On Being Precious

I had a clarifying moment recently when a writer referred to We Write, We Light as precious.

If you've been around as many writing workshops as I have, and if you tend to wear your heart on your sleeve as I do, you would know that this is not a compliment.

It means that I’ve been caught emoting without any artfulness. Time to reign in your feelings there, missy, don’t want your emotions messing up the place.

I picture a chart with TOO MUCH FEELING on one end, and WISE ALL-KNOWING MASTERY on the other. There’s a big, fat X scrawled in crayon to mark how much I’m over-caring and sharing.


I like my writing messy and a little wild-eyed.

I want to feel you, writer, out there, pulsing in your pages, maybe even bleeding a bit, maybe a little embarrassed about bleeding all over the page, but rallying and realizing that you’re okay, you survived.

It is clarifying to be called precious because when I broke open a few years ago when I was both literally and figuratively broken inside, I felt much more connected emotionally to the writers I love.

I value you all like something precious. In fact, I love you and what you do. I won’t apologize for wanting to help you tell your story and make it shine in the hope it lightens your burden when people are enlightened by what you share. (Almost as much as I love a good light metaphor.)

I teach writers to get published in lit mags, but—another confession—I care little about all the publication credits rolling in. I get links from students several times per week, but what I love more than a publication credit is if a writer gets to reveal raw, real, truth to readers.

By now you’ll be unsurprised to know that modernist poetry never resonated with me. (Yes, give me some Sylvia Plath, messily raging at her father/husband, over Hemingway any day.)

I realize this messiness may divide us. I know for sure some of you may be invested in some of the ways that we push back against (let’s face it) women writers because it’s what we’ve been taught by sanctified writing workshops and all-knowing writing mentors. Me, I’m done living up to these expectations.

I remember re-meeting an acquaintance after many years during which he became well-known in modernist poetry circles. He was had built a big following. In our small talk about the writing life, I lamented about the resistance I had with getting down to writing. He shrugged and said in a condescending tone, writers write.

When I think back on this, I can’t help but consider what he got out of the trappings of writing versus what I was getting out of it. He had young women hanging onto his words, and I had the real fear of being cut off from my family. I was writing for my own sanity and survival, up against gaslights and consequences from speaking out of turn.

I’ll end this love letter by dedicating it to you, the precious shower-uppers, those who continuously pour hearts into pages, for those who have been met with scorn or blankness when they hang it out for all to see, yet keep going back to their well and keep sharing (and caring). We don’t deserve you. Yet here you are, precious.

Yours, Precious,


Getting Closer to Other Writers

Come a little closer. I want to share something with you: I write to connect with a reader who truly sees me.

I wanted to be a writer from a young age. As a girl, books gave me solace in a family and town where I felt invisible or actively silenced. Through books, I found kindred spirits, writers who had words that captured my feelings.

Today I still feel that intense connection as I read, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins on self-compassion, even though his life as a Jesuit priest in the Victoria era is world’s away from mine today:

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.

He wrote this in solitude, as I write this letter to you. You read this letter in your own solitude. Yet, in spite of the solitary nature of both reading and writing, we, too, share this intimacy.

Here we are together in the text. We’re not alone.

As I write, I am not lonely, because I imagine you reading and understanding my words. As you read, you may feel understood and less lonely, too. It’s a magical experience that perhaps you have already experienced with readers.

I shared Hopkin’s poem on self-compassion and tormented minds in this example deliberately, because I want to gently nudge you to be hereafter kind to yourself as you face the challenges that come from working to publish your writing.

One of the ways we can torment ourselves as writers, is by not truly seeing other writers. The illusions we have about how easy other writers have it and how talented they must be in comparison to us is what stops many writers in our tracks before we even try to share our words with the world.

It took me way too long to learn that in order to reach my goal of being seen, I had to see that I wasn't alone in the obstacles I faced with my writing—from self-doubts to barriers in the publishing industry.

Today, when I feel envy about another writer’s success, I turn it around by recognizing that behind every publication, there is someone who faced many hurdles and setbacks to get there. 

My desire for you, now that you’re here, is for you to get close enough to other writers, perhaps even some who you find yourself measuring up against. (Isn’t it funny how more often it’s our writing peers we fall into the comparison trap with?)

I believe a true connection with other writers is critical for those of us who want to publish and be seen. And the best way I know to get out of the torment of thinking other writers have more (talent, ease, connections) is to have honest conversations with other writers about their writing lives.

This is why this community exists, and why I try to bring my own heart to all the courses I teach and materials I offer writers.

I love that you’re here, and I hope you get closer to your writing goals (and to other writers) through We Write, We Light.


P.S. One place to find a warm community of writers sharing the inner-workings of their writing-lives, is the We Write, We Light Facebook group. You’re welcome to connect with us there.

Stuck in Revision?

Sometimes you keep combing through your writing to the point that you’re worried it’s either going to become bald from all the tugging, or over-coiffed into an embarrassing helmet.

When you’re stuck in revision mode with a piece—and I heard from many of you who are—here are a few gentle techniques to get unstuck.

Put it away for a while. The hardest to do, but the best for your writing. I used to feel like I wanted to whisk my writing out to an audience as soon as possible, so I’d rush through revisions. But often what a piece needs more than anything is time away from you. Come back to it after a few weeks (or months) and suddenly it’s new again. You can edit it as if it were written by someone else.

Read it aloud. If I can’t wait because of a deadline, or I’m impatient, I will read work aloud as I revise it. Once on a writing retreat in Saskatchewan where printing was not easy to access, I found out by accident that recording myself works even better than reading to myself. I’d record before lunch then spend the afternoon wandering fields, listening with fresh ears.

Search for your crutches. If there’s a certain word, phrase, or punctuation mark that you tend to overuse, use your computer to search for it. This is a trick I use when editing an issue of a magazine because it allows me to find common errors I might otherwise miss proofreading when I get caught up in the narrative of the work. Computers are good at finding just the cold, hard facts; use them for this. They’ll cut through the clutter and root out your crutch words.

Read in public. Reading to active listeners not only allows you to get a live reaction to your words, but it wakes your own ear up. You'll tune into your performance and hear what the audience hears. And, of course, you also get immediate feedback: Does the room lean in closer at a tense moment? Laugh at a joke? Gasp at an provocative statement?

Workshop smarter. When you review notes from a writing workshop, really consider what is being said and how it applies to your project. I take workshop advice with curious detachment. Why? Because over the years of workshopping my writing, I noticed participants at times feel compelled to say something—anything—even if they don’t have any insights on my work. I suggest you look for patterns in feedback instead. If everyone said they didn’t understand what was going on in a particular section, that’s something you need to look at. If one person didn’t like a character, consider if you wanted that character to be likeable to that particular person in the first place.

Find a mentor. I’ve had so many great mentors who I found through writing programs and professional writing organizations. Writers you admire may offer manuscript critiques through a writing residency at a library (often free), or other institution, or freelance through their websites. (Please don’t ask them to look at your writing for free, unless invited. Make the investment in their expert opinion if you can.)

Use a good book on craft. I often re-read Betsy Warland’s Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing as a kind of self-guided mentorship, mainly because I no longer live in her city. (Betsy was a teacher of mine at SFU's Writers Studio, and her warmth and passion for the page translate well in this book.) Breathing the Page breaks down common problems she has seen over years and years of helping writers with manuscripts. For example, one section starts with the question, “Why is my reader not noticing, or misinterpreting, significant parts of my narrative?” (Great question.)

I hope you try some of these ideas and would love to know if any work to help get you unstuck from your revision.


P.S. If you have any epiphanies about your writing or breakthroughs on your revision using any of the above tips, connect with me on Twitter or Instagram. (Hint: I love seeing pictures of drafts in progress!)

Getting Over Envy of Other Writers a Lit Mag Love Interview of Debbie Urbanski by Hege Anita Jakobsen Lepri

One of my student's favourite assignments in my course Lit Mag Love is the interview with a writer they admire. Here is an outstanding example of this. Hege Anita Jakobsen Lepri gets over her "literary penis envy" (as only she can put it) and talks to Debbie Urbanski, a writer she greatly admires. Read on...

Debbie Urbanski is a writer living in Syracuse, New York. She writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry—and even ventures into speculative fiction. Her work focuses on aliens, marriage, cults, belief, and family, or some combination of those themes. I discovered her when I stumbled upon her blog while researching writers retreats, and I have since seen her work in many of the publications I love, The Sun, Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Joyland, Orion, Brain Child, Room, to name a few. 

So you may say Debbie Urbanski has been my trigger point for literary “penis envy,” for a while now. This interview was my excuse to finally get to know her after spying on her online for at least a couple of years. 

In April I read her essay in The Sun, “A List My Utopias,” where she pushes the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction and challenges conventional storytelling structures. I wanted to learn more about how that essay found its form.

1) In "A list of my utopias" you weave in and out of imagined, alternative lives of the characters in the essay, and observations of their actual, experienced lives. Can you say something about how you landed at this framing mechanism?

A poet in my writing group had written a poem imagining all the sad real things her mom's utopia would not contain (bad jobs, a car that breaks down, etc.). I told my friend, why not write about the good things you wish you could put into your mom's utopia? I just thought that impulse, to imagine or build a utopia for our parents, was so powerful and beautiful. My friend said no thanks, that wasn't the poem she wanted to write, so I decided to take my own advice, and imagine how I would build perfect worlds for the people in my life who I love. I've never been totally comfortable or interested in straight forward nonfiction or memoir writing, but there is some stuff in my life I'd like to write about, so this seemed a good compromise, mixing the imagined and the unimagined.  



2) The essay seems to be a deliberate attempt at mixing fiction (the fictional lives the narrator describes) and nonfiction. Was this choice driven by a desire to mix genres, or was it the material itself that "forced" your hand?
The essay was an experiment: can I find a way to write creative nonfiction in a way that interests me as a writer and also makes me feel like I'm not selling my own soul or the souls of my family? I've written a few small essays about parenting that are very straight forward, and afterwards, when they were published, something about it just felt wrong. I felt like I had to simplify the situation for it to remain factually true. I also felt uncomfortable about writing about my son in a way that was so transparently real. Though the utopia essay is very personal, at the same time the somewhat heightened language and the structure allowed me to take a step back and feel like I was transcending the personal and just writing about these very strong emotional truths.  



3) Some parts of the essay seem to reveal very personal truths about significant people around you. How do you navigate the difficult terrain around the privacy of your family in your writing? Did the blending of utopia and reality make it easier or harder to deal with these issues?
I often think of this great quote by Sally Mann, who published those gorgeous and somewhat controversial photographs of her children in the 1980’s: "the fact is that these are not my children. They are figures on silvery paper slivered out of time. They represent my children at a fraction of a second on one particular afternoon with infinite variables of light, expression, posture, muscle, tension, mood, wind, and shade." That's how I feel too. 

Three other thoughts: 

I read this utopia piece recently aloud in a small reading, and that didn't feel totally right. It felt much more confessional than I wanted it to. I think it works better with actual page between the reader and writer. 

Also, not using the names of the people in this essay -- using their archetypical titles, my son, my husband, my mother -- made a big difference in allowing me to write as personally as I did. In one of those straightforward nonfiction essays I mentioned above, the editor told me I should use my son's name instead of calling him “my son,” so in the final draft, I did, and it felt so wrong, like the experience had been narrowed and was now over-specific and overly personal. 

Lastly, I do think each writer who wants to write about their life and the people in it will need to find their own comfort zone and their own sense of ethics. I do feel like I own my observations and my interactions and my interpretations. Maybe it's because I haven't had the easiest life (who has honestly?). And if I began to think that some of those tough experiences that I went through belonged to the other people in the memory or scene, or if I owed those people something, such as silence, or if I was worried what would happen if I wrote about my version of the truth....I think that would be very disempowering and unfortunate. 



4) You are a frequent contributor to The Sun (at least for the time I've been a subscriber). Can you say something about your history with this magazine? When did they publish their first piece by you? Was that your first submission to them? How much editing and discussion goes into the process after acceptance? Have you developed a personal relationship with the editors?

Do you have any advice for other writers submitting to The Sun?

The Sun published my first story back in 2003. I was studying poetry in grad school at the time, and the story the Sun picked up was my first try at fiction in a really long while. They chose that piece out of the slush pile. I think that's huge, that they read the slush pile with interest and respect. So many magazines that pay well with larger subscription bases treat slush piles with disdain. I sent them a few pieces over the next decade, and got some nice feedback but no acceptances, then, in 2015, they accepted my second story. I had experience publishing with quite a few places in the gap between 2003-2015, so this time I was able to be fully aware how special The Sun was. Publishing several pieces with them in 2015/2016 was such a positive experience that I decided, for the most part, to have them be the first place I send my work to if I think it's a good fit. They edit stories heavily and they do ask for extensive revisions. This is very different from many literary journals, even the bigger ones. But I also feel they care so deeply about what they publish, and I love that they're interested in building ongoing lasting relationships with their writers. I've come to think publishing with them is a collaborative effort, and certain stories have felt more like shared visions. But I've always been proud of the finished pieces. And then The Sun readership! They have the most amazing readers. Often, being published in a literary journal can mean radio silence, but with The Sun, I always hear such heartfelt and personal replies from readers. Their readers seem to read the magazine with open minds and open hearts. One reader even sent me these amazing woodcarvings in response to a story. 

As for advice: it'd be the same advice for any magazine. Read the magazine, first, to see what they like (I have been impressed at the range of what The Sun is interested in publishing). Then submit. Do not take any rejections personally. Keep trying. 


5) Not really a question (or only partly a question). You are one of the few writers I've encountered to openly share your time between genre writing and "pure" literary writing. I love the category you created--"slow paced genre realism"--and feel that finally captures what I want to do with the "genre" part of my own writing (crime). Can you say something about going back and forth between genre - and literary writing?


I think part of my willingness or interest to write both literary genre and also straightforward literary stories comes from the fact that I really, really love reading both types of writing. I love Alice Munro, and Chekov, and Joy Williams, just as much as I love Margaret Atwood, and Molly Gloss, and Octavia Butler, and Ray Bradbury, and feel like both types of authors are totally necessary to the world. Lately I have been writing more speculative stories, but I did just finish a longer story that is 100% realistic. I wanted to write about the time right after the presidential election, and it seemed like there was enough going on during that time without any genre stuff entering in. It actually was a great exercise, and maybe one I'd recommend to any genre writer -- can you still sustain a story, and plot, and character, without anything magical or supernatural and alien-like happening? I felt very naked as a writer, I have to say. It was really hard and satisfying, and it helped remind me of the importance of the small gestures of a character, or the micro-descriptions of the landscape, stuff that can sometimes be overlooked in typical genre writing. That said, I'm working on a string of genre pieces now, but then I'll probably take a break and write something realistic afterwards.

Lit Mag Love Students Interview Writers About Publishing in Lit Mags

Shall we get out of the comparison trap when it comes to writing?

One of the best ways I know to help writers see what is truly there is to simply have an honest conversation with other writers—those who they admire—about what their journey looked like. This is why in my course, Lit Mag Love, I give the assignment to interview another writer who has published in a journal they’d like to publish with.

Three previous Lit Mag Love students, Rowan, Tamara, and Yolande, have delightfully shared their interview assignments with us.

Rowan McCandless interviewed Sierra Skye Gemma and they talked a lot about writing contests (Sierra is the contest coordinator at Room and Rowan won Room’s CNF contest this year.) They also talked about that big MFA question—do you need one to be a writer?—and Sierra had this to say, “What makes you a writer is writing.”

Tamara Jong interviewed Phoebe Wang about publishing in Canadian journals, including Grain magazine. “Read through a few of their issues, submit persistently, tune your intuitive gut-strings, and wait.” And about “waiting” to be included in Canadian literary circles, “What if we all stopped the cycle of saying ‘this is who your audience is’?”

And, Yolande House interviewed Kelly Morse about publishing in Brevity and she gives some great insights into what it takes to publish in the magazine and other journals. “I repeatedly submit to all of the journals that I think would be a good fit for my work.”

Read on for their full interviews...

Rowan McCandless interviewed Sierra Skye Gemma about magazine contests.

Rowan McCandless: Your essay “The Wrong Way” meant so much to me during a year buffeted by personal loss. You mentioned that you wrote it for your first creative nonfiction course at the University of British Columbia Creative Writing MFA Program and that your instructor, Andreas Schroeder, had encouraged you to submit the piece to The New Quarterly’s contest. If Professor Schroeder hadn't given you that encouragement to submit to TNQ’s contest, do you think you would have entered?

Sierra Skye Gemma: I don’t think so. He said, “Definitely, do not submit this to slush piles. Only to contests. This piece is a contest winner. It’s going to win.” Right after that was the launch of TNQ’s Edna Staebler Contest, so he sent the announcement out to everyone, but then encouraged me to submit. And I did. That was the start for me. That was my first big break.

Rowan: It’s always great when you meet these people along the way—these other writers, mentors, and teachers—who believe in your work and nudge you towards those major milestones.

Sierra: I’ve been lucky.  I don’t think that it’s undeserved luck, necessarily. I’ve been a contest reader for two different literary magazines, so I know what’s out there. But I also know luck is not evenly distributed. Some people have access to opportunities. I certainly had access to opportunities that I wouldn't have had if I didn't get into the UBC MFA program. I’m also a huge proponent of contests. I think strategic contest entry is important.

Rowan: Before you submitted to the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest, had you previously submitted to TNQ?

Sierra: That was my first experience with TNQ. That was my first print literary publication.

Rowan: That’s a pretty awesome first experience.

Sierra: Oh, yeah. That was the summer of Sierra. And then the following spring, or early summer, within three days I found out that I had been nominated for the National Magazine Award for “The Wrong Way,” was long-listed in The House Of Anansi’s Broken Social Scene Story Contest, and won Rhubarb’s Taboo Literary Contest.

Rowan: Some writers wonder if contests are a good idea. Are contests a good thing to enter?

Sierra: I think that contests are a really smart idea. Your odds are actually better in contests when you write nonfiction; it’s much harder in poetry and fiction contests where there’s more competition. With nonfiction, if those contests get 100 entries, they’ll probably have a short list of seven to ten. Those are excellent odds for making the short list, versus the slush pile, which—depending on the magazine—can get well over a hundred pieces over the course of the year. When they’re making decisions about issues, they’re going to publish, at most, one to three pieces of nonfiction per issue. Given those odds, if you are a nonfiction writer, you absolutely should be entering contests that are appropriate to your writing.

Another nice thing about contests is that, almost always, your piece is read by two, three, sometimes four people. It depends on the literary magazine and how they operate. But always, at least two people with different perspectives will be looking at your work and discussing whether this is a piece that should be forwarded to the judge. Because the judge can't read 100-300 pieces. And also, why should they? A big portion of them is not going to be good, not good at all.

Rowan: What percentage would you say would fall into that category?

Sierra: I’d say at least fifty percent are not good at all and nonfiction contests get way fewer entries than fiction or poetry. Way fewer. By half, sometimes by a third of the entries. So if you’re writing decent nonfiction, you absolutely should be submitting that to contests. And if you write a decent personal essay you should absolutely be submitting to the TNQ personal essay contest because that’s even more specific; whereas the other nonfiction contests are all sub-genres of nonfiction. 

I also think there is still this skew in the literary community that privileges masculine stories and masculine forms of storytelling. I once read an interview with a judge for a contest a few years ago. I had this great piece and was going submit, and then I read the interview with this male judge. He talked down about memoir. He was privileging more scientific or journalistic forms of nonfiction. That was just straight-up sexism. He doesn’t realize it. He’s not overtly sexist. But it’s not an accident that he thinks less of memoir and a lot of women are writing memoir.

Rowan: That memoir is seen as a feminine genre, rather than a genre of nonfiction—period—is so odd. And strange for some to view memoir as lesser than.

Sierra: The same way people look down on teaching and nursing as careers. They only think that because they associate those professions with female employees.

Rowan: The pink ghetto.

Sierra: Exactly. Memoir is the pink ghetto of nonfiction. So, obviously, I did not submit to that contest.

Rowan: Do you think it would be practical for people to research who is judging a contest? What it is that they write? Their particular tastes?

Sierra: I always research judges, if I know who they are. Earlier on in my career, I didn’t. The TNQ contest is judged by editors. And when I won that Rhubarb contest, I didn't know that the judge was Andreas Schroeder.

Rowan: With your relationship to Room, being the Contest Coordinator and one of the nonfiction readers, as well as having been a former reader for PRISM’s creative nonfiction contest, what sorts of pieces have “it,” and what would you say are some common errors people make when submitting?

Sierra: I would say the very best thing that you can have, in my opinion, is a unique voice in the piece. The “literary voice” that many, including myself, slip into with some pieces is not always going to stand out in a nonfiction contest. And one thing that stands out a lot in contests, I think, is humour. It’s so rarely employed. I remember reading a few years ago for PRISM. The piece that won was called “Horse Camp.” It’s a fantastic piece. If you get the chance to read it, please do. It was funny. It was so different from everything else that I just wanted to keep reading. So voice and also pacing are super important. And you have to think about the plot. Writing creative nonfiction doesn’t give you license to tell long, boring stories about your life. Draw in the reader. If you don’t have something exciting to drop within the first two pages, you’ll lose the reader. Give them a reason to keep reading, you know.

A perfect piece is one that hits the points gently, so gently, that sometimes the reader doesn’t realize that’s the point while they’re reading and then at the end, it all comes together. That would be my ultimate goal, that’s the feeling I want to give the reader; that, or make them cry. We have such unique stories, but if you are going to have those reader reactions—which to me is the goal—you have to make the personal, universal. That’s really difficult. It has to be a topic that enough people can relate to and is catchy to read. At the same time, it can't be so universal that people say, “I’ve heard that story a thousand times.” Find something different. When I was at The Banff Centre, the director of the literary journalism program told me that he had never read a story like “My Sexual Education” (The Globe and Mail, May 2, 2015) before. He said, “This is a story about a mom who likes porn, trying to teach her son who likes porn, about porn. Never read that story before. Never.” So writing those unusual stories, if you have something new and fresh to bring to a topic, that’s the money shot—speaking of porn. 

Rowan: We’ve had ongoing conversations in my cohort about MFAs. How necessary are they to being taken seriously as a writer?

Sierra: You don’t need an MFA to be taken seriously as a writer. Most of the time, when there’s a writer that you like, you don't know if they have an MFA or not. That’s not something on your mind. Do you need feedback on your work? Absolutely. But that can come in a variety of ways. Now, an MFA is one way to get feedback, but it’s not the only way. For me, I don't think I would have become the writer I am today without the MFA. I’ve been so lucky to do an MFA because I needed the time. If you can stop, if you can put real life on pause for a couple of years and you can focus on writing and get feedback and good advice, that’s what makes an MFA valuable. It’s not the piece of paper. Some writers are really determined. They’re the people who get up at 5 am and write before they go to work. Those kinds of people don’t need an MFA. But for me, having deadlines and having to produce was so great. And the connections are valuable. But you can make connections in other ways. If you start going to literary events, you’ll develop those relationships. You don't need to go to school for them. I think any place, where you can interact with other writers and feel comfortable, can satisfy those needs. What makes you a writer is writing.

Tamara Jong interviewed Phoebe Wang about Grain magazine, Canadian journals, and Fuel For Fire: Professional Development for Writers of Colour

Tamara Jong: Phoebe, Congrats on your new book of poetry, Admission Requirements and your most recent publication in The Unpublished City curated by Dionne Brand. I read in
an interview that you finished most of your manuscript for Admission Requirements while
working on your MA in Creative Writing in 2012. Did you think that you could have
written that book if you weren’t in an MA program? You also said that you compose
poems in your mind and use a lot of notebooks before you commit anything to your
computer. As a writer did you always have this practice? How do you revise your work and
how do you know a piece is complete?    

PW: Thank you, Tamara! Yes, I would have written Admission Requirements no matter what. I
had been working on the earliest group of poems, the garden poems, since around 2000, and every year or so I added to the list of poems that I owed myself to write. Doing an MA or MFA in Creative Writing is not a requirement for completing a manuscript, but participating in a workshop and regularly giving and receiving feedback on work helped me to dive deeper and more readily into wells that I had only previously skimmed. It was the right time for me to do a writing program and to give myself that permission.

Yes, holding lines in my mind and roughing them out on paper is a practice that came about
because of how poetry tends to arrive to me—while walking or listening to university lectures.

The poem would branch off from a thought and run parallel to the present and manifest stream of time. I revise when I have a draft of the entirety of the poem, which might take months or years. I do find it difficult to know when a poem is finished but I can tell if it feels all sewn up, like the site of a recent surgery. If it feels invasive or even destructive to go back into it again.

Tamara: You won 2nd place for your poem “Penelope Before Marriage” in Grain Magazine’s Short Grain with Variations Contest in 2011 that was judged by Jeramy Dodds. Was this the first time you submitted poetry to Grain? What was it like to work with
Grain and the judge, Jeramy Dodds? Did you have to revise your poem? What
advice would you offer to writers who would like to get their work accepted in Grain?

Phoebe: Yes, it was my first time submitting to Grain. At that time, I didn’t submit to magazines that have a regional identity or representation because I believed that literary magazines should reserve space for local writers. I was familiar with Jeramy’s work and although his style and thematic concerns swings a very wide arc from my own, I was excited that he was judging that contest. It seemed easier to be directing a poem to a particular person rather than a blankness, even if that person is a stranger.

Poems awarded for prizes are not revised, except perhaps for typos or errors. Jeramy’s judges’ citation, though, was a wonderful gift. If you want to have a poem accepted with Grain, it’s no different from any other literary magazine. Read through a few of their issues, submit persistently, tune your intuitive gut-strings, and wait.

I try always to keep an openness, a flexibility in receiving feedback with an editor and not to be too precious or rigid in my idea of what a poem should end up as. Especially since there’s always the opportunity to revise it again later for book publication, I like the idea of having a few different versions of a poem out in the world.

One memorable experience was working with John Barton at Malahat on my poem “Invasive Carp.” We went through two rounds on a very slim poem and a few changes resulted in a clarity that was not in the poem before. That’s then I saw the hidden powers of editors—they are like the braces people wear under clothing to make them stand up straighter.

Tamara: You organized the sold out writers conference Fuel For Fire: Professional Development for Writers of Color and you continue to champion diverse issues surrounding publishing. We talked before about needing to work together to address these issues, not just rely on a few voices to do all the work. To have one special POC book or magazine would seem shortsighted and a quick fix. How else can allies show that they are committed to doing this inclusive work? We can support each other by buying POC books and magazines and writing what we want to read but how else can we continue this conversation?

Phoebe: What I would like to see is a radical revisioning of the writing and publishing in Canada so that we aren’t thinking in terms of ‘mainstream’, ‘dominant culture’, ‘minority writing’, ‘margins’, etc, even though I myself still have to use those terms at times. Yes, publishing in Canada needs to be more inclusive but at the same ‘included’ or wait to see signs of commitment from publishers and editors because the wait will erode us. What would happen if POC writers stopped assuming that just because submitting, finding an agent and editor, publishing, etc happened in a certain way that it has to continue to happen this way? What if we all stopped the cycle of saying ‘this is who your audience is’ and ‘this is how your book will be marketed’ and ‘you need to work within the system’, which often means that POC advantage?

I agree that one issue or one anthology is not nearly enough and often these one-time publications are used to appease underrepresented writers and for an editor or publisher to appear diverse and multicultural. The tone changes if the editor and organizer herself is also of colour, as writers of colour also need those kinds of credits and acknowledgments. Writers of colour should not always be the receiver of the Canadian literary establishments’ largesse and good intentions. We need to be creating spaces for ourselves and by ourselves.

Yolande House talks to Kelly Morse about publishing in Brevity magazine.

Yolande House: Was "The Saigon Kiss" your first time submitting to Brevity? 

Kelly Morse: Yes, it was the first time submitting to Brevity. However, I submitted it 6 times as a poem before that (I subscribe to Duotrope to track all of my submissions). I originally wrote it as a poem, but couldn't get enough of the nuance I wanted into it, so kept working at it. I sent it to a poet friend because I couldn't figure out what wasn't working, and she wrote back that she thought I needed to tinker with the form, which is how it became a nonfiction prose essay. So preceding the acceptance are other rejections, which is generally what happens with my work. 

Yolande: What was it like working with the editors of the journal? Did they change anything in your piece? Did they do any promotions for it?

Kelly: The Brevity editors were cordial and hands-off, which I liked. They requested clarification on one line, but otherwise printed the piece as I had submitted it. When it was published, they posted links to it on Twitter and their other social media platforms. They also asked if I wanted to write the craft essay for them, which I think they ask most of their writers. Later they solicited another essay for the blog, so I wrote about Claudia Rankine's Citizen. They also promoted that piece on their social media.

Yolande: Do you have any advice about submitting to this journal? Did you do anything differently with this submission, after any past submission mistakes?

Kelly: Biggest piece of advice submitting to Brevity: don't get discouraged if you're rejected. They receive over a thousand submissions a year. However, if they think your work has potential, you can build a kind of relationship through them by continuing to submit, because there will be notes about your previous subs to them on Submittable. I repeatedly submit to all of the journals that I think would be a good fit for my work. This was the first flash nonfiction piece that I'd written, and was a departure from poetry, so it was my first time submitting nonfiction. There are some journals I submit to every year, year after year, because if I was published in them I'd be really proud (plus it would be good for my CV).  

Also: I know that Brevity will occasionally work with a writer who they feel has come close but needs some polishing - however, this is pretty rare, and they have to be invested in the story contained in the piece, along with the voice. Voice is really important to them.

Yolande: How long did it take for you to hear back from them after you submitted your work?

Kelly: Looking at Submittable, I sent it on 3/22/2013, and they sent the acceptance email on 7/1/2013. They try to respond back within 45 days to people, so when that date passed and they still hadn't rejected me, I knew it was a good sign. When journals hold on to your work it usually means it's gotten past the first round of rejection. However, then there is the opposite problem - I've had journals hold a piece more than six months because they like my work, but it doesn't quite fit with the upcoming issue, or it's not quite strong enough, but they don't want to let go of it. The waiting window is a tricky one. 

Yolande: How many journals did you submit to this year? Do you have any other writing coming out soon (in journals or elsewhere)? 

Kelly: According to Duotrope, I've submitted 46 times in the last 12 months, but that's not quite correct because it counts each poem, when really I've been sending out packets of 3-5 poems at a time to each journal. This last year I had a baby, which slowed everything way down, so I'm just getting back into submitting in a serious way. I have a backlog of poems that need to be polished before I can submit them, which is driving me crazy. In 2015 I focused on sending out my book manuscript to prizes, and did the same in 2016. It's been rejected 32 times so far according to Duotrope (how great to have someone tracking all this). The manuscript has been a finalist about 4 times, so I'm still submitting it, but it is discouraging. It's about Vietnam, and is a multi-genre book, so I think that it might be too odd for the prize circuit. I'm going to start send it to presses I respect during their open reading periods this year.

In 2014 I made a new year's resolution to have 30 submissions out at all times for a year, to see what would happen. I'd been told for years that submitting was a numbers game, but I'd always resisted that approach and only submitted a handful of times a year, to carefully selected journals. I had some acceptances, but not a lot. I decided to try the opposite extreme, and I'm glad I did. Maintaining 30 subs out meant that I couldn't obsess about one or two journals, because my brain couldn't keep track of all the subs (again, thank goodness for Duotrope). I was also forced to branch out and look at new journals, and submit to journals I wasn't brave enough to submit to before because now I had to meet my quota. I got some high-tier acceptances, which surprised me, and made me realize I had a shot with important journals. I'd been underestimating my work's possible reach. Submitting became less personal, and more of a strategic waiting-and-polishing game. I don't do 30 anymore - I ran out of work to submit and haven't been able to polish the new work I've since produced because of my kids (although that's slowly changing) - but personally I prefer to have a minimum of 15 packets or pieces out to places at a time. I still research the magazines, and I'm still bummed by rejections, but as long as there are multiple subs in the hopper it doesn't feel so terrible. Having my manuscript rejected over and over, now that's been hard. 

 I have pieces forthcoming in Literary Mama and Bramble, but that's it for now. For 2017 I've been focusing on residency applications and submitting my chapbook for awards since I don't have polished new work to send out. I like to have a mix of subs going at a time - nonfiction, poetry, manuscript, residencies, prizes. My chapbook won two prizes this year, and I'm going on a residency on a fellowship this fall, so I'm starting to come out from the baby-enforced slowdown. 

Yolande: How do you revise your writing?

Kelly: I usually write a piece, work on it for a few days until it seems I can't get any farther with it, then set it aside for a while. Cheryl Strayed calls this "seasoning a piece", like one does with a log destined to be firewood. Sometimes I leave it for a few weeks, but lately more like a few months. Occasionally I lose my way back into a piece, but generally the wait helps me feel more analytical, less emotionally attached to a piece, which is a good place to revise from. I start sending out work when I feel it's about 80% done, as a way to push me to continue working on it as the rejections come back. I look at the work with a more detached eye once I start sending it out, which generally is good. However, sometimes I burn myself with this method by sending my mostly-polished work to the places where I most want it published, and then it's rejected, when I should have started with journals that are lower on my list but also desirable to be published in and only sent to the highest tier when it's been through the final revision process. I'm trying to find another way to get myself to get into the headspace needed for ultimate revisions, but this is the technique that's working right now. It's not a great one, but it pushes me into a final revision stage (and into submitting) that I haven't otherwise been able to make myself do.

Yolande: I like what you said in your Rappahannock Review interview about feeling a responsibility to portray the "real" Vietnam beyond the Western stereotype. Do you have any tips for new writers to consider when writing about experiences abroad? What do you wish you had known when you started writing about Vietnam?

Kelly: Hoo boy, this is big, important question. I recently saw an amazing art video by the Propeller Group about Vietnamese funerals and the liminal space they provide for transgendered performers to be accepted in a culture that otherwise vehemently rejects gender variation. In a corresponding essay the group wrote about how they didn't want to exoticize the funeral traditions, and so tried to do a lot of their shots from the point of view of being of the group, instead of spectators outside watching the group (and therefore othering it). I think considering the gaze is very important when writing about a culture that isn't one's own. I struggle with this myself. Vietnam was/is exotic to me, and that's okay. But when I present it on the page, am I presenting it as a kind of bauble for other westerners to gawk at, or am I presenting it with the complexity and nuance of someone who is not an insider, but who nevertheless has been a local? There's some subjects that feel easier to write about - food, for example - because I can describe a dish and the rituals around eating it with authority, which I can't do in other arenas of Vietnamese life.

Another question I ask myself is: Who is your audience? When I first started writing about Vietnam, I wrestled with the idea of audience for two years because it seemed that English readers found my work somewhat difficult, and were in a roundabout way asking me to dumb it down for them. Eventually I realized that my writings didn't mirror their worldview back at them (Laurence Venuti writes about this mirroring), and so they resisted it. I was focusing on the wrong audience. Over time I've found that expats and first generation Americans (and hopefully Canadians!) are my best readers, because they can identify with the work in a way that the typical North American white person can't due to being from the majority and not knowing what it's like to balance cultures, to be othered. My readers have to do work to enter my pieces, and I'm okay with that.   

I'd encourage western writers to read Edward Said's Orientalism, which documents the history of the western literary gaze on the Middle East. A lot of the problems he brings up are similar to how Asia is represented by westerners, and it gave me a better grasp of what I'm trying not to do when I write about Vietnam. I try to foreground the voices and experiences of my Vietnamese friends, so that the story isn't centered around me all the time. I'm still feeling out what is appropriate to write about and publish, versus what should stay in draft form. I've also found that there's a much narrower journal market for global, complex stories (and for flash nonfiction in general). I've started looking at British and Australian journals, because some of them are more savvy/concerned about the types of global subjects that I like to write about.  

I hope you find these answers helpful. As for submitting your work, a few years ago author Erika Dreifus made up a list of magazines/journals that regularly accept flash nonfiction. I think more journals are starting to accept flash nonfiction, but only on a case-by-case basis. I don't know why there's resistance against it - I guess because it's new? Here's the link: https://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/erika-dreifus-guide-to-flash-nonfiction-markets/  You'll notice that almost everything I've published that's flash is in one of these journals, which is because I basically went through the list and submitted to the ones I liked best. I've also had flash published in Mid-American Review. I've heard that Gulf Coast's online editors (they have a print journal and have started an online section) will look at flash, so I've got a submission out there, too. You should send wherever you think your work would be a good fit. 

[Break Free From the Comparison Trap]
An Invitation to Real Talk About The Writing Life

Step 1: Think of a writer who may be just a little ahead on the path of where you want to go. Someone you may have felt a twinge of envy toward at some point.

Step 2: Approach that writer for a conversation or even a formal interview. (Use the interviews above as an example.)

Step 3: Get as much detail as you can about the writer's behind-the-scenes. How often did she submit to the journal before getting a yes? How long did he work on that particular poem?

Step 4: Share any lessons you learned from your conversation with us in the We Write, We Light Facebook group.

Writing For Lit Magazines—A “Chapters and Chocolate” Interview

Did you know that getting your work published in literary magazines will make you more appealing to agents and publishers?

Or that some literary agents look through the pages of lit magazines in search of new talent?

Or that sometimes writers don't even realize that their style of writing is what lit magazines are looking for.

If you didn't, that's OK. You can watch the replay of my live interview with Connie Briscoe on Chapters and Chocolate.

We talked about:

• How to determine if your writing is literary
• The benefits of submitting to lit mags
• How publishing in lit mags can improve your writing
• How to make valuable connections for your writing career through journal publishing
• What the heck lit mag editors want in submissions
• Why one editor may accept a piece and another reject the very same piece
• How to know if a journal is the right place to send your work


Seven ways to make writer-friends (and build your writing career)

This is a throw-back to that time when I went to AWP, the biggest writing conference in North America. And before you ask, yes, there were times when I was in that crowded building, talking to countless people at Room's marketplace table when my inner monologue was shouting, I'm an introvert, just leave me alone with the books!

It can be tough being surrounded by so many people. But after years of building a writing network and community, I know that a writing life without writing connections won't take me far. Writing connections can help me build the writing career I want.

For one thing, when you surround yourself with writing friends, you suddenly know people who may go on to find publishers they can connect you with, edit literary magazines you want to publish in, and take retreats or courses you would never have heard of without their recommendations.

More importantly, your best writing friends are going to encourage you and keep you going when writing gets tough. (And for most of us, there will be tough times.)

If you don't have many writing connections, or even if you do and you want to make more connections, here are some ways (seven ways, as the headline says!) I have used to build up my writing community over the years.

Go to Readings

If you have no connections yet, the best place to start finding other writers is to go to public readings and events. Your local writer's organization or library may have events, mixers, and readings. Try one out and stick around to socialize after. (Extreme introverts: set a goal to talk to one person by the end of the event.) 

Volunteer at Events

Volunteering at a literary event or at a publication is also a great way to meet people. See if any local festivals need volunteers, or ask at your local library. Look around at any literary journals in the area and see if they recruit readers or need help at their events.

Look for the Writers You May Already Know

Think about connections in your current social circle. Any friends or acquaintances who talk about writing a novel? I built my first writing group this way, starting with just one other member, my then-acquaintance, Chad. Of course, this requires a little vetting to make sure your interests align. For us, we both had the same commitment to our writing and were diligent and reliable at workshopping. And we expanded to include new members because it's easier to approach people when you already have a group established. (Though we also thought it was funny to introduce one another to people as "my writing group".)

Find an Established Writing Group 

Speaking of writing groups, you could also seek an existing one out. Ask around when you're at an event or see if your local writer's organization or library will help connect writers with the same experience and genre.

Social Media

Did you notice how many self-professed introverted writers are on social media? I wouldn't suggest spending all your writing time scrolling through #amwriting or #writinglife tweets, but I do think you could find other writers who may even turn into writing friends IRL (in real life, yo) if you use social media to find out about opportunities for writers in your area.

Take a Workshop

Probably the best shortcut to creating a writing community—at least it was for me—is to take a workshop or join a writing program. This is a little deeper commitment because they usually cost money, but consider your investment a filter. You know you'll be surrounded by other writers as serious as you are about improving their writing because they paid to be there. This doesn't have to be a formal university program. Local writing organizations may offer something you're really keen to learn about and you'll meet other writers committed like you.

Try a Writing Retreat

If you already have a writing workshop and a volume of work you can use as a portfolio, grow your writing community on a writing retreat or residency. (Shout out to the Banff Wired Writers Studio, where Chad and I both had the fortune to go.)

There you go. These are just a few ways you can get connected to other writers. If you're just warming up to the idea, start smaller than the biggest writing conference in North America. (I did.)