Category Archives: The Writing Life

“The Dare” by Rachel Unkefer

picture of Rachel UnkeferI entered my first short story contest in 2009 on a dare—and won. Until then I never considered submitting a story for publication. I thought of myself as an unpublished novelist, not a writer of short stories. Since then, I’ve had four more stories and a poem published. But this is not a story about publishing. It’s a story about the dare.

A few months earlier, my writing group had launched a non-profit writing center in Charlottesville, Virginia, called WriterHouse. The deadline for the annual fiction contest sponsored by the local free weekly newspaper was approaching. The competition was popular because it was judged by John Grisham. The seven of us in our writing group, now the board of directors of the nonprofit, decided it would be good publicity for our fledgling organization if one of us won the contest. So, on a dare, we all submitted stories.

A few weeks later, Grisham made his decision. My story won first place, and third place went to a story from another member of our group. The first sentence in the article announcing the winners was:  “It may just take one to read a story, but it takes a community to inspire a winning entry.”

That opening sentence perfectly captured the spirit of what had happened. I was inspired to do something I hadn’t thought of doing because a group of us were doing it together. Certainly founding WriterHouse, a writing community center, is not something any one of us would have undertaken alone. A writer’s voice can carry far, but it carries farther when it is amplified by community.

In the five years since WriterHouse was founded, dozens of our members and students have been encouraged by their instructors and fellow writers to send their work out, and dozens have been published, some for the first time. Writers who had never dreamed of reading in public have stood before audiences and shared their work, and then come back to do it again and again. The best writers are full of self-doubt and anxiety, which can silence them if they let it. Sometimes we need a push from a friend to take ourselves where we need to go.

At WriterHouse there is a Science Fiction/Fantasy group that meets monthly. In between, they stay in touch using an email list. One day a new member of the group wrote an email about having just read an article that convinced her she was a terrible writer. She was about to quit writing. Within five minutes there was a flood of responses from the rest of the list. “Keep trying,” they told her. “Don’t give up. We’re here for you.” The rest of the group hardly knew this woman, and yet they wanted to boost her back up onto that high wire and hold her steady until she could balance herself once again. Reading those messages made me proud to have been a part of bringing those writers together.

It’s not easy to find other writers who will support us. There are those whose first question is “what’s in it for me?” rather than “how can I help?” There are some who only want to be admired and told their work is perfect as it is, who don’t understand the difference between support and uncritical validation. But out there somewhere is a community for every writer who is sincere, honest, and generous. If your town doesn’t have an organization like WriterHouse, consider taking a writing class at a community college, starting a book club, or running an ad on Craigslist. It may take some trial and error to find fellow writers.

Don’t settle for a group that doesn’t nurture you and your art. But don’t expect it to be free. You must be willing to extend yourself toward others as well. Sometimes you will give much more than you get. But if it’s the right group, they will be there for you when it’s your turn. They will commiserate with you when you receive rejections. They will celebrate with you when you receive acceptances. They will tell you when your writing needs more work. They will laugh when you write something funny, and they will shed a tear when you have written something moving. Most of all, your community will dare you to be your best.

Rachel Unkefer, President and Founding Member of WriterHouse, was co-founder and CEO  of a technical bookstore chain, Computer Literacy Bookshops, in Silicon Valley. She is currently looking for a literary agent for her first novel, A Useful Life, (which was a quarter-finalist for the 2011 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) and working on the  second draft of her second novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Crab Orchard      Review, Prime Number Magazine, as well as other publications. She has received        fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Writers in the Heartland.

Author Contact:

The View from My Chair

Also of Interest:

Writer House Blog

 National Novel Writing Month

 

 

“The Power of Friendship and Latino/a Identity” by Comadre Nora Comstock

picture of Comadre Nora ComstockI have always been a reader—not a writer. Occasionally someone would bring to my attention a book by a Latino writer, and I would purchase and read it. The story filled my soul and made me yearn for more, but the idea of seeking out Latino/a writers to read and interview did not occur to me for years.

The idea for Latina author teleconferences was born when a young Latina in her mid-twenties, who had recently graduated from college, commented on a gift I gave her: a book by an author who also happened to be a comadre. She held the book, read the title and author,  and commented that she had never read a Latina writer. I determined she meant a U.S. Latina author, and though I was stunned, I realized it was only recently that I myself had made a commitment to become acquainted with these authors.

It occurred to me that, given our age difference, there were probably a lot of Latinas/os who were not aware of these writers who were telling our stories. Certainly, in my many conversations with comadres and other friends, we never mentioned Latina/o authors, nor did I see their books prominently displayed in bookstores. I decided to change that.

Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club began as a teleconference series in 2006. In 2008, we added physical book clubs in cities where we were able to identify comadres willing to take on the coordination responsibilities.  The Association of American Publishers became our partners in this endeavor. The book club/teleconference series is now in its seventh year.

But it was another organization, Las Comadres Para Las Americas, that expanded our ability to to learn more about our lives and histories through the eyes of our Latino/a authors. Through this organization, I have had the honor of learning about the many ethnic and racial groups that make up our Latinidad. There are many labels to identify us, and each one of us chooses the one(s) that strike the right cord. It does not really matter to me, though I have recently decided that I like thinking of myself as a U.S. American of Mexican descent.

I wanted a connection to many Latinas. I wanted a community surrounding me filled with family and friends, and a place where anyone could come to feel connected. This desire was something that I carried in my heart from very early in my childhood. I was a solitary child. After being born into a family that would eventually produce ten siblings, upon my release from the hospital, I was placed into the loving arms of my aunt and uncle who raised me. I owe them my success. However, I strongly sense that being an only child until the age 10, when my cousin David was adopted into the family, fed my overwhelming need for others.

My roots were slipping away, and I was dangerously close to losing my identity. I realized that I did not want this to happen, and this was yet another personal reason for creating and building this organization: I wanted to retain my identity and my connections to my ancestors. But since I did not know my history, it was very hard to feel grounded and connected. I thought that I was alone in feeling this way, but soon found out that many U.S. Latinos had the same desire for community and a proximity to our culture as a way to preserve and celebrate who we are and where we came from.  Those who were more recent immigrants also felt isolated and were looking for others like themselves. For many who lived in areas of the country where they were surrounded by Latino culture, their reason for participating in Las Comadres was simply to get to know each other as comadres, to share resources, and build communities.

As I began to connect with other Latinas in my immediate surroundings, I found that they left our comadrazos (what we call our gatherings, a combination of comadres and abrazo) saying that what transpired in these gatherings filled their souls. Our gatherings were filling a need. Though we all mostly spoke English, meeting with others who understood and appreciated idioms, phrases, jokes, songs, etc. in Spanish, gave us an instant connection that doesn’t happen with others in mainstream English-speaking society. For example, we may be strangers, but when we hear something about chanclas, it conjures up similar images and memories for us all.  I believe this is what we share and what keeps us coming back to the next comadrazo. Even if it’s just for an evening, our gatherings connect us to our roots, our people, our language, our jokes, our laughter, our souls.

Count On Me, Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships is a collection of twelve reflections on the importance of Las Comadres in their lives. In it, Fabiola Santiago, Luis Alberto Urrea, Reyna book cover for Count on MeGrande, and Teresa Rodriguez tell their stories of survival in the United States and in Latin America, where success would have been impossible without their friendships. Favorites like Esmeralda Santiago, Lorraine Lopez, Carolina De Robertis, Daisy Martinez, and Ana Nogales explore what it means to have a comadre help you through years of struggle and self-discovery. And authors Sofia Quintero, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, and Michelle Herrera Mulligan look at the powerful impact the humor and humanity of their Comadres brought to the darkest moments of their lives.

As well, Las Comadres, in collaboration with Medgar Evers College, CUNY: National Black Writers Conference, the Center for Black Literature, the Foreign Language Department, and ALAS–Association for Latin American Studies has organized the Comadres & Compadres Latino Writers Conference, which will be held on Saturday, October 5, 2013, at Medgar Evers College, Brooklyn, New York (http://lascomadres.com/countonme/latino-writers-conference/).

Our mission is to preserve and celebrate culture, to celebrate our connection to each other. In the time of Facebook, Twitter, and many other social networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas fills Latinas’ need to connect with and lean on each other, and unlike online only networks, Las Comadres Para Las Americas offers two different ways to connect: online and in person, thus appealing to women in different situations, and offering an opportunity to strengthen friendships and cultural connections through personal interaction. We invite you to join us.

Author Contact:

Nora de Hoyos Comstock, Ph.D.

President & CEO/International Founder

Las Comadres Para Las Americas

www.lascomadres.org

Author Photo:

Michelle Talan

 

 

“Wearing Three Hats” by Clarinda Harriss

Wearing three hats is uncomfortable.  Wearing more than three is unwieldy to the point of picture of Clarinda Harriss and two friendsimmobilizing you, which is probably just as well because you look ridiculous.  The hats I totter under are beret, mortarboard, schoolmarmish cloche, black prison uniform cap, fedora with press pass stuck in the brim, and flapper’s feathered whimsy.

There’s a chronology to this list—the hats represent poet and fiction writer since age 19 (when my first story was published in a magazine); college grad/grad school survivor (1956-62); newspaper columnist (80s through 90s); volunteer with The Writers’ Club at the Maryland House of Correction for Men (80s and 90s again); schoolteacher/professor (1961-2011); and publisher (1974 to present). I claim the flapper feather because the nonprofit literary press I have directed for more than 40 years, BrickHouse Books, Inc., was just named Baltimore’s 2013 Best by Baltimore Magazine, occasioning my feathered attendance at the magazine’s speakeasy-themed celebratory bash.  Over the 50+ years I’ve been piling those hats on, I rapidly doff and don them in varying orders (cf. the great hat-passing scene in Waiting For Godot).

Clarinda HarrissAsked about “transitioning” from, say, teaching and/or writing to publishing, I have to reply that there have been no such seques. Starting almost from the moment I announced to my astonished (and probably rather disheartened) writer/editor/teacher/administrator parents that the things I would never grow up to do were writing, publishing,teaching and administering (oh, by the way, I chaired Towson University’s English Department for a decade), I began doing all those things.

The one activity conducted by both my parents which I did not rule out was parenting, and in retrospect I am convinced that the refuge of ordinariness, even (dare I say) emotional health which I gained by having my two lively, interesting, curious, smart, busy children around most of the time from my late twenties through my fifties is why wearing all those hats worked out pretty well. It made my schedule almost make sense: they were my constant while I was doing some writing either before everybody got up or after everybody went to bed; teaching at “Beltway University” (the Clarinda and Tom at the 2012 Bookfair adjunct thing, driving from, say, UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus] to Goucher to Towson University) to teach a couple of courses at each place; driving a carpool; cooking dinner (what sensual pleasure we writers find in cooking!), and so on. I’m sure you all know the drill. My point is that virtually all my poems, stories, and articles came out of those activities more or less directly. It wasn’t exactly that I wrote about those activities. It was that they set off a noise in my brain, a hunger in my gut, providing words and images which hooked together in ways that surprised me.

I think being in a state of constant surprise is one of a writer’s most essential work-tools—that and, of course, obsession. A few years ago there was a PR campaign for some worthy literary enterprise which featured the question, “If you couldn’t write, would you die?”  A writer is supposed to answer yes, of course. For me the question got it backwards: in order to make me not write–not think in words and images, whether or not they ever got down on paper, you would have to kill me.  Knock on wood—Irish style, fist to skull: I’m still alive–and sporting hats.

Author Contact:

http://brickhousebooks.wordpress.com/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/BrickHouse-Books/105236526191727

BrickHouse Books

 

 

“On Your Mark, Get Set – Freelance!” by Sonja Patterson

Bust magazine coverWriting is similar to running a marathon. But as a freelancer, you may find yourself crouched at the starting-line, waiting for the pistol to fire—or more literally, a pitch to be accepted—so you can commence the race—I mean, the writing. 

From pitch to publication, a full year passed before my feature article, “No Man’s Band,” (about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-girl, interracial band of the 1930s and 40s) appeared in print, and I held the glossy paper in my hands. I sent my initial pitch to Bust magazine by email on April 26, 2012. It appeared in print in the April/May 2013 issue. As a bi-monthly, each of the annual six issues has a theme, and such constraints can make it difficult to get an article placed. Acceptance may feel like a roll of the dice. Compare this to the New Yorker, which is published 47 times annually, with five of these issues covering two-week spans. 

There are many reasons for this long wait. Most often, it’s all about timing. Editorial calendars for Sonja Pattersonprint magazines are planned six months to a year in advance depending on the publication. If a similar topic (even remotely similar) was covered in the last couple of years, editors will shy away, not wanting to appear predictable to readers. They are always looking for something fresh, surprising, on-trend or compelling because of its timeless quality.

The solution is to pitch more often, thereby increasing your chances of having an article accepted. Set a goal for yourself to send a pitch once a week or five times a week, whatever works for you. Try to vary your topics from music to health, or vary the type of article, from a long feature to a short service article.

While I waited for my “No Man’s Band” pitch to be accepted, I followed up regularly with the editor, showing my enthusiasm and reinforcing why my idea was awesome—often adding new ideas and angles so it wasn’t simply a boring reminder. Your goal is to make editors think they’ve got to get your article published or that they’ve got to know more about the topic you pitched. Eventually I was reassured when an email arrived that said,
“We’re very interested in working with you on this story, but we don’t yet know what issue we’d like to include it in. Once we get that straightened out, we’ll be in touch, but it may not be for a few months. We appreciate your patience.” They eventually decided to publish the article in their annual music issue.

cover of Bust magazineThis wasn’t my first article for Bust, a feminist pop-culture magazine covering news, music, film, books, comedy/humor, and crafting. The first was a travel article on quirky, unusual things to do that go outside the typical tourist traps in Washington, D.C. While researching the Howard Theater for this article, I stumbled upon black-and-white footage of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm performing there in 1941. I was blown away by their music and stage presence and filled with questions. Who were these women and why had I never heard of them before?   Coincidentally, soon after I went to see The Girls in the Band, a documentary about the many all-girl swing bands during the 1930s and 1940s.

On August 8, 2012, I got the article offer, asking for a first draft by September 5th. They wanted 2,000 words in less than 30 days. My first draft was 2,432 words. Since I have a full-time job, I worked on this article in the evenings, weekends, and on my lunch break. I did research at the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Archives, and public library, taking notes from out-of-print books, vinyl record liner notes, and black-only newspaper articles. (Newspapers were segregated at this time in U.S. history). You must (or it helps to) love your topic when writing feature articles because you’re going to learn more than you ever thought possible.

Sonya Patterson

I got in touch with the director of The Girls in the Band, Judy Chaikin, and she gave me contact information for a couple of the Sweethearts. They were mere teenagers when they started the band in 1937 and were now close to 90 years old. Judy warned me that they would be hard to get a hold of since they avoided technology and telephones. I thought I would get lucky, so I kept trying various phone numbers, but my heart sank as the phone rang and rang. Sadly, most of the band members had passed away. Others were in nursing homes, dealing with poor health or dementia. One band member came through in the end; saxophonist Roz Cron, 87, was charming and cool, just as you would expect.

I was also able to speak with a child of one of the Sweethearts. Cathy Hughes, daughter of trombonist Helen Woods, was more than happy to take time out of her busy schedule (as an e-radio and television personality and a business executive for Radio One and TV One) to share her childhood memories of the Sweethearts. In total, I interviewed six sources, four of which provided information I was able to quote from in the final article.

I was well aware that magazine editors take a different approach than newspaper editors. Magazine editors expect you to write numerous drafts and want to have a hand in shaping the story. I once read an article years ago by a Reader’s Digest editor who said he expected writers to turn in a minimum of five drafts, but typically, it was closer to eight drafts. I went back and forth with the editors of Bust magazine six times. The editors were professional and supportive through it all. They were like the people who stand along the race route handing out paper cups filled with water. They even had an intern type up my notes, so by the time I came home from work in the evening, I was able to use those typed notes to finish the story right on time.

So, if fiction writing is a marathon, freelancing is a triathlon that requires meticulous note taking, solitary research, and then, as you are pushing through the fatigue, the ability to turn on the charm that will get you the best possible anecdotes from interview sources. Think of the word count tally as a mile-marker that tests your endurance and exercises your mind. Waiting for a source to get back to you is equivalent to a pot hole or a steep hill. Reading your byline in print is equivalent to tearing through the finish line and proving your status as a “freelancer.”

Author Bio:

Sonya Patterson

After living for years in N.Y.C., Sonja now lives outside of Washington, D.C. She graduated from Evergreen State College, where she studied English, Communications and Writing. As a freelancer, she loves to write about lifestyle/culture, travel, health and anything else that piques her interest. She also writes fiction and non-fiction and plays the ukulele.

Author Links:

“No Man’s Band: Tales of a 1940s All-Girl Swing Band”

BUST magazine, April/May 2013

A feature article about the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female swing band, and the surge of similar bands during World War II that blew America’s minds while they blew their horns.

SonjaPattersonNoMansBand-1

“Oh, Say Can You See Our Quirky Capital?”

BUST magazine, June 2012

A two-page feature on atypical places-to-go and things-to-see in Washington, D.C.

http://onswipe.com/bust/#!/entry/what-to-do-in-washington-dc,5054d822444f6789475f2c9e

 

 

Reflections: p.m. korkinsky

picture of p m korkinsky with her dog, a shepherd mixed breed P. M. Korkinsky lives with a large dog of indeterminate heritage in a small apartment in DC. Both poet and dog spend many hours wandering the city in search of words. When not writing poetry, Korkinsky blogs at www.zendogjourney.com about dogs that suffer from separation anxiety. Late Night Jazz, a collection of experimental prose poetry, is being indie published by iUniverse and will be available in 2014. An excerpt of Late Night Jazz will appear in Defying Gravity, the sixth volume in Paycock Press’s Grace & Gravity series (Nov. ’13).

picture of dog in front of the White House

p.m. korkinsky: The writing life is different for everyone. The poet, the literary novelist, the crime writer. We come to it differently. We are affected by it differently. For me, as a poet, I find life fragmented and lyrical. I wake at 2 am and listen to DC, the city of Washington. Without the traffic, the mentally ill homeless, the street musicians, the city in transition, I don’t know if I’d have anything to say.

I find DC speaks in blended mouths. I hear the bucket drummers pounding out the beat. I see clocks in towers and write poetry about metronomes. I see stray cats around the construction near the art gallery on 7th Street. I want to save them. I want them to save me. We are the poetry of inter-connectedness. And yet, we are alone in our thoughts.

I grew up listening to alternative and grunge music, and it affected my writing. Alternative music reflected my early reality. Distorted, loud, trying to break through the meaninglessness of the culture of the 1980s. I’m not sure whether it was a positive or negative influence. But it was an influence.

Later, music by R.E.M. and the Counting Crows started to influence my work, and music has continued to influence it. I play guitar and a little keyboard and alto saxophone. I like the less heard of folk singers like Dave Hardin and Sam Shaber. The lyrics are immensely poetic. In the past five years or so, I’ve been influenced more by jazz, which is solitary in a way–sound isolated from words. Coltrane especially can take the listener to a spiritual place. A piece of music can change my mind. So can a few lines of poetry. I find the power of music very daunting when trying to create my own work.

                   "She sits on the bed and looks at the game on the table. Own world.        Still the leftover sounds of moving pieces pawning the king into the streets."

Even though for me writing is about escaping the inescapable, I draw from nonfiction. I’ve been reading a biography of Paul Celan for the past two months. I like to take the time to reflect. I find really old interviews on YouTube on just about any artist–writer, poet, musician, designer, artist. We have so much at our fingertips now. To go on the Internet and see Coltrane talking about jazz in the early 1960s–that’s inspiring.

I also draw on graphic and web designers. Artists of all types. I like the graphic designer Milton Glaser’s belief that art should be in everybody’s everyday life. It should not be a separate experience. Graphic design, music, art, and poetry surround us.

I like meditation as a conceptual framework for creating. Walking my shepherd mindfully through the streets of DC at midnight is beautiful. I try to bring these images, reflections, sounds into my work. The soul of the city exposed at night is stylistically different than during the day.

I like exploring art in different venues. Some people can sit in a coffee shop and listen to someone drumming their fingers and get annoyed. I let that rhythm shift into the space of my poetry. And I never know when it might happen; it’s unpredictable, too.

I like typography. A poem written in Helvetica is different than a poem written in Futura or Comic Sans or something Gothic. I don’t know if writers think about this or not. Or if perhaps I over think it. But I like writing in different fonts as a way of finding something new in the poem.

I never sought out publishing in my younger days. Making a living, paying bills, all of that, was too important. I don’t regret it; after all, not living on the streets is a good thing. But with newer technology, I’m finding opportunities to combine art (graphic design, web content, poetry, and coding) and spending more time with art. I think technology is both a good thing and a bad thing, but mostly good. We are even more interconnected, and we are able to gain access to writing, art, and knowledge.

                 "Move forward and speak wrong word and back. Sounds in feral dreams."

As we move more and more into this technological world, artists of all types are adapting. And that’s really part of the creative process. I still write poetry in journals, but that’s like sketching a painting first in pencil or charcoal. It’s part of the creative process. The problem lies in being able to find great pieces of writing, great art, and great music on the Internet. I find myself watching a lot of TED (Technology Entertainment, Design) TV on the internet. It’s also on NPR on Science Friday. So Internet meets radio. Being able to hear a writer, artist, or scientist talk about their work is sometimes all it takes to start writing that poem or that article for a blog. This technology is great for inspiration.

My concern with the Internet is that writers who do not have a foundation in writing may have more readers than writers we really should be reading. But I remember the time before the Internet, and we used to ask then the same question–what is great literary art? I think we just need to pay more attention. And that’s okay—being able to focus and discriminate, those are also part of the creative process.

I’m just beginning the process of getting my poetry published. I’ve been writing poetry since I was seven, majored in English in college, but it’s just now, more than 30 years later, that I’m ready to put words out into the world. I’m not sure what will happen. But I do know that art is not publishing and publishing is not art. Everyone has the capability to create. And that’s what the world needs. When we create, we become active. We are more likely to create than destroy. In a world of uncertainty, that’s the most compelling reason to write.

p m korkinsky and her dog, Lexi

Author Sites:

www.korkinskystudios.com

www.zendogjourney.com