Authors Talk: Mark Ali

Today we are pleased to feature author Mark Ali as our Authors Talk series contributor. Mark talks about his influences and mentors and how powerful the opening paragraph of a story has to be. He speaks of trying to find a voice that is not always recognized in modern America.

You can read Mark’s story “Flying By” in issue 17 of Superstition Review here.

Guest Post: Alissa McElreath, Flying Lessons

Silhouette of small plane against the clouds

Photo by Alissa McElreath

Three weeks ago I stood in a grassy field in Bunn, NC, and wondered – not for the first time since September – how it could be that I was so impossibly far away from my sixteen-year old son. Oh, I could see him: a dark cross moving slowly across a backdrop of fluffy white, but he was some 3,000 feet above me, gliding soundlessly, on his first solo flight.

Solo. Alone. Just a boy and an airplane, the way he must have dreamed it a thousand times over from the day he could first hold a toy plane in his hands and zoom it through the air. He’s worked so hard since he started soaring lessons this past fall. I’ve had ten months to get used to the sight of him in the sky. The first time he flew with an instructor I felt my stomach drop away in a sliding lurch as they took off in tandem with the prop plane. At 3,000 feet the tether was released, and there they were: gliding in graceful loops above me and there was simply nothing I could do.

Standing in that field on that important, incredible, milestone afternoon, I could have burst open with a mixture of pride, terror, and, once he was safely on the ground again (textbook-perfect landing!), an outpouring of relief, but I didn’t. Most amazing of all to me at that moment was not that he had survived this incredible achievement because of course he had done so remarkably well, but that I had. This whole journey, from that first flight to the day I watched my son fly solo, has been one long and obvious metaphor for the process of letting go. It shouldn’t have been much of a revelation to me that day in the field, but it was.

Parents, of course, are very familiar with the bittersweet piling up of milestone after milestone after milestone – familiar with the lump-in-throat choking back of emotions that follows the first steps, the first lost tooth, the first day at school, the first broken heart, the first job, the first driver’s license, the first metaphorical, or literal, spreading of the wings. Writers are also very familiar with the process of letting go – we have to be, or we won’t survive very long. As a teacher, I have to help my creative writing students understand that if they want to succeed, whatever success as a writer inside or outside of the classroom looks like to them, a big part of the journey is about letting go. They may have to steel their hearts and cut loose a beloved character, or passage, or shiny sentence (my students always love it when I pull out the “kill your darlings” quote). They might have to delete pages and chapters, and save certain ideas for some uncertain future time. When they are more confident writers they may send their work out into the big, wide, world but then they will have to let it go, for obsessing about it will drive them mad.

I tell them that sometimes moving forward as a writer can mean letting go of the dream you have for one story, or book, or poem in order to allow another to take root and grow. But I wrestle with this advice even as I give it, because letting go of a dream – even if to allow for room for another – seems fundamentally wrong. If we let go, don’t we risk losing what we need and want the most for our hard work? Yet, it makes sense that we have to let go in order to move forward – if we spend too much time mired stubbornly in any one particular version of our dream, anchored to one spot on the ground, turning around and around in circles, we risk going nowhere.

There was a time this fall when I was ready to chuck it all in – this writing business, that is. I am only now beginning to emerge from a sort of delayed onset mourning over the shelving of my latest book. After acquiring an agent, after two rounds on submission, an almost-offer, a handful of near-misses, I had to let it go, as so many other writers have had to do with their own work. I thought I had handled it all quite well– deluded self-preservation, maybe? The loss suddenly became raw this past year, in ways it hadn’t been initially. Up until very recently I was wallowing in that self-pitying phase of the process that I suspect many writers know well – the one where we hunker down miserably, and declare that we are done with pouring our hearts into stories that no one will read. The one where we want throw away the bits and pieces of writing begun and abandoned, and select and delete the files on our computers (I may or may not know anything about this, mind you) that make up the digital roadmap of a journey to nowhere. I didn’t want to set aside that book. Shelving it felt like beginning again, except several steps back from the place where it had all begun. Somehow, I had become too focused on the outcome and not on what I had learned along the way. I thought about this after asking my son what the best part of flying solo had been for him. He shrugged. Being able to do it, he told me. Using all the stuff I know. Being capable, qualified, and confident, and putting the work and courage and persistence into doing what he loved to do the best. For me, being able to write means I must move past the what could have beens and should have beens and focus on using the stuff I know in order to do what I love the best.

As it turns out, you can let go of things – and people, too – and have them return to you again. You can let go of one dream to make room for a bigger one. You can let go of years of hard work on a favorite book, but know that its spirit is housed in another one just emerging. You can even send your heart some 3,000 feet up into the air and watch it glide effortlessly into view, closer and closer – first a small, impossible shape, until there it is, come back to you again.

 

Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.

#ArtLitPhx: Four Chambers Press call for full-length manuscripts

Four Chambers call for manuscriptsLocal literary publisher, Four Chambers Press is now accepting full-length manuscript submissions in poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction through July 31st, 2017. Poetry should be between 60 and 160 pgs; prose should be between 30k and 80k words. For full guidelines, visit our website at http://fourchamberspress.com/submit.

From their press release: Four Chambers Press, an independent community press based in Phoenix, AZ is now accepting full-length manuscript submissions in poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, hybrid, and all other forms of contemporary literature through Monday, July 31st, 2017. We also pun frequently on the idea of being a heart. Namely: that we’re lovable; somewhat cheeky; an occasional flirt. But we also take the responsibility of literature and book publishing very seriously. We will bleed for this if we have to. Our hearts beat for this. We don’t care where you come from or what you do. We’re interested in building something that’s going to outlast us. We want to feel something together. We’re interested in you. Writers of all backgrounds and skill levels are encouraged to submit. No fees.

#ArtLitPhx: Spillers Podcast now available

Spillers logoLocal Phoenix’s premiere reading event Spillers has announced their new podcast series. The new series will have a short story read by the featured author, followed by an interview with the author. You can find out more and listen here. Their full press release is below:

Spillers, Phoenix’s premier short fiction ensemble reading event since 2015, is now also a podcast, produced and hosted by local award-winning writer and podcaster Robert Hoekman Jr.

While Spillers After Show has earned a stellar reputation as winner of Best Podcast 2016 by the Phoenix New Times, the now-live Spillers podcast brings new and exciting depth and intimacy, and will juxtapose national writers with locals, and award-winners with up-andcomers, to build an audience that extends well beyond Arizona’s borders.

Episodes each feature one short fiction story and an exclusive interview on the story of the story as told by the writer who wrote it. Every episode is 30 minutes or less so that it fits comfortably into a listener’s life, and has a Song Exploder-esque format and style.

With several interviews in the bag, Hoekman says, “These interviews are intimate and revealing. The writers so far have all been ready and willing to get personal and to talk about the circumstances and struggles that compel them to create the art they give us.”

Episodes are even recorded on-location—in places relevant either to the writer or to the story. One interview took place during a drive to a uranium mine south of the Grand Canyon. Another was held inside of a planetarium while staring up at a black hole. A third found the host and guest discussing bipolar disorder while sitting in a Circle K parking lot. These settings add dimension to the interviews that no reading event could otherwise achieve.

Venita Blackburn recording for the podcast

Venita Blackburn recording for Spillers podcast

The debut episode features ASU alum Venita Blackburn. On the show, she discusses the lifelong challenges for writers of color following her workshop on the subject, and reads her story, “Chew,” which appears in her upcoming collection Black Jesus and Other Superhero Stories (University of Nebraska Press).

Spillers has previously presented seven live events, held quarterly at the Crescent Ballroom. While autobiographical storytelling events abound, Spillers was the first and is still the only event to offer a night of Arizona’s best fiction in a setting designed to turn writers into rock stars and make literature worthy of date night. Spillers events have featured major novelists, Hudson Prize and GQ Book of the Year winners, Pushcart Prize winners, and contributors to Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Ploughshares, and McSweeney’s Quarterly, among other prestigious publications.

More live Spillers events will follow as the podcast develops its audience. For podcast subscription options and to apply to become a “spiller,” visit www.Spillers.net.

Authors Talk: Kelcey Ervick

Today we are pleased to feature author Kelcey Ervick as our Authors Talk series contributor. Kelcey did a video podcast where she discusses the images that inspired her writing. She goes on to discuss the history Rene Magritte’s influence, including the hooded figure, Fantomas.

 

You can read Kelcey’s piece, “After the Lovers,” in Issue 17 of Superstition Review.

#ArtLitPhx: Author’s visit with Paul Mosier

The Train I Ride book coverOn Saturday June 24th, from 2 to 3PM, the Mesquite Public Library will host local author Paul Mosier. Paul will discuss his newest book, Train I Ride. The book will be available to purchase, and he will speak about his writing process. This is a free event and you can find out more information at the Phoenix Public Library website here.