"There is a Blending of Cultures, Generations and Countries as we Examine the Human Experience."
Nicole M. Bouchard is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of the online literary magazine, The Write Place At the Write Time. This publication features fiction, poetry, non-fiction, book reviews, craft essays, resources, fine artwork and numerous NYT best-selling author interviews including Janet Fitch, Alice Hoffman and Arthur Golden as well as interviews with additional creative professionals. For her work on the literary magazine as well as her journalistic and fiction work, Ms. Bouchard was profiled on the cable television program, Creative Women Today. She is a Letters member of the National League of American Pen Women and recently joined the Women's National Book Association. This spring she served on the Small Press Panel: How Online Journals and Social Media Transform Poetics at the Fourth Mass. Poetry Festival. She was also the creator and instructor of a four week online intensive creative writing course in 2011 affiliated with The Write Place At the Write Time, entitled, "Passion, Philosophy and Prose: The Power of the Pen". Her publication is now partnering with the esteemed, independent Milken Community High School creative writing program to donate their time and resources this summer to take a few select students through the online creative writing course. She lives in New England and relishes the power of gray, rainy days for writing.
Interview by Lynn Holmgren
An occasion for story is often due to the wrong place at the right time or vice versa. Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose to call the journal ‘The Write Place at the Write Time’?
You make a good point here about the catalyst for a story. To illustrate the part of the creative process to which our name corresponds, let’s imagine the concept of a hurricane. The formation stage of the story that you describe, a domino effect convergence of right and wrong circumstances, is where the severe thunderstorms start to gather. They rotate and swirl together, picking up wind and speed in the imagination as an idea. Hovering over the warm, nutritive waters of the creative mind, the idea gets fed, grows and becomes fully established. At the center of the hurricane, we sit in the calm of the inner eye where the writer is poised at the solitude of his desk to commune with the pen. The chaos is part of the birthing procedure for a story, yes, but we are looking at the quiet within the storm where the actual storytelling and day-to-day life of the writer takes place. Here the writer is able to access or tap into something higher than themselves to execute their inspiration. What we’ve found, not only in terms of our own experiences but also with authors we’ve read about or encountered, is that there tends to be a serendipitous element to storytelling and the writers’ life in general.
Whether speaking with Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic), Sarah Ban Breathnach (Simple Abundance), Michael Hirst (writer, producer of The Tudors), Joan Anderson (A Year by the Sea) or Naomi Epel (The Observation Deck, Writers Dreaming), there are circumstances of encounters, dreams, locations and discoveries that happen at just the right time to help the writer write. Epel found the inspiring theme behind Writers Dreaming within a dream of her own. Hoffman has said that her “entire publishing and writing life has been magic, fate [and] kindness.” Breathnach often writes of the serendipity of randomly finding the right book on a shelf that wasn't searched for but contained needed wisdom.
Hirst describes in a 2010 interview how "The boy who had once dreamed of turning a corner and seeing a knight on horseback finally got his wish. On location one day last year, that actually happened to me." He also mentions the life-size portrait of Henry VIII from the set of Elizabeth that was placed by his desk long before he knew that he would embark on The Tudors: "When we bought this house in 2002 and I installed the portrait next to my desk, I had no idea that Henry would soon dominate my life for the next five years." Anderson took ‘a walk on the beach’ (the title of her third book) and this led her to a chance encounter with Joan Erickson, wife of world-renowned psychologist, Eric Erickson: “Yes, imagine- I was having an identity crisis and I came into contact with the person whose husband coined the phrase. She stood immersed in the fog. I wasn’t looking to meet anyone on that day and there she was.”
For us, we never plan themes for our issues yet they always arise of their own volition. The current issue speaks to the power of words to heal, to raise awareness and to effect positive change. So much of the way the magazine comes together with artwork, prose, poetry, subjects and contributors is a serendipitous process which delights in its unexpected outcomes. This, we feel, is the most important, humbling part of the creative experience- to let go and allow for something more, something deeper to shine through.
The website describes the journal’s community-like atmosphere dedicated to a humanitarian approach to the arts. How does being an online publication help and /or hinder this mission?
When one first thinks of the term ‘community’, it automatically seems to connote physical proximity and parameters of location. We personally, and I believe the larger sphere of individuals utilizing the technological literary trends that make such instant, wide-spread communication possible, think of reaching across the globe in a more universal sense of shared interests. Our ‘community’ may extend its arms to the thirty-eight countries we’re being read in, but it is no less intimate; we aim to speak to the hearts and minds of our readers. Their local, physical communities lose spatial boundaries as their stories/voices transcend, finding kindred spirits, similar emotions, experiences, goals and dreams. We all yearn, as writers, as artists, to connect; to reach an audience of one or a hundred who truly gets what we are expressing; to have them validate, admit, acknowledge- yes, I’ve been there and I’ve loved, laughed, longed, lost and lived too. There is a blending of cultures, generations and countries as we examine the human experience.
Our humanitarian approach to the arts involves a highly personalized aspect when working with writers and artists as well as organizations that support causes we feel strongly about. Many of our contributors refer to us as a ‘family’. We’ve known many of them for years and are constantly rewarded by the faith they show in submitting pieces that bare a portion of their souls on the page. When this happens, when the writer feels “safe”, we are being shown that we’ve created the sort of warm, human and accessible haven for expression that we set out to create.
We try to give editorial and substantive feedback on many of the pieces we receive, working to get at the core of a writer’s authentic voice- not our voice- but simply the strongest version of their own. The communication involved in the back and forth exchanges of our feedback is made more efficient by our being an online publication that uses e-mail correspondence and has the type of publishing model that is cost-efficient for us, allowing more time to be spent on the editor-contributor relationship.
The journal is celebrating its 4th anniversary this summer. What is different now from the inaugural issue? What is on the horizon?
My goodness. It has been an incredible journey and although we’ve maintained the founding premise, the degree of growth in a relatively short space of time has surpassed our expectations. I recall holding up a printed version of the first issue in front of a television camera for an interview on Creative Women Today; I was thinking how thin it was compared to the hulking issues we’d published since. We had chosen the auspicious date of July 3rd for our inaugural issue to coincide with the Fourth of July weekend and the theme of independent expression. Our first two interview subjects were Janet Fitch (White Oleander, Paint it Black) and Nancy Slonim Aronie (Writing from the Heart). We had nine pages planned for the website. With our first submission call, we were valiantly hoping that writers would take a chance on us. As described in the answer to the question regarding our name, that issue serendipitously came together and we still remain close to some of the dynamic, talented individuals who were a part of it.
The people we’ve come in contact with, the rich trove of material we’ve had the pleasure of reading and compiling, the stories of the publication outside of its pages, have all changed us, touched our lives, affected the lives of those involved. The publication may have grown and undergone some surface alterations but the heart of it remains the same; that is what we wish to say of it in years to come.
Looking toward the horizon, we will continue our path of exploration, exhibit a willingness toward trying new forms, mediums and features, aim to grow further and perhaps contemplate other divisions as well as a small press arm under the umbrella of The Write Place At the Write Time.
When you started the journal were there any other ones that you looked to for inspiration?
It’s similar to the recommended course for an aspiring writer; you immerse yourself in the greats and then put aside the books to sift and refine your own voice. A great deal of our thought process concerning the kind of journal we wished to begin stemmed from our experiences as writers. From having served in a journalistic capacity as an entertainment editor, I had a vision in mind about length, aesthetic and the level of engaging content I wanted to feature. Yet the elements of atmosphere, philosophy, and procedure (how we’d respond to submissions, feedback, contributor relationships, etc…) came from the perspective of what kind of publication would utilize our particular skill sets, views and personas to best serve writers and readers.
It was a mix of knowledgeable exposure (seeing what was done) and then from that exposure formulating ideas and opinions unique to our world view (envisioning how it could be done by us). We have a great respect for our colleagues, for what they do for literature and in forming/running our own publication, we sought to humbly offer a product based on our own vision.
You recently participated on the small press panel at the Mass poetry festival. What was the discussion like? Did any part of the conversation surprise you?
The discussion was full-bodied and comprehensive owing to the well-chosen diversity of the publications represented. Each of us has our different styles and approaches yet we are united in some common themes that include the desire to seek out emerging voices, increase our global reach to represent the untold stories far from our shores, get our readerships thinking and expanding their awareness, pioneer new territories in our individual ways, remain quality “homes” for the art and literature of our era and to leave a mark in the world of the written word by living the principles we care most about.
Another enriching aspect of the discussion came from the audience who clearly held the similar passions toward art and literature that we do. Questions arose about the use of social media and Twitter in particular- how we utilized it to communicate with our readership and even how it could be used as an artistic form of expression itself (writers have begun to use the character limit as a creative challenge). Numerous trends were discussed including erasure, the use of Google search terms in poetry and multi-media performance poetry. We delved into the importance of voice, the underrepresented contingent of poets, how poetry is viewed by traditional and contemporary standards, purpose and meaning found in verse and the continually stretching boundaries of experimentation within the medium.
One gentleman, touching upon the global aspect of online communities, described his own project which involves the feel of an opening night at an art gallery. It is part of the thrill and the challenge to make the online, virtual worlds as intimate and concrete as possible. We have the ability to speak to someone half-way around the globe about shared creative interests but we must also set the scene and create a feeling of place to anchor our visitors. In this respect, from the themes to the aesthetic, each publication (Drunken Boat, Midway, Solstice, The Write Place At the Write Time) sets its own, distinctive stage.
I can’t say that there were any moments that I’d refer to as surprising. People seemed to walk away having learned about some new developments/opportunities for inspiration, feeling perhaps more certain in their convictions about poetry (many heads nodded in agreement at different intervals) or were introduced to a different, more accessible way of thinking about poetry. It was a rewarding experience where I felt honored by my colleagues as well as the audience. It seemed that everyone, for all of the divergent viewpoints, was, forgive the pun, on the same page.
The Write Place not only publishes fiction, non-fiction and poetry, but includes art, interviews, book reviews, contests and a writer’s craft box. Not to mention a sister ‘Inscribing Industry’ blog dedicated to the business/market side of writing. Do small journals have to do it all to survive and gain readership or has The Write Place just naturally evolved in this way?
Looking at all of the journals that choose to specialize in genre, format, or theme, I’d definitely say that small journals do not have to do it all to survive and maintain readers in the current marketplace. So why, you might ask, do we drive ourselves crazy with the effort of so many offerings? The answer is that we have seen the ‘magic’ and synergy of these different written mediums. Once you watch those moments when everything clicks into place between the writer and the reader- an idea is shared, a dream is born, hope is given… you don’t want to go back and start putting up limits or walls when the entire purpose was to knock down those walls.
The “Our Stories” non-fiction section for example, was initially just an experiment. This section was the brain-child of my Assistant Editor, Denise, and we’ve both watched it grow to become one of our most powerful pages on the site. Done in highly personalized memoir style, we are always swept away with how the writers open hidden doors into their lives with these pieces that have readers laughing, crying, relating... It is life whittled down to its very essence and it heals as often as it shocks- as they say, truth is stranger than fiction. One of our past writers wrote of a piece about a daughter's loss of her mother in our current summer issue, "It's not often that a story grabs me in this way and I think I would have to go all the way back to Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes to find a story that was so unashamed of the truth."
With our interviews, we try to either ask the unasked questions or approach topics in a different way. In one issue you’re sitting at a rustic Tuscan table with Frances Mayes, savoring life…in the next you’re traversing Bhutan with Eric Weiner and contemplating The Geography of Bliss. Our adventures are your adventures and we want writers and readers to get to see something extraordinary every once in awhile- even if it’s just a quote from the interview subject that changes some part of the way you thought you ought to live. For our readers who are also writers, we want to show perspectives from various parts of the profession- novelists, non-fiction writers, screenwriters…in order to give a broad behind-the-scenes look at the creative industry.
Also for the writer component of our readership (and we classify this as anyone who wants to and does put pen to paper in an artistic manner), we developed sections such as Writers’ Craft Box with tools, exercises, resources and essays. Our associated blog, Inscribing Industry, often discusses more of the business aspect and daily professional writer’s life. Due to the complexities of the field, we want writers to have as many guides and resources at their fingertips as possible.
We have a strong art element because the mediums feed one another to create a more potent experience. Each section of the magazine is there with a purpose; these are things we’ve tried and have seen responses to. We are almost always eager to try something new and we stay only with what we’ve seen work; there are retired pages but they’ve helped us to highlight the essentials. If our magazine is a well-appointed home to which we invite our readers, one with distinctive architectural features and an array of amenities, we want to give the fullest experience we can while still capturing their focus on each individual component.
In your submission guidelines you tell writers to avoid sending “anything so disturbing it would keep us up at night”. Is this a problem? Do you regularly receive such material?
The funny part about that phrase in our guidelines is that it was written before we began the publication. Ironic still further is that we rarely do receive such submissions (but there have been a few). I suppose one could say that we were formulating what tone we wanted the publication to have and that odd little sentence has acted as a sentry to guard the gates (thus far). We encourage the powerful pieces that reach readers on both an intellectual and emotional level but we know ourselves and we know our readers so there are certain subjective standards we uphold in how sensitive issues are portrayed. This does not say that a piece we find “so disturbing” doesn’t have a place in good standing somewhere in the literary world; it simply means that it isn’t a fit here. Every publication has a style, a voice and it’s just a matter of maintaining it across the board.
Yes, we can do controversy; yes, we can shock with the big issues; and yes, we can have content that haunts at times, but it’s all in the way the story is told and what point is trying to be made. There seems to be enough real darkness in the world, enough gratuitous or glamorized extreme violence on the silver screen. We do substance, but we don’t mind being told by a few of our readers that even after they’ve read the issue entirely, they just stop by the site during the day for the warmth and peace of it.
What are writers writing about these days? Do you notice any common obsessions or concerns going on in the work submitted to The Write Place?
There was an excerpt I loved from the July 2008 interview with Janet Fitch that I think applies here. Fitch wrote, “I hope I'm speaking deeply enough to the human condition to be resonant in the future, because the human condition- love, loss, struggle, the search for meaning and identity- does not change over time, only the trappings change.”
Themes of love in all its complexity (familial love, romantic love, self-love), themes of adversity, change and survival are presented in many different ways from many different voices, touching upon the many layers and dimensions of each. Every piece has a unique power and presence that stands on its own; we’ve had writers write about surviving an illness, losing a child, embracing a foreign land, learning of their parent’s suicide, discovering love, finding humor in dark hours and healing from abuse.
Do you give feedback on every submission you receive?
We make the effort to try and give feedback on all submissions for which it is appropriate to comment. If a story might not work for us simply because of a theme or genre, we then try to recommend a publication that specializes in publishing that type of material or a resource that allows a search by genre. There are also submissions that work so well that no feedback is necessary.
In terms of our feedback philosophy, the first canon is that we come from the knowledge that writing is a subjective art form and thus our suggestions are humbly offered. We know what standards we have that reflect the theories, teachings and examples of quality literature, yet there is something to be said for the editor who sees themselves in the writer’s position. Like players hunched over a chessboard, we make the first move and that move is taking the ego out of the process. Then there is room left for the possibility of a dialogue with the shared goal of excavating the writer’s strongest work.
It also depends on the writer and whether they are on one end of the willingness spectrum or the other, or whether they will meet you in the middle. It is all art and no science; part of that art is negotiation. There can be very talented, highly established writers who will take a suggestion and fly with it. There can be new writers who will do the same. Conversely, there can be writers (new or established) that are unspeakably insulted if instructed to move a sentence.
On the middle ground of the chessboard you encounter those who will take part of a suggestion but insist on another course for the other part. No matter how entrenched your ideas as an editor are, it’s nearly always beneficial to at least be open to what the person closest to the story is seeing; you might both learn on a particular piece and have an incredible outcome. The only instances where the story might suffer is if a) the writer needs to strengthen the piece but won’t budge or b) if an editor makes extensive changes to the piece to make it into their voice without consulting with the writer. Instead of forcing major changes, we discuss or give the writer the freedom to take the story to another publication that might be more suitable for the writer and the story’s goals.
By and large, we give a good deal of feedback. If a story is nearly there in terms of meeting the standards of character and plot in a powerful way but perhaps lacks some elements of description, we wouldn’t want to turn that writer away without first sharing our thoughts. We want the writer to be given the chance to either grow their piece with us or have a bit of constructive criticism that they can keep in mind for the future.
It’s difficult writing in the dark, so to speak, not knowing whether or why a piece does or doesn’t work. It takes a lot of time and we fully appreciate that our relatively small size allows for this. It’s a choice and certainly not an easy one that we would expect everyone to make; it has its upsides and downsides. We will say, however, that despite the downsides, it is immensely rewarding when a piece is transformed between the writer and editor and we do receive a number of thank-you notes for our rejections. The latter never fails to surprise us and we are touched by the instance of it every time.
The journal is obviously a very personal creation that reflects your own generosity and spirit. How do you establish personal/professional boundaries that allow growth while retaining the original vision?
Thank you for that statement. As to establishing boundaries, like anything in life, it’s about balance and nothing being in excess. I love getting to know my writers and artists and I believe this sort of personalized touch inspires great work that hits more closely at the heart of things. That said, inevitably, there have been times when I’ve found it difficult to find enough hours in the week to be both an editor and a writer as the magazine has really grown. Wearing many different hats for the magazine in terms of editorial input, design, promotion, etc… is perhaps a natural consequence anyone having a venture so close to their heart, so customized, would have. Lunch is sometimes a vague idea rather than a firm concept during deadline time. Given all of these factors, we came to a carefully considered decision this June to cut back from producing four issues a year to three. This change will allow us to maintain our growth, provide the same degree of energy, quality and high standards our readership has come to expect, and still work on our personal writing projects as we are a small volunteer staff who are writers ourselves.
A return to being a quarterly publication is always possible if we find at some future date that it makes sense to do so from both a creative and a business perspective but for now, three times a year feels right for us- as the adage goes, time will tell.
In your opinion, what is the state of literary journals today? Should readers and editors have similar goals and concerns to strengthen the community?
This is a mammoth of a question that I as one individual don’t feel I can do proper justice to. Each editor out there is riding the tumultuous waves of the industry, shifting, adapting, changing course and maintaining direction as necessary. Some print journals are coming out with electronic editions, some online journals are experimenting with multi-media usage, some journals are expanding their offerings and mediums. It’s difficult to comment on the big picture of literary journals in the modern marketplace without looking at each one individually. What can be said of us all, however, is that adaptability is essential to the life-blood of our existence.
I do believe that the rapport between editors and readers, when it’s personalized and frank about triumphs, concerns, realities and goals, strengthens the literary community. The lines of communication need to stay open. We as editors, and I’m speaking of most editors in the field, want to know about what’s important to our readers. By being attentive to their needs and desires we keep a finger on the pulse of the market. In the same respect, by communicating our needs and goals, we let the readership be part of the team in knowing our direction, getting excited about the future and being made aware of the requirements for our survival. Feedback, discussion, participation.
In summary, I feel that literary journals are an important part of our culture and have incredible staying power; so long as writers and readers are born into this world, so long as there exists a passion for the written word, literary journals will have a place.
Lynn Holmgren lives and writes in Dorchester, MA.