Now I’m not a resident of Chicago, so this isn’t an insider’s tale. I speak only as an observational anthropologist of sorts, a sociologic hunter-gatherer. I’m a man without a home, so to speak; I had never lived anywhere for more than four years before I moved to Mississippi twenty years ago, but in Mississippi you’re not from Mississippi unless you were born in Mississippi. So I’m still “that radiation doctor who moved here from San Diego” there. Perhaps it’s that lack of rootedness that renders those things that people do so surprising and unique for me. (more…)
Archive for the ‘General Musings’ Category
Gro Flatebo takes us through the submissions evaluation process at FWJ.
The room is packed beyond capacity. I’m at an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference listening to the panel “What Editors Look For” for the fifth time. It’s hot, the room is overcapacity, and I sit 300 feet away from the presenter. (“Can you hear me in the back?”) The presenters mirror the hundreds of submission guidelines for literary journals I read each year: “It’s all about the writing. Surprise me. Make me miss my subway stop as I read your story.” After two years of reading submissions for a literary journal, I can tell you that piece of advice is true. (more…)
Writing has never come easily to me. It’s always been a delicate dance of determination and shame, shame which has also driven me to grueling bouts of revision. A story is whittled out of me with painstaking tedium: I write, revise, write, revise, write, revise sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph. After a particularly harrowing bout of toil, I often stare at the screen in resignation, the critical voice in my head nagging, “Who will want to read your work?”
My tendency to revise as I go can also be a positive thing. For instance, I’m far from the type of writer who slams out a draft and then sits back, basking its glaring newness with a sense of finality. Indeed, none of my stories ever feel finished; even after a piece is published I read it again and wish I could have continued tweaking.
However, this tendency also leads, on occasion, to stagnation. I can make myself absolutely sick of a story, begin to resent its very existence, and tuck it away in a drawer or file folder, leaving the characters frozen and unfinished.
That is where NaNoWriMo comes in. I’ve heard some writers brush it off as a useless trend, a 50,000 word fad that “less serious” writers engage in for the prestige of “winning.” To be frank, I’d never given it a second thought, myself, until this year. Until now, I’d always have workshops to give me deadlines, and before obtaining my MFA, I was intensely productive. My graduate program afforded me the time and luxury as well as the fire under my feet to face my insecurities and write regularly.
Then came the 40 hour work week, accompanied by three freelance gigs and two volunteer opportunities, and my life became ordered by a hierarchy of survival that shuffled creative writing to the bottom. Creative writing has been allowed such little precious time that I’ve let my insecurities and incessant revisions descend over my pages like a fog in the night, obscuring the stories I need to tell.
This year, NaNoWriMo will be the blaze to dissipate my fog. No revising. No second guessing. No time for insecurity. I have one month and 50,000 words and no excuses. Will I make it to the shining, 50,000 word finish line? Likely not, given my responsibilities and needs for sleep and nourishment. But will I engage in the delicate dance of worry that so often commences in my consciousness? No time. This month, I will undergo a march of triumph. I will get as close to 50,000 words possible and I will not revise one sentence until it is over. For me, NaNoWriMo will be more than a test of endurance; it is a personal challenge I am setting for myself to break out of my rut and into the worlds of my characters.
I invite you to join me. This is a time to break free with our writing. Save the worry and the revising for later. Pure production and perpetual motion. Turn the critical voices in your head down and crank up positivity and determination. We are most purely writers only when writing, and NaNoWriMo provides us with the reminder to not let anything get in our way, not even ourselves.
By Erin Christian
Hi Fifth Wednesdayarians:
I just sat down with Ana Castillo, who will be our third author in our Taking the Fifth series. She joins the ranks of Stephen Dixon and Elizabeth Strout, whose interview is going to be pub’d in the upcoming issue of Fifth Wednesday, set to drop in November.
For me this is the best part of working on these interviews. Sure it’s fun to the research, to submerge yourself in an artist’s entire oeuvre, taking notes and shaping questions. It’s also fun to do the actual interview, to sit across from someone you admire and have a conversation, though there is some anxiety that goes along with that — I think to a certain to degree for both parties. But then comes the work: transcribing several hours of conversation, then molding that conversation ever so slightly — trimming the edges off answers, rearranging the questions slightly, turning the verbal into print, and having it become — hopefully — useful and literary at the same time. All that begins this morning, just after I finish typing this paragraph and refilling my coffee cup.
See you at the other end.
Daniel S. Libman
Earlier this week, Erin wrote about how she ended up in grad school for creative writing. Today, Katherine talks about what happens after your MFA time is over and real life sets in.
So, Vern, our fearless leader, asked us to write about how we ended up here in Chicago being all literary and scholared. I don’t know if my story is that unique, but I would like to write a little about my experience and what it’s been like for me to learn/relearn “how to be a writer” post-MFA.
So we’ll see how this goes.
First, I am a poet. I am from the inland valley of southern California, known to many as the Inland Empire. David Lynch made a movie called the Inland Empire. I’m not sure if it was set there because I had to skip over, like, 45 minutes of it because it was kind of too weird, even for me, but Laura Dern was in it and she’s pretty awesome + stop motion rabbits.
I attended the University of California, Riverside and received my BA in Creative Writing. This is where I learned how much I loved poetry and publishing. I was the poetry editor and editor of our undergraduate magazine (Mosaic: Art and Literary Journal, check it out, hooray!). I had a professor who almost made me give up on writing poetry all together, in whose office I’m sure I cried at least once and definitely cried many times walking away from, who discouraged me because I didn’t write the way he thought I should write, the way he wrote. I realized I had to go on, get out of there and keep writing and learning.
I applied to seven or eight schools, none of which accepted me, but I did get waitlisted for two, including Columbia College Chicago. In the end, some of their more awesome acceptances must have dropped out, because they called me. I packed up and moved to city I had never even visited to be a poet.
I had the best possible experience. It was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. I was a part of a community of poets, people who were as serious as I was about this art and as crazy enough to pursue it as some kind of professional beast. I wrote a bunch of crappy poems and a bunch of great ones. I read a lot. I found all kinds of magic in poems, essays, art, music, life, films, dance clubs, architecture. Sometimes it really sucked, but sometimes it was better than I could have imagined. I am insanely proud of my thesis, and I hope it will find a home as a book sometime soon. I am proud of myself for not just surviving but thriving out here and through my program.
Like many, I’m sure, I wrote a good ¾ of my thesis within four months. As in, the four months before I graduated. It was sudden and spectacular for me. Things were moving.
I felt awesome. I was about to have an awesome graduate degree. I was staying in awesome Chicago, and going to find an awesome job, write awesome poems, make awesome art, go to awesome places. Awesome!
And then I graduated.
I was unemployed. For three months. Considering the economy, not that bad. But for my psyche, bad. For a person who’d been living within the constant structure of school for 18 years, bad.
I was overcome with my own expectations for myself. I felt as if I’d been left behind by everyone. I went out into the world. I didn’t teach. I never taught during my program. I didn’t have a job lined up for fall semester. It felt as if everything had dissolved around me. I watched a lot of Say Yes to the Dress, drank a lot, felt bad a lot, ate a lot of spaghetti, and wrote two poems.
Admittedly, I suffer from depression. And I’ve always wished that I could be one of those people who can just bear down and work during sad times, but I wallow. So I really wallowed for a while, and felt sad and jealous of the people I knew who got the dream jobs that I did not get.
During this time, I also wrote a lot of emails to my two best friends from college, who were in the Big Transition from post-MFA time abroad to back home. This saved me.
In my conversations with my home-friends, I began to be released from myself. I realized that I did not want or need those jobs. I got a job selling cheese in a grocery store, and I loved it. I wrote two poems in three months, but I wrote two good poems, poems that sparkled. I had to look past that number, which was difficult at first. I’d spent 18 years in school, and six years learning how to be a writer in a workshop.
This is a key revelation in my life right now. I spent six years learning how to write and read the writing of other people. I moved here and did my MFA because I wanted and needed that dependence of the contained program. I owe my growth as a writer to it. I felt lost without it.
Those of us who have gone through graduate programs put ourselves directly into this box because it is relatively safe, even when there is challenge or experimentation within it. Maybe we do it because we are expected to go to college, and when we realize we are not 9-5ers, we get degrees in art. (I can only speak for myself, of course, so forgive me.) Maybe we are (I am) too afraid to fringe, to ride the swerve. For so long, I’d been looking toward and within the horizon, and now there is no horizon. There can be no horizon. No expectation.
Until about halfway through junior year of college, my motto was, “I am never going to graduate school.” I studied English, with a concentration in creative writing, and when I told friends and relatives my major they always asked one of two questions:
Are you going to teach?
Where are you applying for grad school?
I would inform that I had no plans to teach or to further my education and then list a series of vague, not-so-well-thought out plans for the future, things like AmeriCorps programs and internships abroad. I would tell them I was excited about finishing school, and having the opportunity to read and write on my own time. I told them I had no desire to attend a two or three year program to get my Masters, that the ivory tower of even higher higher education was not for me.
It was a lie. All of it.
I loved school, the rush of turning in assignments on time, gaining approval of professors, spending my time reading and writing and then discussing these things. It was a challenge that motivated me like nothing else in my life. And I was good at it, better at being a student than I was at most things. I would have loved to get an MFA in my chosen genre, nonfiction prose, and then go on to teach at a university while working on my writing. This was my dream and I always knew this was my dream. I wasn’t bored with my education at all. The problem was that I was terrified.
The thing about grad school is, it’s competitive. It has always been competitive and the fact that humanities-based departments are shrinking more and more each year means it’s more competitive than it’s ever been. I did not want to face the humiliation of rejection letter after rejection letter, especially considering a friend of mine, who had a far higher GPA than I did, had just been rejected form 8 schools. At age 22, I was already prepared to give up on my dream and get a day job.
I can’t tell you how I changed my mind although I remember the day I did decide to go for it vividly.
It was a Saturday afternoon, spring semester of my junior year. I had been studying for a Spanish exam for about an hour and a half and decided to take a break. I goggled, “MFA Programs—Chicago, New York City.” I spent the rest of the afternoon reading about different schools, their applications processes, the GRE, and other grad school related information. I still cannot tell you why I decided to seriously consider the application process then. It was an impulse, more than anything, something I did with little thought or consideration. A sudden flicker in my mind said to me, “We’re doing this. End of story.”
I wish I could tell you where this came from, because such a lesson is an important one. Everyone wonders how to overcome their fears and pursue what they really want out of life. Some of us, in fact, never learn how. I don’t know where that drive came from, but I know that it sustained itself for the entirety of that summer, which I spent the bulk of sitting in a diner in Lansing, Michigan going over GRE flash words and working on my writing sample. And I know the drive continued through my first semester of senior year, which I spent bothering professors for letters of recommendation and drafting statements of purpose. And I know it all paid off last March, where I received an acceptance letter to Columbia College Chicago as well as a fellowship that covered the bulk of my tuition.
Now, when I tell people I’m working on an MFA in Chicago, they don’t ask what I will do with it. They assume I will teach college. Instead, they ask, “How did you decide on that?” And I give them an honest answer.
“I don’t remember, but I’m sure glad I did.”
Anyone else getting an MFA? How did you feel? What made you decide to apply? Let us know in the comments!
Thanks to an email on another topic from Mike Zapata (Fifth Wednesday Journal, Spring 2010 Issue 6) I discovered this morning a magnificent contribution to the spirit and life of the printed book in American culture. If you haven’t already discovered The Book Bike for yourself, you might visit www.bookbike.org/gallery/
You will enjoy what you find there. The Book Bike lives and works in Chicago, but could thrive in many other cities around the world. If you are acquainted with any of its cousins in other places, let us know by commenting on my discovery.
We need someone to demonstrate the usefulness of a blog for a literary magazine. After all, we invest resources in the manufacture and maintenance of these vehicles. In this case, “we” means the editors, designers, and webmasters who cobble the appearance and structure of them.
But we don’t really know who visits here, if anyone visits here, why anyone would visit here, how many visitors return for a second visit, or what thoughts, opinions, reactions, and attitudes the visitor carries away. So tell us. Leave a comment. Comment on this posting. Say what you want to say in the language of your choice. We do exercise a warden’s prerogative; we will censor abusive and pornographic rants, so let it hang out, knowing we will sanitize your act.
And while you are at it, join us in our new game. We ask you to name one important book published in the past decade that you have NOT read. Tattle on yourself. Novels, collections, anthologies, histories, biographies, philosophical, medical, political, scientific, memoir — if you haven’t read it but know you should, let us know about it. Don’t cheat! If you have read it, don’t list it here with the implied challenge to others to do so just to keep up with you.
My candidate is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Scribner, Sept. 2010.
Or if you demand a “literary” text, how about this? I have not read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Penguin Books 2010.
Top that if you can,
When it’s time to select the photos for the next issue of FWJ, all we usually have to worry about is whether the ones we choose are still available for publication. But this time a couple of photos caused special concern.
First, we wanted to publish a picture of an Iranian woman sitting in a stairwell. It was in the layout and ready to go, but there was one potential problem: the woman’s scarf had slipped off her head. Our editor wondered if we needed to worry, citing the recent news story about the woman in Iran facing 99 lashes for appearing in a photo without hijab. We would be sending copies of the journal to Iran, and what if they fell into the wrong hands? Slim chance, but a horrifying thought and a risk we weren’t willing to take. We discussed the issue with the photographer, who admitted that he doesn’t even take photos on the streets of Tehran, for safety reasons. We pulled the photo.
Then another photographer asked us if she needs to get her subject’s permission for us to publish her photo of a woman in a Statue of Liberty costume, waving from the sidewalk. An American. While the Iranian photographer is afraid to take photos on the street, this vantage point is exactly what makes it okay for the American photographer to submit and publish her photo without her subject’s consent. The American Society of Media Photographers states, “Yes, you can photograph strangers in public places, unless you do it to such an extent and in such a way that you become a harasser or nuisance to the public.” As a result, you’ll see this photo in the fall issue.
I only wish you could see both.