Guest Post, Barrett Warner: My Memoir for a Plot

I’m not the first poet to write memoir, but I’m probably the worst. I loved it anyway. There’s no hiking involved, and no drinking in the whole world with a sip. And it saves a lot of time by living each page rather than doing any research.

In poetry, my cat-like imagination tends to run into other rooms for no reason so it was nice not to worry about invention. And while a novel might require heart to write, all I needed for memoir was a walnut desk, and a small bronze sculpture of a nude man to hold the paper down on breezy days.

It took surprisingly long to write and re-write a ten month snap of my Tuberculosis. Like: 45 minute conversation about a 25 minute version of a 5 minute Phish song.

I went to the mirror to look at myself. I’d aged since beginning it. In writing almost exclusively about my body in 2013, I had neglected small details about my current portrait. I no longer resembled the bronzed man sitting so pensively on my desk. Was it true that you could sand blast wrinkles away? My soccer ball didn’t reply.

My publisher had asked for a book of poems. “Beautiful memoir,” he wrote, “But it’s so inscrutable. The problem is that there’s no plot. The narrative of your life is not the same thing as plot. What about a few scenes outside of the hospital? Maybe a train or two?”

I joined a vibration society. The salon had sixteen tables and each one vibrated a different part of your body. It was a caper to crank the timer and start the vibration before settling in, but I eventually grew fond of the slight nausea. Early afternoons were excellent for vertigo, before the after-work crowd came to jiggle. Still, it was nothing like an actual train. Last month, one had derailed about two hours away, in Columbia.

My memoir was full of seductive ache and longing, and horrible mortality, and impossible love, but without any plot—without any hiking into some dark wood—it was just a bar story. The set-up was the climax, which might be OK if I were Li Po drinking the moon.

The nearest passenger train depot was 25 miles outside town. The train passed at one in the morning. In spite of my florid disguise, I was spotted by a fiction writer as I boarded the regional train bound for Norfolk. “Barrett,” Mr. Yoon said. “This train is only for short story writers.”

“How short is short?” I asked, offering him a taste of my subject-verb-direct object sandwich with its plain spoken tomato.

The easy part about poetry is that you don’t have to show character motivation, a definite downer as far as writing prose. You just put a man on a train. He has two packages and he’s wearing eye glasses which he doesn’t really need. You don’t even have to say whether he’s stopping in Norfolk or changing trains to Richmond.

I blushed up each step to the garret studio off Broad Street. “I was sure you had died,” the artist said. I offered him the packages and accepted a drink. I walked around the studio blinking at the works in progress and taking my clothes off as if I were going to change into something else, but I didn’t change into anything. He reached for a stick of charcoal and rattled out a few coughs. I turned. I shifted my arms. I looked past him into wilderness.

Guest Post, Karin Rosman: A Place to Avoid

When I was in grade school, I learned a couple of important tips to surviving middle school. One was to keep your mouth shut if it didn’t involve you. The other— really, there is no need to bring up the other because it paled in comparison. For example, I no longer need to know how to make an ice ball to fight back, or how to conceal rocks in my pocket, or how to kick if I’m attacked while lying on my back. It took me decades, but I eventually learned how to avoid trouble.

But sometimes I still can’t keep my mouth shut, even if it doesn’t involve me. Now that I work as a substitute teacher in the Seattle and greater Seattle area, and now that I have seen the incredible income disparity between schools, now that I can say what I witnessed has a lot to do with race, I’d like to tell you something others have already been shouting. When it comes to schooling our kids, middle income parents in America have a bad habit of putting our own kids first, and we do this at the expense of students of color.

I spent three nonconsecutive days in one of Seattle’s worst performing schools. I’m not going to name it because the students don’t deserve the school’s label, and it’s my experience with parents in Seattle that they will label a school as a place to avoid, and not do enough to address the reasons they are avoiding it. I’ll nickname it Wallace, after that amazing writer who, it seemed to me, couldn’t sit still with his own intelligence. The base statistics of Wallace speak clearly: 61% of the students receive free lunch, 73% of the students are of color, 30% of fifth graders are passing assessment tests of English Language Arts, 21% of fifth graders are passing assessment tests of math, 24% of the fifth graders are English Language Learners. There is a steady decline in assessment tests from third to fifth grade, as if the kids are tumbling down a kite hill.

Wallace is a school that parents will spend a lot of money to avoid. It exists in a wealthy and hip (liberal) neighborhood but does not reflect the general population of that neighborhood. When I’m in Wallace and speak to the students, I have the sense that it works as a funnel, drawing similar students from various neighborhoods around the region, from as far away as Everett, nearly thirty miles away. I know from reading news reports there is a significant homeless population attending this school, and these students are also served by an organization providing shelter and housing services.

What I experienced as a substitute teacher at Wallace was complex and not easily described in a handful of words. On the first day, soon after we had ninety minutes of incident-free explicit instruction and practice, one student slighted another in such a careful way that I could not hear the insult. Before I could draw a breath to ask them to line up for recess, they were circling each other, kicking with so much magnetism half the class was pulled into their fight. The other half sat in miserable ineffective frustration. I put everyone in order by leveraging recess time. After pulling the two fighting students aside to take to the office, I walked the students partway then released the rest with a to-myself-prayer: please walk the halls quietly and without the ramped-up energy you showed in the classroom. I worried they would re-embroil themselves into another slight and fight unattended in the halls. My faith in these students was secure. They went to recess where the normal rivalries—and there were plenty—played out on the field.

On another day, as I assisted a teacher in the classroom, a small whiteboard fell off its easel. There were only eleven students tackling the math lesson, and six ran out of the classroom in a post-traumatic stress panic. One openly exclaimed he thought it was a gunshot. Though he sat in his seat and reapplied himself, his panic was evident in the way his feet and eyes didn’t stop moving.

These two experiences are not irregular at Wallace, and I found it difficult to teach content over behavior, despite my strong belief that every child should have access to grade-standard material. But, as is evident in students who are succeeding there, teachers at Wallace structure their day around grade standards and benchmarks, leveraging as much learning from students who want to learn but have bigger things on their minds. In the class I subbed for, the students had pulled their reading two levels higher than at the beginning of the year. They were approaching grade standard. Their fight had less to do with the slight than with the insecurity of being with a substitute they didn’t know, someone who might believe the statistics over their drive to do better.

These kids don’t deserve the home lives they have, and by that I don’t mean the parenting. Yes, there are some bad parents; but I’ve seen bad parenting in the school my son goes to. I’ve also seen great parenting at the food bank I volunteer in. Income or race doesn’t drive parenting skills, but being continuously impoverished drives desperation. Living in a community that is constantly impoverished increases the examples of desperation. What is normal for them is a state of hyper-alertness, like the boy who ran out of the classroom. If it isn’t a state of hyper-alertness, it can be a state of complacency about one’s own situation, like the children who sat waiting for me to teach them. What else can they do?

These kids deserve communities that can help them. If I, as a mother, thoroughly foul up and go on a drug or alcohol bender because my investment portfolio fails (this is purely theoretical, my benders usually involve binging on books in the summertime), my son is still surrounded by better behavior from those whose immediate needs are taken care of. That’s because in my income community, we may lose our jobs and have to cut back on cello lessons, horseback riding, or biking gear, but we will eat food we choose, and we probably won’t have to give up our homes (and if we do, we’ll find an adequate little place and turn down the heat). We have time to spend with our children (rather than take on two to three jobs) and average our personal errors with reflection and better practices. If we lose our jobs, many of us have a sweet compensation package—or in my case, decent spousal support—to help us get through tough life transitions. It’s not that we never feel overwhelmed or experience personal difficulties, it’s that we aren’t continuously overwhelmed, and our personal difficulties don’t expose us to violence or the continuous threat of violence. When we experience a crisis, we can come back to a common place—game night, reading night, movie night—and not worry that the neighbor in room 12B will interrupt it with drug-induced hysteria.

These kids don’t deserve the school they go to. No matter our income, no matter where our kids attend school (and I know this doesn’t happen just in Seattle), Wallace is our problem. We are irresponsible when we push so many kids into a school where what is normal is a constant struggle for survival. And then we have the nerve to call these kids underachieving. More than a few kids at Wallace will steal their teacher’s lunch. They may have free lunch, they may have free breakfast, but it has all the nourishment that you can expect from sugar and fried breaded bits of whatever, which means they are hungry for more before school gets out, and many of them don’t know if they will have supper. Normal shouldn’t be this, or any version close to it.

In nearly every class I substitute in, there is one to four students who cannot sit comfortably for more than a few minutes. Various measures are taken to help these students learn; and when the teacher is particularly skilled, the other students carry on with their learning in a way that acknowledges the student but not the behavior. The students who can’t sit still are carried in the learning current, and bring their own swift thought. In all classrooms, students learn and they teach each other. It’s marvelous to witness and be involved in, but particularly so where we don’t choose the cohort based on academic ability and life privileges. The demographics of poverty, homelessness, and trauma should not overwhelm a school in the way it overwhelms Wallace. This should not be their norm.

Students’ brains at this age have incredibly plasticity, meaning they are adaptive; and their experiences have a profound impact on the rest of their lives. We must ask what they are adapting to, and what they will carry with them on their life journeys. Morally, that means we should ensure a quality education in a safe environment for all students. We should not separate students with difficult life circumstances from students who experience daily secure social interactions. My son should know the grit of that boy who returned to his seat after his body kept telling him a shot was fired. Every child deserves a fair chance at a normal education, no matter her life-circumstances.

Guest Post, McKenzie Zalopany: Writing on Disability

When taking your first Fiction Form and Technique class, you can pretty much count on three things: half a dozen stories involving an “epic” party in high school, one to two overly-opinionated, Hemingway-worshiping students who totally know more than the professor, and one noir story where the murderer was the drunk detective the whole time. My first short story ever submitted was a Greek Myth Sirens spin-off that ended in suicide—not great.

A wonderful professor I had during undergrad used the phrase “first exit choices,” meaning your story’s plot is metaphorically driving down a highway and suggested we skip the first five exits, or rather ideas, and go to sixth, seventh, or eighth exits. By the time Fiction three rolled around, my classmates and I were doing just that—expanding ideas, sharpening plots, and being as weird as possible in all the best ways. Something I’ve noticed, which can happen in professionally published forms of writing too, was the continuation of writers improperly capturing disability: writers using disability as a plot device, prop, and/or metaphor to push the narrative forward.

What I don’t want is to deter writers from including disabled characters, but to bring awareness to the possible ableist prose that often ensues when they do. We live in a time where intersectional activism is extremely prevalent, and while I loved the advice to exclude racist dialects and sexist tropes I’d received in class, I didn’t hear much advice when it came to representing the disability community. It’s not that my classmates or professors are purposely enforcing ableism, but rather our society doesn’t talk about this particular –ISM as much as it should.

So how can you be a better disability-inclusive writer, you might ask? For one, your disabled character doesn’t always need an origin story. When writing your able-bodied character, you don’t always include their birth, right? It’s just the same with your disabled character, they were born, and now they’re tooting around. It’s not always by car crash, they’re not always in a mental institution; and no, they wouldn’t rather die in the end of your story than be disabled.

If you do want to explore disability activism, maybe research important issues that affects their community (and ours for that matter):

  1. Accessibility
  2. ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)
  3. Disability involving Veterans
  4. Disability represented in pop-culture
  5. Special Education
  6. Ableist language

Sometimes, when creating a character, (and this goes with writing any minority) ask yourself, “am I appropriating?” or “am I stigmatizing this character?” For example, creating disabled characters who are bummed about their disability, or characters who are bummed about having disabled children only propagates the stigma that disability is a bad thing. Creating strong disabled characters is just as important as making differently raced characters in any form of art.

Once you start acquainting yourself with disability activism you can’t not see tropes that are embedded in pop culture’s representation of disabled characters. As a comic book and general action hero narrative lover, I’ve noticed how most of the villains are assigned with disabled elements: A missing arm (Klaw), a breathing condition (Bane), mental illness (Joker) or exterior differences (Freddie Kueger). Now, I’m not saying there aren’t any disabled superheroes, I mean look at Dare Devil, Finn when he loses his arm, Luke Skywalker, Cyborg, or Oracle, but even those are widely debated characters that teeter within the rhetoric of the disability community because of their unrealistic representations of disability. My point is, if you’re into creating graphic novels/comics, try to not to default your villain as disabled, whether it be exterior, physical, or mental, or balance it with a disabled superhero, sidekick, etc.

Lastly, if you are or aren’t including a disabled character, try and avoid ableist language by knowing the origins of words. Look, we are writers and we love words, so why not do a little more research in the language you are choosing to fill your art with?  For example, if you’re writing a poem about yourself, and you’re going through a tough time and feel fragmented, don’t use words like “My body lay still and lame.” The word “lame” is a derogatory term used against people with physical disabilities. And while you might not think that word is offensive, people with disabilities do. There are so many other words, people!

There is a reason we writers will go through three, five, ten drafts when working on a piece of work. We’re all driving down the same highway, and our destination is to create a well-rounded, interesting piece of work. Why wouldn’t you or I want to create an inclusive story, poem, graphic novel or whatever medium, that resonates in a powerful or fun way?

Guest Post, Sarah Beth Childers: Writing about Grief without Mentioning It

 Joshua and his three sisters on his 7th birthday. Sarah Beth is in the Myrtle Beach shirt.

Years ago, when I was taking an undergraduate fiction writing class, the professor talked about the short fiction he wrote in the year after his mother’s death. He showed his work to a friend, and the friend told him, “I see your mother on every page.” My professor protested angrily, but he went home and realized it was true. He was writing fiction, not autobiographical, not about dead mothers, but deep down, he was writing about his personal loss.

I found something similar happening to me when I was writing “Beagle in the Road,” five years after my brother’s suicide. I was writing about a moment when I was thirteen years old, seventeen years before I lost my brother. At that point, Joshua was five and happy, likely playing with Hot Wheels cars or shooting outlaws in a computer game that came free in a box of cereal. My little brother had nothing to do with my decision to follow my beagle into a busy road, so he didn’t belong in the essay. Still, I found myself embedding my grief into every line, and unlike my professor, I was intensely aware that this was happening, surely because I was (and still am) in the midst of writing a memoir about Joshua. I knew I wouldn’t have written the piece at all if he hadn’t died. After a few years of witnessing my parents’ grief, the beagle memory came back to me, and I suddenly felt horror mixed with my old pride and gratefulness about the risk I’d taken that day.

When I came to the end of the essay, I struggled with how to close without my brother. Throughout the piece, I’d felt his five-year-old shadow running alongside my thirteen-year-old self, both of us buoyant in our innocence of everything that would come later. And in the end, I pictured my brother’s twenty-two-year-old body when I imagined myself dead on the road. So, I tried to shoehorn his suicide into the turn, explaining to readers why I saw this moment so differently years later, after I’d witnessed the broken health and malaise that can follow the loss of a child. But the suicide revelation kept feeling melodramatic, a disrespect to my lost brother and to my parents’ grief. Since Joshua wasn’t present on the essay’s surface, I hadn’t developed him as a character, and readers couldn’t mourn a brother they didn’t know. I finally realized I had to stay in the moment, focusing on the relationships between characters who were actually present: my beagle and me, my dad and my beagle, my dad and me. The audience would understand that my life and perspective had changed in the time since I rescued my beagle. The reason I had changed was beside the point.

Of course, I have my own personal readers like my professor’s friend, people who saw my brother on every page. My most important reader, my writer sister, got it immediately. A poet friend read the essay, expecting a piece about my childhood beagle, and she said, “Wow, this fits right into your memoir!” And it does fit. Eventually, when readers see the piece in context, they’ll know it’s about Joshua. When I describe my dad’s potential grief, they’ll think of that horrible day seventeen years later. They may even cringe as I do over that imagined image of my broken body, thinking of my brother’s body hanging in his closet. But I also know that context also isn’t necessary. Readers who didn’t know my professor couldn’t get the mother connection in his stories, but I’m sure they felt moved by the undercurrents of grief—likely something that’s often happening to me when I find myself moved by a story, essay, or poem in an unexpected way.

In the end, I couldn’t help myself. I was burning to mention Joshua, so I put him in my bio. In creative nonfiction, the biographical note inevitably changes readers’ perception of the essay, so I decided to take advantage of that. But let’s face it: not everyone reads bios. If everyone did, my own undergraduate students would never call female writers “he.” And I know that one-sentence mention of my brother isn’t nearly enough to allow the most careful readers to understand all of the Joshua resonances that exist for people who know me. So, for readers who don’t see this blog post, or connect the piece to my other work, I’ll be content to let that grief stay concealed within my body—my real body, my live body in the essay, my imagined smashed body in the essay—the place where grief always hides.

Guest Post, Jonathan Duckworth: When the Hell Are We?

Some Thoughts on Flashbacks in Fiction

Let me begin by saying that I will never claim to be an expert in anything pertaining to narrative craft, only someone who enjoys reading and writing and has done a good deal of both.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to talk about an essential feature of fiction, one of the first devices that any beginning writer learns about: the flashback. In the fictionist’s (fictionista’s?) arsenal, flashbacks are possibly the most important weapon of a writer. Without flashbacks, a story is forced to mimic the limited trajectory of human experience: only moving forward into time. I’m sure there are great stories that don’t use any flashbacks, but I can’t imagine many of them are longer than a single scene, and even stories that don’t have obvious “he thought back to that distant day” (more on that later) transitions that mark out flashbacks often do flashback in subtler, briefer ways. Any dialogue that features characters speaking about prior events counts as a flashback, even the briefest memories that occur to characters are flashbacks. The reason we don’t always notice these is that when done right, flashbacks are unobtrusive.

A good flashback fluidly transposes us from one point in time to another: can seamlessly transport us from a disappointing family dinner of skinless chicken and peas and mashed potatoes (not touching each other, of course) to the chaff-clogged grain silo in Kansas where the character shared her first kiss with a corn-fed boy who could best be described as “Ned Flanders-hot.” Now, this is not to say that obvious flashbacks can’t be good, but I’d say the odds of a flashback being successful decreases the more clunky and noisy its execution.

Ways that flashbacks can be “noisy” include the following:

-Obvious transitional phrases like “that reminded him” or “she was transported back to the time”

-Ending flashbacks with some variation of the awful “he/she was shaken from her memories by a sudden noise” maneuver

I’m not saying I’ve never done these things in my own writing, but I try to avoid them if I can, and when I see them in fiction I tend to grouse a bit.

I don’t want you to think that all “obvious” flashbacks are bad. One of my favorite examples of a flashback comes in the opening sentence of my favorite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

This is not only a flashback but a flashforward, seamlessly transporting us between two—possibly three—time periods and simultaneously “spoiling” an event that comes later in the novel without actually telling us anything important (spoiler: the Colonel doesn’t die from the firing squad but does die later on from old age). This flashback derives its elegance from the beauty of the language and also the striking juxtaposition between a soldier facing a firing squad and him as a child experiencing a formative moment with his father.

Pet Peeves with Flashbacks

I have two main pet peeves when it comes to writing flashbacks in addition to those already covered above.

First, and perhaps most aggravating, is the use of dreams to convey flashbacks. This is an overused trope in many kinds of fiction, and even when it’s done well it annoys me. News flash: people don’t dream in complete memories, or at least no one I know does, and I’d question diet and sleeping habits of anyone who does. Dreams are not perfect portals into memory, they are more suggestive and elusive than that, and their place in fiction shouldn’t be as mere avenues of flashbacks when there are more straightforward ways to show us characters’ memories. An example of a good use of dream as flashback comes from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, where in a dream Raskolnikov recalls a moment from childhood when a horse collapsed in front of him and an entire street full of people began to beat it in an attempt to get it moving again. The violence of the episode is likely embellished and exaggerated by the dream, but as a memory it shows us Raskolnikov’s empathy.

The second is a phenomenon I mostly see employed in genre fiction (fantasy, science fiction, the odd detective story) where writers use italics to render flashbacks. An example of this comes from one of Jim Butcher’s (normally an excellent prose stylist) Codex Alera fantasy series, where he rendered a multi-page scene all in italics simply because it took place in the past, separate from the main timeline of narrative action. There are a number of reasons why this is bad and wrong, but the foremost reason is that reading an entire paragraph or page in italics can be murder on tired eyes, and that using italics for an entire passage misses the point of italics: that they are for emphasis. The other chief reason is that I suspect the use of italics to denote a flashback says two things about the author, neither of which are particularly good. Either the author lacks confidence in their own ability to communicate to their readers that they’re reading a flashback, or the author thinks the reader is an idiot.

And of course, we never want to think our readers are idiots–if you approach your writing that way, you’ve already failed.

Guest Post, Michelle Ross, Kim Magowan: Delightful Anarchy: Why and How We Collaborate

Origin Story

Kim: It wasn’t our idea. Some journal—Sundog, I think—was running a collaboration contest, and Michelle proposed that we give it a shot. We each wrote an opening paragraph of a story and lobbed it to the other. The first of those stories has never been published—indeed, I think neither of us has submitted it anywhere for ages—though I still like it (recalling it now, I want to dust it off and send it to some journal). The second, “My Co-Worker Aldona,” is one of my favorites.

Michelle: Actually, I’d been thinking for some time about trying out collaborating, but it’s true it took the Sundog contest to motivate me to act on it. There was no question that Kim would be the writer I’d ask. Oddly enough, we didn’t actually end up submitting to the contest because by the time the deadline rolled around, our flash fictions had been accepted elsewhere (other than the one Kim mentions above that we’re less sure about).


Kim: We don’t have any. Michelle writes a few sentences and tosses it my way, I write more and toss it back. We decide when it’s done, and we edit together, sometimes as we go. We have no word count, no implicit or explicit regulation on when it’s time to lob the story to the other. Basically we toss it when we get stuck, or when we’ve handed the other person a good shoehorn in. It’s delightful anarchy.

Michelle: If there’s any rule it’s that we try to keep the momentum going by not letting a story sit for long. Often we lob a story back and forth several times in a day. Rarely do we allow a story to sit longer than a day or two.

Reasons to Do It

Kim: Because writing is lonely and isolating—one is isolated at one’s desk, isolated in one’s head. It’s much more fun to turn it into a conversation.

Because it’s fast! Solo, we each belabor a story, tweak it, tweeze it, get annoyed by it, and chuck it in a (metaphorical) drawer. Stories huddle in those drawers for years. When we’re collaborating, we run. We don’t wring our hands over a sentence: we hurl that smoking potato at the other. We wrote one of my favorites, “War,” in a day; it was accepted by Monkeybicycle the following day.

Because it’s good practice on how to adopt a different voice, try on a different style; it’s narrative dress-up.

Because it stretches us. I think we’re writing one kind of story, and then Michelle throws in some unforeseen element—a self-defense class, a book on how to fix home appliances, a surreally boring movie—and suddenly the story has morphed into something else altogether, something weird and unpredictable. The flower just became a cactus or a toucan.

Michelle: Because it’s tremendously freeing to surrender some of the control over a story’s plot and aboutness. Knowing that at Kim’s next turn she could take the story somewhere I don’t anticipate, I don’t need to concern myself too much with where the story will go. I can focus on where the story is now.

Because collaborating helps me break the bad habit of expecting too much of myself too quickly. That is, when I write a story solo, it’s tempting to sit at the computer too long, to exhaust myself to the point that when I finally walk away, I’m leaving on a low point instead of a high point. When all I have to concern myself with is the next paragraph or two, that’s a very doable task and a relatively a short time commitment. I’m much more likely to walk away from the computer feeling energized and eager to come back to the story when Kim returns it to me.

Because it’s fun.

Lessons Gleaned

Michelle: I feel I’ve learned so much from collaborating with Kim, but most importantly the value of writing in short bursts of an hour or so at a time, the value of keeping up the momentum by not letting a first draft sit unfinished for long (a terrible habit of mine), the value of pushing to the end before revising (another terrible habit of mine), and the value of not overthinking a first draft (terrible habit #3). I still make some of these mistakes in my own writing, but less and less so.

Kim: The best take-away for me is collaboration makes me freer and less fussy. Collaboration feels like the writing version of improvisation. It gets me out of ruts. Also, we are not at all proprietary about our parts of the story. I feel as comfortable changing a Michelle sentence as one of mine; I don’t have any sense of, “This part of the story belongs to me, this to Michelle.” In fact, I occasionally read a sentence in one of our stories and I can’t immediately remember which one of us wrote it (though if it’s about science, that’s a good clue that it’s Michelle! When I throw in something science-y—I think working with Michelle gives me the bug—there’s a good chance she’ll need to fix it. “Actually, I think you mean beakers”). Michelle and I have pretty different styles, so it’s been fascinating to me how well we blend.


Michelle: Submitting collaborative fiction can be a bit trickier—figuring who will send a story where, keeping each other updated about where stories are being considered, where they’ve been rejected.

Kim: One journal wouldn’t allow us to submit a collaborative piece, which shocked us both.

How to Find Your Collaborator

Michelle: Obviously, you want to choose someone whose writing you admire and whose instincts you trust. It’s perfectly fine, and perhaps even for the best, if you have different writing styles or preoccupations as a writer. It’s also perfectly fine to disagree some of the time, as long as you’re able to resolve those disagreements. I think that ideally you should collaborate with a writer you know fairly well, with whom you already exchange drafts. Kim and I had been exchanging work for several years before we began collaborating. We were already each other’s first readers.

Kim: What Michelle said—find a writer whose work you love and whose judgments you value. Michelle and I first “met” each other over a story: I loved her story (“Cinema Verite”), and the comments I gave her were useful. Also, find someone who has strengths you want to borrow. I’ve always admired the humor in Michelle’s stories— her writing, like Lorrie Moore’s or Amy Hempel’s, makes me laugh. And I think our collaboration stories are pretty funny, even the sad ones. She lightens me. Michelle is ninja when it comes to restructuring stories, moving around pieces. It’s like being on one of those crazy Top Chef team quickfires: we’re good together because we can lean on each other’s skills.

Michelle: I do love moving pieces around. Quite often I find the fix to a story that isn’t quite working is largely in reshuffling the pieces. And funny that Kim says I lighten her with humor. I think Kim does the same for me plenty of the time. Also, I think that working with Kim makes be a better constructor of sentences. Her sentences are always at once so elegant and sharp, like dancers wielding scissors.




Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award (MCP 2017). Her work has recently appeared in Cream City ReviewThe ForgeMonkeybicycleTriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.

Michelle Ross’s website



Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award and is forthcoming in 2018. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in Atticus ReviewBird’s ThumbCleaverThe Gettysburg ReviewHobartNew World WritingSixfoldWord Riot, and many other journals.

Kim Magowan’s website

Guest Post, Diane Payne: From Migration to Hibernation

Back in the dial-up day, before there were so many online literary magazines and publishing resources, I used to scroll through the Call for Submissions in the print version of Poet and Writers, looking for anthology themes as a means to find inspiration to start writing about something, anything.  Now the calls for submissions flood my Facebook and Twitter feed, entangled between the endless calls to sign petitions, dogs howling at TV videos, and the tiresome parenting memes. The expediency of posts is overwhelming. At night, my dreams are filled with so many imaginary Instagram and Snapchat images, I feel unmotivated and unable to write notes in my dream journal.

This past week, on a day when I thought things couldn’t become even more bleak at work, they did.  Then a call for submission flashed by with the theme:  A World in Pain. Seemed like a twisted moment of fate.

But I did not want to address this theme about our World in Pain since that has seemed to be our country’s mantra since the last presidential election. The dogs and I took the easy way out and we left for a walk.

When I returned from the walk, for some stubborn reason I decided to tackle this unpleasant theme, but not in my usual creative nonfiction form, but as a migrating bird flying from Canada to Mexico, flying over those borders with relative ease, free of the Facebook and Twitter feeds, the endless news on TV and radio. At times, the effects of climate change made the journey more difficult, and the bird learned to be on the lookout for the elderly, who have already endured a life time of personal tragedy, leaving them less grief-stricken and immobilized, and more enthusiastic about the arrival of the birds.

Then the short story ended and I felt a little better about life.

Until I submitted the story and discovered that the  magazine had closed their fiction submissions early, perhaps even at the very moment I tried to send the story, because just the day before, I could have submitted the story, had I not decided to sleep on it first. Perhaps this was their own personal twist to their theme of pain.

And then, just like that, another call for submission emerged with a climate change theme, and that bird flew off for another migration while my submission now enters a form of hibernation.