Promise to write a post about the difference that winning a Pushcart Prize has made to your writing life.  Everything you write will sound pretentious and awful, and after a few weeks, it will just be easier to decide you’re not writing that particular blog any longer.

The insightful and kind Brian Kornell from Ninth Letter got me over that block by asking the same question in an interview.  You can find it here:

Thank you, Brian and Ninth Letter!

It’s been a banner week or so.  The annual Redstone Science Fiction contest is underway.  You can read my introductory essay here:

…and then my defense of the contest here:

I’m excited that the summer isn’t, as my summers tend to do, passing by without my getting anything done.


Notes from My Thesis Year: Part 1

Posted: November 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

MFA signI’m now almost at the midpoint of my final year in WVU’s MFA program.  Everyone, it seems, is busy weighing in on the value of the degree I’m about to earn.  Are MFA programs killing writing as we know it, turning out “Raymond Carver clones?” (And why is everyone so sure that it’s Ramen Carver clones?  Around here, I think you’re a lot more likely to run into an Alice Monro knock-off, though even those are more rare than you might expect.)  There is also great gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands over the future earning potential, or publishing potential, of MFA students.  Will we have to spawn even more MFA programs to feed our greedy selves on the fat of academia?  (And where is that fat?  Also around here, it sure looks like even the tenured faculty are living pretty lean.)  Will we ever publish books that will later be made into movies so that we can live fabulous lives full of Hollywood parties and New York meetings?  Really, other people, you’re much too angst-ridden about all of this.  We’ll find jobs.  Some of us in academia, some of us at advertising agencies, some of us as technical writers, and some of us in food service.  Same as it ever was.  These are the things writers do, with or without a degree.

There seems to be, in particular, a lot of concern about how we will repay the imagined debt we’ve aquired funding our education.  Uhm… except that most of us haven’t actually aquired all that much debt.  Again, “around here,” most of us are fully funded.  We teach freshman and sophmore composition in return for a pretty generous stipend and a tuition waver.  There are programs that don’t fund their MFAs.  Don’t go to one unless you have a sizeable trust fund.  Because yes, if you need to borrow enough money to both live in New York (even Brooklyn) and pay tuition, you’re probably making a bad financial decision.  And maybe also a bad academic one, as well.  Because I have learned at least as much from teaching basic undergraduate writing classes as I have from workshop and theory courses.

Which leads me to this list, which is the real meat of this first “Notes from my Thesis Year” post:

Ten Really Important Things I’ve Learned During My Three Years as an MFA Student:

  1. Writing is a lot harder than it looks, particularly on the level of the sentence. A shocking number of my English 101 and 102 students are unable to consistantly produce meaningful sentences.    They have no idea how to use a comma, when to end a paragraph, and they constantly use the plural pronoun “they” as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.  And, you know what?   I made those same mistakes when I started teaching these classes.  My Appalachian high school didn’t teach grammar.  It didn’t teach rhetoric.  It sort of taught literature, but with a wink and a nod to the reality that, while we were required to read Shakespeare, we couldn’t possibly understand him.  What little I have learned about formal structure, I have learned by grading the papers of people whose skills are even more abysmal than my own.  And this has been invaluable.  Don’t go to an MFA program that doens’t let you teach.  You’ll learn more from correcting student papers than you could ever learn from workshop.
  2. Publishing changes nothing. I used to think that publishing something would suddenly make me “a writer.”  It didn’t.  Neither did publishing three things.  Or five.  Probably, you’ll spend your whole writing career feeling like a hack who got lucky.  If you’re smart, when people ask you “what you do,” you’ll say something like “I teach English” or “I’m between jobs.”  You won’t say “I’m a writer.”  Because that just opens you up to all sorts of weirdness.  Unless you’re Junot Diaz or Michael Chabon, in which case they shouldn’t be asking.
  3. MFAs are no longer terminal degrees. If you want to be an academic, assume you’re going to need a Ph.D.
  4. Prizes count. Publishing, even in seriously aspirational journals, didn’t make any difference in how I thought of myself, or in how other people thought of me. Winning a Pushcart Prize did.  The next post will be all about what it’s like, post-Pushcart.  For now, I’ll just say it’s weird.  Seriously , life-alteringly weird.
  5. Work that sucks can, in fact, become work that doesn’t suck if you’re open to the workshop process. Workshop seems to be at the center of the “you’re ruining literature, you bad MFA students!” angstiness.  That’s crap.  Workshop is your best chance to interact with readers.  It’s the most direct feedback you’ll ever get.  Do you really want to hear that your prose is stilted and awkard from the New York Times–where your high school crush, mother, and that English professor you slept with as an undergrad will also hear it–instead of from a group of fellow writers?  I thought not.  Think of your workshop as a defense against public mockery.
  6. Don’t listen to writers who can’t write. Only pay attention to the workshop comments from writers you admire.   You can’t please everybody.
  7. It’s both what you know AND who you know. Yes, it’s a closed circle.  Yes, writers nominate their friends for awards because that’s the work they know.  Yes, journal editors publish pieces by people they know because they believe in them.  It’s not a clique, but it is a community.  Cultivate contacts.  Attend conferences.  Submit papers.  It does make a difference.  Which leads us to…
  8. Be a good literary citizen. Pimp your compadres on your blog.  Repost classmates’ publications on Facebook.  Write reviews, but don’t feel the need to be scathing.  If you hated a work, assume you didn’t get it and review something else.  Volunteer for writing programs at the local elementary school, read at local bookstores, bring proteins to the inevitable MFA potlucks.  We’re all in this together.
  9. Sometimes, editors are idiots. Don’t let rejection deter you.  My piece that won a Puschart was rejected by three editors who felt the need to tell me they found my work “exploitive,” “liberal clap-trap,” and “exemplary of the self-indulgence that defines bad creative nonfiction.”  Don’t stop sending your work out until it’s been rejected by at least fifteen places. Then you might want to consider revision.
  10. All you need is love. Don’t put your writing above your relationships.  This is, in the end, a lonely thing to do. You’re going to spend a ridiculous amount of time in a locked battle with your work, staring at the blinking cursor on your computer screen.  Don’t expect emotional gratification from your readers; find it in friends and lovers who you support through their own crazy projects.

Next week:  Life After the Puschart

On Blog Rot…

Posted: November 29, 2010 in Uncategorized

So, it’s been a long time since I posted anything… and even longer since I posted anything that wasn’t meant to win me a free CD. (Thanks, le R!) But I thought I’d go through the short list, at least, of what’s been happening. So here is my life in bullet points:

    Got a divorce
    Won a Pushcart Prize
    Got a boyfriend
    Got short-listed by Best American Essays
    Managed to hold on to the boyfriend for more than three months, which I hear isn’t really supposed to happen with the first person you date after a divorce, so I’m counting it as an accomplishment–though it’s probably more his accomplishment than my own…
    Learned to ride a bike
    Did not manage to actually get out and ride the bike often enough to get good, or even comfortable at it (I guess I’m logging failures, too, in the interest of balance more than honesty)
    Had two essays published in one month in aspirational journals, Fringe and Pank
    Finally finished reading Gravity’s Rainbow…which I started reading in 1983

And there you have it, friends… the highlights. And now, back to blogging. Because I’ve missed it. And you.

On Form Rejections…

Posted: July 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

It’s true, I’ve let this blog stagnate for a good long while. And I’m not back out of some pent-up need to write, or because something of import has happened that I want to share with you. Nope. I’m back because The Rejectionist is giving away mix CDs to five people who write blog posts on the topic “What Form Rejection Means to Me” and, well, I’m a sucker for a mix CD. (Yes, shut up, I’m pandering. If you don’t like it, go start your own pander-free blog.)

My favorite rejection of all times was a form rejection, though of course it wasn’t just any old form rejection. No, it came from one of the most prestigious journals in Creative Nonfiction (big giant hint right there, since usually I say I write memoir) and was for a piece that I had been invited to submit, although with substantial changes–in fact, I had to shave three thousand words off of it first, which required two weeks of pretty painful editing.

The first correspondence I got from this journal was an email entitled “About Your Essay.” It had nothing whatsoever to do with my essay, of course, it was just a form offer to subscribe. I was a little put off by the tricky subject line, but like any hopeful writer, I expect journals to treat me badly and to get bitch-slapped by apologists if I complain about it. Heck, I have even heard poets defending The Paris Review’s recent decision to “unaccept” a bunch of poems. We know where we are on the food chain: at the bottom.

Still, I was surprised when I got a form rejection of only two lines on a poorly-cut 1/6 of a page of typing paper, tucked into an envelope with–of course–a large, glossy page urging me to subscribe. I don’t remember what the rejection said, but it wasn’t the wording that made it so spectacular. It was the blood.

The thing had obviously been cut from a sheet of similar rejection slips using one of those machete-on-a-block-of-wood paper cutters, and some hapless intern had cut herself on the blade. A streak of dried blood two inches long and 1/4 of an inch across ran right through the “does not meet our needs at this time” boiler-plate rejection.

And I thought, “You know, it sucks to be a writer sometimes, but it must suck to be an intern at a journal like this all the time.” So I put the three thousand words back into my essay and sent it out again. Eventually, Ninth Letter took the piece, it was awarded a Pushcart Prize, and it will be listed as a “Notable Essay” in the 2010 edition of Best American Essays.

Was it the magic vodou power of intern blood that blessed the piece? Maybe. I hear it’s some pretty powerful stuff.


Listen to Ethel Morgan Smith

Posted: February 23, 2010 in Uncategorized

My great friend, and an even greater writer, at a recent Valentine’s Day reading of the MFA faculty.

Worth the listen!

My New Kindle…

Posted: February 7, 2010 in Uncategorized

There is much sturm and drang in the book world about the rise of the e-reader. It was with a fair amount of trepidation that I broke down and bought myself a Kindle, but I am VERY glad that I did. It came at exactly the right moment for me to appreciate it fully; I had just finished the book I was reading but was snowed in and could not go and get the one I wanted to read next. Thanks to my Kindle, I spent the day with mugs of tea and The Children’s Book instead of rereading something from my recently denuded bookshelves. (Nothing like a move and two flights of outdoor steps in the snow to make you pair down your book collection!)

The learning curve is steeper than it should be… Amazon has abandoned almost every principle of Information Architecture and put things in some very counter-intuitive places. Maybe that was on purpose. I most definitely do not feel like I am reading on a computer screen. I have the newest, smallish version–I don’t travel overseas enough to spring for the larger one–and it is the perfect size. I find it easy to read, it fits well inside my big, black, old lady handbag, and it holds a charge for much longer than I would have expected. I strongly recommend buying a cover for it; I found it attracts dog hair and lint like nobody’s business without it.

I was able to buy two of the three books I have been meaning to read, and the one I wasn’t able to buy seems to be a temporary casualty of the recent brouhaha with McMillan. The two books I did buy–Wench and The Children’s Book are recent, and so well-indexed. A friend tells me that older books that are not specifically formatted for the Kindle can be hard to navigate.

Once the roads are clear and I can make it to my office, I will load up the PDFs for my Metadrama class and see if it really is capable of managing those in a useful way. Stay tuned for a more thorough review!

The Defining Moment of the Aughts?

Posted: December 31, 2009 in Uncategorized

The Aughts are coming to a close, and I can’t say I’m sad to see them winding down. It’s been a decade of paying the piper for all that fun we had in the go-go nineties, I guess. It seems to me that we have a choice now to make; what moment will we use to define the last ten years of our lives? Surely it won’t be the day the banks collapsed; we’ve been saved by history from having to remember this decade for something as mean and stingy as all that mess. So will it be the day the city fell, or the day we finally stopped saying forever, “This country isn’t ready for a black president?” Will we choose the best or the worst moment to signify?

There are many reasons to believe that history will mark the day the towers fell as more momentous than Obama’s inauguration; after all, we celebrate Pearl Harbor day but have lumped Washington and Lincoln together for the lesser “Presidents’ Day,” and I do not think we should expect Obama to rise above either in our civic memory. (It would be asking too much not just of him, but of ourselves. We do not like to think of the living as great. I don’t know why.) The question of where you were on 9/11 has replaced the question of where you were when Kennedy was shot; too many of us now don’t have an answer the latter. Airplanes have been repurposed as tools of war and for a brief moment, even the guys who usually call it “Jew York” were willing to allow as to how Manhattan is actually part of the United States of America.

There is a strong argument to be made that the aughts were defined in that single moment of their first year.

But I choose to believe that we are defined not by our worst moment, but by our best. That the aughts will be remembered for being the decade in which we elected a president and a congress that brought us back from the brink of a new colonialism, oversaw the creation of a universal healthcare system, and began in earnest the hard work undoing the impending ecological disaster.

I choose to believe we will remember this decade not for what has been done to us, but for what we ourselves have done.