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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, April 29, 2012

It’s no big secret that the three years I spent in my MFA program were among the best of my life (or maybe I should change that to the last two, maybe two-and-a-half, years in the program, since, in fact, my first semester was pretty discouraging, so discouraging that I almost quit the program and gave up on writing altogether). While I was in my program, I grew immensely as a writer. I came to understand the role momentum plays in my output, and I became, for a while, a very disciplined writer, a writer who writes for a couple of hours almost every day, a writer who produces a lot of work.

From the time I began getting published—during my second year in the program—I’ve been scoring a minimum of two publications a year. Two a year isn’t great, but I’ve always felt good about the fact that, if nothing else, I’ve never dipped below that number. But this year, I fear, will be the year. We’re heading into May and I don’t have any impending acceptances. I’ve only just recently begun submitting again, after a several month long hiatus, and though I have four stories in circulation right now, it seems unlikely that two of them will get accepted soon enough to get published by the end of 2012.

The likelihood that I’ll probably break my streak this year isn’t really any big surprise. I spent the year after I found out my book was getting published leapfrogging from project to project, actually finishing very few complete drafts. Then, I had the baby—need I say more? I’ve only just in the past couple of months started tentatively writing in earnest again, and even so, I still feel like I haven’t found my groove yet. I definitely haven’t gotten my momentum back up, and I’m having trouble deciding which of the many half-finished stories, novels, and children’s books I have going to work on when I sit down to write.

I’ve entered into the awful cycle I was afraid I might enter into before I had the baby: I have very little time to write, and when I do write it all seems like crap to me. So then I feel down about myself as a writer, which in turn makes it difficult to write, which in turn makes me feel even more down about myself as a writer, and so on and so on. When you’re already feeling lousy about your abilities, every little failure makes you really questions yourself. Every rejection, every unwon contest, every job for which you don’t even land an interview—it all gets inflated and overshadows your successes. The negatives aren’t meaningless—I’m receiving sign after pretty clear sign that I still have a ways to go as a writer—but they’re not necessarily more meaningful than your successes—in other words, my failures prove that I’m not “there” yet, but gauging from my successes, I think I’m headed in the right direction.

So to pull myself out of this self-perpetuating cycle of self-loathing, I’m going to try to take some small steps to remind myself that I have control of my own life, and to remind myself, too, of the power of momentum:

1.      I’m going to start exercising again. I’m going to start small—just doing my arms every other day. I know that sounds inconsequential and irrelevant (to a blog about writing), but here’s the thing: exercise and writing are inextricably linked in my mind. My first winter in Fairbanks, Alaska, when I hit rock bottom and made up my mind to get on top of my life, I made two resolutions: to get in shape and to start writing more. By the next winter, I had lost close to thirty pounds and received my first couple of story acceptances. And—until very recently—I’ve kept both resolutions up pretty consistently. For me, now, exercise has become more than a means to stay in shape—it’s the way I keep my life balanced; it’s my way of reminding myself that my life is in my own hands.

I don’t need to lose weight. In fact, it would probably be dangerous for me to do so, since I’m breastfeeding. Though I had worried that having a baby might take a serious toll on my body, I came out of the experience with no stretch marks, and my body snapped back to its previous weight astonishingly fast (a result of A) not having over-gained while I was pregnant, and B) burning an extra thousand or so calories a day due to breastfeeding). I have no real problems with the way I look now, but if I ease myself back into an exercise schedule, I’ll feel better in other ways, ways that go much deeper and matter much more than my physical appearance.

2.      I’m going to try to focus on one project at a time for a little while. I have way too many half-written stories, too many begun but not completed book projects. It’s overwhelming. The hard part will be picking what to focus my attention on, but I think I’ll benefit from just working on one thing until it’s done for a bit. I crave that rewarding feeling you get when you finish something. I need it. And as much as I’m a believer in just working on what you want to work on and not forcing things, I really think, right now, I need to freakin’ finish something, for cripe's sake.

My hope is that if I can take these two, small steps, I’ll be able to slowly but surely pick up speed from there, and soon enough (well, it may take a few months, I’m sure) I’ll have my momentum back up.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

In the house across the street from mine lives a small family—a mother, a father, and maybe two or three kids. They have a swingset in their yard, and now that the weather is warm and beautiful, you often see one or two girls swinging away. It reminds me of how much I loved to swing when I was a kid—well, I still love swinging, to be honest. When I was little, I’d spend hours, HOURS, on the swingset in our backyard. I used to bring my little portable CD player out with me and listen to music and swing until either A) a bee would come by and scare me back inside, or B) my mom would call me in for dinner.

Now, I am thirty-one years old. My hair is turning white, one long, wispy strand at a time. I am a mother, a wife, a college instructor. Strange though it seems, I am a grown-up. I’m not sure when that happened, but somewhere along the line, when I was looking the other way, I guess, I passed through childhood, through young adulthood, and ended up here.

As you may have noticed from last week’s post, I’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately about my prospects as a writer/college instructor. These things didn’t bother me that much before I had a baby, but now, at times, I’m completely consumed by my desire to publish more, land a decent job, and generally find a bit of stability for myself and my family. I feel frustrated that my daughter won’t get to grow up with a nice backyard and a swingset, like I did. I feel frustrated that every summer, we don’t even make enough money to cover our basic living expenses (true story: the summer I signed my book contract, we DESPERATELY needed the money I got for my advance. I honestly don’t know what we would have done if that bit of luck hadn’t happened at just the right time. We would have emptied out our savings account well before the end of the summer).

I think to some extent, having published my first book a little over a year ago adds to these feelings. When I first found out I was getting the book published, I thought it was going to create a sort of domino effect for my career. I imagined I could use the fact that I was getting one book published as leverage to get an agent and publish another. Then, with two published books and an agent, I would go out and land myself a full time job, which would afford me a stable enough income that I could write more and more books without the distraction of worrying about money all the time or having to work during the summer.

Of course, that isn’t what happened. It’s hard to say whether having a book published already made any difference when I was querying agents last time around. It may have—at least one agent told me my credentials were “impressive”—but I probably got about the same average of manuscript requests as I did when I was querying agents without a published book under my belt, and,  just like before, all of those still ended in eventual rejection.

And the more time that passes since my book’s publication date, the more I think prospective agents, editors, and employers alike are going to ask, “Alright, but what have you done lately?” I have this overwhelming fear that if I don’t publish another book in the next couple of years, having published a book won’t really matter at all anymore—in terms of being a stepping stone for my career, anyway. If you don’t keep steadily climbing higher on the ladder, the rungs get too slippery and you fall clear off.

But who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to pull myself back onto the ladder. I haven’t fallen off yet, I don’t think. Right now, I’m just sort of dangling, looking down and up and back down again, trying to find some way to regain my purchase. I’ve been writing again, and that’s a good first step. I’ve started submitting again, too: ten submissions a month, just like I used to do. I’m very, very seriously considering applying for PhD programs, and I’m even thinking about trying to get a seat in a graduate level workshop at Ohio University (since Damien’s an employee, I can take classes for half-tuition). Whatever happens, I’m going to try not to let these feelings of failure get the better of me. There is still hope, isn’t there? There is always still hope.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Last year, I got back from AWP to find, in my stack of mail, a manuscript request from an agent. His eventual rejection of my novel pointed out that I had “impressive credentials.” This year, I returned from AWP to a form rejection for a job. These facts pretty much sum up the difference between how I felt about having a published book a year ago—hopeful, confident that it somehow mattered—and how I feel about it now.

One rejection from a job isn’t such a big deal, you’re right, but I haven’t even landed a single interview, not even for the jobs I would have otherwise thought I’m well qualified for. I’ve heard that the job market for fiction professors is particularly competitive, that many of the applicants have multiple books published by major presses, have appeared in Best American and the Pushcart anthologies, and have logged a few years of Visiting Writer experience. They are, you see, much farther along in their careers than someone like me, who has only one measly book and has been teaching adjunct at a community college for the past three years.

And the thing is, I know, I guess I’ve known for a while, that the standard route is to apply for Visiting Writer positions (the full year stints) after publishing a first book but before applying for full time jobs. A few years of Visiting Writer gigs allows you to fill out your CV a bit while buying yourself time to get a second or maybe even third book out there. But I have a small child to take care of. I can’t move my family from place to place every year—I want my daughter to grow up in a more stable environment. On top of that, I’m in my freakin’ thirties, for cripe’s sake. I’m starting to feel a bit old to be cobbling together part time work and temporary positions.

So this all raises the question, why am I wasting my time in a field where I’ll be struggling paycheck to paycheck for most of my life? Why am I so keen to stay in a field where an entry level position is a part time job at a lousy salary, a field where it will take years of hard work and perseverance to get to a point where I can actually do more than just scrape by? I get enough rejection from the actual publishing side of being a writer. Do I really want to stay in a career where I get rejected from having a decent job too?

The job prospects for the other field I’m interested in—children’s librarianship—aren’t much better. The children’s librarian at our local library only works part time, too, and when I asked her a while ago for advice on entering into the field, she warned me that the pay is low and the jobs, hard to come by.

Great.

What am I doing with my life?

I don’t know. Maybe I’m asking too much. Damien has a good part time job as the Managing Editor of New Ohio Review. He has benefits, and though he doesn’t make much money, between the two of us, we can teach enough classes as adjuncts to bring in the extra we need to pay the bills and feed our child. Maybe I should just be happy with what we’ve got and feel lucky we’ve got the degrees and experience to have jobs at all, no matter how unreliable.

Still, it’s so depressing to think that our daughter is growing up in a family where neither parent has a full time job. Are we setting a bad example for Amalie? Should we give up and go out and get office jobs? I couldn’t tell you. I really don’t know.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Tale of Two Movies

Yes, this week’s post has a title. I couldn’t resist. Even though it’s a bit dorksy.

Anyway, as you can probably tell from the (dorksy) title, I want to talk this week about a couple of movies I watched recently, both based on novels I had read previously. The Hunger Games, as everyone not living in a cave probably knows, is the first in an insanely popular (and startlingly good) trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The film adaptation hit the theaters a few weeks ago. The Ruins by Scott Smith is probably the best horror novel I’ve ever read. The movie version was released in 2008, but I only just got around to watching it (I picked it up used for $3 worth of trade at my local music/movie store, Haffa’s. The price should give you an idea of how popular the movie was.)

Both screenplays were at least partially written by the original book authors. Suzanne Collins is credited with three other screenwriters for The Hunger Games, and Scott Smith is listed as the sole screenwriter of The Ruins. It’s no surprise, then, that both movies remain pretty true to their respective books (although in both, the screenwriters had to change some small details to fit the film format).

Watching movie versions of books I love in such short succession of each other really got me thinking about the differences between novels and movies, and the problems that arise when the former is adapted in to the latter. It’s true of most movies based on novels that if you ask just about anyone who read the book and watched the movie both, they’ll tell you the book was better. This is not snooty or pretentious or a means of bragging about having read the book (though sometimes it comes across that way).

The truth is, this reaction is almost universal because when these novels were written, they were written for the literary format. The characters, plot points, etc. were all structured with the knowledge that the reader would likely spend a few days working his or her way through the story. The pace is much slower. In a movie, you have to somehow tell a complete story, develop your characters, establish tension, and so on, and you have to do it all in a couple of hours. The pace feels ridiculously fast in comparison, so the same sort of scope you can work with in a novel simply will not work for a movie, in my opinion. You have to zoom in, narrow your focus. It’s a lot more like a short story.

Case in point, look at The Hunger Games (SPOILER ALERT!): Because the movie stays so faithful to the book, a lot of ground is covered in a very short period of time. In some cases, a feeling of knowing and really caring about the characters is sacrificed. In the book, Katniss and Rue are together for several pages. We spend enough time with Rue to really feel that we know her, and her death is so, so painful as a result. In the movie, Katniss meets Rue, really meets her for the first time, then in the next scene they separate. When they reunite, Rue dies. They spend I would guess not much more than five minutes of screen time together because almost immediately after they meet, Rue dies. There’s no time there to build any kind of a connection with Rue. The movie relies on viewers either A) having read the book, so they already know and love Rue, or B) caring about Rue’s death solely because Rue is young and adorable.

In the book of The Ruins, the majority of the book is really about these kids going stir-crazy, trapped together atop the mound. That doesn’t mean the vine isn’t a genuine threat or that it isn’t scary, but what’s really scary is watching the mental states of these kids get slowly more and more unstable, until it becomes clear that the real danger is the one they’re posing to themselves. The movie stays close enough to the book to maintain some of that, but it’s impossible to really recreate the psychological twists and turns the book takes when we’re not able to climb inside the characters’ heads.

Both movies were good movies, don’t get me wrong. The Ruins in particular really caught me by surprise, I suppose because I went into it with fairly low expectations (although I should point out that the ending to the movie version of The Ruins is lame—I’m not sure why Smith changed it—and as freaky as the vine is in the book, you just can’t make a plant scary in a movie. At times, in fact, it looks sort of silly). But yes, if you asked me, I’d tell you the books were better. Waaaaaay better.

As much as I’m a movie lover and an advocate for the value of short fiction, I do love to get lost in a novel. I love the scope of novels; I love to spend days getting to know the characters, so I can really, really care about the things that happen to them. From a technical perspective, I still think short stories make better use of the craft elements taught in MFA programs. But from an emotional perspective, the longer form is better suited to make the reader really engage with the characters and their plights. There’s something that absolutely cannot be replaced about spending a few days slowly consuming—and in the best cases, being consumed by—a really good novel.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Well, my March interview series is complete—I hope you enjoyed it. Now that I’m back to blogging like normal, it’s time to talk about AWP. Now AWP, of course, was a month ago—everybody else has finished with the subject by now. But I do have a few things I want to say about my experience this year, which was wholly different from my experience last year. Also, I went to a couple of interesting panels, each which I’ll probably dedicate an entire post to soon (though I’ll break it up, I think, so as not to inundate you with AWP topics all month). For now, though, I want to give a sort of general overview of what it was like attending AWP with a six-month-old baby in tow.

I went to the conference knowing that, because I was there of my own volition (unlike Damien, who was there for work), I would be responsible for tending to Amalie most of the week. That meant, I was aware, that I might not be able to go to many panels or spend much time at the bookfair, but I was hoping, worst case scenario, that Ama and I could spend some time kicking around Chicago, and if nothing else, Damien was going to be able to watch Amalie during my off-site reading on Friday night and my book signing on Saturday.

Well, I was right about the panels. I tried to go to one with Amalie on my lap, but she started getting restless before it even started, so we went back up to the hotel room to play. Kicking around Chicago, it turned out, was unrealistic; it was freezing cold most of the week, and I didn’t want to take Amalie outside any more than was absolutely necessary. The bookfair, though, was an unqualified success. Amalie loved the buzz of activity, the many things and people there were to see, and she LOVED all the attention everyone paid her. People love to see a cute, little baby in an unexpected place, and Amalie, at six months, is already a sucker for anyone who tells her she’s pretty.

She even liked being carried around the bookfair during naptime. The truth is, she prefers to sleep in mama or daddy’s arms, so the bookfair was kind of a dream come true for both of us. She could doze off while being carried around, and I could peruse the tables and booths, and feel like I was making the most of my AWP experience. We even scored a free picture book—on the last day, the day the presses were all trying to unload whatever they hadn’t sold yet, a man at the Biblioasis table stopped me and gave me a free book for Amalie, saying they didn’t want to take it back with them, anyway, and they’d rather it go to someone with a child. I thanked him and bought another Biblioasis picture book as well. (Both books look excellent—FABULOUS illustrations. I can’t wait ‘til Amalie’s old enough for me to read them to her.)

My reading and book signing both went well (I signed up to do my book signing for the last day,  the day they were going to discount copies of the book, and I think it made a difference. People are far more willing to take a chance on an unknown author if the book only costs $5), and like I said before, I even managed to attend two panels (Damien watched Amalie for me). In addition, I got to spend time with my UAF friend Jenni Moody, who, it turns out, is GREAT with babies. By far the best part of AWP, just like last year, was getting to hang out with writer friends I don’t otherwise get to see very often.