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