"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, July 29, 2012

I’ve had two mostly unrelated epiphanies about submissions recently that I want to share with you. These seem pretty obvious when I say them out loud (or type them out, anyway) but maybe you’re like me and need them to be fairly explicit before they can really take root.

Epiphany #1: If you know the editor(s) of a journal like your writing, you should submit to that journal. Duh!

Until a few months ago, I had never submitted to a journal in which I had previously been published. This refusal to try the same venue twice was based on my desire to have an ever larger number of journals in which my work has appeared. Doesn’t it look better for me, I wondered, to say I’ve been published in more journals rather than having multiple pieces appear in the same journals?

I think this attitude was a holdover from back when I had only published one or two stories. At the time, I wanted to be able to say, in the bio section of my cover letter, “My work has appeared in X, Y, and Z, among others.” It’s that “among others,” see, that was getting me into trouble. I’m still very much an early career writer, but I now have a fair amount of publication credits to my name. This aspiration to always be adding to the number of places my work has appeared no longer matters.

But even if it did, that old idea was pretty counterproductive. When a journal publishes something you’ve written, that’s a pretty good sign those editors like your style. Why, then, would you cross that journal off your list of places to submit? That’s like saying “Oh, I can’t submit there. The chances are too good I’ll get accepted.” Not the soundest of logic.

After years of holding myself to this foolish imperative, a few months ago I finally decided to submit to a journal, the Bound Off podcast, in which I had been previously published. I love this podcast and loved how they had handled the story of mine they had already published, so I decided to go for it, and you know what? The new story was accepted (it should come out sometime this fall).

Epiphany #2: If you don’t like a journal, the journal is probably not going to like you.

Has this ever happened to you: Johnny is looking for places to submit and reading through the sample material posted to a journal’s website. Ug, he thinks, this stuff is terrible! My story is way better than the stuff these guys are publishing. I’ll surely get in! And then he giddily prepares his submission to the journal, preemptively patting himself on the back for his next soon-to-be publication.

Can anybody tell us where Johnny went wrong?

If you don’t like the stuff a journal is putting out, your aesthetic and that particular journal’s aesthetic just don’t line up. Literature is subjective, and if the editor(s) of a journal choose to publish a bunch of stuff that you think is crap, they’re probably going to think what you’re doing is crap. And even if they don’t—would you really want to be published in that journal anyway?

Okay, so maybe the term “epiphany” is a bit strong, but these are genuinely things I only recently started to think about in a conscious way, and I’ve been changing the way I submit as a result. And I’ve already earned myself one publication because of the change.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

I feel like I post a lot complaining about the woes of academia, especially teaching adjunct. This, I promise, will not be one of those times.

For the past three years or so—pretty much ever since I graduated with my MFA and realized that the best job I could hope to get with the degree was part-time, adjunct work that offers no benefits or stability—I’ve been seriously considering switching careers and becoming a librarian. In fact, as recently as this past April, I was talking to some of the professors at the Columbus campus of the Kent State MLIS program and making plans to start in the program with a GA this coming fall.

But. I backed out. Because Columbus is an hour and a half drive from Athens, where I live. Because the GA position would require me to be on campus four days a week. Because it paid even less than teaching adjunct does, and I can’t afford to put Ami into daycare (nor do I really want to, to be honest) as it is.

At least, those are the reasons I told myself at the time. The real reason I changed my mind and instead signed up to teach classes in the fall at the community college where I work is that, somewhere deep down inside me, I’d rather teach.

There are a lot of things that are frustrating about carving out a career for yourself as a college instructor. Teaching adjunct pays abominably and you never know, from semester to semester, how many classes you’ll be offered (or whether the classes you did get will get cancelled due to under-enrollment just before the semester begins). Landing a full-time professor job feels impossible at times. I used to think I just needed to publish a book, but the truth is, even with a book published, I’m still not even getting contacted for interviews, let alone being offered any positions. And even if I did land a full-time job, there are frustrating things about that too. Professors are expected to publish regularly—you know, the “publish or die” mentality we always hear about—and to be honest, trying to get published and dealing with rejection is hard enough without my career hanging in the balance. Plus, I always hear professors objecting to the amount of time they have during the school year to actually write, between classes and committee work and editorial duties for their school’s journal and reading student theses and, and, and . . .

But the truth is, for a writer, teaching is about the best gig I can imagine. Even now, as I teach adjunct, I feel really lucky when I consider the alternative possibilities. Teaching creative writing, for one thing, holds you accountable to be writing yourself—otherwise, you feel like a fraud (Amy Hempl pointed this out when she was here for this year’s Lit Fest. She is so right!). It also makes you feel really inspired. Teaching comp and other English courses also has its benefits. Believe it or not, you learn a lot from your students and from trying to teach them the things you know but sometimes forget to apply to your own work.

Aside from the benefits of teaching itself, being a teacher does afford you a lot of time to write and, in my case, time to be home with your child and be there with her as she grows up. I taught online for the first nine months of Ami’s life. I can’t think of another career that would have allowed me to work entirely from home while I was raising my baby. Starting this summer, I began commuting back to campus one day a week, which I’ll continue doing through the fall. A job that only requires me to physically come in to work one day a week, well that’s pretty awesome, don’t you think?

Teaching three or so classes at a time leaves me with plenty of time to write. Yeah, I get that if I had a full-time job, I’d have a lot of additional demands beyond simply teaching, but even in that case, you get the summers and most of the winters off. Who can reasonably complain about having three months off every single year (and if you have tenure, an entire year off for sabbatical every seven years)? Full-timers have plenty of time to write. You could easily write a full draft of an entire book every summer, if you wanted to. If I was a librarian, I would have to work year-round, and I would have way less time to write, as a result.

So in spite of all my bitching and my “grass is greener” nonsense, I’m really lucky to be in the field I’m in. Teaching is the perfect profession for a writer, at least for me. I hope, of course, to someday land a full-time job, to buy a home with a yard and a swing set for Amalie, to plant ourselves somewhere and just live there, period, but in the meantime, teaching adjunct isn’t so bad. I’m glad I’m a teacher—I’m going to go ahead and say it. And here it is, in writing, so the next time I start getting all wishy washy about what I want to do with my life, someone can point me to this blog post right here and remind me how lucky I truly am.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Michael Cunningham, one of the three fiction judges for the Pulitzer Prize this year, wrote a fascinating and insightful two-part article for The New Yorker discussing the judges’ experience selecting three books to send to the Pulitzer committee and responding to the committee’s decision not to award a fiction prize this year. If you haven’t already, read this article. It’s much more interesting and worthwhile than anything I have to say here in my blog. But, if you’ve already read it, I do have some thoughts about why, perhaps, the committee didn’t award the prize this year.

In the article, Cunningham describes the three books the fiction judges selected to send to the committee: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, and Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia! Though Cunningham argued that each of these books contained its own sort of brilliance, in his discussion of them, he did seem to be anticipating the possible objections the committee may have had to each book.

The Pale King was unfinished when David Foster Wallace died. Wallace’s editor Michael Pietsch deserves much of the credit for how the book turned out. This fact alone was perhaps problematic to the Pulitzer committee. Should they award the prize to The Pale King, who would really have earned the prize, Wallace or Pietsch? Furthermore, I can understand the committee’s possible hesitance in general at awarding the prize to a novel that was unfinished at the time of the author’s death.

Train Dreams poses its own set of problems. Technically, though sold separately as its own book, it’s not a novel or short story collection but a single novella. Johnson originally published Train Dreams in The Paris Review in 2002. Okay, the fact that it was originally published in a journal ten years ago shouldn’t bar it from serious consideration for the Pulitzer; after all, short story collections are usually filled with stories that were previously published in journals. However, the fact that it’s a novella might have given the committee members pause. The Pulitzer is supposed to go to a complete book. I could see it being argued that Train Dreams shouldn’t count.

The other book the judges selected, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, is the least obviously problematic. Karen Russell completed the book herself and is still alive and thriving, working on her next book (a short story collection, which is scheduled to come out next year), and the book is 400+ pages long. Yet reading Cunningham’s defense of the book kind of made me wonder. Cunningham himself acknowledged that the book has problems, but he felt it was impressive . . . for a debut novel. Should a book that wins the Pulitzer need to be qualified in that way?

I did some sleuthing myself (actually because I was trying to decide whether to read Swamplandia!) and found that, though the book is critically acclaimed, MANY readers feel that it’s little more than a showcase for Russell’s elegant prose. On the sentence level, Amazon review after Amazon review notes, Swamplandia! is breathtaking, but the story falls flat in many, many ways. Most everybody seems to agree that Russell is at the beginning of a bright and exciting career, but this particular book—beautiful though the writing is—is good for a debut novel. (NOTE: I did end up deciding to read Swamplandia! and am in the middle of it right now. I’ll reserve my opinion until the end, but perhaps I’ll post about it once I’ve finished and made up my mind about it.)

Who knows the reasons the committee decided not to award a fiction prize this year? All we can do is speculate. However, based on the three books the fiction judges selected as finalists, I think I can at least understand how this might have happened. Still, like Cunningham argues in his article, not awarding a prize is “shortsighted” and “offensive.” Fiction is selective, Cunningham points out, and had there been three different judges this year, they may have selected three different books as finalists. Had that happened, Cunningham further acknowledges, the committee may have selected one as a winner. But ultimately, the committee could have contacted the fiction judges and asked for additional choices. They didn’t have to not award the prize at all.

But since there’s no undoing what’s been done, we can, instead, take this as a valuable reminder of how little (let’s be honest) these kinds of awards really mean. The three fiction judges feel any of the three books they selected as finalists would have deserved the prize. The committee disagreed. And as it is, the finalists only read 300 of the who knows how many books that were actually published last year. Three different judges may have felt one of the other 300 deserved the prize, while you or I may feel one of the countless books that weren’t even being considered deserved it. For a book to win the Pulitzer, it certainly has to have merit, but to say that any book is the best book of the year is sort of ridiculous. You can’t objectively judge something as subjective as literature.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

I recently borrowed one of Steve Almond’s self-published books, This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey, from a friend. Having read Almond’s two-part article on his experiences self-publishing in Poets & Writers a couple of years ago, I was very interested to actually read one of Almond’s self-published books (I haven’t, it should be noted, actually read any of his non-self-published books. This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey was my first journey into Almond’s work, though I assure you it won’t be my last).

Divided into two parts, “Stories” and “Essays,” This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey is essentially a manual for fiction writers that includes a series of flash fiction examples to illustrate the points he discusses under the “Essays” section.

While some of his points are overstatements, in my opinion (most notably, that “metaphors almost always suck,” which Almond himself seems to disagree with as not only does he admit to admiring the work of writers who use metaphors, but he himself uses plenty of metaphors in his own writing), overall, I agreed with and enjoyed reading Almond’s guidelines for good fiction writing. Perhaps because each “essay”—though they’re really not stand-alone essays but more like a series of brief chapters, each which builds on the chapters that came before—is so short, I flew right through the writing guide.

There are a few repeating points that Almond makes throughout the book, one of the most important of which is that you should “never confuse the reader.” Almond complains about writers who withhold information, who begin the story with dialogue without saying who is speaking, who use a lot of pronouns right off the bat, who jump around needlessly in time. Again, here I think he overstates some of his points, but in general he’s right—good fiction shouldn’t be confusing. I’m not of the mindset that non-linear chronology or pronouns are inherently confusing, but I see his point: sometimes they are, and they almost always are when handled by novice writers (the same is true of the metaphor issue, for that matter).

Almond offers some valuable insights into how to write well, and what I particularly appreciated about the book was his blatant disregard for what is often taught in advanced workshops. Almond seems to favor simplicity and plot over beautiful sentences and interesting ideas (in fact, Almond says, “I don’t want your stinkin’ ideas,” and points out that while good fiction does explore interesting ideas, “these ideas arise from—and are vitalized by—the emotional lives of the characters.”).

But my favorite point that Almond makes appears in his “essay” titled “As Close as We Get to Song,” in which Almond describes those writers—we all know at least one—who claim that writing is a heavenly experience, one that just carries them away in feelings of happiness and easy productivity. Good for them, but “for the rest of us, writing is basically flagellation, an undertaking that promises ecstatic release but mostly feels like torture.” Sure, sometimes I feel the other way, the heavenly, carried away on a cloud way. But often I feel the torture way, and it’s always reassuring to hear successful, published authors who feel the same.

I really enjoyed the book and think I’ll get a copy for myself, so I can refer back to it from time to time. But as much as I liked the book as a whole, I do have to say that it could have benefitted from a professional editor. As is often the case with self-published books, there were far more errors and typos than I would expect to find in a book published through a traditional publishing house (the most shocking was when Almond referred to “whip cream,” meaning “whipped cream.” No offense to Almond, but that’s the kind of mistake my freshman comp students make).

Sunday, July 1, 2012

So June is officially over now, and it’s time to hold myself accountable for the goal I set for the month: to write, for at least a little bit, every single day. Did I meet this goal? The answer: I did not. Ouch. But I only fell short by one single day, and the day I didn’t write was the day—last Thursday—that I had a wild (and scary) allergic reaction to some medication I was taking and was basically incapacitated for the better part of the day. Amalie had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and by the time she got up from her first nap, I was already beginning to feel lousy.

I spent most of the afternoon in bed, and I did seriously consider turning my computer on and writing, goddammit, just so I wouldn’t end up missing a day—but I was really, really sick, like trying to decide whether I should ask Damien to take me to Urgent Care sick. Ultimately, I decided to say never mind to the goal. I just couldn’t bring myself to risk making myself feel worse just so I could get that little tick in that day’s box on my goal log sheet.

But something kind of interesting happened: late into the night, after, I think, my fever had started to break and I was beginning to believe I might make it through alive after all, I found myself lying in my bed, staring up at the ceiling and composing a very short story in my head. I didn’t get up to write it down, didn’t trust that I was better enough to risk it, so the exact sentences elude me now, but I remember the story had to do with the annual Paw-Paw Festival they hold here every year and a couple of people who hadn’t seen each other in a long time attending the festival together. It was a very subdued sort of story, and I was very happy with it—you know, as a draft. Of course, it’s gone now, but that’s not important.

What’s important is that I was able to get myself into such a habit of writing every day that even when I was sick, even when I made the conscious decision not to get up and write, my mind kicked itself into writing mode anyway. There’s also a strange sort of pleasure in having composed a story in my head, then having lost it. I feel like that story was just for me. My mind was giving it to me to keep me entertained as I lay there, awake and restless, and for that, I thank it.