Talking to My 18-Year-Old Self

A couple of weeks ago, my friends’ oldest daughter graduated high school. I can still remember the joyous phone call when the father told me his wife was pregnant. I can also still remember the first time I met the newborn infant. The mother was sitting on the couch in the apartment they were living in at the time, and the little girl was cradled in her arms, sleeping. Now, the little girl has grown into a young woman, getting ready for college.

Because moments like these make me feel nostalgic, lately I’ve been thinking about my own high school graduation. Just like this young woman, I was excited about going to college, learning new things, and meeting new people. I was also ready to take the literary world by storm. In fact, at the time, all I wanted to be was a writer. I didn’t think I was going to need a “real job” once I graduated college because my first book was going to be published before then. Now back in 1991, it was very unusual for anyone between the ages of 18 and 22 to have a short story published in a major publication (never mind a full-length book), but it didn’t matter: I was going to change the rules.

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That fall, I wrote a weird little short story called “The WORMS Are Taking Over,” which was published in my college literary magazine the following spring. (If I ever find the magazine, I promise I’ll republish the story here.) Of course, this was a very exciting moment for me: My first story in print. Back then, not many people had heard of the internet (never mind using it), so I had to spread the word by carrying the magazine around with me everywhere and showing it any friends that were around. Looking back, it was no masterpiece, but I certainly thought it was the beginning of a big literary career.

Now, the next logical step after that would be to write and submit more stories, right? After all, wouldn’t it make sense for a student who wants to publish a book before he graduates from college to do that, especially if he has no other post-college plans?

But I didn’t. Sure, I continued to write, but I wasn’t focused, and my writing was all over the place. Instead of focusing on one big project, like a short-story collection or even a novel, I was trying to write all kinds of things – stories, novel chapters, stage plays, screenplays. I even wrote and  published a zine, which only lasted six issues.

No matter what I wrote, though, I was never as happy with the end results as I was with “WORMS” simply because I didn’t take the time to develop these works properly. Just as I was starting a project, I was already thinking about the next 10, so I would rush through things. Most of the time I wouldn’t even both finishing one because I got bored with it so easily. That is why when I finally graduated from college in May 1996, I didn’t even have enough material for a book (or at least a book that made sense), never mind publish one.

Now, it was tough enough to swallow the fact my literary career hadn’t taken off before graduation. But because I hadn’t really thought about what I was going to do for work after college, I spent a few years trying to figure that out. Keep in mind that at the time, the economy was great. People were prospering, and all of my college friends were getting great jobs and moving out of their parents’ homes and even getting married, yet I had a really difficult time just finding a full-time job.

Fortunately, things did work out in the end. Two years later, I got a full-time job at a newspaper, beginning what would turn out to be a rather eclectic post-college career. At the same time, my personal life improved: My wife and I started dating. We eventually got married, moved out of our parents’ houses, bought our own, and had a child. Not to brag, but right now, life couldn’t be better.

Even though I may never end up publishing a book, I’m also happy with the way things are going with my writing.

That’s because I learned from my mistakes and I’m now doing everything I should have done during college. I no longer rush through projects. I workshop them and consider every comment and suggestion carefully before revising them. (I plan to talk more about this in a future post.) Even though lately I’ve been working on poems that are only about 100-150 words each, I want to make sure that every single word counts.

So if I had a chance to talk to my 18-year-old self today, I would give him this advice: Stay focused, both in writing and in “real life.” Sure, writers need to write but they also need to take care of the other important things in life. Once those needs are met, use your writing time wisely. Pick one project and stick with it, at least until the first draft is done. Sure, sometimes you need to give yourself space between drafts, but don’t abandon a project – complete it. If you come up with another idea in the meantime, write a note somewhere and then forget about it until your current project is done.

Another thing I would tell my 18-year-old self is don’t write in isolation. Writers are not always the best at judging their work, so it’s good to get some feedback from others. But if you do, be considerate of what others have to say. I’m not saying you have to follow every piece of advice someone gives you, but you shouldn’t downright dismiss it either. These people are taking time out of their busy day to help you out. Even if you don’t find their feedback useful, you should at least be polite and say “Thank you.” Finally, try to repay the favor whenever possible, either by helping someone else with a work-in-progress or taking the time to read something he or she published.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, time passes too quickly to be spent wandering aimlessly as I did during my college years. But the good thing to know if you do find yourself in the same position, you can get yourself back on track and then graduate to the next phase in the journey of life.

Till next time,

Chris

Talk About the Passion

I had originally planned to write about something else this week, but then I read some surprising news from the editor-in-chief of a journal I really love: The upcoming issue may be the last.

Of course, my mouth dropped when I first read the statement. But as I read on, I understood why the EIC wanted to put the magazine on hiatus. Besides citing some personal reasons, she realized she was spending a lot of her free time on this journal (and although I’m not 100% sure about this, I believe she does it without getting any kind of payment). And there is a lot of work that needs to be done, especially with a journal that only has a really small staff of volunteers: reading submissions, making difficult decisions about which ones make the cut, answering queries, sending out rejections/acceptances, choosing art, laying the magazine out. And those are only some of the editorial and production duties – never mind the work needed to promote the journal once it’s published.

Like most editors I’ve had the opportunity to work with, the folks at this journal are very passionate about what they do and the type of product they release. But as the editor indicated, there is a cost: Whatever free time she has left in a day, she needs to dedicate it to putting out a quality journal. Also, since she and the other staff members are talented writers in their own right, it means not being able to devote time to their craft, which is another thing they’re all passionate about.

Of course, this is not the only publication with editors who are also writers. In fact, as I’m looking at the list of places where I have been published, I realize that many of them are run by people who also submit their works and anxiously wait for a response each time. They celebrate their acceptances and subsequent publications, but also feel the sting that come with rejections. Sometimes, though, they may not have time to finish that one poem or story they’ve been working on because maybe they’re too busy slogging through slush piles or trying to decide on a cover.

So the next time a journal you follow publishes an issue, tell the editors who worked on it know how awesome they are. Give them a shout-out in your social media posts. Let them know all the hard work was worth it. It doesn’t require much from us, and it’s the least we can do since they sometimes have to put their own writing on hold so ours gets out there.

Till next time,

Chris

My Name Is Chris…

The other day, I briefly mentioned that I have a poem in the Yellow Chair Review’s anthology, A Prince Tribute: …Only Wanted One Time to See You Laughing. Well, I finally received my copies in the mail, and they are beautiful.

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If you are interested in owning one of these, you can buy it here. It’s about 150 pages of great Prince-inspired writings compiled by editor Sarah Frances Moran.

So yes, it’s exciting to have my poem (which, by the way, is titled “TPOTCB”)  in this anthology. But the funny thing is it almost didn’t happen.

The day Prince died, I wrote a tribute as part of National Poetry Writing Month, or NaPoWriMo, but it wasn’t any good. Believe it or not, even though I had been a longtime fan of his music, I had a tough time trying to articulate why this artist was both brilliant and controversial. I ended up writing eight lines that were filled with great imagery but didn’t really come together as a cohesive work. (If you’re a member of Scribophile, you can view the original in one of the Poetry Critique Circle threads.)

After I posted it, I didn’t really plan on doing anything more with it. Two weeks later, I saw a tweet from the Yellow Chair Review, saying there were looking for Prince-inspired writings for an anthology – but the deadline was the following week. At first, I had no plans on submitting what I had written during NaPoWriMo. I also thought a week wasn’t enough time to write something new, workshop it, and then revise it multiple times, so I wasn’t going to submit.

The next morning, I changed my mind. After all, Prince took a lot of risks with his music, so the least I could do was take a chance.

I got to work. First, I tried to expand my original poem. I managed to make it twice as long, but it still wasn’t coming out right. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Then I remembered something I learned from one of my fellow Scribbers, Ani Keaten, during NaPoWriMo: quaterns.

For those who are not familiar with this lovely poetic form, quaterns are made up of four stanzas, each with four eight-syllable, unmetered lines. They don’t have a rhyme scheme, but the first line needs to be repeated in different places in each stanza. (You can learn more about quaterns here.)

For someone like me, who writes mostly free-verse poems, quaterns are a good way to get into more traditional poetic forms. They kind of force you to focus on the overall “story” in the poem and make you think about each word without having to worry about meter. Plus, both songs and quaterns use refrains, so it only seemed appropriate to write a tribute to a musician using the form.

Anyway, after rewriting my poem in a quatern, Ani gave me some suggestions for improvement, while my wife Lori helped me with the title. Less than 24 hours after submitting it, I got my acceptance. A couple of weeks later, I was informed that the anthology, which was originally supposed to be a digital edition, was now going to be printed. So in less than a month, I went from having a half-baked eight-line poem to having a polished quatern in a print publication.

There are two points to this story: First, if you really write for a certain publication or anthology, you should do it. You just need to stay focused, especially if the deadline is less than a week away. Second, as writers, sometimes it’s necessary to experiment, try new things, as I had done with the quatern. Because, to quote the Purple One, we’re here “to learn, to go down those paths, and eventually, you may have gone down so many paths and learned so much that you don’t have to come back again.”

Till next time.

Chris

Hello World!

Thank you for checking out my new website. Since I now have a number of publications under my belt, I thought it was time to create a place where people who are interested in reading them can more easily find them.

Some of you reading this may already know me. For those who don’t, here’s a brief introduction: I’ve been writing since I was very young. Like most writers, I had dreams of writing and publishing not just one novel but a bunch of them, many of them later adapted for the screen. After a few failed attempts, though, I decided to stop writing altogether in 2009. (There were other reasons for stopping, too, but I’ll save those for another time.)

I continued to read, though. A lot. And I was spending a lot of time not just reading books but reading about things like “neglected books” and “literature in translation.” Finally, in 2013, I decided that I, too, would like to write about some of these things, so I set up a little Tumblr, calling it the Good Coffee Book Blog, and I wrote a couple of reviews (here and here). (By the way, I originally wanted to call my blog Good Coffee, but it was already taken by someone who blogged about – get this – coffee. Strange, huh?)

I think each of my reviews only got one or two likes, but it didn’t take long before they started getting more attention. One day, while I was scanning Twitter, which I had recently joined, I came across a tweet from Three Percent, the blog of the University of Rochester’s translation department. They were looking for reviewers. I sent them a resume and a copy of one of my reviews, and the editor, Kaija Straumanis, sent me a list of books to review. That began my relationship with Three Percent. Since then, I have written 17 reviews for them.

A year later, I decided to return to fiction writing. That November, I did NaNoWriMo for the first time in seven years, but after writing about 60,000 words of yet another novel, I decided I needed to do something different. Once again, I found my answer on Twitter: The Newer York (now tNY Press) was raising money to put out a print issue. I checked out their website, which contained something called the Electronic Encyclopedia or Experimental Literature, or EEEL, and came across a piece by Ani King called “Chicken Tikka Masala for Lovers.” After reading it, I decided I had to get into the EEEL.

Even though I was familiar with experimental lit, I never tried writing it before. After rejecting eight or nine of my attempts, they finally accepted a piece I wrote called “The Anatomy of a Bird,” which was inspired by my love for birds, the library of medical books where I work, and my awkward attempts at romance during my teenage years.

Soon after that, I started learning about (and learning from) other great writers while continuing to hone my craft and trying to get published more often. I also started dabbling in poetry, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I started by writing prose poems for Unbroken Journal (see here and here); later, I wrote my first found poems, which were published in Unlost Journal (see here). Also, while they weren’t poems per se, a couple of my flash fiction pieces (see here and here) were inspired by concrete poetry.

While 2015 was a great year for my writing, ‘16 so far has been even better. I had works appearing in Pidgeonholes’ Aught/Naught issue, Dirty Chai’s first print issue, and Yellow Chair Review’s tribute to Prince, among other amazing journals.

What’s next? Well, after spending a few months writing about relationships, I recently decided it was once again time to switch gears. I’m still writing poems, but their content will be different than anything else I’ve tried before.

Also, I recently sent out my first fiction submission in a while. It’s an old story, but I would like to find it a home. In the meantime, I may throw my hat in the ring for the Molotov Cocktail’s upcoming Flash Icon contest. I’ve sat out on the last couple of their contests, but this one seems too good to pass up. Also, I have a good idea for it this time.

Till next time,

Chris