Being a Literary Publicist and Helping Other Writers
What inspired you to become a non-profit publicist? What were some of the joys and obstacles you’ve encountered since you first made this decision?
I fell in to it, it was never a conscious choice. While working at Small Press Distribution, Brent Cunningham pointed out that I was doing it anyway, just not in an official capacity. I had always done this kind of work, which really falls more under the heading of community organization. It just comes now with an official title. I truly believe that creative community is integral to the health of our communities at large. This is why I do it. My formal training is in teaching at the University level.
I’ve watched presses fold under an inability to adapt to a changing landscape. I’ve watched new presses take off using beautiful, antiquated methods. There’s not a recipe. For me, the greatest joy as a non-profit publicist happens during events, when a very disparate group of people, with different phenomenologies, aesthetics, and purposes come together to celebrate the creative. Building authentic community is the greatest joy.
As far as obstacles, I am a poet and writer first and foremost. My own work has taken a back seat these last few years as I concentrated on everyone else’s. My own work has been sidelined so I could get everyone else known. That’s changing. That is no longer a thing, going forward.
You mention that you do much of your work for free. Can you describe a bit of what you do? What sort of benefits have you gotten from the non-profit work?
Being a literary publicist is like being a manager, a therapist, a campaign coordinator, an image consultant, and a cheerleader all in one. It is not for the feint hearted. A lot of presses, authors, or organizations can not yet afford what I do, and if I don’t do it who will?
You have to have infinite patience, a good sense of humor, and be well-connected. Aesthetics matter. You have to be attuned to all the aesthetics that are going on, and separate your personal aesthetic from cultural ones. The director Arthur Bradford explained it succinctly, as being a “cultural ambassador.” Good hair helps, too.
Kidding aside (I’m actually not kidding about the hair), you are a connector for a living. You have to be prescient and figure out who is going to connect well with whom. You have to practice what Thich Naht Han calls compassionate listening. If an author is agoraphobic, don’t sign them up to do Costco signings. You also have to intuit, and know when to delegate.
Above all, you have to truly believe in community. You have to be willing to bleed for literature, or music, or media, or whatever it is you are working with. And you have to know what you’re doing. The main challenge is to get the author to believe in her or himself. I stay in the dark places, literally & metaphorically, with clients a lot. I tell them they are worth songs, until they themselves can sing it (and they only believe it if I believe it). The work itself ranges from event coordination to full book launch & tour management. If you want to get into literary publicity, get familiar with MS Excel (gag). You can find out more about what I actually do, and who some of my clients are on my website, www. monicastorss.org. As you said, the majority of my work is pro-bono. My greatest hope is that the author or individuals involved pass this kind of nurturing, the fostering of community, on.
Benefits? Let me real-talk for a second: I have a serious autoimmune illness and need health benefits. Anyone who wants to facilitate that should contact me immediately. Will marry for health insurance! Ok, now that reality encroached and ebbed, the rewards I’ve reaped so far are by and large esoteric ones. Ones that are beyond our understanding, karmic or otherwise. Knowing I’ve made a difference for a group or individual, that old Hegelian dialectic, not being alienated from one’s work, and all the amazing writers, publishers, distributors, and artists I’ve met since starting: that’s The Benefit. Seeing someone apply everything we’ve worked on and talk about, and rise to earned success, that means something. I always tell authors they are their own best PR. Dan Lichtenberg once told me after his book hit #1, that advice was the most valuable he had received to date.
It’s clear that you are very involved in the literary community. You’ve been a curator of a reading series, an editor, and a director of a program. What general tips would you give to a young writer who wants to get involved? What are some of the traits you think are most beneficial?
Dear Young Writer,
Most likely you are not in a big city with a big literary scene, because you are insanely techno-savvy, and would have picked up on where the hot all-ages spots are, or what readings or open mics may be cool to check out. If these words are foreign to you, learn what they mean. Find a reading, a book club, a slam near you. Find your spot. Now, this is key: IF IT DOES NOT EXIST, YOU MUST CREATE IT. You think what I do existed before me? No.
Maybe you are in a wind-swept farmtown. Maybe you are in a haunted delta. Maybe the sky where you live stretches past horizons. Maybe the prairie ripples like sea grass. Maybe you live in Mystic Pizza. Whatever. Place informs your art. Don’t hate on it. You will thank me for this later.
When I was your age I was making writers groups in graveyards (don’t ask), hosting pop-up readings in farmtown Taco Bells, making collectives at a local café. I had no idea what I was doing, I just knew that no one else was doing it. If there is a lack, it is up to you to fill it. Are you in highschool? Join journalism. Start a reading series. Host it yourself. Start a writers group. Make art. Just keep making art.
I can remember summer in Ukiah, before the pear sheds were full, pasting together zines in the middle of the night, the heady sent of wisteria and glue. Zines are still some of the best way to get turned on to what is going on in the larger world. Many of these, along with literary journals and magazines are online. Some of the best are: HTML Giant, The Rumpus, PANK, Unshod Quills, Spine Road, Housefire, B O D Y. Here, let me overwhelm you some more. There’s also Annalemma, Hobart, Anderbo, Collagist, MudLuscious, and Failbetter, just to name a few. There’s a print magazine you can easily order, and most likely your library carries it. It’s called Poets & Writers. Their website has a cool feature that shows you where to submit your work & when. A word about your local library: they have a poetry section. They have a fiction section. They have a non-fiction section. They also usually have a budget—and this is a trade secret—to purchase books that users request. I will assume unless you have a trust fund, you are not heavy on the scrill. If you are jonesing to read the latest Octopus Books title, or Joe Wenderoth, or Pam Houston, ask your local librarian if they can order it.
Read the cannon. Find out about the tradition from which your creativity is emergent. Finding a Varèse translation of Arthur Rimbaud at City Lights Bookstore literally changed my life. I moved to France at eighteen to better understand him through language and place. Reading and writing are binaries: you gotta do both. One informs the other.
Try not to expose yourself to bad literature. Bad lit will be what you have a negative visceral reaction to. Open a book and read out the middle. If you are not in to it, move on. Maybe ten years from now, that will become your favourite book, and you’re just not in a place in your life where it means something. Yet.
In this age of technology, we are no longer as isolated as we were even ten years ago. You may feel like a freak, like you’re the only one who is in to what you’re in to. You’re not. Find your peeps. It is optimal to find them in your own community, and build from there. But if you truly can’t, there is always the internet. You. Are. Not. Alone.
There are so many aesthetic camps your mind will be blown.
If you are living near a place where there is a large literary community, (read: a college town, a city, or Marfa, Texas), take advantage of it. Go. Go. Go. Go to as many readings as you can. Go see bands. Go see art. Some of my favourite writers are musicians and writers. Justin Maurer of the Clorox Girls writes clean, concise punk rock prose that breaks my heart or sends me spinning every time. I play in a band called MegaMeta.
Get involved. Do an open mic. I promise you won’t die of embarrassment, and no one will notice if you mess up (except you. Stop berating yourself). Slam is making a comeback. It’s not the best literature in the world, but I know a lot, a lot, of really good writers who got their start in the slam community. It gives you an instant fam that supports you and your narrative. That narrative will evolve. But it is a great starting place.
Listen to good music. Take care of your body. Drugs & booze don’t make you more creative. Get eight hours of sleep and eat your kale. Write every day. Even if it’s just for ten minutes. An hour is better. Whatever you can manage. Every day.
The most important thing is to do it. Destroy your fears and preconceived notions. William Carlos Williams was a doctor & a poet. Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman and a mindblowing writer. Write to the authors you love and tell them why their work is important to you, or ask a question. But a real question. Follow us on Twitter. Get as deep into the water as you feel comfortable with. Find a mentor who already knows how to swim (see: MGMT, “Electric Feel”).
You are already loved. Your people are already out there. You can become involved as an intern, a volunteer, or by starting your own thing. It’s up to you.
Monica L. Storss
How would you encourage a writer to help another writer? In your opinion, what are some of the best advantages to helping another fellow writer?
Creative community really does save lives. Writing is a solitary act. We need to fellowship and check in with each other on the regular. We’ve lost too many members of our creative community to suicide or isolation. Have lunch with the people you care about. Genuinely care about successes other than your own. Go to other writers events. Ask what they are working on. Share what you’re working on. Share feedback. Share your time. Share your agent. Share your publicist.
I have a writing/creative partner (totally platonic). We are both poets. He is more prolific than I, I the more “accomplished” of the two. If you are lucky enough to find that one person with whom you can have this kind of kindred creative mindmeld, where criticisms are met with joy, where the unspeakable can be said, where the breath and white space becomes an ouroborous, take it, see it for what it is, and never let it go. When we help each other, it is with complete trust and honesty. There have been knock-down-drag-outs over line breaks. That’s ok. Because it comes from a place of authenticity. When you help another writer—in any way, whether it is socially, emotionally, creatively—it provides insight into your own values, aesthetics, and you see your place as a writer more clearly.
Eventually you get to a point where you write letters of rec, reviews, and blurbs ad nauseaum. Be thankful for how you got there. Someone else did this for you once upon a time, and now it is your turn to give back. Remember that is an honor to do so, not a chore.
There are many of writers who want to become more active in the writing community. What are some ways that a writer might be able to get involved?
It is much scarier to jump in as an adult than it is to as a young blood. Much of what I addressed in my open letter applies, but older writers may have different needs. As an adult you may have been writing in solitude for years. I’ll say it until it sticks: you have to find community. You need to join a writers group. You have to stop thinking your writing is so precious you never send it out. Take rejection graciously. You may think you have an aesthetic. Take criticism constructively. Take what applies and leave the rest. Enroll in a continuing ed class. Go to readings. Read. You’re probably already doing these things. Find out what others are doing. Stay curious.
There are many literary or arts organizations in every community that need help. You probably have a skill they need. Even if you can only donate a few hours a week, what you will reap what you sow tenfold. You’ll also learn how these organizations work from the inside out. Look for opportunities for volunteerism.
I’m a traditionalist. When’s the last time you held a salon? If you own a fainting couch you are morally obligated to do so, at least once. If you have a space or the resources to do so, open your heart and home to other writers. You will meet these other writers at readings and at your volunteerism gig. Learn to use the Facebook or other social media, and say hi to other writers.
The best way to get involved? Say hello. Introduce yourself. And support other writers.
I would like to see women better represented in the literary community. The publishing and review ratio is currently about three to one. Three men to one female. There are many factors that contribute to this. I will not go in to it here. But this, this is what I want to see change.
What is the next big horizon you’re looking forward to crossing?
As a sailor: Latitude 23
As a surfer: Pipeline.
As a poet: Produce, Publish, Read Out, Rinse, Repeat.
As a publicist: The launch of CymaSpace, a non-profit creative space for the deaf & hearing community, which we are literally building from the ground up.