Sunday, November 29, 2009

Another Post about Time

As the month of November rapidly approaches its end, bringing the year 2009 close on its heels, and as I accept the truth that I will not meet my writing goal for the month yet again, I’m finding myself wondering how people in the real world – ordinary, working class people, people without rich spouses or independent wealth – ever reach any level of success in the arts. I was so sheltered in my MFA program for the past three years that I honestly forgot how hard it really is to find time to write, when so much of your time is taken up with the drudgery of survival. The have to’s of life.

This is something I’ve been talking about a lot lately, I know, and the reason I’ve been talking about it so much is because I’m realizing more and more that it really is a ceaseless struggle for most of us. Most of us will never get a million dollar book deal. Many of us will never even get an agent. Some of us may never even get a book published at all. In other words, most of us will always have to find the time. Make the time. Carve it from stone, as seems to be most writers’ metaphor of choice.

I haven’t met a single writing goal (I’ve met submissions goals, but those are different) since I graduated with my MFA. In fact, for this entire year I’ve only completely met my writing goal once: for the month of January. My last few months as a student were spent busily filling out graduation paperwork and preparing for an epic move. A majority of my summer was spent in the midst of said move, as well as working on a couple of critical articles that are being published in literary magazines and finding a job – and otherwise getting my bearings – in a new state. Okay, but what about after that?

Maybe it’s partly that I lost my momentum. Maybe it’s partly that I still haven’t quite gotten used to this new life. But I think a lot of it really, truly is that I just don’t have the time anymore. I don’t. When I was a student I had heard stories about past graduates who absolutely stopped writing after they got their degrees. One guy told me, a year after he finished, that he had decided to take a month off from writing after he graduated and had just never gotten around to starting back up again. Another graduate – a friend of a friend – had graduated three years before me, and she hadn’t written a thing since she finished. I could go on. There are many more.

I am not exactly like those people. I haven’t stopped writing. No, I haven’t been meeting my goals, but I do still write. But I don’t write as much as I’d like to and I don’t write as much as I believe is necessary to really get to where I want to be. I’m beginning to realize that I will probably never be able to consistently meet my golden three hour a day goal (a goal that was difficult, only sometimes manageable, even when I was an MFA student). Lately, I haven’t even been able to meet a one hour a day goal. So what’s to be done?

Well, one interesting point that one of my husband Damien’s professors made recently is that maybe we’re wrong to think we should always be writing. Maybe we should completely reevaluate the way we look at how we spend our time. Of course you can’t never write and reasonably call yourself a writer. But what about the time you spend doing other things that then gives you inspiration in your work? What about the time you spend thinking about the world around you, an absolutely indispensable part of being a good writer? Or engaging in stimulating conversations with other people? Observing humanity in all of its brutal beauty?

While I think it’s important to keep carving away at that fabled time stone – we should still write and write often, if we can – maybe we shouldn’t get so down on ourselves when we don’t write as often as we feel we should. Maybe that just makes it worse. Maybe that just misses the point altogether. Because the point – isn’t it? – is that we do this because we have to. We do it because it’s how we make sense of this mysterious world around us. We don’t do it for the quantifiable final products. We do it for the experience. We do it because it makes all that time spent doing other things feel like it all means something, feel like it matters.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Larger Horizon

One topic that tends to come up in cover letters for submissions to MFA/MFYou is the idea that there is a lot to be gained as a writer from having real life experiences, completely unrelated to literature and creative writing. Many non-MFA writers suggest that the time they didn’t spend studying writing in an academic setting they instead spent having real experiences that they can now translate into their work. Having jobs that non-writers will be able to relate to. Visiting interesting places. Getting to know all kinds of interesting people (and not having a majority of their friends and colleagues be writers and literature scholars).

Lately I’ve been revising a novel. I wrote the first draft while I was a grad student, during a break between drafts of my graduate thesis. I had came up with what I still think is a great premise and a really fun character, and then I sat down and banged together a rough draft, just trying to feel the plot out as I went. But something was off. It was bad even for a first draft. The plot was dull and contrived and all the characters except for the main character seemed like caricatures of particular types f people

I still felt like the core idea had potential, but I had no idea how to tap that potential. I looked at the draft from every angle. I picked it apart for elements of craft and looked closely at how each component of the story functioned, ultimately trying to determine why the novel wasn’t working as well as how I could make it work. I realized that the problem was as fundamental as the plot. The problem wasn’t the perspective, or the structure, or the metaphors and analogies and symbols I used throughout. The problem was that the plot was completely boring and uninspired.

I decided that I wasn’t mature enough, as a writer and a human being, to write this novel. I needed to live several more years of life first and have varied experiences, meet strange and interesting people, and gain a broader perspective on the world around me, all of which I could then weave into the story to make it come to life. And so I set the novel aside and began work on another project in the meantime.

But I’ve recently gotten back to work on this novel. I had one of those flashes of inspiration that pointed me in the direction of where this novel needs to go, and it came from taking one foot out of the world of literature and creative writing. I’m still part of that world, certainly, but I took a couple of steps away after I graduated. I began teaching at what is primarily a technical college, took a second job in retail, and even more valuable, began spending more time exploring a totally unrelated-to-literature interest of mine. And suddenly, a few days ago, it hit me what I should do with the novel. I’ve been enthusiastically working on the next draft ever since.

I’m a huge proponent of the value of creative writing programs, but I do think it’s true, too, that an English education alone will not give you the tools to write interesting, engaging, worthwhile literature. Studying craft is important, but so is knowing about interesting things and having experiences that are completely separate from the world of books and artistry. It’s not enough to know how to write. You also need something to write about.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

When I started going to school for my MFA, one of the major things I expected that people got from these programs was important contacts that might lead to agents and publishers in the future. I had heard countless stories – all about the most prestigious programs in the country, I’m sure – where at the end of a young writer’s MFA studies, a faculty writer refers the young writer to his or her agent and just like that, the writer is set.

I quickly found out that this is not as common as we might have been led to believe by the success stories we’ve all heard. Yes, the chances are good that many of the faculty writers in an MFA program have agents. But the chances are not good at all that they will refer you to their agents. My guess is that even at those top tier programs, it’s not a common practice.

But in my experience most agents will tell you that the number one way to get them interested in you is to be referred by one of their current clients. So what’s a young writer just starting out in the publication world to do? The answer, I think, is keep honing your craft, keep writing, and keep submitting to journals, and be patient. It may not be likely that you’ll be referred to an agent while you’re in an MFA program, but that doesn’t mean that the contacts you make there won’t help you down the road.

Part of what I sometimes forget is that if you’re at the MFA level, you’re probably not at the professional level, not yet. That’s not to say that most people don’t start getting published in journals while they’re in an MFA program, or at least shortly thereafter, but I bet if you asked most seasoned writers, editors, and agents how many MFA students and recent MFA graduates are actually ready for agents, book deals, deadlines, and everything else that goes along with being a professional writer, the answer would be not many.

The two people that make up the fiction faculty at UAF are both successful writers: one has won some prestigious awards for his short story collections, and the other had her most recent novel accepted by an imprint of a major publishing house. Both graduated with their MFAs from UAF, and both had to wait several years after earning their MFAs before they got their first books published. I think it’s fairly common for ten, even fifteen years to pass between graduating from an MFA program and getting that first book deal.

But you do meet a lot of other writers in a program, and while none of you probably have agents or useful contacts yet, many of you will eventually. Maybe ten years after graduating, your good friend Joe Writer lands an agent and is more than willing to refer you, his old grad school pal, his writer friend who he’s kept in touch with and shared work with these past ten years. Or maybe you’ll be the lucky one who gets to refer your grad school friends. Who knows?

I think the main contacts you make in grad school are not actually the faculty or visiting writers, although you do gain a lot by learning from these successful writers. But really, you and all your fellow MFAers are networking with each other. It might not seem like your workshop buddy is a useful contact yet – after all, he’s at the same stage as you in his career – but as you move forward, so will he, and so will most of the other people in your program. Together, you will all be part of the next generation of writers, and you’ll all be able to say you knew each other back when. You’ll all be able to help each other out.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

More on the Slush Pile

I want to talk about something that’s kind of a sensitive subject, a subject I’ve been avoiding talking about for some time because, while I think it’s extremely illuminating when it comes to the inner workings of literary journals, it may make a particular literary journal that I used to read for look bad.

So I’m going to start by pointing out that I don’t think that this practice is uncommon at all, particularly not amongst the journals that are run by MFA programs, which many literary journals are. And I would also add that even those literary journals that don’t technically do these sort of slush pile parties are still probably making decisions based on the same kinds of variables and gut reactions (that’s right, I said “gut” and not “visceral.” You know why? Because I’m not a pretentious a-hole). And finally, I would remind you that though this certainly doesn’t seem an effective way to wade through the slush pile, I don’t know that there is an effective way. The slush pile is massive and is ever growing; the people who have to read submissions simply do not have the time to give every single submission a fair chance. It’s a sad truth about the publication world.

The way the slush pile party works is this: all the editors and readers for a journal get together and the stacks and stacks of unread submissions are placed in front of them on a table. They have got to get that slush pile knocked out because more submissions are arriving every day and the older submissions simply have to be decided on before the pile gets any larger. So they dive in. They work through submission after submission as quickly as possible, trying to move on to the next and the next in the hopes of finishing and being able to leave at some reasonable hour. Which means, as you can imagine, not actually reading most of the submissions all the way through (not the prose ones, at least). It means reading every submission looking for a reason, any reason at all, to stop reading and reject. And many submissions, believe me, don’t get more than their first page read. Many submissions don’t get read beyond their first few sentences.

But this is a social event as well as a job. That’s why they call it a “party.” Sure, the term is sarcastic, but even as it is it’s also kind of serious. This is a chance for a bunch of friends to get together and share with each other what is normally very solitary work. There is a loud din of chatter going on during the entire event, and it’s very difficult to actually focus on reading through all that noise.

But what really depressed me the first time I went to one of these events wasn’t just the fact that submissions were not getting read carefully, that there was so much noise it would have been difficult to read something all the way through even if you had the time to. What made me almost want to give up was the fact that one of the major ways that the readers socialized with each other was by making fun of the submissions. (Again, I remind you: this, I am absolutely certain, is common practice. I can’t even count the times I’ve read about an editor who claims that almost everything in the slush pile is terrible. This is a sort of making fun, as is that fabled “wall of shame” we’ve all heard about, where editors will pin up on the wall, as a joke, some really terrible submission or cover letter.)

Now sometimes there really are truly terrible submissions. Some submissions are just asking to be made fun of. But some of them aren’t. Most of them aren’t. Most of them are well written, interesting stories or poems that are getting made fun of because the reader isn’t reading carefully. The other people in the room laugh along with the initial reader, who perhaps stops to read a sentence aloud, and they’re laughing not because it’s a terrible sentence but because the sentence is being offered to them as a joke. Because they understand that they’re supposed to think it’s terrible, and so they do.

I don’t know that there’s any absolutely foolproof way to guarantee that your work makes it through the slush pile alive. I suggested last week that one trick is to make sure you’re doing something new, but even then I think whether your submission gets read fairly probably has more to do with luck than anything else. But here’s the bright side: when you do get rejected, you shouldn’t take it personally. I know I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again but seriously, rejections don’t mean much in the big picture. Acceptances are all that really matter, and maybe rejections that actually give you personal feedback or encouragement. Form rejections, though? Just brush them off. Throw them out or file them away or nail them to your wall or burn them in a primal ritual, whatever your method is, but whatever you do, don’t let them get you down.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

That Great Big Pile of Slush

This past week I volunteered with a group of my colleagues at Zane State College to judge a fifth grade essay contest put on by the Foundation for Appalachian Ohio. It was an interesting and fun experience and it reminded me a lot of the slushpile parties that Permafrost, UAF’s graduate student run literary journal, used to have. If you had walked in on us judging the essay contest, you would have found a group of exhausted looking English faculty sitting around a table with stacks and stacks of contest entrants in the center, and at our feet you would have seen stacks of essays that had already been judged. As the day wore on we got more and more draggled looking, I’m sure, and by the end of the day we were admittedly somewhat rushing through the essays, trying to just finish up already so we could get out of there. It was fun . . . but it was an all day thing and by the end of “all day” pretty much any activity begins to wear on you.

Even though we spent the first hour or so of the day norming our standards, we disagreed on a lot of things. While any essay that scored under a certain point got tossed to the side immediately, many of the essays had to be read by at least two readers. If the disagreement by those two readers was large enough, the essay would go to a third reader. It was fascinating to see how all these English instructors that all teach at the same institution could have such different reactions to the very same essays. Ultimately the winners were essays that we were able to come to some sort of a consensus on, though often the winner in one category would be the one that three or four people thought was the best, and the rest of the people just sort of agreed to accept the decision since the one that they would have chosen wasn’t going to get a majority vote.

This experience very much mirrored reading for a literary journal. You start with stacks of submissions and the feeling that you’re in over your head. Some of the submissions are going to be at a low enough level – however you even gauge that! – that you don’t have to spend much time with them. Others will have different readers in total disagreement. One reader might think it’s good but it should be rejected for X reason. Another might argue that X reason is nowhere near important enough to reject such a good piece. Yet another might think the whole thing is crap and it should be rejected now before anybody wastes any more time arguing about it.

Some editors and agents say that there are good submissions and there are bad submissions. The good ones will get published and the bad ones won’t. Period. This is absurd! It completely ignores how subjective literature is, for one thing, and it also relies on the fallacy that there are no other variables going into the reading process. If I grab a submission off the slushpile after I’ve been at it for four hours, I might, through no fault of my own, be less inclined to give it a fair read as I would have been if I had grabbed it at the beginning of my reading session. If the particular submission in question happens to be 25 pages long – forget about it! I don’t want to read another 25 pages right now. I’m probably going to be looking for any excuse I can find to stop reading and reject it. This is all completely subconscious. You don’t pick up a submission and consciously think, “I don’t think I’m going to give this a fair chance.” But the variables, the variables!

With the essay contest, what it really came down to, I feel, is that the essays that were saying something different from the other essays were the ones that rose to the top. Most of the essays were extremely similar. This did not make them inherently bad. It did, however, make them boring, at least after you had already read several others about the exact same topic. The same is true with submissions. You might get a really well crafted story that just happens to remind you of any number of other stories you’ve read or that have been submitted to your journal, and you’re going to reject it because even though it’s good, it bores you. I’ve received rejections like this, rejections telling me that the writing is excellent but the topic is nothing new. I’ve written rejections like this, too.

The fact is it’s the ones that are doing something we’ve never seen before that seem to be the ones we all agree that we like.