Students, this one is for you.

AWP was great, you met a lot of people and hung out with yours in a different place and time, and you’re exhausted from readings, signings, panels, and talking more than you’re used to. Time to unwind into some reflective contemplation and reinvigorate your game plan. Here are a few you might consider.

1)     Your Literary Citizenship. Just how useful were you over the past year? Did you assist with projects, planning events, edit, design, promote, create audience, write grants, jury fellowships or prizes or retreat residencies, serve on a board or committee, initiate a field worthy movement, compile bibliographies or reading lists, review books, intern, organize in the community, serve where you are needed most, help?

2)     Your Creative Work. Did you keep the promise you vowed to dedicate time to write, revise until you finalize, ingest only that which influences the work and gives the mind & body stamina and endurance to go the full mile, learn a new language, research the unfamiliar, listen to sounds and take in sights you normally would not dare, give yourself applause when you know you are on the right track within the work, celebrate a finished piece by writing its companion, free the writer hiding inside and engage?

3)     The Follow Up. Did you manage to make those open deadlines, keep a regimen of applications, prepare yourself for opportunity, gather your wits, work on long-term goals in your writing, yourself, and your future, make contact with all the people you enjoyed from the past year and discover your professional life is as much about placement as it is creative, seek new ways to support the work without losing a love for life?

Most everyone you will ever meet working in the lit field is engaged in regular contributions. There is so much to be done and so many things unnoticed, you can surely find ways to jump in and readily be a part of. Your mentors are often working on several projects at once, while devoting themselves to the field, and publishing widely, often while teaching full-time at one university and serving a field faculty for low residencies as well. Looking for a service project can bring about essential results that, once completed, people wonder why no one ever did it before, or at least why not in the past fifteen to twenty years. Dedicating yourself to your creative work is the only way to become a practicing writer, for most. Making deadlines can mean opportunity awaits and each juncture is practice for your professional development. Following through is necessary to any achievement. Finding your place in the wide field gives you a room to work within and eventually comfortability, or cause for more work to change things.

Just keep at it and we will see you at residency and at AWP and hopefully, at some point, standing in line to sign your books and celebrate your work and efforts.

For now, here are some samples of citizenship that I was happy to work with in preparation for AWP. For roughly six weeks prior, I worked on about ten bibliographies that the whole field seemed to forget to compile. As founder of an AWP caucus that transitioned to another organizer over the past year, our view of the field for AWP is concerned with the viability of that body of writers significantly. A handful of the caucus came to task, the current organizer, two most recent chairs, founding panelist, and assisting caucus audience member, assisted and enhanced the major list and some of the categories that followed, and the rest came about organically. We are done but we are only just beginning as well (there is so much to do). For now, in this note, it is my hope that all of our students (alumni, faculty, administration) take in these lists as personal reading lists and familiarize themselves with this portion of the field as they grow as writers through readings. With the VIDA count in and a lot of work ahead of us, and a personal focus on understanding matriarchal influence in the lit field, the bibliography attached lists books published by Native Women Poets in the 21st Century, thus far. Keep an eye out for Caucus posts and you will find books from the same in from the 21st Century Turn, a time of departures and much, much, more.

Now that we are done, I wonder what happened to all the critics who used to compile poetry bibliographies. I also wonder if the sense that we can’t be treated as an anthropological/ethnographic study anymore (in contemporary poetry, especially, perhaps, since the release of Sing: Poetry of the Indigenous Americas) serves as a deterrent to those who compiled in the past? Whatever the reason, poets have taken initiative, dedicated and served, followed through and now present some of the bibliographies that speak the times.

Just like we hope you do.

Poetry Volumes of the Twenty First Century Native Women Poets

Keep working.

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*****
Allison Hedge Coke.

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Likes and Comments Aren’t Just Applause

I’ve heard people express discomfort when advised to be more active about clicking ‘like’ or commenting on Facebook posts and other social media, and I can certainly understand. For one thing, I don’t think it should ever be an obligation. Personally, I like what I want to like. I also get the idea that people sometimes see it as nothing more than applause, something to make the subject of the post feel good (not that there is anything wrong with that). However, likes and comments do serve another function I think is important to remember, particularly with respect to participation in the literary community.

I’m talking about the prioritization of posts in places such as update feeds. Consider a post where a fellow writer announces the publication of a new piece and provides a link. If we see that post, we can merely lurk and just read. That’s fine. However, if we click ‘like’ or comment (even to just convey congratulations), more happens than mere conveyance of moral support.

Interactions with posts are often taken into account by the algorithms that decide ordering and selection of posts for presentation. The more likes, comments, and so on that a post has, the more likely the post will be selected to be presented to others. We can share to support posts about publications and other things that we care about, spreading the word, but we can also support by simply liking or commenting.

I’m not trying to convince anyone to like and/or comment on everything that pops up, or make anyone feel obligated. I just want people to think what a like or a comment might do for a post that they do want other people to see. It’s an easy way to participate in the literary community. Just remember that it’s an option.

Is Combining Ideas Our Last Hope for Originality?

As a kid, I was obsessed with being original. Knowing that the world was overflowing with repetition, remakes, reboots, and stolen ideas, I tried to acquire as many personal idiosyncrasies as possible. All I accomplished was turning myself into a pretty weird kid. And as I grew older, I realized that the so-called original stuff I created and the outlandish art I consumed was not really all that extraordinary.

You’d think I’d have gotten discouraged early on and given up on creativity altogether. I knew I’d never write a mind-blowing fantasy epic with characters and concepts nobody on this Earth had ever heard of. I knew I’d never invent some insanely clever card game with mechanics unlike any experience on the shelves. So why didn’t I give up? Why doesn’t anyone else give up, for that matter? Why do creators keep creating?

You’ve probably already heard some form of the adage: there are no new ideas, just new ways to present them. And I think that’s true, to an extent. But I don’t think that’s enough. We may have some great best-sellers being written with semi-original concepts, like the Divergent series—a dystopia disguised as utopia with some unique elements sprinkled here and there. But are those slight twists to a classic plot enough to call the book completely original? I think writers can take their ideas a step further.

Here’s the trick: don’t kill yourself trying to come up with an original idea, come up with a handful of good ideas that work, then mix them together. The ideas will, hypothetically, undergo a kind of chemical reaction, colliding and building off of each other in interesting ways. This will, I think, result in something relatively unique. This doesn’t mean you can simply combine stolen ideas—you have to first apply the skills you already had to come up with something you think is as original as it gets, or at least presented in an original way. Then come up with a few more. Then blend them together in a single work of art.

Let’s take writing, for example, since this blog is based at the UNO MFA in writing program. You come up with a plot you hope is original—maybe about a woman with two prosthetic legs training to be an acrobat who finds herself caught up in a bit of international espionage. Could make for an interesting, albeit bizarre read. But what are the odds that somebody’s already written about a differently-abled acrobat? Or an acrobat involved in espionage for that matter? Ideas that are especially unique run a dangerous risk of seeming like a total rip-off if, by a terrible coincidence, somebody thought of a similar idea. Vague and broad ideas will keep you safer from feeling like a copycat, but you’ll also be stuck with vague and broad ideas.

So how can you keep your acrobat story as fresh and specific as possible? Combine other ideas. Maybe you had another idea for a book about a romance with an intersex man, or a woman who’s trying to escape her past as a contract killer? Is there any effective way to combine these ideas without creating a convoluted story that’s arbitrarily complex? If there is, you might have the building blocks of a story that has a much higher chance of originality. Maybe the acrobat falls in love with the intersex man—the only man who knows about her past as an assassin, and who is inevitably captured by the government until the acrobat agrees to revive her violent skills and kill three prominent politicians.

Now, I just thought up that nonsense on the spot and I’m in no way endorsing that idea as a winner. And, of course, it’s always best to keep things on the simple side. But there’s no reason that that mess of combined ideas can’t provide for a relatively straightforward plot. It’s the original ideas—the concepts of the intersex man and the acrobat that will (hopefully) get you excited and make you confident that you’re doing something no one has attempted before—at least not in this configuration. With all those elements blended, it will open up the plot to all sorts of new and organic connections. It’s not just a book about intersex people and the man’s gender identity, but also how that relates to the woman with prosthetic legs—and possibly the prejudice from the government that captures him. See, the chemical reactions are already happening in my brain and new ideas are flowing. You’ll have to excuse me if this sounds like the worst novel ever imagined, to you. I’m just brainstorming.

Originality for the sake of originality is not something to be sought after on its own merits. If the material isn’t good, no one will care that it’s fresh. And if even it’s a rip-off of something else but is still an amazing work of art, people will probably love it anyway. You have to determine how important it is to do something new. My strategy in combining ideas has always been a method of finding fuel to create. Mixing my ideas doesn’t just supply me with unlimited possible outcomes, it also gives me confidence that I’m not rehashing stuff that’s been done a million times, and it reignites my interest in my own work because of the strange directions I never expected it to take me.

I think a lot of writers already use this strategy, consciously or not. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan tells multiple stories from multiple perspectives, each with different unique concepts. One chapter is written using exclusively power point slides. Another one never introduces a character without soon jumping forward in time to explain what happened in their future. Another chapter is told in second person, which is pretty unique on its own these days.

A similar novel by Kevin Brockmeier, The Illumination, doesn’t simply tell the sad stories of various American lives, but it also envisions a world where physical injuries emit visible light—and it features a child who can feel the emotions of inanimate objects—and it’s got the clever concept of moving from character to character only when one narrator passes off a journal of love notes to the next. That’s all brilliant if you ask me. I challenge you to find another book that’s even remotely similar to that; and it is, essentially a concoction of many combined ideas to make a solid whole.

Combining ideas is effective for other forms of art as well. I would never claim to be a skilled musician, but I did release an experimental music album last year that took full advantage of this idea-combination approach. I wanted to write a series of songs that told fictional stories about love and adventure, but I also wanted to create an entire album of through-composed songs (songs that don’t repeat or use the standard verse-chorus structure). But that wasn’t enough for me. I also decided I wanted to write an entire album of prequel and sequel songs. Groups of songs that go together back to back like partners. One track tells the first half of the story, the track next to it provides the conclusion. And that goes on for the whole album. The finished product may or may not be enjoyable to mainstream ears, but I’m satisfied with the freshness of the concept—a combination of three ideas.

Keep in mind, this whole “combining good ideas” thing is just a thought I’ve had bouncing around in my head for awhile. This blog is sort of my opportunity to spill the thought onto a page and see if it sticks, either for myself or other people. I haven’t thoroughly tested it yet, or proven whether or not it can be done effectively without turning a good idea into a complicated mess of unconnected things. But I do think it can be applied, at least in moderation, to a lot of mediums. Visual art, non-fiction, teaching, dancing, film, you name it. Don’t just paint a picture of an orange, mix orange zest into the paint! Okay, that might be a silly idea, but you get the gist.

The bottom line is this. Chances are, if you’ve got an idea, somebody’s done it. But if you’ve got a handful of ideas, chances are nobody’s done them all at once.

Mark Haskell Smith: A Cult Classic Icon

In literature, consider the cult following for authors like Vonnegut, Tolkien, and Stephen King, and in the creative non-fiction genre, now Mark Haskell Smith, his book The Heart of Dankness of the page-turning popular claim, released in 2012 to tremendous fanfare from literary critics, weed smokers, and those familiar with Haskell Smith’s super cool cat novels.

He’s the perfect author to document a marijuana exploration. In the 70s, his band, The Beakers, opened for the likes of XTC and Gang of Four. Haskell Smith is also a member to the vaunted Hollywood Writers Guild for his screenplay, Playing God, starring Angelina Jolie.

That’s the type of personality needed to penetrate the intricate world of marijuana; his reporter-like instincts combined with a natural ability for discreteness that only the coolest person in the room portrays.

The author travels to Amsterdam to visit the Cannabis Cup, the Academy Awards for marijuana buffs, with such award categories as Best Overall Strand, Best Indica, and Best Sativa. The web describes an indica as a sinking high, whereas a sativa offers an energetic experience. Then, there are hybrids of the two.

He returns to Los Angeles enlightened, and sets out to obtain a State of California Medical Marijuana recommendation. Throughout the book, he’s investigating the ephemeralfic value of dankness.

He immerses himself in growth periods, soiling, pruning, seeding and other botanical tricks necessary to producing marijuana. Although technically legal to grow a restricted number of plants in California, marijuana is illegal federally and growers frequently fear prosecution.

There’s also a group in California trying to develop a system that documents the best marijuana strand and dosage to alleviate particular medical symptoms; perhaps a fruit flavored sativa to help nausea caused by chemotherapy or a brisk indica to address anxiety.

He visits the haunts in Amsterdam, Toronto, and Northern California; in some cases, literal coffee shops featuring a full menu of marijuana. He samples dozens of strands, depicting the details like a judge on Chopped. His command of the politics behind marijuana is engaging and fresh.

One must be open to the legalization of marijuana to appreciate Haskell Smith’s book. As a selective audience often defines a cult classic, his book has lent him street credit toward liberals and libertarians and a growing demographic of pro-medical marijuana independents. This books is more than a cult classic, but the best reference point to understanding marijuana.

*****

Silas Tsang is a 2008 graduate of the MFA program at the University of Nebraska. His work is featured in such journals as Freshwater Magazine and the Cimarron Review.

Your Next Writer’s Residency: Right Here, Right Now

The most intensely focused part of any low-residency MFA creative writing program is its residency. Far-flung faculty and students gathered together under one roof for dawn to post-dinner meetings, lectures, readings, and workshops—not to mention the poker and basketball games, late-night tarot sessions, dance parties, and all of those long literary conversations in the Library Bar. Meals are prepared, sheets and towels are changed, and personal obligations are put on hold while the rarefied world of residency convinces us that we were put on this earth to write, rather than trifle with the trappings of day-to-day existence.

The writer’s residencies that exist in the world at large are even bigger and better than an academic residency. More time to write. Exotic or remote and relaxing locales. None of those pesky meetings with mentors. No lecture summaries. Some offer three meals a day prepared by real chefs. There are meditation sessions, tea and coffee at the ready, massage therapists, and esteemed colleagues.

I wrote most of my MFA thesis at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, and as an Auvillar Fellow in the south of France. At my last month-long residency at the Virginia Center, I drafted seven short stories. Not a remarkable feat since I could sleep until I awoke naturally between 6:00 and 7:00, then go downstairs to the dining room for my fresh fruit, eggs, and coffee. Cozily ensconced in my writer’s studio, I’d meditate in the overstuffed chair, then cross the room to my desk where I’d begin jotting down notes and shuffling my index cards notes around until a story took shape. There were walks in the woods and swimming when I needed a break. And at the VCCA, each studio is also furnished with a bed in the event that a creative ecstasy brings on an exhausted collapse that requires a nap. Familial obligations, jobs, plumbers, appliance repairmen, divorce mediations, and domestic duties do not exist at writer’s residencies.

In the real world we have an endless stream of legitimate reasons and lame excuses to not write. Funerals, weddings, birthday parties. Sick children. Injured pets. Infirm parents. Jobs that devour our time. Spice drawers that need alphabetizing and closets that must be cleaned right now.

I began writing at the age of 49, and while you might think it should have been painfully obvious that much of my life had ticked away, it wasn’t. Focusing on anything for me requires…..well….focusing—and where was I? Yeah, in my non-residency writing life, I wasn’t much of a writer.

About a year ago, I moved my 89-year-old mother in with me. She’s forgotten how to cook and doesn’t drive. She talks to herself most of the day, and at night shouts in her sleep. Writing became more and more of a refuge for me, and maybe I became a little more respectful of the passage of time. Last week my boyfriend moved into my house as he recovers from surgery that removed a portion of his lung as well as the cancerous mass that was lodged there. He can’t drive either and is prohibited from lifting anything heavier than a phone book.

A few months ago, I finally began polishing those stories I wrote first drafts of in Virginia. The recent days that I spent at my boyfriend’s bedside in the hospital were a writing marathon. Tonight as I sit on my couch next to my 20-year-old cat, I can hear the click and hum of my mother’s oxygen machine and the creak of the bed upstairs as that man I love tosses and turns waiting for the pain pills to carry him off to sleep. Right here, right now this just might be the best writer’s residency of my life.

Social media is your friend, not your enemy: Part 1, Facebook

Too often I hear people spout that social media is the bane of our generation. Many people believe that social media is sucking the life out of relationships, turning us into robots, making us dumb, and overall just a plain bad idea.

I’m here to tell you that while these social media platforms might be overrun with “selfies,” superfluous status updates, and private details about someone’s life that only a medical professional might want to know, once you know the right way to harness social media, you can build a supportive community and gain some major name recognition.

While learning how to wrangle social media for your benefit is way too much information for simply one blog post, let’s dip our toes into the (current) mother of social networking – Facebook.

First things first, you have to set up profile. Instead of grunting and ho-humming your way through this tedious process, think of it as a way to get people to know you. Sign up for Facebook. What are your favorite books? Your favorite authors? Your favorite movies? This is your chance to find people with similar interests and find your community. Spend time searching through pages to find groups that interest you – writers, writing groups, writing advice pages, etc. If you already have a profile, don’t be afraid to revamp it every now and again. The more specific your profile, the more satisfaction you’ll feel from your writing community. Also, don’t forget to add a profile picture!

Once you have your profile set up, it’s time to claim your author page. Many people don’t realize how important that is, so let me tell you – IT IS VERY IMPORTANT. Even if you don’t think you have enough merit yet to have a fan page, you need to claim that page before someone else does. Even if it is just a placeholder with your name and a photo, at least it’s there for when you’re ready for it.

Next, you need to begin finding your community. Find your friends, your family members, your mentors, your role models, anyone who is supportive of you and your goals as a writer. If you aren’t friends on Facebook yet, send those requests! You want to build a large network of supportive peers who will share your work and help you achieve your goals – but remember, you must do the same for them.

Now that you’ve got an awesome profile, a stand-by fan page, and a bunch of supportive friends, it’s time to start posting. The great thing about Facebook is that you can post anything you want, but this is a double-edged sword. You want to be sure you post things that people care about. Don’t let your posts scroll by on someone’s screen – you want them to stand out. Shout-out your publications. Announce writing contests. Share a funny story. Ask a question. But most importantly, keep your audience wanting to interact with you. This will build a supportive and trustworthy community that aids in name recognition.

It’s great if you’re posting a lot of engaging content but remember – you need to engage with others, too. Scroll through your Newsfeed and talk to your friends. Give them a thumbs up on a job well-done. Ask questions about their work. Share their posts with your friends. If you’re supportive, they’ll be supportive of you.

And now, it’s your turn. Go sign up for a Facebook account, and start building your writing community. Don’t forget to send me a friend request.

*****

Jordan Mapes is a Fall 2013 graduate of the UN MFA fiction track. She currently lives in Omaha and works as a copyeditor and a freelance video editor. She is also the current UN MFA media expert and blog manager.

The Importance of Routine

Being a writer is more than hard work: it’s a job. If you’ve never considered writing to be a “real job,” please disabuse yourself of this notion at the door (i.e. right here). The stigma with any job is that, by definition, it’s something you probably either dislike or, at best, tolerate with the only sense of satisfaction mainly coming every other week when you see your paystub. This perception, in fact, is not all together incorrect for a significant number of people. However, there are certainly plenty of people who like their jobs, many of whom even enjoy the “hard work” aspect of said jobs.

Once upon a time, I romantically convinced myself that writing is just such a job, e.g. one that I would like and enjoy (while, yet, still being a job). This part is significant, so consider writing it down.

Writers tend to engage in all kinds of activities to avoid doing what they think of/dread as “real work,” or getting what they call “a real job,” but the pains through which they typically put themselves is far greater than what ultimately amounts to “taking the easy way out” and diving headfirst into a nine-to-five career. I’m using lots of quotes here but it’s only because where these definitions are concerned; your mileage may vary.

Oddly enough, many writers I’ve known have often looked upon nine-to-fives with longing, lachrymose eyes, almost wistful for a job that ends when the clock ticks one last time from 4:59 over to 5:00 P.M. It’s a magical time, this 5:00. It’s a transition into “the world outside.” When it’s officially 5:00, people are expected to leave their work at the office.

Incidentally, a writer’s work is rarely done by 5:00PM (unless s/he does her/his best writing at the crack of dawn, before their day-job, families and/or social commitments steal precious daylight away from them). Of course, there are a few select writers I know earn their crust from writing, but they are, sadly, a stark minority. Mostly, the rest of us teach, edit, freelance, consult, and/or etc. &c. to pay our bills. Even more writers I know have additional familial obligations as well (which, as they will almost certainly tell you, pay nothing at all, monetarily-speaking). As of December 21, 2013, I can also verify this.

Perhaps it’s a way to keep the dream of writing (for a living) alive that we take on so many odds and ends duties for bi-monthly remuneration — a way of staving off the harsh and likely brutal realization that the aforementioned dream may never come to pass. By working multiple jobs doing other things and writing “on the side,” we can still feel like writers — legitimate, “actual/real writers” — even if our tangible output is, by all accounts, diminutive, especially when inevitably compared with our dream output and/or the output of our more prolific writerly friends. We’re still reading and we’re still writing and that fact ultimately feels significant to us.

I submit that plenty writers have bagged it right after they uttered something as simple as, “I’m going to write a novel,” at that one unmemorable dinner party they attended (for example). They then went home after that dinner; they got to work, busted their asses, and wrote their novel. I mean that was it — that’s all they did. It’s not impossible, it’s just kind of . . . uncommon.

My apologies if this missive sounds bleak. Honestly. It’s not intended to be. Rather, it’s hopefully a realistic look at what life is like for writers who aren’t on The New York Times’ Bestseller List . . . for those who’ve published a scant few pieces, or those who haven’t published anything at all. This is not a call to put your pens down, to put your laptops away, and to give up the dream before it consumes and crushes you beneath lofty and unmet expectations. No, this is, in fact, a simple survival guide for a life that more than likely chose you rather than you/it.

Welcome to life as a writer: c. 2014.

Here it is in a nutshell: Do not underestimate the importance of the routine you will have no doubt developed while under the tutelage of your MFA writing mentors. Even though I’m writing this here in black and white, you may think: “It can’t happen to me” (i.e. you). You may think that you could never discard such a thoroughly-honed writing process that you and your mentors spent two years molding into such an exquisitely- and perfectly-balanced shape.

Again: Under no circumstances, whatsoever, should you change your writing routine. Ever. Unless you are dying. That’s a legitimate excuse. It’s about the only acceptable reason you should ever change your writing routine. I’m serious. Don’t change it!

Things begin to happen when you establish a routine (as you already know if you’re currently in a writing program or are just inherently disciplined). Once you practice sitting at the keyboard or notebook every day at the same time, parts of the writing process begin to automate. You don’t typically have to wonder what you’re going to write about or where you’re going to start. When you have a routine, this part will work itself out.

Additionally, the longer you stay away from the keys/pens, the harder it is to get back into any kind of rhythm or momentum you might’ve built. Trust me. During an MFA program, your mentors will prod you and demand work on regular, specific dates. You will pace yourself to meet these deadlines. You will feel good about your work and your output. In the cold harsh real worldpost-MFAyou will probably not have an official mentor, external prodding, deadlines (unless you’ve already locked in a sweet book deal with an agent and editor, et al.), and/or good feelings about your output. You can best that particular set of circumstances fairly easily just by sticking to your routine.

*****
Joseph Michael Owens is the author of the ‘collectio[novella]‘ Shenanigans! and has written for [PANK], The Rumpus, Specter, HTML Giant, Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow & others. He is also the blog editor for both InDigest Magazine and The Lit Pub. You can also find him online at http://categorythirteen.com. Joe lives in Omaha with four dogs, one wife, and a son.

Shouldn’t we all read more?

I always laugh when I meet young writers who tell me that they don’t read much because they don’t want to corrupt their own style.  It makes me smile because they obviously don’t know a thing about writing.  Dancers love dance.  Actors love theatre and film, artists love art, musicians love music and one would have to assume that celebrities love tabloids and wine makers love wine.

You read because you want to know the pool you swim around in.  Are you into craft?  Setting? Plot? Character?  Read enough so you know who you are as a writer, so you know your own strengths and weaknesses.  Read till you understand what it means to weave in myth, so that a story like Calvino’s “The Distance to the Moon,” jumps out at you, yes! It’s about Cuba and the U.S. and kids leaving home and the story of God becoming the story of man and the Bible becoming obsolete and there is no more manna from heaven.  It’s about all that and you know it and understand it because you’ve read so much that your brain swims in metaphors, you speak that language too, the heightened language that means we’re telling one of the tall tales of the universe.

Karen said to me last residency, “I don’t know if I believe everything you say,” and I thought, “No, you should not, I am a story teller and in the telling, the story always gets bigger.”  The fishes get bigger, the bridges from which we leap are taller, the rivers deeper and the dangers always just a step behind.  Writing is the language of lunatics who thought someone might like to read this.  Be one of those readers.  Enter myth in your own head space.

As I write this, I’m eating pomegranate seeds.  They’re in season and they’re everywhere, and I love them.  I can’t help thinking of Persephone being tricked by the god of the underworld to taste them and according to Greek myth, that’s why we have winter.  Demeter waits for Persephone to emerge so there can be summer.  Reading is being in the underworld.  You get to eat pomegranate seeds down there and it’s sometimes dark, but that is where spring and ideas come from.  That’s where all the robust flowering of the imagination comes from.  Reading and living.  Keep reading.  Keep going down under the earth and coming up overflowing with story and light.

Calvino’s famous quote on reading from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler:  “In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which are frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you…And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out in Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. ”

*****

Dr. Kate Gale is Managing Editor of Red Hen Press, Editor of the Los Angeles Review and President of the American Composers Forum, LA.  She teaches in the Low Residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska in Poetry, Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction. She serves on the boards of A Room of Her Own Foundation, Kore Press and Poetry Society of America.  She is author of five books of poetry and six librettos including Rio de Sangre, a libretto for an opera with composer Don Davis which had its world premiere October 2010 at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee.  Her current projects include a co-written libretto, Paradises Lost with Ursula K. LeGuin and composer Stephen Taylor, and a libretto based on The Inner Circle by T. C. Boyle, based on Dr. Kinsey’s life with composer Daniel Felsenfeld which is in production in 2014 by the American Opera Projects.  Her newest book is The Goldilocks Zone from the University of Nebraska Press in January 2014, and her forthcoming book Echo Light is from Red Mountain Press fall of 2014.

After Residency, Home

The first few days after residency are always odd ones to navigate. There is a sense of straddling two different realms and a kind of reluctance to let go the one in order to fully inhabit the other.

Back home, after winter residency, Christmas is caught in an almost amber-like stasis. The tree, the lights, the stockings hung by the chimney with care are exactly as I left them. After so much rush and hurry to get ready for the holiday the solitary day between it and the rush and hurry to get ready for residency simply isn’t enough for me to get everything done. I leave up all the décor so that I can take some meditative time to take it down when I get back from Nebraska City. Oddly enough, however, the first days back are just as packed with duties and tasks, joys and sorrows, as were the days leading up to departure.

How Life-like, right?

Added to the quotidian mix is the longing for the Spirit of Residency – that total immersion in the writing culture, the companionship of so many writers who care as deeply as I do about the scope and the minutiae of the writing life. These first days I move slowly back and forth between the housework and the page.

Teri Grimm’s farewell address to the graduating students reminded us all that once we leave that space we become solitary stewards of our own writing, our own art, and that role in our lives is as important as any other caretaker role that belongs to us.

Hers are good words to remember as I take the last big step out of the Lied Lodge and into my “real” life. Taking time to write, nurturing my writing career, continuing conversations about creative work – these are not ornaments to be packed away. These are the things that matter. These are the things we do.

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Karen Gettert Shoemaker is the author of The Meaning of Names and Night Sounds and Other Stories. Her awards include a Nebraska Center for the Book Award and Independent Artist Fellowships from the Nebraska Arts Council. She is a faculty mentor with the University of Nebraska MFA in Writing Program.

A Personal Example of the ‘Always Say Yes’ Rule

When recently participating in an alumni panel on ‘Life After the MFA’ at the summer residency, Sarah McKinstry-Brown (author of the award winning Cradling Monsoons) gave some advice that happened to strike a personal chord. In telling people how to get involved in a professional writing life after graduation, she advised that they should “always say yes.” The context behind this was that we never know when a writing-related opportunity that doesn’t sound like what we want can often end up leading to the very ones for which we’ve specifically been searching.

The reason that this struck me was it reminded me of a situation I encountered only a few months prior. A blog editor of [Pank] (as well as author of Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry and A Woman Traces the Shoreline), Sheila Squillante, shared a submission call on Facebook for a Two of Cups Press bourbon poetry anthology: Small Batch.

My first reaction was to dismiss the idea because I don’t really write poetry. However, though I don’t drink anymore, bourbon is something to which I’ve been quite close. I have a reverence for bourbon that made me want to get involved (even though I don’t really write poetry). Unable to help myself, I wrote what I believed to be a witty comment on Sheila’s post to the effect: “I thought bourbon was already a poem.” I felt very self-satisfied and thought that was it until a saw a follow up comment: “Looks like someone has a submission.”

At that moment, I sat back from the computer. Did I have a submission? Since I actually responded to the prompt, however flippantly, should I actually try to sit down and write a poem?

Well, I did. I didn’t just stick with that line, instead making an actual effort at turning it into a real (though short) poem. I kept it simple, trying to recreate what I felt from when I saw the post to when I gave what (I felt) was my koan-like response. Then I submitted and decided that the experience itself was something I needed even if it didn’t go anywhere further.

However, I then got a reply to my submission. They loved “A Bourbon Poetry Submission.” They wanted to include it in the anthology. More surprisingly, they wanted to use my poem in the forward to the book. I was surprised. I was flattered. Heck, I was ecstatic.

This all came back to me when I heard Sarah’s words at the panel. I need to take her of advice more, but this popped into my head as proof of what can happen when you do what she said. Say yes to opportunities that you hadn’t really considered, because you just never know what is going to happen.

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David S. Atkinson is the author of Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes (EAB Publishing, expected spring 2014). His writing appears in Bartleby Snopes, Grey Sparrow Journal, Interrobang?! Magazine, Atticus Review, and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.