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.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Female Poets Shill Clothes for Oprah

I hate this:

For so many reasons. It's hard to keep them straight in my head. I hate the implication that a female poet has to be a clothes horse in order to get any attention, and that her poetry here is incidental to the business of selling clothes that most of the poets I know could never afford. I wonder what happened after the shoot was over? It's kind of fun to imagine Oprah herself approaching the poet-models, cackling wildly, and ripping the designer duds right off their backs.

Inevitably, though, the rage returns. And I have to ask myself Why? Why does it matter if these women chose to accept an opportunity for some exposure to audiences their work might not have otherwise reached? This is an impulse post, so I haven't really fully considered all of the angles, but I think it comes down to the commodification of it all. Like this $300 Ralph Lauren vest? You'll love poetry by Sarah Herrington!

Then again, maybe I'm just jealous. Maybe this is tapping into my baggage about pretty girls always getting all the attention. It's true, I'd love to model this old Gap t-shirt for you, with all its implications about my lifestyle and artistic talent, especially if it means you'll read my manuscript. What, you're sending the photographers right over? Great! I'll go wash my face.