Sunday, March 28, 2010

And Don’t Forget to Live Your Life

I’ve talked a bit before about the importance of writing and writing a lot, and I’ve talked, too, about the importance of not writing sometimes, of actually living your life to make sure you have something worth writing about. I hope you won’t mind if, this week, I touch on the latter idea again.

Something very emotionally painful happened to me a few days ago. I won’t get into it here, but I will say that this occurrence was totally unexpected and knocked me over with the force of a hurricane. I spent the past few days with family, which was a much needed reminder of the good things in life, and I ended up spending the second half of my Spring Break not writing.

But here’s the thing: I think this is exactly as it should be. I think sometimes some of us get so caught up in the writing life – in the importance of setting goals and writing regularly and submitting and on and on and on – that we forget that it’s also important to be a human being: to live and love and feel pain and feel regret, to not just live through our word processing programs but to open ourselves up and taste life, savor the bitter moments along with the sweet.

Writing is an essential part of being a writer, but it is not the only part, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be enough to comprise a full life. In order to be a good writer you have to practice your craft, yes, but you also have to read (a lot!), and you have to be alive. You have to really experience life, to get to know and understand a wide range of people, to appreciate and explore the strangeness of this vast universe we live in. Writers don’t lock themselves in their basements and write all the time. Writers live, and if sometimes that living gets in the way of your computer time, well I say so be it, no excuses required, because this is what it is to be alive.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Some More Benefits of the MFA Life

I have to be honest, I’ve really been missing the grad student life lately. Part of it, I know, is that I’m surrounded by grad students from my husband’s program, and I get to see – but only from the fringes – these grad students doing the things that grad students do. I only get to take part in the non-school related parts of their lives, which is still enjoyable, of course, but it’s not the same.

One of the things I miss the most is the conversations. Talk about writing. Analyzing craft. Reading the same books and discussing them with each other. These sorts of conversations are the heart of any English graduate program and they tend to take place both in and outside of classroom. The problem – for me – is that they don’t tend to take place with outsiders. This isn’t an intentional slight; it’s not like grad students have a clique sort of mentality. But I’m not taking the same classes; I’m not reading the same books and having one-on-one workshop sessions with the same writers-in-residence.

This sort of unified writing experience is very difficult, I feel, to create outside of an academic setting. While it’s possible to perhaps find a small group of writers willing to read the same books and meet regularly to discuss them from a craft perspective, and it’s certainly possible to create the workshop environment – only far more productive, in my opinion – outside of academia, there are still many other things that don’t seem possible (for example, somehow managing to get a string of established writers to travel to your area, read the work of everybody in your writers’ group, and meet with each of you one-on-one to give feedback, after which the members of the group can discuss the experience and compare what you’ve gained).

And there’s the question of money, too. Grad students not only have ample time to write because they are being paid extremely well, compared to what college adjuncts make, to teach only one or two classes at a time, but they also, as a result, have ample time to exchange work with each other and do extended feedback sessions. (This statement, I can already tell, is going to have some readers shaking their heads in disagreement. I’m not saying you make as much as a TA as you would, say, in a full time office job. But you make way more per credit hour – WAY more – than the average adjunct instructor makes. Trust me. I’m an adjunct. I can barely make ends meet off of my salary.)

Grad students also get funding to travel to conferences. Many of the students here, for example, are taking a trip to Denver next month to go to AWP, on their graduate program’s dime. I desperately wanted to go to AWP this year. I almost had an excuse because I was invited to read with a journal that I was published in, but the reading ended up falling through, and I couldn’t justify the $1000 it would have cost between airfare and hotel stay and food.

Which is all, really, to say that I think there are some things that you can gain from a creative writing graduate program that you simply cannot reproduce in the real world. Of course it’s possible to get on the path to success on your own, but creative writing graduate programs give you a pretty forceful shove in the right direction, and they’re pretty enjoyable, too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

There’s a Time for Us

Ah, those timeless, fabulous, Stephen Sondheim lyrics. You all know the song, what the Dire Straits referred to as “the Movie Song.” The reason why the West Side Story song “Somewhere” is such a powerful piece of music is because we all know the story of Romeo and Juliet; we all know that Maria and Tony will never find that place, that time. There is no time for “us.”

The same could be said, if you really want to be realistic with yourself, of writing. We all probably have at one point in time entertained fantasies of landing a five book deal that ensures us six figures a year, plus obscene royalties since naturally our books will each land on the bestseller list. Right. But even as we all have allowed, at times, our minds to wander to these totally unrealistic dreams, we all (I hope) are well aware that such dreams will never come true. There will never come a day when we will make a cushy income off of writing and writing alone, when we wake up each morning with nothing else on the schedule but to write. There is not, as it were, a time for us.

What this means is that when we look at our busy lives, when we quantify our busy schedules and try to calculate out how much time we could reasonably spend writing, when we do all this and we see that the answer is very little, the solution to the problem is not to look forward to some indeterminate future in which we will have the time. You’ll write tomorrow, or when things slow down at work, or when your kids start school. You’ll write when you have time.

The truth is that you will never have time. What you’re really doing when you tell yourself you will write “someday” is lulling yourself into a sense of false security. Justifying the fact that you’re not willing to work it out. Denying the fact that you are not a writer, at least, you are not behaving like one right now.

Once you accept that there will never be time, you’re left with only two real options. You can give up and decide that you’re just not going to make it as a writer, or you can realize that most successful writers don’t really have time to write, yet they’ve all found a way to make it work; why can’t you?

I’ve been telling myself for the past few months that one day I’ll land a full time job as a college English instructor – hopefully even as a Creative Writing instructor – and when that day comes I’ll have summers and winters off and plenty of time to write. Oh, it gets me through the bad days, this is true, but there are a couple of problems with this line of thought.

For one thing, in order to really be competitive for such a job I first need to get a book or two published, and in order to do that I need to keep writing as much as I can. I can’t tell myself that it’s okay if I can’t find the time to write right now; if I don’t find the time now then that dream job will always remain out of reach. And then of course there’s the fact that even though I might tell myself now that if/when I get a full time instructor job, time to write will naturally follow, the truth is that I will probably always have other things I could and should be doing with my time. There will always be reasons not to write.

So step one: Accept that there will never be time. Step two: Figure out a way to make the time, already! I’ve been getting up a half hour early every day this month so that I can write a little bit before work. A half hour isn’t enough to get a lot of quality work done, but it’s enough to get me pumped about whatever project I’m working on, and then I’m more likely to figure out a way to squeeze time out later in the day, or to get up even earlier the next day to have more time. (It’s also, by the way, a nice antidepressant. I feel much happier when I’m writing every day, and it really sets the tone for the day if I get some writing done first thing.)

So no, there is no time for us, Tony and Maria, not unless we make the time, but we have to make it right now. Today. This minute. Now.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Spoonful of Sugar

There are a few ways I’ve found to take the sting off of rejections that I wanted to share. The thing about rejections (as I know I’ve said before) is that they are an important part of being a writer. If you’re not receiving rejections, then you’re probably not really even in the game. It’s important, then, that we try to look at rejections in a sort of positive light, that we try to be happy about receiving rejections because they’re a good sign, really. They mean you’re sending things out there. They mean you’re doing the things a writer has to do. I’ve talked before about using rejections as a motivational tool, but I think it’s also important that we see the rejections themselves as a positive thing. After all, if you were not receiving rejections that would mean you were not submitting.

Recently, my husband Damien and I started using a rewards system, which we put together from a composite of other writers systems that we had heard about and liked. Our system goes like this: for every one hundred points that you earn, you get a $25 Amazon gift card. Every response you ever receive to your work earns at least one point. A journal acceptance is worth ten points, a manuscript or partial manuscript request is worth five, a personal rejection is worth two points, and a form rejection – those puny little half-slips of paper that so effortlessly make our hearts sink – are worth one point. No matter what response you just received, you’re still that much closer to your reward.

I like this system because it reminds us that even the most basic form rejection is still worth something in the grand scheme of the writing life. Yes, I’d rather get a personal rejection (two points) and of course I’d rather get an acceptance (ten points!), but notice that the divide between points is not that astronomical. An acceptance is worth ten times more than a rejection, but you’d still need to get ten acceptances before you made it to your reward. Really, the way to get to that reward is to have a steady stream of responses coming in– it doesn’t really matter that much what the responses are, as long as you’re sending your work out there and getting something back.

There are two other things that I’ve found make rejections not feel so bad. One is to be perpetually engaged in other writing projects. If you’re anything like me, you tend to feel like whatever current new piece you’re writing is the best thing you’ve ever written. This is a good feeling, and it makes rejections for the older stuff, the stuff you had already finished and started sending around, feel less significant. No big deal, you think. Just wait until I finish this story/poem/book and start sending it out!

The other thing that helps is to send out sim subs to multiple different venues. When I first started submitting, I was kind of nervous about sim subs. More and more places these days accept (even encourage!) simultaneous submissions, but I was worried that if I did get an acceptance, it might be time consuming to track down the contact info for the other journals I had sent that story to. The truth is that yes, it’s kind of time consuming (and sometimes a journal or two will apparently not receive the withdrawal when you send it in), but when you get an acceptance you don’t really care. You’re so excited that X journal will be publishing X piece, you’re more than willing to slog through the withdrawal process.

And the thing is, if you get a rejection for a piece that, let’s say, you’d sent out to twenty different journals, that one rejection doesn’t really bother you because one of those other nineteen might still accept it. In my experience, the same exact piece can receive a “Dear Author” form rejection from one journal and an enthusiastic acceptance from another. If you only send out to one place at a time, if/when that place rejects it, that rejection is going to feel much heavier than if there were several places who were still considering that piece.

So there you have it. Not only are rejections not such a bad thing, really they’re a good thing, in my opinion. Send your work out there, and be happy when you get those little half-slips back. A half-slip, “Dear Author, Thanks but no thanks,” response is still something. Everything you ever do as a writer is always worth something.