It hit me hard when I got an email from Linda and Susan telling their contributors that after 30 years, their literary journal, Glimmer Train, would print its last issue in fall 2019. Somehow through luck, timing, the stars coming together, and what talent I had magically focusing for a story, I managed to win their first New Writers Award in 1994, and was published for the first time. A friend handed me a piece of paper he’d clipped somewhere regarding Glimmer Train’s New Writer Award, and on a whim I submitted my story. I remember asking him if the journal was any good or not; I was that green.
Every literary journal is, in its beginning and at its end, about people. Think of George Plimpton and the Paris Review, or Harriet Monroe who started Poetry in 1912. The renowned lit journal Story, founded by the husband-and-wife team of Whit Burnett and Martha Foley in 1931, folded in 1967. In 1989 Lois and Richard Rosenthal revived Story, fulfilling a promise to Burnett, only to shut it down in 1999. I remember how outraged I was at the time—I’d recently sold my second story to Glimmer Train and was expecting to take over the world. I longed and lusted to see my name in Story, because of its history, as much as any other journal. And now it was gone. How could that even happen? Keeping that journal alive was a responsibility, I thought, with the pure conviction of youth. How dare they shut it down! I somehow had the notion that primary literary outlets lasted forever, but they don’t—they can’t—especially when they rely on a few distinctive and, for better or worse, mortal beings bound by the limits that time and mortality lay upon us all. The reality is, those putting these labors of love together age with each issue because time, the most precious commodity of our lives, goes into them, even if it is time well spent. And it is.
I’m grateful that the Paris Review has a foundation behind it to keep it liquid, and that the Missouri Review has the support of a major university (though I suspect that even such support is less solid than it appears). However, it’s possible the upside of a journal being limited to its founders, like Story and Glimmer Train, is that their tastes and personalities can’t help marking these journals distinctly, and that’s what makes them unique. That identity, wedded to the impermanence of both founder and journal, gives them, perhaps ironically, the vibrance of life.
In 1990 Linda Swanson-Davies and Susan Burmeister-Brown, two avid-reading sisters in Portland, decided when Susan and her husband sold a software company they’d started in the ’80s to put some of that money into creating a literary journal. And since it was theirs and theirs alone, they could do whatever they wished. They decided they wanted a journal with content as high in quality as any other, but also—and this is one of the areas that set them apart—they wanted it to be fun. And most wonderfully, as far as their writers were concerned, they wanted to feature them like no other journal out there, to bring them as people to their readership. So they asked each author accepted to provide a children’s photo of themselves with a caption, then they gave each of those authors an entire blank page at the back of the journal where they could add another image and say something (anything) about the story. They even asked authors to put their signature on their title page. Finally, in the back of the journal they listed every author they ever published (name size shrinking with every addition of new writers). Each issue also ran an interview with a literary figure, as well as a feature on a writer silenced for political reasons in another part of the world. And as books are not just collections of stories and writers, but art objects in themselves, the sisters commissioned original full-color artwork on every cover, and used the highest quality paper available throughout. Inside the jacket there was always a greeting from Linda and Susan introducing the issue with an old black and white photo of a family gathering or their community from decades past. So in this way the reader would get to know their family too, and would be included by these artifacts into the larger family, or community, of Glimmer Train. Regardless of however much of this was planned out and how much was them just following their tastes and instincts, it turned out to be very smart business as far as selling journals.
But beyond everything else that made the journal special, its focus, as it should be, was on the stories they picked. These stories couldn’t help but reflect the style and tastes of the sisters, and here’s where we get back to people. Glimmer Train stories, well—they told a story. This was not an outlet to submit experimental work, or to explode the form of the narrative. It was a place, cornball as it might sound, to explore the human heart. Theirs was an intensely focused human perspective, and whether through realism or magical realism or some other “ism,” a story couldn’t stray far from that heart, which for most of us is the center of narrative expression anyway. Simply put: They published stories about people. For that reason, getting your work in Glimmer Train was a great way to get noticed by an agent. They knew that a writer who could meet their standard was a writer who could reach a larger audience too.
They added an e-bulletin that updated readers on contests and presented three to four craft essays on writing. Then they produced a basic, no-frills, stapled-at-the-crease publication called Writers Ask where they collected short snippets of successful writers in interviews commenting on various writerly subjects such as characterization, point of view, revision, etc. What I especially loved as I read this over the years was how often these experts contradicted each other with advice, proving that there is no one right way to manage this art.
I’m sure Linda and Susan had little idea that their journal, focusing mostly on new and emerging writers, would grow to the point where they would receive 40,000 submissions for their three yearly issues (they made it a point to read every story themselves), or give out over $50,000 to writers each year, or have stories from Glimmer Train selected for the Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, New Stories from the Midwest, the O. Henry Prize Stories, New Stories from the South, Best of the West, New Stories from the Southwest, Best American Short Stories, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. It was, and is, until their little train rolls into the distance, one of the most respected literary journals in the country.
How does this happen?
How do two sisters take a small bit of money and start a journal just because they love literature, and then one day it’s suddenly this thing? The answer is, I guess, it just does. Like the rest of us living this writer’s life, we follow the spark of an idea, apply what craft we have, get feedback, revise, then send it into the world. Maybe it ends up somewhere; maybe it doesn’t. Maybe the stars and our talents and the cultural moment focus just right and our story not only finds publication, which is hard enough, but breaks through to the point where it actually has a life of its own, where it affects people.
After I was first published in Glimmer Train I was certain that my life had changed. It had, but not in the way I expected. Agents contacted me, the story was anthologized … I mean, all this from nowhere. I was on my way! Again, I was, just not as I expected. I have not, this many years later, sold the big novel that would make me rich and get made into a movie and everyone would know my name and genius. There was a period of 10 years after that first story where I got nothing published, nothing! But by then I knew I was in it for life. And what I tell people (which is a way of telling myself) is that the life is what matters. Everything else this side of a Pulitzer, and probably even that, is a temporary high. It burns off surprisingly quickly.
You write your stories. You produce your journal. If this is who you are, this is how you get to be you, and that’s where almost all the joy of a life in the arts lies. Your projects develop lives of their own, or they don’t. Regardless, you’re part of something bigger. You live your life serving something bigger, so you get to be bigger, as well as true to that thing deep inside you that always called even as people tried to run you off of it. You get to serve that. What more could you ask for in this world?
And maybe, just maybe, because you’ve worked for years and you’re talented, and committed, and the timing’s right, your journal grows and puts a thousand stories into the world that might not have otherwise entered the world. And maybe those stories affect lives, and maybe the writers of these stories actually find out about that. And maybe they don’t.
But I was one of the lucky ones. I’d written that short story about people and the land in West Texas, paid the submission fee and sent it to Glimmer Train, then promptly forgot about it.
I was helping a friend and collaborator move from New York back to Austin. We loaded up his U-Haul and headed south by southwest toward Memphis. My buddy and I managed his truck down the street to Graceland where we took a left into the Elvis Motel across the street with its guitar-shaped pool and 24-hour Elvis movies on demand. Then we took a cab downtown, ate catfish, found a blues club and drank the music in, before hopping into another cab back to our room. There my friend went into the bathroom and—it was, I promise you, the stroke of midnight—I decided to check my answering machine for the first time in days, and on it I heard a message from Linda telling me my short story had won Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Award. My heart stopped. The next message from her (probably from the next day) carried some stress—she wanted to know if the story was still available, and would I please get back to her? I quickly dialed the number she’d left and said yes yes yes and thank you.
My friend came out of the bathroom and at the news, being prone to ritual, he recommended we cross the street to Graceland and light, puff on, and toss a “burnt offering” he’d brought along over the wall for Elvis, and since I was saying yes to everything that night, we did. When we returned, Elvis, via whatever movie we’d requested, started singing “The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You” on the TV.
It was, perhaps, the most magical day of my life.
How could I turn away after this? Through the years of rejection that followed, the occasional successes, the personal relationships, the loss of a livable income and the city I loved, and the people I’ve lost, this work has sustained me. It is, to quote William Stafford, the “thread you follow,” and the thread that has carried my life.
And so those of you blessed and foolish enough to attempt to create a space where art can live and thrive, a springboard where gestures of love and beauty and thought and intimacy can leap into the world and perhaps affect another human being, and thereby affect the world … Yes, please, yes, do that work. Start your lit journal, build that gallery, bring music into the pub. Do it as long as you can bear or stand it and I promise it will feed you, whatever does or does not happen otherwise. And know that there are those of us out here desperate and grateful for what you offer, even if we never find out who our creations reached.
I open the latest issue of Glimmer Train to see my name in the back shrinking in size because of the latest additions—disappearing, like their little train on their logo headed into the distance—and thank the two sisters of Glimmer Train for the doggedness of their obsession and what came from it, for the beautiful living things they sent into the world, and give them leave to step away and let the little train recede. You did your part, I would tell them; others are already doing theirs.
Correction: Travis Kurowski picked up the copyright on the name Story for the literary journal he published through York College from 2014-2017. Michael Nye acquired the name in 2018 and will reboot the journal with a triannual print publication in February 2019.