Latest Blog Posts — Page 2

Happy book birthday to Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons

Once upon a time I thought of a title for a story: “The Etiquette of Adultery.” I liked that title so much that I wrote it down on a piece of paper and carried it around in my wallet with me for about a year. One day I decided to write the story, wondering what an etiquette guide for adultery would really look like. I sent it off to Necessary Fiction, and editor Steve Himmer wrote a nice note back saying he loved the concept but thought I should expand the story a bit more.

That note made sense to me and sparked something inside me that became the catalyst for this book. An editor’s job is mostly thankless–I know, having edited SmokeLong for almost seven years now–but I also don’t think that editors often realize how much impact a kind, encouraging, honest rejection letter can have on a writer. Sometimes a sentence or two or a quick suggestion can help solidify an idea or start someone off on another path with a story. In this case, Steve’s note didn’t just help make “Adultery” a better story, but it also started me on the trail of a series of etiquette stories, which eventually created a book.

The thing is, the stories were so very fun to write. Most of them teeter on the edge of flash-fiction-length–the longest story tips just over 2,000 words, I believe–and the form allowed me to play around with all sorts of fun experiments, creating an unofficial guide to our darker selves.

The first edition of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons was published by Matter Press in 2012. It sold out of its print run and was only available as an ebook for the last few years, but now–now!–my friends, it’s back. And cuter than ever.

The newly revised Modern Manners, published by Santa Fe Writers Project, includes two new etiquette stories (“The Etiquette of Voyeurism” and “The Etiquette of Gossip”) and comes in paperback in an adorable, stuff-it-in-your-pocket size.

Here are some kind things folks have said about it:

“Sly, clever, original take on the sad, bewildering, dead-on truths of being human.”

— Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life and Together We Can Bury It

 

“The anxiety-ridden instructees of Laskowski’s stories tap dance their way through various awkward situations ranging from adultery to dementia. It’s fun to laugh at them, but by the end of each story, you can’t quite remember why you thought they were so dumb in the first place; these characters have problems and deal with their problems with dignity. Each of these stories start out in a sarcastic vein, yet the problems they address are heartbreaking, and each and every one of them realizes a protagonist, fully formed, with a past, a present, and a future.”

— L.W. Compton The Collagist

I’ll also be celebrating Modern Manners‘ birthday at the AWP conference Feb. 9-11 in Washington, D.C. Check out my events page for more information about readings and panels and things. Hope to see you and your inner demons soon!

Let’s #RetreatRepeat for the New Year

2016 was a very forward-facing year for me, and it was exhausting. Fortunately, most of this forward-facing was also quite exciting—events related to the release of Bystanders—and I’m above all grateful and stunned for all the opportunities I had to read and present and write guest posts. But being an introvert, I felt like the year was very energy-draining. The political climate in the U.S. was very upsetting in 2016–and continues to be so for the unforeseeable future. Art and Dash and I didn’t have a single vacation or getaway that wasn’t tacked on to some kind of writing event or other obligation. I constantly felt like I was being chased by an eternal to-do list that, rather than getting shorter, kept seeming longer and longer and longer the more things I checked off it.

So here we are on the last day of the year, and reflections and proclamations abound. Frankly, I’m tired. And my new year’s resolutions and thoughts seem to reflect this. Therefore, I’ve got a new mantra for 2017:

#RetreatRepeat

Say it with me…

Retreat

Retreat, as in pull back, move inward, chill out. Not retreat from fighting the good fight, but rather stop and reflect, focus on priorities, be smarter about my time choices. I gave a lot last year, and this year I want to be much more selfish about my time. I want to concentrate on writing, producing creative work, daydreaming. I’m working on a longer writing project right now and it requires more focus and energy than writing flash fiction. If I don’t give myself permission to focus and say no to other things, I don’t think I’ll ever finish it. And I really want to finish it.

But even more than writing, I want to spend time with friends and family because I want to, not as tacked-on to a self-made book tour. Retreat to me doesn’t necessarily mean become a hermit. It means to make the effort to spend quality time with people who are important to me, in ways that are fulfilling, fun, relaxing, and present. It means calling an old friend on the phone rather than scrolling through Facebook newsfeeds and getting depressed at all the terrible shit going on in the world. Emailing someone a thoughtful hello message rather than getting in a Twitter fight with a total stranger. My energies have been very distracted this year and I feel weary by all of it. I need to retreat in order to protect my emotional health.

Repeat

Repeat, as in seek out the things I’ve read, watched, done before and found joy in. Re-reading the classics, the books I fell in love with years ago. I first read The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis when I was in second grade, and throughout the years I’ve re-read the series and always discovered something new about it and got something new out of it. I’d love to revisit other texts that I loved years ago and see if I can learn new things or, at least, remember why they spoke to me so strongly the first time.

The same goes for my favorite movies—Art and I have DVDs collecting dust on our shelves of movies that we never re-watch because it always seems there are so many new films we haven’t seen . But I’d like to take some time to relish in old friends in 2017 and dust off those shelves. We recently re-watched Star Wars: A New Hope with our son, who was watching it for the first time, and seeing it through his eyes was a delight.

But beyond movies and books, repeat to me also means spending more time doing things that bring me joy. Things that aren’t obligations—crafting, putting together puzzles, just having long conversations with people I love. Putting down the phone and computer more. Connecting offline more than online.

 

Want to #RetreatRepeat with me? I’ll try to make a list of books, movies, etc. that I’ve read, watched, done throughout the year, and I’d be interested to hear what other folks repeat as well.

Happy New Year to everyone, and may 2017 be your best year yet.

2016 Wasn’t All Terrible

There were a lot of really rotten, awful things that happened in 2016. I won’t dwell on them here, because I think we all know a lot of them and have been dealing with them for quite a while now. But 2016 wasn’t a complete stinkfest. In my attempt to cast things in a more positive light in the new year, I’m listing, in no particular order, some pretty awesome stuff that happened to me or just in general out there in the world over the past year. What are yours?

Jennifer Egan blurbed Bystanders. Jennifer Egan’s been my hero since I read Look at Me, and it’s only gotten more obsessive since then. So to get her stamp of approval on my new collection of stories was truly the best literary thing that’s ever happened to me. This also happened in January, which meant that the year was doomed to go down from there…but hey, start high!

And speaking of…Bystanders arrived into the world. Happy birthday, you crazy little book. (Buy it here! Or if you already have it, please consider giving it a quick, honest review!)

The book did pretty well. It got some lovely reviews, I did some lovely readings, people said they liked it. Grateful to everyone who was a part of that journey.

Stranger Things. Seriously, have you seen it yet? It was the best television that happened to me in 2016. Spooky stuff, 70s/80s throwback, a kick-ass complex female hero, and all in an easy-to-binge miniseries package. Can’t wait for more.

One of my very best friends moved back to D.C. from Florida. And now we work together! In an increasingly scary world, it’s nice to be surrounded by folks you love. And be able to have movie nights together.

I paid off my student loans.

I bought my very first new car. (She’s so cute, isn’t she?)

I saw Bryan Adams in concert. Teenage dream realized, people. He’s just lucky I didn’t bring my crinkled Teen Beat poster for him to sign.

My husband won a bunch of awards. His first novel On the Road with Del and Louise won the Agatha Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Macavity and the Anthony awards. The anthology he edited, Murder Under the Oaks, was an Anthony Award winner.

All of the photos from my son’s bowling birthday party are blurry. Which means those crazy kids were having too much fun to ever stop moving.

Cold, Dark Flash at AWP

I’m pretty excited about this one, guys. SmokeLong Quarterly and D.C.’s Noir at the Bar will present an off-site AWP reading “Cold, Dark Flash,” an evening of noir flash fiction. I mean, really, what can be better than noir-themed flash fiction on a cold February evening in D.C.? I hope to see you there!

Cold, Dark Flash
Saturday, Feb. 11, 2017
7 p.m.
Wonderland Ballroom
1101 Kenyon St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20010
(Three blocks from the Green Line Metro)

With readers:

Matt Bell
Tara Campbell
W. Todd Kaneko
Jennifer Pashley
Amber Sparks
Art Taylor
and hosted by:
Tara Laskowski
E.A. Aymar

Music by DJ Alkimist

Books for sale, raffle prizes, music, and more!

Why does this literary festival give me the blues?

What is it about Fall for the Book that makes me sad every single year? I’ve been asking myself this question all week.

I love this literary festival, held every year on George Mason University’s campus. I “grew up with it” in some ways, having attended it since my very first year in the MFA program there. I’ve seen and met amazing writers each year and had great experiences presenting at it myself.

But every year I get this hollowness in my chest. Every year I get the Fall for the Book blues, and when it hits, it hits big.

It hit last week, after I presented on a publishing panel for Santa Fe Writers Project. The panel itself went well. We had a small audience, which was probably in part due to timing and bad weather, but they were engaged and interested. We even sold a few books.

But later that night, I started to get the sadness. Those feelings of inadequacy, of hopelessness.

Maybe it’s tied to the fact that I “grew up with it,” that the nostalgia of the festival brings out some deep-seated anxieties or at least highlights them in a different way. When I was first attending FFTB, I was an unpublished writer desperately wanting to be a published writer. I listened to accomplished authors with their amazing books and felt like I would never get there. I remember attending a panel of Mason MFA alumni and thinking, ‘Wow, they went through this same program and now they have books and a career. Will this ever happen to me?” It was panic-attack-inducing at the same time that it was inspiring.

It got worse after I graduated from the program and started to see my own classmates and writer friends get published. I’d attend their Fall for the Book events and though I was ecstatic to see them succeed and be awesome, that same inadequacy for myself started creeping in. Will I ever get there?

And then I started publishing things, but never in The New Yorker. And then my first book came out, but it was “just with a small press.” And then I won an award, but it wasn’t a Pushcart. And it goes on. Will I ever get There?

What I’ve come to realize—even though I have to continue to tell myself this over and over and over again—is that the truth is, there is no “There” to get to. Each new level of success we reach or accomplishment we earn opens a whole other world of challenges to conquer, a whole other set of demons and confusions and expectations to navigate. And you can drive yourself crazy battling them.

I think it’s a universal feeling to always feel that wherever you are is not good enough. Especially for writers, perspectives, goals, and aspirations shift as we move forward. I think about myself twelve years ago, and how I would’ve gladly stuck my tongue out and gotten it run over by a tractor trailer to have a book published. I think about Merritt Tierce’s recent piece in Marie Claire about book sales and not being able to live off her writing. She’s been scorned by some people, but I have to say I kind of get it. The higher you get on the publishing ladder, the farther it feels you can fall. The inadequacy feels even more looming—”Well, surely, if I was able to do this, it can’t really mean all that much.”

I’m not trying to get all woe-is-me on you. I feel very fortunate that I’m able to continue writing and have success doing so. I’m grateful to all the wonderful writers and editors that I’ve met and built friendships with who keep me going every day. I’m proud of all the hard work that both my husband and I put in to our writing and editing, and totally fine with the sacrifices we make to continue doing this insanity.

But despite all that, my own worst inner critic never goes away. And sometimes I think it’s important to acknowledge that beast. To yank it out and stare at it and say, “Ok, fine. I get you. I’m not perfect and sometimes I feel sucky.” And then put it away, and crank up your computer and get back to work.

After the panel last week I had a young woman come up to talk to me. She was excited. She said she’d never heard of flash fiction until that night, and she’d been writing all these one or two page stories and not having a clue what to do with them. She thanked me for mentioning it and we talked for a bit about all the amazing journals out there that want those very stories.

And you know what? That was enough. That was worth it. That is why I keep doing what I do, year after year, even when the demons get me down.

Metaphors for Flash Fiction, with ‘Sex’ Substituted for ‘Flash’

Last year when we opened up application submissions for the Kathy Fish Fellowship at SmokeLong Quarterly, we asked writers to send a brief essay about why they like flash fiction and what they hope to get out of the fellowship if they win. We got a lot of really great responses to this question, and many many metaphors for what flash is like. After reading hundreds of these essays, though, my brain started to fire in different ways—namely in that ‘twelve-year-old-boy-sense-of-humor’ kind of way.

We’ve done away with that question for this year’s round of applicants, replaced by a few other more targeted questions. But in homage to all the great responses we got last year, I present to you excerpts from a few essays with “flash fiction” replaced with “sex”:

  • Sex provides pressure, a quick release of energy.
  • I thrive in these tight spaces.
  • Sex appeals to me because I can do so in one sitting, on a device like a laptop or smartphone, and because I often find that it makes me think about the nature of storytelling.
  • I love that sex is palpable, always in bite sized pieces and how it never leaves me with a sense of wanting more or less.
  • I like sex that is quick, visceral and unapologetic.
  • My strongest sexual encounters have been the ones where I didn’t sit down with a plan and a goal.
  • Sex is a bursting blossom from a poetic bud.
  • The kick in the teeth lures me as much as the wonder I experience when I have sex.
  • With sex, a single word can make or break the emotional tone overall.
  • I’ve had an appetite for sex since I was fourteen.
  • In the same way the straw wrapper winds up an accordion on the diner’s table or my wife touches each knob on the stove exactly once before leaving, I have sex.
  • One of the best parts of sex is knowing I can enter someone’s reading space, tell them a humorous anecdote or swiftly punch them in the gut, and then leave them comforted or haunted long after I’ve left.

There you go! By the way, application submissions for the 2017 Kathy Fish Fellowship open on July 15, 2016. For more information on the prize and guidelines, check out this page.

*Photo by Juhan Sonin and used via Flickr Creative Commons.

The Rumpus Saturday Interview and a great reading at Politics and Prose

This weekend was a writer’s dream! My chat with the wonderful Tyrese Coleman was published in The Rumpus on Saturday. Q&As seem pretty easy to conduct, and we see a lot of them around. But conducting a really good interview is an art. It’s one thing to send some generic basic questions to an author and let them ramble on. It’s another to do research, read their works, and craft really interesting questions that would be of interest to someone who has read the book as equally as someone who hasn’t read the book. And I thought Ty did an excellent job with it. I so appreciate her efforts here, and I hope you’ll also go check out her writing as well. She’s a force.

Speaking of a force, Politics and Prose is one of the best independent bookstores in the country. I had an event there on Saturday afternoon with novelist Michael Landweber, and it was fantastic. Kudos to the professional and kind event staff at P&P who make you feel very welcome and who know how to draw in a crowd. It was a pleasure to hear Mike read from his new novel Thursday, 1:17 PM, about what happens to a teenage boy when time suddenly stops and everything is frozen except him. Thanks so much to everyone who came out to hear us read. It was truly a pleasure.

Author Elizabeth Hazen and publisher Andrew Gifford at the Grubb Road Book Festival.
Author Elizabeth Hazen and publisher Andrew Gifford at the Grubb Road Book Festival.

On Sunday, Santa Fe Writers Project hosted the first annual Grubb Road Book Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland. Local book publishers including Paycock Press and Possibilities Publishing were on hand to chat with readers and sell some books. It was a beautiful summer afternoon.

So…a whirlwind book weekend! I continue to feel fortunate in so many ways.

Bring your babies to book launches

My husband Art Taylor and I have been bringing our son to literary events since he was a baby. Last week, I had the pleasure of writing about this for Publisher’s Weekly. It’s not always gone smoothly, and it hasn’t always been pleasant, but we are pretty excited that Dash thinks that book launches are regular weekend events to attend. Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

When I was a kid, I remember how endless Sunday Mass used to feel, listening to the priest talk about things I didn’t understand. I had to sit still and be quiet. And yet I was aware that there was something important going on, something special and significant, and it was nice to be part of that.

I don’t equate readings with church (although good ones can be a spiritual experience in their own right), but my husband and I see Dashiell picking up on the specialness of the events we take him to. During one reading, a woman recited a long poem while Dash parked his cars in the back of the room. But when she started firing off a list of names in a rapid succession, he looked up and started laughing at the rhythm of the words. Another time we were at a friend’s reading, sitting in the children’s section flipping through picture books, when he looked up at me and whispered, “She just said ‘son of a gun’! That’s not a nice thing to say.”

You can read the rest of the essay here.

And, to put my money where my mouth is, Dash traveled with us this weekend to Pennsylvania where I had my Bystanders hometown launch at the Osterhout Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Dash sat in the front row and handed out Bystanders bookmarks to everyone in attendance (and photo-bombed some of the pictures, as you can see.) It was a really lovely event at a beautiful library, and I was so pleased to be able to read at a place I loved to go as a child myself. Circle of life?

**

This weekend I get to fulfill a dream I’ve had since I started graduate school at George Mason University in 2002. I’ll be reading at one of my very favorite bookstores in the world–Politics and Prose. I remember seeing some very fabulous writers read there over the years–Alan Cheuse, Susan Shreve, Paul Auster and Richard Russo, to name a few. It’s truly an honor to get to stand at the podium myself!

I’ll be there on Saturday, June 25 from 1 to 2 p.m. with novelist and friend Michael Landweber, whose book Thursday, 1:17 p.m. was released on May 1, 2016. Please come join us if you’re in town!

Blah. Word Thieves.

I’ve been bummed out this week after hearing about the massive plagiarism accusations against B. Mitchell Cator, including several pieces from SmokeLong Quarterly that were apparently lifted and published in a book under different titles. For now, Cator has been largely silent, except for a few emails he’s sent to some of the writers and journals that he stole from. We have not heard from him at SmokeLong.

This makes me angry, and it also makes me sad. Angry because many of the writers I know are struggling to find time to write and publish in between other jobs and family obligations, and hardly getting paid anything for their work. Angry because flash fiction, especially, is a form that is brilliant, but largely misunderstood—each time I do any sort of presentation on the form, inevitably someone in the audience will say it’s the first time they’ve even heard of it—and plagiarizing these stories for profit seems like an even bigger ‘FU’ to me for some reason. Now, I say ‘for profit,’ perfectly understanding that chances are Cator’s self-published book on Amazon wasn’t selling like hotcakes before the news broke anyway. I wouldn’t be surprised if his total royalties were less in dollars than the fingers I have on my hands. But even if he made 5 cents on the book…WRONG. But it’s also sad to me that he felt the need to put this much effort into plucking stories, paragraphs, sentences from other people and collaging it together to call it his own. I’ve seen many comments along the lines of: It probably would have been easier to just write his own book. But he didn’t. Why? Can we find some sympathy in this situation?

I’ve heard from lots of writers and editors, and we’re all sort of reeling in puzzlement. What makes someone do something like this? How could he think he could get away with it? And the thing is, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that this issue is much more widespread than we think. Perhaps not to the systematic, serial level that Cator conducted, but smaller violations. Stories previously published elsewhere, contract violations, lines and phrases lifted, even unintentionally, from other places. The online journal writing world, the flash fiction writing world, is a small one, and one that I feel is bound together in some ways by trust, collaboration, and support. Many journals, operating with small volunteer staffs and little to no budget, don’t have the time to extensively scour the Internet to verify stories accepted are the works of the author and don’t appear anywhere else. Editors are overworked, under-thanked, and usually juggling a million other things, and they trust that writers are going by the honor code. It’s not an excuse, but it is often the reality. Clearly that can easily be taken advantage of.

At SmokeLong, we’ve been discussing this issue and trying to decide what actions to take. I believe in the next few months we will be changing our editorial process slightly to give room to vet stories accepted and ensure as much as possible that we are publishing the highest quality and original works by writers. To my knowledge, we have never discovered plagiarism in any of our published stories, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen or hasn’t.

It’s been a sad week for writers, but also a good wake-up call for us as well. Here’s hoping it will make us better, more original, and more vigilant with our words.

How Michael Czyzniejewski can cure the book blues

For whatever reason, I’ve been feeling a little blue this week about writing and whatnot. Which is odd, since it’s the week that my book is officially released out into the wild. But, I suppose, wherever you are in your writing career, there are always new challenges, doubts, and worries, and you never know when they’re going to sneak up on you.

Which is why I was so pleased to see Michael Czyzniejewski ‘s write-up of “The Monitor,” one of the stories in Bystanders, on his awesome Story366 blog this morning. In case you’ve missed it so far, Mike is writing about a different short story every day for the whole year. Ambitious! Awesome! Check it out.

His review of “The Monitor” is great, and much appreciated. But more than that, it got me thinking about the way that writing friendships work, and the way that encounters and generosity and a little bit of luck open up opportunities and connections and friendships.

Way back when in grad school, I would read Mid-American Review. Mike was the fiction editor then, and a damn fine one with a stellar reputation. The publication was on my bucket list. I sent him anything I vaguely thought might be worthy, and got a lot of rejections back. Some with handwritten notes, others not, but trust me, I remember those little scribbles. They were a sign of an actual person behind this mysterious process.

When I finally got a story accepted by him, it was like I’d made it. I remember dragging my coworker to the bar in the middle of the afternoon for a sneaky celebratory drink.

Later, that story was included in my first collection. Later, I met Mike in person at AWP. I became the editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, and actually got to publish some of his stories. Then he read for us at an off-site event in D.C. (The picture with this post is us, circa 2010! Look how happy we look!) We chatted occasionally on social media.

A few years ago, Mike interviewed one of our authors for the quarterly issue, and the interview was so great that I jokingly told him he should just be our interview person. Not only did he say yes, but so did his amazingpants wife Karen Craigo. And so goes the weird, crazy, wonderful, sometimes frustrating but always interesting circle of writing life: the faceless editor I used to spam with my work in grad school now works with me on a publication.

This is not a particularly unusual or special story. I’m sure most every writer has a similar experience to share, probably dozens of them. But I needed to reflect on it this week in particular, when it seems like the writing world is too big. That there are too many of us trying to do the same thing, that it’s hard to write and even harder to get that writing in other people’s hands.

All of that is true, but it’s precisely those reasons why its worth it as well. Yep, there’s a lot of us. But that’s all the more to “get” what we’re trying to do and sympathize. It’s all the more to meet and learn from and have beers with. It’s all the more who spend what little free time they have to write a review or send you a quick note or slog through submission queues to publish your work and give you a voice.

So thank you, Mike and all of my other writing pals out there–too many, thankfully for me, to name–for your friendship and for all the opportunities you’ve provided to me throughout the years. And thank you for being amazing writers and editors and support groups. I feel quite lucky to have you all and to be able to call you friends.

##

And speaking of awesome writing people, I wanted to give a quick shout-out to Chris Irvin, Paul Tremblay, and Erin Fitzgerald for making our panel at the Newburyport Literary Festival this past weekend look good. We chatted about violence in literature (and the occasional movie), and I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Paul’s reading later that afternoon–which was given to a SRO crowd. If you haven’t checked out A Head Full of Ghosts yet, you need to. Just don’t read it late at night.