Category Archives: Bystanders

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Three Mentors and a Lady (Me!)

by Tara Laskowski
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Like many writers, I’ve always wanted to tell stories. I’ve got the notebooks and the diaries. I bound my hand-written stories and drew pictures to illustrate them, adding an “About the Author” on the back cover with a photo. I wrote bad poetry when boyfriends broke up with me. Blah blah blah.

For me, the path in writing has really been paved by people. The people who are willing to read my writing and give me an honest assessment. The people who understand when I tell them I can’t go out tonight because I’m in the middle of a draft. The people who didn’t tell me I was insane when I wanted to move to another state and go more in debt to get a graduate degree in creative writing.

I am fortunate that there are a lot of those kinds of people in my life, and that I continue to meet them. Writing is for the most part a solitary act, but you can’t do it in a vacuum.

There are three of those people in particular that encouraged me at times when I most needed it. Folks that I consider mentors, heroes, friends.

The first is Thomas Jones, my English teacher in high school. The guy who taught us that we don’t have to love all the books we read in school—that a critical eye is ok. The man who picked me up at my house one night and drove me to the local college to hear Joyce Carol Oates read. Up until that moment, I’d never met a “real” writer before, let alone one whose stories I adored. Mr. Jones was the faculty advisor for our literary magazine, and when controversy erupted my senior year because of some of the language and content manner in the stories and poems, he was one of the only faculty members who stood up for the students. Who made us realize that our words mattered, that they were powerful, and as long as we used them with care we were justified in defending them. He was the first person of authority who showed me that writing and reading was wonderful, and who took the time to tell me that I might have some talent.

All that led me to become an English major at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, although when I enrolled as a freshman I still had my sights on going to law school. Then I took a writing workshop with Dr. Gary Fincke.

I’ve never had a writing workshop—even in graduate school—better than the workshops I took with Dr. Fincke. He never seemed tired or uninterested. Even with the stories that needed more help than others, he was patient, kind, and had this uncanny ability to find the unique talents and strengths of every writer that came through those doors. Even now as he gets set to retire from SU at the end of 2016, I can still see the passion and enthusiasm and true affection he has for all of his students. The man is a saint. Just ask any writing alumnus from SU and you’ll see. He’s got his own fan club.

So instead of law school, I found myself at George Mason University pursuing an MFA in fiction. I took some great classes there and met some dear friends, but somewhere in the middle of my thesis I had lost my way. I was working on a novel that was too long and too cumbersome. I graduated, and hadn’t published anything in years. I was feeling aimless. I had forgotten what it was like to have fun writing.

On a whim, I sent in an application for the Kathy Fish Fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly, a flash fiction publication that I’d tried for years to get into and never had any luck. I then forgot I’d applied. In 2009, on Barack Obama’s inauguration day, I got a call from Dave Clapper at SLQ—I’d won!

During that year of my fellowship I wrote dozens of stories. And thanks to Randall Brown, who was the lead editor at the time, I learned how to have fun writing again. His eye and attention to detail is something to be in awe of. At a time when I might’ve given up writing altogether, Randall introduced me to a whole new kind of writing. Which gave me the freedom to play and experiment with words and stories. That year was a pivotal point for me. More like a slingshot kind of year. I went from publishing one thing—one thing—over the course of several years to publishing dozens in one year. But more than that, I was finding my voice and my style.

I think sometimes we get caught up in the misery of the solitary act of writing. The rejection after rejection. The tireless hours editing when we could be watching House of Cards. Those are all valid feelings, of course, but it’s good to step back sometimes and recognize the folks around you who are cheering you on. Whether it’s your husband, who takes the kids one night so you can work on your draft at Starbucks for a few hours, or the editor at the literary magazine who sends you a few lines of feedback on a friendly rejection, or the random fan that sends you an email gushing over a story you published online—these are the real reasons why we do what we do, and why we continue to do it.

So thank you to my mentors, my friends, my heroes. All of you out there who are on this crazy journey with me. You matter more than you know. After all, who are we kidding? I would’ve made a terrible lawyer.


Tara Laskowski‘s short story collection Bystanderswas hailed by Jennifer Egan as “a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills.” She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Since 2010, she has been the editor of the online flash fiction journal SmokeLong Quarterly.

Author photo by Evan Cantrell.