Category Archives: author

Journey to Planet Write: Happy Endings

by Nancy Stohlman
I asked Gay Degani if I could have the final slot in Journey to Planet Write series for two reasons—one, because I want to properly thank her on behalf of everyone who has appeared in and enjoyed this series. Gay has done an incredible service to our community and created a space where we can all shine. We are grateful to you, Gay!

But there is a second reason. Exactly one year ago I was scheduled to appear in this column when a drunk driver going 90 mph crossed the median on the highway and made other plans for me.
Instead of my Journey to Planet Write, you got my “Interrupted Journey,” a beautiful tribute that Gay and others put together. It meant a lot to me to feel so loved during that process of shock and recovery and now, one year later, it seemed important to not only bring it all full circle and give you that column that never was, but also to end this Planet Write journey on a note of celebration, healing, and hope.
I was 9 years old, living on a military base in Zaragoza, Spain, when I told my mom I wanted to be an author. I wrote my first creation, “Superman: The Musical”, on my mother’s electric typewriter, loving the clack of the keys and the feeling that I was doing something important. Though I attempted to cast it from my class of fellow fifth graders and rehearse in the carport, the musical (including numbers like Lex Luthor’s “I’ll Rule the World”) never made it to the stage, but my confidence in myself as a creative was born.
That same year I discovered the library, and on Saturdays I would volunteer at the check-out desk, stamping people’s due dates. Being a military family we moved a lot, so books became my friends. Nancy Drew was always waiting for me in every library from Spain to Germany to Omaha. Books were a constant in a world that was constantly changing.
Later, when life got harder, books became a way to disassociate; I could leave my body in the midst of everyday reality, escape family meltdowns and divorces and worlds I didn’t want to be in. In college, I read in the dressing rooms of go-go clubs, getting through East of Eden and The Trial while other girls were giving lap dances.
After I dropped out of college, I started traveling the country with the Renaissance Fair, living in a van, putting on a bodice and an English accent to sell turkey legs and pewter goblets. I discovered lyrical songwriters like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and I started journaling regularly with the idea that these were adventures I would want to remember and maybe someday write a book. Sadly most of those journals are gone. But when I eventually got off the road and moved to Denver to finish college, I did so as a writer.
Photo by Lynn Hough

My upbringing taught me two very different things: My military father taught me self-discipline. My artist mother taught me that making art is worthwhile. This combination has enabled to become a rare breed: a disciplined creative.

This story is true. But it’s not the whole story.
While 9-year-old Writer Nancy was stamping books at the library, 9-year-old Performer Nancy was learning the guitar and soloing in the church folk band. At 12 I was competing in pageants, at 15 I enrolled in the Nancy Bounds Modeling Agency, and at 18 I was runner-up for Miss Nebraska. I began college as a theater major, in love with the vulnerability of the stage, that instant gratification of connecting with an audience in the moment.
This story is also true. So how do these two Nancys, these twin passions, connect?
They connect in my art.
In acting school there is a thing called a triple threat: a person who can sing, dance, and act. Much of my own creative process has been finding the intersection of myself as a writer, performer and innovator. The sweet spot where my creative exhibitionist meets my inner world of silence and flow. My writing reflects this intersection and love of innovation—The Monster Opera is an avant garde mixture of performance and writing, a place where the novel metaphorically battles the opera on page and stage. Searching for Suzi: a flash novel was the first flash novel (called as such) and a term I coined in 2009. And perhaps that’s why in 2007 I fell in love and began writing flash fiction: there is an instant gratification akin to the stage that comes from these short, self-contained bursts of story. Here’s a link to a reading of The Fox.
As word-crafters we lay it bare on the page. As performers we reveal ourselves on the stage. They are flipsides of the same coin, the inner and the outer worlds of creation: the private incubation and the public genuflection.
In the end I see no reason why writers can’t also be rock stars. One of these days I will stage dive after a reading.
And that’s probably how this essay would have ended if you had read it last year. But on May 20 of last year, everything changed.

Naked
The scissors slide easily through the thick denim of my favorite blue jeans, from ankle to waist, ankle to waist, as one leg then the other falls away. He slices up the middle of my thin cotton shirt like tissue paper, unwraps me, my pink Victoria’s Secret bra a final ribbon snipped and spilling to the ground, leaving me naked. Exposed.
Are you having trouble breathing? He asks with kind brown eyes.
A little, on one side, I whisper.
We’ll be there soon, he says, gently placing an oxygen mask as the ambulance sirens rattle the warm evening air.

People ask me about my accident a lot. It’s so hard to respond, so mostly I avoid the conversation. But I will tell you here that something happened to me in those moments as they were ripping the car open with the Jaws of Life. Somewhere between the ambulance and the emergency room I had the most important realization of my life: I’m still here.
By the time they were inflating my lung I knew I’d been given a gift—as they were pulling chunks of glass out of my arm I had a choice: become a victim or become a bigger version of myself. Could I learn to be grateful in the midst of such an injustice?
Yes. I had to. I had no other choice.
So this story and my Journey to Planet Write have Happy Endings. I’m here to write another day. But aren’t we all? We’ve all been given this same gift of today. No matter how disappointing or unpredictable or infuriating the world may be, no matter how tragic or even euphoric our lives become, we are here one more day, to write. Our books, our words, our ideas are the friends that accompany us on the journey. And spaces like Journey to Planet Write remind us that we are not alone.
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Nancy Stohlman’s books include The Vixen Scream and Other Bible Stories(2014), The Monster Opera (2013), Searching for Suzi:a flash novel (2009), Live From Palestine(2003), and three anthologies of flash fiction including Fast Forward: The Mix Tape (2010), a finalist for a 2011 Colorado Book Award. She is the creator and curator of The F-Bomb Flash Fiction ReadingSeries in Denver, a founding member of Fast Forward Press, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.



Photo by Lynn Hough

By night Nancy straps on stilettos and becomes the lead singer of the lounge metal band Kinky Mink. She dreams of one day becoming a pirate.




















This is the last episode in the series of Journeys that began in January of 2016. Other Journeys may appear sporadically in the future.  If you are a writer and want to share your Journey, please submit to gaydegani@gmail.com.

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


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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.

MY JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: A Way Towards Me

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


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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.


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.

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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.  

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: No One Has Told Me to Stop

by Rachael Warecki
Last night, I sat down on my floor, opened up the binder that contains approximately 370 pages of my novel-in-progress—all of one draft and the first third of another—and wrote a summary of each scene on color-coded index cards. As I’d learned at a recent writing workshop, indexing your scenes in this manner can be a helpful tool in charting a novel’s progression. Are my scenes in a sensible order? Is the plot of this novel progressing in a logical way? Are my characters developing emotionally?
After I’d laid out my index cards end to end, I was pleased to discover that the answer to all these questions was Yes. I still need to round out some of the emotional beats in the last third of the manuscript, and I need to rewrite the novel’s climax, which my ancient former computer deleted in a last-ditch protest against running Microsoft Word. (You had one job, computer!) But after six years of work and six full drafts, my novel finally feels like a book, like a manuscript that could be sent to a literary agent who would want to see more.
So, to paraphrase David Byrne, I asked myself, How did I get here?
No, seriously—if you’ve not yet had the pleasure of glimpsing the finish line, of measuring the time to a finished, agent-ready draft in weeks and months rather than in years, it’s a unique emotion. For me, it feels most akin to a graduation: the rush of triumph at your achievement, the urge to hug your family and classmates and professors out of gratitude for the time they’ve invested in you, the relief at one stage of your life coming to an end, and the knowledge that the next phase is just beginning.
Compared to other people’s Journeys to Planet Write, I feel mine has been fairly straightforward. In second grade, after learning that a real live species of people called writers had created the books I’d been devouring since I was three, I wrote my first short story. I wrote my first novel when I was in junior high, in a fit of obliviousness toward the potential cruelty of eighth graders, and then told my classmates about it. The novel was a total rip-off of whatever epic fantasy series I was reading at the time (talking animals, people with liberally-sprinkled apostrophes in their magical-sounding names), but most of my nine classmates, to their nerdy credit, asked to read it. That was my first brush with encouragement from people who weren’t my parents, and it powered me forward—although to be honest, I would’ve continued to write even if no one was reading, which was what I did all through high school.
In college, I transitioned into historical novels and literary short stories, the latter of which earned me several school writing awards—the first time that non-parental adults had liked my work. After graduation, I started teaching, wrote a cry-for-help roman à clef that I eventually trunked, took two years’ worth of novel-writing courses through UCLA Extension, attended my first writing conference, and applied to MFA programs. One of the programs was kind enough to let me in, and I worked very hard for two years to graduate with a concentration in fiction.
And now here I am. With a novel manuscript in front of me. Counting down the weeks until I send it out.
In short, I’ve been writing all my life, and I’ve been extremely lucky in that no one has ever told me to stop.
I can’t emphasize how important that last part is, though: no one has ever told me to stop. Aside from my many privileges (being born white and straight and well-off, albeit with a host of severe medical issues), which have allowed me, for the most part, to plan my writing career in methodical stages, the most important factor in my writing career has been my supportive community. When I was seven, writing that first short story about a baby deer, my parents and teachers didn’t tell me to give it up for math and science. In junior high, when it would have been far easier for my classmates to taunt my ambitions, they encouraged me instead. The friends I made through my MFA program have invited me to literary readings and introduced me to people who’ve helped my career. Even the people in my life who don’t write—friends from high school, colleagues, my boyfriend—have always asked after my writing. Let me tell you, there’s no bigger motivation to finish your manuscript revisions than sitting in an airport with a former coworker and hearing him ask, “So, how’s your novel coming along?”
It’s because of this community’s love that I’ve been able to keep writing through illnesses, family upheaval, and personal losses. Thanks to them, it’s not just my novel that feels ready. My writing career itself has proceeded in a sensible order. Despite periods of chaos, my life—if not the world—is progressing in a logical way. And I, as a person, am developing emotionally. I owe it not only to myself to keep putting words on the page, but to the wonderful people around me. If this is my lifelong Journey to Planet Write, then my community is the rocket ship that propels me forward. (And, you know, keeps me from getting sucked into space and going kablooie.)

So I’m not going to stop.

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Rachael Warecki is a native of Los Angeles whose work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. She holds degrees from Scripps College and Loyola Marymount University, as well as an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is currently at work on a novel, which is an eight-word phrase that describes her entire past, present, and future.

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination

by Len Joy

Ironman Competition at Lake Coeur d’Alene


At 6 a.m. I wade into the frigid waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene with 2,500 triathletes. I have trained for this Ironman competition for fifteen months. The winds are brisk, the water choppy, and it has started to rain. I have seventeen hours to finish the race.

After years of recreational running, I decided I wanted to become an elite triathlete.  I always believed I could teach myself anything if I just found the right books. I studied the sport, read the inspirational success stories, and developed my own program. For the first couple years I made steady progress, but then I plateaued.  My wife told me I needed help. She didn’t say what kind, but one of the life lessons I’ve learned is that sometimes she’s right.

Samuel Beckett

I hired a professional trainer. I told her my goals were to complete an Ironman competition and finish in the top ten of my age group in the USAT Nationals. We developed a plan. She assigned drills to improve my technique and form, and critiqued my performance both in workouts and races. Knowledge and feedback made a huge difference.  


The year I went off to college, Samuel Beckett won the Nobel prize in Literature and Joe Namath won the Super Bowl. I was more familiar with Namath’s work. I had two secret goals when I left home. One was to play professional football (I saw myself as the next Fred Biletnikoff) and the other was to become a writer.  It didn’t take too many college football games for me to abandon my football goal and only one excoriating critique from my early American literature professor to extinguish my dream that I would someday write the great American novel.

 Joe O’Neil

I went into business and for fifteen years I owned and operated an engine FRED remanufacturing company. I commuted between Chicago and Phoenix, logging over a million air miles. On those long flights I would read literary magazines and novels and sometimes I would write poems and short stories about people I encountered.


Christine Schutt

About the same time I launched my triathlon quest, I began taking writing courses at the University of Chicago’s Graham School and attending summer writer workshops. I took eight courses at the Graham School and participated in workshops at the Iowa Festival, Tin House, Squaw Valley, Skidmore, Norman Mailer, Sewanee and Bread Loaf. I also joined the Zoetrope Virtual Studio. This online community of writers offered me a writing “home” where I communicated on a daily basis with other aspiring writers. Over the last decade I critiqued over five hundred short stories, poems and flash fiction pieces for Zoetrope members.


Robert Boswell

The classes gave me the basic tools so I could write a coherent story. Zoetrope and the summer workshops, in addition to introducing me to many other writers, furnished me with valuable feedback on my own stories and helped me learn how to evaluate the work of others. Sewanee and Bread Loaf provided me the opportunity to learn from established authors like Joe O’Neill, Christine Schutt, and Robert Boswell.


I started submitting stories for publication and had several published. I also participated in the Chicago literary scene, reading at various open mic venues where writers can share their work.

In June 2005 my niece asked me to write a story to be read at her wedding in September. I thought that was a really bad idea and eventually she abandoned the notion, but not before I wrote a thousand word story called, “The Toast.” Eight years later, after dozens of rewrites and professional critiques, that story evolved into the novel, American Past Time,  which was published in 2014 by Hark! New Era Publishing. The reviews were favorable and it was gratifying to have readers tell me they loved the book.

This summer I finished my second novel, “Everyone Dies Famous…” It will be published sometime next year, but I’m not waiting. I’ve begun work on my third novel, as I’ve come to the realization that if I spend eight years between novels, I’ll run out of time before I run out of stories. 

Lake Coeur d’Alene is just like Lake Michigan – cold and choppy. It only takes me 92 minutes to complete the 2.5 mile swim. But on the 112 mile bike course, as I struggle with the last, long uphill climb, the sun melts the clouds, the wind shifts into my face and my “speed” slips from 8 to 7 to 6 to 5 mph.

Most people can walk faster than that.

Then, with sweat dripping in my eyes and my leg muscles burning, I remember the final words of the inspirational video they showed us the night before: “The only thing you can control is your attitude.”

It sounds hokey, but it works. I stop cursing the mountain, which would rise to the clouds if there were any, and instead I gaze out over the valley below. Birds soar effortlessly above a stream that meanders through a pasture while sheep stand around making fun of those nutjobs on bikes.


It is beautiful, and if not relaxing, at least distracting. I know I can finish the race. I am not going to set any record so I order myself to enjoy the ride. I am up and over that final hill before I realize it. And even though I have never attempted a marathon, I run the entire 26 miles.  As I enter the homestretch, which even at the 15th hour is still lined with cheering spectators, I hear the announcer say my name and then do a double take.
“Wow, sixty-one years old! His first Ironman!  Len Joy! You. Are. An. Ironman!”

I have to take a few extra deep breaths to compose myself, then I sprint the last ten yards. The athletes I train with, like my fellow writers, are pursuing individual goals, but we are still a team, united by our common goal. When I cross the finish line they are all there to cheer for me.

I am committed to writing.  I don’t know if there is a finish line. I’d loved to have my novel accepted by a major publisher and have my stories read by thousands instead of hundreds. But I’m grateful for those hundreds of readers and if I’m never discovered by that big house, that’s okay. It’s a journey and I’m enjoying the ride.



The Birdhouse Builder
by Len Joy

We’re in the seasonal interregnum. The last winter snow hangs on in the shadows of my parents’ two-story colonial, while the first wave of migratory birds circle the neighborhood, checking out the accommodations. Dad wants to reconstruct the birdhouse. The son of a farmer, he can fix broken things. Build stuff. Use tools the right way. I have none of those skills. As a boy I was his unhappy assistant. “Hand me the needlenose,” he would say, his arm reaching back, head buried in the bowels of the cranky Maytag washing machine. I would stare at the battlefield of tools surrounding him and try to pick one that resembled a needle nose. I usually guessed wrong.

He has disassembled the remnants of the old birdhouse. Measured the wood slats and created a spec sheet. He doesn’t trust his memory anymore. It’s less reliable than that little boy who would hand him vise grips instead of pliers. When I was a kid these projects would start with a trip to Ike’s Hardware. That was in the small town where I grew up, not this resort town where my parents have grown old. Back then Dad never had a spec sheet – usually just a scrap of paper with a few odd numbers on it. Ike’s was full of open bins of screws and bolts and nails and rolls of sandpaper and shelf after shelf of hand tools. It had a metallic, oily smell – different from a Home Depot or Loews or one of those garden-hardware-lumber behemoths.

That’s where we go now. Krendall’s Home Center. It has patio furniture out front. And a greeter. My dad walks slowly, dragging his left leg. He had a hip replaced ten years ago. The greeter asks me if she can help us. My dad says, “Specialty Lumber.” She smiles at him and tells me to go see Ray in the lumberyard behind the store.

Ray looks just like Ike – sandy crewcut and a red hardware apron. But now he’s twenty years younger than me. Dad would usually tell Ike what he was working on and Ike would nod and maybe rub his chin and then hustle off to retrieve the hardware. Dad tries to describe the birdhouse to Ray, but Ray can’t follow him. I can’t either. There is a thin bead of sweat on his upper lip and I want him to wipe it away, but he just starts over, trying to explain his project. Ray turns away from him and asks me what it is we want.

I’m just the boy. Why is he asking me?

“Show him the paper, Dad.” 

He has forgotten about his sheet. Dad pats his pockets and on his fourth pocket he finds it. Ray looks at Dad’s detailed drawing and the list of pieces and parts and then he nods like Ike.

We bring home a sack of wood slats and black enamel and half-inch wood screws. Dad lays everything out on his work table. He picks up one of the slats and turns it all around. His hands shake and his grip on the piece is tentative as though he doesn’t know what to do with it. My mom calls from the kitchen. Lunch is ready.

After lunch Dad takes a nap. Three years later, after my dad dies and I move Mom to the assisted living facility, I clean out their house. I find the birdhouse parts stuffed back in their Krendall Home Center bag tucked away in a far corner of the garage.

(Originally appeared in  FWRICTION: REVIEW)

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Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. His fiction has appeared in several journals including Annalemma, Johnny America, Pindeldyboz, Hobart, 3AM Magazine, and Dogzplot.
His first novel, American Past Time, was published by Hark! New Era Publishing in April 2014. It was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted novel and darkly nostalgic study of an American family through good times and bad.”  His second novel, Everyone Dies Famous… will be published in Fall 2017. He is a nationally ranked age-group triathlete and is a member of TEAM USA which represents the USA in International triathlon and duathlon competition.

Journey to Planet Write: Mickey Mouse to Jellyfish

by Christopher James

Part One
I always wanted to be a writer. Or, more accurately, I wanted to be an “author.” I feel a little silly saying “author” because it reminds me of the child I was back then. I was odd at five. Smart, yes, but too shy to raise my hand in class when I needed to pee, so I had more than one disaster. Good at sports, probably from running to reach the loo before it was too late! I remember having many friends, but also spending time alone, chasing butterflies and trying to walk with shoes on the wrong feet. Odd, right? And I must’ve read constantly.
I got a Mickey Mouse annual, full of comic-strips, letters to Donald and EuroDisneyland adverts. It had a do-it-yourself frontispiece – a space to draw your favourite character and some questions. What’s your name? How old are you? What do you want to be when you grow up? I don’t recall my favorite character (I feel like saying Goofy, but suspect it was Pluto. We later had a dog called Pluto). But I remember my answer to that last question. “Author,” written in a handwriting that’s barely improved in the thirty years since.
I found the annual some time later, when I was moving into teenagehood and starting to think more seriously about my future, and I saw that answer, “author,” and I thought YES! That’s exactly what I want to be. Nailed it aged five! And it’s been with me from then till now.
Part Two
Of course, wanting to be a writer and wanting to write are not one and the same. I didn’t write a lot. Zadie Smith once described being told that Ian McEwan wrote only fifteen words a day. That seems impossible to reconcile with his fairly prodigious output, and I don’t think it’s true, but for years I wrote even less than that. Fifteen words a day? Ha! Who had time for that hard labour? Nevertheless, whenever people asked what I wanted to be, I still said the same thing. A writer.
There were exceptions to my fourteen-or-less-words-a-day days. I spent a year in Central America and wrote constantly, a terrible spewing of handwritten nonsense, tiny cramped-up letters that wouldn’t fill my already-heavy backpack with any more notebooks. I finished a novel, since disappeared, about a hopeful plot to destroy manufactured pop, and started another, also disappeared, about god-knows-what. I wrote without reflecting back on what I’d written, and learned nothing. I was writing, but I still wasn’t a writer – I was a notebook-filler.
Back in London, I got a real job and the notebooks disappeared, and I waited for the day I’d wake up, look in the mirror, and magically be perfect at all this. About then, the Times (the newspaper) ran a competition for a love story in 300 words. I’d never written anything so short, but I gave it a go with a story about a man who spray-painted a love message to the woman leaving him, on a bridge where she’d see it every day. The same night, another man jumped from the bridge, and the world thought the message came from him. I called the story “Amore Eterno,” and it won third place. I was ecstatic!
They published it (the fools!) in the paper, meaning people all over the country could read it. Someone then told me about this website called Zoetrope, where writers workshopped stories, and this thing called Flash Fiction, stories in under 1000 words, and, buoyed by my national success, I thought that this was something I could do. Something that could really teach me how to write.
Part Three
So began an apprenticeship. I ‘met’ writers like Randall Brown and Kuzhali Manickavel! I slowly improved. Slowly got published. Now I was writing every day, or almost every day, and learning what worked and what didn’t.
Sometimes it was hard. I learnt to care less about rejection slips! Sometimes it was rewarding. I had pieces picked up by Smokelong, by McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, by Matter Press. I won a few prizes, with Camera Obscura, with Tin House. I discovered some amazing writers, and a new way of reading.
At the same time I moved to Indonesia. I stopped drinking so much, stopped taking drugs on the weekend, met a nice girl. I made more time to write, finally acknowledging that this writing dream wasn’t Just Going To Happen. I had to make it happen. I dedicated myself to it. And it was working. I was becoming a writer.
Then one day – I think it was Idul Fitri – I started an online magazine. I’d half-heartedly thought about doing this before, but on this particular day I did it. There were personal reasons – it would help take my writing to the next level. But there were other reasons too. It was a time when many magazines I loved were starting to charge for submissions, and when it felt harder for writers to take risks on what they sent out. I wanted a venue that encouraged risks.
I opened a WordPress thingy. I started a Facebook wadjamacallit, and invited thousands of people (sorry!). I announced a call for submissions. In honour of my favourite animal, beautiful and dangerous, I called the magazine Jellyfish Review. It would only publish flash.
Part Four
Jellyfish Review is now blossoming into a bit of a minor success. We’ve published stories by incredible writers, including Elaine Chiew, Beverly Jackson, Sara Lippmann, Len Kuntz and Gay Degani. We have stories by even more incredible writers lined up. We’re developing our own style, unique and unpredictable.
I spend hours every day working on it. Reading submissions, formatting stories, choosing artwork, promoting the magazine, keeping everything ticking. It’s hard work, but wonderful.
For the first time ever, I think I’ve found something I want to do even more than being a writer. And I love it. I finally know what I want to be when I grow up.
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Christopher James lives, works and writes in Jakarta, Indonesia. He has previously been published online in many venues, including Tin House, McSweeney’s, Smokelong, and Wigleaf. He is the editor of Jellyfish Review.