Giveaway: FREE Spot in My Workshop!

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Writer mom doing some “movement” with a monkey on her back

We have a winner, folks! Congratulations to Erin, who will be joining the workshop for free.

There are still spots available, and the “bring a friend, each get $10 off” offer still stands.

My friend An Honest Mom is doing a giveaway! And the giveaway? A free spot in the March 19 writing and movement workshop I’m co-teaching with a friend. If you’re not yet sick of hearing about it, and I hope you aren’t, because I’m so excited about it and it’s gonna be good—head on over to An Honest Mom’s blog for the details of how you can win a free spot in the workshop (and the kind benefactor who wants to help out a local writer/aspiring writer who’d like to go but can’t afford it).

Here’s the link!

 

 

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

Rejections I Have Known

I got a rejection from a literary magazine the other day. It was simply awful. It was awful because they’d had my essay for eight months, and because the assistant had emailed me three times to tell me that she was grateful for my patience and was passing my work on to the editors and would get back to me soon. For those not in the know, that kind of language usually means, “I have read and liked your piece, so I’m passing it on to the big guns, and I hope they agree with me that we should publish it, but of course we’re all disorganized and the meeting keeps getting postponed.” Sure, the waiting was tedious. But mostly, the rejection was awful because—well, here, read it:

So, I touched base with our assistant editors and they decided it wouldn’t be a good fit at this point for our magazine. After reading it, I tend to agree. You can take this or leave this, but I do want to encourage you to keep writing, and perhaps even put this piece away for a while, and come back to edit it after you’ve written other things. The challenge with this piece is making something that didn’t happen become just as climatic as what ends up happening. Writers that seem to know how to do that well— Jack Kerouac in “On the Road” and pretty much anything written by John Jeremiah Sullivan. Thank you for your patience, and good luck on your endeavors.

Dude. I’ve been writing seriously for twenty years. And in one small paragraph I was reduced to….eighteen. Inexperienced. As if I hadn’t heard the whole “put it in a drawer and come back to it later” thing before. As if Kerouac was news to me. As if I hadn’t already “written other things.” But thank God she encouraged me to keep writing, because in that moment I did have the thought that if I can’t fool someone into thinking I have an iota of experience and talent, I probably should just

stop

writing

right

now.

But as my new philosophy for 2014 is to make lemonade out of lemons, I decided that instead of strangling with the desire to write back that if she didn’t think the essay was any good herself, likely she should not have wasted all of our time by passing it on to the editors in the first place, I’d share that rejection here on my blog. There it is, folks. Eat your heart out.

And I got to thinking about rejection.

I have a folder in a file cabinet labeled “Rejections,” and I pulled it out this morning and sifted through it. There are 282 rejections in the folder, which predates electronic submissions and thus represents a small fraction of those I have actually received in my lifetime (now I keep track on an Excel spreadsheet). In that folder I found form slips; form slips with a human signature or a brief quip; and longer, typed, personal letters telling me how close I had gotten. There are rejections from lit mags, from literary contests, from writing fellowships, and from famous magazines that actually gave me the time of day before telling me I just didn’t quite cut it. There were rejections that it was very hard to see again—like the one from 2004 telling me I’d been a runner-up in a prestigious book contest but that ultimately, the judge had chosen the other poet over me. And of course, The Fulbright committee telling me that even though I’d made it to the last stage of the process, they couldn’t fund my year studying poetry in England.

And there were quite a few little gems.

This one, from a famous literary agent, cracked me up not because she said no—I’d expected as much—but because of the dangling participle in the third line:

photo-11

“While interesting, Ms. X did not have enough enthusiasm to take on your book.”

I’m bummed Ms. X is not enthusiastic about my memoir, but I’m sure glad to learn that she’s interesting.

And I loved this one, so chatty, so kind, about an essay I’d written (and forgotten about entirely!) on the poet Louise Bogan:

Bogan

And then there was this one, from a tiny literary mag I am quite sure does not exist anymore. I felt sad that the man’s wife was “gravely ill,” but I thought the gesture of returning my stamp entirely human and kind:

FreeLunch

Thank you, editor. You can see I used the stamp. Probably to send out more poems.

This trip down rejection memory lane has brought home a couple of things for me. The most surprising was the wistfulness I felt, not about having been rejected so many times, but for the period in my life when I felt so optimistic as to send out hundreds of poems every year. For a time when editors wrote sweet notes about moving offices and sick wives. It reminded me that my poetry seemed to get close a lot—many of the rejections are kind, handwritten ones—and it makes me wonder if I gave it up too soon. On the other hand, it reminds me why I did: poetry, with all its rejection, and a readership the size of a rejection slip, was beginning to feel like a dead end.

And I thought about how much better it is to know than to not know. One thing that folder gives me is—I hate this word, but—closure. Nowadays you’re as likely to hear anything at all as you are to hear that you’re being published (which is to say, not likely at all). The radio silence is the worst.

Of course I ruminated on the part that rejection plays in my work and in all writers’ work. In order to get published, you have to send out, and usually, you get rejected. It’s depressing, it’s demoralizing, it’s sometimes soul-crushing, but at the end of the day, it’s also the only way. Some days, I have better luck remaining dispassionate.

And, of course, I thought about the rejection slip as metaphor for life: how many things we fail at, every day. How many times each of us is told no—by a boss, a boyfriend, a crush, an editor, a publisher, a friend, a bureaucrat, a teacher, a student, a kid, a parent, a loan officer, a landlord, a blood test.

I’ll close with one last rejection, that I read and remembered fondly. It’s from a poet who’s pretty well known, who worked for a journal that was also pretty well known, and I recall approaching him at a reading a few months after I got this note. He remembered me, and I thought how cool he was. Though his journal didn’t take my poems, it helped me to hear that at least he thought I was writing “very sweet, very good lyric poems” that he happened to like.

NiceRejection

Here’s to rejections. And lemonade!

Lessons Learned

Well, I did not make third place in the fiction contest. New Year’s Day I popped open ye olde laptop to see my story at sixth. Part of me wished I’d done a bigger last-minute self-promotion piece, but frankly, I was on an airplane for seven of the last hours of 2012, and once I landed I thought, who is voting for stories at ten o’clock on New Year’s Eve? No one, that’s who.

I expected to feel more disappointed, but I don’t. The contest was a very cool experiment, but it was also, as promised, in the beta stage. My submission wasn’t perfect, either. So I chalk up the experience to having learned a few things. Here they are:

  • It’s important to have a great title. “Shunyata” becomes very evocative after you read the story, but it’s probably meaningless to 98% of readers, initially.
  • If everyone else is posting an image, post an image! Even if you can’t figure out how to do it (ahem: I should have asked). Mine was the only story in the top ten that didn’t have an image.
  • Consider length. I submitted a 15-page story. The story in the #1 slot was more like six.
  • Contests are sometimes based on popularity, and sometimes you just aren’t the most popular. Medium’s contest was exciting, technologically-forward, a great premise. But at the end of the day reaching the top three had a lot to do with how Twitter-savvy one was and how much support one could garner using social media. I’m not a dinosaur, but I opened my Twitter account just for the contest, and have barely used it. I might not have been the ideal entrant. I keep wondering whether all the entrants around me were under 25, but maybe now I’m just being paranoid.

Thank you so much to everyone who voted. I know the format was not ideal–you clicked “recommend,” you never knew if your vote went through, you had to have Twitter. These were not great circumstances for everyone, but I appreciate the support nonetheless. Onward!

Happy New Year.

Plug: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

I still have about 25 pages to read, but I am officially plugging Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder. The book was sitting on my bedside table for weeks but didn’t excite me, probably because the cover is kind of nondescript and the title just didn’t evoke much–innocence, childhood, maybe science? Then a friend said she was reading a novel about a single woman who travels to the Amazon and I thought, perfect.

Thank you google images

Thank you google images

The book is just beautifully done. It has elements of magical realism, a la Karen Russell’s Swamplandia, but since I know that book annoyed a lot of people don’t take that as your main comparison. Perhaps I should say the book has elements of the otherworldly, and while it seems to be making a statement about primitivism–one might argue that it’s a bit reductive in its portrayal of Amazonian tribes of Indians–I am fascinated by the people that Dr. Marina Singh encounters on her journey. So much about it is surprising, unexpected. I realized about 50 pages ago that I had no idea what was going to happen, and as we all know, if you can’t wait to find out, that makes for a page-turner!

You may recall I mentioned Patchett’s Truth and Beauty as one of my Must-Read Memoirs way back when.

Well, folks, it’s the last day to vote in the Medium Short Fiction Contest, where my story “Shunyata” is an entry. As my sister in law said, I do wish it weren’t a popularity contest, but there you have it. I have been pretty popular; my story, about love lost and spirituality found, hit the #2 slot on Saturday but this morning is back around #5. Top three get read and judged by an agent and the prize is $2,012. Every vote really does count, and today is the last day to vote, and if you haven’t and you’re so inclined…well, I’m very grateful.

Here’s to reading in the new year!

Also:

http://bit.ly/WVC0eC

http://nyti.ms/VeKqg3

Oh to be third…

Well, at last check my story is fifth in Medium’s Fiction Contest. To be read by an agent, and judged, and possibly win $2,012, it needs to be in the top three.

I’d say I’m disappointed, and I am–it’s doubtful I can jump two places in two days–but honestly, this is the story of my writing life (no pun intended!). My poetry manuscript was a finalist in two or three contests, but never got published. I’ve gotten great rejection notes from top places. I’ve had so many near misses I’ve come to expect my writing career to be like this.

Actually, it occurs to me, this is probably the story of most writers. Unless you’re just kissed by fairy dust, most of us struggle and come close and have disappointments and failures and some of them are because we aren’t, yet, good enough and some are because we’re unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just plain not ready.

I hold onto this theory, because if I didn’t I might get very, very discouraged.

So! One last plea, readers: if you haven’t read it yet, please do. And if you feel inclined to share it, even better. Maybe with your help, I’ll be in the right place at the right time on this one.

#MediumFiction

Solstice

I looked for a piece of writing about the Solstice to post today, darkest day of the year. When we lived in Norway, the Solstice was a big deal; the pinnacle, or the nadir, depending how you see it, of the mørketid (the dark time). I remember then both feeling a festive sort of connection and relief that from then on, the days would get slightly less cold and dark. I was pregnant, morning sick, and homesick, and it wasn’t the happiest Solstice, then in 2008.

This year, I’m with family, appreciating my gifts, appreciating the dark.

So here, since I can’t post a Solstice-y bit, I decided to post an excerpt from my memoir. It’s just a little piece about Christmas, and I hope you enjoy. (Context: B and I are traveling in Peru in 2004 with his dad and stepmom, whose names I have abbreviated below to T and S.)

Incidentally–you know that fiction contest? My story is in the top handful. If you still can and want to vote for it using your Twitter account, I hope you will–and share with anyone you think might be interested.

Happy Solstice, everyone.

————————

We got back to Cusco just before Christmas. I was a little weepy and sad to be so far from home during the holidays, but we kept busy. We dragged T and S on a ten-hour bus ride to the famous Colca Canyon and joined a tourist trip there. A combi drove us into the canyon to visit the spot where you can watch the condors soar. I didn’t see any condors. But we did get to spend the night in an ancient stone posada halfway down the canyon. The air hung heavily, laced with frost. In a stone room with a large fireplace, our hosts fed us omelets, alpaca steaks, and an unusual quinoa soup with milk as its base and chunks of queso fresco and fresh herbs. They brought wizened, tart little apples for dessert. The table was one long slab of wood, a farmer’s table with benches on either side.

The next night was Christmas Eve, and back in the city of Arequipa we shared a holiday meal—roast turkey, red wine, salad, and chocolate mousse, this last the offering of the Belgian woman who was there—with the Peruvian family who ran our hotel and had booked our trip to the canyon. I gave my three companions a gift each: Hiram Bingham’s book about Macchu Picchu for T, a pair of earrings for S, and a handmade journal for B.

Christmas day, on a dare, B ordered guinea pig in the one restaurant that was open in Arequipa. The cuy came fully intact, its little legs pulled up, its eyes wide open. B pulled his lettuce garnish over the cuy’s head so it didn’t stare at him too much as he ate. “Mascotas?” I could hear Veronica saying, in my head.

“It tastes like chicken,” he announced finally, and I leaned over to try a bite.

Yeah—stringy, greasy, flavorless chicken, with a lettuce-leaf hat, beady eyes, and ratty little teeth. I was eating ceviche, perhaps a gastric risk in an inland city, but it was delicious. I thought the Peruvians had gotten that one right.

We returned to Cusco the next day, said goodbye to T and S several days later, and spent the next week traveling around the Sacred Valley together and hanging out.

The ten days between B’s parents leaving and us getting to Bolivia were some of our nicest times in South America, and I didn’t much feel like leaving Peru. I loved being in Cusco, living in an apartment with hand-me-down furniture from travelers long gone. I loved to wake up in the morning and make coca tea and look out over the backyard of the cattycorner house, where the woman in the apron was collecting eggs and feeding her chickens. One day I saw her groping after one with one hand, machete in the other, but the chicken ran away, and then I did too before I saw her catch and kill it.

The sky was enormous in the Sacred Valley, and most mornings were clear. The romanticism of the place made me feel pregnant with longing and very far from home, but as though I could stay away forever. The evidence of gringos who’d stayed was all over Cusco: in San Blas, the arty, chic part of town, ex-pats ran restaurants that served delights like quiche and salad and chilled chardonnay. There were bars and places to hear music, and a café where one day I sat with my coffee and journal all morning and heard nothing but English. That was strange. We planned to spend New Year’s Eve in Cusco. Then, on the second or third of January, we would catch the bus to Puno, the big city on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, and pass into Bolivia.

Identity Politics

As I mentioned last week, a short story of mine is in this fiction contest and I’d be so pleased if you’d read it. If you like it, you can click “recommend.”

Interestingly, several people have commented to me on the fact that the narrator of the story is a guy. My father in law, for example, told me I had guys all wrong.

“How so?” I asked.

“You know that part where he does all that stuff he doesn’t want to do, all so he can get the girl?”

“Yesss,” I said, hesitant (I don’t entirely see Steve’s motives that way).

“Well, we don’t really act like that.”

(Later he told me he was just giving me a hard time.)

And my friend An Honest Mom told me she thought it was very “brave” to write in a guy’s voice, that it surprised her.

Is it naive that the identity of my narrator—him being a man, me being a woman—never even occurred to me? This has really gotten me thinking.

That story was an example of one that just kind of happened. It was based on a few real-life events; my husband’s stepmom had just died of cancer more quickly than any of us expected her to. I am from Boston, and a few of the Boston references were real. And I was reading Buddhism at the time. And I just love any story, song, or poem about a breakup, because it may be the one human experience we can all relate to: being dumped, or dumping, and the grief and conflict that go with it.

So yeah, I wrote from a guy’s perspective. Who knew?

I have only had three takers for Faith. Come on, people! Free book!

Happy Monday,

Susie

Vote for Me! (Or, the Shameless Self-Promotion Plug)

Well. Last week as I was frantically packing for a loooong Thanksgiving drive to Southern California I also managed to submit a short story to Medium’s Fiction Writing Contest. The story is called Shunyata. And I really hope you’ll read it. Then, if you like it, I hope you’ll vote for it. The system is a little tricky, but basically, you read; then you click “recommend.” Here is where it gets tricky. Once you hit recommend, you’re then asked to sign in to your Twitter account. I know–I didn’t have a Twitter account either. As far as I can tell, there’s no way around this but to get one. And then you can vote! (And if you want to follow me on Twitter, I’m @SusieMeserve.)

Here’s a teaser.

On the first Monday of last June my girlfriend Carrie’s mom got diagnosed with end-stage breast cancer and was dead the following Tuesday. It was one of those reverse miracles, an absolute mind-fuck. Me and Carrie flew to her parents’ house in Cleveland for the funeral. It was the first time I’d met her dad. I never met her mom. We didn’t really do parents so much.

“Steven,” Mr. Weathers said to me. “It’s good you’ve come.” I towered over him. Carrie said, “Oh, Dad,” and embraced him. I stood there patting the back of her leather jacket like an idiot, because I didn’t know what else to do.

I had known Carrie for what seemed like forever—two years, by then—but, it turned out, wasn’t, because you don’t really know someone until you’ve seen the photos their parents keep of them around the house. There was Carrie, on the piano, on the mantelpiece, in her dad’s study: blonde, blue-eyed, full-lipped, high cheekboned, a little pudgy. There she was in her band uniform. There she was in fake pearls and a pink taffeta dress at junior prom, smiling behind unfamiliar lipstick, like a little girl playing dress-up. There she was in her parents’ bedroom in a crackled photo with Tommy, her brother who died in a car accident when she was a senior in high school. When pressed, Carrie would say his death was probably what made her stop being a good girl, start smoking, start doing drugs, start wearing leather and motorcycle boots to class. The house in Cleveland suggested wealth and togetherness and wholesome family values, not my Carrie: cocktail waitress, smoker, heavy drinker—into taking long drives and suggesting we stop and fuck on the hood of my car.

Which, as far as I could remember, I had never refused.

And here is a photo of a Thanksgiving table, Southern California style. I hope everyone had a lovely day–I am grateful for many things, and for you, readers.