Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Writing for literary journals

A friend, who knows lots about writing short stories for competitions, has just asked me how to write for literary journals. She said she knows I've had success with this, hence her question. 

I'd hardly call my brush with literary journals success. I've been published in two: The Stilts Handbook of Adventure, and Rex, which I think is no longer in publication but which was the literary journal of the Queensland University of Technology. But I'll have a go at answering her question...

There isn't an easy answer. Or a formula. And the question makes me think of something I thought up in the car this morning. I was driving along, listening to music as I always do, and Bob Dylan's Ballad of a Thin Man came on and, with apologies to Bob, I changed the lyrics.

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand
You write something down and you say, Where'd that come from?
You try so hard, but you don't understand
Because something is happening here, and you 
don't know what it is, do you, Mrs George? 

The words to dwell on are, Because something is happening here, and you don't know what it is. Because that is my experience with my own literary writing: it comes out of left field; it is hard to analyse; it is hard to explain how I came by it.
My friend's question also makes me think of a blog I posted in January last year, about how to tell the difference between literary fiction and mainstream. Because the obvious answer is you've got to write something literary if you want to submit to a literary journal. 

And how do you write something literary? All I can say is that the words have got to resonate long after they've been read, they've got to mean more than just words on a page, and sometimes that isn't even it. Sometimes writing can be literary simply because the writer uses words in an abstract way. For example, the poet e e cummings. I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky, and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.  Do you see what I mean? The writing's got to be elevated to another level.

The obvious thing to say here is that if you want to write for literary journals the first thing to do is research the literary journal you want to submit to, and find out what kind of writing they like to publish. Or, if you have a piece that's literary, do your homework and match it to a journal. 
I recently had the privilege of attending a masterclass with the New Zealand writer, Lloyd Jones. Something he suggested doing every day was closing your eyes and simply writing anything that came to mind. I think he called it playing with words. And it was important to keep your eyes closed. I know this might sound crazy, but I think literary writing is connected with this; it comes from being able to think outside the box, and giving yourself freedom to write in an exploratory fashion. 

If anyone can add to this, or has a more logical explanation, I'd love to hear it.

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