Monday, May 22, 2017

Etiquette for MFA Grads

This is a rerun from last year, but since we're back at graduation season, I think it's worth another run:

Okay, I’m not really the official Miss Manners of the writing world. But for graduation season, I’d like to offer a few thoughts directed to new MFA grads who will now be navigating the mysterious world of Writing Biz on their own.

First, do not expect your teachers to keep in touch with you. They may adore you and your work, but their own writing (and life) is always going to be their priority. This does not mean that they aren’t interested in what you’re doing…just that, for the most part, you will need to be the one to keep in touch. (The teacher-student relationship is, of course, also structured around a certain power dynamic and it is plain wrong for a teacher to pursue a student after graduation [unless that student wins a Pulitzer, haha].) So think about which teachers were especially meaningful to you and your writing life, and think about how to stay connected with them.

Social media is a nice way to keep a casual relationship going with your professors, but if they (or you) don’t use social media, an occasional email/text is, it seems to me, welcomed by most professors. A few dos and don’ts on that occasional email/text:

DO reread what I said and take to heart that word: occasional. Don’t overdo it.

DO follow what your beloved professor is up to and acknowledge his/her publishing successes.

DON’T (ever) attach work you’d like to be critiqued (unless invited, which I'm pretty sure won't happen).

DON’T write only when you want/need something.

DON’T take it personally if your professor is too busy to respond to you immediately, or perhaps ever.

DON’T write only when you want/need something. (Oh, did I say this already? Hmmm…must be important.)

DO ask for letters of recommendation/blurbs if you need them and you have maintained a good relationship with your teacher…but DON’T imagine you can make this request for the rest of all eternity. DO understand that your beloved professor will be beloved by many students who will come along after you. DO imagine that perhaps you’ve got a couple of shots at this sort of favor. DON’T (ever) ask for any letters that are due in less than two weeks.

DO understand that favors go both ways. You are now an MFA graduate, a member of the writing community, and that means you are allowed (encouraged!) to use whatever power you may have to help the people who helped you…can you invite your teacher to read at your reading series? Is your journal looking for a contest judge whom you will pay? Did you write a glowing review of your teacher’s book on Amazon? Can you interview your teacher for a writing blog? DO send an email offering something to your teacher!

DO follow up with your professor with a thank you after he/she has helped you in some way, whether it’s a letter written or advice offered or a question answered or whatever. At this point, your professor is not required to help you and is doing so only from the goodness of his/her heart. Saying thank you is FREE!

DON’T forget that your professor is first and foremost a writer whose job was to teach you. Note the distinction. Once you have graduated from the program, your professor takes no responsibility for you (unless you win a Pulitzer). Sad but true: your professor may not want to stay in touch with you. This might feel like a rejection. But please be gracious. A good teacher will have given you the tools to you need to forge ahead on your own and find your place in the community.

***

I’ll also offer a suggestion that revolves around that word “gracious.” Maybe it turned out you didn’t like your program so much. I’m sorry. I really am. (I wish you would have joined us at the Converse low-res MFA!) But now that you’re “free” of all those “%$#$-ing” teachers who think they’re such “hot $#@$” it might be tempting to let loose on them, either in your writing or on social media or in scathing, tell-all articles.

Don’t.

I’m only offering my own views here, but it’s been my experience that our lovely writing community is a small-small-small-small world, not only in size (I promise I could play six degrees of separation with about any MFA grad and get to a mutual acquaintance) but it is also small in terms of pettiness, which means that people WILL remember that you were the one who trashed the program or your teacher on The Rumpus or in The New Yorker or wherever. (Also, no one will be fooled by your pseudonyms and the tricks you use to disguise people/places…remember what I said about six degrees of separation?)

And think about it: why would you trash the crazy-imperfect-infuriating-inspiring program you graduated from? Now that you’re out, you should feel invested in the success of the program: you want your fellow grads to win awards and bring prestige to your school because that will help you and your degree. When your book is published, you should want to return in triumph to your program, invited back for a reading or a class visit. You should want your name proudly listed on the website as a “famous alum.” The fact is, you are connected in some way to your MFA program for the rest of your writing life.

Bitch and gossip privately, to your friends or at the AWP bar or Treman after you scope the scene to ensure your teachers are out of spitting distance. But always think twice and then twice again before going public about all the crap you endured while at your MFA program. (Unless we’re talking about something illegal or an abuse of power.)

In short, don’t burn bridges…until you win your Pulitzer.

***

EDITED to add these suggestions thanks to some helpful people on Facebook:

DON'T write your former professors to ask questions you can google, and definitely DON'T ask vast questions that cannot be easily and quickly answered (i.e. "how does self-publishing work and should I do it?").

DO offer this advice to your buddies who are still in the program...I'm guessing that this information will be even momre helpful earlier in the program, so you can plan your exit strategy.

***

You may not want to keep in touch with all or any of your former professors, and that’s fine. While many segments of the writing world run on blurbs and letters of recommendation and such, your former teachers are not (and should not be) the only source for acquiring those documents. You will move forth and build your own network of support, and memories of that horrible MFA workshop will fade in time, and maybe soon you will be the teacher opening emails from former students. But one last tip:

DO thank your teachers in the acknowledgements of your first book, and DO spell their names correctly. And if you’re one of my former students, DON’T send me a free copy: I will happily and proudly buy it!


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

New Essay on "Widow Confidential"

I’m very pleased to have a personal essay posted on a new site, Widow Confidential, designed to help widows navigate the journey of grieving after losing their spouse. My piece is about figuring out where to bury my husband after he died young and unexpectedly. (Which reminds me: do your loved ones know your after-life wishes…and are they written down?)

Here’s the opening:

My first husband died of a heart attack when he was 37. With an unexpected death, often no plans are in place: no will, no list of songs for the funeral, no cemetery plots pre-purchased. Making arrangements is not scrambling for paperwork tucked in the back of the drawer with the bank statements. There are loose ends and hard decisions to resolve during this time of emotional crisis.          All I had to go on was remembered casual conversation about after-death options we’d had during ten years of marriage….




(People sometimes ask me if I left things out of THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST. I didn't necessarily leave this out--but I decided I couldn't write about this incident fictionally, so I guess that's a different form of "leaving out.")

Monday, April 24, 2017

Learning His Way In: Jim Minick on his new novel, FIRE IS YOUR WATER


Interview by John Newlin


Fire is Your Water, Jim Minick’s first novel, is a compelling story of love, faith, forgiveness, and compassion, related from several points of view.  Set in the farmland of central Pennsylvania near the end of the Korean War, the author explores, among many things, family, man and nature, the Biblical gift of healing, and what it means to love unconditionally.

Jim Minick is the author of five books, including The Blueberry Years, winner of the best Nonfiction Book of the Year from the Southern Independent Booksellers Association.  He teaches at Augusta University and in the low-residency MFA program at Converse College.

Questions:

JN: Jim, this novel reflects many aspects of your childhood.  Was it always going to be a novel, or did you originally envision it as a memoir of your childhood?

JM: It started out as nonfiction. In 1983, I was burned in an explosion similar to the one that happens later in Fire Is Your Water. I wrote a creative nonfiction piece about that, published in Now and Then Magazine (Summer 2002) titled “Flash Burn.” Though I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to make a larger book about that time and place, when I worked pumping gas on the PA Turnpike. And I also had these other family stories about this place and another fire, stories from before I was born, and so it took me at least four or five years of wandering in the wilderness of words to figure out that, hey, fiction would allow me to combine these stories IF I could figure out how.

Part of that “how” was connecting these stories by collapsing four generations of people into two generations, and thirty years of stories condensed to three months. The larger part of the “how,” though, was figuring out the connecting thread, which eventually I found to be what happens to a faith healer when she loses her faith and her ability to heal. That became the driving question.

JN: Have you ever met or known a person who possessed the gift of healing?

JM: Ada Franklin, the main character in Fire Is Your Water, is based on my great-grandmother, Ida Franklin Minick, who was a powwow doctor in the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. She could remove warts, stop blood, and take out fire, like Ada in the novel. And she did enter a burning barn with her daughter-in-law, who was severely burned in the process. And after, Ida was not the one who healed my grandmother’s hands—another relative did. So that got me thinking about why and what happens if faith is lost. I’m pretty sure that did not happen with Ida, but it opened a door for me.

Some other family stories about Ida—like of healing a bleeding cow by saying the chant through the phone—I was able to use in the novel as well. Ida died when I was four. My first memory is of sitting on her lap. So, to answer your question, I wish I had known her better, and in a way, this novel helped me imagine a little of her life.

JN: You spent fifteen years working on this novel.  Did you at any time “give up” on the project?  If so, what do you see as having impelled you to finish it?

JM: “Set aside” is a better phrase than “give up.” Attention got pulled to other projects, so in that fifteen years, I wrote my other four books, plus taught full-time. At some deeper level, I think I knew I wasn’t ready yet to write this book, so I had to learn my way in, through other genres first, and then through extensive reading and studying of novels I admired, like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men.

JN: I love the way you weave the character of Cicero, the raven, into this love story.  It adds a wonderful dimension to the novel.  When you first conceived the idea for the book, was this perspective something you had in mind, or did that idea come along later on?  Oh, and can ravens be taught to talk???

JM: Cicero and the idea of a talking bird came much later, maybe two-thirds of the way into writing this. I was taking a fiction writing workshop with Darnell Arnoult (an excellent teacher and writer), and I knew the other main character, Will, loved birds, so I kept playing with that idea, trying to figure out how to develop that passion of his. Then I remembered reading an essay, also in Now and Then, about a person growing up with a talking crow as a pet, and that, along with Darnell’s encouragement to just experiment, let me walk through that door of magic realism to find Cicero there waiting to chew my ear off, literally.

And yes, many birds, especially “smarter” species like ravens and crows, can learn words. I collected several funny stories from fellow birders about such. One ornithology professor told of a raven a friend of his tamed in grad school. The bird loved to say, “Nevermore,” AND he loved to drink. When he got too tipsy, he’d just repeat, “Never, never, never….”

When Cicero heard this, he wanted to file an animal abuse report until he realized that this happened decades ago.

JN: One of the themes that struck me about the novel was the hint of loneliness, that of Ada and Will, two characters whose lives appear for much of the novel to be heading away from lifetime relationships.  It’s a topic that you addressed at length in The Blueberry Years.  As writer, farmer, and homesteader, your life clearly involved working in isolation for great periods.  How do you deal with that aspect of your life? 

JM: The older I get, the more curmudgeonly I get. And in this society of hyper-social-media-over-connectedness, it’s not easy to find real, meaningful friendships. But it’s necessary to remember the difference between loneliness and solitude.

Writing itself is a solitary endeavor, and so, it’s important to enjoy and embrace that solitude, and to understand how it differs from loneliness. Almost always, I’m lonelier in crowds or cities than in the woods. Thankfully, I’m married to my best friend and I’ve found some great community through writing and teaching. And doubly thankfully we have access to the great antidotes to loneliness in just getting out in the company of trees and birds. I cannot imagine a world without trees and birds (and bass and beavers and bats and beetles). That might be the ultimate and saddest form of loneliness.

JN: Having written your first novel, do you see yourself as gravitating to writing more fiction?

JM: My current project is nonfiction. After that, yes, I have at least two ideas I want to pursue/have started, both fiction.

JN: I know you’ve been researching how a community was ravaged by a tornado in the 1950s.  Have you ever considered using that research as the basis of another novel instead of a nonfiction account of that devastating event?  Or maybe both?

JM: Yes, early on, I considered making this current project about a devastating tornado into a novel—it’d be a whole lot easier, that’s for sure. But I’ve collected many hours of conversations/interviews with survivors of this tornado, and the more I listened and worked with their stories, the more I realize that the best way to honor them and their stories is through nonfiction. That genre, for me, at least, somehow best captures their story.

JN: Any final lessons or surprises from writing Fire Is Your Water?

JM: Faith comes in many shapes. Doubt too. Respect—even embrace—that. And listen to the birds.

Or as Eubie Blake said: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind - listen to the birds. And don't hate nobody.”

*****

More information about Jim Minick: http://www.jim-minick.com/wpdev/

Listen to Jim read a chapter of Fire Is Your Water: http://www.jim-minick.com/wpdev/writing/fire-is-your-water/


Buy the book through IndieBound: http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780804011846

*****

ABOUT JOHN NEWLIN

John Newlin’s work has been published in Short Story America, Independent School Magazine, South85 Journal, and Night Owl Journal.  He is the Review Editor for South85.




Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Richard Peabody on the Writing Life; or, Where's the Money?

On the Writing Life
By Richard Peabody

(Note: I read this on Richard’s Facebook page the other day and just had to share it with a larger audience.)

Saw all of these threads today about “I gotta get paid” for my writing, when I get published. Naïve egotistic daydreams about the writer’s life. Like that old commercial 15 years ago where an unseen narrator for an insurance company asked—what can you depend on? And a woman writer says, “My royalties.” 

There are no royalties for 80% of the people writing books. (Journalism is a different animal.) But the writing world has been just as impacted by the Net as the music world.  Nobody wants to do this forever for free.

That is when I usually speak up and say things like—they’re still paying writers the same amount of money they did when F. Scott was writing in the 1920s. Most people I know who do sell books to the corporate NY bigs get somewhere between 2 to 10 thou for an advance. The newbies don’t seem to realize that an advance is actually an advance on sales. You don’t have to pay them back if you don’t make the $ back. But the bigs do tend to lose interest in you as a possible meal ticket. 

So how do you make money in the arts? What is success in the arts? Two questions I’ve seen a lot in the Trump era. 

First of all there’s no $ in the arts. And there’s no $ in poetry fer sure. That’s why most poets and writers teach for a living. 

Could you make more $ self-publishing? Maybe. A lot of writers I know have started selling individual stories online at a couple bucks a crack. And they make a bit of $ that way. There are the what—1% of stories where somebody breaks huge like the Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray authors, whose fanfiction was free on the internet in the early days. 

So, should AWP have panels on how to actually handle $ as a writer? How to develop a business sense? Yeah. 

There are some big lit mags that pay for work. There are some indie publishers who do. This is when I mention that I’ve been publishing people for 40 years and lose about $5 thou per project. I can’t pay people.  I can’t even produce the magazine without other starving artists willing to do web work, desktop work, or editing work, for “Art Rates.” Because we are a tribe and take care of each other in ways that we can so the project materializes. 

When people tell me they’re starting a lit mag I always tell them not to. If they’re word addicts (like most of us) then they can’t not do it. But when they say, I have to make money on it. That’s when I turn off. Cuz nobody does. Cuz that’s such a rare thing I can count the number of litmags or indie presses who make money (sans grants or university support) on two hands. Which is why most mags or presses have the lifespan of Mayflies.

Even friends ask why I bother if all I do is lose money? 

Because keeping this going for 40 years has been something I know how to do. Because it’s satisfying to throw a lifeline to struggling writers, forgotten writers, to shoot the bird to the powers that be even in the lit world or the academic world.

You want to make it? Well, drop into B&N (who are also near death) and see what’s on the fiction shelves. Nothing by people I consider the masters of 21st Century Fiction. No Kathy Acker, No Lance Olsen, No Harry Mathews, No Jeanette Winterson, either. 

So, you could write NF, or YA and make $. Maybe. But I think the genre writers in mystery and SciFi and Romance have the right idea—whip out a book a year. Don’t screw around trying to write the Great American Novel. You have to have product in the pipeline. It’s like Lucy and Ethel with the conveyor belt. That’s how it works. If one of them hits, they reprint the past. If you last long enough, you’re back in print. The corporations just need product to make into movies.

Beyond that? Why continue? A question I ask myself every day as both writer and publisher.

Because it’s all I know how to do. Because it’s not about publication, or $, or reviews. It’s about making/doing. And if you don’t see that. If you’re like the rare bad eggs I’ve encountered in some of my classes during 25 years of teaching fiction, who just want to be Stephen King by tomorrow, then bag it now before you break your heart.

It’s like being a tuba player. Every year the graduate music programs graduate what--another 100 tuba players? And they enter a job market where fewer and fewer orchestras can make it. A limited niche. Do orchestras even have more than one tuba player?

“Show me the money.” Yeah. Good luck with that. 

I heard recently that the boyfriend of somebody I published said I’d ripped off her story and was keeping all of the money. How naïve can you be?Might have been her first or second ever publication and she was in great company. The book sold okay. 

Did I break even? Not even close.

Well, then you must be nonprofit?

Nope. Well, yes of course, but not officially. We’re supposedly for profit.

But then you can’t get grants?

Correct.

Well, at least you get to write losses off on your taxes.

Err, for the first 3 years and then after that the IRS considers your press a hobby. Nothing to be taken seriously.

Well, you could go public?

Sure, and get kicked off your governing board, which also happens all of the time in the art, movie, music, and literary world. 

Which brings me to Allen Ginsberg who didn’t make any $ until the end of his life. That’s how it happens. Same for Paul Bowles. You last long enough and they notice. Slip you some change. Kind of like being the George Blanda of literature. And then off into the sunset.

So what is literary success? Some think it’s about Tenure, editorial positions, the blockbuster movie deal, hanging with who knows? 

I think it’s about heart and soul. I think it’s tribal. I think it’s keeping poets and writers afloat. Giving them hope. Something rare these days. I believe that good writing has horizontal success and lasts through the years. People who make $ tend to achieve vertical success. I mean does anybody bother reading Jaws any longer? 

Maybe people should ask different questions? Like why do some lit mags take 2 years to make a decision on your work? 

Or maybe Rimbaud was right. Maybe we should all just run guns.

______
ABOUT RICHARD PEABODY


Richard Peabody is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor (or co-editor) of 23 anthologies including A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation. Peabody taught at Johns Hopkins University for 15 years. His new book is The Richard Peabody Reader (Alan Squire Publishers, 2015).

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Flash Fiction!

I’m going to be the guest editor at SmokeLong Quarterly next week (4/10 ~ 4/16), which means that I’ll be reviewing all the flash fiction that’s submitted during the week and selecting my favorite for publication and an author interview.

The online journal SmokeLong Quarterly (http://www.smokelong.com/) is one of the premiere publications for flash, which they define as up to 1000 words. Because I’ll be reading blind, even if you know me, you’re free to submit your work. (Or you can submit your work any old time, of course…it doesn’t have to be for ME! Plus, the editors review all the work, so it’s possible your story may not catch my eye, but that it’s exactly what someone else is intrigued by.) 

And, I always like to promote a journal that allows FEE-FREE submissions.

Here are some thoughts the editors offer in the submission guidelines, which really end up being a pretty good primer on what makes good flash fiction:

The SLQ aesthetic remains an ever-changing, ever-elusive set of principles, but it most likely has to do with these kinds of things:
  • language that surprises
  • narratives that strive toward something other than a final punch line or twist
  • pieces that add up to something, oftentimes (but not necessarily always) meaning or emotional resonance
  • honest work that feels as if it has far more purpose than a writer wanting to write a story
We have a special place in our hearts, more often than not, for narratives we haven’t seen before. For the more familiar stories—such as relationship break-ups, bar scenarios, terminal illnesses—we tend to need something original and urgent in the writer’s presentation.

Here’s where to go:
~For more information: http://www.smokelong.com/


~To read some of my personal favorites from Smokelong:

 “Txaj: A Prayer” by Jeanne Jones ~ http://www.smokelong.com/txaj-a-prayer/
“Straight Lines” by Ryan Werner ~ http://www.smokelong.com/straight-lines/
“Gram Pouts with Duck Lips” by Allison Pinkerton ~ http://www.smokelong.com/grams-pouts-with-duck-lips/








Friday, March 24, 2017

My Upcoming Classes at Politics & Prose

I'll be offering two different classes this spring/summer at Politics & Prose bookstore...love to see you there!


In the Beginning: Get Your Story Off to a Great Start!

Wednesday, May 24, 1 to 4 p.m.

Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
(202) 364-1919

Most writers know they have to hook their reader starting with the first paragraph they write, but how? What are the elements that make a great beginning to a story or novel or memoir? Setting, dialogue, flashbacks, conflict…all can be effective tools when used properly or can turn readers away. We’ll examine these strategies and others as we explore ways to strengthen our opening pages. Everyone is encouraged, though not required, to bring 16 copies of the first two pages of one of their works in progress, for some hands-on advice. Fiction, memoir, and nonfiction are welcome!

Best American Short Stories 2016, ed. Junot Diaz and Heidi Pitlor
Specifically, these stories:
“Treasure State” by Smith Henderson
“Garments” by Tahmina Anam
“The Suitcase” by Meron Hardero



*****


Right Brain Writing – Time and Eternity

Session 1: Thursday, June 15, 6:30 to 9 p.m.
~OR~
Session 2: Tuesday, June 20, 1 to 3:30 p.m.

Politics & Prose Bookstore
5015 Connecticut Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20008
 (202) 364-1919

Explore your creative side in this session, one of a series of stand-alone classes with prompts designed to get your subconscious flowing. Through guided exercises, we’ll focus on writing about the passage of time as witnessed through our daily lives while also exploring how time relates to us in a larger, more spiritual sense. No writing experience necessary!

This is a great class for beginners and also for those fiction writers and/or memoirists with more experience who might be stuck in their current projects and are looking for a jolt of inspiration. Our goal is to have fun in a supportive, nurturing environment and to go home with several promising pieces to work on further.  Please bring lots of paper and pen/pencil or a fully charged computer. Note: new exercises!

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, ed. by J.D. McClatchy
(Specific poems to be read in class.)

*Please note that this book will be used for all Right Brain Writing classes and that although it is a poetry book, you are not required to write poetry.





Friday, March 17, 2017

Catching Up on Some Good Writing News

Several of my Facebook friends feature "good news Friday," and while that's more of a collaborative effort, I'm going to take over my own blog (which I think I'm allowed to do??) to share three bits of good news in my writing life:


~I don’t think I ever posted the link to my new story in The Hudson Review…because why? Either I’m lazy, which is likely, or I’m still feeling so overwhelmed at seeing my work in this journal, which is iconic and historic and a place I once worked at as a lowly editorial assistant way back when, so to see my own writing in these pages, in this font is, well…overwhelming.

Excerpt from "The Shadow Daughter":

            In college, in the early eighties, money was why I didn’t smoke, drink, or do coke. If I wanted to, I found boys.

            “He’s not good enough for you,” my best and only friend Jess might suggest, her suggestions always commandments. “His face is boring. And that bad breath. Like a dragon. What do you see in him?”

            I spouted clichés about still waters running deep while remembering how the boy drove me to a blues bar on Howard Street, putting down a twenty for as many shots of Wild Turkey as I wanted while the music pulsed my skull. If I thought about that, I wouldn’t think about later, kissing him in his car, when he panted his dragon-breath into my ear and across my eyelids. Or when, with the sun coming up, I trudged to my dorm and its fluorescent-bright, group bathroom, where I jammed two fingers deep into my mouth, crushing hard against the back of my tongue to make myself puke, the way to avoid hangovers, to not feel rotten the morning after.


(I’m also oddly shy to reveal that the story took second place in the fiction contest!)

Note: Part of this story is taken from one of the writing prompts in my prompt group..."a ton of luck."

*******************

~THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST is now available in paperback! This development was not an automatic thing as general readers may assume; rather, both printings of the hardcovers sold out and so the demand was high enough to call for a paperback edition. So, THANK YOU everyone who bought a hardcover…now, feel free to buy paperbacks for your friends!


University of Pittsburgh Press link: https://www.upress.pitt.edu/BookDetails.aspx?bookId=36596

**********************

~Much more about this later, but my novel, REVERSING THE RIVER, set in Chicago on one day in 1899 when years of engineering resulted in reversing the flow of the Chicago River, will be appearing on the Great Jones Street literary app!

Read more about the app here (and download it for free to your phone): https://www.greatjonesstreet.press/

I’ve already got a couple of stories on the app—which bills itself as “the Netflix of short fiction” and boasts “1000 stories in your pocket”—and it’s exciting to be part of the vanguard, as Great Jones Street pushes us into thinking differently about our relationship with story and reading. The future is going to be so much more than drones and driverless cars, folks!


Work-in-Progress

DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.