Category Archives: Marginalia

[marginalia] On Readings : : Mark Polanzak

In this third installment of three articles, draft editor Mark Polanzak talks about why literary readings suck and how to make them better.

The three occurrences that most riveted the crowd at the last three readings I attended:

1) At Q & A time, a man was called on who said: “I’ve never heard of the book, and I missed your reading, but I’ve just looked at the back of your novel here, and, jeez, you must be amazing, man.” To which the reader/author had to sort of respond to the obviously indigent and hammered bookstore patron with an awkward, “Thank you.” Everyone in the crowd whispered and shuffled around.
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[marginalia] The Style Sheet : : Tony Tulathimutte

authorphotoTony Tulathimutte is the author of the novel Private Citizens. A graduate of Stanford University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he has written for The New York Times, VICE, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, N+1, Playboy, The Paris Review, Salon, The LA Review of Books, Travel + Leisure, and others. His work has received an O. Henry Award and a Macdowell Fellowship.

This post is part of our ongoing web series MARGINALIA about all things writing, reading, & learning. To submit your own experience, please read our guidelines.


Let this be an official apology to my copyeditor, the indefatigable Laura Cherkas, and a hymn of praise for the work copyeditors do with scant praise or recognition. Did you know that HarperCollins fact-checks their novels? And that they not only make lists of every character, every location, and every abbreviation, but a comprehensive timeline of every event in the book with a specific date? I sure didn’t, until, some time after submitting the draft of my novel Private Citizens, I received all of these in a 13-page style sheet, an additional four pages and an annotated manuscript of unbelievably minute queries. The style notes offer a charming glimpse into the copyeditor’s pragmatic, craftsmanly approach to literature: “Author’s prose is very slangy and stylistic; follow him when possible,” one reads (good advice!). Or: “‘God’ capitalized only in direct reference to deity, not in interjections. ‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ always capped.”

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[marginalia] The Myth About Writers : : Mark Polanzak

In this second installment of three articles, draft editor Mark Polanzak opines about the writerly mystique and all the drama surrounding literary genius

After the mandated souring of young persons to the act of reading through our educational system, there’s the culture of book people to contend with. How do we as a society view authors?

On a recent South Park episode, when Butters took credit for authoring the novel Scrotie McBoogerballs and the world deemed him a genius writer, his look morphed from anxious nerdlinger in pale green tee to self-important writer-douche in black frame eyeglasses and gray sweater. The episode goes on to point out that books are not simply enjoyed for the stories they tell. Rather, they are bizarre language puzzles that concoct impenetrable metaphors and allegories that readers must set to figuring out. There’s this bullshit air of mystery about the whole endeavor and about authors themselves. Continue reading

[marginalia] Some Problems – Books, Authors, English Class, and Readings : : Mark Polanzak

In this first installment of three articles, draft editor Mark Polanzak sounds off about high school English curricula, literary culture, and reading events. Today, we hear him bitch about Beowulf

A Note From The Author
I see my job as a college writing and literature teacher as largely a mission to get college students to enjoy reading and see some value in writing smartly, despite their declared major. Each semester, a handful of students tell me, “No offense, but I hate reading…” I tell them, “None taken, I didn’t invent books.”

But it’s sort of shitty to hear that young people truly hate the act of reading, because I write, and also because it hurts to hear that others laugh at your pleasures. No offense, but your interests blow. Oh, none taken. It also hurts to be so uncool. To belong, in part, to the artistic/entertainment group that the majority of the population doesn’t give a rat’s ass about.

I blame my students’ distaste for reading on several things:
1) The crazy joke of our high school English curriculum
2) A smelliness in the bourgeois literary culture
3) The sadness of reading events
All of these need serious revamping and soon, or else we’ll lose even more generations of readers and plunge the publishing world into a darker pit than it’s already falling through at terminal velocity.
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[marginalia] you’ll never guess what happens next : : colette sartor

To some writers–including me–plot can seem like the dirtiest, most despicable of four letter words. Writers of this ilk have been known to run screaming from a room when we hear the word. “Make something happen?” we call, quaking in our hiding spots. “Why would we do that? Stories come from character, not plot. Stories should be about someone, not something.”

This, I’ve learned, is a huge, smelly load of horse shit.

Plot is important. Stories need plots. Every story. Every. Single. One.
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[marginalia] Saying Goodbye To My Novel :: Marisela Navarro


I worked on my novel for six years, on and off.  I completed and revised several drafts.  Something was wrong with it, but I didn’t know what.  My whole body went into it.  My fingers, shoulders, knees, eyes.  It grew, seed to forest.  I gave it a name.  I forgot about it.  I cared, I didn’t.  Nothing was so serious.  I avoided it.  These are all the places I traveled to throughout the years I said I was writing a novel:  Puerto Rico, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Florida, Jamaica, Maryland, California, Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Virginia, France, New York, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Zealand, Colorado, New Mexico, Maine.  I wrote the most in Massachusetts.  Other things I did that come to mind first, without thinking:  painted walls, moved apartments, tried on wedding dresses, ate sushi, jumped rope, had dreams of lovers dying. Continue reading

[marginalia] The Literary Slacker :: Jen Pieroni

Reality Bites

This post is part of our ongoing web series MARGINALIA about all things writing, reading, & learning. To submit your own experience, please read our guidelines.

I knew I was actually going to finish Danceland when I kept drafting it even though I’d already realized that the structure was all wrong. Being of the “slacker generation” (see film: Reality Bites), I don’t believe I had ever before exemplified the stick-to-itiveness to see a failing project through. (See unfinished novel: Fishtival). Why did I bother this time? Because I really, really wanted it. Continue reading

[marginalia] The Art of Knowing When Two Things Might Actually Be One :: Aaron Burch


Simplyvinyl Photography

This last year, for the first time, my university’s introductory creative writing classes were multi-genre. In fact, I taught Intro CW at two different universities, and both were multi-genre. This meant, for the first time, I taught poetry. I started the semester with poetry, thinking we’d start with the small and grow into reading and writing longer pieces. I also liked the idea of ending with the more familiar instead of starting with it but then having to leave it behind.


In what is something of a lucky chance of timing, this last year I have begun writing and publishing poetry myself. For a long time, I teased my poet friends, made fun of the genre—in part out of a kind of “siding with the home team,” us-against-them sports mentality as a prose writer; and in part for the reasons many often struggle with poetry: it seemed frustratingly coy, or like it was smarter than me, or that I just didn’t get it. In the classroom, I am rarely less than overly candid, and so I led with my own biases but also my recent excitement: I have come to be ever more excited by poetry in only the last six months, so let’s all be excited!

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photo by Anna Bodnar

photo by Anna Bodnar

Tweet. Waft. Other than bird-twitter, silence. Other than a hint of warm air drifting from the bougainvillea beyond my window, stillness. Used dishes in the sink, on the counter, and I’m avoiding them. Financial papers sitting in a drawer, overdue, and I’m not tackling them now. A perfect afternoon for writing and dreaming and listening.

I am listening for voices. Today I’m staring at my laptop thinking about my protagonist, who’s escaped a difficult situation to find herself in even greater peril (though she doesn’t yet know this). I’m also imagining her associate (snippy, one-upping) and her antagonist (calm, inscrutable). But I am not sure what to do next. I close my eyes. I cannot hear either one of them. So I begin distracting myself trying to imagine another scene (I want to get from A to B, but how?), or maybe the next scene after that (my protagonist’s new quest partner appears—but in what way?). But I don’t envision those scenes clearly either. For a while I suppose I can’t hear these characters because, well, I don’t actually know some of them very well, so of course they appear hackneyed and melodramatic—I need to believe in them and their desires, which must seem very reasonable and necessary, in order to make them real, and right now my protagonist-antagonist dynamic appears really straightforward and obvious and dull…

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image by Catherine Nelson

Some of those terrible writing books that use the word “inspired” a lot probably advised me to wake up early and write poems with the sun rising at the cock’s crow. That type of thing. For a time, I tried this in earnest. It did not work, and, looking back now, it’s certainly possible that going to bed at 3:23am every night wasn’t part of the regime they were prescribing.

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