When is a Good Time to Stop Writing? Spoiler Alert: Probably Never.

By Emily Catenzaro

On the subject of perseverance in writing, a question that may linger in many writers’ minds is: what is the correct timetable for getting published? If your goal is to publish a book of prose or poetry, sell a screenplay, or land a job at a prominent periodical, you may have already asked yourself this question. What is an appropriate amount of time to persevere before giving up and pursuing a different goal? I will answer that question with another question: when is it a good idea to give up any worthy pursuit in your life? When it comes down to it, there is no ‘quitting’ fairy and no one else can tell you when it’s the right time to throw in the towel. You may receive advice from both friends and mentors, but ultimately the decision to persevere will be yours alone.

Let’s examine some valid reasons for quitting anything, not just writing: it costs too much money, or doesn’t pay enough money. It’s energy-draining, too much of a time-commitment, or you work too hard and the results aren’t worth it. There is a lot of sound logic that can go into quitting. But, the emotional toll of this decision is what must be evaluated. Emotions cannot be ignored here, especially in the pursuit of lofty goals (like writing) that will happen over the course of a lifetime.

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I have a story, a parable about writing that stems from my own experience in another lengthy pursuit: the sport of figure skating. Like writing, skating is the epitome of the long game. No one who has ever competed in a world championship or an Olympic Games has spent less than 10 years working daily on their craft—trust me. It just doesn’t happen. I am not sure what age I began skating – I think it was after the 1998 Nagano Olympics, which would’ve made me about 7 or 8. At first, I didn’t like skating at all (as you may gather, it took multiple tries to get the sport to ‘stick’). I will be 26 this year, which means I have been skating for almost two-thirds of my life. From the moment that I began to dedicate myself to skating up until now, I have been married to my sport.

Sometimes, I joke with my family that if I ever get married, I’ll have the blueprint for a long-lasting marriage because I’m already married to skating. Skating is an exclusive relationship: you give up a lot in order to pursue it – birthday parties, tailgates, proms, recitals, boyfriends or girlfriends, other sports. Then, there is the emotional element. If you talk to anyone who has been married for a long time, they usually talk about the ups and downs, the oh-so-sweet highs and the bitterest of lows. I have had a lot of amazing moments in my skating career. But when people ask me if I have ever thought of quitting, I answer honestly. Of course I have.

There have been many times that I’ve thought about quitting skating. To use a very recent example, I thought about quitting an aspect of my skating just two weeks ago. Throughout my career I have been a freestyle skater (which means jumps, spins, and ‘tricks’ are my bread and butter). Two weeks ago, I tried competing solo dance for the first time (imagine ballroom dance on ice but without a partner). It was a completely new venture for me. I am comfortable with saying that I am an above average solo dancer for my level. I was pretty confident that if I skated well, I would place well. Long story short, that is exactly what didn’t happen. I was confident in my skating and expected to be rewarded with a place on the podium. I ended up coming in fifth. The writing equivalent to this example would be: you and your agent send a brand new, killer manuscript out to a publisher who has already expressed interest in it. You’re very confident they’re going to accept it because everyone who’s read it has been very enthusiastic. But you get the email and the publisher has rejected it. And you’re completely shocked.

I wallowed in the feelings of rejection for a little while, and began to think to myself, ‘Maybe I’m not as good at this as I thought I was.’ Is this venture really worth my time, or should I give up on it? This, I would argue, is a reasonable reaction to rejection, especially in industries where you’re competing against so many other people for the same goal. As children, we were always told to pick ourselves up and try again. As adults, how many times are we allowed to get back on the horse?

I can’t say what the right number will be for you. What I can tell you is that you might not be able to quantify it at all. Here, emotions need to play a part in your decision-making process. To use myself as an example, after a day or two of feeling badly about my competition, those feelings were soon replaced with the renewed desire for success. I knew then that I was not ready to quit solo dance. I was ready to try again because I believed in myself enough to risk another rejection. I’m also a very competitive person, which naturally helps. For me, quitting dance was not the answer.

My advice to all writers is: wait until the feelings of rejection subside before you make any rash decisions. If you are truly committed to your art, the desire to perform will come back. Also, a caveat: don’t let time be the only factor. Sometimes you have to get back on the horse to know how you really feel. I recommend it. Take a couple days off and then try again. Start writing something, anything, even if you don’t feel ready. The reasons why you started this journey in the first place will come back to you as you write. And if they don’t, six months later or years later, take a break. Don’t give up, but don’t force it either. Time will always tell the truth.

So please, be married to your writing. Approach it with the knowledge that you’re in this relationship for the long haul. Embrace the highs and the lows, and don’t consider divorce until you’re absolutely sure your life would be better without writing. Enjoy the process as it unfolds, and don’t consider yourself a failure just because you don’t have a bestselling novel or a job at The New Yorker. There may not be a concrete ‘end’ or end goal for your writing, and that’s okay. What can be better than dedicating your life to something for the love of the craft, not just fame or success? I can tell you: not much. Marry your writing and enjoy the good times. Also enjoy fighting with it. Just do something with it, and I promise you won’t regret it.

Make It A Big Deal: An Interview with Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich is the Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of Ugly Duckling Presse, which he started in the late 1990’s with a group of friends. He designs and edits books for UDP, curates the Eastern European Poets Series (since 2002), and co-edits 6×6 magazine (since 2000). He shares duties as UDP’s Co-Executive Director with Anna Moschovakis. His most recent publication of poetry is Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square). His writing has appeared in A Perimeter, ActionYes, BOMB MagazineBoston ReviewThe Brooklyn RailFence, and others. His translations of Daniil Kharms were collected in Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms, and his translations have appeared in The New Yorker and other places. His co-translation of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB) with Eugene Ostashevsky received the National Translation Award in 2014.

Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich reading his poetry in the Co-op Bookstore in Storrs Center at the University of Connecticut (Photo/Asiya Haouchine)

Carleton Whaley: So, a simple—well, I guess it’s a simple question, but it might not end up being one—Why did you start Ugly Duckling Presse?

Matvei Yankelevich: That’s a very good question. Sometimes I wonder the same thing. You know, I don’t know why. I was doing the zine, traveling with it, doing it in different places, collaborating with people, just doing this very small 8 or 16-page thing. I started to think about what kind of writing I liked, how it was hard to find, and what it felt like to present work to other people that they didn’t know about. New work, old work, whatever. I did a book of my own poems when I was in college, and put this Ugly Duckling Presse thing on it, and I didn’t know what it would be. I thought it would just be my own little Xerox thing. But then when I met friends in New York, you know: poets, a theater director, artists; we were all making little one of a kind books for each other, or collaborating on little things that weren’t really meant to be published. On the one hand they were fun, but we were talking a lot about what would it be like to produce more than one copy, or more than ten copies. And the form of the chapbook, which was then not much of a word that people knew, seemed the most accessible and the easiest to produce, so we were sometimes making little chapbook runs and just producing them for each other, and just putting Ugly Duckling Presse on them, even though we didn’t really have a publishing house then. And when we started getting serious about what kind of organization we could become, the name stuck. So when I first started doing something under this name, there was no vision at all. It was just sort of happenstance that it became something. It was mostly the accidental connection I had with other people. But why is a really good question, because I don’t think it was clear to us why, except that we wanted to put work out into the world that wasn’t getting attention. When we started the magazine there were people that I corresponded with that sent me stuff for the zine, and just by accident the zine got sent to other people that did zines, would get listed somewhere, sent back to me. So I would get stuff in the mail that said, “Hey, I heard you do this zine, do you want to publish these poems?” And then again, when we started 6×6 in 2000, I contacted some of those people, so there was some continuity there. Something about publishing work, making literature public, it was really energizing to all of us. To me in particular. I don’t know how to precisely explain that feeling, but I’m sure some of you guys probably have that bug, that “We’re gonna make this happen” bug. You feel like you’re doing something bigger than yourself, you’re participating in the world in a way that is meaningful, and you’re also in some ways drawing the outlines of how you think one should engage with the world.  For Ugly Duckling it was like we wanted to do things in a way that was different from the way literature was presented. We wanted to make it accessible. Which meant cheap, partly, but which also meant not daunting, because we were dealing with a lot of contemporary, experimental poetry, so we wanted people to say “I’ll pick this up, it’s five bucks.” You know, like, “I’ll take a chance.” The first issues were two dollars each, so we were actually running at a loss.  There was a lot of hand labor involved, especially early on with collating and all that, which we don’t for these [6×6], because we do the interiors where we get our books bound. But before we used to have to collate by hand, and before we had a big cutter we’d have to cut these ten at a time, and that’s a lot when you’re doing a thousand. There was something about that engagement, too: putting all this free labor into something that, in the end, was not profitable. Something about the absurdity of that was exciting, in that it suggests the kind of model or thinking around literature that didn’t put monetary value around it. It underscored the fat that literature wasn’t very well-funded here, and it’s also something that most people don’t engage with seriously, especially difficult or contemporary work, and especially poetry. Ask anyone on the street and they’ll say, “I love poetry,” but they’re not necessarily engaged with it in the same way that they are with the movies or with TV. It’s no longer a popular literature, and it’s probably ok to not be sad about it. But at the same time, we wanted it to be accessible, especially to younger people. We thought it would be good to have events for younger people where there was music and poetry, where poetry can remain complicated and experimental and contemporary, and doesn’t have to exist in a cloistered space, its own ivory tower or something. So that the experience of poetry can be like the experience of music: listening to a band that’s somewhat experimental is similar to listening to a poet. We wanted young people to be able to afford these things, so we had some chapbooks that were sold for 25 cents. They were really cool looking too. So yeah, I still have no idea. For me the real excitement around writing is sharing writing that you’re excited about with other people. That’s more interesting to me than just sitting alone at home and going “I love this book.” I want to be out and sharing that with other people. More recently, I think the why changes a lot over time. More and more, I think about—when I started the Eastern European Poets Series I really thought, how do people in the US think about what Eastern European poetry is? Why are the names always sort of the same? Wasn’t there other stuff going on? So I wanted to highlight people who weren’t big prize-winners, who weren’t up for the Nobel or anything. I wanted to bring a sense of the plurality of Eastern European poetry to the American reader. That worked to some degree, actually. A lot of it had to do with remapping history, showing that history wasn’t so black and white, or so uncomplicated. We’re doing a lot of Latin American poets right now, and a lot of Uruguayan poets that have never been published in English.

CW:  Yeah, I actually grabbed the copy of Sor Juana’s Enigmas last night from the pile of UDP books.

MY: Even though that particular Sor Juana work is well-known, we did that book because we wanted to pair it with a chapbook of this contemporary poet who’s kind of based on Sor Juana, or in dialogue with her, in kind of a fun way. So apart from a couple of things where the name is familiar, we’ve done a lot of stuff where the author or poet hasn’t been translated before. We’re trying to reimagine “What is Latin American poetry to us in the states?” It’s an important question. Is it just Octavio Paz, or Sor Juana? What is it and what kind of expressions have we overlooked?

CW: So, that was not a simple question then.

(laughs)

CW: So, can you think of some of the first hurdles you had to go over in starting—well, I guess the zine itself, since you mentioned you started that in college.

MY: There weren’t many hurdles for the zine. It’s sort of a very small version of what happens later, when you start to look for funding from the NEA. Like, we just needed to become a student club and get access to the photocopier. That was pretty much it, so once we did we had a couple hundred dollars, and we printed the magazine and did the whole student club thing. There was hardly any question of funding. So in a way there were many fewer hurdles doing a zine, and when I was traveling around, working in New York, I would just use the office photocopier. The only thing needed was time to do the collages, and hang out with a friend to go through the different submissions. So not many hurdles. It was a game, it was kinda fun. And UDP still has its fun moments, for sure, but the zine was definitely its own thing. Sometimes I would distribute it by hiding it in other journals, or the Village Voice, the college newspaper, the newspaper boxes on the street. You know where you can get a free newspaper? I would just stick them in, and they would just go out into the world. Someone would get it by surprise, and that surprise was always interesting. What happens when you find something like that? What is this doing in my Village Voice? And my college newspaper, what does it mean? I always thought that element of surprise, of mystery, was an important part of the experience of art, because it would take people out of their daily experience. To me it was interesting that you could do that in print, because it worked in multiples. Each book wasn’t a precious work of art, you could give it away, or tie it to a tree and see who found it. But the hurdles certainly happen quickly when you start to produce a thousand copies instead of a hundred. Then you’re like, “How do we distribute this?” So there was a lot of talking to bookstores, and silly little receipts written out by hand, figuring out how to consign different books in bookstores, talking to distributors and getting them to take you seriously. We had to get the Council of the Arts to take us seriously, like “We’re gonna do this Eastern European Poets Series, but all we have to show you right now is this flimsy little magazine.” But somehow, we managed to convince them and other people that we were serious. And it’s still a struggle to convince people, even last night, that guy who asked the question like, “These are just pamphlets, aren’t they cheap to produce?” and I’m just like, “You don’t actually understand anything about what it takes to edit and produce a book of poetry.” It was probably because that guy had not encountered these kind of books before, because they’re not in most bookstores, they’re not in the college bookstores, because those are usually a Barnes and Noble subsidiary, even though people teach our books, so they’ll sometimes be there, but it’s not something that people necessarily know. A small press book, and the history of small press books, isn’t everybody’s bread and butter. So it’s not surprising that that attitude exists out there. And it’s very hard to get people to understand that on one hand there’s letterpress on this cover, but that doesn’t mean we’re a boutique publisher. We actually have distribution, our books are all over North America, and some in Central and South America, Europe and Japan, they’re everywhere, but only in niche spaces where you have to look. It’s not going to be at the biggest book store in Buenos Aires. It’ll be at the little poetry book shop. So, the hurdles have to do with that way that people think that if it’s not Penguin or Random House, what is it? Can books look like this? We’ve always tried to play with that, to push those boundaries, to push against people’s expectations. If the content is going to be different, or announce itself somehow as being different from your mass-market book, then the look of it should tell you something about that difference. We like the idea that people will touch this, that it’s not about the screen, it’s not purely about information, it’s about experience.

CW: From your reading last night, you seemed like a jack-of-all-trades in the literary world. You do translation, you write poetry, you do critical work, you’re an editor, you teach—so basically, do you find that difficult to manage, or does it come naturally?

MY: It is difficult to manage, but it comes naturally to me to say yes to a lot of things. So I become over-obligated often, which is good and bad. At some point I’ll have to take a break, organize this mess that I’ve created for myself, and I don’t know when I’ll get to do that. It is kind of a mad life, but at the same time I’m really happy about it, in the sense that I get to follow all of these interests. I don’t like the idea of “I’m a novelist,” or “I’m a poet.” I don’t feel comfortable just staying in one place. But once you’re working in literature, I think it’s weird that—well, when you think about Kafka, or Dostoevsky who’s also writing very journalistic work as well as novels, and doing a lot of polemical work—literary production has never been that separated into disciplines. And I think that’s partly the university system. More and more in the US university system, instead of making things interdisciplinary, it’s about creating these separate disciplines. There are programs that are interdisciplinary, but they run into problems. It’s easier when you can define everything, when the university can say “this is that kind of thing.” Where I teach at Columbia for their MFA, and I understand their limited resources, if you’re a poet it’s very hard for you to get into a fiction workshop. And likewise if you’re a fiction writer it’s very hard to get into a poetry workshop, or nonfiction. So it’s like “Wait a minute, shouldn’t we as writers be familiar with all of these ways of working?” Some of my favorite novels are written by poets. The same goes for novelists who also have polemical work, or translation, which some of them have done either to supplement their income, because that is actually one of the ways that writers who may be doing work that’s not easily sellable can actually make somewhat of a living. In America it’s harder, but translating in other languages is a way to get published and get a job. My most visible publications are my translations, more so than my own work. And I don’t feel weird about that, because these were writers whom I admire, who were formative for me, who were historical. I know they already have a place in history, as writers, whereas my work, if people like it that’s great, but I’m not expecting it to be in history books or something. As far as criticism, it’s interesting to engage in all those different ways. I don’t really write book reviews anymore because I feel weird about it. I publish books, and I don’t want to review the books of other small presses. It just feels uncomfortable. I’ve been writing longer critical pieces about more general things in poetry, or sometimes about specific writers. Writing critical work is so hard, just trying to make everything clear, to clear you own head and clarify your writing so that you really believe in it. You’re no longer in the fictional world of poetry where you can write outrageous things and not really believe in it. All these different ways of interacting with the written word, with the literary world, seem so complementary to me, seem so tied up in one another that it would be hard for me to sort them out. Teaching, for me, is really great in that context. I get to talk to younger writers who are just starting, and I get a lot of energy from that. I feel really lucky, but it is a lot of juggling and a lot of different work all at the same time. Even the correspondence, which is luckily, or I guess not luckily, my email—it’s worse because it’s email and people can write back really fast. Correspondence is a really important part of the writer’s life, and of course the editing life. All of these things merge, and it’s hard for me to imagine just writing poetry.  Especially because it doesn’t pay.

CW: There is that. One last quick question—or not, I should stop saying that—anyway, do you have any advice for people looking to start their own zine or little magazine?

MY: Before I answer that, could you tell me a little bit more about that magazine you guys are doing?

CW: Oh. So, well, ours is—well, we’re on issue—well, here’s the most recent edition, actually.

MY: So a faculty member works with you guys, and this is kind of a longstanding journal, but the people who work on it change every year?

CW: Usually, but sometimes we’ll have the same professor for a few years. Ellen has done it before.

MY: Yeah, and she has experience with Salt.

CW: Yeah, she worked on Salt Hill at Syracuse. And Penelope Pelizzon did it for the last few years, and Sean Forbes is going to be leading it next year. So now they’re getting more into a rotating schedule.

MY: But the students change every year?

CW: Sometimes you’ll have individual students who get in earlier in their college careers and are there for a few years. But most of the time they tend to prefer juniors and seniors.

MY: How long have you been doing it?

CW: This is my first time.

MY: And you’re a junior? Senior?

CW: Senior, yeah.

MY: So first and last time.

CW: Yeah, and it’s been a great experience. I’m the Nonfiction Editor.

MY: Excellent. And can you tell me how much in the journal is actually student work?

CW: We only accept student work, actually. We accept graduate and undergraduate, and there’s really no preference between the two.

MY: This is beautiful! It’s crazy looking—really odd. I love it. So what is your role in the magazine now?

CW: Well, I’m the Creative Nonfiction Editor. I had to lead a panel, and we reviewed all the nonfiction submissions and, as expected, we had the fewest. I think by the end we went through about forty different pieces.

MY: That’s significant, for nonfiction.

CW: Yeah—it was exciting, just kind of managing everyone’s tastes, trying to figure out what an essay is supposed to do. I’m really lucky in that in my first class with Ellen, we went over creative nonfiction, and I got a really great exposure to it there. I actually got published in the last issue, so it’s kind of surreal to be working with the same magazine now. I was thinking about this the other day, because I had to send out the acceptance letters along with some rejection ones.

MY: Cool. So you work with the Design Center, and that’s here at the college?

CW: Yeah. I think it’s led right now by Edvin Yager, he’s their faculty member, but they do a lot of really great work.

MY: So your question is more along the terms of actually starting…something.

CW: Yeah, like—anything, really. Myself, I’m interested in starting a zine this summer, but we’ve talked a lot in class about online magazines, which seem to be getting more prevalent.

MY: So in the class are you talking about doing something different from the LRR?

CW: No, the class hasn’t been talking about it, this is more a question for anyone, really. We’ve been looking at online things because Ellen’s trying to get us exposed to the whole world of little magazines, which is daunting. And I’m trying to figure out what I want to do in there, and I’m sure the more people start to learn about these things—well, they get that bug, like you were saying.

MY: Yeah. Well, it was really helpful for me, when I started the zine, to think about how I would distribute it. It was sort of a funky zine—like a really wacky look, it was never the same and it was really messy, which I think was was exactly what it needed to be. So, giving it to people that I didn’t know, I kinda had to think “Oh, that person seems like they might not be offended if I give it to them.” You know, when handing it out to people, we made an event out of it. My friend who helped work on it would yell stuff, like “Get your free copy!” We’d make a bigger deal out of it than it was, and often I think that’s what makes history. People are always making a bigger deal out of things, like, “me and my friends are doing this thing” and as long as you’re really loud about it, it sounds like it’s important. And if you read someone talking about the Dada group, the people in it are always arguing about who started it first, or who thought of it first, all these avant-garde groups, and then you realize that they’re all just hyping themselves up. And in a sense, that’s what makes them important in history. They constantly publicized themselves as being important. It’s kind of silly, but it does work. In these different fields like teaching, I end up teaching some of our books. And they like it, it’s not like I’m pushing stuff that doesn’t have to do with the content of the course, it’s not like it has no bearing and I’m just like, “You’re assigned to read this UDP book.” So I think all the ways that I’m trying to get this work out into the world, that nexus, is really important. It’s similar to starting a zine, you need to talk about it to people, tell them you’re doing this new thing, ask them if they want to trade. When we started the zine, and later when we started 6×6, we started to trade a lot with other magazines. We’d say, “Hey, we’ll give you a subscription if you give us a subscription.” So we also got to see what was coming out in these other magazines. And then going to fairs and conventions, we’d do a lot of trading with other publishers, who might not have the money to buy your stuff. That’s a really great way to get things going. As far as starting something, Cid Corman, who ran a magazine from the sixties through the eighties, who was really important for American poetry, said something like “your magazine is only as good as its submissions.” So widening that, through correspondence, makes for a much greater pool of writers. And once you start corresponding with people, or trading with other magazines, you’re actually finding an aesthetic unity that shares some ideas. And you’re more likely to get submissions that you like that way, from people that you correspond with, or who are fans of those people, or who you might be trading things with. So yeah, I think when you’re starting a new thing, it’s really important to identify what it is, both visually and content wise, that you want people to know about it. In our case, we actually withheld things. These covers don’t say 6×6 on them, and we didn’t include contributor bios. And at first that seemed like a hurdle, you’re like “who are these people, why am I reading it,” but the real point is that it doesn’t matter who these people are, or why you’re reading it. We’re not coercing you into it. Maybe you looked at the work and you liked it, and that’s why you’re reading it. We’re not going to tell you who the contributors are, where they got an MFA or whatever, we’re not going to explain why they’re together in the journal. We’re not even going to tell you the name of the journal until you open the front cover. And I think, for us, that kind of engaged different ideas about how you could engage someone in a book. Because it has some kind of mystery, or this strange shape, or the strange binding, to us that felt like it was fun to do, just wacky, but more importantly it was a way to say “there’s something different here.” And the cheap price is a way for you to take a chance and not regret it. That posed, again, certain problems. We can’t distribute it through a normal distributor the way you could a perfect-bound magazine with a durable cover, a normal binding, a spine that tells you what the magazine is. Things like that are really important, actually, when you get into the commerce of it. So we had to think about the integrity of it, we had to ask, what is it that we want to do? Do we want to make a magazine that is very prestigious? Do we want a magazine that is very work-focused? Part of the reason we did this is so that each author would get more space. Six pages, instead of two or three, and that someone would get a sense of their work. Also this gives them visual space. A blank page before each section might seem like a waste of space, but each author felt really good about that, like “Whoa, that’s my section. I’m a writer, and that’s my space.” There’s also the idea that you could read the whole thing in a subway ride, it doesn’t take long. We were working against the intimidation factor of a big journal, where there’s a hundred names and you don’t know who to read. I found it that way, at least, especially in contemporary American poetry. I found it daunting, I couldn’t make heads or tails of a journal with hundreds of submissions. How do I read it? Do I go straight through, or pick people based on their bio? Anyway, all those minute decisions are really important. Some magazines start out right away and they get somebody famous to be on the cover. That’s one way to get readership. Think of ways to change the rhythm of how a magazine works, rather than just turning pages. How are they different form each other? Where does the art go, is it integrated or kept to its own sections? There are so many decisions to make, and they all seem to me to come back to what the mission of the work is. If one is to start something like a solo zine, there’s that question of whether you just want to do all the writing yourself. Some people do that and are really successful at it. When you think about the beginnings of the graphic novel, even, like the one, what’s her name, the funeral home? Fun Home?

CW: Allison Bechdel.

MY: Right. That kind of thing starts with a zine, often, with the artist writing and drawing about their personal life. And that’s a really interesting form, and sometimes people subscribe just because they’re interested in that one person’s views on things, critical or autobiographical. I’ve found that the easiest way, and one of the most productive, was just to ask people that I was friends with first, and just work with stuff from them, or someone I knew well enough that I could say “Hey, you’re interesting, write something for this journal, or send me a drawing,” or whatever. Just people I liked, and that way everyone was happy. I would give them copies, and nobody felt weird about it, because I didn’t have to reject anyone. We were just like “Oh, let’s cram this poem in somehow.” It started with just asking people to give us work, and then we tried to do something interesting with the way it was presented, so that they were kind of involved. They could tell people, “oh yeah, my poem was in this cool, kinda wacky thing, check it out.” They’d give it to people, and that proliferates. It’s hard to say what the first thing to do is, but it’s some combination of that kind of thinking around what the object is going to be, how it’s going to stand out, or if it needs to stand out. Sometimes the better decision is to not make it stand out. It depends on the kind of avenue you want to take, what kind of ethos you want to project to the reader, and then where are they going to encounter it. But asking people you know is a really nice way to get started, and then having events and bringing people in, and then people that those people know come to hear about the journal or zine, and then you meet the friends of friends, and those people are your readership, and once you publish them, then their friends are your readership, and then it just grows organically from there.

CW: So, a steady world domination.

MY: Until you’ve covered the whole world through this pyramid scheme.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor

An interview with novelist and short story writer Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg is a short story writer and novelist known for her collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, as well as her debut novel Find Me, which was listed as a “Best of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.

Portrait of the author (Taken from the UConn Creative Writing Program Facebook).

Portrait of the author (Used with her permission).

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2015, while I was in a creative writing class with that had read and reviewed Find Me. Meeting the author of a book you’ve been poring over is always surreal, but on top of that I had been selected to have a one-on-one tutoring session with Laura van den Berg. Part of the deal was that I would also attend a dinner with her, and at that dinner my professor (who is also the Associate Director of Creative Writing) prodded me to ask for this interview. She had mentioned it months ago, but I thought it was just a nice idea, not something that would actually happen. I suddenly regretted wearing a shirt I was only 80% sure no one could tell was stained. I hesitantly asked, and although Ms. van den Berg looked at me curiously, she almost immediately said yes, she’d love to sit for an interview. We met the next day, after the tutoring session, and it was clear I had never interviewed anyone before. She was at ease, however, joking around and giving me some advice before we started. Much later, long after the interview had been completed and she had flown back home, I found out that it is customary to arrange interviews at least a month in advance, usually through an agent, and this only heightened my sense of gratitude for her graciousness.

Carleton Whaley: You mentioned at your reading last night that you only started writing in college, which is admittedly a lot later than some. Can you say how this has affected you, what kind of place it’s put you in?

Laura van den Berg: Just to clarify, you mean how has it affected me to start writing later?

CW: What I mean is, do you think it puts you in a different mindset than other authors?

LB: I actually think that’s an incredibly interesting question, I don’t know if I have a great answer for it. Every writer has their own trajectory, so like I mentioned at the reading last night, if you asked the same question to twenty different authors, you’d get twenty different answers. I know some writers who were writing when they were practically toddlers, and some who didn’t start writing until they were in their 40s. I find that the trajectories can be so incredibly varied, that to me my path doesn’t seem like a particularly strange one. Starting to write in college is still relatively early. It’s not like waiting until middle age and then starting to write. I think for me the bigger divide is actually my reading life. Not only was I not writing as a younger person, I wasn’t reading either. I think that one of the consequences of that is that it was something I was very self-conscious about. I know that everyone has gaps in their reading, but I knew mine were a lot greater than most people’s. So when I was in graduate school I felt, appropriately, that I had a lot of catching up to do. There’s a self-consciousness around that, but also it was really good, because I was super motivated not only to do as much of my own work as I could, I was also motivated to read read read read read. Poetry, nonfiction, fiction, story collections, novels; I just wanted to know. Another thing, and this is something I’ve started to think of more recently, I have met some writers who I think books and literature were a kind of solace and safe place as children, and who really had that experience of disappearing into books as kids. You talk to them and you can sort of tell that the majority of their energy put into the world, as a person, is sort of directed toward that imagined sphere. Not having that until I was a young adult, I think I’m very aware of the larger world. And I don’t mean the larger world in some grand way, but I’m not someone who thinks—I mean, being a writer is a crucial part of my identity, and I think I would become undone if I couldn’t write, and certainly if I couldn’t read, but I’m not someone who thinks that what you put on the page is the only thing that matters. I want to have contact with the physical world and sort of cultivate a meaningful lived life alongside a meaningful writing life.

CW: That’s really interesting, because something I noticed while reading Find Me was that as much as a lot of the book is in Joy’s mind, there’s this sense that the geography around her is so important to the structure. I’ve been trying to figure it out, actually.

LB: Yeah, and this came up a little bit last night. I feel that growing up in Florida, with such a pronounced sense of place, place is so important to me. Even if it isn’t named, it’s physical and it’s pronounced. I was thinking in Find Me, specifically, especially in the two different parts, apart from the basic differences in plot, the aspiration was in part to create a world that was more closed, cloistered, and isolated, both psychologically and literally. Even in the pallet in Part One there’s a lot of silver and white and gray, sort of monotone, and you’re in the Midwest, which is of course landlocked. Also I think that it’s nodding more to genre in more explicit ways, in terms of the genre of dystopia and even that of horror—you know, you have this hospital where malevolent things might be happening. And the intention in Part Two was more to disrupt and challenge some of what had been built in the first part. You now, they were designed to oppose each other in some respects. I think you get this sort of looseness in the second part in terms of plot and also Joy’s voice. She gets angrier, and there’s more color. But to get back to your question about geography, they’re also moving toward the coast, toward water, and for me that has some more openness to it in terms of psychological connotations. Winter is fading, and they’re moving to a place of warmth. The idea of starting in a landlocked placed and moving toward the sort of warm, coastal edge felt to me like an important part of Joy’s trajectory.

CW: Having finished it recently, and just hearing that—it just makes so much sense. And you talking about genre brings me to another question. Some of the criticism that I’ve seen of Find Me has been from people who sort of qualify themselves by saying how well they know dystopian fiction. Their comments range from people saying your book doesn’t line up with the genre to people saying, paradoxically, that it’s just another dystopian novel. I guess I’m just wondering; how would you answer that?

LB: It’s been really interesting to see the divide between review coverage. Between reader reviews on sites like Goodreads, for example, versus paper and magazine reviews. I got one very bad review, and everyone gets a bad review, from NPR, who did not like it at all. I mean, it was a really odd book in a lot of ways, so I had no idea what people would think of it, and what reviewers would think of it, so I was really excited and relieved to see that by and large the review coverage was really positive. It even made me think about the book in new ways—it wasn’t just dumbly positive reviews. Anyway, a lot of the conversation around the novel was very gratifying in that regard. And so with Goodreads reviews, if you sort of line up reader reviews next to critic reviews, you’d see that the reader reviews are much more critical. I think you find that one of the tricky things about writing a book that seems like it has a sort of genre premise is that it pulls in people who normally read in that genre, people who think “Oh, I love science fiction,” or, “I love dystopias.” And in my case, it’s not that. The book is more about Joy’s strange, sometimes violent trajectory through the world. It’s not really a dystopian novel in the traditional sense of the word, in that the dystopia sort of fades into the backdrop. And I think that’s actually a common thing. The good thing is that having a book that appears to belong to a genre, but doesn’t, can pull in readers to your work that wouldn’t normally read it, or might not have seen it otherwise. And if they connect, that’s amazing. But it can also pull readers to your work who are hoping for your book to be something that it just is not. People who come to my book hoping for an engrossing, labyrinthine science fiction plot are gonna be super disappointed. Someone who comes to it with a contagion-esque or epidemic standpoint, looking for what would actually happen during an epidemic or crisis, is gonna be disappointed. Anyone who goes to Threats for a Gone Girl-esque book, where everything is tied up in this amazing way at the end, is gonna be super disappointed. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily my job to respond to criticism, whether it’s from a professional critic or a reader. I think anyone who connects to the book, who connects to the world, who connects to Joy, is the right reader. You can’t write for every reader. I’m glad you got it, I’m glad you read it, it’s obviously still good for my book sales, and I’m glad you gave it a try. It just wasn’t for you, and that’s ok.

CW: I think that’s a really great way to look at it, without getting too emotional. I mean, I was reading the criticism and I was getting mad, so…

LB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I think sometimes you see the divide there, on Goodreads, and Amazon too, but I think people who review on Goodreads do it more and get really into it. It’s very interesting to see the divide between books that do well critically and books that do well—I mean, there are books that appeal to both professional critics and readers, so it’s not to say that books are one or the other, but there are definitely some that critics will love, and they’ll say “this is the best/most innovative thing ever” and readers will say “this is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever encountered.” So I think it’s more that people who review books for a living are used to reading a certain kind of fiction, like people who review more experimental fiction are used to reading experimental fiction. And then someone reads a review in the New York Times and they see this review for this kind of fiction they’ve never read before, and they read it and think “this is not at all what I was expecting!” I think the easy thing for writers is to just be really snobby about things like Goodreads, and just say “Well, they’re just a bunch of idiots,” and I don’t really like that. I think anytime literature elicits an impassioned response from someone, even if it’s a negative response, I think that’s ultimately not so bad.

CW: I definitely understand. So, this is back to starting out, who were the first people you gravitated toward, as far as literary influences? And would you say those have remained somewhat constant, or have you drifted?

LB: Well, I didn’t know anything about fiction, or contemporary fiction, so I just read whatever my professor handed to me. Some early people, for sure, were Amy Hempel, you know her story “In the Cemetery Where Al Johnson’s Buried,” is still one of my favorite contemporary short stories; Laurie Moor was a big one; Charles Baxter; Richard Bausch; Alice Munro; Edward P. Jones, a lot of people we would consider to be contemporary classics in short fiction; Jim Shepard, you know, the contemporary canon for short fiction, and so that was my reading life for a long time. But there were two big turning points for me after that. The first is when I started reading things that were departing from realism. Things that you’d call magical realist, or fabulist. And also people who approached realism in very different ways. You know, Joy Williams is one of my favorite living writers, and most of her work is in more or less of a realist vein, but often feels very surreal, so it’s like her realism feels very different from Richard Ford, who I also love. His collection, Rock Springs, is really amazing. Flannery O’Connor is a really great one too. But definitely reading people who were departing from realism was just really exciting for my brain. And then the second point was reading, or learning to read, a lot of literature in translation. One of the most important classes I took while in grad school was a class in the contemporary French novel, and it was just a totally different vision of how the novel could operate. It opened up all these avenues of structure.

CW: You’re starting your new novel, right?

LB: Yeah!

CW: Do you have a go-to process for coming up with ideas, or are there certain habits you fall into when creating new work?

LB: I don’t have too many novel ideas, and I’m sure you’re like, “You just finished your novel and you’re already working on a new one, so that’s not quite accurate,” but actually this new one grew out of a short story I wrote a few years ago. In the summer of 2012, I wanted to continue along with the characters, which hardly ever happens with me and short stories, but I just had that impulse. So I just wrote a really messy draft of a novel, and then I put it away. And then I sold my second story collection, and Find Me, so I needed to work on those books and sort of go through the publication process. But I was interested to see what would happen when I put it away: would I just forget about it? Or would it stay with me? And it did. I found that I was longing to go back to it, but having the time to think about it was really helpful, because I found that I couldn’t just continue with the story. I had to keep the characters and the place, but chuck everything else. I thought about it all the time, and finally in the fall of 2014, I think, I did go back to it in a really serious way. And I’ve written some short stories in the interim, but that’s pretty much what I’ve been working on since.

CW: We talked a bit about this at the reading, but do you find generating ideas for short stories easier?

LB: I don’t really think in terms of generating. It will be interesting, because I think after this novel it will be a while before I write another novel, because I don’t have a single, solitary novel idea, or even close. Not even vibrating on the outskirts. So I’ll have to see if I’m more proactive about generating story ideas. I think I sort of only want to work on something if I feel compelled in that direction. And I don’t mean “it comes to me” like the Muse visits, but I think I’m waiting for those moments where I see, hear, or feel something that really catches my attention in a particular way. And I think that’s where ideas come from. It’s not so much me sitting down and thinking “well, what if I wrote a story about this, or a story about this,” it’s more about really trying to be attuned to the world, and seeing what comes back.

CW: I think that’s really interesting, because I’m constantly having ideas and trying to write them down, but I don’t stick with it.

LB: Yeah, and I know a bunch of writers who are very conscious in giving themselves assignments and exercises to get at new ideas, so everyone is very different in that way.

CW: So, Salon Magazine—and I’m sure you get this all the time—Salon Magazine called you “the best young writer in America.” What was it like to hear that?

LB: I mean, it was very kind, and it was the day before Find Me came out, so it was very exciting. And obviously it’s a great joy, a great privilege to put a book out into the world, but you know you’re nervous too, so that comment would have meant a lot to me in any context, but particularly right before the book came out. At the same time, it’s not something I would take literally, and I would not suggest anyone else take it literally either. There are about 200 people I would put ahead of myself. And certainly, when you put something online you’re thinking, “What will encourage people to click this link?” and “Best Young Writer in America” encourages more than “Interview with Debut Author.”  So I don’t know if Salon meant it to be taken literally either. But it was great for the book, and it was exciting, but I wouldn’t for a moment internalize it at all. The one downside, and it’s not a real downside (this is like the world’s smallest violin territory), but it definitely does invite people to say (like on Goodreads) “This is definitely not the best young writer in America.” Which is kinda funny. So it’s interesting to see how it really does bring out that contrarian response. As soon as you say “this is the best” their inclination is to demonstrate how it is, in fact, not the best.

CW: Do you think that since then there’s been more pressure? I mean, I’m just imagining myself in that situation, and I don’t deal with pressure well, so—

LB: Well, I mean, there wasn’t any pressure because the book had already been written and published, so you can’t do anything to it after that. Your job is essentially over, so I was doing the book tour and readings, and chances are that wasn’t going to impact the book’s life in a really significant way. So then it was just in the hands of the gods, you know what I mean? And you don’t know where it’s going to be reviewed, or how people will review it, and there’s not a blessed thing you can do to control that either. So I think there wasn’t a lot of pressure, because the part of the process you can control is over.

CW: Is that title something that pops up still? That was earlier this year.

LB: Yeah, publishing is funny because it has a very short memory. It feels like it was a while ago, but it was only in February, like, it was this year, it’s not like it was three years ago or something, but it feels at once very recent and very, very far. It comes up, it’s something that people ask me about, because it was such a bold statement, and people wanted to know what its impact was.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.

The Writer and Rejection

Hey, LRR readers/writers!

 

Those of you that submitted to the Long River Review this year may be wondering what’s going on with submissions. Well, the deadline has come and gone, so the panels are working on making their selections.

 

To those of you that will end up getting published this year, CONGRATS! But I actually want to spend some time today congratulating all of the writers that submitted and will not be getting published.

 

If you eventually get a rejection note in your email, remember this scrap of wisdom, imparted to me by one of my personal gurus, Jack Canfield: the average millionaire in America has gone bankrupt 3.5 times. I know, probably none of you are millionaires, but I bring this up because our professor in the Long River Review class said something similar this week: the best writers she knows are the ones that have been rejected the most.

 

I know that probably sounds like a consolation prize, but I’m telling you this as someone who submitted about a bajillion different pieces to the Creative Writing contests and heard my own fellow panelists rate some of my dearest poems with a 1. Ouch. Seriously, though, this is what a writer needs. Rick Bass said it beautifully in his essay “When to Keep It Simple” (published in Tin House’s The Writer’s Notebook):

One of the best things that can happen to a writer is for him or her to feel that he or she is not being heard. One of the worst things that can happen to a writer is for him or her to believe that his or her every utterance will be heard–that there are throngs, in fact, waiting for those next utterances.”

 

If you never get constructive criticism, you can never improve. And if you’re really in it to win it, you will want to improve more than anything, if that means it will one day get you published. It hurts for me to hear that what I think of as my best pieces aren’t that great. But if it’s true, then that’s what I need to hear. My dearest wish is to get published big-time one of these days, and I’ll achieve that goal if it’s the last thing I do. What I’ve recently come to realize is that it doesn’t matter if my ego has to take a serious beating between now and then, because I starve for it, and I will tear my work apart and stitch it back together again a million times if that’s what it takes. To become truly great, you’re going to have to humble yourself– and you’re going to have to collect your fair share of rejection letters.

 

On that note, I’d like to forward some great wisdom along from a some other writers. My Creative Writing professor shared this fantastic interview with George Saunders in class the other day. My favorite part is the fourth question Ward asks Saunders, and the reply.   In this exchange we discover that even George Saunders needs feedback and constructive criticism. I personally find this to be very encouraging news: George Saunders has four published books of short stories, and his work has been published in The New Yorker. If he still needs constructive criticism, I think it’s safe to say that all of us always will.

 

Similarly, as I poked around some other literary blogs, I found this thought-provoking article from Bill Morris over at The Millions. He explores the topic of whether writers can ever really retire, and he has some really interesting insights into the topic. At one point he asserts that you aren’t really a writer if you don’t feel compelled to write every day.

 

I personally agree with this, though perhaps not absolutely. I have occasionally had days where I never once picked up a pen (strange as those days always are), but I’ve been keeping a diary for nearly ten years. And yes, when I say ‘keeping a diary,’ I DO mean writing an entry every single day. I actually took a hiatus this winter because writing an entry every day was beginning to feel like a chore, which is something I never want it to be. Taking a break felt so good that I wondered sadly if my diary-keeping days were over. But then, after about a month, I noticed an itch starting to build up deep down inside in a hidden, unreachable place like that spot between your shoulder blades; I recognized it eventually as the itch to get back to writing. When I finally did, it felt like showering after a week without hot water. That’s one of the signs, I think: writers have this burning need to get it all out, to put it down on paper. It doesn’t really even matter whether what comes out

is pure gold or toxic sludge- it just has to come out. And I’m pretty sure we’ve all been there: to the toxic sludge pit on some days, and to the gold mine on others.

 

That’s what a good writer needs: your ego should take a good beating every now and again, like when you got a bit cocky and mistook some of your toxic sludge for a gold nugget. But I swear, with enough polishing and enough critiques, you’ll find gold in there somewhere, even if it’s only a flake. Keep polishing, and don’t give up hope, because remember– if you’ve been rejected (perhaps for the hundredth time), you’re well on your way!