Clinical Trial #15: Day 7

Nobody tells you that having a chronic illness is like taking on a part-time job. The first provider who typed “chronic” into my chart didn’t warn me I’d become a one-woman drug trial for years.

Hey, I get it. Everyone fixated on me getting better. The possibility that might not happen was never mentioned, and it never occurred to me. I’d had migraines for 23 years. They hadn’t limited me for more than a few hours, maybe a couple days. So I simply believed “chronic” was a setback. The months of increasing disability were a temporary problem we’d find a workaround for.

As a writer and language teacher, I should have known better.

What Chronic Means

English inherited the word “chronic”—like all our chron- words in English (chronology, chronicle)—from Greek. Merriam-Webster presents the original form as chronikós meaning “of time, temporal, in order by time.” And this word in turn comes from chrónos, which simply means “time.” The dictionary includes a further note that medical writers in ancient Greece were already using their word for “chronic” to characterize certain medical conditions that occurred and re-occurred over and over again. So, at least in the West, as long as medicine has been a field of study, we have had conditions that resisted treatment even by the most vigilant, knowledgeable physicians.

Photo of Black woman patient gazing out window by Klaus Nielsen from Pexels

At 31, I experienced my first attack of vertigo. Later that summer, after two assaults, the migraines became more aggressive and frequent. And the journey began.

As my diagnosis has shifted, from BPPV and episodic migraines to chronic migraines, to chronic vestibular migraines, so too have the treatments. Now that I’ve built a new healthcare team, the treatments are shifting again. In the nine years since my first chronic symptoms, providers have prescribed or recommended, and subsequently supervised, 15 treatments so far:

  • Sumatriptan
  • Epley maneuver (for BPPV)
  • A short course of corticosteroids (after recognizing episodic migraine had transitioned into chronic migraine)
  • Physical therapy (to restore some of the mobility impaired by vertigo)
  • Magnesium supplements
  • Fish oil supplements
  • Verapamil (for chronic vestibular migraines)
  • Tart cherry juice
  • Anti-inflammatory diet
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage therapy
  • Ajovy (anti-CGRP)
  • CoQ10 and riboflavin supplements
  • Vegetarian, low-fat diet
  • Nortriptyline and rizatriptan

When doing trials on yourself with your medical team, data becomes queen. So paralleling this journey has been a separate expedition, hacking through the jungle with a machete to find the most useful, reliable apps for logging treatments and symptoms.

As a result, my phone and laptop are stuffed with bar graphs of monthly attacks and symptoms as well as medications taken, pie charts revealing what time of day migraines most often occur, bar graphs of exercise, line graphs tracking my weight, charts of menstrual cycles, tables of calories consumed and sorted by nutrient. Tables running over 60 lines tick off symptoms, potential triggers, and acute treatments that I’ve marked as giving the most relief. And then, I have to wade through all that data looking for correlations, clues, anything that might explain the gradual worsening of my condition—all on the slender hope that such a clue might help turn back the clock, or at least slow it down. For someone who dropped out of college statistics class, it’s a lot.

Bar graph produced from my data via Migraine Buddy

Most treatments I have tried for at least two to three months, as directed by researchers and my providers. Nothing has had a lasting effect, except for verapamil in lessening the disability caused by vertigo. We have tried treatments at different doses and frequencies.

It can be hard to know what to look for because “chronic” does not mean constant. A couple months ago, I had three weeks without a migraine. Then, I had migraines almost every day for two months. Research has found that for those with chronic migraines, most treatments offer a 50% reduction at best. But what does that mean? Is that a 50% reduction of the every-single-day migraine season? Taking the average over a year or even six months is unhelpful because no month actually has the “average” number of migraine hours.

This uncertainty baked into one-person trials without a control group, without controlling for other factors, means that you don’t stop a helpful treatment and replace it. The verapamil controls my vertigo well enough that I can work half-time. So I keep that. Possibly for life. Which is fine. I remember life before the verapamil, and that is not a place I want ever to revisit.

Despite what ableists will tell you, side effects and multiple prescriptions are not what made me sick. My sickness made me sick, and I’m grateful for the treatments we have, as imperfect as they are. For an incurable disease, I am happy for any improvement in functionality.

Photo of a handful of pills by Anna Shvets from Pexels

The Next Leg of My Treatment Journey

Four months ago, I tried 90 days of CoQ10 and riboflavin and got zero effect (that my new doctor and I could see in the data). So I quit those supplements; after all, each new pill is another expense. And being sick is expensive.

Now, we’re adding nortriptyline and rizatriptan to the cocktail. I’m on day 7 of this trial. It got off to a rough start, so my new neurologist and I dropped down the dosage. Now? I wake up dizzy and with a slight headache. No effect on the migraines yet, but it’s too soon to tell. I’ll let you know in 83 more days.

Swimming through an ocean of numbers on a daily basis has taught me some things.

The main lesson I’ve learned is what “chronic” actually means. Chronic illness is a reminder that the body is encased in time. We are born into it, and we die in it. And there is no turning back the clock. There is a before chronic illness, and there is an after. Now, for the rest of my life, I live in the after. And that’s okay. Only ableism terrifies us into the belief that we have no worth, that we make no contributions, if we are sick.

My life is still beautiful. Of course not the hours I spend huddled in a chair, my eyes shut against the light, trying not to puke and too weak to move to the bed. Of course not. But the other times, the times cuddled on the couch with my husband who has miraculously survived a pulmonary embolism. The times our cat Apollo and I chase each other from room to room. The times when I help a shy student burst into a grin and tell me what they really think.

There is a kind of mercy in having a chronic illness where each day is logged as a record of symptoms and medications, where a chart glows a confirmation that yes, you are getting older and sicker, that time does not heal all wounds, that one day there’s no more data to enter because the journey has ended. In most cases of chronic illness, there is no outcome, at least not the outcome that pop culture encourages us to believe in of magical, sudden healing. There is no return to the “before.” Time doesn’t flow that way. One day we die, and that is the end.

For me, this vantage of chronic illness gives life a different hue. The body looks different. Time looks different. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to remember that everything is finite.

Photo of a hand holding a candle by George Becker from Pexels

Making Peace with Death and Illness Means Making Peace with Time

The moments when I forget that time surrounds my body are rare. This used to make me angry. When “chronic” first crash-landed in my life, I was outraged. How rude. The body is here for me to use, not to be confined by.

What I have come to learn is that the body is not what confines me. Back when I could still do a grand jeté en tournant, my body could resist gravity itself. And sometimes, in my dreams at night, it still does.

It is not the body that is confining.

It is time.

We can invite time, defiantly, to do its worst. And it always, always will.

But time is not just the assurance of cells dying, of synapses misfiring, of our precious myelin sheaths crumbling away from our nerve cells. It does all this. But it also makes children grow and flowers bloom and sentences cascade across the page.

“Chronic” means happening again and again, and again.

Illness and death are the chronic conditions of humanity. But so is birth. So is spring. So is literature being written, films unreeling across screens, and children laughing at the adults who try to make them laugh. In spite of everything—or perhaps because of it—we just want to hear children laugh. I’m grateful I’m still here for that.

So if this is the deal that time brokers with us, I’m not sorry for it. I’ll take chronic illness so long as, too, we can have chronic art and joy and possibility.

***

Photo of a white woman at dusk holding an umbrella decorated with fairy lights by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

Featured Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Writing Residency 2021: 5 Things I Learned

That was one hell of a week! I learned a few things. Number one? Do not pack an entire week with only publishing, querying, and marketing workshops. Ever. If I loved business this much, I’d just go be an entrepreneur.

Still, it was useful to dig deeper into the entrepreneurial aspects of a writing career. Maybe most importantly, I learned a lot about what to expect as I transition from writer to author.

And hey, that’s part of the point of this whole Accessible MFA. Not only was I saved thousands on airfare, hotel bookings, and car rentals by doing my residency online. Not only could I prioritize recovery when I was in bed with migraines the first three days. But I could then work around my health needs to catch up on what I’d missed. And learning how to do that, how to navigate the inevitable flare-ups when a heatwave hits, can help ensure that I have a long writing career ahead. As long as our publishing houses don’t burst into flames as our planet warms…

Photo of bright sun in a red sky over a forest by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

So here are my top takeaways.

1. Figure out what you can sustainably do on a consistent basis.

This comes from Courtney Maum who suggested that if you’re working two or three part-time jobs with lengthy commutes, it might not be the moment to attempt the Great American Novel. Maybe short stories will be a better fit for your limited time and focus. Similarly, Jane Friedman offered up the poet Rupi Kaur as an example of how to do this brilliantly. She posted short poems on her Instagram account, a tactic known as micro-publishing, and she eventually turned these into a book. It was something she could do consistently that built her readership.

For me this means coming to terms with the fact that a traditional three-act novel is not something I can manage. I’ve been trying to force this for years since my migraines became chronic, and it just leads to one dead end after another. I’m still looking for the right structure, but it’s going to be something more like linked stories or carefully sequenced vignettes and short scenes (think Valeria Luiselli’s transfixing Faces in the Crowd). I need tiny pieces I can work on and complete one at a time, then slide around or cut when it’s time to revise. Figure out what you can do, then figure out how to make it work for you.

Photo of a woman writing on a laptop near a window by Christina Morillo from Pexels

2. Get to know the places where your story happens.

This is from Randall Kenan in his 2015 craft talk “Who Goes There?” at Hugo House. As a white person, I’ve always thought of place as sensory. It’s the color of the dirt, the scent of rain, the pitch of birdcalls in a particular place and time. I learned from Kenan that sure, it’s all that, but it’s also memory. And not just the character’s memory of that place, and all the associated hues of emotion, but the land’s memory, the cultural memory. “For some of us,” he said, “land is always haunted.”

Place is central to my novel, and I was embarrassed to realize I’ve spent years and years working draft after draft, revision after revision, and never really researched the land where I’ve planted the imaginary town I’m writing about. It turns out the Yakama War unfolded over that land, which was taken forcibly by the United States government. The 14 Indigenous tribes that had lived there and cared for it for thousands of years were displaced. Now, it’s mostly a canyon where people go fishing, surrounded by basalt cliffs and gentle hills where people hike. All that violence and treachery from the U.S. government just for a few more parks. So yeah. It turns out that in a novel about attempting to escape oppressive violence, the land itself holds a history of that.

Photo of low hills under clouds by Tatiana from Pexels

3. Use social media effectively. This means learning from the best, not amassing followers.

This got reiterated again and again. Every workshop, every book, every article repeated the same thing:

  • Pick one or two platforms you actually enjoy using
  • Engage with these regularly
  • Don’t obsess over your follower count; in fact, following people to get follows back is an easy way for publicists to spot writers who don’t know how to use social media (“You’ve effectively made social media useless for yourself,” Andrea Dunlop said in her Inked Voices workshop on book marketing.)
  • Follow writers and social media users you admire and can learn from
  • Promote other authors’ work and tag them in your compliments
  • Decide who you are online and be consistent with that “brand”
  • Do giveaways or offer other valuable things for free
  • On Twitter and Instagram, follow agents and presses you might want to query in order to learn their tastes and personalities
  • Use social media as an opportunity to learn more about your target readers (what their favorite books are, how they found them, why they loved them)
  • Share your work (see the Rupi Kaur example above)
  • Build an author website that’s easy to navigate

4. You need to be in charge of your own career while being a team player.

YOU can reach out to authors you admire for blurbs. YOU decide if you want to hire an outside publicist (well, if you have $15,000 to spare). YOU decide if things aren’t working with an agent and whether to terminate the agreement. YOU decide which offer to take on a book (personally, I take notes on every novel I read, noting the publisher as well as the agent and editor on the acknowledgments page).

This degree of control is a good thing because it should be about YOU knowing what’s best for your career (hint: it’s not always the bigger paycheck; sometimes it’s the strategic move that positions you with a team who believes more in your book, or better yet your vision for your career, even if they’re putting less cash behind it because, say, it’s a smaller press or imprint).

BUT you have to do all these things courteously and professionally. If you hire an outside publicist, you need to loop in both your agent and the in-house publicist. If you’re contacting authors for blurbs or bookstores for events or artists to design a cover for you, your author and editor really need to know these things (because the latter is a bit crazy, and they might have to stop you). Otherwise, if you really want to do everything on your own, you can self-publish. Or if you want a smaller team where you have more say, a small press might be best. It’s all about figuring out what you want, communicating that in a respectful and timely manner, and having a vision for your career. Not sure you’d be able to articulate that vision to an agent or editor? Go journal!

Photo of three women laughing in an office hallway by Alexander Suhorucov from Pexels

5. Don’t lose sight of why you’re doing this in the first place.

What I heard, over and over again, is that no matter how much success you have (you get a book deal! you get a HUGE advance! you sell the movie rights! you love the movie! you sell your second book! wheee!), you will also have a lot of heartbreak (things didn’t work out with your agent, but they still get to keep earning on that first book they sold with you… your publisher seemed to lose interest in your second book halfway through the process… your third book tanked, and no publisher bought your fourth, and you thought your career was over for a while there…). As they say, there’s no business like show business, and publishing is part of the entertainment industry. No amount of success protects you from pain, humiliation, or Goodreads critics. It’s best to recognize that it’s a rollercoaster, if you ever make it onto the ride to begin with.

So, coming full circle, it’s important to never lose touch with what you love about literature and writing. Always be reading other people’s books, especially books written by your contemporaries (contemporaries who you know are better than you). Not only can you learn, but it will keep you humble and grounded. It will make getting knocked off the horse less a shock and more recognizable for the inevitability that it is.

But here’s what I really learned. It’s important to know how to sell your writing, how to work well with others in the publishing industry, and how to build a career. But next time I take a week off to focus on writing, at least half of it has to be devoted to writing. Period. That’s what I’m here for. Writing. And if I’m not doing it, there’s nothing to sell.

Thanks for reading, folks. Here’s the link to the residency schedule if you want to look up some of these workshops for yourself. And hey, keep on keeping on.

***

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Featured Photo of typewriter keys by mali maeder from Pexels

The Writing Residency Without the Residency

Life is in chaos, medical bills keep rolling in, we’re moving within six months, and who knows what’s happening with this 100-degree heatwave hitting Seattle. But one thing I’m sure of? My annual homeschool MFA writing residency.

Most low-residency MFA programs require at least two residencies for a cumulative total of 20 to 30 days. These offer crucial opportunities for student writers to network, meet their instructors, and connect with the campus.

And sure, this isn’t the same. But too bad. Life doesn’t go the way we plan. So I’m sticking to my homeschool MFA program plan: 49 days of residencies over six or seven years. This week I’m setting everything else aside and taking seven days off to focus exclusively on writing.

Will we feel the hit to our pocketbook? You bet. But I need it. Taking regular time off, even without sick leave, helps me keep functioning with the migraines. And my writing residency will bring me some of what’s missing from my Accessible MFA: guidance from the pros.

Photo of a person journaling in bed beside a cup of coffee by Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

Last year, my residency was focused entirely on craft. This year it’s all about publishing, marketing, and building an audience. Each day includes one online class and one after-dinner reading by a 2020 National Book Award nominee. I’ll also be studying Courtney Maum’s Before and After the Book Deal as my textbook for the residency. Here’s my itinerary starting today (with embedded links, so you can enjoy these riches for yourself):

Day 1

  • Keynote: Randall Kenan on Place
    • [Although he presented this craft talk at Hugo House in 2015, Randall Kenan died last year at the tragic age of 57, just weeks before his National Book Award nomination was announced. Kenan was a Black Southern writer whose use of place and magical realism were widely lauded, from The New York Times to ABC News. He was a master writer and teacher, and even before “attending” this lecture, I count myself indebted to him for his artistry and generosity in allowing his talk to be posted on YouTube.]
  • Some time in Animal Crossing (in lieu of a day trip since we still have to distance for health reasons)
  • Journal about goals for the residency
  • Bubble bath and spa night
Photo of a woman relaxing during a facial by cottonbro from Pexels

Day 2

  • Class: Jane Friedman on The Art and Business of Author Platform (This pre-recorded webinar is available on Inked Voices. You can start their 14-day free trial here or become a member for roughly $8 a month.)
  • Workout
  • Light a candle, fix an iced coffee, and sit down to write
  • Go shopping online for my next novel to read, though it will probably be Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
  • After-dinner reading: Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind

Day 3

  • Class: Fiona Kenshole on How to Make Your Manuscript Stand Out (Another pre-recorded webinar on Inked Voices. If memory serves, you should be able to access these recordings for free if you sign up for the free trial.)
  • Writing
  • Meditation or walk outdoors (depending on the heat)
  • Workout
  • After-dinner reading: Lydia Millet, A Children’s Bible

Day 4

  • Class: Kris Asselin on Queries: Hook, Line, and Slam Dunk Class (Another pre-recorded webinar on Inked Voices.)
  • Writing
  • Workout
  • After-dinner reading: Deeshaw Philyaw, The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
Photo of a black microphone in front of an empty auditorium by The_MrDan from Pexels

Day 5

  • Class: John Cusick on What to Expect from Your Agent (Also up on Inked Voices.)
  • Writing
  • Workout
  • After-dinner reading: Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain

Day 6

  • Class: Andrea Dunlop on Marketing Your Book (This week’s final class on Inked Voices.)
  • Writing
  • Workout
  • After-dinner reading: Charles Yu, Interior Chinatown (I’m not totally confident of the quality of this recording, so if I find a better one, I’ll update the link.)

Day 7

  • Closing keynote: The magnificent Ellen Bass (award-winning LGBTQ+ poet, founder of poetry programs that serve incarcerated individuals, advocate for child sex abuse survivors, and writing instructor) speaks on Controlled Chaos
  • Transition back to normal life, whatever that means to you

***

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When Death Comes

Death is a strange thing the first time we encounter it. Of course there had been distant relatives, a great-grandmother, someone’s elderly uncle. And the pets that had preceded me in my parents’ lives and towards which, as a small child, I had always felt a vague competition.

But when I was nine or ten years old, a student at my elementary school died. It was a small school in a small suburb, with perhaps 300 students, and everyone had known it was coming. I no longer remember her name, but she had a head of Shirley Temple curls and skin the color of orchid petals, a lavender-pink.

This was in the 1980s, when birth defects due to chemicals, prescriptions, maternal health conditions, and alcohol were far more common because the causal links were less well known to the general public. And this girl had been born with a heart defect. Although I don’t remember how I came by this information, school administrators or our teachers must have told us this in the hope that it would discourage further questions.

And for the most part, it did. The teachers had been frank, so we understood, as well as children can, that she wouldn’t live long. That she had in fact surprised doctors by living as long as she had.

The ADA had not yet been passed, and the disability rights movement was unknown in our suburb. So everyone was trying to do the best they knew how, with little to go on but the charity modeled by Christian churches, which is often a poor model for dignifying and empowering those with disabilities. The end result was that she was socially isolated, marked by death as it were, which left all of us in awe of and slightly frightened by her.

When she died, the teachers were very solemn about it, so we tried to be as well. A plaque was set in the courtyard to memorialize her, and I imagine it sits there still among the petunias and geraniums in a bed of dark soil. Sometimes, on pleasant spring afternoons, my teachers would hold class out in that courtyard, and I would gaze at the plaque and measure my years against hers, which never changed.

The strangest thing of all was that she was simply gone. She had been older than me, and I had never known the school without her. She seemed to always be out and about, exempt (it seemed to me at the time) from the rules of mere mortals, although I realized much later she probably had a lot of business in the nurse’s office.

It was years before I went on to junior high, so there was time to become accustomed to her absence on the breezeways, carrying slips of paper, her curls bouncing. The strangeness gradually eased. But it’s something I still don’t understand about death. The way a presence suddenly becomes an absence. Where do we go? Or do we simply end? Are we nothing but atoms, just a bit of energy that once was something else and must go on to become something else again?

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We all die.

They say children don’t understand the permanence of it. But I’m 40 now, and neither do I. What is grief but reaching out to where a loved one once reached back, only to find emptiness?

The loss of death is different from every other kind of loss.

It is permanent.

There will never be an accidental, fateful meeting on a street somewhere. There will never be a reunion or reconciliation. And if your faith in an afterlife tells you there will, that’s lovely. But it’s still not the same as knowing that somewhere, under the same sky, breathing the same atmosphere on the same planet, your loved one is here.

So I refuse to minimize death.

I refuse to minimize the grief of those who mourn it.

I don’t understand the finality of death. But I know of no other way to begin healing than to acknowledge, over and over again, that very finality. If for no reason other than to attempt to understand that “never again” is the truth.

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Buddhists are preoccupied with death. Most religions tend to skip over that bit, concerning themselves with how we live. And then where we end up after this life. Death in this view becomes a metaphor, the sting removed. It is a doorway, a passage, a bridge, a transition.

But having witnessed deaths, having lost loved ones to death, having believed (twice) that I was dying and indeed losing consciousness or memory, and having studied biology in college, death doesn’t feel that way to me.

So I’m Buddhist. And Buddhists think a lot about how we die. How we die, for Buddhists, is how we live. If we die incredulous that death has come to us, then we have not faced our own mortality. If we die with terror, and we die fighting that terror, we have fought life. If we die with acceptance, even of the terror, then we have accepted life. Buddhist practice, looked at in a certain way, is the practice of dying.

Different Buddhist sects teach different views of the afterlife, but Zen Buddhist teachers often shrug. Not a question I can answer, they are content to say. The closest they come is to say each individual is a ripple or a drop of water, that then returns to the ocean. In much Theravada Buddhism, there is an afterlife that most Christians would feel right at home in. But one thing most Buddhists agree on is that death is an ending. Yes of course, it might be the beginning of something else. But it is the end to this life, and to the person who lived it.

Because death is such serious business in Buddhism, a mourning period is standard. This can vary from 49 days to 90 days, but during this time, one performs ceremonies and chants to not only memorialize the dead but to remind ourselves that death is natural and normal and inevitable. It comes to us, too.

When our elderly cat, Luna, developed congestive heart failure and pulmonary effusion and we gave her euthanasia, I began the Buddhist mourning period. Some of the chants I used might be heretical when applied to an animal, but I took immense comfort in them.

One of my favorites comes from the San Francisco Zen Center, founded by Shunryu Suzuki, in their guide to death and dying:

I am of the nature to grow old. There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health. There is no way to escape having ill health.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

transl. Thich Nhat Hahn, The Five Remembrances

I always feel much better after chanting this. Maybe it is the acknowledgement that there’s nothing I can do. Nothing to control or force or make better. Feel what you feel. Do what you must do. Then, we die, and hopefully we have made things a little bit better. At the very least, we have tried to do no harm. That is that.

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Regardless of what country we live in, we have all been living in the valley of death for the last 16 months. Death is at the root of trauma. However, not all death is traumatic. Indeed, death is as inevitable and natural as the sun rising or our brain stems directing us to breathe. But psychological trauma involves a brush with death that was sudden and unexpected or particularly violent and horrifying. Like a pandemic that sweeps the globe.

Yet I worry that I live in a country where slowly, gradually, we are making all death into trauma. I worry we don’t understand that death is to life what heartbreak is to love. We can’t have one without the other. Which makes it harder for us to see the deaths that are cruel.

So many of the pandemic deaths could have been prevented if we prioritized public health and children’s education over business and church.

Police brutality deaths should not be happening. Attacks on Black Americans, Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, mass shootings, children shot dead by other children—these are nightmares that shouldn’t be real. Murdered wives and girlfriends and LGBTQIA+ people who shouldn’t be dead.

All these people should have died many years later, the way most of us will die, from heart attacks or cancer or a terrible accident or a stroke.

We all will die. Everyone we love will die. But to die because of a society’s greed or indifference or outright hate, that is tragic. And it complicates mourning for those left behind.

My schoolmate all those years ago was going to die as a child. Like all of us, she was born to die. Her clock was simply set for a much earlier expiration date.

But none of us said it’s okay then. None of us said well, let’s just not take care of her then. And no one said it’s fine if she dies earlier because she was going to die anyway.

Although this is exactly what so many communities in the United States have said these past 16 months about the elderly, the disabled, the immunodeficient. And now that vaccines are opening things back up? Many people have ceased to say anything at all about the 601,000 dead from COVID-19 in America.

Death is inevitable.

A cruel death isn’t.

***

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My American Dream Dies Here

It was a good dream. In this dream, I owned a small, modest house in a quiet town. I sat beneath a tree and sipped hot cocoa under the stars. I worked hard as a teacher and served my students well. I paid my bills on time. I helped my neighbors. I pulled on rain boots and walked my dog in all kinds of weather. I was able to take care of my husband when he got sick. I saved for retirement. I paid my taxes. I wrote stories after dark and even sold a few. I never became rich or powerful or famous, but I acquired the kind of stability that, coming from an abusive home followed by an abusive marriage, I had never known.

It was a good dream.

But it is not the world I live in.

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova from Pexels

I still pay my taxes early. I still help my neighbors. I work hard as a part-time English language teacher. And I pay all my bills on time. My credit is stellar. I put money away for retirement each month. Every day I clean the litter boxes and brush our cat. I do my best to take care of my sick husband.

But I am also disabled. It’s hard for me, even five years in, to say that. Ableism runs deep and takes a lifetime to unravel. For most of my life, I was an athlete. A trained dancer. An amateur runner and weightlifter. I saw my first nutritionist at age 12. Spinach, egg whites, and a good pair of running shoes have always been my friends. None of it seemed to matter. At 35, my health went down for the count, and it has never made it back up off the mat.

I still lift weights sometimes. I still walk and do occasional jogs. I still eat healthy. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that there are no guarantees in life. And anyone who tells you different is peddling lies. Comforting, consoling lies that gift you a sense of control, the reassurance that it can’t happen to you. I am here to tell you it can. Genetics, environment, trauma (from racism, poverty, assaults, or abuse), and bad luck do most of us in. If you are supremely lucky, you make it to 88 in spectacular health, and organ failure sets in quickly.

I’m not supremely lucky. My systems started failing in my thirties. Now, at 40, my faulty neurological wiring has precluded full-time work. Even basic household chores are difficult to do consistently. But because I can still work part-time sometimes, I cannot qualify for disability assistance.

And that teaching job I have? The master’s degree is something I’m still paying off. And will be for years yet. Even after consolidating loans and selecting the most economical repayment plan, the monthly payment is 25% of my current gross pay. Because of that pesky disability-impacts-my-ability-to-work problem.

Back when I could still work full-time, albeit only from home, I looked for other jobs. Ones with benefits. Salaries. I applied. I even interviewed. I didn’t get them. I don’t know why. People usually said I was a strong candidate and left it at that. Which means nothing.

I’ve also tried to work out in the world since my chronic illness hit. I tried hard. But it tanked my health such that I became unable to work at all for months at a time. At my doctor’s orders, I had to quit. Which hurt our finances in a worse way. I couldn’t walk down the street. I couldn’t reliably get out of bed. So here I am, working from home, irregular and unreliable hours for much less pay and no benefits. An independent contractor not by choice but because that’s the only deal I can get. It’s the deal that makes it possible for me to be upright, at my desk, and capable of reading text most days of the week. But it’s not a deal that pays well. Or even enough.

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My husband, too, has become disabled now. Has been for going on eight months. He’s still able to do his job from home, and his boss supports that. We feel grateful, lucky. We have no idea what we would do without his income.

But the medical bills for his treatments have tallied up. We have excellent insurance, but the copays for hospital visits and scans and specialists still keep coming. They don’t count towards the deductible. This is true of most health insurance in America.

I’ve put off my own treatments as long as possible, hoping that it would compensate for the new medical bills. His doctors had assured us that by August, he would be much improved. As we enter the summer, though, that much-anticipated progress has yet to materialize, and his healthcare team is still doing detective work to determine why. We are having to face that we just don’t know. When will he recover? When will he be off crutches and in less pain and able to stop all these treatments and new prescriptions? We just don’t know.

My own health has suffered from delaying care as well as the added strain of more household tasks on top of the job I can barely keep up with. So now, for a few months at least, we’re looking at easily doubling our monthly medical bills.

We were on track to pay off our debts in four more years and have saved for a house down payment. Now? We will have to begin adding to our debts unless we move.

But move where? And how? How can two sick, disabled people who can barely keep the dishes washed and their laundry done manage to pack up and move house? And apart from all that, my husband can’t give up his job (which provides our insurance and allows him to work from home during his recovery) or leave the medical team looking after him without risking disruptions to his care and recovery. So we are locked into one of the hottest housing markets in the nation. The average home price in the Seattle area is upward of $837,000. The average rent is $1,900 a month. About an hour outside the city, we have a spectacular deal at $1,430 a month. But we can no longer afford it.

Our options are few. A micro-apartment (a glorified dorm room). Renting a room in a friend’s house. Renting a small studio apartment. Or moving across the mountains to towns where the rent is lower, but my husband would have an hours-long commute once his doctors clear him to return to the office. An RV in an RV park. A tiny house parked illegally in a back yard somewhere.

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None of these offer long-term housing security. They are also complicated by the fact that my husband has been given doctor’s orders to steer clear of children and anyone else exposed to unvaccinated people. So renting that room from a friend? Not a great idea for my husband’s survival. And everything else? It takes money up-front. Which means raiding what little is left in our savings after eight months of pet emergencies and my husband’s lengthy treatment for his pulmonary embolism.

We had prepared for all of this financially. We just hadn’t prepared for it all to happen at once, then to continue indefinitely.

We are left with no good choices. One resource that offers financial guidance for adults with disabilities lays out our situation frankly:

Because earning more is rarely an option once you acquire a severe disability, the goal is to “carefully manage limited financial resources, balancing sources of income with expenses, and may require difficult adjustments in one’s standard of living.”

That’s a euphemism if I’ve ever heard one.

“Difficult adjustments in one’s standard of living” means completely rethinking the emphasis our capitalist society places on autonomy and independence. It means rethinking what home looks like, what independence means, what choices are reasonable.

This is how the American dream dies for many of us. One in six Americans have medical debt. And of the hundreds of thousands who file for bankruptcy each year, around 60% cite medical costs as a contributing factor. Slowly, little by little, the bills whittle away at the cushion of three to six months’ living expenses. The medical conditions add up, often exacerbated by poverty or trauma or just rotten genetic luck, by a failed healthcare system, and by the stress of a society that expects either total self-sufficiency or total incapacity. That, in turn, eats away at one’s income. Which in turn makes it harder to pay the bills. And so you have a choice: Start raiding the retirement accounts, or build up more debt.

And so we plan to move. Somewhere cheap. Somewhere we can weather another few years of this. We understand we’re lucky to even have that option. Unless the doctors uncover some other, awful condition that helps explain why my husband’s recovery isn’t following the predicted trajectory. And then we do this dance again, taking it from the top. This time with even fewer resources.

Welcome to being sick in America.

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Featured Photo by David Gonzales from Pexels

Ableism and Classism Underlie the MFA Model

Every few years, a white man in the mainstream literary community publishes a curmudgeonly piece about how entitled, lazy, and whiny creative writing students can be. They often point to these qualities as the only things that hold back writers, aside from another likely possibility: a lack of talent. Recently, I came across just such a piece targeting low-residency MFA programs in particular. Some people side with the curmudgeon (tell off those spoiled, lazy narcissists!), while others side with the writers (they deserve your compassion, they’re still forming as artists, please apologize). But neither of these address the real problem underlying such arguments.

Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism all intersect in this argument. Access to MFA programs and the larger literary community depend on many factors, including tuition costs, the know-how required to successfully apply for funding, geography or relocation costs (all of which tend to intersect with gender, race, and class) as well as whether sexual harassment is a de facto policy, one which women students are supposed to be “good sports” about. But many writers have addressed the racism of MFAs as well as their baked-in sexism. And the very fact that we need a list of LGBTQ-Friendly Graduate Programs in Creative Writing speaks for itself.

But ableism and classism are less often addressed in mainstream discussions of MFA programs. And as someone who cannot attend even a low-residency program but who recognizes the need for formal training in the arts, I want to address the assumptions behind this silence.

Ordinarily, these assumptions are:

  • Great writers are born, not made.
  • Thus, talent is the only thing that matters, and it’s the instructor’s job to spot it.
  • If you haven’t read X book or started Z program by the time you’re 30, you might as well quit because you aren’t going to make it.
  • Time management is something people whine about when they’re not serious about writing.
  • Writing, unlike all the other arts, cannot be taught.

Every single one of these assertions is flat-out wrong. Mainly because they’re steeped in prejudice. So let’s break them down.

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Great Writers Are Made, Not Born

Whether they are made by a good school system (funded by high property values), or a top-notch library (also funded by high property values) or even a friendly shopkeeper at the local bookstore (which likely went out of business years ago), they are indeed made.

Writing, like music and dance and drawing, is a skill. And like all skills, it requires instruction, time, and effort to approach anything like a professional level. Above all, it requires the resources to support all three of those. And like all skills, writing takes years to cultivate.

If there are fewer canonized working-class writers, writers with disabilities, women and non-binary writers, LGBTQIA+ writers, or BIPOC writers, it’s not because such people are born without talent. It’s because a) the canon is biased and b) people working two full-time jobs, struggling with poor health, and enduring systemic discrimination and violence lack the time and space to create art. Stephen Jay Gould said it best: “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

Stop thinking we’re all playing the same game, on the same field. We’re not. But we deserve every chance to get on that field and show you what we’re capable of.

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Yes, talent matters. But less than you think.

In the real world, raw talent isn’t enough to succeed. Even cultivated, trained talent can fall flat. Basically, talent is a poor predictor of outcomes, and the sharpest arts instructor I ever met kept an eye out for grit and determination first.

Between the ages of 8 and 15, I spent my evenings and weekends at Cornish College of the Arts. My classmates and I were under tremendous pressure to ace our annual Royal Academy of Dance exams and to audition for national dance companies. If we were extraordinary, we could expect to become an apprentice by the time we were 16 or 17. If we were great, we could expect to join the corps around 17 or 18. If we were good enough (the tier where I landed according to my teachers), we could expect to join the corps around age 18 or 19 and probably stay there, possibly becoming a soloist before we retired (penniless and likely living with roommates) in our early thirties. If we were not good enough, we were encouraged to quit.

We all knew exactly where we landed on this hierarchy because our teachers told us. We also knew where everybody else landed. The one extraordinary student during my time there went off and promptly landed a position with a good company. There were two great students. One dropped out. The other went off to Houston Ballet, performed for a while before reaching soloist, retired, and moved into research and teaching.

In the “good enough” camp, some of us quit. Some of us went on to have careers equal to the “great” ones, and even teach. Some of us went to college, then taught. Some of us still perform. Many of us went into other fields and left behind dance altogether.

But if you’re judging based on income and fame, well. Even the extraordinary talent didn’t make it much beyond some of the most determined “good enough’s.” My point is above a certain level of technical mastery, talent stops mattering so much, and perseverance, interpersonal skills, grit, patience, luck, connections, and strategy matter more.

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Writers have more time than almost any other artist.

Out of all the arts, literature offers up the most case studies for artists who start (or at least succeed) later in life. From Cervantes (first book at about 40) to Annie Proulx (first book at 53) to Toni Morrison (first book a few months shy of 40), the reading lists for the typical MFA program are packed with authors who entered middle age before their first books arrived on the shelves.

Even in dance, notorious for under-35 retirements, Martha Graham didn’t retire from the stage until her mid-70s. My childhood ballet instructor, Frank Bays, didn’t study dance in earnest until his 20s, which is terrifically old for a dancer. And he went on to have a spectacular career, both as a dancer and as a highly regarded teacher across multiple colleges.

My point is if anyone is telling you time’s up, it’s too late, give up now, they don’t know what they’re talking about.

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Using Time Management to Shame Students Is Thinly Veiled Classism

Which often intersects conveniently with racism, sexism, ableism, and other prejudices such people can pretend they don’t harbor. Tillie Olsen says this best in Silences.

Many teachers in MFA programs have led comparatively privileged lives themselves and simply may fail to imagine the obstacles their students may face. In my 16 years supporting student writers at a community college, I met students who:

  • were recovering drug addicts
  • lived in their cars
  • were single parents
  • worked two or more full-time jobs
  • served as primary interpreter, secretary, chauffeur, chef, income source, and caregiver to relatives recently arrived from other countries
  • had multiple learning disabilities
  • were still learning English even as they were expected to pass classes conducted in this foreign language
  • had PTSD
  • had other mental health challenges
  • had to wrangle tuition, transportation, and childcare from spouses who believed it was a waste to send a woman to school
  • found it hard to study amidst microaggressions and harassment from classmates, faculty, and staff
  • were the first in their family to attend college and had no idea how the system (including time management and study skills) worked
  • and in one case had just emerged from a decades-long coma and was learning a lot of things for the first time (as she’d been an adolescent the last time she was up and about)

The truth is, time management can only solve so much. Time management can’t fix the fact that you can’t afford childcare, but the relative who looks after your children got called in to work an extra shift during your class today. Time management can’t “fix” PTSD or dyslexia or any other condition that limits a student’s ability to “keep up” with assignments. Mental and physical health challenges mean students aren’t going to ask for more because they can barely do what abled people can. And realistically, many instructors will have no idea if a student has a disability because the ADA does not mandate disclosure.

As a tutor whom college students felt safe enough to weep in front of after they’d been told they would fail, I found many students chose not to disclose in a bid for respect. Yet those very same teachers whose respect they were desperate to win also leapt to the assumption that if a student is underperforming, if they are struggling with time, it is because they lack talent or a work ethic or commitment. Worst of all, instructors sometimes think a student hitting a ceiling in the 12 or 16 weeks of one class indicates the student has reached the edge of their potential, and it’s time to give up.

Life is long. And the 12 or 16 weeks of a single class constitute less than half of one percent of the average lifespan in the U.S. The two years of an MFA program are barely 2.5% of a person’s entire life. This absolutely doesn’t mean professors have to go easy on you or give you a pass just because your life hit a rough patch. To keep their jobs and get the program funded, they still have to give out grades, and they still will fail people who don’t complete assignments. But if an instructor thinks they can size somebody up and pin down their entire potential in such a brief glimpse of their lives (which might actually be a low point), then they’re just an arrogant bastard.

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Yes, Of Course Writing Can Be Taught

Not only in the A-B-C, here’s-how-to-diagram-a-sentence way, but also in the here’s-narrative-structure way. Never have I seen so much pointless handwringing over whether an art can be taught as among writers.

Musicians, dancers, painters, animators, graphic illustrators, actors: They all know instruction is mandatory. For the living arts especially, people will line up in droves, hand over hundreds of dollars, and fly thousands of miles just to take a master class with a choreographer or actor or cellist they admire.

The real problem, I suspect, is that writers are fuzzy on what exactly can be taught. The answer? Technique can be taught. Mastery of technique can be taught. Creative application of technique, less so.

And I worry sometimes that writers doubt our artform even has technique. Because every second-grade teacher worldwide is teaching their students to put together a coherent sentence on the page, and because language is something we are all born primed to learn, I think writers are a nervous bunch.

After all, it’s easy to find degree studio classes on Painting the Figure: From Rembrandt to 2021 or Animating Body Movement. I have yet (rather to my horror) to see an MFA in Creative Writing that offers a class titled Sentences That Subordinate: From 1700 to Woolf or Faces in Fiction: Achieving Horror, Romance, or Realism through Character Description. Even though these are precisely the technical topics that get discussed in good literature courses. In fact, I’d go so far as to argue that many literary or academic-minded writers see such courses as somehow “hack.”

But the truth is, most things can be taught. I’ve worked in education since I was a 17-year-old volunteer at an elementary school. I have a Master of Education in Adult Learning. And while there are pros and cons to learning things when we’re older, there are also pros and cons to learning things when we’re younger. Of course talent can’t be taught. Some people will just come out of the gate stronger than others.

But as stated earlier, it isn’t the people who win the 100-meter dash at age 10 on Field Day who become an Ironman Triathlete. It’s the people who commit and persist and have grit. And grit can be taught. Good triathlon technique and strategy can be trained. It’s the same for writing. Most of us are the “good enough” dancers at my old school who also went on to dance careers. You don’t have to be great to produce great work. You just have to work hard, stick with it, find good teachers and agents and editors, make connections, and get a bit lucky.

It still doesn’t mean you’ll get rich, though.

Honestly, it doesn’t even mean you’ll get published before you’re dead. Emily Dickinson didn’t. But boy am I glad she kept writing.

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So here we are. A fair number of MFA professors and programs assume a lot about the writers they teach. And a lot of those assumptions are flat-out wrong. Not only that, but they are destructive, grounded in a hatred and suspicion of the lower class as well as those with disabilities, that we are stepping out of bounds, and that our limitations lead only to failure, that our inability to do it “their” way means we cannot do it at all.

Class and abled privilege impact us from the moment we’re born, influencing our survival rates as infants, the age at which we begin reading, and the quality of our schools and libraries. These in turn shape our vocabulary, our reading habits, our writing skills. We speak like those in our community, and if we are surrounded by the working class, we are liable to struggle to navigate academic settings. Add to this the requirements of MFAs, requirements that must be met in just a few years. For those of us with disabilities that are unpredictable, we can’t know if we’ll even be functional for the three to six months of a single class.

We need an alternate model for training in creative writing and the arts in general. We need one that isn’t predicated on one’s ability to repay debt, for those furthest outside privileged access to MFAs. And we need one that is less time-bound, that is less dependent on semester systems and modeled more on apprenticeships, like the medieval guild system for craftspeople and artists in Europe (which, by the way, included many respected women artists who have been overlooked by the canon). One where those of us who lack funds, in part because we have disabilities, can engage when we are able to, learn as we go, and contribute the voices and experiences that have been too long barred from the arts. I’m playing with this right now as I design my own Accessible MFA. I’m certain other people are blazing their own trails to acquire training in the arts, too. Let’s build a future, packed with alternatives to MFAs that are inclusive, accessible, welcoming, and that above all nurture excellence by embracing the full diversity of society.

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Three Literary Journals to Try If You’re New to the Neighborhood

Nineteen years ago, I served as literary editor for my college’s literary journal. It was a fun, demanding job that gave me a deep appreciation for the slush pile. For those new to this, a slush pile is a stack of writing that nobody asked you to send. But you sent it anyway. And back when I was in college, it was an actual pile. A physical pile of hundreds of submissions that required plastic bins to tote around because all that paper would bust through even the hardiest cardboard box.

So once you’ve sent that piece nobody asked you to send, the literary editor and their team of readers (often unpaid volunteers) are obligated to read it, hoping to find a diamond in the rough. It’s a time-consuming way to select what to publish, but it’s also cheap. Cheap because editors don’t have to pay writers to write for their publication. It’s also one of the few options for unknown writers to publish.

There were certainly downsides to being a college magazine. But the good news was we could publish anything. And we did. From students on our campus, to unpublished writers who lived down the road, to spoken word poets on a CD, to fiction from creative writing professors and authors with multiple novels, to an attorney who decided to try poetry (really).

So if you’re new to this whole publishing thing, or just haven’t had any luck yet, try doing a Google search of universities and colleges in your area with “literary journal” attached. To get you started, here are three respected literary journals that welcome new and unknown writers in their pages.

Homepage for Willow Springs showcasing Allan Peterson, Amber McBride, J. P. White, and A. D. Nauman

1. Willow Springs Literary Journal – OPEN

So maybe their homepage doesn’t showcase stellar graphic design (that shot above was actually the best option), but it does highlight the writers in their current issue. Produced by students and faculty in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, Willow Springs has been around since 1977. They publish fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and interviews, showcasing literary fiction by prize-winners alongside unknown writers (which most magazines politely and quaintly call “emerging” as if we are chicks hatching from eggs). They’re currently open to fiction and poetry submissions until May 31. Their online offerings from their latest issue show perfect gender parity but only one Black contributor. A deeper dive reveals that this parity seems to persist across issues, which is great news, but that the predominance of white writers also is consistent, which is less great news. Their masthead is challenging to assess without bios or pictures, but most editors do appear to be women judging by names only (which unfortunately risks erasing nonbinary editors).

Throughout the pandemic, they’ve hosted online release parties and readings, which seems like a great way to foster community as well as the careers of the writers they publish. They also invite writers to explain their pieces—how they came about, what they mean—which I have mixed feelings about. I prefer Georgia O’Keeffe’s position that the art itself says everything the artist meant to say, but I also appreciate the fact that writers are routinely asked to use more words to explain what their words already stated.

Amber McBride’s poem “Southern Gothic (for the Black Boy)” employs the gothic genre’s use of horror, grotesque imagery, and violence to convey the constant threat of death that hounds young Black men in America. Juxtaposition and a steady pattern of negations build tension in the poem’s couplets. Her second poem “Desecrate” explores how museums have ransacked cultures beyond Europe, imprisoning Black and brown bodies in the name of research, while leaving European corpses to rest in peace. The poem ends powerfully by pondering what the future holds for the poet’s own Black body.

A.D. Nauman’s short fiction “Lookers” leans hard into critiquing heteronormative gender roles, assumptions about the “sanity” of women who have survived sexual predation, and objectification. She employs careful detail alongside the interiority of first-person to create an almost claustrophobic intimacy with a traumatized young woman who distrusts gender norms and the women who adhere to them.

All the writer bios I looked at featured impressive lists of publications in elite magazines, forthcoming and/or published books, and advanced degrees in literature and creative writing, so while it’s not The New Yorker, it might be worth mentioning in your cover letter if you have an MFA, a degree in English, or other publications.

Homepage for Waxwing

2. Waxwing – OPENS AUGUST

Erin Stalcup and Justin Bigos founded Waxwing and both have connections to Vermont, which seems rich with MFAs and writers. One nifty thing about Waxwing is that you can submit every month, starting in August all the way until April 30 of the following year. Since they do cap submissions at 300 per month, it’s best to send your piece early. They publish poetry, short stories, works in translation, essays, interviews, reviews, art, and even music. Out of that long list, however, only fiction, poetry, translations, and creative nonfiction qualify for their slush pile. For everything else, you have to sit against the wall like a girl waiting to be asked to dance. In other words, look elsewhere until you’re famous enough for them to solicit your visual art, music, interviews, and reviews. Word count limit for fiction is unlisted, but they do specify under 20 double-spaced pages. Flash fiction and nonfiction should be under 1,000 words and essays under 6,000 words. There are no submission fees, but there’s also no payment to contributors.

Diversity and inclusion are their watchwords, and unlike some magazines that claim this, their masthead actually reflects it. The editorial staff has a pretty even split in terms of gender, as well as several BIPOC editors. Contributing editors are mostly women, which is cool, but mostly white, which is less so. The entire masthead only includes one Black editor. As for authors they’ve printed, it again reflects impressive gender parity, and I spotted three authors (out of 41) stating an LGBTQIA+ identity, which is roughly 7%. That’s higher than the average in the general population (which as of February 2021 was roughly 5.6%), so kudos to Waxwing for that win.

In terms of racial diversity, the latest issue published some BIPOC writers, mostly Asian, Asian American, Arab, Arab American, Persian, and Latinx. The absence of Black authors is again glaring. As for social class and economic privilege, most contributors teach English or creative writing, have MFAs, and/or list previous publications in elite literary journals. A few don’t, but they are in the minority. It isn’t surprising. Classism and anti-Black racism often intersect and have been significant factors in literary communities for ages. It’s just good to know that Waxwing, like most literary journals, still has work to do in these areas.

You can read pieces from previous issues for free online. The fiction varies tremendously in length, content, and technical mastery. One awkward piece by a middle-aged white woman employed first-person in what was presumably intended to be street slang for a young male character, possibly BIPOC. But then, as if to balance that out, I stumbled into an incredible story titled “Maria” by Amy Haejung, for whom this was her first (albeit masterfully structured) publication. Waxwing publishes three times a year, so there are plenty of chances to see if you can be the next breakout newbie who gets listed with the big dogs.

Homepage for Michigan Quarterly Review

3. Michigan Quarterly Review – OPENS AUGUST

Founded in 1962 and operated by the University of Michigan, the Michigan Quarterly Review has published fiction from such canonical authors as Raymond Carver and Margaret Atwood as well as unknown emerging writers. In addition to their quarterly journal, they also publish issues curated on a theme twice a year. The journal publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and works in translation. Online, they also publish reviews, interviews, and cultural commentary. They pay contributors, consider fiction between 1,500 and 7,000 words, and are open to submissions January to April as well as August to November. Their curated theme issues (published as MQR: Mixtape) are open to a wider array of genres and media (including short films, podcasts, short plays, and multimedia) and accept submissions through mid-May. They do pay contributors, so I’d guess the competition is a little tougher.

Their editorial staff is encouragingly diverse. Not only are the majority of editors women, but the journal’s lead editor is Khaled Mattawa, a Libyan-American poet with a dizzyingly accomplished CV who has published studies and translations of Arab poetry. Other editors are nonbinary, Latinx, and generationally diverse as well. This diversity is reflected in the magazine itself. Unsurprisingly, as a university publication, Michigan Quarterly Review does seem to slant towards contributors with MFAs, PhDs, and impressive publishing credentials. For those of us with just a couple publications under our belt (or none) and no MFA, it might not be a good entry-level publication, but it sure seems like a good place to aim for after building up a few credits. In the interest of full disclosure, this is not only a magazine I’d love to publish in one day but one that I subscribe to. Among the academic journals I’ve scouted out, MQR excites me the most.

MQR‘s latest edition showcases “emerging voices,” which led me to believe it would be a collection of new writers. However, the contributor bios reveal most of these writers are in fact creative writing teachers with MFAs and lengthy lists of publications. Still, it’s a joy to read. For a sample of what they publish, you can check out “The Year I Was a Boy” online for free, an essay by novelist Mette Harrison about her experiences growing up in the Mormon Church with autism and the way this shaped her conception of gender. I’m currently reading Samantha Barron’s short fiction “Everybody Wins” in the print issue, a short story using first person for our wry teenage narrator observing her ex-addict mother trying to make good for her daughter. Comedy and pathos, social-climbing ambitions, and a man named Fuzzy: you can’t go wrong.

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Well, that’s the last of the literary journals I’ve been taking a close look at over the last few months. I may keep this series going next month, or I might let it breathe for a bit while I design the syllabus for my next MFA class. If you’re wanting to follow along, hop on over to my Accessible MFA homepage. In either case, give those universities and community colleges in your neck of the woods a try. You might have just the piece they need to round out their issue. Happy submitting, and happy writing!

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Fiction Seminar Textbooks: Part 1

It’s been a whirlwind of a semester. I had six textbooks, so today I’m going to share my thoughts on the first three. These are from the Art of series by Graywolf Press, edited by Charles Baxter roughly 14 years ago. Since an MFA student first recommended The Art of Subtext to me, I’ve been hooked. Now that I’m able to read again with some consistency, I’ve been looking for an excuse to read through the series. Adding a few titles to my syllabus was a great way to start. All of three are under 200 pages (some barely over 100) and cost around $14 purchased new; most public libraries I’ve looked at also carry copies.

Cover image of The Art of Time in Fiction

The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes by Joan Silber

A slender primer on how fiction employs time to make its point, Silber’s book is a rewarding and insightful read. Each chapter examines a different approach to time and its effects on short story and novel structure, character, and theme. From long time to slowed time, switchback time to fabulous time, she provides a plethora of examples drawn from Proust, García Márquez, al-Saadawi, Munro, and Baldwin. Her perceptive analyses of how authors mold time in fiction to make their points inspired me as a writer and delighted me as a reader. A handy review of chronological structure that I am sure to return to again and again.

Cover image of The Art of Perspective

The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story by Christopher Castellani

A helpful tour of perspective as a literary technique, Castellani’s volume argues that there is no perfect point-of-view choice in a literary work. Rather, it’s always a question of the writer’s goal—to locate the individual within the societal, or to immerse the reader within the individual—and whether their narrator(s) support this overarching “narrative strategy.” Ranging from E. M. Forster to Grace Paley, from Lorrie Moore to Faulkner, Castellani reflects on his own struggles as a gay writer to settle on narrators, perspective, and narrative strategy—and examines the political power and responsibility of these choices.

Although he revisits and analyzes some of my favorite authors in rewarding ways, I never quite caught onto his own organizational strategy or figured out why, exactly, these particular works were thrown together in this particular order. A pleasant stroll through works where the narration excels, it ended before it really started getting somewhere. Still, it fundamentally changed my thinking about perspective as central to the each story’s narrative strategy.

Cover image of The Art of Death

The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story by Edwidge Danticat

This wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I had picked it up expecting a craft guide on time, endings, and death in fiction. Instead, I discovered a beautiful memoir of grief after a mother’s death. And because writing is at the core of Danticat’s experience of her grief, it’s also a concise compendium of the literature that has helped her approach and make sense of death and grief. The passages where Danticat examines Toni Morrison’s or Gabriel García Márquez’s portrayals of death are rich, packed with the stylistic insights of a woman who is not only a master writer but also a master reader.

She quotes García Márquez as he explains that he knew how to write Remedios the Beauty’s death only once he had the detail of the sheets flapping on the clothesline. Danticat also breaks down the scene where Morrison writes an infanticide in Beloved, examining where Morrison’s word choice allows children and mothers to be children and mothers, and where it does not, as well as how her use of the slave catchers’ point of view renders the scene’s horror more effectively, focusing our gaze on the moment of violence rather than Sethe’s internal experience. These are the passages I picked up the book for, and Danticat doesn’t disappoint.

However, it is a departure from “The Art of” series in several significant ways. The first and most noticeable is the prevalence of memoir. It is as much, often more, about Danticat’s grief and the literature she finds solace in, as it is about craft itself. At root, it is a book about a writer trying to make sense of grief after a loved one’s death, not a volume exploring the technical how’s and why’s of depicting death in literature.

And while the book is divided into chapters addressing different types of death in literature (suicide, executions, natural disasters), there are no chapters centered on two of the most common death scenes in literature: murder and illness. This may be due to the fact that Danticat collected essays published elsewhere and repurposed them for this volume. Whatever the reason, it is a regrettable omission, in a book whose title promises a broader investigation of how novelists “write the final story.”

Finally, much of the book—perhaps all, from a certain vantage point—is about grief, not death. It is a wonderful meditation on grief, its circularity, and the way it permeates our world. For those experiencing grief, it can offer solace. But for those looking to read about literary craft, it teases, more than satisfies.

Ultimately, it is a book of two minds, torn between death and grief, literary craft and memoir, and by the final chapters, it comes down firmly on the side of memoir and grief. If I’d picked it up knowing this, or if the title had been more accurate, my reading experience would have been quite different, less frustrating and more pleasurable. A magnificent meditation on mortality that simply needed better packaging or a clearer focus.

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Part of the joy of designing the Accessible MFA is that it can be changed in any way you need. And sometimes the best way to target your specific goals as a writer is setting your own reading list. Still, it can be crucial to challenge ourselves with reading we wouldn’t have chosen on our own. My next list will cover the last three textbooks this semester, which were not really the books I wanted to dive into. And if you have some favorite books on writing craft, let me know in the comments. Happy reading!

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Featured Photo by Anthony from Pexels

Healing Trauma Through, Well, Clothes

Sometimes you’ve known something all along but just didn’t understand it. I’ve always told myself I hate clothes. I dress from a place of frustration and even resentment. I hate shopping for clothes. I hate trying on clothes. I hate buying clothes. I hate wearing clothes. And because my body has so often felt unsafe to inhabit, I experience discomfort as normal. So I don’t expect clothes to feel good. I simply tolerate them.

But taking Tan France’s MasterClass Style for Everyone, I heard him say “Know yourself.” He talked again and again about feeling good, with such insistence that it finally got through. After his second lesson, I brought up a fresh document file and typed a list of everything I hate wearing. And it’s a really long list. It’s most clothes. Turtlenecks to jeans to shorts to dresses to swimsuits to skirts to button-up shirts. 

And then I made a list of what I feel good wearing. And suddenly I understood. I have felt happiest and safest and most free in dance studios, on jogging trails, and on bicycles and motorcycles. And the clothes that make me feel good? They feel like dancewear or motorcycle gear. Big leather jackets. Heavy-duty boots with thick soles. Leggings. Sleeveless shirts like leotards. Sneakers. Straight leg pants that give me room to breathe. Big sweaters or hoodies or wraparound shirts like I’d wear after dance class.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

It was an ah-ha moment that not only changed my relationship to clothes but to my body as well. It had been telling me the truth for decades. I had just misunderstood what it was saying. I don’t hate clothes. I just hate the types of clothes that remind me of the assaults I’ve survived.

This is something that I’ve never heard discussed. Anywhere. I’ve read so many books on trauma, listened to so many TED talks, seen two therapists, talked with friends. And everybody knows that you might associate a certain odor with your rapist or a certain tone of voice with your abusive father. Most people even know your relationship to your own body might change after abuse and assaults.

We all understand that the brain associates certain stimuli with trauma. A soldier may associate explosions with combat. A firefighter may associate sirens with the death of a fellow firefighter. A rape victim may associate garlic or cologne with their rapist. We get that.

But what about the clothes we were wearing when it happened?

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

For women and nonbinary survivors, our relationship with clothes is further complicated by the cultural assumption that men aren’t responsible for their violence; our clothes are. The question But what were you wearing? comes second only to Had you been drinking? Clothes, we are taught from a young age, have the power to endanger our lives. The power they have is too often misappropriated by misogynists to let violent men off the hook. Is it any wonder I resent them?

During one of the most horrendous moments of abuse, which I have chosen not to share on social media, I was wearing pink corduroy pants. I was six years old. Ever since, I have been disgusted by anything pink and anything corduroy. In the aftermath at school the next day, I was wearing a blue princess dress. I forever after hated dresses with skirts that hit at the knee. And so it went.

I have been assaulted while wearing:

  • skinny jeans
  • a peasant skirt
  • bootcut jeans
  • men’s cargo shorts
  • a one-piece swimsuit
  • a T-shirt
  • a button-up blouse
  • a turtleneck sweater
Photo by Godisable Jacob from Pexels

The list goes on. The problem is, I feel claustrophobic when I put on clothes like these. I don’t like the way their cut sits against my skin. I don’t like the weight of the fabric on my body. But I’m also not a nudist. I don’t want to go around naked. I don’t find that more comfortable. So I’m constantly uneasy in my body, constantly frustrated in most outfits I own. Another problem is I hadn’t realized that. Clothes themselves can be triggering for trauma survivors.

And sure, there’s exposure therapy. But as I’ve written before, you have to pick and choose. If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, or even one trauma that left you with a ton of fears that took parts of yourself from you, then you’re probably going to have to prioritize. There are the fears that limit your life and you’re ready to be done with, and there are the fears that are more annoying than anything. These, I like to set on a dresser, eye from time to time, and live with. Even better would be to throw them out, Marie Kondo-style, but so far that’s proven to be loads of work. So, my rage and panic in skirts, dresses, heels, and jeans? Not a priority. There are other things I can wear.

Of course the world will judge. I’m a woman. They think that’s their prerogative. One older white man spat on my shoes when I was wearing straight-leg pants, a T-shirt, and Converse sneakers with my buzzcut. Another white man shouted at me to “stop dressing like a man” when I wore a sleeveless striped shirt and a fedora. So if I wear the clothes I dislike but that are considered appropriately feminine, I hate them and myself. And my 40 years on this planet show they don’t protect me from assaults. And if I wear the clothes that make me feel comfortable and confident? I still get harassed.

If I’m going to get yelled at or assaulted either way, I’d rather feel comfortable and confident, thanks.

Clothes can be sacred, too. I think we all have experienced dressing our bodies as a form of sacrament. Whether it’s folding a Tae Kwon Do dobok around our ribs before a tournament or zipping into motorcycle gear and checking that the body armor is secure, putting on clothes can be central to our safety and our rituals. From weddings to religious services to funerals, clothes not only convey our personal sense of style and self but communicate our role in a larger community, our connections to each other.

So it makes sense that clothes can be healing. It makes sense that if trauma has shattered those connections to our communities and our bodies, clothes might be able to bridge that gap. After all, that’s what clothes are for. Survival. Self-expression. Belonging. Identity. Joy.

Clothes for most of us are inescapable. But it took a gay British-Pakistani-American man to teach me that inevitability doesn’t have to feel like a prison. Clothes, like most things in life, are what you make them. And, well, I’ve decided. Tan France’s advice to play is some of the best advice I’ve been given.

Clothes can help me bring my body home.

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

Featured Photo by Mike from Pexels

Three Elite Literary Journals for Your Bucket List

Before you get all hopeless about breaking into literary journals, let’s do a reality check. If you’re getting nothing but rejections, it might not be you. Well, I mean, it definitely is you. Literary journals aren’t responsible for breaking down our doors (or failing to do so) when they sense we’ve just hit “save” on a perfect masterpiece. But I mean it might not be your writing. It might be where you’re submitting.

Here’s a case study. In 2020, Charles Yu won the National Book Award for his daringly inventive satire of anti-Asian racism in Hollywood, Interior Chinatown.

This was hardly his first rodeo. He has published four books, all to critical acclaim. He has written for multiple television shows, including Westworld. And he has published countless pieces of short fiction. This wasn’t even his first award.

But you know what else happened for him in 2020?

He published in the literary journal, Ploughshares, for the very first time after submitting there for nearly two decades (you can read his story “M130” about a sentient printer here).

Did you catch that? He has been submitting to Ploughshares for almost 20 years. And when does he finally land an acceptance in the magazine? The same year he wins the National Book Award.

Because that’s just how Ploughshares rolls.

So if you’re trying to start there, you’re going to get your heart broken. Just saying. Musicians don’t take clarinet lessons for three years, then apply to Juilliard and expect to get in. Maybe we writers need to accept the same is true for us. As with even professional musicians, most will never attend Juilliard. And so it is for writers and top-tier literary journals.

This month I’m reminding all of us that if we’ve been honing our craft for years, getting honest critiques, listening to that feedback, revising the hell out of our work, and submitting at every opportunity—with nothing to show for it—we may simply be aiming too high with our publications.

Let’s all take a cue from Charles Yu. There’s nothing wrong with submitting to the Ivy League of literary journals. But be sure to have some safety schools as well because it might take 20 years and a major award to break into the top tier.

Here are three journals that almost none of us are going to get into, and that’s okay. They’re still fun to read, and hey, you might as well try. Just look at your submission like a lottery ticket, and you’ll be fine.

1. The Stinging Fly – REOPENS FALL 2021

Founded in 1997 by Aoife Kavanagh and Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly is a literary journal based in Ireland that showcases work by new Irish and international writers. Publishing short fiction, poetry, and book reviews, The Stinging Fly also added a small press in 2005, which has printed novels, short story collections, and an anthology of stories from the magazine. Danny Denton is the current editor, after stints by Sally Rooney and Thomas Morris who still serve as contributing editors. Currently, two issues are published each year, with a few selections also presented online, and the most recent submission window for fiction closed in early January 2021. They list no limitations as to length and offer payment of 30 euros per magazine page. The publication leans toward realistic fiction, with a curious trend toward travel, addiction, and obsession in their current online offerings. Michelle Coyne’s story “Magnetic” is a fine example of precisely observed physical detail, subtle dialogue, psychological suspense, and one woman’s encounter with magnetic desires and their power to either fuel or destroy creativity. This is a publication that accepts only the best.

2. The Hudson Review – OPEN FOR POETRY; FICTION OPENS SEPTEMBER

Founded in 1948 by Frederick Morgan (among others), The Hudson Review has been edited by Paula Deitz for over 20 years and is open to short fiction, poetry, reviews of most art forms, culture essays, and international reportage. It slants away from academia and toward culture, publishing quarterly, and while they do accept unsolicited work from emerging writers, they do not accept simultaneous submissions. Their fiction submission window runs from September 1 to November 30, and it can take up to six months to receive a decision. Prose must be 10,000 words or less; novel excerpts are welcome but must be of the highest quality and able to stand on their own.

They post about half their current issue online for free; their Autumn 2020 issue online printed only one fiction piece, “Love Is Not Enough” a remarkable story by Louise Marburg that chronicles a family legacy of suicide, alcoholism, and abuse as well as its impact on the relationship between two young sisters. A work of realistic fiction with language, detail, and psychological astuteness that calls up Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty, its only faults are perhaps that it feels a little old-fashioned in the age of Instagram, and the 12-year-old first-person narrator sounds nothing like even the sharpest 12-year-olds I’ve known. A literary publication of the highest caliber (think The New Yorker) that may be easier to break into with a book review than a short story.

3. The Sycamore Review – OPENS SEPTEMBER 1

Run by Purdue University and founded in 1989, The Sycamore Review publishes both new and established writers in fiction, poetry, non-fiction, criticism, and interviews. While a few pieces from each issue are also published online, most work is exclusive to print issues. Daschielle Louis is the current editor-in-chief, with Audrey Hollis and Andy Nellis serving as fiction editors. Editors at the magazine are affiliated with Purdue’s MFA, while current students are not allowed to submit, and the journal pays for all printed work as well as runs the Wabash Prize. Stories under 6,000 words are preferred with their reading period open from September through March.

The most current fiction available on their website is from 2017, all realistic fiction. A short piece by Ashley Kunsa titled “Red City” details a lesbian couple’s attempt to conceive amidst the upheaval of job loss and a friend’s recent death. Another piece, “Mary Rosenthal,” by Stacy Lee describes a woman’s sex life amidst her grief over being unable to have a child in a dystopian future where only 1% of the population can have children. The three most recent stories by women are strong with powerful imagery and distinct voices, but all feature marriage, conception, and relationships as central, so it’s a publication that is possibly a bit gender essentialist. Many of the contributors have MFAs, publications elsewhere, and teach creative writing, so it also may be too academic-leaning to accept those of us without such credentials.

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So look, don’t get down on yourself if the rejections are piling up. Charles Yu is our role model today (and forever). Maybe, like him, we should just focus on writing, getting better at writing, publishing that writing where they’ll have it, and building our team. Not all literary journals are willing to bet on the dark horse of even a great story by someone who is a nobody (or, apparently, even a somebody with an impressive writing career). Wouldn’t it be cool to write for a TV show? Wouldn’t it be great for people to love our books? We don’t need an elite literary journal to make that happen. We just need to deliver great work, consistently, and to put it out into the world consistently in journals that root for us.

Sure, maybe that’s Ploughshares. But more likely, it will end up being the Little-Journal-That-Could at your local community college down the road. But more on that next month.

Till then, keep doing what you love, and pop on over to my Accessible MFA page to see if there’s anything that might come in handy.