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"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Since my husband Damien is in the final year of his MA program at Ohio University, his thoughts are turning more and more towards his thesis, while our collective thoughts as a couple are focusing in on what we will do next year, after he graduates. Now that I have a book coming out, my friends and colleagues are urging me to begin applying for full-time teaching positions. After all, when I graduated with my MFA, I told myself that I just needed to teach adjunct for a few years, that once I got a book published I would surely be able to land a full-time job somewhere.

The things is, though, that I didn’t really expect it to happen so soon. I always thought that I would be something like, say, five years out of my MFA program before I finally got a book published, and by then I would have built up five years of experience and miscellaneous CV credits to really make myself a strong candidate for a full-time position. The book contract came so quickly—which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong—but now I don’t really know that I’ll stand much of a chance of landing a full-time job just yet. Right now I’m only one year out of my degree program. I have only one year’s worth of adjunct experience to add to my TA experience. Publication-wise, I think my CV looks pretty good. Otherwise, though . . . I’m not so sure.

And on top of that, I’ve learned a lot about my limitations as a teacher this past year. At the risk of sounding a bit over-confident, I think I’m a pretty good teacher—and I enjoy it—but I also love my writing time and am not willing to give that up in order to have full-time teaching work. I’ve found that my limit is three, or maybe four, courses at a time. I taught four last spring and was overwhelmed with all the grading—I can’t even imagine trying to teach five. And while four was possible—obviously, I managed it just fine—I hardly wrote at all last spring. I was just too busy. I always had several stacks of paper that needed grading, several student emails to respond to.

I do think that four classes on the quarter system is more time consuming than four on the semester system, because the quarter system involves the same amount of work but compresses it down into ten weeks (and then makes you do it three times for every two on the semester system), so I feel certain I could teach up to four classes on the semester system and still find time to write. Four classes maximum, absolutely no more.

Now I know that a lot of teacher/writers simply accept that they won’t have time to write during the school year; instead, they get a lot of work done during the winter and summer. But that’s just not the way I work. I like to keep a steady momentum going. I like to always be working on something, to have at least an hour or so to devote to my writing every single day. And I’ve found from experience that if I’m teaching more than three courses at a time, I have no choice but to push my writing to the side.

And so. What does that mean about my career as a college English instructor? Well, most full-time, creative writing positions don’t require more than two or three classes at a time. They have other requirements, of course, but those don’t bother me. I believe I can easily manage teaching three or four courses, plus all the other faculty duties and still have enough creative energy left in my brain to write every day. Teaching and other duties and creative writing are all different things, and I think I can fit a moderate amount of each on my plate at one time. I don’t think I can fit five classes, plus other faculty duties, plus creative writing on my plate, though. That’s too much.

But. The problem is, many professors had to put in their ten or fifteen years of a five/five comp teaching load before they were competitive as creative writing professors. It’s not that I dislike comp, or that I think I will someday find a job where I don’t have to teach comp (I expect comp will always be required, and I really enjoy the variety of students you get to work with in a comp class). It’s the five/five load that is the problem.

I’ve decided—and I hope this doesn’t sound bratty or na├»ve—that if my choices are teach a five/five load for ten years before I can finally land a good creative writing, three/three position, or stop being a teacher, my decision is that I will stop being a teacher. I will not continue in a career that forces me to push my creative writing to the back burner for several years as I slave away teaching five classes per semester.

I am going to apply for some full-time jobs for next year. I would love to continue in this field and am hoping that, with my book deal and what CV credits I do have so far, I might get lucky and find a job that affords me time to write on the side. However, as an alternate plan, I’m also going to apply for a few Masters in Library Science programs for next year.

I sat down for a chat with the local children’s librarian here in Athens—I’m interested, particularly, in becoming a children’s librarian if teaching doesn’t work out—and based on what she told me, I think I would absolutely love this field. I’m passionate about children’s literature, about fighting censorship, and about working with kids. Everything about the job seems perfect for me, and I think that, because my day-to-day duties as a librarian would rely on a completely different part of my brain than my creative writing does, I wouldn’t find it very difficult to write on the side.

So that’s where I’m at right now. I want to be a writer primarily, or at least keep writing on the same level as whatever day-job I work. If that means I can be a college English instructor, that will be great. But if I can’t find a teaching position that actually allows me to put equal focus on my career as a writer, then I think I’ll try to be a librarian instead. It’s as simple as that. I will give up teaching before I give up writing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Last time I talked about my recent issues with writer’s block and how I came to understand, at least, what was causing the problem. This time I want to talk about some of the concrete things I did to help unblock myself.

  1. Turned the publishing demon off for a while. I mentioned this last time, too, but the first and probably most important step I took to break free of my writer’s block was to stop setting submission goals for myself, as well as to stop worrying about the fact that I wanted to get some new stories out there. I decided, instead, to just start writing the way I used to write back before I ever started getting published: to just put an idea down on paper for the sake of seeing where it would go. Period.
  2. Listened to music.  I’m a big, big, big music fan, and have probably spent thousands upon thousands of hours in my life just pacing back and forth in a room by myself listening to some CD or other. The older I get, though, the less time I seem to have for things like that, and I think my writing is suffering as a result. MANY of my ideas have come unexpectedly when I’m just listening to music and letting the song lead me deep into my imagination. In fact, most stories that I’ve written that have turned out any good have had their own, what I call, “soundtrack,” which consists of the music I was listening to as I was writing them (and which I imagined would make up the film soundtrack, if the story were made into a film). I’ve seen the idea of listening to music as a way of breaking from writer’s block before, and I often see it pointed out that you should listen to music without words. I say screw that. I get some of my best ideas from music lyrics, and I tend to be way more inspired by other writing  (like lyrics) than just sounds.
  3. Paced. This goes along with step two, but I think it’s of equal importance to the listening to music part, so I thought I’d include it as its own step. Normally, when I clock in writing time, I count only the time I spend directly in front of the computer. I’ve decided that’s ridiculous (at least when I’m getting over a block, it is). Some of my most vivid ideas come to me as I’m pacing and working a story through in my head, or even just letting the sentences form themselves with each new step. I don’t know why, but stepping away from the computer and just pacing around the room opens my brain up like nothing else, and after fifteen minutes or so I usually end up rushing back to the computer with a new sentence pushing out of my brain.
  4. Read fiction and watched movies. Again, this is nothing new that I’m coming up with, but reading the sort of thing I want to write and watching movies that tell the sort of story I want to tell are excellent ways of getting new ideas. (And before you ask me, isn’t that stealing?: I am not the writer who wrote X book or the filmmaker and cast and crew who made Y movie what it is. I am different, and I see the world in a slightly different way, so what I do with the idea will be completely different from what they did. The idea for my short story “The Number One,” for example, which was nominated for a Puschcart, came to me when I was watching Little Miss Sunshine. I wanted to write a story about that same theme—that people should not be concerned with being the number one—and yet my take on the theme ended up being completely different from the movie’s, and I don't imagine anyone would be able to figure out where I got the idea.)
  5. Read articles/books/blogs on writing. One of the best ways to get inspired is by reading about other people who got inspired. Sure, it’s just the same thing over and over again. Writers go through the same sorts of struggles; our success stories are often very similar. But you know what? My fingers still itch to dance across the keyboard every time I read one of those success stories, or when I read about a writer talking about his process or how she came up with the idea for X story. When music isn’t doing it, and pacing isn’t doing it, and watching Little Miss Sunshine isn’t doing it, then flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers might be the answer (or reading other writers’ blogs).
  6. Blogged. That’s right. Part of the reason I have a blog, my friends, is because writing about writing, working through my current issues and unprocessed thoughts here, helps to free me up to do the fiction writing that I really want to do. Often, when I sit down to write and I find the blank page instilling me with terror, I switch to my blog document and write something there, instead. The end result is usually that I’m good and inspired by the time I switch back to that blank document.
So there you have it. I certainly haven’t reinvented the wheel—none of this is in any way new—but these are the exact tricks that helped (are still helping?) me get over my most recent, lengthy span of block.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

First of all, a quick note: my website is up and running. I'm still finishing up a few final tweaks (and haven't added any discussion questions to the discussion board yet), but, regardless, it's all ready for you. Check it out!

Now onto a less happy topic: writer's block. Yes, I’ve written about writer’s block before, and so has pretty much every other writer with a blog, but the sad truth is, the problems that writers face tend to arise again and again. It seems the best you can ever hope for is a temporary solution, a short term cessation, before the problem pops up again. And so. Another post about writer’s block. Although, to be fair, this is the first time I’ve written about writer’s block in this blog. Now bear with me here, because I have a lot to say. This is going to be a long one, maybe even a  two parter, as perhaps I’ll follow my writer’s block confessional with some concrete things I did to eradicate it.

So here’s the thing: I’ve been pretty well blocked up for the past four months now. Ever since I found out that my first book was going to be published, I’ve had a hard time really feeling any particular piece of writing. Before the book contract, I was flying through a new draft of a new novel. I was about 50,000 words in, about the halfway point, and well on track to have the draft finished by the end of the summer when, BAM! Everything screeched to a halt. I had to put the new novel aside to edit the book that would actually be published soon, and on top of that I became almost paralyzed with the fear that this book—my first book . . . so much rides on that first book—wouldn’t be very good, and my career as a writer would die at a tragically young age.

While I was working with my editor to get the book in by the deadline—and working on other small tasks such as building a writer’s website, hunting down blurbs, writing my bio, etc. etc.—I became so caught up in the career side of writing, that the writing side of it seemed to get left behind altogether. When I finished the edits and sent the final manuscript in, I foolishly told myself that the block would surely end soon. I hadn’t been too worried about it before because I had sort of been writing during that time—revising still counts, after all—and because it was a happy predicament to be in, anyway: having no stories to submit because all of my ready stories were going to be published together as a book.

But once I had the final manuscript turned in, I felt that I needed to pump out some new stories, and fast. Ever since I got my first publication, I’ve published a minimum of two stories per year. I didn’t want that to taper off, book pub or no book pub. So, if I wanted to get two stories published in 2011, I needed to get some serious work done in the remaining months of 2010.

It seemed like an attainable goal, but every time I sat down to write, it felt like, I don’t know, doing math homework or something. Working on something that you don’t really feel like doing, and having a difficult time of it, besides. I kept telling myself if I just kept forcing it, it would come. I just needed to get my momentum back up. That’s pretty much always been true of my writer’s block in the past, but this time, it just wasn’t coming.

I finally decided that, rather than trying to steamroll over the problem, I should actually sit down and analyze what is happening to me and see if I could pinpoint the reason why. That way perhaps I could come up with a more effective solution than just keep writing, keep writing; ignore the block and maybe it will go away.

The nice part about this particular case is that, since the beginning of the block coincided exactly with a key event in my life—landing my first book contract—I was given a strong hint as to the root of the problem. In fact, the problem seemed pretty obvious as soon as I started really looking for it.

I think I have two desires which are, though it might seem strange, very disparate. I want to be a writer, as in make money off of writing, publish . . . a lot, build up a readership, be, in other words, a success. But that is a very different thing altogether from the desire to write. The verb. To get lost in the words, to become so removed from the physical world around me that the story feels like reality, reality like a story. To think only about the language, the characters, the plot, and not which journal I will submit to, what sort of audience the piece might reach, and how I can use the final product to take another step forward in my career.

Don’t get me wrong, you do have to think about those careery things sometimes if you actually want to get your stuff out there. You can be writing the most beautiful, moving, creative stuff ever, but if you’re not submitting it, no one will ever get to read it. And once you start getting published, it’s natural to want to move forward. Of course I want an agent. Of course I want to reach the widest possible readership.

But none of that really matters if I’m not enjoying the verb side of writing.

I haven’t been able to get sucked into my own stories, and in addition to the fact that it’s quite uncomfortable—I’ve spent too much of my life in a state of blissful distance from reality, thinking through some story or other, that to have that other world closed off to me leaves me in a hazy sort of mental discomfort—it also renders the career side of writing pointless. Yes, I want to be a writer, but then, only because I like to write. If the latter ceases to be true, the former should, too.

No, no, I’m not saying I’m giving up (although the other day, I was wondering, what if I did? What would my life be like if I just decided, eh, I got one book out there. That’s enough. How empty would it be, I wonder? Or would it actually be a strange sort of relief?). What I am going to do, though, is stop worrying so much about publishing. My friend (and writer extraordinaire—she writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, screenplays . . . is there anything this woman can’t do?) Jayme Russell suggested to me, oh about a month ago, that maybe writing things just to write them and not for the sake of publishing would help break through my writer’s block. I listened to her advice, knew it was good, and yet continued to obsess over getting some new stories out there for the sake of submitting them. 

But now I’m finally seeing the wisdom of Jayme’s words, and I’m going to stop worrying about whether 2011 will be a dry year for me, journal pub-wise. I’m not going to rush to get back into setting goals for submissions, and the goals I did set to get me through the end of this year, well, I’m not going to break my back trying to keep them. I don’t know that I’ll have anything to submit to the Narrative contest by the end of this month, and that’s okay, because it’s worth it if it means stopping forcing the story I was trying to write for that contest and instead working on whatever story successfully carries me away. Regardless of publishability.

I think what I need right now is not motivation through deadlines and that carrot of furthering my career as a writer. What I need right now is to unlock the door to that mental chamber deep inside me, which is growing dusty, I’m afraid, from disuse. I’m going to air it out, clean out the cobwebs, and close my eyes and let it take me wherever it takes me, just like the old days when I wrote because my head was bursting with words and I would go crazy if I didn’t pour them out, and not because I was worried about pub credits and marketability and Ashley Cowger the writer rather than the daydreamer.

Of course, that’s all easy enough to say. What did I do though, to unlock the block? Stay tuned, my friends, and next week, I’ll tell you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I have a long commute to work, and recently, to fill the time, I’ve been listening to an audio book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The book is about cognitive dissonance theory, and it is fascinating.

As I’m learning about cognitive dissonance, I’m beginning to understand why people sometimes act in ways that seem so totally baffling. Cognitive dissonance occurs when our vision of who we are—our sense of identity—is called into question by something that happens or something that we do. For example, if I see myself as a nice and reasonable person, but one day I snap and do something mean and unreasonable—say, flip somebody off for accidentally cutting me off in traffic—that action creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance in me. I’m a good person, why would I do something so not good? To get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of dissonance, I make up some reason to justify my action—well, it was that other jerk’s fault. He cut me off! And really, I’m helping him to learn from his mistake—so now I feel better about my action, and my sense of identity is once again intact.

See how that works?

Well, among many other mind blowing realizations (forgive the hyperbole, but this book is truly awesome), the book has helped me to understand a couple of common things that I often see writers do. The first is a bad thing, the second, just sort of an interesting thing.

First off, the bad news. Follow along with my scenario for a second: You see yourself as a very nice, caring person, right? You’re not the jealous type. You’re a good friend, and you want good things to happen to your friends. But then one day, your friend Writer McWritey-Well calls you up, ecstatic to share the news that he just got a publication acceptance, or won a contest, or was picked for inclusion in one of the Best American anthologies, or . . . Your first reaction? Jealousy. Bitterness. Maybe even the feeling that you’ve somehow been wronged. Why don’t good things ever happen to me?

This is not the way you would have expected yourself to react. He’s a good writer, and he works hard. You should be happy for him. You know you should. And yet you aren’t. But why? You’re not that kind of person, not at all. This feeling goes against your image of yourself. So you justify it. You tell yourself, the reason I’m upset is not because I’m jealous. I’m upset because ol’ Writer McWritey-Well is bragging. He’s so full of himself. What a jerk.

Voila. Your image of yourself as a nice, caring, good person is unharmed. The problem is, your friend McWritey is left wondering why you’re acting like he’s a jerk for wanting to share his good news. He didn’t do anything wrong. You’re his friend. He just assumed you would want to know. He assumed you would be happy for him.

And sharing good news with your friends is not bragging.

I think cognitive dissonance is just a part of the human experience. It’s probably not something we can just turn off. The same is true of jealousy, I would guess. But maybe being more aware of what’s going on in our brains can help us to be a bit more rational about things. I don’t think it makes you a bad person if your first reaction to someone else’s good fortune is jealousy. Those feelings just happen. What matters is what we do with them.

Well, let’s not end on that sour note, so here’s a benign thing that I think can also be traced to cognitive dissonance: have you ever noticed that many writers claim that they’ve always wanted to be a writer? That they were born to write, that they’ve always felt called to this profession? Here’s what I think is happening: being a writer is such a part of so many of our identities that it’s difficult to accept that there are any number of other paths we might have taken and that it’s partially luck, partially just small steps we’ve made in this direction along the way that have turned us into writers. When we’re faced with that reality, the result is cognitive dissonance.

So when we tell ourselves (and other people), “Even when I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a writer,” I think what’s happening is we’re closing that dissonant gap by ignoring the fact that we also wanted to be a movie star when were little, and we wanted to be the president, and an astronaut, and a fireman, and . . . When I was a teenager, I kind of wanted to be a fashion designer. And a filmmaker. But sometimes I tell myself, “Nah, I always wanted to write,” because I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to do many things.

I bet you did too.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Well, hello there; fancy seeing you at a blog like this. Which is to say, welcome to my new and improved, three-in-one blog! This new blog will combine and replace my two previous blogs (The MFA/MFYou Newletter and The Process IS the Product), while also being a general writer’s blog as I enter into a new stage of my writerly life: book publication!

First of all, the website: I’ve been working for the past few weeks on building my very own writer’s website, which I expect to have up and running in another week or two. I’m pretty excited about the way it’s coming together.

I’m making the website interactive by creating a virtual book club discussion forum. This is not really anything new (I noticed, for example, that Stephen King has one on his website), but I’m hoping that having an online place where readers can discuss the stories in my book will encourage people to visit the website regularly and—dare I say it?—motivate teachers to adopt the book in their classes (although, to be honest, I’m torn on whether I think that would be a good thing, since, as a teacher myself, I’m well aware that most students tend to hate anything they’re required to read for school).

Now, on the writing front: Ever since I signed the book contract, I’ve been busy (and sometimes mildly stressed) with getting the book ready for publication. I haven’t, in other words, been doing much writing. Revising, some, but mostly proofreading, along with other, essentially non-writing tasks, such as seeking out blurbs, writing a description of the book for promotional use, putting together my website, etc.

Once I sent in the final draft of my manuscript, though, and completed the other tasks I had been assigned to do, I did start working on some new stories. For the month of September, I made the tentative goal of getting back on track by spending an average of an hour a day writing. I didn’t quite make it, but I only fell short by a few hours, and I did finish out the month with a handful of working drafts of new stories that I can revise and, hopefully, begin submitting soon.

My goals for the next month are fairly straightforward: I’d like to make another go at getting back in the habit of writing for an average of at least an hour a day (I average, by the way, the time over the course of the entire month, so if I miss one day, I can make it up on another). I think I can do it. I think I can; I think I can. I also am using some contest and submission deadlines as motivators to get some things ready to submit. I’m going to submit to places with deadlines falling on or around the end of the month, for the next three months (to finish out the year).

For October, I’ll use the Narrative 30 Below Contest as a deadline (since this is, after all, the last year I’ll be eligible . . . wow, am I really almost 30?). At the end of November, I’d like to have a solid second draft of my new novel together, or at least a really solid beginning, to submit to the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award (another contest that I’ll only be eligible to enter for a short while—until I’m 32). And by the end of December, I want to have a submission to send out to Fast Forward, a journal that only accepts submissions until the end of the year, and one that I really, really like and would love to appear in again (I had a story in their Summer 2010 issue).

I have to admit, there’s something kind of frightening about openly admitting that I’m submitting to these contests/places. I usually keep these sorts of specifics to myself, so as not to feel any embarrassment when I don’t win/get accepted. But screw it! This is a new blog, for a new era in my writing life. Why should I be ashamed of not winning contests, when it happens to the best of us, when winning really requires as much luck as it does talent? Why should I only talk about my successes, when my failures have played as much or even more of a role in my writing life?

Nope, from this point forward, I’m going to hold my head up high and admit it: I get rejected. A lot. Way more than I ever get accepted. The only writing contest I’ve ever won (and mind you, I’ve submitted to plenty) is the one that is resulting in my book publication. The only reason I have the number of publication credits that I do is because I submit so much—if you could see the actual ratio, you’d see that for every one acceptance, I get something like 50 rejections. And you know what? There’s no shame in that. No shame at all.