Wednesday, July 27, 2016


by Christopher Bowen

When I was a small child, I used to create flipbooks with crayons and staples on construction paper late in the evening as my mother slept on a couch behind me after a twelve hour nursing shift. I used my first typewriter at four or five, an electric IBM my librarian grandmother had. I remember it's low, sleek hum when turned on, the power of pressing those keys.

My story, the one I live, is the most important story I'll ever create.

In 2008, I founded a small chapbook press called Burning River. We published eight chapbooks over about five years hinging on the credit that "the writing Burning River tends to admire, if not imitate, is human. It is flawed. It is incomplete. And it is seeking understanding into and of other human beings."

And I used grants from culinary school to fund it. I worked full-time as a hospital cook and lived in a cheap, cash-only apartment in a rundown, small Ohio town that industry forgot.

I'm not going to go into exactly how rough life was then, but the press, my life, was worth the sacrifice. I began booking readings and venues outside of Cleveland for myself and other authors. I began to travel more. Just after the closing of the press, I completed two author tours, one on the East and the other on the West.

What makes this part of my story important isn't the excitement or discovery, even the confidence of it—the writer residency in Quebec or anything else, but the knowing that you are capable of doing these things. What makes this part of my story important is how I earned the ability to do it, the humility and character of all that time, my life.

There's a small sidebar of random quotes I've collected over the years on the Burning River website, ones that still remain there today, even as I only blog from it.  I found this quote over ten years ago while reading a book called Henry Miller On Writing.

“With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief. I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as man.”

How can human beings improve? How can they shape who they are? Sometimes, it's just the simple decisions they make in the face of adversity.

I recently published a novella, or chapbook, about adversity. When I ReturnTo You, I Will Be Unfed is about some of the very things I've been talking to you about: adversity, life-changing, character. I will always be the very most important character I develop. I work now as a travelling, managing chef. I write when I can and appreciate being a part of both the literary world and, at times, the culinary. When I wake up tomorrow, two weeks, three months, one year down the road, what is my destiny as a man?

A lot of people measure successes with a yardstick, a map and a compass. Sometimes, it's simply the situation you never chose. The main character of my novella doesn’t choose mental illness and it's something that surely defines him, then and later in life. I have been blessed to have a very full life even at my very young age of thirty-six. I have been blessed with so much character: from hopping into a semi-truck as a kid with my father and sister after breaking down on the Ohio interstate to understanding the natural world: camping, a hike, weathering a storm. Life is a storm and storms haunt me. It's my ability to look back at them that makes life so much more worth it, that makes me so much more grateful for them, for my life, my human being.


The Farmers of Shangri-La

We are farmers. We are grown from a blackest dirt to be found above the clay table that’s there below the ground in Ohio. Black means rich, black means vitality to us because we are farmers. We plant trees, we grow them.

When years pass us by, by the old oak tree and the swing from its limb we used to climb, it will still be here to whisper secrets only children know and our hollow ghosts.

Summer passes us: the ball game, a worn leather mitt, the county fair and the dusk a part of the wind. Like the way it feels to skinny dip at night when everyone’s parents are asleep and though we are adults ourselves. The owl keeping one eye open and watching the summer pass us farmers and every creeping, crawling thing the night over knows it, knowing nakedness.

We’ve a barn to prove our stores, our progress and toil. We’ve a place behind it to smoke cigarettes or cigars or pipes after the family dinner. We’ve gravel driveways and blueberry homegrown stout or wine and rhubarb pie to eat while joking about the billy goat or how the dogs in the yard are just so stupid, just so dumb.

“What happened?”

“We were out by the dock out on the boat and it tipped, is all. That’s why I’m so wet,’ said as one enters the house, too late to notice the sun setting behind dripping ears. And the person in the living room or dining room nods in approval, knowing the question need not be answered and that it was only half asked to begin with, and offering the last slice of pie.

“What happened to the rest of the world?”

They are failing at something and running from us. It is well affixed in them to repeatedly escape this way, to take the fastest car, the fastest plane to do this, never to be seen the same way again and always lost in one or two or more ways. They leave behind the black, vital dirt of here and Shangri-La behind shaking heads, not shaking water, but disbelief at what is left behind in the past in the country in Ohio. They are on toward the city and clean futures like good barbershop haircuts to return the day like to some lagoon where a father or uncle or grandfather spits into the wind at mosquitoes and mumbles at the lack of predators in the area, natural predators to hunt and kill. This is God’s country.

There is incoming wind to an open window of a pickup truck, the bed filled with wood to last the winter. Bugs scramble at the weight of the statement. But no one hears this: not the bugs, not above the crack and shoot of gravel beneath rugged tires, not below the whistle of wind shaped for the ear and aimed from across a field of corn or alfalfa. Not God hears this, let alone the passenger.

Jackson Browne plays on the stereo, Running On Empty, and the car is in gear. And we will wait for you here, we will wait many years.

This flash fiction piece was first published by Stirring: A Literary Collection published at Sundress Publications.  Here is the original link to "The Farmers of Shangri-La."


Christopher Bowen is a Midwestern chef. Author of the books We Were Giants (sunnyoutside) and When I Return To You, I Will Be Unfed, he blogs from Burning River.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Three Decades, a Burnout, and an Island

by Guilie Castillo-Oriard

In 2011 I quit my job in the financial industry to “be a writer,” and everyone thought I’d gone mad. “Burnout,” they whispered.

In all honesty, they weren’t that far off; six years of twelve-hour days does take a toll. But, appearances notwithstanding, this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment thing. None of my colleagues—no one here in Curaçao, only a scant few in Mexico—had any way of knowing that my journey into writing had begun three decades earlier (and would, in fact, involve actual travel).

The very first thing I wrote was a Christmas story. I was eight. It was a school competition of some sort. I can’t remember the plot (and I admit to a certain amount of relief there are no surviving copies), but it involved a family of swallows (and, probably, much gratuitous heart-string pulling). No one was more surprised than me when I received the first prize; I remember feeling an embarrassed sort of exhilaration as I stepped up to the podium to accept—what was it? a certificate, a piece of paper long lost and forgotten, never framed or showcased in any way. No need; the moment had been enough. At the tender age of eight I had been marked, taken in ownership by the white-hot branding iron of storytelling success, and there was no turning back.

They liked what I wrote.

Storytelling was my gateway. For a very long time, writing, for me, would be about telling a story. It would take me years to discover language—the power of putting words together just so, so that, all of a sudden and (best of all) without warning, the alchemy of meaning sparks into life. But back then it was the sorcery of disappearing into make-believe that hooked me.

I ransacked my father’s extensive library; I read everything, books as diametrically varied as Don Quixote and Emmanuelle II. I read history and fantasy and cheap novels and Hemingway and Sartre. I stayed up late with a flashlight under the covers. Teachers confiscated the books I hid between lap and desk.

And I wrote and wrote: diaries, journals, endless ‘novels’ that never made it past Chapter 3. I wanted to tell stories, stories like the ones I was reading, stories that would make people laugh and cry and feel… but I had no one around to tell me the magic wasn’t in the telling but in the constructing. No one, except the books themselves. And I fell so deeply into the thrall of the stories that I forgot to—didn’t even think to—analyze structure, arcs, character development, management of backstory, nuances of plot; the stories I read worked (mostly), the ones I wrote didn’t (mostly), and I knew it. I just didn’t know enough to see why.

And then…

Do you remember that time, long, long ago, when phone lines could ‘cross’ and you’d find yourself listening to someone else’s conversation? One day, when I was maybe eighteen, I was talking to someone and suddenly I was talking to someone else. My call had dropped, this guy’s call had dropped, and—because life works in mysterious ways—we struck up a conversation. When I had to go, Ernesto—that was his name—asked if he could call me again. Why not, I said. I’ll need your number, though, he said.

He called every few days, and we talked—and talked, and talked. My writing must have come up at some point, though I have no memory of what I said or what he asked, because about a year later—we still hadn’t met, although we lived in the same city—he called with a mission. “A friend of mine is starting a writers’ group,” he said. “I told him about you, and he’d really like to meet you.”

Yes, of course I went—got to meet Ernesto, too—and landed smack in the center of a budding writer’s dream: I found myself a member of a group of young adults (‘teenagers’ sounds so amateurish) who started the city’s first literary magazine. It was called Tinta Seca (‘Dry Ink’ in Spanish), and it put out its last issue in February 2015.

I was only part of it for maybe three years—but they were glorious years. I was in print! I sat at the big-people table the day the magazine was launched. I got to read one of my poems (at a microphone!) to an audience of literati and press with clicking cameras. I was consulted for content and layout issues. I met artists I’d only seen in museums, authors I’d only seen in print. And, less ego-stroking but more edifying, I had an assembly of like-minded individuals (read geeks) to provide example and stimulation. I began straying from the ‘mainstream’ into the uncharted realm of possibility. None of my experiments earned recognition (nor did they deserve to)—but who cared? I had discovered the craft.

It wasn’t meant to be, though. Not then. Not yet. My father died, and with him the bubble of financial security I’d lived in until then. College was out of the question; I had to earn a living, I had to do it now, and I couldn’t do it via writing. And so began the two fallow decades of write-less existence. I didn’t abandon the dream, I just postponed it: one day, when I retired, I would write.

And then…

Travel. And with travel came the stories—and the urge, again, to tell them. Yes, I do hold Curaçao responsible for my return to writing. I came to the island originally for six months; that was thirteen years ago. Why did I stay? Because something here—the diversity? the contrasts? burnout?—provoked in me not just a rekindling of the storytelling monkey but the carpe diem understanding that stories, like dreams, wait for no one.


Guilie Castillo-Oriard is a Mexican writer and dog rescuer living in Curaçao. She misses Mexican food and Mexican amabilidad, but the island’s diversity and the laissez-faire attitude (and the beaches) are fair exchange. Her work has appeared online and in print. Her first book, The Miracle of Small Things, was published in August 2015 by Truth Serum Press. She blogs about life and writing at Quiet Laughter and about life and dogs at Life In Dogs.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Journey to Planet Write: Mickey Mouse to Jellyfish

by Christopher James

Part One

I always wanted to be a writer. Or, more accurately, I wanted to be an “author.” I feel a little silly saying “author” because it reminds me of the child I was back then. I was odd at five. Smart, yes, but too shy to raise my hand in class when I needed to pee, so I had more than one disaster. Good at sports, probably from running to reach the loo before it was too late! I remember having many friends, but also spending time alone, chasing butterflies and trying to walk with shoes on the wrong feet. Odd, right? And I must’ve read constantly.

I got a Mickey Mouse annual, full of comic-strips, letters to Donald and EuroDisneyland adverts. It had a do-it-yourself frontispiece – a space to draw your favourite character and some questions. What’s your name? How old are you? What do you want to be when you grow up? I don’t recall my favorite character (I feel like saying Goofy, but suspect it was Pluto. We later had a dog called Pluto). But I remember my answer to that last question. “Author,” written in a handwriting that’s barely improved in the thirty years since.

I found the annual some time later, when I was moving into teenagehood and starting to think more seriously about my future, and I saw that answer, “author,” and I thought YES! That’s exactly what I want to be. Nailed it aged five! And it’s been with me from then till now.

Part Two

Of course, wanting to be a writer and wanting to write are not one and the same. I didn’t write a lot. Zadie Smith once described being told that Ian McEwan wrote only fifteen words a day. That seems impossible to reconcile with his fairly prodigious output, and I don’t think it’s true, but for years I wrote even less than that. Fifteen words a day? Ha! Who had time for that hard labour? Nevertheless, whenever people asked what I wanted to be, I still said the same thing. A writer.

There were exceptions to my fourteen-or-less-words-a-day days. I spent a year in Central America and wrote constantly, a terrible spewing of handwritten nonsense, tiny cramped-up letters that wouldn’t fill my already-heavy backpack with any more notebooks. I finished a novel, since disappeared, about a hopeful plot to destroy manufactured pop, and started another, also disappeared, about god-knows-what. I wrote without reflecting back on what I’d written, and learned nothing. I was writing, but I still wasn’t a writer – I was a notebook-filler.

Back in London, I got a real job and the notebooks disappeared, and I waited for the day I’d wake up, look in the mirror, and magically be perfect at all this. About then, the Times (the newspaper) ran a competition for a love story in 300 words. I’d never written anything so short, but I gave it a go with a story about a man who spray-painted a love message to the woman leaving him, on a bridge where she’d see it every day. The same night, another man jumped from the bridge, and the world thought the message came from him. I called the story “Amore Eterno,” and it won third place. I was ecstatic!

They published it (the fools!) in the paper, meaning people all over the country could read it. Someone then told me about this website called Zoetrope, where writers workshopped stories, and this thing called Flash Fiction, stories in under 1000 words, and, buoyed by my national success, I thought that this was something I could do. Something that could really teach me how to write.

Part Three

So began an apprenticeship. I ‘met’ writers like Randall Brown and Kuzhali Manickavel! I slowly improved. Slowly got published. Now I was writing every day, or almost every day, and learning what worked and what didn’t.

Sometimes it was hard. I learnt to care less about rejection slips! Sometimes it was rewarding. I had pieces picked up by Smokelong, by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, by Matter Press. I won a few prizes, with Camera Obscura, with Tin House. I discovered some amazing writers, and a new way of reading.

At the same time I moved to Indonesia. I stopped drinking so much, stopped taking drugs on the weekend, met a nice girl. I made more time to write, finally acknowledging that this writing dream wasn’t Just Going To Happen. I had to make it happen. I dedicated myself to it. And it was working. I was becoming a writer.

Then one day – I think it was Idul Fitri - I started an online magazine. I’d half-heartedly thought about doing this before, but on this particular day I did it. There were personal reasons – it would help take my writing to the next level. But there were other reasons too. It was a time when many magazines I loved were starting to charge for submissions, and when it felt harder for writers to take risks on what they sent out. I wanted a venue that encouraged risks.

I opened a Wordpress thingy. I started a Facebook wadjamacallit, and invited thousands of people (sorry!). I announced a call for submissions. In honour of my favourite animal, beautiful and dangerous, I called the magazine Jellyfish Review. It would only publish flash.

Part Four

Jellyfish Review is now blossoming into a bit of a minor success. We’ve published stories by incredible writers, including Elaine Chiew, Beverly Jackson, Sara Lippmann, Len Kuntz and Gay Degani. We have stories by even more incredible writers lined up. We’re developing our own style, unique and unpredictable.

I spend hours every day working on it. Reading submissions, formatting stories, choosing artwork, promoting the magazine, keeping everything ticking. It’s hard work, but wonderful.

For the first time ever, I think I’ve found something I want to do even more than being a writer. And I love it. I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.


Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, Smokelong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.