Phony, Imposter, Jerk, Poseur, and other nasty names I call myself

From Flickr user Cea, used under Creative Commons attribution license
From Flickr user Cea, used under Creative Commons attribution license

The mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Is it? I’d like to waste that bitch sometimes.

I’d like to extract my mind from myself, the artist’s plague, and shoot her dead. Or strangle her. Or perhaps torture her for a time, like she’s tortured me as long as I can remember; perhaps that would be a more satisfactory end for this piece of me, is it the Id? The Uberself? The built-in cynic with a penchant for the soul squash? My masochistic inner other.

You’re not good enough.

I know.

You never should’ve stopped writing those five years, when your kid was small.

I didn’t. Not entirely. I blogged. Badly. 

It’s too late for you now.

I know. I’ll get my MFA when I’m 34 instead of when I was 29. 34 is practically retirement age when you’re a woman. I should just give up. I’m out of time.

You’re a phony.

I’m very good at tricking people. It’s just because I know a lot of words.

People like you don’t get to do this.

It’s true. I’m a brokeass from a brokeass family. I could never afford the luxury to create, to commit my whole self to what I make. I will always be lesser because I am poor, because I have always been.

Also, you are a mother.

That, too. Mothers’ writing is the worst, nobody cares about dirty nappies and what it really feels like to breastfeed. People care about war.

You will never go to war. Also, you will never publish your essays.

I’m afraid of losing the people in them. The ones who are really important. Much more important than my writing life, my artist’s soul.

The truth

Perhaps it is bold to say that we are all constantly pushing hard against those conversations. I picture myself between two tiled walls, my back against one, my feet flat against the other, pressing till my face is red, till my gut is herniated, till the muscles in my thighs lock and ache. Keeping that sacred space between, the place where I get to breathe deep and free and feel alive because I am making. Perhaps other artists face lesser negative self-talk. Perhaps other artists feel like it is their right to do what they must, to create.

And when I’m feeling rested and healthy and positive, which is more often, I am able to recognize all of that for what it is: fear. Not just fear of failure: fear of judgement, of self, of what happens when we let it out? Does it get lost? Do I get it back? If I let my mind really fruit, the ante will be upped, I will push myself to do better next time.

As it is, everything I write sucks as soon as it is down. The process of printing exponentially increases the suckage. The more I work on it, the better I see it is with my rational mind, the more it sucks. How can I live with everything I write forever and ever, published or in a secret journal or on some disk somewhere or in a drawer, sucking. Letting it out means it sucks. But I can’t keep it in!

And it doesn’t suck. Not always anyhow. If I were left to myself alone, I could never believe that.

So, as much as writing practice is alone, alone, alone; I prize my weird and wacky and mostly long-distance community of other writers and artists. These are the people who’ve helped keep me from lobotomizing that cunt who lives in my mind. The ones who teach me how to quiet her, how to shut her in a room with meditation. These are the people who will read this post and nod and feel recognized. These are the people who help me to know that I do not suck, my writing does not suck, and I have every right to pursue my passion.

So when the self-hatred begins to mushroom and permeate and threaten my very will to live, I remember that awful/wonderful movie, LADYBUGS, and I shout over the din, YOU ARE GREAT! YOU ARE WONDERFUL! EVERYBODY LIKES YOU!

You are, too. What does your self say? What do you tell it? How do you shut it up?

Residency Day 5: Beauty, Blight, and Bombast

There’s a group of about 4 men, possessing a complementary nose for mischief, and they travel together in our “cohort.”  Our “cohort” is our group of writers entering the MFA program at the same time.  Why is it not a class?  I do not know.  These men are delightfully rowdy and goofy (they remind me of my youth) and one of them put a picture of himself on his lab wallpaper on these super sexy iMacs in the lab next to where we get our learn on.

I was so amused that I asked if I could take a picture of the picture, and then–ham that he is–he posed with it.  So here’s this week’s dose of the metaphysical:

This is a lovely view of the River Walk.

This is a detail from one of the entrances to the YMCA here.  Freaking gorgeous, but surrounded on many sides by economic depression.  This is a queer little town.

The food and coffee are bad.  I am looking forward to cooking again.

Everything else is righteous.

I leave you with a sample of some of the people I might get to have as a mentor and whom I will spend the next 3 years learning to know, like, professionally man.  I am the freaking luckiest girl in the world.  No, really.  They’ve put on readings for us every night, and there are more excellent & successful writers here than it seems prudent to list.  Maybe it’s not prudent to list any of them, but I’ve heard every one of the ones below read and I’m telling you now: go buy their books.  Delicious.

Kaylie Jones

Beverly Donofrio

Nina Solomon

Cecilia Galante

Michael Lennon

Nick Mamatas

Sara Pritchard

John Bowers 

Kevin Oderman

Nancy McKinley

What Do You Do with a BA in English?

From Flickr User MrsDKrebs

If you’re me, you spend a lot of time writing, and then go to graduate school, but don’t finish it, and then wait a few years and try again.

I’m so pumped for all of you to see tomorrow’s post.  I think you’re really going to like it.  It is about Child and it is funny.  It is funny because kids are funny, and sometimes they are funny in adult ways but they don’t know why.  It is a thing that makes being a mother a total joy.

But next week, I’ll be at the residency.  I have not posted ahead because I am hoping to make the time to write my reflections on the residency while I am there.  But just in case they keep me too busy writing (which I hope they do), I’m letting all of you know that I might not be on my regular schedule next week.

All will normalize on Monday the 25th.

I know I’m going to have billions of things to share when I get back.

 

Anxiety about a book about writing? Am I Missing the Point?

From PublicDomainReview.org, this is kind of what it feels like in early workshops: you are clueless and vulnerable and cut wide open.

I have to read books about being a writer before I head off to the residency next month.

I’ve nearly finished Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande.

But it makes me nervous about this program I’m entering, because the book seems to be written for people who’ve never thought about themselves as writers much more than as a passing fancy.  It’s great on teaching people how to train their minds for obsession, and I’ve been enlightened on a few points.  More on this later.

But Writing Down the Bonesthough also a really swell book, that can be inspirational at any point along the way, is designed for beginning writers, too.

First, I would hope that by the time a person is pursuing an MFA or other advanced degree in writing, she’s got a pretty good idea about herself as a writer, and she’s heading on in school to put the polish on previously discovered habits, skills, and self-awareness.  I think that already knowing oneself as a writer is totally integral to success in a low-residency program, too.

I will also say that I hope a person who intends to procure an MFA is already writing every day, has already figured out her way over the humps of “block,” and inertia, and waning ambition in the face of critique, and rejection, dismissal, scheduling, and all the other things that writers must bear up under.

Now, I will say that I have found the book to be–more than anything–utterly affirmative that I’m on the right path.  At times, I’ve had to put it down to go write.  I love when books do that, when they get me so excited about writing that I can’t put it off.  It’s also given me a vocabulary to discuss things that I knew about myself–Brande calls it the Dual Personality (the way writers have two distinct selves who must cooperate, but who must also know when to butt out: writer and life-liver, essentially)–that I hadn’t really named beyond calling it “Academically Sanctioned Schizophrenia.”  Which, it turns out, E. L. Doctorow said first, or at the least many moons before I did.

I also encountered a new (to me) notion that was then echoed in Cathy Day’s blog, which was something kind of pedagogical (that’s fancy for college teaching theory) that wouldn’t have occurred to me: workshopping ain’t always great.  Or at least, not in the traditional, round-table, everybody involved in the discussion method.

Brande says (in 1934),

Here I should like to add a footnote for other teachers, rather than for students of writing.  I think that holding up the work of each pupil in class for the criticism of the others is a throughly pernicious practice, and it does not become harmless simply by allowing the manuscript to be read without assigning its authorship publicly.  The ordeal is too trying to be taken with equanimity, and a sensitive writer can be thrown out of his stride deplorably by it, whether or not the criticism is favorable.  It is seldom that the criticism is favorable, when a beginner is judged by the jury of his peers.  They seem to need to demonstrate taht, although tthey are not yet writing quite perfectly themselves, they are able to see all the flaws in a story which is read to them, and they fall upon it tooth and fang.

I will say that there were some queer, interpersonal consequences to the workshops I’ve been in, but they have been, largely, very well-controlled and the instructors were totally tuned in & monitoring the conversation.  In grad school effort I, the greatest antipathy was toward the professor.  But I always found  workshops to be helpful, once I figured out who my best readers were, and frankly, I learned some really great lessons about having thick skin and separating my sense of myself from my work–the Dual Personality of critique.  It is simply no good for self and work to be inextricable.  I am not the story.  Still, Brande’s particularly strongly worded passage on the practice got me to thinking.

Then, I encountered the following in Cathy Day’s blog when I was linking her in the blog post I wrote yesterday.   She says (in 2012),

Remember: on the first day of class, I tell my students 1.) to write the book they want to write—no genre or subject matter restrictions, and 2.) they won’t have to show this manuscript to the whole class, just to me and a small group of sympathetic readers.

This upticks + the removal of the “all-class workshop” indicates to me that my students took risks because they felt safe doing so.

Huh.

Would I have taken more risks if I’d been workshopped by a smaller group?

I don’t know!  For me, a lot of the fun was helping my peers with their drafts, engaging on the sensitive stuff, getting down and dirty with the text.  But I’m a Scorpio, and would be intense regardless of my sign, I imagine; and I’m not sure that so many people find such unilateral thrill in every process and procedure at all connected to writing as I do.  Also, I get a huge kick out of conquering my own less-savory impulses, like those of the desire to hurl pettiness at anybody who’s fool enough not to think I’m awesome.  I also love finding out that I’m not as awesome as I think I am.  I’d be insufferable if  humility & self-doubt were not in the my writer’s psychological/self-awareness tool box.

I also hope that I’m not the only person entering the program who thinks of herself as a writer, has been a practicing writer for years, and is finding this preparatory reading to be–though delightful as all reading is–a touch worrisome.

I was hoping we’d read some delicious, but challenging (narratively) novel like Josh Russell’s Yellow Jack, which, if you haven’t read you should.   And that we’d be asked to analyze it, and write about it, and then when we got to the residency, we’d talk about that book and other great ones, and about how we best use our writer selves.

I was not hoping that we’d talk about how to reach the writing self.  I think we should already know.

I hope I’m getting it wrong.  I hope that these books are meant specifically to resonate and encourage and to give us insight into our selves, not as stepping stones into the writing life.

Am I being ungenerous?  I know some of you subscribers and readers are MFA/advanced writing degree teachers and students.  Am I expecting too much?  Do I want more commitment to this life from adults entering a low-residency MA/MFA than is reasonable?

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

Use with Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/josefstuefer/ 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.

How To Be a Great Writer

public domain image from http://www.public-domain-image.com

First, a writer should live some life.

And I don’t mean the pansy, TV-watching, under-mom-and-dad’s-protective wing sort.  The sort that almost all high school and college kids–and even some grown-ass people with children of their own–are guilty of living.

I mean the real stuff: having to go to a horrible job because if you don’t, you don’t eat.  Fill in your own personal blank of hell here__________________.  Then do that.  For at least a year.  Five years is better.

If you don’t emerge still wanting to be a Great Writer, you will learn much about the world and yourself.

A writer should try to live.  A writer does not necessarily have to make foolhardy decisions that have a lasting impact on her life, but it probably would help.

I read this terrific, acerbic (almost to the point of hatefulness) article at Huffington Post by Ruth Fowler.

Ruth Fowler has lived.  I get why she has little patience for tales of (and by) inexperience!

Fowler’s theory is that the MFA is to blame for the spate of ridiculous novels that are being touted as brilliant and/or revolutionary by prestigious literary prizes or the critical journalist set.  These novels came from lackluster MFA programs pumping out competent writers.  I do not think that is true.  The MFA might be the last stop on the fail line, but we don’t get to the MFA without our overburdened, under-funded elementary, secondary, and post-secondary programs failing in some way.

A specific educational failing

I think “Hills Like White Elephants” is a shitty story to show to a bunch of aspiring writers.

I read it in high school in my honors lit course, then again in one of my first writing workshop courses in college.  I get it.  It’s Hemingway.  He’s doing something clever (or at least was then).  But he also wrote the story as a 30+year old man, and had been writing professionally since the age of 17, during a span of history in our country in which we lacked the distractions of TV, tablets, iPods, the internet; when life was a little (or a lot) harder in general.

Hemingway was dead before TV made its way into most middle class households.

What it does is tell young wannabes, who’ve probably only written what was absolutely required of them to the point at which they encounter “Hills,” is to try their hand at something that’s so far beyond their depth that they’ll almost certainly fail, and then they’ll either think themselves genius or just give up.  How is either pole desirable?

For one thing, it’s difficult to tell a whole story only in dialogue.  For another thing, “Hills” is a story that it’s impossible to tell without having lived some life.  All good stories are impossible to tell without living some life.  Perspective, wisdom, and experience make good stories.

It’s been during my tenure on our green-blue globe that there’s been this cultural shift toward prizing self-esteem above achievement.  According to a documentary called Waiting For Superman about the public education system in the US, the only thing US kids score best on worldwide is confidence.

Confidence is not helpful when there is no call for it.  Confidence is a thing that needs to be earned after years of toil.  Especially as a writer. I can think of no other pursuit in which rejection and failure are such an integral part of the process. And absolute confidence is a myth for a writer: self-doubt remains of tantamount importance throughout.

I find it to be obnoxious when writers talk about their compulsion to write as an albatross, but I can understand why some of them feel that way.

I spent about a decade living and trying to escape being a writer, because almost everything else is easier.

Here’s a truth that nothing I learned before the age of 25 prepared me for: Not Everyone Can Be a Great Writer.  It is NOT true that you “can do whatever you want.”

Also, you must read.  You must, you must, you must.

Truthfully, if you haven’t been reading voraciously as long as you could–which is something all the writers I know have in common–being a Great Writer is probably out of your grasp.

If you’ve been reading since you were a child, it probably doesn’t matter what you’ve read.

If you want to be a writer and you haven’t been reading, you should start reading now.  And try to read everything that’s ever been written that is like what you want to write.

Do this before you make it to the keyboard or pick up a pen.

Once you do, remember that the widely accepted theory on expertise is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become awesome.

The Silver Lining

I should tell you that I have practiced at writing for far many more than ten thousand hours.  I have been scribbling out sentences since I could write full words.  I remember yearning to learn to write, to create with a pen.  I did not know what that meant at the time, only that I needed to do it.

At least for the time being, our fair interwebs and its voracious appetite for content makes living life as a writer possible.  I am living my life–at least half time–as a writer.  More unpaid than paid at this point, but I am working and studying hard to flip that.

You, my blog readers, are making this possible.

And my fellow writers are telling me how.  And how not to.  For free.

So maybe the new truth is that Great Writers are a thing of the past.  Because the two sources linked above  agree that the biggest ingredient of success at making a living as a writer from your blog, with social media, and by marketing yourself, is effort, energy, and dedication.

Maybe the new Great Writers will be the most driven and tech savvy with the best grasp of SEO.

Tomorrow, a survey, a collection of resources, and a Weeks to Geek teaser.