All Posts in “Writing & Publishing”

My Emerging Tendencies

Michael Dean Clark

This is the first in a series of four entries on “being” a writer.

I’ve spent the last four years completely committed to becoming a published author and yet only recently come to terms with calling myself a writer when people ask what I do for work. Even though I’ve written since I was young, saying it out loud (and claiming it as a vocation no less) has always felt a bit presumptuous and a lot bougie. And then there’s the inevitable follow-up question:

What’s your book called?

Um, I don’t have one. Until a couple years ago, I didn’t have a single fiction credit to my name. The awkward moment that follows generally ends with another question, or really, variations on the same question:

So what do you really do? Oh, so what’s your day job then? So, writing’s a hobby then? Where does your money come from?

Since drug sales and exotic dancing don’t seem to be acceptable answers to those questions, I’ve been obliged to tell people I teach writing and am working on a terminal degree (anyone else think that a Ph.D. and cancer sharing an adjective is odd?). And then the nod comes. You know, the head bob that says, Oh, you’re a loser.

Recently, however, I’ve had a couple pieces published and some “encouraging” agent rejection letters. As a result, I find myself described in a new way. Now, I’m not a loser, I’m an “emerging writer.” I am troubled by this title as well. Am I a grizzly rolling out of months of winter hibernation? Am I a developing nation? The consensus seems to be that I’m somewhere between caterpillar and butterfly, which in my estimation makes me that nasty, gray chrysalis from which a living creature may or may not spring.

If you think I’m wrong, try out the following:

Sir, you’re going to need triple bypass heart surgery. But don’t worry; one of our brightest emerging surgeons will perform the procedure.

I know you’re on trial for murder, but you’ve got an emerging public defender representing you.

When I think about the idea of emergence, I immediately want another title. I’m trying a few out. Tell me what you think.

I am under-published. I am material heavy and publication light. I’m very market selective. My readership is still on an indie level. Commercial success isn’t all that important. My family likes some of what I write and you should too. If I’m not the next “it” writer, I feel safe saying I could be the next “that” writer.

That last one seems a bit long and probably wouldn’t go over well on a resume. Maybe the one before it too.

I guess I just want to feel less like a fraud when I call myself a writer. Then again, if great novelists like J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, and Lauren Conrad from The Hills never settled comfortably into the title, maybe I shouldn’t expect too either.

Michael Dean Clark is an author of fiction and nonfiction and is in the final stages of earning a Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Milwaukee-Wisconsin. His work is set primarily in his hometown of San Diego and has been known to include pimps in diapers, heroin-addicted pastors who suffer from OCD, and possibly the chupacabra.

Photo Haiku Wednesday 3.3.10

Photo courtesy of Stephanie Kasan.


1. Write a haiku inspired by the photo and post it in the comments.

For extra chances to win:

2. Follow @reliefjournal on Twitter

3. Follow @Quo Vadis on Twitter

4. Twitter @reliefjournal with your haiku and #PHW (Photo Haiku Wednesday)

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The good people over at Quo Vadis have generously donated some prizes!!

The weekly winner will receive a Quo Vadis Habana Journal and a bottle of J. Herbin ink!!

Every week Relief will choose a random winner! So play along and tell your friends. See the information below for extra chances to win.

* * *

Winner will be announced via Twitter Thursday afternoons.

We can only ship to U.S. addresses right now.

You may only win once every three months, but you may play along every week for Twitter Super Bonus Points.

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Would you like to have your photo featured on Photo Haiku Wednesday?

Email your photos to Michelle:

You’ll get a photo credit link here on the main blog and you’ll also be entered in the drawing for the Quo Vadis Habana journal and bottle of J. Herbin ink the week your photo appears on the blog!

Stories like Fine Beer and Cheese: The Importance of Texture (Part 3)

Robert Garbacz

The following is part 3 of 3 from Robert Garbacz.

[Author’s Note: This the final entry in my three-part series on the importance of a rich and multivaried “texture” in which different parts of the story resist each other, making for a far more engaging piece.  In parts 1 (HERE) and 2 (HERE), I discussed Greg Mitchell’s genre-fiction “Flowers for Shelly” and Michael Snyder’s more literary “Normal People.” In this section, I turn to the issue of how--and why--readers might want to take the risk of making complicated, textured fiction.]

Okay, so now what?  Sure that’s how I choose stories, but what good can it do for those of you who actually want to write stories with texture?  Well, I’m not yet an expert writer, but I think I’ve found two simple principles:

1) Let ideas wait for a while, and don’t be afraid to mix them up. For me, an interesting idea will stick in my head for months, if not for years.  My story in the first Diner started when I was listening to way too many 1920’s-1940’s adventure radio dramas.  Somehow, a phrase came to me, “the cozy firelit tavern in the middle of the Abyss.” But it was several months before I started my story, in which I had plenty of time to fill my tavern with dead authors, throw in a generous portion of film noir flavorings, add a single-mindedly Quixotic Preacher, and a protagonist who goes along with him without really buying his program wholesale.  And then, of course, there was the proofreading, where I looked for any odd, interesting spices I could throw in.  But each stage required time, and a willingness to try to stick things together that common sense would keep apart.

2) Don’t be afraid to contradict yourself. In throwing a variety of flavors into the mix, you’re probably going to end up with a story that is true to the parts of life that don’t allow for easy solutions.  Sometimes that will feel uncomfortable, or strange, and you’ll feel the temptation to make everything neat and clean and right.  And maybe you should–for certain publishers and certain audiences.  But the best–and most memorable–tales are the ones that don’t shy away from their endings, even if the end the story leads to only emphasizes the difference between how the world should be and how the world is.

I’ll close with one more example, from a piece of genre-fiction that wasn’t published in the Diner because it was written some ten thousand years too early and was too long.  It is also, through a twist of fate, now considered literary fiction.  The story is the Iliad and the scene is the climactic meeting between the (essentially fatherless) Greek warrior Achilles and the Trojan king Priam (whose son, Hector, was brutally killed by Achilles in a cycle of vengeance).  In a shocking moment of grace, Achilles not only gives Hector’s body back for burial, but he feels a strange sympathy for the father of his dead enemy.  They eventually eat together, remembering another story which beautifully mixes horrific tragedy and simple joy.  As Achilles puts it in Lombardo’s translation,

Even Niobe remembered to eat
Although her twelve children were dead in her house,
Six daughters and six sturdy sons.  [...]
Nine days they lay in their gore, with no one
To bury them, because Zeus had turned
The people to stone.  On the tenth day
The gods buried them.  But Niobe remembered
She had to eat, exhausted from weeping. [...]
Well, so should we, old sir,
Remember to eat.  You can mourn your son later
When you bring him to Troy.  You owe him many tears.

(lines 651-3, 659-63, 669-71)

This act of compassion is not the end of the story.  As the poem’s original audience well knew, Priam’s son would soon kill Achilles and Achilles’s allies will soon kill every man in Troy.  The result–texture.  It isn’t just a straightforward revenge-tale, or a saccharine tale of friendship among enemies.  It is something more.

Homer, or whoever wrote the Iliad, chose to interrupt his tale of rage and death with a story of acceptance and commonality (or, conversely, to surround his story of acceptance and commonality with a larger story of rage and cyclical violence.)  That sort of incomplete, soulful, and very-human texture is a goal well worth seeking.


Robert Garbacz, when in his natural habitat, can frequently be seen arguing theology, politics, and art over ale with often excessive volume, haranguing his friends repeatedly with obscure but fascinating facts about Medieval literature, or staring cloyingly into the eyes of his beloved wife Hannah. Unfortunately, his natural habitat is Oxford in the period from 1930-1950. This is a bit awkward for someone born in Tulsa in 1983, but he is studying towards his Doctoral at the University of Texas in Austin and feels this is a firm step in the proper direction. His short story, “The Salvation of Sancho,” appeared in the previous Diner anthology, inducting him into this peculiar world of horror, bloodshed, and merciless ravagement of grammatical missteps.

Last Day for 4.1 Submissions!

Today is the last day that Relief will be accepting submissions for issue 4.1.  If there is a story or poem that you’ve been thinking about submitting, now is the time for you to head on over to the Online Submission System and send it to our editors.

If you don’t think that your piece is just right, then keep working on it–or, if it’s Creative Nonfiction, head on over to CNF Editor Lisa Ohlen Harris’s website for a critique.  The Online Submission System will open up in two short months for issue 4.2.

A Writer Wrestling with Unity

Brent Robison

Brent Robison joins the blog to discuss his thoughts on finding unity within his writing and spirituality.

I write fiction, but I’m not much into plots, nor pleasing resolutions. I love the capital-Q Questions — the questions without answers. I don’t need answers, but I love learning as much as my sub-genius mind can handle about everything we humans have so far come to know in our dogged pursuit of answers to the unanswerable.

That puts me squarely in the realm of the invisible, where I travel alone. I don’t self-identify as Christian. There is no “ism” I feel attached to. Yet there is a driving force in my heart and mind to explore the territory — call it “spiritual” — that every religion’s fringe-dwellers, the mystics, have resided in for millennia: the philosophical borderlands currently going by the name of Nonduality. In Christianity today, perhaps Bernadette Roberts is its leading investigator, with her contemplative teachings and “No-Self” books. In her experience, the self and God are not separate: “I and my Father are One,” one without even the concept of another.

For me, years of study fueled by parallel passions — science and metaphysics — gradually led me to glimpse a perfect interweaving of current knowledge and ancient wisdom. Quantum physics intertwined with Advaita (Sanskrit for “not two”). Spacetime as a metaphor for Oneness. Superstrings pointing to the Nameless Absolute.

Meanwhile, I played the writing game: workshops, submissions, the occasional publication in a literary journal. But mostly I labored away at writing stories: notes, sketches, little stories, bigger stories. Imaginary characters with lives and hearts and pains all their own kept jumping up and asking to be acknowledged. Inspired by literary realism, postmodern and classic, lush or minimalist, I worked at exploring psycho-spiritual states and getting something both meaningful and beautiful onto the page. Then out of all that jumble rose the challenge that got my blood pumping at a whole new rate….

If everything is One, how is that expressed in story?

Well, it’s been done, with various degrees of success, in many ways:
–exegesis of various cultural mythologies
–allegory or parable with a “moral”
–stories from the lives of famous gurus or holy men
–the conundrums of time travel (see my friend’s book The High Priest of Prickly Bog)
–fanciful alternate realities like those of Italo Calvino
–narrative thought experiments ala Jorge Luis Borges
–straight science fiction: on other planets, things behave differently
–variations on the sword and sorcery genre
–human encounters with angels or extraterrestrials
–magical realism

Trouble is, none of these appealed to me. Or rather, they were not what I was doing as a writer. As Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) said, “Everyday life has a huge effect on people.” I wanted to write literary short stories, about us, the common folks. Our ordinary tragedies and existential crises. The mundane epiphanies that move us all incrementally forward. In other words, “real life.”

It was my invented characters themselves who offered me the key. Of their own accord they had began lurking on the edges of each other’s stories. But I wasn’t sure what that meant. Then one day as I surveyed the whole array of stories and fragments, a complex web of faint shimmering lines seemed to materialize before my inner eye. These people, like all of us, were connected by invisible threads, coincidences, ephemeral glancing touches, by which subtle influence was being exerted. Life paths changed in seemingly tiny, but possibly powerful, ways. I saw that we’re like cells in one giant body, all going about our business transporting enzymes from one place to another and effecting change on other cells, but with hardly a glimmer of awareness of our own impact.

To suggest this newfound truth seemed to me the best way I could express Unity. One friend argued, correctly, that interconnection requires separateness, so I was a little off the mark. On the other hand, ultimate oneness is ultimately inexpressible in human language. The best we can offer is suggestion, metaphor, a finger pointing at the moon. And after all, in literary fiction — just as in this thing we call “reality” — the needs, hopes, dreams, heartaches, addictions, and loves of daily life are the foreground. To see the background is another level of perception altogether.

I’m entirely a beginner on the road toward Unitive Consciousness. But that vision of all human beings interconnected by a vast intangible network of influence, invisible energy lines weaving us together, became the engine driving the finishing, assembling, and publishing of a collection of thirteen linked stories called The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility. All those bits and pieces of characters’ lives finally came together and made sense, to me. And more important, it set me and my writing on a course for the future, and for that I’m grateful.


Brent Robison emigrated west to east and is now rooted in the Catskill Mountains of New York. His fiction has appeared in a dozen literary journals and has won awards from Literal Latté, Chronogram, and the New Jersey Council on the Arts, as well as a Pushcart Prize nomination. His collection of linked short stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, is available wherever books are sold. Between daddy and hubby hours, he blogs at and continues chipping away at two novels-in-progress. He is also the editor and publisher of the Hudson Valley literary annual, Prima Materia. Brent’s short story “Baptism” can be found in Relief Issue 3.2.