The Gaza Book

By Jeff Talarigo

By the time I started teaching at the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University in 2009, over 400 pages of my third novel were in the garbage. Still, I didn’t feel that I was anywhere near telling the story I wanted to tell, the story I had to tell.

At each residency, the faculty participate in public readings from their work. Prior to that time, any public reading that I had done was in the past – that is, work that had already been published. Over my first six years at Wilkes, I read, not from the past, but rather from what came to be known simply as my “Gaza book.”

After each of the readings, faculty and students would often make comments, not critics per se, but comments that would, for the most part, reassure what I was doing. However, the question in my mind remained, where is this book going?

As I do with images that I find intriguing, I also allow comments on my writing to nurture over time.  I don’t rush or force them, I am patient. Some of the comments on my work in progress, however, resonated, and in their own ways, big or small, helped to change the course of the book.

* Your stories are so visual, they would make wonderful plays: this was said to me on several occasions and eventually I stepped away from the book for a few weeks, wrote a short, one act play with a carrier pigeon as the narrator and this helped me to focus and simplify the voice. In the end, the voices of many animals are heard throughout the novel.

* Don’t forget to have a little humor in the book: again, a comment made by several people and now I have a somewhat sarcastic sheep narrating the longest story in the novel.

* Bring yourself into the book: one day, back in 2011, I was having lunch with a recent graduate of the program along with Dr. J. Michael Lennon.  The graduate asked me if the story I had told him of getting shaved in Gaza was in the book. I told him that I am not in my books, that I don’t feel comfortable doing so. Dr. Lennon agreed that it was a memorable story and that I should think about it, he even so much as referred me to a Herman Melville story (“Benito Cereno) where a man gets a shave on a Spanish slave ship.  The following month I worked on writing short scenes of myself, “the American,” and began to place them in the book as anchors to each of the stories.  I used third person in these short scenes, allowing me some distance from that oh-so-heavy one letter word “I.”

By early 2013, after more than eight years and eight hundred pages in the garbage, I completed a draft and had told the story that I wanted to tell. It was time to send the book out and my agent submitted initially to about a dozen houses. Going in, we knew this was going to be a tough sell, partly because it was a novel told from the Palestinian perspective – in fact, a surprising number of houses declined to even look at it because of this fact.  Two years went by and the book had not been accepted. We did receive numerous “admirable passes,” but those meant little or nothing to me at that stage of my career.

I continued to read from the “Gaza book” over the next three residencies, but then suddenly, in June, 2015, twenty minutes before I was to be on stage, I borrowed a copy of my first novel – The Pearl Diver – from the bookseller and began to read from my past. The following residency I read from my second book, The Ginseng Hunter, and on the return flight to California, thoughts that the Gaza book was dead swarmed me. I had, for the first time in my twenty-three years of writing, doubts, and felt trapped as a writer. I felt numb creatively. Questions abound. Would I ever publish another book, hell, did I have the energy and desire to write another one? I had a fourth novel in mind, but, as with all my books, it would take time and funding to do the research and travel. Instead of writing, I began to go on long hikes on the weekends and started to get back into photography, which, in all honesty, saved me from those darkest times. Quite simply, it allowed me to be creative, allowed me to express myself, allowed me the deep solitude that I craved. But the questions and doubts stalked me.

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Flash ahead eight months, July, 2016, on a beach at Point Reyes National Seashore. I had just finished a six-mile early morning hike and came to one of my favorite resting spots, a very large piece of driftwood, a place where I would lie down and listen to the pounding Pacific and think. On that day, I began to scour my past and think about regrets in my life; I could come up with only three, the last being that the Gaza book would never see the light of day. This book, the Palestinian people’s story I most wanted to tell, the subject that made me want to become a novelist, a story with me for more than a quarter of a century.

Two weeks later, I received an email from Phil Brady, founder and executive director of Etruscan Press, and he, along with Bob Mooney, had read my Gaza book, a book they had heard me reading from at Wilkes over the years, and they offered to publish it.  And now, in a few short months, In the Cemetery of the Orange Trees, will see the light of day and I have only two regrets in my life.

jeff_talarigo-1.jpgJeff Talarigo is the author of two novels: The Pearl Diver (Anchor, 2005) and The Ginseng Hunter (Anchor, 2009).

From 1990 to 2006, he lived in Gaza twice and in Japan. Talarigo was a fellow at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in 2006-07.  Currently living in Oakland, California, Talarigo teaches in the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.


Down the Home Stretch with Community, Solidarity, and Panic

By Lisa Greim

Forget April; for those of us in the Wilkes University Low-Residency Graduate Program in Creative Writing, May is by far the cruelest month.

Our term ends May 29, so students in their first online semester are finishing their last assignments in foundations classes, including two 30-page portfolios of revised work. Students in 512-514 are preparing to submit their first thesis draft, and turning their reading lists into annotated bibliographies.

Students in CW520, wrapping up their thesis projects, have multiple deadlines in May. Along with a polished draft for their mentors, students prepare synopses for their outside readers, and letters of intent if they plan to go forward for the M.F.A.

Meanwhile, they prepare for June residency, when they will present a capstone reading, get feedback from their outside readers, and package their thesis projects for both academic submission (signature page, acknowledgments, self-analysis essay) and the market (query letter, synopsis, bio, marketing plan).

M.F.A. candidates have deadlines too; they are working on their literary analysis papers and preparing reports on their internship experiences. They, too, must wrestle with M.L.A. style (commas or periods? parentheses or no?), and deliver an excerpt from their papers at residency.

On or before May 29, the fruits of all this labor will fill Dropboxes in LIVE, the Wilkes online learning ecosystem. Until then, those lucky enough to be in a relationship with a Wilkes creative writer won’t see much of them. Facial hair will sprout. Laundry piles will grow. Text messages will go unanswered; the warm spring sun will shine and be ignored. Children will greet their mothers with, “Who is this woman?”

As a public service, we asked an assortment of Wilkes Creative Writing faculty and alums how they prefer to gear themselves up to finish a project.

Most of them were too slammed to respond.

Experts advise that when a deadline approaches, writers should disconnect as much as possible from the outside world—turn off the television, ignore social media. Molly Barari (M.F.A. ’16) took things a step farther. To get her memoir done, she checked into the “somewhat seedy” Days Inn near her home in Rapid City, S.D., and did not emerge until she had a draft.

“I spent an entire week lying in bed in my pajamas, covers tucked around me, typing on my laptop,” Molly reports. “I didn’t worry about showers or hygiene. I only left the room to walk across the street to Safeway for food and wine.”

M.F.A. student Ronnie K. Stephens credits his partner, who tired of him jetting off to fabulous Wilkes-Barre every six months, leaving her alone in Dallas with their kids. “Mallerie said, ‘You better get this done. You get one more residency. I don’t give a damn if you finish, but you’re not going back after June.’” He cranked up focus-enhancing alpha wave music and blasted out 40,000 of his 70,000 words in four marathon days to finish The Kaleidoscope Sisters, the first book of a young-adult series.

The students of CW 520 – my cohort, also known as the WhyNots — are never too busy to procrastinate in our Facebook group. They were happy to weigh in on home-stretch strategies.

Several decided their best strategy was to take an extra semester, making their home stretch more of a marathon than a sprint. Up in Woodstock, N.Y., Alan Yount had a major plot epiphany that was impossible to pull off in four weeks; Danie Watson of Nanticoke, Pa., decided to make her story a novel, rather than a memoir, and started fresh. We remind them to hydrate, pace themselves, and wear sunscreen, and we’ll see them in January.

Bibiana Krall, an M.A. student from Savannah, Ga., who expects to present her novel The Oracle of Aberlour at June residency, credits “balls to the wall discipline and hardcore writing” for getting done on time.

She set herself Monday deadlines, every week, to submit a certain number of pages to her mentor, Lenore Hart Poyer. “Every Monday, no matter what the hell happened, I had that much to accomplish. I did it with pages, but word count would work just as well. My motivation was the sense of accomplishment I knew I would have when I stuck with it.”

Bibiana knows about that sense of accomplishment – before beginning the Low-Residency Graduate Program, she had already published two novels on the Amazon platform. Travel and the regular chaos that appears in a house with two teenaged daughters had to be worked around. “Just for the record, every Monday someone in my family had a major emergency or problem. So it was always rotten on Mondays, but every other day was a piece of cake. Ha ha!”

Another M.A. candidate, Phoenix-based spoken-word artist Christopher Owens, invented a hashtag to help him finish his novel, a thriller set in New Orleans, Neutral Ground. Family and friends who see him messing around on social media were instructed to reply with #ButAreYouWriting?

The WhyNots (minus William Thomas) at January 2016 residency

Mesa memoirist Toni Helber Muma relies on a fitness regimen. “I run 3-5 miles every day (so I can drink two beers nightly without blowing up) and I work through many structural and theme issues during that time. It’s hypnotic, and I have many ‘aha’ moments during my runs. I’ve been running with my husband a lot lately, and I told him that he needs to be quiet so I can think.”

Aurora Bonner not only takes yoga class in her home town of Scranton, Pa., but teaches it. “I would not be able to write this if I didn’t have a daily yoga practice,” she says, adding healthy matcha tea to the prescribed regimen of booze and coffee.

Travis Shick of Reading, Pa., credits the discipline imposed on him by the U.S. Army – particularly the part of the Army that sent him overseas this spring, forcing him to finish his 110,000-word historical novel two weeks early.

Poet Christy White, another Mesa weekender, advises writers to become friends with the revision process. “I can stop when I realize I’m nitpicking a word or two in the poem and nothing else.” She also found that separating her poems into three sections “really helps me see the work as a whole and not as just a bunch of poems. I feel that now I’m in the homestretch and have a feeling of accomplishment. That has motivated me to continue the revisions and begin the sorting of the sections. And then there’s the bib to finish.”

As for me, I threatened in our Facebook group to write my memoir entirely on 3×5 cards, tape them into one long strip, and FedEx them to program director Bonnie Culver. On ordinary paper, Step Zero just topped a tidy 241 pages, plus 14 pages of annotated bibliography. It has been reviewed by my mentor, Kaylie Jones, and is resting for a few days before I give it one more scrub and file it to the Dropbox. My biggest home stretch trick was unintentional: I was so drawn into what I was writing that I blew off almost everything else (including this blog) for three months.

Besides caffeine, alcohol, and yoga, my required ingredient was the support of other cohort members. From the first night of our “boot camp” residency in January 2016, the WhyNots (named after a fictional town in Louisiana) have connected in person, email, phone calls, text messages, and social media. We have shared craft techniques, reading lists, late-night freak-outs, cheat sheets, AWP hotel rooms, birthdays, tragedies, barstools at Genetti’s, and workshop pages. Some of us only meet twice a year; some of us have never met.

It doesn’t matter. Community transcends time zones and other petty boundaries.

Lisa Greim is a student in the Wilkes University Low-Residency Graduate Program in Creative Writing. She lives and writes in Arvada, Colo.

In Zuni fetish symbolism, the badger means “relentless pursuit of a goal.”


Idle Awhile in Idyllwild

By Gabrielle D’Amico

I’ve always felt like a California girl at heart. I crave sunshine and sand. I’m a proud member of Raider Nation. And Dawn from The Babysitters Club was my childhood idol. So when I was named one of 25 semifinalists for the CineStory Fellowship, earning an invitation to its annual writer’s retreat in October, I packed my bags and my man, and set out for La-La Land. Continue reading “Idle Awhile in Idyllwild”

Five (Un)Easy Ways to Get Your Stories Published

By Josh Penzone

As a new writer, your first inclination may be to submit your work to well-known publications. While no literary journal wants to state outright that it prefers established authors, if you read Tin House’s guidelines, the editors “offer” a chance to submit an unsolicited manuscript as if it were altruism on their part. They don’t appear to read blind (that is, without a byline) and they have less than a 1% acceptance rate. The one story I did submit to Tin House was rejected after one year and twelve days. That’s right. I waited 377 days for a polite, “Unfortunately, we have decided to pass on this submission” letter.

Since no actuarial expert has figured out the probability of an esteemed literary magazine accepting a piece of fiction, I decided to create my own strategy, something other than sending submissions out the way Oprah gives away Pontiacs: “You get a submission and you get a submission and you get a submission! Everybody gets submissions!” My first sobering truth in a racket fueled by hopeful delusions was this: publications like Tin House are never going to accept one of my stories. So why would I waste my time or theirs by submitting more work? I won’t. Not anymore.

Here are the guidelines I now use, which have boosted my acceptance rate.

Decode the Journal’s Subtext

ELJ Publications published my first story. I was drawn to them by their honesty. They read blind and said if the story ever says “In Progress” in Submittable, it’s under serious consideration. The first story I sent them was rejected, but it made the “In Progress” blue light special. Finally! A tacit understanding between writer and editor. When I told the editor-in-chief that the story they ultimately accepted was my first publication, she responded with, “You’re kidding me.” Their sincerity in wanting a good story, and not pedigree, spoke truth.

When I read the editorial description of a journal, I focus on its subtext. I look for the passion with which they write their literary requests, bios, and mission statement—purpose that extends beyond a business model. This also helps me get a sense of their personality. Do they crack jokes? Do they overwrite? Is their writing simple or complex? This sense of the journal’s own style hints at what its editors like to read. It’s a tell, helping me decide if I should submit to them, and if I do, which story I should choose.

 Five Signs You Should Revise Your Story

 I only have a story “live” with, at most, five publications at a time. If I don’t receive a note of encouragement after five rejections, then I know it’s time to stop submitting it and revise. One editor can be wrong, but if I receive many rejections with the standard “doesn’t fit our needs at this time,” I assume my story could use some tweaking. It’s hard to get a story published, if it isn’t ready to be published.

Five Signs You Should Submit It Elsewhere

 Thanks to the Internet, there are hundreds and hundreds of journals out there. If I submit more than five stories to the same journal and don’t receive an acceptance, it’s time to find another journal. I once received a note from The Flexible Persona that stated, “We thoroughly enjoyed reading your story. This is not our usual rejection; please submit more in the future.” So I did. And I was rejected. So I did again. And I was rejected again. So I did again. And I was rejected again. And, no more notes. I like their publication, and I feel I submit work in the genre and style in which they publish—yet no acceptance. Time to move on.

Always Select the Feedback Option

I go into the submission process with the mindset that editors are as passionate about their work as I am about mine. I hope this passion translates to their editorial feedback. To me, the feedback option is just another way to get into the mind of an editor.

The Tishman Review has rejected four of my stories, but their feedback helped me craft rewrites that led to publication in other journals. From Tishman, I got a different perspective of my story, which helped me to objectively review my work. Is all feedback good? Nope. I once got this semi-positive note from a different publication: “I usually quit reading after a few pages, but I made it halfway through your story.” He went on to say nice things and then predicted where the story was going. He was wrong. So now I know. This guy gives up on stories. Next journal.

Submit to New Publications

It occurred to me that a new writer should submit to new publications. It takes a lot of passion to start a publication. There’s no money in it, just devoted time. This encourages me. I too am writing all the time and not really expecting a monetary kickback, so let’s discover this kinship of ambition together. Instead of choosing five stories from 1,000 submissions, new publications most likely choose five stories from 100 submissions. They may not be Tin House or Ploughshares or The Atlantic, and to this I say, So what! Magazines like Chantwood and Sediments care just as much about craft and story, and they are eager to be a part of the literary world, which makes me already like them. Online publications can nominate work for a Pushcart Prize, which I just was—thank you very much, Five on the Fifth! These start-up publications want to be proud of your work and support you. This genuine support—to me—goes beyond a big name.

These are the strategies I’ve stuck to for 2016. Have I been rejected this year? Yep. Sixty times. But I’ve also had six stories accepted for publication and I’m optimistic I’ll get a few more by the end of the year.

It’s really all a crapshoot. But if we can marry optimism with pragmatism, we can make real progress as writers.

penzoneJosh Penzone earned his M.A. in Creative Writing from Wilkes University in 2013. His work has appeared in Five on the Fifth, The Critical Pass Review, Chantwood Magazine, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, and FICTION Silicon Valley. His short story “The Whitings” was published as a solo title by ELJ Publications; it’s available on Amazon. He lives in Ohio with his wife and daughter.

Photo Credit: Desert Broom Library, Phoenix, Az. Photo by Ellen Forsyth via Creative Commons/Flickr