A fool and her internet

By Carolyn Plath

I’m a sunflower.

Yep.  Oh yeah.  I am a regular ray of sunshine.  Facebook told me so.

The social media giant’s newest package of postponement is delivered as, “What kind of ________are you?  Take this simple quiz and find out!”

I found my floral identity this morning shortly after reading the Daily Good’s article entitled, “How to eliminate procrastination.”

By the by, according to another Facebook/Quiz Social questionnaire, the best tattoo for me is …wait for it … a human skull!  Yes, that’s right.  This little sunflower has a dark side.

Quiz Social zeroed in on my shadow personality and matched me perfectly with that symbolic representation of my cranky alter ego.

The skull is suited to me, says Quiz Social, because it’s “bold and powerful.”  That is so me!

I am the bold and powerful sunflower who declares her “opposition to the natural order of things and her unwillingness to be limited by anyone’s rules or expectations.”

This nonconforming little blossom cannot be repressed.

And this:  In the yin and yang yoyo of things, if I were a super hero, I’d be none other than Superman, the Goodie Two Shoes of the super hero set!

And here’s how they reconcile the skull tattoo with the embodiment of truth, light and the American Way:  “Sometimes you are tempted to use your powers for evil, but lucky for the rest of us, you have a heart of gold.”  It’s me!  So very me!

In a past life I would have been an Egyptian queen, states the Department of the Obvious.

In the next life?  After I answered their quick quiz, the pronouncement came down – I’ll be reincarnated as … a single grain of sand?!

Not sure I’m looking forward to that in quite the same way I was anticipating my return as a mountain lion or even redwood tree, or Empress of the Universe.

But Quiz Social trots out none other than William Blake to make life on the beach with the masses seem Zen: “To see a world in a grain of sand …  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand…”  OK…

Sensing the lack of enthusiastic response to such a gritty future, the quizmaster extrapolates, “There is nothing that separates us from the sand.  Nothing separates the sand from God.  We are all here.  We are all everywhere.  We are all forever.”

Oh brother!

I’m beginning to see the wisdom of Fred Stutzman, a 2009 graduate student at the University of North Carolina.  Daily Good reports that Fred had trouble concentrating long enough to finish writing his thesis.  He blamed access to the internet.

Stutzman, like other people I’ve heard of, found himself distracted by the endless supply of sappy pastimes and useless but fascinating crapola at his fingertips — even when she, er, he really wanted to get some writing done.

Like any addict, he told himself he could disconnect any time he wanted to.  But it wasn’t that simple.  He tried aversion therapy and the ‘step down’ method.  He went cold turkey.  He wore the patch.

OK.  He didn’t do any of those things, but it was hard for him to look away from the screen.  No.  It was impossible.

So he did what any red-blooded, skull-tattooed sunflower would do:  He went home and created a software program that would solve his problem.  Oh, I should have mentioned – Stutzman was a computer programmer studying Information Science.

His creation, called “Freedom,” is simple.  All you have to do is turn the application on – after you pay your $10 – tell it how long you want to write, or focus on something else, anything other than the electronic pabulum you’re Jones-ing for and it blocks your computer from going online for that amount of time.

If you need a fix before your time is up, you have to turn your computer completely off and reboot, which, in theory, is so much trouble you’d actually rather write something you’re not ashamed of or embarrassed by instead.

I’m thinking of getting it.  Right after this last quiz:  What Tarot card are you?

Seven quick questions and…The Fool!?  I beg your pardon!

Carolyn Plath is a life-long writer, first receiving recognition for her work in 5th grade.  More recently, she placed 3rd in the Jack London Awards competition of the California Writer’s Club.  “Think Dream Play,” her weekly slice of life/humor column, published in The Benicia Herald, also appears online in Epiphany Magazine, as does her writers’ advice column, “Dream Writer.”  Unable to stop herself, Carolyn has a third column wherein she offers advice based on readers’ submissions of their nightly dreams.  Called “Send Me Your Dreams,” it appears in the Examiner.com.


Got MFA? The A-B-C’s (and D’s and F’s) of Teaching Creative Writing in Charter Schools

By Jen Karetnick

“Chad, no lollipops in the classroom,” I say. I am about to start workshop. I have a particularly good draft of a story, and I’m eager to get started.

As I shuffle papers, Chad turns his back, bites the head of the Blow Pop off the stick, and faces me with innocent eyes despite the bulge in his cheek.

“Okay,” I say. “Now spit it out.”

Not even abashed, he crunchily chews the sucker down to its center. “Too late. All gone.”

“Get back up,” I say in the exaggerated tone that means an authority figure is about to lose it, “and spit out the gum that was in the middle of it before I send you to Ms. Torres.”

Schooling mischievous adolescents is not what I set out to do when I received not one, but two Master of Fine Arts degrees in Creative Writing, both with teaching assistantships. My plan, like that of so many others, was to wow the publishing world and be the youngest poet ever to win such-and-such an award, then move on to whatever coveted university position was available.

It didn’t quite happen that way. I did the university adjunct thing. I didn’t like it. It was exhausting and I made more money banking on my real education (I worked in restaurants while I earned my degrees), writing articles as a dining critic and travel writer, than I did for an entire semester of teaching one composition course. So I retired from teaching, went freelance for thirteen years, and had two of my own children. But I missed my vocation. And then I accidentally found an alternative – one that many young or career-changing MFA-ers may also see as an option.

A friend showed me an advertisement for a new charter school for the arts opening up in my neighborhood. She thought I might want to send my children there. Instead, I applied for a job as the Creative Writing Director, and was hired almost immediately.

If you’ve seen Waiting for Superman, or followed any of the debates about public schooling in America, then you know that charter schools, independently run institutions funded by the state (though they receive fewer dollars per student than public schools), are controversial. Not all are superlative; like private establishments, some are just in it for the money, not the kids. But many, like mine, specialize in filling the gaps where public schools fall short.

I got in on the ground floor of Miami Arts Charter (MAC), a middle and high school for the arts, located on the grounds of a former television station in downtown Miami. Now I teach seven classes of dedicated poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and playwriting, plus oratory/storytelling and publishing, on a block schedule. This isn’t English with a creative writing twist. This is sestinas to spoken word, flash fiction to novellas, ten-minute plays to teen-angst memoirs.

The ages of my students range from 11-18. They have to audition with a portfolio and an on-the-spot writing prompt to be accepted, some when they are only nine or ten years old. Not everybody turns out to be equipped—mentally, emotionally, or even grammatically, for that matter. Kids like Chad are just one challenge of teaching creative writing to young teenagers.

Nor is the workload easy. My courses, all requiring different syllabi and daily preps, have to conform to state and national standards as well as convoluted pacing guides. My lesson plans must prove that I am providing for gifted and learning-disabled students at the same time. I keep folders of all student work, make a call log for any communication between parents, print out emails, have written data reports for every student, update a computerized grade book daily, and enter a required number of grades for every progress report and quarterly report card.

That’s just the documentation. There’s department and faculty meetings. School publications. Field trips, clubs, prom. (Yes, prom.) I also fundraise, train student aides and “volunteer” for committees, such as the one that manages the charter of the school, or the one that interfaces between the school and the community. Even though I have my own teenagers, before I became a secondary school teacher, I had no idea any of these committees even existed.

Indeed, just to become a professionally licensed teacher was an annoying and complicated process that didn’t take into account any of my higher education. So why did I do it?

For starters, I unexpectedly love the kids. And I am as surprised as anyone that they adore me in return. They have gone from calling me Ms. Karetnick to Ms. K. to Mama K. To some of my graduates, it seems, I will forever be, simply, Mom. It’s really endearing, albeit weird. You get adoration from college students, but not as readily.

Something else you don’t always seem to achieve at the university level these days: shock and awe. Young people are so sophisticated, with so much technology at their fingertips, that by the time they’re 20, they think they know it all. At 14 or 15, it’s easier, especially in the creative writing world, to show them how much they don’t know.

Then there’s the matter of modeling, and I’m not talking about the kind that involves stalking haughtily down a Parisian runway. When you hand out an assignment with examples, creative writing students don’t just want to know what the piece means. They want to understand motivation. What made this poet choose a repeating form instead of free verse, or this short story writer employ surrealism instead of modernism? You can interpret and guess all you want, but if you’re a multi-faceted creative writer, you can do the assignment yourself and explain exactly why you made the choices you did. (Try this with graduate school students and they’ll walk out of the room.) The end result? More of your own work.

Most of all, however, I truly believe in the talent these students have to offer. If good art springs from an intense emotional core, teenagers are a lot closer to touching it, with their hormones keeping them in perpetual turmoil, than those who have left puberty behind. The only thing they lack is training. And that, they absorb as readily as they do the newest iPhone application. One year, I had sixth graders who wrote wreathed sestets about Lebron James joining the Miami Heat and seniors who turned contemporary politics into musical satires, and then performed them as shadow puppet plays. Like their angst, their imaginations are limitless.

So is the fun I get to have with them. Every year I take them to the Everglades or botanical gardens to write ecological poems and shepherd them to teen poetry slams. One year, we traveled to England to visit Shakespeare’s birthplace and Oxford University. We’ve read at book fairs and had anthology signings set up at independent bookstores and restaurants. Granted, I work my connections and use my background to make some of these things happen. But in order to enjoy these privileges, the students must first produce the work.

The process I teach is similar to any undergraduate or graduate workshop. The emphasis is on crafting a draft according to a prompt, reading aloud the draft that has been passed out to the entire workshop, giving and receiving constructive criticism both verbally and written, and then revising said draft.

Like every writing teacher, I emphasize that the process is as important, if not more so, than the product. But submitting that product, and doing it correctly, according to guidelines, is part of my curriculum. I have to admit that I’m proud when my students get published or win. And they do win, everything from Gold Medals in Poetry from Scholastic Art and Writing to the creative non-fiction competition from Creative Minds, sponsored by the Center for Talented Youth from Johns Hopkins University, to the Princeton University 10-Minute Play Competition.

Mostly, though, I’m delighted because I know these awards will get them into excellent liberal arts colleges with invested creative writing programs, where well-published professors will take them to the next level.

Arguably, teaching in a charter school doesn’t carry as much cachet in the academic world as a full-time position at a university. But recent graduates of MFA programs would do well to take a look at not just the charter schools in their regions, but also magnet (public schools that specialize in a subject) and private schools in their regions.

As reading and writing scores across the nation continue to sink, creative writing programs, seen as only one possible solution for raising them, are on the rise. So are performing arts schools, in part thanks to public school systems reducing educational funds for arts programs. If schools in your local district don’t already have creative writing, it doesn’t hurt to go for interviews and suggest it. You may start out teaching only one or two classes part-time, but it could lead, depending on your initiative, to full-time work, either at one school or split between a couple.

You might even think about securing grant funds to start your own after-school creative writing programs for teens in need. Tutoring grammar through self-expression is a lot more interesting – for you and the students – than the traditional white-board lesson. It’s just one more way to make a living and keep on writing yourself. Besides, if what you’re really interested in is teaching creative writing, the secondary level is where it truly begins.

Jen Karetnick holds an MFA in poetry from University of California, Irvine, and an MFA in fiction from University of Miami. She is the author of 12 books, most recently the poetry chapbook, Prayer of Confession (Finishing Line Press, June 2014); the full-length poetry book, Brie Season (White Violet Press, September 2014); and the cookbook, Mango (University Press of Florida, October 2014). In addition to working as the Creative Writing Director for grades 6-12 at Miami Arts Charter School, Jen is the dining critic for MIAMI Magazine and a contributor for many food-travel publications including TheLatinKitchen.com and Virgin Atlantic Airways. She lives in Miami Shores on the last remaining acre of a historic mango plantation with her husband, two children, three dogs, three cats and fourteen mango trees.


What Is the Real Story?

by Lily Iona MacKenzie

“The artist must be deaf to the transitory teaching and demands of his particular age. He must watch only the trend of the inner need, and harken to its words alone.”

— Kandinsky

Several years ago I entered a Masters in Creative Writing program as a poet, but I was equally interested in writing fiction and signed up for several short story workshops. My experience in the poetry classes led me into exciting new places as a writer, opening me up to undiscovered parts of myself and of the poetry world. But it has taken me all these years to fully recover from the fiction workshops.

First let me say that, no, my intent here is not to bash creative writing programs. I’ve found them useful in many ways. Overall I felt inspired and challenged, part of a community of writers. But it was the poetry workshops that completely turned me around. They made me aware of the amazing work done by writers I’d not read carefully before—many of them women, work that was more innovative than I’d been used to: Kathleen Fraser, Barbara Guest, Leslie Scalapino. This writing didn’t fit into the traditional genre of lyric poetry as I understood it, largely autobiographical material, emotional snapshots of the writers’ pasts including an epiphany or “point.”

Reading these poets was like voyaging into a totally foreign country. They made something happen on the page, treating it as theatre, letting the meanings emerge from the interaction of language rather than from recreating a remembered event. They pushed language to its limits, attempting to bring into the poem a larger world by shattering syntax, rethinking grammar, challenging the notions of narrative as we know it, forging beyond linear cause and effect thinking into new realms. They were questioning our assumptions about poetry—what it is, what it can be. Its subject matter. They were (and are) questioning the very fabric of our lives, the notions of subject and subjectivity, of art and its role in our culture.

Through these classes, I came to see that experimental and traditional works are part of a continuum, not either/or, better/worse. These workshops show writing programs at their best. The poets who taught the classes embraced a wide variety of styles, from formalist to the most experimental. Students were free to experiment and didn’t conform to one particular party line.

Unfortunately, the openness and scope that I experienced in poetry did not carry over into the fiction workshops I took. The writers teaching these classes mainly followed the conventional notions of the short story, the realistic/naturalistic tradition, or the psychologically subtle stories that have descended from Chekhov, Joyce, and James. And, of course, minimalist fiction was hot then.

No room seemed to exist for what has been at the heart of American fiction since its inception—romance, combining the ordinary with the inexplicable. Richard Chase, author of The American Novel and Its Traditions, believes the main difference between the realistic novel and the romance is the way each views reality: “The novel renders reality closely and in comprehensive detail. It takes a group of people and sets them going about the business of life.” The characters, involved in plausible situations, become real to us, revealing their complexities, their human foibles, their multiple motives. In these works, “character is more important than action or plot” (12).

Romance, on the other hand, feels free to render reality in less volume and detail…..Astonishing events may occur and these are likely to have a symbolic rather than a realistic plausibility. Being less committed to the immediate rendition of reality than the novel, the romance will more freely veer toward the mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms. (13)

Chase’s ideas apply equally to the short story, but as an undergraduate and graduate in creative writing, I learned something different. When I tried to do what was natural to me—to write symbolic dramas, Shirley Jacksonist contemporary folktales/fables that retained the details of everyday experience and psychological authenticity—I found the readers of these pieces did not have a context from which to judge them. I met a blank wall.

I was familiar with Marquez and Borges’ writing, where Western rationality clashes with magical native cultures, the natural and the supernatural intermingling, the living with the dead, each world as real as the other. I’d read the symbolist stories of Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, and James. For my first master’s thesis (in the Humanities), I’d investigated the literary fairy tale, parables, and fables, where characters tend to be caricatures rather than fully realized imitations of humans.

But when I tried to suggest there are approaches other than the usual conflict/resolution type of short story where character is the focus, or that caricature may be valid within certain contexts, I didn’t get very far. Since I was still feeling my way around in the short story form, I wasn’t able to clearly articulate yet what I was attempting in my narratives. Unfortunately, my writing instructors and my fellow classmates had not explored much beyond their turf as writers. Hence, many critiques were harmful if not totally destructive because the readers were trying to fit the work into a narrow perspective.

One teacher, after reading a draft of a story I was working on, said “Who are these people?” The characters did not fit into her ideas of what should happen in a story. She went on to say, “My overall impression at this point is that you have serious gifts in the area of the real, honest to God short story. I do not see you succeeding as a ‘magical realist’—in fact, I see you being led down a disastrous path, away from your own power as a storyteller. I would most strongly advise you to give all that up and start to write the real things. I don’t think you’ll ever regret it.”

The authority, she was saying that works of the imagination are not real; the true path is the conventional story. I hadn’t yet sufficiently discovered my voice as a fiction writer, so I couldn’t rebut her criticism.

Just as poets do, fiction writers have a rich, multiply textured tradition to draw from that includes more than the conventional narrative, and I haven’t even mentioned the fabulists and those writing metafiction. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates says,

…Carol Shields’ third collection of stories, Dressing Up for the Carnival, is an intelligent, provocative, and entertaining collection of variegated prose pieces, both conventional and unconventional….[T]he majority are deftly, even sunnily written, and bristling with ideas, reminding us that fiction need not be emotionally devastating or ‘profound’ to be worthwhile. (39)

Shields describes the process she went through in letting go of the rules of “what a story should be and how it must be shaped” in an essay entitled “Arriving Late, Starting Over.” After teaching the absolutes she learned in English Lit for years, she finally rebelled. She actually had no choice. Before she could go forward as a writer, she had to go back and release herself from the structure of the traditional story. It no longer was large or loose enough to allow in what had bubbled up in Various Miracles, her first collection of stories that she’d written in “a mood of reckless happiness” (245 & 246). They opened the way for Dressing Up for the Carnival.

While I enjoy reading all types of fiction, I don’t want to be captive of the realistic story. Reading and writing various story styles keeps me in touch with the strangeness, the unfathomable mysteries, of life. Realistic stories certainly can do this, too. But the stories I’m most attracted to view the world from an unusual angle, from what is invisible to ordinary consciousness—the content we often find in dreams (I’m thinking of Salman Rushdie’s work, as well as Reginald McKnights’, Jeffrey Renard Allen’s, Mark Danielewski’s, and especially Roberto Bolaño).

Over the years, in the process of finding and accepting my particular preferences as a writer, I’ve had to teach myself what I didn’t find in the academy. At those times it’s been helpful to remember Eudora’s Welty’s admonition:

Writing is such an internal, interior thing that it can hardly be reached by you, much less by another person. I can’t tell you how to write, no more than you can tell me. We’re all different from one another even in the way we breathe. Writers must learn to trust themselves. (Dawson 27)

Yet this kind of trust doesn’t come easily. However, we’ll never discover in our fellow writers or ourselves what we’re capable of if we don’t consciously release these expectations and enlarge our repertoire. As writers and teachers, we need to be more aware of the range we have available to us so we don’t limit our own or others’ imaginations.

Lily Iona MacKenzie’s poetry, critical and personal essays, travel pieces, and short fiction have appeared in numerous U.S. and Canadian publications. All This, a poetry collection, was published in 2011. Fling, one of her novels, will be published in 2015. lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.

Works Cited

Chase, Richard.  The American Novel and Its Tradition.  New York:  Anchor Books, 1957, p. 12. Print.

Ibid, p 13.

Oates, Joyce Carol.  “An Endangered  Species,” The New York Review of Books, June 29, 2000, p. 39. Print.

Shields, Carol.  “Arriving Late, Starting Over.”  Metcalf, John and  Struthers, J.R. (Tim), ed. How Stories Mean.  Erin, Ontario:  The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993, p. 245 & 246. Print.

Dawson, Marie.  “An Interview with Eudora Welty.”  Poets & Writers Magazine.   September/ October 1997, p. 27. Print.



by Peter Marino

I want to pass back your papers today. I’ve read them and made comments on them and we’ll talk about them and then you will write a final copy.

I always want to encourage young writers, and what I’m trying to do in this class is establish a community of writers. I hate for any negativity to go down. But I need to say, how to put this? Surprised, I guess, was what I was. That they were so short. Really, really short. Since it was a topic of some substance. The assignment was to write on whether you thought there were significant differences between the sexes, other than physiological, and whether you thought the causes of those differences were environmental or genetic. Or both. So, again, that’s pretty big, and I just assumed that with such, you know, bigness of topic, the papers would be quite a bit bigger. More thorough in analysis. Maybe more thoughtful. At least a page worth of thought. One side of a page.

But of course this was a first draft—rough draft, crappy copy, shitty first draft, whatever you want to call it—and the purpose of a first draft is to get the ideas down. Then develop them later. Generate a thoughtful final version. Final draft. That’s where my eyes are now.

Okay, let’s go over some key sentences which I’ve culled from various drafts, and work on how the author could improve his or her work. I shouldn’t say “improve,” because that insinuates the person did something wrong. And of course a rough draft can’t be wrong. Even if I expected them to be a little longer. What I should say is, what opportunities for revision does the author have? Opportunities.

Okay. The topic is, are there significant differences between the sexes? First paper starts like this: There are many differences between men and women which are too hard to explain in just one paper. Okay, good. The person has obviously learned something from writing this, because they’ve realized that the question is very complicated. So, by saying there are a lot of differences and they are hard to explain, it shows that the writer has really struggled with the question. And is baffled. That’s good, you know? Because confusion is part of learning. And it’s not just the students who learn in a class, but the teacher, because I am confused about why so many of you…

Anyway, let’s keep moving forward. Keep moving. Where can we go from here? What suggestions can we make for the writer, for future revisions? Yes, good! How about listing the many differences. And after making the list, which probably they could have done first and already, they can examine the differences on that list. Yes! Good! Determine the most important differences, good good good. Keep the scope of the paper more manageable, instead of trying to sort out every single difference. Which the writer has not actually listed yet…

No, sorry, that’s not appropriate. I have to say I don’t like the word bullshit in group critique. That’s just your opinion, that the writer is trying to bullshit me by saying the topic is too hard. Look, it’s not the point, but yes, in fact it was the only sentence in the paper. And, okay, the first time I read this one sentence essay I must admit, the thought did cross my mind. But of course if we make negative assumptions about the writer, we’re not providing opportunities, not opening doors for him but rather slamming them shut. Slamming them really hard, in his face. Or she. I’m not saying who. Let’s use they, plural but gender neutral. Because people are very sensitive about their writing. It’s a very intimate piece of them that they’re going public with, even if going public means submitting a paper in class. A paper with one-sentence.

So, I think the writer has a good start. Just needs to generate more ideas based on what’s already here. The seed is planted. Now it has to germinate. Write about the ideas that really appeal to you. That get you excited. Excited enough to fill up a whole double-spaced page. That kind of excitement.

Okay, next example from a paper on this assignment entitled “Are there significant differences between the sexes?” This next person writes, There are differences between the sexes, and it is not for mere mortals to try to figure them out.

Okay, good start.

Raw material here.

What suggestions can we make? Opportunities?

Yes, it was in fact the only sentence. Just like the first one. Minimalism, which is a theory. There are theoretical underpinnings to everything we write, even when we don’t write much. But remember, we’re talking drafts here. Lincoln didn’t come up with the Gettysburg Address on the first try, I’ll bet. Although maybe he did. So, how can we suggest that the author of this paper examine those significant differences between the sexes that, for all we know, higher beings, non-mortals, might still be trying to sort out?

This student is also trying to avoid the assignment? That’s not what I asked. What I asked was for other opportunities the writer has for revision. Rough drafts, all about potential. Opportunities to grow. In length. Okay, well, yes, by stating that the topic is impossible, the door is pretty much slammed shut again, isn’t it? Reminds me of the Environmental Science course I took in college back in 1980, and how the kid next to me wrote on his exam that all environmental problems would be taken care of by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and oh boy the professor just went car-alarm crazy the day he passed the tests back, told us whoever wrote that didn’t have the brains God gave the swelling in a baboon’s anal gland; said anyone who wrote that kind of crap should be in a study of lower primates; needed a cage rather than a desk.

Then he ripped the test up and blew the pieces out of his hand, and asked if Jesus H. Christ would like to make fish and/or bread out of them, that he would wait.

But I don’t condone that. Writers don’t respond well. So, no, your suggestion that the writer of this uni-sentence-paper conveniently became existential so he didn’t have to do the assignment…We have no idea really. I just want to encourage you away from such judgments. What can we suggest to help the writer generate some ideas? Maybe even generate a whole paragraph, of several lines?

Listen, contrary to how they do things in the military, writers do not become better writers by being shamed and humiliated, by having their motives analyzed. This is not a Catholic school! And that’s not a slam against Catholic schools. I know things have really changed these days. The ones that are still open. And they take anybody, Catholic or not. Now I’m lost. Where was I?

Process, yes. First drafts and revision, the foundations of all writing. Last paper, because we need to go on to the next activity, one that works. The question was: “Are there significant differences between the sexes?” This last student wrote, simply, No.

Okay, we work with what we have. What can we do with this paper? Excellent, yes! We need to ask Why No!? We need to draw the writer out, discover what leads him or her to such an absolute, decided No! on such a subject that I didn’t see as being answerable by yes or no, or any other lone word. What we can say is there is a confidence here, and we need to ask why so confident? That’s what I’d like to know. Because if I had turned in one word and called it a paper when I was in school…

The important thing is where do we go from here? Perhaps the person could make a list of the things that led him or her to that big, strong No! Clue the rest of us in. Us, your reading audience. You know, we’ll gladly read your words, but we can’t read your mind.

But like I said, it’s important to get something down to work from. Just get something down. Anything. Please.

Peter Marino is an English professor at SUNY Adirondack in upstate New York. He has published two novels for young adults, Dough Boy (Holiday House) and Magic and Misery (IntoPrint). His plays include the comedy “You’re Right—I’m Dead” and the ten minute “Ralph Smith of Schenectady, New York….”


The Long Road to Nowhere


by Tom Trabulsi

After graduating college, I wrote my first novel in six months and thought my future as a writer was a foregone conclusion.  Little did I know that twenty years later I would still be waiting for my big break.  I took jobs as a construction worker, bartender, and bike courier in Boston and New York City, mainly so I could use my body during the day while keeping my brain fresh for the many hours I spent at my desk writing after work.  I briefly thought about applying for graduate school to earn an MFA in creative writing, but two deterrents quickly arose.  One was a lack of money. The second was an interview with Cormac McCarthy in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in May 1992, which gave me a different blueprint.  Since most of McCarthy’s books were out of print at the time, I had no idea who he was, but “All the Pretty Horses” was about to be published, and apparently both his agent and publisher had begged him to sit down with the Times to gain at least a sliver of exposure.  He recalled his path as a writer, how he thought teaching it was next to impossible and a hustle, and basically recounted the years he ate canned beans while living in a barn, writing all the while. I decided then that hard work would be my salvation as well.  But here I am, two decades later, with a stack of stories and novels no one even knows exist.

I wrote the first novel, which was set in South Boston, years before anyone outside of New England had heard of Whitey Bulger, the neighborhood’s most infamous resident.  While doing research, I was chased out of housing projects and drank alongside guys in bars in Southie, where many more stories existed. And since I worked as a cook during the day, my co-workers, hard-living Hispanic and black guys from Mission Hill and Mattapan, had opened up a new world for me in neighborhoods white people rarely saw.

Gradually, the idea for an improbable white/black coming-of-age story set in Southie during the 1970’s began to form.  Since desegregation had nearly torn Boston apart in the 1970’s, the idea of a black family moving to the predominately white enclave of Southie to support their son, who was being bused there, was so dramatic that the story possibilities seemed endless.  The Whitey Bulger character became a mentor to Kyle O’Keefe, the white kid, and John Thomas, the black kid.  So I wrote the novel, and, lo and behold, it was awful.  It was so awful that I rewrote every word of it six times front to back over the next three years and was stunned to find each successive version worse than the last.  It was then I realized I was not the type of writer who could imagine and dream up a story I hadn’t lived. Gore Vidal could travel back to the 1820’s, but not me.

Another thing I realized was that I didn’t know how to write.  Period. Could I write a fundamentally sound short story?  Yes.  But that was nothing compared to actual novel building and navigating complex characters through hundreds of pages.  It was a crushing realization, but after re-writing the same novel six times in the first person, third person, third person omniscient, etc., it was a realization I needed to have.  In disgust, I put down the pen and didn’t pick it up again for five years.

In the interim, I threw myself into every experience I could find and moved around the country.  Finally, after arriving in Colorado and working construction, I found my pen again and wrote “Sandaman’s Riposte,” a novel about a Boston bike courier racing against the clock and his own past before both destroy him.  I got an agent in New York City who was my age and looking to make a name for himself as an independent.  Over the next six years, he worked tirelessly and came close to landing me a contract a handful of times.  I stayed with him for so long because he believed in me and the stories I was producing.  He was honest and loyal, and we shared the same vision of my career, mainly as a detailer of worlds and lifestyles regular people would never see.  But in the end, we amicably parted ways.

It’s been seven years and I still haven’t found another agent.  But I have found the realization that to be a successful writer you must be able to market yourself, market your stories, make connections, attend forums, and, once again, make connections.  I did none of the above and it got me nowhere.  I have completed a short story collection and another novel.  I’ve self-published “Sandaman’s Riposte,” and “Bearing Down,” and am getting ready to publish “Forked Head Pass.”  I’ve never been published by the establishment, but I never got into this for the money.  Did I want to be a published author?  Absolutely. But I had no problem doing all of this for free, mainly because I never had a choice.  I was going to be a writer, no matter the cost.  In fact, I didn’t have a wife or kids because they would have cut into my reading and writing time.

If you choose this life, you can never give up. Eventually, I got a job as a firefighter and now I love my life, but a part of me will never be satisfied until I find another agent, because without one, major publishers will have nothing to do with me.  I was always so focused on the writing that I literally did nothing else to further my career.  But the time has come for that to change.