A Small Press, Some Big Dreams, and a Dash of Courage

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This is really a story of two stories. I’ll start with the first:

A while back, my father and I sat down so he could hand over to me (and Sam Eckenrode) the small press he established years ago, Cimarron Books. This had been his baby for what felt like eons to me, and he had tended to it for countless hours over weeks and months and much, much longer, ensuring he did everything right to make it succeed. Eventually, he gave me a bunch of manila folders and papers and a thumb drive with all the most important computer docs: the ISBNs, various colored and black-and-white logos, registrations and files and records, and it was a big kind of gift, the kind that feels both delicate and heavy in your hands, the kind you know you must handle carefully.

I knew I had a lot to learn. I wanted the first book I published as editor of Cimarron Books to be my own book, so I could learn how to be an editor and learn what it takes without possibly botching someone else’s manuscript and dream. I can see now that I had no idea how challenging it would be.

But what book of mine? I had no idea. I figured the answer would become clear in time.

The second story:

Last spring, I wrote the first draft of a very short manuscript that defied any category I knew. I called it: 36 Things You Don’t Know When You Are Sixteen. It was one of those rare pieces of writing that feels like it falls onto the page, as if it didn’t really come from me but more through me, as if I had no choice but to write it.

I worked on it over weeks and months, still unable to say exactly what genre it was. What if this became the book I published?, I wondered, but because it didn’t fit neatly somewhere, I didn’t know whether to really do it.

Still, I worked on it. I took out some things from the 36-item list; I added others; I rearranged the order, trying to determine what made most sense, what order would convey an arc of sorts. In other words, over months, I did the more tedious and meticulous work (that I happen to love) of making my little manuscript all hold together. I changed the title over and over until it finally felt right as 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17

And then I played the what if game. What if I chose to publish this book? What would people think? What if they didn’t like my mini-book, or didn’t understand it? Fear made me pause. 

But since I was playing the what if game, I fooled around with online design tools and tried to make a decent cover for the book, just in case. I also tried—quite unsuccessfully, I might add—to do the formatting. I had not anticipated how hard any of it would be—both technically and design-wise—to lay out a book. It seemed that with every page and every nut and bolt I needed to use to get a book built, there was a new set of decisions I had to make, and I didn’t have most of the answers. Still, I wasn’t committed, so what did it matter?

Then, one day, not so long ago, the latest issue of the Writer’s Chronicle came in the mail, and in it was an article by the writer George Saunders. He talked about deciding, after many years of trying to emulate other writers’ voices (he called this “plodding up Hemingway Mountain” and later “Carver Mountain, Chekhov Mountain, Babel Mountain”) before finally giving up and writing his own way, a way which didn’t seem like anyone else’s. He wrote, “I looked over and there was this little. . . . shit hill. . . . And I thought: ‘Well, o.k.—it’s a shit hill, but at least it’s my shit hill.’” His words made me think about how what I wrote didn’t look like what I typically saw out there, but it was what I had wanted to write—felt moved to write—exactly as it was. It was my own voice, and it was own little manuscript, and on that day, I decided I wasn’t going to let fear hold me back.

And so on that day, I decided to commit to publishing 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17 under Cimarron Books. With that commitment came the easy decision that if I was going to really do this, I needed to, as they say in the South, “hire it done,” meaning I had better hire a fabulous designer. I did just that: Peter Barnfather took my idea and my pitiful little book-cover rendering and transformed it into something else, something I love. He did the layout and all the formatting, and I trusted his expertise to figure out all those design decisions that had stumped me. I’ve faced other bumps on the road to birthing this little book, ones I won’t go into here, but I wanted to learn about the publishing industry, and I definitely am—the hard way but also a great way. 

52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17, the first Cimarron Books under my editorship, comes out today in paperback and on Kindle and other ebook formats.

My official book launch event is The Book Cougars podcast (!!!), which you can listen to here.

If you read The Going and Goodbye, this book is not that kind of book. This book is what I am calling a little gift book meant to inspire at any age. Here’s the book’s description:

If you’ve ever wanted to go back in time and talk to your younger self—to give advice, to say what you wish you had known then that you know now, to promise that even when it gets bad, it will get better—then this book is for you. If you are still young enough that most of life’s lessons stretch ahead in front of you, then save yourself a heap of trouble and read what’s on these pages. 

I wanted to be proud of the first book I published for Cimarron Books. I wanted my father to be proud. 

I am. Let’s hope he is.


To learn more about 52 Things, click here

Book launch event: The Book Cougars podcast

The George Saunders’ excerpt is from The Writer’s Chronicle, September 2018, page 42.


Stories and Poems and (Forthcoming) Books, Oh My!

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When I was in graduate school and studying fiction, I had to turn in a story to the class, but I didn’t want to turn in something I had already written prior to the semester starting, so I wrote a new piece. I called it “Claims College.” It was different from any short story I had ever written in that, instead of being all serious, it had a dash of my humor. (Graduate school is supposed to push you out of your comfort zone, right?) It was about a married guy, Nathaniel, who decides that when he goes to an insurance work conference, he wants to have sex. And not with his wife. 

I hadn’t intended it to be funny at all, but then these characters (Octavio, Maggie, Tammy and Bridget) appeared and took on a life of their own. I like it when that happens. I let them tell their own story, and I wondered along with them: Would Nathaniel have the guts to make a conquest? What woman would he hit on, if any? And did he really want to have an affair, or did he want something else?

I didn’t know, at least not until I finished writing it.

Eventually I sent “Claims College” off to several literary magazines and waited. Most of the time (99% of the time, in fact) rejections come as form letters, but one—which came from a reach magazine for me—gave me a no along with feedback: “We really enjoyed this piece,” they wrote. “The interesting setting of this insurance conference, the memorable Octavio, and overall, the prose were impressively crafted.” But, they said, the story needed another rise in tension. 

I went back to my story, I read it again, and I realized they were spot-on. I revised it again and again, adding more tension exactly where they had said it was missing. What a gift that feedback was, so rare but so helpful. I also changed the title to “Trying to Grow.”

A few months later, Platypus Press asked me to contribute a short story to their Shorts (digital-only fiction) series. I sent them three stories, including “Trying to Grow.” I was sure Platypus Press would pick one of the other two, but they chose Nathaniel’s story. And now it feels like we—Nathaniel and I and all the other characters—have found the perfect home.

You can find out more about “Trying to Grow” here.

In other exciting publication news—a new book and a poem:

I am so thrilled to announce that on November 27, I have a new book coming out called 52 Things I Wish I Could Have Told Myself When I Was 17, which you can read about here. My next blog will be about the origin story of 52 Things, and how this book almost wasn’t, until I got fear out of my way. 

And last but not least, I have a new poem up, “Immigrant,” which you can read here. Thank you, Antioch University MFA’s Lunch Ticket staff for selecting my poem to be featured in a Spotlight.

Sable's on the Hayride

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In a recent blog post, I talked about my piece, “Katy Perry Is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did,” getting published in Brevity. The editor asked me to write a blog post about the origin of that piece, and I found myself writing about the village of Yellow Springs and how I miss it. (This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read my memoir—I can’t imagine writing a book about my life and not talking about my town. There is of course so much more to say on that subject, as my little village is quite unique, but alas that wasn’t what the blog was about.) Here it is:

On Writing “Katy Perry Is Crooning….”

I grew up in Yellow Springs, a village in Ohio, and I return to it several times throughout the year to see my parents and to be in a place I still love and that most feels like home to me. I live in a city now, not a very big one—population 65,000—but large compared to the town in which I grew up with a population of under 4,000. 

You want to know what it’s like to grow up in that small of a town? One Saturday afternoon, many years ago, our German Shepherd, named Sable, jumped our picket fence and ran to the school grounds a block away, as there was a festival happening there, and my sister and I, likely early teens at the time, had gone to it. Because Yellow Springs is a small town, the news traveled fast to us. People recognized her as our dog, but they didn’t just tell us, “Your dog is loose.” We were told, “Sable’s on the hayride.” (And yes, she was.)

My high school graduating class had 69 students (and we had a big class), so at YSHS we didn’t just know everyone in our grade: we knew everyone a year below and a year above, and most of the students from two years below and two years above, and on and on. We only had so many people to know, and this made the business of knowing easier. Even today, I am always struck by the number of people I know and who know me when I go anywhere in Yellow Springs, even though I have not lived there for twenty years. 

The piece, “Katy Perry Is Crooning and Won’t Stop Just Because I Did,” is about one day in my small town, a day when I was there a few months ago. On the morning of that day, while out and about in Yellow Springs, I talked to a villager (a person I have known for decades) who told me of the unexpected death of a man earlier that same morning, someone who is a few years younger than I am. This villager told me about the death of the person not just because it was sad and jarring—his being under fifty and, from outward appearances, in seemingly good health—but also because there was an assumption I would know him. And I did.

These are the kinds of assumptions you can make, though, in a small town. Later that same day, while I was taking a walk, I ran into the brother of the man who died. Only in a small town can you hear terrible news about a person and then a few hours later happen to run into the family bearing the weight of that news. Only in a small town can you also know the brother, even if you have not lived there for twenty years.

In my small town, I didn’t feel right about not saying anything, not stopping to offer my condolences to the brother. Perhaps I would have felt or acted differently had I been somewhere else. Perhaps the news might not have seemed as sad and awful had I not known who they were, had the news been that of complete strangers.

I realize I have used the words know, known, knowing so many times in trying to tell you how all of this began.

I started writing down snippets that night (more a listing of details) and then wrote the piece fully while in a coffee shop in downtown Yellow Springs. I was finishing up a full-length poetry manuscript the week of my visit, so this piece’s first incarnation was as a poem. The poem became an essay only after I decided to submit it to Brevity. I write very prose-like poems anyway, so all I needed to do was take out the line breaks. Oh, and I also had to change one detail—I had taken some creative license with the placement of the car since poems don’t have to adhere to the truth, but for this to be a creative nonfiction essay, the car needed to be where it actually was in “real life,” as they say. 

I miss living in a small town. I miss my village. I miss knowing so many people and being known the way I am known there—not because I am famous but because I grew up there and have a history there, a history I am still building, even though I don’t live there anymore.


This blog post was originally published on the Brevity blog. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the latest issue of Brevity, you should. It’s always a winner. Thanks again to Dinty Moore for selecting my piece—I’m still overjoyed.

If you missed my blog post about me and Katy Perry getting into Brevity, you can find that here.

I do know some of my blog subscribers are from Yellow Springs. I can’t thank you enough for sticking with me through the years. I hope you saw a little bit of home in this blog. The tree featured is one of the ones on Enon (near the stoplight on Dayton Street by the high school), on the plot of land where Vernay used to be. I take a photo of this tree every time I am in town.