Interviews : Lit Mags in Class

draft: the journal of process

by Posted on May 6th, 2011 at 5:10 pm

draft: the journal of process—first introduced to me by Luna Park’s editor, Travis Kurowski—is a dream discovery for teachers of creative writing at the secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels. Although the process of revision is referenced, and sometimes dramatized, through the workshopping process, the work of revision as re-thinking is often a purely personal activity. And the materials I have used to model such revision—Joyce’s versions of “The Sisters,” the ending of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, William Blake’s variations of “The Chimney Sweeper,” and manuscript pages paired with interviews from The Paris Review—are decidedly not contemporary. Students are able to observe the difficult process of revision through those examples, but the canonical nature of the texts can further cement the “mystery” of revision as an action only useful in the hands of established writers of the past.

draft enables instructors to offer contemporary examples of revision by viewing the original version of a story, the revision, the cuts, and an interview with the writer. It’s a unique resource, and the editors of draft—Rachel Yoder and Mark Polanzak—shared the genesis of the journal, their choices for the first issue, and more with Luna Park.

 

 

Nick Ripatrazone: Could you discuss the origins of draft: the journal of process? Why did you think such a journal should exist?

Mark Polanzak: Rachel and I came up with the concept for a literary journal that focused on the process of short story writing rather than the product when we were in our final semester at the University of Arizona’s MFA program, where we were both writing, editing, teaching, and workshopping fiction day in, day out. I was editing the University’s literary journal, Sonora Review, while Rachel was working for Alligator Juniper. We were learning a lot about running literary magazines. By my final semester at the program, I had learned a ton from workshops, from reading drafts of my peers’ stories, critiquing them, discussing them, getting the chance to talk with young writers about their processes; the MFA program allows you insight into so many talented writers’ methods, frustrations, successes, anecdotes. I might have been feeling sadness for leaving the conversation, leaving the classroom and access behind. draft, to my mind, is an extension of that program—you can see the early draft, see how it changed, see the final product, and hear in the interview a part of the conversation about process that Rachel and I got to have with the other students on a regular basis. That might be how the idea arose.

I don’t think a magazine like this needs to exist. MFA programs don’t need to exist. But the programs, for those interested, can be hugely helpful and fun. And the magazine can be helpful and fun as well. I can say that the MFA program was a success for me, because I left it a different, more confident writer. One of the important lessons I took from the program was that a polished, published piece of fiction in a magazine isn’t a magic trick; there is much unglamorous work that goes into a story that no one sees. We can, of course, imagine the work that goes into revising a story, but each writer works differently. Seeing the varied processes of my peers gave me confidence in my own process, in my own struggles. I saw that there is no one certain way to write and rewrite, which sounds obvious, but I thought I was doing it wrong for a long time. The program showed me that it was okay to do it my own way, and it’s okay to struggle, okay, also, to triumph. As much as you hear something like that, you don’t actually internalize it until you are faced with it over and over again. With hope, draft can show other writers this with each issue, reinforce the idea that this is work, and the work is never done the same way twice. Also, I’m always asking writers how they write, as a curious reader. It’s writer porn to see behind the curtain in this way. It’s just, well, cool.

Rachel Yoder: Mark is being very generous. He came up with the idea for draft, and I was his first and loudest cheerleader.  As I recall, he had just read me a poem about Raisin Bran, and I was worrying over how to make it out in the real world after writing school. We could not, after all, pay the rent with Raisin Bran poems (Mark’s specialty) or crappy Carver knock-offs (my specialty). This is when he placated me with his brilliant idea for draft, and I quickly started cheering and forgot all about my impending poverty. We talked about draft on and off for about 5 years (“Hey, remember draft?”) before anything happened.

I think draft actually does need to exist. There’s nothing else out there like it, and it’s especially great if you’ve never been in a workshop or writing group and been able to see other people’s work and process.  If I were a writer alone in the world and came upon draft, I would feel as if the libraries of heaven itself had opened and given me this rough draft writing to aid me on my literary journey.

He did also use the term “writer porn” during that first conversation and how could I not get excited about that?

Ripatrazone: How did your experiences with editing and reading for those established journals inform your approach to process?

Yoder: Editing for a journal didn’t really inform my approach to process at all. I guess if it did anything, it made me hold onto my stories longer before sending them out, made me realize that if I thought it was done, I should just wait three months and then see how I felt about the writing.

What really informed my process the most in graduate school was an exercise Buzz Poverman had us do in workshop. (Mark was in this workshop, too.) Each week we brought in a sort of writer’s journal entry to share with the class, our thoughts on writing, process, craft, mental health, etc.  Reading twelve of these entries every week was invigorating. I didn’t feel nearly so alone or so lost. I learned how other people approached revising, tricks they used, what they struggled with, what they thought about, how they used published stories as models for what they were doing, and on and on.  Through my own entries, I realized I really was considering a lot as I wrote and revised and that I truly did have “a process” (or many processes, each one unique to a story).  I kept many of the entries other students wrote with some vague notion that at some point in the future these should be turned into an anthology on writing. I think of draft as a some sort of incarnation of this book, writers sitting down with each other and talking about how it was done, or wasn’t done.

Polanzak: Editing a literary magazine informed a specific aspect of process for me. Having my own stories accepted at literary magazines also showed me this specific aspect of process from the other side: when a story is accepted, it is not necessarily finished.

At the magazine, we would often pass an accepted piece around from one editor to another, each marking up the accepted and “publishable” story, making changes, fixing typos, making suggestions before sending it back to the writer to accept or reject the edits. These were tweaks to sentences, hyper-detailed, nit-picky things we all wanted changed. But sometimes an editor would want something larger changed, like the removal of an entire scene. The idea that we could accept something, deem it fit for our pages then change the piece and send it back to the writer showed me that the process of revising, editing, rewriting a story could theoretically never end. The writer could send back the piece, and we could pass it around again, ad infinitum. The writer could make little changes, then decide to add an entire paragraph. There was one writer who changed the title of his story four times right up until the hard deadline for publication.

Having stories accepted, seeing the changes come back from editors, showed me that these pieces we send out have to be satisfactorily finished, but not absolutely finished. So, I guess I took an opposite lesson from Rachel—I’ll send out something that could possibly be reworked forever, but, at a certain point, you just have to say, Enough! And then accept or reject the edits. One magazine changed the tense of one of my stories. They changed all the verbs for me, rewrote it basically, so I didn’t have to labor over it. I agreed with their tense change. That seems like a huge edit. That seems like a problem that would keep it from being accepted, but it didn’t prohibit the story from being selected. Weird. The process can go on and on, even after being accepted for publication. I’m repeating myself now…

Ripatrazone: In your introduction to the Spring 2011, inaugural issue of draft, you present the magazine as a resource for writers—but also specifically geared toward academic environments (undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs, conferences, retreats, and workshops). I think it’s a great fit for those communities. What were your own experiences with literary magazines in the classroom? Did any of your instructors use literary magazines as texts, or discuss the submission process?

Polanzak: None of my writing professors, in college nor the MFA program, to my memory, talked about, used, or referenced literary magazines. This is, after your question, surprising; it’s the main medium for what we were doing at the programs. Everything I learned about the submission process came from experience and conversation with fellow student-writers.

Yoder: My thinking about draft, its audience and uses, was definitely informed by my experience as managing editor for Alligator Juniper. The journal is linked to a practicum class at Prescott College where advanced creative writing students read, discuss, accept/reject, and suggest edits for pieces. It’s incredibly useful for them because they get to be part of the editorial process, get to read all the submissions and see what qualities of work are submitted, have discussions about  how each piece is crafted, and begin to develop aesthetic philosophies.  I saw what an invaluable experience this was and wished I could have had it when I was an undergrad.

I also was a student in a grad course at the University of Iowa called Literary Journal Practicum where we read a bunch of journals, discussed them, and talked to the editors.  But I’ve never actually been a student in a class where work was being taught straight out of journals. I do it in my classes now. I think it’s important to give students a feel for the current literary moment, for what writers just five or ten years older than they are are writing and publishing.

Ripatrazone: The essential nature of revision feels like a consistent theme in draft. The first story in the Spring issue, “Sagittarius” by Greg Hrbek, was rejected “probably fifteen” times before being published in Black Warrior Review and then reprinted in Best American Short Stories 2009. I’m happy you included Hrbek’s work, since I think it helps show writers the subjectivity of editorial rejection and the benefit of sustained revision. Could you talk about why you included “Sagittarius,” as well as your own thoughts on approaches toward revision (and perhaps the hesitancy of some writers to revise)?

Polanzak: You are absolutely right—Hrbek’s story behind the story illustrates the benefits of revision and perseverance when you think a story you have written has something great about it. Hrbek points out that when the piece was originally being rejected all over the place, he knew it wasn’t a problem of content. He decided it must be a problem with the structure, something more technical was holding it back. In the time in between rewrites, his life also changed, and he recognized that another character, a brother, would help. Sometimes, you have to let pieces sit and go back to them. Hrbek spent a lot of time with this story—three months for the original draft and three months for the rewrite. This is admirable. I don’t know if I have this diligence yet, but I certainly see the benefits through hearing about the specific writer’s struggle and eventual success in being included in BASS.

What I find most fascinating in the original draft are the saved cut lines at the bottom of the document. He saves all his cut lines. There they are! You can see the precision of the sentence-level editing that went into this piece. Beyond the overhaul of structuring, you can see the attention to detail. Many of the lines that he cut are good. Very good. But they were not right for the story.

There is a tendency, at least for newer writers, to resist “killing their babies”—their little creations. Really good lines that they fall in love with but that are not working in the story. I know I have been through this. Someone edits my piece, draws a line through a sentence that I thought was excellent, and I think, Damn! But I love that line! Looking at Hrbek’s cut lines shows you a very experienced writer, willing to cut up his story, willing to kill those babies. That is an important lesson.

My approach to writing and revising is a lot different than Hrbek’s—I write very fast, too fast at times. I need to see the whole story as soon as possible and then I know what I’m working with. I have very few lines in a first draft that I feel are final. So, basically the whole first draft is killable, in my process.

Ripatrazone: I was happy to see Mary Miller’s work also included in this issue–I’ve taught an issue of Quick Fiction that contains a story of hers, which remains a perennial flash fiction favorite of my students. Why did you select this particular story for inclusion in draft?

Yoder: I’ve been a Mary Miller fan for a while now (if you haven’t read her collection Big World you must secure a copy immediately) and have become enamored of her dialogue, pacing, and tonal flatness. When I asked her to contribute to draft, she said she didn’t really keep drafts but had published a story as a flash piece and then developed it into a longer, more conventional length story. This seemed like an interesting process to me, taking an already “complete” story and developing it into something longer and “complete” in a new way.

There are so many people out there who write flash—me included—that I thought it would be helpful to hear how Miller identified this flash piece as one with potential to be longer, what it was that fascinated her about the tiny story, and how she went about expanding it. In her interview, she talked about how she thought the actions of the characters in the snapshot she had written were mysterious and kept wondering about what they were doing…and so, then had to write the longer story. Her flash piece functioned as a sort of drive-by glimpse into one fleeting and brightly-lit moment in a stranger’s kitchen. The longer story was the act of stopping, knocking on the door, and entering into the minutiae of the people’s lives inside.

Ripatrazone: Which writer(s)—past or present—would you especially like to view drafts/revisions from—sort-of the ‘ultimate’ unlocking of process?

Polanzak: Great question. I’m thinking back to times, when reading, I’ve said out loud: “How did he do that?” I think I’ve said this when I feel like I’ve experienced, in a story, a sort of magic trick. I want to know exactly how something came to be. Two writers I’d love to see drafts from and ask questions about process of are Phillip K. Dick and Woody Allen.

Often you hear readers ask writers: “Where do you get your ideas?” or “How did you come up with that?” I think the ultimate process-revelation for this type of question is PK Dick. Did his plots come fully formed? Are there drafts of stories with completely different plot turns or alternate endings? Why did he decide to go this way instead of that? Did he make notes on what the world of his story looked like before entering characters and plot lines into them?

With Woody Allen short stories and movies, I’d like to see, also, where the ideas come from, if it is a matter of starting somewhere and journeying toward the final product or outlining to know the full story before writing it. But with Woody Allen, I’d really like to see if the rhythms of jokes changed from draft to draft. If he wrote a line, then realized that it would be funnier written another way and why. I would really like to see drafts of scripts, especially Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry, which is a movie about writing stories and writing oneself into one’s own stories and revising them and analyzing them. That one would be very interesting, because it contains short stories made into short movie segments inside a larger story. I love that movie.

Yoder: Recently I’ve been obsessed with Mary Ruefle’s “The Most of It,” which is a little book published by Wave Books and called both poetry and prose on the back cover.  This is Ruefle’s first book of prose-ish writing, and the pieces, to me, seem to be the kind of things that either just come out right the first time or don’t come out at all. I would love to talk to her about her process of conjuring pieces that are, paradoxically, playful and serious, funny and philosophical.  And why prose now? And what’s different for her about writing prose versus poetry?

I think it would also be fascinating to talk to Lauren Slater about the stories/essays in her book Lying, what she calls “a metaphorical memoir” (basically, lots of the book is made-up). I wonder if she tried more direct approaches to the essays in this book before she landed on the metaphorical approach. I wonder what early drafts looked like, if she thought of them as short stories or essays, fictional, nonfictional, or what.  I wonder if the form was something that organically happened or if she thought about it a lot before she started writing.   And I wonder, in general, about her considerations as she was writing an admittedly made-up memoir and her thoughts on how she approaches truth in this book compared to others she has written.

I also wish we could bring Kafka back to life, sure, to ask him about his stories, but mainly so I could ask him to marry me.

Ripatrazone: What are your plans for future issues of draft?

Polanzak: We have a lot of plans for the future of draft. Right now, we are sticking to short fiction, but we want eventually to have drafts of poems, short play and film scripts, comics, and creative nonfiction. Outside of the print publication, on our website and blog, we’d like to begin featuring drafts of personal love letters—how many times have writers and non-writers alike slaved over draft after draft of a love letter? Also, we’d like to showcase student work from the classroom. The website and blog give us a lot more space to play around with draftable stuff—we want early iterations of songs along with their final version; short films; paintings in stages of revision. It’s really exciting, and I hope we can get to all of it.

Yoder: The future of draft? Like Mark said, we’d love to have a chorus of voices on the blog, and I’m really excited about expanding into graphic stories and essays. Eventually I hope we’ll be able to put together a compendium of revision exercises as well as a book of the work we’ve featured in draft to offer as texts for creative writing classrooms. I would have loved to learn from something like this when I was starting out, and to see that my favorite stories didn’t just arrive into the world fully and perfectly formed.  After we’ve published a number of issues, we’re also excited about the prospect of launching a reading series with a non-conventional format that showcases process rather than product. About once a week we email each other with another ideas we have, so there’s plenty to do and plenty to be excited about.

 

[Read our 2009 interview with Mary Miller. -ed.]