Thursday, May 28, 2009

May is National Short Story Month

Dang. Almost missed it. In a typical K-Ferg move I will celebrate, tardy-style.

Today, while attempting once again to pass my day in a writerly fashion yet not writing, I found this tidbit in my MFA notes, a quote from Padgett Powell on how to evaluate if a story is worth telling.

The deal is you ask these three questions, and you should receive these three answers:

1) Did this really happen? (emphatic no)

2) Could this have happened? (...maybe...)

3) Should it have happened? (YES)

A little internet search yielded these Rules of Fiction from an interview with Padgett Powell in The Believer:

"Rule 1 is The Gosling Rule. The story concerns the first thing the reader sees move. Rule 2 is that the problem, or the apparent and necessarily related problem, must appear soon, in the first paragraph if not the first sentence. Rule 3 is a complex function [wh = f(c1,c2,c3... + e + t)] involving withholding. Rule 4 is the bar test: everything must be said more or less as if you might say it to a stranger in a bar. Rule 5 is the doozie quotient."

The quote then goes on to relate a version of Rule 7, which I typed above.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Notes from the Field

I am reporting from my new work assignment in a new department at The Academic Institution Now Employing Me (AINEM--almost like "anime"). Today the work email inbox received a call for conference proposals for studies in "non-reading." Eventually, links led me to the first chapter of the book How to Read Books You Haven't Read:

We must not forget that even a prodigious reader never has access to more than an infinitesimal fraction of the books that exist. As a result, unless he abstains definitively from all conversation and all writing, he will find himself forever obliged to express his thoughts on books he hasn't read.
(Well, okay, following you so far...)

Invited proposal topics include

- The elaboration of meaning, reception theory
- The book as fetish
- Imaginary books, screen books, phantom books
- The role played by non-reading in the reception of certain texts or authors (Proust...)
- Sociological dimensions of books and reading

Areas of interest appealed to include creative writers, critical theorists, literary historians, etc.

Thoughts on non-reading? Are you non-reading this post right now? Discuss.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Montana MFA's in the News

In my lit mag research (read: randomly clicking on websites) I stumbled upon Elizabeth Benjamin (class of '07) in The New Orleans Review. Last I heard Elizabeth was butchering chickens in Maine. And writing. Chickens and literature are inexorably linked, I've noticed. Chickens work in the way that other domesticated animals do not.

From Mount St. Helens:

"When I was twenty-nine, my hair became so tangled with grief that my my mother and I wore bathing suits in the shower together while she greased my hair and combed it under the spray..."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

We Heart Ira Glass

In MFA programs, creative nonfiction is often linked with memoir. I find this irritating. Nothing against memoirs, there are many I love, but I am not writing memoir and memoir is not my primary NF interest. There was also this NYT bestselling phase of the trauma memoir, which seems to have passed, but the lingering stink that memoir = my crappy childhood remains.  Again, not that crappy childhood memoirs can't be fantastic. But all memoirs are not about people's horrible trauma (think: David Sedaris). And again, none of this has anything to do with what I'm writing. 

One of my NF profs, after a few, would bemoan his undergraduate nonfiction class.

"Oh god," he would moan, one hand clutching a glass of wine and the other his head, "I can't read anymore about the bulimia."

I understand this impulse to want to make sense of painful experiences. But what I want to say to young writers and to the fiction profs who equate NF with memoir is "think less My Father Raped Me and more This American Life."

One great quality about Ira Glass is that he is all about sharing information. He doesn't obfuscate what he's looking for in a great story. He's not one of those pontiffs who claims you can't explain "Art." Glass is unafraid to outline what he wants in great, specific detail. And I have learned as much from him as anyone. If you listen to Ira Glass and then go back to your favorite writers you will learn muchly. 

A story is a series of anecdotes building to a point. Along the way questions are raised and answered. These answers should surprise us. 

Easy, right? 


Thursday, May 21, 2009

b-2-b, or, Why Three Ps Should Have A Book Deal

Hey you, friendly anonymous reader. We’re shamelessly plugging our service. Why? Because it’s a year out from MFAland and we want immediate fame, fortune and success. Here is my dirty plea (on behalf of the three of us) to have this blog made book.

Legend: b-2-b = blog-to-book

.5. CUTTING EDGE. Shameless pleading before we’ve hit our blog prime? It hasn’t been done. Well, consider it done.

1. DIRTY FILTHY MONEY. There are three of us. This means you, kind literary agent, with a keen eye for crème de la crème of the blogosphere, get more for your money. Times are tight. So isn’t three voices/perspectives for the price of one great? Remember, the three of us are perilously close to accomplishing all three objectives of this blog. Yes, enrolling in a PhD program and publishing work is great, but panhandling is not. You wouldn’t want us to resort to that, would you? We should NOT reach our three goals. You can make this dream a reality.

2. WE ARE PATRONS. You cannot call us untutored in the way of patronizing the arts. We’ve seen Didion, Carson, Chabon, Howe and Diaz. The list goes on. We’ve been to many MFA readings. We’ve shouted out until hoarse. We go to bookstores and buy books FOR FUN. We shell out money for copies of our own book.

3. THREE Ps PUBLIC RELATIONS. WE HAVE IT. Kelly & Trina did a bang-up job getting the word out via Tom Kealy’s blog, Speakeasy and Mediabistro. I sat back and basked in the glory. We have a built in fan base, see?

4. SHOCK AND AWE. We’ve got plenty of blasphemous content and/or language up our sleeves. For examples, see b-2-b Fuck You Penguin! or b-2-b Awkward Family Photos. We have posted about the blasphemy of rejection (personal and professional), the most horrendous of all human interaction.

5. THE MUNDANE. We have mastered bantering about daily life. We live it and we know how to summarize it. We can mimic b-2-b Stuff White People Like. We can call it Stuff MFA People Like and it will be clever, mark our words.

MFA People Like

a. working a job that requires an expenditure of hours unequal to the expenditure of brain power/pay. That is, too many hours and not enough brain power/pay
b. Montana
c. sitting in a darkened room when it is sunny outside, reading
d. watching birds through binoculars
e. booze

6. FRIED FOOD. We have eaten friend chicken from Double Front in Missoula, Montana. That means we have one up on another b-2-b, This is Why You’re Fat. We also still all like cheese toast.

7. FURRY ANIMALS. The three of us own five cats combined. This makes for endless contribution to and viewing of b-2-b I Can Has Cheezburger. We have researched our competition.

8. NO SHAME. Please do this thing for us? Our book jacket photo will be amazing.

9. SHAME. Ah—no, I mean…we do this because we want to a) rant and rave, b) keep in touch with other MFAers and c) provide solace [see a)]. Book or no book, the blog will still mosey along, emotional baggage intact.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I have this strange knack for actually achieving goals I write down. I find old notebooks filled with lists and I am amazed. See Paris; Play drums in rock band; Ashtanga yoga; and yes, Creative Writing MFA. This makes me believe I need to up the ante and see what happens. I’ll let you know.

While flipping through old notebooks this morning, I found these three New Year’s resolutions from 2007:

2) Write cleaner sentences
3) Yoga/calm/discipline/stop the frazzled grabby hands

This might seem like a modest list but number one felt huge. After twenty years of restaurant work I wondered if I would ever get out. I couldn’t see it.

On my last visit to Durham, North Carolina, (where I lived and waited tables for 19 of those 20 years) a former industry cohort handed me a copy of Waiter Rant. (One of those blogs turned book deals Laurie posted about yesterday.) My friend had been given the book for Christmas, one of those presents people receive because relatives have confused “previous lives that incurred lasting psychological damage” with “interests.”

“It hasn’t been enough time yet. I can’t read this,” my friend said. She passed the book, eyes averted, as if handing off a removed appendix. She’s less than a year out. I am almost three.

I took the book to be polite but haven’t cracked the spine. I lived Waiter Rant. I am Waiter Rant. No thank you. On the back cover The Waiter describes entering his seventh year. HA. I thought. Boo freaking hoo hoo hoo. I remember that phase. I even remember when I thought I was doing the job so I could write about the experience. Try twenty mofo. Try twenty. Okay, I admit it; I’m mad that wasn’t my book deal. And I'm super jealous Anthony Bourdain wrote a blurb.

At least I’m out. No faking this time. I’m teaching and maybe I made $8,750 last year but the corner is turned. I’m done put a fork in it.

As for cleaner sentences, I am pleased to report a diminished number of prepositional phrases and unnecessary adverbs.

I still wring my hands though. I suspect I lack proper kissing.



Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Coming Soon

Coming Soon: My argument why Three Ps deserves a straight-from-blog-to-book deal just like everyone else.

In case you're out there, stalking, o wise agent.

Montana MFA grad news

Newsletter just in my emailbox: 2007 Montana MFAer Grace Egbert is a finalist in the Lynda Hull Memorial Poetry Prize at Crazyhorse. Congrats!

Monday, May 18, 2009

New Lit Mag

The Rat's Ass Review

On the Poets & Writers Speakeasy (time suck/savior/break from Facebook for those of us who work on computers), a running joke became The Rat's Ass Review as in...

...should I list small pubs on my bio like TRAR?
...will MFA programs consider me if my only credit is TRAR?
...maybe you should send that romance/thriller/horror limerick set in the Garden District of New Orleans to TRAR.

Online and poetry only. TRAR is new, so the chance of acceptance might be higher. Think of how awesome your contributer notes bio will read for the rest of your life. Looks almost as good as Cat Fancy.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


This in from Nick Ekkisogloy, fellow Montana 08 MFAer:

Hey Kelly,
This is a link to an experimental thing my brother is doing in a video business class and you should click it. I hope all is well,

The link (eventually) takes you to an online literary journal Nick is starting up, Double Old Fashioned. You may read his infamous bloody kidney story. It will make you clutch your lower back.

In my old website/blog I used to post stories. This was before I realized these stories were terrible, but since then I have changed my name and gone under witness protection, so I feel pretty safe no one will be able to make the connection. Although at times I wake up a little bit sweaty.

Oh well. I don't have the psychological fortitude to self-publish fiction online. Too many scars. But to invoke fond memories of former Montana MFA program director Kate Gadbow, woman of succulent bison chili and intelligent, kind words:

Go Nick!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Montana MFA Writer’s Index 2008-2009

Days since MFA Thesis Reading: 382

Times MFA boyfriend queried before graduation last spring as to whether he was really moving to Prince Edward Island because, if so, why wasn’t he packing anything? 3

Times boyfriend called after leaving: once

Months actually spent at PEI: 4

Months before ex-boyfriend had new MFA girlfriend: 4

How many MFA brunettes this makes: 4

Miles driven hauling trailer across country from Missoula, Montana to New Orleans: 2,348

Average MPH: 45

Minutes over 750 minute plan crying to MFA friends I miss you. I love you. Come back to me: 275

August Verizon bill: $328

Hurricane evacuations: 1

Flooded cars: 1

Age: 40

Lit mag submissions: 24

Acceptances: 1

Approximate hours spent writing/revising that one story: 117

NYC agencies queried with MFA thesis/book proposal: 1

NYC agencies queried who responded with enthusiasm: 1

Days before contract revoked because book project of the past four years scooped by another writer: 13

Lexipro count: 550 milligrams

Blind dates with psychiatrist: 1

Lexipro samples given as parting gift: 10 boxes of 20 pills, 20 mg each

Fifths of bourbon consumed: (P-doc: “Maybe you should take a break.”)

Mardi Gras beads earned: 143

PhD Acceptances with funding 1
Without funding: 1
Waitlisted: 1
Due to the high number of qualified applicants and the economy but really because we didn’t like you as much as other people: 2

MFA BFFs who have come to visit: 3!!! Except Trina. Where are you? Do you still love me? Come to me!

Stated yearly income for 2008 1040 EZ: $8,340

Comp essays graded: 278

Cut and pastes of this comment "Hi, _____! I'm Kelly Kathleen Ferguson! And I enjoyed your paper! I suggest you employ a thesis statement. Allow me to model one for you.": 277

Times asked of God, “Where’s the love?”: 2,135

Writing group affairs: 1

Ex-boyfriends from my twenties who claimed in the past year they were totally stupid and I was totally great: 2

Status: single

Cats: 2

New stories written: 5

Novels began: 2

Days left in New Orleans: 73

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Recession special

Altered Books (poetry) via (shamelessly) today's New Pages blog post:

"Cut the bindings off of books found at a used book store. Find poems in the pages by the process of obliteration."

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Stephen Burt responds to the NEA poll that finds 17% of Americans read poetry (that is, have read at least one poem in the last year):

How many poets, though, are moved to write poems, or not to write poems, by their sense of the scope of an audience, by their sense of the number of available strangers? Isn’t one listener (known or unknown) enough? Isn’t the writing the point of the writing, prior to and more durably than any sense of how many people take note?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Good Year for MFA Graduates, Okay?

Yep—here we are again. Facing our demons. The bad year? or good year? existential self-questioning had bugged me like Fmr. Gov. Blago’s phone. (…) In honor of May, the time that the current class of MFAers say adieu to what they knew for two years, I offer a recollection of May '08--May '09 (give or take).

The good news. It is still a bit early for you, nearly-graduated one. May still gives you time to look forward to a belabored severance of your new, scared self from your old, confident self. I didn’t freak out or imagine the shape of the future beyond Missoula until August, once the UHaul had to be picked up or I’d forfeit my deposit. Or as I was selling my pre-owned mattress to a family whose toddlery son had to use my bathroom and proceeded to dump (throw?) my last roll of toilet paper in the bowl (true story).

Since August, I’ve learned key money-saving skills. They include how to create life-sustaining feasts in a bowl. It is much like I imagine astronaut food to be but poorly, poorly executed and non-dehydrated. Think rice and beans (dried, not instant), 5lb. beef “savings pack” and onions from the bin at Aldi. Put it all together…and you hope that a burrito wrap can hide the horror:

You know what? Just hold off on that Aldi onion and…grow your own onions! On your kitchen counter. Whoops. Get to know your favorite compost heap pile.

There will be copious reading opportunities for your genre of choice in your city of choice. Or, at least enough to sustain you and comfort you into a false sense that you-are-still-in-the-program. See some famous people. See some soon-to-be-famous people. Silently support them with beams of flowers and rainbows and unicorns and puppies and kittens because they need them and you can wait out karma.

Survive the winter and everything will be a-okay. It won’t seem like it in mid-January in Chicago (or Seattle--or, well, New Orleans is just warm anyway, without mercy, and we'll exclude it from our results), but trust.

You’re going to spend a fair amount of time researching post-graduation fellowships or residencies that will give you another year down the road to do that thing you were doing in the MFA program. You’ll spend the following March opening the rejection letters.

If you’re a poet, maybe you’ll find all the Apocalypse Now stuff mighty useful as an operating principle for your newly imagined collection of poems—you see it taking shape. Your perverse worldview had to pay off sometime. Since the real world is so damn bizarre sometimes, it’s almost too good to be true. It’s taking beautiful, exquisite shape. (Well, at the very least you’re totally estranged from your thesis, which you can’t even bear to look at, much less tinker with. This may change. In a bit, maybe you’ll warm up to it, face its cold icy stare. I’m waiting it out, giving mine the silent treatment for now.) But the scheming and the abject poverty of jet-loving corporations and the illness and the general turmoil treats you OK. It’s something you can always count on. Prose folks, I bet this is the same for you.

You will temp. Boy, will you ever temp. You will know the skills of the temp. Like a substitute teacher, be ready for the 5AM call. “Can you be on site, ah, 10 minutes ago?” Start…now. Watch as the clock on your assignment runs out. Four months, three months, two months… You’ll be searching the fall teaching openings. This is, of course, assuming you didn’t have an idea of what was going on and refused to acknowledge time would pass after you graduated. I found myself desperately clinging to the scam-toned Craigslist posts in the “education” section because, well, what did I have to lose?

And if this hasn’t enticed you, remember, not having the extra money to eat at "restaurants", see concerts, go to, what, the history museums, leaves a heck of a lot of time for sitting down and writing. Right? I’m not a perfect example, no. I spend a lot of time messing around and drafting elaborate and overly complicated, windbaggy emails to my online students. They don’t need to know how amazing Blackboard is. They can access their assignments just fine thank you very much. So, yes, for everyone who is driven, you can sit down and write and something actually materializes on the screen. But one thing is for sure: you won’t be sitting down to just write if you can’t pay your utility bill. Then you’re just in the dark.

And the job tip in the post directly below this one is excellent. Take it. Run with it.

The Three Ps roundup almost one year in:

  • PhDs: One up and coming! Go Kelly!
  • Publications: Yes, yes and yes.
  • Panhandling: I applaud the social service opportunities available in large metropolitan areas for those in need.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Jobs for MFAs!

Who knew?

For the past three months I've worked for these people. The job is evaluating student essays from around the country, from various community colleges, universities etc. I confess the work is about as fun as reading comparison/contrast papers on cauliflower and broccoli can be, but it did keep me away from black plastic bus tubs this spring. Pay is $10/hr with an BA, $11/hr with an MFA! I believe you get the big increase to $12 with a PhD.

I'm quitting for school but I found the job to be straight up and the people reasonable to work for. One big benefit is the flexibility, you can pick up and trade shifts with ease. So if you need some part time work:


As always, Smarthinking hires the bulk of its new tutors over summer in preparation for increased usage in the next academic year. Starting this late May/early June, well be screening applications for new writing tutors to start in Fall 2009. If you know of any interested colleagues or friends qualified to tutor writing online, wed appreciate the referral! Everyone applies by emailing a resume and cover letter to and including Writing in the email subject line. Thanks!