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.