By: Tim Moraca
Volunteer Tim expounds on inspiration
Where does inspiration come from? Surely that moment of blinding clarity, of previously unseen diagonal correlations cannot be forced; for if you could whip inspiration together like a batch of cookies, it wouldn’t be inspiring at all. It’d just be cookies, cookies that many had made and enjoyed before and, which, in their own right, are delicious. Point is, we all know what a cookie looks like and where a cookie comes from. Tangible, crumbly, chewy… butter from a cow, flour, sugar, and cocoa from plants… And inspiration? Best I can do is: crystal lasers shooting from the mind out into the universe and vice versa, which isn’t very helpful.
That “clarity” thing is a start. What is clarity? The experience of truth. Okay. Reality. Right. The absence of any exterior or interior distractions, most of which are our own fault. Blame’s a fun game until everyone loses.
Time for a huddle with ourselves. “Bring it in”—as coach would say; soothe all that sensory input slamming you right now; tell those wiggly little leaguers that constitute your awareness to “listen up!” Coach is speaking.
Shh… Do you hear that?
That’s you, breathing—pretty much the only thing you can count on in the universe… Tommy at shortstop misses ground balls more than your grandma’s birthday, and Wally behind the plate needs a sip off your dad’s beer every night to get the umpire to shush.
Inspiration, like great plays from so-so athletes, can’t be forced or even pursued. The trick is to be open to those crystal lasers, to have your mitt open or your bat ready and your eye on the ball. Breathing is an alarmingly necessary activity that can act as an anchor to openness. Breathing is the last thing that should be ignored. Awareness flourishes when you aren’t stuck in the quicksand of nostalgia, regret, and anxiety, and the moments of clarity of such awareness are when inspiration may strike highest.
Don’t go searching for inspiration, or you’ll strike out in three vicious whiffs of the bat. The opposing team’s parents’ chants of insults are no match for the aluminum concentration in your grip. Swing deftly at every moment by focusing on the dependability of that sweet air circulating and not next or last week’s muck out past the fences. Only then do homeruns come. Have a cookie after the game, and enjoy every bite as if it were the universe itself.
By: Josh DeLacy
I saw the inner workings of The Potomac Review the other day, thanks to editor-in-chief Julie Wakeman-Linn’s willingness to grant my out-of-the-blue “shadowing” request. As a recent Calvin College graduate, I’ve been investigating ways for my writing to live post-diploma, with literary journals are near the top of that hopeful list. This was my first time seeing how a “big league” magazine operates, and the experience gave me a renewed appreciation for just how much work and energy go into maintaining a larger journal.
I sat in on one of The Potomac Review’s weekly meetings, and Julie let me ask question after question about the world of literary magazines. I learned about the journal’s reading process, in which Julie divides all the submissions among her two-dozen-plus associate editors, with each responsible for about ten pieces per month. If an associate editor sees something he or she likes, it gets passed along to the “maybe editors.” If a maybe editor approves it, too, then the submission moves to Julie. She discusses each of these doubly blessed pieces with her interns (the discussions can get quite heated) and ultimately decides whether or not to publish it. That makes for three rounds of review, and often, even strong, moving works get rejected. In fact, with just fifty or so open publication spots each year, The Potomac Review has to turn away 99.5 percent of its submissions.
However, I discovered that not all rejections are created equal, and some are actually high compliments. Unimpressive pieces get a basic rejection letter—very distant, and not exactly encouraging the recipient to submit another piece. Other submissions have promise, but for whatever reason, they don’t make it through all three review rounds. Those get something better—one of several letters that all contain an element of “please try us again—you have real potential.” And some pieces get rejected based purely on the upcoming issue’s specific needs. When I visited, for instance, team was raving about the stories they had recently received. However, there was a problem: three of those were narrated in the same style, by characters with near-identical ages and genders. The team couldn’t put all three in the same issue and still stand by their practice of publishing diverse voices. Whatever one they ultimately reject will get the best rejection letter, the one that says the piece “wasn’t right for this issue.” It might be a minor difference in language, but it is a huge difference in meaning.
In my hour-and-a-half experience, I also glimpsed just how much work goes into producing this magazine. Beyond reading and responding to submissions, Julie’s team runs contests, maintains records, manages the blog, updates the website, directs marketing, and attends conferences. But despite all this background work and the sheer volume of submissions they receive, no one in the team seemed anywhere close to being burnt-out or cynical or even tired. They genuinely enjoy putting together the magazine and reading new stories. Their energy is contagious, and they fill the room with enthusiasm.
So thank you, Julie, Karolina, Todd, and Marc, for showing me that although literary publishing is even more competitive than I had thought, although running a journal is demanding and time-consuming, rewards lie in doing what you love, and those rewards are bountiful.
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By: Nathan Blanchard
Volunteer Nathan ventures off from the Potomac River area, from which the Potomac Review draws its name, to nearby waters in Baltimore to attend the City Lit Festival.
If you are a writer in Maryland, you should acquaint yourself with the City Lit Project from Baltimore. They host dozens of programs and events that cultivate and encourage reading and writing. Their website offers writers’ resources and plenty of local information to distract writers from writing, but in a good way. The apex of their local influence is their annual City Lit Festival, named “Best of Baltimore” by Baltimore magazine in 2005 and 2009.
On April 13, 2013, for the first time, I attended the City Lit Festival and enjoyed the day with such delight that I will be returning each year I’m able. The Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore opened its doors to City Lit, and a grid of tables called the “literary marketplace,” covered Central Hall. Booths of local publishers, journals and imprints offered publications and information for festival attendees.
I spoke with several local writers and editors about the local writing community, and the forum primed us for casual yet productive and informative conversations. As a writer, I got the opportunity to ask editors what types of fiction they respond to and what they are looking to include in upcoming publications. The soulless among us would say that I was Networking (shudder), but really, I was simply having exciting discussions with fellow enthusiasts.
Throughout the day, speakers held talks in several auditoriums. I enjoyed Tim Wendell and Leigh Newman as they gave readings. I listened to Stanley Plumly and Dick Allen read some poems, followed by a Q & A. The highlight of the festival was headliner George Saunders, interviewed by Tom Hall. Hall guided the interview with engaging questions that sparked Saunders’ entertaining and charismatic personality, and together they kept the audience laughing. The audience heard anecdotes about Saunders’ writing career, particularly from his beginning years, which inspired and sometimes reassured the writers in the crowd. Saunders took on the interview like it was a creative project, spinning similes and metaphors to illuminate his answers and to keep the audience’s attention.
He read an excerpt from “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” a story included in his latest short-story collection, Tenth of December. The interview concluded with a Q & A with the audience, who asked a surprisingly small number of questions.
Afterward, I had the pleasure of speaking with Saunders informally, and he put to ease my lamentations about avoiding adverbs in fiction, which is a rule that has been hammered into my cerebral cortex from every tutorial, class and workshop I’ve attended (there’s even writers’ tools that provide seek-and-destroy adverb tactics, like Edit Minion with its “Adverbinator,”). Without hesitation, Saunders told me that adverb usage is ok—even great, sometimes—as long as you make it count. The lesson: no lazy writing. Make each word matter.
I ecstatically recommend this festival.
By: Jeff Fearnside
Jeff Fearnside’s literary writing has won several national awards and appeared in more than three dozen journals and anthologies, including Potomac Review, The Pinch, Rosebud, Many Mountains Moving, New Madrid, Permafrost, and The Los Angeles Review. Fearnside has taught writing for many years at Washington State University, Western Kentucky University, and the Academy of Languages in Kazakhstan, among other institutions. He lived and worked in Central Asia for four years, and traveled widely along the Silk Road. He now lives with his Kazakhstani wife and two cats in Oregon. More information: www.Jeff-Fearnside.com
One question invariably comes up when on the writing path: “When can I call myself a writer?” The best answer is unsatisfyingly simple and straightforward: “Writers write.” If you’re writing, you’re a writer.
However, I believe what people really want to know is this: “When will I receive recognition for my efforts? When will people take me seriously as a writer?”
You become a serious writer when you begin to take yourself seriously. It doesn’t rely on outside confirmation. That helps—I won’t deny it—but ultimately we each must form our own definition of what literary success means.
There are no set parameters that determine this. Writing every day, meeting minimum monthly word counts, or meeting project deadlines are all good ways to feel successful, and yet scheduled days of writing will be missed, word quotas unmet, projects unfinished, even for “real” writers. What separates serious writers from wannabes is how they react to the setbacks.
One of the best lessons I learned in this regard came not from a writer but from my first tai chi teacher, John Cooke. Early in my training, I asked him when it wouldn’t be such a struggle to practice every day. He looked at me with genuine puzzlement.
“Never,” he said. “You have to commit to it each day. If you miss a day, forget about it. Commit to your practice the next day.”
It’s the same with writing. You can’t say to yourself, “From this day forward, I’m committed to writing a thousand words a day every day,” no matter how fervently you burn to do so, and expect that this passionate promise alone is enough to spontaneously birth a new, healthy habit in your life. The habit of writing develops over time, through the process of writing.
Through it all, go easy on yourself. Beating yourself up for missing a day (or week or month) of writing only adds to the pressure, making it even more likely that you’ll have difficulty overcoming whatever obstacles you face. It’s already hard enough being a writer in a world where this largely isn’t met with much support. There’s no need to make it even harder.
Don’t buy into the myth that the best writers are good because of talent alone. The best writers are good because they persist in writing. Oh, certainly there are a few freaks of nature out there who pour the most profound poetry onto a page as effortlessly as drinking their morning coffee, just as there are a handful people more than eight feet tall or who can bend spoons with their minds. Statistically, they are anomalies. The rest of us have to work at it.
Finally, don’t make the mistake of thinking that publishing or winning awards defines you as a writer, though if you persist in writing and editing (and editing and editing…), it increases the likelihood that those other things will occur. If they do, enjoy them—for a time. Then start your next project.