River Pretty Writers Retreat

by Cassidy McCants

Every six months, writers from all over the South and the Midwest come together on the banks of the North Fork of the White River in Tecumseh, Missouri, for a weekend in the Ozarks. River Pretty Writers Retreat, started in 2012 by alumni of Missouri State University and Vermont College of Fine Arts, offers generative workshops in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction; panel discussions; informal talks; and readings by faculty members and participants. Retreat attendees also have the opportunity to share samples of their writing with faculty members who offer individual manuscript critique sessions.

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Participant Bailey Moore reading at RP 13

I’ve just returned from RP 13, my third consecutive retreat in Tecumseh. After all the news about—and the reality of—natural disasters lately, my mind’s been on last spring’s RP 12, during which we endured a flood, the result of a powerful storm system that put much of Arkansas and Missouri underwater. Last spring we had to retreat from our retreat; this fall’s stay in the Ozarks was the more tranquil experience you’d expect from a weekend in the Ozarks. The flood damage earlier this year wasn’t nearly as devastating as it could have been. Our flood provided just a glimpse of the potential effects of a natural disaster.

The Flood

On Saturday afternoon, day two of RP 12 in late April, we watched the rain fall on Dawt Mill, the retreat’s riverfront site, which includes a restaurant, a bar, a general store, cabins, and an inn. By dinnertime the storm had strengthened, and it was clear that the basement of the restaurant would be underwater soon. We’d expected the rain, but the forecast hadn’t prepared us for the storm raging in front of us, feeding the river that grew visibly closer each hour. After dinner it looked like time to up move up the hill, so we gathered at the inn, which is quite a bit farther up the bank. At this point we’d lost electricity, and some of us were without phone service. We were told by area police to stay on the hill but not to attempt to drive away from Dawt Mill, as several roads nearby were completely flooded already. I’d been enjoying the rain, but fear and anxiety were creeping up for me and for my roommates. A few friends had planned to camp, and we offered to share our space at the inn with them; we tried to keep calm as they moved in their bedding, their food, their personal items. Some of us spoke openly about the fear setting in; some of us were quiet, waiting anxiously for any indication the storm would end soon.

One “cowboy comedian,” a Dawt Mill entertainer, serenaded us that evening as the rain kept at it. Because he couldn’t leave the mill either, it seemed that he was stuck with us for the night. During a break in the music, just as the last bit of daylight left, I walked onto the porch of the inn and saw something I think I might never forget—I saw the cabin in front of me, just maybe forty away, wash away into the river. Dawt Mill was nearly unrecognizable—much of it had been taken by the water, only an hour or so after dinner. I wasn’t yet afraid for my life, really, but I knew we might not be able sleep in our room that night. I didn’t know where we’d go. The storm wasn’t giving up.

Soon, fortunately, local firefighters found a safe escape route for us and led a caravan to the firehouse. Most of us slept a few hours that night in our cars in the parking lot there. In the morning the firemen prepared us breakfast and let us know as updates came in about the state of the roads nearby. I’d ridden to the firehouse with my friend Bailey, so once it was safe she took me back to my car at Dawt Mill. The river hadn’t touched my car at all, and though Bailey and I were relieved to see that most of the buildings still were standing, the damage was pretty devastating. The inn was there, but it was soggy, smelling of wet wood; debris covered the grounds where cabins had stood. Thanks to local firefighters and police, the Dawt Mill staff, and River Pretty faculty, no one in our group was hurt or lost. Everyone survived, but it was clear everyone was shaken by the reality of the water’s power. I know I was. This was the closest I’d been to a life-threatening natural disaster—and I live in Oklahoma, land of tornadoes. Water is pretty, and water is powerful.

The Comeback

I wasn’t sure we’d have a place to gather for this fall’s retreat, but Dawt Mill was open and ready for us the first weekend of October. I also wasn’t sure how many people who’d endured the flood would go back—the experience surely caused some trauma. But I found that many of the attendees from the spring had readily returned. I spoke with a retreat-goer and friend, Hannah, this past weekend about the experience—she said, “I felt like I had to come back after that.” I knew exactly what she meant; the force of the flood had brought us all together. It was a terrifying experience we all endured, and RP is just the place to share those stories. We’d seen nature’s power, its rage, and we’d survived.

IMG_2772RP 13, though, brought us beautiful weather, low water levels, communion, and free time to write in the Ozarks. This fall’s guest faculty members were Robert Vivian (pictured) and Rick Jackson, both faculty members at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Their readings, as well as those by River Pretty faculty (Ian Bodkin, Lee Busby, Rich Farrell, Chaz Miller, Jen Murvin, Steve Rucker) and retreat participants, created a warm, cozy, and inspirational atmosphere as soon as we gathered.

If you’re a writer in the area, I hope you’ll consider attending a retreat in the future. I’ve always loved autumn, but now that I have River Pretty—even after a flood!—and the Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers to look forward to, I eagerly await October all year long. I think it’s all about coming together with a community that makes you feel at home and that encourages and inspires your growth. Together we thrive.

And now it’s writing conference time for Nimrod! Join us in Tulsa this weekend for the Conference for Readers and Writers, and join the River Pretty crew next spring.

Cassidy McCants, Associate Editor of Nimrod, is an M.F.A. candidate in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

 

 

 

Nimrod’s Conference for Readers and Writers: What to Expect and 6 Reasons to Attend

by Eilis O’Neal

Our annual Conference for Readers and Writers is coming up on October 21st. It’s our biggest program of the year—and the one I get the most excited about. This will be my 17th Conference with Nimrod, and I thought I’d describe what attendees can expect and why it’s such a great day.

The Conference is an all-day event designed to help writers improve their writing. It’s practically focused—as in, our aim is to offer practical, concrete writing and craft advice. We bring in published authors from a variety of genres to act as workshop leaders and panelists—writers who are at the tops of their fields and love sharing their best advice about writing.

We start the day off with two panel choices, one that is entirely Q&A about editing and publishing (questions like “What does a literary agent do?”; “How do you know when you’re finished revising a story?”; and “What do publishers think of writers who have self-published some of their work?”) and one that focuses on a question of craft (this year panelists will talk about “Writing Through the Hard Parts,” whether that’s doing tough research, writing about a traumatic personal event, writing from the viewpoint of someone different from you, and more).

After the panels, participants have their choice of several workshops. Some of them focus on a particular genre and subject within that genre, and some of them focus on an aspect of the publishing industry. The workshops are just over an hour, and they range in size from 10-15 people to 40-50 people. The workshops can vary in style, but in general they feature a solid presentation on their topic, plenty of time for questions, and sometimes a writing exercise or two.

After the first round of workshops, we break for lunch, which is included in the cost of registration and which features programming in the latter half as we conduct the Awards Ceremony for our national Literary Awards and share the work of the winning writers.

After lunch, it’s time for another choice of workshops, and after those we have a reading by our guest authors and one-on-one editing sessions with our editors. Writers who want a one-on-one editing session send in a short selection of their work in beforehand, and we give it to one of our editors for review. At the Conference, the editors sit down with their writers for 15 minutes each and give them a personal critique, telling them what they’ve done well and what they can do to improve the piece. The day ends with a book signing with our guests.

So what makes everything I’ve described above so special? Here are a few of my favorite reasons.

  • It’s inclusive. No matter who you are, there’s a place for you here. We have writers of all kinds at the Conference. High school students, college students, adults, senior citizens. Writers who have been to many conferences and published their work in multiple venues, and writers who have never attended a writing event before and have never shown their work to anyone. Writing can be a very solitary pursuit, and a writer’s career can have a lot of stages, so it’s gratifying to be around people who share your passion and can identify with your experiences.
  • It’s customizable. At any given point at the Conference, you have a choice about what you want to do. Are you a genre writer? We’ve got classes in multiple genres, from mystery to young adult to fantasy to romance. Don’t want a one-on-one editing session? You don’t have to have one. It’s very much a case of “do what you love,” and we try to have a variety of choices to appeal to many different types of writers.
  • It’s laid-back and friendly. Sometimes the word “conference” can sound intimidating, but ours is at heart a very chill, very laid-back day. We have a good crowd, but it’s not overwhelming. Our guest authors and editors are extremely giving and generous—they’re glad to be here and eager to interact with participants. We’ll be wearing jeans and sneakers. It’s a day for writers about writers—one where you can come as you are.
  • It’s one of the only events of its kind in the area. We’re proud to be from Oklahoma, but there is a catch for those of us here in OK and the surrounding states: we don’t have as much access to writing/arts events as writers who live on the coasts or in larger cities. There are simply fewer events for us in drivable distance. One of the reasons we host the Conference is because we know how important and exciting it can be for writers to learn from authors they admire, who have lots of experience and advice to share. Being at a conference like this and getting guidance from published writers can be a watershed moment for your writing career and/or process, and we’re really glad that we can offer these kinds of opportunities for those of us in so-called “flyover states.”
  • It’s individual. In addition to the group classes, we have our one-on-one editing sessions and, this year, one-on-one novel pitch critiques with an actual literary agent. This kind of individual attention isn’t offered at many conferences, but it’s something that we always include at ours.
  • It’s affordable. Our regular registration fee is $60, far lower than the $100+ fees you’ll find at many conferences. And we offer scholarships that lower the cost to $10 for writers of all ages in need. It’s important to us that no writer be left out because of cost, so we do everything we can to keep the Conference affordable.

In short, the Conference is a unique opportunity for writers, one that can help writers at all stages hone their abilities. But most of all, it’s fun, a day where we can all get together and celebrate the creation of the books, stories, and poems that we love. If you’re a local writer, I hope that we’ll see you at this year’s Conference on October 21st. You can register online or by sending in a registration form from our website.

Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod’s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess. 

 

The Silenced Writer

by Somayeh Shams

Writing, as my M.F.A. advisor used to say, is an addiction, and, unfortunately, like all good drugs, it does not come cheap. There is no other way to explain this all-consuming, patience-building exercise that takes so much of our time away from our families, friends, sleep, and exercise. That creates no (or very little) income. Each year the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, AWP, conference and book fair attracts over 12,000 attendees. Hopeful young writers, emerging writers, and writers whose names have filled our canons attend to advertise their work, to learn, and to leave their solitude for four long days to be part of the conversation. With over 2,000 presenters and 800 book fair exhibitors, the conference, according to Wikipedia, is “the largest and most inclusive literary conference in North America.”

Naively, I never even considered money when I chose a career in writing. I had finally come to terms with the fact that I didn’t feel passionate about my scientific path and all I wanted to do was write. I quickly applied for an M.F.A. program, the thought never crossing my mind that, unlike most other careers, writing needed an income to support it. If I had truly understood that fact from the beginning I might have made different choices, gone through the process differently so I could have prepared for my family and my future. Because, let’s face it, I wasn’t going to quit writing.

Still, the thought that writing is likened in our minds to a compulsion, with little value for us except as an instant gratifier and no value to society, makes me uneasy. Have the benefits of books and literature not been proven again and again? Are we not, when luck strikes us, putting out a product? Do we not provide a service? Isn’t our time worth anything? How has society come to believe that writers do not deserve to get paid while so many other jobs are over-inflated? When a conference attendee asked Roxane Gay at AWP 2015 about the emerging writer’s avenues for financial support, until that ever-elusive faculty position is acquired, those same positions being shamelessly replaced with underpaid adjunct positions, she responded, “have a day job.”

But can everyone afford working and writing? How about when you have a family to feed and take care of? Does this mean that writers who “make it” either have made certain choices and sacrifices that most others in other careers seldom need to? Or that those successful writers are from an already more affluent class, thus falsely representing the actual writing population or the population as a whole? I suspect both of these are true. How, then, can a person struggling to make ends meet, a parent who must spend time away from their writing desk, afford being a writer? Those who do are extraordinary exceptions. My child’s calls are louder than my desk’s. The publishing process is discriminatory and those marginalized either by race, financial burden, or gender—they feel the brunt of it.

Tillie Olsen had to abandon her first novel and did not publish Tell Me a Riddle until 1961, decades after her work first came out in Partisan Review. She recounted her struggles with money, work, and motherhood in her book Silences, analyzing the problems that working-class writers, women writers and writers of color face. Frustrated, she wrote,

Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? What are creation’s needs for full functioning? Without intention of or pretension to literary scholarship, I have had special need to learn all I could of this over the years, myself so nearly remaining mute and having to let writing die over and over again in me. These are not natural silences—what Keats called agonie ennuyeuse (the tedious agony)—that necessary time for renewal, lying fallow, gestation, in the natural cycle of creation. The silences I speak of here are unnatural: the unnatural thwarting of what struggles to come into being, but cannot. In the old, the obvious parallels: when the seed strikes stone; the soil will not sustain; the spring is false; the time is drought or blight or infestation; the frost comes premature.

She lists the innumerable greats who struggled with those silences: Thomas Hardy, Melville, Rimbaud, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jane Austen, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Franz Kafka, Katherine Anne Porter. . . . “How the creative working atrophied,” she writes, “and died in them—if ever it did.” She names the different ways in which writers come to be silenced:

Deletions, omissions, abandonment of the medium (as with Hardy); paralyzing of capacity [ . . . ] Publishers’ censorship, refusing subject matter or treatment as “not suitable” or “no market for.” Self-censorship. Religious, political censorship-—sometimes spurring inventiveness—most often (read Dostoyevsky’s letters) a wearing attrition. The extreme of this: those writers physically silenced by governments.

Olsen was briefly jailed in 1934 for her union work, charged with “making loud and unusual noise.” In our current political climate, with many of us out there standing up to evil, this form of silence seems no more out of the realm of reality.

Since graduating I have focused on finishing my book, obsessing over words and sentences, over the fact that I want the love and dynamics of my Iranian characters to be as honest as possible, particularly for my American readers. Again I am incapable of combining the idea of money with that of my book. By that I mean, in thinking about what Olsen mentions above, I am not sure how marketable my book is and if it would interest the publishing industry. And, again, I am not sure knowing the answer would change anything.

I have learned in recent months that over 80% of the world’s publishing is owned by 5 publishing houses, known as the “Big 5.” I have also learned that Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster are media conglomerates and giant corporations prioritizing profit. In her book The Handover, in which she studies the publishing industry in Canada, Elaine Dewar wonders how a publishing industry led by profit, telling the world what to read, can cultivate diversity of ideas and opinions. And with so much control by a handful of entities in the market, don’t publishers have the power to force what they think a project is worth onto the writer?

A 2014 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey found that 53.9% of traditionally-published authors make $1,000 or less a year from their writing, while only 1.3% reported making more than $100,000.

The digital industry is also a stressor for the struggling writer. More and more writers, in the hopes of building their reputations, write for free for non-profit e-journals that can’t afford to pay them.

With so many odds against the writer, I wonder how many of us turn away from writing? What are the statistics for the marginalized writers who must put aside their dreams for survival? Or how about, as Olsen wrote, “the silences where the lives never came to writing. [ . . . ] those whose waking hours are all struggle for existence; the barely educated; the illiterate; women. Their silence the silence of centuries as to how life was, is, for most of humanity”?

Yet I am hopeful. I feel in recent months something changing in this country. I hear the voice of discontent loud and clear. In the background of hate and evil I hear the thirst for knowledge, for diversity, for equality growing. I see a pushback where acquiescence used to be.

Writers—like Roxane Gay and Vievee Francis—with brilliant work that once went unnoticed are finally being honored. At AWP 2017 the panel “Which Comes First, Activism or Artist?” was well attended. At another panel I sat in a room full of writers excited to hear Iranian writers and translators discuss the Iranian diaspora. Journals like Nimrod are pushing, despite the challenges they face, to diversify and make room for the voice of the marginalized. I am looking beyond this administration for a time when perhaps programs and journals and small publishing houses have enough subsidy to support an equal agenda. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a literary world where equality is a reality, where all writers can be paid for their art and the work they do?

At the end of the Iranian diaspora writers panel, during the Q&A portion, someone said she hoped that the Iranian writers would have more panels like these, suggesting that this should not be a one-time thing. Many in the room nodded, excited, energized by the readings and discussions. Anita Amirzevani leaned over her microphone and noted that they’ve had a panel every year—but that it had never been well attended. My hope now is that their voices are finally being heard.

Somayeh Shams is an Iranian-born writer and a graduate of the Warren Wilson M.F.A. program. She has been a fellow for the Hedgebrook Writers in Residence and a merit scholar at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She serves on the editorial board of Nimrod.

Contributor Interview: Lisa Nikolidakis

What inspired you to write “The Ladies’ Philoptochos Society,” which appears in Nimrod’s Leaving Home, Finding Home issue?

This story is part of a larger, thematically linked collection that I recently completed. In researching the book, I became obsessed with narratives of first-generation Greek women who came to the States, particularly those who were shoved into arranged marriages. Torn from their homes, moved to the other side of the world, possessing minimal (if any) English, their husbands often twenty years older than them—yet they weren’t allowed to speak of their pain. That silent, obedient suffering hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how traumatic this particular experience could be for a young woman. I also wanted to challenge myself to write a sympathetic character who makes a decision that most people would condemn.

What’s your writing process like?

As a teacher, the bulk of my writing happens in summer, though if anyone has figured out how to teach and write well at the same time, please let me know. Seriously.

I work from 10-6 almost every day of the summer. Typically, there’s a long stretch of researching, thinking, and note-taking—a space that makes me deeply impatient for the actual writing to begin. I use an 11×14-inch sketchpad to map out ideas visually and work out the math of my stories. Sometimes I remain in research/thinking mode for weeks before I can really begin, which makes my process feel agonizingly slow at times, but I am working on being more patient with my process. My phone alerts me every day at 4 p.m. with, “You are doing enough.” It actually helps.

How many times do you revise a story, usually?

I revise every single time I open my document, so I can’t quantify it. My writing day begins by reading what I’m working on from the beginning. I tweak and shift things as I read through, which helps me settle into the groove of the piece. Once I have a draft, I revise again with specific aims in mind: word choices, syntax, tightening scenes, punching up humor, etc. . . . Then I send it to my beta readers and prepare for more revision. Sometimes I do seven. Other times two. It really depends on how close I’ve gotten it on my own.

What do you like to read? Who are the authors you find yourself returning to again and again?

I’m currently in the middle of Lidia Yuknavitch’s stunning The Book of Joan and Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. When I’m done with those, Roxane Gay’s Hunger is on deck. I’m a sucker for researched, scientific nonfiction, too, so I’m also reading Lisa Feldman Barrett’s How Emotions Are Made, and I’m rereading Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score. You know, light beach reading.

What tips would you give to aspiring writers?

  • Stop comparing yourself to famous writers who had success at an early age (or who are the same age as you and have more success). You’re on your own journey, and all of that comparative thinking undermines your confidence. Your writing path will look different than someone else’s.
  • Carve out your writing time and guard it fiercely. For me, this means saying no to things people ask me to do—especially in summer. I’m a people-pleaser, so I hate saying no, but I hate not writing more.
  • Read generously. Give pieces the same benefit of the doubt that you want your own work to receive. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything, but don’t come at it arms akimbo either.
  • Be kind to yourself.

What are you working on now?

A memoir based on my piece that was in The Best American Essays 2016. Dark as some of the material is, the story is hopeful in the end. I’ve just completed the proposal for it and am now writing the book itself. This project is a long time in the making, and finally—mercifully—I think I’ve cracked the code on it. Famous last words I’m sure, but for now, I’m feeling surgical, so I’m running with it.

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Lisa Nikolidakis’s work has appeared in Best American Essays 2016, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Passages North, The Greensboro Review, and elsewhere. She currently teaches creative writing in the Midwest and has recently completed a collection of thematically-linked short stories.

How Do You Be?

by Francine Ringold

The question, said neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, should not be, “How are you?” but “How do you be?” I reply with the following:

It is sometimes disturbing but more often lovely to live amongst people — under a cloak of men and women and children — especially the children. Ah, there goes Georgie, two-year-old carrot-top curious George.

Yes, it is still a novelty living in an apartment by the water and not in a private home walled in by shrubbery and brick, with neighbors hidden from view who only occasionally peek out their heads to water a bush.

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At first one’s eyes follow the lift and sway of calming water, then there is a cacophony of noises and chatter: teams of rowers being urged on by a coach on a megaphone; the guy with abundant tattoos who looks like a surfer but spouts stock reports on a cell phone; the slender French woman, always on high heels, sashaying a Pekinese—all in front of my sliding glass door—briefly in front of my door, and then skirting past like rare birds batting their wings and squawking.  And suddenly, like now, silence, and only the sea, water, and sky.

Going out a few steps beyond my glass door, walking my famous dog, Pete, or leisurely strolling, there is a new world, different from yesterday yet the same — fresh faces and company.  As if out of a storybook, a girl with enormous red-framed glasses perched on a small face emerges from the bushes, where she has carefully “picked up” after the baby beagle beside her, named, to my astonishment, Cyrano.  Did she know, I ask, where that name came from? And so, with her father Gabriel (I am not making this up), in the middle of Old Harbor Lane, we discuss Cyrano de Bergerac, and Molly Sue, the girl, decides she wants to read it through her huge glasses.  “And did you know,” her father asks, “that her brother’s name is Shout? We all love that Mockingbird thing.” All this, trivia though it may be, before 9:00 a.m., to be followed by sylphlike former fashion model Amanda from Brazil with her three young children: one-year-old Zion, three-year-old Kowie, six-year-old Luma hugging me and whispering my name with reverence.  Iranian/German engineer neighbor Barush Murgani has already left for the last of his two final exams on solar energy, promising to fix me dinner in celebration.  This evening Caleb will drop by to bore me with pseudo-philosophy and cuddle his dog and mine. I tire of his endless attempt to impress me, though he is kind and good-looking in a scruffy kind of way.

And so it goes: the roving twin Russian boys, about twelve, who did not understand my proudly spouted sentence in Russian, Простите меня пожалуйста (Excuse me please!), until I had repeated it five times with increasing panic; Happy, the small, aged, white mixed-breed, wobbling to us each morning with owner Paige, gazing longingly at Pete as though he is her big brother.

But there they are again, the elegant white birds silently standing erect—egrets, I think—and the deep black crows cawing a warning.  There are Great Blue Herons too, soaring above the trees, widespread wings like two large kites attached to thin legs trailing behind, pointed like an arrow.  And the greedy cormorants lunging for fish. Good to learn the names of things, to parse not words but living things, how they breathe and change colors and fly.

One would think this is enough—to drift with the clouds.  It is not!  Remember May Sarton’s words: “To work is to feel whole!”  So I pick up my pen and write.

 

Francine Ringold, Ph.D., edited Nimrod International Journal for 47 years. She served as the Poet Laureate of Oklahoma for two consecutive terms.  Her most recent book: From Birth to Birth: My Memoir and a Guide for Yours.

 

 

Poetry Equals Happiness

by Britton Gildersleeve

Aspiring poets often believe that it takes unhappiness to create art. You must drink too much, do drugs, have a sadly aching life. Be as miserable and crazy as Poe, as suicidal as Hemingway, as dysfunctional as Sexton. Sometimes, they even hear this from their seniors. The myth of the suffering artist.

Once, years ago, I asked my students to go see a famous novelist who had been invited to the university. He began his presentation/reading by stating that all artists must suffer, and they drink and/or do drugs as a result.

ARGH! Nooooo! Mr. Writer Guy: You just totally messed with my students! (I apologized to them the next class period.)

This is NOT Nimrod’s position, FYI. Because guess what? It’s not true. Happiness fosters not only art, but (obviously) life. It is—and this is only a perhaps—possibly easier to sit down and write if you’re already miserable and your everyday life holds no allure. Certainly on days when the weather is idyllic, and there are birds at all the feeders, and leftovers I needn’t mess with, it’s easy not to write. But when I think of the times my life was splintered into shards and fragments, I didn’t write. I simply couldn’t.

So, is sorrow good material? Maybe. But so is joy, folks. And if you look east, to art in Asia, there is art to be made from (and found in) each element of our days. There is art in dragonflies, and grasses, and even the calligraphy of our names.

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And I know this. Yesterday, for instance, was a good day. Both my wonderful sons were here: the one currently visiting, and the one who lives a few blocks from us. My perfect grandsons and wonderful daughter-in-law were on view, as well. There was Chinese take-in my beloved ordered, so I didn’t need to cook. And the hummingbird feeders were sites of aerial ballet. But I didn’t write a word, other than some work emails.

Today? It’s raining, my younger son and I are having a lovely visit, and I’m writing. Writing. Poetry. About the crows calling outside, about the way the midsummer rain falls like heavy silk over the grass. About whatever. But I’m still happy. That hasn’t changed. Only the level of my activity has changed, and what I choose to spend my time on. Sometimes it’s grandsons, for instance. That doesn’t mean I write better when I’m unhappy. It may just be that when writers are unhappy, there’s nothing else in their everyday lives that claims their interest.

In other words—art does NOT require suffering. Happiness can be just as creative and a lot more fun. Especially if it’s genuine.

Now there’s a question: how to define authentic, genuine happiness? Is it the transient pleasure of a perfect cup of tea? (Maybe? I certainly think so.) Is it the giddy pleasure of my grandson running to me at daycare when I pick him up? Is it—really—any single thing?

No matter how momentous any single event, I’m pretty sure that genuine happiness wells up from a life well lived. Even in the midst of his great sorrow over Tibet, I’m betting that the Dalai Lama is happy. Same for Pope Francis, again in spite of his acute awareness of the desperate poverty around the world. And of course Desmond Tutu, even though he deplores the racial injustice here in the U.S. and elsewhere. And no, they’re not writing much poetry (at least not that I know of).

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What will make us happy is our own life, ultimately. Which is what these various wise leaders—and others—have said for many, many years. Being kind to those around us; refusing to participate in inequity; cherishing the fragile young, the old, the poor, and the unfortunate. THAT will make us happy, because it becomes part of our everyday life, a daily attitude of happy, if that makes sense.

And then? Well, you can write poetry. If you’re so inclined. Honest. Because happiness . . . well, it feeds your inner artist. It gives you, I promise, lots to write about. And that’s more than enough to help you get past the myth of the suffering artist.

Britton Gildersleeve’s creative nonfiction and poetry have appeared in Nimrod, Spoon River Poetry Review, This Land, and many other journals. She has published three chapbooks and was the director of the Oklahoma State University Writing Project for twelve years.

Illustrations from Britton’s blog, teaandbreath.com.

Contributor Interview: Asnia Asim

What inspired you to write “A Refugee Contemplates Foam,” which appears in Nimrod’s Leaving Home, Finding Home issue?

I often seek in the space of poetry respite and release for pent-up political angst. But it’s important to understand and honor the quality of one’s anxiety and find an appropriate form for it. Otherwise it’s just a rant. The inspiration/angst for writing “A Refugee Contemplates Foam” built up over months of seeing the heartbreaking images of Syrian families scattered at sea. Interestingly, its form was inspired by an entry I came across in Henry David Thoreau’s journal:

“The rattling of the tea-kettle below stairs reminds me of the cowbells I used to hear when berrying in the Great Fields many years ago, sounding distant and deep amid the birches. That cheap piece of tinkling brass which the farmer hangs about his cow’s neck has been more to me than the tons of metal which are swung in the belfry.”

I loved how Thoreau tied the sound of the tea-kettle to the metal of bells big and small, present and past. In the poem I emulated him, linking the foam of a halloween costume to a refugee’s life-vest to a luxury mattress in a five-star hotel.

When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing poetry since childhood. I started working on a novel last year.

What’s your writing process like?

I follow a strict daily routine which includes reading, writing, and studying Arabic. My better poems have always been the spontaneous fall-on-the-page kind of creatures. But I revise thoroughly, and often harass someone (usually my husband and sister) to read them to me. For some reason I find it easier to trace the rhythm of my writing in the voice of another.

Do you have a specific place you like to write?

Yes, I always write on a mint green leaf-drop table, littered with books and magazines, placed in my favorite nook of the apartment.

What are you reading right now?

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, and Precious Nonsense by Stephen Booth.

Check out Asnia’s “A Refugee Contemplates Foam” here.

Asnia Asim is the recipient of University of Chicago’s Corbel Scholarship, which is awarded to graduate students of exceptional academic promise, and of Brandeis University’s Alan B. Slifka Tuition Award. Her work has appeared in several print and online journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology.

 

 

The Practical Editor: Manuscript Format

by Eilis O’Neal

“The Practical Editor” is my series on the practical questions that can arise as we’re writing and sending out our work. The first post covered cover letters (accidental play on words there, but I like it and I’m not deleting it), and this post is going to focus on the format of your manuscript. I’ll discuss short fiction/creative nonfiction and poetry.

Short Fiction/Creative Nonfiction

For a standard submission, short fiction and creative nonfiction should be double-spaced in an easy-to-read, 12-point font such as Times New Roman. Paragraphs should be indented, with no extra space between them unless you are indicating a section break. Your name and full contact information should appear at the top of the first page, as well as the title, and your name and title should appear on every subsequent page. Pages should be numbered. For mailed submissions, pages should be printed on only one side of plain white paper.

You might be thinking, Why these particular rules? The answer is simple: they make for the easiest reading experience for the editor and they make sure your manuscript can be put back together if, for instance, it gets dropped on the floor and the pages scattered. Single spacing, strange fonts, and double-sided paper are harder for our eyes to read easily—and you want the editor’s reading experience to be as easy and pleasant as possible.

Of course, you may be playing with style in a particular piece: using single spacing in some sections, rejecting paragraph indentations, etc. That’s fine—if you have a legitimate artistic reason for it and if it is consistent within the piece. If there’s not a story-driven reason for you to play with the layout of your piece, however, your default formatting should be as outlined above.

Poetry

Poetry has fewer formatting rules than prose, because the layout of a poem often has an impact on how we read and understand it. If you aren’t using special spacing or layout, however, poems should be single-spaced, aligned to the left, in an easy-to-read, 12-point font such as Times New Roman. As with fiction, your name and full contact information should appear on each poem, with your name and the title also appearing on each page of any poems longer than a single page.

Even though there aren’t as many hard and fast rules for formatting poems, I would like to offer a few tips to consider as you lay out your poems—from an editor’s perspective. These are considerations that we run into time and again at Nimrod as we’re putting our issues together, and while they may not change the way you lay out your work, they are something to think about as you do so.

Line length

In the U.S., you are almost certainly going to be writing and thus printing your poems on 8.5 x 11 inch paper. (Standard paper size can vary in other parts of the world, but the following comments still hold.) Print magazines and journals, however, vary in size. Nimrod, for instance, is printed as a 6 x 9 inch journal, as are many other literary magazines. But not all: The Missouri Review, for instance, is 6.75 x 10, while a recent New Orleans Review is 5.75 x 6.75.

The point is: There are very few instances in which, once accepted, your work will be printed on an 8.5 x 11 page. If your lines are very long, extending to the end of the usable space on your page as you type, they may not fully fit onto the printed page of a journal. Of course, there are standard ways to indicate that a line actually extends through a line break, but those will affect how your poem looks on the page, and perhaps how the reader reads it.  This may not bother you, but on the other hand, it might. It’s simply a choice that you’ll make for each poem, but it’s an issue that I think many poets don’t consider until an editor writes to them and says, “Your poem is going to look different than you intended when we print it.”

The Shape of the Poem

Similarly, your poem might have a particular shape on the page. This can be a literal shape poem—one that forms an arc, a triangle, a circle, etc.—or just specific use of placement and space of the words to evoke a certain meaning and feeling. And, again, this might make your poem look different if the page it is printed on is smaller than the page you wrote it on, or if the journal uses a different font than the one you used.

Say that you’re incorporating a lot of white space into your poem to give it airy feel or perhaps a feeling of distance and separation. If you wrote it on a page that is 8.5 inches wide, but it’s printed on a page that is only 6 inches wide, the white space will often have to be tightened or shrunk, making some words/lines closer together than they looked when you printed it at home.

Likewise, the font that you use is probably not going to be the font that the journal uses. (Times New Roman is great for manuscripts and easy reading, but many journals have signature fonts. Nimrod’s, for instance, is Cochin.) So if your poem has a distinct shape, it may be difficult for the journal to replicate it exactly. They can probably get pretty close, using various layout tricks, but it may not be an exact replica.

As with the line lengths, I don’t bring this up to say, Never write a huge, airy poem or a shape poem. I merely want to call attention to it, to let you think about your own preferences as you write.

The Caveat

As you can see, formatting your work at the most basic level is pretty easy, and you can make a template of it for all of your manuscripts. But there is a caveat, and that is that each journal or magazine may have its own particular formatting instructions. If it does, make sure that you follow those instructions.

So that’s manuscript formatting for journal submissions. Happy writing, and if there are topics that you would like to see covered in future posts on “The Practical Editor,” leave a comment below or email us at nimrod@utulsa.edu.

Eilis O’Neal is Nimrod‘s Editor-in-Chief. She is also a writer of fantasy and the author of the young adult fantasy novel The False Princess.

 

Navigating the Darkness: My Life with Horror and Literary Fiction

by Helen Patterson

At my high school, all graduating seniors were required to write an essay about what the good life was. My essay was called “Circumnavigating the Darkness,” and my premise was that human beings have darkness inside of them, and that the good life is only possible if we turn away from this darkness. I wrote about Raskolnikov, Colonel Kurtz, Ahab. All three confronted this darkness in themselves, leading to violence, death, and disaster as the darkness within devoured them. Now that I’m a little older, I think that my earlier self was wrong about our ability to hide from or escape our worst selves. Intangible, indefinable, variable and fluid from culture to culture and age to age: The darkness is in all of us.

This darkness is why we remain so fascinated with Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness and Moby-Dick. Through literature, we attempt to know ourselves, and through these and similar novels we dissect the existential terror of a species confronting the worst aspects of modernity. I would also argue that these, and many of our greatest classics, are, at their core, horror books. However, many people would dispute this because we seem reluctant, as a literary community, to admit genre elements lurk within our greatest works.

People are very dismissive of horror. Some of the finest examples of horror writing are often reclassified as “psychological horror” or “literary fiction” or “magical realism”, particularly if there are strong philosophical or aesthetic elements, as in Borges’s short fiction and Danielewski’s hypnotic House of Leaves. Perhaps this is actually a sign of horror’s strength and flexibility. When you read a romance, a coming-of-age story, or a social satire, you know what you are reading. Those genres are strongly stamped into our collective consciousness.

Horror, though, creeps in where it isn’t wanted or expected, blurring genre lines and muddling the supposedly black and white edges of the world. Horror is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber which reveals the rotten heart of the fairytale and childhood. Horror is the slow realization in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House that the house, that inviolable, safest place, is as deadly a trap as any cave, forest, or battlefield. Horror is the trauma of slavery in Morrison’s Beloved echoing from the past to the present and refusing to be silenced despite attempts to bury it. By excusing or downplaying the horror in these and other books, we are attempting to let ourselves off the hook, give ourselves the benefit of the doubt: We are trying to circumnavigate the darkness at the heart of these stories and focus only on the style, the structure, the tone.

Helen2

When I write, often it comes out as “literary” or “psychological” horror, but you can’t really call it anything both horror. I said as much in my personal statement when I applied for MFA programs a few years ago. I mentioned how illuminating reading Joyce Carol Oates when I was a teenager had been, how “it was as if a floodgate had been lifted in my head” letting all the darkness spill out onto the page. I want to remind myself, and other writers like me, that it is okay to weave horror into what you write, or, for that matter, forget weaving and just paint the whole thing in blood. If you do it well, you are getting at the heart of something raw and real, something visceral.

Though we may desire it, we can’t eradicate the darkness inside ourselves or our species: what we can do is try to understand it, parlay with it, even, under very careful circumstances embrace it, and this is where horror comes from. Horror is a genre concerned with boundaries, borders, and crossing over. It asks about the liminal spaces between the living and the dead, the narrow spaces in the walls where cockroaches and ghosts hide. It shows us the moment, or series of moments, in a person’s life when everything goes wrong, when the familiar veers into the dark: a car accident, a fired gun, a bomb dropping from a blue, cloudless sky. We need horror, need to read horror, because our world, on both the individual and the global scale, is teeming with darkness, and we must learn to navigate it.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

 

Poetry, Food, and the Search for the Sublime

by John Coward

Poetry often tackles the big issues of human existence—love, death, God, the meaning of life, and so on. This is good and right, because poetry—distilled language in search of deeper meanings—is suited to the quest for purpose and reflection. When it is powerfully shaped and emotionally true, poetry can be both beautiful and sublime, an illuminated pathway to transcendence.

That said, let’s talk about food.

Seriously, food—because there’s a link between poetry and food. Food, like poetry, can be beautiful, even sublime. What’s more: many poets like to eat and, when they can afford it, they like to eat well.  Not always fancy, mind you, but food that is rich as well as satisfying.

Poetry and food share the pleasures of the senses. Reading beautiful words, shaping the syllables in your mouth, letting the language roll off the tongue—that’s sensuous, like biting into an overripe peach and savoring the juicy sweetness.

Cooking, too, can be sublime. Consider the act of breadmaking, which involves measuring flour, adding water and yeast, kneading dough, watching the dough rise, shaping the dough, and smelling the fresh loaves as they turn golden-brown in the oven. What poet or poetry lover wouldn’t find this a sensuous experience?

The link between poetry and food was made plain some years ago in Victoria McCabe’s literary cookbook, John Keats’s Porridge: Favorite Recipes of American Poets. McCabe collected more than one hundred recipes, including some classical European dishes, such as Richard Hugo’s Fettuccine Verdi al Forno (even the name sounds sensuous), as well as others that are more basic, such as Jim Harrison’s A Sort of Purist-Type Chili, which starts with five pounds of cubed chuck, includes fifteen (fifteen!) whole garlic cloves, and then simmers for eight hours.

John Image 2

A poet herself, McCabe offered a recipe called Gruel, which consists of two major ingredients: rice and a can of chicken noodle soup. Season with salt and pepper. This recipe doesn’t seem exactly sensuous, but McCabe claims it is “better than it sounds.” McCabe also highlights a practical advantage for poets and writers: “Gruel is a hearty meal and is extremely cheap to make.”

But perhaps my favorite recipe in John Keats’s Porridge is from the great Southern poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren, whose recipe is called simply Recipe. It consists of two ounces of Jack Daniels Black Label, two ounces of non-chlorinated water, and two cubes of ice. Warren saves the most potent ingredient for last: “½ hour in which to meditate on the goodness of God.”

That last part—that’s where we can search for the sublime.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).