CAREFULLY CURATED CATASTROPHES (a hypothetical pitch), by Matthew Burnside

Dear Publisher,

This pitch, if you even want to call it that, started out as (& being about) many different things.

In the end, I decided it couldn’t be (about) one thing without being (about) everything.

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What the hell even is a story if not the simple saga of someone trying?

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If I wanted to impress you, here are the things I would tell you about myself: I recently graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teach creative writing for new media there. I was recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship. I am author of five chapbooks, one of them interactive, two of them for charity. My stories, poems, and articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, The Iowa Review, The Los Angeles Review, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Passages North, PANK, Hobart, kill author, Pear Noir!, Gargoyle, NAP, OmniVerse, and more. I am co-founder of an experimental literary magazine called Cloud Rodeo, managing editor of Mixed Fruit, and have been a reader for PANK, The Iowa Review, and NPR’s 3 Minute Fiction. In addition, I write a monthly column for Ploughshares on storytelling and intersections between new media and literature and serve as interviews editor for BOAAT press.

The manuscript that I’m submitting, Bestiary and Other Tales of Monsters, was recently finalist in a few contests, including The Lit Pub’s Prose Contest, the Santa Fe Writers’ Market Literary Awards, and the Willow Springs Editions Spokane Prize in Short Fiction.

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If I wanted to be honest with you, here are the things I would tell you about myself: At 32, I’ve applied to 32 academic jobs & received 0 interview requests. (The future’s so bright I’ve gotta wear one of those miner helmets with an industrial flashlight on it.) I only got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop after 50 other programs cordially disinvited me to attend their programs over a period of 3 years. The manuscript I’m sending you has been rejected over 25 times now. In workshop sometimes at Iowa, my head would hurt because I didn’t understand what the fuck anyone was talking about. I would say something like, “I like the fact that this story has a pony in it. It’s very axiomatic I think,” and hope no one would ask me if I even knew what the word axiomatic meant.

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What the hell even is a story if not all the splendor & rot of life laid bare, gloriously dragged through a lacquer of language as to render it sparkling?

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These days, it’s not uncommon for me to get private messages on Facebook from MFA applicants asking me for advice. Most of them know of me through a Facebook group which I frequented for many years when I was applying to MFA programs.

Why it was important for me to get an MFA I pretend not to know.

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What the hell even is a story if not a molasses glass full of warm blood, left to stink in the sun?

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Nearly all the pieces included within Bestiary have found homes in the Los Angeles Review, Ninth Letter, > kill author, Pear Noir!, Hobart, Menacing Hedge, MARY: a Journal of New Writing, Contrary, The Dirty Napkin, NAP, Concho River Review, Stone Hobo, Revolution House, and Prick of the Spindle. Most recently I added a section of “Interactive Miscellanea & Ephemera,” which includes all my new media projects, among them my sandbox novel-in-progress, In Search Of, which recently found a home in Best American Experimental Writing 2015, and Writer: the Game, which received some attention in The Millions and The Rumpus.

Not that any of this matters. (It doesn’t.)

The project has proven too formally audacious for most mainstream publishers and, while it has gotten some interest from some smaller indie publishers, even they admitted in the end they couldn’t conceive how to market it – since it occupies a weird space between fiction and poetry, print media and new media.

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There is always, I am told, a light at the end of the tunnel.

They never tell you how often it ends up being the headlights of another train.

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What the hell even is a story if not the loneliest ghost ever tracing shapes on your back at bedtime?

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On MFAs: I mean, who doesn’t yearn for a respite from the real world?

Academia – though I’m sure many would argue this isn’t the case – provides a kind of vacation, a cocoon, warm and cozy. Not that it isn’t work. It is, but it’s a different kind of work. A joyful kind of work. It’s doing what you love, teaching what you love, around others who love it just as much as you do.

Try unloading a truck full of plastic Christmas trees & fake flowers in the rain at 4 in the morning.

Now try to make that shit joyful.

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What the hell even is a story if not a collection of majestic fuck-ups, crisis confessionals, & panic epistles?

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Deep down, I know the truth: I needed an MFA to feel like a writer. To prove to the world, to my friends, to my parents, to myself that I was one.

I had always pretended to be one up until that point & I was a fair pretender, but I still didn’t believe the act.

Everyone needs validation. Some external proof. For some, a story acceptance is all it takes. For others, attending a conference. For some, a fancy degree. For others, a masthead with their name on it, some artificial association with other known writers, a pat on the head by a respected mentor or peer (electric pats may be substituted: a “like” or re-tweet by some pseudo famous writer).

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For many people, publishing a book is the only thing that will ever prove to them they are indeed a writer. For many still, publishing a book with the right press is the only thing, & then of course it must garner the appropriate readership as to satisfy one’s ego.

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Personally, & I suspect this is secretly the case with most other writers, I’m convinced I’ll never be convinced I’m a writer.

& maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

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What if the point of being a writer is to remain an imposter forever?

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What the hell even is a story if not a buffalo heart wrapped in neon linens?

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As I said, every piece within Bestiary has found a home but the work as a whole remains homeless, and it’s been rejected by several publishers & editors whose work I respect, which stings a hell of a lot.

Which begs the question: what am I doing wrong?

I tell myself it’s a hard sell. Of course it is. Who the fuck would buy this shit? Maybe three other writers, a handful of Facebook friends. My mom.

Fiction & poetry smashed together? That’s like two separate kingdoms. Keep them shits apart. Of course, of course.

All I need is to write something more cohesive, I tell myself. Something marketable. Something that editors & publishers can pin down finally, reshape, re-press, & dole out for readers to swallow easy like those candy-flavored Flintstones vitamins.

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What the hell even is a story if not quiet crisis exploded into ecstatic patchworks, like a carefully curated catastrophe?

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I am not Flintstones vitamins.

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It wasn’t until after the MFA that I realized just how much pretending is necessary to make it as a writer. How much performing & posturing.

It wasn’t until after the MFA that I realized I could have felt like a writer for free all along.

I just had to keep writing.

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Bestiary and Other Tales of Monsters is a collection of storyesque meditations on monsters – internal and external; real and imagined; literal and metaphorical. (I say storyesque because there’s a lot of formal exploration—some of the pieces are more language landscapes than narrative while others borrow their skeleton heavily from things like catalogs, bestiaries, almanacs, horoscopes, D&D manuals, etc.)

Thematically, it’s about the trauma of abuse and the double-bladed nature of escapism (“trauma at war with imagination and imagination at war with trauma”).

Wait.

What was your question again?

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To the people that private message me on Facebook I condition myself to always say hopeful things. To put myself in their shoes, when I most needed to hear that the world absolutely needed my voice, my talent, my truth. I try to inspire them: Go now! Trudge forth against all odds, & carve out a place for yourself. (Such hyperbole, I’ve found, is essential when faced with defeat. A certain measure of self-deception & delusion goes a long way in building up staggering, dogged determinism.)

What I never disclose to them is how these days, following the completion of my MFA, I’m constantly on the edge of quitting writing forever.

Which is to say, most days I’m absolutely convinced that the world could care less about my voice, my talent, my truth.

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As I write this, I just received my 26th manuscript rejection.

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I am NOT Flintstones vitamins, motherfucker.

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Keep your chin up! (Says the noose.)

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Let’s be real: there is a glut of voices, talent, and truth in the world. Does it really need mine? If I’m being honest with myself, no.

It’s not necessary. It never was.

Just another echo in a chamber full of bouncing echoes.

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By now I’ve seen what it takes to be successful in the literary world, & I don’t think I have it in me. Or rather, I don’t think I’m capable of writing a certain kind of fiction or poetry.

I see writers pump out work to literary magazines, add another notch to their CV, and rejoice in their progress as if every reader were waiting for the next hit.

They’re building toward something, constructing a beautiful tower of careerism.

I once built towers, too.

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For the most part though, I’ve always been a shitty architect.

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But what if I was meant to be an excavator, or a grave digger?

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Someone asked me today why I don’t just adjunct.

So I asked them why they don’t just build some exquisite furniture with their bare hands and then give it away for free on the side of the highway.

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Which brings us to my point: why should you publish my book?

Maybe because in the end, all that matters is the thing itself. Not who I am, nor what I did, not where I got my MFA or the fact that I have one at all – all that matters is what I wrote. What lives on these page: my carefully curated catastrophes.

I curated the catastrophes in Bestiary in order to save someone’s life; to read the pages at night when they were all alone and know at the very least, we are all alone together.

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Books first taught me how to eat light and wait out the dark times, until they passed and instead of trauma there was humanity, there was (self)forgiveness.

Scars breeding stars.

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I’ve been called naive before for believing literature could save lives, and I accept that naivety, because it’s mine and mine alone. I own it.

And because literature does save lives.

I know because it saved mine.

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Or maybe, just maybe you should publish this book because in the end all these voices, these rogue echoes bouncing around in a chamber full of echoes actually do matter, and each deserves to be heard in time.

Even mine.

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Thank you for your time & kind consideration.

Sincerely,

M

 

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Matthew keeps a list of his sins at www.Matthewburnsideisawriter.tumblr.com

  • I love MB’s writing. Just wanted to say that.