A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well.

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

The Push and Pull of Literary Journals

In my experience, literary journals, especially in the U.S. can tend toward either of two extremes: discouraging people from submitting work, or sending enthusiastic daily reminders to do so.

The first tendency I can understand, up to a point. A journal knows what it wants; the editors have little time and don’t want to spend hours scrolling through submissions that they know they will reject. But some seem gratuitously offputting. Not long ago, I came upon this mission statement:

[Journal X] has a very clear mission: to be inclusive, to denounce bigotry of all kinds, and to stand up to those who abuse and persecute. We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding racism, trans/homophobia, misogyny, and violence for the sake of violence. If we receive work from an abusive person, we will decline it, as is our right to do. If we are alerted that we have published a piece by an abuser, we will unpublish it, as is our right to do.

Denouncing bigotry is the journal’s prerogative; journals have the freedom to set their own standards and criteria. What bothers me is the statement, “If we are alerted that we have published a piece by an abuser, we will unpublish it, as is our right to do.” They make no room for uncertainty; they say unambiguously, “we will unpublish it” (italics added). What if the “alert” is false, distorted, or vicious? This statement appears to value hearsay over (a) the contents of the submitted work and (b) the editors’ own judgment.

Let there be journals of many kinds; let the editors set their rules and choose pieces that they love. But writers, too, have standards to set and choices to make. I want editors who are willing to stand up for what they print, who won’t unpublish a piece just because of something they heard about the author.

At the other end of things, we find journals that remind you daily, maybe more than once a day, to enter their contests. As the days and hours count down, you get more and more reminders. Why? Do they really want your work? Do they think you have a chance of winning? Probably not. I can see several possible reasons for this approach: they want to discover some unknown gems; they make (badly needed) money from the contests; they want to spread the word about the journal, and they know that some people, including some of their favorite writers, just forget and need to be reminded. But most people receiving these emails are not really being sought out. If they submit, their work just adds to the size of the electronic pile.

Advice abounds about how to submit to journals and get your work published. Much of it makes sense; some of it just distracts. Submissions should never take precedence over the writing itself. (On a related subject, listen to this interview with the poet Teresa Miller.) Yes, if you want to be published, you do have to send out your work; granted, some approaches will work better than others. But if you are working on a story, and on a single day you get three reminders to submit to a particular contest, that does not mean you should submit the story before it’s done. Take the necessary time with it; otherwise you are just wasting your submission and incurring unnecessary rejection. Take years, if you need years.

And by all means, avoid journals whose mission statements sound a little off. Trust the ear over hearsay.

Image courtesy of Stack. This post does not refer, directly or indirectly, to any of the journals in the picture.

Announcing the Autumn 2020 Issue of Folyosó

The Autumn 2020 issue of Folyosó–an online journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnazium–has arrived, filled with witty, spooky, thoughtful pieces! Browse through it and let us know what you particularly enjoy.

For starters, here are just a few excerpts.

From “Finding Yourself” by Gréta Tóth:

The Milky Way is made up of many different things. Stars, planets, together with other celestial bodies, dust and naturally other strange, almost unknown particles like black holes, wormholes and dark matter. They are usually in balance with each other, but sometimes they cross each other’s path. Collisions happen between solar systems, stars and planets meet, or black holes absorb anything that comes near them, even time.

This story is about a common world, actually really similar to ours. But whenever a baby is born, a celestial body is born too. They are not independent of each other. They are the same, waiting for the moment to finally find each other and become one. They affect each other’s life and path. Let us start at the most important part of the Milky Way and humanity:  Finn Love, also known as the Supermassive Black Hole, the center of our galaxy. Love is probably the most important cementing force in humanity. His mission is to keep the balance in our Milky Way.

From “All Should Be in Order” by Gergely Sülye:

All should be in order. Of course we never think about that because it is a given in our lives, for most of us. I say most of us because there are people out there, in less-developed places, who live without order. They live per se, but not for long, not without order. Thus their chances of seeing this letter are really thin, making it appropriate to assume that the person this reaches lives in a civilization with successful guidelines. After all, a civilization is fully dependent on an orderly structure with its rules and regulations.

This is what the me of yesteryear would have said.

From “Grandpa’s Stories” by Áron Antal:

– Ya know, you always remind me of the times when I was young, I looked much like you back then. Me and my friends went to Moscow when we were in fourth grade in secondary school. We went there by train and it took almost a week to go there and back. I enjoyed it so much. The underground metros, they were so huge; the ceiling was like fifteen meters high, you could fit a town into there, and those majestic statues… But the place where we stayed… That was a bit nasty.

– I know, grandpa, you told me these stories like a hundred times and….

– You see, the apartment was full of roaches, literally full. They were everywhere. One night we stayed up and slapped them with our slippers. We killed a few hundred, but the next day they were back, hehe…

– I came for meat, grandpa….

From “Danse Macabre” by Lilla Kassai:

Mrs. Mars walked out to the garden. It was her favourite place: the grass was dark green, and every morning it was glistening with water drops. Behind the house was an enormous rose arbor filled with black roses. She smiled every time she peeked at the big, fragrant flowers. She breathed in the air filled with the smell of the roses and sat herself down on the bank under the arbor. The bank was guarded by two gargoyles, which had been sculpted by her husband. Ivory stroked their heads, knowing that her beloved had worked on them from morning to night, to surprise her on her birthday. She wanted to be with him, feel his strong arms around her, while cuddling, listening to his heartbeat, and kissing him passionately.

These were her everyday thoughts, even on the thirty-first of October. The black roses and the deep purple petunias were no longer  blooming. It was autumn; nature was preparing for winter, The leaves of the trees turned brown, red and yellow, and started to fall from the branches. In the window of multiple houses, Jack-O-Lanterns appeared. It was Halloween, Mr. and Mrs. Mars’ favourite holiday. They loved to carve pumpkins together, and always awaited the kids with plenty of sweets and candies, but they never went trick-or-treating.

This is just a small sample; there is much more to be found.

The next issue will feature an international contest, open to secondary school students anywhere in the world. Hajrá!

Dear Beck: I Draw You a Circle

circleDear Beck,

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to you about divorce, shapeshifting, or Scientology. This isn’t even about your music, although it might inadvertently touch on a song or two. If you’ve ever had a summer afternoon when, finding your soul sucked dry, you head down to your rowboat to splash your oars for a while and pay no mind to the fakery of politics and love, the painted eyelids, the accusations, and Lord only knows what other dead melodies; if, even when rowing, you find yourself trapped in a broken train of thought, so you pull back up to shore, get out, walk a little ways, and sit down by the side of the road, only to see an ambulance taking an emergency exit onto a sidestreet a few feet from you, missing your outstretched arm by a hair; when you remember you had promised to call a friend, and you reach into your pocket, only to discover that your cellphone’s dead and you’re condemned to rely on yourself, a necessary evil for which you will stay unforgiven by your own soul until sunrise; when you walk to the town park, sit down on a bench, and stay up all night trying to see through the dark places both inside and outside yourself—when all of this and more has occurred, you may just happen to be ready for what I am about to tell you: things could be worse, better, or in between.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that things could be worse. And indeed they could. Take any mishap and multiply it by two, five, or ten. Throw in some unexpected bullshit. Mix it all with a rotten mood. And that’s only the beginning. There are many other roads toward worsening, which I won’t bring up right now because that would be depressing, and I’m about to switch to the next point: things could be better.

Yes, things could be better. Everyone has something that they wish they had more of, or less of, or that they wish they could care more about, or less about. More is not always better, and less is more, so less is not always better either. That right there is the problem. When trying to make things better (because they could be better), we often don’t know whether to aim for more or less, and of what in particular. If we knew exactly how to make things better, we would probably go for it. But oftentimes, when trying, we get it wrong, causing new problems in the process.

So far, all of this is fairly intuitive. I’m sure you have not only followed my logic, but arrived at it on your own long ago. But now we’re coming to the jawdropper, the dazzler, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Things could also be somewhere in between better and worse—that is, sort of as they are, but with a few gives and takes. It’s a bracing possibility. Think about it. When hoping for things to get better, many of us fear that they actually won’t. This fear holds some truth; life does have its letdowns. Likewise, when fearing that things will get worse, many of us hope that they won’t. This hope, too, has a connection to reality; bad things don’t always happen. So basically a person could live, all the time, in some combination of hope and fear. But in that middle place, you don’t really need either one. There’s nothing to hope for, because it already is. There’s nothing to fear, because it has already happened.

That middle place is the worst of all, you might say. It’s limbo, apathy, indecision, rot. Well, it might be. But if that’s the case—and I believe you are right, if that’s what you believe—then the hopes and fears aren’t so bad after all. They have something to do with being alive.

So let’s backtrack from the park bench. While sitting there, you saw lightning, and it kind of freaked you out, but not much, because in the moment that you cried out for your dear life, you realized that life was in fact dear to you, and that illumination cheered you up. So now it’s morning, and even though you’re feeling a tad youthless after a night of no sleep, you have no complaints, since old age has its wisdoms and oblivions. As Yeats wrote, “There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” Hell yes. So you go round the bend, back to the road you were sitting beside before—it’s a beautiful way—and you stop to marvel at the lazy flies zigging and zagging without any sense of rush. This is happiness minus the most important component—but now you know you’re getting there. You see water ahead. You walk to it. You figure, “time to get in the boat and steal my body home.” But the boat is gone—someone stole it in the night—and you feel like you’ve got one foot in the grave. But then you realize, whoa! That means I’ve got feelings! And then it turns out that you had just taken the wrong path to the river. You see your boat tied up where you left it, a little farther along, past some brambles. Even the oars are there. So you get in the boat and paddle it back to the beginning. Or maybe somewhere else entirely.


Diana Senechal

This fictional piece (which alludes to thirty songs from Beck’s fourteen studio albums) received a complimentary, non-form-letter rejection from a publication that I have enjoyed and respected (and at times railed at) for many years. So I publish it here.