Welcome to our Winter 2016 backporch, where writers talk frankly about their careers. Grab a glass of sweet tea, pull up a chair, and enjoy the talk.
What’s the most embarrassing moment of your writing career?
It’s mostly all been embarrassing, like a naked man trying to pass as clothed.
I started my career as a copywriter for an ad agency. As an ongoing joke, I would slip a profane word or two in the copy to keep the proofreaders on their toes. You can already imagine the ending to this embarrassing tale, connected by a single missed day of work due to food poisoning, a newly-hired proofreader, and the magazine that moved up its ad deadline. I always wondered how many people spotted the word after it was printed; if the client did, I never heard a &!@% thing.
— D. L. Shirey
Years ago I learned the value of proofreading. An editor of a respected journal responded to my submission with “Our staff all thought you had an interesting reaction to the situation you created – see line 17.” Wow, I really impressed them, I thought. What wondrous, fantastic line got their attention? Line 17 should have read “I compose myself.” Instead I had written “I compost myself.” Unfortunately, that was not the impression I had hoped to make!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I knew as a toddler that I wanted to write stories like those being read to me which transported me through language to all manner of place, characters, emotions and beauty. As I couldn’t yet write, I dictated stories at about age three or four to my mother who preserved them. I see now that they all have the same theme: loss. Decades later at age thirty-two I learned I had been adopted when I was two. A love of poetry, read daily from about the age of eight, shifted my interest from prose. I wrote my first poem [discounting the four or five I wrote in college] when I was thirty-nine. And now here I am.
–Sarah Brown Weitzman
To this day I still can’t remember what pulled me toward poetry, and I count that as a good thing, keeps the element of “otherness” in the work. However, I can remember when I began to write things down, play with words, dream of endings. I was fourteen years old and had been thrust from childhood to a very deep encounter with a young girl, almost instantly. Nothing has ever changed my thinking in such a way since. It launched a journey into myself that continues today. Ironically, after forty-three years, we recently reunited. And I’m still beginning with endings.
— George Bishop
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I sat in the back of my common-law-step-father’s taxi cab. Fourteen years old, I knew that my mother and her children were a secret to his “real” family. I stared at the back of my mother’s full head of dyed-blonde curls through the plexiglass portal, writhing in anger at her hypocrisy. I was going to write this all down. I was going to tell the world how evil she was. By the time I began to write as an adult, she had committed many more sins. I told as many as I could, overcome with love and understanding and appreciation, determined to be just as good a mother as she ever was.
Funny, life is.
— Donna L. Marsh
What’s your advice for new and emerging poetry writers?
I try to have a good beginning, beautiful lines and an explosion in the poem somewhere. Needless to say, I’m not always successful. I was a professional jazz musician for many years, so I’m thinking of writing sort of like a jazz solo. Those are my key elements. Miles Davis used to say if he played one new idea in a four hour set, he was happy. So – no pressure for the rest of us, haha!
–John C. Stupps
What is the one thing you would change if you could about your writing? What drives you crazy about writing or about the writing process?
I want to answer the question about the one thing I’d change because, my writing process is just chaos– pigs in blankets, sharing jumbo rolls of people-sushi at a David Lynch slumber party. That’s where my mind goes. But if I move to put a leash on my art, my art bites me. Consequently, my process shits wherever it wants to.
Maybe I’d change the fact that I only achieve a satisfying writerly high if I eschew advance planning. My projects define themselves, which leaves me the burden of letting go of any preconceived notions about what it is I’m making. Am I writing a blockbuster novel? A lucrative young adult series titled, “Collectible Vampire Wizard Academy? An award-winning lyrical poetry collection? No? Um, a non-linear short story collection about mantises, you say? Alright, then… maybe someone would buy it as an e-book…
Perhaps I wish I didn’t have to work quickly, in trance, for muses to stimulate my A(rt) spot. I want to answer the question about what I’d change, because it’d be nice to do the kind of writing I could make a living on. Maybe I want to be a made writer, an eccentric celebrity, hosting slumber parties for farm animals in my million dollar estate. D.S. West Land– but my mother was a housekeeper, I don’t ever want a housekeeper– I don’t even like having lots of stuff. A bestselling novelist? It’s just not who I am.
I don’t want to give up notional pigs in blankets, if only because I don’t have to clean up after them, or pay someone else to. This should instead, then, be a response to the question about what drives me crazy about the process, because it’s this back-and-forth, these hopes and doubts, precisely– if I was the sort of writer I’m tempted to wish I was, I wouldn’t be hosting David Lynch marathons or nursing make-believe mantises to maturity. I enjoy disappearing inside my spicy, imaginary wasabi. Crazy as it makes me, if I were to remove a single piece, my entire Jenga tower might collapse, and take my farmyard pals with it. No thanks– I’ll accept driving blind– let’s leave the collapsing towers to the tarot.
What are your guilty pleasures in reading?
Bingeing on glossy, photo-filled Hollywood biographies, all the while telling myself they are “for research.” (Also, the “Bone” graphic novel series by Jeff Smith.) –Kerry Muir
What’s the best line you’ve ever written?
It must be easy to love a dead man. From “I Will Forget the Sound of His Voice,” published in The Ampersand Review.–Thomas Kearnes Everything I know about religion came from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Stephen Sondheim. –Georgia Knapp
What is the one thing you would change if you could about your writing?
I have always been interested in having it done by ghosts. –Jason Half-Pillow
What was the weirdest (or most wonderful) rejection that you ever received?
I once received a note from the New Yorker that read in a cramped pencil hand, “Try us again, if you like,” the chilly second half of that phrase nearly canceling out the invitation. But the weirdest (in the best possible way) rejection I ever received came from the Florida Review and read something like this: “Dear Scott, I wanted to congratulate you on your story Affirmed and Alydar, which does an amazing job of depicting a sibling rivalry. It’s scary how much I relate to Brian! [the story’s protagonist who’s on the losing side of a sibling rivalry in the story] I wish I could tell you that we’re accepting your story. But we’re not. They never listen to the interns.Maybe you already know that you’re a good writer? It looks like you’ve published in lots of places and you teach and all that, but I wanted to let you know that your story really hit home with this reader and to thank you for writing it.” I have to paraphrase the rejection because, as so often happens, I tried to keep it in a “special place” and lost it, while of course I still have hundreds of spiritless form rejections lying around.It sometimes seems like, in a larger cultural sense, we’ve got lots of people shouting to be heard when we need more listeners. I love the Florida Review rejection from this unheeded intern from sometime back in the aughts because it’s an against-the-odds communication through the noise from a good listener, who listened and spoke back through the clutter, standing on good ground that really matters. –Scott Elliott
What’s the hardest (or best) part of writing about the South?
I’m a born-and-raised Floridian. I think that’s both the best and hardest part. In the era of Disney and Florida Man, I feel responsible for representing Florida for what it really is rather than what marketing and media make it out to be. But at the same time, the falsehood of Disney and the bizarre Florida Man headlines definitely make for great stories.