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Writer, Editor, Designer

I have completed my first semester of my MFA. I think the weird pressure-to-perform has passed in a way. In another way, it’s still there, but now it’s back to where I’m comfortable—healthy competition. I want to write the best stories that I can and knowing the baseline is helpful. I have a lot of respect for the writers in my program, so I want them to do well but I also want to impress them accordingly. Not even impress. I want them to curl in on themselves thinking, “Fuuuuuck this is goood story, just shoot me now.” Because that reaction from their work is what presses me and encourages me to write even better stories, and those are the kind of stories I want them to write as well. It’s the writing-equivalent of Mutually Assured Destruction, but in this case it’s Mutually Assured Awesomeness. Ya feelin me, dogg?

It really doesn’t seem like I’m a fifth of the way through — I feel like it’ll be over before I’m even acclimated.

In the meantime, I’ll drink gimlets and eat crab cakes and listen to mediocre jazz trios and tell myself that I’m going to write at least two stories over winter break.

This is my job, yo.

I have captured the much-glimpsed but rarely-photographed mythic beast, that cryptozoological unicorn of the MFA program—FUNDING.

Which means no more loans, I’ll have a stipend, but I have to teach writing (essays/papers, not fiction, sadly) to undergraduates. I am crazy nervous about that, but I’ve heard my program does a good job of preparing you.

Welcome to the Land of Teaching Assistantship. Let’s see you get writing done now, punk.

Anyone have words of wisdom?

Have you played BANG!? It’s a great game. Get it, play it.

The point of this post isn’t to advertise BANG!  In the game, there’s a Dynamite card. When you play it, it circles from player to player until it explodes and yes, there is the possibility that it will explode on you.  There is a danger in playing the card. It’s gambling.

And as I sent out five submissions last week, I realized sending out a submission is like playing the Dynamite card. If it explodes on another player, you win. Your submission gets accepted. But there’s a chance it will explode on you, and that’s the rejection. Submissions are like little bombs you send yourself. We’re very very likely, especially early in our careers to blow ourselves up.  We’re shitty bombmakers.

But if we’re lucky…

Rejection, rejection rejection rejection. Rejection! Rejection rejection—rejection rejection rejection—rejection rejection.

Submit, submit. Submit submit submit. Submit.

TRANSLATION: I just had another major rejection. I was told I did a great job of avoiding clichés in what could be a clichéd situation, but it just wasn’t for them, a little too heavy on backstory, too light on present action. But the editors would like to see other work from me, so there’s the silver lining.

So, I spent the afternoon submitting the story to the next four venues on my list. Anywhere from five weeks to ninety days before I hear back from them.

And the cycle continues.

I’ve come to realize that I have a hard time writing stories past the epiphany. Once the epiphany is there, I don’t care anymore; I don’t want a couple paragraphs of denouement. That feels more forced and writerly than anything. I’ve been told my stories end abruptly. And often they do.

I tend to write stories that are puzzles, stories where there are things to be figured out, problems to solve, mysteries hidden, under the surface stuff. Punchline things. The thing you lost is always in the last place you looked, because you found it. Why would you keep looking afterward?

I was told that for a while, in the 80’s, writing the perfect last epiphanic line was the soup de jour. Too bad I wasn’t writing short stories when I was six.

In my latest workshop, my story got probably the best compliment to date. One of my cohort said that if I were an established author and people read my work with more weight, then it would be great. And it is great, but that without the gravitas of being a published writer, people might mistake what I did as amateurish or inauthentic characterization.

Which is both awesome and depressing. I do write as if people are reading me with the proper weight and attention. What do I do? Change the way I write until I have gravitas and respect and then write what I want? Open all my stories with “Ok, kids, put away your phone and pay attention. I’m not fucking around here”? Wait for some middling slushpile reader who’s bored to death skimming shitty stories to accidentally pay attention to what I’m doing, to what’s going on in the story?

So on one hand, I’m apparently doing some really great work. On the other, I’m being told that no one’s going to notice because I’m too early in my career. Big present, small package. Lightweight getting dismissed at the heavyweight bout.

85% should be below the surface in an iceberg story.

Did Hemingway have to write some straight-forward, non-iceberg stories to get some respect and recognition before he could pull off the feat of “Hills Like White Elephants”?

It’s frustrating, y’all. Is it a failure of my writing or my audience? Of course I tend to lean toward it being the writing. Carl Jung said something along the lines that the value of a message isn’t in the message itself but in the ability to communicate it clearly. It doesn’t matter how profound something is if you can’t communicate it to someone else. So in that, am I failing?

Probably.