Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Take A Hint: Jenn Alandy's Long Walk to Print

I was twenty-four years old when I discovered Welcome to the Monkey House. A former writing teacher, Lisa Alvarez, deepened my appreciation for Kurt Vonnegut by introducing me to this short story collection. Some of the stories were familiar to me, while others – like unopened gifts – were brand new. One of these gifts was a particularly uncharacteristic Vonnegut story entitled “Long Walk to Forever.” In this peculiar and sentimental story, there is no dystopia, there are no Trafalmadorians, no United States Handicapper General, and no Suicide Parlor Hostesses. There are just two young adults named Catharine and Newt.

Catharine is on the verge of marrying another young man named Henry Stewart Chasens, but Newt shows up at her door unexpectedly to visit and notices that she’s clutching a bridal magazine, presumably dreaming of a fruitful, fairytale-esque future. Newt, ever present-minded and spontaneous, disrupts her daydream and asks her to take a walk:

“A walk?” said Catherine.

“One foot in front of the other,” said Newt, “through leaves, over bridges—“

You see, much like Catharine, many emerging writers tend to be farsighted and dream of the fanciful end results: a future book deal, a future six-figure advance, a future book tour. Instead of focusing on the present, writers dream about publication. But this is not why we should write, nor is it why I write.

The same year that I opened up Welcome to the Monkey House, a friend gave me a copy of John Fante’s Ask the Dust. In the preface, Charles Bukowski (another literary hero of mine) describes Fante’s books as “written of and from the gut and the heart.” Bukowski goes on to write that each line of Fante’s prose “had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humour and pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity.”

I was inspired. I decided that this was going to be the standard that I held myself to, that I was going to challenge myself to write “from the gut and the heart.” How was I going to start?

“One foot in front of the other—through leaves, over bridges—”

Though I was in the middle of a cross-country move and disheartened that I would be leaving Lisa Alvarez’s workshop, I picked up my pen again. I unearthed old stories from a banker’s box that I had kept at the bottom of my closet. I read them. I cringed. There were long periods of time where I didn’t write. Then, in the middle of my sixty-hour work weeks, I thought about what I would write instead – I thought about it on the metro, in my office during the day, at the restaurant where I waited tables in the evenings. During slow nights, I would sit at the same table as the delivery drivers and cooks and scribble fragments down in my journal. Then, I came across this call for submissions on Lisa Alvarez’s blog.

W.W. Norton wanted to publish a collection of extremely short stories that were 25 words or less. 25 words? I thought this would be a good exercise for myself and focused on carving a feeling on the page, one word in front of the other . . . and then on August 17, 2009, on a whim, I clicked send.

I had just taken my first step.

On October 13, 2009, I received the following e-mail:

Dear Jenn,

Thanks for submitting to this anthology. I must say I enjoyed
“Checking In” very much and would like to accept it for publication . . .

In a short essay for Quarterly West, George Saunders (a modern-day Kurt Vonnegut and yet another literary hero of mine) writes “Publication in Quarterly West was a huge and defining moment for me because it meant that, to somebody out there, I was making sense . . . I had gone deep into my mind to get the story, and someone out in the world got it, which meant that I wasn't a crank, wasn't insane, was,in fact,in a small way, a Success.”

Our Hint Fiction editor, Robert Swartwood, had received more than 2400 stories and selected about 100 for publication. Something about my story stood out and made sense, and this “Success” was a side effect of merely focusing on carving out “a feeling of something,” word by word.

The art of Hint Fiction has challenged me to put a microscope on my prose and make every word count. If I could carve something out of 25 words, I could carve something out of 2500, 5000, even 10,000 words. I just had to do it one word at a time. And, thanks to writing workshops at The Writer’s Center, I have also found excellent teachers – just like Lisa Alvarez – in John Morris and Dan Gutstein. They have been there to encourage me and my fellow writers to tell the best stories that we can, regardless of length.

Hint Fiction was published last November. We received favorable mentions in The New Yorker and NPR, and my story was referenced by Maggie Galehouse, book editor at The Houston Chronicle. I also participated in Hint Fiction contributor readings/signings at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena in November of 2010 and at KGB Bar in New York City in February of 2011, where I had the opportunity to connect with other emerging writers just like myself.

But, none of this would have happened if I didn’t take that first step, if I didn’t stay focused on what was right in front of me, if I didn’t first focus on writing from the gut and the heart. My journey has only just begun.

How can you begin?

One word in front of the other, through leaves, over bridges --

Jenn Alandy was born in Houston, Texas to Filipino immigrant parents. She was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and received her B.A. in English from the University of California, Irvine. In 2008, she received a Carlisle Family Scholarship to attend the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Jenn currently manages a process serving company in Washington, DC and volunteers as a tutor at the Washington Literacy Council. Jenn resides in Rockville, Maryland, with the love of her life. She has been a member of The Writer’s Center since 2009.


James said...


Linda said...

I Jenn, this is Linda, our old friend from Lisa's class. I really like this essay, because it is so honest and true about anything we really believe in. Congratualtions on your pubications! I had a similar thing happen last spring. an email from an editor accepting me and I got it all from Lisa's blog!

Amin Ahmad said...

Great essay, Jenn! It takes guts to send one's work out for publication- and now that you've taken the first step, I look forward to seeing more in print!

Drew McCrary said...

This piece seems to conjure up images of Emerson for me. I thought of this quote:

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

You've made this great experiment in being succinct, being present. Wouldn't it be grand if we extrapolated this out into the world, if we all slowed down a little and reflected on what it is we truly love about the things we do, and why we are actually doing them? It seems Buddhist in it's simplicity, but I remember you telling me how every word should matter in a story, and I think your success with HF proved you can make that a reality.

Well done Jenn!

A Style oF Culture said...

Jenn! I love the honesty in your words! Your essay was so inspiring from an artist's standpoint and even from the perspective of aspiring individuals.

We all just have to take that leap of faith and take that first step towards fulfilling something we are truly passionate about. Although new endeavors can be quite mysterious and scary, we all have to create change in order to progress.

You really get down to the heart of it all and in such a way that flows effortlessly throughout the essay.

Congrats on being published! "Checking In" was powerful.

Gay Degani said...

Jenn, I enjoyed your article about "awakening" to writing "one word at a time" and finding success. You've included so much in this one piece, it's pretty inspiring. You've mention a couple authors I've been aware of --Bukowski and Fante-- but haven't read and now I'm curious. And I love your vonnegut example. One foot in front of the other, bird by bird, word by word. Which ever way, it takes passion and patience to make our way.