Tuesday, August 23, 2011

So Long, Farewell

The time has come to Kevork the blog. And rather than leave the 3 Ps lingering with half-thoughts in cyberspace forever, we decided, before signing off, to sum up where we are three years later. Our 31 followers will be relieved to know the three of us remained friends as we travailed, and that we will continue to write and be friends as we continue to travail.

Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

Firstly, mostly, and lastly, I have a book coming out this September—My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself. I can now be found at kellykathleenferguson.com.

As for the past three years:

Moved to New Orleans. Helped start a writers’ group. Wrote a book proposal. Caught a golden coconut at Zulu. Landed an agent. Golden coconut turned bright turquoise with mold. Lost the agent. Accepted to creative writing PhD program at Ohio University. Signed with Press 53. Moved to Athens. (Not Greece. Not Georgia.) Wrote a book. Published one short story, one profile, one poem, one list and three book reviews. Survived 56 rejections (15 for one story). 2 “encouraging” rejections (same story). 4 no reply. 5 pending. Presented at two conferences. Total student loan debt running at $18,000, but no panhandling. Yet.

There’s also a few thousand hours of time elapse photography of me either staring at my laptop and/or face down crying.

And, coming full circle, I will be reading at the Montana Festival of the Book in Missoula this fall, my first trip back to Montana.

Trina Burke

I moved to Seattle. There was freelance editing and then a friend got me a job in her office at the local university (Networking: It really does work!) It was a temporary job as an administrative assistant. I almost got laid off, but a coworker left and I just happened to have the skills to move into her position on a temporary appointment. Then my appointment was almost up, but a coworker almost died from swine flu and another coworker did die of a heart attack. So I moved into another role. Then I got a permanent appointment. All in three years, all in the same department. I still freelance, but with less frequency.
On the home front: I got married. I moved three times within the same city. The people around me have been marrying, divorcing, and having babies with abandon. I've been to Europe a couple of times. I have a burgeoning pumpkin patch in my back yard. I have a back yard! I'm wickedly happy.
And then there's the writing. I've been rejected a lot, which comes as no surprise. But I've had some small triumphs, too: I won $200 in a contest, published some poems in some journals, had a chapbook accepted and published by Dancing Girl Press, wrote some reviews, attended some seminars abroad. More important than all that, I've managed to keep up a sort of writing practice. Yes, the flood of inspiration and output during the MFA years has diminished, but new work still finds its way out on the regular. I imagine it will continue to do so, regardless of whether any of it gets published.
I don't know if my experience is typical. It has been an exercise in sitting back and seeing what happens. And what I've realized is that nothing happens quickly, or dramatically. This epiphany has allowed me to conclude that there is no deadline for success. If I look back and try to think about what my goal was in getting an MFA, I don't so much find a goal as a nebulous bunch of hopes. I hoped to amass a body of work, which I did. I hoped to read a lot of poetry, which I did. I hoped to meet some awesome people, which I did in spades. I hoped to publish a book, which hasn't happened yet and might never. I think I still came out ahead, though.
It's been a kick. Thanks for reading the blog and best wishes!

Laurie E. White

Adieu! Looking back, working backwards:

[September 2011 – September 2010] I’m in Chicago working as a writer at NogginLabs, designing instructional software (read: eLearning) for Fortune 500 companies. Recently bought our first home in the Rogers Park neighborhood. Adopted a dog; he’s still our neurotic co-pilot.

[September 2010 – January 2009] Wedding (married fellow Montana MFAer Travis Fortney). The 3Ps were together again. A chapbook from From Yes Press. Before Noggin, Research Coordinator for the Department of Chemistry at Northwestern University. (Chemistry?!?) Four poems were picked up for the second issue of > kill author. Adopted a fat cat.

[January 2009 – May 2008] Celebrated in Grant Park on election night. Instructed at an online university; college comp. Copy edited for the Annals of Statistics. One poem in DIAGRAM. Our first Chicago apartment: the super can't distinguish our keys from the 1,000 others on his ring. Proceeds to kick in our back door with his boot, advises us to change the locks. Thisclose to taking a temp job testing Diebold voting machines for the national election in a warehouse for 12 hours/day, $8.00/hour. Drove with one cat, one fellow (see September 2010) and some of our plants straight from Montana to Chicago. Why Chicago? We picked it on a map and drove there. No place to stay. No jobs.

[May 2008] MFA.

What excellent company I’ve been able to keep at 3Ps for 3 years. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Post-MFA Jobs! Teaching

There is much gloom and doom in the post-MFA job marketland, but you know what? I know people getting teaching jobs. Granted, to land as a tenure track creative writing prof, it seems you need three creative books and multiple pubs and a critical theory book and edit a renowned lit mag and quite possibly some trapeze skills, but a regular ole' teaching job? (Summers off! Still!) These can be found. (She blogged optimistically.)

I found the following advice online while randomly trawling around. The writer prefers to remain anonymous. But I thought this solid advice deserved re-posting.

"This is just my opinion, but I think too many MFA grads assume that they can only serve as adjuncts, when in fact there are numerous full-time non-tenure track gigs out there to be had, particularly at large state universities. You just have to play your cards right and be patient.

I graduated from a small MFA program that most people have never even heard of and was able to land a full-time non-tt comp gig at a large state university. I make 32K and have full benefits. These kinds of jobs are out there, and 1-2 years of TA experience can get your foot in the door. In the fall of my second year of my MFA program, I checked Higheredjobs and The Chronicle religiously. I didn't even waste my time on the small liberal arts colleges and went after the "State U" type schools that have to fill 5,000,000,000,000,000 sections of freshman comp per year and don't want to burden their research professors with such "service courses."

In fact, the job that I currently hold was landed because I sent my CV to a large state university on my own; this university didn't even post a listing, but needed full-time instructors come July and simply pulled my file; after a go-through-the-motions interview, I was hired and signed a FT contract on the spot.

So, in short, if you want to teach comp FULL-TIME after the MFA, make sure that you:

1) Target the large state universities; you need to target the universities that have the most sections to fill, which obviously increases your chances of being hired; don't waste your time on the SLAC's that have like 5 sections of composition to fill each year.

2) Be open about location. If you picky about location then you're in the wrong profession. The English job market is dreadful and you might need to be willing to teach for a year or two at Middle of Nowhere State U.

3) Don't just send your CV to large state universities that post listings. Any halfway decent comp director will gladly take your CV to put in a file somewhere that just might be accessed in the summer when administrators are scrambling to fill extra sections. I sent emails to tons of comp directors at large state universities and had my CV in their files within a week.

4) If you plan to teach after your MFA, understand that a fellowship to a program that allows you to not teach might actually do you more harm than good. Yes, obviously the main objective of an MFA is to write and not to prepare yourself to teach freshman comp full-time, but at the same time you absolutely need that 1-2 years of teaching experience to get a full-time gig after you leave your MFA program. For full-time comp gigs, is all about the teaching experience; where you earned your degree or whether or not you're published is meaningless for these kinds of jobs. (Obviously that will change as you work toward applying for tenure track creative writing gigs, but that's a completely different ball game)."

So maybe not so sexy. But practical. I also have friends getting Fulbrights, landing instructorships, or just (*gasp*) getting jobs and writing when they write.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Summer Reading

A down side of higher ed is that it turns the kid who was the library nerd into the Netflix addict. This past year, reading meant Victorian and Romantic lit, critical articles, student essays, reading I’ve assigned my students, workshop submissions, lit mag submissions, assigned reading for workshops, books by visiting writers so I don’t look like a schmo at dinner, etc. Plus, I went to twenty or so readings.

You burn out.

Yes, it’s fantastic that reading is my “job” (although the critical articles take a bit of self-flagellation). This means I have found my vocation. But. When I’m not reading, then I’d rather catch up on the latest season of Mad Men.

Enter summer. Time to read whatever I want!

So what do I choose? Infinite Jest. Way to relax, Kelly. There was, finally, the finite, but there went July. The best advice I can give here is 1) Don’t do this alone. Pick one or two people you can count on and meet once a week 2) Read the introduction by Dave Eggers which explains why this 1,179 page beast is actually worth the investment 3) Have two bookmarks—one for the chapters and one for the endnotes 4) While it’s good to experience the book on its own terms, sans "spoilers," I took advantage of some Wikis to help me keep track. (For instance, there are over 200 characters).

As for my own review? While I experienced definite moments of infinite frustration, I emerged from the book changed. I interact and perceive the world differently from when I began. Is there something more we demand from a novel?

Next: A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan. The chapters morph in setting and time and point of view, and one chapter is written completely in a graphic representation of PowerPoint. Post DFW? No problem. My brain was in fighting shape. Finished in two days. The book has been criticized for reading like collected short stories as opposed to a “real” novel, but I felt the gel. Language, story, characters, plot turns. All there.

Next: House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home, memoir by Mark Richard, an author who, simply speaking, needs to be read. The POV is second person, which could be intensely annoying. Instead, it’s amazing. Here I’ll quote Padgett Powell, “If Mark Richard could not write, you could not read this. Since he can, you can’t not read it. It is unreal, and Mr. Richard has the wit to make it real.”

Also, thanks to fellow blogger/friend Trina, I have received the belated memo on Montana poetry prof Karen Volkman. Right now, though, I’m so obsessed with “Infernal,” I can’t move on to the rest of Crash’s Law, never mind progress onward to the other two books. Poetry for me seems to work like music. I tend to focus on a particular song and turn it inside out. This will take time.

Now I’m swamped in Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. I have yet to tire of exclamation point! And that might be the summer. Because I’m also reading all about How to Promote Your Book in preparation for MY book. And I’m planning for my fall class, which means reading with my students in mind. Not the same. But I still might sneak in a murder mystery.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

P is for Publication!

I'm ten years in the writing game now. Admittedly, I entered my MFA with a goal: Be Famous. The naivete sustained me and I have no regrets. I plunged and emerged a better writer.

Although initially wanting in the fiction program, I (confession) applied in nonfiction because the then-director told it was less competitive. I figured once I was there I could do both, which—with finagling and taking two workshops for three out of four semesters—I did. My nonfiction was also more developed at the time (I'd worked in journalism and had publications). I knew that my NF was the stronger writing sample, and looking back at the fiction I had then, chances of my acceptance against all these BFAs with at least one polished story was slim.

One aspect I have discovered I don't care for, as I extend my stay in the academic writing world with a PhD, is genre pidgeonholing. This was why I dropped out of a Lit MA fifteen years ago. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life writing critical articles on Jungian analysis and feminist criticism of Eudora Welty for ten other people in my field. Again, I applied in nonfiction because I had a developed book project. I knew that genre was my strongest writing sample/application. So, my "label" is nonfiction writer.

To be clear, I'm not writing nonfiction to get in programs. I love nonfiction. I have a nonfiction book coming out, and believe me, if I didn't love writing about Laura Ingalls Wilder and researching the 19th century and writing memoir, I could never have finished.

But I have missed writing fiction. I recently entered and won a fiction writing contest for the Ohio Lit Fest, and people came up to me, wondering if the were going to "lose" me, which makes no sense. Maybe, for my academic job, a particular focus is best. Although Montana just hired David Gates, for fiction/nonfiction. So maybe not.

On the other hand, sometimes it's admittedly annoying when people publish in all three genres. Like, make up your mind already. And often, you can tell when an author has a particular strength. Well-known authors, especially, can get their perhaps-not-best-material published in a lit mag because of their name.

Oh well, I just published a poem anyway. What? Although I might like my bio better than the actual poem.

Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Out! It's Out! My New Baby Chapbook!

I am positively giddy to announce that my very first chapbook, "Great America," is available from Dancing Girl Press!

It's an honor to be in the company of fellow dancing girls Carol Guess, Kristi Maxwell, and Lindsay Bland!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Post-MFA Jobs! Online Teaching

After graduating from Montana in 2008, I took a job the University of Phoenix, College of Axia, teaching basic writing classes. I’ve had various friends ask me about online teaching. So here’s a post about it. I’m happy to share my experience, but, remember, I am no expert. This is just one woman’s journey at one university.

Here goes.

Generally speaking, online instruction seems to be a huge trend, simply because it’s so cost effective (no buildings, no tenure track profs to pay, etc). It’s also convenient for students who aren’t in school for the “college experience” (Read: Jager Bombs). Many students are single moms, people with families/full-time jobs or soldiers abroad. A nice break, in many ways, I will say, from the whinging entitlement U kid.

Online is nice for us writers who need a flex job that we can do when we like. If I want to monitor the discussion board or grade a few assignments, at 2 am, or 8 am, or from my iPhone (if I had an iPhone) while in a traffic jam, or in my jammies, I can. I don’t have to dress up in “teacher clothes,” drive anywhere, struggle for parking, prepare lectures, or really, cultivate the same level of relationship I do with “live” students. Which saves a ton of time.

Online pays more than adjuncting. (Of course, what doesn’t?) Obviously, pay varies according to the institution, and your efficiency level (or if you actually put time into teaching versus phoning it in). UOP pays about $1750 per nine week class before taxes. (These pay rates can vary. Don’t quote me!)

There can be weirdness working for “McUniversity,” (Emoticons! Exclamation points! Motivating emails!) which has been criticized for abusing student loans for profit, i.e. students who mostly likely don’t have a real chance at graduation. The idea that “everyone” deserves a degree is nice, but doesn’t always work. I admit, that many students could barely construct sentences is really a tenth grade level English class. But as always, there’s those special students who surprise you.

Note: at McUniversity, the syllabus and all procedures are decided for you. You can tweak. But not much.

Also note: the trainings, etc. can take a while. So don’t expect to apply and be at work right away. I was hired in May, didn’t get my first paid class until October. But that was UOP.

And, finally, be forewarned that you remain, essentially, an adjunct with all the non-rights and non-benefits thereof.

You might like to know: How do you get these jobs?

Basically you search the University of Phoenix website until you fine where they list job postings and stalk it until they need English instructors. And UOP is not the only option. I’ve known people who taught at Kaplan or American Military University or other places. I have no idea how they got these jobs. I have no idea what they pay. There might be tenure track online jobs. There might be incredibly high paying jobs. If anyone knows more than me, or has tips, feel free to comment.

My guess is that if you just keep researching human resource departments of schools, or keep refreshing highered.com as jobs will crop up. From there, well, it’s a job.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

On Introductions and Mustaches

I teach nonfiction workshop here at OU and I was (uh, this was back in May) telling my students about how they needed come see Tobias Wolff read at our Lit Fest, because—well—they needed to come see Tobias Wolff, when one student turned to me and asked the dreaded question—


To be fair this question was asked in all sincerity by one of my top students. He was not asking in the sense of why I gotta see Tobias Wolff but in the spirit of a genuine desire to know. And so I wanted to give the inspirational Dead Poet’s Society response his question deserved. I grasped for all the words in the universe—

And answered: blahbalhblahbubbblahbalhblahbubbblahbalhblahbubbblahbalhblahbubbblahbalhblahbubbblahbalhblahbubbb

It turned out, that I was on call to introduce the very Tobias Wolff for Lit Fest, and, with the permission of my student (although I did change the name for this blog post), was inspired to write this introduction below.

As a grad student, or as an instructor, or (ideally) as a famous writer, you might be summoned to perform an introduction. So here’s my sample, for what it’s worth. Also, hey, this might inspire your summer reading list.

The Top Ten Reasons Why You, Jarod Schulzendorfer, Should Be Here Right Now Listening to Tobias Wolff

10) Tobias Wolff is one of America’s great short story writers, having penned such anthologized classics as “Bullet in the Brain “In The Garden of the North American Martyrs,” “Soldier’s Joy,” among others

9) His novella The Barracks Thief won the PEN/Faulkner Award for 1985 And was selected this year by David Sedaris as his recommending reading for his spring tour.

8) Wolff is not only a fiction writer, but a pioneer in the field of memoir, applying techniques of storytelling to nonfiction. In 1989 he helped transform the genre by having Chapter One of his memoir This Boy’s Life by opening with a semi truck careening over a ledge.

7) In addition to This Boy’s Life, the story of his childhood, Wolff wrote the memoir In Pharaoh's Army which records his U.S. Army tour of duty in Vietnam.

6) Wolff is an award-winning teacher, having worked for such universities as Stanford and Syracuse where he has mentored writers we love such as George Saunders and Mary Karr.

5) This Boy's Life became a feature film, which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, as a young Toby.

4) Jarod Schulzendorfer, in case you “wondering about how you are doing in the class,” you are doing just fine. Any student that emails me before spring break about what he should read automatically begins the class with an “A.”

3) As a teenager the author completely fabricated all his applications to exclusive prep schools, from writing his own letters of recommendation, to forging transcripts, to inventing a swim team for his high school and changing his name to Tobias Jonathan von Ansell-Wolff, III.


And…number ONE, the top reason, Jarod Schulzendorfer, why you should be here—and I apologize for ending on this—

Sweet mustache.

To which Mr. Wolff replied, “You don’t ever have to apologize for complimenting my mustache.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Before I left Missoula in 2008, I stood on Higgins Bridge, shook my fist at the churning Clark Fork River, and with all the melodrama of Scarlet O’ Hara, swore that I’d be back, and with a published book. That’s right, a BOOK. With a shiny cover. And chapters. And an acknowledgements page.

And so, after three years of flaming meteors and alien invasions and giant poison spitting toads and who knows what else (who said writing a book was easy?), I shall make my Great Return to Missoula at the Montana Festival of the Book this fall. I don’t know yet if I’ll be reading at Fact and Fiction, or at the Wilma, or perhaps standing on the M for an audience of puckerbrush and ponderosa pines. But I will be reading.


I began My Life as Laura at the beginning of my MFA in 2006. I had no idea what writing a book meant, beyond subjecting my fellow workshoppers to half-cocked drafts. (Flashback: sudden memory of an early chapter that included a certain “Kraft Macaroni n’ Cheese Incident,” in which orange noodles gave me the ability the ability to channel Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

Uh, that did not make the final cut.

I’ll be launching an author website soon (Does “book” mean I’m no longer a “writer” but an “author” now? One can hope). In the meantime, I look forward to the time when I can see the people who saw the pages in humbler, more orange forms.

The Western Literature Association Conference will be that same weekend. Also, a good thing.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Goings on in Seattle: Elizabeth Colen reads at Ravenna Third Place Books

...and I get to be the opening act! Elizabeth will be reading from her chapbook "Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake," which is featured in the new collection They Could No Longer Contain Themselves (Rose Metal Press 2011). I will read from my manuscript "Wreck Idyll," forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in 2012.

Tonight. 7 p.m. Ravenna Third Place Books.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hearts to Bossypants

After each quarter I need a decompress book. By this I mean a book that would never be taught in an English Literature class, yet smart so it keeps my interest.

Enter Bossypants by Tina Fey.

I knew that Fey would be funny but what I didn’t expect, was her insight into the career of a woman writer. Granted, she has worked in comedy—a tough field—but I felt much applied to me.

Fey details her climb through the comedy ranks. How when she began at Second City the famous improv company assigned 4 men and 2 women per group. The rationale was that there wouldn’t be enough parts for women. Fey (I gather, repeatedly) countered, how could this be so when this was an IMPROV group? Even in the 90s, a man in drag might get the part over an actual women. She was told no one would ever want to see a sketch involving two women, and details how the hilarious “Kotex Classic” SNL parody ad was almost nixed because the men had no idea what the women were talking about.

Fey also reveals the process of comedy writing, going through various 30 Rock episodes and how they came together, attributing various MVP lines to the writers. I have say, my lonely world of literary prose seems pretty dull.

And yes, she tells the story of how she came to do her first Sarah Palin impersonation on SNL, the (in my mind now iconic) skit where Fey as Palin and Sarah Poehler as Clinton share the podium to decry sexism on the campaign. (I can see Alaska from my house!) Even juicier is that she publishes a copy of the sketch—along with the penciled in revisions. Writer geek heaven!.

This is all fun stuff. But why we love Fey, is because she's not afraid to write, “That night’s show was watched by ten million people, and I guess that director at The Second City who said the audience ‘didn’t want to see a sketch with two women’ can go shit his hat.”

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Workshops and Draft Purgatory

This quarter I tallied my total number of workshops, including my MFA. Total count: seventeen. Granted, I am a shopmonger. I have taken nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I have taken multiple shops at one time. I love dissecting how works–in-progress are/aren’t working. I appreciate how shop drives me to produce. I love the whiskey bar post shop decompress.

The downside of workshop is that you have to endure being workshopped. Of course, the point is to break everything down. That’s how everyone learns. I have even felt nostalgia for past shops where I was vivisected, but that was later, because I turned in something better. The shop story worked towards a happy ending. But over time this story's power has dwindled.

Time presents a new workshop problem: I generally know what everyone is going to say before they say it. What I hear over and over is that my voice engages but my structure has problems, and/or that my piece needs more weight. Here begins the heartbreak of writing—just because you are aware of your writing Waterloos doesn’t mean you know how to avoid them. Or revise them.

My goal for the next few weeks is to sort through the wreckage of five years (gah!) of drafts. Admittedly, much of this did go towards a book on Laura Ingalls Wilder, which will come out with Press 53 this fall. Completion! (I’ll be writing more in this later and—locusts willing—launch a website this summer). But I also have essays, memoirs, stories, flash fiction, aborted first novel chapters and now poetry sitting in desktop purgatory. So that’s my goal in the upcoming weeks. To attend to these lost souls. See what can be saved. What gets put in the DNR file.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

On Author Websites

Read any “must” list for writers and you will be told to have an author website. These freelancers earning $350 dollars for their Writer’s Digest articles will tell you to get one now, but my personal feeling is there isn’t much of a point until you have a book.

I had a website when I first started writing eight years or so ago, built around a former column of mine I wrote called “Charm School Reject.” The idea was that my hilarious postings would get me one of those blog to book deals. Uh, no. I couldn’t ever tap into a focus like Stuff White People Like or Julie and Julia. And as it turns out all I needed was a blog, not a website.

After a year or so I found I couldn’t keep the site up. My writing persona evolved and I couldn’t afford to have the look updated. The once snazzy site took on a patina of dust and disuse, so I let the domain name expire. Now that I’m researching author websites, I find I’m not alone. Many author websites are bedraggled, neglected, non-existent and/or amateur. Money isn’t the only obstacle. Elizabeth Gilbert’s site looks thrown together. You’d think with the movie deal and Oprah press she could do better than cartoon yellow backdrop and Comic Sans. Stephanie Meyer’s site is also surprisingly amateur. If you didn’t know that Twilight was a phenomenon you’d think she was working on the sequel to the Unibomber Manifesto.

Stephen King’s site is pretty snazzy. Although perhaps a bit too much so. I suppose I have a peeve against any site that makes me wait for it to load. Same for Margaret Atwood. I seem to remember preferring her simpler, older site that let you click on an interactive desk. I wonder if a writer really needs a site sporting 5 or 6 menu bars with pull down windows.

Moving on to more literary types, Joy Williams, Lorrie Moore or Amy Hempel don’t seem to even have websites. George Saunders has one that's hanging in there, but isn't to my mind worthy of the writer. Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers are branded by amazing graphic design, so I checked them out. Chabon has this artsy eight-track image with print too small to read. Wha? His events page was empty. If Chabon can’t maintain an events page, then the rest of us are fracked. Eggers has a bio page that splinters off McSweeney’s. The ubiquitous and seemingly indefatigable Steve Almond has one of the better sites. I would follow his lead if reading his publication history didn’t exhaust me so much.

I tried tooling around on iWeb, and the site wasn’t looking too bad, but reached an impasse on the blog format, which I didn’t like and couldn’t change. From my earlier post on Steven Rinella, I wound up looking up his website, which struck me as having the right balance of visual interest and clarity. So I wound up contacting his designer, Dave McKay, from Missoula who turns out to be a friend of a mutual friend. Despite my poorling status, I’m going to pay for a website, because maybe Elizabeth Gilbert is satiated, spiritually connected and loved, but I don’t have the self-esteem to have Google turn up a less than professional site with my name splashed across the top.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Goings-On About Town: Seattle Edition

It's Small Press Festival time in Seattle! What better way to celebrate National Poetry Month? I'll be hitting Recto Verso: A Small Press Expo on Saturday. And by "hitting" I mean standing awkwardly in a corner with a drink, shivering and praying no one talks to me. And purchasing some rad books.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

On Wanting To Be the Girl With the Most Cake

Sugar, advice columnist for The Rumpus, fielded a question from a writer who finds herself unable to be happy for a friend’s authorial success. Sugar deals some straight talk about these issues, beginning with the idea that “We are all savages inside. We all want to be the chosen, the beloved, the esteemed. There isn’t a person reading this who hasn’t at one point or another had that why not me? voice pop into the interior mix when something good has happened to someone else.

Jealousy was a terrible, terrible problem for me for a long time. At Montana emails were sent around congratulating people when they had a publication. All I could feel was a stab in the chest.

Montana (for me) wasn’t a program that pitted writers against one another, which isn’t to say there wasn’t a bit of wrestling with the sharks. Some of this jealousy and competition was good. A little burr in the saddle can work as motivation. If I bombed in workshop it made me work harder. If someone-not-me wrote an amazing story or essay then I was determined to outdo them. If there was a award I wanted it. If there was I contest I was scrambling for the gold medal.

Where jealousy became a problem, was when I couldn’t be glad for my fellow classmates and friends. Just like the woman who wrote Sugar, I wanted to be glad but really I was a hot mess inside. Why not me? Of course, I hid my pettiness the best I could but in truth I felt sorry for myself and lack of success.

A few weeks ago a friend of mine here got in the PhD at Utah with full funding, and what I realized was that I was so genuinely glad for her. I actually squealed in delight. That I was able to feel so happy for someone else’s success felt so, so good. A relief. Something shifted in me. I was like the Grinch whose heart grew two sizes that day.

So what happened? I admit my short story acceptance to The Gettysburg Review was like lancing a giant boil. I knew now that I wasn’t a joke. I also finished my book (more on this later). I haven’t made the NYT best seller list and my publication list remains rather middling, yet something changed where I no longer felt as though I wanted to be a writer, but I was a writer.

I have let go a great deal, too. I can’t control or worry about what other writers are doing. Worrying about that shit will drive you crazy. And the more I get in this writing life, the more that I see that it’s freaking hard even for the people we see as being so successful.

Which isn't to say I'm completely free of the twinge now and again. And as I write this, I’m thinking I miss some of the fiery, pre-Prozac me. I might froth up a little bit of that competitive spirit up again. Because while I am glad to be glad for my friends, it doesn’t hurt to want to kick ass now and again.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Funded v. Not Funded at Montana

Anonymous writes:

Does tiered funding create a problem in the workshops? Various handbooks and popular blogs out there say it does. The "advice" tells prospective students that it creates a situation which negatively influences the dynamic in the workshop. (Like a war between the "haves" and the "have-nots."The "advice" tells students to attend only if funding is offered. Can you and others weigh in on this? Obviously, I know from your comments that you were funded, but how were the experiences and opportunities of unfunded candidates? Do they come into the program with the stigma by other students and staff that their talents are less?

I admit when I discovered that I was the only funded person in nonfiction (out of five admits), I felt like pretty hot shit. I was chosen, special, the Star-bellied Sneetch. I had this idea that Judy Blunt had wielded my application like Excalibur from the stone. And sure, those first few weeks that I arrived in Montana were kind of nice. I was the “funded one.”

But after the initial thrill, the only difference became that 1) I was paid 9K a year and 2) I had to teach Fresh Comp. Once everyone began submitting their writing into workshop I had to admit that I was no better than anyone else. Everyone was super talented. There was absolutely no qualitative difference between the “funded” and the “unfunded.” None.

So far as how people were treated in workshop, I don’t think the faculty even remembered who was funded. I know that they hate not being able to offer funding to everyone. Basically every year the faculty sit down with a pile of apps, come up with who they would like to work with, and then make some very tough decisions. Dee and Kevin have told me that sometimes the final cuts feel very much like a coin toss.

Experienced writers know that it’s impossible to predict the career of a beginning writer. Think about it. What is there to know from a lone MFA writing sample? Once in a while there’s a Karen Russell or Lorrie Moore. But most of us dog it out for years before we write publishable work. Kevin said to me over again that while talent is nice, it’s the work ethic and determination that’s wins out in the end.

Of course, lack of funding has its problems. There’s the obvi, money. Those without TAs don’t get the teaching experience, and everyone teaching meets that first week of TA camp. There's nothing like the common enemy of pedagogical discourse to promote bonding. When I was at Montana, only TAs had an office. Finally, there’s the trickier and ickier idea of feeling less “wanted,” although I as I’ve said above, I don’t believe this is true. At least not at Montana.

On the plus side, not having to teach comp frees up time to write. Freshman Comp is time suck, an energy suck and a suck/suck. Slogging through twenty papers on the death penalty wears a writing soul down. I noticed that the unfunded writers often kicked more ass. They published more during the program. They took on outside jobs that were more interesting. And who knows? Maybe feeling like an underdog served as a motivation.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Three Ps Advice Center

Hello Kelly:

My very close friend has been recently accepted into the Montana MFA program and I am so excited for him.

At the same time, I am worried about the prospects of relocating (from the east coast) and the prospects of finding jobs both during and after the program. Can you discuss your experiences?

Dear Worried,

Those of us who teach Freshman Comp know that the argument from authority is an argumentative fallacy, but for what it’s worth, here’s my story:

My life is divided by 1) before Montana 2) after Montana. I made friends I will keep forever, my writing transformed, and I lived in one of the most amazing places in the world. Montana is the place I learned I could be a writer when I grow up, a question that had haunted me my entire life.

Moving across the country was a pain in the ass. Of course. But I applied to programs out west on purpose. I WANTED to see the other half of the country. I live in Ohio now, and I’m still homesick for the jaw dropping, slap-you-up-the-face beauty of Montana. Probably a part of me will be forever scheming a way back there.

Re: jobs. Missoula isn’t exactly a captain of industry. But people do find work. Retail. Admin jobs. For me, a teaching assistantship was crucial, but that didn’t pay for the summer. I freelanced some. I landscaped. Even so, I emerged with about 5K of student loan debt. Then again, I wanted to do things. I took trips to Seattle, Glacier National Park etc. I treated myself to espresso drinks when I felt like it and drank call brand liquor.

I knew many people who didn’t have assistantships. Some of them had parents who helped them out. Some emerged with 40K of debt. Some worked out deals where they went for three years and finagled in-state tuition. The words “money” and “afford” are so subjective they are difficult to measure. I do know that those paying felt a great deal more strain. (I welcome comments from anyone following this blog on this situation below).

The MFA is not a career gateway. The year after transition was pretty rough on most of us. (Hence: this blog). But I don’t think the MFA is the total dead end everyone claims either. There are Montana MFAs with book deals and tenure track jobs. A few. A higher percentage of us have landed jobs that involve writing and/or teaching in some form or another.

The bottom line is I went to Montana to write. I did write. I am writing. And my writing life would not be the same if I hadn’t taken that risk.

Monday, March 28, 2011

To Tweet or Nor To Tweet

Montana grad Aryn Kyle recently began a blog, and writes in her first post:

When I think about all the tweeting and blogging and skyping we’re expected to do, I can’t help feeling slightly jealous of those writers of yore, the ones who lived in plague-infested squalor and worked by candlelight and died of tuberculosis before the age of thirty-five.

Exactly. I have had an on again/off again affair with blogging, and facebook updates, and I’ve resisted “Tweeting,” although now that I have a book coming out I feel the pressure to promote any way possible. I know that hiding behind the “I’m the sensitive/socially phobic writer type” excuse isn’t going to do me any favors. I need to suck it up. If don’t sell my book, nobody else is.

But isn’t it all so—exhausting. Online once I found George Saunders started to blog but after about five entries the posts grow shorter and more lackluster. (I couldn't find the blog today to provide a link). He begins in charming, honest Saunders style admitting his newness to blogging, but you can see he just couldn't attach a real purpose to it. Even a writer as good as Saunders quickly discovered how much work it takes to write even an average post. None of us got into this to be average. Our dream was to be poets and nonfictionistas and to pen great novels, not "maintain" a blog. But to keep a blog up, and post regularly, there will be filler.

The very thought of adding Twitter to my promotional list makes me want a nap. Celebrities can post about burnt toast or btichin’ parties or socks because they are famous. But I’m going to have to sweat out clever aphorisms like an Oscar Wilde machine.

And shouldn’t I be working on my “real” writing? And is all this social networking really doing anything? Often this all feels like posting into the void.

I don’t know. I suspect that the only way I’ll survive all this is by finding a way to make it fun. Because I can vouch that when social networking feels like a chore, I won’t do it.

But posting to the blog is much better than working on my syllabus for tomorrow. Uh, which is what I should be doing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Montana Grad Spotlight: Steven Rinella

I could say my decision to apply to Montana was random, but I prefer to say I was following my instinct. I was Googling various states (Texas, Wyoming, South Carolina) paired with the words “creative writing MFA” and found the purple website with the cartoon grizzly bear. (The website has, sadly, since been updated to a sophisticated aesthetic). A little more research revealed that Montana was an older program (I liked the idea of a writing tradition) and a top program (I like success). The idea of moving West, far away from the South, also appealed.

Yet another motivation was Steven Rinella’s The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine. The book is centered around his year-long quest to hunt and fish for the necessary ingredients to prepare a 3-day, 45-course feast from French master chef Auguste Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire. (It was Montana professor Dee McNamer that put Rinella in touch with the 19th century cookbook). En route Rinella acquires such exotic makings as an antelope's bladder, a stingray, eel, and the smoked ham from a black bear. I read the book and know that this brand of researched quest represented the nonfiction I wanted write. I suppose I knew my career as a lyrical essayist wasn’t going to work. And this was before I’d even heard of the lyrical essay.

I’ve been rereading the book over break and find it just as engaging. No, I don’t care to fish for ling cod in a tippy canoe off a remote Pacific Northwest island. But it’s fun to read about. This time around I realize that the vegetarian girlfriend character in the book is another Montana MFA, Diana Spechler, whose book Who By Fire I have also read. And this time the scenes that take place in Missoula (for instance, gathering pigeon eggs off the Higgins Street Bridge) make my heart ping. I have since seen elk carcasses piled up in the backs of trucks and can personally vouch as to the tastiness of the meat.

Rinella now has a television show on the Travel Channel, which might make him the most successful Montana MFA so far. “The Wild Within” one-ups Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” in that Rinella goes into the wilderness, kills and skins the exotic cuisine he eats with relish.

I didn’t know this when I applied, but while Rinella was at Montana the program didn’t have an official nonfiction program. There was poetry and “prose.” I’m not sure what I have to say about this observation, exactly, other than it leads me to wonder about this recent addition of nonfiction to creative writing programs. I mean, didn’t nonfiction exist all along? What’s the big revelation? But that, I suppose, is best saved for another post.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Notes From The Annual Writers Conference

I found my one, lone page of notes from AWP in the dryer this morning. I know that was over a month ago. The notes were on a panel on dealing with difficult students in the nonfiction writing workshop.

Here’s what I wrote:

How to workshop the TMI piece: 1) be specific 2) be honest 3) help writers clarify their own ideas

Running a writers’ workshop is like running a kindergarten. You deal with the same players: 1) the star 2) the resenter 3) the diva 4) the tattler.

When dealing with a diva (who will constantly interrupt the workshop), diffuse by asking: “What would you like to accomplish in this piece?”

Sometimes people use memoir as a way of processing their feelings. This can get weird. One way to ease the discomfort of workshopping true story is to treat the nonfiction protagonist the same as a fiction one. Ask: 1) What does the character want? 2) What stands in her way? 3) What’s at stake if she doesn’t get what she wants?

And that’s it. Nice, right? All manner of respected literary giants around and I spend four days stuffing my face with every variety of ethnic food I could find. My excuse is that I live in a small town built on subs, gringo burritos and pizza. I crave spice.