Introductory Ramblings Derek Alger From the Editor

perm_identity Introductory Ramblings

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 109 ~ June, 2006

I wasn’t going to write anything but a friend of mine – a real writer, at least in terms of publication, with five novels to his credit – told me that I should, that I should take advantage of the opportunity to let people know more about me as I continue with my efforts to keep PIF going and making it even better.

This writer said he wanted to support my efforts, which are really also
the efforts of Richard Luck and Rachel Sage, and the many writers and readers
who frequent the site. He said other writers would want to support efforts to make PIF viable and dynamic, and exciting, and stimulating, and all that other kind of good stuff. This writer is a man of conviction, a wise observer of the human condition, who, though resigned to the more unpleasant realities of life, also is one who carries on because of the positive aspects and strength of the human spirit. If he thinks highly of me, maybe I’m okay – but I must admit that like many, inner voices of doubt sometimes prevail. I guess maybe sometimes it is okay to listen to others, regardless of whether you agree at first, or even later.

Still, my experience with PIF has been thoroughly positive, and the irony is that I’m a fairly newcomer to the computer age, and yet, it has been
through electronic sentences clicked out through cyberspace that I have actually met real people, becoming true friends with some, and colleagues with

Although I still feel like an MFA student in my mid-twenties, I’m not, which proves that one’s development as a writer is an individual affair, and though there may be objective criteria concerning craft, in the final analysis, subjectivity and internal drive probably have more to do with success, whatever that is, than anything else. And, of course, a bit of luck – one should never underestimate luck.

So what am I babbling about? I guess I’m expressing gratitude that I
was able to meet so many interesting and encouraging people through my
involvement with PIF. Better late than never, I suppose. I can’t dwell on regrets of the past because I’m where I am now, and it’s not that bad, and prior days have somehow landed me as the managing editor, or head editor, or something or other of PIF.

I remember working as a temp at an aviation plant across the road from
a small airport which the jet setters used to slip in and out of the New York
metropolitan area. I was a reproduction clerk, where engineers and purchasers,
many retired military men, and other young hotshots starting out, would come to me with scrawled out numbers of blueprints they wanted located and copied for them. I worked with another temp, a guy a year or two older than me, who was a standup comic paired up in an act with his wife, while I was an aspiring writer. The only reason I mention any of this is one, because the would be comic was much more confident than me, and two, he gave me the memorable advice in terms of trying to make it, whatever that was, when he said, “It’s not a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but rather, of being someplace all the time.”

In other words, you never know; never know what will happen, or who you
might meet, or any of a number of things. For instance, I sent a query e-mail
to PIF about doing an interview with a well known writer. At the time, about
five years ago, it was the only fiction writer I knew, well-known or otherwise, aside from myself, if I could even count myself. I waited, waited patiently, but received no answer, and then forgot the whole request, until months later an e-mail arrived giving me the green light.

I don’t know if I was in the right place, or some place, but I did the
interview, and it went well, and by the time that issue of PIF was out, I had met a poet, whom I quickly interviewed and then I had two to my credit. And then shortly after that, one of my stories was published by a fairly prestigious literary journal, and I mustered the courage through e-mail, courage which I might never have called forth otherwise, and I searched
out the editor of the journal, the editor who accepted my story, and we
connected, and he recommended another writer for me to interview, which I did,
and this writer became a friend, and then before I knew it, I was on a panel at the AWP Conference in Vancouver two years ago discussing the fiction of another well-known writer, with whom I had done an interview based on the writer who became a friend. So, there you go – you never know.

I have been exposed to two types of individuals in the creative writing
field, at least in terms of those who interact with others, by teaching, or giving readings, or attending conferences and serving on panels and such. One group I call the luminaries who tend to view creative writing as a zero sum game. Somehow in their twisted logic it is believed that the success of
another – a novel that receives great reviews, a poetry collection that wins
a prestigious award – automatically directly impacts negatively on them. Such insecure luminaries, who appear anything but insecure, are similar to the
neighbor whose friend wins a substantial sum in the lottery and instead of being happy for the neighbor’s good fortune, the friend complains with a
sinister snarl, “Who the hell does he think he is?”

The other group of writers, of whom I’ve been fortunate enough to meet
many over the past few years, are the ones who believe, and believe from deep
within, that writing is not a competitive sport. These writers are encouraging
to others, helpful to the beginning writer starting the lonely, arduous journey to see if writing is a true calling or an enjoyable hobby. The encouraging writers are out there, and many of them do teach, and as MFA programs have proliferated since I was such a student, chances are good that one may encounter such a teacher or two, which is all to the good.

All this brings me back to my friend who has published five impressive
novels. He is a teacher, but a teacher of the encouraging kind. I met him because of PIF, though a few degrees removed. I met him at the AWP in Vancouver, a city I had never been to, and the first writer’s conference of any sort I had ever attended, and one at which there was only one person I had ever met before, and I had only had dinner with that person once, the only time we had ever been together.

I’m old enough that I shouldn’t have been so scared, or nervous, or anxious, or so I told myself. What was the big deal? I had attended a camp in
Ontario when I was thirteen and found myself on a ten day canoe trip through
Algonquin Park within which there are over 7,000 square miles of forests, lakes, and rivers. I survived the wilderness, and portages, and mosquitoes,
and the self-conscious uncomfortable experience of only having the woods as a
bathroom, and probably worst yet, rolling up pine needles in toilet paper to
try and have a smoke, coughing my lungs out and waiting for the echo to cease in the otherwise silence of the wilderness before I tried to defiantly take a
second drag.

Why should I be scared of a city, and a city in Canada at that, the country where both my parents were born, eventually settling in New York City
after meeting at the University of Toronto. But, why’s don’t matter, I was nervous as hell, dreading the unknown fears that I couldn’t articulate. My mother, a gentle, encouraging, non-judgmental woman who always gave her children unconditional love, simply said to me in a gentle voice, “You must go,” and so I did, and it was a great experience, and I made some true friends, lasting friendships with four or five writers who are still
there for me today. And yes, I could say it was all based partly on an e-mail,
and then an interview, and PIF, of course, and being somewhere, wherever that
was, at the right time for what came next.

This, in turn, led me to attend the AWP conference this year in Austin,
Texas. I was looking forward to seeing the friends I had made the year before. As fate, or luck, or circumstances would have it, almost all of the writers I
became close with in Vancouver were unable to come to Austin. And yet, fortunately, the one or two people I knew at the conference introduced and hooked me up with new friends who fell within the “writing is not competitive sport” category.

When I arrived in Vancouver the year before, I had one writer’s cell phone number, a writer I had interviewed but never met. I called from my hotel
the first night and he and his wife, and a poet friend of theirs, immediately
invited me to meet them at a bar and then head off to dinner, which I did, and
my Vancouver stay was off on a positive note.

I repeated the process my first night in Austin, with the same result,
and once again that writer, and his wife, and the poet friend were there, and I met them at a bar, and then we all piled into a cab and headed to a hometown
restaurant, a southwestern restaurant, I guess, Texas style, and I was surprisingly comfortable, picking up in conversation with ease from where we
probably left off the year before in Vancouver. I didn’t really know anyone
else at the conference but I was excited, excited about being there, excited about spreading the word about PIF, and I was also grateful for my mother, who died in September, quietly in her own home, in her own bed, with me by her side, for always encouraging me to move ever onward, despite what I might be facing, real or imagined.

Unlike many others, and many who are younger than me, I have not traveled much in my life; in fact, there are scores of people who fly more in a week than I have in five years. And yet, in my limited experience, I enjoy being in different cities, new cities for me, and mainly I like watching other
people, and then trying to imagine what I might have been like if I had grown up there instead of suburban New Jersey.

I thought Austin was great. I had no idea what it was like, or supposed to be like, but I felt very comfortable. And I learned that it’s good to verify your hotel reservation before embarking on a trip because when I called what I thought was my hotel on the Friday before I was set to arrive on Wednesday, I discovered that there was no record of me, and thus, no room, and the hotel was booked, every room taken throughout the duration
of the conference. Yipes, I thought, I’m in trouble, but I was on a mission, I
had to get to Austin and attend the AWP, so I sighed, and started making calls
to hotels there, luckily finding a room for three nights in one establishment,
and the following two nights in another. What’s more, it was encouraging talking with people who asked, “Can I help you?” rather than impatiently
barking, “What do you want?” Initial panic transformed into a positive feeling
just from that, a little friendly human contact.

So, I arrived, and as it turned out, I ended up in a rather luxurious
hotel, and when I checked in, I was politely informed that I could also stay
there for the extra two nights, which was great, I was at a point where worries about money would come later. And, almost as if by predestination, if I believed in such phenomena, the hotel was only two blocks from the Austin Convention Center, one of the sites of the AWP Conference, and the site of the book fair where literally hundreds of people sit behind booths or man tables for literary journals, both major and little known ones, or book publishers, or writing programs. And around the corner from the Convention Center and a couple blocks up was the Austin Hilton, the other site of the convention, and the place where the more savvy travelers were staying, having reserved rooms several months in advance.

Still, I was more than happy with my hotel, especially since I was able to stay there uninterrupted without the disruption and hassle of moving to
another hotel, and one that was off and up the highway from downtown Austin, during my stay. Now, I must admit I found it strange, at first, that is, but it may have just been me. The first item I read about in the hotel pamphlet was about the “Austin Bats,” which I knew nothing about. I was startled, but continued, reading that the crevices under the Congress Avenue Bridge, which I could see from my hotel room window, were an ideal place for the bats to hang out.

I accepted the idea of the bats fairly quickly – who was I to judge
Austin and bat mania, and the fact that there was a Bat Conservation International (BCI) and that every night, flights of bats came out from under the bridge and were responsible for eating between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds of insects, pretty much negating any need for Raid?

The bats, and Austin, and my lack of traveling experience all combined to make me think of a story I read in high school by Sinclair Lewis in the anthology of short stories Points of View. The story was “Travel is so Broadening,” and the fact I remembered it, I think, was a credit to my teacher, because I haven’t read it since. But the main premise, as I recall, was about a couple who go on vacation driving across the country and once they
arrive safely back home, during the course of the narrator’s talk about the trip to his neighbors, it becomes painfully obvious that his mind never left
his home and everything new was only seen in comparison to that with which he
was familiar.

I was impressed that I remembered the story. I’m also in awe of
writers who can go on at length about novels and stories, and characters, not
only remembering names, but actions and scenes, reconciled that much that I read stays deep within my subconscious, never lost, but not readily available,
proving that even if I was a contestant on Jeopardy and one of the categories
was Literature, there would be no guarantee I would ace the column with correct answers.

Those other writers, or most of them, must have copies of books on hand, or maybe taught the same novel year after year, rereading it each summer to be prepared for the next semester. I didn’t want to, but I wanted to make sure I was correct about my memory of “Travel is so Broadening,” so I searched my shelves for a copy of Points of View which I had recently purchased. I’d cheat, I’d look up the Sinclair Lewis story, which I knew was in the anthology, and lo and behold, I was thwarted, the Points of View I now owned was new and revised, Sinclair Lewis and his story were no more, replaced by more contemporary writers. I hope I remembered the story correctly, but it doesn’t matter, the explanation seemed right, and I wasn’t sure whether it was good or bad that there weren’t bats under the George Washington Bridge.

I was happy that I could accept the Austin bats, though I did find their existence surprising, as in unexpected, as in something I would never have thought of on my own, and being from the northeastern part of the country, why should I be aware of bats in Austin, or that Texas has more bats species than any other state, and that the bat population under the Congress Avenue Bridge is regarded as the largest urban bat colony in North America?

I learned that March, the month I was there, was the time of year that
up to 1.5 million bats start their journey up from central Mexico to Austin,
their summer home. I have to admit that when I think of bats, which isn’t often, I’m more inclined to think of rabies or Bela Lugosi, but no, it turned
out that what I was reading wasn’t a joke, that the Mexican free-tailed bat is
welcomed in Austin.

I don’t know whether I felt the memory and influence of my mother, or
the comfort from being accepted by other writers, or my determination to tell
one and all about PIF Magazine, but somehow I met and interacted with many people, which is definitely unusual for me; I’m more of the one on one type, but in reality, I was really dealing with people one on one, but simply in a crowd.

I was fortunate to meet many great people, from established editors of
award winning literary journals to MFA students interning at such journals. I
wasn’t envious of such students, but I did remember that when I was in an MFA
program, most of the students in my class had work study jobs at The Paris
Review, or Antaeus, or Grand Street, or Scribners, and I ended up in the press office of the City of New York’s Department of General Services writing releases about city auctions of property, and strategizing with the Press Secretary when a woman near City Hall scooped up a dead pigeon and took
it to the New York Post, claiming that the administration of Mayor Ed Koch was maliciously murdering helpless pigeons by placing a sticky substance called Roost No More on the window sills of government office buildings.

But, meanwhile back to the conference, which was a valuable experience, and I hope a positive one in the sense that many of the writers and students I met are reading this, not so much because I wrote it, but more because, if they are, then they remembered and know of PIF’s existence.

One thing I must say, or confess, or apologize about, whichever is more appropriate, is the tremendous backlog of submissions we currently have at PIF. On one level, it’s good, because it shows many have taken an interest in PIF. But, then of course, it defies a reasonable explanation as to how so many submissions have not received a response yet. All I can say is that responses will be more timely now, and that we’ll try to whittle down the backlog as quickly as possible.

I’ve been there, sent stories out to publications and never heard a word, though, truth be told, this was a rarity. But I also have horror stories
about responses and rejections that I did receive, which most writers have experienced, to a lesser or greater degree, depending on the temperament of a respective editor. I never understood the scrawl on a slip of paper with a major national magazine’s letterhead when I was first starting out as a fiction writer that bluntly declared, “I don’t believe a word of this.” I know the editor meant the story, which was fiction, and he knew it wasn’t about actual events, but I wonder why he felt the need to write what he did. It seemed excessively harsh to me, but I wasn’t as hardened or seasoned then, and hadn’t learned the concept “of criticizing the criticizers” yet I still have no idea why this particular editor was driven to offer such a negative comment, which, to me, didn’t seem to serve any useful purpose.

So, though our backlog is large at the moment, I can promise no writer
will ever receive such a disturbing line concerning the non-acceptance of a submission. What would be the point? Most writers I know, including myself,
are insecure about their work enough on their own without someone else maliciously joining in with added condemnation.

I thought I didn’t have anything to say, and now I find I could keep going on, but there is material of much more interest and substance and value
in this the second issue of the revived PIF, so I think this will be the ending sentence of my introduction, or whatever this is, and I hope everyone enjoys PIF.