Friday, December 31, 2010

On Visiting Writers

When I applied to Montana, one of the lures was I saw writer crush Aimee Bender on the schedule as a visiting writer. O palpitating heart! What’s more, Bender lived up to the dream. She was funny and smart and conducted positive yet insightful workshops. 2007 was the Year of the Rugged Manfictioners, so we women writers followed her around like imprinted goslings.

Since then I’ve met many visiting writers. Robin Hemley, Charles D’Ambrosio, Mary Gaitskill—to name a few. Here at Ohio U, we get to have lunch. At this opportunity, I perk up, for I am great at lunch. I can lunch like a Mad Men exec. I may or may not be able to write, but sandwiches and beverages, I can do.

Then I went to NonfictioNOW. This was a great conference. It was. I met an amazing variety of writers, many well-known, respected people I had heard about. It was all going so well. Then, I was about to introduce myself to a writer I love, who has impacted my life (no kidding), and whose presentation I had purposefully stalked, when I felt a complete and utter hopelessness. (although I can't rule out the Ethiopian food) What was the point? I would say hi. She would say hi. I would make my witty remark. Haha, she would reply. Chit then chat. And scene.

I had hit the visiting writer saturation point.

I kind of blame George Saunders. After him, it’s as though there’s no point in another visiting writer. He gave a great lecture. He gave a great reading. He was personable and put everyone at ease. He does a great lunch. He graciously praised the bio I wrote for our Literary Festival tabloid. He remembered my name. He went out for a beer (but not too many beers) at the local writer’s bar, where he did NOT grope or ogle the doe-eyed ladies who followed him around like imprinted goslings. (Question: Why do men not imprint?)

Then he was gone.

That. Was that.

As MFAers, when we show our work to the visiting writers, we are supposedly in search of feedback. What we are really hoping is that they will weep with joy, curse our genius and race to call their agents. Or at least one might take in interest in us. Or suggest we submit this piece someplace they have an in. It’s not that this never happens, I suppose. But it’s never happened to anyone I know. That I know of.

Because what you realize, is that all these writers are visiting other programs and residencies and whatever else all the time. In other words, they are seeing other people. This is an open relationship. And writers are usually not editors or agents. Rather, they are trying to get their work out there just like us. And that’s their priority. They aren’t talent scouts.

Mostly, I’ve realized that what I learn from visiting writers, is how to be a visiting writer.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Is MFAland Real?

Oh, how small my little PhD world is, and how little it has to do with the swarm of people I saw stampeding Books-A-Million yesterday, where Twilight coasters lord over experimental flash fiction, lyrical essays and poetry.

Which inspired me to respond (although a bit late) to this article in Slate, which declares “two distinct literary cultures,” that of New York publishing and MFA programs. My first reaction was that the article was another dig at MFAs—those grad school writers can’t hack life in the big city. My second idea was that I could think of writers who were clear counterexamples to the argument.

Last year (for instance), I met Rebecca Skloot, who came to read and talk with our workshop. This was as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was blowing up. During lunch she had to excuse herself because Oprah called. THAT’S RIGHT THE BIG O. Skloot has an MFA from Pittsburg, freelanced for glossies, (but also published in lit mags), and was a nonfiction professor at Memphis, before writing the best-selling book. Montana grad Aryn Kyle published short stories in lit mags such as The Georgia Review before writing a book that wound up on the Costco table. Or what writer could be more esoteric, brainy, and MFA-ey than David Shields? Who was on The Colbert Report.

On the flip side, MFAland can get a bit small town. At Montana, you would have thought our workshop was the next turning point in literature the way we acted, even though it was the ten of us sitting around an oak table. You start to assume everyone keeps Alice Munro bedside. My cautionary, is that MFAland can feel so immediate that the larger picture is ignored. Hey MFAers, when’s the last time you read a book off the (current!) NYT bestsellers list? You begin to think that the entire writing world consists entirely of poetry, short stories and lyrical essays. And I've seen where artsy is rewarded over comprehensible to a wider audience.

Which means this post has now devolved into the unsolvable debate of “high” (Wallace Stevens) versus “low” (Twilight coasters) art. Which means maybe it’s time to go open gift-receipted presents and eat Paula Dean French Toast casserole like a normal person.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

P is for Publication!

I review Anthony Bourdain’s
Medium Raw for Alimentum here.

For those who don’t know, book reviews are a nice way for an emerging writer to get a few publications. The Unattainable Quarterly might not give your short story the time of day, but they will probably publish your review. (I admit, this CV line might apply more to those of us striving for teaching jobs, than writerly fame.) Anyway, it’s a way to enter the conversation, and if your cover letter looks like West Texas, it’s a publication credit.

It’s also satisfying to be given an assignment, finish it, and then see your byline. All that workshopping can feel like a giant circle. I have stories I’ve been strokin' to the east and strokin' to the west for years now. Years! When editors actually need copy, they give slash and burn feedback to get your piece ready to go. What I’m saying, is that it’s a different experience writing for the express goal of publication, versus writing to write and hoping someone will like it.

Perhaps now you are wondering how you get someone to publish your review. I’ll be honest, mine were hook-ups from professors. So if you are in school or know someone involved with a lit mag, then ask them. I bet a cold query would work, too, though. I would present a few ideas for book reviews (to show you know the publication), and then ask for a suggestion. Chances are the editor has a pile of books stacked on the desk.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On Goals and Writing

Fellow writer and blogger about writing Ashley Cowger has put a shout out for writers to post about their goals here. This post is basically my comment box that spiraled out of control.

First, may I say be careful what goals you set. For instance, you might be granted all the writing time in the world. Then, there you are in a small Ohioan town during winter break, wandering the empty cobblestone streets, you and Your Book, showdown at high noon, time to shoot except both parties glance and shrug, too filled with ennui to pull the trigger.

When not slogging through my book these past weeks I've been slogging through the celebrated Cheever bio/tome from last year, and I'm struck by how he was continually dissatisfied. For us, a regular appearance in The New Yorker=Big Time Success (over 100 stories!), but Cheever spent age 20 to 42--his ENTIRE youth--bemoaning that he didn't have a novel. Then, when he did publish novels, he fretted that the reviews weren't glowing enough, that John Updike's wife was prettier, etc.

So, my first idea is that we have to guard against this idea of the “enough,” as in, no success is ever enough.

But then we also need goals.

I can see some of my “checklist” completed. (an MFA, publication(s) in a national magazine, a McSweeney’s list, short story acceptance from major journal. I’m in a PhD program and about to finish a book.) And yeah, with each of these accomplishments I squealed. The successes meant I wasn’t just some hack, one of those deluded people who fancy themselves a “writer” but go their entire life writing only for themselves (and sadly, for good reason).

As I check more goals off my list, and as I suffer the inevitable disappointments that come with “getting out there,” (for every goal achieved another dream is dashed) I’ve realized the only goal you can cuddle up with at night is to not suck. I want writers who I respect to look at my work and reflect to themselves, “hey, that doesn’t suck.” Granted, this is a lowered expectation from Great American Novelist status, but I have come to accept that only Nabokov is Nabokov. Good American Novelist remains quite the achievement. I also want, ultimately, for readers to pick up my work for the pleasure of it versus "I should try and get through this."

I have new goals. I want to write a fiction novel geared more for a wider audience than literary raves. My one acceptance to the one literary journal is gathering dust and it’s time to get out there again. I would love to be in a Best American Something. I’ve been attending writers’ conferences lately, and want to spend more time behind the podium than doodling on my program in the audience.

And before I get back to work on my latest big goal (Finish and Publish My Nonfiction Book) I will share my practical, superficial and admittedly supercheesy motivator: I visualize my resume.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is This the Future of Journalism?

So this writer over at the Marie Claire blog said some really mean things in her review of Mike & Molly, a new show about two people who meet at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting and fall in love. Within 24 hours, the blogosphere had blown up and the offending piece had made national news. How could a writer be so tone-deaf? How did her entry get past the site's editors?

In the ensuing shitstorm, the writer, Maura Kelly, has issued a half-assed apology and the Marie Claire site has invited other writers to respond to the blog. The end result? Kajillions of hits and free publicity.

Once we have extricated ourselves from the public debate over the "obesity epidemic" in the United States, might we take a moment to acknowledge how this is just another case of stunt blogging, or deliberately taking an indefensible stance so as to drum up a firestorm of controversy and the ensuing commentary/attention for the blog in question and its parent organization?

What's fascinating to me about this case is the egregious nature of Kelly's comments, which are so baldly offensive as to challenge belief. And the writing itself was fairly clumsy for a national magazine's website. Wouldn't such a move, knowing or not, ruin one's professional reputation? Yet I can totally imagine a growing niche of stunt bloggers within marketing departments all over the country, trying to think of nefarious ways to generate interest in their companies' content/product. It reminds me of the recent episode of Mad Men, where Peggy and Pete are struggling to figure out a way to sell Sugarberry Hams, so they decide to stage a fight between two ladies at a local supermarket over the last Sugarberry Ham. Thus the birth of the slogan, "a ham worth fighting for." Easy peasy.

It remains to be seen whether the backlash will affect Marie Claire's bottom line over the long-term after the short-term bump in familiarity has faded. I'm guessing not. Something else will happen to get the public's ire up and they'll forget all about this stunt. Well, all but the names Marie Claire and Maura Kelly. And how they felt strongly about something related to these two names once. And, maybe if they go to the website, they'll be able to remember what the fuss is about.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

UW Common Book: Poetry?

The University of Washington, like many universities across the country, has a "Common Book" program that chooses one book a year for all incoming freshman to receive upon arrival and, hopefully, read. This year, for the first time, UW has chosen a book of poetry. Well, "chosen" isn't really the right word. What they've done is develop and publish their own anthology of poems designed to "grab an 18-year-old."

I'm all for encouraging young people to read poetry, but why not an actual, single-author poetry book as they exist in the wild? The article linked above states, "The committee first considered a book by a single poet, but quickly rejected that idea," but does not explain why the idea was quickly rejected. Perhaps the committee could not agree upon a book that, in its entirety, would hold the attention of or feel relatable to a UW freshman. Which begs the question: Does such a book exist? The answer to which, I'm sure the committee believes, is "One does now, and it's called You Are Never Where You Are. And we made it special just for the occasion."

For context, past selections for the UW Common Book include:

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder (2006)

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert (2007)

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea (2008)

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama (2009)

It is intriguing that all are nonfiction books. Perhaps this is a coincidence. Or maybe one surefire way of relating to 18-year-olds is through stories that actually happened. God forbid anyone should have to suspend disbelief in the quest to enjoy reading.

In any case, I'm not sure I agree with the cherry-picking of poems, or books, to appease a particular audience's perceived preferences. Isn't exposure to unfamiliar and worldview-challenging media one of the great experiences of college life? Do we no longer expect our students to accept and meet the challenge of understanding what is initially foreign as part of that experience? Wouldn't it be great if we could give these students the benefit of the doubt and let them tackle a book of poetry without spoonfeeding it to them?

I recognize the tension between reality (not everyone likes to read; almost no one likes to read poetry) and the ideal (give them a chance to approach a book on its own terms and deal with their reading demons). University administrators want students to read. They also recognize the correlation between enjoyment and continued reading practice. Intellectual rigor falls through the cracks in favor of being encouraging. It's the same old story: dealing with the students you have vs. dealing with the students you want.

But does it work? Do any of these Common Books serve as gateways to a lifelong love of reading? Will the contrived collection of You Are Never Where You Are unlock the world of poetry for anyone? Will it do a better job than, say, Ariel or Lunch Poems? I'll have a better idea when I find out what poems were selected for the collection, I guess.

As a postscript, I wonder how much prevailing poetry reading habits played into the committee's decision to develop its own collection, i.e., the preference for reading and engaging individual poems on their own rather than reading them in the context of an entire single-author collection. This is not a fully formed thought. Just something that occurred to me in time for me to leave off this post and go pick my dad up at the airport.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Thoughts on Professional Courtesy

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about courtesy. Specifically, professional courtesy. Microscopically, the relative lack of professional courtesy running rampant in independent literary organizations of late. I don’t know whether this is actually a recent development or I’m just noticing it now because I (and a number of writers near and dear to my heart) have been on the receiving end of some bozo behavior.

Maybe you can tell me if any of the following scenarios sound familiar.

Writer A queries the editors of Literary Journal X about the status of her submission, sent over a year before via an online submission manager where said submission has languished as “received.” Writer A receives no response. Over the ensuing months, writer A receives multiple marketing e-mails and calls for submissions from Literary Journal X, but still no response from the editors.

1. a.
Writer B queries the editors of Literary Journal X about the status of his submission, sent a long, long time back, via an online submission manager where said submission has languished as “received.” Writer B receives in response a form rejection e-mail sent through said online submission manager rather than an actual response from an editor.

1. b.
Writers C-ZZ wait patiently for responses regarding their submissions to Literary Journal Z. Postings to Literary Journal Z’s blog apologize for the longer-than-normal delay and assure submitters that responses will be forthcoming. Additional postings on the front page of Literary Journal Z’s submissions manager apologize for glitches. The responses finally arrive: Writer D receives 40 form rejection emails. Writer M receives 9.

2. Two of Writer Q’s poems are accepted by Literary Journal V and she is informed that they will appear in the following year’s issue, she will be paid $XX, and she will receive two contributor’s copies. The year comes and goes with no correspondence from Journal V. Writer Q finds out through the interweb that the issue of Journal V is out and politely queries the editors via e-mail regarding her copies and payment. **Crickets** A month later she receives her contributor’s copies in the mail with no check and no acknowledgement of her previous query. A month or so later, she e-mails the editors again. **More Crickets** A month or so after that, she visits Journal V’s website in an attempt to find some other means of contacting the editors and finds that the website has been revised and contact e-mail address is different. Again, she queries. **Lots of Freaking Crickets** Writer Q does some web sleuthing and finds contact information for the faculty advisor for the journal and contacts said advisor to no avail. It is only after Writer Q has e-mailed the head of the English Department at the University that hosts Journal V that she receives any word from the editors.

3. Writer P sends a submission (via e-mail, per Journal J’s guidelines) at 3:08 p.m. At 3:17 p.m., Writer P receives the following e-mail from Journal J’s editor:

Sorry Writer P--

Not this batch.


Editor J
The next day, Editor J attempts to friend Writer P on FaceBook.

As isolated, rare occurrences, these experiences might make amusing anecdotes at literary gatherings. Unfortunately, the reality is that any similar anecdote is likely to be met with, “Oh, that’s nothing. Let me tell you what the punks from Journal/Press/Website L did to me…” Around about the 10th or 20th anecdote, a pattern emerges that is anything but amusing. Of course, we can come up with any number of explanations/justifications for this kind of behavior—“Yeah, well, writers are flaky.” “Aw, they’re probably just overworked grad students. Cut them a break.” “At least they put out a quality magazine.” But where does that leave us?

I’ve worked for literary magazines. I’ve written in this space about how not be an asshole when submitting to literary magazines. As an editor, I’ve dealt with all sorts of crazy writer bullshit. I understand all too well that working on a journal is a thankless job. I also understand that it’s a choice one makes. No one can be forced into litmag slavery. So yes, I am a little perplexed when the literary magazines I support, read, purchase, submit to, etc. don’t have the decency to communicate with me. I am disappointed when the editors of a journal assume that online submission technology absolves them of the responsibility to answer queries.

And yet, writers are asked to be grateful for any attention, any chance at publication. For the most part, I am. And in the grand scheme of my life, whether I hear back from a literary journal or not has very little bearing on my overall happiness. So why complain? I don’t really have an answer to that question. Just an observation: Courtesy is easily given. I think about the times when I was responsible for corresponding with contributors and, whether it was snail mail, e-mail, phone, or face-to-face interaction, the interaction didn’t really cost me that much.

So, I don’t know, maybe we could, as a community, come up with a set of guidelines for being a good editor. Any writer who has received the gold star treatment from a journal that has its shit together certainly must have some ideas on the matter. Thoughts?

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Case Against Tenure

This might be of interest for those of you pursuing a career in higher ed.

"Tenure—the ability to teach and conduct research without fear of being fired—is still the holy grail of higher education, to which all junior professors aspire. Yet fewer and fewer professors are attaining it. The proportion of full-time college professors with tenure has fallen from 57 percent in 1975 to 31 percent in 2007. The numbers for 2009, soon to be released by the Department of Education, are expected to dip even lower.

To which some educators are saying: good riddance. Tenure is a bad deal not just for universities, which are saddled with its costs, but also for professors, who are constrained by its conventions. Cathy Trower, a researcher at Harvard University who has studied tenure for the last decade, says the current system may actually be scaring talented young people away from academia. "This one-size-fits-all, rigid six-year up-and-out tenure system isn't working well," she says."

For more, go here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Lindsay Bland, Montana MFA '09

Mz. Lindsay Bland, poet extraordinaire (and Montana alum!), has a chapbook out with Dancing Girl Press:

Between the Devil and the Deep


Friday, July 16, 2010

Professional Developing Part II

I presented at Laurapalooza yesterday.

And then I made the cover of the Mankato Free Press. Ha!

But what I wrote the other day about not being nervous? Scratch that.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Professional Developing

Tomorrow morning I present at my very first conference. I’m on the grown up side of podium! About now I’m grateful for Second Wind, and my thesis reading. Sometimes MFA readings are treated like a vanity exercise. But I’m about to face a room of people tomorrow three hours before I officially wake up. And I don’t even feel *that* nervous. Weird. Whereas my first reading was an exorcism.The entire week beforehand I was a wreck.

I admit one of the reasons I've always wanted to write and teach is the travel. Here I am! At the AmericInn in Mankato, Minnesota. No, it's not France (yet). But
if you check out the link above, my interest in the area will become apparent. Besides, for me, a huge double room at a place with a pool paid for by the U counts as vacation. (AND take out Chinese. AND cable).

Right now it feels good to have who I want to be (writer) pay for a trip. People are interested in what I'm doing. Kind of nice after years and years of people caring about the food I brought to their table.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Anxiety of Influence: A Dog’s Tale

I co-own a difficult dog. He is our neurotic co-pilot. I worry that I helped morph many of his saner attributes into something no longer sane, all the while trying—with patience and persistence—to quell his interest in barking at humans, pigeons, dogs and plastic bags. I wish I knew his before-us time. Then I could chart his course in the last year and rest assured that our training is doing him some good.

I should first credit Monte with his lovable qualities before I proceed to sully his reputation over the interwebs. He is an amazingly intuitive and courteous dog. He will can jump up to my lap and place his paws on my arm when he senses the twinge of existential despair. He knows what’s up and how to fix it.

Monte will gladly accept visitors into our house, even the dog trainer who came on a house to meet him. He treats our cats with begrudging respect. And he doesn’t pester the 50 gallons of water holding our fish. He won’t tear the window blinds or scratch the hardwood. He squeals in his sleep when he’s dreaming. His brown eyes will make a warm puddle of your heart.

Monte can elevate my blood pressure like nobody’s business. He is very dog reactive. It took us a while to notice this. When we adopted him, all 50 lbs. of his 2+ year old emaciated black lab mix self, we noticed he was a leash puller. He wanted to go, and he was taking us with him. He would, on the other hand, approach other dogs with the curiosity and good intentions—but elevated emotions— in much the same way a kid might approach the ice cream truck. There would be tail wagging but an eventual paw swipe at the smaller dogs or a lunge at the larger dogs. Now, during walks with our numbnut, this behavior is more than I can handle. Has our discouraging his dog greeting (because he gets overwhelmed) reinforced his belief that all dogs are bad and that, when we tenderly try a meet-and-greet, he believes it appropriate to jump and swipe? Oh Sisyphus!

Above all else, it is embarrassing to have a dog that is inhospitable to some of our neighbors, while he slobbers and wags his tails at others. He adores the soft-spoken, aloof neighbor, who memorized Monte’s name, birth marks and habits before he could recognize my face or before I could even learn his name. Monte loves the children that play in our courtyard, who kick the soccer ball and proclaim their bravery in the face of slobbering dogs. He likes the constantly revolving line of fans at our local RedBox. He is angry at anyone who might be banging around under the hood of their cars or watering their lawns when we walk by. He doesn’t like if someone is listening to headphones or on their bicycle. He is angry when someone comes out from around a corner. He is elated at squirrels. He cowers at thunder and if someone slams the door downstairs. His agoraphobia has manifested itself not as the inability to leave the apartment, but rather with the inability to manage the barrage of sensory information he encounters outside. And I thought walking your dog was supposed to be calming and regenerative.

So we enrolled Monte is a Growl class. And he was a super star. I was not a super star. I was a blubbering fool, disappointed when Monte wouldn’t make eye contact and felt like jumping up and down at other dogs. I was a mess simply because I couldn’t stand the anxiety of holding in my anxiety enough to make sure Monte didn’t see that I was agitated. Turned out, I needed a Growl class for humans and Monte needed to stay home and eat bacon and watch Days of our Lives. I think that this human class I need to go find might be filed in the yellow pages under “therapy” or “support group”.

In Growl, the dog trainers told us to sing “jingle bells” to ourselves when approaching another dog, so as not to transfer the anxiety or tension through the leash to our dog. There’s a lot of talk of the leash being the emotional tether—the only thing “connecting” you to your dog. My tension tells Monte when to be tense. My relaxation tells Monte when to relax. My tension is high when I’m tense about making sure I relax enough. The trainers wouldn’t be able to help me if they knew I’m too worried about singing jingle bells and sacrificing one small bit of my attention from him to even remember why I’m supposed to be singing jingle bells in the first place.

It’s been 9 months since we adopted Monte. With excellent precision—if I have the timing right—I can navigate the most stress-inducing dog walk-past on the narrowest of sidewalks while Monte maintains eye contact and prepares to receive a treat. Food motivates. But motivational slogans and commands and food-giving is both exhausting and habit forming. Sometimes it doesn’t even work. Will Monte ever not need treats to walk like a reasonable, obedient and calm dog? Will I ever trust the dog? Will he ever trust me?

Word Choice?

What did writers do before word processing? For one, we repeated ourselves a lot more. As I revise my book I am discovering my crutch words, how I repeat not just in a sentence or in a paragraph (typo) but over the course of 300 pages (tic). I couldn’t finish Anne Rice due to her abuse of the phrase “preternatural skin.” I mean, I wasn’t looking for much, just some vampire paperback action. But even so, I got so irritated I couldn’t read. I’m determined to avoid a similar mistake.

Enter the "Find" tool, which let me know how fond I am of "documenting." I love "to document." Tasks are "documented." So are people. I even found a "documented are," the passive voice version creating a double faux pas. What's eerie is that I've written these chapters at different times over the past four years. My writing might have changed but the obsession with documenting remaints.

I know some of my crutches even as I type them. I have banned myself from the phrase "truth be told" even I have the impulse to start every third sentence this way. I lean on "now," "then" and "so" as (lame) transitions. I'll allow myself this indulgence once in a while, but I try to be sparing.

"Find" next informed me I overuse the phrase "I confess."

"Difficult" was the next to go. Originally I was searching for the word "cult," to make sure I didn't make the same Yearning for Zion joke twice. "Difficult" turned up about every fifth page. It was like finding out one in five people is an alien.

And I have a problem with inserting too many clever, quippy similes, which are like a stinky cheese——delightful in small doses, but if overindulged, impact the bowels.

Then there's when a writer uses the "only once per novel word" twice. For instance, you only get to describe a character's neck as resembling a puggaree once. A favorite writer of mine had this sort of error in her latest novel, and I gasped as if she had just stepped up to accept a PEN Faulkner in a menstrual stained skirt. Where was the editor?

Alas, It's commonly mourned how the days of Maxwell Perkins level editing are long gone. Every time someone reads my book they catch something. But I'm the final gatekeeper. Just because the editor signs off doesn't mean I should

Monday, June 28, 2010

On Writing About Writing

For three weeks I have been reworking the first chapter of my book. And yes, I’m going dotty because in many ways I have been working this same chapter (it began as an essay) for five years. About now it’s like tough, old dough that requires a violent punching. But this is the last stand. I have to make final decisions and once my book is out there I can’t take it back. If Chapter One doesn’t hold, then the reader will never go any further. So I am fine combing the situation and it’s brutal.

My Stymie of the Day takes place on page seventeen. I am worried about being one of those writers writing about writing.

In Montana workshops the general rule was to disdain stories about writers and writing. I'm I was one of the naysayers, but the more I think about it, I'm a sucker for stories that star writers (Sophie's Choice, Wonder Boys, Winslow in Love to name a few). Writers done well make for great main characters. But a bad story about a writer is worse than a bad story about a lawyer. Hence the sordid slushpile tale about the young "writer" who gets his "college girlfriend" "pregnant" and she breaks down over the "abortion."

Lesson: Write about writing if you must——but proceed with caution.

My book (as Chuck Klosterman would say) is 85% a true story. Nonfiction presents a different dilemma: How does the writer set up the project without writing too much about being a writer. My issue right now is that I have to get our heroine (me) from North Carolina to Montana to begin the story. The blog pretty much outs why I moved to Montana. But do I really want to write about that? The MFA, it seems, is often the published writer's dirty little secret. Writing about the MFA is akin to talking about that great yoga pose that aligns the lower intestine. Writers are supposed to emerge from remote valleys and mountain caves, not graduate school

Here's were the creative part of creative nonfiction comes in. I could simply say, "I moved out to Montana to write" and not say why. I have encountered this sidestep often in books, essays and author bios. "So and so lives and writers in the high plains of Nebraska." What so and so might neglect to mention is that he/she is in a PhD program in Lincoln, or a tenure track professor.

How much of the “writerly” parts should an author include? Eat, Pray, Love neglects to mention the lucrative book deal. But while as a writer (and poorling) my first question was how Elizabeth Gilbert financed all this self-actualization, it’s obvious most readers didn’t want to hear about it. They just wanted the story.

These are questions. And I haven’t decided yet.

I should also mention that the part about the MFA takes up maybe two paragraphs.


(Note: It’s okay in a writing blog directed at other writers to write about writing)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What Not to Write

Writing a query letter might be about the hardest assignment ever. You have to say what your work is *about* without sounding like a complete tool. Yet while ignorance might be the reason for lameness, it's no excuse.

In that spirit, here's a link to Slushpile Hell.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

P is for PhD: A Year in Review


I know I abandoned the blog this past year. Guess I got worded out. When all you do day in/day out is words you crave a task that is not words. Frying a farm fresh egg in a skillet, for instance.

But here I am Summer break. My friends are (mostly) scattered. I find myself inspired to pen a brief wrap to the highlights of my past year as a PhD candidate in creative writing at Ohio University.


I navigated the usual stages if a first year: 1) exhilaration 2) resolution 3) pedagogy 4) assembling of posse 5) poetic musing 6) hedonism 7) deathbed hangover 8) atonement 9) actual writing 10) random drive to Target 11) Karaoke-ing 12) existential questioning 13) the frantic desire to move to France 14) disintegration of self 15) lunch 16) gang warfare 17) more actual writing 18) veganism 19) lapse from veganism 20) total burnout 21) acceptance.

I fought back a torrent of seminars, meetings, assemblages, surveys, memos, notices, warnings, emails, reminders, reports, colloquia, announcements and etc. Ultimately I have found the "oh, I didn't see that one" technique works best.

I still miss Montana. This heartache won't heal. I cling to my 406 area code and MT driver's license. My tags have been expired over a year but I refuse to change them.

I took a Tristram Shandy seminar, which rocked. Sitting around a large oak table discussing 18th century literature felt exactly like what grad school should be. Advice: take the time to search out those profs who bring the material to life, and the lit classes won’t feel like cement feet.

I lunched with writers such as Rebecca Skloot, George Saunders, Robin Hemley and Lydia Davis. I was hoping for a laying of hands or incantation of secret writer spells, but they did each break the terrible news that the actual writing part is up to me kindly. And sometimes, there was good cheese.

I published in The Gettysburg Review, Brevity, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
and mental_floss magazine.

For coursework I read Phillip Roth, Michael Chabon, Denis Johnson, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Joan Didion, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglass, Nellie Bly, Hannah Crafts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and about 50 critical articles, most of which could have been cut in half, although I recommend Henry Louis Gates, Janet McMaster, and Hugh Kenner who all write *gasp* enjoyable scholarship.

I taught three sections of comp at OU, and eight sections of business communication online, and wondered if I will ever get to lead a workshop.

And, somehow, through all of this, I managed to complete a draft of my first book. Despite the extra workload, I believe school helped. Yes, school can be a bubble, but for me the bubble works. As my former Montana prof Kevin Canty wrote once on writers, "Talky, drinky, gossipy, insecure and overcompensating, self-doubting, self-promoting, bright and dark, you are nevertheless My People and I love you almost all."

Monday, June 14, 2010

Reading in Olympia

Lohmann Poetry Prize Reading

Three winners have been announced for the 7th annual Jeanne Lohmann Poetry prize sponsored and judged by Jeanne’s poetry friends in California, and facilitated by OPN. The winners (with their hometowns and poems) are Brian Desmond (University Place, Bicycles), Trina Burke (Seattle, Confinement in a Strange Hour), and Casey Fuller (Olympia, Why Are You People So Nice?). Also, contest sponsor Valerie Berry, will be in town "to say a word or two about each winning poem..., what caught the eye/ear/imagination." Jeanne Lohmann is scheduled to read as well. June 16, 2010, 6:30 PM at Traditions Fair Trade Cafe & World Folk Art, Olympia WA

Friday, February 26, 2010

Someone at work alerted me to this crazypants new fangled program available on the interwebs called Mendeley. It allows you to cross reference and log academic articles and generate citations. Thought you should know.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

If Spam Email was a Freshman Composition Essay, What Would I Say?

I sincerely ask for forgiveness for I know this may seem like a complete intrusion to your privacy but right about now this is my best option of communication. This mail might come to you as a surprise and the temptation to ignore it as frivolous could come into your mind; but please consider it a divine wish and accept it with a deep sense of humility.

Dear L. Y.,

Your introduction demonstrates strong pathos, appealing directly to the reader with emotional language. Good job here. However, in revision please direct your attention to eliminating redundancy and consider leading with more concrete information. What is the purpose for you writing to your audience? Could you perhaps lead with a narrative; tell us a little story about where you came from, where you’re going. How am I involved, exactly?

This letter must surprise you because we have never meet before neither in person nor by correspondence, but I believe that it takes just one day to meet or know someone either physically or through correspondence.

I’m sorry—say what? Are you coming on to me? Know thy audience and write accordingly.

I got your contact through my personal search, you were revealed as being quite astute in private entrepreneurship, and one has no doubt in your ability to handle a financial business transaction.

While your audience will no doubt appreciate the lengths you went to personally investigate their background and interests (long walks on the beach, curling up with a fine book), you are rambling and I am suspicious something is up. By now, I don’t plan on listening to you because you’ve spent so much time seeking my trust and hoping I have some blind faith to throw around. I’m on to you!

I am L.Y. a transfer supervisor operations in investment section in Bank of China Ltd. Secretariat of the BOCHK Charitable Foundation 13/F. Bank of China Tower , 1 Garden Road , Hong Kong I have an obscured business suggestion for you.

Wait—did you just say “obscured business suggestion”? You don’t mean “obscure” by any chance, do you? Nevertheless, I like that the suggestion is obscured. That is, you’re finally admitting that what you’ll be asking me is no damn good and I’d be a fool to continue. Go on.

Before the U.S and Iraqi war our client General Mohammed Jassim Ali who work with the Iraqi forces and also business man made a numbered fixed deposit for 18 calendar months, with a value of (I will disclose amount upon your reply) in my branch.

Weigh the pros and cons of taunting your reader with teasers. Will you release this information later in your email? If you introduce a gun to act I, will it go off by act III? You risk alienating your reader (again, mind you) by asking them to follow through to learn more information. Is this assignment not to be informative rather than coy?

Upon maturity several notices was sent to him, even early in the war, again after the war another notification was sent and still no response came from him, We later find out that General Mohammed Jassim Ali and his family had been killed during the war in a bomb blast that hit their home.

After further investigation it was also discovered that General Mohammed Jassim Ali did not declare any next of kin in his official papers including the paper work of his bank deposit. And he also confided in me the last time he was at my office that no one except me knew of his deposit in my bank. So, (I will disclose amount upon your reply) is still lying in my bank and no one will ever come forward to claim it. What bothers me most is that, according to the to the laws of my country at the expiration 3 years the funds will revert to the ownership of the Hong Kong Government if nobody applies to claim the funds.

Against this backdrop, my suggestion to you is that I will like you as a foreigner to stand as the next of kin to General Mohammed Jassim Ali so that you will be able to receive his funds. I want you to know that I have had everything planned out so that we shall come out successful.
I have contacted an attorney who will prepare the legal documents that will back you up as the next of kin to General Mohammed Jassim Ali, all what is required from you at this stage is for you to provide me with your Full Names, private phone number and Address so that the attorney can commence his job.

Could I give you my public phone number (?) and we can call it a day?

After you have been made the next of kin, the attorney will also fill in for claims on your behalf and secure the necessary approval and letter of probate in your favor for the transfer of the funds to an account that will be provided by you with my guidance. There is no risk involved at all in the matter as we are going adopt a legalized method and the attorney will prepare all the necessary documents.

Please consider opting for a topic change and re-writing your persuasive essay all together to fit the requirements of the genre. You mention a legalized method. This makes me think of the often touched upon subject of marijuana legalization, legalization of drinking for 18 year olds, legalized driving when you’re 11, things of that nature. Pursue any of the above topics in favor of the current one, please.

Please endeavor to observe utmost discretion in all matters concerning this issue. Once the funds have been transferred to your nominated bank account we shall discuss the percentage issue on your reply.

Believe me, there’s nothing nomination worthy about my bank account. Know thy audience. Have I said that already?

If you are interested please send me your full names and current residential address, and I will prefer you to reach me on my private and secure email address below and finally after that I shall provide you with more details of this operation.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

If you tweet: poems

From the most recent Lost Roads newsletter:

Lost Roads' Editor, Susan Scarlata, is in the midst of "Tweeting" an entire book of poems. This experiment with dissemination started in January and will continue until the entire manuscript has been posted and sent out in to the world. If you are interested in following search SusanScarlata on Twitter and get a few lines of poetry added to your day, and an entire poem every three to four. This manuscript, entitled "Reaching Here," considers potential confluences of ancient rituals and current technologies.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Montana Represents at Dancing Girl Press

The DGP 2010 lineup of chapbooks is out and the Montana kids are out in force.

Huzzah to Brandon Shimoda for "Ship-On-Land," written with Julia Cohen!

Mazel tov to Lindsay Bland, throwing down "Between the Devil and the Deep" in the Spring!

...and then, in the fall, there's "Great America" by yours truly.

2010, I love you already!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Slush: Not A Pleasing Fruity Drink

The Wall Street Journal released this article about how getting read (nevermind published) from the slushpile has reached astronomically difficult proportions. For example, The Paris Review, publishes one solicited story a year, making the odds .o08%. So, do we draw up the noose, pile up the back issues, and jump?

By way of response, I would like to say that even today, in this supposed dearth, new writers get noticed. Who ever said writing was easy? People seem to cling to these glory days when the short story market paid the bills. And when was that? And how long, in the grand scheme of writing and publishing, did that era last?

Technology has made multiple submissions easy for the writer. Writers don't have to painstakingly type manuscripts, and then wait for their return. Now they can fire multiple copies off and carpet bomb if they like. Editors, lest they wind up drowned in sheafs of paper, have had to create lines of multiple defense. Having read for a lit mag, I don't blame them.

No, you can't mail your newly minted book off to Random House and expect a response, but if you are writing and submitting good work, publication is not dreaming the impossible dream. In the past three years Montana MFAers (as in, my fellow classmates) have cracked some tough markets, including The Colorado Review, The North American Review, The Black Warrior Review, The Boston Review, McSweeney's, The Atlantic Monthly, The Mid-American Review, and The Gettysburg Review. Books by former grads (that seems to take a few more years) have been published.

A quick look at The Paris Review told me this pub is not for the emerging artist. This month's issue (for example) has work by Robert Haas and Aimee Bender. Furthermore, I don't believe it's the responsibility of every lit mag to focus on emerging writers. It's not as if Aimee Bender and Robert Haas are spamming American.

Still, I'm glad for the lit mags that give us newbies a chance. Allow me to say, thanks. And if you are an emerging writer, consider supporting a mag that supports us.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Kim Addonizio at Benaroya Hall

Thanks to po-friend Maggie, I got a free ticket to see Kim Addonizio and Gary Lilley read last night at Benaroya Hall here in Seattle.

She played harmonica. I found this video on YouTube that features one of the pieces she played last night. The video itself is from a reading at the Folger Library in D.C. Of note, her rad jacket in the video is the same one she wore last night. I covet.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

P is for Publication!

I have a book review in the latest edition of Brevity. For those unfamiliar, Brevity is an online lit mag dedicated to "concise nonfiction," meaning less than 750 words. "Over the past year Brevity has averaged 6,000 visitors per month, or 24,000 visitors per issue," (from the website). And it's free!

So get with it. Here's a link to my favorite from this issue.

Monday, January 18, 2010


On images

While I attempt to reconcile my day job--working in the department of chemistry at a research university--with wanting to write, I find artful endeavors in unlikely places. So, naturally, I have to pause what I'm doing and savor. Then blog about it.

Nanotechnology is all the rage in the material sciences right about now. Chemists enjoy working on a scale undetectable by just a human being. Equipment--marvels of technology, sure-- have removed the hands of a person away from the medium of the human body and made the humans' hands useful for knobs and computers to control the equipment. These people use bright & shiny equipment, and end up working at the cellular level with contrast agents & other cancer diagnostics and therapeutics. I get to see the equipment and see the writing in proposals. The narratives surrounding cancer research is a little awe-inspiring and a lot confusing.

In this image library, you can see these neat-o images. While looking at these images without the research background to understand can be unnerving--can I really know the exact significance and effort poured into making these by the aid of a giant microscope?--it makes a new kind of art gallery.

On language

In animal testing parlance to euthanize a rodent is to "sacrifice" it.

On text

If you can find anyone more concerned for formatting than the federal government, I'd like to know.

Does cancer research and being caught up in this department make me feel a little of this lazy bastardism? Yes, I fear, sometimes. Then this means I'm not trying hard enough.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dispatch from Ohio

  • It's winter quarter, and I'm taking nonfiction workshop which is the most awesomest workshop ever. (Hi Dinty!) Here's a link to a fun Gmap inspired essay by my prof.
  • Professor Dinty Moore, two other nonfiction cohorts and I are also developing a 19th Century American Essay course. This has been interesting, as nonfiction had yet to be formally invented. Perhaps this creation of a specialty qualifies us to be academics. Lesson One: all this past decade fracas over honesty in nonfiction would have been considered a non-issue back in the day.
  • I'm trying out a new strict persona as comp instructor this term. I make students read the textbook. I lecture from the textbook. Texting = Death. I don't take late work. DO WHAT I SAY YOUNGUNS. I wear black-rimmed glasses even though I have 20/20 vision and have affixed extra cat hair to my cableknit L.L. Bean cardigan.
  • OU is hiring a Nonfiction professor, and all the interviewees are coming to visit over the next few weeks. I will not be gossiping online about this process, however, as that would be unprofessional (Hi Dinty!). The important thing to remember is that there will be luncheons and colloquia. At last, Latin.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Exposition is a very windexed window.

This is why poetry is not exposition.