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When You Can Bear It, Write What You Know

When You Can Bear It, Write What You Know

A.J. Howells

We carelessly toss around adages without questioning their implications. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is perhaps the best one. I can imagine plenty of grotesque situations where this wouldn’t apply. For reference, read Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 anti-war novel (and future Metallica hit) Johnny Got His Gun. Or take “Slow and steady wins the race.” It’s oddly specific to a situation with a cocky rabbit and a dogged turtle, but it would never apply to the high school track star attempting to beat Usain Bolt’s miraculous qualifiers. Then there’s “Everything happens for a reason.” Maybe, but the reason isn’t necessarily a good one.

These three pieces of greeting card rubbish aren’t dangerous so much as comical. There is, however, a saying creative writing teachers have tossed around so long, it’s rare to question it. For me, it can feel dangerous when applying this advice to my own writing, though I recently tried.

“Write what you know.” Where’s the harm in that?


I almost never write stories about my career, which is that of the public-school teacher. I’ll occasionally journal about work, but I avoid formally writing about it, not because I don’t have any good stories, but because I forcefully put distance between my educator life and my writer life. I’m more likely to write about the menial, low-paying jobs I drudged through before landing a career. With those stories, I’m not writing what I know so much as I’m writing what I have known. This might sound like semantic nit-picking, but there is a distinct difference between the two. Writing what you know forces you to confront your current circumstances, whereas writing what you’ve known illuminates how the past has shaped the present. If I were still flipping burgers and dodging angry customers’ flying sandwiches (yes, this actually happened several times), I wouldn’t want to remind myself I’m heading back to that particular brand of hell the following day. But with almost ten years of distance, these stories now make me laugh instead of drink.

I understand the opposite. For many, the best writing comes from the most trying circumstances. Henry Miller wrote about living hand-to-mouth in Paris while living hand-to-mouth in Paris, and his reflections on this time period in his elder years often fall well-short of the original mark. Also consider Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath. Then consider their how they died.

As a clinically depressed writer (read: A Walking Cliché), keeping a distance between my writing and my teaching stories curbs my condition because  my teaching stories are the most depressing ones, the good ones anyway.Sure, they could add up to a great roman à clef, but they’d also make for a slew of difficult nights, counterproductive to several years of treatment.

Not writing about teaching is also a way of avoiding the title of “Educator” subsuming my identity. “Educator” is a coat I wear, and I love the coat. It has served me well over the past decade, and it has helped me impact a lot of lives. To navigate life, I need a good coat, but when I get in the car and drive home from work, the sweat builds. I stop at a red light and try to quickly take my coat off, only to find myself with an arm still inside. It can be tough to leave the trials of a school day behind, but by the third red light, my coat is completely off and crumpled in the back seat. This is when I can finally crank the Funkadelic and just focus on driving. When I get home, I don’t put my coat back on—that would be absurd. I don’t take it to bed with me either, but in the morning, it’s there to embrace and accompany me to the workday.

My apologies for overextending my metaphor. I know you get the point, but please allow me one final extension.

There are plenty of people out there who never remove their coats, and while they look ridiculous (they shower with them, for Christ’s sake), they lack self-awareness and instead tell me I look ridiculous for taking mine off. They plead with me to put it back on. They shame me for my naked freedom. They blog about their jobs. They write what they know. You do not want to get stuck at a dinner party with these people.


It can be easy to fall into the trappings of their professional peer pressure. It’s like deleting your social media accounts or becoming a vegetarian: what difference, really, are you making for the good of society? But consider Ancient Zen master Eihei Dogen’s advice from thirteenth century Japan. A couple years back, contemporary Zen master Brad Warner paraphrased essays from Dogen’s Shobogenzo into modern vernacular. In the title essay of Warner’s Don’t Be a Jerk, he states, “Even if the whole universe is nothing but a bunch of jerks doing all kinds of jerk-type things, there is still liberation in not being a jerk.” Even if the whole universe is nothing but a bunch of workers refusing to remove their coats, there is still liberation in removing your own. Throw yourself a lifesaver, even if the people around you don’t want to be saved.

Despite all this, I recently dipped into my well of teaching stories and typed one up just to see if I could do it.The piece is being published this month, and I’m proud of it.  At risk of sounding cliché, writing is liberating for me, and I tend to savor every second of writing a short story, journal entry, blog post, poem, grocery list, etc. I love typing this current sentence, yet there wasn’t a single sentence of that teaching story I enjoyed writing. It was a sad story about a sad student whom I constantly worry about. Needless to say, it was the last time I’ll be writing what “I know” for quite some time, but it won’t be the last. When I can bear it again, I’ll write what I know. Until then, I’ll continue to ignore the advice.


AJ HowellsA. J. Howells is the publisher and general editor of Makeshift Press (, publisher of Fredric Brown’s The Office. A. J.’s prose has appeared in The First LineRhetoric Askew, and two volumes of Workers Write. RhetAskew Publishing will soon release his horror-comedy novella Alley Bats, and his poetry has been featured in Eunoia Review and The Offbeat. He lives with his wife, two children, and two cats in the woods of northern Virginia where he spends far too much time reading comic books and listening to Sun Ra. In his spare time, he teaches full time.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

J.E. Crum

The Spring / Summer 2019 Issue!

The Spring / Summer 2019 Issue of South 85 Journal is now available online.

Creative Work

We are pleased to present work by the following authors and artists:

Artwork – Amanda Barbarito, William C. Crawford, J.E. Crum, Fabio Sassi, Edward Michael Supranowicz, and Bill Wolak
Fiction – Elizabeth DelConte, Meghan Steed, and Laura Valeri
Non-Fiction – Roxxann Eckert and Sharon Lee Snow
Poetry – Holly Day, Gardner Dorton, Tyler Gillespie, Jennifer Gauthier, Sandra Hosking, Dave Nielsen, Alex Pickens, and Joseph Sigurdson


For some great summer reads, check out our Reviews section, featuring reviews of:

Admissions by Eric Sasson (Fiction)
Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back): A Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc. by Jeff Tweedy (Non-Fiction)
A Piece of Good News by Katie Peterson (Poetry)

Upcoming Submission Opportunities

Through August 15, we are accepting submissions for our flash contest!  The winner will receive the Julia Peterkin Award for Flash Fiction, which includes a $500 prize! In addition, our next official reading period begins August 1.  Stay tuned for more information as Lisa Hase-Jackson takes over as Managing Editor.  In the meantime, keep reading our blog about writing!  You can even submit an article for our blog.  We’d love to hear from you.

About Us

South 85 Journal is published by the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary! Thank you to our staff of volunteers who put countless hours into making this issue happen.

We hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together!

Converse College MFA 10-year anniversary

Converse MFA’s 10th Anniversary + New South 85 Journal Managing Editor

Students, alumni, faculty, administration, and friends of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program gathered yesterday at Ciclops Cyderie and Brewery in Spartanburg, SC, to celebrate the program’s 10th anniversary. In honor of the occasion, Ciclops General Manager Clara Jane Haller, a Converse MFA graduate in poetry, and her staff created a beer release. The beer, “Sense and Sprucability – a Writer’s Tale,” was based on a recipe created by Jane Austen who was a home brewer.

Converse President Krista Newkirk and Provost Dr. Jeffrey Barker attended the event, and President Newkirk spoke about how pleased she was with the program and the continued importance of stories in our daily lives. Program Director Richard Mulkey recounted the history and achievements of the program and thanked the many people who played a part in making it a success.

During his talk, Program Director Mulkey announced an upcoming change for our journal. After the release of the upcoming Spring / Summer 2019 issue, Debby DeRosa, who took over as Managing Editor in December 2013, will be stepping down, and Lisa Hase-Jackson will take her place.

Lisa Hase-Jackson, who has served South 85 Journal in the past as its Review Editor, brings a wealth of experience to the role of Managing Editor. She is the author of the recently published poetry collection Flint & Fire, selected by Jericho Brown for the 2019 Hilary Tham Capital Collection.  Her poetry has appeared in such journals as The Midwest Quarterly, Kansas City Voices, The South Carolina Review, among others. Born in Portland, Oregon, and raised primarily in the Midwest, she has lived and taught in such cities as Seoul, Albuquerque, and Kansas City. She completed her BA at Washburn University, her MA at Kansas State University, and her MFA at Converse College. She currently lives in Charleston, South Carolina, where she edits Zingara Poetry Review, and teaches creative writing and honors courses at the College of Charleston.

“I am so excited Converse has chosen Lisa to be my successor. She is incredibly talented and qualified, and I look forward to watching what the journal will achieve under her leadership,” says DeRosa, who promises to do everything she can to make the transition smooth.

As Hase-Jackson takes over leadership, the journal will continue to accept entries for our flash fiction contest, which will award a $500 prize. Like last year, Marlin Barton will be the Presiding Judge of the contest, and the winner will be announced in October. In the meantime, look forward to reading the Spring / Summer 2019 issue, which will be released June 15.







HCWP: Hub City’s Literary Hub

Katie P. Sherman

On the corner of King and W. Main Street, in a renovated Masonic Temple, you’ll find the home of The Hub City Writers’ Project (HWCP). The building — which houses a coffee shop, bakery, independent bookstore, and the Hub City Press offices — is impressive in and of itself with striking white columns and an intricate stone awning. However, its façade is nothing in comparison to the formidable ideas being exchanged within. The Hub City Writers’ Project has spent nearly 25-years fostering a literary community dedicated to Southern stories. For those who believe Southern stories became extinct following the deaths of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, think again. Each year, Hub City Press publishes six to eight novels and collections from Southern writers shouting to be heard and, while each voice is unique, the message is clear. ‘This place has more to say!’

I recently sat down with Anne Waters (Executive Director of the Hub City bookstore) and Meg Reid (Director of Hub City Press and Programs) to discuss the future of their press, the importance of literary voice, and upcoming events which shouldn’t be missed.

S85: Tell me a little about the HWCP? How did you get started?

AW: The bookstore is the youngest component, started eight years ago. In 1995, a group of writers started chatting about what their community really needed. They all agreed Spartanburg needed literary identity. They wanted a place to knock around ideas. They wanted comradery.

MR: [Our founders] needed somewhere where after you’ve spent time alone in your room writing, you can engage with other people. That’s what humans were designed to do!

S85: And so HWCP was born. How have the original goals shifted?

AW: They’ve exploded! We are still coming from this same idea of place. But I think our organization has gone well beyond anyone’s dreams. The majority of major presses have shifted from the south. We saw a vacuum that Hub City could fill.

MR: The bookstore really supports and puts money back into the press. I don’t know if that was the original intention but it works. The press provides influence and voice to the bookstore. We try to curate our collection by purchasing books with integrity. The majority of books are well-written and crafted. They speak to the audience intended. I wouldn’t take every book as there are some with different philosophies but, they speak to their audience with authenticity.

S85: How have you fostered a connection to the Spartanburg community?

AW: We do a lot of collaborations. Last spring, we partnered with Spartanburg Youth Theater to stage a play here. The kids won prizes and got tickets. We also do programming with the library. We sponsor book clubs, including a feminist book club called “her story.” We have a cookbook club, which gives us a chance to break bread in the community. We aren’t just about lofty ideas. We have programming that is cross genre, age group, and ethnic groups.

S85: What have you learned through this process?

AW: No job is too small. No idea is too big.

S85: Your goal was to create a literary community and if people come to your events, they’ll see many of the same faces again and again. Some are literary tastemakers including C. Michael Curtis, longtime editor of The Atlantic. You recently ran a contest in honor of Curtis. What is his relationship to HCWP?

MR: He reads manuscripts for us. He’s still an editor. He’s very active and, alongside his wife Betsy Cox, he’s a dear friend.

S85: Tell me a little about the winner of the contest. Were you all pleased?

MR: It is a favorite of ours. The author, Emily Pease, published individual stories throughout the years in high quality journals including The Georgia Review, The Missouri Review, and Shenandoah. We couldn’t have chosen better. In three rounds of judging, this book stood out each time. Emily has been working and writing for over 30 years. She has an incredible resume but no one had bought the book. The industry is obsessed with young people and we’re so glad we could give an opportunity and a life-changing amount of money to someone who has dedicated her life to craft. The book, Let Me Out Here, will be released next month.

S85: What are some things HCWP is doing that no one else is?

AW: We’re good at taking a book from inception to packaging and editing. We are small and deliberate in what we publish. Sometimes this is painstaking. We are all passionate about what we do. Ultimately, our goal is to nurture writers and cultivate readers. This means we try to reach the community as a whole. Everyone from tiny tots and annual book drives to speaking at book clubs. We want everyone to feel this place is the center.

MR: We are a very tight knit community and we have fostered relationships over lifetimes. I don’t think everyone can say that. Outside that, we use lots of social media and branding tools, top to bottom. We try to really engage with people. If you have a question, we try to answer it. That pays back when we put content about our books up.

S85: What is the best thing about this job?

AW: The people.

S85: What is the worst thing?

AW: The people [laughs]. No! Honestly, there aren’t a lot of drawbacks. The people I work with are very ambitious and hard-working. This also means we’re all tired though!

S85: What are some of the challenges of running a small press?

MR: There are many. Publishing generally is hard. Getting people to pay attention to books is hard. The six to eight books you’re publishing are important and you want people to take notice. Still, there’s limited time in a day. We have a small staff!

S85: So let’s get the word out! What’s coming out from HCWP this spring?

MR: We have the best spring lineup. As we mentioned, the winner of the initial C. Michael Curtis short story prize by Emily Pease will be out soon. The Magnetic Girl by Jessica Handler is a great feminist read. Booksellers love her and we do too! In May, an anthology about fishing called Gather at the River [edited by David Joy and Eric Rickstad] is coming out. David Joy brought it to us and was adamant that all proceeds go to the charity Cast for Kids. Right now, we are publishing a lot of women. For a long time, we’ve been an all-female staff and that feels like part of our brand at this point. We try to, to some extent, combat the rampant sexism and ageism within the industry!


About the Publishers

A native Arkansan, Anne Waters  worked for twenty years in regional book publishing before taking a break to raise her son, Eli. During that time she ran an art gallery and yoga studio. She is thrilled to be back working in the world of bookselling and publishing. What she is reading: The Handmaid’s Tale (I just saw Margaret Atwood at Winter Institute); What she just finished: Jessica Handler’s The Magnetic Girl published by Hub City Press; What is next in her stack: Etaf Rum’s debut novel  A Woman is No Man.

Meg Reid is a book designer, editor and writer living in South Carolina. Her literary essays have appeared online in DIAGRAM, Oxford American, the Rumpus, and elsewhere, and she also writes extensively about design. Her MFA in Nonfiction is from University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she served as Assistant Editor of the literary magazine, Ecotone, and worked for the literary imprint Lookout Books. She currently lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where she is Director of Hub City Press. The most recent book she’s read and adored is Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips.

About the Interviewer

Katie Piccirillo ShermanKatie Sherman is a journalist and an award-winning author who covers fine food and parenting—two things rarely related—in Charlotte, NC. This year, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Katie has an MFA in fiction and an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her two daughters. She has published extensively in literary magazines across the country. She just finished reading The Great Believers and loved it so much! Next on her nightstand is Everything Here is Beautiful.

Featured Image: Left to right; Executive Director of the Hub City Bookstore, Anne Waters, with one of HCWP’s founders Betsy Teter.


Reading period

We Can’t Wait to See Your Work!

It’s that time again! South 85 Journal is currently reading for our Spring / Summer 2019 issue, which will come out June 15, 2019.   We are seeking fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. We are especially interested in work that conveys a sense of place, presents a strong voice, or provides a unique point of view.  For examples of what we love, check out our Fall / Winter 2018 issue. We are also accepting blog posts about writing and literary topics on an on-going basis.

For more information and to submit, visit our Submittable site at We look forward to hearing from you!