Best Surprises From Grad School

Tomorrow’s the end of my residency, and this one was entirely different than my first. Everything was a surprise my first residency, so it was hard to tell which parts of my experience were unusual and which weren’t. And, of course, since happy people are all alike and unhappy people are all different, I just assumed that all our experiences writing alone during the project period were different.

First surprise: Not everyone had such a hands-off mentor. My mentor gave very little feedback on my writing, and only talked about my annotations to the extent that they were in the expected format. At first, I was okay with it. I was very busy during this project period, and if I had been working under a mentor that required a lot of new material or a lot of rewrites  every month, a lot of things would have been difficult. My mentor was also supportive of my technological efforts. This was absolutely related to my writing, but was separate from it. But hearing the stories of my fellow students who published tons of shorter fiction, who got their novels into publication shape, who received constant feedback, I began to feel cheated. I wonder what else I could have done with a mentor who was more hands-on. My mentor for the next project period is, I have been told, the polar opposite of my last mentor. We’ll see what that means for my writing.

Second surprise: They remembered me. Last project period, I knew no one and spent a lot of time trying to work up the courage to get into conversations. I was afraid that less-new students would look down on my inexperience. This time, I knew lots of people, and they said hello and we had lots to talk about and we shared our experiences and laughed like old friends. I met the incoming cohort, and they’re all wonderful folks. I’ve spent lots of time talking to them, hoping that none of them feel the way I felt. And in December when I come back, there’ll be even more new people, and the new people from this residency will have become old friends.

Third surprise: Lots of women writing horror. I listened to a great lecture on horror from a woman who was like a female version of my friend Cliff, the ultimate horror fan (right down to her dreadlocks). I listened to another great lecture on writing “transgressive characters” (think pedophiles, serial killers, etc.) by a woman who was trying to get to the bottom of her fascination with what makes someone turn into a pedophile. And that’s just the lectures. There are so many women writing great genre fiction here, and it fills me with hope.

There were tons of surprises every day – it’s always a treat to be in the midst of smart people busy thinking up cool things. At one point, I was in a lecture given by Aimee Bender, and the woman next to me said that she had graduated a year ago and she was still coming to lectures, because alumni are allowed to attend all the lectures they want forever. I was blown away at the thought that I could keep coming back, keep hearing all this amazing stuff – forever. I think that was the best surprise. I may never come back once I’ve been graduated, but I could.

How I Got Published: Grad School Stories

Back when I first started taking writing seriously, I started going to writing conferences. Almost all writing conferences are the same: there’s some famous author who speaks at the beginning, telling their story about getting published, then a bunch of seminars that coach participants on the basics of writing: character building, plot basics, creating tension, good opening scenes, believable dialogue. The advice they gave us about finding an agent and a publisher was always the same: go to bookstores and find books that are like yours, then find the agents and publishers who represented those books and query them. They acknowledged that each of us would have to query a lot of agents and publishers, and that it would be difficult, confusing and an uphill battle.

What bothered me was that so few of the authors had actually gone that route. The first one I heard was a Chinese-American writer who was doing grad work when her professors told their contacts about her writing. When she came home on vacation, there were messages from agents on her answering machine because Chinese-American writing was hot. Another author said that she took copies of her manuscript wherever she went and handed them out to everyone she encountered, and she finally got an offer from an agent. Another one went to grad school and decided that she wanted to win a particular literary prize. She kept revising and submitting her manuscripts until she won it, then the agents came to her.

This isn’t fair. It makes me feel like there’s a fictional, accepted way of doing things – writing the impossible query letter, sussing out the exact right agents/publishers for our work (woe betide those of us who write a variety of different kinds of work), sending out and tracking a million queries. Everyone has signed a secret contract that this fiction is what we’re going to tell writers at conferences and seminars and MFA programs. It’s like that fiction that you’re going to meet the right person, fall in love, get married and live happily ever after.

The possibilities of electronic literature complicate the picture even more. Self-publishing ebooks, indie presses, print on demand – they all factor into the equation now, and the rules are changing. I’d like to stop this lie about the golden path to publication. Let’s go ahead and say “Do whatever it takes. Be inventive. Be persistent. But above all, be good at what you do.”

I think that’s the advice I’m going to give.

The Cult of Grad School

Last year, when I went away for my grad school residency, I posted every day about the things I was doing and thinking. For my first residency, I pushed myself to read the required reading for every lecture and presentation, and I tried to do all the recommended and suggested reading as well. Then I got here and found out that even if I hadn’t read the texts, the presenters usually didn’t rely exclusively on them for the content of their lectures. These aren’t multi-part classes where we’re being quizzed on the minutiae of a single text. These are discrete lectures of one or two hours where we’re exploring some big concept as illustrated by one or more texts. It just wasn’t that big a deal.

What I had forgotten about, though, was the physical and emotional toll residency took on me last time. It’s worse this time. What I forgot was just how much of a cult this place is. I looked at the ways that cults use coercive persuasion to bend the minds of their followers.

1. People are put in physically or emotionally distressing situations.

There are too many of us, packed into a few rooms of a corporate office building. There are no desks, so everyone either taps on a laptop (a sound that makes my skin literally hurt, so that I want to claw at my clothes as I’m trying to concentrate on the lecture) or (like I do) uses a clipboard or a notebook to take notes the old-fashioned way.  The schedule is so packed that there’s often a choice to be made about where to go next, so that anyone who isn’t careful finds themselves double-booked.

2. Their problems are reduced to one simple explanation, which is repeatedly emphasized.

Write more. Spend more time thinking about your edits. Who are you in relation to your characters? There’s not a single, simple explanation to all our problems as writers, but the about five explanations there are get repeated ad nauseum. While that can be good if you haven’t already heard that particular solution to your writing problems, it gets exhausting after a while. Last residency, it was “question your beliefs.” It seemed that most of the lectures harped on some aspect of that theme, and it led me to go back to some of my work and think hard about my characters’ motivations, but after a while, I had to question my questioning. And what did all my questioning lead to? It led to me believing that I needed to come back and ask more questions. Back here. Where I am now.

3. They receive what seems to be unconditional love, acceptance and attention from a charismatic leader or group.

Every single person here is happy to see me. When I show up in the morning, people want me to sit by them and talk to them. They show me their websites, looking for my approval. They show me pictures of their spouses, their children or their pets. They act like they’ve waited for six months to hang out with me, and maybe they have. I do know that I am fond of a lot of these people, and it’s nice to see them after such a long separation, but I also still feel that fierce need to spend some time alone. And of course, everyone talks about the program chairman as though he walks on water, and there is always a queue of people trailing after him in the halls trying to talk to him about one thing or another.

4. They get a new identity based on the group.

Here, you are put into several groups at the same time. You are given a group name based on when you entered the program. Everyone who came in at the same time as me is a jacaranda, and our color is purple. There are blue spruces, yellow aspens, red sequoias and sycamores whose color I don’t know. Maybe they’re green. The aspens are the outgoing cohort, and a bunch of them have elected to wear yellow sparkly capes to show their solidarity and pride. That’s all fine and dandy, but a bit creepy at the same time. You are also sorted by genre: poets, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, writers of literature for young people.  They often don’t attend the same classes, so they see each other at the cohort events.

5. They are subject to entrapment (isolation from friends, relatives, and the mainstream culture) and their access to information is strictly controlled.

I’m only entrapped here by virtue of the fact that I’m such a long way from my own family and friends. My best friend lives down here, but he’s got his own life going on. The trickier form of entrapment is keeping us so busy that we voluntarily sequester ourselves so that we can complete everything that’s being asked of us. We’ve got classes, forms to fill out, evaluations, summaries, contracts, all of which has to be done at specific times in specific ways and eats up a lot of what would otherwise be free time. While we have all the access to the outside world we could possibly want, we don’t necessarily have time for it. And our access to information about this little world we’re in is limited to the intranet platform – we use separate email rather than our own email, we have a separate site that houses all the news and information we need from this place.

Given the indoctrination we’re being subjected to, I think I can be forgiven for being a little on the emotional edge. And all that stuff about it being a cult aside, there is some amazing thinking and analyzing going on here. The outgoing graduates have once again been exploring aspects of literature I had never before considered, and I now have the benefit of a brain dump of their previous two years of research. We’ll see what this residency’s themes end up being.

Why I Broke Up

I just finished reading Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman‘s book Why We Broke Up. I’m a long way from being a high school girl (and my husband, who only got through the first couple of chapters is an even longer way away) but it brought so many things back to me.

After I finished it, I turned to my husband and asked him what he had thought about it. He said that he wondered why Min, the protagonist telling the story, dated Ed, the popular co-captain of the school’s basketball team in the first place. I told him that even though I’m happy in my life now, even though I like the person I am and I’ve surrounded myself with people whose friendship makes sense to me, when I was a kid, if one of the super-popular boys had asked me out, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. Sure, my conscious mind would have said “He’s just setting you up for some humiliating practical joke!” but my mouth would have said “Yes.”

Back when I first moved to the Bay Area, the popular guy did ask me out. He was a body builder and programmer (remember, this was back in the late 90s, the height of the bubble, when programmers were all gods) and he approached me at a coffee place. When I met his friends, he told them that he loved me. He would take baths with me so that he could brush my hair, and he would sing me to sleep. Even though I was also bodybuilding and regularly carried two full 5-gallon water jugs (that’s 40 pounds in each hand) the five blocks from the Safeway to my house, he would take heavy things out of my hands. “I can carry it!” I would protest. “I know,” he’d say, and gently take them anyway.

But after four idyllic weeks together, it all fell apart quickly and completely. He disappeared without explanation for three days and then seemed surprised that I was angry about it. He began behaving erratically – coming to my place late at night, picking fights, spending whole evenings at my place not even speaking to me. It wasn’t so much the fights. It was that he went from hanging on my every word to forgetting that I was in the room with him.

And then came the day that he told me he’d been taking steroids. My genetics mean that I was able to build up muscle easily, but it wasn’t quite as easy for this guy, so he cheated. I told him I wanted to see him, and when he came over, I had this few things all ready in a paper bag by the door. The actual breakup took about 30 seconds.

It took me years to get over missing the fact that someone knew I was capable of skipping up 3 flights of stairs with 100 pounds of groceries in my arms and insisting that he would do it for me. Of missing being sung to sleep. Of missing having my hair brushed. On the other hand, what I have now, I’ve had for 12 years. There’s something to be said for that. The Pirate may not have been the popular guy back when we were kids, but nowadays, he’s the most popular guy in the house.


Where Do They Go When They Die?

I think his name was Skyler. Or it could have been Schuyler or Skylar – I never saw it written down. I first knew him as “that guy that looks like your friend Duane.” This from my husband, pointing out a skinny kid sitting at the bus stop. Once he was pointed out to me – the resemblance between him and my friend was uncanny – I saw him everywhere. He bused tables at the restaurant where we ate breakfast on Tuesdays. He stocked groceries at the store in town that also sold cool purses and fun lamps. He was forever either waiting at or walking home from the bus stop closest to the end of our street.

bird on a fence

I heard his name from his mother one day when he’d come into the restaurant with his mom while the Pirate and I were having breakfast. While he went into the back to take care of something, his mother complained to the waitress about the problems he was having with his boss at his other job, and I was impressed that such a young kid – he was probably 16 at the time – was working two jobs.

I saw him walking around town with a pale-skinned brunette, and was happy that he’d gotten himself a girlfriend. I saw him at the high school when I dropped my older kid off in the mornings or at school events and asked my kid if she knew him. I began to wonder if he noticed me noticing him. I almost felt like I was stalking him in some random, accidental way where I didn’t really mean to see him all the time or know anything about him, but I did. It surprises me to this day that I never exchanged a single word with him. If I passed him in the supermarket, he continued to put cans on shelves without saying a word. When I drove past him at the bus stop, I never stopped to give him a ride, and he never waved his hand in greeting. I wouldn’t even know if I was as familiar to him as he was to me.

And then he died.

His parents helped him buy a sports car for his high school graduation. Part of the reason he’d been working two jobs was to save for this car that he’d been wanting for years, and I admire that kind of perseverance in a kid. The night of graduation, he and his girlfriend and a couple of six packs went for a drive. And none of them made it home.

Ray Bradbury

When I heard about Ray Bradbury passing, I thought about Skyler. He was the kind of kid that Bradbury wrote about. Cool in an average-kid way. Someone that you know, but not nearly well enough. Kind of like Ray Bradbury himself. I’ve never read anything about Bradbury, apart from what was written on the back of dust jackets. To me, I didn’t need to know about the writer in order to enjoy the work. When the big flaming green head in The Wizard of Oz yelled “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” I took those words to heart and have never interested myself in biographies of writers, behind-the-scenes tours of Disneyland attractions or the special “making of” features on DVDs. I don’t care how the effect is achieved. I just care that it’s there.

But what that means is that the Bradbury I knew is wholly one of my own making. And what I make is a guy who had a cool job, and who did his cool job really well for a long time. He seemed like a regular guy who probably wore old man pants that made him look a little like a chimpanzee, and ugly button-down shirts, and washed his hair with bar soap. I need to think of him as human, rather than superhuman, because if he is superhuman, it makes it a little harder for the rest of us who write to measure up. If he’s just a guy with a cool job that was good at it because he worked hard, well, I can do that.

Skyler might have grown up to be a cool guy with a cool job he was good at. Wherever he is now, he gets to be with Ray Bradbury in the place in my mind and heart reserved for those people who have impressed themselves on me, even though we’ve never met.

Gotta Be Cruel to Be Kind

In addition to my own writing and revising and inventing new literature, I do a great deal of reading and commenting on other people’s work. It’s hard revising your own work – you’ve been looking at the same words for months, or maybe even years, and by now your mind fills in all the things that aren’t there and should be, and glosses over all the things that are there are shouldn’t be.

girl with typewriter

With my new typewriting machine, re-writing every page a dozen times will be as easy as washing my 14 sister’s petticoats in my new mangler!

I have a long list of rules for my writing, and when editing myself, I can run through this very technical and mechanical list no matter how familiar with the material I may be. My computer’s “find” function doesn’t care whether the word “were” is in the proper context, is irreplaceable or is the prefix for something only half-human, it will find and display it. Also true for “had,” “seemed,” and all adverbs, including my own list of 50 or so that don’t end in -ly.

But when you’re editing for someone else, is it fair to hold them to the same standard you hold for yourself? For instance, I want to know the precise moment on the fourth page where the reader began nodding off, so I can punch up the action, but is it okay to doodle “losing consciousness….” in the margin of your editee’s manuscript? I want to know which of my jokes fall flat, but is it okay to rubber stamp “NOT FUNNY” on every failed play on words in your friend’s novel?

Frankly, I think it is. I think that not only is it okay, but it’s required. I feel that when I’m editing or critiquing someone else’s work, they’re saying to me “I want to make this work commercially viable.” Modern publishing being as competitive as it is, I feel that I would be a rotten friend, colleague or student if I soft-pedaled my opinion of things that aren’t up to snuff.

Mah Jong Massacre

The last one standing gets his blog turned into a book!

The one thing that anyone getting criticism from me has to remember, though, is that I am only one person, and a little bit warped, at that. When it comes to other folks opinions of your puns, your imagery or your use of “so” at the beginning of every other sentence, your mileage may vary. If you think that I’m being mean when I point out dozens of instances of passive voice or strike out as unnecessary an entire section it took you weeks to perfect, it’s not because I hate you and want you to die. It’s because I like you and want you to succeed. You’d be forgiven for confusing the two things, though. My kids do it all the time.