Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Words in Place: JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Stops and Starts

Words in Place: JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Stops and Starts:  by Iris N. Schwartz In grade school I began writing my first novel, about a fearless girl, her collie, and two loving parents. The...


 by Iris N. Schwartz

In grade school I began writing my first novel, about a fearless girl, her collie, and two loving parents. The Cohen Family, Crayola-illustrated, was, alas, never to be finished...or found.

That set the pattern for my writing. I always burned to write. In my preteens, I wrote fiction, longhand ─ mostly in the basement, away from family tumult and, especially, my mother.

In my teens I switched to electronic typewriter, later, grudgingly, to a computer. I continued to write several times a week, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. There were, however, times I didn’t write for weeks, months, or chillingly ─ years!

The Cohen Family was definitely and defiantly a novel. Unlike my protagonist, I was burdened with fear and anxiety; I had a sister, but no collie or pet of any furry or feathery kind, and my parents were not demonstrative but distant, and, most likely, mildly to deeply depressed.

Why stops and starts? My mother, no doubt parroting her own mother or father, labeled me noisy, lazy, and selfish. She told me to shut up, questioned how I “dared” talk back to her. Eventually, I knew how she felt about any topic before I understood my own mind or heart. I apologized to chairs for accidentally kicking them. Did not trust my instincts. Thought if I could do it, it couldn’t worth much. That, of course, applied to my writing (and, later, my editing skills).

The first person to say I wrote well was an English Literature professor at Brooklyn College. I don’t recall her name or what she said; it was complimentary and therefore, scared me so much I forgot every word she uttered!

After graduating from college at the age of twenty I noticed an ad for an arts reviewer in my local Brooklyn newspaper, The Canarsie Courier. My first bylines ─ for theatre, book, and restaurant reviews ─ appeared. My first checks for writing awaited me at the newspaper office. I also penned humor and travel pieces. I felt giddy, which, to me, felt alien.

I made the mistake of showing a published review to my mother.

“So who says it’s bad?” she said.

Not long after, I stopped writing. But the voice within me possessed chutzpah and stubbornness. In subsequent years I enrolled in fiction and nonfiction writing courses at New York University and The New School.

I wrote short stories, two of which I revised extensively and published, at least a decade later. I started and stopped and started again an ambitious coming-of-age novel set in the South. My teachers were encouraging.

In the nineteen-nineties I divided my time between writing, performing, publishing poetry, and writing fiction.

Through a disastrous marriage, years of compulsive overeating, unfulfilling jobs and relationships, two different psychiatric diagnoses, several surgeries, and, finally, disability ─ through all this, I intermittently wrote fiction.

In 2010, I had to leave my editing job at a major accounting firm and go on disability. This was demoralizing and financially terrifying. With the aid of psychotherapy, corrected medications, inherent feistiness, beloved friends and family, and, finally, the right man, I made it through the worst times I could imagine.

It was no longer acceptable to me to be overmedicated, depressed, and scared to write. With physical and occupational therapy, as well as stationary bike riding at home, I am now getting around with a walker.

I realized in January 2017 that I’d been writing and submitting flash fiction consistently since January 2015. In 2014, I discovered this form, began reading expert practitioners, and freed myself to write what I needed and wanted to. I also started another novel that I will get back to.

I submit fiction, nonfiction, or poetry to literary journals on average three times per week. I’ve received a slew of rejections, but a fair number of acceptances, too.

I’ve started editing again on a freelance basis. It brings a little money but, more importantly, higher self-esteem and a sharper mind.

My best news? My fiction collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth And Other Stories, will be published by Poets Wear Prada in autumn, 2017!


When I was fourteen, I tagged along with my friend Sheila Giddins and her parents to Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club in the Catskill Mountains. No one called my friend Giddy Giddins, but I always wanted to, primarily because she was pretty somber. She was also prettier, thinner, and blonder.

I wasn’t blonde at all. I was a brunette, chubby, but better-looking now that I wore contact lenses instead of thick glasses.
Sheila’s parents probably felt bad for me because my father had died the winter before. I didn’t mind their pity if it meant I’d be able to get away from my mother in Brooklyn. Three days’ escape from fluttering yahrzeit candles* and death dates circled in red on the wall calendar beat no escape at all.

My first morning at Kutsher’s I stuffed myself with a dinner-plate-sized apple pancake. (I can still summon it—fluffy, cinnamon-aromatic, diabetes-sweet—if I shut my eyes and breathe deeply.)

On the second day, I awakened early and decided to walk the grounds. The sky was clear and sunnier than in Brooklyn. I felt light and, for a change, hopeful.

I met the blond boy that day. He was tall and Gentile, and so I went row boating with him. On the boat he told me he had just returned from a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. He saw fellow soldiers blown up. He said they were friends. I pictured bullets piercing uniforms and flesh, blood spurting, bodies bursting apart. I forced myself to listen because he needed to talk and there was nothing else I could do for him. I thought of apple pancakes afterwards.

The blond boy needed a receptacle for his sadness. I could take it. I had seen death, too: my fifty-year-old father, body stiff as the board under my parents’ mattress. Eyes staring up at a void. No blood.

* Yahrzeit candles: Jewish memorial candles.

"Upstate" was first published by Writing Raw


Iris N. Schwartz is a fiction and nonfiction writer, as well as a Pushcart-Prize-nominated poet. Her work has appeared in such journals as 101 Words, Algebra of Owls, Bindweed Magazine, Connotation Press, Flash Fiction Friday, The Flash Fiction Press, Gyroscope Review, Jellyfish Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Tribe Journal, and, most recently, Anthology Askew: Love Gone Askew. Her first fiction collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth And Other Stories, will be published by Poets Wear Prada in autumn 2017.

Find more stories by Iris at these links:

Here's the link to my flash fiction "Floundering," which appeared in Gravel Magazine

Here's the link to "Dream Date," which appeared in Quail Bell Magazine

Wednesday, April 19, 2017


by Christopher Allen

When I was 10, my piano instructor—a dour stickperson named Eva Jo Alpress, who told me I was going to be a concert pianist one day—quit. She “discharged” me in a long, painstakingly written letter that outlined my mother’s shortcomings and mine. I wish I still had the letter. What a gem. While almost all of it is lost, one phrase does resonate down through the decades: “Your son is an arrogant opinionated juvenile.” We had a good laugh at that. Eva Jo certainly had a knack for unwittingly hitting nails on heads. She thought she was telling me what a little dickhead I was, but she was actually telling me that I was a person with something to say. 

The reason Eva Jo discharged me: I wanted to trade ├ętudes for ABBA. I wanted to play keyboards in a band. It was 1974. I wanted to shake my groove thang. I can still see my teacher’s eyes when I pulled out the sheet music to “Take a Chance on Me.” Horror? Disdain? That moment when you’re not sure if you need to sneeze or vomit? We got the letter the next day. There would be no Good Will Hunting end to the story.

I have to give Eva Jo credit, though, for spotting the truth in this situation. The keyboard part of “Take a Chance on Me” is really easy, especially for a ten-year-old apparently destined for Carnegie Hall. Without the band and a few Swedes “Take a Chance on Me” was boring.

I’m telling you this not only because it’s a fun story, but also because it’s one of a hundred formative experiences that have led me to where I am today: sitting in my office in Munich, writing about writing, wondering who I am. Who knows what moments are more important than others? I was going to be a musician when I was ten. That’s important. I was a little dickhead. That’s also important. In many ways I’m still that little dickhead.

But before all that, I was going to be an oceanographer. I was fascinated by the thought of living on the ocean floor in a never-ending labyrinthine sprawl of modular, pressurized compartments. I expanded my underwater city every day in my third-grade class. I’m sure the drawings were absolute crap. I can’t draw, not even a stickman. Point is, I was obsessed by the idea of slipping myself into a little world—or maybe I just needed to escape to where it was quiet, maybe it was a Jungian thing. I don’t know. I hate the water now, haven’t been swimming in decades. We also drew the flags of the world, which I was much better at.

At university I studied music until the end of my sophomore year when, in the hospital with mononucleosis, I missed my juries and all my finals. I also missed several weeks of my first professional singing gig in a gospel quartet—a ridiculous summer. When I got back on my feet I didn’t want to study music anymore, so I changed majors to music business. All the cool kids were there I guess or maybe just all the kids who understood the worthlessness of a music degree. Maybe both. And, yes, you’ve just noticed that I skipped my entire adolescence. I knew I wouldn’t get away with it. I was hoping you’d ignore the leap, maybe accept the gap, like the lost years of Christ. I find it hard to talk or write about that time. How about we leave it at this: from 1976 to 1982 I spent most of my time hating myself for being gay, praying to be delivered from being gay, and ending up being abused by the minister of music at my church—book forthcoming.

But did those years of depression, suicidal feelings, and fear that someone could figure out who I really was lead me to write? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve tried to write that novel several times, and it’s just not happening yet. Sometimes I think all this writing is just practice, that I’m groping around in the dark for the voice that will finally tell my story the right way, that all these stories aren’t me but maybe a way towards me.

At the beginning of the nineties, a very close friend of mine was killed in a plane crash. His death changed my life and my priorities. I moved to Los Angeles to get away from Nashville and the music industry. He’d been a keyboard player for an A-list country singer, and I was a studio singer. Everyone I knew was in the music industry, and it was just too sad. When I later returned to Nashville, I’d decided to become a writer; and because I wasn’t sure what that meant I enrolled in a master’s program to learn everything I didn’t know about literature—because by then I’d figured out that having an opinion about everything was a sure sign that I knew almost nothing. Realizing how little I knew was a giant leap towards understanding myself.

In graduate school, while I was reading everything Henry James wrote, I wrote a screenplay partly about my friend’s death, a poignant road-trip movie in the vein of This-Will-Never-Be-Publishable. Also while in graduate school, I published my first short story, “Air-Conditioned Souls,” which one of my professors said “made no sense.” I also published my first two (and last two) poems: “The End All” and “last night I dreamed we dreamed a poem.”

Then I moved to Germany and spent the following ten years trying to write and rewrite that screenplay. Then I wrote and rewrote a novel manuscript: "The Sure-Shot Rabbit Association." And then I wrote another one: "What You Don’t Know." And another: "Three-Handed Bridge." And another: "Conversations with S. Teri O’Type." And another: "The Lambent Light," finally trying to tackle my own story. And a screenplay manuscript: “Almost Ophelia.” Except for Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, an experimental and episodic work of linked flash fiction that I self-published in 2012, I’ve pretty much walked away from all of these manuscripts. They terrify me because they are not perfect. They are all massive derelict buildings.

At some point in the middle of all these construction sites I joined an online writing workshop called Urbis. What an intense time of learning that was. I remember getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to read and write reviews. That workshop forced me to think about my writing objectively. It taught me to write economically, to write competitively (in a good way), and not to settle for a boring phrase. Lots of stories that I workshopped in Urbis ended up published. Urbis gave me the push I needed towards becoming a writer.

In 2009 I started editing at the daily litzine Metazen and became the managing editor there. Sadly, Metazen came to an end in 2014. In the same year I joined the team at SmokeLong Quarterly. The journal is a big part of my life. When I love a thing, I love it big.

I feel all grown up now, but I still need to disappear into my little worlds. I still feed on sarcasm. I still need music. And I still feel incomplete. So I suppose my Planet Write is some amorphous gas planet or maybe some inchoate hunk of volcanic chaos—very much a work in progress. And that’s fine. I just love being at the party.

Here’s a link to one of Christopher Allen’s award-winning stories:

Semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017

First published by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts


Christopher Allen is a freelance editor, translator and writer living somewhere in Europe. His work has appeared in more than a hundred journals and anthologies both online and in print including Indiana Review, Juked, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others. He's been a finalist at Glimmer Train, a finalist and semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017, and he's won some awards too. Allen is the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, the author of the episodic satire Conversations with S. Teri O'Type, and the curator of the travel blog I Must Be Off! which sponsors an annual travel writing competition.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


by Jolene McIlwain

Stories. My childhood home was filled with them. Mom’s drowned-puppy story. Dad’s ever-changing tale of his buddy jumping from a water tower, umbrella in hand, plunging into mud “up to his ankles.” “To his knees.” “His hips.” “Swallowed up in the mud.”

They told stories of work, family, tragic events. Neighbors brought their own—daily, at any given hour. Cousins spooled out yarns late at night, their tangled voices bouncing through our kitchen. I stared at their knuckles tattooed with the letters of their names. They slipped curse words into their descriptions, apologized, reworded, grinning at me. Another relative, in a brown habit, his waist cinched with a rope, murmured his tales through contemplative lips, ice-blue eyes darting. Whispered stories came by way of lip-sticked aunts, long-nailed aunts, chewing-gum aunts. Barked-out stories came by way of the constable and hard-of-hearing Mr. Riggle. They came in clouds of Lucky Strikes, cigars, nasty cologne. They came with dandelion wine, two fingers of Echo Springs, black coffee, and jugs of spring water. With banana bread, zucchinis, deer bologna, fudge.

So many voices, tones, gestures. I watched the stories as much as I listened. People acted out parts. “Stand up. Here, I’ll show you how she hit him.” My father was the most animated, clapping his hands to mimic the sound of a sucker punch, a gunshot, a car’s bumper hitting a guardrail.

Parts of stories came by way of the scanner, the CB, or the telephone, where we’d hear only one end of the dialogue. Stories weren’t linear. They were circular, elliptical, looming gaps I might fill by reading the newspaper’s obituaries and police blotter, by hiding with friends in the crape myrtle to listen in on neighbors. I’d pore over the dictionary, never able to find the hybrid-pidgin American-Italian language of Dad and his friend, Sylvio. I’d ask to have stories repeated, noting changes—embellishments, amendments, dropped sections.

Stories I read in books at school were different. They had a beginning, middle, end. Chronological order. Helpful transitions. Usually one narrator. Clear. Concise. Perfect, proper English, deprived of what I would later learn were regionalisms, idioms, colloquialisms, jargon. Back then I just thought we “talked wrong.” I’d never seen the words nebby, redd-up, gumbands, dippy eggs, berms, slippy, babushka, and baby buggy in the books I read. Coal miners, dope-heads, and housewives weren’t the narrators. Stories weren’t told in snippets.

I adored all kinds of books, but I wanted to see the types of stories I grew up on in books. 

In college, I’d learn about story acquisition, theory of mind, and how my family and friends may have been some of my best teachers. Feminist theorists offered arguments about these ways of storytelling and inferred that they were legitimate. I was overwhelmed with relief that all kinds of stories could be seen as valid, meaningful, and respected.

Vignettes: I read Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Multiple POVs: I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Stories with gaps, intended ambiguity: I read everything by Jeannette Winterson. Same stories told again and again, refined, amended, reconsidered: I read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Wallace’s Big Fish. Part real/part magical: I read all of Morrison’s novels, Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate, Stephen Fry’s Making History. Slang, hybrid language, hybrid communities, sayings: I read Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Louise Erdrich. I was gathering a list of authors who told stories about the same people, the same afflictions, and the same predicaments as my neighbors had told at our kitchen table. Silko’s Ceremony, Strout’s Olive Kitterage, Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Haruf’s Plainsong. Breece D’J Pancake. Bonnie Jo Campbell. Jo Ann Beard. Pinckney Benedict.

I found authors who used the same curse-words, loanwords, cadences, phonology, the same authority of story told loudly, quietly, quickly, slowly, with gaps, tangents. 

I read Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid which led me Julie Jung’s Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. I researched everything I could in order to understand the ways stories came into my childhood home and to discover the authors who were experimenting with language and form.

And I finally gave myself permission to write the kinds of stories I’d inherited because I finally had the theory and language for the tools both my childhood storytellers and classic and contemporary authors employed. Repetition, recurring motifs, specific verbs, alliteration, scope of story, flash-forwards, backstory, character names, concrete imagery, placement of the surprising word, targeting audience, meter, tone, resonance, mood, pacing, narrative distance, and perhaps the most crucial decision in storytelling: point of view. I am slowly knitting these craft strategies and revelations together and gaining a better understanding of what I’d sensed so long ago: the teller is just as important as the telling and there is no one “right” way to tell a story.

No one could offer up a hunting or fishing story, a well-witching or ditch-digging story, as well as the archers, anglers, witchers, and excavators themselves. They knew the jargon; they spun words that intrigued me most. I was drawn into their discourse communities by their exclusive language and their odd ways of telling. In this vein, I wrote “Seed to Full,” a piece in which a sawyer can tell his story of grief only through his work with wood. Another is “Handful of Throttle” where the sounds of motocross, the slang of that sport, work together to show the narrator’s awe.

I’ve had the treat of hearing someone attempt to tell a story and fall short. Not the right perspective. Not the right sound. And I’ve watched them revise as they continued or by the time they told it next. I’ve had the luxury of experiencing stories that were told in surprising and unconventional styles, without rules. Sylvio could get absorbed in backstory. That chewing-gum aunt would sideline—whispering helpful footnotes as the storyteller spoke. Sometimes it took a whole neighborhood to tell a story over a series of days. No wonder I’d love Saunders’s recently published Lincoln in the Bardo, where it takes a whole graveyard, and more, to tell a tale.

Since his stroke a decade ago, Dad can no longer move around our kitchen to tell his stories. He’s lost track of time. Chronology is suddenly unimportant. Gone is his deep baritone story-telling voice. He can’t clap. He can still talk but some days a whole story is pared down to a phrase. A word. “Umbrella.” We help him by filling in, or not.

I recognize the presence of story in the absence of his old story-telling ways. I am, again, inspired.   

Seed to Full

After you’ve felled the tree and dragged it from the site and hauled it to the mill, one of the first things you do is scale it, measure to find out how many board-foot it can yield.

Always measure the small end.

According to the Vermont Log Rule, a log with a diameter of 11 inches cut into a nine-foot length offers up about forty-five board-feet. One that’s 36 inches in diameter, same length, should yield 486 board-feet.

Then you have to grade it.

Check for knots and branch stubs, seams with ingrown bark, ring shake, gum spots in black cherry.

I’ve started to teach our daughter, Myra, how to grade and scale and she’s shown promise. She has a head for numbers, for recall.

We’ve had this business for thirty-five years. My father sought out permission from the Bishop to start up before I was born, and he’s been milling every season since. Now I’m sawyer and he’s more known for his work as a hammer man or sawsmith, fixing our saws and those of nearby mills, Amish and English.

Myra’s interest lies more in his job. By the time she was four, she knew the difference between a cross-peen, twistface, and a doghead. She knew how to measure blade tension and dishing when she was only eight. It comes natural to her. To right things. She doesn’t even flinch when he pounds out the saws.

Then there’s the saw kerf, the width of cut made by the saw. That loss has to be factored in, too.

I can tell you exactly what each cut will do. I can tell you what type of cut is best for each kind of job: quarter sawn, rift sawn, flat sawn. I can tell you the type of wood or how wet it is by the sound it makes when it meets the blade.

What I can’t tell you is how much my wife Hannah’s been hurt by how I’ve cut her or how wide the kerf is that I’ve laid upon her heart.

When you marry, scripture says you are joined together, but in truth, to do that you have to be cut away from your family, you cut away from yourself. These cuts are necessary.

But I’ve done more than that.
I’ve given her another seed that wouldn’t grow.

My wife Hannah’s like a quarter-sawn board, the kind that’s best for flooring or treads on stairs—it’s stable, doesn’t easily produce slivers or warp or cup, like flat-sawn wood. Flat-sawn’s best only for visual appeal, like my eldest brother’s wife. Rift-sawn’s the worst cut of all, like my mother-in-law.
That’s why it was so hard to take when Hannah slammed the screen door on me after I showed her the casket. I’d built it straight and true from wood I’d myself sanded and stained, rubbed with linseed until my hands were raw.

“Too small,” she whispered. Only that.

But little Daniel fit into it easily, despite the thick blanket she’d wrapped him in. Perhaps she thought her love for him might somehow expand his small body, might help him to continue his growth, even underground. 

“It’s 31 ½ x 13 ¼ x 11 inches,” I said, as if to convince her.

Myra stood at my side. Hannah just stared at us and shook her head, back and forth and back, again and again.

I used poplar, known for its straight-grain, uniformity of texture, its light weight—though that never mattered, for when I carried what I’d made to the grave, my boy inside my box, I could barely find strength.

I thought Hannah would be pleased.

She’d been the one to find the small stand of poplars near Sidle Creek. She used to go there and lie on the ground beside the creek, the swell of our son part of her silhouette, and twirl their tulip-shaped leaves round her second finger and search the tops of the trees to spot their blossoms.

But she didn’t even touch the box. Turned her head when I told her it was cherry stain I’d used.

She’d have none of it.

Originally published in The Fourth River’s Spring ‘16 issue 13. Pushcart Prize Nomination.


Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears in Prairie Schooner onlineRiver Teeth onlineThe Fourth River, and elsewhere, and has been twice selected finalist in Glimmer Train's contests, earning an Honorable Mention and Top 25 designation. Her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she’s the recipient a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council artist grant. She’s a part-time lecturer at Duquesne and Chatham universities and associate flash fiction editor at jmww journal. She lives north of Pittsburgh with her son and husband and is working on a collection of short fiction and novel set in the hills of Western Pennsylvania’s Appalachian plateau. You can read her tweets @jolene_mcilwain.

“Handful of Throttle” Prairie Schooner online | June 2016
“Angling” Pure Slush Five reprinted in in Flash Flood Journal | National Flash Fiction Day ‘16
“Seed to Full” reprint with author’s note at | July 2016
“Seed to Full” audio at The Fourth River’s “Selections” | Pushcart Nomination | February 2017
“Yes, They’ve Met” River Teeth online | February 2017
“TwasStrange, Twas Passing Strange” in “voices” at (b)OINK zine | March 2017