Eye to the Keyhole

After the grind of yesterday, I decided to skip the one lecture I was going to attend this morning. I slept in, then showed up for the critique workshop from 1 to 4.

Grant Faulkner of Nanowrimo asked me if I would prepare a pep talk about giving good feedback. I’m excited because I feel like in the last year, between the critique group I belong to in San Francisco, my grad school responsibilities, workshops I’ve taken and working for Lunch Ticket, all I do anymore is give other people feedback on their writing.

I’ve noticed a particular thing about my criticism. I like doing my critiquing face to face, because I like being able to have a conversation – letting the person whose work I’m taking apart ask me questions and get their answers in real time. I make meticulous notes on their paper or electronic copy, but I need to talk to them about it as well.

You see, when I make my notes about a written work, I’m thinking about one thing: you (the writer) want to sell your work, and you’re asking me to tell you what will make it more saleable. I think about what would keep me, as an editor of a fiction publication, from accepting the piece of writing I’m looking at. I normally read something four times. The first time, I make no notes at all. The second time, I make notes on the text itself – big things like pieces of text that should be deleted or moved, to tiny things like misspellings and incorrect punctuation. The third time, I make general notes about the piece as a whole. The fourth time, I make more general notes about things that, after many readings, still bother me.

What that means is that if you only look at my written comments, it’s easy to think that I don’t like what’s been written. That’s why I always want to have the conversation. I think that it’s important to say what did work – things that I especially liked or thought were well-done. I don’t normally mark them on the page, only because I personally use other people’s markups of my work to do corrections, so I like to have only those things I need to fix on the page.

It also happens that every time I start talking about a work, new things come up as I have the conversation. New things I might notice as I’m talking, new thoughts in response to the author’s comments, etc.

For as much as being with people is stressful to me, I have found that for things as important as literature, there’s no other way to do certain things.

Mother’s Little Helper

Today was day two at grad school. At 9am, I showed up for the first lecture, and I stayed in the same room through 5 lectures, 1 debriefing (which I led), 1 orientation (which I also led), and four readings – 10 hours total. Looking back at my posts about my first residency, I know that I was tired, but I also see that I was so tail-waggingly enthusiastic about everything I experienced. During my second residency in June, I was a little more cynical, a little more weary, but still awake and moving through my days effectively.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret. The three of you who’ve read my blog for a while know that I’ve been on and off medication for quite some time. I’ve been taking Adderall for a while. At least, I was taking it for my first and second residencies. It allowed me to handle the otherwise-difficult task of interacting over extended periods of time with lots and lots of people.

When I’m not in grad school, my life is quite sheltered. On Mondays and Tuesdays, I literally do not leave the house. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, I pick my kid up from school and deliver her to a karate class while I go to a nearby coffee shop, put on headphones, and do work. Most weekends, I either visit my mother or stay home and see no one. Being in the company of a new person stresses me out, but I had no idea how much it stressed me out until I came to residency this time.

About three months ago, I fired my psychiatrist. There are certain professional standards to which I hold people, he failed to meet them, I am no longer his patient. But that meant that I stopped my meds cold turkey. It didn’t make a tremendous difference until I came back to residency.

Adderall is normally used to treat ADD. It allows ADD sufferers to stay still and pay attention for extended periods of time. Coming back this time, I didn’t have a problem paying attention to the lectures, which range from 20 minutes to 2.5 hours. But I have found that the longer I am on campus, interacting with people, the more exhausted and emotional I become. Friday, the first full day of classes, I came back from school at about 6:30 feeling exhausted and weirdly emotional. Today, it was worse. By 3pm, my head was beginning to pound. By 5pm, I was dizzy. But 6pm, I was staring at the back of a man sitting two rows ahead of me. From the back, he looked eerily like my dear friend Cliff Brooks and all I could think about was how much I would rather be in San Francisco hanging out with Cliff. I caught myself starting to cry and hoped nobody noticed me daubing my eyes while a fellow student read his supernatural adventure story. By the time I left, I was shaking, tears streamed down my face and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to make the 5-minute drive back to the hotel without passing out.

This is what happens when I hang out with people I like.  

When I got back to my hotel, I called my family. I told my daughter that what would make me feel better would be to smell her and my husband’s smell again – bury my nose in their necks and breathe them in until I felt okay again. We decided that next residency, I’m going to have to bring one of each of their shirts with me, just to get me through. I talked to both of them until I felt that I could move around without weeping.

I may need to get a new therapist when I get home. This can’t be healthy.

Back in the Saddle Again

I’m back in Southern California for the third of what will be five residencies for grad school.

For the first half of the day, I felt like a different person! I was walking down the halls greeting all my old friends and smiling and saying hi to new folks. I got hugs from the faculty and walked around feeling like the grandest tiger in the jungle. At the end of the day came the opening night dinner where the head of the program was going to announce the launch of the second edition of Lunch Ticket, the MFA program’s literary journal (for which I am editor-in-chief), and I wanted to be there for the announcement, since I thought it would look bad if I didn’t show up, especially since I’d been talking the journal up to everyone I talked to all day.

But then came the part where I had to pay for it all. By the time I finished dinner, I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. I drove back to my hotel and talked to my family (always a balm) and just sat in my chair and spaced out for a while. If it weren’t dark and a not-great neighborhood, I would have gone for a long walk somewhere. I feel exhausted. I would love to take tomorrow off, and tomorrow’s only day 2.

I heard an  amazing talk from agent Peter Riva about the state of the publishing industry, where he talked about the fact that in the 30s and 40s, people bought books because they were excited about the author – Hemingway, Faulkner, etc. Then came the days of the big publishers and people bought books because they were excited about things that came from Harper Collins or Knopf. Now we’re back to people following authors, so authors need to take responsibility for getting their names in front of people’s eyes and keeping them there. He talked about what to expect from a good agent, and what to expect from a publisher. I’m looking forward to the second part of his talk tomorrow morning!

Then came the presentation for those of us who will be writing our critical papers this term. It was all about distilling your question into something researchable and how to write it in a way that’s engaging. I decided a month ago that I will be turning my critical paper into a TED talk that I will present after my graduation. I’ve set out a heck of a path for myself.

I’m finished with my paperwork for the day. I’m hitting the hay. I wish I was home.