As a little girl I used to ride a marigold school bus with plastic seats that were dappled into pine. The rows lined up into a precise marching order. The journey home was long, so I trudged to the back and tucked in against the window, crossing my fingers for a solo ride. The sun enveloped the glass and I propped my head up against it. It was here, as the bus rumbled, thighs affixed to the sticky bench, where I first became a story teller. Every afternoon, eyes closed, I concocted scenes and outlandish expeditions, imagining them in meticulous detail. It was just a simple way to pass the time and daydream, it never occurred to me that these stories would climb their way out and plaster themselves on to the page.
I have always been a writer, but I didn’t know how early on until my mom moved to Chicago and happened upon some childhood relics. An eight-year old’s musings on becoming old and forgotten, a story with an emblematic apple tree that protected a girl from fear and disappointment, and a 4th grader’s ironic poetry. The concept of actually becoming a professional writer seemed like a fantasy occupation, like superhero or fighter pilot. How was it even possible to make a living by scribbling down the stories that lived inside your mind? It was just a hobby, so I took a detour into sensibility and fell into a very different career. But being a writer is not a choice, it’s who you are. The craving is burried deep down beneath the rib cage, it whispers at you relentlessly until it’s finally released.
The justification of why it wouldn’t work began to wear thin, and the writer in me slowly fought its way to the surface. What if it did work? Regret, on this front was not something I was willing to risk, so I just wrote. Wrote for myself, wrote for free, and submitted with reckless abandon. I took workshops, studied my favorite authors, and got rejected so many times I can’t even count. I started a blog (nobody read it) and decided I was going to get an essay published in The Huffington Post. And I did, after emailing them every day for over a month.
My foray into fiction came later. I read “Noah’s Compass” by Anne Tyler and was intrigued that you could write about everyday life and human connection. Life’s philosophical perplexities could be observed on a smaller scale. How people decided to deal with certain circumstances and emotions was very relatable. I figured what the hell, and gave novel writing a shot. At this point, I had no formal training in fiction. I did not study creative writing at university, nor did I have an MFA. I wrote on my own and then worked with a professional author through UCLA Extension to workshop it. I got it all the way to Penguin, but in the end it wasn’t where it needed to be.
I decided to take a break from longform and try short story. I assumed it would be a brief stint, but it turned out that this was where I was supposed to be, and I haven’t diverted since. The diversity and complexity of themes and characters were endless. Five years passed and the stories stacked up so high that I was able to compile them into a collection. I worked with an editor on an overall theme and to get it to a proper word count. It was now ready to send out.
I attempted to get an agent, but mostly got ignored or rejected. I was told that even though I was a good writer I would never publish a story collection. This statement was reiterated over and over, but I didn’t listen. That whispering below my ribcage told me otherwise.
A friend suggested I contact publishers directly, so I queried without an agent. I did this for nine months, keeping a list of who I wrote to and who rejected me. I did research on fiction and story collection publishers and targeted them. I submitted with no expectations. When a rejection came, I deleted it and moved on. In May of 2017, I got an email from a Nashville publisher as I was leaving the gym. My gut reaction was to delete it immediately. I was sure it was another denial, but as I read more carefully I saw that it wasn’t. My first book, Chain Linked Stories was published through Post Hill Press and Simon & Schuster in June. I had played the lottery and won.
The road to publication was a ripe minefield, littered with barbed wire and clever snipers. It was a sea filled with disappointment and self-doubt and at times I thought I was going to drown, but my heart told me to continue on. It reminded me that this was where I was supposed to be. How far would you go in pursuit of a lifelong dream? Revel in the art of everyday, be persistent, stay the course, be your quirky self. Listen to what is going on, drink it in, file it away, save it for the page, and don’t let anyone tell you to give up. Ever.
Writing is bittersweet and hard as hell. It’s a constant battle to pluck the prose from the depths, but it is also a privilege to do so. It’s a habit, an addiction, a lifetime of never-ending homework. A journey where you sometimes have no idea where you are going. It’s the ability to transport the reader to a place unknown or familiar, to make them smile, and to make them feel something. It’s showing the world who you are by yanking out your guts and putting them on display in all its bloody glory. Take the voyage. Find a comfy spot on the bus in the back where the sun beats down on your face. Listen to the engines rumble and let it lull you into a catatonic state. Dream, dream big. Publication is just due north.
Michelle Blair Wilker
Michelle Blair Wilker is a Los Angeles-writer and producer. Her work has appeared in Across the Margin, Whistlingfire, Hollywood Dementia, Unheard LA, Felix Magazine, and The Huffington Post. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s November 2012 contest for new writers and shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize in 2015. In 2017, she attended DISQUIET: Dzanc Books International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal, and was featured in The New Short Fiction Series in Los Angeles. Her first book, Chain Linked Stories was published in June through Post Hill Press and Simon & Schuster. Chain Linked was recently selected for the 2018 Montana Book Festival.
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The human heart: you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it.
We are bound together and yet broken apart, like a chain link fence.
We yearn for connection’s kinship and mourn its losses; it is the fabric of our existence and what drives us. The agony of lost love, the hollowness of an absent family member, the cute guy on the basketball court that you just can’t muster up the courage to say hi to. A summer trip to Montauk. A night out at a salty dive bar. A foghorn in the distance, sipping a sweet drink. Emptying the fridge, packing up the old condo. Listening to Grandpa’s corny jokes. Wondering if life as a prep school art teacher meant anything. Getting even with your older brother. Haunted by Havana’s vacant casino high rises and ancient automobiles, dreaming of pizza in Rome.
Chain Linked chronicles life’s joys and discontents in vivid detail and gives us a window into our souls.
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Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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