Tuesday, February 09, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Syntax makes me hot

 by Sally Reno

It took 3 days to read on radio
I have always written short. I remember, before I was school-aged, composing little notes. As soon as I knew the alphabet, I had things to say. Very short things. This because my method was to ask my mother to spell out for me aloud the words I wanted. I somehow sensed that she was not going to be willing to spell me through anything like a Russian novel.

By 17, I was writing and publishing what would be called flash fiction today. The peculiarity of this was noted, but not always reviled. There was a lot more experimenting with form then than there is now.
“To irony, ambiguity, and tension--Andother things I do not wish to mention.”
~Kenneth Koch 
At Columbia University, I was fortunate in being able to take a poetry writing class with Kenneth Koch, a thing well known to be a life changing experience. He taught us never to undervalue either simplicity or surprise.

Lady Murasaki composes flash fiction circa 1000 C.E.
The magic words, “flash fiction” came along only recently, but people have always written very short fiction. The form has a history millennia longer than the long forms like novels. Romans of the classical age, early medieval Japanese court ladies, and 17th century Frenchwomen have been especial masters of the craft.

The next issue of blink-ink print, coming in early April and themed, “Mystery Train” will lead off with a 40-word microfiction by Petronius Arbiter, written about 54 A.D. Petronius lived in Cumae and had been to see the Cumaean Sybil. He constructed a couple of stellar sentences about the experience. When, eventually, he built a scene in the Satyricon around them, the purport of the scene was to make fun of anyone who would say anything so preposterous as those two sentences. Yet, they remain one of the best pairs of sentences in all of literature.

I love sentences. Most writers will tell you they love words. Words are good, but sentences are the bees’ knees. Syntax makes me hot.

I have been a hired-gun writer most of my working life and have only gotten back to writing the things I wish to say in the last decade or so.

I began as a political speechwriter, which was my introduction to writing comedy. A joke I wrote for the Mayor of NYC to tell on The Tonight Show provoked more hate mail than anything the show had received up to that point—an early career triumph that I am unlikely to live long enough to top.

I am also a radio-head, another exercise in writing short best defined as getting to the point immediately or sooner. It also teaches the difference between writing for the eye and writing for the ear.

The Mayor tells a joke.
The best radio also breaks the waves of form. At WBAI, we read every word of War and Peace on-air. This was accomplished by relays of readers working around the clock. My best recollection is that it took about three days. We also pioneered naked radio, claiming to be broadcasting with no clothes on. We invited listeners to come down to the studio, take off their clothes and join us. It was a fine measure of living in heady times that so many people took us up on that offer.

This was before the corporate Kraken crushed the life out of broadcasting, but even then, the commercial spots were heinous. The effect of that, in legal language, was that of an ‘attractive nuisance’—something I could not resist messing with. To my knowledge, I was the first (and probably the last) to write and produce radio commercials that exploited multi-tracking capabilities around tiny whacked stories.  I recorded 30 and 60 second stories with bed music and the commercial message woven through them on side and travel tracks. Thus, I learned what is actually at stake when we say, “in a minute.”

Perhaps because of time spent telling other people’s stories, I like to throw some elbows in my writing. I like it even better when I hit something.

I am among those writers who need to get a first line down in order to release the goat pen of babble. That first line is often the first line of the finished piece but not always. Sometimes that first sentence is entirely gone when the piece is finished---the sacrificial sentence. I suppose this amounts to being mostly muse-driven. As such I don’t benefit from disciplines like writing at the same time every day or setting a daily quota of words or pages. Sometimes a whole piece will leap from my head fully-formed. Only the white goddess knows why.

See Sally Reno in action at the January F-Bomb event: MOUTH CRIMES with Gay Degani and hosted by Kathy Fish:


Sally Reno’s fiction has been among the winners of  National Public Radio’s Three Minute Fiction Contest, Moon Milk Review’s Prosetry Contest, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She lives in a vaporish grotto where she serves as Pythoness to blink-ink print and Haruspex for Shining Mountains Press.

Author photo by Jesse Coley

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: If You're Going to Try, Go All the Way

by Hillary Leftwich

Hillary Leftwich with her father
I was called stupid by my classmates. I began to think I wasn’t smart and there was something wrong with me. In kindergarten, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and held back from the first grade. The love of reading saved me.

One of my happiest memories during this time was when my dad would to read to me and my older brother at bedtime from a book called Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of Nimh. As I grew older, I figured in order to improve my own reading and writing I would have to read as many books as I could. I looted my mom’s bookshelf. I read her entire hardback collection of Stephen King and Douglas Adam novels. When I ran out of those, I moved on to Poe, Fitzgerald, anything I could get my hands on, sometimes reading two or three books at a time. 

Reading was a natural progression into writing. After my parents divorced, we were dirt poor. I was always aware of how bad off we were, yet somehow my dad found the money to buy an electric typewriter and gave it to me. I guess he figured to be a professional writer you had to have a typewriter. I soon found myself writing my first short stories.

In junior high I was harassed and bullied. It was the first time I began to suffer from what would be a lifelong battle with severe depression. During this time I focused on writing as a way of escaping. I wasn’t aware that my short stories were anything more than a way of expressing myself. 

State of Colorado Young Writers Award
My senior year English teacher convinced me to submit one of my stories to a state competition for young writers, which I did, with much hesitation. It was the first time one of my stories would be read by anyone, and it scared me to death. When my school’s principal asked me to come to his office I thought I was in trouble (again) but he congratulated me and told me I had won first place. It was a surreal but fantastic moment in my life.

During this time I took a ten year hiatus from writing. I started college, was put on academic suspension for bad grades (too much partying) and moved back home with my tail between my legs. I had a baby and had to untangle myself from a horrific and messy domestic violence situation with my son’s father. I realized the only way to better my life and my son’s life would be to go back to school. 

I was accepted into CU Denver and moved to pursue my degree in English. I was working full time and during my last semester before graduation, my son, who suffers from epilepsy, had a terrifying series of seizures and almost died, really should have died, according to the doctors. 

My son at Children’s Hospital
I spent a week sitting next to his hospital bed, diving into my homework, trying to get my mind busy. I began a blog to keep track of what was happening and found this type of insight-through-writing to be therapeutic in a way I never considered. I found a new love for creative nonfiction. It opened a vein for me, a way of writing about my experiences with domestic violence, my son’s disorder, (hell, all of my struggles), in a way that fiction would not allow.

After receiving my MA in creative writing from Regis University I began to focus solely on writing for the first time. I was working odd hours as a private investigator and as a maid, supplementing my income by occasionally modeling for pinups. 

I stumbled upon a NYC based mystery novelist, Chris Orcutt, who took me under his wing and became my mentor. He told me to write what I know and to hell with everyone else. I was also working with Marty McGovern, my advisor and professor, who introduced me to flash fiction, a genre I knew nothing about. I found Kathy Fish’s flash online and instantly felt something spark inside of me. There is something about her style that really connected with me and I read as many flash writers and journals I could find: Pamela Painter, Elizabeth Ellen, Sean Lovelace, Randall Brown, Kim Chinquee, Amber Sparks, Sherrie Flick, Gay Degani, the list goes on. 

MFA with David Hicks and Kathy Fish.
During my reading I discovered a journal called NANO Fiction. I fell in love with their micro stories and set a goal that my first flash fiction story would be published in their journal. After six months of probably too much revision, they accepted my first story. 

I’ve had a lot of people take chances on me. Because I had no experience, I put a lot of pressure on myself, and still do. I never want to let anyone down, including myself. I attribute my dive back into writing to Chris and Marty, who told me to never give up, that writing is possible, that a single working mom with no publications or background can be just as successful as everyone else. 

In January, I began the Mile High MFA program at Regis University and found myself surrounded by an incredibly supportive as well as talented community (including Kathy Fish!). The co-director, David Hicks, is one of those people you meet maybe once or twice in your lifetime, if you’re lucky. In addition to co-founder/co-director Marty McGovern and their program assistant, they all have managed to foster a culture of unrelenting support amongst the faculty and my cohorts. This was a huge relief because I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from an MFA program.

I recently quit my job to pursue my MFA and writing full time. I gave up everything. I knew if I was going to do it, I had to go all the way. I couldn’t half-ass it. Quitting my job and leaving the 8-5 routine is the scariest thing I have ever done, especially when my son is depending on me, but there are moments when you have the chance to take a huge leap of faith and just trust yourself, trust your gut. Your gut will never be wrong. I will never regret the choices I made because they all led me to writing, my first love, and without writing, there is no leap, no exhilaration. And without this, what kind of life is that to live?  


Hillary Leftwich lives in Denver with her son and is currently attending the Mile High MFA program in Denver for fiction. She is the associate editor for The Conium Review and the nonfiction editor for The Fem. Her writing has appeared in Hobart, WhiskeyPaper, NANO Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Dogzplot, Cease, Cows, Five Pure Slush Vol. 10., Crab Fat Magazine, Eunoia Review, Tethered by Letters, Progenitor, One Sentence Love Stories with Meg Pokrass, and The Citron Review. Her story “Free Lunch” was nominated by Progenitor for The Pushcart Prize in 2015. She thanks her writing tribe, The Fishtank, for their continued support. Find her on Twitter @HillaryLeftwich.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: It’s Always Pouring In My Kingdom

By Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber

I remember one of my childhood nuns, Sister Margaret Mary, as very Irish.  She pronounced laughter LAHWt-rr. She was mean, crabby, quick to knuckle-up with the ruler, but man, I loved how she said that word.  She insisted. 

My favorite teacher as a child was Mme. Pearl Phillippe.  She would let me visit with her after school, and she would teach me French words and phrases.  She made me hand-copy poems into a book and illustrate them.  Not a hugger, she would sometimes touch my hair to move it behind my ear. I still love her for all those things.  

In second grade, I was moved up for being precocious, and soon learned (for self-preservation reasons) to pretend that I could not read.  The third graders didn’t want a baby around, and my old classmates thought, Jersey-style, she thinks who she is.  Publicly, I would stumble over the word ocean: privately, never.  Happily demoted, I read a lot at recess.  My favorite books involved building undersea cities, and Ezra Jack Keats illustrations.  I was glad when my parents transferred my brother, sister, and me to public school for seventh grade. 

Although I was in junior high school with comedienne Janeane Garofalo (a very nice girl from a respectable home on the hill), I got voted class clown.  I remember making Janeane laugh once when, at the lunch table, I wondered aloud who had manhandled my banana.  It was good old LAHWt-rr to the rescue over and over for me.  I wrote a lot of terrible poetry, which I still have in hand-made books with green felt covers.  I still like the drawings my old self did, but not the poetry so much.  

Other things I remember from those years were that one of the teachers in my school was a Playboy centerfold.  Another teacher played pocket pool regularly in his tighty tweeds.  Another teacher dangled a troublemaker outside a second-story window. I had a letter published in the Aerosmith newsletter, Aero Knows.  I continued to write.  When a kind of famous neighbor died, my town paper, The Madison Eagle, published my poetic tribute to him, and I was asked to read it at his memorial service, but I was too shy.  I also remember sentence diagramming fondly.

In high school, I loved the art room.  It was quite the hangout, and it seemed we could help ourselves to any supplies.  India Ink, Speedball linoleum cutters, paper.  I am still friends with Anthony Vitale, art room buddy, who owns a wonderful music school.  We saw Queen and the Police in concert with our thrash-metal friend Eddie Trunk. I tell my sons about high school back then, and they can’t believe it.  

There was a used bookstore in town, The Chatham Bookseller, and when I was thirteen I read my way through the existentialists, 35-cents a pop.  I still have those copies of Huis Clos, Une Saison En Enfer, and Resistance, Rebellion, and Death.  Merci, Mme. Phillippe.  I got an award for creative writing, and was the editor of my school’s literary magazine for my junior and senior year.  Graduated.

In college, I met Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, and the Transcendentalists.  I stayed in touch with just one professor, Bill Doreski (he and I are coincidentally published together this month in Pure Slush FIVE.) I spent most of my creative energy in college DJing at the radio station.  It was a wonderful time for music – Talking Heads, Black Flag, New Order, Grandmaster Flash – and I think I still have the Beastie Boys’ “Cookie Puss” on vinyl somewhere.  I used to draw editorial cartoons for the school newspaper.  I graduated with my degree in English, having written my final paper on King Lear. 

Then, kind of like Matt Potter referenced in his essay for this column, I too distanced myself from writing. I managed creative agencies, ran a telemarketing center, traveled the world, won national sales awards, got an MBA.  My claim to fame was this 1990s thing called the “authorization check.”  I worked for the phone company, and we’d mail these $20 checks to customers who dropped our service for a competitor’s.  When people signed and cashed those checks, it authorized a switch back.  LOL. I was the audacious 1995 sales champ. But it was picking up a palette again, and standing in front of an easel, that reclaimed my creativity. Soon after, I found love. I met my artist husband, Paul (our first date is recounted in “How to Meet Marc Chagall.”) 

My employer offered severance money, so I bought a computer, a printer, and some file cabinets and started freelance writing.  The first feature I wrote won First Prize from the SPJ.  As I look back, I’ve always had a career that touched upon writing.  We have three bright, creative sons.  I gave up work for a few years to be home with the babies.  I continued freelancing, then helped run Ghost Tours in a nearby town.  I’ve interviewed Kissinger.  I won awards. That segued to being a public school teacher, where rereading classics brought me full circle to the path from which I’d strayed. 

Fifteen years later, I turned 50.  For me, this is my imaginary Annie Proulx line.  She did not start writing till later in life, but she did start writing after 50.  I too am coming to the craft later, and I am not rising from nothing.  The stories are pouring out.  My first publication was nominated for Best Small Fiction.  I’m 45K words into my first novel, and have finally discovered, after fretting about it all these years, that the love of my life, the English language, has waited for me, and blushes for me, and welcomes me with open arms to some kingdom I was sworn existed when I was very small.  I am the king of some rainy country, it seems, where stories pour all day and night.  I’m home.


Look for Anne Elizabeth Weisgerber’s stories in New SouthTahoma Literary Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Vignette ReviewRevolution John, andJellyfish Review. She is a freelance fiction editor, and her chapbook reviews appear in Change Seven Magazine; she reads fiction for Pithead Chapel.  She’s studied with Randall Brown, Kathy Fish, and Nancy Stohlman, and loves her writing squads: #fishtankwriters and #storytalk. When not teaching, she’s working on a novel that spans five generations, or looking out the kitchen window at her fascinating goats, Snapdragon and Socrates. Follow her @AEWeisgerber, or visit anneweisgerber.com