Tag Archives: Issue 9

Loving Our Work and Letting it Go

One morning many years ago, I phoned a writer friend and asked if she would take a look at a manuscript I’d recently completed, one that I was particularly fond of. I guess you could call it a crush. Yes, I had a crush on my manuscript. (If you’re a writer, you probably know how this feels—the initial surge of passion, however incestuous, for your own work.) It’s a great feeling, but it passes. Especially after, say, three revisions, which is what the manuscript had survived. My friend is a tough but fair critic, and I knew she would give me an honest assessment. “Sure,” she said. “But I’ll be gone most of the day. Just drop it through the mail slot.”

Within an hour, I’d arrived at her front porch. As I lifted the lid on the mail slot and started to slide the envelope through, I heard a deep growl, then another, and felt something grab the other end of the envelope. Instinctively I grabbed back, setting into motion a back-and-forth, territorial tussle that lasted for several seconds, until a bark from the other side of the door brought me back to what was left of my senses. Of course—my friend’s dog! I let go, the manuscript was yanked through the slot, and suddenly everything was quiet except for the faint click-click of the dog’s nails as he retreated down the hall.

Nearly three decades later, that response remains the swiftest—and definitely most passionate—response to a manuscript that I’ve ever received. Never had a reader or editor been more eager for my work! And though the manuscript was destined never to see the literary light of day (it was too deeply flawed) I still hold great affection for the unpublished work and continue to believe that the teeth marks and the muddy pawprints were signs of unabashed acceptance. I like to imagine the dog carrying the manuscript, in his expectant, drooling mouth, to his plaid bed, where he curls up beside it, paws it adoringly, and proceeds to lose himself in a doggy version of John Gardner’s “fictional dream.”

Such are the kinds of fantasies I conjure to keep up my writer’s spirits on days when (let’s just say) another manuscript is returned from yet another editor. For we writers must keep our spirits up—it is our responsibility to ourselves and to our work. We are, after all, our own first responders. If we don’t continue to believe in our work and to accept it, who will?

Truth be told, I have enjoyed my share of acceptances. Perhaps more than my share. But, like most writers who are in it for the long haul, I’ve also had plenty of experience with what we typically name “rejection.” (More on that word later.) Rejection hurts. It can make you do strange things, things that under normal situations you would never do. Scream. Slam doors. Sob. Shake your fist at the ceiling. Gather all the profanities you’ve been saving and aim them at the editor, the journal, the agent, the publisher. (And these are the more healthy reactions.) On really bad days, you may curse your work, compare it to the work of others, swear to never write again—I mean, who needs this kind of pain, right?

That is what rejection can do to you. Which is why, several years ago, I decided to reject “rejection.” The word felt too personal, smacking of love affairs gone wrong, Dear Jane letters, the perennial cold shoulder. Why not rename it? (We are writers, after all. Naming is our thing.) So I pulled out my folder marked “Rejections” and marked through the word. Then, in bright green marker, I wrote “Free to send out again.” I can’t tell you how good this change felt, and continues to feel, each time a manuscript is declined. The work is free! The editor has released it from bondage. “Thank God you’re home,” I think. “I’ve missed you.”

The feeling doesn’t last long. Just long enough to send me back to the desk, either to re-see, re-feel, and re-think the piece or to decide to send it back out into the world. Here is where I always hesitate, imagining the worst possible scenario. Who knows what force awaits (growling) behind the mail slot or the internet portal, or into whose rough paws my offering will fall? As Eudora Welty noted, once a piece of writing leaves our hands it becomes, like a mailed letter, closer in distance to its recipient than to its sender.

Eudora was right, of course. As long as we hold our work close and refuse to let it go, it remains safely in our control. But once we release it, it no longer belongs solely to us. Our beloved object is now, literally, out of our hands; I guess that’s why we call it “submitting.” We yield whatever power we have to someone or something else. Like writing, submitting is a form of surrender. We hit the “send” button and the reply comes back: “We have received your submission.” If that doesn’t make you cower in humility, you are a stronger person than I am.

“Parting from a work of art is a skill,” wrote Anne Truitt in Prospect: The Journal of an Artist. A skill? Perhaps. But maybe it is more than that. Maybe parting from our work is an art in itself, as necessary to our creative process as the drafting, imagining, revising, and reimagining. At some point, we must separate ourselves from the work and let it go its own way. If we don’t, if we hang on too tightly, we won’t be free to write the next piece, and the next, and the next. And isn’t that what we all want?

Rebecca McClanahan

Rebecca McClanahan is the author of ten books, most recently The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change and a revised edition of Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively, which has sold over 40,000 copies and is used as a text in many writing programs. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, Georgia Review, Boulevard, The Sun, and in anthologies published by Doubleday, Norton, Putnam, Penguin, Beacon, St. Martin’s, and numerous other publishers. Her new book, In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays, is forthcoming in 2020.

Recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, and the Glasgow Award in nonfiction for The Riddle Song and Other Rememberings, she has also been awarded a N.C. Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education, a MacDowell Colony fellowship, and four literary fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, among other honors and awards.

McClanahan lives in Charlotte, N.C. with her husband, video producer Donald Devet. She teaches poetry and creative nonfiction in our low-residency master of fine arts in creative writing program.

Interview with Mary Laura Philpott: Author of I Miss You When I Blink

Mary Laura Philpott: Author of I Miss You When I Blink (released April 1, 2019)

Interview by Karin Pendley Koser


I had a lovely chat with writer and sometime illustrator Mary Laura Philpott, a week or so before her new memoir-in-essays book, I Miss You When I Blink, debuted April 1 in Nashville and her whirlwind book tour was launched. About 20 years ago, we worked on the writing and marketing staff of a major children’s hospital at the same time and interacted in other ways after we each left. I hadn’t talked to her since a few years before she moved to Nashville with her family in 2014. Mary Laura is a bookseller/social marketer at Ann Patchett’s Parnassus Books in Nashville and also co-hosts an author interview program on Nashville Public Television. She’s had essays published in the New York Times, O the Oprah Magazine, Washington Post and many other publications and writes Musing, the blog for Parnassus Books.


While Mary Laura’s current work life is an enviable blend of her most favorite things to do, that and her personal identity weren’t always so fully realized.


Karin Pendley Koser: Do you have your elevator speech for I Miss You When I Blink ready?


Mary Laura Philpott: Oh boy, I haven’t got that totally down yet. I like your take on it, that it’s about the struggles between who you are, all the parts of you and who you think you should be, and finding the path to self-acceptance. I’ll add that I use humor a lot and am not one for holding much back.


KPK: What can readers expect from your memoir?


MLP: It’s a blend of personal essays, including many new ones and several that have been previously published chronicling my post-college life doubts and struggles to find a community and place that felt right for me and my family. We moved a lot when I was a child so I learned to fit in where I was and didn’t always find that choices I made after college fit me. That led to some depression, though that’s not a main focus of the book.


KPK: You and your family had made a good home for yourselves in Atlanta, you had a good marriage and had chosen a good neighborhood and good schools for your children; why the move to Nashville?


MLP: There are a number of things I talk about in my book and it’s hard to pick apart the layers, separate the strands and figure out what helped me know I wasn’t in the right place or profession. It wasn’t any one thing. We moved to Nashville after my sense of self felt cloudy, and after I was offered a great opportunity to work at Parnassus Books, a great indie book store there founded by writer Ann Patchett.



KPK: How did you go from being an editor in your early career to a writer who pours out such authentic and self-aware prose as you have with the essays in I Miss You When I Blink?


MLP: It was not as much of a leap as it seems; a part of your brain turns on and says what I can write about today? So, it was about what I was doing that day, or some memory I had. When we lived in Ireland for several months for my husband’s job, I would write long emails to my friends. The more I started writing little things, the more I enjoyed it – then I published them here and there and got confidence; “you know, people are actually getting something out of what I write” and then it just picked up steam.


KPK: Over how many years to did you write these essays?


MLP: I started with a blog and I read a lot of essays; I still do. I read for a long time before submitting some work to the New York Times’ essay section. That led to me doing a series of parenting themed pieces for them in the regular Motherlode column.


What influences you to begin writing?


It’s what I’m drawn to do, but I clearly fit it around other responsibilities; you know – family, parenting, animals (I’m a huge dog lover) and my jobs at Parnassus and Nashville Public Broadcasting. I think my early days of editing and writing professionally gave me an ability to sort of write on command.


Do you ever experience Impostor Syndrome as a writer?


Oh yes, that feeling of who cares about my writing! I figured out a work-around for that; pretend no one cares as you write. You’re just writing for yourself. That got me to a place of not being able to turn off concentrating on my own work and then a few friends read it and liked it and now here I am, terrified there won’t be enough readers for a book of real-life essays. [*Interviewer’s note – by all accounts so far, that won’t happen; her book tour events are packed and I Miss You When I Blink is racking up many book list accolades.]


How often do you write and where?


For me, a three-day weekend is best but not always realistic, so I try to write every day even if not for long stretches. I closet myself in my home office as often as I can when I’m in Nashville and make myself get something on the page. It can be fifteen minutes or as much as an hour and a half.


What recent non-fiction books inspired you?


My recent favorites are I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell which I think is the pinnacle of what you can do in this genre. Alex Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays has me thinking that if I work really, really, hard, I can do this. Educated by Tara Westover is amazing.

What’s next for you?


The book tour is scheduled into June so far; that’s keeping me very busy. There’s this prevailing wisdom that the smartest way to preserve your sanity while on your book tour is to start your next book. I’m planning to enjoy the tour and am not there yet, but I have a few ideas!


Interview with author Patti Callahan


Personal Interview with author Patti Callahan, author of Becoming Mrs. Lewis (historical fiction) and 13 contemporary fiction novels

by Karin Pendley Koser

QU MFA 2019


[Full disclosure: Patti and I have known each other casually for about ten years but aren’t in regular touch due to our full lives and physical distance after she moved to Birmingham from Atlanta shortly after we met]


In our interview together, New York Times best-selling author Patti Callahan (Henry) comes across as both comfortably settled into — and articulate about — her process and structure as a writer, as well as quite psychically tuned in to the complexities of the human condition. In a short time, we go deep into how the back story, and subconscious/shadow side of a character, can inform the character’s pain and struggle like nothing else.


Here are the highlights of our hour spent talking just before New Year’s 2019 about Callahan’s first historical fiction novel, Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which debuted to both critical acclaim and strong sales in the fall of 2018. It is, in Patti’s words, the improbable love story between writer/poet/author Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.


KP: You made a big leap with your historical fiction novel that debuted October 2, 2018. Or did you?


PC:My previous twelve fictional novels (written as Patti Callahan Henry) are narrative stories from a woman’s point of view. The process of writing such a story didn’t change with my transition to writing about a real person. I typically focus on the transformational journey of my main character as I did with Joy.


KP: What sorts of questions did you ask of Joy?


PC: I asked the same questions of Joy as I do my other main characters.

What does she want? Why can’t she get what she wants? What will she get that’s better or worse than what she wants? What is the fatal flaw or physical block that she must overcome to get what she wants? The misbelief as it were.


KP: Without giving too much away, how will the answers you found inform what your readers discover about the complex and interesting person that was Joy Davidman.


PC: The key thing I uncovered was that Joy had a misbelief: she firmly believed without even knowing it that she was completely unworthy of anything truly good or loving without having to prove herself. Her parents, particularly her mother, favored her beautiful cousin and her looks over Joy’s inner beauties and strengths. As a result, she grew up believing she could only prove her worth with her intellect and wit and by sacrificing herself to others. That landed her in a rough marriage, though I also learned that her husband, writer William (Bill) Gresham, was not a black and white villain. He was charming, smart and brilliant and they had some good times together despite his alcoholism and philandering. He took advantage of Joy’s sense of obligation, though. It takes two for that to happen. There were times I wanted to leave out some of Joy’s darker side to make her kinder/better/nicer but she wouldn’t let me.
KP: Do you think the repression of Joy’s true self and feelings in the name of that duty and obligation came to haunt her subconsciously?


PC: Great question, I never thought about that specifically but as we’re talking about it, yes, I can see that subverting her own desires to those of others, particularly Bill’s, was destructive to her soul and, at times, caused her to overreact and either spiral into depression and illness and, to even blow up in anger. It may have also had something to do with her health issues, which were significant. We know so much more now about emotional stress than we did in the 50s.


KP: What led to Joy’s ultimate, but brief, time of great happiness?


PC: I tried to write Joy’s story from the key of empathy, rather than from what other people said or thought about her. However, I think during her pen pal relationship with C.S. Lewis and after meeting him, she found someone with a great deal of patience and compassion who validated her awareness that her life with Bill was not sustainable. He both celebrated her intellect and her very being, gently guiding her to know that she deserved so much more than she was allowing herself. Together, they both discovered that a full and complete form of mature love was in their grasp.


KP: How did Joy appear on your radar?


PC: Well I had read several of C.S. Lewis’s books and novels and was a big fan.  I wondered about the woman whose death so undid the great writer Lewis that he wrote an entire book about it – A Grief Observed.


Also, I spend a lot of time with a tribe of women writers who have supported me on my writing journey over the last 20 years and one of them asked me if I could write about anything I wanted to what would it be? Her question brought to consciousness for me what was swimming around in my subconscious for a while – to write about the woman C.S. Lewis so fiercely loved.


KP: Talk about the research you did.


PC: I found so many resources available to me: Joy’s own prolific writing – her essays, letters, poems, books, as well as her biography. The Wade Center in Wheaton, Illinois which houses a collection of C.S. Lewis’s works. I met with Joy’s son, Douglas Gresham, which was so helpful, and traveled in her footsteps in the US and the UK. I used all that to help me create a historical timeline for the novel, as well as to inform the dialogue that I imagined would be most closely accurate to the characters. That was very important to me.



KP: But you kept this work a secret; why?


PC: For so many reasons. For my first foray into historical fiction, I didn’t want anyone to control it, neither my process, timing or the direction of the story. I wasn’t sure I could do it justice. I still have contracts for other novels and was working on those at the same time.


KP: It all makes sense, that and your use of your birth name, Patti Callahan.


PC: Yes, my other novels published by Penguin under my full name Patti Callahan Henry fall squarely into the contemporary fiction genre, whereas my publisher for Becoming Mrs. Lewis and I wanted to strongly signal a genre change, so I went with Harper Collins.


KP: Can we expect Patti Callahan to write more in the historical fiction category?

PC: In a sense, yes. I am working on novel that blends a timeline of contemporary fiction with a tragic historic event; Penguin will publish this one in 2020 0r 2021. Before that, this June, a new contemporary fiction novel – the favorite daughter – returns my readers to the fictional South Carolina coastal town of Water’s End.


KP: How are you so successfully prolific? 14 novels published in 15 years?


PC: Thank you. I write in between the spaces of a busy life; I have three children and a granddaughter now (three months old) and love to go on book tours as well as to writing workshops and retreats. When I sit down to write when I’m home, it’s usually in a specific place – a desk, and done in several hour increments over a regular period. Every writer’s process needs to be unique to his or her writing style and other obligations. I’m very passionate about what I do and I try to make it work.


KP: Any parting words for us about Joy?


I took a leap into the historical fiction genre, challenging both myself and, in a sense, Joy Davidman. I’m thrilled at the reception my readers have had to Becoming Mrs. Lewis and during my tours across the country. It’s been a bonus to find out what an amazing, talented, fiery, audacious woman Joy was. I’m honored that I found a way to “know her” and to put her story front and center since it’s historically been overshadowed by that of her last husband and writing partner, C.S. Lewis. She taught me so much and I am grateful to her for that.











Photograph in which children are throwing rice at your wedding dress

Maybe they are paper airplanes, or goosenecks made from linen napkins,

clappers taken from every bell within fifty miles. I imagine that, when you

gathered your train, to get into the car, streamered with tin cans that rattled

newlywed the whole way home, grains fell from the hand-stitched fabric

with a hush.

I feed you a spoonful of rice that’s been soaking in broth. You look down

at the bowl. You say what a beautiful ceremony, and even though I wasn’t

a thought yet, (and am now one forgotten), I look down at the floor with you,

littered with a rain of white, and wait for the birds to come.


Ordinary Psalm With Severe Neglect

I was working day shift at the County Shelter,

102 degrees in the tattered shade of that street

and this kid, maybe 5 or 6, had been scrubbed clean,

her hair oiled for lice. Her teeth rotted brown


from sucking juice bottles to sleep, she was busy

climbing over the dirty couch in the day room,

though when I offered, she sat next to me,

slipped her small weight against mine. The TV


was tuned to Animal Planet, that episode

where Arctic caribou shudder the tundra,

travelling hundreds of miles over snow, each footstep

placed exactly in the one before, the one behind,


To continue reading this selection you can purchase Issue 9 http://www.qulitmag.com/shop/

27 Saras

after Wayne Holloway-Smith


Sara without the H (the princess is not Jewish but Arabian), Sara Kookaburra in the old gum tree, Sara who struggled to sharpen B+s into As, Sara who sees double, Sara under wraps, Sara in the brook (her natural habitat), Fire Hen Triple Gemini Sara. Skeleton crew Sara, Sara Solo, Sara Serape, Serendipity. Sara sorting which Saras to remember in the hour before bombs might drop.  Sara disguised as Someone Smarter than Sara, Sara putting the world under a microscope, Sara on Steroids, Sara dancing the blues. Sara in the adult swim lap lane, Sara Syrah. Bad Pun Sara, Save the Day Sara, Show Off Sara, Skyward-facing Sara, Revolutionary Etude Sara, Eccentric World Traveling Aunt Sara. Sara who reinvents herself as a dandelion. Que Sera Sara. Sara still.



A woman’s face. Dry. Brittle. Slack and distorted in death. This was once FAY, 30s. Now it’s just a corpse.

It was two days after my 16th birthday when my mother died.
ALICE, 16, scrawny yet hopeful, with all the whimsy of her fairy tale namesake, stares at the face that used to belong to her mother.

I suppose I should have cried. Seeing the person who loved me more than anyone else in the world pass away. But I didn’t.
Alice turns her head, studying death from up close.

Maybe I’m an awful person. Or maybe because I knew it was coming.
Alice leans forward and kisses her mother’s dry, blue lips.

Or maybe it was because I knew it was my turn next.
She pulls away from her mother.


Alice tucks her mother’s body in with a blanket. Shifts it so it faces a FRAMED PORTRAIT – an idolized vision of a man, DAVID, 30s.
In the faded 1970s style bunker, everything is old and doesn’t look like it could ever be clean again. Still, Alice dusts the shelves, doing her best.
She removes a hand-made banner that reads “Happy 16th Birthday, Alice!” She folds it carefully, placing it with love in a drawer.
She arranges the few books. Straightens some tchotchkes.

Wipes down the screen of an out-dated COMPUTER.

To continue reading this selection you can purchase Issue 9 http://www.qulitmag.com/shop/

Orange Crush

It was 3 a.m. on the second day of March and the moon was waxing, gibbous, and full of rainbow. I was walking down the Rue de Esquimalt, tripping on my feet but also on whatever madman’s panacea, whatever twisted elixir was coursing through my veins at the time. I can’t remember what it was called. I can’t remember who gave it to me. Might’ve been Dan–Dan’s always good for the bad, bad shit. The stuff that makes your eyes spin like kaleidoscopic whirlpools and gets the dandelions talking. I think Dan gave it to me. Did I see Dan that day? No, Dan’s been in the slammer for months. Or was he the one that OD’d back in December? That seemed more like Dan.

I don’t remember who gave me the stuff but I was walking down the Rue de Esquimalt.

No, we don’t call it that even though the french school–a big blue monstrosity made almost completely from corrugated metal sheets like some kind of aluminum ocean–sits right behind the Shopper’s Drug Mart on that street. No, we don’t speak French here.

Let me start over.

It was 2 a.m. on the second day of May and the moon was waning, crescent, and winking at me. I was walking down Esquimalt Road, tripping on my feet but also on whatever madman’s panacea, whatever twisted elixir was coursing through my veins at the time. I was wearing my denim jacket and my tattered pair of blue high-tops, the one’s I was wearing when I kicked Johnny Z’s teeth in last summer at his sister’s birthday party after he caught the two of us fucking in the toolshed.

I guess you could say I was nailing her.

I guess you could say I was hammering her.

I guess you could say I was drilling her.

I guess you could say–

But enough about her. She doesn’t fucking matter.

It was 4 a.m. on the second day of Saturnalia and the moon was new and ignoring me like Donna Z three days after her brother caught us fucking in the toolshed at her birthday party. I was walking down the…the…

Where was I?

I was walking down the Rue de Esquimalt, tripping on my feet and the sweet-and-sour sauce that was mingling with my blood. I was leaving from someplace and most likely going someplace but instead, I ended up at that Shopper’s Drug Mart, the one that was open until midnight.

I guess it was before midnight then. Shit.

Okay, get it together. Deep breaths. Clear your head and just tell it. Tell the story.

To continue reading this selection you can purchase Issue 9 http://www.qulitmag.com/shop/