In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. This week we bring you posts about writers and their mentors.
In our Roundups segment, we’re looking back at all the great posts since the blog started in 2009. We explore posts from our archives as well as other top literary magazines and websites, centered on a certain theme to help you jump-start your week. In honor of Mother’s Day, this week we have posts by and about literary mothers.
I can count the days: seventy-seven. This is a very long time to go without writing a single sentence that has nothing to do with confirming a meeting over email, reminding my husband via text message to add chocolate-covered pretzels to our grocery list, or scribbling on a pink Post-It, Ploughshares blog!!! It is no wonder that seventy-seven days ago is also around the time when I started my teaching job in Boston Public Schools. Five days a week I teach English Language Arts to one hundred seventh and eighth graders.
I have taught before; I have been a teacher for almost ten years in public schools, after-school programs, non-profits, and universities. So, theoretically, I should have known this was going to happen, this…drought. I should have known to accept the fact that I would have my personal essay manuscripts abandoned on the corner of my desk, folders labeled “story ideas” completely smothered by student work written in bubbly middle school handwriting—sometimes written in orange gel pen—and that my beloved laptop might gather dust (in addition to my dozens of drafts for essays and stories and oh yeah, my novel).
This week, I asked Becky Tuch to respond to some common misconceptions about literary magazines. Here are her responses.
1. No one reads them.
Literary magazines may not have a mainstream audience. But they do have a very specific and enthusiastic audience. Their readers are poets, lovers of the short story, admirers of flash fiction, lusters for the lyric essay. That’s not most people; it’s a minority. But it’s a valuable and passionate minority.
Growing up, I never knew it was possible to be a writer. No one in my family ever talked about reading books, never mind writing them. It wasn’t until September of my senior year in high school that I discovered that Barnes and Noble was a bookstore and not a furniture store. The library? That had always been my second home. But a bookstore? Never. Then during my senior year, my mentor, Debbie, took me to Barnes and Noble after we’d eaten lunch at the Olive Garden. She was helping me with my college applications . Nine months later, by the time I graduated high school, I’d already collected my first shelf full of novels, self-help titles, and story collections. They traveled with me to college. Today, I can’t possibly imagine my life without books or visits to bookstores.
Teens examining the Ploughshares book collection
This past summer, during Grub Street’s Young Adult Writers Teen Fellowship (http://www.grubstreet.org/index.php?id=22), one of my students wrote a ghazal that left me speechless with awe and envy. She is fifteen. Most days during the three-week program, she wore flannel shirts, jean shorts, and black Gladiator sandals. Her shoulder-length brown hair had a streak of pink in it—and one week, a blue strip—that often covered part of her face, including her dark-rimmed glasses, while she scribbled away in her spiral notebook. The prompt I gave the class was inspired by Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Ghazal in the Winter 2008-2009 Ploughshares issue, guest-edited by Jean Valentine (http://www.pshares.org/read/issue-detail.cfm?intIssueID=128). I have taught Dwayne’s phenomenal poem more times than I can count.
In my ten years of teaching—elementary, middle, high school and college level—my YAWP student’s ghazal, “In the Kitchen,” is one of the best student poems I have ever read.
Did I mention she is fifteen?
Last year my husband, Adam Stumacher, and I moved to Guatemala so we could work on our novels. That was the plan. Our first week there, he worked diligently, often using Freedom on his computer so he could stay focused on his daily word count goal. Me? Not so much. Here’s the thing: I get distracted when I am in Guatemala. For example, if I am in a café and an eleven-year-old girl serves me coffee, I wonder why she isn’t in school. And then I feel I am that little girl. Or at least I could be. I search for my face in her face, her so-black-it-looks-blue hair, high cheekbones, and big ears. If my parents hadn’t moved to the United States in the seventies, how would my life have turned out?
We were studying at Proyecto Lingüístico Quezalteco, a social-justice language school in the city of Quetzaltenango. Wooden tables and chairs were set up along the perimeter of the courtyard whose yellow walls were decorated with portraits of Che Guevara and Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias. One poster read: Coca-Cola, las aguas negras del capitalismo. While Adam reviewed the simple past tense with his teacher, I sat a few tables away with my instructor, Manuel, working on translations. Manuel and I were both in our early thirties, both voracious readers. Only, I learned very quickly, this passion for books meant different things in the contexts of our lives.
Junot Díaz once told me that he writes for his six best friends and the rest of the world. This was a few summers ago in a VONA fiction workshop in San Francisco. We had been discussing the meaty issue of how much to explain in our short stories and novels. For example, would the reader understand the meaning of chiltepe without having to look it up? How much did I gain from including details that may feel welcoming to some, alienating to others? I wondered if I should italicize certain words, and by that I meant words in Spanish.
Junot answered my questions with a question: “Who is your audience?”
Jennifer De Leon and her mother
I didn’t grow up in what I would call a literary family. We delivered newspapers; we didn’t read them. We told stories constantly, but we never wrote them down.
My mom is a housekeeper. All her life she has never taken a sick day. No work meant no paycheck. Simple. Once, when visiting me at college, she sneezed, and my then-boyfriend asked her if she had a cold. “No,” she said. “I don’t believe in that.”
In college, I majored in International Relations, admittedly so I could travel the world, something she always wanted to do. For me, that meant studying abroad in Hanoi for a semester, Paris the next, and interning at the U.N. in Lagos one summer. On the eve of each trip, I would sit at the round wooden table in my parents’ kitchen in Massachusetts and write letters to relatives and friends. When I was done, I always wrote a letter for my mother. This was the hardest one to write. What could I say to a woman who clipped coupons and stuffed napkins from Dunkin’ Donuts into her purse so that I could have the chances she never did? Dear Mom, thanks for everything.