by S. H. Aeschliman
Liz Prato has literary credits that many writers would be proud of. Her prose pieces have been widely published, appearing in journals whose titles I actually recognize. She’s won awards for her fiction. She has four Pushcart nominations. She is an associate teaching fellow at The Attic Institute and teaches private classes at Annie Bloom’s Books. She’s the guest prose editor for the (forthcoming) Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions. Her essay “In Sickness and in Health” was featured on the Sunday Rumpus yesterday (June 16). And she’s recently been invited by Forest Avenue Press to edit an anthology of short fiction. Judging by her photo, she can’t be much older than I am. So, of course, I am insanely jealous.
When I finally get to meet her in person, my first question is, “How is it that you get to do so many cool things?”
“I put myself out there a lot,” she says.
That’s right: She actually asks for things she wants.
She adds, “The absolute worst thing that can happen is they say ‘no,’ and that’s not a terrible thing.”
The conversation flows from what Liz asks for to what goals she has for her writing career to what she’s currently working on. A memoir, it turns out. “ Which I never thought I’d want to do,” she says. “Ever, ever, ever.”
Because, she says, there’s too much memoir out there already. She pauses – the dense air of deliberation seems to hover in the space between us – and then decides to share that it’s also because the things she’s writing about are “hard to revisit.” She already had to live through them once; she never expected to want to go back and relive those experiences.
I don’t want to push her too directly on that subject – I know what it’s like to write the hard stuff – so instead I turn the conversation aside slightly and ask one of my favorite questions for writers. “Why do you write?”
She says that she started writing stories when she was about six years old, and she dreamed of growing up to become a writer. But then there was a ten-year period of time where she kind of forgot about it. When she went to college, she decided to study pre-law instead of creative writing. But every time she had a what-should-I-do-with-my-life moment in her 20s and 30s, she always came back to writing.
“Why do you keep writing?”
She chuckles and mentions that, in the class she teaches at The Attic on how to submit to journals, she asks her students that same question. “It’s important for them to know why they’re publishing,” she says.
Then she goes on to explain that at first she published for validation. Getting published in journals was also a step toward publishing a book of short stories, which is something to which she aspires. But now she publishes because it feels good to have people read her writing. To have a product rather than just things in her head. To have a conversation with readers about what it means to be human.
“But when you put a piece out there, isn’t that kind of one-way? More of a monologue than a conversation?”
“It’s not a monologue,” she says, looking mildly shocked at the suggestion. “Readers are actively involved. They each have their own prism they bring to the work. And hopefully they continue to think about it after they’re done reading and have the opportunity to talk to others about it. I encourage my students to think of writing as having an intimate conversation with readers.”
About that whole submitting thing. How does she go about it?
In the beginning she only submitted to journals that paid for writing, but that’s no longer the case. It’s important to be realistic about expectations. “Unless you’re a top-level author or genre writer, you’re not going to be able to support yourself through [writing]. I’m not trying to say it’s right or okay that writers don’t get paid. It sucks that art isn’t valued but reality TV is. I don’t know what the solution to that is.”
Now she submits to journals she respects and whose content aligns with what she writes, regardless of whether or not the journal pays, and if her stories are rejected she tries again.
Liz says that women especially tend to let “no” stop them, which is why she encourages women writers to keep trying, keep pushing, keep submitting. “Actually doing it is the important part,” she says. In her experience, it can sometimes take submitting a piece 20 to 30 times before it’s accepted somewhere. Most often, she admits, she’ll give up on a story after she’s submitted it 25 times without results. But if she re-reads it and still thinks it’s really good, then she keeps going with it.
“But what if all the rejection gets to you and you start to lose faith?” I ask. “I mean, isn’t it possible that we might like our own creation but that it doesn’t appeal to anyone else? How do you deal with the doubt?”
In that case, she says, she workshops it again or reads it to some friends or colleagues. If some of her readers like it, then chances are that there’s an editor out there who will, too.
“Don’t give up,” she says, “and don’t let ‘no’ stop you. Ever, ever, ever.”
Liz Prato writes and teaches all over Portland. Her stories and essays have been published in nearly two dozen literary journals, magazines, and anthologies, including Hayden’s Ferry Review, Salon, Los Angeles Review, Subtropics, ZYZZYVA, and Who’s Your Mama? (SoftSkull Press). When Liz isn’t working on her memoir, she’s scheming ways to be among sunshine and palm trees. Her not-so-recently updated website is www.lizprato.com.
S. H. Aeschliman is a native Oregonian living in Portland with her dog, Milton. By day she’s a freelance editor. By night she’s a writer, reader, learner and dreamer. She blogs about culture, travel, food and lifestyle and writes poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and cross-genre work. Her prose piece “On Voice” appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, and she’s thrilled to be volunteering for the organization. You can learn more about her work on her website.