Letter from the Poetry Editor

Letter from the Poetry Editor: Courtney BambrickCourtney Bambrick

Each year, Philadelphia Stories celebrates the memory of poet Sandy Crimmins whose poem “Spring” appeared in our first issue. Sandy served on the Philadelphia Stories poetry board until 2007, and her influence on the magazine has been felt ever since. We use the prize named for her to celebrate risk and innovation in poetry. This year’s Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry was judged by poet Iain Haley Pollock, author of Ghost, like a Place and Spit Back a Boy. Many of the poems we sent him raise important questions and give voice to unsettled feelings. Pollock says that, “[W]e live in an exciting, efflorescent time in the history of American poetry.” We can see that flowering in the poems listed below. Pollock continues:

These poems explore diverse subjects—the lonely offices of grief, the deterioration of our public discourse, the cruel legacies of our national history, the triumphant possibilities of migration, the wistful complications of eros, and the sustaining inheritances of family.  But no matter the subject the unflinching clarity of each poet’s vision and the precision of each poet’s images tap into a deep well of emotion.  The pleasures of these poems are not easy but lie in knowing that out there other humans wrestle to make sense of the intractable world around them and perhaps even find within it cause for hard-won celebration. 

The winner of this year’s Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry winds itself in the conflicting but complementary threads of care and fear. Vigilance is exhausting but necessary, “Milk Sickness: A Mother Worries as Her Children Sleep” by Kari Ann Ebert seems to tell us. About the winning poem, Pollock writes:

We become “milk sick” when we drink milk from a cow that has grazed on poisonous plants.  In “Milk Sickness: A Mother Worries as Her Children Sleep,” Kari Ann Ebert makes this condition a metaphor for maternal apprehension.  The poison here is ophidian as snakes menace a pail of milk, “swim in sacrifice,” in that part of the body a mother gives up that her children might live.  As with many parents, having children has expanded the speaker’s capacity for love and also her capacity for fear.  As the speaker’s dread deepens, Ebert overlays a deft sonic network, heightening the poem’s emotions. In the end, the snakes’ movement and attendant noise become, as does fear, so encompassing that relief from them seems manufactured or illicit—“like stolen butter.”  All in all, with an expert command of sound and image, Ebert captures how fear, especially maternal fear, acts on us and threatens to overwhelm us in the “opaque” hours of our lives.

Philadelphia Stories thanks Joe Sullivan for his support of this contest and his enduring friendship with Philadelphia Stories. We also thank Nicole Mancuso, contest coordinator and assistant poetry editor for her solid and consistent energy. We thank  Yalonda Rice, managing editor, for her flexibility and patience. Mostly, we thank the poets who generously share their work with us and we encourage local writers to continue to do so throughout the year.

 

WINNER OF THE 2020 SANDY CRIMMINS NATIONAL PRIZE IN POETRY ($1000)

“Milk Sickness: A Mother Worries as Her Children Sleep,” Kari Ann Ebert (Dover, DE)

 

RUNNERS UP ($250 each)

“Feeding My Father Pudding While Watching Bonanza,”Chad Frame (Lansdale, PA)

“Lukens Steel, Coatesville, Pennsylvania,” Kyle Carrozza (Coatesville, PA)

“How to Ride a Train in the Andes,” Lupita Eyde-Tucker (Palm Bay, FL)

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

“On Wassily Kandinsky’s Painting, ‘Little Painting in Yellow,’” Kathleen Shaw (Schwenksville, PA)

“Mother Explains,” Jane Miller (Wilmington, DE)

“Matthew,” Chad Frame (Lansdale, PA)

 

EDITOR’S CHOICES (Please view at PhiladelphiaStories.org)

“Lightbearers,” Tyler Dunstan (New York, NY)

“On the Solitary Death of Uncle Mike,” Sean Webb (Philadelphia, PA)

 

FINALISTS

“Inventory,” Cindy Ok (Iowa City, IA)

“The Others,” Ginny Pina (Wayne, PA)

“Darlings,” Dana Jaye Cadman (Mineola, NY)

“Heirloom,” Michelle Flores (Jacksonville, FL)

“What a Mother Lays on Her Son,” Jane Miller (Wilmington, DE)

“CDG,” Tyler Dunstan (New York, NY)

“Smoking Shelter,” Chad Frame (Lansdale, PA)

“That Long Haul,” Mary Finnegan (Philadelphia, PA)

“Ode to la Conquista” Lupita Eyde-Tucker (Palm Bay, FL)

“A Herringbone Pattern of Tiny Iowas,” Sean Webb (Philadelphia, PA)

 

Community & Tradition in There, There

There There image

The annual collaboration between Philadelphia Stories and One Book, One Philadelphia celebrates the symbiotic relationship between reading and creating. When we read we gain grist for the mill that produces new work. We find connections between our experiences and those of another.

This issue of PS holds iterations of the themes of community and tradition found in Tommy Orange’s novel, There There, the 2020 One Book, One Philadelphia featured selection. One Book is a Free Library program that fosters citywide civic dialogue by encouraging everyone in Philadelphia to read the same novel—you can find a copy of There There at any neighborhood library, and from January to March, attend one of dozens of discussions and programs diving into the book. Talk about why it knocked you down, talk about what surprised you, talk about what you found difficult—just talk about it. And listen about it.

A Cheyenne-Arapaho novelist, Tommy Orange writes polyphonically in the voices of 12 Native characters living in present day Oakland, California. Their communities in many ways are fractured, split open by the U.S. government’s historical violence against Indigenous peoples. The modern impacts of the campaign to erase the original inhabitants of this land, including choking resources and attempting to ban religious and cultural traditions, echo throughout the characters’ lives.

And yet the message of Tommy Orange’s novel is crystalline. His characters say: we are still here. Across the gentrified city of Oakland, they find one another. They tell their stories. They drop deep, deep into themselves to find the traditions that have been passed down to them, and they live. They live in ways that are new and complex and digital and ancient and together.

This book evokes big questions about community and tradition: how do they stay alive in the face of violence? How do they evolve over time, and how are they perceived by others? How are legacy and inheritance—learning about one’s own community traditions—a privilege? How do history and the present interact?

I imagine those questions are different for each person, depending on who their community is and what its traditions are. I’m excited for the responses that unfold through the pages of this magazine, with each writer and artist contributing their own sense of belonging and of what has been passed on to them, what they want to pass on.

Brittanie Sterner
Director of Programming, One Book, One Philadelphia
The Free Library of Philadelphia


Philadelphia Stories Winter Issue Launch: Community & Traditions
Monday, February 24, 5:30 p.m. exhibition opens, 6:00 p.m. reading
Walnut Street West Library, 201 S. 40th St., 215-685-7671

Celebrate the launch of the One Book–themed issue of Philadelphia Stories magazine with readings by local writers and a pop-up show of visual works featured in the issue.

Philadelphia Stories celebrates its 15th anniversary with a live auction, art exhibit, and book release

PS_15th_Anniversary_Artwork_WEBPHILADELPHIA,  September 9, 2019Philadelphia Stories celebrates its 15th anniversary with a gala event at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts (439 Ashbourne Road, Cheltenham, PA) on Saturday, November 16, 2019, from 7-10pm. The festivities will include a cocktail reception, live auction, art opening, and the release of The Best of Philadelphia Stories, 15th Anniversary Edition anthology.

Philadelphia Stories, co-founded by Carla Spataro and Christine Weiser in 2004, began with the mission to publish the finest literary fiction, poetry, essays, and art from the Delaware Valley, and to make the quarterly magazine available for free. Since its inception, the non-profit organization has expanded its programs to include two national contests, a magazine for young writers, and a books division.

“We are grateful to the amazing writers and artists who have shared their work in our magazine over the past 15 years,” says Philadelphia Stories Executive Director Christine Weiser. “It is an honor to showcase the talent of the Delaware Valley in Philadelphia Stories and share their work with 5,000 readers each quarter. It is also an honor to have the support of our member community who help keep the magazine in print and free.”

“When I came across the issue of Philadelphia Stories that contained my piece in my local Delaware County library,” writes author Nancy Farrell, “the joy I experienced was immeasurable. Philadelphia Stories sparks the imagination of the public, likely inspiring its readers to pick up a pen or a paint brush. Philadelphia Stories is a special publication, and what exists within its pages is magical.”

The 15th Anniversary Party will celebrate fifteen years of writing with the launch of The Best of Philadelphia Stories, 15th Anniversary Edition.

The 15th Anniversary Celebration will also be the opening of the art exhibit, The Philadelphia Stories 15th Anniversary Art Exhibition, a unique collaboration of local artists celebrating 15 years of publishing the work of local artists. The public opening of the exhibit will take place on Saturday, November 16, 2019, and runs through December 5, 2019 at the Cheltenham Center for the Arts.

“Previously published as an artist in Philadelphia Stories myself, it has been my honor to serve the magazine as Art Editor and to now curate the exhibit commemorating its 15th anniversary,” says Pam McLean-Parker. “In celebration of this anniversary, Philadelphia Stories will feature a selection of the original artwork published over the last five years in a three-week exhibit at Cheltenham Center for the Arts this fall. Our Invitational Exhibition will include much of the artwork published in Philadelphia Stories between Winter 2015 and Fall 2019, during which time, Philadelphia Stories has published 156 visual works by nearly one hundred artists from throughout the Delaware Valley! The Philadelphia Stories 15th Anniversary Art Exhibition promises to be the most significant invitational group art exhibit in the Philadelphia Area this fall!”

The 15th Anniversary Party will include an online and live auction that will benefit Philadelphia Stories’ mission to “cultivate a community of writers, artists, and readers.” Tickets for the celebration are $40 per person in advance and $45 at the door. Click here to reserve your ticket.

For more details, please visit www.PhiladelphiaStories.org.


About Philadelphia Stories

Philadelphia Stories is a 501c3 that has served the writing, reading, and art community of the Greater Delaware Valley since 2004. Co-founders Carla Spataro and Christine Weiser began Philadelphia Stories to promote the culture of the Philadelphia area. Since that time, Philadelphia Stories has supported its mission to build a Philadelphia-based community of writers, artists, and readers through the free magazine and affordable educational programs and events, including sponsoring national poetry and fiction awards and publishing Philadelphia Stories Junior and PS Teen, magazines devoted to publishing the writing and art of children from the Delaware Valley, ages 18 and younger.

 

About the Cheltenham Center for the Arts
In 1940, Gladys Wagner, Tobeleah Wechsler, and Helen Foster founded the Cheltenham Center for the Arts with the goal of building a supportive community “for people to work together and talk together about art.” The Cheltenham Center for the Arts is dedicated to making the arts an integral part of people’s lives, as well as supporting the artists who live and work in the vicinity. The Center offers inspiring instruction and programming that both meets the interests, and broadens the horizons of our community.

Sing, Philadelphia, Sing

Sing, Philadelphia, Sing

Philadelphia One Book

By Brittanie Sterner, Director of Programming, One Book, One Philadelphia

Hello! This gorgeous issue marks the second collaboration between Philadelphia Stories and the Free Library’s annual One Book, One Philadelphia program.

Last year, writers and artists submitted pieces exploring the theme of “music” that runs throughout the 2018 One Book featured selection, Another Brooklyn. That issue came into being as a chorus of voices in concert with one another, bound with the cover image of a painting of a saxophonist in Rittenhouse Square.

This year, with (we hope!) all of Philadelphia reading the 2019 featured One Book selection Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, PS put out a call for work that illustrates and expounds upon the theme of “journeys” found in Ward’s novel.

In Sing, Unburied, Sing, a family is taking a road-trip north from their Gulf Coast farm through Mississippi, toward the notorious state penitentiary. As they’re met with the danger and difficulty of the present, they encounter a ghost of the prison’s past, and their journey goes beyond the geography of the South to cross time and generations. In this lyrical and layered 2017 National Book Award winner, Ward also draws on the framework of classic journeys such as The Odyssey and Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.

In the pages of this magazine are stories of all sorts of journeys. These are a few of the many threads in a larger conversation about Sing, Unburied, Sing taking place across the city and exploring other themes in the book, including mass incarceration, whole-family wellness, and the natural world.

For the past 17 years, One Book, One Philadelphia has sought to bring folks of all backgrounds together through reading and discussing a single book. From January 16 to March 13, 2019, more than 125 One Book programs will encourage dialogue citywide—including panel discussions, film screenings, arts workshops for all ages, performances, and more—starting with a live discussion featuring Sing, Unburied, Sing author Jesmyn Ward and WURD President and CEO Sara Lomax-Reese at the One Book Kickoff event on January 16 (Parkway Central Library, 7:30 p.m.).  For a full calendar of events, visit freelibrary.org/onebook.

Philadelphia Stories and One Book share a cornerstone in our missions to cultivate accessibility and community for readers and writers. Endless gratitude goes to the PS editors and staff working to shine light on local talent, and to the featured writers and artists for their voices.

We hope you enjoy reading this amazing issue, as well as Sing, Unburied, Sing, both of which you can find at the Free Library’s 54 locations throughout Philadelphia.


Philadelphia Stories Winter 2019 Issue Launch and Art Opening

Wednesday, February 13
5:30 p.m. reception and art opening; 6:30 p.m. reading

Philadelphia City Institute, 1905 Locust Street

Join us to learn more about One Book, One Philadelphia and celebrate the launch of the winter 2019 issue of Philadelphia Stories, with readings and artwork exploring the theme of “journeys,” on February 23. The art exhibition will be open for viewing at select times at Philadelphia City Institute from February 4 to February 28. Please inquire at the reference desk for details.

 

Some Thoughts on the Fickleness of Publishing

Some Thoughts on the Fickleness of Publishing

By Carla Spataro, Editorial Director, Philadelphia Stories & PS Books

Every year I have the honor of choosing the finalists for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction. I’ve been doing this as long as we’ve been running the contest, and despite the fact that it always seems to fall during my vacation, it’s something that I always look forward to. If nothing else, it is a purposeful reminder of how capricious the publishing process is.

I usually get a lengthy list of stories to read. Sometimes it’s as few as 60, this year there were 130 semi-finalists, plus the additional 25 that I screened in the first round. What’s important for writers to remember is that in these kinds of situations, the reader is not looking to give you the benefit of the doubt. They’re looking for reasons to reject you. Nothing makes me happier than to open a story that is not formatted as required. I get to reject that piece without having to read it at all. There were 14 such stories this year. Were they any good? I don’t know. I didn’t read them.

I know there are authors out there that think these kinds of things don’t matter, that an editor, or agent, or contest judge will make an exception for them, because their work is so good. I think most of us wish we had that kind of time to be generous, but when I have two weeks to pick 10 stories, and I have 130 of them to read, I’m looking for any reason to tick them off my list. Most of the stories were rejected because they failed to engage me on the first page. Many of them felt like a story I had read before, or there were grammar mistakes, or poor punctuation. Others tried to cram too much up front, while others were thinly veiled (or at least felt like) fictionalized versions of author’s childhood, full of wistful nostalgia, but not much else.

One thing I want to make very clear. There were more than 10 stories that I could have sent to our judge, Dan Chaon. The finalist list changed several times and there were a few stories that I immediately fell in love with. Stories that are so odd, or fresh, or beautifully written, (usually all three) I’m sure the judge will choose them as winners. Then there is another, much larger group that I can’t quite make up my mind about. Then I start to look at the list as a group. This year there were a lot of stories about teenaged girls coming of age somehow—all in painfully odd, fresh, beautifully written ways. They had to be, since this is not necessarily the kind of story that I gravitate toward. Perhaps my attraction reflected the current political and social environment that we’re all slogging our way through these days. Who knows? But I asked myself, do I really want to send Dan a whole list of stories like this? What about these other stories? They’re really good too! So, I made some adjustments and included the 10 stories you see listed here. Two of those stories ended up in the winner’s column. But there’s no reason to believe the others might not have, too.

The longer I do this, from both sides, as an editor and a writer, the more I understand that what really counts is perseverance—believing in your work enough to keep sending it out. You never know when something you’ve written will strike just the right chord with an editor.

I hope that you enjoy reading this year’s winners as much as I did. One author had two stories make the cut—a first for us. And another first was a husband and wife both making the final batch. Here are few comments from our judge Dan Chaon about each of the winning stories:

  1. “Leslie” is a lovely and understated story that reminded me a bit of the great Ann Beattie.  I was struck by the intriguing dramatic premise, and impressed by the finely calibrated, vivid scenes.  There’s a tenderness in the characterization, a generosity of spirit that moved me.

 

  1. “Sugar Mountain” The complex, dark power struggle between two step-sisters is beautifully rendered, and the author does a wonderful job imbuing even the most quotidian scenes with a sinister tension.

 

  1. “Windmills, the Boys” This strange, haunting gothic piece is made particularly memorable by its unique, poetic language and quirky use of point of view.

 

2018 FINALISTS (No particular order)

The Hibernators 

Jaime Netzer

Austin, TX

 

Work On Your Personality and 

Faceless Styrofoam Heads 

Holly Pekowsky

New York, NY
The Burning of New London 

Brendan Egan

Midland, TX

 

Kiss Me Honey and Let’s Go to the Show 

Mojie Crigler

Cambridge, MA

 

Buddha 

Ilene Raymond Rush

Elkins Park, PA

 

Stick a Needle 

James Pihakis

North Adams, MA

 

 

The Writing Prompt

A little known fact, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was inspired by a writing prompt suggested during his Thursday evening writing group at the Moscow library. The prompt: “write a story that ends with a suicide via railway. Make vocab twelfth grade reading level and use numerous flashbacks, a minimum of one blizzard, and two characters with names ending in ‘nina.'”

I confess a certain snobby, literary disdain for the idea of writing prompts, as if a real writer wouldn’t need manufactured inspiration from the exercise section of a how-to writing book.  A real writer wouldn’t enter the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest for worst first sentence similar to “it was a dark and stormy night.” And yet, the truth is that I’ve had personal success using writing prompts. One of my grad classes at Penn required us to write a story in the form of an advice column. My story (and others) found publication in volume based on this idea (Prompted). Without that very specific nudge, I never would have written the piece, or probably even conceived of the format.

I’ve also found that when I teach writing, students often respond with creative work that dazzles based on some basic constraints (examples: giving students a startling first line of dialogue, asking them to base a story on a single painting, writing exercises that start with “I remember the first time I…”). Most students seem to thrive on some level of prompting, rather than facing an entirely blank page and carte blanche to write whatever they want.

My hesitation to suggest that you use writing prompts to get started comes from some bad writing prompts I’ve seen. This one, for example: “Suddenly, she discovered…” To me, that prompt sets the writer up for a fatal first sentence that places the climax at the beginning of the story, rather than near the end. It also sets the writer up for some bad first ideas. “Suddenly, she discovered she was a dog. Suddenly, she discovered, she was on Mars. Suddenly, she discovered she didn’t want to marry Bob.” And yet…One of my favorite short stories by Amy Bloom, “Love is Not a Pie” begins very similarly: “In the middle of the eulogy at my mother’s boring and heartbreaking funeral, I began to think about calling off the wedding. August 21 did not seem like a good date, John Wescott did not seem like a good person to marry, and I couldn’t see myself in the long white silk gown Mrs. Wescott had offered me.”

In addition, there are a number of writing contests that use writing prompts/constraints as formats for submissions. NPR used to do an excellent fiction contest called “Three Minute Fiction” that would give writers a first line to start with, and the constraint that you had to tell a complete story in under 600 words (something that can be read in under three minutes). I never won any of those contests, but I tried them every time. There’s a recent contest by Owl Canyon Press that dictates the first and last paragraph of a story, asking the writer to fill in the 48 paragraphs in between to create the story. I started that challenge on a day when my brain wasn’t giving me much else, and the trickiness of trying to weave in the first details with the last details in mind felt exhilarating, like figuring out a difficult crossword puzzle. In the meantime, a story started to take shape and I was able to get my word count done for the day. They are out there, those rogue writing prompts, and they are often associated with other constraints, including a deadline to finish.

There is a part of me that still resists this idea of prompts because it feels like I’m cheating somehow by not coming up with my own fuel. But the truth is, it’s sometimes hard to jump-start the creative mind, and so anything that moves you forward—first lines, last lines, deadlines—has value. The goal each day is to put words on the page, and so I suggest that if you, like Tolstoy, find you’re getting the work done by starting with “Suddenly, she found herself on the train tracks…” then by all means, jump in.

A Letter to the Philadelphia Stories Readers

Dear Philadelphia Stories readers,

I’m thrilled to announce that I’m joining the Philadelphia Stories team as the new Creative Nonfiction Editor. Susette Brooks, my predecessor, has moved to Baltimore for a job opportunity. Though we will miss her at Philadelphia Stories, we also know that we’ll be hearing great news about her writing career in the future. Please join me in wishing her every success.

Susette sought innovative styles and subject matter in her submission choices, and I hope to build upon the solid foundation she’s established by expanding the scope of our CNF selections. As the first child born in the U.S. to Cuban refugees in Germantown, and having resided for many years in Center City and South Philly, I know this is a city bursting with true stories from real people of radically different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. What better place to share your writing than here at Philadelphia Stories?

If you would like to submit your essay, short memoir, or narrative nonfiction, please review the submission guidelines on our website carefully. Please consider the “universal” quality of your submission. Creative nonfiction’s greatest challenge lies in the organization of distinct and sometimes disparate events, details, and thoughts, culled from the enormity and complexity of lived experience that illuminates a real, living, breathing existence. On the page, no less.

Does your submission transcend the anecdote by expressing a deeper truth? Does it reflect your journey towards a revelation that is both satisfying to you and your reader?

If so, I want to hear from you.

Looking forward,

Adriana Lecuona

Creative Nonfiction Editor

 


Though Adriana Lecuona is a native Philadelphian, she now lives in Wallingford with her husband and son. Recently she completed an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College. She has a previous MFA in Film & Media Arts from Temple University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Lecuona won an award from the Elizabeth George Foundation for her memoir-in-progress. Her work has appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette, Be Well Philly, Cure, Somos En Escrito, and others.

George Saunders: My Imaginary Boyfriend

1_Cover_Pamela_Lee_Celestial_Bodies_I
Celestial Bodies by Pamela Lee

George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo and several excellent short story collections, visited Rutgers the other day to do a reading. I went to his master class, which was an informal-ish discussion and Q&A for students and rabid Saunders fans like me.  He showed up, this ordinary man in jeans and a button up shirt, carrying a water bottle and looking a little shy. He has written some of the funniest, saddest, most memorable stories I’ve read (see: “Victory Lap.” See” “Puppy”). I couldn’t believe we were in the same room, and I couldn’t believe how he just acted like this regular person you might see on the subway. I always imagine successful fiction writers as somehow having an other-worldly, untouchable glow. George (may I call him “George?”) appeared very approachable and modest; he’s a teacher too, after all, at Syracuse University, but, I mean his writing has been published in The New Yorker. I am certain that if I ever have a story published in The New Yorker, I will forever forward shun ordinary folk. As the conversation progressed, he was funny, self-deprecating, smart, and generous with his advice.  I took notes because my memory is never reliable (and also because if he happened to look up at me, I wanted him to see someone who was really paying attention).

These are a few of the pieces of advice he offered for beginning fiction writers.

  1. He related a story about how his mentor, writer Tobias Wolff,  said Saunders was allotted only three dreams sequences for his entire writing  career and cautioned that he should “use them wisely.” For beginning writers, this suggestion seems particularly important—dream sequences in fiction are about as interesting as dream explanations by our co-workers. Unless we’re in them, who cares? (This is my interpretation, not George’s).
  2. When a student asked what to do about her work being criticized for being too “raw,” he asked a few more questions, trying to get closer to what she meant. The woman said that her nonfiction was confessional and difficult for others to read. He nodded, and suggested she go back to the page and see if there is a deeper level to the truth she was uncovering.  He suggested she turn toward the criticism from peers, not away from it. He said that most people know what works for them or doesn’t. The writing is for the imagined audience, so we must always be seeking to engage them, and to charm them, line by line. If we can bear to look more closely at our own work, we might uncover something even more beautiful and truer.
  3. Even if you are a young person who hasn’t not necessarily experienced great disaster, you are still allowed to write about trauma. He quoted Chekhov. I wasn’t able to write it all down fast enough so I looked it up just now:  “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws…”  We have all experienced some degree of misery and pain, and so it’s okay to try to imagine it in other contexts.  On a related note, his breakthrough moment as a writer was when he realized that he was allowed to explore this human suffering and also allowed to make it entertaining.
  4. Most dialogue is really a monologue. In other words, in real life and in fiction, we are often speaking not directly to one another, but rather continuing whatever we’re thinking, regardless of what the other person is saying. I find this to be depressing and true. I am working on in my personal life, but in fiction, it’s a useful bit of wisdom. Our characters have their own internal thoughts and egos, and so may actually respond to those things more than what’s being said by another character. We often talk past one another.
  5. Fiction requires empathy training. We have to understand and care about our villains as much as our heroes.  Give the bad guy a limp, a vulnerability, something that the reader can identify with so that he is more alive and complicated.
  6. Consider putting down the phone and/or getting off-line. Take a break from social media and go read some James Joyce. As artists, part of our job is to keep reading. Rework your life so that you are both reading and writing more. Twitter will wait for you.
  7. Be more Buddhist. He did not suggest this—but I am. He did mention that he is Buddhist, and I think that approaching our characters with more humility, attention, and empathy can only help to make them (and the story) more engaging for the reader.
  8. And lastly, make life easier by allowing yourself to throw some words on a page without worrying them to death. Put something in place conditionally, even if you think you will probably get rid of it later. It’s too much pressure to agonize in the beginning, so give yourself a break. Later, you will go back and find the places where the text is boring or the dialogue sounds mechanical. For now, just write it.

The Challenge of Choosing a Winner

Since we launched the Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Contest in 2008, I am tasked each year with two duties. First, I must find a judge who is also willing to come to Philadelphia and deliver the keynote address at our Push to Publish conference, as well as offer a master class the day before. I start this task by reaching out to writers whom I admire. Sometimes I know them and sometimes I don’t. In 2015, some might say that stalked Bonnie Jo Campbell to convince her to participate. (Well, to be fair, I did chase her down an aisle of the bookfair at an AWP conference.) Still, she agreed to be our contest judge and delivered a wonderful keynote speech and inspiring master class. In other years, I’ve approached writers I’ve had the pleasure of working with and could do a little personal arm twisting, such as Kevin McIlvoy, Michael Martone, Robin Black, and Elise Juska, just to name a few.

It has been our honor and pleasure each year to welcome these writers of national renown to be our contest judges. This year is no exception. Karen Joy Fowler is writer of tremendous versatility, writing successfully in many different genres. She is also very funny, and I’m excited to have her be a part of the Push to Publish experience. Thanks to writer Gregory Frost for the introduction.

My second task is to choose the finalists. Some years I read upwards of 200 hundred stories. This year I only had to read 60. (Thank you to all of our contest readers!) From those final stories, it’s my job to choose the final ten to send along to the judge who will pick the winners. It might strike you as funny that I get nervous about choosing these stories–after all, the judge is not commenting on my work. But I do get nervous. The stories that I choose are a reflection on the magazine, and once I get to this stage, it feels very personal. Ultimately, I pick what I like: stories that are well written, of course, but also stories that take chances with content or form, stories we may have heard before but are presented in new ways—writers who are taking risks and succeeding.

We’re only as good as the writers who submit their work to us, so thank you to all of the writers who trust us with their work each year. This is what Karen wrote in her email announcing the winners:

“I’ve judged several contests of this sort in the past and it’s always hard because one story is a wonderful example of one kind of story and another is just as wonderful, but just a different kind, etc. Still, there are almost always a few stories I don’t like as well that are easily eliminated. Sadly, that wasn’t the case here. Each story was quite incredible, nothing was easily eliminated. Each story was a pleasure and a joy to read. So, I’m impressed with everyone.”

It was no surprise that two of the finalists are highly accomplished. They’ve published stories, essays, poems, and books, but I am just as excited to announce that this will be the first time the third-place winner has ever been accepted for publication (his story will appear in our online edition of the magazine). Having both ends of the publishing spectrum represented in our contest is a real thrill for us, and, more importantly, I think it would have made Marguerite very happy. As always, many heartfelt thanks to the McGlinn and Hansma families for their continued support of the prize and the magazine.

Like It really Is

6_Christina_Tarkoff_Streets_of_Philadelphia-Summer_Fun
Streets of Philadelphia – Summer Fun by Christina Tarkoff

My stepson is reading Romeo and Juliet for his eighth grade English class. I asked him what he thought about it the other day during dinner.

He shrugged and tucked a forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth.

“I don’t want to ruin it for you,” I warned. “But it doesn’t end well.”

“I know,” he responded.

I told him that when I was in eighth grade, I memorized the entire balcony scene from the play. I didn’t tell him that I had done it because I prayed that someday soon, Jim Hurst of the swim team and I may have a similar exchange. Never mind that I lived in single level house in Florida, and the only impediment to our romance was my Coke-bottle eye glasses and his total lack of interest. I pictured a balcony at the Don Caesar, myself in an eyelet dress with sassafras wound in my feathered hair. Him, standing below, possibly in just swim trunks, would call up to me in a deep voice with only a hint of crack, saying: “I take thee at thy word. Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptis’d; henceforth I never will be Romeo/Jim.” Somehow, it would work out sans the dual suicide and despite the chasmic-sized popularity differences.

It did not. Wherefore art thou, Jim? (Actually, Facebook tells me that he’s a pro golfer living in St. Pete with twin daughters and a wife named Bethany Anne.)

But these early ideas of romance and storytelling stayed with me as a writer throughout my teen years as I struggled to come up with love stories that illustrated that same longing and defiance that captivated me at age thirteen. I’d write heroes with barrel-chests and tousled golden curls, heroines with eyes that were always a weird color—grey like slate, churning sea green (?), lavender. They were loosely based on a mixture of Shakespeare, the movie Blue Lagoon, and romance novels I stole from my aunt JoAnne. Inevitably, the women wore bodices and the men had ripped blouse-like shirts. I cared mostly about the exteriors, the long descriptions of the way waist-length hair rippled in the summer breeze or the man’s white teeth gnashed with desire, much like a stallion’s, the “maiden blush” bepainting a cheek.

I’d come up with these scenes and show them to my mom, an avid reader, who would concentrate on the lined notebook pages and hand them back with vaguely encouraging words to keep at it.

I knew what I was writing was phony, stolen. Until I was a junior in high school, I hadn’t been kissed. I hadn’t even been in danger of being kissed. There had never even been hand-holding. The closest I had come was a note from Steve Crossett, one year older and a red-head, who’d written that he thought I was “a pretty decent person.” Pin that one up on your bulletin board next to a photo of Christopher Reeves as Superman ripped out of Seventeen.

I asked my mom for advice. How did she think I should write love scenes? She paused, considering. I could see that she was weighing her options. “Write it like it really is,” she said finally. What did she mean? She thought for a minute. She knew that I spent an inordinate amount of time in the library, and very little time with the opposite sex. Unless you counted Wednesday night bell choir practice. “I mean, write about leaning into kiss someone and you miss. Or your elbow going numb on the table while you’re waiting for your date to finish his boring story. Write about what it’s really like, not what you think it should be like.”

This is possibly the best writing advice I’ve ever received, along the lines of well-worn maxim to write what you know. I had thought that writing was all about imagining yourself into the world you wanted to inhabit.  It is that. But it’s also about being able to see that situation as it truly is for your character—to picture all of its complexities and discomforts— the alive parts and the numb parts, the perfect moment and the awkward one. My love stories have mostly been awkward ones. Awkward, funny, lovely, horrible, and true. That’s the writing world I inhabit, and though I still love the tumbling poetry of Shakespeare, I stick to what feels most true to my experience.