Author Archives: Gay Degani

About Gay Degani

Gay Degani's suspense novel, What Came Before, was re-published in 2016, her full-length collection, Rattle of Want, in 2015, and a shorter collection, titled Pomegranate, features eight stories around the theme of mothers and daughters in 2010. A complete list of her published work can be found at

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: In Praise of “What If?”

by Tara Campbell

“Did you know the average writer only makes $6,000 per year?”
These simple words from a fellow student marked the first time my desire to write smashed into the wall of the real world. It was 1988 in Anchorage, Alaska, and we were all about to graduate from high school. Most of us were heading to college, either in state or somewhere on the West Coast, the typical migratory path of the sprung Alaskan. But then my classmate John started asking what we wanted to do.
Huh. We had to decide that now? I simply liked school, and I liked writing, so… I don’t even remember saying the words, “I want to be a writer,” but his response etched itself into my brain. It was the first of many times I wondered if it would ever really happen.
My literary drug of choice had always been science fiction. From Asimov to Bradbury to Clarke and on down the alphabet, I was hooked on the question “what if?” Madeline L’Engle’s time- and space-bending A Swiftly Tilting Planet was a revelation to me. I was the nerd who put on a bathrobe and performed a book report on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the form of a monologue by Arthur Dent, timed to pre-taped responses from Zaphod Beeblebrox. For another book report I wrote and illustrated a complete issue of the Paszex Paper, in honor of Nor Crystal Tears(my green colored pencils were pretty worn down by the time I finished that edition). By the end of high school I had written the first few chapters of what would have been a truly cringe-worthy novel. That draft moved with me for decades, across the U.S., the Atlantic, and back, until I felt compelled to shred it a couple of years ago. I couldn’t stand the thought of that document ever possibly resurfacing after my death.
But back to high school: graduate we did, and off to college we went. John went on to become a doctor, and I wound up in a traditional trajectory for a liberal arts graduate: as a grad student getting another humanities degree. Subsequently, armed with an MA in German, I embarked on a career in international education and admissions. I was far from driving a Lexus, but at least I was making more than $6,000 a year. I turned to music and painting as creative outlets on the side, never even thinking about giving writing another go.
Then several years ago my partner (now my husband) and I were looking for something new to do together. We took an intro to fiction class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. For him it was an experiment with something new. For me, it was a return to joy, like picking right back up with a best friend you haven’t seen in years, and wondering how life came in between the two of you in the first place.
When that class ended, we kept working on our stories. We joined a couple of writer’s groups, and I began staying up until the wee hours to “just finish one scene,” or getting up early to write before work. I also started submitting stories. While many people write for themselves, I’m not ashamed to admit that seeing my work out in the world is a huge motivator for me. And when my first story got published—when I realized there was at least one other person out there who wanted to read the diary entries of a fat cell whose community was about to be rocked by liposuction—I was gratified to know there was still a place for weirdness in the world.
I’ve approached Washington DC as my workshop since then, taking more classes at the Writer’s Center and Politics and Prose, hitting up a million Meetup writing groups to continue improving my craft, participating in readings with lowercase and Inner Loop, writing reviews for the Washington Independent Review of Books, volunteering with children’s literacy organization 826DC, sampling the business end as a Politics and Prose bookseller, and experiencing the editorial side as an assistant editor with Barrelhouse. With my husband’s boundless support, I stepped away from my full time job to devote myself to writing. And this spring it all came full circle when I stepped up to the microphone at the Writer’s Center, where my writing career began, to read from my first novel, TreeVolution.
But as every author will tell you, getting a book published doesn’t magically change your life

(J.K. Rowling excepted). Our job as writers is to keep working and growing. As important as “what if?” is, “what now?” is even more vital. I’m stretching myself now, working on a completely different project in historical fiction, and completing my first year of the MFA program at American University. I came into the program ready to buckle down and cast sci-fi aside to become a more “serious” writer. But this year I’ve learned a delightful lesson: there is more than one way to create, and there are places where commitment to craft and a little weirdness can meet. Being “serious” doesn’t have to mean forgetting the wonder.

Being a writer means being part of an expansive community. It’s all right to bring in the strange. It’s okay to write about talking flowers, or a chlorophyll-based diet franchise, or an interstellar nursery, or frustrated teeth who abandon their human, or an urban genie in a failing relationship, or even genetically modified trees that learn to speak up and fight back—as long as you can create worlds readers want to inhabit and stories they want to hear. Straying from the realist path can be tricky, sure. And you certainly won’t make doctor’s wages. But as long as you can hold on to the “what ifs,” what more do you need?

Excerpt: from “We Are Twenty-Six” in Chicago Literati
Marko’s teeth swayed. They twisted and rocked and eased themselves out of his gums while he, heavy with that evening’s vodka, grunted and snored in his bed.
On nights when Marko gagged and wheezed in the grips of drink, his teeth longed for their mothers, the baby teeth that had come before them, the first ones to work their way into and out of young Marko’s mouth. The little mothers lived together in the small, plastic box in which the tooth fairy had collected them, and which Marko’s parents gave to him long after he had stopped believing in the legend of the tooth fairy.
And so that night, as a much older Marko slept, his teeth tumbled out of his mouth. 
Click hereto continue reading


With a BA in English and an MA in German, Tara Campbell has a demonstrated aversion to money and power. She was the grateful recipient of two awards from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities in 2016: the  Larry Neal Writers’ Award in Fiction, and the  Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding New Artist. Her first novel, TreeVolution, was released by Lillicat Publishers in 2016. Her second book, Circe’s Bicycle, will be published by LitFest Press in fall 2017.


by Lori Sambol Brody
When I was preparing to write this, I searched for some old stories I wrote as a teenager.  Not long after we moved into our house, fourteen years ago, I threaded stories into an old UCLA binder.  I recall punching holes through the yellow graph paper my father took from work, sliding into the prongs, college-ruled paper scrawled on with erasable pen; tucking a story into the binder’s pocket, a booklet of flower fairy stories I wrote with a friend in elementary school, its cover a drawing of the fumitory fairy from the Cecily M. Barker flower fairy books.  I couldn’t find the notebook. 
I thought I’d be sad.  That scene in Little Women – we all felt Jo’s loss when Amy burned her papers.  But I actually feel relieved.  Let them go.
I remember some of those stories.  At the time, I wrote mysteries and science fiction.  My first novella was about Chaia Tavruc, the lavender-haired, violet-eyed space ship captain/smuggler (I wrote the first draft after Star Wars came out; I had a crush on Han Solo), framed for a crime she didn’t commit.    
I could probably reconstruct that story, should I want to, I rewrote it so many times. 
I’m not going to.
When my sister and I cleaned out my mother’s house after she died, we found a box on the top shelf of the closet in her spare bedroom.  Inside, my stories from elementary school.  In third grade, we turned in a story a week as booklets with elaborate covers: a bejeweled cover (for a story about a gem robbery), chapbooks of “scary” stories.  My youngest daughter laughed because all of the scary stories contain the words, “And then I ran” when the narrator confronts the ghost, the haunted house, the witch, the talking pumpkins.
I avoided the main conflict.  “And then I ran.” 
My grandfather told me stories about talking flowers on walks around the neighborhood.  My grandmother told me about the “olden days,” her young brother dying of appendicitis in the back seat of the taxi speeding to the hospital, her grandmother keeping a carp in the bathtub to make gefilte fish.  The local library:  I swear I read every book in the kids’ section.  My mother’s shelves full of books.  My shelves filling with books from the used bookstore:  Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys. 
I read Stephen King and noticed how he shortened scenes and cut from character to character close to the climax when he wanted to create tension.  I realized Madeleine L’Engle’s books were linked through recurring characters.  I read André Norton and Ursula LeGuin who created amazing worlds.  My grandmother hooked me on old movies:  I watched Hitchcock, hardboiled detective, any mystery movie.  From Charade I learned that everything had meaning, the passed-over object could unlock the mystery.
I wrote.  No one read these stories.  Mostly.  I showed my mother one story, about a computer program slowly deleting letters from human consciousness – of course those letters were not used in the story.  I waited for her reaction.  She looked up at me, uncomprehending.
One story I still have:  “Dead Men Don’t Eat Sundaes.”  (At this time, I was reading Raymond Chandler, watching Chinatown and The Big Sleep.  The name is an obvious rip-off of the Steve Martin film Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid.)  As you can see from the picture, some famous writers agreed to give me blurbs.  You’ll also see, in the synopsis, that I’m stealing a major plot point from Charade.

I was scared:  I said I wanted to be a writer.  I always said that.  I thought I had no talent.  I took the easy way out.  I went to law school.
And then I ran.
After I graduated from law school, I took workshops, both through UCLA Extension and private workshops lead by a teacher from UCLA Extension, Tom Filer.  He’s the little voice in my head inhibiting me and correcting my sentences as I write.  I wrote self-indulgent stories about lonely young women, because I was a lonely young woman.  I published two of those stories in the late 90s.  They were in print, and I am happy they can’t be read now.
I gave my mother my contributor’s copies.  When I packed up her house, the journals were in the basket beside the loveseat in the den.  The spines are uncracked.
I had two daughters, I took a break from writing, but didn’t really take a break, because I was still writing, still meeting with my writing group, still taking workshops, with another teacher from UCLA Extension, Rachel Resnick.  I was just not submitting.  I attended workshops even when I was supposed to be on bed rest, missing only the last class because I gave birth.  At a writing retreat six years ago, Rachel said, looking up from my story about a teenage girl on a tour through Uzbekistan who has the hots for her tour guide:  Everyone has a voice.  You should work on the teenage voice.  You have a knack for that. 
Rachel is the tough-love voice in my head, telling me when things don’t work, but inspiring me to make it better. 
For a long time, I wrote about the trips I’d taken.  Moroccan deserts, a Turkish fish farm, Baja whale watching, Russian train trips.  I still write about travelling, but now I also write closer to home, about mother-daughter relationships, being a teen, the canyon I live in.  
What I’m avoiding, what I’m writing around:  I only start submitting again after my mother died, August 1, 2012.  All my publications – but for three – are in the last five years.  I know there’s a reason, because I hadn’t stopped writing.  Is it because her death was freeing?  That she wouldn’t see herself in every mother I write about, me in every teenager?  Or is it that she wouldn’t co-opt the story, take my success as her own?
And then I ran.

Baby in the Slingbacks
When unpacking her suitcase from their trip to the other continent, the woman finds the toy baby slipped into her new crocodile skin slingbacks.  In a pointed toe, pale pink glows against the gold leather insole.  She peers closer.  A small plastic toy baby, as small as her thumb, like the ones frozen in ice cubes for baby shower games.  As she pulls the shoe from her bag, the toy gleams brighter until she spills it radiant into her hand.  When she closes her eyes, she sees an afterimage, luminous and red.
The brightness fades.  The toy’s mouth opens, as naked and raw as the mouth of a kitten.  She almost drops it in her surprise.  The baby lies warm and trembling in her palm.  It has no navel.  Its penis is an exotic tiny mushroom.
She moves through the house, looking for the man.  Her breasts are heavy, sensitive against the gauze of her shirt.  The man reads the newspaper in the yard, sitting in the garden chair he always prefers.  He’s finished watering the plants and the ground is wet around the beds of overblown peonies.  While they were out of the country, the tomato plants grew wild, tendrils escaping from the wire cages, branches heavy with dark red fruit and plump horned worms.  She’ll have to can the tomatoes before they rot on the vines. 
The woman balances on the edge of the other chair, the baby cupped in her palm.  The baby has grown: he’s now the length of her hand and as heavy as the thick gold coins used as currency on the other continent.  The legs and arms stir.
She holds out the baby.  “What’s this?”
He folds the newspaper and prods the baby with a damp finger.  The baby turns his head to the man, eyes still shut.  “Looks like a very small baby.  What kind of joke is this?”
She has to hold the baby now with both hands, he grows so fast.  His mouth is bright red, his cheeks rouged. 
“Did you put this in my bag?” she says.
“Why would I do that?”
“You didn’t want me to stop treatment.”  The woman cradles the baby against her shoulder.  She is careful to support his neck, as her friends instructed her when she held their newborns.
“Maybe all we had to do was to go on vacation to get a baby,” he says.  “What everyone told us.”
The woman looks away.  The garden walls are thick with vines, the morning glories tight cylinders like the hand-rolled cigars sold in the country they visited.  Beyond the walls of their garden, the hills are undeveloped; in the summer heat, the wild grasses have browned, the plants already flowered, and the birds fledged.
The baby has grown to the length of her arm and bobs at her shoulder like a bird pecking.  His fingernails are flexible and almost translucent.  She traces the arch of his foot; his skin peels between the toes and in the folds of his legs.  “When I found him, he was plastic,” she says.
“Are you sure?”  The man strokes the baby’s hair.  His fingers graze her arm. 
“Of course I’m sure.”  She holds the baby tighter.  He mews in protest against her blouse.  “What if he changes back to plastic?” 
“Let’s worry about that if it happens,” he says.  “With kids, there’s enough worry.”
At her feet, nasturtiums bloom the color of a Buddhist monk’s robe.  The flowers will taste bitter in their salad tonight.  She thinks: in birth, there is always the promise of death.  She closes her eyes and feels herself floating, as if interlocked arms carefully bear her up the slope of the hill to the wildness outside the walls.  But when she opens her eyes, she has not moved, and the baby has stopped growing.  He roots into her neck, her chest.
She unbuttons her shirt, moves the cup of her bra aside, and puts the baby to her.  He takes her nipple in his mouth and a sting as vigorous as an electric shock singes her breast.  And the entire world focuses on that pain.
(Originally published on Tin House Open Bar)



Lori Sambol Brody lives in the mountains of Southern California with her family.  Her short fiction has been published in or is forthcoming from Synaesthesia Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Little Fiction, Third Point Press, and Sundog Lit, among others.  Her stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions.  Her twitter handle is @lorisambolbrody and her website is


 by Iris N. Schwartz

In grade school I began writing my first novel, about a fearless girl, her collie, and two loving parents. The Cohen Family, Crayola-illustrated, was, alas, never to be finished…or found.

That set the pattern for my writing. I always burned to write. In my preteens, I wrote fiction, longhand ─ mostly in the basement, away from family tumult and, especially, my mother.

In my teens I switched to electronic typewriter, later, grudgingly, to a computer. I continued to write several times a week, sometimes for weeks or months at a time. There were, however, times I didn’t write for weeks, months, or chillingly ─ years!

The Cohen Familywas definitely and defiantly a novel. Unlike my protagonist, I was burdened with fear and anxiety; I had a sister, but no collie or pet of any furry or feathery kind, and my parents were not demonstrative but distant, and, most likely, mildly to deeply depressed.

Why stops and starts? My mother, no doubt parroting her own mother or father, labeled me noisy, lazy, and selfish. She told me to shut up, questioned how I “dared” talk back to her. Eventually, I knew how she felt about any topic before I understood my own mind or heart. I apologized to chairs for accidentally kicking them. Did not trust my instincts. Thought if I could do it, it couldn’t worth much. That, of course, applied to my writing (and, later, my editing skills).

The first person to say I wrote well was an English Literature professor at Brooklyn College. I don’t recall her name or what she said; it was complimentary and therefore, scared me so much I forgot every word she uttered!

After graduating from college at the age of twenty I noticed an ad for an arts reviewer in my local Brooklyn newspaper, The Canarsie Courier. My first bylines ─ for theatre, book, and restaurant reviews ─ appeared. My first checks for writing awaited me at the newspaper office. I also penned humor and travel pieces. I felt giddy, which, to me, felt alien.

I made the mistake of showing a published review to my mother.

“So who says it’s bad?” she said.

Not long after, I stopped writing. But the voice within me possessed chutzpah and stubbornness. In subsequent years I enrolled in fiction and nonfiction writing courses at New York University and The New School.

I wrote short stories, two of which I revised extensively and published, at least a decade later. I started and stopped and started again an ambitious coming-of-age novel set in the South. My teachers were encouraging.

In the nineteen-nineties I divided my time between writing, performing, publishing poetry, and writing fiction.

Through a disastrous marriage, years of compulsive overeating, unfulfilling jobs and relationships, two different psychiatric diagnoses, several surgeries, and, finally, disability ─ through all this, I intermittently wrote fiction.

In 2010, I had to leave my editing job at a major accounting firm and go on disability. This was demoralizing and financially terrifying. With the aid of psychotherapy, corrected medications, inherent feistiness, beloved friends and family, and, finally, the right man, I made it through the worst times I could imagine.

It was no longer acceptable to me to be overmedicated, depressed, and scared to write. With physical and occupational therapy, as well as stationary bike riding at home, I am now getting around with a walker.

I realized in January 2017 that I’d been writing and submitting flash fiction consistently since January 2015. In 2014, I discovered this form, began reading expert practitioners, and freed myself to write what I needed and wanted to. I also started another novel that I will get back to.

I submit fiction, nonfiction, or poetry to literary journals on average three times per week. I’ve received a slew of rejections, but a fair number of acceptances, too.

I’ve started editing again on a freelance basis. It brings a little money but, more importantly, higher self-esteem and a sharper mind.

My best news? My fiction collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth And Other Stories, will be published by Poets Wear Prada in autumn, 2017!


When I was fourteen, I tagged along with my friend Sheila Giddins and her parents to Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club in the Catskill Mountains. No one called my friend Giddy Giddins, but I always wanted to, primarily because she was pretty somber. She was also prettier, thinner, and blonder.

I wasn’t blonde at all. I was a brunette, chubby, but better-looking now that I wore contact lenses instead of thick glasses.
Sheila’s parents probably felt bad for me because my father had died the winter before. I didn’t mind their pity if it meant I’d be able to get away from my mother in Brooklyn. Three days’ escape from fluttering yahrzeitcandles* and death dates circled in red on the wall calendar beat no escape at all.

My first morning at Kutsher’s I stuffed myself with a dinner-plate-sized apple pancake. (I can still summon it—fluffy, cinnamon-aromatic, diabetes-sweet—if I shut my eyes and breathe deeply.)

On the second day, I awakened early and decided to walk the grounds. The sky was clear and sunnier than in Brooklyn. I felt light and, for a change, hopeful.

I met the blond boy that day. He was tall and Gentile, and so I went row boating with him. On the boat he told me he had just returned from a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam. He saw fellow soldiers blown up. He said they were friends. I pictured bullets piercing uniforms and flesh, blood spurting, bodies bursting apart. I forced myself to listen because he needed to talk and there was nothing else I could do for him. I thought of apple pancakes afterwards.

The blond boy needed a receptacle for his sadness. I could take it. I had seen death, too: my fifty-year-old father, body stiff as the board under my parents’ mattress. Eyes staring up at a void. No blood.

* Yahrzeit candles: Jewish memorial candles.

“Upstate” was first published by Writing Raw


Iris N. Schwartzis a fiction and nonfiction writer, as well as a Pushcart-Prize-nominated poet. Her work has appeared in such journals as 101 Words, Algebra of Owls, Bindweed Magazine, Connotation Press, Flash Fiction Friday, The Flash Fiction Press, Gyroscope Review, Jellyfish Review, Quail Bell Magazine, Random Sample Review, The Tribe Journal, and, most recently,Anthology Askew: Love Gone Askew. Her first fiction collection, My Secret Life with Chris Noth And Other Stories, will be published by Poets Wear Prada in autumn 2017.

Find more stories by Iris at these links:

Here’s the link to my flash fiction “Floundering,” which appeared in Gravel Magazine

Here’s the link to “Dream Date,” which appeared in Quail Bell Magazine


by Christopher Allen

When I was 10, my piano instructor—a dour stickperson named Eva Jo Alpress, who told me I was going to be a concert pianist one day—quit. She “discharged” me in a long, painstakingly written letter that outlined my mother’s shortcomings and mine. I wish I still had the letter. What a gem. While almost all of it is lost, one phrase does resonate down through the decades: “Your son is an arrogant opinionated juvenile.” We had a good laugh at that. Eva Jo certainly had a knack for unwittingly hitting nails on heads. She thought she was telling me what a little dickhead I was, but she was actually telling me that I was a person with something to say. 

The reason Eva Jo discharged me: I wanted to trade études for ABBA. I wanted to play keyboards in a band. It was 1974. I wanted to shake my groove thang. I can still see my teacher’s eyes when I pulled out the sheet music to “Take a Chance on Me.” Horror? Disdain? That moment when you’re not sure if you need to sneeze or vomit? We got the letter the next day. There would be no Good Will Hunting end to the story.

I have to give Eva Jo credit, though, for spotting the truth in this situation. The keyboard part of “Take a Chance on Me” is really easy, especially for a ten-year-old apparently destined for Carnegie Hall. Without the band and a few Swedes “Take a Chance on Me” was boring.

I’m telling you this not only because it’s a fun story, but also because it’s one of a hundred formative experiences that have led me to where I am today: sitting in my office in Munich, writing about writing, wondering who I am. Who knows what moments are more important than others? I was going to be a musician when I was ten. That’s important. I was a little dickhead. That’s also important. In many ways I’m still that little dickhead.

But before all that, I was going to be an oceanographer. I was fascinated by the thought of living on the ocean floor in a never-ending labyrinthine sprawl of modular, pressurized compartments. I expanded my underwater city every day in my third-grade class. I’m sure the drawings were absolute crap. I can’t draw, not even a stickman. Point is, I was obsessed by the idea of slipping myself into a little world—or maybe I just needed to escape to where it was quiet, maybe it was a Jungian thing. I don’t know. I hate the water now, haven’t been swimming in decades. We also drew the flags of the world, which I was much better at.

At university I studied music until the end of my sophomore year when, in the hospital with mononucleosis, I missed my juries and all my finals. I also missed several weeks of my first professional singing gig in a gospel quartet—a ridiculous summer. When I got back on my feet I didn’t want to study music anymore, so I changed majors to music business. All the cool kids were there I guess or maybe just all the kids who understood the worthlessness of a music degree. Maybe both. And, yes, you’ve just noticed that I skipped my entire adolescence. I knew I wouldn’t get away with it. I was hoping you’d ignore the leap, maybe accept the gap, like the lost years of Christ. I find it hard to talk or write about that time. How about we leave it at this: from 1976 to 1982 I spent most of my time hating myself for being gay, praying to be delivered from being gay, and ending up being abused by the minister of music at my church—book forthcoming.

But did those years of depression, suicidal feelings, and fear that someone could figure out who I really was lead me to write? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I’ve tried to write that novel several times, and it’s just not happening yet. Sometimes I think all this writing is just practice, that I’m groping around in the dark for the voice that will finally tell my story the right way, that all these stories aren’t me but maybe a way towards me.

At the beginning of the nineties, a very close friend of mine was killed in a plane crash. His death changed my life and my priorities. I moved to Los Angeles to get away from Nashville and the music industry. He’d been a keyboard player for an A-list country singer, and I was a studio singer. Everyone I knew was in the music industry, and it was just too sad. When I later returned to Nashville, I’d decided to become a writer; and because I wasn’t sure what that meant I enrolled in a master’s program to learn everything I didn’t know about literature—because by then I’d figured out that having an opinion about everything was a sure sign that I knew almost nothing. Realizing how little I knew was a giant leap towards understanding myself.

In graduate school, while I was reading everything Henry James wrote, I wrote a screenplay partly about my friend’s death, a poignant road-trip movie in the vein of This-Will-Never-Be-Publishable. Also while in graduate school, I published my first short story, “Air-Conditioned Souls,” which one of my professors said “made no sense.” I also published my first two (and last two) poems: “The End All” and “last night I dreamed we dreamed a poem.”

Then I moved to Germany and spent the following ten years trying to write and rewrite that screenplay. Then I wrote and rewrote a novel manuscript: “The Sure-Shot Rabbit Association.” And then I wrote another one: “What You Don’t Know.” And another: “Three-Handed Bridge.” And another: “Conversations with S. Teri O’Type.” And another: “The Lambent Light,” finally trying to tackle my own story. And a screenplay manuscript: “Almost Ophelia.” Except for Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, an experimental and episodic work of linked flash fiction that I self-published in 2012, I’ve pretty much walked away from all of these manuscripts. They terrify me because they are not perfect. They are all massive derelict buildings.

At some point in the middle of all these construction sites I joined an online writing workshop called Urbis. What an intense time of learning that was. I remember getting up at 4 a.m. every morning to read and write reviews. That workshop forced me to think about my writing objectively. It taught me to write economically, to write competitively (in a good way), and not to settle for a boring phrase. Lots of stories that I workshopped in Urbis ended up published. Urbis gave me the push I needed towards becoming a writer.

In 2009 I started editing at the daily litzine Metazen and became the managing editor there. Sadly, Metazen came to an end in 2014. In the same year I joined the team at SmokeLong Quarterly. The journal is a big part of my life. When I love a thing, I love it big.

I feel all grown up now, but I still need to disappear into my little worlds. I still feed on sarcasm. I still need music. And I still feel incomplete. So I suppose my Planet Write is some amorphous gas planet or maybe some inchoate hunk of volcanic chaos—very much a work in progress. And that’s fine. I just love being at the party.

Here’s a link to one of Christopher Allen’s award-winning stories:
Semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017

First published by The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts


Christopher Allen is a freelance editor, translator and writer living somewhere in Europe. His work has appeared in more than a hundred journals and anthologies both online and in print including Indiana Review, Juked, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, and others. He’s been a finalist at Glimmer Train, a finalist and semi-finalist for The Best Small Fictions 2017, and he’s won some awards too. Allen is the managing editor at SmokeLong Quarterly, the author of the episodic satire Conversations with S. Teri O’Type, and the curator of the travel blog I Must Be Off!which sponsors an annual travel writing competition.


by Jolene McIlwain

Stories. My childhood home was filled with them. Mom’s drowned-puppy story. Dad’s ever-changing tale of his buddy jumping from a water tower, umbrella in hand, plunging into mud “up to his ankles.” “To his knees.” “His hips.” “Swallowed up in the mud.”
They told stories of work, family, tragic events. Neighbors brought their own—daily, at any given hour. Cousins spooledout yarns late at night, their tangled voices bouncing through our kitchen. I stared at their knuckles tattooed with the letters of their names. They slipped curse words into their descriptions, apologized, reworded, grinning at me. Another relative, in a brown habit, his waist cinched with a rope, murmured his tales through contemplative lips, ice-blue eyes darting. Whispered stories came by way of lip-sticked aunts, long-nailed aunts, chewing-gum aunts. Barked-out stories came by way of the constable and hard-of-hearing Mr. Riggle. They came in clouds of Lucky Strikes, cigars, nasty cologne. They came with dandelion wine, two fingers of Echo Springs, black coffee, and jugs of spring water. With banana bread, zucchinis, deer bologna, fudge.
So many voices, tones, gestures. I watched the stories as much as I listened. People acted out parts. “Stand up. Here, I’ll show you how she hit him.” My father was the most animated, clapping his hands to mimic the sound of a sucker punch, a gunshot, a car’s bumper hitting a guardrail.
Parts of stories came by way of the scanner, the CB, or the telephone, where we’d hear only one end of the dialogue. Stories weren’t linear. They were circular, elliptical, looming gaps I might fill by reading the newspaper’s obituaries and police blotter, by hiding with friends in the crape myrtle to listen in on neighbors. I’d pore over the dictionary, never able to find the hybrid-pidgin American-Italian language of Dad and his friend, Sylvio. I’d ask to have stories repeated, noting changes—embellishments, amendments, dropped sections.
Stories I read in books at school were different. They had a beginning, middle, end. Chronological order. Helpful transitions. Usually one narrator. Clear. Concise. Perfect, proper English, deprived of what I would later learn were regionalisms, idioms, colloquialisms, jargon. Back then I just thought we “talked wrong.” I’d never seen the words nebby, redd-up, gumbands, dippy eggs, berms, slippy, babushka, and baby buggy in the books I read. Coal miners, dope-heads, and housewives weren’t the narrators. Stories weren’t told in snippets.
I adored all kinds of books, but I wanted to see the types of stories I grew up on in books. 
In college, I’d learn about story acquisition, theory of mind, and how my family and friends may have been some of my best teachers. Feminist theorists offered arguments about these ways of storytellingand inferred that they were legitimate. I was overwhelmed with relief that all kinds of stories could be seen as valid, meaningful, and respected.

Vignettes: I read Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. Multiple POVs: I read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Stories with gaps, intended ambiguity: I read everything by Jeannette Winterson. Same stories told again and again, refined, amended, reconsidered: I read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Wallace’s Big Fish. Part real/part magical: I read all of Morrison’s novels, Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate, Stephen Fry’s Making History. Slang, hybrid language, hybrid communities, sayings: I read Annie Proulx, Martin Amis, Louise Erdrich. I was gathering a list of authors who told stories about the same people, the same afflictions, and the same predicaments as my neighbors had told at our kitchen table. Silko’s Ceremony,Strout’s Olive Kitterage, Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Haruf’s Plainsong. Breece D’J Pancake. Bonnie Jo Campbell. Jo Ann Beard. Pinckney Benedict.
I found authors who used the same curse-words, loanwords, cadences, phonology, the same authority of story told loudly, quietly, quickly, slowly, with gaps, tangents. 
I read Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kidwhich led me Julie Jung’s Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. I researched everything I could in order to understand the ways stories came into my childhood home and to discover the authors who were experimenting with language and form.
And I finally gave myself permission to write the kinds of stories I’d inherited because I finally had the theory and language for the tools both my childhood storytellers and classic and contemporary authors employed. Repetition, recurring motifs, specific verbs, alliteration, scope of story, flash-forwards, backstory, character names, concrete imagery, placement of the surprising word, targeting audience, meter, tone, resonance, mood, pacing, narrative distance, and perhaps the most crucial decision in storytelling: point of view. I am slowly knitting these craft strategies and revelations together and gaining a better understanding of what I’d sensed so long ago: the teller is just as important as the telling and there is no one “right” way to tell a story.
No one could offer up a hunting or fishing story, a well-witching or ditch-digging story, as well as the archers, anglers, witchers, and excavators themselves. They knew the jargon; they spun words that intrigued me most. I was drawn into their discourse communities by their exclusive language and their odd ways of telling. In this vein, I wrote “Seed to Full,” a piece in which a sawyer can tell his story of grief only through his work with wood. Another is “Handful of Throttle” where the sounds of motocross, the slang of that sport, work together to show the narrator’s awe.
I’ve had the treat of hearing someone attempt to tell a story and fall short. Not the right perspective. Not the right sound. And I’ve watched them revise as they continued or by the time they told it next. I’ve had the luxury of experiencing stories that were told in surprising and unconventional styles, without rules. Sylvio could get absorbed in backstory. That chewing-gum aunt would sideline—whispering helpful footnotes as the storyteller spoke. Sometimes it took a whole neighborhood to tell a story over a series of days. No wonder I’d love Saunders’s recently published Lincoln in the Bardo, where it takes a whole graveyard, and more, to tell a tale.
Since his stroke a decade ago, Dad can no longer move around our kitchen to tell his stories. He’s lost track of time. Chronology is suddenly unimportant. Gone is his deep baritone story-telling voice. He can’t clap. He can still talk but some days a whole story is pared down to a phrase. A word. “Umbrella.” We help him by filling in, or not.
I recognize the presence of story in the absence of his old story-telling ways. I am, again, inspired.   

Seed to Full

After you’ve felled the tree and dragged it from the site and hauled it to the mill, one of the first things you do is scale it, measure to find out how many board-foot it can yield.

Always measure the small end.
According to the Vermont Log Rule, a log with a diameter of 11 inches cut into a nine-foot length offers up about forty-five board-feet. One that’s 36 inches in diameter, same length, should yield 486 board-feet.
Then you have to grade it.
Check for knots and branch stubs, seams with ingrown bark, ring shake, gum spots in black cherry.
I’ve started to teach our daughter, Myra, how to grade and scale and she’s shown promise. She has a head for numbers, for recall.
We’ve had this business for thirty-five years. My father sought out permission from the Bishop to start up before I was born, and he’s been milling every season since. Now I’m sawyer and he’s more known for his work as a hammer man or sawsmith, fixing our saws and those of nearby mills, Amish and English.
Myra’s interest lies more in his job. By the time she was four, she knew the difference between a cross-peen, twistface, and a doghead. She knew how to measure blade tension and dishing when she was only eight. It comes natural to her. To right things. She doesn’t even flinch when he pounds out the saws.
Then there’s the saw kerf, the width of cut made by the saw. That loss has to be factored in, too.
I can tell you exactly what each cut will do. I can tell you what type of cut is best for each kind of job: quarter sawn, rift sawn, flat sawn. I can tell you the type of wood or how wet it is by the sound it makes when it meets the blade.
What I can’t tell you is how much my wife Hannah’s been hurt by how I’ve cut her or how wide the kerf is that I’ve laid upon her heart.
When you marry, scripture says you are joined together, but in truth, to do that you have to be cut away from your family, you cut away from yourself. These cuts are necessary.
But I’ve done more than that.
I’ve given her another seed that wouldn’t grow.
My wife Hannah’s like a quarter-sawn board, the kind that’s best for flooring or treads on stairs—it’s stable, doesn’t easily produce slivers or warp or cup, like flat-sawn wood. Flat-sawn’s best only for visual appeal, like my eldest brother’s wife. Rift-sawn’s the worst cut of all, like my mother-in-law.
That’s why it was so hard to take when Hannah slammed the screen door on me after I showed her the casket. I’d built it straight and true from wood I’d myself sanded and stained, rubbed with linseed until my hands were raw.
“Too small,” she whispered. Only that.
But little Daniel fit into it easily, despite the thick blanket she’d wrapped him in. Perhaps she thought her love for him might somehow expand his small body, might help him to continue his growth, even underground. 
“It’s 31 ½ x 13 ¼ x 11 inches,” I said, as if to convince her.
Myra stood at my side. Hannah just stared at us and shook her head, back and forth and back, again and again.
I used poplar, known for its straight-grain, uniformity of texture, its light weight—though that never mattered, for when I carried what I’d made to the grave, my boy inside my box, I could barely find strength.
I thought Hannah would be pleased.
She’d been the one to find the small stand of poplars near Sidle Creek. She used to go there and lie on the ground beside the creek, the swell of our son part of her silhouette, and twirl their tulip-shaped leaves round her second finger and search the tops of the trees to spot their blossoms.
But she didn’t even touch the box. Turned her head when I told her it was cherry stain I’d used.
She’d have none of it.

Originally published in The Fourth River’s Spring ‘16 issue 13. Pushcart Prize Nomination.

Jolene McIlwain’s writing appears in Prairie Schooner onlineRiver Teeth onlineThe Fourth River, and elsewhere, and has been twice selected finalist in Glimmer Train‘s contests, earning an Honorable Mention and Top 25 designation. Her work was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize and she’s the recipient a Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council artist grant. She’s a part-time lecturer at Duquesne and Chatham universities and associate flash fiction editor at jmww journal. She lives north of Pittsburgh with her son and husband and is working on a collection of short fiction and novel set in the hills of Western Pennsylvania’s Appalachian plateau. You can read her tweets @jolene_mcilwain.

“Handful of Throttle” Prairie Schooner online | June 2016
“Angling” Pure Slush Five reprinted in in Flash Flood Journal | National Flash Fiction Day ‘16
“Seed to Full” reprint with author’s note at | July 2016
“Seed to Full” audio at The Fourth River’s “Selections” | Pushcart Nomination | February 2017
“Yes, They’ve Met” River Teeth online | February 2017
“TwasStrange, Twas Passing Strange” in “voices” at (b)OINK zine | March 2017


by Chelsea Voulgares

English Department – Marting Hall
 Baldwin-Wallace University.

Imagine a nineteen-year-old woman at a music conservatory twenty minutes from Cleveland. In high school, she wanted to grow up to be a high school choir director. This girl sings, dates a saxophone player, and pulls her kinky hair back into a ponytail most days to straighten it. Her dad works as a fireman and her mom as an office assistant in a rubber factory. She has a problem: she can’t play the piano and her sight-reading is lousy, so for the first time in her life she’s getting Cs. The education classes make her miserable too. She imagines (and dreads) a future where she’s a mediocre choir teacher who pretends to believe in God and acts as if she enjoys parent-teacher conferences. She panics.
Her parents divorce, the saxophonist dumps her, and as she tries to figure out what the hell to do with her quickly dissolving dreams, she picks up The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. Plath is also young and dumb and full of glumness. The young woman chases Plath with Wuthering Heights, like a morbid gin and tonic, and these two books about young women in crisis, trying to make their way in the world, offer her a lifeline. She drops out of the music school and enrolls as an English major.

This young woman was me, of course. I’m not one of those writers who composed a novel when I was ten. I wanted to be a writer as a kid, sure. I also wanted to be an astronaut, a ballerina, a marine biologist. Kids want to be and do everything. The act of reading has always been important to me, though, and in that moment early in college, as my life seemed to be falling apart (in a very mundane way—let’s not be dramatic), I connected to literature in a way that clearly meant stories were an essential part of who I was and have become.

A year later I started writing poetry, in love with poets such as W.B. Yeats, Plath (again), and Sharon Olds. The poetry stunk. But in the way of early twenty-somethings, I thought it was amazing. I was an artist! I would be a star!
Luckily, because fame and fortune would not be an immediate outcome of my fledgling attempts at poetry, I also felt a deep connection with the teachers who guided me. I wanted to be like them; I decided to get a master’s degree in English literature. In my Master’s program, I read more books that would change me. These, too, would become an integral part of how I viewed the world: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, James Baldwin’s Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, Audre Lorde’s Zami, as well as the poems of Adrienne Rich and Charles Bukowski.
Baldwin said, You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” As a black man who lived through the civil rights movement Baldwin faced a specific pain I will never know as a white woman. But I do think Baldwin’s quote is universal; as writers we all experience death, disappointment, heartbreak, and joy. We read to see those experiences acted out, to identify and empathize with them, and then, if we are lucky we synthesize them, and we create our own art.
I ultimately decided not to pursue a Ph.D., and faced with what was already a substantial pile of student loans, I entered the work force. I moved to Chicago a month before 9/11, having followed a grad school boyfriend to the city. Unable to find a job, I spent most of the time drinking heavily and playing the Sims. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that relationship ended. I started temping to pay rent, and was hired by the company I still work for.
Finally, in the attic apartment I shared with a bike messenger/bassist friend, I began to write fiction. At first my stories were self-obsessed. Every character was a stand-in for me. Each plot involved some personal problem: a lost friend, an ex, a personal failure. But I took workshops, and I kept reading, and over the years I developed a sense of how to craft a story. I examined all the Plath and Hurston and Bukowski, and I formed it into my voice. Instead of merely being a reflection of myself, my stories started to become part of a conversation. I’m still learning, of course. I’m still reading.
To become a writer is to enter a community, to add your thoughts, ideas, and voice to an ever-growing discussion of what it means to be human. I’m in my forties now and wear my hair wild whenever I can. I live in my own bungalow just west of Chicago with my partner of ten years and four pet catfish. I’ve published a few stories and hope to publish more.
Right now, a book sits face down on my desk, and in front of me, a laptop with a mint green cover. Each day, I work here in my office to insure my words are part of this great conversation. I can only hope as I progress in my art, that I honor the young woman who all those years ago opened up The Bell Jar and found understanding and purpose.
Midnight Walk, 1993
We are in a football town in Ohio, where the boys hug toy pigskins in their hospital cribs, the girls are all cheerleaders, and the hard slap of hand against leather matches the chill touch in the fall air. Around the curve of this road is a driveway, marked by a keep out sign, covered with pentagrams, inverted crosses. We coast up to it in Donnie’s beater. Turn off the headlights. The street turns darker than any I’ve ever seen.
We should go home, I say. Donnie shakes his head. We’ve already dared each other, this time and before, and he’s eager; rumor has it that the dirt drive we face leads to an abandoned house, all crumbling rafters, black mold, and sacrifice. We can’t leave the car here in the road, I say, so he turns the engine back on, and parks right next to the sign…

Excerpt from the flash piece “Midnight Walk, 1993” – Full text appears in Midwestern Gothic, Issue 22 (Summer 2016)

Chelsea Voulgares lives in the Chicago suburbs and is the editor of the literary journal Lost Balloon. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Passages North, Cheap Pop, Midwestern Gothic, Literary Orphans, The Millions, Punchnel’s, and Bust, and has been awarded grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. You can find her online at or on Twitter @chelsvoulgares.

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: You Should Be Writing Aka Get Your Ass in the Chair

by Ashley Perez

Last night, I finally put together a rough draft I’ve been writing for over four years. I’ve been writing bits and pieces of this essay and felt that the parts were there, but were all over the place. There were so many things stopping me from sitting down and pulling the pieces together.
On my journey as a writer, I come up against the same two problems repeatedly and every time I work on a new piece, they still surprise me when they show up.
Get your ass in the chair:
This one is about feeling awful. I am writing an intensely personal essay that is mining some painful memories. I didn’t want (still don’t) to feel what thinking of those memories brings up. The problem with not writing to avoid this pain is that the thing that makes you need to write this essay is going to sit heavy in your stomach and hurt as much until you sit in the muck and write it anyway.
You should be writing:
This is the conundrum of being a writer with a day job. I am far from the first person with this problem, but it’s there (and worthy of its own post really.) This is something I have been thinking of a lot, and an issue I wish more writers would talk about. How does one balance work and writing life in addition to all of the other hats one wears (like parent, partner, etc.)?
My day job involves sitting in front of a computer for most of the day and it is usually the last thing I want to do when I get home. I hear the rebuttal already, why don’t I write longhand, revise, etc.? Well most of the time, my energy and will are depleted.  
Is there a solution?
This is tricky. Sometimes you have to just write anyway and ignore these reasons. It could be similar to how I feel about going to the gym. I go kicking and screaming the whole way, but once I get it done I feel better. If you’re lucky, you’ll have one (or more) person to push you to do it regardless. It won’t feel great during the process, but if you’re like me, you live for the feeling of completion.
On the other hand, you have to respect your limitations and respect what your body and brain are trying to tell you.
I don’t think these issues ever really go away, but we find ways to deal with them. I am always interested in hearing about yours.

Read a recently published story by Ashley at Lost Balloon (March 1, 2017) : The Iridescence of Our Sins

Photo of Ashley Perez
by Rachael Warecki/
Camera RAW Photography

Ashley Perez lives, writes, and causes trouble in Los Angeles. She has a strong affinity for tattoos, otters, cat mystery books, and actual cats, but has mixed feelings about pants. You can find her on Twitter at @ArtsCollide.


by Tyrese Coleman

In elementary school, I won a medal as my first and only writing prize. I had created a picture book called Shirley’s Blocks about a girl named Shirley who wished for a set of blocks for her birthday. Or, maybe it was Christmas—plot is not within reach of my memory right now. Although I don’t think it is as important as what I do remember, such as the bright lights of my classroom, the comforting isolation of concentration while coloring in a green turtle or tracing my careful and deliberate penciled lettering with a black pen, the shadow of my body hovered over the white paper as I positioned the turtle next to Shirley, a little black girl with long hair, holding a red block. This is my earliest writing memory.
I named her Shirley after my aunt, my father’s sister. My mom and dad were never married and had me at a young age, my mom 17 and my dad 20. I must’ve seen my Aunt Shirley the weekend before I wrote the story. My parents shipped me back and forth on the weekends, and I lived mostly with my great-aunt on my mother’s side the rest of the week. My Aunt Bee Bee woke me for school in the mornings, helped me get dressed, fed me breakfast or gave me money to eat it at school, made sure I was outside waiting for the bus, especially on cold mornings when the warmth from the kerosene heater reached the far edges of the house and into my bedroom, the comfort of the bed I shared with her more enticing than those bright classroom lights waiting for me beyond the hour bus ride.
I was to receive my award at a large, fancy ceremony at what used to be called The Mosque in Richmond, Virginia, but is now called Altria Theater. I wore an uncomfortable velvet dress and white tights. I’m not sure how the ceremony was explained to my mother, but she was not in a rush to get me there. We arrived late, very late, and as we ascended the stairs to where the usher told us to go, we met my teacher. My memory flickers here, like an old-time movie with scratches and ticks and skips. In the way of my understanding what happened is the lingering confusion of a seven-year-old who only knows that she was supposed to walk up to a stage, have a medal threaded with a satin sash placed around her neck, and be told that her book was the best in front a crowd.
But in between those scratches and ticks and skips of memory, I recognize, now thirty years mature, the glance of irritation from my teacher sliced toward my mother’s direction. This look in my now adult mind reads as some expectation of disappointment, and I think my teacher probably wished I’d come from a different home, a different family, one with a better sense of haste, with parents who weren’t children themselves. I’d missed my award. Missed the whole damn thing.
My teacher had my book. I had not seen the final product. It was perfectly bound and laminated with my drawings of Shirley and her blocks. I don’t know if I cried or not. I think I must have because I still carry with me the disappointment and anger from this moment, conflated by the raw eagerness of childhood emotions still worming through my psyche.
My journey across planet write is circuitous, where I am always chasing this memory and the feelings from it, hoping that when it comes back around again, I can smother it, erase it, make it flick and fade away with the joy I get from writing and sharing my work with others now. And then other times, when that rotation comes back around and I am forced into that sadness I associate with some of childhood and with using that childhood to express myself, I deliberately wallow inside the dark lines of the flickered memories, wanting to root and curl up in those feelings that make the stories I tell real. I return to the comforting isolation of concentration, the hovering shadows my body makes as I crouch over my laptop or journal, choosing each word deliberately, hoping to tell the story of little black girls who look like me, who remind me of my Aunt Shirley, who are as special to me as those women who woke me in the mornings for school and who made me miss my medal, because, without them, my first writing memory would not have so much power. And I want my writing to have power.

Here is a story by Tyrese Coleman:

Prom Night

Outside fogging car windows, empty parking lot lights glowed like part of a fairy world Keisha wasn’t allowed in. X, still wearing his tux, passed the blunt toward the front seat to his boy dressed in a white tee; he hadn’t gone to prom. The radio played 90s hip-hop—money, cash, hos, moneycashhos—they rapped along. The fairies outside her window were blond and pristine with stars for eyes and gold-coin titties. Could heavy-breasted black girls be fairies? Nah—her magic was lost at ten when her mother’s boyfriend fingered her, taken when men at her grandmother’s house parties grabbed her, made her sit on their hard laps and bounced, bounced, bounced her soft baby-girl body against dirty construction clothes rotten from sour Wild Irish Rose. Gave the magic away at fourteen to an older boy who said he loved her. What else was she supposed to do with it? So, did it matter if she let these boys have some of it too? Did it matter if they laid her flat, pressed her face against the blue leatherette seat, did a Chinese fire drill around the car to switch places when the first was done, high-fiving on the way around like teammates through an obstacle course, while Keisha suffocated silently until every drop of any magic she’d ever had was gone?
She sucked the fat brown tube when the blunt came her way. Her fingertips tingled unpleasantly. She shivered in the boiling car. X said her hands were cold. He kissed her. It was messy despite his soup coolers, wet, his breath tasting of stale cigars and McDonald’s chicken nuggets. Keisha and X were alphas: smart, popular, college bound. His friend, she couldn’t remember his name, was the Nobody, the Dope Boy, the Sidekick. Nobody was the poor kid the hot guy friended in elementary school, or his cousin he shared sloppy seconds with.
Nobody faced the steering wheel while Keisha and X kissed. She sensed Nobody’s hard-on, lingering in the air with the weed smoke. What did he think? That this is how it happens in pornos, his anticipation a tight spring before release? She knew nothing about him, and his power scared her. X pulled away. Nobody faced Keisha. She stared at her shoes.
Nobody got out of the car—was it too late to say no? X massaged up her thigh. She looked over the front seat through the windshield to a haze of black, golden darkness, like Christmas, wishing she could fade into the land of the little white fairies, fly into the iris of a glowing dot of light between dark trees with notched, shadowy holes. Be magical, like what she’d dreamed this night would be.
The headlights of a security service car turned a corner, tiger eyes burning brightly. Nobody jumped into the front seat, turned the engine over, and drove off. The boys wanted to park somewhere else, roll a new blunt, drink more beer, listen to more music, and run a train on her.
But—the engine’s vibration. The car’s motion. The taste of open air, fresh air—warm, spring air struggling to breathe while summer sits on its face—the taste, the caress over her bare shoulders and open toes. A spell broke. She made them stop the car. Eyelids half-shut, she walked home in her slinky dress, her pumps glittering an unearthed enchantment across the blacktop.
Originally published by Stoneslide Corrective, May-June 2016


Tyrese L. Coleman is a writer, wife, mother, and 
attorney. She is also the fiction editor for District Lit, and an associate editor at SmokeLong Quarterly. A 2016 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and a nonfiction scholar at Virginia Quarterly Review’s 2016 Writer’s Conference, her prose has appeared in several publications, including PANK, Day One, Buzzfeed, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hobart, listed in Wigleaf’s Top 50 (very) short fictions, and forthcoming at The Kenyon Review. She can be reached at

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Never Too Late, Never Give up

by Gay Degani

My novel, What Came Before, took more than twelve years to write.

I’m not bragging about that. The book is under 300 pages and not a deep philosophical treatise on man’s inhumanity to man. There are no white whales, no Dublin boarding houses, no madeleines, so why did it take me so long?

Well, life got in the way.

Like many others who yearn to put words on paper, my dream of becoming a writer began in childhood. With me on her lap, my mother read aloud the Bobbsey Twins, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Heidi. My dad introduced me to the dauntless detective, Nancy Drew. After devouring Little Women, I knew I had to be a writer, just like Jo. I drew pictures of books, my books, with enticing titles along the spines, my name just below. At twelve, I scribbled a “novel” in purple ink about the Twellington twins and their nine siblings.

I was surprised in high school to find out that Mrs. Hawkins, my Creative Writing teacher, had entered one of my short stories in the Atlantic Monthly High School Writing Contest and was more surprised when I won second place. Wow. “Collision,” I thought, was just the beginning.

After graduating with a B.A. from UCSB in 1970 and getting a Masters’ Degree in 19th Century English Literature at Long Beach State in 1971, I found myself in need of a career—or at least a job. I had to support myself, but I was certain I could dig up the “spare time” to write. As a kid of the 50s and 60s, I thought time grew like fat plums waiting to be plucked, but as a full-time worker bee, I couldn’t find the tree, let alone the fruit. Still I thought, one day, some day. Now I realize I had to live my life before I could write. When I look back, I can identify those moments of learning that gave me the confidence and know-how to put words on paper.

In a retail executive training program after college, I learned that the Junior Department at the Del Amo Broadway was only a small segment of a huge enterprise. Behind the selling floors, the dressing rooms, and the customers was a complex operation spread over 40+ stores as well as a blocks-long system of offices and warehouses in East LA. In the beginning I vaguely understood the size and shape of the company, but not its intricacies, how it actually functioned. Later, as a writer, this experience of learning the complexities behind the obvious helped me understand that behind a basic storyline, there is structure, a way of doing things, a way of controlling results. Words no more spring spontaneously onto the page than pantsuits and mini-skirts miraculously appeared on shelves, rounders, and mannequins.

As a Gap store manager, my job was about people—customers and employees. I understood something about human nature, but not much. My first lesson came before I was even hired. The company gave all candidates an “honesty” test. It seemed obvious to me that anyone could pass this kind of exam whether they were honest or not, so I asked the man who hired me if anyone ever failed. His answer? Yes, they did. A high percentage. This surprised me and forced me to become more aware of how very different we are from each other.

Later, as a Gap district manager, when I had to figure out how to foster top performances in others, I developed more insights into what motivates and what discourages people. Working toward team goals in a positive atmosphere as well as appreciation for a job well done, helped to create a desire to achieve. Strong characters in good stories have to want something too. They have to strive and overcome disappointment. What pulls the reader along is how characters respond to the obstacles put between them and their desires.

I had kids. I thought becoming a stay-at-home mom would allow me infinite time to sit down at a typewriter and pound out stories. They would nap, wouldn’t they?  Play outside in the backyard? Entertain themselves? As it turned out, I was no Danielle Steele or J.K. Rowling. There were no scribblings of passionate love scenes on the dryer in the middle of night. No sneaking out in spare moments to tea shops to create wizards. My job was all consuming: Room mother, Cub and Girl Scout leader, swim mom, have van will travel.  Here was a lesson I taught myself: whatever I chose to do, I did it full on to the best of my abilities. 

Tupperware came next. Yep, I learned everything there is to know about eradicating mold from my refrigerator, but more importantly, this job forced me to rely on myself to get what I wanted. I had a simple goal: I wanted to buy a computer. What I learned was more valuable. Selling Tupperware taught me to rally to the task, to observe and imitate successful behaviors, to give encouragement as well as to accept it, and to think on my feet. Selling Tupperware made me feel something like a stand-up comedian—the more they laughed, the more I sold—and I became addicted to being “in the zone,” that feeling that comes when everything one does, works. I had forgotten how that felt. I knew it was finally time to write. My first screenplay was called “Plastic Dreams,” about a man who seeks refuge in selling Tupperware.

I wrote screenplays, stories, random poems, and journal entries. I took UCLA extension classes, went to conferences and workshops. Mimicking what I had learned from Tupperware, I surrounded myself with like-minded people, set goals, planned for results. By the time my kids left home to chase their own dreams, I was beginning to understand what made for good writing. I accepted that writing well doesn’t just happen, but that it comes with practice and study.

I am proudest of not giving up, of refusing to abandon my writing dream. I’ve published many stories in print and on line, been nominated for Pushcarts, won contests, short-listed, long-listed, and honorable mentioned here and there.  I published an eight-story collection in 2010 about mothers and daughters, Pomegranate. Pure Slush released my full-length collection, Rattle of Want, in 2015, which includes my novella, “The Old Road.” My suspense novel, What Came Beforethat twelve year endeavor—is currently available in its second edition by Truth Serum Press.

I’ll be 68 on the 19th of this month. Thank goodness, it’s never too late.


Gay Degani has said almost everything there is to say about herself above, but she’d like to add that since she was born in Louisiana, spent her earliest years in Iowa, and road-tripped every summer to both for each of her summers while growing up in California, that she gained a strong love of place: desert, mountain, plain, swamp, farmland, and beach. She hopes her work reflects that love.