there, she went to work for Pinnacle books (“I was given a book to edit the third week of my employment!”). She’s worked for Rodale Press and Salem House. As Pantheon’s Associate Publisher, she had the honor of working with a number of cultural icons including Noam Chomsky, Studs Terkel, Matt Groening, and Art Spiegelman. After fifteen years on the editorial side of the business, she transitioned to agenting where she spent “twelve years at the William Morris Agency as an agent and as Vice President and Director of Foreign Rights; five years as president of my own agency; five years at Sterling Lord Literistic as an agent and Director of Foreign Rights; and I’m now at Folio – and very happy,” Posner says.
We sat down with Posner to pick her brain on the trends she’s loving (and hating!), her biggest literary influences, and how self-publishing can negatively effect your writing career.
S85: What advice would you give aspiring authors submitting work to agencies, editors, and publishing houses for the first time?
MP: Do your homework! Find the right agent for your work. Go to books that you think are similar to yours, look at the acknowledgments, and find the agent. Query them and reference that book you love. This is a job for the agent, and this is a job for you.
S85: Why do writers need (or do they need) an agent? An editor? What are the benefits and pitfalls?
MP: Writers need an agent because they are the foot in the door to the publishing industry. For my clients, I am able to bring to bear all the institutional memory I possess, knowing which editors and which publishing houses have a penchant for a certain subject, or a different voice, or a particular kind of author. You need an editor because no one can edit their own work. You need the eye of another person who is skilled at the craft. Also, once the book is published, you need a champion in house and your editor is that. I don’t think there are any pitfalls if you find the right agent for you. Never pay a reading fee.
S85: What advice do you have for writers regarding their cover letter? Their elevator pitch? Their manuscript?
MP: The elevator pitch is very important for a query letter. It should be the first paragraph. Don’t submit or talk about more than one manuscript in a query. I have found that the manuscripts of writers who submit several at a time are not good because they lack focus.
S85: What is one of the biggest mistakes you’ve seen a writer make after they were signed to an agency/publishing house?
MP: Not listening to their agent or editor. Thinking they know the process better than the experts do. Don’t go rogue.
S85: In the increasingly growing electronic world, self-publishing is becoming more and more prevalent. Is this hurting the mainstream publishing industry? Why or why not?
MP: Self-publishing can actually hurt the author. When I pitch a self-published author to a mainstream publishing house, the editor will look up the author and see the self-published material. If the book didn’t sell tens of thousands of copies, most likely the editor will not be interested in acquiring further work from this author. In fact, self-publishing numbers have gone down lately because “free” books that are bad do not help the author. You need those gate keepers – the agent and the editor.
S85: What characteristic do you look for first in a first-time author you’re going to work with? In an author who you want to work with throughout their career?
MP: A good sense of humor. You have to take everything with a grain of salt and be able to laugh things off. This business can at times be not fun and you have to get past that.
S85: What trends do you currently see in literature that you love? What trends do you currently see in literature that you hate?
MP: I like that even literary novels have plots these days so that you can get great writing and a great story at the same time.
I’m a social progressive, but I think that there are just too many books about the major social issues of today that are saturating the market and rendering the power of the author’s voice ineffective.
S85: What was the first poem, book, or short story collection that made you passionate about what you do?
MP: A Wrinkle in Time. I started out as a children’s librarian, and I was passionate about this book. It led me to want to work with writers to produce books of the same caliber.
S85: What recent book/collection made you laugh? Made you cry?
MP: Who Gives a Hoot? by Jacqueline Kelley, an early reader that I represent, made me laugh. A middle grade novel that I represent that will be published by Candlewick in Fall 2018, Speechless by Adam Schmitt, made me cry. (As you can see, I don’t get to read much past my clients.)
Thank you, Marcy!
At the moment Marcy Posner is looking for, “commercial women’s fiction, historical fiction, mystery, biography, history, health, and lifestyle – and, especially, thoughtfully written commercial novels, thrillers with international settings, and narrative non-fiction. In young adult, I’m looking for smart, contemporary novels and historical fiction.”
About the Agent
Marcy Posner’s editorial skill and a deep knowledge of the publishing industry sets her apart from many of her colleagues. When she work with authors, she focuses editorially on how to make the book as strong as it could be – whether that book be terrific women’s fiction or an extraordinary YA debut (or any of the other categories she represents). During that process, she is able to bring to bear all the institutional memory she possesses, knowing which editors and which publishing houses have a penchant for a certain subject, or a different voice, or a particular kind of author. Her clients include Newbery Honor winner and New York Times bestseller Jacqueline Kelly, New York Times bestseller Sheri Reynolds, autism advocate Christina Adams, Kristi Cook, Christopher Grant, Gretchen Kelley, Jerri Corgiat, former baseball pitcher Bob Tewksbury, and Marbles: The Brain Store among others.
About the Interviewer
Katie Sherman is a freelance journalist in Charlotte, NC. She is currently pursing an MFA degree at Converse College. She has an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her girls — Ella and Addie.
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