Monday, November 23, 2009

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Applications and Intimacy Issues

For those applying to MFA programs, Poets & Writers has put together past articles on the subject and bundled them in tidy PDF for $5. This saves you having to purchase entire past issues for that one MFA article you wanted. And yes here’s the plug: I’m in there for my article on life as an MFA TA.

My vote for most helpful article is not mine (because you’ll figure out everything you need to know about being an MFA TA as you do it) but Steve Almond’s Confessions of an MFA Applicant Reader. I read this article when I was applying. It talked me out of the tree and helped me focus on the important stuff, like remember we are all human beings. During the application process, in all the lists and transcript requests and spreadsheets and the GREs you’d think our ultimate goal in life is Vice President of Linux Operations. We forget that a person will read our story.

Consider this reader. Visualize. She sits at a desk or a kitchen table, or more probably at home, on a sofa. To her right is a box of envelopes. She worries that her own work is suffering. She is slightly depressed at this daunting task and knows that she should be grateful for her tenure track job but right now, she’d rather be watching the latest Joss Whedon release. It’s exhausting to read stacks of apprentice level work.

This writer, after refilling the wine glass (Malbec), flips past the paperwork, straight to the writing sample. The writer sighs, hoping but not expecting. If she’s hell yes on first read it goes in that pile. No goes in that pile. Some go in the maybe pile. At the end of this first sorting, then she re-evaluates. In this second wave she reads letters of rec and the statement, not expecting inspiration so much as scanning for red flags.

When we write letters and polish our stories and mail out to schools and agents and editors, we need to remember to connect, and not get all frazzled in these feelings of “out there.” I believe this intimacy is difficult for us as writers, because intimacy is awkward and terrifying. It’s one thing to say Syracuse didn’t like your story, and much worse to think George Saunders didn’t.

Ouch. Hurts. It hurts. That's why I didn't apply to Syracuse.

Think of the MFA application process as the first test, because if you can’t ward off the doublespeak now, you will drown in school. Academentia has this way of pulling you away from the reason you wanted to get an MFA in the first place. The meetings. The Rhet/Comp Portfolios. The 50 emails on campus parking updates. The time suck has the potential for infinity, but unlike a job, you have the option of saying no. The MFA years may or may not yield publishable work, but you have the opportunity to make writing a habit, something that has to get done or the day feels wrong.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bacon: The Other White Meat

The Freshman 15 is a documented higher education phenomena. Now it’s time to recognize the MFA Muffintop.

I arrived at Montana in fighting shape. I was practicing Ashtanga Yoga and my skinny pants slung low and confident on my hips. On moving day I hauled box after box to my second floor apartment, my arms lean and strong, the bye-bye muscle flexing like a cat. I was ready to take on the west and get this writing thing on.

I met a guy.

I met Doublefront chicken.

The guy took me out for Doublefront chicken.

Winter came.

Spring I started taking two workshops.

Two workshops did me in. The basement of Doublefront became the post-workshop decompression chamber. There was a bar, a friendly bartender, a dumbwaiter that delivered piping hot fried chicken, French fries and pickles. And deep fried mac n’ cheese wedges. And pitchers of beer. At the mention of Doublefront any Montana MFA’s eyes will glaze over as she stares off, imagining that virgin tear of the crispy, crunchy skin after a long day of soul crushing. You don’t mean to eat all the fries but there they are beckoning one at a time. You don’t mean to drink another pitcher, but then one of the regulars wins on Keno and buys the room another round.

The skinny pants began to ride little higher. Then, a little lower. They were traded for stretchy pants. Traded for the stretchy skirt. Thesis reading pics revealed a poofier me. One photo in profile captured a undeniable, earlier pregnancy-type pooch. It projected horizontally against the backdrop of the majesty of the Rocky Mountains. Dumbo ears budded at my sides. That’s okay, I consoled myself. I can get rid of this.

I moved to New Orleans.

There were benefits. My skinny pants were also tight across the butt. This was new, a butt. I graduated from a B to a C cup. This was new, boobs! I wasn’t gaining weight, I told myself, I was filling out.

I moved to Ohio. And as I bet over to pick up a box, I split my skinny pants.

Clearly, I had a tumor. I’d heard about people having ten pound growths pulled out, forgotten twins, growths like giant pearls around teeth. Once the tumor was removed, I consoled myself, I could have my pre-MFA stomach back.

I was looking forward to this.

I went to the doctor and had to get weighed. I stood while she slid the little weight further and further over to the right.

She slid over the big weight.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Translating Editorspeak: A Writer’s Guide

As writers, what do we complain about most? Lack of time to write. Well, here's some help. I’ve noticed that when sorting out acceptance letters from rejections, that the first few words tell all. With this guide you don’t even have to read to the end of the first sentence anymore!

We love: You’re bad. Jam on it.

We are pleased: Yay!

We are interested: You are in, but only after a grueling revision.

We found. You might be in after a grueling revision.

We enjoyed. Your piece didn’t cut it, but please don’t shoot yourself.

Thanks for this. We’re concerned. Are you OK?

While. No.

I did receive a rejection from a lit mag recently that informed me that while they ultimately had to decline, they did “read until the end.” I could be irritated, but having read for a lit mag before, understand that this is actually, high praise.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Go Brian!

Brian Kevin technically graduated in 09, but the class of 08 claims him. Sorry dude, you're ours.

So the 08 pub count continues!

BK's essay "Songs (Largely) in the Key of Life" is forthcoming in The Colorado Review.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

To Drive or Not to Drive

I'm in Hamlet mode. Hamlet was a Libra.

I just found out my Montana prof Kevin Canty is reading Tuesday in Winston Salem. I live 5 hours away in Athens, Ohio. Compared to Missoula, this is close, but it's not really that close. And it's the last week of the quarter. Freshmen are piling up outside my doorstep. Body count is high.

And I'm pretty sure the house I own in Durham is crumbling at the brick level, about to teeter right off these stumbly piers it was built upon in 1928. But I can't seem to make it there to deal with it. That distance, an extra hour, feels way too far to drive. Probably forever.

Somehow, that I lived in North Carolina for fifteen years seems to matter.

This is where I need my MFA friend Anne Marie, who would say, "We are going. We are DEFINITELY going."

I probably won't go.

But it sure would be awesome to go.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

First Quarter Almost Down

Today my Facebook status was "I'm toast. Butter it," which was more creative writing than I've pursued in weeks.

Why am I here again? I wrote very expressly on my Statement of Purpose that I wanted time to write.

PhD life STILL beats working. And last week was taken over by such worthwhile activities as hanging out with visiting writer Brenda Miller, a time period during which I received not one but two (!) free lunches. Supposedly other people "missed" the email but you can't afford to make those amateur, MFA mistakes! Not when it comes to food.

I ordered a cheese plate, salad AND shrimp pasta bathed in saffron cream sauce.

I discovered on the ride home from the airport that Miller is a Montana MFA from the Kittredge era. Even better, she is totally down with the Golden Girls longhouse in Anaconda. (This is the post-man retirement plan in which we get a huge, warm house, write by day, drink wine and cook at night. Mornings we hold our coffee mug, stand on the deck overlooking the snowy-capped vista and exclaim "Ahhhh!")

After Brenda Miller left there was Halloween.

All I can say there is fun, but ooof.

Okay, off to grade PowerPoint presentations for my second job that I'm not supposed to have.