State of the Read

About a decade ago, I worked third-shift as a communication assistant at a relay center for the deaf, which meant that I mostly got paid to read books and watch television on my girlfriend-now-wife’s laptop because with the exception of awkward live phone sex internet radio shows and pranksters singing Grease songs, the deaf don’t make a lot of late night calls. Thus, I read something like 60 books that year and was very proud.

So when I saw that I’d only read 27 books this year, I was disappointed. But I made excuses! I was finishing my last year of grad school! I had so much other reading to do! Oh yes, other reading.

Of those twenty-seven books, six I read twice for a form & technique class. One of those I read four times (Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn—51AmSd4FyZL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_probably best book I read this year.) That brings us up to 36 books.

I listened to The Martian on road trips twice, so that makes 37.

I’m a reader for New England Review and read about 20 short stories a month. That’s 240 stories at about 15 pages each which is 36000 and at an average book length (thank you, Goodreads) of 300 pages, that comes to another 12 books. 49.

Another 175 stories for Outlook Springs, (whose line-up for our first issue is looking amazing) so that’s another 8 books. 57.

An average of two stories per week for 30 weeks in workshop, each read twice. That’s another 6 books. 63.

outlook_duocoverAnd I can’t even begin to quantify the random stories I read this year, here and there, in journals and magazines I subscribe to. And hell, I took a class about The New Yorker with Nicholson Baker and read large swaths of that magazine’s history.

And my own thesis, nine stories I read at least a dozen times a piece. Should I tack on another twelve books for that?

I think, what I’m getting at, is that the feeling I had that year when I read sixty books is a feeling that I’ve strived to replicate in my life—to be surrounded and infused by literature—and that I think I’ve done, with this incalculable sea of words in which I now swim. Only now, my interruptions aren’t deaf people calling technical support in Indonesia.

Must Believe in Ghost

As I wrap up my MFA (which means a new subtitle to this blog is in order!) there have been a lot of lasts lately, like my last workshop which is this Thursday, my last day of teaching, my last Read Free or Die, the last time I’ll see people from my cohort who are going off to wherever their careers are taking them. (I have it on good authority that the place everyone goes to during the first several post-MFA months is Deep Depression, and from there, on to their careers.)

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Making words with my lips and teeth and tongue at Read Free or Die.

But there’s also some firsts which is ending my MFA years on a rather high note. As you may have seen, I was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I just found out on Tuesday that my story “Must Believe in Ghost” has been accepted for publication in The Normal Schoolwhich is a magical magazine and if you’re not reading it, you should. I met them at AWP last spring and was immediately impressed, got a subscription, and began avidly reading their fantastic work (which is beautifully designed, by the way.)

mustbelieveinghostpic
“Must Believe in Ghost” primarily concerns the content of this photograph.


I MUST BE IN THIS!
, I said, and sent them the one story I had that I thought would really fit their aesthetic. DING! DING! DING! (See, kids, it pays to read a journal to understand its editorial inclinations and target your submissions, rather than carpet-bombing your story to everyone.)

I’ll update later when it’s out and available, or you can order a subscription now! It’s only like $12 a year. CHUMP CHANGE! Flaunt your affluence! Make it rain! Then, when April or May rolls around and I’m all getting in your grill to go buy my issue, you can be all, hey man, I’ve already been grooving on these sweet, sweet narratives!

 

Reading Free, Free Readings

READFREE_11-19-15
I made this.

Later this month, I’ll be reading at my final Read Free or Die event. This is also, almost, my favorite poster that I’ve designed since I took over that duty.

Then, next month, I’ll read from my thesis as the last act required before I am officially a Master of Fine Arts, or, as I’ve been corrected, a Mother Fucking Author.

Thesisposter_JerEmJay
I made this too,

After that, I’ll be on by own, writing without a deadline, trying to make ends meet by designing books and their covers so I don’t have to get a jobby-job, maybe teaching if I can swing a fiction gig, fingers crossed that I’ll start getting stories published, and begin work on the novel.

I’ve gotten seventeen rejections in the past month. All of them felt pretty awful, except today, I got my second tiered rejection from the New Yorker. Since they usually don’t even respond to the slush, I’m considering that a big win.

Insert pithy last line to round out this post which has ostensibly no connective tissue.

Year Two: COMPLETE

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My empty office, which will be torn down this summer.
Reading my short story,
Reading my short story, “Those Peculiar Galaxies” for UNH’s Graduate Research Conference

My second year of my MFA is over (in case you weren’t able to pick that up from context clues in the title of this post.) There’s one more semester left, another writing workshop, a form & technique class focusing on putting together a story collection through the lens of recent successful collections, like Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, among others, as well as teaching another section of freshman composition.

This summer will be spent, between feminist science fiction conventions (Wiscon!) and Quaker-Marxist weddings, putting together my thesis, that collection of short stories that’s supposed to prove I learned something here, or that, at the least, I was productive at putting words on a page. It’s actually pretty close to done already—125 pages of the required 150, so my main goal is to get everything in order and write another two stories.

One, I already know and have started. The other, I know what story I want to write. The question is, can I figure it out, make it compelling, and not feel contrived—it needs to do a lot of things, first and foremost, fulfill all that was promised by the opening story and echo and illuminate everything that was built in the subsequent stories. Tall order for a story of whose shape I only have the fuzziest shadow.

Dorm life is caput.
Dorm life is caput.

And so I look forward to a new semester in the fall in a new office, teaching a new batch of freaked-out freshmen, in a new apartment somewhere around seacoast New Hampshire with a whole new host of weird issues to contend with. It’s almost as if two years isn’t really long enough for an MFA, but simultaneously, I can’t wait to be done. Some chapters are short, some are not?

Ultimately, it’s that odd combination of end-of-a-good-book sad and end-of-a-good-book excitement, and I’m trying to savor the end of said good book, but I’m already starting to think about what book to read next.

Beginning to Write Fiction

This blog languished this semester while I taught fiction and forged through another workshop and a composition pedagogy class. But here is what I learned:

Anger and spite are a great way to decimate writer’s block.

Composition pedagogy has its gaze a little too far up its own navel.

Teaching fiction in a workshop is as fantastic, frustrating, and fun as being in a fiction workshop.

I learned that Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is a great story to teach backstory and epiphany. That Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” is great for stressing how important character is, even to a genre piece. That half your class with hate Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly Too” but the other half of the class will love it and you won’t have to teach, because the love-half of the class will explain to the hate-half all the things that the hate-half didn’t understand and why it’s such a brilliant story. That kids these days don’t care much for Hemingway and Carver-esque icebergian minimalism. That Sherman Alexie stories will bring out unexamined privilege. That everyone loves Flannery O’Connor. That it’s really easy to accidentally fill your syllabus with stories featuring gun violence. That your students will surprise you with their creativity, shock you alternately with their originality and banality. That they are addicted to melodrama. That a lot of them want to write stories about people with superpowers. That sometimes the harshest, truest, most unflinching stories come from the most unexpected writers. That we’re all storytellers, that we groove on plot, that we’re all armchair psychologists. That a lot of them don’t like to read out loud. I learned that a class-wide round of exquisite corpse is a great tension breaker to end the semester.

I go back to teaching First Year Writing next semester and I’m going to miss running a fiction workshop. I’m going to miss my students and their stories and their ability to surprise me.

How to Waste Time and Piss Everyone Off

Regarding portrayals of women in fiction, Junot Diaz said, “Unless you are actively, consciously working against the gravitational pull of the culture, you will predictably, thematically, create these sort of fucked-up representations.” If you’re not actively subverting the sexist/racist/homophobic status quo of our culture, you’re likely reinforcing it. And it’s the duty of any writer worth their salt to do so. Subvert, transform, transmute the shit of our culture into gold. And it’s hard work and it’s not easy. There’s a fine line between accurately representing a racist culture and reinforcing that racism. Just ask Dave Chappelle. One of the advantages of a workshop-centric MFA program is that you have the opportunity to learn these lessons before you start putting your sexist/racist/etc stories out into the world.

A few weeks ago, a to-remain-nameless writer in our program wrote a story in which there was a borderline racist portrayal of a character. (The only black character in the story is the one with all of the problems; everyone else in the story are white saviors. Oh, and her skin is described using food terms.)

So we spend—at the most—five minutes saying that yeah, that’s problematic, when you write about marginalized groups, you have to be careful not to stereotype, do your research, avoid racist tropes, maybe read Writing the Other, et cetera. You know, general helpful things that any aspiring writer should know before sticking their uneducated, privileged, white foot in their mouth.

Fast forward to aforementioned writer’s next story. Universally panned as a terrible: the plot is incoherent and illogical and there is no arc nor character development. There are no physical descriptions of people, nor are there any gender pronouns (which could have been a great experiment but hang on—), because all of the characters are only described as food items and their behavior never stretched beyond their food moniker. (For instance, a nice and sweet character would be named after a candy bar, that sort of shortcut.) We are baffled by the story and the writer’s general incompetence.

The writer informs us later, after we’d workshopped it, trying our damnedest to find something constructive to say, something to salvage in this trainwreck of a story, that the whole thing was basically a fuck-you to our workshop for “wasting twenty minutes harping on” their black character in the previous story. A childish “Oh you don’t like that I described someone as food . . . I’ll describe everyone as food!” retaliation. Needless to say, everyone was pissed that this writer would waste our time in such a way, wasting a precious workshop opportunity on what’s basically a 101-level, getting-called-out-on-your-racism, temper-tantrum.

Want to piss off your entire workshop, the community of writers whose support, advice, insight, et cetera, et cetera, you’re paying an ungodly amount of money for? Want to take a big steaming dump on an opportunity to learn, to grow, to avoid filling the world with more racist bullshit? This is how you do it.

You’re about to be schooled. Fictionally.

This fall I’m going to be teaching an undergraduate class, an introduction to fiction writing. Which is a whole new level of badassery I can barely understand nor contain. There’s a tiny part of me that still squeaks, “Who the hell are you to teach anyone anything about writing!” I don’t listen to that voice much. Mostly because it’s like the one guy who says something sarcastic when the room is the loudest because he doesn’t think anyone else can hear him. I should know. I’m that guy.

The rest of me is ridiculously excited and has been planning a syllabus in my head since I got the news. It is amazing how night-and-day my attitude to teaching fiction is compared to teaching composition. I realize I give zero shits about composition and rhetoric. Maybe I don’t appreciate it because it’s something I’ve always been pretty good at, whereas with fiction, it’s something I love that I’ve had to work spine-crushingly hard at to get where I am. Maybe it’s ego, maybe it’s love, maybe it’s Maybelline.

But yeah. I’m going to be teaching fiction writing. I’m going to be constructing my own canon. I get to decide what to teach, what stories get read, showcase what I think is important about literature and storytelling.

Shit, I just scared myself.

The Ultimate in Refinement

If I understand this correctly, for some writers, the revision process is like a dog eating its own poop.  Because there’s still nutrients in it. So then they poop out an even more refined poop.  And the dog will keep doing it until there’s nothing left to get out of the poop or until its master tells it to stop. That master is publication. That’s when you stop eating the poop.

This also sheds an interesting light on literary critics, who would then be likened to scientists who use the microscopes and mass spectrometers of literary theory to figure out what the poop is made of.

Gross.

Touch me.

2014-01-13 12.42.11Another rejection with the lowest level of rejection letters. And my returned manuscript?  Didn’t even look like it had been touched, just slipped from one envelope into another. Harrumph.