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Heartfelt explorations of the human condition… Jody Carrow speaks about youth writing

Claremont cover“… the act of writing means one hasn’t given up; it means that people still care to grapple with this great, messy, glorious event called Life. The fact that so many youth are choosing this method of making sense of the world means that they care deeply about the world they inhabit and want to share their perspectives on it.” ~ Jody Carrow

Nearly a quarter of a century old, the Claremont Review (tCR) is a journal that has come-of-age while publishing writers who are coming-of-age. As an international journal, the Canadian magazine publishes youth writing (ages 13-19) in English from five continents.

What separates the tCR from other journals is that it offers a rare, if not coveted, submission experience – the editors offer feedback: “All submissions accompanied by an email address receive a written comment on their work,” says the magazine’s website.

tCR also runs an annual contest. Not only are winners published in the magazine, but winners are offered generous monetary prizes. The 2016 first place winner is awarded $1000 CAD, second place receives $600, and third receives $400. Winners are selected in both poetry and fiction categories. There’s also one visual art prize of $500.

We spoke to Jody Carrow, Canadian writer and the editor-in-chief of tCR. Carrow offers an insightful understanding of youth writing, and the importance of nurturing and celebrating it.

jody carrowJody Carrow’s work has appeared in several Canadian literary magazines, including Grain and The Malahat Review (under her spy name: Jody Lesiuk). She has been a featured reader at many poetry events in Victoria, B.C., and is a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Victoria. As editor-in-chief at tCR, she is thrilled to work with skilled young writers and artists from all over the world.

This is what she had to say about youth writing and the contest:

 

Q: How long have you been volunteering at the Claremont Review as editor-in-chief and overall?

A: I have been with tCR for almost 4 years. I began as editor-in-chief and remain in that role. I am supported by an incredible team – Shannon Horlor, Leah Baade, Erin Renwick and Emily Henderson.

 

What inspired you to join the tCR?

Susan Stenson, a Victoria poet and co-founder of tCR, asked me if I would consider taking over the magazine as she, along with the other co-founders Terence Young and Bill Stenson, were looking to retire. They had been with the magazine for over 20 years and were looking to move on. I was very interested in the project because I love editing and the chance to be involved with a publication was a challenge I was keen to take on. My mind was virtually made up before I had even read any previous issues, but then when I actually read some back issues, I got really excited about what the pages held. I could not believe the quality of the writing – it far exceeded my expectations for youth literature (I am now humbled to admit). The writers became the inspiration for me.

 

How long as the Annual Writing Contest been running?

I believe there has always been a contest but just this year we doubled the prize money, which makes the amounts very significant ($1000.00 for 1st!) and added a first prize ($500.00) for visual arts.

 

What’s the contest vetting process like?

The process is a lengthy one as we get so many submissions and each one has to be read and considered. In the past I have done the shortlisting, but this year some of the editors will assist with that process. There is always a pile of obvious considerations, then a pile of maybes, and a pile of ones that don’t make the cut. The “maybe” pile is always the biggest and I return to it several times before making the final decision on what work goes to the judges. The shortlisting is a blind process, the cover letters are separated from the work before I even take a look at it to ensure no bias affects my decision making. Once there is a collection of work finalised in each category, we then send the work to the judges. We always have 2 judges in each category and have always managed to secure esteemed and successful writers to decide the winners. In the past we have had Melanie Siebert, Garth Martens, Ali Blythe, Jay Ruzesky, Hal Walling, Aaron Shephard, Susan Gee, Beth Copeland…this year’s judges are just being confirmed.

 

What’s your favourite part of the process (contest)?

My favourite part is the initial read through. Every year I find myself in awe of how many young people still want to write and take the time and effort to send us their work. I am continuously amazed by the range of unique perspectives on age-old topics such as love, loss, identity, what makes a meaningful existence, relationships, the future…

To read so many heartfelt explorations of the human condition gives me hope for our collective future (even when, actually, ESPECIALLY when the writing is dark) because the act of writing means one hasn’t given up; it means that people still care to grapple with this great, messy, glorious event called Life. The fact that so many youth are choosing this method of making sense of the world means that they care deeply about the world they inhabit and want to share their perspectives on it. This subverts the stereotype that youth don’t care about anything, that all that matters to them is the shallow surface of their lives. tCR proves how wrong anyone who assumes this is. The magazine (and others like it) gives us a glimpse into the future by showing us what matters to our youth. Anyone who doesn’t take the time to “check in” with this demographic by valuing and paying attention to their art has no idea what is going on or where the future is headed. Critics should be paying attention, social scientists should be reading us, political and spiritual leaders ought to know what is in our pages. The Canada Council for the Arts has been a huge proponent of what we do because they see the value in investing in a publication that showcases the talent of young writers and artists from Canada and around the world.

 

Are the winners generally from Canada, or have you had any international winners?

Both. We have winners from Canada in every contest and have had several from America. No one outside North America has won a prize yet, but I expect that to change as we get more and more entries from youth around the world (Korea, Vietnam, India, the UK, Colombia, etc.)

 

How do you think mentorship and feedback changes a young writer’s experience?

Mentorship and feedback is essential to the longevity and quality of a young writer’s experience not only because when they take the time to read and consider it they become better writers, but the exchange creates a relationship that is always available to them. Our editors are committed to remaining mentors for young writers long after the initial exchange of feedback. Anyone who sends us work will get feedback from us and the writers/artists know they can write to us anytime with questions or concerns they have.

It is very hard to have your work rejected. Adults struggle with it and I think it is especially difficult for young writers because they are that much more vulnerable to public opinion. This is why we give detailed feedback to every submitter (except for the contest entries) – we want them to know what is really great about their writing (and there is always something) and where it needs some work. This is done in the gentlest way possible while still giving them a taste of what the world of trying to publish looks like. We often hear back from youth who have given a piece another go and want us to take another look at it, or who have just even taken the time to write back and thank us for the feedback. We have a lot of repeat submitters, not all of whom have been published, so that gives us assurance that our feedback is useful and respectful. Something that builds writers up rather than tears them down.

 

In which countries is tCR distributed?

Magazines Canada distributes tCR in Canada and I believe the US. We get subscriptions from all around the world and handle those ourselves.

 

Have there been any future success stories of writers who were former contest winners or who got their career started at tCR?

Many, many writers who have published in tCR have gone on to become successful writers, filmmakers, poets, editors, etc.

 

Do you offer any special programs that writers, teachers or schools should know about?

In or around Victoria, BC where we are based, we offer free writing workshops and lectures to any class at the middle and high school level. We will travel to any school outside our region who would be willing to have us at their expense.

 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, thank you. I would like to ask parents, teachers, relatives and elders to encourage creative expression in the youth they are privileged to know. Don’t be afraid of what they want to say or show you with their art – see it for what it is: a statement or comment on life from someone who cares deeply about it and an opportunity for you to connect with them in a real way about what may be going on in their lives. Don’t worry about them necessarily because their topic is dark or disturbing. It may be hard to read a poem about rape or a story about mental illness or suicide, or look at a painting depicting a dystopian violent world created by your son/daughter/student. Read it anyway. Look at it no matter what and find some way of celebrating the courage it took them to not only create it, but share it with you. Find a way to talk to them about their work in a way that is supportive. You will lose them if you don’t. The time to worry is when they stop creating, stop opening up, stop wanting to grapple with life, not when they’re messy with it and reaching out!

 

 

Canadian author Alex Leslie talks about what’s important in writing

 

The 2015 Alpha Textbooks Short Story Contest officially launches today. It’s an opportunity for Ontario teens to share their work with peers, but also to get published in the Claremont Review, an international journal for young writers.

We love youth fiction at Alpha Textbooks, and we’re stoked about receiving all the great entries. If you plan on submitting, we hope to equip you with guidance and encouragement.

AlexLeslieWe asked Canadian author Alex Leslie about her experience as a young writer. Leslie shared valuable insight and great writing tips that we think will aid and inspire students as they write their stories for the contest. Take a look at her responses below.

Alex Leslie lives in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her first collection of short stories, People Who Disappear (2012, Freehand Books), was a finalist for the 2013 ReLit Award for Short Stories and the Lambda Literary Award for LGBT debut fiction. She is also the author of Things I Heard About You (2014, Nightwood Editions), a poetry collection, shortlisted for the 2014 Robert Kroetsch award for innovative poetry and microfiction chapbook Twenty Objects For The New World. In 2015, she received the Dayne Ogilvie Award from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. A writer of all genres, Leslie is also an editor, a writing workshop facilitator and she previously taught writing fiction at Langara University.

 

Alpha: When did you first know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?

Leslie: I was a little kid when I first wanted to be a writer. I read a lot as a kid. I started writing in elementary school. At first I wrote shorter stories, stuff like writing about my neighbours and writing about a coin that talked. I wrote a lot in high school too and got into poetry, which I then stopped writing until my mid 20’s. I wrote a lot of journalism in undergrad. I was the features editor of my campus newspaper. I actually recommend doing this if you’re in undergrad because you will be forced to write a lot with short deadlines. In terms of “professional” creative writing, I placed my first short story in a literary journal when I was 22. That journal was Descant. All my stuff had been rejected by journals for a couple years. That first published story was totally random. It was based on an anecdote from a social acquaintance about a family member of hers. Then I continued publishing here and there in journals. When I was 26, I sold my collection of short stories to Freehand Books. That’s how I got started in a nutshell. You need to be persistent and just keep working on your stuff and sending it out.

 

Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, what are some tips you would suggest for writer’s block?

Be honest with yourself. You will feel blocked when there is not a clear connection between you and the piece of work. What is the blockage? Are you trying to “sound right”? Is there something else you could be writing right now that would come out easier, faster? What do you actually want to write? You can write anything! Do you actually want to be writing Facebook statuses about how much you dislike your neighbour and speculate about the sources of their horrible personality? Do it! You could take an article from the newspaper and scratch out words and then write a poem with the words that are left over. You could write a short story in the form of an open letter to your ex. I think writer’s block is almost always that we are not writing what is actually real and right beside you in your life. What is closest to you? Also, never worry about structure while you are writing. Write from the ending, or the middle, of the story. John Cage said, “Start anywhere.” Just get it on the page. Record yourself with your iPhone talking to your mom or dad or sibling or friend and transcribe the conversation and see what happens! The more you try things and follow your nose, the more you will learn how to listen to your own instincts and intuition — this is what it’s all about. When something makes you feel good, you should do more of that.

 

Where did you gather inspiration to write your very first collection of short stories People Who Disappear?

From my life, from the lives of people around me, from the newspaper, from my imagination. Your material can come from anywhere. It comes from being open.

 

In your bio you mention that you are a cross-genre writer. What is your favourite genre to write in? And why?

I started saying I am a cross-genre writer because I publish poetry and fiction and sometimes I publish experimental work that is somewhere in between. I don’t have a favourite genre. I think some stories need to be poems. I like this flexibility in my writing. If something isn’t working, it’s always OK to stop.

 

What advice would you give to a young aspiring writer looking to write a short story?

Is there something that you understand in a different way than other people? That other people just don’t get the way you do? Explain it. Is there a story someone has told you that you think would be terrible if it was lost? Write it down. You don’t need something capital-I Important to write about. If you write about something in close detail and make it beautiful with words, that makes it important.