Intern Post, John Chakravarty: Small Failures

The submission process must be the most impersonal part of a writer’s career. The author has just spent days, weeks, or even years writing, editing, and workshopping the best piece of fiction they can muster. But without an audience, it’s just a piece of journal writing. Professors and other writing professionals will encourage the author to “get your work out there” and “you need a few rejection letters under the belt.” So this piece of written human soul gets crammed into an email and whisked away to a faceless submission editor.

Finding places to submit work to is the first part of this impersonal interaction. The best way to find a literary journal that will like your work is to read journals that have similar work to yours. The problem is, that the pieces that they are publishing may either A. be much stronger and more practiced or B. not anything like what you write, in terms of style. SmokeLong Quarterly is my favorite online journal, but my written work has not measured up to their level so far. I find this uneven balance when I am submitting work where I’ve either spent a lot of time reading a journal and realized that there’s no way my work stacks up. Or I’ve never heard of the journal, and think they must just be publishing anyone, why would I bother. Scanning through lists and call for submissions can feel like job hunting with incredibly vague parameters.

However, the worst part of this process is the rejection email. There’s never a right time or place to receive the email and it’s never quite worded the right way. A rejection email that sticks out in my mind said, “while we loved the absurdist normalcy of the piece, we regret to inform you…” I appreciated the time it took for them to write something personal about my work, but it left me questioning what that meant. I spent the next few days workshopping the email, trying to get a positive deconstruction of the narrative and what the character was trying to say to me. Needless to say, I didn’t get anywhere.

Being on the other side of this as a submission editor had a similar disconnect. We had almost three hundred fiction submissions. Three hundred is a relatively low number for some journals, but it set a record for Superstition Review. I found myself stuck looking at a neverending list of titles from strangers. They show up like an excel database, or some customer list. It’s very different than sitting across from someone in a workshop.

Writing the rejection email I ran into a similar conflict. Based on the rejections I’ve gotten the email should do the following; thank the writer for submitting, tell them no, and ask them to read the journal anyway. Which always feels inauthentic when on the receiving end.

The value in submitting can’t come from personal connection. Instead, it has to come from a place of personal growth. Only by submitting (and being on the other end) can an author learn to make mistakes and to take risks. Keeping a piece of writing private keeps it safe and for some people that’s enough. Exposing a piece of writing forces the author to grow their craft and skill by releasing that inhibition. Social media has exposed the extremes of our society. Most often, we only see something that is of extreme success or extreme failure. Small failures have to happen for any professional to grow. For writers that comes in the form of rejection letters. These are only small failures, and they must be overcome in order to grow. I hope that Superstition Review gets six hundred fiction submissions next semester and that many more small failures get to occur.

Guest Post, Brad Modlin: When Not Singing Into My Spatula Microphone, I Play Metaphor Games

Here´s a game I play in the kitchen: I rip out pictures from magazines and tape them to my cabinets. 

Selected at random, their only similarity is that they’re interesting enough to look at for a while. (No ads for Xerox machines or anything like that.) The game is that you find what these pictures can have in common.

pushing daisiesOnce I ended up with a saxophone player, a train track, and an ad for the TV show, Pushing Daisies.

For weeks, while I was stirring soup or waiting for my pasta pot to boil, I looked up at these pictures and built bridges. Maybe the Daisies couple had pressed their ears to the ground to hear the music of the approaching train. Or, a different bridge—the bell of the saxophone was circular like the wheel of the train and the center of the daisy. Also, the saxophonist’s hair was grass-like. Or maybe he was a hobo who hopped trains searching for the brunette he once loved in the grass. Each picture contained death: the TV show about the girl who died, the abandoned train track, and the jazz of a New Orleans funeral.

saxophoneIt was a simple—and surprisingly fun—way to build my metaphor muscles. And the longer those same pictures were on the cabinets, the more challenging it became to find new connections. 

Plus, as several other writers have reported on this blog, we can all go through spells when we’re not exactly writing. In those times, this picture game can be a way to trick yourself into staying in shape.

When I tape other magazine cutouts to the chalkboard and share the game with my students, they really get into it and always create similarities I hadn’t anticipated. Poetry classes often find sensory connections: the noisy motorboat probably screams like the pregnant woman will do when she goes into labor. Or they easily do what teachers frequently hope they will—explain an abstract concept via a concrete image. The Egyptian queen from the museum photo, they say, is proud and stubborn and as unflinching as the blue mountain from the magazine cover. 15257638-railroad-tracks-surrounded-by-green-grass

The fiction students find narratives. They link five pictures together into one story, and then I add a sixth picture, and they come up with a complete different plot or character. Maybe the desert that was the setting becomes the loneliness that motivates the main character. 

If you want to give it a try yourself, here are some pictures:

staircase

tattoo

cancer cowboys

kittynew

Maybe the fight with cancer is like the dragon tattoo versus the Godzilla toy. Maybe that’s The Grim Reaper on the staircase. Maybe smoking makes you cough like a cat with a hairball.

Or, maybe the cat is waiting for someone to feed her, the ghostly staircase figure is floating to the dining room, the little boy wants someone to fix him an afternoon snack, and the cowboys are on their way to campfire soup. Maybe everyone is hungry and wishing the cook would pay more attention to the pot on the stove, and less attention to the pictures taped to the cabinets.