Category Archives: Sara Lippmann

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: When We Falter, We Pick Ourselves Up

by Sara Lippmann
“You should only listen to yourself, that’s your only job, really, as an artist, even if you are completely wrong, that’s what an artist does, listen to one’s self.”
Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle
If you haven’t seen Mozart in the Jungle, I recommend it for its pure, escapist pleasure, a frivolous if fleeting distraction from the dreadful new daily hell we call life. Gael Garcia Bernal plays an impassioned, unconventional maestro. (Need I say more?) Watch for his face alone, for the whole electric cast, for music that stirs the heart. Watch because laughter – even, especially, in times like these – is a necessary relief. Who can resist a fraught maestro/protégé relationship where lines are blurred and crossed? Watch because the camera loves them. Because although it won’t alter our dismal reality a stitch, the show just might give you good dreams.
The young oboist, says, “I should have listened to you.”
Watch for this mentorship, contained in a simple act of grace: “You should only listen to yourself, that’s your only job, really, as an artist.”
I’ve not always had the best luck with mentors. (An essay for another day, perhaps.) Still, I keep seeking. But more than anything or anyone: We must listen to ourselves. Follow our gut, trust our instinct, even if we don’t understand it, even if it may steer us wrong, because that is our job: to plunge head first, without a safety net, in reckless pursuit of story. Sound precious? Maybe. Who cares. To tell it as we feel it, as we hear it, think it. To ignore what anyone else wants or how we might be perceived – to push away the boatloads of bullshit – to trick ourselves, or do it anyway, despite all the garbage, at least, for a while.
And when we falter we are to pick ourselves up and keep going. Fight on, claw through it, and do not succumb to despair. We know this, deep in the bones.
And yet. Of course, there is interference. Outside opinions may worm its way into our ears. External voices can become internalized, so that suddenly, there are many – so many amped up, competing voices – all we hear is a noisy mess. We may even supplant another’s voice for our own.
Or worse: we forget how to shut up and listen to ourselves in the first place.
I’ve been there. Over the years I have felt needy, desperate. Eager to please. I have overlooked red flags. Sought the quick fix, sacrificed integrity. I have pandered to other people’s notions and dwelled on marketplace. I have caved to pressures, deleting my most honest work. Every self-pitying, self-indulgent thought, I’ve had it. I’m not proud of this, but there is no end to my shame. I’ve felt angry, alone, afraid. I have even questioned my motives, my heart, my fundamental need for telling.
Maybe this sounds familiar.
With the swarm buzzing around me, saying: You have nothing to say. What’s the point? What’s wrong with you? Who do you think you are? No one hears you. And if no one hears you, is there even a sound? I have sat in the dark. Thrust my head under the pillow.
And when the crescendo builds to an undecipherable scream, I have given myself over to it, letting myself be swallowed. I have stopped writing entirely. Sometimes for long stretches.
But my story doesn’t end there.
Eventually, I begin again.
This is my pattern. It is an endless cycle. And so on, etc.
A longer project takes time. A longer project – with no end in sight – requires a different kind of listening. With stories, maybe I can focus intensely for a spell, and find the exit; whereas now, the listening demands are more sustained, but also spread out over time. Months for some, years for others, years and years for me.
What am I doing again?
I’m in the hole. Miles from my comfort zone, from any familiar territory, any ground I can trust. I stay quiet and listen, but my voice is often muffled down here in the tunnel, knee deep in muck. I feel around in the dark, stumble, fall. I keep falling. I’m not sure where I’ll end up. Even if I knew, there’d be no guarantee.
Press on or turn back? I’m wracked with uncertainty. This summer I attended a conference, seeking solidarity, in a classroom, with others on a similar journey. My teacher took one look at me, wet-eyed and nail-bitten, and called me “tortured.” The whole thing was embarrassing: to be 41 years old and seeking what?
A smiley face on the page, a gold star.
Thanks to her fourth grade teacher, my daughter can tell you: Praise gets you nowhere.
No one can give you conviction. Chutzpah. Leap of faith.
To his credit, my teacher offered me this, which I’ll butcher. Hold onto it, he said. That thing you’ve got – your voice, your substance, your story – with two cupped hands as if catching water. Protect it.
If you don’t protect it, if you don’t keep the conduit clear between heart and gut, the music becomes distorted, the message fractured, frayed. I know.
I tell my own students.

Hopefully, we have someone in our corner: if not a mentor, then a family member, a loved one, a spouse, a partner, pet frog, a friend or colleague or writing buddy, a faithful first reader because writing can be isolating. But support is less about empty praise, and more about amplifying your own unique voice. The mentor is the megaphone rooting: Yes, you can. Believe in yourself. That, alone, is what you have. Trust that intuition. Do the work. There is no shortcut. Screw the rest. The days we spend are lonely, the blank page often grim. There will be whopping missteps. Self-doubt may never goes away. It’s what keeps me honest. The best we can do as teachers and peers and decent human beings is tell our dear ones, with love: your creative music, it’s all already there, inside you. Hold it up like a conch. Listen to no one else.

Father’s day appeared in the Lit n Image and was a Wigleaf Top 50 2011


Oh daddy we mommies watch you through the sprinklers’ rainbow mist, thumbing iPhones—who’s the daddy? Not a single daddy or a Sunday daddy but an everyday daddy, a daddy kept by those runty three who climb muscled calves as if you were a jungle gym. We trace your river veins, sweat sliding down the gullet of your cheekbones and into a tickler at your chin. Christ, it is hot on the playground. While you chat up the nannies we sip our sangria from biodegradable cups. Daddy, your children chant, pick me up daddy take me for a ride daddy toss me a ball daddy spin me like a prize: daddy daddy daddy daddy whoops. Your kids are eating mud again. Pica, daddy? They aren’t triplets, your one-two-three, but they are close enough to wonder how they all came from one mother. Really, who has the time? Your wife must make bank. Your son is climbing the chain link, barefoot. Your daughter has fallen off the monkey bars—daddy!—but you’re there, quarterbacking your toddler in order to seize your daughter by the arm. A gasp escapes from the bench where we sit in our Bermuda shorts, stroller mommies with enormous hooded sun shields. Did you see that? We whisper down in a game of telephone, our eyes wide as kiddie pools, he could’ve yanked it out of the socket, dislocated her shoulder, if my husband ever, someone should call child services. Only she is fine. It’s your third one who’s stuck on the fence, a kitten calling from a tree, daddy that means you. We leap, offering woozy breasts—puffy, eager hands. We inhale your smell, and you look at us, grateful and indifferent as you pass along offspring. When your son skitters, scraping his shins, mommies are prepared. Wipes and Band-Aids and lollipops and antiseptic, what does your wife do? We don’t ask but study the pop of your glutes as you crouch before your son and tell him—what doesn’t break us makes us stronger. Meanwhile your other children have adopted us like city pigeons, pecking into bags of cheddar bunnies. Doesn’t your daddy feed you? We giggle, we blow noses, we hand out bubbles and sidewalk chalk; we spot a red bandanna blooming from your back pocket. Breathless are the mommies who wait for the playdate where you take us home to gag us and cinch up our beating wrists.


Sara Lippmann’s story collection, Doll Palace (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was the recipient of an artist’s fellowship in fiction from New York Foundation for the Arts, and her work has appeared in Burrow Press Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Midnight BreakfastMr. Beller’s Neighborhood Fiction Southeast and elsewhere. She teaches with Ditmas Writing Workshops and lives in Brooklyn. For more, see

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.

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.