Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Writing Life: What It Really Takes

I’ve never published this little essay, and the end of the semester vibe in the air has put me in the frame of mind to think about my ancient life and a particular teacher I remember very well. And it’s always a good time to think about how to navigate the writing life, and how talent is perhaps the least of what is needed for a successful journey.  



TOUGH LOVE


            When I grew up, in Iowa, no one made a point of encouraging my dreams the way parents and teachers are expected to now. When I was ten, watching my first summer Olympics, I announced, “Someday I’m going to be in the Olympics.” Parents, mildly amused: “Oh, really? What sport?” Me, knowing the dog paddle was my only stroke, my cartwheel veered unpredictably, and that I always came in third-to-last in gym class races: “The javelin.” Parents: “You can’t throw a ball, and now you want to throw a spear?”
            That ended my short-lived non-career as a javelin thrower. Instead I chose the writing life, with its constant, familiar, onslaught of rejection, wanting—desperately—only one thing: to be a writer, a real, published writer, with books.
            Senior year in college I ended up in a poetry writing class, taught by a poet: Mr. Metaphor.
            Mr. Metaphor was a hot-shot around the English Department because he was young and vibrant and had recently published his first hot-shot book of poetry. My poetry had been tolerable for high school, but now I was at Midwestern U, and here, I could see that my angsty poetry was pretty lousy. No matter, because I was focused on fiction. My plan was to go to grad school for an MFA and then write novels.
            To apply to grad school, I needed letters of recommendation. My fiction professor had agreed to write on my behalf, but I needed another letter. Why not from this hot-shot poet who had taught at one of the schools where I was applying? So one day after we shredded apart someone’s poem in class, I approached Mr. Metaphor to ask if he would write a letter for my MFA applications. The look of horror—think Edvard Munch—was immediate, so I quickly added, “I’m applying in fiction. I’ll bring you my stories to read,” and the relief left him barely able to speak, as he weakly nodded yes.
            On Friday, I handed him a tidy little folder of my best work.
`           On Monday, I spent an anxious hour as we slashed through another student poem, and after class, I went up to him, spouting something chipper, like, “So, did you read my stories?”
            He was tapping a stack of papers against the desk, and without looking at me he said, “I read them.” Tap-tap-tap. “I read them,” he repeated, “and I can’t write you a letter. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be a writer.”
            That long frozen moment. I think I counted a hundred between each beat of my heart, my only thought of escaping before he saw me cry. Not that there was much chance of that, actually. Messy emotions seemed to me then as suspect as self-esteem—something beyond control, something unwanted and frightening, best corralled onto the blank page, if even there.
            So my stupid, polite, good-girl, Iowa upbringing kicked in and I thanked him. Honestly. “Thank you,” I said to Mr. Metaphor. Those exact words, spoken primly, exactly, without irony or anger. My parents would have been proud.
            Then I left the room.
            I don’t remember the rest of that class, except that I got a B+.
            I found someone else to write my final letter of recommendation. I went to graduate school and got my precious MFA. After graduate school, I wrote—I wrote stories and a novel that didn’t get published, and another one after that, that also didn’t get published. Always, in the back of my mind, burning like an untended fire, was this thought: “I’ll show you, Mr. Metaphor. You’ll see.”
            In the meantime, his poems popped up in various literary journals I read. There was another book. But he had left Midwestern U after a couple of years, and someone told me that his departure was related to his not getting tenure (boohoo). He taught somewhere else, then a third school, where he finally seemed to stick.
            My stories started getting published—“Look at this, Mr. Metaphor,” raged my brain—and won some awards—“What do you think now, Mr. Fucking Metaphor?”—and I was writing magazine articles and won an award for one of those, and things looked mildly hopeful for my writing life.
            Then I won a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which is a summer gathering of writers and writer wanna-bes, a tense crucible of literature and liquor. It was a big deal to get this award, which meant I attended the conference for free, got a short reading with the dozen other scholars, and—the real prize—got access to the “party cabin” where the “real” writers hung out after dutifully teaching all day.
            I saw on the brochure that Mr. Metaphor would also be at Bread Loaf, one of the “real writers.” Hmmm, maybe I could…but I reconsidered, tamping that primitive voice in my head with a soothing litany: it’s a small world; what would saying anything accomplish; and anyway, he was in poetry and I was in fiction, so our paths would never cross in the sea of two hundred writers.
            And yet our paths crossed constantly: at every reading, every social event, every cocktail party, every night at the party cabin. He was staring my way, watching me from across the room. Staring, staring, staring…and one night he came up to me and trapped me. Neither of us was even drunk yet.
            “You look so familiar,” he said.
            I slid on my good-girl smile: “Well…actually, you were my teacher once. But it was so long ago, I can’t believe you would remember me”—then added in my head, me and my B+, asshole. I guzzled my gin—sick of sugary tonic at this point of the conference, I now drank straight Tanquery over an ice cube or two. Not recommended.
            He seemed pleased, perhaps happy to see a former student who wasn’t living under a bridge or begging for attention. “What school was that?”
            “Midwestern U.”
            That familiar horror on his face: The Scream Redux. “Oh my God,” and now he guzzled at his drink before he spoke carefully: “Did I ever do anything bad to you?” An emphasis on that single word, “bad.”
            That damn politeness of mine nudged, and I thought, Don’t go into it—my friends who knew the whole story were in the corner waving anxiously, sending telepathic messages for me to shut up—but Mr. Metaphor had ASKED, and I was drinking this straight gin on ice and well, I didn’t live in Iowa anymore, so I said, “Actually, yes. Yes, you did do something bad. I asked for a letter of recommendation for grad school, and you read my stories and told me I wasn’t good enough and that I’d never be a writer.”
            “My God,” he repeated, before racing through his words: “I’m sorry. That was a bad time in my life back then—I was suffering from undiagnosed Graves’ disease, and I had terrible depression. I did awful things to so many students. Once I wrote at the top of someone’s 25-page research paper, ‘fuck you.’”
            “Wow,” I said.
            More guzzling. The party around us felt obscene and strange: laughter, music I didn’t recognize.
            “I’m so sorry,” and he leaned in to hug me with strong, solid arms. “Look at you now: a scholar at Bread Loaf, which means you’re getting your work published in top journals. You’re doing well.”
            I nodded, still shocked. Mostly I was shocked at what I hadn’t realized until right then: I had assumed he was right, that he had known something about me. That his assessment was accurate and true. And yet I had kept writing my stories and books anyway.
            He said, “I’m so happy you didn’t listen to me,” and we hugged again, went our separate ways back to the liquor, to our friends.

            I’m so happy you didn’t listen to me. Yes, me too.

            Now, I’m a writing teacher, and to be honest, there are times where it’s my secret fantasy to write “fuck you” on the top of someone’s woeful story. But I don’t. The problem with tough love is that you don’t know—until the end—who’s tough enough for your form of love and who isn’t.



Tuesday, December 16, 2014

How to Get Your Book Published

Wow...this post from Jane Friedman covers IT ALL, how to publish your book and how the publishing business works, start to finish, with excellent resources and a nuts-and-bolts approach.

If you or someone you know needs the basics, get them right here. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Carolyn Parkhurst's Tips for Twitter

So, in one insomniac burst I abruptly joined both Twitter (@lesliepwriter) and Goodreads…and then realized I didn’t know much of anything about either.  Twitter seems like walking the wrong way onto the autobahn or something, so I emailed my very savvy, very funny writing group for some advice.  I was expecting a couple pointers along the lines of “don’t tweet nude photos,” but instead I got this very sane, helpful list of tips from Carolyn Parkhurst, who agreed to let me share them here on my old-fashioned, oh-so-wordy, very-non-Twitter blog (nearly 3000 characters in here, with spaces, which is like 22 tweets!). 

So, lots of good stuff, even if you’re already a pro. (And if you’re not interested in Twitter, scroll down to the link to Carolyn’s incredible humor piece, published by the New Yorker…it will absolutely make your day!)

Make Twitter Your Bitch (Note: my title, not Carolyn’s! Carolyn is too classy for a title like this!)
By Carolyn Parkhurst

1. An email thank-you is nice, but most Twitter users expect a hand-written note for each favorite and retweet. (Okay, the rest are serious.)

2. Follow lots of people. Look up writers you like, people you know on FB, literary journals, and pop-culture things you like (TV shows, actors, etc).  Check out Twitter's suggestions for people to follow, and when you find someone you like, check out the people they follow. You don't have to do it all at once. Try to follow a few new people every week. 

3.  Follow @TheBookMaven, @colsonwhitehead, @mat_johnson, @rgay, @duchessgoldblatt, @JohnMoe, @RonCharles, @robdelaney, @SarahThyre, @BoobsRadley. I may think of more later. 

4. Spend a little time browsing and getting a feel for the place. Read what other people are tweeting and what responses they get. You'll figure it out. 

5. Engage in conversation: Post replies to other people's tweets, ask questions in your own tweets, compliment people if you've recently read their books, etc. When you mention someone by their username, they'll get a notification and will probably reply. 

6. Tweet a couple of things a day. Links to your blog and Redux and any of your work online, but also short, funny observations. Anything you'd post on FB.  Thoughts about TV shows and cocktails.  Writing tips (real or jokey), grammatical errors you find in public, tabloid headlines you see while shopping.  Cat pics are fine, too. Weekday mornings are the best time to tweet. 

7. Follow all of us. Duh. 

ABOUT: Carolyn Parkhurst is the New York Times best-selling author of three novels, including THE DOGS OF BABEL and THE NOBODIES ALBUM.  Her humor has appeared on "The Rumpus" and on the New Yorker's "Shouts and Murmurs" blog.  She lives in Washington, DC with her husband and two children, and can be found on Twitter as @CParkhurst1.

And you simply must read her New Yorker piece, about Eloise, who as a middle-age woman has moved from the Plaza Hotel to the Crowne Plaza:   http://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/eloise-an-update





Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Best Books of 2014

Here is my annual, highly personal list of the best books I read in 2014, which means that they were not necessarily published in 2014.  Being a free-wheeling kind of gal, I do not present them in any sort of order; nor do I force my choices to fit a numerical conceit (top 10, 5 favorite).  So this is just a list of books I happened to read this year that would immediately leap to my mind if you were to ask, “Read anything good lately?”

Also, while I have many close friends who are superb writers and I love to match-make their excellent books with readers, I have chosen not to include on this list books by friends.

The Lost Weekend by Charles Jackson.  Ai-yi-yi…this is not a cheerful novel!  It’s a bare-naked, honestly brutal account of an alcoholic descending through the depths and then some.  The author suffered from alcoholism, and this was one of the first books to share the realities of this disease—though, when written, people considered alcoholism more of a failing than a disease. On the writing side, Jackson worked miracles with the interiority of the story.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson.  Late to the party here! This collection of linked stories is cited by about a zillion other writers as having been deeply influential, and I finally got around to reading it this year…and found that it, well, deeply influenced my work.  Brilliant on the sentence level, and brilliant in its piercing look at the type of people we might usually look away from.  On the writing side, one of the reasons that I finally picked it up is that I read somewhere that part of Johnson’s process here was juxtaposing incidents that seem unrelated, which is something I was trying in my own writing this year.

The Homesman by Glendon Swarthout. I’ll never separate the experience of buying this book in post-AWP Seattle at the famous Elliott Bay Book Company, during an afternoon of shopping with the intention of buying something I had never heard of by a writer I had never heard of.  Another dark novel, set in the Plains during the 19th century when several frontier women lost their minds during a hard winter and had to be driven via wagon back east to their families.  An unattractive spinster and a criminal with a heart of gold-ish should NOT scare you away: this book is relentless and gut-wrenching as well as austerely gorgeous.  On the writing side, the writer takes a huge risk with a point-of-view shift that leads to an even huger risk; both moves hit the jackpot, IMHO.  (A new movie has just been released…I’m curious but a little reluctant to mar the perfection of my experience with the book.)

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.  An experimental novel that examines a relationship through glittering fragments of writing that are in turn clever, sad, hilarious, insightful, informative…and that are sometimes all of those things simultaneously.  Don’t fear “experimental” here: this masterful book has heart, and you will (and should) read it all in one delicious swoop.  On the writing side, this book demonstrates that even the most commonplace story (“girl meets boy” etc.) can be fresh and feel utterly unique.

Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead.  I discovered this book after reading a stand-alone excerpt in One Story magazine, and I had to read more.  It’s set in the ballet world, but the book is beyond ballet; it’s about any artistic pursuit, and beyond that, about the hard choices life forces upon us.  The ending is so stunning that you’ll want to flip back to the beginning and read it all again.  On the writing side, the author broke rules all over the place with regard to chronology and point-of-view, and it was exhilarating for me as a reader to see it all work out—and comforting for me as a writer to discover that yes, it was possible that my own non-chronological work might have a shot at pulling together.

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff.  I wrote here in further detail about this memoir, for which I am surely the perfect audience, since I love coming-of-age stories about literary young women in New York. Throw in J.D. Salinger and I’m totally sold!  On the writing side, I admired how the author was able to find a shape to her life to create dual narratives that informed each other, keeping the reader flipping the pages, wanting to know what happens next. 

Longbourn by Jo Baker.  So much could go wrong in what might seem to be a simplistic “Downton Abbey meets Jane Austen” set-up in this book about the servants who work for Pride and Prejudice’s Bennet family.  And yet so much goes right instead!  The book is smart and perfectly written and a page-turner, and no one will ever view laundry in quite the same way. (Yay, washing machines!)  The events of P&P happen in the background and provide narrative structure for the story, but I think even non-Austen fans (if there are any?) would still enjoy this book without that double narrative.  On the writing side, this book is a poster child for the joys and benefits of research.  Also, who says women can’t write about war?? These war scenes are among the most relentless I have ever read.

Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR by Neal Thompson.  Every list needs an outlier, something that doesn’t seem to fit, and this book is that.  It’s a nonfiction account of the early days and rise of NASCAR, which came about thanks to the young men who loved raising dust on southern dirt roads hauling hooch.  Yes, NASCAR.  Me.  I loved it, and raced (haha) through this book…and by the end, I was pondering how I could swing a trip to Daytona.  On the writing side, this book had a strong, smart narrative and read like a novel. But more importantly, reading this book reminded me of one of the most important traits any writer must have (IMHO), which is to be open-minded, and, really, simply open to the whole wide world, to the prospect that any day when you learn something new, something you didn’t know or had never thought before, that that is also the definition of “a good writing day.” Be open to surprising turns!

So, a list of eight, and I know I said that I wouldn’t try to push a numerical construct, but I guess I lied, because I’m going to round out the list with an amazing short story I read and an amazing essay so I can make an even 10:

“Antarctica” by Laura van den Berg is found in the new edition of Best American Short Stories, edited by Jennifer Egan, about a woman whose problematic brother died while doing research at the South Pole, and her attempt to find the truth of what happened there, and, well, the truth of a number of things.  On the writing side, this story balanced present action and flashback beautifully, as well as balancing scene and summary. (Okay, I can’t resist mentioning my other favorite stories from this volume: “God” by Benjamin Nugent and “Long Tom Lookout” by Nicole Cullen.)

“Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” by Leslie Jamison, from her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams.  While I enjoyed and admired other essays in that book, this is the one that leapt forward for me (and is online, so you can read it too, right here) because it explored sentimentality and pain and the clich├ęs that women writers battle, ultimately giving power to the female story, and then, on the writing side, making sure that we understand that what it is, what we’re all doing, is writing the HUMAN STORY, and making us feel essential for doing so.


Onwards! There are wonderful books waiting ahead in 2015!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Five Flaws to Avoid in Your Poetry (and Fiction)

I came across this link on Facebook, a few words from the editors at the Indiana Review about what flaws make them reject a poem.  All good advice, it seems to me, and each bullet point correlates EXACTLY with problems in fiction, so also good advice for ALL of us:

2. Over-associating. I’m not a minimalist by any means, but I do believe in earning your fireworks. Your winter breath is not a constellation of fireflies axeing their way through the winter like little lumberjacks. There’s not a hot air balloon filled with jackrabbits in your chest every time she looks at you like a prison guard bleeding sugar. I don’t care that it’s Tuesday. A poem ought to be, I think, more than just a collection of assorted images. What is your poem doing? What does it add up to? How is it governed?...



Friday, December 5, 2014

Going to Be in Spartanburg?

If you are, come to some of the amazing events planned for the Converse Low-Residency MFA...we would love to see you!  I'll be giving a reading on January 5 and on January 2, giving a brand new craft lecture (that I still have to write...). 

Converse College Low Residency MFA
January Residency Public Readings and Lectures

The following events are free and open to the public. Events take place at the Spartanburg Marriott & Conference Center in the Dogwood Room.

January 1, 8:00 p.m., visiting writer reading by Catherine Carter, the author of The Swamp Monster at Home, Louisiana State University Press, 2012, and The Memory of Gills, Louisiana State University Press.

January 2, 4:30 p.m., Fiction Craft Lecture, Leslie Pietrzyk, “Inch by Inch and Word by Word: Strategies for Revision.”

January 2, 8:00 p.m., Faculty Reading by Suzanne Cleary and Marlin Barton.

January 3, 10:00 a.m., Nonfiction Craft Lecture, Susan Tekulve, "Studying the Scribes of Epicurus: What We Can Learn from Those Who Write Through the Lens of Food."

January 4, 8:00 p.m., Faculty Reading by Susan Tekulve and John Lane.

January 5, Poetry Craft lecture, Suzanne Cleary, "Risk and More Risk: Building Better Poems, and Having More Fun Doing So."

January 5, 4:30 p.m., Fiction Craft Lecture, Marlin Barton, “Reaching the Lyric Register.”

January 5, 8:00 p.m., Faculty Reading, Leslie Pietrzyk and Brock Clarke.

January 6, 8:00 p.m., Faculty Reading, Rick Mulkey and Robert Olmstead.

January 7, 4:30 p.m., Craft Lecture,“The View from an Editor’s Desk,” Mark Drew, Associate Editor of Gettysburg Review.

January 7, 8:00 p.m., Faculty Reading, Richard Tillinghast and Elizabeth Cox.

January 8, 4:30 p.m., Craft Lecture with Atlantic Monthly Fiction Editor, C. Michael Curtis.







Monday, December 1, 2014

Writing Advice from Flannery

Let’s start the week—and the brutally paced month of December—with some no-nonsense writing advice from Flannery O’Connor.  I promise to follow all these rules if I can come up with a story as darkly perfect as “Greenleaf”!

Here’s one bit of advice that seems especially apt for me at this point in my process:

2. Try arranging [your novel] backwards and see what you see. I thought this stunt up from my art classes, where we always turn the picture upside down, on its two sides, to see what lines need to be added. A lot of excess stuff will drop off this way.

And I love #8:

I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular, but this general and essential is still deeply embedded in mystery. It is not answerable to any of our formulas.


Work-in-Progress

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