Tuesday, January 13, 2009

In Search of a) Literary Activism; and b) Happiness

Shannon Cain was the Executive Director of Kore Press from April 2004 to July 2008, and has served since then as its Sales & Marketing Director. Shannon’s short fiction has received the Pushcart Prize, the O. Henry Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches creative writing at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop and as a private coach. She continues her work with Kore Press as its new Fiction Editor.

1986: As an undergraduate at the University of Arizona I took a fiction writing workshop with Mr. Monkeywrench himself, Edward Abbey. He was stoic and closemouthed. I wrote horrible stuff. I had no idea a) what a workshop was; and b) that I was sitting across the table from a famed literary activist.

1988: I moved to New York and began working in nonprofit administration and fundraising. Someone gave me a job directing a small women’s organization in East Harlem. I fell in with a group of fierce feminist activists and learned how to make social change by a) community organizing; and b) yelling at the top of my lungs.

1994: I gave birth to a baby girl and realized a) this was happiness; and b) I needed to start writing again.

2000: I started writing again. I dragged myself to a night class in fiction writing at Pima Community College. The ground started to feel slippery under my feet, yet a) everything started to make sense; and b) there was no going back.

2002: I had a bright and shiny career in nonprofit management, with a lucrative specialization in raising money for social service and social change organizations. But I had grown to despise the work. I distracted myself with writing fiction, which was going well. I was in my first year of a prestigious MFA program. This education was blowing my mind and releasing a passion I’d kept in hibernation since childhood. I wrote a long paper on political fiction. Suddenly the philanthropic foundation I was working for shut its doors, creating in me a) panic; and b) despair.

2003: I turned 39. Unemployed for the first time in my life and resisting the urge to accept any number of jobs I knew I’d hate, I spent a year a) writing; and b) crying.

2004: I came to work for Kore Press. I learned what is meant by literary activism. Here I could feel good again about fundraising. I combined the fancy- schmancy nonprofit management training I’d accumulated with the rich, round fullness of literature. I got elbow deep in the business of publishing. My paychecks were small and irregular but I felt neither panic nor despair. I converted a backyard storage shed into a writing studio. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and won a prize or two. From my colleague Lisa Bowden I learned volumes about fine publishing, about editing, about standards of quality, and about perseverance.

2009: This year I take a deeper plunge into the literary life, evolving from writer/arts administrator to writer/teacher/editor. Soon I will be part-time fiction editor for Kore Press, part-time teacher and full-time writer. For five years at Kore Press I have been surrounded by women who honor the act of writing. They have shown me by example that it is possible to accommodate one’s passions. My partner and I have rearranged our lives. We live in a little brick house and worry about the mortgage. I am writing a political novel, flying headlong into a career as a literary activist. Writing a novel is the hardest work I’ve done so far, because it causes me a) despair; and b) happiness.