Category Archives: writer

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.

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: And Then I Ran

by Lori Sambol Brody
1
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.
2
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.” 
3
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.

4
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.
5
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. 
6
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.  
  
7
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)

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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 lorisambolbrody.wordpress.com/

JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Stops and Starts

 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!




Upstate

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


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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


JOURNEY TO PLANET WRITE: Chasing the Past

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

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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 tyresecoleman.com.



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: The Day the World Ended

by Walter Giersbach



My world had no endings when I was 13 in that Oregon farming and logging town.  Only beginnings.  Fields and groves were endlessly green, streams flowed forever and asphalt roads led to new sights.  Life was a page of Dylan Thomas’s poetry. 

Mornings began at 6:00 when I pedaled my Schwinn down to the Shell station for my pile of newspapers.  But first, I dropped quarters in the machines to extract a Milky Way and a Coke.  Now fortified, I gave each copy of the Portland Oregonian two practiced folds and dropped it in the canvas bag draped over the handlebars.  For the next hour I’d pedal miles to stuff them in paper boxes for my 50 customers.  I was getting rich, at $20 a month, in spite of having to hector customers who wouldn’t answer their doors when I went to collect.

Life was good, and eighth grade was a cinch with a really funny teacher who regaled us about his drinking episodes in the Navy and a strange food called pizza.

But one April morning a headline caught my eye as I folded papers.  My Dad’s name leaped from the front page.  It was a story about Pacific University that I couldn’t understand, a complicated story about the faculty in rebellion.  Accusations.  Hatred exposed.

Something had happened.  The faculty had given my Dad, the college president, a vote of no confidence.  He explained it to my two brothers and me over dinner as we sat in dumb silence.  Mom was trying to hold back her tears. “I’m resigning,” he told us.  “We’ll have to think about moving.

 Forest Grove, Ore., my world in the 1950s

Moving?  But I was at the point of telling Judy Bristow I loved her.  Soon, I’d find the courage to kiss my 11-year-old girlfriend.  Moving meant I’d never again see my pal, Frank Dunham, who double-dated at the movies with his girlfriend and had actually kissed (he said).

Our house was emptied that summer as boxes and furniture went into the Allied Moving Van.  Accumulations of papers and magazines were thrown from the attic window to the driveway.  Dad’s library and Mom’s manuscript of Oregon history were carefully boxed.  But my Red Ryder BB gun, Schwinn Black Phantom and Erector Set disappeared. 

Too soon our family and the cat were piled into our used ’48 Cadillac sedan and we headed south.  Too soon to properly say goodbye to Judy and Frank or copy their addresses with promises to write.
*  *  *
Finding myself in South Pasadena was a shock.  I was a year behind academically.  There were curious classmates — Mexican-Americans — who wore pegged pants and called themselves Pachucos.  And the girls in our church youth group were all blonde and unapproachably sophisticated.

My two new friends were geeks who read L. Ron Hubbard and J.R.R. Tolkien and wore clothes from J.C. Penney.  My only achievement was writing my autobiography by hand, pasting in Kodaks, then binding the single copy.  I got an A from my 9th grade teacher.

My brothers and I, Mom and the cat, lived in our rented bungalow and took each day as it came.  For some aberrant reason, I ate only lunchtime sandwiches of Wonderbread and Kraft Sandwich Spread.  But I didn’t die.  Dad soon found work as a fund-raiser with the Volunteers of America before landing a position with the headquarters of the Congregational Church in New York City.

I didn’t write except for that handwritten autobiography.  I read.  Science fiction, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, the Hardy Boys and other mysteries.  But two things became clear.  One, I was Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  Like Valentine Michael Smith, newly sent to Earth after being raised on  Mars.  Among different people for the first time, I struggled to understand the social practices and prejudices of human nature that often still seem alien.

Second, an internal universe of words appeared.  Writing, absorbing new vocabulary and explaining things articulately were easy.  Numbers came harder.  This default writing ability made me an English-Journalism major at Grinnell College in Iowa.  A career epiphany occurred the summer of my junior year.  I was invited to be a staff reporter for a Chicago suburban weekly.  I covered fires, the police blotter, sports, rewrites, even weddings, taking my own photos with a Speed Graphic.  At last, it seemed there was an escape into the real world.
*  *  *
My first job after graduation was writing copy for new Mobil Travel Guides.  Sure, it was a humdrum task — until I got an unsolicited letter from a woman who said she was home-bound.  She read the Guides to escape into a world that was out of her reach.  At last I had an audience, and every piece I wrote was directed to my secret spectator. 

Three years of serving as an Army Security Agency analyst took me to Korea and Taiwan.  Taiwan brought me a wife and some great source material I filed away for 30 years.

For the next three decades I soldiered on in corporate communications, creating, writing and editing employee publications; writing press releases; managing exhibits; crafting senior management’s speeches.  I embraced it all.  Each day was different.  No one knew my job description, which allowed me to define my position and interact with everyone from the CEO to the clerk or bench worker.  They were my audience that I worked to reach on some level of understanding. 

Upon early retirement I ruminated on why I was drawn to write two anthologies, short stories and articles.  It was simple:  Somewhere there was a person who would read my words and say, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean.  I’ve felt the same way but wasn’t able to put it into words.”  I could help that person leave his or her couch or bed and enter another world. 

In the process, I would discover meaning in the world that had turned me upside down.  That’s why I write.

Transformation
by Walter Giersbach

Burt Forsyth was ready to rip out the fingernails of the girl sitting in the pew in front of him.  That is, after he smashed her iPhone and shoved the plastic down her throat.  While the rest of the congregation stood to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the girl sat in her stylishly ripped jeans and scrolled her manicured nails over the phone.
“Sitting!” he whinnied hoarsely to his wife.  “Sitting during the hymn.  Texting through the prayers.  Eating her damned M&Ms during the sermon.  I could kill her.”  His heartbeat rose and he could feel his body shaking uncontrollably.
“Perhaps it’s her parents’ fault,” Beth whispered.  “Not everyone has the upbringing of you and I.”
“Or two hundred other members of our church,” he steamed.
Rev. Abernathy was praying something about “O God, we seek the transformation of the world, but we fear the change it could bring to our own lives,” and Beth shushed him from going on.
Burt had an obligation to the parish as one of its deacons.  A duty to maintain tradition.  Church was a sanctuary to restore reason out of chaos, to sew up the raveled edges of behavior among the easily confused.  He was a rational man trained in a rational profession to act in a rational world.  If there was no control of the forces that shaped your life, he would often tell Beth, then what point was there to life itself?  As a lawyer, he prided himself that the legal profession was the only thread of tradition that prevented Western civilization’s entropy.  And the Presbyterian Church.  That too.  God and the Law.
Beth had volunteered to serve coffee after the service, so Burt stood in the hall off the kitchen nodding to parishioners.  He joshed an old timer about his golf handicap, knowing the man would never play again.  The pastor button-holed him about the Thanksgiving service coming up before being pulled away by an extremely small lady wearing a fur stole.  Burt stared at the lady’s dead animals — 50-year-old, moth-eaten minks, he believed — draped over her shoulders on a 65-degree day.  The animals’ glass eyes glared balefully back at Burt.
“Mister?”
He turned, bumping into the girl with the iPhone and almost spilling his coffee.
“A guy there told me you help run this place.”
Burt managed to choke out a “Yes?”
“I wanted to say I had a good time.  I never been to church, but my friend kinda dragged me.  So,” she shrugged, “I didn’t understand a lot, but I texted myself about what I thought was important.  So I’d remember later.”
Burt stood a head taller than the girl, looking down at her unruly hair and the piece of metal piercing her eyebrow.  The sound that came out his mouth could be taken for an affirmative gargle.
“This Matthew,” she said, screwing up her face as though its parts — nose, eyes, cheekbones — had been bought at a discount store and hastily assembled.  “He was a saint, right?  One of Jesus’ whattyacallits.”
“Disciples,” Burt muttered.
“I’m going to Google him.  If it’s okay, I’ll come back next time.  Okay?  My name’s Tara.  Who’re you?”
“Burt Forsyth.  We’d love to have you, Tara.”  The words came out as a choke. 
“Hey, Burt, thanks..”  She smiled once, pirouetted scarecrow-like, and walked out the door.
There was a vacuum in the room after she’d left, as though a hole had opened in an airliner that left him gasping at the change in air pressure.  The smell of coffee and cinnamon rolls weren’t sufficient to replace the sensations that had left the room with the girl.
“Why are you so silent?” Beth asked in the car, giving him a curious look.

“Just thinking.  Maybe we need some more young people to season the gentry.  Sort of balance the demographics.”

(originally published at Every Day Fiction.)

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Walt Giersbach’s fiction has appeared in Bewildering Stories, Big Pulp, CommuterLit, Connotation Press, Corner Club Press, Every Day Fiction, Gumshoe Review, InfectiveINkLiquid Imagination, OG Short Fiction, Over My Dead Body, Pif Magazine, Pulp Modern, Pure Slush, r.kv.r.y, the Story Shack, Short-Story.Me,and a dozen other publications.  He also writes on military history and social phenomena.  Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, were available until his publisher ceased operation.  He directed communications for Fortune 500 companies, publicized the Connecticut Film Festival, and managed publicity and programs for Western Connecticut State University’s Haas Library. He blogs at http://allotropiclucubrations.blogspot.com/ while maintaining Web sites devoted to the children’s book author Holling Clancy Holling and the Manchester (NJ) Writers’ Circle.


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.