Last week I sat beside a picture window in a lakeside rental cabin in rural Pennsylvania, and, as the morning sunlight spilled over my keyboard, signed a contract giving the Michigan Quarterly Review/ MQR Online permission to publish one of my essays. It’s a beautiful feeling to see my work recognized. Does it make me feel like I “leveled up” as a writer? No. I “level up” only when I produce new work. That will, always and forever, be the thing that gives me the most joy.
Doubt. Words. Sentences. Silencing the voice that needs to explain what it is. Or why now. Or how, exactly, you do it.
I write to heal, to express myself, to forgive. I write to feel proud, I write to solve a problem, I write until there is nothing left in me to say.
Writing is work. I write despite the fear of being judged, of making a mistake, of losing a loved one. I write despite deciding there’s nothing new left to say, that it’s all been said before.
I write because what’s more important to me than all of these things is the feeling I get when I’m lost in my world, of holding my breath before letting it go, treading through the tangled brush of not knowing, rescuing things long discarded, examining them piece by piece. What’s more important is unlocking secrets. Saying what exactly what I need to say in the unwritten spaces between words.
It’s beginning a conversation. It’s picking up a smooth stone washed ashore. “Here—take this. Carry it with you.” It’s reminding others, “It happened to me, too. And we’re both going to be okay.”
My writing mood board full of quotes, color symbolism, and textile art collected over several years for reasons unknown to me at the time is now serving as inspiration as I sit and draft my first two writing workshop proposals. More to come soon!
This past fall, I had the opportunity to intern at Bellevue Literary Press and got to know some great folks during my time there, including their publishing assistant, Laura Hart. In this interview, Laura answers all of the tough questions about writing, workshopping, and publishing, why it’s imperative for a writer to take risks in their work, and shares several Star Trek characters she most identifies with (even though I asked her to choose only one).
You are not only a writer, but also someone who worked at a literary agency and now works at a press. How do you reconcile your writer/artist self with your publishing assistant self? Are they one and the same (or do they need to be)? Do you believe there is an art to publishing?
No. They don’t have to be one and the same. I’m constantly reevaluating my priorities. Right now, my career is my priority, and I don’t see myself ever being a full-time writer. Some of my friends are more dedicated to their craft than I am; they can’t go a day without sitting down at the computer, whereas I’m fine not writing for several months at a time. It’s cathartic and enjoyable, yes, but I’m more focused on helping other people tell their stories for the time being. The cool thing about having worked at both an agency and a press is that I’ve seen a somewhat comprehensive view of the entire system. I don’t claim to understand all the minutiae, but I have seen a few ways that a manuscript moves from the writer’s computer to the readers’ hands. And there are lots of hoops to jump through. I think the key to publishing is patience. I also think that those of us on the inside need to take a hard look at the way things work and make changes so that underrepresented authors have a chance.
You have the great privilege of working in an office surrounded by books. Some writers can pinpoint the book or story they read that made them want to become a writer. Was that the case for you? What was the first book you ever loved?
The very first book I ever loved was Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I ate that book up when I was little. This colorful little picture book was actually the first one I ever read, and it still sits on my shelves at home. I’m pretty sure I have multiple copies. I have a tote bag with the caterpillar on it. I plan on reading it to my kids one day.
I was immersed in stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar from the time I was born, so stories have always been a part of me. I started writing in the third grade. After a story competition for which we had to write about the prompt “Books as Treasure,” I started filling up notebooks, to the chagrin of my parents who had to take me to Target and Walmart and eventually TJ Maxx to get the pretty ones. I had pencils in my desk, and my friend Chris and I made up stories about their exciting lives in Pencil Town instead of paying attention in class. I wrote about my dolls. I wrote about the dogs I owned on a video game. I don’t recall a point in time when I consciously thought about the transition from reader-only to reader-writer. It just happened. So it probably won’t surprise you that I didn’t have an epiphany related to a publishing career, either. I wound up trying to major in chemistry at Auburn, and I was woefully unhappy. I always say to pursue your passion, not your interest. I was pursuing an interest. My first literature professor, Dr. Carcache, encouraged me to do the right thing and choose passion. I switched my major to English Literature and over that semester developed a loose plan for pursuing a career in publishing. I looked back on all my favorite books—Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, etc.—and decided I’d have a hell of a lot of fun being involved in the process of creating books like that.
I imagine that anyone who has participated in a writers’ workshop of any kind has experienced at least one moment where the feedback from their writing peers came across as insensitive and/or misguided (I know I did!). How does your experience participating in writing workshops (both inside and outside of an MFA program) factor into the way you read submissions now?
This question brought to my mind a few choice encounters in the MFA program that made my blood boil. Sometimes, readers tend to forget that another human being wrote the piece of writing up for discussion, and critiques can be insensitive, more personal than constructive. I try, when I read submissions, to focus on what the writer has done well, and when it’s time for revisions I do the same, so that the writer can do more of that good work and improve weaker sections.
On the flip side, I remember working at the Miller Writing Center in Auburn and being taught to separate the writer from the writing when working with a student. Imagine two scenarios: In one, the student has written something offensive; you question the writer’s intention and critique the writing itself, not the person. This avoids heated discussions, as well as truly upsetting someone who didn’t know any better. In another, a student is particularly anxious about their writing, and separating them from the piece itself prevents them from feeling like you’re criticizing them personally.
And, of course, unrelated to the question of feelings, my education in literature has refined my taste. I’ve learned about critical theory and different types of structure. I’ve learned the rules, and I’m learning how to break them in interesting ways. I’ve learned about style. When a writer takes risks and creates beautiful, lyrical prose, I’m drawn in.
For writers, the submission process can be an intimidating, nerve-wracking experience. In our conversations, we’ve discussed how pitching to literary agents and editors can feel like a “one shot” deal; everything feels as though it needs to be perfect the first time around or it’s over for the writer forever. What are some of your thoughts, advice, and/or words of wisdom about this process? How can a writer tell when they’re ready to submit to a literary magazine? How can they tell when they’re ready to submit a full manuscript to an agent or publisher?
DISCLAIMER: Your piece of writing will never please everyone. It will never be perfect. No one will submit and get accepted every time. Talented writers we all love and follow on Twitter have been rejected handfuls of times. You have to keep trying. Writing is about persisting. Keep your expectations tempered, keep your eyes up, and keep moving.
A strategy for submitting that I like is breaking the process into chunks. Make a list of the publications or imprints you want to submit to. Divide them up into rounds. Submit to your dream places first, wait a few months, and submit to the next tier if you don’t hear anything. If, after the second or third tier, you don’t receive any acceptance letters, maybe take the piece back to the drawing board and revise a little. Then go back out. If an editor tells you that Piece A isn’t for them but they’d love for you to submit something else, do it. Do it quickly. After interning at an agency, I can tell you that agents and editors only tell you to submit again if they mean it. It’s not a one-shot deal, per se, but don’t waste time second-guessing yourself. And remember, agents and editors are constantly chipping away at their inboxes, muddling through an endless deluge of submissions. If you submit something that’s crap one time, odds are that they won’t remember, unless the piece in question was outrageously offensive. Keep revising. Keep trying. Ask for comments after rejection letters.
If you were some kind of amazing book proposal magnet that was able to decide which ones were sent to you, what would those proposals look like? What is the “dream book” you’ve always wanted to see published? What is the book you’ve always wanted to write?
I’m a fairly open reader. I love literary fiction and sci-fi, as well as upmarket fiction, creative nonfiction, and philosophy (think The Second Sex, At the Existentialist Café). I love interconnected story collections, like Bryan Washington’s Lot. I love explorations and critiques of grammar like John McWhorter’s Talking Back, Talking Black. I love novels about characters who are faced with a strange, changing world and have to reevaluate the ways in which they move through it. Ideally, I’d receive proposals that were a mishmash of my favorite books—The Secret History, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Pastoralia, Fahrenheit 451, The Changeling, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, The Left Hand of Darkness, The Fifth Woman, The Collected Schizophrenias, Educated, and most recently, Elizabeth Tan’s Rubik. I have so many favorites. Scroll through my Goodreads ratings. You’ll find a treasure trove of references. In the meantime, I’ll be drafting my more specific Manuscript Wish List. As for the book I’ve always wanted to write… I’m currently writing it. It’ll probably be on shelves in 2050. Keep a look out.
We’ve spoken extensively about how important it is to make space for marginalized writers in this industry. Why is it so important to you personally?
We talked a while ago about how certain marginalized communities are put at a disadvantage from birth—those who don’t have the money for private schools, ACT tutors, and college tuition have a much harder time getting decent-paying jobs, much less decent-paying jobs in a field they’re passionate about, than those who do have the money. I had the privilege of growing up in a household with a stable income, graduating from Auburn without student debt, and going to Columbia for my MFA. I’m privileged to be married to a wonderful husband who supports me and enables me to pursue my dream career. I’ve been set up for success every step of the way. And instead of gloat in my accomplishments, I want to devote my career to diversifying the publishing industry, both in terms of people and stories. Not only because I have the privilege to do so but because I recognize that each person contributes something different (dreams, ideologies, cultures, religions, etc.). Our society is a lot more diverse than the publishing world makes it seem. Not only is it important for people of diverse backgrounds to be represented, but it is also important that we continually seek out the opinions and experiences of those who are different from us. We’ve become too much of an echo chamber with white writers dominating the scene. I want to shake that up. And this isn’t just about books, either. It’s about changing the system in such a way that we have a wider range of diverse editors and agents, too.
You will hate me for this BUT we have to talk about the fact that you are not only smart, talented, and literary but you’re also a BIG Star Trek fan! Have you really seen every episode from every series? What character do you most identify with and why? What have you learned from that character?
Agh. Ok. Yes. I’ve seen every episode from every series, with the exception of one or two episodes of Star Trek: Discovery. I’ve seen a couple episodes (“The Drumhead” and “City on the Edge of Forever” in particular) multiple times. What is the power of story if not to take us into the future and show us the potential of humanity, both the good and the ways we overcome the bad?
I’ve been asked my favorite character (Spock) plenty of times, and my favorite captain (Picard/Sisko) even more, but never which character I identify with! This is a tough one. I see different aspects of myself in several characters, and maybe that’s the point of Star Trek. I see a little of myself in Deanna Troi, who loves chocolate and is in-tune with everyone’s emotions. I can be stubborn like Kira Nerys and sarcastic like Bones. I love my family like Captain Sisko. I’ve felt out of my element before but slowly adapted and tried to make a name for myself like Ezri Dax. I wish I had more of Spock’s logic, but oh well. What I’ve learned from all these characters is that there’s no one way to be a hero; individuality is a wonderful thing, and when we put aside our differences and work together, we can create as much of a utopia as possible.
Laura Hart is a publishing assistant at Bellevue Literary Press. She earned a BA from Auburn University and an MFA from Columbia University. She previously worked at Writers House and the Columbia Journal.
If you live in New York City and have not yet heard the name Katherine Rose Turbes, you will. I first met Katherine (preferred pronoun “they”) at a Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders show. Katherine wore pink hair, a black lace dress, and radiated joy. I just had to get to know them. We chatted about how important it is for artists to support one another and their love of cabaret performer Justin Vivian Bond. As I suspected they would be, Katherine’s answers to my super-specific interview questions were utterly entertaining and inspired. So, without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to… Katherine Rose Turbes!
I personally see you as a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional artist, but how do you see yourself? Do you identify as a singer, writer, performance artist, or all three? What came first? Are there any other facets of your artist personality that remain hidden or the general public has yet to see?
I see myself as a performer first and foremost, specifically a cabaret performer. I’ve always been a writer and I’ve always been a performer, but the choice to combine the two happened relatively recently, and I believe I’m far better at both skills when I put them together. As for singing, I’m not a conventionally good singer, but I like my voice and use it more as an acting tool than as something intended to sound pretty. Cabarets are often defined by the inclusion of music and I haven’t gotten to a point where there’s as much music incorporated into pieces I’ve premiered as there will be in future pieces, but that’s coming. I’m working on learning to play ukulele, though learning an instrument is a long and arduous process for me, but I aspire towards including ukulele in my future performances.
For someone reading who has never seen one of your performances, how would you describe them?
There’s this lyric by the band AJJ that goes “I hate whiny fucking songs like this but I can’t afford a therapist- sorry guys, here’s a solo!” and I feel like that really describes my work! Although, unlike the speaker of that song, I love when artists use their work to speak openly about their struggles. There’s this notion of “eloquence” described by the Dalai Lama, but taught to me by Kate Bornstein, that the essence of eloquence is “speaking a truth in a way that eases suffering” and that’s always my intention with my work. As such, I strive to be “excruciatingly authentic” as some have put it. I speak openly about topics that hurt me, in the hope that voicing my experiences might make life easier in some way for others in similar circumstances, especially since I know that kind of art helps me!
In one of your Instagram posts right after your Bluestockings performance, you proudly called yourself “one of the hottest hot messes [you’ve] ever been.” I loved that so much. It was a great reminder that perfectionism is NOT the goal here. When you’re writing, or memorizing a monologue, or doing the hundreds of other things necessary to prepare from an upcoming show, what are the different ways you try to stay out of your own head, avoid that self-sabotage impulse many artists have? How do you not only create physical and mental space for yourself but get to a place of (what I’m now calling) full-on, prideful bad-assery?
Oh goodness, okay, well the reason I made that post was because that level of, as you say, “full-on, prideful bad-assery” was a first for me and a long time in the making! One of my many less-than-stellar attributes is that my default is holding myself to nearly impossibly high standards, but luckily I know what helped me in that moment so hopefully I (and perhaps others) can replicate it. Firstly, I vehemently believe in and adhere to the theatre truth of “The Show Must Go On”! I was far from at the top of my game that night and debated not performing since I felt so unprepared, yet I decided that I’d rather risk sucking than not do it. Secondly, although, “comparison is violence” as Taylor Mac says, it helps me to remember how phenomenally imperfect my idols are. They take risks and give themselves permission to make mistakes on stage, and often work their mistakes into their pieces resulting in something far more captivating than if everything had gone precisely as planned. It has specifically helped me to remember a speech Mx.Justin Vivian Bond gave called “How To Take A Flying Leap,” in which they talk about how you mustn’t judge yourself too harshly or think about what you’re doing in the moment. You do what you know you have to do, commit to the moment, and focus on conveying your story to the audience. Remembering that people I admire are capable of that, and that their mistakes endear me even more to them, helps me to be more okay with my own inevitable imperfection.
When I saw you perform your piece back at the “Am I Write Ladies?” event in March, you were a beautiful, fearless lion. You were a force. When you were on that stage at The Footlight were you feeling that sense of fearlessness? If so, how do you tap into it before a performance? If not, how do you push through the fear? People are always telling artists that in order to grow, we need to do things that seem scary, and say yes before we’re ready. Do you believe that’s true?
Oh my goodness, I was shaking like a leaf! I wasn’t afraid in a stage-fright sort of way, but I was incredibly emotional and the stakes were extremely high! I knew that I’d devoutly rehearsed the piece and held myself accountable in making sure I was prepared, so I knew I had it in me to make myself proud and I knew what I was saying was important. For me, that’s enough! I absolutely believe one must take risks in their work, and, although it’s far easier said than done, I think one must be forgiving of one’s self if/when things don’t go as planned.
Whom or what currently influences or inspires you and how have you, directly or indirectly, incorporated those influences into your work?
Of all the questions you’ve asked, this is honestly the most intimidating, since there are so many people who inspire me! Here are my Top 5 influences at the moment (in no particular order):
Justin Vivian Bond! I admire Mx.Viv profoundly and have seen them perform more than anyone else, so it’s difficult to succinctly quantify their influence. They’re a force of nature and, as some have put it, “a cabaret messiah” so seeing them perform inevitably made me fall head-over-heels in love with the artform of cabaret. Being perpetually astonished by their shows made me realize the breadth of possibilities of what can be done with the cabaret format, and that this is something available to me to work with!
Kenny Mellman! Kenny is such an inspiration to me and, thus far, I think his influence is the easiest to spot within the work I’ve premiered. I reference it in the text of the piece itself, but “XO Tour Llif3 (à la “KRT”),” a piece I wrote and premiered last September, was directly inspired by his long-running show called Our Hit Parade. Like Our Hit Parade, my piece completely reinterprets / recontextualizes a pop song, and like Kenny’s version of “Dog Days Are Over” it pays tribute to the dead, by speaking their names so any audience who hears it can know and remember!
(It’s also worth noting that one of my biggest influences is the cabaret act/duo Kiki and Herb made up of Mx.Viv and Kenny, thus not only am I inspired by them as artists individually, but their collaboration is equally a source of inspiration!
Kate Bornstein! Auntie Kate’s book Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens Freaks and Other Outlaws is my absolute favorite book. As someone who struggles with their own mental illness and has had multiple friends kill themselves, Kate’s work is vital. Her mental health advocacy (and work in general) rejects respectability politics and instead provides authentic accounts of her experiences, thus making her advice empathetic, accessible and genuinely helpful. It probably sounds idealistic to say that I hope my work saves lives, but I know Kate Bornstein’s work does, so if I could somehow make something even a smidgeon as helpful as Hello Cruel World, I’d be extremely grateful!
Nath Ann Carrera! I’ve always admired Nath Ann’s encyclopedic knowledge of the people they admire and how they work their interests into their performances. Their most recent show that especially inspires me is their cabaret “The Early Southern Gothicism Of Dolly Parton” in which they explore Dolly’s darker songs. What really resonates with me is the exploration of humor and morbidity, and how certain songs that seem over the top and campy were based on true tragedies in Dolly’s life. Although presenting these songs with deadpan humor, Nath Ann respects Dolly’s absurd sincerity and empathetically explains the contexts and real life parallels. Being able to embrace dark humor while respectfully portraying the stories of real people is something I truly admire and aspire to do in my work!
Taylor Mac! Taylor Mac creates in a grandiose scale, yet judy’s work is always
personal. Mac is ostensibly guided by making sure that history (and by extension, the lives of people they lost) is remembered. Judy has spent multiple shows eulogizing their mentor Mother Flawless Sabrina, as well as other queer historical figures. Two pieces of judy’s that impact me the most are the riff on “What’s the Use of Wond’rin” from The Young Ladies Of in which Mac tells the story of judy’s family and dead father. After reflecting on what seemed like an inherited curse of toxic masculinity, Mac leads the audience in singing the chorus of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song. As Mac quietly looks out on the audience singing “What’s the use of wondering?” Mac says to judy’s father: “Dear Robert, this is my last letter to you. A singing telegram.” The video of it was removed from Vimeo a year ago but even thinking about it gives me chills. The other most impactful piece Taylor Mac performs is a ukulele song entitled “You can lie down or get up and play”. Both pieces feel cosmic in their ability to call to those who have gone. I had a dream once that described Taylor Mac as a “death witch”- I think that suits judy. I want to be a death witch too!
As for what inspires me, that’s simple: my lived experiences. My pieces are based on real events, albeit oftentimes stylized, and every story I tell about my life and my loved ones actually happened.
What is one thing that someone would be surprised to learn about you?
To me it’s surprising that there are environments in which I’m seen as mysterious, for instance at my day job. I’m a compulsive oversharer—I can’t lie, and I aspire towards openness, particularly in my work as a performer. Yet, at my day job, people are often shocked to hear that I’m a performer, since they think me subdued, quiet, and reserved, which anyone who truly knows me knows I’m the antithesis of!
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I’ll be performing at Dixon Place on May 23rd at 7:30 PM as part of Dust Tea Shoulders’ CAMPFIRE! Queer Storytime! I’d love it if y’all could make it!
Katherine is a cabaret performer, monologist, and storyteller. Their work focuses primarily on personal narratives surrounding mental health, queerness, mourning, and healing from trauma. KRT often performs at Joan Dark’s long-running open mic Get On The Stage at Bluestockings Bookstore. They made their Am I Write, Ladies debut last March performing their piece Spring Cleaning. They’re currently working on an upcoming solo cabaret entitled #Trauma, along with many additional future projects!
I see much of my work as blocks of text that are made up of sentences, which are made up of words, and each of those words and sentences and blocks of text are modular—I can move them around as I see fit. I can subtract and subtract and subtract. I hate to add. I feel strongly that what I am trying to say is already on the page waiting to be uncovered. I print out pieces, cut out paragraphs, tape them together in a new order. I hate that such clunkiness is part of my revision process, but reading Carol Guess’ essay today on Lit Hub made it feel a little more okay:
“…looking at the papers strewn on the floor, I saw lines lift as if illuminated. I understood clearly that the poems were there, hidden, as sculpture hides in a block of stone. It wasn’t four books, but one; the obstacle was excess. I didn’t need to write more, but less.” -Carol Guess
After two different people strongly recommended I go see it, I spent an afternoon at the Guggenheim with Swedish artist Hilma af Klint’s abstract, spiritual collection, one she began creating in 1906.
I took exactly one photo before my phone died.
Klint is an artist who did not show her work publicly in her lifetime. Her wish was to have it remain out of the public eye until at least twenty years after her death. It didn’t receive real attention until 1986 – over forty years after she passed away in 1944.
“She imagined installing these works in a spiral temple, though this plan never came to fruition”.
It was my aim to view Klint’s work, which I knew would resonate, so I was pleasantly surprised to feel something from R. H. Quaytman’s work (Chapter 34). Since I’m researching examples of imagery in storytelling for my craft paper, I spent time in the reading room jotting down some notes about the way she likes to talk about her entire body of work. From the introduction of the Morning: Chapter 30 exhibition catalogue:
“RHQ has used the word ‘book’ to describe her ongoing production, and the word ‘chapter’ to denote each group of her paintings. She sometimes says that each painting is like a word in a sentence, and that we should replace the word ‘noun’ by the word ‘painting’, and that each painting is like a page. In a battle between words and image, language wins all the time over image”.
Both artists will be shown until 4/23/19. J. really wants to see it too, so I’ll definitely be back at least once more before the exhibitions come to a close.
On Wednesday, I visited the NY Society Library, bought a day pass, and began assembling my thesis. My thesis is something I have been calling the shell of my book, but when I say the word shell I don’t mean an eggshell, where everything is neat, suspended, and contained within a thin, fragile layer, I mean the other kind of shell. A conch or maybe a broken piece of coral, where the elements can flow in one way and flow out another.
As I sit at a table on the fifth floor of this library, assembling the parts and pieces of this shell—my shell-that’s due to my advisor in less than a month, I realize how fully addicted I am to the float-feeling: the feeling that some writers call being in “the zone”, where after I finish tweaking a word, or restructuring a sentence, or writing a memory, I have forgotten where I am for a moment, where everything around me has fallen away and it’s just me and the edges and curves in front of me. And then, as soon as I realize I feel disoriented, my surroundings rush back. I am again inside the room among other writers on the fifth floor with the sun casting a glow on the wood table and the white noise of the shuffling of papers and the tap-tap-tapping of keys.