a new approach to rejection letters

In general, I’m trying to be present with pain–to give it space to just be–before moving on with healthy coping mechanisms (e.g. swimming, jogging, continuing to work on my art: my writing). I’m told that being present for pain is as important as being present for joy. But it sure as shit is a lot harder work. To sit with disappointment means recognizing the uncomfortable physical feelings and stories your mind tells you without trying right away to fix the hurt or to “buck up” or “move on” or even to find a lesson from the experience. Sitting with anger and sadness is really fucking hard (largely because we have been taught from a young age that there’s no time to sit and just be with any sort of intense emotion or, worse yet, that it can and should be fixed). All told, being present for pain is like sitting with an inconsolable wailing 5-year-old without doing anything but acknowledging that kid’s hurt.







spoiler alert: the news is bad

Masochism is a writer’s catechism. You voluntarily subject yourself to likely devastation that is not unlike that of your first middle school heartbreak.

Receiving rejection notices from literary agents or literary journals never gets easier. It’s all part of the process, but the stories your mind tells you after each form letter are truly dark and try to convince you to stop writing, to stop fooling yourself. Those thoughts are summed up like this (click image below for more of these poems):

But after all the years and dozens of rejections, I still find a way to use the ruins of each hope to kindle the fire that powers me onward.

The Emergent – a synopsis

“Unknowns can be handled in two ways. You can stay on the beach and watch, imagining what
might—but probably won’t—happen. Or you can offer up your mere physical existence for the
chance to be a part of something bigger than yourself.”

These are among the last words that Kat hears from her lifelong friend, Alma. The Emergent opens at the dawn of the internet era, and nineteen-year-old Silicon Valley native Kat is alone.

Haunted, she wonders if her actions drove Alma-and the rest of her family-away. Soon after
Alma’s disappearance, Kat finds herself in New York City with a new companion. In an apparent attempt to understand why she ended up across the continent, Kat relates her family’s story. Set in places like the shores of Oakland after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Depression-era farming communities of California’s Central Valley, and cold-war Santa Clara Valley, the family history and its ghosts also seem to shroud who Kat really is. But a series of mysterious injuries compel Kat to reveal more about herself. Will these revelations save Kat from her past? Or will they forever define her future?

Contact the author for a full tip sheet and to discuss speaking engagements.

in honor of election day: Variations on a Sickness – a dark satire

Variant: a dystopian prelude (a very short chapter from my dark satire-in-progress)

Julius’s niece is dead after following the advice of Our Dear Leader (ODL).

The armies in the north are gearing up, their leaders salivating at our weakened defenses and superior, unused medical resources. A whole division of our troops in that region ingested a cocktail of over-the-counter cleaning supplies a couple days ago. And radio silence from ODL, the man who said such an injection could be a good idea. “Whaddya have to lose?”

ODL is a man whose power is derived from his association with and intimidation of scientists who found the “sociopath” gene. A decade ago, he won office on the idea that he—and he alone—could rid the country of sociopathy.

Were it not for Bliss, Julius might have voted for ODL all those years ago. But his wife’s constant raging brought on sweat, chills, fever, headache, dry mouth, and shallow breathing. Anxiety like this overwhelmed any vague fear Julius had about The Sickness.

“You cannot vote for him, Jules,” she had said ten years ago, her dinner getting cold. “Don’t be fooled by all the free coverage the media is giving him. I mean, listen to this fucking idiot prattle on incessantly. It’s the same thing every single time! It’s not news. It’s indoctrination.”

Bliss brought up a video on her phone of ODL at one of his recent election rallies. The future dictator screamed, “The illness—people call it The Sickness—of socioplathy [sic] inflicts one in every 25 people. And it’s a terrible terrible terrible disease that is coming for you and your kids. It’s Lizzie, a great doctor of medical, who determined all this. A great person; we have a very great friendship; Lizzie always tells me what I want to hear. I really like her. I know…we know, right Lizzie?…we know some great people, great great great wonderful people, who say they’re able to detect socioplarthy [sic].”

“Did you know?” Bliss shouted as she scrolled through social media for another example. “Did you know ODL’s followers think he is a brilliant clairvoyant? What the actual fuck is going on?! The goddamned lunatic says he is able to use his ‘immense intuition’—whatever the hell that means—to determine who has The Sickness.”

According to ODL, alarmingly high rates of The Sickness supposedly existed in people who wear glasses, read books, or write newspaper articles. Of course, this idea got massive pushback in the media, playing into ODL’s trap; the dissenting thinker-writer types (and those who wore glasses) were the first to be attacked, abducted, and disappeared after the election.

“These campaign rallies,” Bliss continued as she swiped up again and again on her screen. “These rallies are recruiting tools for CC squads. Christ & Country squads! Can you believe that shit?! I’m telling you, they’re going to start rounding up people like me…and you; guilt by association. And what if we have a baby? Who knows what those animals would do to our baby. Just listen to this.”

Again, she shoved the screen in Julius’ face. ODL said, “Once we know who’s socioplarthic [sic], we can do something about it. And it’s gonna be so great you’re not even gonna believe it. We’re gonna get rid of these dangerous dangerous dangerous people, the sylviaplathics [sic]. Lots of smart people are saying this is what we should do, some of the smartest people with the biggest you-know-whats.”

After his election, ODL and his cold-blooded devotees hunted down “the infected,” employing the very same extreme ruthlessness known in the most extreme cases of sociopathy. Without a trace of irony, CC squads crisscrossed the country gleefully chanting “89% of slaughter is laughter” while efficiently taking the supposed sociopaths out of the population. Through the success of re-education camps, conversion therapy, and deportation—but mostly through wholesale butchery —ODL triumphantly, and with little physical resistance, attained total and lifetime rule of the country.

The plucky band of late night hosts, saved by celebrity, soon were the only voices of opposition. So long as they didn’t fade from memory like a movie star with a dreadful agent, the hosts were protected by their popularity. And the kettles of civil unrest that they had kept simmering for years were now at a low steady boil. Now, the late night hosts’ millions of fans have come to believe that the spread of highly contagious, air-borne sociopathic variant to be a hoax, that the resulting national quarantine is part of an ODL power grab.

“This damned hypocrite!” Bliss yells at the screen, diverting her thoughts from much more local and personal tragedies. “He’s shameless, as usual. It doesn’t matter to his followers if he’s breaking his own quarantine decrees. He’s touring these huge indoor stadiums, spouting this new theory. Didn’t I say he would come for the babies? Ten years ago, I said this would happen. Have you heard this shit, Jules?”

Her screen thrust in his face, Julius has no choice but to watch.

ODL shouts, screams, slavers to the adoring fans, “They say the novel sickness is a disease that infects little babies in the womb; and until now nobody had a way of knowing until much much much later, who had socio…socioplithy [sic]. They still say one in every 25 people is a socioplith [sic]. But some great people—people I know, great people, people who love me—great great great people are saying there’s a way to detect socioplicthy [sic] in the womb. Orange you glad you know that now?”

It is this kind of rhetoric that distracts even me, the demi-god: a semi-omnipresent, semi-omniscient, semi-omnipotent, or however it is you want to semi-classify me. I find myself distracted from this demi-epic about Julius.

His niece, Frenchie, died just the other day after a lethal cocktail of Tide Pods dissolved in bleach and a deep huff of aerosol disinfectant. She didn’t even get tasty Kool-Aid or shiny Nikes out of it.

inspiration in the fall

I’ve just finished writing two new short stories. They’re called, “The Pain of Returning” and “…with Dame Judi Dench as Gertrude”.

There’s a reason I call this writing season. Everything is in full color. Sunny days glow. The cool weather and shorter days keep my butt to the chair so I can crank out new pages. If you follow me on Instagram (@nickholmbergwrites), you know I’ve been posting about inspiration for weeks now. See the pictures below for examples.

Where do you find your inspiration?

a dramatist’s memoir about epilepsy

A grad school pal from my ’03-’04 CCNY days is having a fantastic time doing a bit of a book tour. As an actor and college instructor, he is perfectly suited to engage and teach the public about his experiences caring for someone with a severe illness. And he’s a hell of a writer, too. She Danced with Lightning is a memoir of Marc Palmieri and his family navigating their daughter Anna’s epilepsy over the course of about a decade and a half.

Since the book’s recent publication, I’ve seen many people posting on social media how they could not put Marc’s book down. They must be of stronger stuff then me. Marc, a playwright of several produced dramas, writes with the dramatic tension that one would expect of, well, a dramatist. The ebbs and flows of terror that Marc depicts in his narrative were so evocative that I had to pace myself: death of a child and ruined marriage a definite possibility at every turned page. I could only read one chapter per sitting, experiencing Marc’s anxiety and helplessness in the face of the medical mystery that was Anna’s disability. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of levity in this story (e.g. Marc’s concerns about being illegally in possession of medical marijuana; adolescent Anna’s mild Tourette-like symptoms brought on by the lesion buried in her brain). And there are moments in the story that are truly relatable: the life of the artist needing to juggle jobs while finding time to work on the next piece of writing.

Marc helps the reader understand that all things worth caring about take a hell of a lot of hard work, endurance, and faith. And for Marc to keep pressing forward in the face of such uncertainty would have been a far more daunting trial without a multitude of friends and family supporting him.

the dystopian genre thru a post-colonial lens: selected works

“In Hollywood, whites have churned out dystopian fantasies by imagining themselves as slaves and refugees in the future…[it is] science fiction as magical thinking: whites fear that all the sins they committed against black and brown people will come back to them tenfold, so they fantasize their own fall as a preventative measure to ensure that the white race will never fall.”

–Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings (2020)

Park Hong’s words are provocative. The post-apocalyptic/dystopian genre (both film & novel) can be viewed as instructional (e.g. how to survive moral conundrums surrounding your survival vs. that of someone else; how to scavenge & farm; how to fend off those who would eat you, enslave you, otherwise kill you). While television series like The Walking Dead and Fear The Walking Dead depict a vast spectrum of diversity in their respective casts, both series begin by centering White characters struggling with the concept of leadership in a new world order. Viewed from Park Hong’s perspective, as these programs progress through multiple seasons, they instruct how Whites might survive America in which the historical racial-social structures have been obliterated.

Having said that, there are several women and/or BIPOC authors who have co-opted the genre to good effect. Interestingly, many of these stories might be considered coming-of-age. I have curated a list (in no particular order) of post-apocalyptic/dystopian books, most of which I have masochistically consumed over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic; I included some “classics” and other White writers by way of comparison. Each book title is accompanied by a distinctive trait, when considered from Park Hong’s framework.

Parable of the Sower: Earthseed #1 (2000) & Parable of the Talents: Earthseed #2 (2001) by Octavia E. Butler

The author is a Black woman who wrote the books in the closing years of the second millennium. The heroine is also a Black woman who has a vision of the future where people accept her assertion that “God is change.” Chilling in its prescience, Butler imagines an America in which a man not unlike POTUS 45 wins the White House in the mid-2030s. Novels could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid

Hamid is a British-Pakistani man whose novel depicts two Middle Eastern characters witnessing the collapse of the world created by hundreds of years of colonialism. The wars between formerly colonial powerhouses are the backdrop as the two main characters find their way to a new life in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. In the end, the world could be deemed a better place after the demise of Western imperial structures. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel

Canadian writer whose heroine tries to survive a brutal post-pandemic world. Art/theatre provides hope in the bleak landscape. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Telling the story from several Black American perspectives, Egyptian-born north American writer El Akkad takes the reader on a wild adventure through the flooded 2074 South during the Second American Civil War. It is a war fought over the outlawing of oil—among other things. Novel could be deemed a coming-of-age story.

An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (2014) by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

I include this because, from a Native American standpoint, it could be viewed as an apocalyptic story describing the collapse of known cultural structures. The zombies in this story are the brutal white men from Europe who just don’t seem to die.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) by Richard Flanagan

Flanagan (White Tasmanian) has threads of post-colonialism throughout his earliest work; for this and many other reasons, he is one of my favorite writers. The novel is far from the best of his, and its apocalyptic tale is not really all that futuristic or outlandish, as it imagines the world on fire and the people in it more consumed with their smartphones and social media than the global destruction occurring in their immediate surroundings.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood

All the characters are all White. Depicted is a United States ruled by tyrannical Christian men who have “resettled” Black folks and who have forced women to bear children in an ever-more austere world. It should not go without comment that this is what Black women endured in ante-bellum America. Interesting take in this article.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell

Read this one in high school. And cannot let it off the hook. All white characters depicted in a world where autonomous thought and action are criminalized; they are entirely under the eye of a faceless, uncaring ruler. Isn’t that colonialism? Isn’t that the British Empire from whence the author came? Was he being ironic? One would hope the dark allegorist saw parallels between the brutality of his own country’s capitalist exploitative history and the autocrats of Soviet Russia.

The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

It’s been over a decade since I read this. I don’t recall there being anything but White characters in this book. The story is set in post-nuclear-holocaust and follows a boy and his ailing father as they do what they can just to survive. To what end? Just for the sake of survival? I may have to revisit this one to better see it through the lens of Park Hong’s theory.

my novel won an award

I am almost beyond words. My debut novel has been selected by the National Indie Excellence Awards panelists for the 2021-22 Best New Fiction prize. Click here (you’ll have to scroll down a bit).

I have some serious dopamine surging through my system right now. I have to get back to my day job. Will write more later.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll read the book and leave a rating on Goodreads and/or Amazon. Cheers!