My first book came out in the fall, which still feels miraculous to me. The stories took years to write and years to find a home for. Holding the actual book in my hands for the first time, I felt moved by the lovely cover and by the physical presence of words I had labored over in my thirties—which, by then, were almost over.
Next month I’m turning 40, a number that used to seem distant and possible to avoid. As my stepfather likes to remind me, when he turned 40, I made a giant banner that read “Over the Hill” and hung it on the wall as a snide happy birthday greeting. (I was thirteen at the time and probably more concerned with the fact that he was my stepfather than I was with his age, but whatever, he’s right: 40 looked ancient.) Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book. Toni Morrison was 39. George Eliot 40. As a beginning writer I’d read the bios of brilliant, “late-blooming” writers and feel inspired. But also terrified: I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to find literary success.
When I began graduate school in creative writing almost a decade ago, I considered it reasonable to assume that my two years there would soon lead to the vision I had of “success”, which included not just a published book but tenure-track job and “a viable writing career.” To some of the twenty-somethings in my program, I probably already seemed old at thirty, but forty still seemed so far away. Of course I would publish a book before I was anywhere near forty!
One thing I couldn’t have known is how in my thirties the whole nature of time would change. Days and years used to feel full and incremental and possible to keep track of. Starting in grad school everything began to hurtle past.
Yet somehow the writing continued slowly. Mostly while I was working full time. And though sometimes the slow writing was painful, often it was the opposite: every word I made time for reinforced for me the joy of making art. Every sentence contained the promise of a magic trick—plucking something from my head and making it live on the page.
I’d like to believe that writing while working made me a better writer—or at least a writer who can usually find a few minutes to write, because sometimes that’s all there is. In grad school, I adored listening to professional writers talk about their schedules: the coffee in the hand, the butt in the chair for the hours of 8-to 5, or 9-2 while the kids are at school. It felt like a dreamy formula: caffeine + hours + story = bestselling/award-winning novel. For the majority of us who are working office jobs, or teaching, or taking care of tiny children, that kind of schedule is a luxury, not a mathematical proof.
Sometimes you have to write at work in secret. (I did some of my happiest writing in an office cubicle.) Sometimes you write only while the kid is sleeping or doesn’t realize you’ve slipped upstairs for some writing time but is about to realize it, so better write that sentence real damn quick. Sometimes you have to write late at night when the house is a mess. Sometimes early in the morning. (But never at 4am. Writers who get up that early are masochists and no wonder: they’re totally sleep-deprived!) If you want be a successful writer and you’re neither independently wealthy nor supported by a large advance for your Great American Novel, be flexible. Be kind to yourself. But don’t forget to write.
For me, the idea of success continues to be a moving target. I’ll never win any award for youthful brilliance. Probably not even for brilliance of the “over the hill” variety. My forties might slip by faster even than my thirties. But throughout the next decade I’ll be writing—ten minutes here, an hour there. My second book will come together slowly, and sometimes I will doubt whether it will come together at all. Every minute and every word along the way will be a small gift to myself. And, eventually, I hope to someone else.
Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally
Shakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.
On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.
That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.
I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:
“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”
I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.
One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.
Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.
With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.
So back to Shakespeare.
A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.
Mai-Quyen Nguyen is a junior at Arizona State University, majoring in English with a concentration in Fiction and pursuing a certificate in Technical Communication. She is a Fiction Editor for Superstition Review, which is her first role at the online literary magazine. Not only is she seeking to gain experience with the editing and publishing industry, but she is also hoping to develop relationships and build networks.
Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California, she moved to Arizona to study nursing. However, her career plan changed when she fully realized her passion to write and edit. Language and words are multifaceted; people communicate through both spoken and written words and she wishes to affect the lives of others through her own.
What Mai-Quyen finds fascinating about writing is the bond it creates between the writer and the reader. Regardless of how deeply literature is read, people take away different meanings. Writing searches for the truth, a concept that humans sometimes find difficult, and Mai-Quyen seeks to find who she is through literature.
One story that has changed her life is “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison. She enjoys not only the works of contemporary authors such as Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek, Jim Shephard, and John Irving, but also those of John Green and Ernest Hemingway. Inspired by Hemingway, Mai-Quyen is interested in exploring his theory of omission, or the Iceberg Theory, in her works.
Aside from writing fiction, Mai-Quyen likes to compose lyrics and on occasion, poetry. She grew up as a performer: she sang in her elementary school and high school choir, swing danced in elementary and middle school, acted during middle school, and took piano lessons for seven years. Although she is no longer committed to those activities, she continues to play the piano in her spare time.
After graduating from ASU, Mai-Quyen plans to apply to Columbia University to earn an MFA in Fiction. She aspires to become a book editor and a literary fiction author. She dreams to have her work published and read across the world, evoking a positive response on her audience who will gain valuable lessons from her stories.
I am happy to bring you an exciting post this week that has been in the works for a while– an interview with Superstition Review interns from previous semesters. Here’s what they had to say about what they’re up to now, how SR helped them get there, and what they wish they had known when they were interns. Enjoy!
Superstition Review: What have you been doing since your internship with Superstition Review?
Sara Scoville: After graduating from ASU in May ’09, I have continued to conduct research for a collection of essays I’ve been working on since my last semester. The topic focuses on interaction and the relationships that form in the online gaming community amongst alpha males. I also work full time as a supervisor at a direct marketing company.
Melissa Silva: I’m now applying to work as an intern for Nordstrom. As a Capital Scholar, I’m applying to work for NPR and other media outlets in DC this summer.
Riki Meier: I’ve been working full-time at ASU during the day, and also taking a few independent study courses. Late last fall, I completed several graduate school applications, and I’m excited to say I was just accepted into the English PhD program at Tufts University! They are offering me full funding for five years. I’m absolutely thrilled as I know Tufts has an excellent program and I also love the Boston area!
Carter Nacke: Since working at Superstition Review, I have turned my focus to graduating. I’m pleased to say that I’ll be graduating in May with a degree in Print Journalism from the Cronkite School.
Alex Linden: Since my internship with Superstition Review, I finished my last year at Arizona State and applied to MFA programs for Poetry. I now attend Oklahoma State University and this semester will finish the first year of my MFA.
SR: Do you think your experience with Superstition Review has helped with what you’re doing now? How?
SS: I believe it most certainly has. I’ve worked for the same company for 12 years, so it was definitely nice to do something different. Trish is an amazing person and I absolutely loved learning from her! One thing that I appreciated most about her is the amount of trust and faith she had in me. It’s because of her belief in my abilities that I have a stronger sense of confidence in both my writing and professional life.
MS: Experience with publishing and Excel I think has helped reassure companies that I’m qualified to work for them.
RM: I do think that my work at Superstition Review helped my admission chances at Tufts, as Tufts has a reputation for wanting well-rounded (and diversified) applicants. Although I am going for a research degree, I think the fact I worked as an editor at a national literary magazine demonstrated that I don’t have only an analytical mind; I have a strong creative inclination as well.
CN: I think my experience did help. While I was in charge of financing and fundraising (which I’d never done before), SR helped me learn to balance work and school. I also saw first-hand how magazines are produced, which is extremely helpful for my magazine writing class.
AL: My experience with SR has definitely helped with what I do now. I believe my chances of getting into MFA programs would have been much less had I not done the internship. More importantly, I was exposed to the literary world and inspired to pursue similar work in the future. I now read for the Cimarron Review.
SR: Is there any advice you’d like to give current Superstition Review interns?
SS: Have respect for everyone involved throughout the entire process. Ask for help if you need it, and be willing to help if someone needs you. The success of the issue is dependent upon every single intern, so open lines of communication are of the utmost importance. Also, be proud of and enjoy what you’re contributing to the literary community.
MS: Work hard and try to learn as much as you can. I learned a lot about communicating professionally online and using Excel.
RM: For the current editors soliciting work from writers, I would say that one should approach soliciting writers like they should approach applying to graduate schools. One should have a number of “long-shots” writers on the list that one dreams of publishing, but the chances of publishing that person may be slim. Soliciting someone like Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie may be analogous to applying to graduate school at Princeton or Harvard. If you diversify your solicitation list, you have far greater chances of getting lots of great literary pieces for review!
CN: Current interns: Get your stuff done early. Take it from someone who knows, assignments and work can pile up on you before you know what’s going on!
AL: Take advantage of every opportunity your internship provides. Research other literary journals, contact the writers you admire, and don’t read all of the submissions at once. 🙂
Lisa Mortensen is a third year Imaginative Writing major at ASU.
What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities? Reading Series Coordinator—I set up Superstition Review’s three readings for the semester.
Superstition Review: How did you hear about Superstition Review and what made you decide to get involved?
Lisa Mortensen: My Fiction 288 professor announced to our class about the possibility of working with Superstition Review. I was super excited to work on a project which promoted literature and art, not to mention the enthusiasm I had about being part of a publication which is created by undergraduate students of ASU.
SR: What are you hoping to take away from your Superstition Review experience?
LM: After working with Superstition Review I hope to take away the knowledge and experience necessary to work for a publishing house as an Acquisitions Editor.
SR:Describe one of your favorite literary or artistic works.
LM: Although I have specific authors in mind when I think about my favorite literary works, I must take a moment to talk about three genres that have recently demanded my attention: The Short, Prose Poetry, and Flash Fiction. At first glance, or read, it would be easy to call these genres simplistic, because of their length. However, a closer inspection reveals thoughtful and careful word choice, where quality of word takes over quantity. The powerful words, images and thoughts of the narrator are coming at you so quickly that your attention never wanders or strays from the piece. The effect is like being in the moment with the narrator when the surprises and twists come along, as well as the reader themselves feeling vulnerable to the raw emotions that come along with those experiences.
SR: What are you currently reading?
LM: In keeping with my newly found favorite genres, I have recently read and highly recommend Judith Ortiz Cofer’s “Volar,” Brian Doyle’s “Two Hearts,” Denis Johnson’s “Crash While Hitchhiking,” Russell Edson’s “Dinner Time,” and Luisa Valenzuela’s “Vision out of the Corner of One Eye.”
SR: What is your favorite Superstition Review section, and why?
LM: I am rarely able to narrow down any choice to just one, therefore I have two favorite sections of Superstition Review and they are the fiction and art sections. The fiction section is my favorite, because the content comes from a variety of authors who offer up memoir, short story, and essay. The art section is also my favorite due to the gallery’s assorted collection of art and artists from around the world. I also appreciated the bios and headshots that went along with each author and artist.
SR: Who would be the Superstition Review contributor of your dreams?
LM: For the fiction writing portion that would be Toni Morrison, and as far as art goes I would love to see more collage artists featured.
SR: What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?
LM: Art or Fiction Editor
SR: Do you prefer reading literary magazines online or in print?
LM: Until recently I would have said that I prefer literary magazines in print. However after a recent assignment that had us review several online literary magazines I now appreciate the convenience of locating articles of art and literature online. There isn’t the delay of snail mail or money spent on gas to retrieve the latest literary works. Which leads me to my other appreciation of online literary magazines; they are very eco-friendly!
SR: Do you write or create art? What are you currently working on?
LM: Recently, I’ve combined my love of writing and art and created a collage called, “Élan Vital” which is made of words and pictures. I am an Imaginative Writing major at ASU’s Polytechnic Campus, therefore I am always creating pieces of fiction, mostly on demand. Nevertheless, I actually enjoy both writing fiction and drawing in my spare time. In fact, this is only the second semester where I haven’t taken any art classes since high school.
SR: Besides interning for Superstition Review, how do you spend your time?
LM: I have adopted two children, one from Ethiopia and another from the US foster care system; so much of my spare time is spent with them. However, in the precious moments that I have to be child-free I enjoy riding motorcycles, traveling, having book club discussions, going to concerts, theater and art shows, singing, yoga and spoiling myself with an occasional spa day.
SR: What is your favorite mode of relaxation?
LM: My favorite mode of relaxation is meditation, for sure. Since I have a hard time shutting my mind off, I grab my headphones and go sit in a darkened room while I listen to soothing music or Emmett Miller’s meditation MP3s. I’ve also found that shutting down my cell phone for an hour works wonders too.
SR: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
LM: In 10 years I definitely see myself as a credible and published author. I also see myself owning a publishing company and teaching Creative Writing to be used as a way of therapy. I realize that this is a lot to accomplish, but I think 10 years is a reasonable enough time to attain all of my goals.
Michelle Leabo is a Senior in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences majoring in English with a concentration in Literature.
Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?
Michelle Leabo: As Content Team Manager, it is my job to keep SR’s content organized. I make sure that our spreadsheets are continually updated. One of my major responsibilities is to ensure that no work get lost. I remain in close contact with other teams and practice excellent communication between my teammates and other interns.
SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?
ML: I heard about Superstition Review last semester when I took a class with Patricia Murphy and answered her Call for Interns. This is the first issue of SR that I’ve been involved with.
SR: What is your favorite section of SR? Why?
ML: My favorite section is Interviews. They are so personal, honest, and candid; one really gains insight into the work of an author or artist by asking questions. I enjoy the intimacy that interviews allow for. I also enjoy forming interview questions and conducting them.
SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal? Talk about him/her.
ML: Toni Morrison. She is such an established writer and I feel as if she could provide not only great material, but great strength to the magazine. I believe she still occasionally teaches courses; perhaps she would be willing to respond to a student-edited literally magazine.
SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?
ML: I would like to tackle the role of the editor.
SR: What are you most excited about for in the upcoming issue?
ML: I am most excited to keep all of our content organized and to succeed in not losing any work.
SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?
ML: I remember reading Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt in 5th grade and absolutely falling in love with it. This book recounts a fictional family’s life throughout the Civil War. Through its characters, it taught me that people who lived even centuries ago experienced the same happiness and heartbreak as people today and that we can relate to them. Irene Hunt remains one of my favorite authors; other favorites of mine from her are The Lottery Rose and Up a Road Slowly.
SR: What are you currently reading?
ML: I am currently reading a collection of short stories. I love the art of the short story; I am a fan of Hawthorne, Faulkner, and Joyce.
SR: What artist have you really connected with, either in subject matter, work, or motto?
ML: Through subject matter, work, and motto, I have connected with Faith Hill. She sings about aspects of life and love that I can relate to. Her music expresses the importance of love, friendship, and family in life. She has a very classy composure, and least in my opinion, and I admire that; she’s hardly ever found on the cover of tabloids. She has a motto that family comes first and she always seems to honestly follow it.
SR: What are some of your favorite websites to waste time on or distract you from homework?
LM: I’m a fan of Lucille Ball and I enjoy searching for information and memorabilia relating to her and ‘I Love Lucy’. I’m also a fan of the Duggar family from TLC’s ‘18 and Counting’ so I enjoy following them through clips on YouTube and sites of that nature. They’ve recently announced they’re expecting their 19th child!
Fiction Editor, Riki Meier, is a senior majoring in English Literature, part of The College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
Superstition Review: What do you do for SR?
Riki Meier: I’m a fiction editor, so I get to solicit work from authors I like, read submissions, and help determine which stories will be published in the next issue.
SR: How did you hear about or get involved with Superstition Review?
RM: I first heard about Superstition Review through WORD: Creative Writers @ ASU, another internship for which I’m serving, filling the role of President. As WORD’s President, I helped advertise the reading series to our members. I later learned through the Honors College listserv that Superstition Review was accepting applications for interns, and the opportunity just seemed too fantastic to pass up!
SR: What is your favorite section of SR?
RM: The Fiction section is my favorite, of course! Fiction is my passion. I love reading fiction (it’s a requirement for Literature majors) and I also write fiction as well.
SR: Who is your dream contributor to the journal?
RM: Oh–I have two dream contributors! There’s no way I could choose between them. I would absolutely love to be able to publish Toni Morrison or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. They are both my literary idols.
SR: What job, other than your own, would you like to try out in the journal?
RM: Honestly, I’m so excited about my work this semester as fiction editor that I find it hard to consider any other positions at the journal!
SR: What are you most excited for in the upcoming issue?
RM: I am most excited about getting to contact my favorite authors and asking them to submit work. I think it’s a chance of a lifetime. When else will I be able to contact Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, etc., and ask them for a story or an interview? Just the thought of being able to interview someone like Marquez or Morrison is absolutely thrilling to me.
SR: What was the first book you remember falling in love with and what made it so special?
RM: Actually, the first thing I remember falling in love with when I was little was Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” That story introduced me to magical realism, which I absolutely adore. It was also the first piece of literature that really got me thinking about larger social issues.
What are you currently reading?
RM: Right now I’m reading a lot of books on feminist theory, postcolonial theory, and cybercultural studies for research projects I’m working on. Other than my work at Superstition Review, I don’t have time to read anything else this semester, unfortunately. However, I have a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz piled up on my nightstand just waiting for the day after final exams!
SR: What would be your dream class to take at ASU? What would the title be and what would it cover?
RM: That’s easy! It’s an MFA class currently being taught at ASU by Alberto Rios called “Magical Realism.” Not only does the class study great works written in the magical realism tradition, but you get to learn magical realism writing from a great magical realism writer!
SR: What are your feelings on digital medium?
RM: Oh, that’s a loaded question for me as I’m studying an online book discussion group for one of my big research projects. New media allows for a new hybridity of virtual/physical, public/private, sacred/profane, work/play, and even male/female. It is through narrative discourse that discursive and cultural practices are formed and diffused throughout society, and these practices, in turn, work to form the framework within which identities are constructed. As media types and forms of expression evolves and extends to virtual environments, a deeper exploration of cybercultural studies is necessary to deconstruct and understand the new identities being formed.
I believe there is an intrinsic connection between literature studies and rhetoric studies, and that there is an evolution of literature and narrative in progress that is the result of technological advancements. Today, multiple narrative forms—including literature—are evolving and adapting to online and multimodal environments. I maintain we must study communities of practice to understand the impact these virtual environments have on narrative and on the people who produce and consume these narratives.