Tag Archives: creative writing

A Publication, and News

Please check out my latest publication, an essay on politics and the recent election, at Role Reboot.

If you’re into political writing and art, follow a new Medium site with which I’m associated, A Time to Speak.

You might also want to read a piece of narrative nonfiction I’ve posted on my personal Medium site. Check it out here.

 

Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — V

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 5

 And so it ends—most of my friends had already hit the airport by the time I got up at 10 am CST. Checkout time was noon, our departure at 5:40 pm CST, so why hurry? We got ready and finished packing and headed out, most of our purchased books and journals (and my AWP bag) already on the way to Vegas via UPS. We ate lunch at North 45, a lump crab cake sandwich with aioli on a ciabatta roll for me, burgers for Kalene and Maya. After the meal, we hung out in the lobby until the shuttle arrived. I graded papers. Maya read and played video games. AWP ’15 was truly over.

The shuttle arrived a few minutes early, and the three of piled in, along with three or four other writers with late departure times. One carried a bag that read, “Poetry.” I guess that’s about as direct as it gets, like Richard Castles’ bullet-proof vest with “Writer” printed on it. (CASTLE, by the way, has always seemed like PATV to me—perfectly acceptable television, fun enough on its own merits but not memorable or important. It’s really like a younger-skewing MURDER, SHE WROTE with more romance angles. I’d watch Nathan Fillion in pretty much anything, of course, but it bugs the hell out of me that real-life, highly talented, even previously published writers I know can’t get their current project published, yet you can go into Barnes & Noble and find works by Richard Castle, who doesn’t even exist. You should have seen me roll my eyes when JANE THE VIRGIN’s title character stated her desire to be a writer. “Of course,” I said. “Why not?”)

At the airport, we found that our usual luck was holding; our drop-off point was about a mile away from our ticket counter, which was itself about a mile away from our gate. At least there were almost no lines. We reached the gate with two hours to spare, which is what always happens when we get to the airport two hours before departure and what never happens if we’re even fifteen minutes later than that; in those latter cases, half the world is flying with our airline, and everybody’s got fifteen bags to check, and none of them know how to navigate security. Anyway, our gate had free wi-fi and lots of plug-ins, so we got more work done as the area got more and more crowded. Soon, three gates’ waiting areas were packed, and more passengers milled about in the aisles and shops and restaurants, probably anywhere from seven hundred to a thousand people. Meanwhile, the only men’s bathroom in the area had maybe five stalls and six or eight urinals. Not cool, Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Not cool.

Our flight was packed to the gills—everybody wants to go to Vegas, right?—and we stuffed ourselves into the tiny coach seats, three on either side of the aisle. Maya and I sat together, along with a guy who was traveling from Minneapolis to Vegas for his own convention, kind of our trip in reverse. Kalene had the window seat across the aisle. My seat’s “locked and upright position” seemed about ten degrees forward out of true, so by the time we could move about the cabin, my back was killing me. I fell asleep as we were ascending (I was exhausted), so when I woke up, the crick in my neck nearly matched my back pain.

Of course, when I say “move about the cabin,” I am only speaking for the five or so minutes of the three-hour flight when we could actually do so. The seatbelt light stayed on for most of the flight, which was the most turbulent I have experienced since a stormy trip to Philadelphia back in 2000 or so. We rattled and shook and bounced and laughed nervously and prayed and sweated until we were descending into Vegas. My bladder was near to bursting after my in-flight coffee; every time someone got up, the flight attendants would cluck (and, once, announce that we were taking our lives and those of our fellow passengers’ in our hands), but I tried once anyhow. I found that the muscles required for standing up in a jittery plane were precisely the ones I needed to relax before I could pee. Plus, I kept seeing vivid images of getting a flow started just as we hit some bad air and spraying the entire compartment and my clothes and shoes, so I finally just gave up.

Naturally, we landed at McCarran terminal three and had to get our bags in terminal one, so another long hike took us to baggage claim and then to the shuttle parking area. There, we waited nearly 45 minutes, because Silver Se7ens shuttles run on the hour. At least they sent a stretch Hummer for us.

We retrieved our car and, starving and too tired for a store trip or cooking, we decided to eat at Friday’s, one of the only places nearby that wasn’t closing soon. I had a Long Island Iced Tea and some fried shrimp. An hour later, we finally got home, where our cat yelled at us all night. Apparently she has abandonment issues, even though one of our good friends came over a couple of times a day to feed and play with her.

As of this writing, she’s still clingy. She keeps cutting me off as I try to walk and hip-checking me, herding me toward her food bowl, even when it’s full. It’s as if she’s convinced that she’s going to starve if she can’t see us at all times. One wonders how much our absence traumatizes our pets.

I have other things to say—a comparison of this year’s conference to last year’s, the nature of community in writing, and more—but I’ve got about three hundred things to do this week, so that will have to wait. Watch this space for more.

Given world enough and time, more later.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — IV

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 4

 Up at 7 am CST on this, the final day of AWP ’15, and already contemplating next year in Los Angeles, when I’ll hopefully have some new publications to make me feel like less of a poseur—I greeted what turned out to be a breakfastless morning (no supplies, no time to order) on which my shower and shave and tooth-brushing feel positively Sisyphean, a beautiful cloudless day in Minneapolis, warm enough to make you sweat on your walk. By 8:30 am CST, Kalene and I have quit the room.

We split up in the Convention Center, heading to different sessions and, in my case, a pit-stop for a caffeinated beverage. The line for coffee snaked around corners, the people surly and red-eyed and territorial; do not come between writers and their coffee, lest you put your very life at hazard. No thanks. I stopped by a food kiosk for a Diet Pepsi, a 20-oz. bottle consisting of what appeared to be plastic, not gold, but which nevertheless cost me four dollars.

My 9 am CST session consisted of a panel of editors discussing what made a submission leap off the slush pile and into their magazines—or the trashcan, depending on the piece. They shared a lot of advice, much of which can be boiled down to this: “make sure your story/poem/essay fits my personal taste.” They talked a lot about finding your unique voice, being “surprising”, and the like. Of course, those sorts of nebulous, subjective areas are really life-long projects for any writer, and so much of it seems to come back to luck—getting the right piece in front of the right person at the right time. The editors weren’t able to give much insight on how to write a piece that would necessarily appeal to any subjective criterion—who could give such advice, and what would it be?—but they did provide a lot of helpful hints on things like following guidelines to the letter, being professional in any contact, and so forth. They also hinted at trends that writers might not be aware of, such as how they are seeing so much dark content that humor—even dark humor—stands out these days. Good to know. I enjoyed this session very much; the editors all impressed as knowledgeable, passionate-about-literature people with whom you might enjoy sharing a beer.

I was particularly gratified when the editor of Juked discussed how tired he was of stories that begin with the protagonist’s waking up for no particular reason and going through a typical, boring routine before anything happens. He also hates personified body parts, which I can understand, given how many times my recent students have written things like “He gave a sigh” (how? Did he wrap it up in a gift box and send it by UPS?) or “The smile crept onto his face” (where was it before? On his leg?).

After that, I skipped out on a session I had planned to attend and hit the Book Fair, where I scored some copies of journals to show my classes.

Next, “Marketing Your Small Press Books,” a session I really need, so maybe one day I can sell more than fives of copies at a time. (Have I mentioned that The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light is available through fine online retailers everywhere?) This session was a blast. The panelists shared a lot of great practical device and a good deal of humor. I’d tell you what they said, but I’ll probably be using some of the techniques quite soon, so you’ll get to experience them first-hand. You can thank me later.

Back to the Book Fair for one last pass and a few more journals. I was hoping to chat up some more editors from small presses, since I’ve got a second collection of stories that I haven’t placed yet, even though most of the tales therein have been published in various journals. Of course, around 2 pm on the last day, said editors and staff are more interested in selling their books (for the press’s sake, for the authors’, and for the aching backs of those who have to lugged the unsold tomes back across the country), so very little of said chatting up was accomplished. Still, I grabbed a few more journals for classroom use (and my own reading pleasure, naturally).

Here, a bit of editorializing. When you know a lot of writers, and especially when you get a boatload of them in one place like you do at AWP, you hear a lot of understandable grousing about journals and presses and editors and agents and publishers and how they’re all out to get us and ruin our careers, either by tanking the publishing of our work or by not taking what is obviously brilliant in the first place. You also hear a lot of equally understandable griping from publishers and editors about how not enough people are buying their books and journals.

I think both sides need to remember that we’re in this together. I’m in a slump myself, so I know how hard it is to have your work rejected, especially when you honestly believe in it, when you KNOW it’s good. Rejection sucks. Lots of rejection sucks a lot. But I don’t think for a minute that there exists a cabal of editors who have a list of writers they automatically reject. Whether we’re talking a single poem or a book-length work, we have to remember that “quality” really is a subjective term, and what one person loves, another may feel indifferently about or even hate. It doesn’t mean one is right and the other is wrong. If someone passes on our work, it doesn’t mean that they themselves suck or that we have no talent. It just means they don’t see the connection between our work and their journal/press, even if we do.

On the other hand, editors/publishers who rant about sales should remember that writing literary works and teaching are not clear pathways to riches. It happens, but it isn’t what you’d call easy or common. Many AWP attendees are graduate students who share rides and pile a half-dozen people into a hotel room. Many others are adjuncts, who are criminally underpaid, or tenure-track professors at places that can’t or won’t pay what the professors are worth. Others are starving writers who don’t have a teaching gig—the writer/barista, the writer/construction worker, etc. In short, you can’t assume that everyone who comes to AWP carries with them a truckload of disposable income that they’re just hatefully withholding from you.

Plus, you can only buy and ship so many books at once. A lot goes into buying books at an AWP outside your home city. It is unlikely that many attendees aren’t buying your books because they’re out to get you.

I think we can all be better to each other.

We stopped by the UPS store to ship all our books home and there finally met up with our friend Robin Becker, fiction writer extraordinaire (check out Brains if you haven’t already). We hadn’t seen Robin since she left LSU ahead of us, way back in the early 2000s, so we had a snack and a beer in the hotel bar. The chat was lovely, the company awesome. I’m only sorry that I had to spend half the time on the phone, fighting with the world’s least helpful and most sarcastic customer service representative. “Superior” Shuttles my ass. This is the last time I use that company.

A one-hour nap later, we met my good buddy Ash Bowen for one more meal and a couple rounds of Guinness at Brit’s Pub. We had a great time and talked about our pasts, art, our lives today, art, food, art, and why making art in a world that devalues it hurts so much. Ash, thanks for your encouraging words. I needed them.

Back to the room by 8:30 pm CST for some grading, packing, and writing this dispatch, and the time is now 12:47 am CST. In eight hours, we will rise, finish packing, eat lunch, and head to the airport, and then it’s home to Las Vegas and, perhaps, one final dispatch.

AWP, AWP, AWP—we’ve all been there.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 — III

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 3

Today, we might have grouped most of our experiences under the general heading of “mishaps.” You can’t use something with a darker, more serious connotation like “disaster” or “debacle” or “catastrophe,” because nothing terrible happened, but a lot of little inconveniences added up to a day that was less than it could have been.

At 9 am CST, the first of our alarms sounded. We shut it off. At 9:30, the backup alarm blared until somebody smacked it upside its head, after which it got the message and left us alone. We awoke at 10 am CST and ordered breakfast—in my case, ham and eggs, fingerling potatoes, grilled veggies, and toast. I did not bother with lunch.

Our hunger and exhaustion having ruined our chances of making our first scheduled session of the day, as well as a friend’s book signing, we finally stumbled out of our room at approximately 11:35 CST, headed for a session on applying for an individual creative writing NEA grant. Having seated ourselves around 11:45 CST, we got word of a minor issue in our room (don’t ask), so Kalene headed back to deal with it. I stayed long enough to discover that I was attending the exact same session that I attended last year, and we were once again discussing poetry submissions because I had somehow missed the fiction submission deadline. This….THIS is what happens when you teach five classes and serve on seven committees while trying to write. Something inevitably slips by, no matter how structured you are, and it’s usually something important. Now I can’t apply for an NEA grant until 2017.

Kalene texted an update about our situation at the hotel, and I wasn’t learning anything new, so I bailed and headed back.

The situation-that-shall-not-be-named required a trip to Target, and it was cold outside (Minneapolis in April, but hey, it wasn’t snowing like it did yesterday), so we decided to take the free-ride bus to the store. We sat down at a covered stop and shivered in the wind, watching buses pull up on the other side of the street and rumble away in the wrong direction until we said, “Screw this,” and started walking. The store lay only three or four blocks to our north (I think), and we were enjoying the chance to see a bit more of downtown—clean, modern, not as many people walking about as you’d think—until we started to cross what I have already come to think of as That Stupid Intersection.

We had barely stepped into the crosswalk when a car driving parallel to us suddenly put on its left blinker and veered our way. “Wait!” I cried, sure that we were about to be flattened, but the car merely changed lanes at seven thousand miles per hour and went on its way. Unfortunately, Kalene tried to heed my warning while walking much too fast for her own good. She managed to step in the one piece of broken pavement that I saw for at least a block. She turned her ankle, cried out, and fell onto her knees, scraping the skin off one of them. Then she rolled onto her back and lay there groaning. By this time, a bus was bearing down on us and showing no signs of stopping, so I reached down and yanked her upright. We stepped back onto the sidewalk and assessed the damage as the bus passed on by us like nothing had happened. The driver didn’t even glance our way.

Like the trooper that she is, Kalene kept going. We reached Target, bought our supplies and some snacks and first aid stuff, and headed back. We were going to catch a bus so she wouldn’t have to walk, but she decided that she would rather not let her ankle stiffen up, so we finished the trip on foot.

Back to the room for a bit of relaxation (for me, that meant a twenty-minute nap) before we headed back to the Convention Center (yep, Kalene was still walking) for two sessions.

The first one featured T.C. Boyle, Ron Carlson (for this semester’s CW students at CSN, he’s the one who wrote “Bigfoot Stole My Wife”), and Susan Straight. The panel was about the importance of place in creative writing (hey, CW students—think “grounding,” “setting,” etc.), specifically the landscape (physical and otherwise) of southern California. Straight and Carlson read short pieces from existing novels, while Boyle read a thus-far-unpublished story about a guy who invents a five-pound burrito. It struck me as very Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and I mean that as a compliment. All three were great, of course.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to buy their books and or meet them because our next session started right away—a live NPR conversation with Louise Erdrich and Charles Baxter. The talk veered from memorable bad reviews to books that evoke a certain place/time in the writers’ minds to what the panelists wish that they had known when their careers were just beginning. Both demonstrated a sense of humor that most good writers have and that are often on display only during readings.

We had nothing scheduled afterward, and I had picked up copies of Baxter’s latest short-story collection and Erdrich’s award-winning novel The Round House, so we lined up to get them signed. A first for the Rileys, whose bad luck in minor matters is legendary—we were second in line. Usually we’re more like seven hundred and second.

Mr. Baxter was warm and gracious. He chatted with Kalene about the dangers of Minnesota roads as he signed my book. Ms. Erdrich was more reserved, but not in an unfriendly way. One gets the feeling that, like me, she’s a bit of an introvert and thus more comfortable in front of large crowds than when she’s chatting with people one on one. In spite of that, she took Kalene’s hand and complemented her on her style. I told Ms. Erdrich that this moment, speaking with her one-on-one, was our main motivation for coming this year, and I wasn’t lying. The pedagogy and craft talks are invaluable, and I admire the various other writers very much. Who could possibly dismiss T.C. Boyle or Baxter or Dybek or Prose? Still, I find that Erdrich’s work speaks to my own individual sensibilities in ways that I can’t quite explain, so I really wanted to meet her. She seemed surprised but touched that we felt that way about her books.

From there, we picked up Maya and sent across the street to the Hyatt, where we ate supper at the Prairie Kitchen and Bar. I had a ribeye (I’m eating more meat than I should on this trip, which is to say more than almost none, but after a rough day, I was in the mood to rend some flesh), while Maya chose a burger. Kalene had a mac and cheese dish with some kind of chicken in it. It was all good, made even better for me by a couple of margaritas on a mostly empty stomach.

Afterward, we returned to our room, where I graded a few papers and wrote this dispatch in about fifteen minutes.

I’m beginning to think any profundity in these little pieces may have to come later, upon reflection, because by the time I’m ready to write them, it’s late and I’m tired and I’ve still got grading to do. Still, this was our least busy day in terms of conference activities, and I’m just now winding down at 10:40 CST.

If any of my CW students are reading this, though, I’d like to share something that Ron Carlson said about place: “Nothing happens nowhere.” Every story has a setting, and every setting has a feel, a texture, an atmosphere. Within that setting—desert landscape or bedroom, alien planet or storm-tossed ocean liner, meth lab in the California mountains or a dude ranch or an urban diner—people live. They act. They talk to each other. They think. They react, to each other’s actions and thoughts and to their own emotional turmoil and to the setting itself. Place is not just a backdrop. It’s a living, breathing, absolutely necessary part of any story, and a writer at any stage ignores it to his/her peril.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve said it before, as have thousands of writers before me, as will thousands after I’m gone. If you’re a writer and you haven’t learned that lesson yet, there is no better time than now.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15 II

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 2

So I woke up this morning to a rainy Minneapolis that looked more like Seattle allegedly looks than Seattle did last year. As I got out of bed, I still felt weary, but at the same time, my blood pumped with exhilaration as I pondered another day full of writers, books, pedagogical panels, and craft talks. I love the free exchange of ideas you find at conferences, the passionate way that people voice their beliefs and philosophies combined with their open acceptance of others’ methods and thoughts.

It sure as hell beat Facebook this afternoon, where I saw more “If you don’t agree with ___________ in all cases and all circumstances, I’ll unfriend you” posts. My response is always, “You’d probably better unfriend me, then, because I tend to think about complexities and variations and shadings, and I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with or supported anything 100% of the time.” Meh.

A quick breakfast bar and shower, and off to our first session, walking fast enough to work up a good sweat inside my aptly named sweatshirt, you could already feel the city’s balance tip as more and more writers poured into it. More people walked the skyway from our hotel to the Convention Center, and over near the registration kiosks, the handlers had opened up the gated labyrinths that you might recognize at Disneyland or Six Flags. All around us, a steady thrum, the sound of several thousand voices muttering and shouting at once.

My first session of the day was titled, “How to Write and Publish a Book while Teaching Five Classes,” a panel of note for anyone in the two-year college system, not to mention all the underpaid and overworked adjuncts out there. Advice ranged from letting yourself off the hook for not producing as much as your peers with two-two loads to teaching summer courses exactly never to taking unpaid leaves to attending writing retreats. Some advice seemed more practical if, say, you’re pretty sure you have enough savings or other sources of income to take a year off without pay, but I appreciated the perspectives. The session also led Kalene and I to have a serious conversation about how much pressure I put on myself to produce, publish, and grade so thoroughly that my students could never possibly have any questions. Basically, we decided that I’m driving myself into an early grave and that I need to accept that it’s okay for me to write and not teach during at least some summers, that it’s okay for me not to spend forty-five minutes on each student paper, and so forth. Now all I have to do is implement all that advice.

Next, our first stop at the Book Fair. We spent some time at the LSU Press and Southern Review table, where we learned that James Olney had passed away. We hadn’t heard. James co-edited the Review with Dave Smith while we were in graduate school, so the news saddened us.

Next, we stopped by the tables of some publications from which I got fairly recent personalized rejections—One Story, Pleiades, Gulf Stream, Ploughshares. I wanted to thank the personnel for their kind words. Hopefully some of those near misses will see the light elsewhere, and these staff members will remember me in the future.

We made sure to stop by the Crab Orchard Review table and say hi to Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble—great editors and poets, excellent people with generous hearts.

I spoke to one editor who publishes books that he hand-stitches personally. All proceeds go directly to maintaining his press or to his authors. Take that, world of corporate publishing. There are still those who love the art more than the profit. I plan to say more about this at a later date.

We ate lunch inside the Fair—burgers and fries, passable but unspectacular.

My second session was titled, “More Than Luck: How Publishers Select Literary Manuscripts.” Somehow I missed the fact that it was concentrating on poetry contests, but I was struck by how the advice often ran to what I tell my first-semester creative writers—follow the guidelines, make sure you know what your press publishes and that you want to be affiliated with it, etc. Meanwhile, Kalene ducked upstairs for a session on crafting literary page-turners and came back with a bunch of advice for me. I’m already excited to try some of it out.

Back to the hotel room for a quick nap, and then it was on to supper in the North 45 bar and restaurant downstairs, where we were joined by the incomparable Ash Bowen. I hadn’t seen Ash since 1997, and ye gods, how I missed him. We spoke about writing and music and family and our shared past and where our lives have taken us. We talked so much that we both only drank two beers, which I can usually pour in my eyeball without ill effect. Outside the restaurant and before the meal, we ran into BJ Hollars and Lucas Southworth, two writers we knew from our time in Alabama. All three of these gentlemen have produced work that is very much worth your time and money. Buy their stuff, right after you pick up a copy of my book. (Heh heh)

From there, we hoofed it back to the Center in time for Karen Russell’s keynote address, which touched on dolphins and Melville and playground equipment and poetry and about a million other artifacts that, on the surface, might have seemed unrelated, but part of her point was that you should allow yourself to play instead of “just getting to the point” as if that were the goal of all art. Another point was that things that seem unrelated on the surface often reveal connections when we examine them with open minds and hearts. She sometimes read a lot of complex stuff pretty fast, but it was a fun talk. I get the feeling she’d be fun to have a cocktail with and spitball ideas for stories. In fact, a lot of her quirky tales remind me of what I’ve tried to do in some of my own work.

I have to make that comparison, because right now, nobody else is. See what I mean about how you need to buy The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light? (Available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and other fine online retailers!)

This dispatch is nowhere near profound or insightful—it’s more summative than analytical—but it’s 11:15 pm CST and I still need to write, grade six papers, and get up at 7 am. Somehow, I get the feeling that not everything will get done.

Where are those “Teach Five Classes” people when you need them? Maybe they can give me advice about working and attending conferences, too.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

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CANDY’S FIRST KISS and the 2014 WeScreenplay Contest

I have just received word that Candy’s First Kiss has won one of two Honorable Mentions at the 2014 WeScreenplay International Screenwriting Competition. It was one of five scripts to receive an award.

One of the judges said this about the script: “A thrilling little slice of the zombie genre that stands out amidst a crowded field of competitors. Candy’s quest is brimming with tension, action, and some great humor that plays up the darkness of the story. ”

A full list of winners can be found here. Congratulations to the other winners, finalists, semi-finalists, and quarter-finalists. Indeed, congratulations to everyone who entered. I know how hard it is to create something that did not exist before and how tough it is to put your creation out there for the world to see. I salute your hard work and your courage.

Thanks so much to WeScreenplay and the judges for believing in my story. I truly appreciate it. And, as always, thanks to God, Kalene, my family and friends, and every single reader and fan. Whether you love my stuff or hate it, I appreciate you for giving it a chance.

Anyone interested in optioning the script can contact me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.