Stranger in a Strange Lab

I have a secret to tell you. Are you ready?

Here we go: I am not qualified to be here. Not even a little.

Can you even believe that they’re letting me post to this blog?

My name is James and I’m a writer. I’m just beginning my second year in the Portland State University MFA Creative Writing program, and I thought it would be “fun” and “interesting” to take an Ooligan Publishing Lab class so that I could (completely self-servingly) learn a little more about what goes on inside that mysterious black box called “publishing.”

Here is some of what I have learned so far:

The work of publishing is incredibly aggregate. There are so many small parts, and every single detail of a book is scrutinized—from the size of the hole in the center of an O in a particular font, to the gradient in the shades of blue on the cover of the next book you’ll read.

It is very technical. Those shades of blue, did you know that they all have individual codes? And some of the people here even understand what the codes mean! And can name them! The color of the sky on a fresh summer day is a nice AED6F1, but the ocean after a storm is more of a 2874A6.

Publishing has a language all its own. Have you ever thought about taking a trip to Morocco? Ever imagined wandering through the markets of Marrakech, your ears taking in the exotic sounds of languages you can’t understand? Well that’s what it was like on my first day. I heard terms like, “collaterals,” “developmental edits,” and “slugs”. I recognized all the sounds and letters in the words being said, but I couldn’t even guess at their meanings.

Now though, let me tell you one other secret. Are you ready?

One of the most important things I’ve learned while inside this black box called “publishing” is that the people who live in here and do this work are are some of the most dedicated and welcoming people I’ve ever encountered. They are weirdly nice and enjoy what they do. They take the work seriously, but not so seriously that they’d ever think of rolling their eyes at you when you’ve burned out your brain on color codes and start asking questions like, “What is book?” or “How words?”

Being a writer, I’ve grown accustomed to the almost monastic life of a loner with nothing but a keyboard and coffee mug to keep me company. It never occurred to me that when a writer hands over a manuscript, the writer is handing it over to an entire community of people. An entire village will work on that manuscript—caring for it, nurturing it, and helping it grow. Each member of the village invests themselves in it in their own way (laboring to find the perfect shade of blue or an O that’s just the right size) and hopes the best sort of hopes for the book. The Ooligan Publishing Lab is just such a village and the natives seem to have accepted me, though I have yet to learn all of their ways.

I’m not yet qualified to be here, but they’re good teachers, these villagers: trusting, calm, and caring. Slowly I am learning their language and their secrets. Soon I will be one of them.

Interview with Author Marian Pierce

In Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell charges that the environment of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop fosters a “group mind” that produces “well-tooled, inoffensive, unexceptional, and rather dull” writing. Marian Pierce is a Portland-based writer, editor, and professor of Creative Writing at Marylhurst University. She graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so I took this opportunity to find out what the most formidable MFA program in the country was like, from the inside.

How did your experience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop shape your editorial philosophy?

The late Frank Conroy, who was the director of the Workshop at the time I was there, emphasized that writing has to have meaning, it has to make sense, and it has to be clear. Meaning, sense, and clarity. Whenever I edit anything—be it technical writing, fiction, science writing, a dissertation, an essay or my own writing—I edit for those three qualities.

I also learned close reading, not only from Frank, but from my other teachers, Marilynne Robinson and James Alan McPherson, as well as from brilliant classmates. Frank always had his students type up comments for our classmates when it was their turn to be “workshopped” and required us to turn in a copy of those to him. The formality of that forced me to clarify what I thought.

While I was at Iowa, I formed an informal writing workshop with writers from the International Writing Program (IWP). I learned a lot from sharing writing with the IWP participants, who were from many different countries. I also did freewriting with several of them, notably Osama Esber, a poet from Syria (now in the US, with his wife and two children), for whom I have the utmost respect. He writes absolutely beautifully in English. He ran a publishing house in Damascus and had to flee, leaving his entire life behind.

You got your start editing your classmates’ work. Did your workload increase dramatically at the Workshop?

No. I was already used to editing. I’d read voraciously since childhood and when I was an undergraduate, I’d offer to read friends’ papers and give them comments. Long before I ever envisioned being accepted to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I formed a critique group of two with a yoga student of mine in Tokyo, Zita Ohe. Zita suggested that we help each other edit our writing, and at first I had a snobbish thought. How could Zita, who wrote articles about fashion for magazines, help me? But Zita turned out to be an incredible editor, and she also took me shopping at intimidating Tokyo department stores and found clothes I looked good in (she had been a fashion model)!

In conversation, you mentioned that an MFA program is a degree in editing. Did the Workshop stress structural editing over creative invention?

What I meant by the MFA being an editing degree is that we got to sit around with a bunch of smart people discussing how to make good writing even better. It’s easy to edit writing that is clearly problematic, but harder to edit good writing.

One thing I discovered from having classmates give me comments on my own work is that I got the best comments—and I’m not talking about positive comments, necessarily—from the classmates who liked my writing, rather than the ones who didn’t.

Does the Iowa Writers’ Workshop produce a “type” of writer, or an Iowa “brand” of fiction, as Madison Smartt Bell charges in Narrative Design?

I did not find that at all, at least not in my class. There was an incredible range of voices, styles and subjects. But “group mind” can occur in any group of people.

Did the Workshop tempt you to experiment with copyediting conventions, or adhere to CMS?

We certainly weren’t told to consult the Chicago Manual of Style. Probably the most temptation I experienced was when Marilynne Robinson gave us an assignment to write and turn in stories anonymously. By this point we’d all been at Iowa for a year and knew each other’s style. Or so we thought. Marilynne’s assignment gave us freedom to experiment and I honestly couldn’t identify who wrote anything with no name on any of it. So much for thinking I knew everyone’s style.

How competitive were the students of the Workshop? Any juicy stories of creative subterfuge?

The average age of the students in my class was thirty-five. I had two friends in the workshop who were in their forties. The class vibe was indeed amiable, but not aloof in the least. I was tremendously relieved and thrilled to be around like-minded souls.

There were twenty-five students in my class, out of which nine of us were women. Katharine Stall had published a marvelous satirical novel called Den of Thieves. I don’t remember the other eight of us speaking of our ambitions. The men seemed to be more openly competitive, but how thrilled I felt when I topped the competition podium by winning the GQ magazine fiction contest at the beginning of my second year.

How did the Workshop students blow off steam? Any good tales of mayhem or intrigue?

Well, when you got off the plane at the Cedar Rapids airport and stepped out to see cornfields, you knew you were going to have to create your own entertainment. We all went to the Foxhead bar on Tuesday evenings after Workshop. All the famous writers came through Iowa City. I went to great parties for some of them. There were love affairs and liaisons, and relationships to this day. No vandalism, however. One terrible theft, I still remember—a classmate’s laptop with all her writing on it. She wept in class. James Alan McPherson took off the hat he always wore and threw a one hundred dollar bill in it. He passed the hat around, and everyone put in money. She was able to buy a new computer. I never forgot McPherson’s kindness and generosity. I’m sure she hasn’t, either.

Marian’s novel Finding Land is available through the Multnomah County Library’s Library Writers Project.

To learn more about Marian Pierce, visit her website

Experiencing My First Pitch

I’m a bit of an outsider here at Ooligan. I’m not a spy, nor am I here with any other sinister purpose, it’s just that I’m not in the publishing program. I’m a grad student in PSU’s MFA fiction strand. I needed a one-credit course for the term, and the publishing lab looked interesting, so I registered.

In my first class, I experienced my first executive pitch. As a writer, I know a little bit about pitches. Making a pitch is an art form in itself. And it’s a necessary part of the business of writing. If you want to make any money, or at least if you want someone to read what what you’ve written, you have to get published. And to get published, an author has to make pitches.

But this was something new to me: an in-house pitch. Molly and Bess took over the podium at the front of the room. I expected the author to be there, but she wasn’t. That was weird—how could there be a pitch without the author? But Molly and Bess told the class how the book came to Ooligan. The author, Meagan Macvie, attended an Acquisitions Department workshop and shortly afterward gave a direct pitch of her manuscript, Conspiring to be Meri, to Ooligan Press. So the author had been in front of Ooligan, once. Just not now.

Now the team that was working with the manuscript was pitching its publication to the entire staff. Bess and Molly explained that the story takes place in rural Alaska, so it has the Pacific Northwest connection required of Ooligan publications. They also noted the possibility of a bundle with similar books Ooligan has already published in the YA genre. They covered potential profit and loss. They discussed the author’s bio, noting that the author’s short fiction has been published in Narrative, Fugue, and Barrelhouse Online. And they said Conspiring is a debut novel and that the author is excited to work with Ooligan.

Molly and Bess and the rest of the team had clearly put a lot of time and energy into the presentation, leaving me feeling very informed and positive about the book. So much work had obviously gone into the acquisitions process, I figured it was a foregone conclusion that Ooligan was going to publish the book. I was wrong.

Once the presentation was over, it was time for discussion. There were numerous comments in favor of publication, and there were many who were opposed. My hands got a little clammy. This was something serious, after all. Some of the voices against publication were strong, and they had some valid points. (At least to me.) But I was rooting for publication. I thought about the author—her dream of publication; of seeing her novel in print. I looked at Molly and Bess, still standing before the rest of the class, and I thought about all the hard work they had done. Could all their efforts result in failure?

Eventually the discussion ended and everyone who wanted to speak had the opportunity. Then it was time to vote. Ballots were passed out and filled in. Molly and Bess gathered them up and left the room. Soon afterward, they returned and announced the vote: eight opposed, and over thirty in favor. I could breathe again. But I probably shouldn’t have been so worried. I asked Molly later if an executive pitch had ever been voted down, and she said that it has not yet happened at Ooligan Press. It happens quite often at larger publishing houses, she said, and admitted that it is not a given that every manuscript pitched at Ooligan will be published.

Ooligan Press will continue to grow, its reputation will gain strength, and eventually it will have so many manuscripts to choose from that some will be voted down after an executive pitch. That leaves me torn. One one hand, I hope that day comes soon, but on the other hand I pity the author whose manuscript is the first to get that far, only to be voted down.

Hold the Door Open

In theory, everyone has access to higher education and the materials it uses and produces. There are thousands of institutions to choose from, millions of people pursue a postsecondary degree every year, and President Obama just proposed a plan to eliminate the cost of community college entirely. In practice, however, there are still many hurdles to clear in order to successfully obtain a degree. Even without taking tuition into consideration, higher education is still incredibly time-consuming and often prohibitively expensive, making it difficult for people with demanding jobs or family responsibilities to complete. And getting in the door isn’t the end of the question of accessibility; once you’re in, what do you see?

We can all point to the ways old-school academia can be an exclusive club. Enlightenment thinking is taught in freshman seminars across the country as the core of the liberal arts, but Women’s or Gender Studies are considered electives, which many students never explore. Even inside these programs there is often a noticeable lack of diversity in the required reading. These experiences (or missed opportunities) inform our opinions early on in our educational careers, and affect how we think about “good” writing.

The experiences that affect how readers read also affect how writers write. Anyone who’s ever been within a stone’s throw of an MFA curriculum knows that certain types of stories are valued over others; family conflict based in a New England college town will be more well-received than one out of Neverland. Of course, the times, they are a-changin’, but there is still a manner of speaking and an authorial voice that taps into that early understanding of “good” that was needled into our brains in American Lit; it’s dissatisfied, mostly white, and distinctly masculine. In The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a touchstone of diversity in contemporary literary fiction, Junot Diaz (whose essay “MFA vs. POC” is linked above) addresses both points. Oscar Wao validates and celebrates diverse experiences and genre fiction, was met with great critical acclaim, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008. Why can’t we name ten other books just like it? Four of the five Pulitzers awarded since then have gone to authors who write about white protagonists, two of whom are from New England.

So, what do we do? Well, dear reader, as the esteemed heads of our beloved program love to remind every former, current, and prospective Oolie: We are the future of publishing. We will graduate trained in every aspect of publishing, prepared for professional careers at every level, from the unicorn “indie” press to the Big Six (Five, Four, Three, Two, One), and the best possible contribution we could make to the industry is to go forth with our eyes open. Through this and various other well-regarded academic programs, we have developed the skills to be consistently and constructively critical. We are aware of the problem, and we are in a position to help.

Speaking personally, my advice is to read. Read for fun, read what you’re assigned to read, and then look up the contemporaries of those authors and read them too. Read outside your comfort zone, read about people whose lives look different than yours, read things you find unrelatable. Read enough that when someone sends an unconventional manuscript across your desk, you’re prepared to recognize greatness outside the bounds of what we’ve been taught is “good.”

As part of Ooligan’s mission we “recognize the importance of diversity, particularly within the publishing industry, and are committed to building a literary community that includes traditionally underrepresented voices.” The great Pacific Northwest is an area with a multitude of rich cultural traditions, home to dozens of indigenous, migrant, and immigrant populations all with profoundly different—but familiar—experiences. We must continue to challenge ourselves to consider how these might differ from the arbitrary standards of the bestseller lists, so that we can be the ones to publish the books that will change the face of those freshman seminars. By consciously choosing to pursue marginalized voices, we can help diversify academia at an institutional level. Every student who has worked so hard to get their foot in the door deserves to see their lives represented in the core curriculums, and we have the resources to make that a reality.

On The Terror of Writing Your First Book

by Rebecca Lerner
As a journalist, I’d written more 1,000-word news articles and blog posts than I could count, but this manuscript was supposed to be 70,000 words. And not 700 stand-alone articles that follow an inverted pyramid style of anecdotal lede, then nut graph, and so on. This had to be literature—a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and with themes, obstacles, challenges, humor, excitement, drama, transformation, and character development. Cohesive and compelling, too. And because my name would be on it, it had to be good literature.
The excitement of having a book contract very quickly turned into a feeling of overwhelm. Because: Um, holy crap—how was I going to make that happen? And by a specified date, no less. I had 12 months to pull off something that seemed way over my head. I began to feel like a fraud. Like the marketing language in my proposal had been too effective because now I had duped an agent and publisher into believing I could do something I had no idea how to do.
I tried my best to do it. I scheduled four hours a night to sit down and write. But I hardly could. I felt angry and blocked. I didn’t know what to say. Every time I put words down on the page, I hated them. They weren’t good enough. It seemed boring or it seemed hollow and my anxiety quickly turned into despair and self-loathing and suspicion that my rising fear was right—I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. And due to my lack of ability to acquire a normal-person day job, I believed that if I failed at this I would be failing at life. Writing was the only thing I felt good at. And now I wasn’t feeling very good at that at all.
The reporting and research came easy, but the writing didn’t, and I suffered anxiety and crippling depression as I struggled with it. I was in an MFA program at the time and my mentors were very concerned about me. It was comforting when they said my experience was well-worn in the writerly tradition. Over the course of grad school, I somehow churned out 150 pages that became the first draft of my book. The final manuscript was due a month after I graduated.
In those next 4 weeks, I overcame my suffering and wrote some incredibly awesome prose. I deleted maybe two-thirds of my original manuscript and revised the hell out of what was left. I wrote new material. To my relief, it was funny, it was fascinating, and it was exciting. By the end of that month, I loved the book. I was extraordinarily proud of it. When it went to print, Rolling Stone and Publishers Weekly gave my book rave reviews.
How did I do that? What changed? The answer is, I discovered the cure to my own writer’s block. And I’m happy to share it with you.
Behold, 7 Steps to Conquering Writer’s Block:
Step 1: Strip down to your underwear and dance to ridiculous YouTube videos while singing along. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. You must get goofy. This is because the Muse has a sense of humor and emerges out of playfulness. The Muse is not an accountant. You must court the Muse. You must be silly.
Step 2: Delight yourself with inspiring art and let your brain work in new ways. Listen to good music with good lyrics, watch movies, look at paintings, read books (without comparing yourself).
Step 3: Stop forcing the process and reject any rules about what it’s supposed to look like. You don’t need to know where this piece is going or what you will write about tomorrow. You don’t need the ending until the day your book is due.
Step 4: Allow your project to evolve. You may have a scene you love that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere in your manuscript. Stop trying to make it fit. Write something else and trust that you will discover the perfect place where it goes later. Sometimes we write out of order. Dispense with order.
Step 5: Let go of the idea that writing well is hard. Believe that it can be effortless. Pretend that it could be, and have fun with that. If you’re a spiritual person, consider asking your higher power to help you with things that are beyond your control instead of worrying about them.
Step 6: Keep a notebook by your bed and be prepared to jot down ideas in the middle of the night at 3 a.m. And try writing at weird hours. For me, the sweet spot is between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. I found I could labor for eight hours in the daylight and write nothing worth keeping, but when I wrote after midnight, it was magical.
Step 7: Trust yourself. You got this. The universe created you and gave you your writing ability for a reason—it wants you to succeed. As the astrologer Rob Brezsny likes to say, “The Universe is conspiring to shower you with blessings.” Let it.
Dandelion Hunter Cover

Becky Lerner’s first book, “Dandelion Hunter: Foraging the Urban Wilderness,” is nonfiction narrative about her crazy, funny, and often fascinating adventures harvesting wild plants for food and medicine in Portland, Oregon. It comes out April 2 through Globe Pequot Press. She’ll be reading at Powell’s on Hawthorne at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18. She writes a popular blog at

Write to Publish Recap

By Kait Heacock
This year’s Write to Publish conference, our fourth, marked a great success for Ooligan Press. Not only did we make money (always a plus), we also introduced many new people to our student staffed publishing house, and more importantly, we helped bring writers, readers, and publishers together. Fresh off the success of our first Transmit Culture lecture series, we continued our work toward demystifying the publishing industry with an all-day conference that featured readings, panel discussions, and workshops.
 Lidia Yuknavitch on a panel
The day’s theme was “Write What You Know” and focused on non-fiction in its many forms, from travel writing and memoir, to journalism and biography. Writers Lidia Yuknavitch, Floyd Skloot, Kevin Sampsell, Ooligan Press’s own Sean Davis, and many more writers explored what it means to write from personal experience. The panels were lively as industry professionals discussed such topics as ethics in journalism and how to sell a travel writing piece.
Per and student
In the classroom publishing panel discussion, Director of Publishing, Per Henningsgaard, discussed the role he feels publishing plays in education, noting that it can be used to “teach anything.” Former Director of Publishing and Ooligan Press founder, Dennis Stovall, believes publishing education helps empower students by giving them an outlet for their writing. He now volunteers with Roosevelt High School students at their own student staffed press. Some of the Roosevelt students appeared on the classroom publishing panel to discuss their own publishing ambitions, which includes publishing their own book later this year.
Journalism panel
In the morning workshop “History and Biography: Forward Through the Past,” Michael McGregor, the current MFA Director, PSU professor, and a writer himself, said that the writing you should be working on now is “whatever you’re obsessed with.” For all those writers who attended this year’s Write to Publish, we hope that whatever your next project is, you find the best avenue for writing it. Hopefully, this year’s Write to Publish conference helped make that path a little clearer.