Saddest Picture In the World + Stuff for you, Cos I Like You.

I took this picture at Trout Run Park

They were just an abandoned pair of Crocs that blended in with the landscape such that I nearly didn’t see them.

Immediately, I started to tell myself the story of the person who used to wear those shoes, how they got there, why there was a ponytail holder just next to them.  The brownness of the scene struck me as sad and serene. And when the picture (that I took with my phone) came out so well, I wanted to share it with you, and to offer you this prompt:

In 500 words or fewer, tell me the story of those shoes.  Do it in the comments.  I’ll repost the really good ones on my blog next week with credit to you, and a link to your blog/social media/whatever; and if you share your email address, I’ll send you a free critique.

An Exciting New Thing

I want to invite you to Writer’s Boot Camp.

It’ll be a mind-bending day of all different sorts of writing activities.  You’ll push your comfort zones, engage in all manner of writing activities and exercises like Weight Training, Gimmie Twenty Words, Gimmie Twenty Sentences, Cross Country Writing, and of course there’ll be a groovy, mind-massaging lunch break.  Show up at 10, leave at 4 with a refreshed or revolutionized sense of yourself as a writer, of writing as a creative act, and some new ideas for getting motivated beyond Boot Camp.

You need a clip board, a few pens or pencils, a notebook or paper (at least 20 sheets), and a brown bag lunch or $5 to chip in on pizza.

The cost is low, $55, and you can pay the day of or via paypal, you’ll get instructions by email when you register.

The spot is Gallery #13 at The Pajama Factory, 1307 Park Ave. Williamsport. I’m teaming up with Susquehanna Life Magazine on this effort.

The first one will be November 4, it’s a Sunday.

You can register here.

“A Symmetry of Surprises” : Thoughts on Writing, Writers, and People

from Flickr user Keith Williamson

I generally write the post first, then pick the picture.  But today, I had these two great quotations about writing, and couldn’t figure out how to get there.

So I went shopping at Flickr for images using “writing” as a keyword.

I ended up with these fountain pens writing without human intervention because I think a couple of things are true:

First, writers experience an out-of-body thing as they write sometimes.  I call it going to the zone (that’s what it feels like to me: being on another plane of focus or consciousness).  I used to get the same sort of feeling when I drew from observation.  I have heard bunches of writers say that they don’t know how they do it, just that it’s compulsiveness, that they can’t stop.

Sometimes, writers even deny responsibility for their creations: they talk about it as a bolt of lightening, or as something that is received.  Stephen King talks about storytelling as excavating–dusting off an artifact into which the artist breathes life.

Though I am presently unable to access her book for an exact quotation, my friend Carolyn says that genius occurs at the intersection of the spiritual and creative, and she reminds us that we have become culturally accustomed to confusing the notion of genius with savant; Carolyn says that everyone has genius, it is not some special thing, and anybody can find her own genius.  Her book is called Awesome Your Life: The Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius.  I haven’t finished it myself, but it’s delicious so far, I recommend it.

I think that writing is a process of exploring genius, both the spiritual and the intellectual bits of it.

Second, every writer I know and have ever met is fascinated by other people.  This fascination is visceral.  After watching a fairly stupid TV show, I was reading a bit about microexpressions on the internet (a quick google scholar search shows that these are being studied with regard to politics, deception, law enforcement, etc), and got to thinking about my own intense fascination with other humans, and my ability to read their manner or listen closely to their language and figure out that something is bothering them or that they’re hiding a strong feeling.  I like to watch people argue, kiss, eat, discuss, dance.

While I was at the residency, something for which I have been ridiculed personally was natural in our group:  When observing people, we made up back stories for them based on how they walked or talked or ate.  We would trace them back to their childhoods and speculate about their jobs, how many lovers they’d had, what major event in their lives brought them to that point, and after just a few minutes, it felt like we were speaking truth.

I don’t know about you, but that’s exciting to me.

And that’s why I want to share these two quotations from Robert Mooney who’s one of the Wilkes faculty. He also teaches at Washington College His book, Father of the Man is on my to-read list based on the fact that on the fiction panel, he admonished us to:

“Be a deep sea diver of the human psyche.”

And said that:

“I just travel into the dark… A lot of fiction is a symmetry of surprises.”

What quotations have inspired or affirmed you as an artist, writer, person, scholar, soul?

I Got Annoyed by Stephen King, Then I Loved Him.

From Flickr User AZRainman

Right.  Until a few weeks ago, I had never read a Stephen King anything.

Don’t get pissed.  I’m just not interested.  I do want to read The Green Mile, but that is all.  I have seen a couple of the movies made from Stephen King novels/novellas: The Green Mile, The Stand.  That might be it. I honestly do not know.

It’s not in my aesthetic.

But I had to read his writing manual/memoir On Writing for the Wilkes Residency.

This was my emotional experience during the reading:  First, there was boredom. So I skipped the “I was the kid of a single mom, I want you to know that was hard” part, and started in on the section that was about writing.

Then there was utter annoyance.  The annoyance came as much from King’s arrogance as from the fact that I feel ambivalent about the usefulness of reading books about other writers’ processes.  I’m not saying that I have nothing to learn.  To the contrary.  I feel like I have tons to learn.  But I’m not going to learn what I need to learn about my process from Stephen King.  I’m going to learn that by reading and writing, and that is all I want to do, ever, basically.

Then there was indifference.  Here was my thinking: all right, King.  I know you hate adverbs.  I get it.  I hate them too.  I’m with you that more writers should learn some stuff about craft.  You’re right about the tool box, but you’re not knocking my socks off, here, buddy.  You really ought to be.  You are one of the few writers in history to actually get rich from writing.

Then there was anger.  I found some of the examples he used to be just preposterous.  The book was like barely confined King ego.

Then there was creeping fondness.  I promise you I fought it.  But he’s kind of funny.  And he’s earned the right to speak with authority about writing.  And he didn’t speak with any guilt at all about getting rich on writing.  I find it to be obnoxious when people feel guilty about getting rich.  I want to tell them that if they feel so guilty about being rich, they should do something useful with their money, live like paupers, and quit whining.

And by the last fifty pages of the book, I was lapping it up like a black dog in summer.  And it wasn’t really what he said so much as how he said it.  He’s frank and honest and underneath the bravado/braggadocio, there’s this twitchy, insecure artist.  The same one that lives in all of us writers.

I am alone in this assessment of King’s book, that is 80% yuck, 20% I love you, Stephen King.  Most of the other folks at the residency all louvvred the King book.  Which was sad.  A lot of them were vocally antagonistic toward the Brande book, Becoming a Writer.  I enjoyed the quiet doggedness with which Brande wrote and recommended to a writerly life.  There really isn’t a better example.

After all, we can’t all be King.

Residency Day 1: Setting

Wilkes-Barre is renowned for being a totally blue-collar city.   It feels a little like Pittsburgh: universities surrounded by middle class & slums.  A lot of queerly frightened white people.

And I am getting sick with nostalgia for proper city living.

I got here a touch early, and the first person I met was Dr. Culver, the program director.  She is nothing like I pictured, but hugged me straight away.  Then I met a guy named J.C.  I will save my questions about a potential Messiah complex for workshop.

Here’s the view from my little apartment (which is like a glorified dorm suite with a proper kitchen and a full bathroom.  It’s slick).

Here’s another view:

And here’s the funny little balcony.

And here’s a bit of nostalgia.

For the first 18 years of my life, my dad was self-employed.  He had some kind of business relationship with a guy who owned a building & business in Wilkes-Barre, PSC or Petroleum Service Company.  People here say “Wilkes Bear Uh.”  Or “Wilkes Bear.”  Dad says, “Wilkes Berry.”  So it was kind of a big deal to get to go with dad to “Wilkes Berry.”

Once, maybe twice, dad brought me here visit this cat called Ron Sims (the one who owned PSC). He had a Merry-Go-Round horse in his office, and who also owned some kind of staging company.  Mountain Productions, I think?  Anyway, this was in the hey-day of New Kids On The Block (oh gawd), and Ron Sims gave me a spent backstage pass.  I was 8, and I had no clue, and so I said to my dad, “Don’t you have to go to a concert to use it?”

What I remember is the pained look on my dad’s face.  My ignorance and disappointment hurt his feelings, you know, on my behalf. He wasn’t sure how to break my little heart while still making me understand that the dude was giving me a cool present.  If he were me, he would’ve blogged about it later. I don’t remember what he said, but he explained the concept of collector’s items and memorabilia.

I put the backstage pass (which was this crazy fluorescent green fabric-covered square of poster paper) in my desk in my room where it stayed until I didn’t care anymore, and the New Kids were fuzz on the cultural horizon.

Here is a picture of the setting of that memory, the PSC building.  I took this picture across the parking lot for the Family Dollar and thrift shop where I went to buy toilet paper and the tooth brush I forgot.

Why I Love Facebook, After All.

From Flickr User SeanMacEntee

I was not an early adopter of social media.

I didn’t have a MySpace until Facebook was already a thing.  My MySpace account was under the name of my Misanthropic Internet Doppleganger, Georgette Magillacuddy.  If we were friends in college, you might’ve heard me tell people (men) that was my name at bars.

I thought social media was stupid and time-consuming and–like Television–threatened to rob me of all of my proper thinking muscles if I let it.

My friend Sharon talked me into getting a Facebook.  She also showed me Project Runway.  I was on board with Project Runway immediately.

And, yes. I am aware of the way in which Facebook is collecting information about me in order to be able to sell demographic info to companies who will try to sell things to me, but frankly, I’d prefer smart marketing than stupid marketing. I do not like watching ads about sports equipment or hearing aids. If I liked sports or was hard of hearing, I would.  Sure, the way in which it’s not a terribly far leap between April the demographic and April the person is a touch scary.  But all new developments in technology are a touch scary.

I still think Facebook could rob me of my thinking muscles.  But I figured out how to block users and apps, so now, If somebody posts only sentimental quotations and quips about Christ, I say, “Please, Facebook.  Don’t show me any more of that.”  I also ask it not to show me stuff from Farmville or Sims or any of the games.

Facebook can be a benevolent master.

It can also be a sneaky time-suck.

But as with every other guilty (and lately gleeful) pleasure, we have to exercise self-control.  I have a policy where I shut Facebook down after every time I check in on it.  I used to let it up all the time.  But whenever I do that, I get nothing done.

As recently as eighteen months ago, I still professed to being confused about Facebook.  I remember being kind of stymied when one of the smartest people I know, my friend, mentor, and fellow-freelancer, Katney B., said, “I totally get it, and I love it.”

But first when I sold cell phones, and then when I went full time as a freelancer, and it occurred to me that Facebook could be my ally.

Ah ha!  A practical use for Facebook.  Potential generation of capital.  And so I began to tinker in earnest, and without guilt.  That bit was huge for me.  I have to give myself permission to do things that are enjoyable, or things that I view as unproductive.

And in so doing, I started to get it. I could check in on people about whom I am curious, but have no need or desire to spend hours in conversation with.  People for whose success I am hopeful.  And people whose work I admire.  And if I am feeling particularly nosy, I can know what the weather is like where they are, and I know if they switch jobs or cities or S.O.s.

And in the last few months or year, I’ve re-connected with some people in my past who I missed!  Two of my dearest friends ever and I now swap emails outside of Facebook. Child and I made a sweet visit to NYC via a Facebook connection with a friend from long ago.

Since I’ve been blogging and building myself a business of my thinking and writing muscles, I’ve loved the way Facebook allows me to show my work to 541 of the people with whom I’ve become acquainted along the way, personally, casually, professionally.  It’s even safe to be friends with ex lovers.

I have Facebook friends who are fellow writers, authors I admire, literary journals.  And in a couple of instances, the literary journals have reminded me to submit to them.  Now I belong to the group Submission Bombers.  If you’re a writer, check it out.

People who live where I do invite me to cool stuff.  People who have kids post pictures, so they don’t have to email them to me.  I appreciate that.

And while it’s utterly practically meaningless to the business, I enjoy being able to go click the big thumbs up on businesses I live near, or whose owners I know, or places I’ve been that are cool.  I like that I can categorize myself as “person who likes The Nightmare Before Christmas or Mad Men,” even if it does mean that Facebook will tell other people to sell me 60s vintage shoes or vaguely creepy stop-motion movies.

And this is kind of weird, but I get a little competitive about the number of friends I have.  I view it as an absurd measure of success, especially since the second most traffic on my blog is drummed up through facebook.  

So what about you?  What do you love about facebook? Or do you hate it?

Who’s cooler? Creative Writing MFAs or PhDs in English?

Use with Attribution. The Flickr user's name is josef.stuefer

In one of my earlier lives, the one before I knew that people don’t need accredited papers to make them worthwhile (though I loved the hell out of my education and would damn anybody who told me it’d wasted my time, not everybody is like me), the one before I had this blog, the one when I was only a mother in theory (which is the easiest way), I had a pretty successful round of applications to various MFA programs.

If you’re not in the know, the MFA is a terminal degree in the arts.  People can get MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) in all kinds of visual art, acting, film making disciplines, and creative writing.  A terminal degree is the last stop before professor-ville.  Another kind of terminal degree is a PhD.

I started an MFA program at Pitt a while back.  I loved a lot of things about that star-crossed semester.  Something I didn’t love was the antagonism between the PhDs and the MFAs.  PhD is Doctor of Philosophy.  Philosophy is knowledge love.  A doctor is more better than a master, at least by the general academic standard.

The main difference between the MFA and the PhD is the amount of time it takes to finish the degree.  The MFA is typically a three year program, a PhD generally takes eight (at least).

A while back on the internet, I read some defensive rant from some particularly bitter MFA about why the shorter time to get the degree is totally fitting for the artist, and how there’s nothing less rigorous about spending three years getting a terminal degree in arts than spending eight years and blah blah wank wank blah.  There was some stuff about apprenticeship.  Not entirely invalid points, but far too defensive.

This is a hotly debated topic in academe.

Should the MFA be a terminal degree?

The Englishey PhDs are pissed because the MFAs finish sooner, don’t often have to know another language, don’t always have to take the subject GREs (and sometimes no GRE is required) to get admitted to programs, and get to write fiction instead of intellectually rigorous scholarly analysis.  “MFAs aren’t intellectuals,” the PhDs say, “they’re alcoholic step children of the arts and academic worlds!”

Maybe that is sometimes true.  But it is arrogant and presumptuous to declare that creative writing is not intellectual enough, and that people who would pursue it are less worthy. And I ask you, PhD candidates in Victorian Literature, why wouldn’t you tackle the MFA and show up the silly, capricious, non-analytical MFAs?  How can you be so certain about your assessment of its intellectual or scholarly merit?

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate edition, here are the definitions of intellectual:

1 a : of or relating to the intellect or its use b : developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience : RATIONAL c : requiring use of the intellect <intellectual games>
2 a : given to study, reflection, and speculation b : engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect <intellectual playwrights>

Interesting that the second definition describes the creative writing process pretty acutely.

But all writing–even analytic writing–is creative.  So it would seem that the rhetorical flaws go both ways.

And maybe it’s not fair that a person usually has to spend eight years getting a PhD, when a person can kill a creative writing MFA in three years.  But here’s what I know about how creative writing obsessed people spend their undergrad years: In as many creative writing workshops as they can squeeze into their schedules.  Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay, memoir, literary journalism, etc.

Most semesters I had two creative writing courses.  I took every one my university offered in fiction and in poetry, so the last semester of my senior year I got special permission to take the graduate novel writing workshop.

How many Victorian lit courses did you take, Mr. Victorian Lit PhD candidate?  Maybe two or three?  You might’ve done an independent study.  And wicked.  But that’s what, four semesters worth of study in your field?

You got yourself a good, broad, liberal arts style English Major education with a sampling of a number of literary periods, styles, regions, and critical modes.  Guess what.  I did, too.  And you decided you loved the Victorians.  I did, too.

Lifestyle differences

Storytelling is a craft, a discipline.  Academic writing, is, too.  But the level of mastery I would’ve achieved after only two or three creative writing workshops as an undergraduate would never have yielded my better-than-I-thought-possible MFA acceptance results.

Also, I have been writing since I was five.

And I’ve been studying story since before I knew that’s what I was doing.  I have been reading novels since I realized they existed.  I recall getting these pulpy YA novels from the grade school library and being disappointed that we only went once a week.

I didn’t start writing scholarly papers until college, and it seems fair to suspect that most people don’t start with the scholarly analysis till college, which means I’ve been practicing my craft for at least 15 years longer than the average PhD candidate has been engaged in earnest scholarship. That is, unless they were analyzing literary tropes on the playground.  Were they?  I won’t presume to understand their processes.

The breadth of reading a person has to do in order to be a proper expert on a particular obscure thing from Victorian Lit, including all the foundational stuff so you know what your colleagues are talking about when they rail on Barthes or Saussure, including the completely different habits of mind that scholarship demands, is no small task. Of course it takes Eight years!

This isn’t a value thing, this is a different pursuits entirely kind of thing.  One is not better than the other.

The Creative Writing people need to keep writing so that the scholars 100 years from now will have a record, something to study, a sense of our cultural assumptions, how our women and minorities were treated, what class was best educated, what we value–all the stuff those PhDs love studying about Victorian Lit.

In college, I was so busy taking creative writing classes that I didn’t have time to take French so that I could read Derrida in his native tongue.

Would I dig that?

Sure I would!  I love the French theorists and their special brand of abstruse.  It might help to be able to read them in French.

But what do I love more?

Hands Down: the socially and academically sanctioned schizophrenia of the creative writer.  I like to tell plausible lies in prose and make people up in my head who become so real that I can have conversations with them and they can help me realize stuff about myself.

So here’s the news I set out to give you before I ranted: I’ve decided to apply to a low-residency MFA for the fall semester.  I’ve waffled about it, but I feel a strong and wild call to it.  I think that for me it will be time well spent. And if I don’t get in, that’ll be occasion for another existential crisis (those are good material) and self-deprecating blog post(s).  And if you know me really well, maybe you’ll get to listen to me weep.

To my dear friends with PhDs, I mean no disrespect.  I love and envy you and your analytic pursuits.