Posts By: Rachel Lyon

Young Writers and Workshops

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kelsey Adams, one of IR’s wonderful interns, for south central Indiana’s NPR station, WFIU. Kelsey is an undergraduate fiction writer in her senior year at Indiana University, and she makes for an eloquent and thoughtful interview subject. (Stay tuned for a couple of follow-up talks with her in the future!)

“Here at IU is where I really began to feel as if I was a writer,” Kelsey says, and–though this didn’t make its way in to the final interview–she told me with humility and wisdom that she sees herself writing in the tradition of Lorrie Moore. What a gift, I thought, to find your writerly identity as an undergrad! A long time ago, I had a conversation with a friend that would always stay with me, a conversation about the importance of heroes. I think one of the great benefits of creative writing programs is that they expose young writers to older ones, allowing them to find their literary heroes. Creative writing workshops let us see our own writing as literature, just as we learn to read literature as if it were workshop writing. Only when we’re then able to locate our work in the vast landscape of literature that’s already out there, workshop wisdom tells us, can we take ourselves seriously as writers. (And only then, paradoxically, after we begin to take ourselves seriously, can we actually become ‘serious’ writers.)

They also teach us some serious rules. As anyone who’s been in a creative writing workshop knows, there are a handful of sayings that come up a lot: “Show, don’t tell!” “The ending has to be earned!” “Let your characters make their own choices!” The list goes on–and gets more and more specific. Of the story from which she reads excerpts in this interview, Kelsey says, “This one started [with my reacting to how] they always tell you, ‘Never write a cancer story.’ …I did it anyway.” Another thing you learn in a creative writing workshop is when to break workshop commandments. The premise of Kelsey’s “cancer story”? A woman discovers her cancer has been cured, but realizes she wishes it hadn’t been, wishes she were still sick.

On the excellent Web site Open Culture, there is a recent post recounting advice about writing from great writers: Henry Miller, Elmore Leonard, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood, George Orwell, and that poster boy for grammatical correctness, William Safire. A couple of these pieces of advice stick out as particularly hypocritical–and particularly wise. Neil Gaiman advises:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

And George Orwell says,

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Summer Writers Programs

It’s that time of the year when a lot of deadlines are coming up for applications to summer writers’ retreats, residencies, fellowships, workshops and conferences. I’ve had students ask about the Indiana University Writers’ Conference, which opens for early registration this month, and many of my colleagues are applying for residencies and workshops at excellent places like the Vermont Studio Center,  the New School Summer Writers Colony, the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop, and endless others. Even beyond the problem of that ambivalent apostrophe (is it writers’writer’s, or simply writers?) these programs can pose a problem for writers who aren’t funded by grants, universities, or their families. If we saved all we spend on application fees, contest entry fees, reading fees, and so on, many of us could probably afford to pay rent thirteen months a year.

In 2010 I attended the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College, two fabulous weeks of workshops, readings and talks.  I had the opportunity to work with a couple of writers I deeply admire, and I made some great friends. I couldn’t have done it without the generous scholarship I received. Virginia Woolf’s famous assertion, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” is especially well taken when the former is necessary in spades to afford the former. (The A Room Of Her Own Foundation, an organization that took Woolf at her word, offers a writers retreat for women in New Mexico.)

The writers retreat can be very inspiring. It can wake up a writer who feels she is in a rut, and help to affirm her writerly identity. It can foster intellectual dialogue, and ignite lasting friendships. It can help fend off that ailment peculiar to writers, loneliness. It can be an adventure! There are retreats in the mountains, on lakes, and in cities, in Gambier and Saratoga Springs, in Greece and Spain. When space tourism really takes off, there’ll probably be a writers retreat on Mars. If the question is why to go, the answers are innumerable.

If the question is how, though, I’m not sure. Trolling the Internet the other day I found the site of an idyllic-looking retreat on the coast of Ireland, and was instantly swept into a sea of reveries (most of which involved walking barefoot on long rocky cliffs, salt spray on my face and wind in my hair, like some extra in The Lord of the Rings) before finding that it cost over seven thousand dollars. Not going to happen. I closed my browser. I rearranged the framed photos I keep on my desk: seagulls on a white rock in the ocean, a sunset over a lake I know. All this hoopla about writers retreats suddenly seemed like nothing more than an attractive distraction.

On Rejection

Nobody likes to be rejected. Not by a friend, not by a job, and certainly not by a literary journal. The good writing gods know I’ve received my fair share of rejections to stories I wrote and loved and believed in. But as the fiction editor here, it’s also my responsibility to dole out rejections–a lot of them. It gives some credence to that old saying, ‘you get what you give.’

So what goes into deciding what stories to reject, and how to reject them? Here at IR, we get about a hundred fiction submissions a week. At our fiction meetings every two weeks, we discuss an average of eight stories. But in our upcoming issue, there is about one story for each month’s worth of submissions. That means that for each story published in Indiana Review about four hundred were declined.

“The road is long; the struggle must go on.”

Sadly, many of these rejections are sent to really fabulous writers. Many a story we don’t take is truly compelling. But maybe it’s about a subject we’re not familiar with, and we’re just not the right editors to judge it. Or maybe our reading committee gets to talking about it, and for whatever reason–an inconclusive ending, a passive protagonist, the members of the group–we all decide that it just doesn’t seem quite right for publication. I’d like to say the selection of work for our journal was an airtight scientific process that allowed all the best cream to rise to the top, but the truth is it’s messy, inconsistent and difficult. Howard Junker at ZYZZYVA pretty much summed it up in this 2007 rejection letter, where he wrote, “I must return almost everything–99%–of what’s sent to me, including a lot that interests me and even some pieces I admire. …I make mistakes; my taste is erratic, my judgement flawed.”

I know from experience how harrowing the process of allowing your story to be read by a stranger’s critical eyes can be. I’d love to be able to write an encouraging, thoughtful note to every fiction writer who’s brave enough to send us his or her work–and I do try to include a personal note whenever possible. Whatever I say, though, it’s up to the writer to decide to persevere in the long, brave, solitary battle that is the practice of writing, and to take each rejection as a “momentary setback.” As Howard Junker writer, “The road is long; the struggle must go on.”

Dialect and Bias

“Well… yawl have looked long enough. What you think about them?”

“We been watching… who they now?”

“Displaced Persons…. Well now. I declare. What do that mean?”

“It means they ain’t where they were born at and there’s nowhere for them to go—like if you was run out of here and wouldn’t nobody have you.”

“It seems like they here, though… if they here, they somewhere.”

The above is excerpted from Flannery O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person,” published in 1953 in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find. Since O’Connor’s death in 1964, the way we use dialect in fiction has changed significantly. The dialect in which O’Connor wrote her characters’ dialogue was complex enough in the 1950s. Sixty years later, it seems to me that the use of dialect is a dying practice—not least because with each passing decade it’s become increasingly racially, politically, and socioeconomically problematic. Dialect can also signal the contemporary reader to read a character as ‘other,’ which in turn can take that reader out of the story and discourage identification with the character.

But dialect can also be powerful. Nothing conveys a character’s voice and tone with as much immediacy. And in a time when reading has become an essentially visual experience—the text we read online and on our phones is compressed, abbreviated, translated into symbols—dialect can encourage the reader to connect with the written word on an aural level.

Visitors to the site The Dialectizer can input text and have it translated by a computer program into a number of dialects, including Jive, Cockney, Elmer Fudd, Swedish Chef, and even Hacker (the last of which I suspect isn’t a dialect at all, since it’s only ever typed, not spoken…). Imagine reading the following in a story, a familiar joke I ‘translated’ into a dialect the site calls Redneck: “Whuffo’ did th’ possum crost th’ road? To git t’t’other side.” In the work of a contemporary author, I imagine that little line would come off as satirical at best, offensive at worst. For the writer, though, particularly during an era when creating dialect is as simple as inputting text into a Web site, it can read as lazy characterization.

Ultimately, I suspect that the problem of dialect is just one facet of a much larger one: Good dialogue—like a good man—is hard to find.

What’s your opinion of dialect in fiction? Is it an outdated practice? Or can it be used wisely? We’d love to know your thoughts!

Contests Off the Beaten Path

Last week, I received an email from the Missouri Review about their 5th Annual Audio Competition, which welcomes audio submissions in poetry, fiction and audio documentary. It was a welcome reminder that literature exists not just on the page, but also somewhere else—in sound, and in memory. Then, this morning, I got a notification from Geist, the fabulous Canadian quarterly, about this year’s Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. For this year, their eighth, Geist editors are requesting that each entrant hand-make a postcard, then write a story inspired by it, finally submitting both elements together.

Inspiring stuff!

Missouri Review and Geist’s original, multimedia approaches to the literary contest got me thinking about how contest call-outs can serve as encouragement for writers to work outside their comfort zone. Would you ever hand-make your own postcard prompt, if no one suggested it? Would you think of recording a short story, weaving it together with music? We writers are solitary beasts. Contests—especially themed ones—offer us lonely folks both an opportunity to expand our repertoire and a way to connect with wider communities.

In fact, there are contests out there specifically for writers who identify with particular groups. The Saints and Sinners Literary Festival Short Fiction Contest is open for work with LGBT content about—what else?—saints and sinners. If you’re a lady writer, you’re in luck: WOW! Women On Writing is sponsoring a Flash Fiction Contest this fall; there’s another flash fiction contest, Feminist Flash 2011, is open to any genre of work, 200 words or less, with a feminist theme; and the organization A Woman’s Write is holding two contests, one for previously unpublished novel manuscripts and one in creative nonfiction.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds more writing contests out there, each with a slightly different slant. If you have a favorite themed contest, feel free to share it with us!