When I Was a Teenaged Witch
stories practical advice
by Leonora Desar
Preface to a crafty blog entry
Nobody loves me. I mean, people love me, like my boyfriend and my cat, but they’re kind of under obligation. The folks that count—the literary mags—do not. They do not love me. I send things to them and get this back:
WE DO NOT LOVE YOU.
I am tempted to give it up. Do you think I should?
What can I say? I am probably not the right person for this letter. Or maybe I am exactly the right person. I mean, look at me. Look at this column. No one’s reading this. There are certain things I can tell you about this world:
1. It’s messed up
2. Tomorrow shenanigans will be occurring that will make you wish you never heard of the news cycle, but you’ll still watch it—what else is there to do?
3. No one is reading Leonora’s column
But is that such a bad thing? I mean, talk about the lack of pressure. I can say anything I want—I can insult you, I can insult myself, I can write
and I guarantee no one will be wiser.
I can also spill my guts. Since it’s just the two of us here, I’ll tell you a little story. When I first started writing, I was a deviant. Technically, I was a journalism student. I wrote journalism, articles. I went to classes and the teachers said things like: “fiction writers are bad,” and “don’t write fiction, you’ll go blind.”
One day, our professor slipped us a book. He said, this book contains FICTION (insert hurly green emoji), but you will not use it to write FICTION, you will use it to steal the tools of those authors, and use it for your craft—for nonfiction.
The first thing I did—after fervently agreeing—was to go home and write flash. I didn’t know that I was writing flash. I thought I was writing Genius. It was a story about witches. Unfortunately, 90 percent of it was true—when I was 15, I had fallen in with a pack of bad girls. We sat around in semi-circles chanting and smoking cloves. We thought we were channeling Fairuza Balk; actually, she channeled us, since we predated her. While my piece was predicated on truth, 10 percent was predicated on UNtruth, and this is what I took great pride in. I had done it. I had become the F word, a FICTION writer, pronounced by my professors with the utmost of disdain.
When I went to class, I waited to be called out. I hadn’t written the piece for school, but it wouldn’t matter. I figured you could smell it on me, the way you could smell sex. I glowed with the post-coital flush of FICTION. I prepared my defense: I cited all kinds of things—(mentally)—my desire to apply the tools of fiction writers—really and truly—so that I could ultimately repurpose them for my real purpose, nonfiction. I was disappointed when no defense was necessary. Never mind that it was all a lie.
These were the finest hours. Me, alone in my room, smoking cloves, or the adult, lamer version of cloves: BIC pens. Me, imagining that great day when other literati recognized my genius. Me, penning the acknowledgements to a book—the one I hadn’t written yet.
I typed Roxane Gay’s name. Then I retyped it: Dear Ms. Gay—no, Dear Roxane. I marveled at my pluck; she’d see the familiar salutation and think that we were besties, or she’d at least marvel at my chutzpah. When the inevitable rejection letter came, I was nonplussed. I had an entire folder of bios, ones reserved for PANK magazine exclusively, which were then supplanted by letters to one DYLAN. The more “Dylan” rejected me the wilder my fantasies became. I spent more time on the letters and bios than the actual pieces, which could explain things—I wasn’t exactly winning Pushcarts.
Then Acceptance came. Imagine it: you’re at high school, and one day one of the cool kids spots you across the room—
Hey who’s that?
That girl—who is she?
Eh, I don’t know, I don’t think that she’s anyone.
Well, I heard things—I heard her parents are always out of town. I heard that she’s a witch, you know, like in The Craft. I bet that she puts out.
No, I think that she just stuffs her bra.
The goth old days
(Photo Credit: Jessica Stumpp)
This boy—Kool Boy— considers this. He’s so cool he can’t even be bothered to spell properly. Then against his better judgment, he calls you over. You’re elated. You’ve been eyeing this spot for months; you can practically see the singe marks from where you’ve burned a hole into the ground. All eyes turn to you—perhaps because there are no other teenaged witches in the tri-state area, or bra stuffers for that matter. The elation continues, but now there’s something else. Fatigue. Embarrassment. Shame. Now, you have to worry about what you wear. You always worry about what you wear, but now it counts. People are watching you, taking notes—
Is she really a witch, or is she just one of those Hop Topic goths?
Does she really stuff her bra?
And can she write?
For that’s the metaphor I am drawing here. Sometimes, it’s better writing for yourself—or for your cat. It’s freer, knowing no one’s going to be staring at your chest, er, your prose.
If you’re a dork like me, you might remember that 80s film, Teen Witch. Louise, the heroine, is an even bigger dork. Then she turns 16. She’s called into her powers. The same thing happens to writers, too—both on the writing and submitting level, but sometimes it takes a little longer. Sometimes, I imagine a senior witch or wizard will appear in my bedroom window—
Greetings, grasshopper, happy big 5-O, and thank you for your patience!!!
He tosses me a gift bag for witchy writers.
—Here are your powers, plus some fine cheeses, plus some pens, plus some gluten free pâté. Plus an acceptance from Iowa Review, a little token of appreciation on our parts.
As for giving up? Nah. Don’t do that. I am not sure what you meant by “it”—if you meant writing or submitting—but as for writing, this is your big chance. If no one’s watching, if everyone’s rejecting you, then this gives you permission. You can write the most embarrassing ridiculous piece, without the embarrassing ridiculous consequences. There is no Kool Boy to stare you down. This is your chance to fail. To experiment. To work loudly and quietly in the dark—quietly, because you’re alone, loudly because you will be doing wild, ridiculous, wonderful crazy things.
As for submitting? That depends. The worst they can do is say no. That said, if being a rejectionist (Leo ™) is searing a brand into your brain—or your email—I suck—consider a reprise. Focus on the writing, the art. Enjoy the dark. When it’s gone, when acceptance comes, you might actually miss it.
PS: Homework assignment! Write a story about rejection. Give it a surreal bend. For instance, a salmon who is rejected by his tribe, and has to swim downstream. An ugly duckling who finally joins his crew—the hideous duckling posse—only to find that he’s grown lovely.
A story that is rejected and stages a great coup.
A sentence—a lone, beautiful line—in an otherwise ugly piece, a foreign land, and her mission to gain freedom.
Love Island, LEO’s fave COVID watch and entirely unrelated to this column
I am boring. This is what literary magazines tell me; they imply it. I am not experimental enough. I am not dangerous. I am not Denis Johnson, or Stacey Richter, or your favorite, Miranda July.
I am “not what they are looking for right now.”
This is to say the least, disheartening. I love writing and my jam is traditional literary fiction. But unlike a lot of literary writers (no offense to them), I am guilty of having plot. Plot!
Should I make my stories less intelligible? Should all my characters be moping in a room? Should I apply more “interiority,” that is to say, reflection, where not a lot happens but the language, being what it is, gives you an orgasm? Is one orgasm enough, or should there be more? Multiple orgasms? How many orgasms are too many?
Dear Not Bitter,
First of all, congratulations! You have done something I’ve never been able to accomplish in all my (redacted) years, first as a wannabe bestselling author, then as a wannabe faux lit author—Plot.
When I was eight, I tried writing my first plot. It was about a locket. It was magic. It opened up to these other worlds—plant worlds and animal worlds and worlds where there’s a limitless supply of ice cream.
The uncle bequeaths this locket to his niece, one “Nora.” She subsequently realizes she has powers.1
Fact: I abandoned the story before I got this far. It was the 80s. There weren’t computers then. I mean, there were, but my family wouldn’t buy me one. So I did what I had to do: I pilfered my father’s paper. I tried setting the scene. I’d heard from someone this was important—you needed to do this before you delved into the good stuff.
Fact: I was describing the uncle. He was waiting for the bus to go see Nora. Or maybe he still hadn’t left the house. This was happening (not happening?) when my fave cartoon came on, Dungeons & Dragons, otherwise known as D&D. So instead of setting the scene, I ate ice cream. I watched cartoons. I abandoned ship—or I abandoned bus. This became my first mistake, as well as my most fatal. It would inform everything I would later do—including this advice column. Total advice columns published? Ten, including this one. Unpublished discarded drafts: 99,018.
Fact: Instead of delving into that locket as an 8-year-old prodigy of no one in particular—into plant life, or animal life, or ice cream life, or life on Mars or at the Paramus Mall—I did what I do best. I took a nap. I hung out (in my dreams) with the locket-bequeathing uncle. He scolded me for not getting to the point quicker and getting him on that bus; then maybe we wouldn’t be in such a mess.
This was great advice. For me, that is. I am easily distractible, not to mention lazy. If I can’t soon get to the heat of something—or at least feel it on my face—I give up. I move on. By the time I relinquished Dad’s paper, it contained the cursed list, or what was to become the cursed list—
Leonora’s List of Stories She Wants to Write but Will Never Write Since They’re Going on This List (age 8)—???
- Write a story about Jem and the Holograms2 from the POV of one of the minor characters, or Holograms! (Loose paraphrase: I might not have written “POV”)
- Write about how you will marry Hank one day from D&D, but keep Eric as a sidepiece!! (also loose paraphrase)
- Eat more ice cream!!! (not loose paraphrase)
Plotting is a gift. So is setting scene. Do it, and screw everybody else.
I wish I could do what you do, is what I mean. Part of writing and writing well is recognizing our gifts. Use it. Get better at it, even. Whatever you do, never let it go. Yours might be the detailed mind that goes into crafting, strategy. The kind that can be a master chess player or an Elena Ferrante or Stephen King. Mine might be the greedy kind that plots—but only about ice cream. I will also use it, to eat ice cream that is. And to write flash about the True Ice Cream Experience (T.I.E.)—the taste of it, the smell, the way that it still reminds me of Sunday nights before the first day of school, a happy-sad taste.
When I discovered flash, it was like lightening—or maybe ice cream. No scene-setting would be needed. It was awesome. Like Saturday cartoons, when the world’s asleep and your bed is warm. It has that laundry smell, and Dad hasn’t discovered his missing paper.
But do I still wish that I could set the scene? You bet.
Also: a word on experimentation. In college, my English professor had us read Madame Bovary. “Look,” she said, marveling. “Look how the first person narrator disappears!” She was right. He did. When we meet the narrator, he is speaking in the collective “we.” Then he slips away. He becomes omnipotent. You realize he can’t possibly know the things he knows.
“Genius,” my professor said—but I wonder. Was it genius? Or was it laziness? Like when Emma’s eyes suddenly shift color. Was that intentional? Did Emma Bovary suddenly discover colored contacts in the 19th century? Or did it slip Flaubert’s mind? Like it slipped mine when I got back to my locket piece, finally, and “Uncle Charles” was rechristened “Uncle Nick.”
Or when I write now—as a redacted-year-old—and my tenses change, sometimes mid-graph.
“Is this weird?” I ask my friends.
assured assure me. “It’s experimental.”
“Really? This is where I went to pee.”
In other words, I love myself some good experimental lit, but take it for what you will.
PS: Extra credit! What was the first story you ever wrote? Do you remember? Rewrite it again, with your grown-up brain.
1 Powers—this apparently will be a theme, both in my writing and in my reading/movie-viewing life.
2 The second best cartoon. Ever. (After D&D.)
If no one reads your column, then where are all these letters coming from? Are you making these all up?
First of all, I love your alias. Since we are (or were) on the topic of 80s films, Gotcha! is one of the best—ever. My dad had it on VHS tape. Since there was no Netflix then, and it was a choice between Gotcha!, Guns N’ Roses live (aka Axl changes his itty-bitty shorts a dozen times or more), and Dad’s porn, I became a fan.
And it’s true. You’ve got me. I am making up these letters. That’s how big a loser I am.
Write me—Send me flowers, Evites, spam. Send me ads for Tupperware, penile implants, Zoom filters. Send me The Secret of Life ™ or the Best Sex Ever ™ or the worst poem you ever wrote—or better yet, send me a question.
As soon as this column goes live, I set a timer. I wait by my computer and hit refresh, refresh, refresh.
Sometimes I get an email:
But only because I’ve now signed in on my phone. Now I am checking in two places; two places where I am getting continuously rejected (by all of you).
Before you know it, I resort to Drastic Things. I commit fraud and write letters to myself. I email them, to make them feel genuine. Genuine-seeming. Sometimes I even wear a wig. It reminds me of when I was a kid and wrote letters to myself. Then I put them in the mail. When they arrived, I’d sit there and studiously answer them. This is because I had set up mailboxes all around the house and no one—no one—wrote me back (except for a girl named Leonora, who I nicknamed Nora to make her feel exotic and unfamiliar, kind of like masturbating with your non-dominant hand).
Will you save me from this fate?
Or lower case.
Just don’t forget the @.
Or the .com.
Or the question. I can’t publish spam. Or penile implants. Or Zoom filters—however efficacious they may be.
PS: There is no PS. Send me an email!!!
Leonora Desar once saw the film Lost in Translation, which featured a pink-wigged SCARJO. Leonora immediately felt envy and also purpose: what she DIDN’T know was that one day she’d be the COVID-era version, with the help and oomph of Zoom’s “touch up my appearance” option. When she is not giving advice, Leonora is watching Love Island, editing fiction for Pidgeonholes, and writing stories. These have appeared in places such as Passages North, River Styx, and Black Warrior Review.