Monday, August 28, 2017

TinyLetter: Rising Rejections

I just posted my first TinyLetter, a slightly rambling introduction to what I hope to accomplish with (hopefully) weekly letters and updates.

From now on, I'll just share the URL whenever I do a post, but for this first one, I'll share it here in full.

If you'd like to subscribe, you can do so here:

Even though I haven't posted here with any frequency, I'll still have original content that I'll update on this blog for the sake of variety. I like using social media in various forms, as in: not excessively cross-posting for one blandly unified collection of feeds.

Hi there, and welcome to my first TinyLetter.

I'm still figuring out how to navigate this space, and while I do have ideas on how I want this to take shape, there may be stumbles and hiccups along the way. So bear with me.

I first mentioned writing a TinyLetter a month or so ago. What I hope to accomplish is straightforward. After a year living in Lafayette, Louisiana, I want to document how my writing has changed after Southern immersion. Do I call myself a "Southern writer?" Is such a label necessary, and if so, what claim do I have? Just because I've eaten a ton of po' boys and I'm a writer, should I worry about how my new environment has shaped me? My last published story ("Love Bugs," Split Lip Magazine, December 2016) was explicitly Southern, and my latest WIP is heavily immersed in a Southern landscape. So am I a Southern writer? I don't know, but that's something I can explore later on. I'm concerned with how using my surroundings in fiction translates into honesty and reality, especially when faced with Southern stereotypes that I had in my head upon the move down here, and when famous Southern writers tend to form a small sect that is influential, both positively and negatively.

For now, as my bio suggests, I want to talk about anxiety, depression, and rejections. I hesitate to describe myself as depressed, because it's the kind of word that can be thrown around easily, and I've never been diagnosed with it, or treated for it. But my last several months were a spiral of negative feelings. After working as an adjunct instructor last fall, the university I worked for wasn't able to offer me any courses. I found myself dangerously unemployed for months, trying to find work in an area that had a) doesn't have a wealth of jobs available, and b) tends to give openings to family and friends in need of work. My girlfriend carried the financial weight, and I applies for dozens and dozens of jobs, with almost no return calls or emails. I was scared, depressed, and didn't know what to do. Between worrying about money and feeling isolated, my motivation to write was nonexistent, which led to even MORE writing anxiety: writers are supposed to write, no matter what. But I felt guilty and nervous carving out writing time when I didn't know what the future was going to hold.

I got damn lucky. A full-time management position was offered to me at the bookstore. I interviewed, got the job, and I'm now on better financial footing. And now I'm trying to get some long-simmer writing projects dusted off. I'm not entirely out of the woods. I still have anxieties and problems. And this is where writerly, geographic labels come back into play. I'm trying to be more brave, to write more openly about my problems. My reluctance to do so is a Midwestern trait (or, given my words above, a stereotype). I keep my fears bottled up.

And this is where this TinyLetter swoops in. I want to be more open, and I genuinely hope my own stumbles are reassuring to other creatives. This is a terribly simple hope, one I'll return to later.

Let's get back to rejections. Here are concrete numbers, presented as accurately as possible. Since January 2017, I've received:

16 short story rejections
14 novel rejections (both agents and presses)
1 fellowship rejection
1 essay rejection
1 poem rejection

I started submitting work back in 2012. I'm fully prepared for this to be the first year since then that I haven't had a single piece published. Of course, I still have many pieces both long and short floating around various journals and presses. These could be future rejections or acceptances. In addition to feeling like I wasn't a writer for most of this year, I've also dealt with the steady onslaught of rejections. Therefore, my anxieties have been twofold: "Writers write (which I struggled to do, given job woes and depression), and "Writers write to write, not to be published." I've struggled to accept this To borrow a phrase from writer Tasha Coryell, I think my post-MFA crisis year is this year, not last year. I had ups and downs last year, but I still ended 2016 with four publications.

I'm not treating this first entry as a full-fledged essay. I'm not going to say I've overcome the aforementioned obstacles, nor am I going to give any sappy notes to anyone who might be reading this, platitudes along the lines of "Hey, our struggles are the same!" We're not the same, you and I. I'm not going to assume that my being fairly open about my issues is going to make someone sit back, slap their forehead, and think "I'm not alone!" The psychology of writers and writing advice deals far too heavily in absolutes. I stop reading when I see phrases like "all writers must" and "real writers to do this." So if my future letters end up being looks at craft and process, I won't present them as set in stone. What works for me might work for you, but most likely not.

But here's the thing: you're not alone. Whatever you're dealing with, we all do. Am I being hypocritical? Yes, just as I'm hypocritical with my own creative struggles in the face of life struggles. Writing highs and lows are the same and different for everyone. But if my laying this out here offers you solace, I'm happy to do so. However, the last thing I want this TinyLetter to be is a sad sack diary entry. I want the majority of my messages to be detailed unpackings of current WIPs, readings, and entries on what it means to be Southern when one is a transplant (I plan to propose this as a presentation for next year's Deep South in the Global South conference).

I've been editing this over the last two days, but I'm going to stop for now. Thank you for reading these initial ramblings. And welcome.

-James Yates
August 28, 2017

Sunday, August 27, 2017

TinyLetter Debut

I've let this site lag quite a bit lately, but I've started something that might help me jump start some new posts and ideas.

I have a TinyLetter account now. You can subscribe here:

Here's a brief synopsis of what I hope to accomplish with this new platform: "I'm writer based in Lafayette, Louisiana, originally from Chicago (and, in a roundabout way, Lynnwood, Washington). In addition to my very sporadically updated blog, I want to use this TinyLetter to work through some forthcoming projects and ideas. Also, as I come out of a very long personal/creative funk, I hope my notes and thoughts help other creatives know they're not alone."

Once I get the posts up and running, I'll copy and paste them here as well.

Happy reading and writing, y'all.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Claire Polders' Favorite "(Dead) Father" Flashes

Late this morning, I had a pleasant surprise. Writer Claire Polders wrote a list for the great literary journal SmokeLong Quarterly, examining her favorite "(Dead) Father" flash fictions.

She graciously included my 2016 story "Empire State Building," published in matchbook literary magazine. If you missed it the first time, you can read it here.

About my story, Claire wrote: "Should we hate or love our fathers for their lies, their exaggerations, their obsessions? In this touching story by James Yates, in which more is said than written, I was left pondering that interesting question."

Wow. Thank you, Claire! Plus, I'm just damn stunned to see my work sharing company with the likes of Mai Nardone, Lydia Davis, Steve Edwards, Aubrey Hirsch, Horia Gârbea, Sudha Balagopal, Emily Devane, Paul Maliszewski, and John Cheever.

Overall, this just reminds me to be more vocal about my appreciation for other writers. And don't ever think that a kind word or sharing a link to a favorite piece is an empty gesture; it can come at a crucial time for somebody. I've been in a very long, frustrating creative funk that I'm slowly coming out of, and having a writer kindly share my work was a much-needed boost.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions

Earlier this week, the literary journal Wigleaf announced their Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions 2017 list, selected by the wonderful Amber Sparks, who wrote a fierce, necessary introduction to her choices:

"Why stories? Why now? After all, the thinking seems to go – at least, in my social media hive mind – there are more pressing matters, more urgent issues. More rallies to attend, more phone calls to make, more abuses of power to resist. And all this is true – and it is urgent – and it is necessary to respond to the tyranny of the moment with all of our force and might and voice. At the same time, though, I feel certain that to lose our sense of story is to capitulate more absolutely in the face of fascism than any other surrender we might make. The stories we tell are the shape of the world, and the warning of the world to come or the hope of the world we might make. Writers have a unique gift to offer to a sick and sore society: the stories that can keep us alive."

I was caught by surprise when I realized my story "Love Bugs" was on the longlist of stories considered for the Top 50. Over the years, I've browsed and read some stellar writers on the Wigleaf 50 and the longlist, and seeing my name included this year, alongside some staggeringly talented writers, was strange and lovely.

Writing should never be about publications or recognition, but real talk: this year has been hard for me in a creative sense. I'm working on some new stories and even outlining a second novel, but none of my work has been accepted for publication, and the process of finding an agent and/or publisher for my debut novel has led to dead ends and radio silence. I know this is part of the game at times, but more than once this year, I've felt nervous, worried about what my writing is doing, and battling strange, random bouts of impostor syndrome. So, to see myself included on a longlist was touching, because it reminds me that I am doing good work (most of the time, anyway), and I just need to keep pushing and working.

Thank you, Wigleaf. And congratulations to the Top 50 writers! I can't wait to catch up on all the great work published in the last year.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Literary Magazine Project: Introduction

In the past, when I updated this blog regularly, I often did two things consistently: 1.) I'd have a great idea, say something along the lines of "I'll write about this soon!", and then never get back to it. 2.) I'd recognize this failure, claim to not make plans in writing, and then the cycle would repeat again.

But in this case, I'm taking on a smaller scale project for 2017, and I think the benefits I'll outline here have merit.

The accompanying photo shows two shelves of back issue literary magazines and journals. While I'm sure others have much more impressive collections, I have to admit that I haven't finished a lot of these. There are a handful that I've read front to back, some issues I've read selections out of, and some that I haven't touched. People love to talk about collecting books, and this word has spawned endless memes and book posts. But what about literary magazines? Are they counted as books, especially when piled up? Or should they be considered their own class?

This also came about because there are many books I want to reread this year, and I realized that nobody talks about rereading literary magazines. I'm not under the assumption that I'm doing anything unique or radical. This is my own project, to help myself as I put more emphasis on supporting the literary community that has supported me.

I'm not concerned with definitions; what I am concerned with is dusting off some older archives, and giving new attention to pieces that might not have been widely read in the last couple years. When literary magazines are published, they receive attention, hopefully some sales, but this often isn't sustained. The bump in sales and clicks is probably at its strongest when the issue debuts. What I'm hoping for is a renewal of this energy.

So for the rest of 2017, I'm going to read these all from beginning to end, and I'll document hidden gems, early pieces from now well-known writers, and give older literature a bump.

I'll also add to my collection as the year goes on, through single issues that I find and through subscriptions that I'll be taking out in due time. As for online literary journals, I'll work those in, but I'm not sure how. For now, the focus is on the printed, physical ones, especially in this age when not many journals still produce actual magazines.

I started this last night, and I already made a pleasant discovery: I'm reading a 2010 issue of Eleven Eleven Journal, and I read an early piece by Alissa Nutting, one of my favorite fiction writers. I'll include more analysis when I report back on the issue, but this is what I want: to see the early development of writers, and to discover names that have slipped under my radar. Maybe these are writers who are still widely published; maybe I'll fall in love with a story by someone who published one piece of fiction in 2012 and never published again.

I'll either do single issue recaps, multiple issue analysis, or a combination of the two. I might incorporate online magazines as well, but this will mostly be devoted to the physical copies, old and new.

If anything else comes to mind, I'll update this post accordingly. For now, I like this foundation, and I'm eager to really get it moving.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Role of Artists/Writers in the New Administration

I can't think of a better title for this, one that doesn't make me uneasy.

First of all, I know dozens, maybe hundreds of others have already written comments, essays, blog posts, and messages of this nature. Second, who am I to take on this topic, to outline ideas that are essential to any involvement within a creative community, whether said community is made up of writers, visual artists, musicians, or spoken word artists? As I've mentioned in other venues, I've long struggled with calling myself an artist; I still do. One of my favorite feminist slogans is "carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man." I take this to heart, because I don't want to come across like I'm telling people what they should do; these are simply ideas that make sense to me. Also, we're in a moment of history when I wish the president was simply mediocre, rather than a danger to all.

The reason I'm writing this: over the last several weeks, I've seen many variations on this sentiment: "Everything will be terrible, but the art will be fantastic." I find this to be a very troubling idea, because, while true in an abstract way, it's a sign of privilege. At its core, this belief states: "Women are still going to be treated a second-class citizens, this administration will do nothing for transgender rights, people of color will be given less respect thanks to a re-emphasis on a police state, and the physical country will be likely to be ripped apart for resources and bottom lines- but the novels will be great!"

Yes, great writing and art will be byproducts of this administration. But great, necessary work would come even if everything was as close to perfect as we want it to be. There will always be problems that require us to dig deep and create out of a sense of empathy and as a way to verbalize troubles, fears, and longing. So even if politicians were focused on funding Planned Parenthood, if the new presidential team insisted on giving full protections and rights to transgender citizens, and if the GOP reached out to listen to the concerns of Black Lives Matter advocates, we as creators would still be beset by daily struggles, lust, dead-end day jobs, and a constant search for meaning, whatever that meaning can be: so there would still be room for creative growth, experimentation, and a desire to put new ways of looking at our lives into the world.

So the art that's to come? I'm not concerned the forthcoming novels with Trump-like dictators and post-apocalyptic themes that examine how our country and world will look next year, or at the end of the current term (assuming he makes it that long without an irrevocable scandal, but shit: if his current scandals weren't enough, I can't imagine anything else impeachment-worthy).

I am concerned with marginalized writers. I don't want a woman or a transgender artist to have to create out of fear or feeling lost in today's climate, but if their creations come out of that, I want to support them. If cops continue to murder unarmed black citizens, I'll buy and read a novel by a black writer about the subject, but I won't sit there thinking "hooray for today's world! It produced this terrific book!"

In a recent Facebook post, comedian Patton Oswalt offered ideas for thriving and living in this administration. One of his suggestions: "Go to an independent bookstore and buy something from a small press." This is essential, and I'm making this a call to everyone, especially myself, to put more money into independent presses, especially those who publish diverse voices. It's one thing to share an online story, but we as a community need to do more. Look yourself in the mirror. Look at what you normally spend money on. Of course, 99.9999 percent of us are poor or just scraping by. We'd love to be in a financial position to drop $100 on a small press spending spree. But look at your packs of cigarettes, your occasional $25 bar tabs, the sandwiches you buy because you didn't feel like slapping together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. Of course, I'm not suggesting a high and mighty "don't spend money on these things," but make sacrifices when you can. Scrape together cash and support a small press. Contact a favorite literary magazine and ask if they take donations to pay their writers. Most importantly, especially if you're a straight white writer like myself: don't think about how your own work will benefit from this terrible climate. Make sure you're actively supporting the voices that need to be heard.

I made the following suggestion to the newly formed Obama Foundation. Their website is seeking calls for ideas, so I wrote this message to them:

To the Obama Foundation: my name is James Yates, and I'm a writer based in Lafayette, Louisiana. I'm very much troubled by the proposed cuts to the NEA, and other programs aimed at financial support of the artistic communities. Depending on the finances of the Obama Foundation, I'd like to see money and time spent to creating grants and scholarships for diverse voices, especially writers who are women, transgender, and non-white. Many writers struggle financially, and in these times, their stories and voices need to be heard more than ever. I'd love to see attention devoted to the creative community, through workshops, financial support, and visibility. I hope this makes sense, and I'm happy to share more ideas if necessary. Thank you so much for your time. Sincerely, James Yates

These are trying times, and it's only going to get worse. Writers have a responsibility. Let's keep moving.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 Readings, 2017 Goals

Happy New Year, y'all. Here's my annual reading recap.

For starters, this is what I wrote last year, when I revisited my 2015 readings: "In 2016, I want to read more classics, more international translations, and spend more money on small press titles. My goals will fluctuate as the year goes on, but I think that's a good starting point."

Back in 2015, I read 93 books. This year, my total went down to 55, but I have good excuses. First, my girlfriend and I moved from Chicago to Lafayette, Louisiana for her PhD candidacy. From packing, to planning, to coordinating the drive down south (helped immensely by my brother and sister-in-law), reading time was taken up by this. I also started teaching English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I highly enjoyed teaching, but was unaccustomed to how time consuming it is. Lesson planning, class readings, assignment preparations, student meetings, grading, and general anxiety about essentially performing four times a week in front of nearly fifty students: I read fewer books from September to December. I started several, but they took over a month to read when they should've taken a week at most.

My goals for 2017 as a reader aren't as detailed as my goals as a writer. I (still) want to spend more money on small press titles, because we as a community need to sustain them. I'm not preaching from a soapbox, because I could have done more to financially support worthy literary organizations. With the Trump administration just weeks away (oh fuck, just typing that makes me angry), small presses will need to to remain voices and homes for the voices that might be silenced or marginalized by the powers that be. I want to remain optimistic about 2017, but deep down, I worry it'll be a shitshow. So, I want to do less talking about supporting diverse demographics and more buying, reading, and promoting of them.

So this means I'll do everything I can to help small presses and literary magazines. I also have an entire shelf of great literary magazine back issues (Hobart, American Short Fiction, Fence, Tin House) that need attention.

I'd love to hear your goals, too. As always, I'm eager for recommendations.

Here's to 2017. As we read and write, don't forget to fight back against the backwards thinking that wants to prevail in our culture. This is a challenge to myself more than anything.

My 2016 readings are listed below:

1.) Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

2.) Crazy Horse's Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth

3.) Negroland by Margo Jefferson

4.) Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexual by Patricia Lockwood

5.) Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

6.) Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

7.) The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

8.) Blood Runs Green: The Murder That Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago by Gillian O'Brien

9.) Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen

10.) Elegy/Elk River by Michael Schmeltzer

11.) What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

12.) The Girl Who Could Only Say 'sex, drugs, and rock & roll' by Kendra Fortmeyer

13.) The Farmacist by Ashley Farmer

14.) The Revelator by Robert Kloss

15.) Slut Lullabies by Gina Frangello

16.) Find Me by Laura van den Berg

17.) The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato

18.) The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan

19.) Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell (re-read)

20.) A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

21.) If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home by Dave Housley

22.) The Upper Peninsula Misses You by Mark Magoon

23.) A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

24.) Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected Stories by Barry Hannah

25.) The Vegetarian by Han Kang

26.) Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle

27.) The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation by Natalie Y. Moore

28.) Please Don't Be Upset and Other Stories by Brandi Wells

29.) The New York Stories by Ben Tanzer

30.) The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

31.) My Only Wife by Jac Jemc (re-read)

32.) Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

33.) Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA by Jonathan Abrams

34.) Beloved by Toni Morrison (re-read)

35.) Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

36.) Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

37.) Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

38.) The Tennessee Highway Death Chant by Keegan Jennings Goodman

39.) McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh

40.) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

41.) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom by bell hooks

42.) Dandarians: Poems by Lee Ann Roripaugh

43.) Insurrections: Stories by Rion Amilcar Scott

44.) Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis

45.) Mesogeios by Steve Karas

46.) Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

47.) How the Post Office Created America: A History by Winifred Gallagher

48.) Sex Object: A Memoir by Jessica Valenti

49.) The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race edited by Jesmyn Ward

50.) Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar

51.) No Man's Wild Laura by Beth Gilstrap

52.) The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

53.) Sing the Song by Meredith Alling

54.) Swing Time by Zadie Smith

55.) You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...