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?
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?
Jeremy Parker reading from “The whisper of such a correction.”
To rebut the everything-sucks thesis of my previous post, here’s a photo of me giving my first public reading last week. I am told I did a great job. And as much as I fear public performance and scrutiny, I have discovered that I love to do readings. Especially after two or three gimlets.
A story was rejected yesterday. I’ve had three or four rejections in the last few weeks. I haven’t been submitting long, and I know this is par for the course, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
A bunch of my cohort had dinner with the well-known writer who came for the writer’s series of readings. He gave us a lot of advice about starting out and advised that we shouldn’t even worry about submitting right now, that we’re not ready, that we should be first and foremost honing our craft. He even suggested that we take some time after we finish our MFA before we really get serious, to let those lessons settle in and find your center as a writer. I don’t think that advice is for me. And after one semester, there’s a tiny part of me that’s worrying that this MFA isn’t going to teach me much I don’t already know.
At the end of last spring, I was riding pretty high. I had been accepted into half of the MFA programs I applied to, my senior thesis, a short story collection, won two $1000 awards—the department’s fiction thesis prize and an excellence award. I finished off the semester with two of the strongest stories I’d ever written and things looked good.
But now, it’s almost the end of my first semester of grad school, I’ve had nothing but rejections (though one story was a semi-finalist in a contest) and the last story I wrote is probably the weakest story I’ve ever written, and I’m fearing that I won’t get much out of the MFA. I’m feeling pretty low at the moment and could really use a win. You listening, Universe?
On the other hand, I know that the quality of work tends to dip at the start of an MFA because of the soul-shifting that results from a new place, new people, new methods, new influences, and new pressures. I know that eight bazillion publishers rejected J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss and everyone who’s crazy famous now. I know all these things, but those things are no bandage on the little wound of they-don’t-like-me-I-suck festering on my heart.
I had a dream my cohort was driving around in a flood with big fancy cameras trying to take really crazy pictures. The car was 85% underwater but was running perfectly, like a motorized iceberg. We kept showing eachother our photos and asking how they got a particular shot. Oddly, the cameras weren’t waterproof, so if you took an underwater picture, the camera would shake and sizzle.
This dream is in no way a metaphor for writing workshop, no not at all.
As a fiction writer, you’d think I’d be good at lying. My whole job is literally just making things up. But no, I can’t lie. Or rather, I can, but it is physically uncomfortable. It’s less uncomfortable to say uncomfortable truths. Which can make it seem like I lack tact, diplomacy, social graces, or that I overshare, or am just a plain jackass.
This character trait is particularly problematic in writing workshops and the solution of which is probably the greatest skill I’ve learned in workshop. Basically, I have had to learn how to spin “This sucks” into something constructive. Instead of “Holy shit, look at this ugly fucking hole in the ground,” I’ve learned to say “A big beautiful skyscraper would look fantastic right here.”
And I’m realizing it’s a fantastic skill to have. It’s incredibly easy to be a negative person, to see failure and deficiency everywhere, to see only the shits and the sucks and the ohmygodfuckthis’s. Instead, if in every failure, you train your brain to see potential, you can sound like a motivational speaker.
Jesus, that’s what I just did. I just independently invented motivational speakers.
Fuck positivity. Good art uses negative space. Feel free to suck as much as you want and when you want my opinion, I’ll tell you exactly how much it sucks.
But I’ll also tell you how much it’s awesome, so deal with it.
There are times when one has to read a novel and for whatever reason, you’re just not into it, you’re not in the mood to read it, et cetera, you can’t seem to read, your mind wanders and the reading isn’t getting done. But you’re on a deadline. You need to be able to discuss this novel for your graduate seminar tomorrow!
What do you do?
I’ve discovered that if you download the audio version, listen to it at 2x speed while following along in the book, you can burn through, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned in about six hours.
The speed is a little slower than average reading pace, but having a narrator whose mind doesn’t wander and procrastinate, it more than makes up for the slightly slower pace. This also works spectacularly for Shakespeare. Can’t get into it? Listen to a performance and follow along.
I wish I’d discovered this much much earlier in my educational career.
I went to see Margaret Atwood at the Music Hall is Portsmouth last night (which is a lovely theatre, by the way.) This is the second time I’ve seen her, the previous time was at a Nelson Institute thing in Madison. There was a much longer Q&A section this time, with a sit-down interview.
I noticed a particular quirk. When she explains something that she feels is fairly self-evident, she adds “Is it not?” or a variation of that as punctuation to her statement. It’s charming and funny and much classier than saying, “Duh!”
Margaret being interviewed.
Her novel, Blind Assassin, is one of my favorite books and really solidified for me what kind of literature I want to write. It’s often my go-to book when I’m trying to turn literary fiction fans onto scifi or vice-versa.
I got to meet her at the VIP thing afterward and I told her the story about how she ended up in my MFA application essay, of which the following is an excerpt:
I saw Margaret Atwood speak a couple years ago and someone asked her why she writes the kinds of stories she wrote. She said that she thought that writers write what they are (secretly, or not-so-secretly) afraid of. That illuminated something in my own writing and most of the writing that I love. I love trying to recreate complicated mental states in my readers, like the terror of being unable to trust your own mind. I love atypical neurologies, I love unreliable narrators. I love normal people lovingly rendered, faults and all, thrust into outrageous circumstances. One of Vonnegut’s rules of writing is that you must make awful things happen to your characters in order that the reader can see what they are made of. Between Vonnegut’s axiom and Atwood’s insight, the project of my stories finally made sense, the arc of my relationship to writing rendered visible.
Atwood was pleasant and adorable, but I could tell she was much interested in eating the pastry in front of her than in my story. And that’s okay, those were some damned fine pastries.
Does it really count as by-the-bootstraps if someone else is doing the pulling?
For my seminar on F. Scott Fitzgerald, the first thing I had to read was Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick (which is not a euphemism for a venereal disease). From what I understand, that book is one of the founding texts of the so-called American Character.
In it, Richard “Ragged Dick” Hunter is an orphaned bootblack in NYC and by self-denial and careful saving he is able to bring himself up from poverty and become ‘spectable. It was hilarious, as Dick is one funny motherfucker. But he really didn’t get there all by himself. Along the way, he’s given clothes and money and a job by some very philanthropic rich people and a preacher.
I can see the influence in the Gatsby character, another by-the-bootstraps kind of kid, helped along by a rich guy, but Fitzgerald subverts this by having Gatsby’s gain ill-gotten and illustrates that the veneer of the ‘spectable people is just that, veneer, surface, an act.