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Heather Bartel

(she/her)

The Founder and Editor of The Champagne Room shares her thoughts on disappearing women, textures and landscapes in her writing, and what is means to be the editor of a literary journal.

What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?

 

I am, as many of our contributors have also revealed, typically reading multiple books at a time. Depending on the books—and my level of interest and my schedule and my capacity to absorb and my mood—this sometimes means I am reading multiple books without finishing any books for a long period of time. This ability to dip in and out of, though, is something I find necessary and wonderful about books—even if I am not currently gripped by a particular narrative enough to not be able to put it down, there are always lines hovering, sentences and stories and ideas coursing through me. There is a lot of good in that. Some of the books I’ve been spending time with over the last few months include The Diary of Anaїs Nin: Vol. I; Obit by Victoria Chang; On Freedom by Maggie Nelson; Bodies by Susie Orbach; and Horror Stories by Liz Phair. The last book I read in about three sittings was Aura by Hillary Leftwich, a gripping, necessary book about love and ache and motherhood and fear and growth. I also recently finished the poetry collection Seeing the Body by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, a devastating, tender elegy for the writer's mother that I bought at a bookstore in Savannah, GA this summer with my own. I tend to read books written by women; sometimes I very actively and intentionally read only books written by women. I am also an avid re-reader, and am almost always either reading or thinking about anything written by Sylvia Plath.

 

Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you? 

 

Recently I had a line in my head I could not place, which I eventually realized was from the poem “Tandem Talks” by Christopher Randall, featured in Issue 01 of The Champagne Room: “Hope is to never feel for the door.” I include this example to say without reservation that what I read as an editor touches me, not simply because I spend a lot of time with it, but because it is worth the time, worth the headspace. I love having the words of our contributors drifting through my mind. It feels like a privilege to know so intimately these words. 

 

I have also been returning to a few lines from The Lightness by Emily Temple since I read the novel last summer: “Girls, on the other hand, are master idolators. They are like Catholics in that way, or Satanists—all gilded shrine and ceremony, all theme and ritual and symbol. They hunger for the gaudy trappings of faith.” (pg. 70) I consider this notion of ritual often, particularly in association with the power of female friendships--the memories of sleepovers, the captivating power of sisterhood, of practicing love. These are all elements of an idea I have for an essay that I still haven’t written.  

 

What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?

 

The study of the craft of writing is perhaps why I love editing—I love to study craft, style, usage, punctuation; I love the process of reading something not for content but for clarity, not for how it touches me but for how it was written. As a writer, I believe it is extremely important to be practiced in the craft of writing itself. It is necessary to know and understand the rules of writing in order to break them. A lot of this knowledge comes from reading great writing at the level of the sentence, following the thread of a thought to the very end, noticing the rhythm of it, the impact, the punctuation—I really fucking love to study a writer’s use of punctuation. I admire the hell out of a well-crafted sentence, but I also admire writers who have developed such an awareness of language and usage that they can shatter the sentence, create something totally wild, an unsentence. Perhaps some writers come to such wildness naturally, but in my experience, one develops the freedom to write wildly by having practiced a rigorous study in writing well. When I  am reading as an editor (and, perhaps unfortunately, I often cannot turn off my editor brain even when I am reading for pleasure), writing with sloppy sentences or a lack of awareness of punctuation strikes me as lazy—content rarely matters to me if something is not written well. Is craft and the study of writing everything all of the time? No. But understanding how to write makes you a better writer. 

 

In my own writing, I like to focus on the pace of the page, the speed at which the language moves, the careful distribution of breath—all of which often relies on how the writing is punctuated. I play around with punctuation, sometimes extending sentences much longer than they should be, ignore the commas, ignore the breath—the point is the flow of it, the rush, the getting lost as if in a forest and then finally: a haven. We stop to breathe. I do not like only the use of a sentence but also the use of a page: the white space, is it abundant, is it broken up, are words crammed every-which-way within it. I like to think of the page as a container. I like to see what can be done with it. 

 

Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?

 

I write most often and most obsessively about disappearing women: Amelia Earhart, Virginia Woolf, Anna Karenina, Laura Palmer, Sylvia Plath, my mother who left my father when I was young, my thirty-one year-old cousin whose heart stopped in her sleep, my own mental health challenges and unreliable love life—I think there are many ways in which women disappear, by choice or by force or by accident, sometimes by death but not always, and I can never seem to let go of this notion that a woman is as ephemeral as her shadow. I think a lot about impermanence—everything is always shifting, the world is changing (ending?), the river moves, we die. Nothing lasts and yet ideas do, and words, and so there are still, somehow, traces of people and moments and memories that last. 

 

What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer? 

 

Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s not even matter of trying. I get extremely caught up in my editor identity (and my dog-mom identity, and my day-job identity, etc.)  and then suddenly I’m restless and itchy and depressed and I don’t know why and then a flash: oh, maybe I should sit down and write. I am not very disciplined about a lot of things, writing included. I wish that was different. But I have created and will create. For now, most of the time, my writer identity exists quietly, waiting, letting the editor throw herself fully into her work.

 

I do write in my journal, nearly every day, some days more than once. These entries often contain ideas as they are brewing, obsessions as they are taking root. I return to my journals regularly—even when I am not writing I am writing. And even when I am not writing my mind is always firing. If I was more disciplined about writing, or as disciplined as I have been at other points in my life, maybe I could produce work more regularly. What’s become more important to me than writing every day is being kind to myself about not writing every day.

 

What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?

 

I like to play around with the texture and landscape of my writing. If I get stuck, I change the presentation. For certain projects I have liked to print out the pages and cut out each sentence and tape it to the wall; for another I have written everything out on a scroll of paper so that the narrative stretched endlessly onward, unfurling in real time rather than being contained within the confines of a typical page. Sometimes I cut and paste and paint. Sometimes I tear everything up and throw it away. The answer, ultimately, is that to stay/get back in tune with my creative work, I need to experience it somewhere other than the screen—I need to feel the paper, manipulate it, work with my hands. I do not feel the same connection to my writing when I type type type, stare blankly at it, type some more, and walk away. Sometimes it’s as simple as buying a new notebook, which I have done recently, and in which I am beginning the process of collecting new rhythms, exploring new threads.

 

How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?

I once collaged a collection of all the rejection letters I’d received over the course of six months. Nearly all of these rejections were of the “personal” variety: we loved your work; no, really—this is not a form rejection; we want to read more, which I’d grown frustrated by—if a journal/press likes my work, I want them to accept and publish it! (Of course, as an editor, I do, admittedly, understand these rejections—something so damn close but not quite right, not this time, not with these other pieces, for whatever reason, but enough to make me want to read more.) So I made this collage and I drank rosé and I listened to Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club and vowed that the next day I would begin submitting again. That was several years ago, and I’m still submitting, and still getting plenty of (personal) rejections. The process at once doesn’t touch me and also stirs up phases of great determination. I see it always ultimately like this: if I don’t submit the work, then my work will never be published. And so I continue to submit. Every acceptance feels just as triumphant as the first. 

 

How does your work as an editor challenge/change/enhance your work as a writer?

 

I spend more hours as an editor than as a writer. As an editor of this journal I always have work to do; as a writer, I seem to always have the choice to be doing work. I am hard on myself as a writer because I am aware of the amount of time I spend not writing. My work as an editor means sacrificing more writing time, but most days I am at peace with that. 

 

I also think my writing is enhanced by my work as an editor because I am in awe of the work we publish—I recognize it as writing that I want my own to be in conversation with. 

What are some things you have learned from editing The Champagne Room? 

 

Working with Emma as my creative partner has humbled me again and again—I have been in a state of profound gratitude and admiration at least once a week in the last year-plus. It is amazing to work with someone who understands you, whose ideas and strengths and interests complement your own, someone who shares your vision and goes above and beyond to see it through, someone who actually likes doing the parts of the whole that bore you (this website?—that was her, and I am forever grateful). I have learned that The Champagne Room would not exist as it does without her, without our creative partnership. I have learned to be more kind and more generous with myself, too, as we work on this project together, because I am always kind and generous with Emma, and she is always kind and generous with me. It’s just the two of us behind the scenes every step of the way, and there are a lot of steps and some of them have been challenging. I have learned that some days I will not get any Champagne Room work done, and that doesn’t mean I am failing. 

 

I think the most important thing I have learned is that this journal, this entire project and community, continues to be possible. That thrills and amazes me daily.  

 

Do you have a recent publication/project you would like us to highlight?

My essay “THE KNIFE SPEAKS,” was published recently in the latest issue of Grimoire. The only short story I have ever completed is forthcoming in Leavings; I also have essays forthcoming in the next print issues of Heavy Feather Review and Fence, and one in Birdcoat Quarterly. Finally, I am so excited to have work in the same issue of Miracle Monocle as my brilliant co-editor, Emma—I am honored and thrilled to share more space with her in the literary landscape!

Is there anything else you would like to share with other writers?

Writers, as an editor, I can tell you this (and I have to tell my writer-self this often): somebody out there wants to read your work. Somebody out there wants to publish it. Somebody is going to be excited about it, is going to connect with it in ways you both desire and cannot imagine. Don’t give up on submitting your work because you keep getting rejection letters. There will be for your work, somewhere, a home. 

Heather is a deeply rooted Midwesterner currently living in Athens, GA. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Qu, MAYDAY, Fence, Heavy Feather Review, Grimoire, Miracle Monocle, Leavings, and Birdcoat Quarterly

Instagram: @featherbartel

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