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February 2008

Weekly Wrap: Rejected But Not Defeated

by Susan Henderson on February 29, 2008

Here’s a rejection I got once: “Not for us, but cool stamp.”

I used the Animal stamp, which, I agree, is pretty cool. The story was picked up elsewhere, nominated for a Pushcart, and reprinted in a second magazine. Submitting stories is like that. It’s all about one person’s (or one small group of persons’) opinions. That is not to say that there weren’t plenty of rejections I received that had some hard truths in them – stories that weren’t ready, stories that were never going to be ready, and stories I should feel grateful are not out there, representing my body of work.

Rejection letters are part of the life and character of any writer brave enough to put his or her work out there in search of a larger audience. These letters also prepare you for what’s to come when you get your book published: single-star Amazon reviews, Kirkus, and other body blows.

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Like this week’s guest, Jessica Keener, I’ve been on both sides of the rejection slip. I know some of you who read my blog have rejection slips signed by me, and I know that even when an editor tries to be gentle and even when a writer tries to have a thick skin, these little letters can hurt. They can chip away at your confidence. They can make those around you question why you stick with it.

When I was reading 25, 50, 100 stories a week, the main thing that struck me was how few stories got me where it counted – wowed me with every sentence; took me somewhere I didn’t expect to go; made me forget I was working; made me forget my phone, my email, the other stories waiting in the stack; left me utterly buzzed, emotional or changed. I never wanted to settle for an excellently-crafted story; I needed to be brought to my knees. (Think William Maxwell, Tim O’Brien, Nicole Krauss, Cornelius Eady, Donna Tartt, Virgil.) To be a great editor, you have to toughen up and say no to anything that falls short of that standard, knowing all the while that your standard is completely subjective.

What I hope I never did, however, was crush the spirit of a writer. Even a bad writer. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of giving false encouragement, but it does mean that I’m in favor of remembering the impact of words, particularly to people who are feeling vulnerable. I talked about this extensively with Wayne Yang over here.

With experience, we all get better at judging when our stories are ready to send out, knowing what markets to target, and building those relationships with editors. But mostly, I think writing and becoming published is a game of endurance. If you think you have “it,” then you have to be bold. You have to write and write and write, revise and revise and revise, send and send and send. Some of us can only make our skin so thick, but you have to get your work out there because, unless you’re writing purely for therapeutic reasons, it’s not really a story until it has a reader.

I like this NPR piece about some of the famous writers who were rejected by Knopf. It puts these little slips you hate to get in perspective. And I think I’ll end on that note.

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I am behind on mail and on comments here. I’ll catch up, but be patient with me. I’m staying focused on my book edits these days and have to make them my priority.

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Thank you to my guest this week, Jessica Keener, and to all of you who left comments and contest submissions. Hotshots who linked to LitPark: University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Awesome Mustache, Mother Talk, The Education of Oronte Churm, Robin Slick’s In Her Own Write, Sarah Bain’s Geography of Grief, Keyhole Blog, Mommy Writer, and M.J. Rose’s Buzz, Balls and Hype.

See you Monday!

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Jessica Brilliant Keener

by Susan Henderson on February 27, 2008

It’s hard to overestimate how much I like Jessica Keener. She’s a generous soul but no Pollyanna – she has grit, fire, and a Lauren Bacall voice to die for. Today she’s going to talk about her experience on both sides of the rejection slip – as a writer who submits her work and as an editor who reads your stories at Agni literary magazine. But it is the unexpected direction this interview took that shows what Jessica is made of, what gives her a depth and a wisdom I truly admire. So make yourself a cup of coffee and settle in. And be prepared to see the sexiest chemo shot ever. I’m just saying.

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My husband of 21 years, Barr takes all the emotional hits that spouses of writers often endure. He’s the king of faith keepers.

I want to talk to you about your work as an editor, but first, let’s hear your story about being on the other side. Go back to the beginning, when you first started submitting your work to literary magazines. How did you decide where and what to submit? Talk to me about anything that struck you then about the cost, the wait, the rules about simultaneous submissions, and of course, your experience with the editors who read your work.

The other side. Isn’t it funny how we think of it this way? I’ll get back to that. But first, the particulars:

I started submitting a long time ago in 1980. Back then, it was a criminal offense to simultaneously submit your work. Editors and magazines reinforced this policy in their submission statements. (Submit simultaneously and you will never write in this town again.) But I had a poet friend who knew better. He sent out simultaneous submissions. I remember thinking, “Gee, he’s taking a risk.” It sure accelerated his acceptance rate, though. And he wasn’t the only one. More writers started doing this. They were the smart subversives. Of course, today, simultaneous submissions are the norm. Thank goodness.

Meanwhile, I kept my turtle-with-a-broken-leg’s pace. I sent out one story at a time. I still have my original record-keeping book for tracking submissions. In 1986 it cost $1.63 per story submission. (90 cents for the outgoing package; 73 cents for the return envelope.)

Record keeping book with Scotch-taped binding.

I sent to commercial places such as The New Yorker, McCall’s, Redbook, The Atlantic. After making those rounds (and getting roundly rejected), I sent to bigger or better-known literary journals such as Agni, Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, Paris Review – rejected by all. That didn’t stop me from trying again and again (stubbornness? megalomania?) especially when editors from both commercial and lit mags scrawled notes such as: “Please try again.” “Close call.” “Difficult decision, made final round.” These encouraging phrases sent me cart wheeling with hope. Amazing how a few words from an editor altered the tenor of my day.

The good news: I started getting short listed and winning ribbons in story contests. The bad news: still no publication.

Six years later, The Chariton Review accepted my first story. What a glorious day! In retrospect, I should have expanded my list of prospects. I mean, I applaud myself (sort of) for going for top publications but it would have been smarter to target less exclusive magazines. I also could have done far better researching magazines to find the right fit for my stories. (It’s easy to do that these days. Go online and read what magazines are publishing.) Moreover, I wish I’d followed my poet friend’s example and submitted simultaneously. Why didn’t I? Fear and insecurity – my worst enemies.

During this time, commercial markets for short stories disappeared. The New Yorker used to publish two stories per issue. Ditto for The Atlantic. Literary magazines are where the action is and always was: new talent, innovative and essential work thrives there. So pick your favorite literary magazine and order a subscription. Do it today! It makes a terrific gift.

Now for the other aspect of submitting: the emotional drama. In the old days, I embraced rejections like dysfunctional lovers. I’d lose days of sanity over form rejection slips. Not anymore. Ninety percent of the time, I’m numb or indifferent to them. Is that good? I don’t know. I’m certainly not free of self-doubt – I’d feel weird without that emotional checkpoint, it’s my own form of government, my supreme court if you will – but years of rejection have toughened me. I just keep going.

How does your experience of being a submitter, or a rejectee, inform your experience as an editor?

Well, when I step into this “other side” of things, I try not to think of myself as being on any side. As a fiction editor at Agni, I approach each story as fair-mindedly as I can. I won’t succeed because I have tastes and opinions. So I try to recognize my subjectivity and accept it. From there, I hope that writers submitting will remember that if and when (and the when is a given) they get rejected they will ask these two questions: 1) was this story right for Agni? And 2) does this story need more work? I’ve turned away stories that I know someone will publish but it wasn’t what we’re looking for at Agni.

Meanwhile, when I’m on this “other side” rejecting stories, I always say a silent “sorry” to the writer and send out a quick prayer hoping they don’t take it harshly or personally. As a submitter, I know it sucks to get a story returned. At the same time, having been at this way too long both as a writer and fiction editor, I recognize that we each have our own rate of success and pathway to that success. If you want to accomplish something, you’ll keep at it.

Agni – and it’s head honcho, Sven – are some of the most respected icons in the world of short literary fiction. Why don’t you give us a sneak peek behind the scenes? You know, what does Sven eat for lunch? Does he chew on his pencils? That kind of thing… and also the more important things.

Sven. Think: tall guy who wears oversized, comfy sweaters. Offer him a cookie and a drink (with alcohol) and he’ll probably like you. I can see him raising an eyebrow as I write this. He also likes 1960s words. “This story has a good vibe,” he’ll say. Or he’ll pronounce the word “busy” like a melodic tune, sustaining the zee sound (bizz-zee) as a way of alluding to his day’s complex chores. Sven is dreamy and obtuse. He’s a wanderer with a purpose, not sure how he got here but glad he did. “I’m dividing my day into these moments,” he’ll say. He often, without meaning to, makes me laugh.

Bill Pierce, Agni’s Senior Editor, is an ideal complement to Sven. Bill is practical, super smart, passionate about Agni writers and the reason why our subscriptions numbers are up.

Here’s what I do with my Agni submissions. Every three weeks or so I go the Agni office at Boston University, about two miles from my house, and meet with Sven in the morning to discuss my pile of stories. When we’re done, he gives me a new pile.

How does Sven handpick my piles?

1) Sven may know the writer.

2) The writer may be someone he’s encouraged or asked to see more work.

3) The query letter might have notable credits.

4) He’s read the first two paragraphs of the story and it looks interesting.

5) Another writer or editor has recommended the writer to Sven.

6) I may know the writer.

7) He randomly picked it because we need to get the growing piles read.

I write a few lines about each story and give the report to Sven when we meet. For a sample of my write-ups, take a look here.

My home. Lit-up window on the top floor is my office.

In my experience as a lit mag editor, you receive many “very good” stories, but the ones that are excellent and original and take your breath away are pretty rare. What kind of story gets extra-noticed at Agni, and what process does that story go through before its author hears the final yay or nay?

If I love a story and want to publish it, I’ll tell Sven. He’ll read it and, if he agrees, he’ll run it by Bill. If Bill approves, the story’s in! I’ve chosen unpublished as well as prize winning writers.

My mission as a fiction editor at Agni is to find brilliance, a distinctive voice, a story that takes me into its world and changes mine at the same time. It’s intelligent but not preachy, has humor or may be quirky, and is many-layered. Striking language is a must. It may be about worldly concerns or highly domestic concerns. I personally don’t like stories that feel as if they have an agenda. Read Agni. Check out Agni online. You’ll get a feel for what we like.

Me without hair – post bone marrow transplant.

Okay, enough about Agni. Tell me your story. What are 5 things I’d never believe about you? Or, if you’d rather answer this: What are 5 things that most explain why you are the person you are?

1) When I was about four years old, I tore out the pages from my Beatrix Potter book, reshuffled them into a neat pile, and pretended that I was the author.

2) I was the captain of my cheerleading squad in 9th grade.

3) In my early twenties, I had a bone marrow transplant and spent two and a half months in a hospital isolation room. I was bald for about six months.

4) I love Hollywood gossip websites.

5) I’m a seeker in search of a home.

How did you know you were sick? I’d like to hear the whole story of you getting the news that you had cancer through the transplant, to now? I’d love to hear the difference between your (emotional) experience at the time to the meaning you give that experience today.

I didn’t know I was sick. It was a slow, insidious process that spanned several years beginning, perhaps, in high school. Results from a yearly physical revealed that I was anemic. This was not that unusual for young menstruating women. My doctor prescribed iron pills. Being a teenager, I didn’t take them regularly and I didn’t follow up to see if they helped. Over the next few years I noticed fatigue, some weakness and dizziness and bruising on my legs, all of which I ignored. I did go to another physician once for chest pains and not feeling right. He examined me, found nothing and said, “You’re pretty and smart. Enjoy your life,” or something like that. He tried to help me put on my coat but I didn’t like his patronizing manner. It angered me. I took my coat and walked out.

A few years later, in college, I got sick with a cold that I couldn’t shake. I finally went to the college clinic and discovered, again, that I was anemic—notably so. The doctor put me on iron pills. This time, I followed up. The pills didn’t help. That was a disturbing sign. The physician sent me back to my family physician. More blood tests followed. More weird looking data showed up. By now I was a junior in college.

Next, my physician sent me to a hematologist, someone who specializes in blood disorders. After another month of more blood tests (and a few nasty, painful bone marrow aspirations where the doctor stuck a needle in my hip bone and pulled out bone marrow), they found the answer. I had Aplastic Anemia, a rare and potentially fatal bone marrow disorder. I had a moderately severe case of it.

So what the f*#k is aplastic anemia? It’s when the bone marrow, which produces all your blood cells, begins to shut down. This accounted for 1) my very low red count, which made me tired 2) low white count, which put me in jeopardy of getting life-threatening infections and 3) low platelets, which stops bleeding and accounted for the excessive bruising on my legs.

My doctor put me on male hormones for several months. Apparently male hormones worked for a woman that was written up in the medical literature. This is why I have a husky voice today and the reason I can’t sing soprano, which I used to do pretty seriously. The hormones didn’t work. I got worse.

No other treatment existed then except for a risky, experimental bone marrow transplant. At the time, my doctor told me the procedure had a 40 percent success rate. If I chose to do nothing at all, I had a 15 percent chance of spontaneous remission and survival.

Meanwhile, all my siblings were tested to see if they matched my bone marrow. Siblings have a one in four chance of matching. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. My youngest brother matched! A miracle.

Jessica and Frank.

But I was terrified and didn’t want to leap into a procedure that could kill me. Yet I’d gotten sick to the point where I couldn’t walk upstairs anymore without getting severely winded. I was hospitalized once for an eye hemorrhage, which is dangerously close to my brain and could have caused a stroke. I needed to make a decision.

At the same time, I wanted to graduate college. I hired tutors to make up work I missed due to fatigue and the fact that I needed to stay away from crowds (to avoid catching viruses). I continued to worsen. I stopped going out. In September, one month before checking into the hospital for my transplant, I picked up my college diploma.

I cannot emphasize the level of terror I lived with for a year before the transplant. I often woke up gasping, afraid I would die when I went to sleep. I went to a hypnosis clinic to calm my fears. I went to a therapist to deal with my obsession with dying. Weeks before I went into the hospital, I visited a local faith healer after I saw him on late night TV. He gave me visualizing and white light exercises.

Then something inexplicable happened. About a week before I went into the hospital, I had a remarkable dream. I saw myself floating in the universe. A white star or something like that, told me I would be alright. When I awoke from that dream, I knew that I would get through. I knew it 100 percent. It’s one of those mystical experiences that sounds stupid and corny when you try to write about it but was tangible, emotionally potent, and utterly real to me – beyond verbal expression.

Here I am twenty-nine years later. My transplant could not have been more successful. My brother saved me. I am cured. An amazing side note to this is that my brother was not a planned pregnancy. In fact, I was supposed to get a dog. But my mother got pregnant and told me I would get a baby instead. Good deal, huh?

Obviously, this experience changed how I think of my life and how I approach it. I never lose sight of my mortality. I wish I could but I can’t. I know that we’re vulnerable and that life is a mystery far beyond our little time here on earth. It’s a spiritual thing that I carry with me at all times. Every second. In that way, the illness was a gift. Life is urgent. It’s not something to waste.

Footnote: I wrote about my illness in my first novel, which I called Body Chemistry (unpublished). “Recovery,” my first published story that I talked about earlier was the seed for this novel. It’s about a girl in a hospital room. “Recovery” also won Redbook’s second prize in fiction and was additionally nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Me and my mom when she came to visit us in Budapest.

Unpublished novels just kill me – all that work and then the decision to let it go…. Tell me about the one you’re shopping around right now.

It’s called: Love, Death & Hunger and I’m polishing it up as we speak. It’s about a thirty-something couple who move from Atlanta to Budapest in the mid-1990s, and whose lives collide with a WW2 American veteran searching for his daughter’s murderer. The story deals with the idea of home and identity, love and forgiveness and doing what you think is right. I lived in Budapest for a year so it’s been fun revisiting it in my mind. Budapest is rife with complex history. During WW2, an estimated 800,000 Jews were deported and gassed within a few months at the end of the war. As part of my research, I spoke to half a dozen Hungarian Jewish survivors from that time. It’s been a humbling experience.

Jessica Keener has an ear for the nuances of family life and manages, in this book, a small miracle –describing, convincingly, a family suffering the rigidity and opaqueness of a small-scale tyrant, yet honoring his authority and treating his painful struggles with kindness. Keener’s heroine, a 14-year old girl impatient to achieve womanliness, is a marvel of curiosity, impulsiveness, and generosity. What a lovely book! ~ C. Michael Curtis

My other novel that I finished last spring is called Others Less Fortunate and is about motherlessness. It’s about an upper middle class family of four children coping with the tragic loss of their mother, an emotionally remote, pill-popping suburban wife. The story takes place in Boston in the 1960s and is seen through the eyes of the oldest teenage daughter, Sarah, a gifted singer who sexualizes her grief. A narcissistic father compounds the difficulty of the loss. Yet the need for love and nurturance overrides and is a powerful force as the family seeks to fill this terrible void. You can read an excerpt here or here. The inspiration for this story originates with a tragedy that occurred when I was in 7th grade. My friend’s mother killed herself. Everyone at school knew about it but no one talked about it, including me. This novel was a way to explore the devastation and haunted feeling I experienced because of my friend.

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Bio:

Jessica Keener is a fiction editor at Agni magazine and co-host of Backstory. Her work has been listed in the Pushcart Prize anthology under ‘100 outstanding writers,’ and published in literary journals as well as online sites including The Huffington Post, iVillage and DearReader.com. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Individual Artist award, in 2001 she co-wrote Time to Make the Donuts with the founder of Dunkin’ Donuts. For her day job, she freelances for The Boston Globe and other national magazines including Oprah and New England Home. She is also a member of Backspace.

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Question of the Week: Rejection

by Susan Henderson on February 25, 2008

Let’s hear one of your rejection letters – not one of those flattering close-calls, but a real doozy, like the kind you might get from C. Michael Curtis.

Come on. They don’t hurt so bad when you see we’ve all got ’em!

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Wednesday, Jessica Keener will be here to talk about being on both sides of the rejection slip – as a writer who receives them and as an editor who sends them out. See you Wednesday!

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Oh, woops, before I leave you, huge congratulations to Enrico Casarosa and Buck Lewis for Ratatouille‘s Oscar win!

And it’s been far too long since I’ve linked the fabulous Tommy Kane. Love this drawing he did on cardboard. And coming soon are the drawings he did on his trip to Morocco. Go check him out and tell him what a hotshot he is.

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Weekly Wrap: This Is Not Actually Copping Out

by Susan Henderson on February 22, 2008

Now, don’t get mad at me, but there’s no weekly wrap. The answer to this week’s question is pretty much the story of my novel, which I need to focus on today.

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Thank you to this week’s guest, Oronte Churm, otherwise known as John Griswold; to everyone who offered up prizes for The Little Truths Writing Contest: Inside Higher Ed, McSweeney’s, featherproof books, and Les Chauds Lapins; to Steve Davenport for judging the contest; to all the folks who played here this week; and finally, to everyone who linked to LitPark: McSweeney’s, Masters of Miscellany, In The Life Of, Doreen Orion, Lily White Intentions, 52 Projects, Smile Politely, The Publishing Spot, The Split Infinitive, Lally Andreevna, The World’s Fair, Practicing Writing, FACE Talk, and The Education of Oronte Churm. I appreciate those links!

See you Monday for a new question of the week.

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Oronte Churm (and a CONTEST)

by Susan Henderson on February 20, 2008

Agents and publishers interested in contacting my guest or reading his manuscripts: OChurm@aol.com

My guest today is not the only one hanging around LitPark who goes by a pen name. But today he is stepping out from behind the mask.

If you are a regular reader of McSweeney’s, you know Oronte Churm as the author of “Dispatches from Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University” – an anatomy of being a teacher, writer, husband, father, and son. In short, it’s about a whole life’s education, which never ends. Churm is also busy writing for Inside Higher Ed, where he keeps a creative nonfiction superblog called The Education of Oronte Churm. He’s been a contributing editor for Adjunct Advocate, writes for World’s Fair, a Seed Media science site, and has a piece in Mountain Man Dance Moves (McSweeney’s Books).

So what’s the story of the guy behind the pen name? Well, if you click over to McSweeney’s, you can read the beautiful essay in which he reveals his true identity. It’s an essay that made me tear up again and again because it touches on almost everything I’ve been struggling with these past many months as I’ve tried to edit my book. That he manages to weave stories of ghosts, his dying father, porn star Ron Jeremy, and salvation into this one story shows why he’s my kind of writer and my kind of friend. I hope you’ll find the time to read it.

But first, while you’re here, I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Churm, who is also my friend, John Griswold.

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What made you use the name, Oronte Churm, to begin with? Why didn’t you want to use your real name?

John Warner, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, asked me in 2005 to write a column about being an adjunct lecturer at Illinois. He said I could use a pen name, since I’m not on the tenure track and don’t have that job protection. Neither of us knew, I think, what I might have to say, or whether anyone would frown on it. But I was also trying to finish a literary novel and wanted to keep humorous bits separate from the rest of my intended writing life. As it turned out, I’ve tried to do more with my dispatches than I think John expected from me—never waste a good publishing platform, my mother always said—and he’s been terrifically supportive of their oddity.

The pen name is a combination of two characters’ names from the Henry James story “The Real Thing,” which I was teaching at the time. I liked the sound of them together; Oronte is floral and Churm is muddy, a comical combination. The story questions who or what is “real” in art and life, and those questions seemed pertinent to my situation as college teacher and writer.

You allude, in the McSweeney’s piece, to some people being angry about the pen name. Can you say more about that?

In a dispatch called “On Apophasis,” I revealed that an editor at a big-time publication told me, nearly apropos of nothing, that if I wrote for them I couldn’t talk about the Iraq War. I heard later that her boss, the editor-in-chief, was quite upset with me and felt it wasn’t cricket to hide, as he viewed it, behind an assumed name. It made me wonder what satisfactions he imagined having, if only I’d used my real name. Duel at dawn? Trying to get me fired? Standing in my front yard yelling epithets? He and his shop all knew my real name anyway.

To me, a pen name can easily be the same as a surname, even if it doesn’t speak to geography. If the writing is clear, thoughtful, or even frequent, the “real” aspect of the writer’s being will out. Besides, even pseudonymous writers can be denounced, and most have e-mail. Writers have never been as accessible as they are now.

Talk to me about how it feels behind the mask.

It feels great. It feels like bunnies, like lilacs on a spring night, like good whisky and smiting one’s enemies. It feels like the 1938 Carnegie Hall performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” with the tom-tom beat of Gene Krupa and an unexpected and miraculous piano solo by Jess Stacy. Step back here a minute, Friend, and I’ll show you what it feels like.

Any downside to wearing a mask?

We all wear masks and change them according to the social situation. Usually we feel each to be “true,” even when one contradicts the one before it. A pen name is no different. I see nothing unusual about being Churm; it’s simply my persona for a certain context and is invisible to me at that moment.

I guess you won’t truly be able to answer this till you’re officially outed and start getting feedback, but do you expect you’ll feel free? Naked? Like Oz when he’s discovered behind the curtain, and people think, Oh, I thought he’d be bigger?

I’m actually a giant of a man, lewd and bulging, but comfortable in my existential skin. If someone can’t handle my nakedness, he can always avert his gaze.

Why now? What has happened or changed in you that you would rather be John than Oronte?

As Churm, I’ve amassed considerable nonfiction work, and I’m proud of it. I want to unify my two writing lives, if only to aid in further publishing and getting a tenure-track gig. Anyway, I’ll continue to write as Oronte in several venues, including at Inside Higher Ed, where I’m signing on for another year. Churm, c’est moi.

Come on over to my place, The Education of Oronte Churm, and read more on pen names in the Digital Age.

Want to say anything about McSweeney’s, or some of the other folks you’ve written for?

I can’t say enough about the impeccable taste, keen intelligence, and boyish good looks of Internet Tendency editor John Warner. Also, I had dinner with Dave Eggers once, and I’ll just say this: The man can eat the hell out of some chocolate cake.

I’m very grateful to McSweeney’s for everything, including introductions to some great good friends and opportunities for other work. The dispatches led to my being a contributing editor at Adjunct Advocate, and a year ago Inside Higher Ed hired me as their first Blog U. writer. (There are now five of us.) IHE’s editors, Doug Lederman and Scott Jaschik, are incredibly supportive and have also let me try anything I wished, from an interview with a Special Forces chaplain to long essays about my emotional connections to Vietnam, where I was born. Somewhere in there I talk about teaching, too. Lately I’ve been hanging with the scientists at The World’s Fair, a Seed Media science blog. I ask them if they intend to blow up the world, and they tell me I’m funny.

I’ll put it out there that I love McSweeney’s, too. There’s a good many people over there I consider to be like family. But let’s get to the contest because I know my readers want to win this money so they can buy more books.

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The Little Truths Writing Contest:

Your submissions to the contest go right here in the comments section. Enter as often as you like!

In honor of Oronte Churm’s revelation of his real name and previously undisclosed location, his online friends are sponsoring a short writing contest with big-time prizes.

Write a creative nonfiction story or essay, 75 (seventy-five!) words or less, in which someone reveals something, is unmasked, or comes to a new understanding. (This is most of literature, by the way.) We call these “little truths.”

Our friends at Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction permit submissions ten times longer, but we like their standards for our contest:

Clear, concise, vivid prose—memoir, journalism, or lyric all welcome. Memoir and narrative are best told with scenes and detail, not explanation, and even the personal essay form benefits from image and sensory language. Bernard Cooper suggests that short nonfiction ‘requires an alertness to detail, a quickening of the senses, a focusing of the literary lens, so to speak, until one has magnified some small aspect of what it means to be human.’ We agree.

Here is a little truth, exactly 75 words long, from Somerset Maugham’s notebooks:

We were sitting in a wine shop in Capri when Norman came in and told us T. was about to shoot himself. We were startled. Norman said that when T. told him what he was going to do he could think of no reason to dissuade him. “Are you going to do anything about it?” I asked. “No.” He ordered a bottle of wine and sat down to await the sound of the shot.

Mr. Maugham is currently dead and therefore ineligible to win this contest, so send your own little truth along. Enter as many times as you like! Post entries as comments to this posting by midnight, Friday, March 7, 2008. By entering the contest, you agree to allow Inside Higher Ed to re-post and archive your entry at their site, though all rights revert to you.

Entries can be funny, sad, ironic, hip, morose, hopeful, or anything else you want them to be, but they should be both true and True.

The judge:

The judge will be Steve Davenport, Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ninth Letter, and Associate Director of the Creative Writing Program at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Steve’s first book, Uncontainable Noise, won Pavement Saw Press’s Transcontinental Poetry Prize. More importantly, he may be the basis for the character-foil “Rory” in Churm’s dispatches and blog.

The prizes:

Grand Prize is a $100 VISA Gift Card, courtesy of Inside Higher Ed, your online source for news, opinion and jobs for all of higher education, and the proud home of The Education of Oronte Churm.

First Prize is courtesy of McSweeney’s: A $50 gift certificate to the McSweeney’s store, where you can find everything from magazine subscriptions to books to tattoos to the original circus t-shirt.

Second Prize is courtesy of featherproof books, a young indie publisher based in Chicago, which publishes perfect-bound, full-length works of fiction and downloadable mini-books. Get two featherproof novels of your choice and one of their “reusable, rewritable, rarely regrettable” letterTees.

Third Prize (two to be given) is the debut album of Les Chauds Lapins, Parlez-moi d’amour, courtesy of the hot little bunnies themselves.

Winners will be announced at The Education of Oronte Churm the week of March 10th.

Good luck!

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Bio for the man behind Oronte Churm:

John Griswold’s short stories, poems, and essays have appeared in journals such as War, Literature & the Arts, Mediphors, Palo Alto Review, and Natural Bridge, which nominated his story “Transcript of a World War I Veteran’s Narrative” for the 2001 Pushcart Prize. A piece on the Midwest will appear in the next issue of Ninth Letter, and an appreciation of poet John Balaban in the next issue of War, Literature & the Arts.

John was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and grew up in Southern Illinois. He served as an Army deep-sea diver, earned a BA in English and philosophy, and worked as a corporate writer for several years. His MFA is from the University of Miami, Coral Gables, and since 2000 he’s taught undergrads creative writing and literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

His novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a collection of essays based on the dispatches are under submission to publishers. He’s currently working on a memoir, tentatively titled How We Become Men.

Agents and publishers interested in contacting my guest or reading his manuscripts: OChurm@aol.com

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