(The Merry-Go-Round is Beginning to Taunt Me[1])


1. Author As [not circus] Dog Trainer (Cris)

You can’t lie to a dog. Or you can’t lie badly. While training dogs, you need to be “telling” them, with both body-language and voice, that they are the center of the universe to you, and that what they do for you—and what you’re doing together—makes you happier, and means more to you, than anything else in the world. They can tell if you’re lying. If you’re unconsciously communicating to them that you’re disappointed or upset because you’re thinking about something else, something offstage—whether your life’s true dilemma or your most current disappointment—they take it on as stress. To dogs, it’s all about them. So the trainer has to be able to convince the dog of that, whether it’s true in the trainer’s larger life or not. Problem is, the dog can usually tell. A good trainer doesn’t have “a larger life.” It’s never “just a dog” and therefore easy to lie to.

“Thank you for your interest in Zoetrope: All Story,


We are a staff of two, assisted by a small team of brilliant and generous volunteers, who are collectively dedicated to reading and responding to the 12,000 submissions All Story receives annually…

…All-Story does not accept submissions via e-mail. Send stories to:…”

The above guidelines come from Zoetrope: All Story, one of the top tier literary magazines of today. My response:

Dear Zoetrope,

Your submission guidelines are fucked up. Snail mail had a purpose…once. There are better options, and the time is now.

The list of deservedly established writers published at your magazine is formidable: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Roberto Bolaño, Robert Olen Butler, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Kathryn Harrison, Ha Jin, Jonathan Lethem, Yiyun Li, Naguib Mahfouz, Alice Munro, Salman Rushdie, Kurt Vonnegut, & David Foster Wallace. Many writers would love to join this crew, do not mind submitting, and hope to be “discovered” on the slush pile. Yet how do the majority of your authors submit? I doubt Woody Allen stuffs an envelope and drops it in the mail, fingers crossed, hoping Zoetrope will make his proverbial day. But that’s what you demand of the regular scribe, and while all writers are not stereotypical “starving artists,” they would love to save a dime or two, unlike ol’ Woody, who can afford the postage. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Woody’s earned the privilege, but then why bother taking submissions from the masses? No matter how good an unknown’s story is, Woody and friends aren’t gettin’ bumped. Fetid grapes aside, The New Yorker now accepts E-subs, but even The Diddle Ass Review should. And so should Zoetrope.

Electronic mail or submission managers are no longer science fiction, and function more efficiently than snail. E-subs might create an overflow of stories, but there are solutions: short windows for submissions or charging nominal fees (not writer friendly, either, chief sinner Narrative Magazine, charging nasty clam so they can pay all the writers they solicit, but that’s another rant). Here’s the analysis:

Estimated annual cost of 12,000 nine-page stories plus cover letters:

  • $ 600 12,000 8½ x11 envelopes 120 x $5 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $14,040 $1.17 Postage for 12,000 submissions
  • $ 240 12,000 4×9 envelopes for SASE 120 x $2 per packet of 100 envelopes
  • $ 5,280 $0.44 Postage for 12,000 SASE
  • $ 1,200 120,000 pages @240 x $5 per 500-page ream
  • $ 960 Printer ink cartridges @10,000 pages per cartridge = 12 x $80

Total = $22,320 or over $1,800 per month.

  • Not included but should be considered wasteful:
  • Gas to deliver 12,000 submissions plus 11,998 rejections and two rewrite requests
  • At 3 inches a 500-leaf ream, a 60-foot tall tree of paper

Time at printer preparing envelopes, etc. @five minutes/submission = 100 hours (not to mention time spent by “brilliant and generous volunteers” who, with Bartleby-like futility, refine skills in a Sisyphean search for fabulous stories that will never be accepted by Zoetrope)

Fifty Zoetrope clones would push the cost over a million dollars. Smaller mags? Every 100 subs/month = $2,232/year. Yet as the smaller mags regularly publish from slush, the waste not as egregious.

Zoetrope, your guidelines continue: “Before submitting, non-subscribers should read several issues of the magazine.” What a deal! I’m sure you’re not intentionally trying to screw writers, but c’mon, this is way totally like effin’ really just absolutely too fucked up.
Certainly, writers should do their part, not waste editors time with inappropriate submissions, and buy, read, and support literary magazines; that’s yet another topic. Bottom line: writers might buy more magazines if they had more money, and they might read more if they had more time. Right? If one writer has ten stories and submits each story twenty times that’s over $350 a year a writer could spend on food, rent, books, and subscriptions to literary magazines. Sure, Zoetrope, you are not the only guilty party. Those lovable stalwarts over at The Sun, despite their concern about social issues, environment, and poverty, refuse to evolve. Others? The list includes The Atlantic, Crab Creek Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Georgia Review, The Iowa Review, The Texas Review, Zyzzyva, etc., not to mention the publishers and agents that postpone electronic. The cost rises into millions of dollars, a forest of paper trees, and oodles of wasted hours. So Zoetrope and cohorts, big and small, agents and editors and publishers, take heed: Stop the snail. Or be fucked up.


Caleb “The Mad Writer” Powell

Two things I’m often heard complaining about: I don’t have enough time to write and I don’t get enough sleep. What I do have is a full-time job and two little kids, so my beefs seem pretty legitimate. There’s a supportive husband in the mix, but no extended family close-by, and we don’t have the money to hire much in the way of time-saving. We do the cooking, the cleaning, the yardwork (or we don’t). We skimp on or swap for babysitting.

At this point, some readers are probably like: You have a yard on top of all the rest? Cry me a river of unspilled ink. Others might be thinking: You clean your own toilets? Glad I’m not you, but honestly, it’s irrelevant, and it’s sort of pathetic that you bring up the fact that I don’t.

There’s a lot of snark and defensiveness around the issues of time and money. This is evident everywhere from the rhetoric of the Tea Partiers to the comments sections inspired by mommy warriors like Caitlan Flanagan, sure, but exhibit A in my trial is my experience of living with myself. I am still rankled by an interview in The Rumpus in which, when asked how she does it, what with two little kids and a nonprofit and a writing and editing career and all, Vendela Vida  says that everyone can find two hours a day to write. That interview appeared over six months ago, but many a day ends with me shouting in my head: Do you see two hours of writing time in this day? DO YOU SEE TWO HOURS OF WRITING TIME IN THIS DAY?

And then a little internal voice might say: Well, if you’d gotten up at six and jumped right on the computer you might have been able to get an hour in. And admit it. You probably spent at least an hour today dawdling online—you read that interview, didn’t you? And what about those two episodes of Friday Night Lights you watched back-to-back the other night?

And then a much shriller voice says: Six o’clock is not sustainable! She said everyday, and didn’t you hear me say already that I don’t get enough sleep? And am I not allowed to ever relax with my husband? To exchange news with a friend on Facebook? To read a book?

And then, the loudest voice of all screams at ear-splitting volume: No! You’re not! (That voice runs out of breath the fastest.)

There’s also a reasonable murmur, which calls for order: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Show some compassion. And don’t be too easy on yourself, either. Employ some self-discipline. And definitely don’t waste your energy whining. Calm down, and write or don’t. No one really cares by you.

Indeed, it’s true. Which is both a relief and salt in the wound.

The thing is, I do care. When my son was born I kept up a writing schedule for a while, but I ceased any regular exercise. By the time he was around two, I felt crippled. Curled into a child’s pose in yoga class with my back screaming in pain and relief, I swore that as God as my witness, I would never go two years without exercise again. It’s the same sort of difference between writing and not. Except that two or three hours of yoga in a week makes me easily feel great, whereas two hours of writing a week can sometimes feel like worse than nothing. Especially when had on consistently inadequate sleep.

So I get back to ole woe is me, and the plaint that it’s hard to sustain a creative project while raising kids and working.

But this year when going through a box of old journals that had been packed away for years, I came across an entry from, oh, about 1995. I was child-free, lived alone, worked close by, and my only obligations were to spend some time with my friends and my boyfriend. And what was I complaining about in a journal so old it was now turning to dust in my hands? That I didn’t have enough time to write and I didn’t get enough sleep.

Hmmm. So maybe just: Writing is hard. (And sleep is sublime.)

The other day, I enjoyed this post by Victoria Patterson on Three Guys One Book, talking about the dangers of Facebook and Twitter for writers. (Found time to read that too, did ya?) Well, yes. I clicked on it while procrastinating on writing an essay about my writing process with my first novel, and the combination of the post, the procrastination, the memory lane made me recall that when I was writing Currency, I felt the need to keep eliminating things from my life: I drank less, I socialized less, I more or less dropped friends who required a certain kind of effort, and I ceased my involvement with the zine I co-published. I didn’t write anything else, for anyone, no little reviews or essays. One after another things got hauled to the chopping block, even during a period when I had a life as conducive to finding writing time as mine is ever likely to be.

And that was before the distractions of the internet had multiplied so splendiferously, before online networking time became almost as important a part of a writer’s schedule as writing itself.

I remember a conversation with a writer friend who had a semester off. He went away to a solitary residency somewhere, and when he returned from the mountains or the meadows or wherever he’d gone, he was a little rueful. He’d felt that at home, even with no formal obligations in the way of class time or teaching, his social life impeded his writing progress. But alone for a month or two, he found that having no demands at all didn’t necessarily speed things along. Sometimes it’s not the time, exactly, that we need. Even the most concentrated beam of hours can’t always melt away the difficulty. Uninterrupted concentration often breaks on its own, and depending on where, or why, it can leave one happily spent or empty and unsatisfied, sticky and fidgety with loneliness and doubt.

Although staring down my own novel project was difficult, I also felt a huge amount of momentum. The momentum was the mudslide that pushed away other things that were enjoyable and important to me, that made me sometimes resent invitations to weddings or writing events or pleasant outings with friends.

If I were on fire with momentum now, would I be hauling Facebook up to the chopping block? Maybe. Probably. But what about the tender arm of a toddler? What about the lean buttock of tweenaged boy?

Because here’s the thing about the having-kids part: I don’t want to resent spending time with them. I don’t want to be any more distracted and impatient with my family than I already can be. And when I’m immersed in a world I’m creating, everything that competes feels like a hindrance. To walk the tightrope every day between my outward and my inward life, to trot out the litanies for strength and mantras for balance—that’s exhausting in its own right, and makes me need a nap that much more desperately. I resist writing not (only) because it’s hard, but because it’s hard to come back from. It’s hard to keep in perspective.

That sounds good, right? That sounds like I might actually be a writer, and not only a divisor of elaborate complaints? I hope so, because that’s the image I’m going for. But also, I believe that it’s true.

In 2007, I traveled to Duluth to hole up with three women I’d met at an author’s retreat in the previous decade. At that time, I’d not been doing much writing for the past few years. I’d worked on no fiction at all, beyond some scribbling in notebooks. But rereading the scribbling had a powerful effect on me, and after spending a couple quiet days with those notebooks and myself, writing many more pages in a frantic hand that became illegible as the hours wore on, I had a passionate and almost violent outburst in a deserted outbuilding of our motel. I was absolutely frenzied with both my desire to surrender to the fermenting ideas and with my need to defend my family from that happening. My son was five at the time, and parenting was becoming slightly less all-consuming, and perhaps the wrenching that I felt was the emergence of a submerged self from a chrysalis. It’s hard to say for sure, because within a couple months I found myself pregnant and undergoing a career crisis. My full attention was called for elsewhere.

All of us in Duluth had raised or were raising children, but when we first met, I was still a maiden, affianced. I remember studying Ladette and Allison, who were already mothers, because I knew even then—before I really knew anything, really, about what was in store for me with parenting—that it was an achievement to have maintained a writing life in the face of supporting others economically and emotionally. When I asked Ladette about how she’d done it, she quoted Toni Morrison, a single working mother when she had written The Bluest Eye, as saying that she wrote her first novel “in mornings and noon hours.” I can’t confirm the quote, but it’s stuck with me. I know that Alice Monro wrote her first collection in the scraps of time she found while raising three kids, and that there are many other parent-authors who have written in the margins of busy lives—but if I stop writing now to do some research on exactly whom overcame what I will never get this post up before my kid wakes up from her nap.

So suffice it to say that some of our greatest living writers are part of the “everybody” who can find two hours a day in which to write, no matter what. And yeah, I doubt they all had even occasional housecleaners. But they’re not me.

As for me, now, the house is unusually quiet for a weekend afternoon. My daughter is asleep, and the other half of the family is at a friend’s house watching the Bears-Packer game. (That’s what I’m missing today. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying.) If all the stars align—which they could, because she was up for chunk in the middle of the night, and I along with her—I might manage to post this before Lilli wakes up and still have time to close my eyes for ten minutes myself. I won’t have worked on any fiction this weekthe long haul versus the quick fix is a whole other topicbut still, that’s a pretty good day.

(I am not even joking when I say that literally at the moment I typed that last line, my daughter woke up.)

(And I did get to watch the Steelers win, so it was an extra good day.)

Last spring, shortly after my novel, Banned for Life, was published, my actor friend Jeremy Lowe sent me this photo via Facebook.