Category Archives: writing life

Projects in the Shadow

IMG_7061Some of the projects I’m working on are anthologies which I’m finding is a slow process dependent upon submissions from interested others. Then there are my own collections of essay and poetry that I slug away upon. New ideas come and go, are duly recorded into the idea notebook for later consideration. Short term submission deadlines distract me and some projects slide into the shadow until my attention cycles back upon them. I work best under a deadline. Deadlines keep projects on the radar and in the light of effort, not in the shadow of out of mind. A new book comes in for review, the calendar rolls around to Emerging Writer Prize time, I go to a conference and return with a score of new markets to consider…I’m a bit unfocused or perhaps just not focused on writing at the moment. The literary life is feeling a bit battering at the moment. I’ll get back to it, I’m sure, soon. Excuse me while I distract myself with Warlords of Draenor‘s pre-expansion patch. Now there’s a time sink if there ever was one.

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Three by Five Presents John Byrne Barry Part 2

VAH: John, when did you know you were a writer and when did you realize you were?John Barry in Weminche Wilderness, Colorado

JBB: I’ve never just been a writer, so I’m not sure I ever came to that realization — I’ve been a graphic designer for almost as long, and for many years at my Sierra Club job, that was my greatest calling, perhaps because there were so many other who fancied themselves writers, but few who were designers.

When I was married for the first time, I put on my marriage certificate that I was a playwright, which I was at the time, but mostly I said that because it was better than saying I was unemployed.

Now that I’ve written and published a novel, I am more comfortable saying I’m a writer, but there’s still a part of me that thinks I’m an imposter.

VAH: I think that’s a process we all go through, that sense of really, truly being a writer and a small sense that questions the validity of claiming that! Which brings me to ask, what is your best advice for emerging writers?

JBB: I’m not the first to say this, but I can vouch for its veracity. Keep doing it. Keep practicing. There’s this concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that you need to put in 10,000 hours to get good at anything that’s difficult, and I have put in the hours. I remember twenty years ago, when I wrote a couple cover stories for the East Bay Express, one on garbage and recycling, another on collectives, how much my early drafts were tangled up like spaghetti because I was trying to weave together so many strands. I pulled out my hair turning those bloated early drafts into a story that was smooth and clear enough to publish. I have an easier time with those kind of structural challenges, and I think I just got better with practice. I only wish I had been more disciplined when I was younger. I wasn’t a bad writer, but I was not as focused as I needed to be, and I didn’t write as much as I do now because it was more like torture. I was lazy.

It’s not that I don’t still struggle. Taming the wild plots of Bones in the Wash was arguably the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it’s more fun now. I have more confidence because I’ve done it. I hope I keep getting better.

VAH: Getting better with practice. What are your thoughts on studying writing?

JBB: I looked into the MFA program at USF and was intrigued, but there are a lot of ways to learn these days. I was part of a novel writing critique group for more than ten years — they read at least two drafts of Bones in the Wash and my first novel, Wasted. I would have had to get five MFAs to equal that level of attention to my work.

VAH: What are you thoughts on writing conferences. Do you have a favorite?

JBB: I’ve only been to one, the San Francisco Writers’ Conference earlier this year, and I quite enjoyed it, especially the craft sessions. There was so much on the publishing and promotion process and I know that’s important, and I need to do more of it, but that part got old fast. It’s not that everyone says the same thing, but it seems that way.

VAH: What about writing full time?

JBB: I have been a writer for decades, but usually more than a writer. Mostly that was because my jobs demanded it. I needed to do design as well, or editing, or training, or leading teams, or managing projects. Mostly, that was a good thing because, even though writing is probably my strongest skill, it’s a solitary venture and that solitude can get old. When I first started writing novels, more than fifteen years ago, while I had a full-time job, I used to joke that if someone said here’s a pot of money, go and write your novel full time, I couldn’t have done it. Wouldn’t have wanted to do it. Now, maybe, but I would prefer to have more variety in my life.

The other thing I learned, by being part of a complicated organization, with thousands of volunteers and hundreds of staff, was that strategic thinking was more valued than writing. It wasn’t enough to write, I had to figure out what needed to be written, and for what audience. For a number of years, I managed other writers and editors, some of whom were pretty good with words, and one thing that happened all too often is that one of them would take a draft that had been handed to us and copy edit it when what needed to be done was to go back to the author and say, what is it you’re trying to do here? If something is ill-conceived in the first place, copy editing is not going to help.

VAH: That seems a good lesson – if the story isn’t well put together, no amount of editing will improve upon the story.

Thanks John! Coming up towards the end for the month – more from John Byrne Barry. Join Three by Five again, on days that end in 3.

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John Byrne Barry

VAH: Welcome Novelist John Byrne Barry to the Three by Five Author and other Interesting People Interview series! The burning first question is always – why do you write?

JBB: I write to answer questions. No, really. Sometimes the question is as simple as “What am I going to do today?” As for why I write novels, well, those questions aren’t that different. More like “What should I do with my life?” “How can I contribute to the world?”

Those are not rhetorical questions. One of the themes that I explore, consciously some of the time, is how to do the right thing. While I wanted “Bones in the Wash” to be a fun fast-paced political thriller and family drama, under all the action, I wanted to answer that question. The protagonist, ambitious Albuquerque Mayor Tomas Zamara, does believe in doing the right thing. But as he says, “politics is like playing football on a muddy field. If you don’t get dirty, you’re not giving your all.”

Does that give you a pass on doing the right thing? No, it doesn’t. It makes it harder.

I’m writing some non-fiction now, a conservation assessment of the Russian Far East, and there too, I’m answering a question. Here we have this vast expanse of pristine ecosystems, home to polar bears, tigers, and six species of Pacific salmon, and there we have a corrupt and undemocratic Russian government. Why should anyone invest time or money to protect these unparalleled natural treasures? (The answer gets more challenging every day that President Putin is in the news for incursions into the Ukraine, even though the Russian Far East is 5,000 miles away.)

I also write to make the world more interesting. Back in 2004, when I first worked on a presidential campaign, going door-to-door and phonebanking for John Kerry in three working-class suburbs south of Milwaukee, I made a commitment to write and post a blog entry every night. The work was tedious. Too many calls. Too many doors. Not enough meaningful interactions. (It was a swing state and so many people were so inundated with ads, mailers, calls, and so on.) But I had to write something every night, so I paid more attention, keeping my eyes and ears peeled for some interesting anecdote or conversation. It added a dimension to what otherwise were long and flat days.

VAH: I’d say that one of the joys of writing is being able to fully explore all the possible answers to the many questions we encounter in our lives.

Do you remember what your first story was about?

JBB: My memory is fuzzy, but I know that sometime in fifth or sixth grade history class, I wrote—probably with others, but I don’t remember—some satirical skits about Betsy Ross and the making of the American flag. At that time, I don’t think I had listened to Stan Freberg, who did comedy records parodying American history, but when I discovered him in college, I realized I had done things in the same vein. I believe the skits were well received, but whether that’s because they were good or because the rest of history class was dull I can’t say.

VAH: What about a favorite literary character?

JBB: One of my favorite books is All the Kings Men, a fictional account of Louisiana’s charismatic governor Huey Long, represented in the book as Willie Stark. He’s a fascinating character, but it is the book’s narrator, his aide Jack Burden, a former newspaper man, who is my favorite character. Perhaps it’s because of what I mentioned above, that the compelling moral question for me, as a reader and a writer, is how to do the right thing. Willy didn’t sweat that question.

Willie knew you never needed to make up lies about opponents. Here’s what he said to Jack as he told him to find dirt on an old family friend, now a judge: “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.”

Jack found the something. For better and worse, however, Jack had a moral compass, and so he struggled with indecision, with betrayal, with morality. He was the more tortured soul, and thus more interesting.

 VAH: John, imagine you were stranded on a deserted island, what book or series of books would you want with you and why?

JBB: If I think about that long enough, I won’t be able to answer it, so I’ll just blurt out John LeCarre. I’ve read at least 20 of his books, but I think I would enjoy reading them again. I reread The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a few years ago, and it seemed dated, but just as compelling a drama.

VAH: That first thought is usually the most authentic, before you catch yourself with what “should be” a response. Authors that we can return to again and again, those are the true masters worth reading.

What would you say was the biggest influence on your development as a writer?

JBB: I worked for 25 years at the Sierra Club in a variety of positions, mostly in communications, doing writing, editing, design. Because we were often covering wonky environmental issues, like fuel efficiency in cars or water pollution from factory farms, we had to find stories to make those issues come alive. So I learned and mentored others in how to discover and distill the story. When writing fiction, I can make stuff up, but when doing journalism or writing reports, I have to dig to find the gold.

But even when writing fiction, I have a tendency to “tune my piano,” to borrow a phrase from John Barth, and when I’m in rewrite, I need to cut that tuning out and jump directly to the action. Come to think of it, I might want some John Barth with me on that desert island. Though it’s been a long time since I read any of his books. When I was a younger man, I thought Giles Goat Boy was incredibly brilliant. I might find it ponderous today.

Find out more about John Byrne Barry by visiting his social media sites.

johnbyrnebarry.com

bonesinthewash.com

https://twitter.com/johnbyrnebarry

https://www.facebook.com/bonesinthewash

 

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Introducing John Byrne Barry at Three by Five in October

October’s Three by Five author is John Byrne Barry.

John Byrne Barry wrote his first book length project in fifth grade at Kilmer School in Chicago — a 140-page book on dinosaurs. One dinosaur per page. Lots of white space. He’s been writing ever since — newspaper and magazine stories, plays and skits, reports and tweets. He’s even written “advice columns” — “Question the Authority” about environmental issues, and “Lazy Organic Gardener.”

In, 2013, he published his first novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher. Set in New Mexico during the 2008 presidential campaign, it’s one part political thriller, one part family soap, and one part murder mystery. Coming out later this fall is Wasted, a “green noir” mystery set in the world of garbage and recycling in Berkeley.

He lives in Mill Valley, California with his wife and family. For more about John, return on days that have a 3 in them! in the mean time – here’s the first page of his current work in progress:

Edgewater

by John Byrne Barry

Chapter 1: Dry Run

CHICAGO. JANUARY 2014.

Lamar huddled in the janitor’s closet between the fifth and sixth floor for two hours and thirty minutes. The wind howled outside, whipping across Lake Michigan and rattling the small window above the empty gray metal shelving unit on the back wall. The closet reminded him of a jail cell, though he’d only been in one once, to visit a client.

The small room had a pleasant smell of lemon verbena, from some cleaning products, but underneath that was a dank odor of a wet rug rolled up and jammed against a wall.

In the corner was a rolling cart stacked with folding chairs, and when he got tired of standing, he unfolded a chair and sat. A month earlier, when he did his reconnaissance, the closet had been bulging with Christmas decorations. Ornaments for the trees, stockings, wreaths, tree stands, strings of lights. Now they were on display at the nurses’ station, in the bingo room, by the elevators, and in the first floor lobby.

He had picked the lock of the closet. Easy even for an amateur like him. No one would guess that was something he could do.

At 1:30 am, he walked up seventeen steps. Didn’t make a sound. Nudged open the door with his shoulder. Two hours and thirty minutes earlier, he had slipped a folded postcard between the strike plate and the latch bolt. The photo on the card was of the lakefront and the Chicago skyline gleaming in the summer sun.

As he slipped inside the room, he stepped on something that crunched, like a potato chip. He froze. It didn’t appear to disturb anyone. He shuffled past the roommate, then stood in the shadows behind the curtain separating the two beds. Standing ramrod still, he felt the weight of his shoulder bag, heavy with the nitrogen tank. He could see the light of the corridor through the curtain, but knew that no one passing could see him. Not that there were likely to be any passersby in the middle of this cold night.

Robert Rose lay on his back, his hands open and crossing his chest. Peaceful. Lamar aspired to be peaceful, and may have appeared so on the outside. That was not what he was experiencing on the inside.

JB headshot

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Emerging Writer Prize Open

Time to send in your submissions for the Emerging Writer Prize.

It’s free.

If you win, you get registration to attend the San Francisco Writers Conference over President’s Weekend in February.

Answer the prompt Why I write.

Send a couple pages of your best work or an excerpt from your best work.

Leave me laughing, crying, starving for more after I read your prompt response and your work.

And you too, could join the elite cohort of winners of the Victoria A. Hudson Emerging Writing Prize.

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Ruben Quesada Three by Five Part III

ruben 3Finishing up Three by Five’s interview with Poet Ruben Quesada.

 

VAH: The blank page stares back at you, what gets you over writers block?

RQ: Art is a big inspiration for me, so when I’m feeling blocked I turn to the works of art that might have inspired others. Usually something new will strike me about the painting and I’ll be able to start working. Music is helpful too. Anything from Mariah Carey to the Beach Boys to Wagner can provide inspiration.

VAH: What does your typical writing day include?

RQ: Right now, it includes a lot of revision since I’m getting my next manuscript ready. It includes reading, listening to music, or if I’m in the mood, having a movie playing in the background as I work.

VAH: What are your thoughts on the writing community – are there writing or author organizations you belong to or online sites ou frequent for community, conversing, networking or commiserating? And do you have some favorites?

RQ: I’m very active on Twitter, which has really given me the opportunity to connect with other writers and maintain friendships I’ve made with writers at AWP or Canto Mundo. Twitter is a great platform to talk about writing or just share about the work of other writers that I enjoy.

VAH:  Traditional or independent publishing? Or a little of both? What choices have you made and why did you go the way you have?

RQ: It depends on what your goals are in terms of writing. There are many wonderful independent publishers that support their writers and have helped get some terrific work out into the world. My first collection, Next Extinct Mammal, was with an independent press and that was a good experience. I’d like to be published by a bigger press as well. What is most important is to publish with people who you are comfortable with and would be proud to say published your work. Never publish with a press just because it’s a publication. Make sure it’s a good fit for both of you.

VAH: Best bit of advice to save another writer some anxiety or heartache?

RQ: Don’t spend too much comparing yourself to other writers in terms of career trajectory. Things happen at a different pace for everyone. Be ambitious; strive for more, work hard, and it will happen. Don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t happen as quickly as you want it to.

VAH: What’s next for you? Do you have a work in progress you can tell us about?

RQ: I’m finishing my second collection of poetry right now. I’m also working on a paper about queer horror movies called “The Horror of Heterosexuality.” I’m excited to have started some new poems that I think are the start of a third collection. I’m also working on video poems. My video poem “Dark Matter” was recently released by Poetryseen.com.  RubenQuesada w book cover

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I Remember

Author and playwright Mary H. Webb often used the prompt “I remember” in her writing groups and classes. Recently, the Military Partner’s and Families Coalition invited me to write a piece honoring the 3rd anniversary of the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Today is the 3rd anniversary from when that repeal went into effect.

“I remember” is a powerful and effective writing prompt when at a loss for how to begin either because the blank page is staring back or because the idea peculating in your mind is just too big to tackle. Try it next time you’re searching for just what to say as you create a piece of nonfiction. (Works for fiction too.)

Here is my post at MPFC.

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Ruben Quesada Part II, Three by Five Author Interviews

ruben 3Welcome to Part II of the three segment interview with Poet Ruben Quesada.

VAH: Ruben, do you have a favorite conference or writing event and what makes that event a favorite?

RQ: Just one? Vermont Studio Center was a great experience because you are given so much time and space to write. I also enjoy that it’s not just writers in residence at VSC. I had the chance to meet visual artists as well. Being able to speak with them about how they approached their work let me have new perspective on my process.

VAH: The opportunity to speak with others about how one’s “art” develops is also one of the draws for me when attending conferences or retreats. So often gems are traded from that experience of sharing the process of creation.

You write and teach writing – are you a full time writer or full time teacher?

RQ: I’d say if you are serious about writing, you are a full-time writer regardless of what else you do in life to make money. I’m also an assistant professor. I teach poetry, digital storytelling, playwriting, queer studies, composition, and screenwriting. Both teaching and writing are my occupations. Sometimes they compete for my time, but I make the time required for both because that what I want to do.

VAH: When you are the reader, What books or authors keep you up at night because you can’t put them down?

RQ: The Clerk’s Tale by Spencer Reece; Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke; When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz; Hustle by David Tomas Martinez; Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

VAH:  What book or series of books would you want if stranded on a deserted island and why?

RQ: Obviously they would have to books I would return to again and again, so I’d want some Ovid, Gabriela Mistral, Thomas Hardy, and W.H. Auden. I’m a fan of the quotidian and high art and these writers offer me insight into the high, the low, and everything in-between. I want to feel alive and be reminded of it when I read and that’s why I’d choose these writers.

VAH: That has to be one of my favorite questions in Three by Five as each author gives such interesting responses.

If there was a movie about your life and times, who would play you? What would the theme song be, and why?

RQ: Some friends and I were actually had a conversation about who would play us in movies and it was really difficult to come up with someone for me. There are not enough Latino actors working today. Perhaps an unknown actor would be best.

VAH: Ahh, an opportunity is out there then. Ruben, thank you for contributing your insights and comments with this second installment of Three by Five.

Read some of Ruben’s work at poetry blog The The Poetry.

The third interview installment will publish September 23rd. More from Ruben Quesada then!

Ruben Quesada is the author of Next Extinct Mammal (2011) and Luis Cernuda: Exiled from the Throne of Night (2008). He is Poetry Editor for Cobalt Review, Codex Journal and The Cossack Review. His writing has appeared in The  American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, The Rumpus, and Superstition Review. He teaches English and creative
writing for the performing arts at Eastern Illinois University.

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Dr. Ruben Quesda @ Three by Five Part I

rubenThis month, Three by Five is happy to host Dr. Ruben Quesda, Ph.D. He is a Poet as well as an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing for the Performing Arts at Eastern Illinois University.

 

VAH: Ruben, Three by Five always starts with the inquiry why do you write?

RQ: I write because art and poetry are meant to push boundaries and discuss issues in the community that might be uncomfortable or that people might not want to discuss. The goal of my poetry is to cause conversation about race, queerness, death, and our human experience. We deal with big issues everyday, so writing is a way for me to process and try to understand them.

VAH: Some challenging topics to address. What do you do when the blank page stares back at you?

RQ: Art is a big inspiration for me, so when I’m feeling blocked I turn to the works of art that might have inspired others. Usually something new will strike me about the painting and I’ll be able to start working. Music is helpful too. Anything from Mariah Carey to the Beach Boys to Wagner can provide inspiration.

VAH: What inspired you to become a writer?

RQ: I published a poem anonymously in my high school paper during my freshman year and it caused quite a stir. I knew then that there was power in my writing. It was exciting. I continued writing and in my senior I won a high school writing competition sponsored by the Los Angeles Times. And it was that moment that I knew writing was all I wanted to do for a living.

VAH: What is your best advice for emerging writers who are discovering that writing is what they want to do for a living?

RQ: Read. Write. Repeat. It’s common advice, but it’s that way because it’s true. Write as much as you can. Read as much as you can. If you are interested in a particular style read all that you can about it and become an expert on it. I think it’s important to know the history of the style you are writing in, so that you know how you fit into the tradition, but also that you know how you are contributing something new to it as well.

VAH: Knowing and understanding the style of writing a writer is growing into is an important facet of the writer’s education. What are your thoughts on studying writing? You’ve an MFA – has the degree helped your career progress or development?

RQ: I do have an MFA. It was helpful in that it allowed me to explore poetry more closely and see what it excited in me as a writer. The MFA as a studio degree is about the creation of work, which is, of course, very useful. However, it doesn’t usually allow a lot of time for the consideration of theory and how your work fits in among a particular theory or historical moment. My time at Texas Tech for my Ph.D allowed me to make such considerations.

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Introducing Ruben Quesada @ Three by Five in September

rubenRuben Quesada – Poet and Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing for the Performing Arts at Eastern Illinois University

Dr. Ruben Quesada is founder and publisher of Codex Journal, poetry editor at The Cossack Review and Cobalt Review, and poetry editor at Luna Luna Magazine.

Founder of Stories & Queer, a non profit, traveling reading series whose mission is to create safe storytelling spaces for poets & writers of color in underrepresented areas of the country, he now serves as its creative consultant.

A Pushcart Prize nominee in poetry, his writing has appeared in The American Poetry Review, The California Journal of Poetics, Superstition Review, Guernica, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere.

Ruben has been a fellow and resident at CantoMundo, Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Santa Fe Art Institute, Lambda Literary Foundation Writer’s Retreat, and Idyllwild Arts Program.

Visit his webpage for info on a current call for submissions for Latin@ poets at any stage in their careers.

More about and from Dr. Ruben Quesada this month on days with a three.

 

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