To [read] aloud is very brave – (138)

During the past six months, I have been told that I read poorly aloud by multiple people. Never in my life has anyone said this to me so frequently.

When I was twelve years old, I started becoming interested in public speaking. (I say my interest starts at twelve, because I remember going to nationals for the science fair that year. I was more con artist than scientist affectionately.) I began participating in debate groups, dabbled in stand-up comedy for awhile, and even started recording myself just talking about things to see how it sounded. It’s something I still do. I loved standing in front of a crowd, but now I wonder if that love is leaving me.

I have been feeling down lately about it all. Even if my writing isn’t that great, I hope to at least read a piece well before an audience and connect with someone. In the last six months, I keep hearing things like:

“I can’t pay attention, because I get lost in your voice.”

“You sound robotic.”

“Stop reading that way. Just let me read it to myself.”

These words rebound in my thoughts too often. Just this past week, I was going to read a few paragraphs from Chris Offutt’s “My Dad, the Pornographer” to my student organization, a group that I am considerably comfortable with, and I hesitated before reading and became apathetic to a degree. I thought for a moment that I should have asked for someone else to read and spared them all the sound of my voice.

I like to think back to a moment in my Keats class last spring when a student said to me during discussion: “Sarah Key, I love it when you read aloud. It just makes things click.” I think back to my best friend and how she was the first person to ever tell me that she liked my voice. I think back to last summer when one of my students raucously shouted, “I love your voice!” over the drum of other oddities being yelled my way, and that stands out to me more than anything.

Lately, I hear the words robotic and stop when I begin to read aloud. I wonder if I am dragging my feet to submit an abstract to this forum or neglecting setting up certain local lit events, because I don’t want to hear my own voice at them. I wonder if I have stopped reading to myself in the mornings when I am alone for the same reason.

Jesus Goes to Hobby Lobby

At my university, I manage a student organization for creative writers. In addition to workshops, readings, etc., we host craft nights that pertain to writing and literature. Since we are located in a smaller town with few available art-centric resources and since I am admittedly not always the best planner, I occasionally end up buying some of our supplies from Hobby Lobby, the begrudged craft store not far from campus. For example, the organization’s Writer’s Block Party required acrylic spray that would add a glossed finish to members’ works, and I (poor planner that I am) ended up at Hobby Lobby on the day of our event asking an employee to help find the product. Alas.

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Me with that damned Hobby Lobby acrylic spray. *pitch forks! fire!*
Someone! Quick! Mop that floor.

With a more liberal-leaning membership and support system, some people voiced concerns about purchasing products from Hobby Lobby. Our more conservative members were silent. They didn’t praise our “support” of Hobby Lobby. When asked, many of them said they didn’t care at all and thought the whole thing was being “blown out of proportion.”

The popular view in the media was that conservatives were going wild over the Supreme Court decision to favor Hobby Lobby’s charged mandate against providing female employees with contraceptive coverage. Hobby Lobby has claimed to be a reflection of Christian values. (I guess, this explains why I never see any snazzy Margaritaville signs in their stores.) Many conservatives who support the pro-life movement thought Hobby Lobby was making a crucial stand for their freedoms and quickly joined in the crusade by posting their opinions on social media websites. The most popular question being, “How can the Government make Christians pay for abortions?”

On June 30, 2014, the Supreme Court decision was made, and conservatives celebrated. Many considered this ruling to be a success for freedom of religion and began writing posts on Facebook and Twitter about a “rare triumph. . . in the war against Christianity.”

During all this yaysaying and war victory celebrating and liberal head shaking, we failed to see one simple detail:

“The most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections.”

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby

Who is “the Government” exactly? Well, taxpayers. Me, the conservatives and their pro-choice neighbor. In celebrating the rights of for-profit corporations to have religious freedom, many conservatives failed to see the scope of this detail. Corporations were the winner in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. Not conservatives or Christians or protesting activists. Hobby Lobby decided not to pay their share and thus burdened taxpayers. None of this is a new story. Pacifists have long been paying taxes that go to military support. Atheists have shouldered a larger tax responsibility, because many churches are tax-exempt.

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Hobby Lobby sold its case as being a huge victory for the conservative pro-life movement to garner customers and higher sales. It made Christians believe that their corporation was carrying some huge burden for them on the front lines of the “war against Christianity” when really this court ruling was a huge loss for everyone but Hobby Lobby and other future corporations that could possibly pass off their fiscal obligations to taxpayers.

It does make me feel somewhat disgusted to find myself shopping in Hobby Lobby and to know that I will probably end up there again sometime in the next year, but it’s not because of my anti-religious leanings. It’s because of my feminist ideology. I am exhausted at women being treated like objects again in some sort of religious contest. I am exhausted at seeing the working class woman disproportionately affected by a demagogic corporation. I am exhausted by reading another ridiculous gender-based legislative act. Here is to hoping that we remain conscious of the disingenuous nature in these acts and the consequences of such ubiquitous crusades.

A Skeptic’s Guide To Writing Contests

Earlier this morning, I submitted a short story to a popular literary journal’s writing contest, and I feel worse for it. I have never submitted to this type of contest before. Despite knowing fiction writers and poets who have won story and poetry contests, I have even advised other people against this practice. Writing contests have often rubbed me the wrong way. We can chalk it up to my inner skeptic. We can call it bad math. Writing contests? I just don’t trust them. But here I am, short another $20 looking at my Submittable ticket receipt, and drinking coffee like any other regular day in the life.

Many of my friends have entered contests with a reader’s fee. (Say, $20.) A journal would announce its contest, promise the winner $500/publication, and the runner-up $100/publication. This amount varies depending on the contest, journal, allotted reader’s fee, etc. In exchange for the reader’s fee, writers will receive a subscription to the literary journal.AQR Writers begin submitting their stories and paying the journal’s fees. A journal hosting the contest might receive 1,000 manuscripts during their reading period. That’s a lot of reading fees. $20,000 of reading fees. For a long time, that sounded like bullshit to me.

Maybe I’ve become a bit more amiable over the years, because I’ve met the readers and judges of these contests and heard their horror stories. Or maybe I’ve gotten an insider look into literary journals that allows me to see how difficult funding can be. I am saddened by a recent article and movement that’s been floating through the literary scene entitled Save the Alaska Quarterly Review. This article illuminates some of the obstacles faced by journals, and the hashtag #saveaqr is a painful reminder of these problems.

I realize I could just be saying all this to make myself feel better about spending that $20.

Originally, I felt like contests were money-making ponzi schemes. Highly successful literary cons. A darker side of my skepticism thought the judges of said contests probably had a small pool of favorites anyway. I disregarded reading hierarchies and anonymous submission/reading guidelines with the understanding that people talk. Writers recognize each other. I concentrated on getting published the regular way, and that has seemed to work pretty well. I operated under the golden light that my stories might receive awards after they’ve been published. In some ways, I felt like I was taking the “smart” route, but now, I’m not so sure. I have started to see contests as a necessary evil in the literary world. A give and take affair.

Contests are a viable way for journals to stay afloat financially. Some journals that have contests use that extra generated money to pay writers for their accepted submissions throughout the year. Other journals just want to pay their fucking rent. However, it’s still best to remain pragmatic when submitting:

  • Submit to contests hosted by journals you love.
  • Only submit exceptional material.

There are a thousand other people out there submitting their work to a contest. If your submission doesn’t stand out from your own pool of writing on your laptop at home, it’s not going to stand out in an even greater pool.

But here I am thinking about the different ways a person could spend $20—new pants, a bike lock, gourmet cheese, tote bags— and wondering if any of my friends secretly submitted, too.

On Writing Fiction Alone

A year or two ago, I wrote a story called “The Black Tiles on Split Road.” It was originally called something else at the time. Something with the color green. The story was about this man struggling with his alcoholism and anxieties about fatherhood. He is outside mowing the yard on a Sunday morning when he finds out that his youngest daughter has been involved in an accident at the church. After reading this story aloud, a man came up to me and told me all about his childhood mowing yards with his father and how the smell of cut grass made him feel sick too. He said his father had recently died and that “The Black Tiles on Split Road” had connected with him. He didn’t cry, but his voice had that edge to it. When he finished telling me about the funeral, he paused, then said, “Thank you. It feels good not be alone with it anymore.”

At the time, I couldn’t tell him what I was really thinking. I had never mowed yards as a child for money or had an abusive father. I had never struggled with putting a parent in a nursing home or keeping up the maintenance on a house of my own. I didn’t have children or a wife. I had never been divorced or had an accident at a church as a child. Very little in that story had happened to me, or someone I knew. I simply wrote it down.

Conversations like this have occurred several times over the years. It happened again this past weekend at the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival when a woman naturally assumed that I was married after a reading and told me that she didn’t like her husband’s teeth very much either.

I wouldn’t call my stories lies necessarily. They might not be true in a traditional sense, but they contain some grain of truth. A less empirical one. Maybe a distorted version of myself who has been persistently collecting voices and images and fear. If my stories are any good at all, then they relay some type of vulnerability or inner life about myself. The nature of truth that I pursue in writing fiction is occasionally a truth more readily adopted by the reader than by me. I think my writing reveals a collective, essential version of myself.

In my stories, I have been a number of people. I have written my way into characters a sailor, a widow, a moonshiner, a nine-year-old boy, a jazz musician, a speaker of tongues, a gay bartender, a bus driver, a Johnny Cash impersonator, an angel people whose lives I have never lived, but I believe in escaping the self when writing fiction. I think this fallacy about the empirical truth in fiction comes from the idea of “writing what you know.” I often feel like the more immersed I become in a story the closer I am to becoming like everybody else.

Though it might seem wildly cliché, I feel like I am layering masks onto myself, and beneath each mask is my face or some version of it. I imagine my body in front of my desk with the window’s white light pouring over me while I perform this intricate balancing act of metal and wood and carved plastic others piled on top of my cheek bones as I stare with my eyes barely open into the back of where another person’s eyes should be with my neck hurting, arms outstretched, and masks curving upward into the room like the smoke of a prayer’s candle, and then there’s me somewhere beneath it all forgetting for a moment the person I saw in the narrow reflection earlier that morning who sat down with a cup of coffee in front of a legal pad at some point thinking about words and those who have died. Sometimes, it’s just harder to recognize me.

World Book Night 2014

World Book Night was a blast. I gave out copies of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. (This is my second favorite Pollan novel, preceded only by The Omnivore’s Dilemma.)

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The book is sectioned into four topics: apples, tulips, marijuana, and potatoes. During the giveaway, we served snacks themed according to the book. Potato salad, apple juice, and caramel apple pie cookies. All that good stuff.

I re-read the passage about potatoes and the epilogue earlier this morning. I wanted to share a quote from the epilogue here:

“Sooner or later your fingers close on that one moist-cold spud that the spade has accidentally sliced clean through, shining wetly white and giving off the most unearthly of earthly aromas. It’s the smell of fresh soil in the spring, but fresh soil somehow distilled or improved upon, as if that wild, primordial scene had been refined and bottled: eau de pomme de terre. You can smell the cold inhuman earth in it, but there’s the cozy kitchen too, for the smell of potatoes is, at least by now, to us, the smell of comfort itself, a smell as blankly welcoming as spud flesh, a whiteness that takes up memories and sentiments as easily as flavors. To smell a raw potato is to stand on the very threshold of the domestic and the wild.”

Pollan’s book could be considered an inspirational tool for the average gardener. (Last year, when I was angry at my corn for shading my squash, this would have been a good book to read. An anecdote for the frustrated or tired.) This book makes me think about our distinctions between wilderness vs. nature and the Apollonian vs. the Dionysian. The way The Botany of Desire speaks in conversation with literature alone is in itself enough to keep me reading and returning to Pollan’s work.

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Check out World Book Night if you haven’t before! A number of my friends were givers this year, and I have loved reading the blog entries and social networking updates today about the strange and fulfilling encounters people have had while emptying out their giver’s box.

Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire Writing Prompts

– Michael Pollan’s subtitle for The Botany of Desire is “A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.” Write a short piece of fiction or poetry from the perspective of a plant. You may use one of the plants mentioned in Pollan’s novel (apples, tulips, marijuana, or potatoes) or choose your own.

– Pollan spends a large portion of the first chapter discussing the tale of Johnny Appleseed. Using the Johnny Appleseed legend as a model, write a similar story involving either tulips, marijuana, or potatoes.

– The third chapter of the novel begins begins by comparing the Genesis account of the apple’s “forbidden knowledge” with the contemporary forbidden nature of marijuana. Pollan concludes this first section with a method of questioning:

“Why in the world should this be sowhy should evolution yield plants possessing such magic? What makes these so irrestible to us (and to many other creatures), when the cost of using them can be so high? Just what is the knowledge held out by a plant such as cannabisand why is it forbidden?”

Write an essay comparing two forbidden topics, practices, objects, etc. while performing a social critique. (Or take two ordinarily accepted practices and make them forbidden.) The social critique should unfold naturally in your writing. Use Pollan’s questions to help guide the essay.

To those who asked for prompts, I hope these are somewhat profitable. I want to extend my gratitude to all who helped make World Book Night a success in Clarksville. Happy reading and writing, folks!

Reflections on AWP

The internet can be an unusually lonely place.

This weekend, many of my friends are attending AWP Seattle. AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) is the largest literary conference in the US. Last year, I had the pleasure of attending this migrating conference in Boston with Zone 3 Press.

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An AWP “swag” favorite –
mug purchased from Rumpus.

Even just scrolling through the AWP schedule can be an abundant source of inspiration. Though unable to attend the conference this year, the descriptions of sessions/panels has been similarly thought-provoking for me. In some ways, I think the schedule can be read like a series of brief reminders:

  • Find a quiet space, a sanctuary, for yourself and your writing.
  • Live an experience worth writing about.
  • Embrace peculiarity.
  • Memoir is about developing a deeper understanding of experience.
  • There are consequences that stem from our writing.
  • We owe something to the people we write about.

Out of all the sessions at AWP Seattle, I found myself most drawn to the panel titled “Peace Corps Writers Across the Genres.”

It’s easy to become lost at AWP. (Don’t get me started on the book fair shenanigans.) I loved attending readings or following around my favorite writers to their sessions. At the same time, I was often drawn to feminist topics, writing in relation to nature/yoga, religious writing, book reviews, short plays, sustaining a writing group, short story anything, etc. If nothing else, AWP provides a space to meet up with old friends. Many attend the conference for the drinks and good company.

AWP presented me with a type of psalm that I often experience at writing conferences; there is always more to give. We thrive in community unable to quite live without one another, after all.

Q&A: A Series of Short Answers

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
How did NaNoWriMo 2013 go for you? Were you able to finish and what would you call the central theme of what you were writing?

For NaNoWriMo 2013, I worked on my title Adultery in the Guest Bedroom. I was able to hit the 50,000 word goal, but I did not finish the novel. There were several themes that I was going for in the project. If I had to choose a central guiding principle, it probably would have been: “Do not forget what it means to be a human being, whether this loss be out of fear, valid argument, or personal philosophy. Do not judge those who do forget, because not everyone is as strong as they would like to be.”

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
If you had to put a warning label on your blog…. what would it be?

Reading Dog-faced Atheist may cause eyestrain, deep thoughts (rare), raised eyebrows, furrowing of the forehead, and self-inflicted wounds caused by the proverbial facepalm.

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Will you be at AWP this year in Seattle? Do you have any tips for newbies based on last year?

Unfortunately, I am not attending AWP Seattle this year. However, I have been working on a collaborative entry about “surviving AWP” for my blog. That entry should be posted around the second or third week of February.

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The line-up of featured presenters looks as impressive as always.  Annie Proulx, the keynote speaker, is sure to be an interesting panel. I would love to hear Sherman Alexie, Gary Snyder, and Tobias Wolff among others. I have met Richard Blanco, Ben Fountain, and Sharon Olds before. All great readings. Ben Fountain is a wonderfully funny guy if you’re looking for a laugh.

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
What are your thoughts on evolution?

I am not sure if I fully understand the intent or desired response for this question. To me, evolution is just another small battle in the proposition of moving in the direction of a more logical society. The idea that biological evolution should be taken out of schools in Tennessee is preposterous. Anti-evolution bills are as astounding as they are absurd.

[Dog-faced Atheist] Ask
Does your family know that you’re an atheist?

For the most part, yes. My family acknowledges my atheism in different ways and to varying degrees. For example, my dad doesn’t like the word “atheist” and prefers to call me “non-religious” instead. While my family does know about my atheism, I think the philosophy makes them notably uncomfortable. The dogs don’t seem to mind nearly as much.