Guest Blog Post, Tim Reilly: How a Former Tuba Player Becomes a Writer of Short Stories

I had played the mandolin since age seven, but when I entered high school, in 1964, I chose the tuba as the instrument I would play in the concert band. At the time I had little knowledge of the dented brass contraption in the corner of the band room, but it seemed to beckon me: like the Sword in the Stone. As it turned out, I had a natural talent for the tuba. The first notes I produced were stable and centered, and in less than five minutes instruction, I was playing a B-flat major scale. Four years later, I enrolled in junior college as a music major (I had been offered a one-hundred dollar “scholarship”). The junior college music department had no tuba instructor, however, so I set out on my own to find a private teacher, and in 1969 I contacted Roger Bobo—one of the greatest musicians ever to hoist that magnificent horn. He was then the tubist in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He had also been the first tubist to give a solo recital at Carnegie Hall (see John Updike’s light verse poem: “Recital”).  

I can remember clearly my first lesson with Roger. His home, at that time, was in the Hollywood hills, not far from the Hollywood Bowl. I arrived a little early and he offered me some coffee (very good coffee, as I recall). He was wearing an Irish fisherman’s sweater and he looked a little like Tyrone Power (if Tyrone Power had been a tight end for the Rams). We sat and talked for a while, and then, before hearing me play a single note, he said: “I hope you’re not planning on making a living playing the tuba.” Becoming a professional tubist was exactly what I had been planning to do. I was stunned by his remark, but when the color returned to my face, Roger added that he was not trying to discourage me from pursuing a professional career, only that I should have something else to fall back on. “It’s a tough way to make a living,” he said. “There’s a lot of competition, few openings, and no guarantees.”  

I studied with Roger Bobo throughout most of the 1970s (the topic of “having something else to fall back on” was never again mentioned). Roger was (and still is) a remarkable teacher. During our first year of instruction, he would often perform with me in unison the etudes or solos I’d prepared for my lesson—his tuba-bell a foot or two from my right ear. This gave me confidence and a strong concept of proper phrasing and rhythm and sound. But he discontinued this practice after our first year. Instead, he would sit—or stand—and sometimes sing and/or conduct a passage. His comments were always precise and beneficial and never sugar-coated. In the following years, we worked almost exclusively on orchestral repertoire. I was encouraged to study the tuba part in the context of a full orchestral score. Roger helped me learn the principles of artistic discipline, daily regimen, and a reverence for the smallest details (attributes not foreign to a good writer). During one particular lesson, he said something that would take root in my mind.

“What would you say is a teacher’s job?” he asked.

I thought it was a rhetorical question and I answered without thinking. “A teacher’s job is to teach.”

“Wrong,” he said. “A teacher’s job is to help students learn how to teach themselves.”

By the mid-1970s I was making my living as a professional tubist. In 1978 I traveled to Europe and was offered the tuba chair in the orchestra of The Teatro Regio, in Turin, Italy. It was a wonderful experience (for the most part), but at the end of the opera season, I decided not to renew my contract, and I returned to the States. Once home, I took up where I’d left off, only now my situation had improved: I was offered more studio work and I performed regularly with several of the local orchestras and other ensembles throughout southern California. And then my friend and mentor, Roger Bobo, gave me the highest honor yet: he asked me to substitute for him in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This was something akin to being Olivier’s understudy filling in as Hamlet.

Performing with one of the world’s top symphonic orchestras is a near-approach to the gates of Heaven. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. All those years of hard work had paid off. And I was up for the task; I felt right at home. But something horrible happened during the second concert. A malevolent force suddenly weakened my left jaw and my embouchure muscles. I was terrified. I leaned over to Jeff Reynolds, the bass trombonist, and whispered my situation. Jeff’s response was outstanding: he doubled my part, where he could, and helped me sandbag through the rest of the concert, without a hitch.

The condition that ended my music career is called “Embouchure Dystonia.” (You can read about the different forms of dystonia in Oliver Sack’s book Musicophilia.)

II

Midway on my life’s journey (the 1980s), I found myself with nothing to “fall back on”—except a series of low-paying, low-skilled jobs, and a major funk. My spirits rose a little when I took my mandolin out of mothballs and performed with a traditional Irish music band, but—tasteful and challenging as the music was—it didn’t supply enough nourishment to heal my soul or turn my life around.

I had been a hungry reader my whole life. As a child I loved fairytales and Arthurian legends and the poems and stories of Edgar Allen Poe. In my twenties, however, I started reading more nonfiction: history, biography, and science. It was an unbalanced diet. Fortunately, during a particularly low stretch of my mid-thirties, I instinctively increased my intake of poetry and fiction, and my soul resumed its proper course, leaving behind my overabundant self-pity.

It was about this time I encountered the first of two lifechanging events. The first event would end in an unintentional negative sell. I was at a party, engaged in a conversation about great literature. I was the greenhorn among the group, and I naively asked the Leader of the Pack about James Joyce’s Ulysses. I said I’d heard about the book and was wondering should I read it. The Leader of the Pack smirked and said that I should instead read something by Steinbeck; Ulysses was for scholars.

The next morning, I started a syllabus for what would be my self-taught course to conquer Mount Ulysses. (“The best way to get an Irishman to do something is to tell him he can’t do it.”) I made a list of the books I knew Joyce would have read: The Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy; the works of Shakespeare, Ovid, Virgil, and, of course, Homer. I included Greek and Irish and Nordic myths and legends. I would also read Joyce’s Dubliners (three times) and Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.

I am a very slow reader. The process took about three years to complete. When I felt ready, I went to a used book store and paid a dollar-fifty for a hardbound copy of Ulysses. It was one of the most enjoyable books I’d ever read. I learned what I knew as a child (“The child is the father of the man”): a book is something to read; not conquer. One of the best side effects from all this reading was the uncontrollable urge to write something of my own. This time, however, I decided to go the traditional route of the university, and I enrolled for night courses. I tapped into my past musician’s discipline and developed the joyful habit of writing every day. (I would eventually earn a degree in liberal studies and an elementary teaching credential.)   

1991 brought the second of my lifechanging events. It was the year I met Jo-Anne Cappeluti: the most extraordinary human being I have ever known, the love of my life, and the woman I would marry. At the time we met, Jo-Anne was already a published poet and scholar, with a Ph.D. in English. She was then teaching creative writing and literature courses at a local university (a position from which she retired a few years ago, after thirty years of service). Over the years Jo-Anne has coached me on how to be my own editor—emphasizing a reverence for the smallest details and the necessity for revisions. She makes suggestions but never edits my work nor tells me what to do. Sometimes we disagree about things (sometimes we argue)—but she’s the one who usually had it right from the start. We listen to classical music and read aloud to one-another from great works of literature. Recently we read aloud from George MacDonald’s The Golden Key.

In 1997 my first publication, “The Awakening,” appeared in the Seattle Review. Since then I have had the good fortune to receive more than three-dozen acceptances in various literary journals (including two short stories in Superstition Review). Every acceptance is a magical experience; the excitement never diminishes. (I have received far more rejections than acceptances—but I quit counting them years ago.) God willing, I will continue writing short stories as long as I draw breath in this life. My passion for writing has given back to me something I had lost (and then some). I never intended to make a living by writing, and it looks like I’m in no danger of ever doing so. This doesn’t bother me in the least.

Intern Post, Leslie Standridge: Looking Back and Looking Forward (An AWP 16 Tale)

SR Contributor Larry Eby (Issue 10) and I

AWP? What’s that? My friends and family and anyone else I told about my weekend plans inquired into my LA trip plans.

Well it’s a conference for writers, basically. I replied casually and coolly as if I wasn’t a newbie.

Well, what do you do there?

Uh, like, go to panels and stuff, and buy books. Writer things.

Sounds fun.

I think so! 

I’ll admit, I had slight doubts about the truth of the last statement. Did I think AWP would be interesting? Enjoyable? Worth going to? Yes, yes, and yes. However, I wasn’t sure if it would be fun, per sé, in the sense of childlike amusement, easy-going, “relax and have fun,” fun. Boy, was I wrong.

The conference was predated by a road trip, something I was a little nervous about in the beginning. I’m not good with long car trips (motion sickness), I do not pack lightly (fear of not having the right outfit for the right event is a legitimate thing), and I was travelling with two women I didn’t know really well (what do I talk about?!). However, within an hour of being on the road (and a Dramamine), my qualms melted away. We bonded quickly over shared ailments and McDonalds (oh, and of course what AWP panels we were looking forward to).

Once arrived in LA, we got settled into the lovely JW Marriott and began our trek to the convention center, which overwhelming both size-wise and architecturally (there are just so many bars everywhere). We checked in, got our badges, and even pestered a security guard into taking our photo. We were officially clocked in to AWP 16.

The next couple of days would be, for lack of a better word, an experience. It may seem cliché, but I really did learn a lot about my interests, my long-term goals, and, most importantly, myself. I had the fantastic opportunity to become friends with and grow closer to my fellow interns (and roommates during the trip), Ofelia, Alexis, and Jess, who are all beautiful, intelligent, and incredibly talented women. I grew all the more appreciative of my internship with S[r] and of Trish, the most amazing mentor probably in all of existence. I also gained much knowledge about craft, met my favorite slam poet, Anis Mojgani, and came home with two tote bags worth of swag.

So, now a AWP vet, I have compiled a list of eight things about AWP that I think anyone, first-timer or old-timer, should keep in mind:

  1. You won’t go to all the panels you want to go to. In fact, after the first day, you probably won’t even try to go to all of those panels. That’s perfectly okay—you are human and you will probably be exhausted all week anyway. We are all taking a slight detour from real life to go to AWP, which is impressive enough, right?
  2.  It’s okay to eat at some greasy chain restaurant the first night—don’t stress yourself out trying to find a Yelp-approved, hole-in-the-wall , unique restaurant. Sometimes you end up at a run-down Hooters at 10 at night, even in LA. You’re tired, you deserve wings and cold fries!
  3. If a panel takes a turn for the worse, don’t be afraid to skip out. AWP is about curating your own writerly education and if the panelists start arguing with each other about something completely off topic, well, you aren’t really learning anything are you?
  4. Social media, namely Twitter, is one of the best parts of AWP—see hashtags #badAWPadvice, #AWP16, and #overheardatAWP. Not only is social media great for building your brand (look at all I’m accomplishing, everyone) and interacting with big names/presses/magazines in the industry, but it also allows for some inside humor.
  5. Set aside at least 2-3 hours, maybe more, for the book fair. I promise it is worth your while to take your time and really pay attention to the books, magazines, contests, MFA programs, and so on that are all being offered. Don’t be afraid to talk to people at the tables either. We want to answer your questions and chat about you, your writing, and whatever else may come up. Also, if you are a poor college student, buying on the last day is a more financially viable option.
  6. Ask questions in panels and network (if you can) with the panelists, especially in career-oriented panels. Don’t be afraid that your question may sound dumb or that you’re hair looks wonky. There is no better chance to put your name in the mind of an editor than if you give it to them directly.
  7. Go to the AWP dance party and shake off all the stress from the day. Writers are great dancers! Also, it is free entertainment.
  8.  Remember: you are a writer. Even in the midst of so many brilliant and successful people who have accomplished more than you, you are a writer. Don’t feel intimidated!

AWP changed me, for the better. It reignited a lot of the passion I had lost for reading and writing over the past year (senioritis and personal life drama can really destroy your livelihood). I’m confident that its impact is similar on all attendees—after all, so many people continue to come back. If you’re interested in going, I encourage you to do it (and I’m not even getting paid to say this, so you know it’s a real sentiment), and if you have gone before, and will again, I will see you in D.C. Look for the dark-haired girl frantically searching for a Hooters.

Guest Post, Alexandria Peary: Discussion of AWP Panel “Creative Writing is for Everyone: Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century”

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Pedagogy is deeply important for creative writing for a reason beyond teacher professional development or the legitimizing of creative writing as an academic discipline. While pedagogy certainly helps in those areas, students are the main reason for its importance.

It’s not news to say that the traditional workshop model has been critiqued for its lack of a nuanced or evolving pedagogy. (I think of it as a “mono pedagogy” in the way a bra fitter once told me during my impoverished graduate student days that a sports bra is “mono mammary.”)

Organized as it is around exchanging drafts (usually at a fairly advanced stage) and the giving and receiving of feedback, the workshop model makes certain assumptions about where the student is located in his or her writing process.

Typically, the workshop model pays sparse attention to prewriting, early drafting, and the actual implementation of that feedback to revise. The workshop approach casts light onto a fairly limited stretch of the writing experience, leaving radio silence before and afterwards.

The workshop model also operates from a certain set of assumptions about the context (the who-what-where-why-and how) of a creative writing education. It assumes the student is:

  • someone who’s authored a fairly advanced draft
  • someone who’s fully ready for peer feedback and doesn’t require training in the earlier moments of the writing process
  • someone whose intent is the production of belletristic and possibly publishable texts
  • someone who writes in response to literary models
  • someone who’s sitting in a classroom.

One of this year’s AWP panels on pedagogy, “Creative Writing Is for Everyone: Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century,” strives to dismantle these assumptions.

The five panelists present a sample of pedagogies from the 2015 collection Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (Southern Illinois University Press): Steve Healey, Tom C. Hunley, Tim Mayers, Stephanie Vanderslice, and Alexandria Peary (moderator and presenter). Panelists discuss service learning; process and rhetorical pedagogy; Creative Writing-Across-the-Curriculum; and creative literacy.

By rethinking the individuals, purpose, and location of creative writing instruction, speakers in this panel point to the ways creative writing can be relevant not only to those on a path to becoming literary writers, but to every other student as well. Pedagogy is a matter of access: it determines which students receive the benefits of an education in creative writing. While sticking to the workshop model potentially disenfranchises students, the reverse is also the case:

  • creative writing can assist many types of learners in other majors
  • creative writing can be learned and practiced by individuals outside the university
  • creative writing can show students ways to lessen the mystery of finding ideas through a time-honored rhetorical tradition
  • creative writing can celebrate the writer of the unfinished as much as the writer of the polished product.

This AWP session occurs at AWP on Friday, April 1, from 3:00-4:15 PM in Gold Salon 1, JW Marriott LA, First Floor. Copies of Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century will be available at the Southern Illinois University Press booth. Southern Illinois University Press will be offering a 30% conference discount on Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century to people who attend the panel and AWP; the promo code will be valid for 1 1/2 weeks after AWP.

Guest Post, Courtney Mauk: On the Value of Nosiness

Sometimes on the subway my husband and I play a game. We choose a person and silently take in the details, from the obvious physical characteristics to the more subtle indicators of who this person is and what type of life he or she might lead (Is that a wedding ring? What’s the title of the book he’s reading, and is he really reading it? Why does she keep checking her watch? Look how she’s noticing her reflection in the window). We assemble narratives, which we share with each other later on, using the observed details to explain and defend until we combine our efforts into one story of a stranger we will most likely never see again. Some might call us nosy, but I prefer to think of us as curious. Either way, my husband and I are shameless. At restaurants we eavesdrop. One of us will catch a juicy tidbit at the next table and widen our eyes, and whatever conversation we were having will stop as we both lean forward and listen.

I have been a people-watcher all my life, and my home, New York City, is the perfect place to indulge. People are endlessly fascinating with their complexities and contradictions, their histories and quirks. But what really pulls me in is the raw humanness we all share—that mash-up of love, uncertainty, fear, and want swirling around just below the surface. We are more alike than we are different, yet these common vulnerabilities are the ones we guard most carefully, ashamed and afraid of the judgment of others, or even ourselves. When we let those vulnerabilities slip through—that is a moment of beauty.

If asked why I write, I could give many answers: compulsion; the joy of words; the freedom in creation; a desire to leave a mark, however small, on the world. But, really, I write for the same reason I read, and the same reason I people-watch: to learn about others and try to get at that common, messy human core. My novel, Spark, addresses subjects that have interested me for a long time; I’ve written elsewhere about my initial inspiration and the research involved. But the actual act of putting pen to paper began with one character, the narrator, Andrea. Her name came to me on a walk one afternoon and with it a feeling of anguish; I understood that she was a woman fighting to gain control and losing badly, although I didn’t know why yet. I wrote her name down in my notebook and began listing everything about her. From there, the relationships then the themes of the book revealed themselves to me.

Almost all my fiction begins this way, with one character coming up to me out of the ether. As I write, I feel that character pulling me along, as if the story is already there, the character impatient for me to uncover it. I’m sure my people-watching has helped, the details filed away in my subconscious for later use.

In my writing I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to bring out that messy human core as completely, or with as much clarity, as I would like, but it gives me something to strive for. And in the process, I find myself feeling more connected to those beautiful strangers on the subway.

New Summer Series: Dispatches from Delhi

My name is Arjun Chopra, and this summer I’m moving to India for two months to be a T.A. at New Era Public School, a K-through-12 institution in New Delhi.

Why, you ask? There are so many reasons.

1. It’s going to be an incredible work experience. I’ll be working 8-hour days, 5 days a week, grading papers, assisting teachers in putting together lesson plans, and maybe I’ll even get to teach a class or two myself. For a kid like me who has spent his whole life as a nose-to-the-books student, this kind of rigorous workload will be a stark change and a welcome reprieve.

2. My entire family lives there. And when I say entire, I mean entire. My great-grandparents, my grandparents, their children, their children’s children, my first cousins, my second cousins, my second cousins once removed. It’s an extensive list of people, people I feel privileged to spend quality time with. I will learn how to cook quality Punjabi food at my grandmother’s house. Take a crash course in martial arts at the studio by my cousin’s place. And hopefully take a road trip to somewhere awesome in a different region with the family members who are ready to go.

3. But most importantly, I’m going because as a student and a poet, I know I can’t grow without exposure to new stimuli. If I want to learn different things, I have to be exposed to different things. The same goes for if I want to write something new.

I’m going because I want a change, but not the kind of change where I shrug off who I am and become someone else. I need a change in perspective, a shift in paradigm, a break from what has become my everyday so I can expand as a worker, a writer, and a person.

That’s also why I’ll be chronicling my exploration in this “Dispatches” series for Superstition Review, to document my journey not only for personal fulfillment, but in the hope that maybe others can learn something, even a kernel of something, from the things I write about.

So, cheers. I have a feeling it’s going to be a great summer.

The Blogging Survival Guide: 10 Helpful Hints and Tips

Blogging isn’t as easy as it looks. If you’ve ever tried blogging, you know what I’m talking about. The immediacy and candidness of an internet platform can be both a blessing and a curse. To help you navigate the world of blogging, we’ve compiled a list of 10 blogging tips and tricks from some of our favorite blogging guides, Blogging For Dummies (Susannah Gardner) and Blogging Heroes (Michael A. Banks).

1. Just write anything. This isn’t to say that you should start pouring your heart out for all of the Internet to see, but the best way to overcome writer’s block is just to start writing. Getting something, anything, written down is better than staring at a blank screen and a blinking cursor, even if you think what you’ve written is absolute rubbish. What you write doesn’t have to be good (at least not right away). That’s why they call it a draft.

2. When you’re on a roll, don’t stop. I’ll have some great days where I feel I could write 10,000 words on every subject, and there are other days when I feel I would have difficulty writing my name. Understanding that I have that flexibility to think and creatively write ahead of time gives me a little wiggle room for those days when I am feeling compositionally-challenged. When creativity strikes, keep writing. You can always stockpile posts for another day.

3. Interact with other bloggers. The blogosphere is a great place to create new friends, talk about the things you love, and become inspired. Do you love grilled cheese? Well, there’s probably a blog about that. Commenting on other blogs can not only increase traffic to your blog, but can also lead to some interesting topics. Just don’t forget to be polite. No one likes an Internet troll.

4. Be authentic. Without passion and authenticity, your blog is going to fall flat. Write about something that interests you. Ask yourself if it is something you would want to read, because if you wouldn’t want to read it, neither will your audience.

5. Know your audience. There has been some debate as to whether or not analytic tools are an invasion of privacy. Even here at Superstition Review, we try to keep our readers updated with our latest stats through Google Analytics. Analytic tools do not store personal information. They do, however, allow bloggers to take a closer look at who is frequenting the site, what they’re looking at, how long they linger, and where they’re coming from. These tools are vital in understanding who you’re writing for. With this information, you can tailor your post to better meet the interests of your readership, and scrap ideas that aren’t working.

6. Don’t be afraid to fail. Your blog probably won’t become an overnight success. The best part about blogging is that you can experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. As blogger Scott McNulty advised, “It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s the same as everything else: If you work hard and stick to it, eventually you’ll grow your audience. Of course, if you are interested as I am in a particular subject, you’ll just do it for the love of the subject, and success will usually follow.”

7. Grow a thick skin. Not everyone is going to agree with everything you say and that is okay. What you write, what you think, and what you say will be under constant criticism. Because the Internet is a fairly anonymous platform, commenters will say things that they would never openly say to your face. It is important that you not take these comments personally. Be polite and never go on the defensive. Acknowledge their views and try to take a neutral ground. The chances that you’re going to convince someone they’re wrong is slim to none.

8. Post consistently. Once you build your readership, it is important that you keep them coming back. If you leave your blog dormant for a month or even a few weeks, interest is going to wane quickly. There are thousands of blogs that have been abandoned by their bloggers (can’t you hear their lonely sobbing?). If you don’t post consistently, your readers will think your blog is one of them. Try to make a schedule for yourself. Set goals and stick to them.

9. Cite your sources. Stealing ideas and images is just as bad as running out of Best Buy with a cart of electronics you didn’t pay for. It is okay to draw from other sources as long as you give them credit where it is due.

10. Have fun. Blogging can be a great learning opportunity and a lot of fun. It has opened doors for a lot of people over the past decade and has given voices to writers from every walk of life. Don’t let it overwhelm you.

I highly recommend you check out Blogging Heroes and Blogging For Dummies for more tips and tricks. Their guides have been invaluable to me and a wonderful resource to fall back on when I’m in need of some advice.

We Are Not Machines.

Among online literary publications, Superstition Review is unique; we are based out of Arizona State University (Polytechnic Campus), and we do not run our magazine out of a physical office. Suffice to say, this provides some advantages and disadvantages.  (Though, I’ve got to say that pretty much everybody universally enjoys working in their pajamas.)

Another one of our distinguishing features is that we are a student-run publication. We are in the thick of words and work–we read for our classes, we read to publish, we go to work, we do our homework, and we also publish this Review.

Keeping that in mind, I feel the two main components of the SR experiences are growth and learning.

Every word to this blog, every minute touch up of the site, every poem submitted to our editors enables SR to grow. And as a creative writer myself, I know especially how much writers grow just by building up the strength of their own work and courage just to send something in with the hopes of publication.

We learn; every day is a learning experience. Some of us have never worked this close with publishing, or exclusively in an online environment, or on these many deadlines. Some of us have worked like this before, but with a new team, one always has to adjust to new rhythms. Hopefully, you are learning alongside us every step of the way.