On Throwing it into The Fire

Recently I was defeated. I spent a week and a half writing a story. It turned out to be junk. I spent three days trying to fix it, and ultimately came out defeated in the process.

Harry Crews, author of A Feast of Snakes, in an interview–you can watch the clip here:

–stated that he had burned half a novel. “I had taken a wrong turn,” he said. Crews says the amateur, or the coward, takes a wrong turn yet continues, because he or she doesn’t want to do that all over again. The artist, he says, takes the work and throws it into the fire, and does it all over again. I’m paraphrasing, slightly, but yes––how often do we try and take a story or poem we know is sorry and turn it into something, well, less bad? We take our joke amateur piece through about four workshops and by the end we’re left with a turd wrapped in gold aluminum foil.

I have a kind of nine circles of hell on my laptop for my writing. Three circles, really. The semi-occasional polished pieces go into a folder, very lamely titled Stories Turning Out Well. This folder is displayed on my desktop, in the buff before my eyes each day, to give me hope, I assume. Then there is the folder titled, simply, Stories. This is for junk I wrote when I first started, as well as writing exercises I’ve done on my own and in my various workshop classes. The third folder, which lies within the Stories folder, is also called Stories. Yes, it is not a very creative folder name, but consider it a testament to the lack of creativity of the work that gets tossed in there.

My new story is going into that folder. But I guess I’m no Harry Crews. I didn’t hit the delete button; I certainly didn’t burn it in a barrel behind my house like a madman, the way I picture Crews doing it. But as a young writer I like to hang onto my mistakes, so that maybe one day I can look back and read over the bad stuff, perhaps a way of gauging how far I’ve come.

And I guess my point is that young writers, or writers in general, must be willing to accept failure. If we can’t accept failure we’ll destroy our potential as artists.

I spent three days changing every damned sentence of a story that had no potential. After you do that kind of hasty editing, you come out with some creature of a very botched surgery job. Once I had exhausted myself, I couldn’t understand a line of my story. And failure, its liable to make you want to drink yourself to death. I felt the brief gust of melancholy when I realized it was hopeless. But a writing buddy had referred me in the past to the Harry Crews interview. I watched it again, and now the only thing on my mind is the next story.

So when you know its hopeless, just throw it into the fire, and think about the next story or poem. This may seem like a common bit of wisdom, but consider it a reminder. Watch the Crews video. Keep writing, dammit, and don’t be afraid to reject your own work. Because you’re better than that, right?

Aesthetic & form

Friends, the Sequoya Review is coming together again, earlier this year than any other. Usually, we are so busy in the spring, scrambling to get everything together–the pieces, the look and feel of the magazine, the website–that we have hardly any time to think about aesthetic as a concept. We have been forced, in the past, to sort of blindly grope around the subject of “good” work, using our intuition alone to guide us.

However, by moving the process to the fall we open up for ourselves a large swath of time. We are able to consider this concept of artfulness, and incorporate that into our selection process in a way never before possible. So, with this in mind, what is art? What are we to publish, as the Sequoya Review? I hope to answer this question, rudimentally and tentatively, now; moreover, I hope to spark some discussion in this matter, so that we can come to a better conclusion of who we are and what we publish. I hope that crowd-sourcing this endeavor may prove more fruitful than just laying down rules myself. My thoughts on the matter follow.

  1. The Sequoya Review is, first and foremost, a student publication. We provide a voice to the student population at UTC, fostering creativity here and giving it an outlet, holding up student work and showing it to the world at large, both academic and layman. This means we publish only work by those who are current students at UTC, however it does not mean that we should demand any less in the quality of the work; on the contrary, the students at this university have truly good work which deserves better than intellectual coddling.
  2. The Sequoya Review publishes good work. This is the crux of the matter: what is “good” work? Surely some definition is needed in order to proceed. Of course, with the different genres we publish it may seem difficult to give an across-the-board definition of aesthetic; but I believe that there are some qualities necessary to any work that we publish, and those are completeness and emotional truth. Of course, the work in question must be complete, which generally means some sort of tension and resolution. These are easier to delineate in what I will call the “timely” works, such as poetry, prose, and music, in which the piece unfolds before us through time as we read or listen to it; in visual art this is harder to do. However, if we look at a complete piece of art, it should have some element of tension within it (perhaps the creative process of the artist?) as well as a resolution (which, in the parenthetical case, would be the piece itself). In regards to what I’ve called emotional truth, I mean that quality of a complete piece that resonates with the viewer–that part of the author’s self that comes through in the recitation, reading or viewing of the piece itself. It is the connection that the producer makes through his art, the reaching-out into the world that causes others to recognize it as art. I feel that these two qualities cause a creative work, whether it be verbal, visual or aural in nature, to be what we call “good work.”

That’s a preliminary sketch of where we might be going as a magazine, but of course I can’t pilot this thing myself. We are a collective of students, and as we publish students we are also interested in what those we may publish have to say. So what do you think? What is “art”? What is “good”? Tell us in the comments.

‘Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately…’

Rejection. It is quite possibly the dirtiest word in the English language. The average human being will undergo some form of the R-word approximately 3,127 times over the course of their lifetime, according to made up statistics. For writers, the R-word becomes the reoccurring billboard on Career Highway, with ‘NO’ dressed up and posed in various attitudes in bad fluorescent lighting; ‘Your piece wasn’t the right fit’, ‘We appreciate you thinking of us, BUT…’, ‘We are unable to give you an offer at this time’, and sometimes “Both myself and my assistant are considering legal action against you for wasting our valuable time with your relentless tripe” (visit oddee.com’s “10 Funniest Rejection Letters” for more).

Any editor will tell you that it isn’t personal; they aren’t R-ing you as a person, they are just R-ing the way you choose to express your person. Just because you write boring science fiction doesn’t mean that you, yourself, are boring… or so they would have you believe. So how does the sensitive writer avoid the slings and arrows of the editor’s pen and make it into at least a ‘maybe’ pile? John Scalzi, the author of the blog post “Ten Things About Literary Rejection” says that “I read each story until it no longer works for me…Like pornography or a good melon, I know entertaining work when I see it.”
It’s nice to know there’s a process. John does, however, reference Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s article “Slushkiller”, which provides basic manuscript characteristics contributing to rejection. Number one on the list is that the author must be functionally literate…seems easy enough. Number eight is a bit more biting; “It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels”. And even if you can accomplish making your problems worth the read, you still might be rejected on the basis of number eleven, the publishing “…house isn’t going to get behind it”.

If the editing process is just as subjective as the art of writing, how is it possible to know what kind of writing will get published? How can you give everyone what they want and still keep something for yourself? As a currently unpublished writer, the author of this post doesn’t have the answers to these questions. You, the reader might be asking a question of your own; why is this person qualified to give me advice on becoming successful in this craft? The author of this post doesn’t have an answer for that question either. What the author does have is a guestimate , a shot in the dark, an angler fish in a deep sea trench; the successful writer is adept at drawing on personal observations and experiences in order to create a work that produces a sense of truth identifiable to the reader. It is absolutely personal. However, because writing is such a direct reflection of personal thoughts and ideas, the difficulty lies in being objective about one’s own work. Just as a mother is often the last to know she has an ugly baby, so it is with writers and their word babies.
Take this post for example. Were “reoccurring billboard on Career Highway” and the following personification really necessary? Was “angler fish in a deep sea trench” effective or clearly trying too hard? The author and perhaps one other reader might find these additions amusing, but readership doesn’t count if it’s only you and your mother. Part of being a successful writer is learning when something works and when it doesn’t and having the wherewithal to change it.

If you received a rejection letter in the past few weeks from the Sequoya Review, take heart. The literary staff members are by no means trained professionals; they are really just a band of ambitious writers elbowing for space on the page themselves. What they do have is a commitment to making this edition of The Sequoya Review the penultimate (or as close as they can get anyway). It is the absolute truth that the caliber of the submissions made for some knock down drag outs during the editing process. So instead of plotting your hateful revenge on the staff, take comfort in the fact that someone might have endured a wicked atomic wedgie in support for your piece.

Rejection is the name of the game. Everyone knows you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. A lesser writer might now include a message of hope in a few cleverly constructed anecdotes, like Gone With the Wind being rejected by twenty publishers, or an editor telling F. Scott Fitzgerald, “You’d have a decent book if you got rid that Gatsby character”, or maybe even Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team. However, this fledging writer is learning to work smarter, not harder, and that less is sometimes more. So instead, just this:
Keep writing.

Writing Exercise

For those of you who may be having problems with your writing, here’s a quick exercise to help out:

Pick up the book closest to you and turn to page 74.

Go to the second paragraph and pick out the first interesting word you see.

Do this now! (Before you keep reading.)

Now that you’ve made your decision, take your word of choice and make it the first word of a poem.

So, lets say your word is “auxiliary,” you might begin the exercise by writing something like, “Auxiliary efforts are fruitless. Crash the plane, close the cell-walls of your birthright, your veins.”

Continue reading

Dreaming of Prose: a Prompt

This week’s prose prompt asks you to pretend you are dreaming.  Write in detail about the dream you are having.  You can use stream-of-consciousness, or you can plan it out.  In this prompt, you can have a lucid dream where you direct the action and choose who, what, when, where, and how. How does the landscape look?  Who are the other characters in your dream?

Post what you come up with in the comments!

Cracking Open the Capsule: Prompts

This week we have two more prompts for all you aspiring writers. Read them, reread them, use them (they’re great on toast) and post your creative findings in the comments.

Underline a part in your writing that feels weak.  Instead of getting rid of it, write it at the top of a new page, probe it, crack it open.  What’s the image inside?  What treasures might be buried underneath?  Or put an equal sign next to a sentence or word that’s vague and clarify what you meant to say.

from Writing Toward Home by Georgia Heard

If you were to assemble a time capsule of your entire life, what items would you select or make reference to?  Reflect on things you have done and events that have happened in your lifetime.  What would the time capsule look like?  Why did you choose the items that you chose? Where would you bury it?

Starting a Journal

I’ve been keeping track of Tayari Jones’ blog and recently read an interesting blog post a few days ago here. Jones wrote about wanting to start a daily journal and was in search of the perfect journal. She successfully found a Moleskine journal that was easy to carry and write in. I’ve always been jealous of the people who wake up in the morning and journal while drinking coffee or the breed of writers who refuse to go to bed until their thoughts are written on paper. I have tried many times to start a journal. All attempts have rendered unsuccessful. I think I have failed at the art of journaling because my expectations are always too high. In my mind I want to be able to right down play-by-play details of my emotions and actions of the day. I want to scribble exciting sentences about the handsome stranger I met on the street or the $100 bill I found in my car. Maybe if I lower my expectations and just write the bare facts of my day or just how I am feeling then I can successfully keep a written account of my life. My goal: start a journal and write in it once a day, even if I do have to make up exciting crap.

Chealsea Crouse is a senior majoring in Communications.