Category Archives: Essays

These will be 1500-2000 words and will go through a more rigorous editing process, which may average one to two months depending on how many we receive. While funding lasts, we will pay $25 for all essays, upon acceptance.


Bag It: Why the Publishing Industry Should Take Notes from Chipotle

While eating lunch this past winter, I had a literary epiphany. It was a frigid day amongst the blur of countless, unidentifiable frigid days within the haunted snow globe that is Minnesota. I was conducting my gluttonous, bi-monthly routine of wolfing down a Chipotle burrito in ravenous, too-large bites. After gnashing through the first quarter of the burrito, I groped for my cup to swill down some soda. It was then that I noticed the words on the cup. The words weren’t your typical marketing jargon—See you next time! Let us know how we treated you by filling out this survey! No, on my cup there were small-print words framed by an agrarian motif and a large-print name that I recognized: Malcolm Gladwell. What was the New York Times bestselling author doing on my cup? Was he going to recommend that I needed to ingest 10,000 Chipotle burritos in order to became a burrito-eating expert? Struck with curiosity, I read the first sentence.

“I grew up in Canada, in an area of Ontario where there is a large community of Old-Order Mennonites.”

Cup222A delightful, 359-word piece followed, recounting an experience in Gladwell’s youth when unfamiliar cultures joined to raise a barn after a local farmer lost his in a fire. Completely engrossed, I stepped away from my half-eaten lunch, journeyed up to the counter, and inquired from the wide-grinned teenaged employee at the register about the cup. She handed me a brown paper bag, which, like the cup, featured narrative writing and cartoonish sketches. One side depicted modern humans drinking coffee, walking kids to school, shopping; the other side featured litters of anthropomorphic astronauts, robots, and tech-savvy future humans frolicking on the brown paper bag. Like the cup, the bag’s writing also belonged to a literary giant, George Saunders. I took the bag back to my table and as I finished my lunch, I read the story. It was a sparse yet undeniably charming letter to a future-residing reader. These short blurbs scrawled on the sides of otherwise-ignored products were a beacon of literary promise. Cue my epiphany.

For today’s writer, preserving optimism in a largely non-paying, literary landscape is an arduous, though necessary, endeavor. Positivity—synthetic or otherwise—is an essential component for a writer to combat the bubbling neuroses that accompany the artistic medium. Whether inching away on a novel or constructing short stories, there isn’t much reassurance awaiting the writer on the other end of the submission structure, only long lulls of unresponsive silence intercut with manic periods of self-loathing and excessive refreshing of one’s email inbox. But what else is a writer to do?

When seeking to publish their work, most writers follow a step-by-step process that has been developed and passed down by writers before them. The process is a logical structure that has proven successful for predecessors, and for better or worse hasn’t been updated. In the first step, you, the writer, set yourself at a desk and you write. When you think you’re done writing, you brew another pot of coffee, or, if the time is appropriate, you mix up an alcoholic beverage, and keep writing. Then you step away from the desk, go for a walk or seek human communication, before returning to revise your work. Only then, when the words you have punched out are in their least-terrible state, you scroll through your Microsoft Excel file of literary publishers. You figure out which Review or Quarterly or Journal publishes the type of work you just wrote and then you draft a cover letter. You flatter the editors of the publication by name-dropping a writer or two that they have published that you “admire” and send the letter and its accompanying story off into the daunting literary ether. Then you wait. You prepare for a robotic rejection letter—While we enjoyed your writing, this piece isn’t for us at this time— though you quietly expect an acceptance letter. And maybe one will say yes and you will dance around your desk like a celebratory buffoon and when the piece is published you’ll adore seeing your name printed below your piece and you won’t mind that you weren’t paid and you will tell yourself that a few more non-paying publications might lead to one that, you know, actually pays. Or maybe all the journals say no, and you strap back into to revision mode and identify what is wrong with you piece.

But what if there is a road less traveled in the publishing world, a meander from the traditional structure? What if the today’s writer should be exploring non-traditional publishing avenues, like the Chipotle cup?

Saunders and Gladwell’s Chipotle contributions are part of their Cultivating Thought Author Series. Chipotle’s website states that the goal of the series is to:

“Allow people to connect with the musings of these writers with whom they may or may not be familiar and create a moment of analog pause in a digital world, provoking introspection or inspiration, and maybe a little laughter.” (1)

Though only a year into its infancy, the Cultivating Thought Author Series boasts an impressive fleet of writers. It includes literary juggernauts Sheri Fink, Michael Lewis, Amy Tan, Walter Isaacson, and well-known comedians such as Sarah Silverman, Bill Hader, Judd Apatow, and countless other talented folks. Such an impressive roster begs the question: Is it to the writers’ greater advantage to publish with Chipotle than to publish at a nationally-distributed magazine? Does it pay more? Would a story published on a cup at Chipotle be seen by more readers if it were published with the New Yorker?

Publishing an issue once a week, the New Yorker currently boasts a circulation of just over a million loyal readers. When you account for newsstand purchases, each issue is seen by about 1.1 million readers.(2) In contrast, in a 2011 article by Fortune (3), Chipotle reportedly serves 800,000 customers per day. That’s 5.6 million customers per week. Of course, not each customer is going to order a soda cup, or a to-go bag, and therefore not each of the 5.6 million will read the Cultivating Thought Author Series. However, unlike the New Yorker, a Cultivating Thought piece may stay in circulation for months, as opposed to a singular week. Increasing exposure, each Cultivating Thought Series piece is published online. I reached out to the Chipotle corporate offices to inquire into about the Series and its circulation to attempt and pin down precisely how many readers were observing the work of their contributors. Unfortunately, I received little response as their supply-chain data is proprietary. They did, however, confirm that all the contributors were compensated.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether more people read Gladwell’s piece on the paper confines of their soda cup than a bound New Yorker magazine. What is pertinent is that the Cultivating Thought Author Series should open the eyes of writers to far-reaching alternative destinations for publishing their work. Does that mean that writers should submit their next essay to Subway instead of McSweeney’s or the Georgia Review? Not necessarily. Chipotle’s groundbreaking series isn’t open to submission, publishing only solicited work. But it does afford a certain set of writers the chance to engage the same creativity they apply in their work in considering publishing venues. Hypothetically, they could approach a local sandwich shop about publishing blurbs on their napkins or they could pitch their flash fiction to minor-league sports teams in their area to feature narrative work on banner-scroll pen promotion nights.

The pursuit of non-traditional publishing avenues is not limited to writers. Imagine all the fantastic deviations independent publishers could implement by exploring outside-the-box publishing strategies. An independent publisher could partner with a coffee shop. Imagine the increase in submissions an online literary journal would receive for this call for submissions:

The Blank Blank Review is seeking work for an exciting new publishing                                  endeavor. In partnership with Fat Moose Gourmet Coffee, we are hosting a contest whose winner will see their work printed on Fat Moose’s signature eco-friendly cup sleeves! The theme for the contest is “Unquenchable Thirst.”

All work should be limited to 400 words. Compensation for the contest winner will be five contributor sleeves.

Writing conference attendees would surely stop and talk to the editors of the Blank Blank Review upon seeing their booth arrayed with beautiful cups emblazoned with narrative tales. The popularity of the cups would put in the motion the idea that the What What Quarterly should host their own contest. Maybe instead of cups, the What What Quarterly, in partnership with the Titus Tissue Company, will post on their website that they are seeking work to be printed on for a box of tissues, the theme being First World Problems. It’s mutually beneficial, providing unique attention for the literary journal—also potentially generating income—and it gives the partner advertising and a boost in public relations.

As book sales continue to dip and newspapers and magazines shutter their print operations, it’s natural for writers and independent publishers to become discouraged. But they shouldn’t allow themselves to sink beneath the pessimism into anguish. Instead they should seek encouragement in the opportunities embodied by Chipotle’s Cultivating Thought Author Series. The market is ripe for new-wave publishing exploration. After all, much like submitting work to a literary publication, the worse response a writer can receive from a non-traditional publisher is a harmless: ‘No, thank you for your submission.’

displaypicturePaul Thelen lives in Minneapolis, where he is an MFA candidate at Hamline University. He enjoys coffee and beer, but struggles to identify the appropriate timing for each. He tweets @ThePaulLen and his other work can be located through his website
Killing the Angel on display at Housing Works. Photo by Skyler Fox.

How to Kill Your Angels

I originally got the idea to start a literary magazine after getting a few years’ experience advising the yearbook at the high school where I teach. I was beginning to enjoy the process of layout, that feeling of receiving freshly printed books in those boxes (they should bottle the smell), and I felt like being in the driver’s seat for once instead of constantly hitchhiking, hoping an agent would pick up my manuscripts.

I’d been obsessed with Virginia Woolf for a while, having been exposed to her work for the first time at the New School while in the MFA program, and in particular I loved her essay, “Professions for Women,” in which she urges female writers to kill their angels–those “be nice” social pressures on women of the time that discourage honest expression. Back when I would routinely apply for every literary job I’d find online, I’d pitched a literary column to a startup magazine with the title Killing the Angel. I never heard back from the magazine, the title remained mine, and so it was decided.

womrathsI estimated that I’d be able to produce the first issue for around $2,000 and organized a Kickstarter campaign that was successfully completed by the end of 2011. Friends, families, fellow MFA-ers, co-workers, and a few anonymous strangers helped me the goal a reality.

Once I had the funding, I had to cultivate submissions. Flyers in coffeeshops and campuses, Craigslist ads, MFA newsletters, and social media helped spread the word. Using a Google form for submissions helped keep everything organized, and I sent paper contracts and checks to accepted writers. We pay writers $20 for each accepted piece and ask them to sign on First North American Serial Rights, which allows for the rights to revert back to the writer after publishing with us, allowing them to publish the same piece again elsewhere (we do ask them to acknowledge us if they do publish again, which they do).

I realize that $20 isn’t a lot, and I’d love to be able to pay more eventually. I can’t say strongly enough how important it is to pay writers, and artists in general, for their work. It’s one of the strongest values that I want KTA to embody. Let’s abolish “great for exposure” from our vocabulary as editors. Exposure alone is not compensation. I think art is often taken for granted, yet in many ways it is what gives meaning to our lives, whether it’s reading a great poem, watching a ballet, or viewing evocative paintings. These are things that we value and we should show it by compensating the artists.

One of my co-workers used to run a literary magazine, and I picked his brain a lot for different questions I had about everything from rights to printing specs. I actually modeled many of our specs off our high school’s literary magazine. For the first issue, I worked with a graphic designer on the cover and interior, and she generously gave me the templates so that I could do all of the art and layout myself for subsequent issues, which saves a lot of money! CLMP was helpful as well regarding questions I had about ISSNs.

I’ve been asked a lot if I’d ever move to an online model, and I always say no. It’s not that I dislike online magazines; rather, it’s more about what print journals can offer. I take pride in creating a beautiful product, and I enjoy the process of mailing them out, often internationally, and getting those emails from people in Australia, the UK, France, saying, “It arrived, and it is wonderful!”

Killing the Angel on display at Housing Works. Photo by Skyler Fox.
Killing the Angel on display at Housing Works. Photo by Skyler Fox.

Once the first issue arrived in its boxes, we were ready to distribute. I reached out to several bookstores, and three of them agreed to carry the journal, one of them being Shakespeare & Company in Paris, France. I also sold the issue online. For the first issue, I also got a lucky break with the company Indie Gift Box, who purchased 100 copies at a heavily discounted rate for their “Stories & Lyrics” themed box. This helped spread the word about the issue as well. Shakespeare & Company has continued to carry each of our issues, and it doesn’t get much cooler than that–what a fantastic bookstore. One of the bookstores that carried us eventually stopped stocking literary magazines, so we’re down to just two stores that carry us.

Once our first issue arrived, I planned a launch event at the KGB Bar in Manhattan, and it pretty much the most amazing night ever. Eight of the first issue contributors came and read, including one author from the DC area, and the venue was so packed that people had to stand in the hallway. I remember standing at the lectern, giving the opening speech, and seriously trying not to cry from all of the emotions I felt.

Since that first issue, a few things have changed. I hired a copy editor for the next issue, and I did the layout myself working in Word, as opposed to InDesign (which my graphic designer used for the first issue). Working off of the template, I also did the cover myself with some help from my tech-savvy husband (then-boyfriend–I know, a critical detail for this essay). By the third issue, I switched from offset to digital printing, a move that would ultimately save me hundreds of dollars on printing costs, and had learned enough about Photoshop to do the cover myself.

Another thing that’s fluctuated are our submissions. Depending on the needs of a particular issue, I might reach out and solicit submissions from specific people. There was one issue where I felt there was a dearth of short prose pieces, so I set up a flash fiction contest with prizes of cash and publication, and that helped flesh out the issue. Being listed on Duotrope, the Grinder, and The Review Review has also helped increase our number of submissions more recently.

At this point in the summer, I’ve accepted the work for our fourth issue, contracts have been signed, and writers have been paid. All that’s left is for me to format the issue, edit it, create the cover, and send it to the printers. A typical yearly cycle for Killing the Angel will have the annual issue released in the fall with some sort of accompanying event (in addition to the KGB Bar, we’ve held issue launches at Small World Coffee in Princeton, New Jersey and Hidden Grounds in New Brunswick, New Jersey). Submissions are open from fall to spring, and then in the spring we have our reading period. Acceptances and rejections go out around May. We put the issue together in the summer, and the cycle continues. It’s a very non-hurried way of doing things, and as someone who refreshes her inbox a lot, I do have moments when I think the cycles should move a little faster, but I also like the slow and steady pace of it all.

There have been surprises along the way. I’m always surprised at how many international submissions we get. Word gets around, even for print magazines. I’ve also met different writers and have become really invested in them. Each issue, for example, has multiple poems from one author that submitted to us the first year and we just fell in love with her work. One of my most staggering moments was Naomi Shihab Nye personally responding to a request for a writer interview. That was truly a moment to remember! Her thoughtful and insightful interview is featured in the second issue of Killing the Angel.

Depending on the crowd, the title of the magazine gets mixed reactions. I usually sum it up by saying something along the lines of, “It means losing your artistic inhibitions and writing honestly.” I remember opening an account for KTA at the bank and the look on the teller’s face when I told her what I wanted the account to be called. She looked somewhat horrified. When I explained Virginia Woolf’s metaphor to her, though, she said, “Oh, that’s cool!” So I think the title is a good conversation starter and instantly garners interest.

I think the magazine has also allowed me to continue on my own creative journey. For me, “killing the angel” is a concept that I believe in philosophically, but personally struggle with sometimes in reality. It’s been a wonderful learning experience to live out these principles and confront the incongruities between the abstract and the concrete, and to make sense of them, as both a person, an editor, and a writer. I continue to write and submit my own creative work to other publishers, though I haven’t yet published myself in Killing the Angel. Who knows? Maybe this will be the year. For as much responsibility and commitment as the magazine brings, it’s incredibly inspiring to have something to mold freely and change through time, and it’s extremely rewarding to be able to inspire readers and writers along the way.

10150550_10103658194825129_715991065_n (1)Jessica Rosevear edits and publishes Killing the Angel, an annual literary journal inspired by Virginia Woolf. She is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program.

Seasoned with Salt: Adding Flavor to the Independent Press

1. Setting Apart the Independent Press

What attracts an MFA program graduate—or a current MFA student, for that matter—to an independent publisher stems from the dog-eat-dog world of big publishing. The competition to legitimize yourself as a published author is extreme. Some have a kneejerk reaction about indie publishing and think that those who choose to publish this way do so as a desperate, last resort–an attempt to reverse the failed MFA syndrome that stigmatizes the perpetually rejected writer. Publishing with an independent press insists that our stories must be told, that our prose is necessary for the world at large, no matter how small the reach may be. It is worth telling, and it is significant and doesn’t require legitimacy from big publishing to enrich its value.

Unknown-1In a writer’s forum online, a fellow author recently said, “So many contemporary novels seem manic, agitated, escapist, goofy, fantastically un-serious, and concerned with nothing of lasting value.” I agree with this assessment because I’ve come to realize, as my family launches our independent publishing press, that little is expected of novels. This assertion is considered old-fashioned in the present day culture and for the few like us, the purpose of establishing an independent publishing press will allow writers to produce a fiction that removes itself from the pressures of a market that craves more vulgarity, more immorality, more profanity, and more cynicism.

To be keenly aware of our position in the culture and to notice what sets us apart or what makes us like the rest, to observe our environment and our behaviors can be the edicts that measure our success in publishing. A good sum of what makes one a successful author is credited to the achievements that endow them: their alma mater, their social circle, and even to a degree, their appearance. All this indeed is how the aspiring author brands herself in the 21st century, following an order, therefore canceling out the work of her words and the diligence of her hands.

Why are so many writers branded as angry, bitter, and abounding with self-loathing? Because the pursuit of publishing traditionally means withstanding the line of unfairness. Rather than continue to ponder what can be done, how this can all be reconciled, it is more urgent to define the present day landscape of publishing. American fiction is churned through a manufactured assembly-line. It is produced and reproduced, reused and upcycled. It is hard to imagine that the big presses will ever release their hold on what Americans are reading en masse, as it is a systematic and regimented industry, where commercial literature is ubiquitously available and lauded.

So what glory does independent publishing possess, given the pathologies we find in big publishing? What benefits are there for independent publishing after the MFA?

  • More deliberate representation of the writer’s work. The writing that an independent press can identify with will eventually be brought to life as it skips getting sifted through a commercial machine. A work is able to retain its character because the press is less likely to negotiate its integrity, as opposed to relegating it to a sales pitch of sorts, that difficult-to-sell-to perception commercial publishing is sensitive to.
  • More opportunities to write. The writer is less likely to continue submitting over and over again to all those possible markets that will never bite the bait. What ends up happening to a writer who is actively seeking a market is that he languishes. A writer doesn’t write when he is out to market. A writer’s greatest need is to write and he cannot accomplish this if his time is consumed at the post office.
  • More mutual engagement and participation. Publishing a book independently is all contingent on the writer partnering with the indie press. An indie publisher gets schooled more quickly and intimately on the project it is publishing, along with learning how to sharpen a writer’s craft and bring it to its full potential through the editing process in order for it to narrate a compelling story or argument. This appeals to writers who won’t perceive their work as a token of sales and instant gratification for a market hungry for trends that are temporal and that last as long as a vapor.
  • Independent presses stay connected with writers. We can experience the literary world despite what trends may be looming at any given season by connecting to several writers and other independent presses. This allows us to avoid growing stale and monolithic. Because we run on a short staff, the labor is intensive, yet is appealing nonetheless as we can help our writers grow in the environment that is writer-centered, not corporate-centered, rising above the overhead of mammoth infrastructure.
  • Independent presses carve themselves out of what not too many people are looking for. We are able to rouse from the stagnation of mainstream literature that is relentlessly intolerable of a worldview that isn’t our own. As a fledgling independent publisher, we don’t necessarily fall into the current trends of the day so we can focus on delivering the best literature to the niche market we hope to support. We exist not just to exist, but to attract those drawn to that niche, growing and gaining visibility in the process, opening it up to go reach beyond with our message.

Independent publishing as a post-MFA writer doesn’t promise the commercial attention and adulation to which many emerging writers aspire. Publishing with an indie press is a deviation from the eventual expectations of what a big publisher would warrant of a writer turned author: being put through channels of approvals and daunting performance standards. Writers who succeed in this atmosphere of expectancy have a lot to lose and much to risk for the propagation of branding oneself as an author. Shedding the moniker of writer in exchange for that of author is no small feat, for the habitual noise of growing a platform of followers and fans in the social media stratosphere breeds more competition for attention, saturating the marketplace of ideas with frivolous or trivial calls for action: click, retweet, like, etc. I find myself sucked into this monster, loathing it as a necessary evil to the industry we find ourselves in. But, ironically, it only compels me and my fledgling indie press to persevere, to write outside of the box, outside of the matrix of mainstream literature, and more importantly, to get out of the pigeonhole that besets us.

2. Epiphanies after the MFA

There was a time when writers wrote alone, solitary, reclused in a cabin tucked away in the wilderness. This has no place in the psyche of a writer today. We write in coffee shops, libraries (which no longer observe silence), and hotel lobbies where the noise levels of music are abrasive to the soul.

imagesAs I recall my days as an MFA student—now 15 years in the past—I wonder what would have happened to me if I had kept a pulse on the industry, on the ever changing market of publishing, if I hadn’t kept myself tucked away for so long. Now, I am regaining traction and mining information that was not readily available during a time when a small percentage of businesses had a web presence. I don’t pull my writing from the same well I did in the MFA and because of that, I am conflicted and find it necessary to choose where I want to go with my writing, and in what direction I want our independent publishing press to go in. Fifteen years of lost time was like being struck in something unexplained, like living in an episode of the X-Files, or the Twilight Zone. I could almost hear Rod Serling monologue my confusion, my apprehensive interest in the 21st-century literary world:

Erendira, a homeschool mom, who once burned the tip of her pen over the pages of black composition notebooks now finds that 15-year interval has left her frozen in time. Mobile phones, apps, cloud computing, and Google have turned many a writer’s writing process into a convenience store ready for the taking. These technologies—we’ll soon find—give Erendira a new lease on life and the much anticipated nudge she will need to recover the drought in her quill, ushering a renaissance that can only be found here at the confluence of the 21st century and the Twilight Zone.

That seems to sum it up for me. A confluence. I am merging and emerging (again) and identify myself with the writers that are coming out of the MFA and forging onto a mainstream literary culture that is unforgiving and relentless.

Today, I regret to disparage my past published stories, urban worlds inhabited by young people—unmarried, unhurried and torn between their bicultural sensibilities. I am grateful that it was a period in my life when I was able to explore the world of publishing on a fundamental level, and at the time, as an MFA graduate, it was quite rewarding to have been published in succession.

I have never forgotten where I was in the MFA: fear and curiosity in one hand, surrender and renewal on the other. At present, I have completed two short stories that I began to write ten months ago—in between teaching my kindergartner how to read, and teaching my fourth grader how to dress-up his sentences. Nothing has solidified yet. Two stories that are autobiographical in style as my past stories were, however, more notably this time with an influence from the writers I’ve been reading—the lush prose, the non-linear direction with a plot narrated in flashbacks, long sentences that encapsulate character-centered stories. I’ve found that once I completed these works, I went to market and wow, was it hard to find a home for them! I know the old adage: Short story collections are a fairly tough sell these days as publishing tightens and fewer break through, including those classified as a novels-in-stories. This, along with other deviations from what the MFA is expected to manifest, has opened my eyes to the rigors of being a writer, enough so that I am motivated to launch, with my husband, an independent publishing press.

Post-MFA Expectation #1: The expectation to teach.

In the MFA, we were encouraged to become writing teachers. We followed along, exhausting ourselves with grading papers. Repeat the cycle and if you’re one of those few, you’ll make it to the faculty at a community college, after paying your dues as an adjunct.

It appears, then, that fiction writers are professors, lecturers, and faculty. As teachers, we like to think of ourselves as agents directing traffic. Write this way, avoid that, explain the other, and omit the former. What is your point? What can you use to support your thesis? We direct the traffic of words spinning on the road map of a wilderness lost. It is wild and it is noble to help others learn to write. Just like helping others read. I do this every day with my children. But likewise, as teachers, we can identify bad writing and then find out that habitually reading dull writing has made our critical thinking lose its luster. An MFA recipient that continues in academia as a teacher will grade papers and relinquish time devoted to craft and writing of their own. If a writer follows the sequence determined for them in the MFA, they will perhaps settle for being an adjunct, like I did, and be in no hurry to pile on more commitments that would put a dent in their writing.

I was heavily distracted with the job of correcting others’ writing, of scouring through compositions riddled with memoir and opinion and no critical thinking that engaged or inspired a response. I lost my passion for writing after reading and teaching the mechanics of a good sentence, all the way through demonstrating a premise and following it to its logical conclusion. I still meet people today that aspire to write, but don’t want to do the work it takes to write well. They are not practicing their craft, let alone honoring their writing in truth. There is an absence of integrity in the writing as writing begins to look more carelessly drawn and slack in execution.

Aside from teaching writing, the writer may pursue all the edibles the writing life has to offer: awards, grants, fellowships, conferences, colonies, and other similar prestigious consumables that revel in the competitive market. Although these milestones in the writer’s life give them an edge in the marketplace, there is much to be gleaned from them nevertheless. Ultimately, rejection is what the writer learns—and they learn it well.

The indie writer is likely to be concerned with the number of projects she needs to juggle rather than with the market she needs to please and all that will entail, thus she has the bandwidth needed to focus on craft. That is why telling a good story is a serious feat and is not for the faint of heart. Writers who trust their readers enough to give them the best they have to offer—the best they’ve assembled from writers that support an aesthetic that bewilders, that moves and provokes a response to their writing—are the writers that will have a solid niche that can embrace them best through independent publishing, devoid of the marketing machine that pressures them to comply to a trend.

Post-MFA Expectation #2: The expectation to fit a mold.

I read in Anis Shivani’s essay entitled, “American Fiction in Dismal State,” that writers today are “polite, sociable, inoffensive, wanting to spark no controversy, staying clear of any dangerous, big, meaningful ideas, even at the cost of their own increased commercial viability. To win the game by making a large statement, and thus causing discomfort within one’s established social zone, is not worth winning the game at all.”

This is a wretched consequence for the MFA alum who, like me, has run through the mill of a writing program only to discover that the market is saturated with mediocre new writers who are very savvy in the fields of self-promotion, of acquiring a platform of followers, likes, mentions, and all other adulation, turning them into billboard wordsmiths. They are witty and charming, but vacuous in advancing the cause of literature because it is instantaneous and necessary to plug in and become visible. Where is the time invested to write, if trends and information sound bites are in order throughout the entire day? Reaching people is urgent in these cases, thus writing and crafting become secondary.

After returning to the current literary scene, I’ve come to realize in greater detail that the fight for even morality in the marketplace is paper thin. Shivani writes:

The individual fiction writer would have to be strong enough to take the moral offensive against writing that deludes the reader into thinking that his private ignominies are worth celebration and memorialization. He must buck the trend by going against the monopoly on career rewards currently held by the writing industry (which for all intents and purposes blacklists and boycotts real outsiders, although of course the terms of the game can’t be framed so bluntly), and by fighting the herd mentality of publishers whose interest is no longer to discover great fiction and build writers’ careers, but who only want to replicate the last great sensation… To come to writing from a strong moral position, some belief in universal values that makes one sleepless and distraught, will be like a fat, bald, ugly man crashing in on a slumber party of blonde supermodels. [Emphasis mine]

It is true, we want to be the next [enter your favorite writer here] and that is impossible to attain. Sure, we are influenced by our favorite writers, but it appears the big publishers want to fit a square peg into a circle, or vice versa. Remember, big publishers are for what sells, and what is trending, and right now, it looks like immorality is the soup du jour. The independent publisher, as I see it in my own purpose, will work hard to demystify this, to make room and to lend space for those writers that are weary of the same flavor of soup that the big houses are serving. Personally, we have found as an independent press that the mainstream only has in small doses what we like to read, but as hungry as an audience is, it cannot live on soup alone, soup that has lost its flavor. We will feed the niche market that we serve with what the soul hungers most: a wholesome diet of goodness that quenches its thirst during this scarce season in the literary world.

Post-MFA Expectation #3: The expectation to speak the same language.

Far too often, we see work that is immensely agenda driven that it no longer seems original or challenging, but rather trite and predictable. I read what many may think is a politically neutral stance on subject matter, but in reality it is not. It is riddled in fear. Writers become so afraid to be honest that they believe doing so may offend and become incendiary, thus pegging them as a prude or as preachy and fundamental. I remember the words of the Apostle Paul in Colossians: “Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.”

I’ve experienced a fear to speak about authentic truth in light of morality and faith because it may be too political, and does not align with the group-think mentality of the present day literary market. I ask myself why most markets are unwelcoming of Christian themes, or conversations of a Judeo-Christian framework in the context of literature? Why is it that these areas of subject matter become too uncomfortable for the masses, enough so that they blacklist their writers as controversial, and antagonistic? I can relate to what Shivani eludes to when he says that taking a strong moral position ruins the party.

The mainstream literary market praises the many varieties of profane fiction manufactured today. Over a decade ago, one particular emerging writer whom I corresponded with on several occasions via postal mail (yes, writers wrote letters back then) was lauded as the new voice of our generation, a breakthrough for writers of color to take note of. Although I do not take any of that away, I regret that writers of color seem to be communicating in the same voice that is define for us today. It is not hyperbole. The liberal culture considers this shift as new and fresh, evoking a new type of literary expectation, outputting it to the mainstream. When this happens, when there’s no more room left in the echelons of debut writing, new talent, new voices, as it were, it in fact perpetuates the obscurity of that voice which doesn’t roar for attention, lest it be controversial, political, ambitious, and disobedient to the indulgences of what the establishment expects of a minority writer. In other words, it’s as if a writer of color is told: you’re a minority, thus, your characters need to curse, blaspheme, and more importantly, they need be fighting their way through racism or misogyny or any other hang up. And they need to be immoral.

This is not to say that all characters depicted in our fiction should be goody-goods or oversimplified, but off-the-page implications of character flaws don’t short-change a story. Let the reader work. Let the reader think for themselves. Let the reader interpret the complexity of why characters do what they do—or don’t do.

It is disconcerting that in the literary world—when it comes to matters of a Christian polemic—depictions of morality and faith continue to be over- simplified or else are ignored all together. These approaches to writing—or editing a faith-filled piece—stumps the work’s full potential. Because critical thinking is a necessary tool to use to read this type of writing, it is work, and readers don’t want to work. They want to be entertained. They want to off-load analysis and symbolism to the workshop space, or to literary criticism—but not to publishing. Thus, the work is dismissed.

I think this is why many writers who do not want to oversimplify their faith seek publishing with an independent press. Case in point: I can only surmise that because my characters walk on the periphery of a Christian faith, they are deemed irrelevant to the culture, or are marginalized for political reasons. They are not worthy of attention for their source of influence is relegated in society. Editors don’t offer full disclosure as to why these types of pieces get cast out early, or later in the tier—and understandably so, they have feedback parameters in place, okay. But when you read literary journals devoid of these themes, you realize that indeed there is a deficit, there is a need, and more importantly, there is a reader for this type of work seeking literature that shares this sensibility. For too long, since I was an MFA testing the trends of the day and then living outside of it for a while, there has been an exception to the banal call for diversity. Writers treating on Christian themes are not invited to participate in any discourse that is mainstream—unless it defames the biblical institution—so an independent publishing press that can deliver to this niche market is in a critical position because it undoubtedly will imprint itself in the reading repertoire of these types of writers seeking to share their work with those that will find it significant.

3. Closing the Gap Full Circle

The independent press fills the void. As an independent press, we need to decide what we want to publish. That decision doesn’t come from the demands of a market that wants to continue reading about cannibalism (vampire books) or sexual immorality and escapism (chick lit, romance novels). Are readers debased to such a degree that they don’t ruminate on matters of a global scale, matters of consequence? I am comforted by what Shivani says:

The greatest concern is that the astute reader of fiction will disappear altogether – again, not because movies or the Internet or cable television are working in a zero-sum game, but because writers are too small-minded to understand that with every acceleration in the profusion and vitality of media comes a reduction in the word-for-word quality of production, which is the gap the writer must rush to fill in.

Since I completed my MFA, my language and my inspiration and fire has come from a different source than that of the past. Debuting a writer’s work in literary journals and presses remains at the hands of interns, volunteers, present MFA students, and transitory managing editors. I am sure not much has changed since 1999 when I completed my MFA. The industry continues to lean towards a certain flavor of literature; trends continue to define what gets published.

Now, as opposed to in 1999, MFAs grow platforms which promise them a future in publishing. It is the writer at work, creating their market base full-speed-ahead of what the publishing entourage would have been devoted to doing themselves before the turn of the century. Platforms are palpable and visible. They are the new resumes, an appraisal letter of the modern day emergent writer, where numbers matter to the profit of one’s worth. It is a popularity contest, the present day high school yearbook autographs.

The virtual platform makes the writer accessible to her followers. I remember what Michael Hyatt tweeted not long ago: “Activate your fans. Don’t just collect them like baseball cards.” That is the way of the social stratosphere. Collect and display and interact just enough. Because after all, it’s about numbers and reach.

I am dating myself. I am aging in an industry in which millennials wield incredible force, a commodity that requires little effort to promote and develop because the adage is just be yourself. Just get in the game and build yourself up. It seems effortless, it seems magnanimous to create community in this manner.

I cannot say that in the span of fifteen years since I finished my MFA that I’ve published two or three novels; that I actually called that agent who wrote me a note in the year 2000 and praised my work, who now, 15 years later, would be too busy to even talk to me since her novel is currently on a bestseller list, gracing the aisles of a Barnes & Noble. I cannot claim that I’ve journeyed through the teaching circuit, although I am a former adjunct—a freeway flyer who once found herself between three separate campuses in one semester teaching writing courses and grading papers up to the wee hours of the night during my first year of matrimony. I can’t tell you that I’ve conformed to the hopes of MFAs that have workshopped their treasured stories in between full time jobs and spouses who reluctantly left what they knew in order to support their beloved’s dream of being a novelist.

I just can’t say it. So much time has passed. So much has changed this century.

During the MFA, I was consumed in my notebooks, writing my stories and my character vignettes by hand on index cards rich with ink, even using paper bags to draw out timelines of my characters’ chronologies, since I didn’t have a white board in my Oakland studio flat by the Lake. I typed on a small Macintosh Classic with the screen as wide as the palm of my hand—antiquities!

Years and years went by and I never wrote a single story as I involved myself in other activities, acquiring skills that could pay for the needs of a growing family. When I returned last year to enter into the literary World Wide Web, it felt like I had just returned from a cabin tucked away in the wilderness and had my stomach punched. I had aged. I realized I was not caught up. I looked for the editors of the journals that had published me and found a few in the industry.

But why do I mention this here and now? The MFA is programmed to set us up to pursue a certain way a life. It is no wonder it is called a terminal degree. It ends there. But once we are done and are furnished with an MFA degree which compels us to take our manuscript to another level, we are challenged by what happens in real life. For some, they stay on course. For others, they deviate due to the urgencies of life.

In the MFA, we were trained to pursue teaching careers or to aspire for the big publishing houses that would put our name in literary history. It was the Holy Grail to have your manuscript picked up by a big publishing house. Armed with an MFA—it was perceived—greases the skids for garnering the attention of the big five.

It almost seemed possible. There is hope for the writer when she sees that MFA programs are the ones who spawn the editors, teachers, and authors of our day, those same institutions that are positioned to reflect the broader world. But likewise, we can believe that the MFA programs are dooming the art of writing, while neglecting the vehicles that sustain the industry—the mass media weakening the allure of literature and deteriorating the mind that it takes to work through a story. I remember in workshop, some of the opinions of my classmates in relation to my stories were that they needed to work to read it. The prose was lush, the sentences long, and the stories were character driven. As readers, we can process our world with a fine tooth comb in order to dig more deeply into our perceptions, or we can get bored with work, and dumb down our thinking with fragments of what is here and now, and what we enjoy spontaneously and superfluously.

We can choose each time we read, to stay in the moment, to let it simmer, to let it change us. Or we can shift our gaze to the next best thing that we can readily find available anywhere.

IMG_20150703_113944pm2squareEréndira Ramírez-Ortega is co-founder and managing editor of Burning Bush Press and blogs at  Her writing has appeared in The Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Santa Clara Review, Other Voices, and Calaca Review. She’s a new contributor to The Review Review and Front Porch Commons.  She lives in southern California with her husband and three children.