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Walking the Roads

Posted by on May 6, 2014 in Blog | 3 comments

Walking the Roads

Today’s guest blog comes from Melissa Heath-Lee. Her short story, “Sour Luck” will be featured in Issue 13 of The Quotable.

Yogi Berra once said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up somewhere else.” This quote gets changed around a bit, depending on the source, but the gist is always the same. I didn’t immediately recognize this as a statement on goal setting, that if you don’t aim for a particular goal, you might not like your results. Recently, though, the full meaning hit me in a major way as I trekked, lost, through the streets of Bricktown in Oklahoma City.

I was headed to a conference. My work had been unfocused as of late, and in similar form, I had signed up for the conference at the last minute. The hotel was completely booked, so I was staying at another place a mile away. No problem, I could use the walks to clear my head. Knowing it was predicted to be the most frigid weekend of an already colder-than-normal winter, I packed boots, gloves and my extra-long scarf.

After securing directions from the concierge, I headed out into the tundra, determined to start a new chapter in my life – again. It wasn’t the first time I’d gone off the rails a bit. What can I say? I get distracted. I let life and all its obstacles get in my way. When the computer crashes, I bemoan my luck and inability to work, ignoring for the moment that I’ve always preferred to write longhand. From the death of my blue ALL-CAPS typewriter in second grade until my first word processor in college, I did all of my writing that way, long and scrawling in notebooks, binders and assorted scraps of napkins and post-its.

When times are hard, I can’t afford to send off submissions and enter writing contests. When I’m stable financially, I’m way too busy to write like I should… There’s an endless cycle of barricades and excuses and – well Life. Like bad directions that take you far out of your way on the coldest day of the year, like a hotel with a new name that no one seems to have heard of before, like an icy brick street that takes you down in the middle of an intersection.

So as I continued on to my conference that day I had made a decision. I wasn’t going to let Life get in my way anymore. I was going to make time to write consistently. I was going to enjoy it, even the pieces I would later trash. I was going to use Life’s hurdles as fodder for my work. I was going to remind myself constantly that the only way to be a successful writer is to WRITE, and taking any other path would not get me where I wanted to go.

As I passed the American Banjo Museum, I finally neared my destination. Music was piping into the street. “How many roads must a man walk down…” And I laughed out loud, knowing I would write about that later.

The Cost of Not Trying

Posted by on Apr 3, 2014 in Blog, Writing Life | 11 comments

The Cost of Not Trying

Today’s guest post comes from author, Michael S. Nuckols. His first novel, Winter Calf, is now available on Amazon.com.

During my senior year of High School, I remember my friend Sarah asking, “What’s your GPA?”  Sarah was smart, competitive, and worked harder than anyone I knew.   She had high hopes of being the valedictorian.  I could sense her disappointment when she realized her average was not even close to mine, especially when considering that she worked so much harder than I ever had.  Nonetheless, Sarah was proud to be second in the Great Bridge High School Class of 1989.

During my first year at the University of Virginia, I took Calculus from a Chinese professor who barely spoke English. I fought for a B.  The next semester, a delightful Englishman who loved quoting Shakespeare taught my Calculus II course. I barely got a C – my worst grade ever. This was the first time in my life that I had truly struggled for success and failed.  I didn’t like it.  I fulfilled my math requirements and never took another math course.

Three years later, I graduated with highest honors, majoring in Environmental Science. I received the department’s Ecology Award.  Everyone asked me what graduate school I would be attending. Burnt out and skeptical of the financial costs, I decided that graduate studies were not for me. I went back to my parent’s home wondering what was next.

After three months of job hunting, an engineering company offered me work as an environmental specialist on Fort Benning in Georgia.  My parents were unhappy that I was leaving Virginia but supportive.  My future husband-to-be, Allen, was inconsolable.   Nonetheless, I had to pay the bills and if the two of us ever wanted a life together, this was the chance.  My work as an environmental specialist would cripple my efforts towards achieving success in my true passion — writing — for the next 20 years.

One of the final courses I took in my fourth year at UVA was a fiction writing class.  My final submission for the class was a short story called The Call of Bubbling Brook.  It was not only well received – but also highly praised.  Like every budding author, I had dreams of becoming a real writer, whatever that means.  Unfortunately, I also had dreams of moving out of my parent’s house and finding my own way.  I knew the chances of succeeding in fiction were slim. I feared failure.  Writing became a dream deferred.

My one season playing little league baseball still causes me to cringe 30 years later – and instilled in me a lifelong avoidance of team sports.   Ironically, today, my primary occupation involves site safety – getting others to avoid unacceptable risk, something I’ve been quite successful at in my life.   Only recently have I realized that my greatest successes in life came from my taking the greatest risks.   Moving to Georgia and then Alaska was fraught with risk, but we found happiness here.  Coming out as gay to my parents and my community has paid dividends many times over.

While cleaning my hard-drive last year, I came across The Call of Bubbling Brook.  I remembered the passion I had when creating it and knew what my life had been missing – writing.  I decided to take what felt to me like a huge risk and expand it into a short novel.   Thanks to the advent of self-publishing, I could realistically make it a goal to not only finish it but also release it for the world to judge.  This time, I wouldn’t give up when things seemed hard or the work seemed too sentimental or imperfect.    After a year of intense work, I finished only to face the daunting task of coming out as a writer.

The Winter Calf is now available on Amazon as both a hardcopy and as a Kindle download.   The novel has already been downloaded in not only the United States but also Canada, Great Britain, Australia, France, and Germany.  Whatever the first reviews or sales show, I’m happy knowing that I finished it and can say that I finally pushed myself into an uncomfortable place, putting myself out there for the world to judge.  Whatever happens, I’m happy knowing that I finally tried.

Of Grief

Posted by on Feb 6, 2014 in Blog, Writing Life | 5 comments

Of Grief

Today’s guest post comes from contributor, Kit Haggard. Her short story “Lost” appears in Issue 11 of The Quotable.

At a summer writing workshop in high school, a professor told me that the sentence “The king died, and then the queen died,” is just history, but “The king died, and then the queen died of grief,” begins to tell a story. It seems so obvious, it hardly bears repeating, but lately, I’ve been coming back to this simple lesson when I ask myself what I’m trying to achieve by writing, and why we like stories, and ultimately, what a story is in the first place. My tentative conclusion—open to revision—is that we like stories because we have also died of grief.

Vonnegut said, “Do you realize that all great literature is all about what a bummer it is to be a human being? Isn’t it such a relief to have somebody say that?” When I first read this quote, I thought it was a comment on the depressing nature of Great Novels—a concept I still believed in at the time, as though there was a massive library somewhere that amassed and prescribed The Official and Definitive Canon. And at the time, it was a relief to hear someone say that the books I knew I should be reading were all depressing romps through the lives of unhappy families. But this is perhaps not exactly what Vonnegut intended. He meant, instead, that it’s a relief to open a book and hear someone else say—as you’ve always suspected—that life as a human being is a bummer, to say that you’re not alone, to say that they have also died of grief.

When I begin to write now, I start with this concept, with the assumption that we have all experienced what a bummer it is to be a human being. The author’s job, in any piece, is to create a reminder of that, to retell the story of the reader’s grief in a way that they’ve never heard before—to make it almost, but not quite, unrecognizable.

People will tell a young writer to write what they know, or what they’re afraid of, or to do neither; to write every day, or only when the inspiration strikes, or that there’s no such thing as inspiration anyway; to read everything but Melville, read nothing but Melville, read nothing. The maxim about the king and the queen is the only one that holds up. Tell the story about how we all died of grief, how we are not alone, and feel the relief it is to have someone say that.

Hell’s Angels

Posted by on Feb 3, 2014 in Blog, Writing Life | 4 comments

Hell’s Angels

Today’s guest post comes from contributor, Sonja Larsen. Her short story “What is Sweet” appears in Issue 11 of The Quotable.

My first job in the skid row neighborhood of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, was as a receptionist in a halfway house for people with mental illnesses and brain injuries. Every morning the same resident introduced himself to me, and in a slurred and halting voice, told me his life story. He’d been a Hells Angel and survived a gang hit. He’d been in a coma for months, he said, and the doctors were sure he’d never talk again. He was a goddamn walking miracle. He repeated the same thing everyday, word for word. Occasionally, on what I came to think of as his good days, he’d finish his story with “You don’t have to get shot in the head to quit drugs, but it helps!”

That was over ten years ago now, but I still think of him at least once a week, when I find myself caught in an involuntary loop of memory. Triggered by a song or a photograph or a face, remembering something I’ve remembered a hundred times before. What is sweet is about one of those faces, one of those triggers.

I still work in the same neighborhood and if I write a lot about people on the margins, it’s probably because that’s familiar territory for me. It’s not just where my job is, it’s where I grew up too. Writing is how I process and honour experiences that too often are seen as secret or shameful. Like the man at the halfway house, I want to tell you where I came from, how I got here.

But I am also compelled, both by curiosity and ethics to explore what happens when I disrupt the known narrative. What begins as the necessity to disguise actual identities, to call my work fiction, becomes permission to break apart memory, to play with a story’s possibilities and, on good days, ends with the surprise of seeing something I thought I knew by heart in a whole new light.

It’s Never Too Late Until It’s Too Late

Posted by on Jan 27, 2014 in Blog | 3 comments

It’s Never Too Late Until It’s Too Late

Today’s guest post comes from contributor, Judy Witt. Her poem “Twister” appears in Issue 12 of The Quotable.

When I first heard the Beatles sing, “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?” that age seemed an impossibly long way in the future. Yet here I am, finally returning to writing poetry and achieving my first publication. Being a poet began as #1 on my reverse-bucket-list— not What-to-do-before-I-die, but What-to-do-when-I-grow-up. It merely took a while for this procrastinator-almost-on-Medicare to get around to it. I spent all my adult years doing the usual, then asked, “What would I like to do with the rest of my life, now that the dog has died, the kids are grown and gone, and a thirty-year career has paid the bills?”

After reviewing my yellowed poems and then reading current literary journals, my old works took on the misshapen look of a square peg. I had a lot to learn about the landscape of contemporary poetry, so I embarked on my MFL. No, that’s not a typo. Not willing to put myself through the pressure of a structured MFA program, I figured I’d earn my Master of a Full Life, instead. Every class guarantees a “pass” as long as I show up willing to learn. The only way to fail is to drop out. This design-as-I-go program doesn’t end with a framed degree on the wall; in fact, I’d rather not graduate anytime soon.

Auditing poetry courses at Virginia Commonwealth University (for free—one of the perks of accumulating lots of birthdays) not only updated the tools in my poetry toolbox, but also energized my muse. I joined writer’s groups, attended conferences and seminars, read a wide range of books, and wrote and rewrote poems. I’m now reading an excellent guidebook—The Poetry Home Repair Manual, by Ted Kooser. It’s not a dry text about rules and accepted poetic forms, forcing the student to perform, as he calls them, “literary sit-ups and knee bends.” Kooser offers engaging, practical advice on reshaping your words into works of art which will sing not only to you, but also to your target audience. Having endured so much classroom drudgery, it always surprises me how much fun learning can be when I’m free to explore any meandering path that tempts my feet; the only test is seeing how long I can ignore the muddied socks in the laundry basket.

 

The Exercise of Writing

Posted by on Jan 23, 2014 in Blog, Writing Life | 5 comments

The Exercise of Writing

Today’s guest post comes from contributor, Elaine Kehoe. Her short story “Breakage” appears in Issue 12 of The Quotable.

I am a writer working to get better at my craft. I am an occasional jogger lucky just to be able to go out and get my legs to move. Sometimes, on fortunate days, both these personas will meld, and I slip into that blessed state in which words come to me by themselves while I run. A scene or poem or short-short story will spool out almost without my will. I’m excited, pumped with endorphins, and eager to get it down.

Then something happens between mind and paper or screen. The words I’ve scrawled or typed don’t seem as exciting. They’re all there, but I think, is that all there is? It seemed longer, more poetic, better somehow in the immediacy of creation.

Why is it that the thing you thought was so wonderful while you were composing it mentally seems more ordinary when you see it in print?

Those endorphins—the mental energy and “high”—can make our minds run faster than our bodies. When I sit down to write, I pick and choose words carefully, create and discard sentences, think carefully about sentence structure, struggle to get my thoughts down while I’m thinking them, get caught up in recursive loops. When I jog, my thoughts may come in an unstoppable flow. They create a cornucopia of possibilities, all of which are active at the same time and any of which I can choose simultaneously. If I change wording or dialogue, what it was is still there in my mind, accumulating in layers, and the pentimento makes it all seem much richer. I need to form clear images or retrace the words in my mind in order to remember them, so that they stand out in relief and feel more unique and important.

Does just the act of writing it down, looking at it, change my point of view? There it is, and it feels as though it’s open to the world; it isn’t just my secret any more. The tiny beautiful stone hidden under the plant leaf is revealed, but does the sunlight enhance it or bleach it white?

Sometimes those stones turn out to be gems, and I find them through the flow of thought that moves as my body does. Sometimes the gems are raw, and when I hold them, I have no idea whether they have any value. They need to be polished and faceted through hard work before they can show their depths to the world. Writing requires both: easy inspiration and hard work. Like physical exercise, it taxes me, challenges me, and takes me to places within myself that I haven’t been to before. And the longer I do it, the more confidence I build.

Jogging is not a magic formula that makes writing easy. Writing doesn’t just come to us when we want it to. Both exercises are work, and both are rewarding: a healthier body and a mind expanded by imagination. Both are worth it.

Casting My Own Stones

Posted by on Jan 20, 2014 in Blog, Writing Life | 5 comments

Casting My Own Stones

Today’s guest blog post comes from The Quotable contributor, Kimbra Cutlip.

When I began to write “A Name for Regret” which appears in Issue 12 of The Quotable, I thought I was writing about a memory and little girl in Africa—about how each had been transformed in my heart by the passage of time. The first iterations were long, woven through with back story and introspection. Over the course of many re-writes, I had to peel away layers until I found the one tiny nugget at the center.

What I found was personal failure. Time hadn’t changed my memory; it had removed the filters from my lens. I could now clearly see my younger self, barely a woman, with shoulders too small to bear the weight of the human suffering around me. I saw a weakness in myself that the first, bloated drafts had obscured. My initial instinct was to shift the focus of my story, explain myself so the reader would not think less of me, but I know better. Readers can be shrewd skeptics.

For more than 20 years, I’ve made a modest living as a science writer, feature writer, copywriter, and most recently a writer of fiction. But these are other people’s stories. Exploring my own is a more brutal endeavor that I’ve only just begun.

That’s not to say I haven’t always written the stories of my life. Journaling is a habit as vital to my mental hygiene as daily brushing is to the preservation of my teeth. It helps me clear my brain of clutter without the fear of throwing away something I may need one day. But these are private musings. Writing for others is a different matter. Readers expect honesty without hyperbole. Rightfully, they demand that we dig deep without self-pity or indulgence.

Personal stories are a form of public vivisection requiring a delicate hand on the scalpel. Too much blood obscures the wound, too little bores the audience. I often marvel at how much memoirists reveal about their lesser selves, the risks they take, knowing they will be judged by strangers who tend to cheer only for characters with an admirable balance of strength and vulnerability. What if readers find the balance off? Good memoirists don’t seem to ask for love or absolution.

So, why then, do they do it? That’s the question I asked as I was peeling away the protective layers of my own story, “A Name for Regret.” It wasn’t until I had whittled my experience down to the one polished stone I knew to be true, that I understood. It was then that I felt compelled to cast my failures out into the world, to throw my stone into the riverbed. I wanted to see this part of me against the kaleidoscope of stones tossed into the water by so many others.

Let mine be unique but indistinguishable beneath the flow of human experience. Let mine belong.

Photo Credit: the dawn is breaking via Compfight cc

2013 Pushcart Prize Nominations

Posted by on Dec 29, 2013 in Blog | 1 comment

2013 Pushcart Prize Nominations

The Quotable is pleased to announce our nominations for the 2013 Pushcart Prize.

 

Every year, small and independent publishers may nominate six literary works published that year for the prestigious Pushcart Prize.  Here are the nominees from The Quotable:

 

ISSUE 9, Night and Day
Under Cover, Karen Donley-Hayes (non-fiction)

Far Away, Lauren Camp (poetry)

 

ISSUE 10, Space
The Resonance Around Us, Penny Harter (poetry)
I Dance People, Jeroen Van Honk (fiction)

 

ISSUE 11, Memory
Sunsets, Caroline Johnson (poetry)
Dementia, Jean Herreman (fiction)

 

Congratulations to all of the nominees and good luck!

Characters and Convertibles

Posted by on Nov 25, 2013 in Blog, Writing Life | 2 comments

Characters and Convertibles

Today’s guest blog post comes from Jean Herreman, whose short story “Dementia” appears in Issue 11 of The Quotable.

This morning I discovered a great character in an unlikely place—the Saturday “Wheels” section of The Island Packet, the local newspaper here on Hilton Head Island. In a column by the Car Talk brothers, a 93-year-old woman sought advice about buying a convertible. She’s driven cross-country twice, and just last year she traveled 3,000 miles through the Southwest in her 2000 Subaru. The trip raised fond memories of her Dodge Dart convertible, stolen years ago from a Detroit service station where she had left it to have the top replaced. Now she wants “one more crack at a convertible.”

Her letter is wonderful because, in barely 100 words, I know who she is. She may not call herself a writer, but she follows the essential rule: She shows me. She doesn’t tell me. She doesn’t say, “I’m a feisty nonagenarian with a sense of adventure who refuses to let age get in the way.” She doesn’t boast that she’s healthy and that she watches her weight and her cholesterol. She doesn’t whine that owning a convertible is one of the few items left on her Bucket List and she’s running out of time. This woman is focused on living her life and to do that, she needs a car that’s “moderately priced, safe, serviceable, and FUN.”

I can’t stop myself from filling in the blanks. Just like that, I’m imagining her back-story—how she grew up in a small town in Ohio that she left at age eighteen to join a pre-World War II peace organization. She traveled through Europe and eventually made her home in San Francisco. She’s a retired educator, an administrator or a professor of languages who never married. Her name is Rita, her convertible is a yellow Mustang, and she’s driving home for the first time since her mother’s 1988 funeral, to mend fences with her younger brother.

Or her name is Josephine Hollister Rice and she’s the wealthy matriarch of a family from Boston’s Back Bay. She toed the line all her life, but lately she’s become a loose cannon. In fact, the Daughters of the American Revolution have banned her from meetings because she revealed a local Senator’s extramarital affairs. Only her first great-grandchild, born to her eldest granddaughter when she was just sixteen, thinks Grandmother—he calls her Jo—is the cat’s meow. They run away together in her brand-new red Porsche, in search of Jo’s first love, the black sheep she was forbidden to marry back in 1942.

Or she might be Clara, the wife of an Iowa farmer who died before he could fulfill his dream of driving a restored ’57 Chevy convertible east to see the ocean. Or … or…or…You see what I mean.

From time to time, a frustrated writer asks me where inspiration comes from. From now on, I’ll tell them “everywhere.” All it takes is sharp eyes, an open mind, and the willingness to follow it wherever it takes you.

Do Your Homework!

Posted by on Sep 6, 2013 in Blog, Writing Life | 3 comments

Do Your Homework!

Today’s guest blog post comes from Quotable contributor Matthew Andrew.

“Musa Qala,” my story that was selected for volume 10 of The Quotable, was conceived from an extra homework assignment given in a class dealing with the fundamentals of short fiction. The topic we were studying at the time was POV and the task was to write something short from the point of view of someone we despise or someone we would consider an enemy.

Being a married father of five, the last thing I needed on my list of things to do was yet another homework assignment. As many of you can relate, I spent the day cursing the moment I signed up for the already grueling course and attempted to game plan how I was going to fit this into a schedule that had no wiggle room. These were my lamentations as I headed out for my Friday trip to the Chik-Fil-A drive-thru for a highly anticipated Number One Value Meal.

The muse, however, wanted the story done NOW. Taking the form of a uncompromising school master, an idea was forced into my head by the time I was paying for my chicken sandwich and waffle fries. It was so simple, so obvious.

I’m also an active duty member of the U.S. Marines, so I think you can already guess who I would be writing about.

Musa Qala, a small section of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province (near Marjah and Kandahar) was plagued with enemy snipers, and our troops were hard pressed to avoid these insurgents. But, in the spirit of the assignment, I began to wonder—who are these guys and what is putting them behind a rifle with guys like me in their sights. This story is an examination of that point of view. And I hoped to convey a sense of impartiality and that war is indeed Hell, for everyone involved.

In real life, there are no White Knights or Men in Black. Every good man or woman has a dark part of their persona and every “bad guy” has something bright in there, somewhere, and I think this concept makes for intriguing short fiction. I didn’t just want to blur that line between the good and bad, I wanted to totally erase it. It wasn’t easy writing from the point of view of someone who has killed good people I’ve served alongside. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not there’s something you can take home from this piece.

So, by the time I headed home with my glorious dinner in its white paper bag, I had most of “Musa Qala” already composed in my head. For those of you writers who have been there, it’s a very exciting feeling. Some of my favorite stories have been those spontaneous bombs that just exploded onto paper.

My point in all this—do your homework. You never know how exciting and encouraging the end result may be.