Julie Matsen: On-the-Job Journaling (Disney College Program)

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Photo by Julie Matsen

When I worked at the Studio Backlot Tour, a now-defunct attraction in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I kept a pen and reporter’s notebook in my costume pocket. We were all supposed to keep pens and paper handy in case we encountered a guest who had trouble with spoken English. Most notebooks remained blank. Mine was mostly filled with descriptions of the Backlot Tour, sentences scrawled in between tour groups and on lunch breaks. The click of love-bugs on the windshield; the shudder and sigh of the air brakes; the heaviness of humid Orlando air made thicker by the flora in the neighboring greens department. They were feelings, mostly, and snapshots.

Some jottings were near-clinical measurements: The tram is 163 feet long, red, flat-nosed. The doors of all six cars would open out toward the tour groups, like some retro stretch DeLoreans had been strung together. “Por favor mantenganse alejado de la linea amarilla, hasta que las puertas abran completamente,” we would tell the guests. “Please stay completely behind the yellow line until those doors are all the way open.” Some would ignore the instructions and run up to the cars.

Others were impressions along the ride path. The movie props that dotted the landscape of the tour were beginning to appear derelict from their constant exposure to the elements. The plywood fighter jets from Pearl Harbor, the wings of which occasionally fell off and had to be supported by crates, were an obvious example. I sometimes found new ways to describe the set of Catastrophe Canyon. This centerpiece of the tour had pyrotechnic and hydraulic effects, and writing about the balance of oil derricks bursting into flame and seventy-thousand-gallon waterfalls felt natural.

Some notes were more visceral, like how I cried after my first Signal 70—radio lingo for a lost child, in this case an eight-year-old girl wearing a Rapunzel t-shirt. I never saw the girl, except on the cell phone of her worried father. I had been a Signal 70 once, on my first trip to Disneyland. I walked right up to a security cast member and announced that I was lost, as this little girl had done. I saw a flash of my mother in that dad’s panic. I wrote about calling my mother when that shift ended. I wrote about my coworkers, the fellow cast members who grew to become great friends (the Williams family especially). I wrote about living in company-owned housing, which was part of my contract as a participant in the Disney College Program. I wrote about the soft down of the duckling I once rescued from the ride path, later to see it rejected by its mother because it smelled like my hands. We had named it Squirt. I wrote about Julian, the baby that had been thrust into my arms when his parents saw my nametag. It is against company policy to hold guests’ babies, however adorably named they may be. Still, I was not about to drop him.

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Photo by Julie Matsen

Mainly, I would try to record things which made me smile. Entertainment Cast Members in Indiana Jones costumes would play daily tennis matches between their shows. During Star Wars Weekends, a few Sand People practiced their runway poses while an alien mercenary rode a unicycle. Some guests would see a war veteran in their midst and thank them for their service. A child sent to the parks by the Make-a-Wish Foundation would find their way to the front of our attraction queue, and we would find ways to give their day a little bit more magic. Really, the magic came from them, and we just had to redirect it.

Interning at Walt Disney World as part of the Disney College Program did more than give me a unique perspective into the field of theme parks. My reporter’s notebook became an invaluable yet inadvertent asset during my Barrett thesis research, in which I explored the phenomenon of storytelling in theme park environments. More than that, working in the Backlands became an exercise in collecting moments, a skill which I was able to further develop as a section editor and blogger for Superstition Review. In hindsight, the things that made it into that notebook are the things that inspired me to keep writing.

Julie Matsen: Why I Hate Writing Declines

RejectedI don’t often use the word, but I hate writing rejection letters.

You’d think they’d be easy enough: Offer some constructive criticism and some words of encouragement, then hit send. Lather, rinse, repeat. On to the next in the pile.

The problem, as it often is, is the human element. It is all too easy to forget that there are people on both sides of this process.

Now, I’m not implying that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I don’t want to insinuate that an editor’s job is to smirk behind an IP address, gleefully ticking away at their keyboards while picking an essay apart in their decline letter. Nor should we cower behind prewritten rejection letters, sending email after email of the same exact words, the literary equivalent of breaking up via text message.

I read somewhere that there is a word for being a background character in someone else’s story—a name on a cardboard coffee cup, a car on the freeway, an umbrella in the rain, a whiff of perfume exiting an elevator in a crowded mall—and that such a word affects lives only tangentially, for a few seconds. I cannot recall what the word itself is, and I try to find it in online dictionaries, a hail-Mary effort to procrastinate that next rejection letter.

Whatever the word is, I hope it describes the letters I write. I hope that it ends up in a bulging email inbox, surrounded by rejections and acceptances from other magazines, from publishers, from fans. I hope that this decline letter that I have drafted and sent will be marked as read and left to rot in cyberspace.

The alternative, you see, is that what I write is important. Every decline letter could be some writer’s first, someone’s last. There is some pressure in knowing that I have a long memory of criticism from strangers, and that you probably do, too.

I read slowly and write swiftly, like ripping cooled wax from leg hair. I leave the letter alone, come back to the computer to read it one last time before hitting “Send.” The computer asks if I’m sure, and I wince.

Julie Matsen: What Makes Me Stop

Julie MatsenThe external process is simple enough. An aging laptop fires up Submittable at my treadmill desk. I begin walking, and I wait for a story to make me stop.

Whether I stop reading or stop walking is up to the author.

Of course, the nuances of reading nonfiction submissions for a lit mag like Superstition Review are more complex than that. For one thing, I am not the only one making the decisions. I am one of four editors who work with nonfiction, including two professors and two student editors.

The other editors and I look for a variety of things that make us feel strongly about a piece. Whether those strong feelings are positive or negative are discussed at our weekly meetings, where we make decisions about the fate of certain pieces. We tell each other what made us want it, what made us dislike it, what kept us going until the end of the piece. We decide, as a group, whether to accept a piece right then and there or to ask for certain revisions.

Most of the time, when we want to accept a piece, we email authors and ask them for the latter. Copy edits and typos seem to be the main concern, and we occasionally get formatting issues. We try not to accept pieces with major flaws.

Every so often, there comes a story that breaks my heart.

Sometimes it’s wonderful as it is, and we are prepared to accept it with or without revisions. When we email the author, the response is less than what we wanted: Simultaneous submissions are pulled out from under us by faster editors. We are told that the story is no longer available.

Sometimes authors don’t want to accept revisions, thinking their story is perfect just the way it is, as if the piece is a small child with a fragile ego. I understand the desire to hold on, the personal nature of someone telling you that your kid is going through a rough puberty. All of us are writers too. The thing is, if you want a story to reach that grown-up phase that is publication, you have to be willing to let it grow beyond you.

Other times, there are stories with so much potential hidden behind standard words, potential that I wish could just be pulled out through computer screens to make this piece a great one. By happy coincidence, these seem to be written by the authors who are willing to listen to their stories and to their readers. Standard sentences become elevated, stories get stripped down or built up (or both), and characters become flesh in print form.

Every so often, we get a piece that has simple words arranged in just such a way that I can’t help but stop walking. There are those essays that make me understand my mother, with her squamous cell cancer scars and her books on estate laws, a little better. There are essays that gives me a glimpse past my father’s stoic face at his own father’s funeral, singing baritone gospel songs in a minor key that were the favorite of the dead man at the front of the room. One essay in particular reminds me of a time when I got lost in Berlin, completely cut off from the one person in the group who actually spoke German besides the obligatory Danke schoen and Wo ist die… um… sprichst du Englisch?

Some of my favorite stories from this round of submissions have made me reflect on my own experiences, sharing a snapshot of the writers’ lives that is at once universal enough to be widely appreciated and personal enough to make me stop in my tracks and just read.

Julie Matsen: Laurie Notaro Talk

Laurie Notaro“There’s a dead guy over here!” she frantically tells her audience. The usual reaction to a statement like this is not to laugh, but laugh we do. Laurie Notaro, bestselling humor writer and ASU alumna, is telling the audience about the importance of putting the crux of a humor piece in the story’s beginning. “You don’t bury the lead,” she admonishes audience members, especially the ones as familiar with journalism as she is.

Laurie Notaro was at the Polytechnic campus on the evening of September 17 to discuss humor and sign copies of her latest book, The Potty Mouth at the Table. The event was co-sponsored by Superstition Review as part of that week’s Project Humanities lecture series on humor.

Laurie Notaro2One of the highlights of the night is her reading of Don’t Make Me the Asshole, a nonfiction piece in her latest collection. (Potty Mouth seems aptly named in places.) Perhaps reading is not the right word, as it is more of a dissection, a step-by-step explanation of what writing conventions are used to maximize the humorous retelling of the time she discovered her bath puff had been tampered with. “‘Using someone else’s bath puff is like using someone else’s hairbrush, or toothbrush, or the gum on the underside of a table,'” she reads. “What I did there was build tension. You don’t want to lead with the gum, but you want to build up to it.”

AudienceLaurie eventually built up to the question-and-answer session, artfully answering (and sometimes dodging) questions like “What is your writing process?” and “What does your workspace look like?” (“Messy” was the answer to both. She was kind enough to wait for the audience to laugh before elaborating.) A question she did not shy away from was “What is something you shouldn’t write about?” Inside jokes should be avoided. If the backstory is longer than the joke, it’s not funny. An example she brought up is the gallows humor she uses with a friend who has a terminal illness. How can terminal illness be funny? I thought. “My friend says to me, ‘Laurie,’ she says, ‘I’m going to haunt you.’ And I said, ‘Okay. Well, let’s set some ground rules.’”

Laurie Notaro3The night ended with a book signing of Laurie’s various collections, including the Idiot Girls short story collections; There’s a (Slight) Chance I Might Be Going to Hell: A Novel of Sewer Pipes, Pageant Queens, and Big Trouble; It Looked Different on the Model: Epic Tales of Impending Shame and Infamy; and of course, her latest collection, Potty Mouth. ASU Bookstore employees had set up a maroon table adorned with several of Laurie’s titles, but many fans of Notaro’s had brought their own copies, a few complete with creased spines and dog-eared pages.

Lauro Notaro and Trish

I think I speak for the audience when I say we were glad she was able to make it, and would be happy to see her come back. Thank you for the laughs, Laurie.