Wednesday, June 29, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Treading Water Even in the Dryer Seasons

by Jane Rosenberg LaForge 

No matter where I am, people ask me for directions. I could be in New York, where I have lived for 18 years, or on the streets of Paris, where I have spent six days, and someone will approach me for help.  I rarely know, for I am a tourist even in my own city.  But I must look as though I have a terrific sense of direction. Or perhaps I always appear to belong, or I’m someone who knows where she’s going and how to get there.

Cub reporters were once told they needed five years of experience to get a decent job.  I got mine at the Ocean City, Maryland, bureau of the Baltimore Sun. I was the only employee of said bureau, i.e. a desk I fashioned out of motel-style end tables in my rented living room. Ocean City was laid out like an aircraft carrier: one long strip of cement. The streets were numbered and reached into the hundreds, so no one asked me for directions. You could drive in circles and find your destination. Among my many scoops was the story of a kid who drove very fast and backward in a parking lot one night. He was "doing donuts," and drove himself into the ocean.

There was a drought that summer; the mainstream media was trafficking in the term “global warming” for the first time. Temperatures at the beach hit the 90s. I had brought my relatively new husband with me, which meant he was unemployed while I was on duty. We argued a lot about how I neglected him to I chase after fires, drunken boating accidents, and an NAACP boycott of the town.  Hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks would not hire townies, a.k.a. African-American kids who lived on the mainland. Across the drawbridge, their roads were not always paved, and their access to public sewage systems not guaranteed. It was territory the Industrial Revolution and the Civil Rights movement apparently forgot, which made great copy for me, but a lot of misery for everyone else.   

I was crossing a field of corn on a dirt road on an inky night when my car was either attacked or ran into some indeterminate yet vengeful force. It slammed against the windshield and the passenger-side door so fiercely I had to stop driving.  When I dared to look through the windshield, I saw it was the only thing preventing me from drowning. Perhaps it was a flash flood, or that global warming business had reached critical mass, and the ocean was cresting into farmland. Or this was some kind of a test, a trial by water with a blindfold that also covered my common sense.

I realized through my disorientation and panic that the field, unlike most, was irrigated. I had hit a bank of water because the system had switched on.  My job was a kind of trial too, to see if I worthy enough to transfer permanently to the Metropolitan desk. And right then, I knew the trial was over, and I’d lost. I knew because I would have rather been lost, under water and mud logged, than on my feet and on my way back to whatever I was working on. I wanted to savor this experience and mine it for its potential symbolism. It held more possibility and portent than all that transpired that summer, because I could make it mythic.

Indeed, I was demoted that December, and went onto other nowhere-newspaper jobs. I got divorced and enrolled in an MFA program. In my first year, I built a story around my watery encounter into the tale of a boy who thinks he got his skanky babysitter pregnant (waters of birth, a new beginning, etc.). Though it was not the most coherent story ever written, I had wrestled it out of my own ephemera. I won a fellowship for older women writers, and resolved to learn all of the shortcuts in the rural, suburban, and forested sprawl that surrounded the campus.  

Soon enough, I was assigned an instructor convinced I was an insult to the intelligence of all sentient beings. I'm sure others have had this experience, but she amplified the humiliation she doled out during workshop by confiding to others how ardently she disapproved of me. Because one of my thesis committee members had heart surgery scheduled for the day of my defense, I had to include her on my committee. I managed to graduate (re-marry, move, and have a child) but found myself unable to write for many years afterward. When I had any doubts, I had her voice reminding me how I should indulge them.

I have since published a memoir; four volumes of poetry; and am in the midst of working on two others scheduled for publication. But I can barely navigate the grid system of Manhattan, though isn't that what subways and a New York native for a daughter are for? I recently was relieved of a freelancing gig. The editor disagreed with my interpretation of the myth of Prometheus, whose theft of fire from Zeus - the equivalent of writing - earned him a lifetime of suffering. I can't find an agent for my new novel, though one agent said in rejecting it: “Your writing is beautiful, and many of your sentences are so gorgeously crafted. You have a lot of writing talent,” and if I kept working on my craft, some day “you're really going to knock our socks off.” I wonder if she knows I qualify for Social Security.

It's been my failures that have defined my journey as a writer. The only thing certain is there will be more of them. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know about Samuel Beckett and "failing better.” At this point, it could be mathematically proven that this maxim doesn't apply to my case. I don't particularly like Beckett, but I think he’s onto something about how bleak our alternatives become if we do nothing in the face of inevitability. If I don't know why I subject myself to ever more monstrous failures, I need only look at the settings of his plays to see what awaits me should I quit. I am a lost soul who cannot help but look for meaning in my life.  I'm headed where everyone is going, but I hope to take my time, and take notice, before I get there.

For her website: Jane Rosenberg LaForge

For the new chapbook, In Remembrance of the Life

Facebook author page: Jane Rosenberg LaForge

Twitter: @JaneRLaForge



Jane Rosenberg LaForge is the author of An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir (Jaded Ibis Press 2014) and four volumes of poetry: After Voices (Burning River 2009); Half-Life (Big Table Publishing 2011); With Apologies to Mick Jagger, Other Gods, and All Women (The Aldrich Press 2012) and The Navigation of Loss (Red Ochre Lit 2012). Her newest poetry collection is the chapbook In Remembrance of the Life (Spruce Alley Press 2016) and her full-length collection, Daphne and Her Discontents, is forthcoming from Ravenna Press.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: What’s Writing? I Just Want to Help People

by Aaron Dietz

It started because I was bored. I was in a fine high school in Iowa and during class, I daydreamed stories and started writing them down.

I won ten dollars for writing a second-place piece for one of the high school publications, and it was a nice little story. But I had no idea why. It had just happened.

A couple years later a small zine published two pieces of mine in their first and only issue. I kept writing.

In Denver, I wrote for some more zines and eventually wrote a column called “100 Nights” for Needles for Teeth. I didn’t make it to night 100, but maybe I made it to ten.

In the year 2000 I started collecting some of the stories I wrote into a larger tale, like making a mixed tape, heavily influenced by my friend Joaquin Liebert, who once made me a mixed tape of the original Star Wars trilogy using only songs from a specific genre of music (I think it was classic R&B but I can’t pinpoint music to his level of geekhood).

I started calling my collection of stories a novel. I stitched it together like a series of documents, obviously influenced by books like House of Leaves.

Years went by. I collected rejection letters from publishers. I kept some special ones, including a hand-written note from McSweeney’s. I kept rewriting the novel.

I moved to Seattle, and rewrote the novel again while I worked on completing an   undergraduate degree—I was back in college primarily because I could pay the rent with student loan money instead of continuing a futile search for a job.

In school I took as many classes as I could that were taught by Bryan Tomasovich. He gave me more time than I deserved and pointed me toward the beginning of experimental fiction.

On Tomasovich’s recommendation, I submitted my novel to Emergency Press. They handed it back and said, basically, “We don’t like these parts. But what about these superhero parts? We like those.”

I rewrote my novel.

Whereas before I had used the superhero as a tiny symbol throughout, now it was a full-on superhero novel, told through a series of documents. It was funny, to a special kind of person.

Emergency Press accepted the book. It was published as Super on November 10, 2010, with an amazing look to the cover and interior provided by Charlie Potter. Friends gave me more time than I deserved to help promote it.

We put on what I like to think is Seattle’s most spectacular superhero pub crawl. I met Phoenix Jones and other real life super heroes, and went on patrol with them. I hung out with Black Knight, Blue Sparrow, SkyMan, Knight Owl, and so many more. I met fantastic people in plainclothes, too.

In 2011 and 2012, I took a minor break from writing and made short movies with friends. We made films in 24 hours and 48 hours and got relatively unexciting results.

Then we made movies in 8 hours and got excellent results.

This made me think about how I had just spent ten years or more creating a novel that didn’t really make the impact I had hoped it would, despite it being what I would call a satisfying little work.

I turned things around. I decided I’d create books in less than a month. I figured, they may not turn out to be as good as a ten-year project but they were darn well going to have more impact-per-hour-spent on them.

In 2013, I tried to make 12 books. I completed 9. Friends gave me more time than I deserved in helping me, including Charlie Potter again, who produced fabulous covers for 8 of the books.

The impact was small but for the time I spent on them, outstanding. Some books I produced in a weekend. Because of the small investment in time, the impact made sense and felt worth it. I was learning.

I started catching up on being an adult. This involved acting like I owned a home, which was good, because I did own a home (this had happened in the same year in which I produced 9 books). I wrote less and less.

My writing time became precious, but I was armed with the knowledge that I could create and produce satisfactory projects in very little time. And so I do.

I’ve become efficient: I rarely write anything unless I’m 80% sure it’ll be published in some form. Larger projects I get involved with are one-year projects at the maximum. Smaller projects are a couple weekends, maybe four at the most.

I work with the best people. Earlier this year I edited a book with Bud Smith—In Case We Die, an anthology of the strangest things that have happened to people. The intention was to encourage people to talk about the weird stuff that we don’t feel like we can talk about. It wasn’t a lot of work to do the book, and I think it’s helping the cause.

Recently, I helped put together the interior layout on For They Know Not What They Do: The Letters of Peter C. Kilburn. Peter worked as a librarian in Beirut from 1966 to 1986. He was taken hostage and killed.

I’m always telling people that they should write at least one book. It felt good to help Peter with his. It was probably about twelve hours of my time. Twelve hours to help someone posthumously produce their book? That felt great.

And that’s what I want: for the projects I do to feel good and have positive impact, within the very small amount of time I have to give to the art.

And that’s where I’m at as a writer, now, if I’ve even truly become one. Maybe I just like to help people, and writing just happens to be an efficient way to do this. And so here I am.


Aaron Dietz is the author of Super (Emergency Press, 2010), an experimental novel about superheroes that is obviously written by an instructional designer (there's a test after every chapter). Dietz has created courses on computer programming, engineering, and green design. At parties, he likes to ask strangers, "What's the weirdest thing that has ever happened to you?"

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Mirko and other Muses

by Andrew Stancek

“You will bail us out, won’t you, sweet Mami,” Mirko laughed, at the conclusion of my 2011 story called “Moving On." That last line from the first of my Mirko tales marks a beginning.  

At the time, my stories, reverberating with the influences of Chekhov, Faulkner, Munro and other luminaries, were only taking me down a death spiral.  But Mirko, a hooligan in Bratislava in the sixties, was different.  He shook me, called me by name and said, “Come, let’s do a little slumming.  We’ll have a blast.”  

In that flash story he is thrown out of home by his mother and handed over to a father only marginally more responsible than he is. Mirko pushes all the buttons.  He came, he told, he departed.  Almost thirty of his misadventures have since been shared with readers.  I’ve moved to other narrators, to other tales.  But Mirko’s in-your-face attitude, his eagerness to rush in regardless of consequences, was a breakthrough.  I continue to wrestle with long stories and a whale of a novel while finding the challenges and possibilities of flash liberating. 

The world of Bratislava, of the sixties, of my childhood, has been fertile soil.  I have dreamt of that world all my life, and now I tinker with the right words.  Other preoccupations have followed:  flying, food, war, fatherhood and sonhood, death. 

Adam Zajac, in my serialized novella Wingy Unbound, has discovered the secret of flying which I have longed for ever since watching the gulls soaring over the Danube. A book of my early childhood called Perutenka concludes with the heroine growing wings and flying off, and ever since, imprisoned by one limitation or another, (too young, too clumsy, too daydreamy, too, too, too) I have longed to soar like the gulls, and do so with my protagonists.

Frequently, as I sit at my computer in southwestern Ontario, I suddenly inhale the sweet cherry aroma of bublanina in my grandmother’s kitchen, my mouth fills with the tang of bryndzove halusky, and I am transported to Bratislava, my magic kingdom. I am again at my grandfather’s side as his magician hands turn empty boxes of chocolates full; we ramble through the woods and return with a basketful of fragrant summer cep mushrooms, hands sticky with the juice of berries, both crowned with a wreath woven of field flowers. I am again beaten in dark passageways by groups of jeering hoodlums; my palms throb after an encounter with the bullying Comrade Houskova’s idea of appropriate classroom punishment. My father and I make our Easter sibacka rounds, greeted by neighbors with chocolates for the youngster and a glass of something to take the morning stiffness out for him, culminating in full-voiced singing of folk songs. From those kernels, stories grow.

I dream of my father, his early escapades with me, his dark moods, his absences, his betrayals, his death.  In my eulogy at his funeral I shared the story of how he, a non-swimmer, rescued me when a sudden undertow grabbed my raft, and I only cried in terror.  As a three year-old I accompanied my parents, still married, to Rosutec Mountain in the Tatras, where I scrambled up a bank, fell, looked back, to see a cow low in my face.  My father yelled, “Hybaj, kravisko”, (Get away, huge cow), and that of course became a family tale, and another of my stories. My darker memories of him culminate in my stories of sons cutting down the rope around father necks.

War is the context in that novel I keep struggling with, which I will perhaps, one day, finally bring to a conclusion.  I have seen tanks first-hand, rumbling through the streets of my occupied homeland.  After immersing myself in research to ensure I avoid missteps, I walk away from it, time and time again.  But it will come.  It continues to bubble in me - it has to come out.

So I wake in the morning, see the glint of light on broken glass, hear the echo of an owl hoot, smell cinnamon and nutmeg folded into apple strudel.  My fingers race on the keyboard.  A story pours out.  I break off, like Sheherazade in The Arabian Nights who managed to postpone her death, night after night.  A thousand stories later, she was deemed worthy of living on.  I have many stories yet left to tell.  Perhaps even a thousand and one.


Andrew Stancek entertains Muses in southwestern Ontario.  His work has appeared in Tin House online, Every Day Fiction, fwriction, Vestal Press, Pure Slush, Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and Camroc Press Review, among others.  He’s been a winner in the Flash Fiction Chronicles and Gemini Fiction Magazine contests and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Read Andrew Stancek's work:

Horses' Heads