The Post-Graduate

It has now been a solid month since I graduated from Antioch University LA’s MFA program. I’ll be honest – in the two months just before the residency (so, all of October and November), I was convinced that I wouldn’t graduate because I would succumb to a fatal heart attack from the combined stress of finishing my final manuscript, trying to get out the fourth issue of Lunch Ticket with a staff that wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders, and the amount of paperwork and meetings involved in starting a new company.

At the time, I was self-deprecating in my complaints: “It was stupid of me to be starting a company right now, I know. I should have waited until after graduation.” But self-deprecation was a mask for the unending frustration I felt at the fact that every single thing I did took time away from other things I had to do. And let’s not even talk about the things I never got around to doing. My mother has a long list that I’m sure she’d be happy to send you.

Now that the MFA is behind me, though, how have things changed?

First and most obviously, I’m now on a more regular schedule. Because I have my own company and therefore no boss, I get to dictate when I get into the office and what constitutes an acceptable work day. For me, that looks like getting up at 6:30, getting myself and the kid ready for our day, packing up the car and driving her to school, going to the gym, then heading into the office. A more regular schedule also means that at the end of the day, I’m not hiding in my home office trying to wring another couple of productive hours out of the day instead of hanging out with my family.

Sadly, though, that thing that I went to two years of punishing grad school to learn? Not using that so much. It’s not that I’m not writing at all. In fact, another one of my stories was picked up for publication last week, and I’ve done a few more submissions. But the novel that I’ve been working on is in a holding pattern because I recognize what needs to be done on it: research, rethink, rewrite. Yup, for the third time, I’ll be gutting it and doing some pretty fundamental revisions. That’s not a bad thing, but it does delay my novel’s completion substantially.

The nice thing, though, is that I’ve gotten myself to a place where I recognize that publication is not going to change my life (or anyone else’s) in any substantial way. I’ve come back to a place where writing, hard as it can be, is its own reward. This doesn’t mean that I won’t be pursuing publication. It just means that I’m no longer in a place where that’s the most important goal on my horizon.

I can live with that.

Empathy’s Sharp Little Teeth

When I was little, we listened to the radio all the time. Does anyone do that anymore? I mean, in their houses? It seems like nowadays with iPods and iPhones and Pandora, nobody listens to the radio anymore except maybe in the car and at the doctor’s office where they always seem to play the kind of music that was new back when people listened to the radio all the time.

Anyway, when I listened to music, it changed me. Listening to the Beatles sing “Run For Your Life,” I would feel that I was doing exactly that – running through the house, staring wildly behind me at the ghost of John Lennon who would rather see me dead. I would shake my head, trying to erase the image of someone chasing me, trying to hurt me. If the music happened to be in a minor key, I would inevitably cry. I think that my parents ascribed my tears or frenzy or euphoria to something going on in my life, but that was never true. My “Run For Your Life” frenzy lasted exactly two minutes and twenty-five seconds.

Music isn’t the only thing that changes me. Right now, I’m reading Jane Hamilton’s A Map of the World, and it’s having the same unfortunate effect. As the characters sink further into desperation and hopelessness, I feel that my own life is somehow slipping out of control, although when I take a step back, nothing could be further from the truth. Financially, I’m not teetering on the brink with a mountain of debts and a questionable career path. Personally, I’m not the sort to indulge my fantasies of throttling random children I don’t like. And, most importantly, my relationship with my spouse is not based on a mistaken notion of the person I suppose my spouse to be based on my own needs and insecurities. The book has gaping plot holes that make me downright angry (do they have no bail bondsmen in Wisconsin?), but I am sucked in anyway.

And yet, I realize that my dreams are increasingly frantic. My business dealings leave me feeling out of my depth and worried that things aren’t happening the way they should because there’s something I’m not doing. I tend to see only that I have a whole lot of irons in the fire and not the fact that I have many capable, willing friends and associates to help me tend them.

When I talked to my therapist, she said that of course I feel overwhelmed. That I demand more of myself than is perhaps reasonable. When I told her about my need to not only do many things, but to do each of them perfectly, she laughed at the notion. When I shared my feelings of frustration that I have so many ideas crowding in my brain that I can’t capture them all or act on most of them because I can’t write them down fast enough, she was nearly bug-eyed.

But the worst? The absolute killer that will send me under my bed in a fœtal position for a week? Hearing from my real, actual friends about real actual problems they’re experiencing in their real, actual lives that I can’t do anything about. That doesn’t come with any music, I can’t argue that it’s not believable, or that I don’t have to care.

I feel like letting the world in just hurts. It hurts my heart, it hurts the other people in my life who have to deal with me freaking out for no reason they can see or understand. I wish I knew what to do. I really do.

Aspirations, Witnesses, Prognosticators: My AWP Experience

This year was my first experience at AWP, although last year I remember everyone asking each other “Are you going? Are you going?” In the halls of your local MFA program, it’s like asking if you’re going to see God appearing at the Hollywood bowl where he’ll be interviewed by Richard Dawkins, who will then receive his just and appropriate punishment.

I went because I’m the editor in chief of a literary magazine, although I haven’t been to a writer’s conference in many years. Even before I started grad school, I knew that I had grown out of the kind of conferences offered in consumer publications like Writer’s Digest. I was tired of the same advice, the same invocations of Joseph Campbell and Anne Lamott, tired of writers of lackluster popular fiction using themselves as shining examples of craft in a thinly-disguised bid to sell a few more books to students eager to learn. There is no one more gullible than the unpublished writer.

I don’t know whether the crowd (11,000 absolutely qualifies as “crowd”) was any different than at those events, but I was. Years of writing, reading, learning, and working in the writing world have taken me out of that crowd and into the smaller, more select group of those for whom the shine has worn off. I walked the book fair floor and talked with other publication editors, commiserating about our editorial woes. I remarked on the disconnect between the perception of the crowd and the perception of the presenters and panelists. For instance, in four different panels, a question from the audience included the presumption that there’s no market for short stories. On the other hand, I’m hearing from publishers that short stories are enjoying a resurgence – e-readers provide a perfect channel for shorter fiction.

I did love the talk about writers promoting themselves. The best thing I heard was in a panel that talked about the need to cultivate relationships with bookstores and libraries, to make good use of social media, to connect with one’s fan base. As an introvert, the thought of having to cultivate a lot of friendships that may be useful but would certainly drain any energy I would need for writing was depressing. Until someone got up and said “Don’t do ALL OF IT!” The biggest thing was to be a nice person. Promote your friends and colleagues. Be genuinely happy for and supportive of their work. Heck – I’m doing that.

There were also a million people talking vaguely and gloomily about the future of publishing, but each sad pronouncement began with the claim that more books are being published than ever before. More books, more independent publishers, more channels through which a writer can reach readers…not sure where the crisis lies.

Actually, I am. Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap. That is to say, 90% of the writing that would be collectively produced by the people gathered in that room is unreadable. Given the state of submissions to the magazine for which I work, it’s true. But there doesn’t seem to be anything standing in the way of those people who have put in the time and effort to get beyond the crap phase.

I had a good time at AWP. I met some really nice people, I talked to a lot of my peers in publishing and I had a lot of crappy drinks with lovely people. Most importantly for me, though, was that I figured out how to get even more out of next year’s conference.

I’m Ahead of Myself, the Curve, My Time

I just completed my third of five grad school residencies. This one was different in that this time, it was more like getting together with friends that I don’t see often and having the chance to catch up on the brilliant things they’re thinking and doing. In my fantasies, I regularly attend conferences made up exclusively of people I know who are doing fascinating things, and everyone has a turn at talking about the amazing things they’re doing. I should look into hooking that up.

Anyway, in between residencies at grad school we have project periods, and each project period is characterized by a different large objective. In my first project period I had to complete a field study, in my second I wrote a short research paper and completed a 10-week translation class, and this time I’ll be tackling a 25-page research paper. In my final residency I’ll be preparing my final manuscript and putting together the presentation I’ll be giving in my final residency next December.

This means that what I should be thinking about is my 25-page paper, right? I have chosen as my subject “The Future of Narrative,” where I plan to take the reader from our beginnings in oral tradition (think “The Iliad”) and end with a shameless plug for my own new project, Lithomobilus, which will change the way you read books.

Except that all I could think about the entire way home from Los Angeles was how I’m going to do my graduate presentation. My thinking involves a whole lot of technology – basically, me on three screens giving my presentation in an order determined by the audience. When I first came up with the idea, I was out of my mind psyched about it, but the more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to doubt myself. This won’t play well in a big room, I’ll need three laptops (not really a gating factor, but it’ll require a certain amount of infrastructure from the venue), I’m not 100% sure that it’s allowed as a “lecture.”

This kills me every time. I have a great idea, and then I second-guess myself and bargain with myself until I’ve squashed my idea into something mediocre. I need to cut that shit out, seriously.

Still All A-Tingle

I just spent six hours in a car with my husband. I love road trips, but this one comes at the end of my grad school residency. After ten days of six to ten hours of school activities a day, including lectures, workshops and readings, my mind is once again percolating with all the new stuff I’ve learned.

My long-suffering husband, who came out to make sure that I didn’t have a full-scale meltdown, drove my car through the horrible Los Angeles traffic while I jabbered on at length. At about Valencia, I realized that I was verbally processing all the things I had learned, and that my husband was lovely enough to smile and nod, say “yes” in the right places. While I stopped talking, I didn’t stop thinking about all the things I’ve been hearing and seeing and doing.

The last thing I did was to have a little training session/pep talk with the next group of staff for Lunch Ticket. The first issue was a little…experimental. There was a lot of figuring things out, a lot of testing our abilities, figuring out the tools we had. This last issue, we knew a little more. We learned from our mistakes, we drew some conclusions about what we could and couldn’t do. The new issue has garnered tons of praise, and I won’t lie to you – it feels really good.

The new crop of editors is brimming with great ideas about what they want to do with and for the journal. They have connections, energy, optimism that makes me love each and every one of them.  I feel that if I do nothing else in my grad school career, having done this will have been worth it all.

The good news is that this is most assuredly not all I will do in grad school.

Tell Me About Your Novel…

For many, many reasons (not the least of which was Alistair McCartney‘s lecture this morning on the subject), I’ve been thinking about genre.

When I applied to grad programs, everyone wanted to know the same things: what genre are you writing in. At Antioch, the genres are fairly broad: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry and writing for young people. And yet, even within that space, there are always those people whose writing is hard to define. What do you say about a story where two historical characters, say, Winston Churchill and Viscountess Astor meet and exchange words? What if we had the scene take place in the Parliament buildings themselves? So far, we’re solidly in nonfiction, but the second we start putting actual words into their mouths, we’ve drifted into fiction. If we describe a scene which might have happened, such as Churchill and Astor exchanging friendly insults, we might call it creative nonfiction. However, if we say that the both of them hated each other because she was secretly in love with The Doctor and was jealous that Churchill got to go up in the TARDIS and she didn’t, we’ve crossed over into fictional territory. And if we present the whole scene in Ogden Nash-style verse, that’s something else entirely.

Part of the problem with these genres is that two of them, fiction and poetry, are descended from Aristotle’s divisions of literature – “epic” became fiction and “lyric” became poetry. But all the others are offshoots of fiction that have to do with subject matter and how it’s presented. I myself am not entirely sure what separates regular fiction from writing for young people, whether it be subject matter or method of presentation.

Even after we’ve figured out that we’re dealing in fiction, one can slice “fiction” so thinly that a new genre is presented for every single book that’s published. Urban fantasy, memoir, historical fiction, prose poem – at this point in history, writers have more freedom than ever before to define themselves as they see fit: to create their own genres and carve out their own niches. Who knew that the first job you’d have as a novelist was to make up a term for your own genre?

Wait For It…..

I’m an enormously emotional person – I cry over something, good or bad, just about every day. There’s a non-zero chance that a lot of writers are like this, and I think it’s at the heart of a piece of advice Terry Wolverton gave during her revision lecture this morning. It wasn’t new – it’s the same advice I heard from Nanowrimo back in the day. The advice was that once the first draft is done, put the work aside until you’ve gained some perspective from it. Terry took that one step further: she said that once you’ve received criticism from your critique group, your mentor or your agent or editor, you should put that aside as well. Just let it sit.

I received my evaluation from my project period mentor. I felt the same sense of trepidation about looking at my evaluation as I did about looking at the feedback on my last packet. Which, by the way, I still haven’t seen. He told me in his email that he was less happy about my last revision than he had been about the one previous, and I was too crushed to look at his feedback. Anyway, despite my misgiving, I looked at the feedback.

He was meticulous about documenting all of my stumbling, but at the end of the review were the words I had been waiting for. My mentor believes that I can be “a fine novelist.”

Maybe I’m ready to open that last packet now.