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.

Winning

Back in 2002, my buddy Ian sent me an email at work asking me to check out this crazy thing these guys were doing. The email contained a link to the clunky, hilarious site for National Novel Writing Month –  Nanowrimo. Before I replied to my friend’s “whoa aren’t these guys crazy” email, I signed up.

That’s 2002. The year that my grandmother died (11/1), I drove to Phoenix to attend the funeral (11/9), and I got laid off (11/14). I was so hyper about NaNoWriMo that I actually started early, just to make sure I would finish on time. I started about 10/24, and by Halloween, I had nearly 10,000 words already. And on day 1, I chucked them all out and started all over again on an entirely new story. I finished the month with just over 83,000 words, “winning” handily.

In 2003, I started with a decent plot, but I made a horrible mess of it and never re-visited it, even though I got to about 75,000 words on it. I don’t even remember what I wrote the next year, but I won. And the next year, and the next year. By 2009, I had pared my actual writing time down to about 10 days. Nowadays, my ability to write quickly is only limited by my typing speed, so I can get nearly 2,000 words an hour, which means that I’ve had several 10,000-word days. For several years, I was the ML for my area, flogging my Wrimos into action.

This year, I’ve just come through a brutal grad school quarter. I’m taking one of those stories I wrote way back in 2002 and expanding it into a novel. My mentor is a hell of a taskmaster, calling me on my shit every step of the way. I was also doing a paper on a subject I was only marginally invested in, and doing a translation seminar that I hated. I always knew I had no aptitude for languages, but now I know that I have no aptitude for translation, and doing with a bunch of other (more enthusiastic) people makes me want to stab myself in the throat with a highlighter.

I’m the editor in chief of the MFA program’s literary magazine, a job that involves reading, editing, approving, emailing, soothing, scolding, and otherwise managing every single thing that goes on for the magazine. I know that the editors feel put-upon at times because they’ve got a lot going on, but this has been close to a full-time job for me. I have to keep reminding myself that the last guy who did this had already graduated.

All this is to say that I never got past 18,000 words on this year’s novel.

I thought that failing for the first time in a decade would crush me. I thought that I would look at my life and my inability to complete a task I have, in the past, breezed through and feel that I was a horrible failure of a human being. I thought I would at the very least feel some kind of a twinge of guilt.

I didn’t.

At first I kept telling myself “it’ll only take you a few days, don’t freak out, you can do it later.” Then I realized that I would never have anything that was a lower priority than writing a brand-new novel. I’m not working on brand-new right now. I’m working on perfecting stuff that already exists. I’m working on getting other people’s works into (electronic) print. I’m working on my invention that’s within spitting distance of making a Tunguska blast in the way people think about books.

I realized that every single thing I was doing – helping my kid prepare for two concerts within three weeks of each other, getting my magazine Lunch Ticket out the door, being spectacularly ill for a day and a half – every single bit of it was more important than creating a new novel that I wasn’t invested in yet.

Don’t get me wrong. I have three or four new novels I would love to be writing. But I’ve made a decision. I’m going through the exercise of grad school to figure out some stuff about writing not just literature that’s commercially salable, but about writing literature that’s good, and one of the first things I realized was that you can’t just write first draft after first draft, give them a cursory polish and then if an agent doesn’t like them, blame the industry and self-publish. Well, you can, but I won’t. I’ve decided that I am going to make this thing I’m working on into the most exquisite jewel in the world. A Fabergé egg made out of diamonds and crushed pearls and unicorn tears and sunsets over fairy castles and moonscapes with magic dragons flying over them.

And if I’ve chosen that over creating something new and (inevitably, for me) crappy, I think I’ve won.

Culture of the Hidden

I was talking to my mother this morning about the stuff I’m reading for grad school. Right now, it’s the satires of Horace and Eddie Signwriter.

Cover image for Adam Schwartzman's Eddie Signwriter

I have to admit, a book with a plot is more interesting than a dead Roman preaching at me.

My mother was telling me about the book she’s reading that has a character who is found living in a museum. It made me think of the character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – the woman secretly living at the top of the Empire State Building. My daughter just finished reading Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, an entire book about a kid who lives in a train station.

What is our fascination with people living in secret spaces in public places? Could it be some spark of hope that if we become victims of the slow economy, that we might still be able to live a charming, eventful life in an airport (a la “The Terminal“) or any of the weird places (a hospital, a circus, a submarine, a cave)  the Baudelaire children lived in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events? Perhaps it’s some kind of gentle admonishment to people who move through subway stations and shopping malls every day to stop and notice what’s going on around them. Or is it the hope that there’s more going on than the mean, grimy mundanity of our lives betrays – the chance that we’re in the proximity of magic every day without even realizing it. That’s the way I look at it.

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.

Annotation Nation

This, my friends, is Annotation Nation: a collection of book annotations done by a small group of authors. “What’s an annotation?” you ask. I certainly did.

An annotation is just a 1-2 page synopsis of your own thoughts and feelings about the craft of the book you’ve read. As part of the project period work for my MFA, I’m required to do ~10 of these per semester. Annotations are subjective, don’t necessarily include a plot synopsis and may be positive about a work even though it wasn’t a great read, provided that the author did something specific that the person writing the annotation found valuable. The purpose of doing these annotations is to get us to pay attention to the craft involved in the works we’re reading – to dissect and drill down on those things that worked and on those things that didn’t.

Annotations are useful to other writers when they give another writer who’s struggling with some aspect of their writing a reference to another author who is successfully managing that aspect.

Remember, as writers, it doesn’t do us any good to read if we’re not reading critically, with an eye toward what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s worth stealing.

What Are You Doing?

I’m glad you asked that. I really am.

The thing that I’ve chosen to pursue is called hypertext fiction. In a nutshell, it’s a form of fiction that uses the utilities of electronic delivery to allow the reader to customize the story. Examples of it have been around for 20 years, but newer e-reader technologies and packaging now allow for better, more interesting presentations and the possibility that you don’t need to have access to the web to read the text (she says, although she has not solved certain problems just yet).

The story as I have imagined it has 6 characters whose points of view will be shown. It has what I’ve come to think of as 3 theaters of action, each one in a different part of the world. Action is happening in their stories at all times as the characters seek to deal with their situations and remedy their problems.

What I’m envisioning is not just being able to “package” the story from a single character’s point of view, but to be able to switch between several points of view (seeing the same scene from an 8-year-old girl, versus a 40-year-old man), or being able to package all stories told in a particular location. It means that I will be writing the same novel 6 times, and each of them must be entirely distinct, and each one must work with all the others.

There are two difficulties I foresee: the first comes in the writing itself. It’s going to be hard to write each node, or scene, as an independent thing such that you can go smoothly from one point of view to another and have the narrative make sense. For instance, if one character leaves the room after an argument, the other will stay behind and ruminate about the argument, or tear up the furniture, or whatever. The one who left might go and cry, or go and inject poison into the other’s toothpaste tube. Where does the scene end? Can you switch smoothly from the end of the poisoner’s scene to the beginning of the next scene starring the room-tosser? Will it flow, or will there be a backtracking? Not sure how I’m going to solve it. I’m also terribly prone to point of view shifts when I write. It’s easy to start talking about how he thinks she’s dependent and clingy and wishes she would just leave him and then put in a line about how she will never leave him because she’s punishing him for being such a wimp by making him take the first step away. If I did it better, it would be omniscient, but since I don’t, it’s just bad third person.

The other difficulty is in the user interface. How do you represent what the reader is seeing? How do you have them switch from one POV to another? From one scene in time to another? What happens if you push a “next” button? What happens if you choose a different character – do you get the same scene retold, or the next scene from a different POV? There are decisions to be made in the telling that will inform how this thing is programmed, and the Pirate and I have been talking about it nonstop.

While the idea of hypertext fiction is not new, the things I want to do with it are new, and are going to require what I anticipate will be years of work. But I’ve got time. I’ve got nothing but time.

Days 10 & 11: The Home Stretch

Friday was our last session with our writing groups, and to celebrate, our writing mentor brought us sparkling wine (we are, after all, adults). We sipped sparkling wine while giving our critiques, and I was surprised at how amazing the critiques I got were. This particular piece of writing was a comedic piece that I’d read on the radio two years ago, and at the time I thought it was pretty good. I was amazed at the great comments I got, things that really got to the heart of what was missing. Now I’m really torn between spending the next five months working on the piece I had originally started for Nanowrimo and spending that time on this thing.The even better part was that one woman ended up a bit better for the drink and ended up doing that thing where every sentence tailed off in quiet giggles and she kept having to put her arm around the woman next to her and sort of lean on her. We decided that letting this particular woman drink anything is probably not a great idea.

My mentee group met with our mentor to get our contracts signed, and I really thought there would be more of a process to it. More of a discussion, if you will. But deep down, I also knew that it was really going to be up to me, and I was pretty happy with what I’d put together.

Saturday, our very last day, was a guest lecture by Fr. Gregory Boyle. His book had been required reading in preparation for the lecture, and while I had tried to read it, I found the stories so touching that I was never able to read more than two pages before I would break down crying. The lecture was called “The Literature of Witness,” but Boyle talked far less about writing and far more about his own experiences. And, of course, I started to cry. Worse, I was sitting in the front row, so whenever Fr. Boyle glanced at the front row, there’s me and my streaming nose and sopping hanky. By the end of the lecture, I noticed that he was tearing up whenever he looked at me. Whoops.

I drove home, and I wasn’t able to leave until after another meeting that got out 4-ish. Crying always exhausts me, so between getting to bed late (I was up packing), getting up early (to put stuff into my car) and weeping for two solid hours, I was exhausted. The Pirate, being the sweetest man possible, encouraged me to stay for another day so that I could leave early in the morning, but I wanted my own bed, my own husband, my kids, my own dogs. I didn’t miss the cats.

Here’s how amazing my best friend is: when he heard that I was going to have to leave late and make a 6-hour drive alone, he offered to drive up with me and fly home today. Could anyone possibly ask for a better friend than that? This is a guy who’s been my best friend for 25 years, but we had enough to talk about that the time in the car seemed like nothing. By the time we got to my house, I was more awake and feeling better than I had all during my residency.

I’m home. I’m tired. My first residency is behind me. Only four more of these to go.