Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Maari Carter.
MaariCarter is originally from Winona, MS and attended the University of Mississippi where she received a BA in English. Her work has appeared in Stone Highway Review, Steel Toe Review, and BOILER: A Journal of New Literature. She lives in Tallahassee, FL where she is Business & Promotions Director for The Southeast Review and hosts The Warehouse Reading Series. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Florida State University.
“I don’t want you to keep butting your head against the stone wall of technical problems that are beyond your present means to solve. I’ll admire anyone who does that—and gets groggily to his feet, lowers his bloody head, and runs again. But I know there’s a law of diminishing returns in such blind gallantry. I have a notion that there may be exercises which, sometimes, may point a way around or over the wall.”
I’ve long believed writers are the best sitters in the game.
Sure, there are the 9-5 workers to compete with—their In-and-Out file trays neatly labeled and cubicles guarding them from distraction on three sides—but they are easily lured from their work stations with the promise of snacks in the break room, or a quick smoke out back, and we’re all familiar with the fatal pull of the water cooler.
Bus drivers are a concern, sure, but it takes muscular engagement to keep opening those accordion doors, and the long-distance ones will even exit the bus to help passengers load their luggage. When you think about them as a group, they’re not really contenders at all.
Pianists are decent, especially the composer double-threats, but even they are subject to rhythm. Behinds may not elevate from benches all too often, but all that swaying and bobbing and finger thrumming have to be stimulating oxygenation and blood flow, and even toning lats and abs and biceps. We might as well say it: composers are the athletes of the sitting class.
Writers of all genres, on the other hand, are subject to the trance-like, long-haul, two-ended-candle, sleep-is-for-the-gainfully-employed, just-one-more-page, numb-butt marathon that crafting a poem, essay, story, or novel can entail. There’s no other way to get the work done except by putting fingers to keys, backside to chair, and sticking it out. And that’s on the good days.
I’m here to talk about the bad ones. The days the words won’t flow. The days we sit and type and delete and continue to stubbornly sit, fueled by nothing stronger than blind faith and cold coffee. The days when we should give it a rest and take a walk, but don’t because deep down, in our basement selves where we’ve stashed the shoeboxes full of dried petals from our high-school-wallflower days, where the words from every journal rejection are graffitied across the walls, down in that musty, self-defeating place, we believe rest equals surrender. And whatever else we may be, quitters we are not.
We are being crazy, of course. A walk would undoubtedly help. A banana, too, and some water.
But since writing is no place for reason (at least not until we’ve entered the revision stage), and since most of us will persist in sitting, working, and agonizing over the words that refuse to scan whole and perfect from our crystalline visions to the neutral rectangle on the buzzing screen, I offer this tidbit from a recent New York Times article by Gretchen Reynolds on, of all things, exercise:
“There’s very good evidence” that high-intensity interval training provides “many of the fitness benefits of prolonged endurance training but in much less time,” says Chris Jordan, the director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Fla.
In a rare alignment of transferable truths, exercise physiology finally has something to teach us sedentary mental gymnasts (either that, or I’ve finally grown desperate enough to listen to what the scientists have been saying for years): the antidote for those slugfest writing days is exercise. Or several. But never fear, you need not rise from your chair as you navigate to the toolbar of your word processing program and open a blank page. Below, I will suggest a few easy warm-ups, intermediate techniques, and expert maneuvers to ready you for re-entry into the writing rat race, but first, here are some benefits you can expect from setting aside 5-10 minutes a day to experiment on the page:
Practice Basic Skills: Feel insufficient at dialogue? Have a hard time sticking with descriptions of more than one line? Give yourself a task to deliberately stretch your writing wings, and don’t color in the lines. No one ever has to see the results, so flex every feather.
No Risk, Big Reward: Writing something of sustained length or complexity is always going to keep the stakes feeling high. While you may be the type not to worry about trashing a failed novel (like Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist Paul Harding, who said in an interview with The Southeast Review: “From my point of view, it did not take any courage to pitch what I saw was a crummy book. Who wants to toil on something that obviously stinks?”), many of us would find that a hard decision. If you write a three-page exercise that never coalesces into something publishable, however, it’s no great loss of time or effort, and the great likelihood is that you discovered something in the process that will come back for you in another way.
Save the Scraps: Every time I meet a new challenge in life, before expressing sympathy or advice, my mother always says, “Well, it’s fodder for your writing.” Exercises can work the same way in that the material you discover there enters a storehouse of salvageable scraps to be harvested later, whether it’s a concept, character, or lovely turn of phrase. In his commentary regarding “Encounters with Unexpected Animals,” a story anthologized in the 2013 Best American Short Stories, Bret Anthony Johnston says he had “tried to get the phrase ‘a trickle of water tracking through pebbles’ into just about everything” he’s ever written. He held onto the phrase and eventually, it found a happy home.
Stay Loose: To return to some scientific language, you may recall from gym class—albeit reluctantly and through a haze of shame and lingering discomfort—the temporary results of “lactic acid buildup,” which causes in muscles sensations ranging from a tingling burn to a stabbing cramp that makes further exertion impossible. Stephen M. Roth over at Scientific American reveals the reason for this phenomenon: “This often painful sensation … gets us to stop overworking the body, thus forcing a recovery period in which the body clears the lactate and other metabolites.” If a long, serious, emotionally-taxing, or otherwise weighty project is cramping your writing style, an exercise can give you a necessary breather.
Play: The brilliant teacher and prolific writer Julianna Baggott has this to say about writers who switch genres: “… the most important thing that writing in a new genre offers the writer who’s been focused in another genre is that it takes you out of authority, lowers the stakes, and allows you to play again. The lessons come in sideways.” Short writing exercises can offer the writer of any genre, I believe, the same benefits. They offer an opportunity to set aside past accomplishments, future goals, and current projects to rediscover the joy in playing, creating, and inventing for an audience of one. If an exercise takes on a life of its own and becomes a short, long, or novel-length work, that’s an added bonus, but the main point should be learning to love the game again so you can look forward to spending all those hours—productive, frustrating, and every one of them worth it—in your chair.
A Week’s Worth of 3-Pager Prompts:
Go Back to the Well: There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet works in every time period from the reign of Queen Elizabeth to 1990s “Verona Beach” to a zombie-occupied post-apocalyptic nightmare-scape. Let the Bard, the brothers Grimm, or another classic word-weaver take care of the basics, but tell the tale in the way that only you can.
Ripped from the Headlines: If Law & Order can do it (not to mention the likes of Joyce Carol Oates), then we certainly have license to find inspiration in the dramatic doings of those around us. Pillage newspapers of all types, and scan for drama during the nightly news.
Found Dialogue: It’s not eavesdropping if done in the service of art. You may not want a whole conversation (most of us have pretty boring ones, filled with “ums” and “likes” and pauses), but the right tidbit can sometimes spark a whole narrative, so listen up.
Another Man’s Trash: Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes follows one green accordion from family to family for generations. Stephen King’s Christine is about an animate, and angry, car. Visit yard sales, flea markets, and secondhand stores to search for things—inventory items—that seem to have lives and possibilities all their own.
Dear John: Letter-writing is almost as old as old as written language itself, and one of the first proto-novels, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, was composed in epistolary form. All you need are two characters, at least one of whom has something to say to the other.
Mission Impossible: Don’t limit yourself to writing within the bounds of what we know (or think we know) to be physically possible. Write a piece featuring an extraordinary event.
Horse’s Mouth: This one requires abdicating your writing chair for an hour or so. Take yourself somewhere you’re likely to find experts in a field you’re unfamiliar with, and talk with them about their industry (it may be necessary to set up an appointment prior to your visit). What does it take to become a cobbler/rancher/carnie/auctioneer/botanist/chef? Write about a person in that profession, or an issue connected to it.
Check out these programs and sourcebooks for even more exercises that will spur your writing forward and help you rediscover a love of your craft. Many of them are focused on fiction-writing, but with a little imagination can be applied to nonfiction and poetry as well. I hope you find some of them useful, and in the meantime, I wish you courage, persistence, joy, and a comfortable chair!
The Southeast Review’s Writing Regimens (open to all genres and offered four times a year)
We hope that you’ll enjoy Amanda’s self-interview so much you’ll submit your own.
Email your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org
1. What did you hope to get out of AWP? Did you get it?
I wanted to be energized by being surrounded by other poets and writers, all of those books at the book fair, the hullabaloo of AWP for three days. I wanted to come back with the desire to return to writing poetry after a near-year hiatus and thankfully, I did get what I so eagerly wanted. Even before I left for the airport, ideas for poems and poem titles danced in my head. I couldn’t wait to get home and begin anew.
2. Was this your first AWP? If not, how does this year’s AWP rate among the ones you’ve attended?
This was my sixth AWP and I think that this year’s was my favorite by far, even though I actually saw little of it (panels and book fair) compared to other years (such as in New York, where I literally ran from one panel to the next) because of AWP-related obligations. I felt that the energy at this year’s AWP was different in a positive way and everyone I met, even if they were exhausted, seemed to be having a great time.
3. Favorite AWP 2013 moment?
I have two favorite AWP 2013 moments actually. The first was being able to read with so many amazing poets and writers at the Zone 3 Press/University of Wisconsin Press reading on Friday night. It was truly a humbling experience to be able to read with the likes of Richard Blanco, Timothy Liu, James Allen Hall, Paul Lisicky, Charles Rice-González, Andrew Kozma, Kate Gleason, John Pursley III, and Karen Skolfied.
My second favorite moment was actually more personal and really not AWP-related at all. I was blessed to meet my biological cousin (I’m adopted), Hope, for the first time at the aforementioned reading on Friday night. We planned this for a while and have chatted a bit over the past couple of years, but meeting her was beyond exciting. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience to coincide with AWP. Who says poetry can’t bring people together?
4. Favorite panels?
I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t go to any other panels (other than the one I was on with Bellevue Literary Review) because I had quite a lot of obligations (AWP-related and otherwise). I really wished I had. There were so many that looked amazing that I wanted to attend, but couldn’t, such as the one on Post-Genre Lit, Essaying the Essay, A Reading by Four Crab Orchard Series in Poetry Authors, Options of the I: The Post-Memoir Memoir, 40 Years of Poetry from Alice James Books, A Tribute to Adrienne Rich, the VIDA panel, and the Copper Canyon Press 40th Anniversary Reading. Next year I am going to come in on Wednesday instead of Thursday late afternoon and try to get my schedule better organized because I’m kicking myself that I couldn’t get it together this year!
5. Most embarrassing AWP 2013 moment?
I have one big embarrassing AWP 2013 moment, which took place on Friday afternoon in the book fair. I ran into Rigoberto González, who I dearly love and who chose (and wrote the introduction for) my first book, The Glass Crib. We were chatting and he mentioned that Eduardo Corral was around (who we both know) and minutes after that, I called Rigoberto Eduardo no less than three times in the space of a five minute conversation. I am still mortified. He must think I’m completely daffy.
6. Fangirl/fanboy moment?
I’m not going to lie: I had the biggest fangirl moment when I discovered that I was reading with Richard Blanco. I about died. I’m really glad that I didn’t know that I was going to be reading with him because I probably would have passed out, wet my pants, or acted like a giddy 10-year-old. Luckily, I held it together long enough to do the reading.
The next day, my husband, Jeff, came over to me at the Perugia Press table (where I was signing copies of my book) and told me that Blanco was also signing books down the aisle. I told my editor, Susan Kan, that I would be right back and weaved in and out of the throng of people on the L aisle to get to where Blanco was calmly seated, pen in hand. I quickly snapped up a copy of his book and the chapbook of his inaugural poem and had him sign both. It was such a high to not only have read with him the night before, but to actually have a few minutes of face time with such a meaningful poet. I felt like the dorky creative writing undergrad that I once was chasing down poets in AWP to get them to sign copies of their books. It was awesome.
7. Did you participate in any AWP-related activities?
I participated in three AWP-related activities: the 10th Anniversary of the Bellevue Literary Review panel reading that took place on Friday morning, the Zone 3 Press/University of Wisconsin Press reading on Friday night, and I had a book signing for my recently-released second book, The Wishing Tomb, at the Perugia Press table on Saturday afternoon. I was a busy girl. I was also originally slated to do the Perugia Press 16th anniversary panel reading, but wasn’t able to in the end because of my flight schedule.
8. How was the infamous book fair at this year’s AWP?
I unfortunately didn’t spend much time at this year’s book fair (maybe a total of two hours) because I had so many obligations. I also didn’t find out there was a second floor to the book fair until Saturday (thankfully, for my wallet)! There are some years where I practically live in the book fair and come home with loads of books, journals, buttons, pens, matchbooks covers, and the like, but this didn’t turn out to be one of those years. What I did see of the book fair, however, looked amazing and I’m so upset that I didn’t at least get to have a peek at the second story! Who was up there?
9. What was included in your AWP book fair haul?
Even though I wasn’t able to spend much time at the book fair, I did manage to score some great things! I got: free copies of Poets & Writers, Looking for the Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco, One Today by Richard Blanco (the limited-edition chapbook of Blanco’s Inaugural poem), free copies of The Southeast Review, Predatory by Glenn Shaheen, Charms for Finding by Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, Bright Power, Dark Peace by Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito, a copy of The American Poetry Review, a cool little notebook/pen set and nylon drawstring book bag from Zone 3 Press, a diode button, two bookmarks from Boxcar Poetry Review, and two of the coolest-designed books I’ve ever seen from idiot books (a new-to-me press): After Everafter and Ten Thousand Stories. I do wish I’d gotten more swag, but I’m pretty sure my suitcase (and my shoulders) doesn’t!
10. What is one bit of advice you could give to someone who’s never been to AWP and is thinking about going next year?
1. Wear comfortable shoes. Those girls who wear stilettos at AWP? They’re kidding themselves. 2. Take your gummy vitamins and Emergen-C as AWP is a cesspool of flus and colds. 3. You will not make every panel. 4. Budget your money wisely because it runs out faster than you’d think. 5. You will run into your frenemies. 6. The hotel bar is overrated and expensive. Go for the free wine and beer at the dance party instead. 7. You will fall down at least once. 8.That famous poet really doesn’t want to read your manuscript or blurb your book. 9. You will not have time to have meaningful conversations, unless you count a meaningful conversation as three minutes of hellos and one awkward photo taken on a camera phone. 10. It’s the best time ever.
“Every writer I know has trouble writing.”— Joseph Heller
It’s been said by hundreds of writers hundreds of ways, each more eloquent than the last, and certainly more eloquent than this: writers write. They don’t moan about it. They don’t mow the lawn to avoid it, and they certainly don’t get stuck while doing it—counting the cursor’s every pulse, praying that inspiration will strike, and fearing with every silent second that it never will.
Except, they do. Of course they do.
Despite the proliferation of writing programs in schools across the nation, despite writing groups and conferences and online communities like Fictionaut, Writers Café, and others, there’s no getting around the fact that most writers do the difficult work of generating original material all by their lonesome. And it’s hard work. Sometimes doing it well can seem impossible. But there’s also no getting around the fact that for many of us, writing is our reason for being. It can help to impose meaning on chaos, forge meaningful connections with readers and other writers, and do the necessary work of exploring the possibilities, challenges, and rewards of being human.
At The Southeast Review, we read hundreds of submissions each year. Poems, essays, stories, interviews, book reviews, comics, and everything in between. There are few feelings as wonderful as reading a submission that glimmers from the first word with that special something—a confident voice, striking image, surprising premise, linguistic deftness, or some other distinctive element. It’s hard to predict what kind of work we’ll love because we don’t look for specific kinds of pieces. Rather, we want to be moved, and we are well aware that the works that move us are the result of a writer’s daily struggle against the ticking cursor while she or he molds essays that refuse to cohere, trims bloated stories, and invents language that takes poems past familiarity into a breathtaking newness.
Because we know how hard it can be to face that blank page, we at The Southeast Review developed our Writer’s Regimen Program. Participating writers receive emails for 30 consecutive days full of prompts and exercises applicable for all genres, craft talks from working writers and industry professionals such as poet Matthew Gavin Frank, literary agent Nat Sobel, and memoirist Jillian Schedneck, podcasts of live readings by literary icons like Barry Hannah, Ann Patchett, and Robert Olen Butler, as well as riff words and inspirational quotes designed to ignite any writer’s natural creativity. Each cycle costs only $15 and that entire fee is funneled directly into the production of The Southeast Review. All participants also receive a copy of SER’s most recent issue. We run four cycles per year—two new and two repeats—and our next re-run launches on December 1. To crank up the motivation, we invite participants to submit work at the end of the cycle for a chance at publication on SER Online. You can read the work of our most recent regimen’s winner, Susan Bulloch, here.
Writing may always be a solitary process, and it may never get any easier, but we at SER believe that daily doses of inspiration are the best cure for the writing block blues. If you agree, sign up before December 1 to try out our next cycle, and leave the lawn for another day.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Sarah Pape.
Sarah Pape lives in Northern California and teaches English at California State University, Chico. Her poetry has recently been published in The Southeast Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Watershed and Cadence of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses. Her chapbook, Road Z, was published by Yarroway Mountain Press. Committed to community arts and literary collaboration, she is on the board of the 1078 Gallery and leads creative writing workshops.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature this podcast by John-Michael Bloomquist.
John-Michael Bloomquist is a fifth generation Arizonan. Recently, his poetry has been published in The Carolina Quarterly, The Southeast Review, The South Dakota Review, The Portland Review and is forthcoming in Third Coast and The Lindenwood Review. He won second prize in the Glendon Swarthout poetry competition in 2010 and first prize in 2011. He is a first year MFA candidate in Poetry at Arizona State University.
You can read along with his poems in Issue 9 of Superstition Review.