"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, December 25, 2011

Sunday, December 18, 2011

I decided recently that it’s been quite long enough, and it’s time for me to get back into the writing game. Of course, the decision to begin writing again is one thing, and the actual beginning of writing again is another thing altogether. It was necessary, then, for me to formulate some sort of plan to ease myself back into the world I used to live in so completely.

I made the goal that during my winter break from classes (which lasts a paltry three weeks), I would write every single day for at least fifteen minutes. “Fifteen minutes? That’s nothing,” you say. “Not even enough time to really get the fire going.” True enough, but I settled on this goal for a reason: it would be easy for me to keep it. Anyone can scrape together a measly fifteen minutes a day, and because I would be on break from teaching, it would be even easier for me to make it work. 

My hope is that writing at least a little every single day will help get the wheels turning once again, after which it shouldn’t take me too long to get back up to speed. My break only officially began this past Monday, so it’s difficult to assess too thoroughly how well it’s working. I can tell you that on day two (Tuesday), I forgot to sit down to write. Forgot! I was so frustrated with myself on Wednesday when I realized my mistake, but on Thursday I wrote for a little over half an hour and made up for it.

I also contented myself with the knowledge that forgetting to write one day is not the same as choosing not to write. The fact is, I’m no longer so mired in the writing world that going a full day without writing could never escape my notice. Writing used to be, for me, like taking a shower: you do it pretty religiously every day, and if for some reason one day you can’t, you survive it . . . but you’re very aware that you missed a day. I’ll get back there, I know I will, but it’s going to take a little time.

In addition to the day I completely forgot to write, on Friday I didn’t get a chance (sort of). Even though the ideal time for me to write is fairly early on in my day, right now, with a three-month-old baby and a husband who doesn’t get a winter break from his main job (working as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review), I’ve been taking my fifteen minutes at the end of the day, just after Amalie goes to bed. I probably could find time earlier in the day, but the end of the day thing was working well enough. Until Friday. The day Amalie, for whatever reason, simply would not go down without a fuss. She kept falling asleep, but the second I’d lay her down she’d wake up and start crying. Finally, at around 1:30 AM, she drifted off, but I was too tired to even think about writing (plus, it technically wasn’t Friday any longer).

Other than those two slips, I’ve enjoyed my few minutes of writing time each day, and am already finding myself thinking about this piece or that idea when I’m not physically writing. I may have to flush all the brown water out of my system before I can write anything very good, but still, writing at all again feels pretty great. It’s like I’ve been wandering lost for what feels like a very long time, but now I’ve stumbled upon an overgrown path that looks vaguely familiar. I have to beat the weeds and tree branches out of my way, but I feel fairly positive that if I keep heading forward, this path will let me out somewhere I want to be.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

I thought it might be nice, since my Ami B. will be three months old this Tuesday, to take a look back at how things have changed for me, as a writer, since becoming a mother. Much to my surprise, for the first couple of weeks, I actually did have plenty of time to write, or at least, I would have if I had chosen to use it for that. I did not. Ami slept most of the time, and she hardly ever cried. But rather than using her sleeping time to write, I tried to rest as much as I could, too. I was, after all, on the mend, in more than the usual way, since I got very sick immediately after the delivery and was bedridden in the hospital for a few days.

Then, just when I started getting my energy back, Ami started staying awake more and more, and spending, as it turned out, the majority of her waking time crying. She started wailing when we tried to lay her down in her crib. To increase my milk supply, she started eating more and more frequently—sometimes as often as every hour, which meant I sometimes spent most of the day and night with her attached to one breast or the other. That free time of the first two weeks, which I had wasted sleeping or staring blankly at some crappy Netflix reality TV show or other, was gone, and I resigned myself to the fact that I just wouldn’t be able to write, probably, for several months.

But I’m happy to say that finally at about two months old, my Amalita started fussing less and less. Her prolonged nighttime fussiness—called unhappy hour or the witching hour, depending on which book you read—pretty much went away altogether, and when she does fuss, now, we sort of know what to do most of the time. On top of that, her sleeping habits have gotten more predictable. She still refuses to sleep in her crib (from talking to other parents, I’m beginning to think that no baby in the history of babies has ever willingly slept in his or her crib), but she’ll go down for a good five hours at the beginning of the night and then wake regularly ever three hours after that for a little nighttime snack. I’m actually getting a reasonable amount of sleep again . . . and having dreams! Oh, sweet dreams. Even when they’re nightmares it feels so good to wake up and know that I was sleeping deeply enough to have them.

And though she’s awake and alert most of the day now, which means she needs almost constant attention, the time to write is there if I take it. Damien and I have both started to get the hang of this whole parenting thing, enough, anyway, that we’re not convinced we’re doing everything wrong and damaging her in some irreparable way. As a result, he can take her when I need to get something done, and vice versa. Still, I haven’t really been writing. It would be a lie to say I haven’t written at all since she was born, but still, I haven’t written more than maybe a total of a couple pages, not counting blog posts and a book review. The time is there, in other words, but just like that first two weeks after Amalie’s birth, I’m not using it to write.

But I do have plans to slowly get back into the writing game during the winter break. I’ll tell you all about it next week.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

This holiday season I strongly urge you to buy small press books and literary journals for the people in your life who enjoy reading. I made a resolution last year to buy people small press books as often as possible when it comes time to buy someone a gift, and it’s worked out very well. Here’s why:

Small presses and literary journals need your support. Some of the best writing out there is being published by these venues, but a vast majority of the reading public doesn’t even know these books are out there. Small presses and journals usually operate mostly or entirely using funding from grants. They don’t have much money coming in, and they NEED people to buy copies of their books to keep themselves afloat. But with little or no budget for marketing, every single copy sold is a triumph; every book you or anyone else buys goes to a very worthwhile cause.

That’s right: buying these books is doing a good deed. It is! Small presses and journals are important from a cultural and artistic perspective. They take the chances that major publishers don’t take. They publish work based on its artistic and literary merit, NOT based on how much money it’s likely to rake in. Without these publishers, we would live in a world in which mostly all that’s available to read is the literary equivalent of big budget Hollywood blockbusters. Can you imagine a world without independent films? If the small presses were all to go under, that’s exactly the literary world we’d be stuck with. Sure, there would be a small selection of higher quality books, just like the Hollywood studios put out a few decent movies for Oscar consideration each year, but major studios and publishers alike are driven by the bottom line, and so the bad far, far outweighs the good.  

And if you’re a writer, I shouldn’t even need to explain to you why it’s in your best interest to keep small presses and literary journals out there. Unless you plan on getting really lucky, you’ll likely need to publish in these venues before you can hope to land an agent or a two book deal with a major publishing house (and those of us who are really being honest with ourselves know that the likelihood is that we’ll publish in these smaller places forever).

But culling gifts from small presses and journals is not just a good deed; it also makes for some genuinely awesome presents. Buying small press books or literary journals for your loved ones who enjoy reading will most likely expose them to authors, stories, and books they would never otherwise have heard of. It doesn’t mean you just buy something random that the recipient of the gift won’t even want. There are so many varied small press books and journals out there, you’re bound to find something for every reader on your gift list if you just take the time to look. I LOVE getting a book that looks good but that I didn’t even know existed for a gift. It’s an unexpected treat; it gives me something I never would have known I wanted and often opens up a whole new world of books I want to read when I find a new author whose writing I love.

So why not give it a try this year? To get started, you can find a good list of small presses and literary journals, complete with links to the press and journal websites, at NewPages.com. NewPages also posts book and journal reviews, which might help you pick out what to buy for whom, if you’re having trouble. Go here to look for small presses, and here to find a list of literary journals.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

A topic I’ve addressed before and no doubt will feel compelled to address again in the future is when to know whether a particular piece of creative writing is finished, polished, as good as it can be and ready to publish as it is, and when to accept, on the other side of the spectrum, that a piece is simply not ever going to be good enough, that it’s time to drag-and-drop it into the old “Failed Attempts” file.

Sometimes this question arises—like with my MFA thesis—because you’ve been sending and sending and sending something out and getting nowhere with it for so long that you have no choice but to ask yourself if it’s actually publishable. I got several agent nibbles on my novel, but no bites, and while most of the agents who actually requested to read some or all of the manuscript said it was well written, none of them believed that they would be able to sell it to a publisher. Fair enough. So I gave up.

But sometimes you find yourself asking this question because a particular piece keeps coming back with personal rejections. “This is very well written.” “We’d very much like to see more from you.” “You should know this came very close to getting accepted.” And yet it always gets rejected in the end. I have a story like that right now—the only story, in fact, that I’m currently submitting, which in and of itself is kind of depressing, don’t you think?

I guess it’s maybe because this is the only story I have in circulation, but I’ve been paying particular attention to this string of rejections. Why, I keep asking myself, does this story keep garnering these kind words from editors, even though it keeps getting rejected. I’ve come up with two likely possibilities.

The first is that maybe they think the writing is good, but not the story. This, I think, I would choose to take as encouragement. Then I would shelve the story and use the rejections as motivation to finish up some of the not-quite-ready stories I have in the works. (Motivation, by the way, I am in desperate need of, having taken such a long break from any serious attempts at writing and being, as a result, a bit rusty and hesitant.)

But the other possibility is that it’s a good story that just hasn’t found its home quite yet. This possibility is obviously preferable, but I don’t know if my considering it is wishful thinking. Am I wasting these editors’ (and my own) time by sending this story around? Am I futilely clinging to a bad story just because I’ve sort of lost my writing groove and this story is, at the moment, the only story I’ve got to send?

How to know, how to know.

Personal rejections are, of course, always a good thing, but sometimes they can be more confusing than form ones. I just don’t know when to take the fact that the story keeps getting rejected as a sign to pack it in. I’ll probably send this story out for at least one more round of submissions, but eventually, if it keeps getting rejected, I’ll need to accept that it just isn’t going to happen with this story. So I guess the real question is how many rejections should I rack up before that happens?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

This week, I received an early Christmas present from my mom: a Kindle Touch. This is my first foray into the world of e-readers. Ever since e-readers first started to gain popularity several years ago, I’ve been adamantly against them—or at least, against owning one myself—and afraid of how they might affect the future of the book industry. As a writer, reader, and bookophile, I guess I just felt uncomfortable with the idea of electronic books, fearing that they may supplant the need for hard copy books altogether. This fear is somehow ridiculous and entirely reasonable all at once.

As writer, e-readers made me uncomfortable because I was afraid of how e-books would change the way writers are able to get their work out there. The biggest problem lies in the lack of any need for brick-and-mortar bookstores if there is no longer such a thing as ink-and-paper books. Online shoppers are only going to find books either by actively searching for them, having already learned of the book elsewhere, or by browsing (only the most popular, major publisher books will come up that way). Small presses and small press authors like me don’t stand a chance.

As a reader and bookophile, e-readers offended me aesthetically. I like books as physical objects, small, handheld works of art. I like the feel of them in my hands, the smell of them, the sound of the turning pages. I like the way they look lining my walls, just like they lined the walls of the home I grew up in. E-books, no matter how convenient, portable, and inexpensive, are not works of art. They’re technological marvels, sure, but not works of art.

But when my husband Damien decided he wanted a Kindle Touch, I found myself suddenly rethinking my whole stance. The main reason Damien gave for wanting a Kindle—and I couldn’t help but see his point—was because a lightweight, easy-to-hold-with-one-hand reading device would make calming a fussy baby so much more bearable. My mom, who has been on the Kindle bandwagon from the beginning, offered to buy him one for Christmas. Suddenly, I found myself wanting one too.

They arrived this week, and they’re every bit as useful as my mom said. We’re both in love with them. Damien’s read more this past few days than he’s been able to read in a long time. He’s actually reading more with the baby, because what else is there to do when she’s fussing or sleeping in your arms? Our Kindles also allow us to buy more books for less money, to never worry about how much it will cost to ship them the next time we move, to not run the risk of the post office losing them (I’m still raw about all the books the post office lost when we moved to Ohio), and to read the same book at the same time (especially nice for us because we like to read the same book and discuss it, which in the past has always meant one of us reading it first and then waiting, trying not to forget anything important, as the other reads it).

On top of that, they’re far more environmentally friendly. You might think the electricity you use to run the e-reader equals the paper used to print hard copy books, but the fact is, e-readers use electricity very economically. As long as you keep the wi-fi turned off when you’re not using it, Kindle Touches are supposed to last up to two months between charges. Both Damien and I have been using our Kindles like crazy since we got them, but the little battery symbols on both are still almost full.

Yes, if I set aside my nostalgic and possibly materialistic obsession with physical books, I can see that the benefits of e-books far outweigh those of their traditional, hard copy counterparts. And if I can come around on the e-reader issue—me, of all people!—it doesn’t seem such a stretch that so, eventually, will everyone, that sooner or later (probably later, maybe not in our lifetime), physical, hard copy books will be little more than antiques. Just look at records. Okay, they’re not extinct yet, but as the generations of people who actually lived in the pre-CD era die off, I think record companies will stop putting new albums out on vinyl.

I expect children’s books will continue to be published in hard copy form, but I’d be willing to bet that someday—maybe a hundred, two hundred years in the future—all other books will be published only in electronic form. And while part of me still wants to rage against such a future, there’s nothing wrong with, let’s face it, progress. Cheaper, easier to handle, and better for the Earth we live on—e-books are not, as it turns out, a bad thing.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

In a recent Scientific American article, novelist and psychology professor Keith Oatley talked about a variety of studies that proved a link between reading fiction and exhibiting heightened social skills. Avid readers of fiction are better able to pick up on social cues and empathize with others than are people who don’t read much fiction. This, of course, flies in the face of the cliché of the shy bookworm who has no friends and has trouble relating to other people. In fact, fiction (and this includes movies, by the way, though not, interestingly enough, TV shows) broadens our understanding of the vast spectrum of human experience. By reading a lot of fiction, we are better able to understand and care about people whose lives, backgrounds, and personalities are nothing like our own.

We English teachers already knew this, or at least, we had an inkling. I can usually tell whether or not a student reads much just by how much a student seems to understand and be able to relate to people with viewpoints different from their own. Students who don’t read for pleasure at all tend to be far less able to mentally put themselves in someone else’s shoes, to use another cliché (and students who announce proudly that they read nothing but the Bible in their spare time are even worst, but I digress).

As the Scientific American article was written by a fiction writer (who happens, also, to be a cognitive psychology professor), I couldn’t help but wonder where the writing of fiction might fall in to all of this. Now I have to tread lightly here because I certainly don’t want to suggest that fiction writers are somehow better people. First of all, too many writers are pretentious and self-absorbed, suffering from delusions of grandeur, for writers to be better than other people. Plus, I would apply my speculations about how writing might have a similar effect not just to fiction writers, but to writers in any genre. But I do feel that writing can help you process things you don’t yet know how you feel about. Writing can help you understand the world around you.

That’s definitely how it’s always been for me, anyway. One of the main reasons I write is so that I can climb into other people’s heads and learn what makes them tick. I write, often, so that I won’t judge, so that I can remind myself that we’re all human beings, and we all—or most of us, anyway—believe that we are “good.” Writing forces me to empathize in a way that just thinking about other people and their situations doesn’t. When I write, I have to become someone else for a while. I have to understand not only who my characters are but also why they do the things they do, how they justify their actions to themselves.

And when you’ve so fully become someone else, it becomes impossible to judge them quite so harshly. When you understand someone, you can’t hate them. Just like reading can change your personality, so can writing. And for me, that’s reason enough to do it right there.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

You know me—I love metaphors for writing and the writing life. We’ve all heard that a writing project is like the writer’s child: you love it with all your heart, you’ve poured so much of yourself into it, you feel protective of it, etc. etc. etc. Now that I have a child of my own, I can see how fitting this metaphor really is.

See, when you have a newborn baby, you love her right away—yes, you love her madly—but . . . well, she’s just sort of lump of flesh at first. At first, she doesn’t do much of anything but eat, defecate, sleep, and cry, cry, cry. She doesn’t have much of a personality yet. In fact, in many ways, a newborn baby is still sort of a fetus. The human brain is so large that babies must be born before they’re actually developed so they can fit through the mother’s cervix. It’s true! Most (or maybe all, I can’t remember) other animals are FAR more developed by the time they’re actually born. Just think about all those baby animal births you’ve seen on PBS, where the second the baby is born, he begins walking.

So when a baby human is born, like a new writing project, she isn’t really anything yet, just an untapped ball of potential. Now what I’ve already discovered is that if you try to force things with your baby—if you, for example, want to convince her to play with a certain toy before she’s developed an interest in it herself—you’ll get nowhere. You have to let baby take the lead. She’ll let you know what she wants to do by trying different things and paying close attention to how she reacts to them. If she doesn’t want that toy, or if she doesn’t want to be read to just now, she’ll cry. Then you stop and try something else or take a break and just snuggle for a while.

As time goes by and you let her dictate what she wants to do and when, she begins to develop and become more of a human being, less an exposed fetus. She starts to show preferences (my little Amalie, for example, loves her Winnie the Pooh with jingle bells in his belly, which her Nonnie and Bapa bought for her at Disneyland); she even starts to smile! And you become more and more attuned to who she is and how to be with her.

This is how a new piece of writing develops. In my experience, if you try to force your preconceived notions of what the piece will be, it just won’t work. If, instead, you sit back and let the piece guide you, experimenting with different things and paying close attention to what works and what doesn’t, things will come together much more smoothly, though they may not come as quickly as you want.

My Amalie is now almost eight weeks old. Eight weeks. Already, she’s so different than she was eight weeks ago when I gazed into her blue, blue eyes for the first time; still, she has a long way to go before she’s ready to function out in the real world on her own. If I were to call up, say, an employment agency and ask them to secure a job for my eight-week-old baby, they’d either think I was joking or crazy. Yet this, essentially, is what many amateur writers do when they submit a rough draft for publication (and proofreading to catch the grammar and punctuation errors does not turn a first draft into a final draft, as any English teacher will tell you).

I’m not saying you have to spend eighteen years revising every single piece, but hey, let’s not rush things, okay? Your “baby” will develop exactly as quickly as is right for it, and one day you’ll be able to send it out into the real world proud of all the work you put into it and knowing that you both are much better for the experience.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I spent a few extremely fun days in Pittsburgh last week, doing a couple of readings, getting to know some very interesting people, and even making a trip over to the Monroeville mall, where George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was filmed. At one of my readings, I met a fellow writer who puts out an email newsletter on writing topics. I signed up for the newsletter and was impressed with some of the practical tips she gave, so I thought I’d give the newsletter a plug here. It’s called Brite Lites Writer Gazette, and if you want to check it out, you can email SandraGouldFord at aol dot com.

The current issue of Brite Lites is all about National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which, in case you’re unfamiliar, occurs every November when people all over the country attempt to write a first draft of a novel—minimum 50,000 words—in a month. The newsletter got me thinking about why I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, and probably never will.

First of all, I should say that NaNoWriMo is a great motivational tool. At its heart, NaNoWriMo is simply a goal to work towards, a concrete deadline to get people writing. By encouraging people across the country to set the same goal, NaNoWriMo effectively creates a sense of community for these writers, encouraging them to stick with it and holding them accountable if they don’t.

You know me—I’m all for goal setting. Without goals, I would never have produced enough work to publish a book, and I wouldn’t, probably, write anywhere near enough to legitimately call myself a writer. So why, then, do I have zero interest in trying NaNoWriMo for myself?

Well, while I see NaNoWriMo as an extremely valuable tool for new writers, the more seasoned you get, the less useful this kind of extreme goal becomes. I think part of the point in NaNoWriMo is to make people who don’t write very much, but who have always wanted to write a book, realize that they can do it. They can pump out a full-length novel if they just try. This isn’t particularly useful to more seasoned writers, who have written plenty of books before, or who have published fairly extensively. These people already know what they’re capable of, and they probably know how much they need to write and what sort of routine they need to keep in order to complete a particular project.

But more than that, the main reason I’m not interested in NaNoWriMo myself is because I feel it’s too stringent of a goal. That’s actually kind of the idea, right? Writing 100% new material for three or four hours a day, every day, isn’t something that even professional writers usually do. Most writers allow room for days when you spend three hours agonizing over a single paragraph, or when you realize something is not quite right about a previous chapter and you want to go back and revise it. The idea behind setting such a strict goal is to push yourself about as hard as it’s possible to push, like running a marathon or climbing Mount Everest.

The problems with pushing yourself that hard, in my opinion, are countless. First of all, just like when you push yourself to the brink physically, you’re likely to collapse at the end of it all. You’re likely to want, maybe desperately need, a break when you’re done, which makes the experience more like a crash diet than a lifestyle change.

On top of that, NaNoWriMo emphasizes writing a first draft, which I think de-emphasizes a FAR more important part of the writing process: revising. Savvy writers would have the sense to see that whatever they pump out in that frenzied month is likely to be absolute crap and that they need to revise it extensively if they want it to be any good, but a lot of amateur writers probably don’t understand that—they think of revising as proofreading and little more—and even those writers who do recognize the value of revision are going to have more work ahead of them when they get back to work on their sloppily thrown together manuscripts than if they had taken more time during the initial drafting stage.

Plus, it’s widely recognized that goal setting is most effective when you set reasonable goals that are within your power to accomplish. Like many writers, I have a job and a family. If I were to push myself to write roughly 1,667 words a day for a month—about how many words you’d have to write to pump out 50,000 in thirty days—what would most likely happen would be that I would be unable, through no fault of my own, to meet the goal. This would leave me, at the end of the month, feeling like a failure, stressed and discouraged, unsure of my own abilities as a writer. I would, in other words, be worse off for having tried. I’d be better off, instead, looking at my own life, my own specific situation and commitments, and setting a goal for myself that pushes me just hard enough but is still absolutely reachable if I just work at it. Now that, my friends, is a goal that will likely benefit me.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Busy week between work (I collected my first batch of papers for the quarter on Friday) and trying to soothe Amalie, who I’m beginning to think might have colic and who also has her days and nights mixed up, so this is going to be a short, “just wanted to say hi” sort of post.

A few bits of news worth sharing:

I found out this week that Autumn House nominated my story “8 Stories I’ll Never Tell” for a Pushcart. This is my second ever Pushcart nomination—here’s hoping, right?

I’ve been excitedly getting ready for a couple of readings that I’ll be doing in Pittsburgh this coming week. I haven’t done a reading in months. This should be fun!

This week I got a cool personal rejection from a journal called Echo Ink Review, so cool I want to encourage YOU to submit there or, even better, buy a copy. Why, you ask? Because they actually pay you—okay, only $3, but it’s not the amount that matters but the gesture—if they reject a piece but they think you’re a good writer and want to encourage you. I think that’s pretty hardcore awesomeness. It goes a step farther than “Send us something else,” (which they also said, of course) or “We enjoyed this piece; however . . .” A journal that makes such an effort to encourage and support writers deserves to be encouraged and supported back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Last week I talked about the frustration of receiving mostly negative feedback as a writer. This week I thought I’d touch on how I manage to keep myself going in the face of all that rejection. Different writers deal with their steady stream of rejections in different ways. Some even save every rejection they ever receive; some even put them on display!

One of my instructors at UAF had a box containing not only rejections but acceptances and other writing related correspondence, like the letter he received from a literary agent who had read one of his stories in a journal and was interested in representing him, or the letter from an editor informing him he had been nominated for a Pushcart. He let us, one day after workshop, paw through it. This was an award winning writer, mind you, with two books published and a full-time, tenured position as an MFA instructor, and he had plenty of letters in that box that would seem in line with those facts . . . but he also had plenty of rejections.

The most striking thing about the collection was the fact that he hadn’t separated the negative from the positive, and seeing all the rejections mixed together with the positive feedback was a valuable reminder that it’s all just part of being a writer. Neither the rejections nor the acceptances were given extra weight in this box—it was just a memory box, mementos of his career as a writer.

I thought it was inspiring, but still, me personally? I don’t save rejections unless they are encouraging personal rejections. In fact, the first rejection I ever received bothered me so much I couldn’t stop obsessing about it even after I’d ripped it up and thrown it away. Just knowing that the pieces of it were still there in the garbage kept the wound open until the garbage bag was safely carted away to the dump.

Obviously, that was years ago, and I’ve received enough rejections since then to develop the writer’s version of a guitarist’s calloused fingers. I don’t take  rejections personally and I don’t dwell on them . . . but I don’t save them either. I log them then delete them and, unless they include some bit of useful feedback that I can use for revision, I try never to think about them ever again.

I do, however, save encouraging responses. Acceptances I print and put in a file. Encouraging personal rejections and other positive feedback (the couple of “fan” emails I’ve gotten, for example, from people who felt compelled to email me and tell me how much they liked a story they’d come across in a journal) I save in an email folder. I save this type of thing because just knowing that they’re there helps bring me up again when too many form rejections (or low book sales) has gotten me down. I wish I could say I didn’t need this sort of masturbatory ego massage, but the truth is, sometimes you just have to find any way you can to prove to yourself that it is worth the time and energy you put in, that you should keep writing, even if X editor or Y agent doesn’t seem to agree.

Recently, I closed down an old email address and had to forward any saved messages that I wanted to keep to my new email. The sheer number of saved emails in my encouraging responses folder gave me a much needed boost in self-esteem, and as I read through them again trying to decide whether I should really forward them all, I started to feel even better. This happened, by the way, at a time where I’ve been the most unsure of myself as a writer. The anti-climax of the book deal, the pregnancy, and now the new baby have left me really questioning my abilities as a writer. I’m so glad I saved all of those emails over the years, even if for just that one moment where I would stumble across them again and be reinvigorated.

For the record, I did decide to forward every single one. I may need them again one day. In fact, I know I will.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I don’t know about you, but the majority of the feedback I ever receive as a writer comes in the form of rejections or acceptances. This is unfortunate, since, let’s be honest, for every one acceptance a writer might receive, he or she probably received several rejections for the same piece. The result is that the vast majority of the feedback we ever get comes in the form of rejections.

Of course, all rejections are not created equal. A personal rejection, complete with a note explaining why the piece was rejected or complimenting you on some specific aspects of the story feels almost as uplifting and encouraging as an acceptance. But of course, a stiff and reserved form rejection—especially the sort that doesn’t even encourage you to submit again!—can feel like a fierce, deliberate kick in the shins.

They say that rejections and acceptances are not evenly weighted. “It only takes one acceptance,” well-meaning friends will tell you, shrugging at you and then promptly changing the subject. This is true. One acceptance means a hell of a lot more than twenty rejections combined. The acceptance means the piece is going to actually get out there. The acceptance means, also, that someone, somewhere thought the piece was good enough to share with a readership. A rejection might mean the piece isn’t any good; it might mean the piece has potential but isn’t ready; it might mean nothing, though, nothing at all. It might just mean the issue was full when your piece came in and so the editor read your submission just looking for any reason, any reason at all, to reject it.

Even so, it can be discouraging when the feedback you receive on your writing is mostly negative. This problem is compounded if you’re like me: having published my first book—and won a contest for it, no less—I’ve had to deal with the reality that a book publication doesn’t mean anybody will actually buy or read the book. You’d think having a book out there might help tilt the feedback scale to the positive side, but if anything, the silence feels ever louder now.

Since resuming sending out my work after getting my book published (I had to take a break because all of my stories that were ready were now taken), I’ve received mostly form rejections. Okay, I’ve gotten one acceptance and a handful of personal rejections, but most of my responses have been a formal one or two sentences: “Thanks for your submission. Unfortunately . . .” A friend of mine was wondering if maybe I’ve been aiming too high since getting the book published, that maybe the book gave me an extra dose of confidence that caused me to submit to higher ranked, harder to get into journals. In fact, the opposite is true. I’ve been concerned with building up more of an online presence and have been mostly submitting to tiny online journals. I suppose that fact makes the rejections smart even more: these journals don’t even get that many submissions, and they’re sending me form rejections. Ouch!

So yeah, I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged as a writer lately. It’s frustrating to fall back down to a point where I mostly receive form rejections. The feedback ratio problem is, I think, probably the hardest thing about being a writer. It’s hard to put so much time and effort into a story, only to receive a series of indifferent responses, and it’s hard to motivate yourself to keep going when the majority of the feedback you receive is negative. But I guess it’s important to remember that all writers must go through this, even the best writers, even your favorite writers of all time. And we should all remember, too, that getting over this hump, that sticking to it and keeping going in the face of constant rejection, is what sets the people who will end up being successful apart from the other, would-be but won’t-be, failed writers.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

This past week I read this really crappy book, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg and Melinda Blau. While the majority of the book had vague advice, which it repeated over and over again just to fill in enough pages to make it a full book, I felt, and which was often dubious at best, there was one tidbit that I took from the book that I can’t help but apply to myself.

The book classifies new parents on a sort of spectrum, from very organized and plan-oriented to fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants spontaneous types. The authors recommend the reader gauge where he or she falls on the spectrum in order to be more prepared for what aspects of taking care of a baby will be the most difficult for that person. I definitely recognized myself as being on the far end of the organized planner side of things. I’m a list maker; I wake up in the morning and calculate how much time I should spend on each activity that day and what time I should begin each new task; I keep a running tally of various things in my head at all times (calories eaten that day, time spent exercising, time spent on housework, time spent relaxing, and of course, time spent writing).

The authors suggest that people closer to the planner side of things tend to have a lot of trouble getting into the swing of life with a baby. Babies are spontaneous little creatures. They eat when they want to eat, sleep when they want to sleep, and cry when they want to do anything other than whatever they’re currently doing. Someone like me, who lives by my own self-imposed schedule, understandably has trouble adjusting to the new lifestyle.

For the past several years, I’ve been very focused on building myself up in specific ways. When I was in my MFA program, I spent tons of time and energy establishing good habits as a writer and building up publication credits. After I graduated, I was focused on getting a book published, and after I reached that goal, I was concerned with building up my CV in the hopes of eventually landing a full time job somewhere. I’m goal oriented, and I’m all about plans and dedication and working hard to get where I want to be.

Having a baby, I can see already, is going to force me to sloooooooow down. The first couple of weeks were fine, but now I’m scraping together less and less time to get anything done. Because I’m breastfeeding and Amalie isn’t ready, yet, to be introduced to expressed milk in a bottle, I can’t be away from Amalie for more than an hour or two—I’m the only one who can feed her. On top of that, I’ve had some problems with plugged milk ducts, which can lead to mastitis if I don’t spend a fair amount of my day pumping out whatever milk Amalie didn’t drink and massaging the plugged ducts. I spend probably at least twelve to fifteen hours a day in breastfeeding related tasks. I sleep for maybe six hours, here and there when I can, and the other three to six I have to divvy up between spending time with Amalie while she’s actually awake and bright eyed, and passing her off to someone else, so I can get something non-baby related done.

It’s hard.

And it’s made harder by the fact that I took on way more commitments than I should have for this first few months, back before I knew what I was getting myself in to. I agreed to teach an online class this quarter, which already I’m having a hard time keeping up with. I’m doing it, don’t worry, and I’ll find a way to continue to do it through to the end of the quarter. But it’s difficult. I also volunteered to write a book review for an online journal, which I had intended to finish prior to Amalie’s birth, but being distracted and jumble-headed during the end of the pregnancy, I didn’t get it done. Now I’m still distracted and jumble-headed, but add to that the fact that I have very little time to actually do anything anymore. Plus, my abdominal muscles separated during the pregnancy. This, I’m told, is very common, but it has to be rectified by daily exercises fairly soon after childbirth. Otherwise, the muscles will remain separated, and I’ll have an unsightly pooch between them for the rest of my life. (This may seem like a silly thing to be concerned about right now, but imagine looking back in ten years and knowing there’s something I could have done to get my body back, but I just chose not to do it. I managed to get through the pregnancy with no stretch marks, after all; I’ll regret it if I don’t take care of my tummy while I can.)

And I haven’t even mentioned any writing related projects, though there are a few that I’ve been hoping I would have the energy to work on during these first few months, before Amalie is mobile. But rather than panicking, I’m trying to just take it as a sign that it’s time, really, for me to slow down. It’s time for me to stop trying so hard, to stop obsessing over my career, my writing, to stop worrying about whether or not I’m spending my time efficiently. The transition is going to be difficult, don’t get me wrong, but I think this is going to be good for me. And either way, I have only to look into my baby’s beautiful blue eyes to see that it’s so worth it.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Now that I’ve had the baby, I’m for the first time getting to actually see what life is like as a mom. For the past few months, I’ve been struggling to keep up with my writing and worrying about how my writing habits might diminish once the baby arrived. The funny thing is, despite the fact that I have to be up every two hours to feed her—which means part of the time when baby is asleep, I’m asleep, too—and despite my other commitments, I still have more spare time than I would have otherwise expected, time I can easily use to write.

And on top of that, I’ve had this amazing experience to write about—I now know what it’s like to deliver a baby! Delivering a baby is one of those things that nobody can ever quite describe clearly. People will tell you that labor is insanely painful or that once you reach a point where you’re able to push you feel much better, or they’ll describe somewhat vaguely the complications that arose during their labor, but, maybe because memory is weak and flawed, nobody that I ever talked to was able to give me a clear idea of what labor and delivery would actually be like.

As a result, like most women, I went into it pretty terrified. When my water broke, I sort of knew that my water had broken and that I needed to head over to the hospital, but I was so afraid of what would happen when I got there that I convinced myself that maybe it wasn’t time, after all, so I called the hospital to describe to them what had happened. Of course, they told me I needed to come in right away, and eight hours later my baby was prostrate on my chest for our first ever skin-to-skin bonding.

The whole experience was world shaking, like nothing I ever could have imagined. I don’t hold many idealistic views about natural childbirth, but I ended up deciding not to use pain medication. I had made up my mind in advance that I wouldn’t go into it having already decided to use drugs, but that I would let myself decide based on how I was feeling at the time. That said, I pretty much assumed that I would, eventually, ask for an epidural, I was just hoping I would hold out long enough so as not to increase the risk of needing pitocin, which increases the chances of having a C-section. But, painful and exhausting though the experience was, it was never so bad that I felt I needed something to take the pain away (and good thing, too, because it’s quite possible that not having pain medication saved my life. I developed a rare but very dangerous syndrome immediately after delivery, which was caught and taken care of right away, thank goodness, only because I was hurting in ways and places that I shouldn’t have been hurting. Had I been somewhat numb to the pain, I might not have said anything, so my midwife wouldn’t have known to check me for the problem).

So I really had the whole, unrepressed childbirth experience. That eight hours of my life (and actually, the four days that followed, during which I was confined to a hospital bed, hooked up to all kinds of monitors and IVs, while trying to manage breastfeeding and getting to know my baby for the first time) gave me tons of material to write about in my letters to my baby. The words still aren’t flowing from me with no effort, the way they used to, but still, I have something I want to say, which is in itself something of a miracle, compared to the way I've been feeling lately. I can go back later and revise what I’ve written to try to make the language more lyrical and the imagery pop, but for now, I’m glad that the experience was so mind-blowing and that I’m left with a burning urge to get it all down now, before it all begins to drift away from me, as it inevitably will.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I'm excited to announe that my baby, Amalie Beatrix Cowger, was born this past Tuesday morning at 9:22 AM. She's adorable and healthy and perfect in every other way. Due to some post-delivery complications (problems with me, not the baby), I've been trapped at the hospital all week. I'm back home now and recovering, slowly, but am taking a week off from the blog.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A few months ago I came across an article—which I’ve been trying to track down, but I can’t for the life of me remember who it was by or where it was published—by a creative nonfiction writer talking about not wanting her young son to read or hear about some of the essays she had written before she ever planned on having children. She was concerned about her son learning about some of the more sordid details from her life as a twenty-something, in which she did some things that she wouldn’t want her son doing. As a writer, she had felt compelled to be very open and honest, but as a mother, she wanted to keep some of these details from her son, feeling it would throw her credibility into question when it came time to tell him not to do these very same things.

As a soon-to-be-mom myself who is working on a sort of would-be memoir style series of letters that I plan to revise and then give to my daughter when she’s old enough, I found this topic extremely interesting. This is something I’ve been wondering about too—what should I tell my daughter, and what should I withhold? Do I tell her about my forays into drugs? Do I tell her how old I was when I first had sex? Or more importantly, in my opinion, do I tell her about some of the horrible, horrible things I used to think about other people? Do I tell her about what a miserable, judgmental person I was in my younger days? 

The answer, I’ve decided, is yes. I want her to know me, to really know who I am, and in order for that to happen, she must know who I was, how I came to be this person I am now. And I want her to know that these things are normal. I don’t see the value in telling her I never smoked weed. I don’t see how she would benefit from me pretending the only man I ever slept with was her father. And I definitely don’t see how it will help her if I pretend I never made mistakes, never did or said or thought things I’m ashamed of now.

I guess the truth is, part of the point in writing these letters to her is that I want her to know these things. I’m sure I’ll revise my opinions on parenting as I go, but at the moment, I feel like I want to have a really open relationship with my daughter, and I don’t want to arbitrarily forbid her to try things that I know are just a normal part of searching for yourself. Maybe by writing about these things and then letting her read them, I can connect with her on a deeper level than I would have been able to otherwise. Maybe knowing these things about her mom will help her when she’s faced with difficult decisions herself.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Recent visits to my midwife have been forcing me to face the fact that my baby is probably going to be here early. I’m at the point now where this is no longer bad news, though it is equal parts exciting and scary (I swing back and forth between feeling wholly unprepared and just ready to get this part over with and begin the next chapter of my life). Currently, I’m dilated two and a half centimeters and am 90% effaced. My midwife described it to me as being about a quarter of the way through labor already, before my labor has even begun. She was concerned about these stats two weeks ago, when I was still five weeks away from my official due date, but now she says this is actually a pretty good place to be. The baby’s big and healthy and is in the correct position; she seems ready to come out, and my body is clearly ready. She would not be considered a preemie at this point, and there would be no real risks if she was born right now.

The knowledge that she could be here any day has kicked me into high gear in terms of preparing for her arrival. I’m suddenly very concerned about the state of her nursery, what we have left to get for her, and how we will cope with taking care of her as the fall gets into full swing (Damien’s teaching two classes and working as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review; I’m only teaching one online class, but still, even that one class, I must admit, makes me nervous—I have no idea how busy a newborn baby is going to keep me or how difficult grading papers will be on little or no sleep :P).

I’ve felt distracted and sort of fuzzy in the head for the past few months, which has made it difficult to write. Now, I pretty much can’t think about anything but getting things ready for the baby. I’ve been making trips to various stores every day or two, suddenly feeling like I should pick up another pack of diapers and baby wipes, or thinking of some other pressing thing—a play mat, say—that I need to look at in person to think about which one we should eventually get. I’m also obsessed with spending a lot of floor time with my cat, Franny, who I’m determined will not feel neglected when the baby gets here.

The end result is that, though for a while there during the summer I felt like I got into a decent groove with my writing, I’ve pretty much lost it as a writer and don’t see any sign of it coming back any time soon. There is just too much else on my mind. I’ve been fighting and fighting this ever since I found out I was pregnant, but I think I’ve reached a point now where I’m sort of okay with it. I’m worried if I try to force something that clearly doesn’t want to come right now, I’ll end up doing more harm than good. If I allow myself to spiral into feelings of self-loathing and blame, I’ll begin to associate those negative feelings with the act of writing, and if I let myself spend too long questioning my abilities as a writer, whatever abilities I do have will likely retreat even further into their shell of insecurity.

But this doesn’t mean that I’m not still hoping to write. I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not going to worry about it for the next few weeks. If I wake up one morning with words dancing in my head, you better believe I’m going to rush to my computer and get them down. But I’m not going to force myself to sit and stare at a blank screen, and I’m not going to let a bit of a dry spell make me feel like I’m a failure with no skill, like my first book was just a fluke and I’ll never, never, never be able to do it again.

In the meantime, blogging helps me to at least think through writing related issues, and I’m going to keep writing letters to my daughter, also, though they’re getting more and more expository and dull. I’ll keep writing them anyway, and later, I’ll try to revise them into something more interesting, something she might actually want to read.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last week I talked about my conflicted feelings about my alma mater the University of Alaska Fairbanks being included on this year’s Huffington Post "Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs" list. I was thrilled to see that UAF was being acknowledged as underrated, yet at the same time, I felt ashamed of my excitement because I’ve always frowned on the very idea of ranking programs.

Seth Abramson, I assume the Seth Abramson who wrote the article to which I was responding, commented on my post, but for some reason the comment does not appear on the actual page. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if he deleted the comment after making it or if Blogger is up to its old, bratty tricks again (I have had so much trouble with the comments feature of Blogger lately . . .). At any rate, Abramson, whom I readily admit is far more of an expert on this stuff than I, made some excellent points and offered some valuable information, so I thought I’d include some of what he talked about here to give a more complete view of the issue. In case it was Abramson himself and not some Blogger glitch that caused his comment to be deleted, I won’t reproduce his argument word-for-word.

First of all, Abramson had the foresight to direct me to the Poets & Writers article that details their methodology in putting together their ranking list, which I should have linked to in my blog post last week but didn’t—sorry about that. Much of my frustration over the ranking list last year came, actually, from reading about their methodology. (For example, I was frustrated by the assumption that any program that does not have a good website with complete, detailed information about their program must not be providing good funding or be highly selective. I understand the P & W logic here—if the program was highly selective and funded a large percentage of their students, why wouldn’t they say so on their website?—but I think the logic fails to grasp that some programs simply have very, very, very bad websites, and they don’t include information on their sites that they should.)

Still, while the article does admit that “Four of the nine full-residency MFA rankings are based [on] a survey of a large sample of current MFA applicants,” there are still five additional ranking categories which are actually based on “hard data”: “funding, selectivity, fellowship placement, job placement, and student-faculty ratio.” Abramson suggested that the P & W ranking list does seem to acknowledge that different applicants have different needs, and that’s a fair point. On top of that, the P & W article freely admits that the data collected to prepare the report represents “publicly known data rather than an ordering of all extant data.” The rankings are most definitely flawed, but P & W knows and admits this. They did the best they could with the information they had.

Perhaps a more important point that Abramson made is that the rankings are valuable partially because they provide a list of what programs are even out there to potential applicants. Though not all programs make it into the print article, the full list is available online, and anyway, Abramson believes that MFA applicants take the time to do more research than just reviewing one ranking list. This is very true. I knew a lot of people who were applying for MFA programs last year, and while to my knowledge every single one of them closely considered the P & W rankings, all of them also did a substantial amount of additional research before they solidified their list of where to apply. I will add, though, that most of them, when narrowing their lists of which programs to look into more closely, didn’t include many low-ranked programs on those lists, and to my knowledge they didn’t include any programs that didn’t make P & W’s top 100, like UAF.

The strongest point that Abramson made in defense of ranking lists was that the programs themselves use these lists to make a case for more funding from their universities and to generally improve the areas where they appear to be lacking. I hadn’t thought about this at all, but it’s an excellent point and probably very true. Maybe, for example, a program that does provide the majority of its students with full-funding and is very selective but doesn’t have a great website advertising this information might take its low ranking on the list as a good sign that it’s time to put a little more energy into marketing to potential applicants. It doesn’t mean that there was ever anything wrong with the program itself, but such a program might receive more applicants, allowing it to become even more selective, if it drew up a new and better marketing plan or garnered more funding from its university.

Anyway, since nobody but myself had the benefit of reading Abramson’s response to my post, I wanted to address some of these points and be a bit more even-handed about the issue. Abramson has made me rethink the way I view rankings. I still don’t buy that a program’s placement on a ranking list absolutely correlates to its worth and quality as a program; however, I can see, now, the value of these sorts of lists. And anyway, as Abramson said to me, P & W’s ranking list is still very much in its infancy, and surely the methodology and readily available data will change and get better as the ranking system itself matures.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

This week the Huffington Post released their new list of the top 25 underrated creative writing MFA programs, and I was thrilled to see that the University of Alaska Fairbanks made the cut. It felt to me like very well-deserved (and long overdue) recognition for the program that is so close to my heart.

My reaction to the news, though, was a little shameful considering that I’ve always shunned creative writing MFA ranking lists, believing that they’re mostly self-perpetuating (the Poets & Writers list, for example, which is the definitive ranking list people turn to when researching and applying to CW MFA programs, bases its numbers largely on the opinions of people who are currently applying for MFA programs, many or most of whom used last year’s P & W rankings to help them formulate those opinions.)

Still, I have to admit that part of my distaste for these sorts of rankings results from the fact that UAF, which I know is an excellent program from my own personal experience, is usually overlooked. It’s a bit spiteful and jealous, I know. But the problem with ranking things is that, just as somebody’s got to come out on top, somebody—many somebodies—have got to come out somewhere in the middle or on the bottom, and it isn’t always true that the “top” programs are any better than the rest.

It often feels to me like any program that doesn’t make it to the top 25 (or at least top 50) gets unfairly shunned and ignored by MFA applicants (and many others in the CW world), when really, probably most (who knows, maybe even all) accredited CW MFA programs are damn good, absolutely brimming with top-notch writers, both faculty and students alike. UAF is a great case in point: the P & W list ranked them 105 last year out of 130 (although UAF did receive an honorable mention for funding). Programs ranked that low don’t even appear in the list printed in the magazine—you have to go to the website and click “Additional Rankings” to even see the rankings below the top 50.

Yet my alma mater, as I’ve said, is an excellent program. This is not cognitive dissonance talking; if I’d gotten a bum deal from going to UAF, I’d say so. In fact, I’d probably spend far too much time ruminating on what a waste of time it had been going there, what a bad decision I’d made (I could, after all, have gone somewhere else. UAF wasn’t the only school that accepted me, but it was my top choice program from the beginning). But the truth is, the time I spent at UAF was, to date, the best three years of my life, and certainly the most fruitful and instructive. I entered the program naïve and lazy; I left the program having completed two book-length works, one of which was accepted for publication just one year after I graduated. The other students in the program, and the faculty, were all incredible writers, and many of them have had significant publication success. It’s clearly a good program, but at spot 105, it’s overlooked by most everyone.

So yeah, I’m excited about this small bit of recognition, but I know, at the same time, that a spot on any of these lists doesn’t mean much. The truth is, I wish rankings didn’t exist at all. I don’t see how we can reasonably say that certain programs are better across the board than others, when really, personal needs, style preferences, etc. all play an important role in finding the right program for you. UAF was definitely the right program for me, whereas Iowa probably wouldn’t have been (not that I would have stood a chance of getting in, nor would I have wasted my money in applying). Rankings, then, bring the value of my degree down a bit, since people are often quick to assume that a program, ranked so low isn’t a very good program. It’s harder for me to find a job than someone who graduated from a higher ranked school, and it’s harder for me to find an agent, too. Even so, I’m proud to have graduated from UAF, and I don’t regret having gone there one bit. Underrated it most definitely is, and, while the same is probably true of several other programs that didn’t make the Huffington Post’s list, it’s nice to see someone out there acknowledging it.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

On Friday as I was driving my husband, Damien, to work, the song “Guitar” by Cake came on my iPod. I’ve always liked the slow, rhythmic bitter-sweetness of the song, but I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics before: “If I threw my guitar out the window, so far down, would I start to regret it, or would I smile and watch it slowly fall?” It always seemed borderline nonsensical to me—of course you shouldn’t throw your guitar out the window, John. It’s just a bit of silliness, I always thought. Just something strange to sing that matches the rhythm of the music.

I guess yesterday I was in just the right state of mind that I could listen to this song I’ve heard hundreds—who knows, maybe thousands—of times and suddenly be moved in a new way by the question posed by the very simple lyrics: if I gave up on my art, this thing I’ve been so devoted to for so long, would I miss it, or would it turn out that I’d actually be happier that way?

Those lyrics kept running through my head the rest of the day. They seemed to pinpoint a question I’d been carrying around deep inside for several months now, a question I didn’t even want to admit to myself I was seriously asking: what would happen if I just gave up on writing? What if I just decided, you know, I had a good run, got some good publications, even published a book. I’m done. “Would I,” as the lyrics wonder, “start to regret it, or would I smile” as everything I’ve worked so hard for falls away? Would giving up on being a writer be a sort of relief?

There’s that famous quote attributed to Lawrence Kasdan: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” Of course, when you’re in a good groove, when you’re really feeling it, writing doesn’t feel like homework at all. It feels like magic, like being part of something much bigger and more important than yourself. And it doesn’t feel like work at all because the words, they just come to you. You don’t know from where. Later, when you read them, you don’t feel like you could have written them. They’re too good. All you did was transcribe what some magical being must have been whispering in your ear.

But on the days where it doesn’t just come to you, it certainly does feel like homework, and “having homework every night for the rest of your life” by choice feels a bit insane, does it not? You could relax and watch a movie, or you could play a video game, take a nap. You could do whatever you want to do, but you choose to write, even when it feels pointless, even when it seems unlikely that anyone will ever read it, even when you yourself can tell as you’re writing it how terrible this particular draft is. You do it anyway. That’s what makes you a true writer, not your publication history, not your awards, not whether or not you have any loyal readers or whether anyone besides yourself even gets what you’re trying to do. What makes you a writer is the fact that you write. Period.

But the other truth is that you weren’t born a writer; nobody was. You became a writer by choice. You imposed this on yourself. And knowing that can make the question posed by the Cake song an extremely serious one during the times where writing does feel like work.

Sometimes I think I would be happier if I wasn’t a writer. Wouldn’t it be nice, I ask myself now and then, if I could just focus entirely on the baby and not have to worry about how much writing I got done today?  But the truth is, I think it’s too late for that now. I’ve come too far, put too much work into it to just give up. My answer to the question is complicated, because I think I would do both: I probably would “smile and watch it slowly fall,” but at the same time, I think I would also “regret it.” Not having the self-imposed pressure would be a relief, but I would feel lost, I’m sure, broken, like I’m just drifting, and those feelings would overpower the pleasure I would feel at taking my life back.

Either way, it’s interesting to fully recognize that writing tortures me as much as it eases my way. It lessens the pain of living, while creating its own new kind of agony. It frees me from the boundaries put upon me by my life, my times, my society, my own sense of identity, while building its own prison walls around me. Flimsy walls, from which I could easily escape.

But I don’t.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A while ago, on an episode of Science Friday, Charlie Bamforth, author of Beer Is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing, said, “Some people say to me, ‘I don’t like beer.’ That’s nonsense. You just haven’t found the right beer for you yet.” This is the way I feel when someone—a student, usually, since I mostly only know academics and writers—tells me they don’t like reading. There are so many different types of books out there, so many different styles and topics and genres and techniques—I just don’t buy that there could be anyone alive who is mentally capable of reading but for whom there is simply no type of writing that would appeal.

But I think that the reason why so very many people don’t believe they like reading is a result of the sort of books that the average person has been exposed to. Consider this: the typical person, who comes from a non-reading family (by non-reading, I don’t mean illiterate, but a family where the parents don’t read for pleasure, and so neither do the kids) for the most part only has easy access to two types of books: canonical classics, which they’re forced to read (or are supposed to read anyway, though many of them just skim or SparksNotes them) in school, and whatever books are being published (and highly publicized) by the major New York publishing houses.

Let’s take the two types one at a time. First, we have the canonical classics. Good books, surely, but often dated. The language is rarely the sort of language we use today, and the writing style matches the style that was popular at the time. These narrators and characters don’t think or speak the way the contemporary reader does, and the plots and settings of these books often leave little to relate to from a modern perspective. Our society is a different society altogether. There are often underlying themes that are still relevant today, but the immediate themes and concerns of the books are usually so far off from what a modern reader—especially a modern young adult, the main group of people being forced to read these books—can relate to that the book, no matter how good it is, might seem tedious to someone who hasn’t yet built up an appreciation for reading.

Then we have what I’ll classify as popular literature, the stuff being put out and heavily marketed by the major publishers. This includes the bevvy of trendy memoirs that come out every year, the vast array of genre fiction that’s out there, and the stuff that bookstores usually classify as “general fiction” because the term “literary” probably seems too stuffy but there are no wizards or robots or ghosts or muscly men baring their chests on the front cover, so “general” seems the only word that really fits. There are examples of good, well written books in all of these popular categories, but the problem is, the good ones—the ones that are actually carefully crafted with attention to detail and language use, with unpredictable plots and multi-dimensional characters—are far, far fewer than the ones that seem to have been sloppily thrown together by some schmuck who doesn’t really know how to write.

You’ve probably read enough of those types of books in your time—I know I have. Those books that are so predictable and cliché, that use way too much exposition (exposition is so boring to read, don’t you think?) and don’t draw vivid enough images when describing scenes. The characters are one-dimensional; the story is bland; the writing is limp and lifeless on the page.

I got lucky at a young age. I got lucky because my parents read for pleasure, so I saw that reading for pleasure is a normal thing to do. Then, in middle school, I stumbled across The Catcher in the Rye, and I never looked back. But what about the people who don’t get lucky enough to find their Salinger, or whoever will really speak to them, amongst the mass of popular books that they have easy access to? Since there are far, far more crappy books on the bookstore and library shelves, the odds are that many people only ever pick up and have a go at the bad stuff. Having only ever read bad books and unrelatable canonical books, is it any wonder that so many people get it in their heads that they just don’t like reading, and, alas, give up?

If I had met Charlie Bamforth before having listened to his Science Friday interview, I would probably have told him, “I just don’t really like beer.” But the truth is, he’s probably right. There probably is a beer out there for me. I just haven’t had enough exposure to beer to have found it, and once I decided I didn’t like beer, I stopped trying it and closed the possibility of me ever finding the “right” one for me. The same thing is happening, I believe, to many people with reading.

I could argue that partially to blame are the major publishing houses, who keep putting out crap because they know it will sell (and please keep in mind that the fact that a book sells well does not mean that people are actually reading and enjoying it, as those of us who have mountains of books we’ve bought and haven’t yet gotten around to reading can attest to). I could say, too, that partially to blame are the teachers who only assign their students to read things their students are not likely to engage with, and partially to blame are the parents who don’t understand that just reading to your kids isn’t enough; you need to set the example and let them see that you enjoy reading for your own pleasure, too. But the whole truth is that this is not really a problem that can be fixed easily. Maybe it’s too late to fix it at all. Maybe TV and video games will always be so easy that most people will never take the time to search for books that they might enjoy reading. Who knows? All I can say is that I think it’s sad, and I wish more people could experience what I do when I get fully immersed in a really good book. I feel bad for them, feel like they’re missing out on something.

Is this how beer drinkers feel about me? Hmm.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Maybe it’s because it’s been just over two years since I graduated with my MFA, or because my husband, Damien, just graduated with his MA, or some combination of the two, or neither. Whatever the reason, I’ve been daydreaming about—romanticizing, again—my time as a graduate student. Aside from the fact that those were some fun, carefree times for me, during my last two years in my program at UAF, I was at my peak of productivity as a writer. Since graduating, I’ve published a book, yes, and I’ve published several short pieces in journals as well, but as far as time spent in front of the computer actually writing, I’ve never been able to match what I was logging as a grad student.

Sometimes as a grad student I would complain about how being an MFA student didn’t afford me the time to write I’d thought it would. Looking back on it now, of course, I know that’s demonstrably untrue. I had to do a lot of reading and paper writing, studying for the comps exam, teaching, and tutoring at the university’s Writing Center, but let’s be honest, I still had several hours a day leftover in which to write. And I used it. I did. I wrote a lot during that time. The majority of my book is comprised of stories I wrote in grad school.

There are a number of reasons why I haven’t written as much since then. Teaching three classes at a time—and in one awful, stressful quarter, four—has kept me far busier than teaching one and taking two or three ever did. Working under deadline to polish and edit a book took time away from new writing. Dealing with the crushing realization that having a published book means very little in the grand scheme of things brought on feelings of depression, which were difficult for me to write through, and, naturally, preparing to have a baby has kept me pretty distracted.

The past week, though, I’ve been writing more and more, and I’ve been feeling more like my old, MFA student (as opposed to MFA graduate) self. Anytime I experience a shift in my drive or abilities as a writer, I look at the variables in my life and ask myself what might have caused the shift. This week there was one glaring change in my life: Damien, who’s been working part time as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review since July first, began teaching a summer course in addition to his editorial duties. Where he had been spending four hours at the office Monday through Friday, he’s now gone for six to seven hours a day.

I, on the other hand, haven’t been working at all. I wasn’t able to line up any summer classes, and I wasn’t able to find another summer job as no one particularly wanted to hire a big, fat pregnant lady who’s just going to quit when her due date gets close. At first, when Damien started the Managing Editor job, I told myself I would spend at least half the time he was gone writing. But it didn’t work out that way. I have prenatal yoga to do, and I’ve also been spending an hour or two a day on household chores (I am, after all, a housewife now—how odd). Add to that showering and other basic life activities (like making and eating breakfast and lunch), and by the time Damien would arrive home from his four hours at the office, I usually either hadn’t written at all, or had only written for half an hour or so.

But now that he’s gone for six or seven hours, I have been writing for a good hour or two every day, and I’ve been reading a lot, too—what a wonderful feeling! Because we now live an extra mile from campus and because it’s been very, very hot and humid this summer, I’ve been getting up early with Damien to give him a ride to work. When I get home, I do my prenatal yoga, shower, eat, then write and read for a few hours until I decide it’s time to get on top of the chores.

And you know what I realized? This is a lot like the routine I had going when I was in grad school. In Alaska, Damien worked from 6:30-2:30 and would get up at 5:30 to get ready. I’d get up with him, so I could have coffee and spend a little time with him before he went in. Then, when he left, I’d exercise for an hour or so and write until it was time for me to get ready to go to campus (usually not until ten or eleven at the earliest). Replace the household chores I do now with the schoolwork and teaching I did then, and the schedule is very similar. In both cases, what affords me the time to write is the fact that I get up early—even though some days I’d rather not—to ensure that I’ll have time to get everything done and still have time to write before the end of the day, when Damien and I are both home together. Because I love my husband and would rather hang out with him, honestly, than do anything, including writing, I know if I haven’t written by that point in the day, I won’t. I simply won’t.

The idea of getting up early to write is nothing new. Many writers swear by it. I’m sure for some people it’s necessary and for others it isn’t, but for me, it is. I should have known that by now. I definitely do my best writing earlier in the morning, before anything much has happened to distract me from my made up worlds, and as much as I love sleep, I love the satisfaction of getting in a good hour or two of writing time more. Routine, for me, helps a lot too. The two things combined are, finally, allowing me to recapture some of that productivity (and positivity) that I felt back when I was in grad school. Hurray! May it last and last!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

I had to make a very difficult but unfortunately inevitable decision recently, which I’d like, now that I’ve informed all of our submitters and Duotrope, to share with you: I decided, after three years, to close down MFA/MFYou as a literary journal. This decision was based on a number of factors, the two main ones being that my co-editor and husband, Damien Cowger, who has been doing double duty as our co-editor while also working as the Assistant Editor of the more prestigious print journal New Ohio Review, has been hired, now, as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review. It’s an excellent opportunity and we’re both thrilled about it . . . but it does mean that he really doesn’t have time, anymore, to work with me on MFA/MFYou.
And let’s face it, I don’t really have time anymore, either, with a new baby on the way. I decided recently that, having been up and running for three years now, the journal was at a sort of crossroads. I needed to either push it up to the next level or throw in the towel. It’s been a dream of mine for, I don’t know, ten years to run a small, independent lit journal, and so, as you can imagine, it was difficult for me to accept that closing the journal was probably what I needed to do. But, alas, it is what I need to do.
I haven’t, however, made up my mind yet whether to shut down the website itself. I’ve been toying with the idea of maybe keeping the site going, but changing it from a literary journal into a sort of online resource for writers who might be considering getting an MFA. The site, in this case, would include a discussion forum where MFA and non-MFAers alike could come and share experiences and discuss topics relating to creative writing degrees and writing in general. We’d also probably publish essays written by people on both sides of the spectrum, talking about their specific experiences in or out of MFA programs. Interviews would also be a nice addition. Running a site like that would be less work, I think, than running a literary journal, as material would be updated on an as-needed (and as time allows) basis. The forums, of course, would just be open to discussion all the time, and anyone who comes to the site would be able to post or respond to topics.
It would be a fun and interesting way of keeping the discussion open on the topic, since I’ve really, really enjoyed reading the contributions to our MFA/MFYou Experience pages. I also get emails sometimes from people considering applying for MFA programs, wanting advice or asking specific questions based on my own experiences as an MFA graduate. I would love to open up more of a space where a variety of writers can share their experiences on the topic and offer advice to writers who have yet to decide what’s the right path for them.
At this stage, of course, it’s still in the very early conception stage. This, too, will take its fair share of time, and it will only really be worth doing if I can entice enough fellow writers to come and share their thoughts and experiences on the site. I may still just shut the site down altogether, but this option is very appealing to me right now and, after I’ve thought it through some more, I may just give it a shot.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

I received this week what feels like the hundredth agent rejection for the novel that was my MFA thesis, this novel I’ve poured so much time and energy into over the past five years. This was another rejection from an agent who had, after reading my initial query, been interested in the manuscript and had requested a partial. Rejections from agents who actually requested to read some or all of the manuscript first are the hardest because they force you to accept that it’s not that you’re not getting a fair shake, it’s not that the agent just didn’t like your premise, it’s the writing, it’s the manuscript itself that brought on this rejection.
Naturally, this rejection was no exception. In fact, this rejection smarted even more than the other rejections for partial or full manuscripts I’ve received in the past because this one didn’t waste any time complimenting my writing abilities. The gist of it was that I have some “impressive” writing credits and an “interesting” premise, but this particular agent just wasn’t that into the material itself once he started reading it. I guess I’ve gotten used to the obligatory variation on, “You’re a very good writer, however . . .” and so this one pierced my rejection-toughened skin and actually stung a bit.
But let’s be honest here, the fact that this agent didn’t have time to waste stroking my ego isn’t the real reason this rejection hurt. It hurt because I’ve queried so many agents about this book, and I’ve had a fair number of partial or full manuscript requests—hell, I even had an agency solicit me after reading one of my stories in a literary journal—but I always end up getting nowhere. Many agents have been kind enough to take a look; none of them have been interested in representing me after they read the manuscript.
I’m at that point, of course, where I have no choice but to accept that this book just isn’t going to get published. Shelving a project you’ve poured so much of yourself into is maybe the most difficult thing a writer has to do. This time it’s particularly hard for me because I’ve done the set-it-aside-for-six-months thing—more than once—and still felt it was good when I came back to it. I’ve revised it so many times I’ve completely lost count, too. When I read through this novel, even now, I don’t understand why it isn’t publishable. Okay, it’s not the most brilliant novel ever written, but it seems good enough to me to get published. It seems just as good as a lot of the stuff that gets published every year. But I’m clearly missing something; there’s something wrong that I’m not picking up on.
I feel I would be deluding myself if, after all these rejections, I don’t admit defeat. I’ve talked in the past about the agent hunt being my first stop for this book, about how, if that didn’t work out for me, I would try my hand at small presses. In fact, I had already stopped querying agents (this rejection took several months to make its way to me and is from the last agent I had yet to hear from), and I had begun to submit to small presses and contests, but now I’m thinking maybe that, too, is a bad idea.
I know several people who have permanently set aside their MFA theses, accepting that the manuscripts just aren’t good enough and never will be. This may sound sort of pessimistic, until you realize that those same people are instead investing their writing time working on new projects, projects they do feel might have a chance of getting published. Giving up on their theses, for these writers, wasn’t, actually, like giving up at all; it was more like accepting that the thesis was a valuable experience, great practice, and now they’re ready to move on and apply what they learned to something better.
I really, really, really admire that mentality. I really, really, really want to know how to let go of this novel, at last. I’ve given up on projects in the past—this is not, after all, my first novel, just the first one I actually believed, after several years of close scrutiny and revision, was good enough—so why is this so difficult for me? One way or another, though, I have got to accept that it isn’t going to happen with this book. Researching publishers and crafting queries is taking up valuable time I should be spending on new projects, not to mention the fact that, as long as I continue to think of this book as publishable, it will be difficult for me to fully immerse myself in a new novel. Every time I try, I eventually hit a wall and get sidetracked by thinking about this book, whether I should revise it again, whether I should be bothering with a new one when this one has yet to be published.
So I need to move this novel to my “Failed Attempts” file, dust my hands off, and move on with my life. As difficult as this is for me, maybe it will be like a sort of release. Here’s hoping. On the positive side, anyway, I do feel very heartened by this final rejection’s admission that my writing credits are “impressive.” It gives me some hope that, while this novel, it seems, just isn’t going to cut it, maybe a future one will, and that I have built up enough of a publication history for agents to pause and take notice. Maybe the next novel will be the one. I’ll never know, though, if I allow myself to remain frozen in the world of this old, let’s face it, failed novel.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sometimes, I think, we writers get spoiled by those times when the words seem to flow like water from a tap—just turn it on when you’re ready to write, and turn it off when you’re done for the day. We get spoiled by those extended periods when we have ample time, when our friends and loved ones seem uncommonly understanding, when life’s little stressors seem to have decided to give us a break for a while, when everything, in other words, seems to align just right so that we can write and write often and write well.
We appreciate those times for what they are, but still, we begin to grow used to them after a while. We become accustomed to sitting in front of the computer and turning on the words. We begin to think that maybe we’ve done our time, fought our battle and won it, and now the world will forever step aside and just let us be writers, at last.
But inevitably, the good times will dry up, and on will come the not so good. Something stressful will happen at work or at home or in our families, or worse, for no apparent reason, the tap will just stop flowing. Did we forget to pay the word bill this month? We turn it on, and it just sputters, then dies.
We have any number of ways of referring to these other times: writer’s block, being too busy, being uninspired. Whatever we call it and whatever brings it on, one thing remains fairly consistent each time: after a while, we begin to wonder if we’ve lost whatever it was we once had. We begin to wonder if we aren’t, after all, the writers we once believed ourselves to be.
But it’s that doubt, more than anything, that causes the real problem, I think. I don’t know that there’s anything wrong or evenly remotely unusual about your ability/time/energy/etc. to write sort of ebbing and flowing, sometimes unpredictably. I’ve heard so many successful writers say that sometimes they just need a break from writing, or sometimes they’re just too busy, and that’s okay. Life has to be lived. That’s where we get our material from to begin with.
But when we begin to obsess over whether or not we’ve lost “it,” that’s when the real damage can be done. If I’m questioning my own abilities as a writer, I begin to feel even more distracted, even more blocked, even less inspired. If a day goes by and I don’t write, I begin to think that I’m a failure, that I can’t reasonably call myself a writer. The next day, when I sit down to catch up, I feel frozen. Who do I think I’m fooling? I wonder. I can’t do this. I’m not a writer. And, like the self-fulfilling prophecy those words are, I suddenly can’t do it—I’m too busy thinking about the act of writing itself to actually write anything.
I’m beginning to think that the best thing a writer can do when he or she is going through a dry spell is to just relax and not get too caught up in what it all means or how to break free of it. Sometimes the attempt to shake the block just makes the block worse, oh so much worse. When I write well, when my writing is actually coming together in a satisfactory way, it’s always during a time when I feel confident about my own abilities. When I question my own abilities, my writing gets lousier and lousier, which perpetuates the questioning, and so on.
I’ve been caught in the chaos of a move the past few weeks and have hardly written at all in that time. But for once, when I felt myself begin to get sucked into that downward spiral, I pulled myself back again and reminded myself that I had perfectly good reasons to not be writing—I was busy and distracted (and six months pregnant, which meant I was also tired and swollen and distracted by baby plans, too)—and I refused to let myself even think that my lack of writing said anything about my abilities or future as a writer. So now that we’ve finally finished unpacking and putting away most of our stuff, I’ve been able once again to ease back into writing with little trouble. If I’d gotten too down on myself about not writing, I probably wouldn’t have bounced back so quickly.
I get so spoiled sometimes by the good times, I fail to see the bad times for what they are: a pause, a break, a necessary breather. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes other things are just more important. But we need to try to remember that there is a difference between the would-be writer who has a million story ideas but never seems to get around to writing (or revising) at all and the genuine writer, who writes when he or she can, and doesn’t when he or she can’t. Just doesn’t. And that’s okay.