Guest Post, Anthony Varallo: Standard Time

envelope-1426219The advantages of online submission over standard mail are so numerous, so obvious, so clear, so superior in nearly every way; still, sometimes I miss waiting in line at the post office, where no one else seemed to be sending overlong stories to The New Yorker. I miss holding the envelopes against my side so no one might see that I was also simultaneously submitting to The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. I always feared someone in line turning to me and saying, “Don’t you think that’s a little bit unrealistic?” But there was a pleasure in placing the envelopes on a scale and finding out—surprise!—how much it costs to send a thirty-two-page story to Boston. I miss buying a book of stamps for my next round of SASEs. I miss the receipt I always kept for no reason whatsoever.

There were other pleasures, too. I had a ritual for writing out SASEs, a problem for me, since my handwriting is terrible, but I could cover well enough by printing in all caps. I would set a stack of #10 envelopes on my writing desk and print my name and address so many times, over and over again, until my name seemed alien to me, my address some foreign port I’d yet to visit. After, I would place a stamp in the top right hand corner with the same studied care I used whenever I had to affix a registration decal to my license plate. Next, I would paper clip the SASE to the back of my submission and cover letter—it was part of the ritual that the SASE must be hidden from immediate view since I didn’t want the editor thinking about rejecting my story before encountering the first page—and slide it into the envelope, where I hoped I would never see it again.

For the manuscript, I preferred staples to paper clips, and sort of miss the days when “staples or paper clips?” was as familiar a question at AWP panels as “how do I get an agent?” or “where do you get your ideas from?” Another loss: the feeling of reloading my stapler with a fresh, gleaming row of staples. Testing the first staple, always a misfire, so that the next staple might pass through.

I liked to send my stories from the post office, even if I had sufficient postage at home, since I believed that a postmarked story had a better chance of getting accepted than a stamped one. I refused to use commemorative stamps, worried that some editor might start thinking about Edith Wharton or Ernest Hemingway or Mark Twain or some other vastly superior writer, rather than my homely stuff. I always used brown manila envelopes, never white, never Tyvek. Never priority mail: too desperate.

For a while, I had a preference for specific postal employees at my local post office (this is embarrassing to admit) since I believed that some of them were “lucky” while others were not so lucky. Part of the ritual was to stand in line and hope to get a “lucky” employee without deliberately changing my position in line, a game so dumb and meaningless I can barely stand to write this; still, it was kind of fun. My favorite “lucky” employee was a kind, middle-aged woman with gray hair who would always stamp a bright red first-class stamp as close to the editor’s name as possible so that, as she explained it, they would think they were “first class people.”

But there’s one ritual I miss more than any other: opening a rejection slip from some distinguished magazine I had no hope in the world of getting accepted by, and finding even the slightest written note. Sorry, not this one, or, Try us again? I would read those notes more times than I’d like to admit, hieroglyphs, I believed, to my certain future.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Writer Mark Jacobs

Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Mark Jacobs.

Mark JacobsA former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Mark Jacobs has published more than 100 stories in magazines including The Atlantic, The Southern Humanities Review, The Idaho Review, The Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review. He has stories forthcoming in several magazines including Playboy. His story “How Birds Communicate” won The Iowa Review fiction prize. His books include A Handful of Kings, published by Simon and Shuster, and Stone Cowboy, by Soho Press, which won the Maria Thomas Award.

His website can be found at www.markjacobsauthor.com.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Beth Gilstrap: On Depression, Vulnerability, Risk, and Writing

I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.

I write this with the full weight of it causing my shoulders to spasm. I don’t write this as a threat or a way to evoke fear or pity. I write it as a statistical fact based on my diagnoses: major depression, anxiety & panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (including body dysmorphia). I have been in treatment for twenty-two years, but my troubles started long before I ever stepped foot in a therapist’s office. I used to ask myself in the vein of Nick Hornby’s protagonist from High Fidelity, “What came first—the writing or the misery?”

The truth is I’m not sure. Even before I could write, I made up stories to escape the trauma of my surroundings. Many of my earliest memories are violent and lonely. The rest are soft, sweet, and full of the joy of storytelling in the varied timbres of my brother, Mama, Grandma, and Grandpa seeping past and through our always-rocky financial situation and the great, gnarled yarn of mental illness among us. No one had to tell me we told ourselves stories in order to live. We all made something. Grandpa with his carvings. Grandma with her sewing, etc.

I know one of the reasons I’m alive today is because I write. As an adult trying to eke out a career in a creative field, I’ve devoted a lot of time to reading about the link between creativity (writers in particular) and depression. When I learned of Ned Vizzini’s suicide last year, (author of: Teen Angst? Naaah…, Be More Chill, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, The Other Normals, and House of Secrets) I found myself crying for him and crying for myself. I did the same thing for Robin Williams. As I did for all three of my friends who killed themselves over the years. As I’ve done for the ones who overdosed. As I will do over and over.

Sometimes, my outcome seems inevitable, but I write to combat that feeling.

Inevitable can get bent.

Like Dylan Thomas implores, I will rage against it. I urge other creatives out there (and everyone else fighting this terrible disease) to rage with me. Rage against it by making things. Do what you do and do it to survive. Rage against stigma. Rage against shame. Share.

The Atlantic devoted a large chunk of their July/August Ideas Issue to the neuroscience of creativity. Dr. Nancy C. Andreason researches the link between creatives (including writers, visual & performing artists, and scientists) and mental illness. I think most of us are aware of the famous (and too often romanticized) suicides, but I’m also interested in those who have or did manage to cope, succeed in their fields, and somehow, survive their mental illness. Andreason reports:

“One after another, my writer subjects came to my office and spent three or four hours pouring out their stories of their struggles with mood disorder –mostly depression, but occasionally, bipolar disorder. A full 80 percent of them had some kind of mood disturbance at some time in their lives, compared with just 30 percent of the control group…” (68).

Andreason’s work shows there’s not necessarily a correlation between high IQ and creative genius, but more of a similarity in personalities. Creatives tend to persevere. Creatives are better at forming associations. They tend to be “adventuresome and exploratory.” Creativity tends to run in families alongside mental illness. The part I want to keep in my pocket for later use is her claim about creatives being risk takers:

“They have to confront doubt and rejection. And yet they have to persist in spite of that, because they believe strongly in the value of what they do. This can lead to psychic pain, which may manifest itself as depression or anxiety, or lead people to attempt to reduce their discomfort by turning to pain relievers such as alcohol.”

I am not the only creative in my family and brother, you have no idea how deep the mental illness and addiction goes in our clan. I come from a proper, southern, religious, sweep-that-mess-back-under-the-rug-where-it-belongs (try not to snicker at the contrast) family. Don’t dare talk about your problems. Poor Mama. She wound up with a writer and a musician for children.

You may wonder what all this has to do with you and your writing or art (whatever form that takes), whether you struggle with depression or not.

It has nothing and everything to do with your creative work. For some of us, it is survival. It’s about anchoring ourselves to the few things we can rely on when, for great swathes of our lives, we cannot rely on ourselves. My anchors are the act of writing, my husband, and my animals.

If you are like the 80 percent Andreason talks about, you get it. I hope you’ll join and rage with me. If you are one of the fortunate few writers (& artists) who do not struggle with depression, it is no matter. Ponder these ideas when it comes to what you create and how you interact with the rest of us sad sacks. It’s not something we can shake off nor should it be for your characters. I recommend Charles Baxter’s craft essay, “Regarding Happiness,” (from Burning Down the House) in which he argues against “happiness” as sustainable in any narrative form. Baxter claims:

“I’d argue that in 80 percent of all narratives, the young couple and their happiness are not the story; the story resides in the unhappy onlooker –Satan, watching Adam and Eve; Claggert, staring at Billy Budd; Iago, looking at Othello and Desdemona…” (208-9).

What I find most interesting is how much Baxter’s essay reminds me of a discussion with my therapist about the meaning of the word “happiness” –its mythic, unattainable stature, and how what we should really strive for are moments of joy and self-care. I have major depression. It’s the one thing I write about that causes so much discomfort and unease. I lose more followers when I’m open about my depression than anything else I post about (even the constant stream of cat and dog photos). I struggled with whether or not to write about depression. I wanted to write something safer, but I chose the topic that made me most vulnerable. Most times if you are working hard to avoid writing something, that’s the very thing that begs to be written. Walk right into the dark, bubbling middle of that thing. Stare it in the eye. Writing without vulnerability is worthless.

I know my depression may kill me one day, but today is not that day.

Today I write.

Today I rage.

Today I anchor myself to you.

For further reading about the neuroscience of creativity: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/06/secrets-of-the-creative-brain/372299/

Narrative Magazine Soon to Celebrate its First Decade

Narrative Logo

Narrative Magazine, one of the nation’s most prominent literary venues, is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. The magazine’s founders note that the years have been but a breath and a heartbeat but also a long sustained burning of midnight oil. So the editors and staff are really looking forward to the anniversary celebrations, to take place in San Francisco in April and in NYC in the autumn. Many good and dedicated people helped create and build Narrative, and the celebrations promise to bring together the magazine’s friends, old and new, to raise a glass to writers and great writing.

When Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks started the magazine in 2003, there were no online or digital platforms for first-rank literary work—The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, the Paris Review, none of them, nor any other quality publisher of literature, had an online presence. And, according to studies done by the NEA, readers were falling away from literature by the millions, and certainly the rise of technological media was a big part of the shift away from reading. A general sense of depression and indirection was overtaking the literary community, and Edgarian and Jenks wanted to show what quality literature could look like online. They started with six authors and about a thousand readers. (The contents of the first issue are available here.) And the founders recall that when they started the magazine, no one—friends and authors—seemed to understand what an online magazine would be, though observers were all cheerful enough about it, as if to humor Edgarian and Jenks by saying, Sure, why not?

Today, of course, everyone grasps the challenge and opportunity that technology presents for literature, but until Amazon launched Kindle in 2007, the handwriting on the wall wasn’t read by many publishers and litterateurs, who should have been reading it much sooner. Change, especially the kind of radical change that has taken place in publishing, is always met with resistance, and existing book and magazine content was less immediately available to be digitized than were film and music files. Old-line publishers, clinging to print rights, sunk costs, and traditional bona fides (a digital publication was not considered a “real” publication), harbored reluctance and denial, though the shift from bricks-and-mortar to digital was inevitable once the technological revolution started and the Internet caught the collective imagination. In the early stages of this shift, Douglas Coupland observed that the Internet had begun to look like a cross between a shopping mall and a bordello, and today online commercialism remains a big challenge to literary values. Amazon’s “the readers decide” is a great consumer-oriented retail credo, but as a literary value it’s akin to a popularity contest. Narrative began and continues as an example of excellence, combining old-school values with new media technology. Narrative was one of the first two periodicals to release an iPhone/iPad Application (it’s free) and was one of the first periodicals available on Kindle. The magazine has 150,000 readers and publishes several hundred writers and artists each year. Narrative has been much watched and imitated by other periodicals with vastly greater resources, and now in an environment in which technology and business investment seek scalability and ROI above all, Narrative continues to look for ways to co-opt the means of production for the sake of literature. “We can’t take its existence for granted,” Jenks notes, “or think that the free market values it as we do.”

He also notes that the constant readership for good writing forms a small subculture within mass-culture. Sometimes a book or author crosses over from the small world to the large, most often in the case of a film adaptation. Cormac McCarthy’s first five books sold about three thousand copies each. Then came the film version of All the Pretty Horses. There are other examples, but the point is that all who care deeply about literature and its generative effect on society recognize that anything and everything that can be done to encourage good writing and reading needs to be done. Narrative has sought to reach as many readers as possible, to put forth the best work by the best writers, to engender an intelligent and respectful level of discourse, and to further the best of traditional literary values into the new age.

With Narrative the editors offer as transparent a medium as possible to connect readers and writers. The magazine aims to advance no editorial stamp or personality such that anyone might say that a particular work is a “Narrative Magazine” sort of piece; rather, the editors’ interest is in good writing and narratives that are entertaining, unpredictable, and charged with the shock of recognition that occurs when the human significance of the work is made manifest. The editors look for pieces in which the effects of language, situation, and insight are intense and total. Many of the authors featured in Narrative are well-known, but the magazine is also dedicated to presenting new and emerging writers and features many first-time authors.

Asked about the magazine’s name, Edgarian reported, “In 2003, a friend of ours, the essayist Susan L. Feldman, knowing we were preparing to launch a new magazine called Narrative, sent us a one-line quote from a Paul Baumann review of a Thomas Keneally novel. Baumann, the editor of Commonweal, wrote, ‘Only myth, only narrative . . . can capture the mystery of human goodness and evil.’ A few years later, at a Narrative Night event, Robert Stone noted, “Stories are as necessary to us as bread. There is no sense or order to experience outside of narrative. Whether in prose or poetry, writers continually revivify the myths that illuminate our lives as we move from the known into the unknown.”

Looking ahead to what the next 10 years may bring for Narrative, Jenks said, “Ha! Where’s my crystal ball? As a kid growing up in the 1950s and ’60s and hearing about the Soviet Union, the five-year plan always struck me as a good model, provided you didn’t have to adhere to it rigidly. That is, you can chart the future, knowing that as you reach each milestone the landscape looks somewhat different than imagined, and the chart must be adjusted again and again as you go forward. But Narrative’s primary goals remain the same as when we started: Expand the readership for good writing; support writers by paying them as well as possible and by providing keen editorial encouragement; train young publishing professionals in the best traditional values and new practices; help shape the future of literature within the new media.”

The longtime editor also had some advice for writers looking to publish. “About 70 percent of unsolicited manuscripts begin with someone waking up, or with someone taking a drink, or with a phone call. Sometimes all three of these motifs are combined, as in, ‘I woke with a dreadful hangover to the incessant ringing of the phone.’ The clichéd waking beginning tends to be an unconscious metaphor for the dawning consciousness of the writer. I’m not saying not to use a waking beginning, but it’s well to be aware of the odds against it and, if using it, then to do something original and essential with it. The opening of Anna Karenina offers an inspiring example.”

For writers thinking about submitting work to Narrative, Jenks said, “You should submit to Narrative only if you have taken the time to read the magazine and to know its cast. If the magazine appeals to you, and if you have assayed your work in relation to the work you see in the magazine, then a submission may be in order. An unfortunate perennial circumstance is that many more people tend to send their work to any magazine than actually trouble to read the magazine with any accurate attention. We give Narrative away for free to encourage reading first.”

Sam Harris at Changing Hands Bookstore

At Superstition Review, we like to update our readers about upcoming literary events in the Phoenix area. On Friday, November 5th at 7 p.m., Sam Harris will visit Changing Hands Bookstore. Sam Harris’ work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Atlantic and others. His other books include The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. Harris is also CEO and Co-Founder of Project Reason, a group devoted to spreading scientific knowledge and secular values.

At the reading on Friday Sam Harris will be discussing his most recent New York Times bestseller entitled The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The controversial nature of his writing has challenged what readers believe as the line between science and morality fades. Because of the heated debate, his work has been discussed in over 15 languages in publications such as TIME, Scientific American, Nature and other journals.

Sam Harris’ website, http://www.samharris.org/, features assorted media about his publications as well as a recommended readings list. Books on this list purchased through his website generate a 7% return for his charitable foundation, Project Reason. A few of the recommended texts include Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Thinking and Deciding by Jonathan Baron and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by J.D, Bauby. For more information on Changing Hands Bookstore and their visiting writers you can check out their website at http://changinghands.com/.