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

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Here’s something I find really interesting: in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers, there’s an extensive article/interview on book contests. Included in the article are some pie charts representing some overall statistics on the winners of last year’s book contests (there were 129 total, or at least, those are the ones P & W announced in their Grants and Awards pages over the course of the year).
The statistics were fascinating for a number of reasons (I was not at all surprised but interested to find out that roughly 77% of the book length contests out there are for poetry books), but the most interesting of the pie charts, for me, was the one that showed that 111 of the 129 winners hold an MFA, MA, or PhD. Only 18 of the winners (roughly 14%) did not hold a graduate degree (presumably—at least for the majority of the 111—we’re talking about a graduate degree in creative writing. At least, that's an assumption I'm starting from, and I think it's very likely. I’m guessing a small number of the winners probably hold a degree in some other field, but I’m betting—and who knows, I could be wrong—that most of them studied creative writing. At any rate, there's no way to know for sure, so let's allow ourselves to speculate a bit here).
As someone who has always been (perhaps overly) fascinated by the difference between formally studying creative writing in a graduate program and practicing writing other ways, of course I found this news extremely thought-provoking. Is this definitive proof at last that writers who earn a graduate level education in creative writing are better than those who don’t? Well, not so fast. I can think of a couple of possibilities that might explain this statistic another way.
For one thing, I can’t help but wonder if writers who go through formal, graduate level creative writing programs are simply more aware of the variety of small presses and book contests out there. I think a lot of would-be writers who haven’t had any formal training just don’t know about certain paths that are available to them. In a graduate level program, you become very aware of these sorts of things—often your own instructors are past recipients of some of these awards.
Another possibility is that the sort of writer who studies in a graduate level program tends to be more the sort of writer whose work is very well suited for small presses. Now that sounds like a very sharp distinction, and certainly there are people who fall on one end or the other of the line. There are MFA students who mostly write science fiction/fantasy. There are non-MFA students who mostly write highly literary short fiction, and there are, of course, faculty members in graduate level programs who have agents and publish with major presses.
I am not suggesting that people who go to grad school don’t or can’t publish with major presses, but we all know that the major presses are primarily interested in the bottom line ($$$) and are far, far, far less willing to publish work that is of high literary merit but has little chance of selling many copies than small presses are. Publishing with a major press has a lot to do with who you know and luck. Publishing with a small press has a lot more to do with how good of a writer you are. So all I’m saying here is that in general, in general (I repeat it to hopefully avoid any misreading of what I’m trying to say here), graduate level creative writing programs accept and train literary writers, and small presses (and, thus, book contests, most of which are run by small presses) are seeking work from the very same type of writer.
Of course, there is always also the possibility that the statistic is a result of a number of factors, and included in those factors might well be that there are possibly more good writers who have studied creative writing in advanced programs than those who haven’t. This would certainly not mean that any writer who hasn’t earned a graduate level degree in creative writing is crap—14% of the winners had no graduate level education, after all. But maybe it’s true that of the writers out there who have really gotten good at writing, who have learned the value of revision and have found their own unique voices, maybe there are more who got there through the aid of a graduate level education than any other way.
I think the statistic probably results from a heavy mix of all these factors and more, but either way, it’s worth thinking about. The statistic is simply too striking not to raise some questions.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lately I’ve been struggling with how much time I think a writer should spend actually writing and how much time I think it’s okay—necessary, even—to spend on other, writing related endeavors (like reading). Part of the reason I’ve been having such a hard time pinning down how I feel about the issue is because basically for the past year (almost), I’ve been having a very on-again/off-again relationship with my own writing. I’ve had a very eventful year; between the book and the baby news, I’ve been quite busy and distracted, and I’ve had a lot of trouble getting into any sort of comfortable writing groove.
I’ve read that what I’ve been experiencing is not uncommon: you get word of your first book deal (or sometimes, you finish—really finish—a large project), and you find you have no choice but to take a break; for whatever reason, your mind simply will not let you embark on another project without a breather. That all seems fine, except for the fact that I got word that my first book was going to be published almost a year ago. Even if you consider that most of last summer I was revising and editing the manuscript, it’s still been a good nine months since I’ve had all that behind me, and nine months seems like an awfully long break, to me.
Maybe, then, it’s the baby, more than the book, that’s been keeping my mind so occupied. Thinking about and planning for my new baby has certainly taken up a lot of my time, but let’s be honest, I have a lot of time right now. I’m only teaching one class. I could spend hours a day thinking about the little being growing inside of me and still find an hour or two in which to write.
No. The truth is, all excuses aside, I just haven’t been as interested in writing this past year. Something strange clicked over in me when I signed that book contract, and I know part of it is the disappointment of realizing how little a book deal really matters, and part of it is disillusionment at the anti-climax of publishing a book, but there’s something more, too, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.
Part of it, I think, is that I just haven’t had as much to say. I’ve been, if you want to know the truth, much more interested in reading these past few months. I’ve always been a reader, certainly, but for the past few months I feel like I’d rather read than do just about anything, but I can never quite decide if it’s okay for me to indulge. Obviously, writers need to read, but they should also write. Lately, I’m always very quick to pick up a book, less so to turn on my computer and put words to paper myself. The result is that when I’m reading, I feel guilty about it—I should be writing.
So I’m torn, you see, because I don’t know where the balance lies. I think reading is essential to writing, and part of me thinks, maybe it’s not so bad if, for a few months, I just really want to read. But then part of me thinks that’s just self-justification. Yes, reading is important, but it’s not like I was ever at risk for not reading enough. The risk is not writing enough. The risk is not producing.
But I don’t really know what the right answer is. Should I be putting more pressure on myself right now, or less? Should I accept that I need a break—though it scares me, though I’m terrified I’ve lost my abilities and may never get them back—or should I be forcing myself to rebuild my momentum? I don’t know. I just really don’t know.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last week I read Jennifer Egan’s strange book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer for fiction this year. I say Goon Squad is strange because it’s marketed as a novel, though it’s clearly more a collection of stories than a novel, but it really isn’t a collection of short stories, either. It’s an odd little book that seems to defy categorization.
Egan’s book is not the first collection of linked stories, and it’s not even the first to call itself a novel. I can’t help but compare it to Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I’d read just a couple of weeks before I read Goon Squad. Rachman’s book felt, to me, like a collection of linked short stories that the author (or publisher, who knows?) tried to force into the mold of  a novel by providing some (very dull and predictable) interludes between each chapter that told the overall story of the newspaper that (most of) these characters worked for. The stories themselves were incredibly good, but I thought the book would have been much better if Rachman had cut the interludes and published the book as a short story collection (but, of course, if he had done that, it never would have gotten published by a major press like it did; it never would have made the New York Times Bestseller List).
Goon Squad is different, though. While there is no overall story arc, and each chapter of the novel has a different main character and zooms in on a different part of the novel’s timeline—which, like in Rachman’s case, would normally scream story collection to me—each individual chapter doesn’t necessarily have a story arc, either. Some of them do. Some of the chapters definitely feel like self-contained short stories, with the beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, and character change that the term “story” usually implies. But most of the chapters feel more like snapshots of specific times in the characters’ lives (from teenage to early adulthood to middle age to old age). String them all together, the way Egan did, and you still don’t have an overall story, but look at them separately, and you don’t really seem to have individual stories, either (with some exceptions).
So how do we categorize A Visit from the Goon Squad then? Egan (or her publishers) chose to sell it as a novel, and maybe that was partially because most readers aren’t interested in short story collections and partially because something is possibly gained, some slow building of understanding of the book’s underlying themes, if you read the “stories” in the exact order they appear in the book. Call it a story collection, and people might skip around or not read certain stories at all, and ultimately, those people might miss out on the whole point of the book, which I’d guess can only really be discovered by reading every chapter and then thinking back on the connections between them.
Because that’s the thing about the book: there are very interesting themes at work here, which begin to reveal themselves the further you get into it. In the most obvious way, Goon Squad is about the passage of time, about growing up and growing older and becoming, in spite of yourself, all the things you never thought you would: a middle ager who is suddenly very concerned with her status at the country club and finds herself hanging out with republicans; an aging punk-rocker turned corporate, sell-out music producer; an eczematic failed novelist who becomes a celebrity journalist and, in the novel’s most disturbing chapter, attempts to rape (and contemplates murdering) a beautiful nineteen-year-old starlet during an interview.  
These characters are raw and, most of them, despicable, but they’re despicable in that way that all people are despicable when you really hold a microscope to them. They are, in other words, very real—vivid and well-developed, everything well-written characters should be. And ultimately the book is not meant to be a “story” or even “stories” about these characters; instead, the book shows us snippets of their lives at key moments and then pulls back and lets you see how they grew up, sold out, became fat and greedy and jaded, became bad people: thieves and would-be rapists and bad parents.
“Time,” as two different characters point out in two different chapters, “is a goon,” and it comes for us all in the end.
This book, then, is something entirely different: not a novel, not a short story collection, not exactly compelling as you’re reading it but extremely interesting once you finish and step back to ponder it all as a whole. That’s right, I found Goon Squad boring as I was slogging through it—it took me almost a full week to read this one, 275 page book—but once I read it, I was glad I did. There’s a lot of interesting stuff going on here, and while a little more plot, a little tension, would have made the experience of reading the book more enjoyable, overall, Goon Squad was definitely an excellent work of literature, and I can understand why it won the Pulitzer.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Damien and I watched a documentary about Raymond Carver the other day. The documentary itself wasn’t very good, but Raymond Carver said something that’s been slowly building to a boil in my mind ever since. I don’t have the exact quote (we already returned the DVD to the library), but it was something along the lines of how every story he ever wrote was, while he was working on it, his favorite story. The excitement of watching the story become truly good was, I couldn’t help but assume, what helped Carver develop that famed revision ethic that, in my opinion, all would-be writers should (but don’t always) emulate.
It’s finally hit me, just now, what it was about that quote that seemed so significant to me. It’s the fact that I once felt that way, too. Once. But I haven’t felt that way in a while, not since I got the phone call telling me my first book was about to be published.
Even though I have been writing lately, which sometimes feels like an accomplishment in and of itself considering how distracted I’ve been with my thoughts of the little girl who is growing and growing inside me right now, I haven’t really been producing anything particularly worthwhile. Writing and producing something worthwhile, of course, are not always the same thing. While I can say I’ve definitely spent some time in front of the computer for the past year, I don’t really have much to show for that time, just a bunch of hollow drafts and half-assed revisions. Nothing feels like it’s coming together the way it should, and I don’t, really, feel all that excited about any of my current projects.
Nothing that I’m writing now feels important. On top of that, I feel discouraged by the fact that very few people will likely ever read the book I’ve already published. I realize that’s not supposed to be the point, that we should write for ourselves, but it is a difficult realization, when you discover that this thing you’ve been dreaming about for so long—publishing a book!—is so anticlimactic, is of so little consequence in the end.
It’s strange, but actually winning a fiction prize and publishing my first book has made me ever more cynical about my career as a writer. About writing in general, as a serious endeavor. It’s different when you dabble in writing for fun, but when you reach a point where you’re really invested in it, where your writing is one of the most important things in your life, it can be a hard reality check when you publish a book. Once that short-lived excitement about having “made it” passes, you realize that readers don’t know who you are, that most of them will never even hear about your book, and of the ones who do, few will buy it, and even fewer will actually read it. The thrill of the accomplishment wears off fast, and what you’re left with is the realization that you’ve been so very na├»ve all these years, when you told yourself that publishing a book actually mattered.
And so, I guess, what it comes down to is that I’m having trouble rekindling that flame that was sort of snuffed out by the harsh reality of actually publishing a book. Where once I felt so excited about each new project, now I find myself wondering, sure, but what’s the point? Who cares about this stupid story? Even if I publish it, who cares? The excitement that Raymond Carver spoke of has left me, and I’m not sure whether it will ever come back.
But I did speak last time of how this shift in perspective is a strange sort of relief. It’s depressing sometimes—I feel it as an acute loss—but at the same time, it’s kind of liberating, too. It used to feel essential that I wrote and wrote a lot, that I produced and published, that I pushed myself to be the writer I wanted to believe I was. Suddenly, now, those things don’t seem to matter. So what if I don’t write today? So what if this story ends up going nowhere and I give up on it? It doesn’t matter in any real sort of way.
The things that really matter, I see now, are my baby, my marriage, my ability to extend, in whatever way I can, the few moments of true happiness that ever come my way. Sometimes writing brings me that kind of happiness, but thinking about my baby delights me in a way that no story and no publication ever has. There’s something reassuring about that. It’s reassuring to be reminded that writing isn’t all there is, that whether I publish something or not doesn’t really matter, that there is more to life than ambition and drive. That sometimes, just sitting back and living is enough.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

About a year and a half ago, my husband Damien and I decided that, in spite of the fact that we’d always said we never wanted kids, we wanted, eventually, to have a baby. Our change of heart was based on several factors, certainly not the least of which was that we spent the summer visiting family, including our nieces and nephew, and we both felt overcome with how much we loved the little tykes and loved spending time with them. We regretted having lived so far away in Alaska for the past three years, and that we were moving far away from them, still, to Ohio. They had all been so tiny the last time we’d seen them, and who knew how big they’d be before we saw them again.
By the time we got settled in Ohio, I had started to feel like I’d been wrong all those years—I did want to be a mother. Having a little Jack or Paris or Katie of my own would be so worth the financial and emotional costs of childrearing. Damien, at first, wasn’t convinced. I let the issue drop, but he knew that I’d changed my mind and that I hoped that he would one day change his. I think just knowing that I wanted to have a baby, and remembering how exciting it was to watch as our nieces and nephews discovered the world and searched for their places in it, planted a seed in Damien’s mind that, within a few months, grew into baby longing.
So we agreed that we wanted to have a baby; what we couldn’t agree on was when we should do it. Damien had just begun a new master’s program, and I’d only just graduated with my MFA. I was teaching adjunct, Damien, working as a TA. We were making enough money to get by, but I had no insurance, nor could we afford insurance for a new baby. In addition, we had no idea how much raising a baby would cost. How much do diapers cost and how often do you have to buy them? Breast milk is free, but what about after the baby is weaned? How much do you end up spending per month on baby food, on clothes, on other necessities we hadn’t even factored in?
But on the other hand, we were already in our late twenties, and the world of academia is such that it would probably take years and years before one or the other of us could land a decent full time job with benefits. If we decided to wait until we were definitely financially stable, we’d probably be in our late thirties or possibly even forties by then. Aside from the risks of having a baby at a later age like that, we didn’t want to be the age of our child’s friends’ grandparents.
We put the discussion off for a year, and, that summer, after I interviewed for and didn’t get a full time job I’d been up for, it seemed the issue might be put off indefinitely. There was simply no good time to have a baby.
And yet people have babies all the time, people in even worse financial situations than we, and, somehow, they seem to manage just fine.
The following fall, when my birth control ran out, Damien and I had a long talk about the future. I pointed out that if we waited, we would probably end up waiting until it was too late, and that, if we were going to do it at all, now seemed as good a time as any. Damien was hesitant, but I believed we’d qualify for Medicaid, and my current job allowed me to teach online classes—it actually did seem like a pretty good time to start trying. So when my pills ran out, I didn’t go back in to renew the prescription, and about four months later, as easy as that, I was pregnant.
As soon as we found out I was pregnant, we looked up Medicaid and found out we made too much. Since then, thoughts of the baby—our excitement over her impending birth, our equal parts delight and fear about becoming parents, and our absolute dread of how we’re going to afford all these medical bills, which have been slowly building and building these past few months—have pretty much consumed us. Damien’s had to deal with this at the same time as working on his thesis at the same time as trying to figure out what his next step should be, since he’s graduating this June.
It’s been difficult, in other words, to keep up a good schedule of writing. I did somehow manage to spend about an average of one hour per day writing this past month, but that’s after three months of only writing for about a half hour a day (actually, in February, the month we got our first bill from the medical clinic—almost $1,000, just for one visit—I hardly wrote at all the entire month).
To be honest, though, I’m not too upset about it. I don’t want to lose what I’ve spent so many years developing, as a writer, but between the baby and the anticlimax of having my first book come out (by the way, I found out I was a pregnant the same week my first book was published; the two things will forever be linked in my mind), I seem to be looking at writing, the writing world, and my place in it a little differently. This post is already long enough as it is, so I won’t go in, just now, to this change in perspective, except to say that what once seemed absolutely vital, the most important thing in my life, suddenly seems like one of a number of important things. Writing is still on the stovetop, for sure, but, for the first time in, well, the first time in my entire life, I’d say, writing has taken a back burner to a few other things. And, unexpected though it is, this shift in priorities? It’s a strange sort of relief.