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.