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.

No Elves Allowed

I had a conversation with a friend from my MFA program today. We’re both reading slightly different stream-of-consciousness novels and wondering how everyone started re-writing Mrs. Dalloway. I feel like so much of what I read in the program is derivative of something else – Hemingway, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf (although, funnily enough, not Proust or Tolstoy). Everyone’s writing realistic fiction, trying to frame events that we’ve all experienced first- or at most, second-hand with a voice that makes them sound relevant and urgent and more important than anything in real life.

The whole “voice” question comes up all the time in our studies, and in things related to our studies. In the magazine I edit, I had one editor question the “voice” of a first-person essay because she didn’t think that the author’s “voice” matched the actual story of her own experience. Seriously, that’s fucked up.

And it occurred to me that when I’m reading genre fiction, I almost never worry about voice. For that matter, I don’t worry about a whole lot of the conventions of “literary” fiction, because all that matters when you’re reading a genre story is the story. This is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sell bazillions of copies, even though everyone in the world acknowledges that they’re barely literate rubbish: people like the stories they tell.

I haven’t read either of the books above, because I like my story to come passably well-written as well as thought-provoking, so I end up reading really good sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism authors, and I always end up thinking “I would love to write like this.”

Did I mention I’m getting my MFA? And you’d think that, since I’m in a program specifically meant to make me into a better writer, I’d have a chance to hone and perfect that, right? The problem is that there are good mentors in our program – mentors who are attentive readers, willing to give really in-depth, line-edit feedback to my writing. There are also mentors who really like experimental writing and genre fiction. There is precious little overlap.

Many of the mentors claim that they don’t “understand” the conventions of genre fiction, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the “conventions” of any other kind of fiction. Tell a good story. Have compelling characters. Build some tension. Does it matter exactly how vampires work? No. Everyone who’s ever written a successful vampire book has made up their own rules, but as long as those rules are consistent within themselves, no one minds. Does it matter whether your fairies (or, if you insist, faeries) are good or evil? Nope. Whether robots are our friends or enemies (or both)? Not a bit. Whether the aliens can pass for human? Nah.

What I’ve always loved about genre fiction is the way it explores what it means to be human by juxtaposing humans with other things and thinking about those differences. I’m not convinced that humans are the strongest, smartest, most compassionate species in the galaxy (which is how we’re always portrayed, which, as a trope, embarrasses me) but I like thinking about what makes me human as opposed to robot or vampire or elf queen. Because when I think about what makes people human, I get to think of all people at the same time. All races, all genders, all religions, all classes and nationalities. They’re all included.

Maybe I’d have liked Hemingway if there’d been more spaceships and fewer guys fishing. Maybe Faulkner would have appealed more to me if there’d been less racial tension and more species tension. Maybe I’d like Woolf more if there were fewer first-world problems, and more multiverse problems.

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.

Wait…I’m the BOSS?

There’s a certain cachet that comes with power. Just ask all those ugly rich guys who’re combing supermodels out of their badly-groomed eyebrows.

I am still a writer who struggles to submit work to literary and commercial magazines, so I was amazed when I realized that I’m not just a struggling writer. I’m the editor in chief of a respected literary journal. I had a staff of 18 people, all of whom were excited about the fact that they were real editors working on a real literary journal. This issue,there’ll be even more of them.

Until I got to the residency this time, I didn’t feel like the boss of all the editors of a literary journal. I was too busy making phone calls, correcting punctuation, sending emails, wrestling with the web interface, approving color combinations, signing contracts, etc. I got to the residency, and suddenly, everyone knows who I am. Everyone’s saying “hello” to me in the halls and wanting to sit next to me in lectures. The new kids just signing up to work for the journal wave to me and say hello with that same shy smile that people give to low-level celebrities – a local tv newscaster or a city councillor.

I’m excited about working on Lunch Ticket. I’m excited about the great literature we’re putting out, I’m excited that I’m the one who gets to make the decisions, I’m excited that I get to work with a lot of smart, dynamic people. But it wasn’t until I stepped into the room yesterday for the debriefing and orientation that I realized that I’m the boss. I’m the head of a literary journal.

Whoa.

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.

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.