Friday, October 31, 2008
In my MFA workshops, I read many (bottom line) boring stories. %90 of the stories in Best New American Voices are boring. Most of my stories are boring! (Note: code for "boring" in the industry is "pacing"). Often the culprit is lack of plot. You can include the best description of grandpa’s golf bag ever, but what’s the point if nothing ever happens with it?
John Irving’s lecture at the last AWP focused on plot. Plot, he said. My novels are all built around a plot. Then he stared everyone down, daring them to argue. I agree with Irving in that plot is often treated like the KY Jelly of literary techniques, this dirty little secret, because if you were a real writer, everything would develop “naturally.” In my MFA program some writers treated plot with an air of disdain. As though artists shouldn’t have to sully themselves. Not my instructors, though. They seemed pretty intent on reminding us that as fiction (or nonfiction) writers our job is to tell stories, not describe grampy’s golf bag.
Wait, did I just hear that correctly? Editors and agents are saying writers shouldn’t overly concern themselves with language.
Those boring stories I read in workshop? Many of them were boring because sentence by sentence, nothing intrigued me. And as for writers I admire, what I admire is the language. Yes, MFA programs emphasize literary fiction, not popular fiction. That’s why we went! If we wanted to write popular fiction we would have hunkered down with How to Write A Damn Good Novel. Instead we read Borges.
Plot and language? Language and plot?
Monday, October 27, 2008
“Hey, Aimee Bender is in Tin House!”
“Awesome! I’ll check that out. Gotta run. Speaking of 'devolution' , it's time to teach Comp.”
Don’t try this in public.
Perhaps the greatest trauma of post MFA life is having to (re)realize that writers you love and strive to emulate, whose books you have gently caressed in the night are, in a general public sense, nobodies.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been trying to form a writer’s group and one woman, a potential member, said she didn’t know how to describe her fiction. I prodded her a bit and determined she is probably writing Magic Realism.
“You should read Aimee Bender!” I was pretty excited about my suggestion. The woman nodded absently and the conversation drifted. But no way was I giving up on this. I loved Aimee Bender before I went to Montana. Then I had the chance to work with her and wound up loving her more; I followed her around like an imprinted duckling. I’m going to apply to the USC PhD, a complete long shot and probable waste of cash, because she is on the faculty.
“No really,” I said. “You should read Aimee Bender.”
I realized what I expected was for this woman to leap up, grab a pen, and feverishly tattoo my suggestion on her face.
Or at least act like she might check it out.
Nothing highlights the brutal chasm between the MFA bubble and the outside world like teaching Comp. Especially when you have no one to clutch in the hallway. Right now I’m teaching online, so I’m in it alone. One exercise my students have is they write a brief essay about writers with whom they have or have not “experienced rapport.”
Observation: Over half of my students mentioned Stephen King. I’m not here to debate the literary merits of King, at least, not at this moment. As for my students, most felt a “rapport” while a few didn’t, calling King “stuck up and facituss.” Either way, they have read him. This coming from a population who has no qualms telling their instructor they hate to read.
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
Lee then explained the spiritual, and specifically yogic, functions of poetry writing. He mentioned lyric poetry as confronting the causal nature of the universe (and by "universe", I suppose I mean the totality of human interaction with time/death, etc.) and bringing a "unified psyche" to bare on language, in order to create a world view of synchronicity.
That is, lyric poetry refuses to acknowledge that the world is ruled by only cause and effect. Instead, the poet sees and attempts to describe one thing that happens to be "in sync" with the other thing. The poet describes parallels; and then implores the reader to seek out the connection there by means other than logical cause and effect. This, Lee reminds us, is a transcendent and meaningful experience.
Monday, October 20, 2008
I haven't posted much about my job search because, let's be honest kids, to do so would be indiscrete. This is the Interweb. Anyone can see the smack I'm talking. But now I can unleash the sordid truth about post-MFA job hunting because I shall hunt no more again forever.
I started applying for jobs before I'd even graduated. I was getting phone interviews before I even left Missoula. I was looking into marketing, copywriting, editorial and management positions. And the fact that I was getting calls back convinced me that I wasn't entirely out of my league. Inevitably, the interviews would root out the truth: that although I had two master's degrees under my belt, a way with words, a wicked sense of humor, and all the pluck of a Disney heroine, I haven't had a real professional job in over five years. Which means I haven't had real professional on-the-job experience in over five years. And a lot has happened in five years--in technology, in the job market, in fashion...
It didn't help that I was competing with so many other, more qualified (experience-wise) candidates. The development coordinator position for which I applied back in September drew 140 applications. The editorial position with a fantasy gaming position drew almost 200. I should be pleased that I even snagged interviews for some of these jobs, even if I didn't end up getting the job. But it's hard to shake the feeling that there must be something wrong with my face if I can't close the deal in person. Job hunting foments insecurity like nothing else. You ask yourself silly questions like "Am I really qualified to do anything?" or "Why don't people like me?"
So it came time to reassess. Yes, I was tired of not having enough money at the end of the month to do the things I wanted to do. I was tired of the constant credit card debt I had to accrue to make up the difference between my intake from freelancing and my rent and bills. It's not like I have a huge overhead. I'm not a big shopper. I have, like, three pairs of pants that fit. My shoes are old and worn. My computer is five years old and I won it in a contest. I don't even own an iPod. I don't need a lot of gadgets. I don't even eat out very much any more. I don't take extravagant vacations. I don't need a lot of money. I just want to be able to buy a non-yellow cheese every now and then. I want to eat my non-yellow cheese on nice crackers--not saltines. And, unfortunately, I had a taste of that good life back in the mid-90s, when jobs were plentiful and I got one right out of college. For six years I had a professional editorial position with benefits (back when I was young and healthy and didn't need them) and paid time off. Since it was my first job, of course I took it for granted. I whined and complained about the trivial problems that one will have with any job. The inter-office pettiness, the "low" pay (apparently, at 23, I thought I should be making six figures), the humiliation of working for the man, blah blah blah. Now that I've been spit back out into the job market and seen what it's like, I would give at least one kidney and a good portion of my liver to crawl back into the warm, wet, wonderful womb of that first job.
But the past is the past. And now, after all those months of tailoring cover letters and resumes and going to interviews and wringing my hands, good friend Amy emails to tell me there's an open office assistant position where she works. The hours are flexible. The pay is more than enough to keep me happily cheesed. The employer is a respected institution of higher education. It's temporary (there's a hiring freeze in state agencies) with the potential for permanance (should the hiring freeze be lifted). I would have the time and the mental space to write without having to worry about bills. I might even be able to start saving money again. Really, it's like manna from heaven, dropped in my lap. I had an interview this morning. I start on Wednesday. And I will be the best office assistant who ever office assisted.
Immediately after MFA, I realized I was hobby-less. And this is a frightening, undignified place to be in. While in Missoula, I could count my 'hobbies" on one hand, and they all included something to do with writing (mainly because of workshop) or the weekend tasks that serve as diversion: reading for workshop, reading for seminar, attending poetry reading, attending fiction reading, attending nonfiction reading, reading the newspaper, watching movies, going to movies-- you get the picture. While this list provided amble free time amusement-- and intellectual thought-provocation-- it felt sometimes that I couldn't' bring in anything substantial to my writing that I'd directly experienced. Alas, I lack in the direct-experience category.
As I planned my move to Chicago I knew I had to seamlessly integrate a hobby into my new routine. Not that I treat a hobby--by definition, the very antithesis of "requirement", "work", etc.-- as grueling, but if I don't get something rolling alongside a big life change, it never takes hold. I had to treat this hobby-finding like starting a new workout routine. Richard Simmons was shoving the leg warmers in my face and politely chiding me toward better endeavors.
That's where I came to birding. My literary scope had always lovingly poked toward the avian community (I count Charles Olson among good company here). Earlier this summer, I joined the Chicago Ornithological Society. This past Sunday was the first birding event I've attended, at a local wildlife preserve. I had little idea what birds are native to Illinois-- although I correctly assumed they are similar, due to migratory patterns, to New York State's bird population. Surprisingly, even the Osprey I knew in Missoula show up here in IL.
When I arrived Sunday morning a group of 12 had already formed along the banks of this particular pond. The scopes were out and immediately scope-envy swept the group. As I approached I heard numbers flying-- which scope power, what brand and model number... Was it HD? Can you tell the difference, on a sunny day, between high definition scope and regular? (In some cases, no). Scope-talk took on all the intensity of LCD television talk. Later, Facebook, and the imperative of the COS group starting their own page for events and networking dominated the landscape where we saw pelicans, and a variety of ducks, including the Hooded Merganser.
Here, I observed the social etiquette of birders. Despite my intrusion into this very close group of dedicated birders, my inexperience was embraced and encouraged with reference to the online community of bird list serves, birding events, and iPod accessories related to birding.
When a bird is sighted by binoculars, all scopes in the group immediately swoop to the sight, and excited shouts go up. At any moment you are to stop what you're doing, stop what you're talking about, and play musical chairs for the closest open scope. This required focus and intensity.
Likewise, if you're engaged in conversation (related to birds or otherwise), either participant in the one-on-one may, at any time, stop in mid-sentence and wander away to another bird-viewing vantage point. You resume your conversation (or don't) at the next rendezvous point-- usually when the brush is too high to see over.
Other birds of note I've added to my life list:
Osprey (by sight of osprey tower, only)
In the interest of pimping, shameless self-promo, etc.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
And I've learned a lot from Stacey Lynn Brown's blog and the ensuing firestorm in the blogosphere about the other alternatives that exist for poets who would like to publish. So, regardless of who is right or wrong, I applaud Ms. Brown for posting her story and kickstarting what continues to be an educational and vital discussion.
In Memoriam James Crumley:
An Evening of Remembrance and Appreciation
Richard Hugo House
Wednesday, October 15, 7 p.m.
Celebrate the life and work of legendary crime novelist and dear friend of Richard Hugo, James Crumley. Hosted by writer-in-residence Ed Skoog with guests David McCumber, writer and managing editor of the P-I, and JB Dickey of the Seattle Mystery Bookshop, among others. email@example.com
Montana MFAers, after prolonged visits to the Union Hall, used to embark on late night quests for this man. "Crumley!" they cried into the night. "We're going to find Crumley!" This was silly because he was always at The Depot.
Still, who will starry (glassy?) eyed MFA hopefuls go in search of now?
Prodigies like Picasso, Galenson argues, rarely engage in that kind of open-ended exploration. They tend to be “conceptual,” Galenson says, in the sense that they start with a clear idea of where they want to go, and then they execute it. “I can hardly understand the importance given to the word ‘research,’ ”Picasso once said in an interview with the artist Marius de Zayas. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing.” He continued, “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered as an evolution or as steps toward an unknown ideal of painting. . . . I have never made trials or experiments.”
But late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses,” and he goes on:...
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
First up we have Marvin Shackelford (a second year at Montana now). His story Floaters is freshly minted in the latest Quarterly West.
And Naomi Kimbell recently heard that her essay Whistling in the Dark has been selected for a forthcoming Black Warrior Review.
Monday, October 13, 2008
So why bother reading about said positions in the first place? Well, I've had a lot of conversations lately--face-to-face and online--regarding the position of the practicing artist in this country. Are we just frivolous, superfluous persons or are we doing essential work? Must we empty bedpans in order to be viewed as contributing members of society? So maybe I'm just looking to our candidates' arts policies for some sense of legitimization beyond/outside the subset of art adherents. And killing time in between freelance gigs.
A look at John McCain's campaign website turns up no specific information on arts policy. A Google search turns up this blog entry, which is a place to start. However, when I visited VoteSmart.org, I didn't find any evidence that McCain wants to eliminate the arts. Rather, a look at a policy survey from 2004 shows that he would "slightly decrease" arts funding. But perhaps something has changed since 2004. If anyone has any more current information, I welcome comments below.
Then there's this telling comparison of the candidates' arts policy "stances". Judging by colum inches, Obama's plan is certainly bigger.
So what about Obama's plan? Well, he does address the arts on his campaign website, but you have to do a little hunting. You'll find it listed under "Additional Issues", which is probably as it should be. Predictably, the first point in Obama's plan focuses on children's art education. Again, this is probably as it should be, although it has always been one of my pet peeves that art isn't supported as a lifelong pursuit beyond the public school years. If you say a program or project is targeted at K-12 aged kids, it's a lot easier to fund than, say, a project targeted toward seniors or the 18-34 demographic. But I digress.
Obama's plan quotes the Chair of the NEA (Dana Gioia? The person isn't named): "The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a byproducts" and goes on to yammer about creating a more well-rounded populace, which seems to reinforce the prevailing notion that artists--people who define their vocation as the creation of art--are extraneous and that the status of "artist" is not one to which youth should aspire.
So, what else? Oh, there's an Artist Corps, increased funding for the NEA (no dollar figure is given), some stuff about cultural diplomacy and exchange, a nod to public/private partnerships (i.e., foist the costs onto private sector foundations and corporations). Nothing groundbreaking here.
The plan includes a heading about health care for artists, which is really just a restatement of Obama's plan to provide "affordable" health care for "everyone."
And then there's this oddly specific mention of the Artist-Museum Partnership Act, which amends the IRS code to allow artists (in this case, visual artists) to deduct the fair market value of their work rather than just supplies and materials come tax season. Which is great. Truly wonderful. For visual artists.
Overall, it's nice that Obama has a plan. But it's a fairly vague plan with a myopic view of what art is, who artists are and the place of art and artists in our society. Again, nothing surprising here.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
An unseasonably warm weekend, I spent Saturday biking the Lincoln Park/ Michigan Beach/Loop trail with visitors, winding up on the BP bridge of Millennium Park. We stumbled across a amateur tour guide who informed us the bridge spans 900 ft. This, to traverse a 200-ft. distance. I mention this because, well, metaphors are comfortable. Maybe there's some "troubled water" down there. Who knows.
A few weeks ago a friend worked her magic to score a follow up at a Chicago-area university to my long-pending, lost-in-the-ether temporary employment application (entered, oh, in July). And this was my single most-developed lead in the job front up to this point. I'd managed one interview in person for college comp. teaching and one phone interview for an editor gig. Nothing. Following this, I immediately received a call, came in the following day for an interview, and was hired for an assignment to start the following Monday.
Now. Three weeks later. I've got the hang of a hour+ commute on one bus, one train, one 1/2 mile of walking x2 each day. I've identified--but still cannot speak or make direct eye contact with-- those fellow passengers that have the same weekday schedule, working their way from bus to train, taking stops before and after me.
The job itself is that 900 ft. of bridge, where 200 ft. will do. The paycheck, on the other hand, is that cultural value of the bridge-as-participatory-art-piece. We like it. We're glad for it. Even when it doesn't make any logical sense. Nor does this bridge advance my artistic goals. My goal for survival is met. My duende is not happy until I get back to the couch at the end of the day.
I still have the satisfaction of participating in some specialized, technical aspect of language, as a freelance editor. This reminds me that not everyone puts the Elements of Style under their pillow. And yes, the maddening level of attention I grant to ensuring gnarled syntax and diction in my poems allows me to identify and know when language is being used unconventionally and how to ungnarl it. Luckily, convention still rules my life these days, with proper sentence structure essential to ensuring that supplementary paycheck.
Writerly social endeavors, lack-thereof:
Saw Junot Diaz at the Chicago public library a couple weeks back. Proceeded to obtain book signature and fawning fan photo. Social outings to consist of celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with literature-minded friends. Projected ratio of beer drinking to conversational asides about elliptical poets: 10-to-1.
The blogger goes on to relate the sorrowful tale of ’08 MFAers in a flagging economy. Oh no, wait. That’s what he says we are doing.
Then there’s the comment from a “DorothyP:”
Why not combine poetry with a helping profession, such as medicine? Or banking? Or working in a customs house? I'd amazed at the number of recent MFAs who seem think that their art will sustain them body and soul, when in fact, the concept of a full-time poet or writer (without family money) is pretty recent. Maybe emptying some bedpans would make the world a better place than teaching some dreary undergrads.
Excuse me while I bolt posthaste to the St. Ignatius Home for the Infirm.
It’s true, though. I often wonder if I am doing anything for the world by writing. Maybe I have confused myself with Leo Tolstoy. What is the difference between an artist and a sad sack MFA grad? Who decides? When should I give up? After the twentieth lit mag rejection? After the 100th? How many times do I send out my book proposal before I go join a “helping profession?”
What, I’m not helping?
The problem is no one knows while they are writing if their work is a legitimate contribution to society or the indulgent musings of a selfish jerk. Maybe a tribunal should be set up to sort everyone out. You, novelist! You, go dump some poo!
I know that we don’t remember and love Wallace Stevens because he was a kickass investment banker. I also know you don’t want me anywhere near medical equipment.
To end on an up note, right before I posted I found this comment from The Wandering Reader.
I have no doubt that these three young ladies will be successful; while people always hope to have a career in writing or teaching after receiving their MFA, there are other things that can be done with a MFA in the meantime.
…it’s at times like these that writers need to band together. Good to see that the three young ladies featured in your post have started that process already.
Thanks, Wandering Reader! And I do have a teaching job. That requires a Master’s no less! (More on this later).
Thursday, October 9, 2008
I don't I regret my TA. If I had a huge student loan, I would be in a state of panic right about now. And I went to a program of which mere mention makes my heart clench in lost love. But I'm forced to admit, as I trek the murky swamps of the post-MFA, I see a goodly amount of Columbia MFA bylines. Especially in nonfiction. More than once I have read where Columbia grads (for instance Meghan Daum in one of my all time essay faves “My Misspent Youth”) debate the cost-effectiveness of the degree. Yet as my rejection-slip-covered soul devours the printed, published page I have to wonder. It can’t hurt to attend a program in a city where the vast majority of publishers, agents, and major magazines live.
It’s too bad Columbia and Montana can’t combine to form the perfect MFA mullet, business in the front – party in the back. Now that I’m facing the business end, I find myself turning to a book by a Columbia grad, Betsy Lerner, a poet MFA turned editor turned agent. I recommend her The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers for anyone in the pre-pre-writing stage, which means you aren’t actually writing, but reading books about writing.
Too busy you say? The book lists are long and the bathtub soaks too short? Okay, here’s the Sparknotes:
1) It’s tough, but hang in there.
2) Don't call the editor at home.
No, wait. I can do better:
1) Write as if your parents were already dead
2) If you are in a program or conference, use the time to learn from writers who are a notch or two above. (Of course the catch here is that you have to be willing to admit that).
3) Write with your ideal reader in mind (i.e. writing for everyone often translates into writing for no one).
4) Write the book you want to read
5) Write for your mentor or fiercest critic
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Wow. That is some groundbreaking science. It never would have occurred to me on my own. I'm glad we live in a world where there are scientists and experts to uncover these mysterious connections for us. I hope we're paying them enough to do this kind of intellectual heavy lifting: "If you think about stuff in your life and you start thinking about it again, and again, and again, and you kind of spiral away in this continuous rumination about what's happening to you and to the world -- people who do that are at risk for depression." (That's Paul Verhaeghen--psychologist, novelist and one hell of an articulate guy).
Now if they can only tell me what defect in my brain chemistry led to the decision to pursue poetry rather than, say, astrophysics or nursing or some other, more-conducive-to-cash-flow vocation, we'll be all set. If they can come up with a drug to combat the aforementioned defect, that's even better.