Tuesday, May 24, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Channeling Benjamin-The Data Made Me Do It

by Linda Wastila

On January 2, 2016, I marked my ten-year anniversary ofwriting. How do I recall so clearly when I began writing? And, after a decade of pen to paper, much of it devoted to two-and-a-half novels that remain unpublished, why do I even bother?

Let’s back up. By day, I’m a scientist, first trained as a pharmacist in the bucolic kingdom of Chapel Hill. I started down the pharmacy path as a means to medical school but discovered I didn’t want to deal with warts, ear infections, and patients’ poor lifestyle choices. I turned to public health, where I learned a lot, including the sad fact that after five years of an undergraduate curriculum studded with science classes and multiple choice exams, I didn’t know how to string together a sentence. My thesis advisor mandated I get a writing tutor. Which I did.

My first job was at a Boston think tank. My office overlooked the entrance to the emergency room at New England Medical Center. It was loud, distracting, fascinating existence. There, I wrote nothing you’d be interested in: passive voice, peer-reviewed manuscripts filled with science jargon. Shortly into my first gig, I realized I wanted to run my own studies, which meant I needed a Piled Higher and Deeper. I returned to another bucolic campus—Brandeis University. It was there I fell in love with… numbers.

Fast forward to Baltimore, 2005. As a Research Professor at the University of Maryland, my job was to grow our department’s research endeavor. My salary was 100% covered by me. Which meant a LOT of grant writing. Fortunately, I was good at grant writing and had several studies, almost all involving gigabytes of data that required massage and analysis using sexy techniques like negative binomial regression. But I acquired one unusual project that required me to look both back in time and into the future regarding psychiatric medication development. The study required both analysis and reading about drug discovery, theories on illness manifestation, and how chemicals alter psychiatric maladies.

I read at night, crunched numbers by day. One afternoon, while studying data on health care costs among mentally ill people, I noticed several individual points scattered far from the bulk of the others. The outliers. And it occurred to me, for the first time, that those data points were people. Real people. Individuals with serious and expensive mental and physical health problems. Which made me ponder those dots of data, ponderings that didn’t make themselves known to me until…

I woke up one morning and my first thought was, “Who is Benjamin Michael Taylor and why is he in trouble?”

I got out of bed, went to my computer, and wrote a short, incoherent paragraph about Benjamin. I shut the file, went to work, and forgot about him.

Until six months later when, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I stumbled across the file I’d named ‘benmich’. As I read my notes, his entire story tumbled before me.

Benjamin consumed me during the holidays—What did he look like? Did he believe in God? What music did he listen to? I didn’t know what to do with the information. I believed myself mad—crazy mad—because Benjamin became an obsession: I saw him in the streets, I dreamt about his tattoo, I woke at night and worried about him locked up in the loony bin.

On January 2, 2006, after not listing ‘writing a book’ on my list of New Year’s resolutions, I began to type out the words stuck in my head. At first, I wrote tentatively—what if I got stuck? What if my words sounded ridiculous? But the writing came easily—I was in ‘flow’—and continued until I finished Ben’s story five months and 183,000 words later.

During those five months, it felt as though I was a medium and someone else channeled words through my hands onto the keyboard and onto the screen. I worried my protagonist and I shared a common malady—bipolar disorder. What else explained my extreme focus and productivity? Much later, I found out frenzied writing is a medical condition called hypergraphia, a compulsion to write. An incredibly heady and empowering experience. I believe if my first foray into writing had been ponderous and tedious whether I’d still be at it because, as I’ve since discovered, writing IS hard. Damn hard.

I continue to spend every morning, often in the dark, writing for 30-40 minutes before my family wakes and the day swallows me. I pluck away minute by minute, word by word, because in those blessed hypergraphic months I discovered I love the journey of creating with words almost more than the creation itself.

Ten years later, my sad-lad literary creation BRIGHTER THAN BRIGHT is exactly half as long as the first draft. I’ve continued Benjamin’s adventures in PURE, a novel of academic malfeasance. I’m marketing my novels in hopes of finding a sympathetic agent or editor who wishes to help me launch my babies into the world. My third novel, THE MINISTER’S WIFE, started three years ago for my Master’s thesis, remains a glorious mess.

As it should be—novels are beasts. And it’s this challenge—and pleasure—that compel me to write.

In the end, data drove me to write. I wrote what “I knew” and discovered the people behind the data points have stories to tell. So I try to tell them. Over the decade, these problems have become personal, affecting friends and family, but these experiences only fuel my need to write their stories, to bring to light my take on my world.  


LJ Wastila writes from Baltimore, where she professes, mothers, and gives a damn. Her Pushcart- and Best-of-the-Net stories and poems have been published at Smokelong Quarterly, Monkeybicycle, Flash Frontier, Scissors and Spackle, MiCrow, The Sun, Blue Five Notebook, The Poet’s Market 2013, Hoot, Camroc Press Review, Every Day Fiction, and Nanoism, among others. In 2015, she received her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins. She currently serves as Senior Fiction Editor at jmww. In between sentences, she blogs at Leftbrainwrite.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Why I Felt Jealous of a Twelve-Year-Old

by Sam Snoek-Brown

I knew almost as soon as I could write that I would become a writer. In my childhood, I put a schedule on my door insisting on undisturbed writing time each day. I had my parents custom-build a desk into the nook of my closet, with a small bookshelf installed above it, a gooseneck lamp, a door I could close—barely into a double-digit age, I had my own writing space. I wrote my first book by age twelve, won writing contests, and had only to wait for success to find me.

None of that is true. Or, it is true, but not of me. Working for a city newspaper during my college years in Texas, I was assigned to report on the local library’s youth writing competition, and all those wonderful, writerly details—the schedule, the desk in the closet, the book, the ambition—are from the profile I wrote about the young girl who won that year.

In my actual story, my parents gave me a desk, but I used my pencils and ballpoint pens to stipple the surface until it looked less like wood than like pumice. In second grade, I spent hours alone in my room writing pages and pages of material, but it wasn’t creative—my mother got tired of forbidding me my misadventures and told me to copy the definition of “No” 100 times, unaware that “No” comprised a full three pages in our family dictionary, two columns each page, in tiny print. I didn’t write a book by age twelve, but I did invent lyrics to absurdist songs about defecation and once adapted “On Top of Spaghetti” as a bawdy sex lyric.

In other words, I wasn’t born to be a writer. Or at least, I didn’t behave like one when I was a kid. My father wrote scathing editorials and short satirical pieces, my paternal grandfather was a natural storyteller full of a ship captain’s sea yarns, my maternal grandmother was a closet memoirist—but I was just a kid. There was nothing magical about my upbringing, no prophetic sign that I would take up the pen and the keyboard and become a writer.

Though there was my seventh-grade English class.

My middle school had begun a program of weekly “sustained silent reading” periods, and my English teacher, Mrs. Hoffmann, added a second period of “sustained silent writing.” We were allowed to write whatever we wanted—journal entries, rap lyrics, love poems—and I decided to write a novel.

I’d been reading a lot of my father’s action novels and was just beginning to discover Stephen King, and I realized that when I tried to predict what might happen next in whatever novel I was reading, I wasn’t hoping to decipher the story, I was wishing the story had gone differently—I was inventing stories of my own. I was rewriting stories as I wanted to read them. And right around the time I began to think that if Don Pendleton could knock out half a dozen Mack Bolan/The Executioner novels every year and sell millions of books, then surely I could, too, my English teacher gave me the gift of designated, disciplined writing time.

My first novel was about a teenager whose parents were killed by an evil crime boss surrounded by ninjas; in his sorrow and anger, the teenager devotes himself to martial arts and fights his way through the ranks of minions to confront the crime boss.

I eventually gave up on that novel, but Mrs. Hoffmann—who, after school, had become my first writing mentor—insisted I keep telling stories. My father signed me up for a writing workshop on how to publish (neither of us knew until I arrived that the workshop was for romance novelists, but I eagerly took notes on plot outlines and novel advances). I developed a sci-fi series about an alien race and invented a religion and a language. I began writing horror, stories about necrophiliacs and occult serial killers and mutated warriors held prisoner by secretive government agencies. I found Anne Rice and spent most of high school and college toiling over a melodramatic vampire novel.

Which is to say that by the time I wrote that newspaper article on the young library contest winner, I already was a writer. Yet I still hesitated to call myself one, and I marveled at this kid living a literary life I still felt outside of.

When I started that novel back in middle school, I began imagining the origin story for my writing career—publication as a teenager, phenom status, appearances on talk shows—and ten years later, working on that article about the kid writer, I began to wonder if I’d missed my chance. My origin story was too long delayed. I had wasted all those years poking holes in my writing desk and making up feces songs instead of becoming the writer I dreamed I ought to be.

In some parallel universe, there is a version of me that did publish as a teen and go on talk shows. He is telling the origin story I wrote for him decades ago. In another universe, there is a version of me who has never published. He is still concocting new origin stories, new fantasies. They will go into a password-protected file where no one will read them except that other Sam, late at night, only the computer screen and his fantasies alight in empty room.  In yet another universe—this one—there is me, many writerly milestones behind me but still sending ahead invented milestones to reach for (an advance on a book deal, film rights, career stability). And here I am, revising my childhood origin story, realizing that I started out as a writer in exactly the way I ought to: by daydreaming, by writing the stories I wanted to read, by crafting the story of myself, by always trying to make it a better story.


Samuel Snoek-Brown teaches writing in the Pacific Northwest. His work has appeared in dozens of literary journals, and he serves as production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He’s the author of the chapbooks Box Cutters (sunnyoutside 2013) and the forthcoming Where There Is Ruin (Red Bird Chapbooks 2016), the forthcoming novella In the Pulse There Lies Conviction (Blue Skirt Press 2016), and the historical novel Hagridden (Columbus Press 2014), for which he received a 2013 Oregon Literary Fellowship. He is online on Facebook, Twitter, and at snoekbrown.com.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


by Levi Andrew Noe
Most of my collected notebooks from age 7-27

It all started in kindergarten with my breakthrough story “The Bose Busbros,” (The Bossy Brothers).  It was my first typed draft of a semi-autobiographical tale. It chronicled a young boy whose elder brothers refused his right to hot chocolate and sent him to his room.

You could say I was always a writer. From the moment I learned how to shape words into somewhat cohesive sentences, I was telling tales, filling notebooks, and frustrating teachers with my illegible handwriting.

I haven’t deviated much from my hopes and dreams as a 9-year-old, as recorded in the notebook entry below left. Though experience has taught me those lovely lessons like cynicism, world-weariness, and the plight of the starving artist, my deepest hopes still place me as a would be “famous author.” I abandoned the visual arts, however, just after elementary school.

Middle school served to squash most of my passions and creative pursuits, as public school and puberty are so infamous for achieving. But in high school a new art form sowed its seeds in me: music. I was in a couple bands including pop punk, emo and/or hardcore, called Knester, Sell Out Boy, and A Call to Arms.  As arrhythmic and cacophonous as it was, in music the spark of artistic creation was again re-ignited and reimagined.

I was the bass player and backup screamer in A Call to Arms. We played house shows, dingy cafes and friends’ birthday parties. We were terrible, beyond offensively awful, but we played our angsty hearts out. Through music a new writing style emerged for me in the form of poetry. It was not my calling to play music, but music fuels, inspires, and moves me deeply, and I believe it permeates my writing to this day.

My college years came and I continued to grow, both as a writer and person. In those formative times I dove into academic writing right alongside dumpsters, beer bongs, and the bohemian lifestyle. Through it all, I found a deep affinity for every genre of writing. I graduated with a B.A. in English Writing and a minor in Holistic Health, but not before I took a semester off to hitchhike up and down the West Coast, sleep in bushes on the side of the road, and spend a few month at a yoga community in the redwoods of California.

It was those days, my wandering, unrestrained, wide-eyed early twenties in a perpetual existential crisis that formed the bedrock of who I am today, in my writing and in my personal philosophy. Post college, I continued in my voyage of discovery, but in a slightly more responsible way. I spent a summer in Ketchikan, Alaska working at a coffee shop, teaching yoga, picking berries, catching salmon and writing all the while. The jaw-dropping, infinitely astounding natural world is still probably the greatest muse for my writing.

In 2011, just after the great earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, I decided it was a good ideato go teach English there, just about 150 miles from Fukushima. Japan is a place so full of wonder and weirdness, tradition and contradiction. It certainly inspired a new era of writing for me. I began my first novel (still unfinished), as well as many pieces of every genre which I have placed into various manuscript collections (waiting for their time), and there I continued and deepened my love affair with haiku.

Following teaching in Japan, I took the long way home. I traveled through southern Japan, then flew to Bangkok, Thailand. By train, bus, van, boat, tuk-tuk, and motorbike, I made the loop through Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I spent a few months in SE Asia and it was no big deal, just totally changed me forever and was one of the most important periods of time in my life thus far.  Then I spent 1 ½ months in India, got my yoga certification in Rishikesh, swam in the Ganges (the clean(er) part), and saw about one thousandth of what I wanted to see of the Himalayas. Needless to say, this period of my life carved its story through every aspect of my being.

But home’s call is always strongest, and always pulls at the heart the hardest. I returned to Denver, Colorado as a new, worldly-wise, battle hardened, adult(ish) person.  I came with goals, with plans, with a new perspective, and some sense of what I came here to do in this life.

Since 2013 I have started and liquidated four businesses and conceived of dozens of others, one is still currently running and semi-viable. This business is Tall Tales Yoga, the merging of my three greatest passions, teaching yoga to children through storytelling. In addition, I have self-published four children’s books, and had a couple dozen short stories, poems, articles, flash fiction, creative non-fiction pieces published. I started the podcast Rocky Mountain Revival as another merging of some of my greatest loves: literature, music, and podcasts. To top it off, I’ll be getting married in July to a woman who is as perfect as any creature on this earth can be.

Life has had its ups and downs, but through it all, writing has always been my salvation, my torment, my obsession, and the most constant of all my psychoses. So, now that I think about i. Life has been pretty good to me, though I don’t always feel that way or appreciate the opportunities and experiences I have been given. I still don’t feel like I’ve “made it,” whatever that means. But I’m blessed in my own relative ways. And whether or not I become a famous author, a wealthy entrepreneur, or a successful human being, at least I can say I’ve done some shit, and I’ve given it my damnedest. Thirty might feel like a long life subjectively, but I know what those elder and wiser than me would say: “You don’t know shit yet."


Levi Andrew Noe was born and raised in Denver, CO. He is a writer, a yogi, an entrepreneur, and an amateur oneironaut. Levi won first prize in 2011 and 2013 in Spirit First’s international poetry competition. His most recent or forthcoming works are in Ink, Sweat & Tears, Connotation Press, Boston Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Eunoia Review, Scrutiny Journal, and many others. He is the editor in chief and founder of the podcast Rocky Mountain Revival, Audio Art Journal.

Twitter: @LeviAndrewNoe, @RockyMtnRevival

Tuesday, May 03, 2016


by Robert P. Kaye

How did Robert P. Kaye begin passing as a Writer? In eight words. In slow motion.

The story requires build up, narrative arc, rising tension. A hero’s journey. All that crap. Start with a character we’ll call Bob.

Even as a child, Bob wasted a shitload of time. Picture a large, lumpy, slow kid. An excessive number of years pass until he even learns how to read, but eventually he discovers the escape offered by stories. He buries his nose in books, to the detriment of more useful skills like math. Spelling mystifies him. Maybe he’s autistic or dyslexic, but those terms haven’t been invented yet. Let’s call him unprecocious. Still, he enjoys writing stories because that’s the only thing he does well. Despite all odds, he arrives at college, switching from science to English, because he's slow at math.  

After college he gets a job, then something called a “career” (synonym for vast wasteland). He writes a story every couple of years. In the days of manual typewriters, another draft means hours of frustration and yards of correction tape. Submitting requires photocopying and going someplace called a Post Office. Mostly he doesn’t write. Getting started is hard.

Flash forward to the miracles of word processing, spellcheck, the World Wide Web all shiny and new. In 1999, Salon magazine, one of the hot new web publications, runs a contest for “Technology Epigrams for the Internet Age.” Middle-aged Bob submits a jokey one liner:

A fool and his money are soon automated.

He wins the contest. Publication, sweet as Mad Dog 20/20 on the tongue of a latent alcoholic. Addictive. Transformative.

The need for more compels Middle-aged Bob to get up early and fill blank pages, revising the inevitable drivel. He prints out (word processing!) the results and sends off stories. Checks the mail every day for those stamped self-addressed envelopes, hoping for scrawled notes of encouragement on form rejections, saving those. Finally, a story accepted for publication, something started twenty years prior. Then another online in Carve (electronic subs!). He joins a writing group, grinds out pages, adopts the author name Robert P. Kaye because of Google.

Eventually the stories come easier. Eventually the work becomes necessary as breathing.

Eventually, writing every day becomes a habit.

He does okay. In spite of a really slow start. In spite of wasting all that time.  Now it’s just a race against encroaching senility.

That’s how that happened.

I’ve run an open mic reading at Hugo House in Seattle for almost three years. Works in Progress happens twice a month. We pack the room and cram thirty plus readers into two and a half hours. I exhort aspiring writers to get better by writing their brains out, reading the publications where they want to publish, submitting their work, risking rejection, celebrating any shred of success. Quite a few do so. Quite a few are getting published. Some are twenty years old and have more Pushcart nominations than I do. One just had an article in the New York Times. Yes, I envy them a little when this happens and wish I’d started younger and done the work. Oh well.

Word processing, electronic subs, and thousands of lit mags that didn’t exist in the days before MFA programs exploded making this writer thing so much easier. So if you’re reading this for clues on how to become a Writer, guess what, there is no secret. Stop wasting time wringing your hands. Be relentless. Just sit down and fucking do it.

Get at least eight words published. Rinse and repeat. Even the slow kids can do that.


Robert P. Kaye’s stories have appeared recently in Hobart, Juked, the Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, Beecher’s and elsewhere. You can see the whole damned list at www.RobertPKaye.com. His chapbook Typewriter for a Superior Alphabet is published by Alice Blue Press but you can’t buy it anymore because it’s sold out. Bob runs the Works in Progress reading at Hugo House and co-founded the mysterious Seattle Fiction Federation.