The Cost of the Academic Job: A Personal Narrative

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Photo by Anton Petukhov

A few years ago, a small university invited me on an MLA interview for a tenure-track assistant professor position teaching publishing and creative writing. The hiring committee assumed I would be attending the conference and so told me when and where to be. I had no travel funding for the interview, but it was the only interview I was offered that year. I worried: was one interview enough to justify the expense? But what other options did I have? So I ponied up the money from my savings account and flew for the day to icy Chicago. Rather than spend the extra money and attend the conference, I wandered the morning away at the surgical museum on the waterfront before the afternoon interview. When I arrived at the hotel room, the all-male committee of three met me with practiced hellos and gestured that I sit in a chair at the foot of the bed while the three of them clustered together on the sofa and another chair. Later, a friend confided that she once had an MLA interview in which the committee had her sit on the bed before several men in chairs; the room was so small that her knees were nearly touching one of theirs. My interviewers turned to one another, arms crossed, so that they signaled that they were not ready to begin the interview. They began talking—gossiping?—to one another about something socially esoteric to me: a conversation they had had with a colleague or friend, an allusion to their supper the night before. I sat in my chair, uncomfortably aware that I was not a part of the conversation and that neither my inclusion nor exclusion crossed their minds. Eventually, after a minute or two, I offered that I was ready to begin whenever they were. One of the committee members seemed startled by my verbal nudge, but he greeted the idea warmly enough. Their delivery of the questions seemed largely perfunctory, which caused me to believe that my interview was merely a formality. Had they already found someone they wanted to hire? Did they know before traveling to MLA? I left the interview feeling defeated, as if I had been on exhibition like a Pollock in front of a public who passed by muttering, “Well, I could do that.”  

Still, I had to maintain hope. It was my only in-person interview that season, and my visiting position would run out by the end of the semester. I’d had a tough year balancing my full teaching load with thirty or more job applications, my creative work, and a stint of medical issues and complications, all of which I was trying to resolve before my visiting position’s health insurance ran out. I also felt some urgency in getting my second book finished. Writers, poets especially, with only an MFA and one book seemed to not get any bites. At the end of the season, I tallied the Who Got What list on the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki and saw that only one of the tenure-track poetry positions was taken by someone who didn’t have a Ph.D. It was that job season that caused me to consider applying to creative writing Ph.Ds as well as programs in other disciplines. I didn’t hear back from the job I interviewed for at MLA for weeks, months even, until I finally queried, assuming that they had offered the position to someone else. I received an email back that said that the line had been cancelled and that the university would not be hiring anyone. Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries VII, VIII, and IX

vintage virginia

This is the fifth installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia.

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Query VII: A notice of all that can increase the progress of human knowledge
Query VIII: The number of its inhabitants
Query IX: The number and condition of the militia and regular troops, and their pay

In these three queries, Jefferson attempts to distill the complex meteorological, demographic, and military features of Virginia into a series of data points. His prose—supplemented by graphical tables tracking everything from rainfall to carriage wheels—draws a fine grid over the natural and human activities of the Commonwealth. These particular sections of Notes bridge Jefferson’s study of natural law with his meditations on systems of government, so it makes sense that tabulation is the main rhetorical strategy here. Jefferson values numbers as a means for describing all sorts of observations—elemental, mechanical, animal, etc.—and for delineating change over time.

In much of Anglophone poetry, accentual-syllabic verse organizes language (yes, even free verse!) into stressed and unstressed syllables. Like Jefferson’s tabulations, a poem’s meter, or system of accentual stress, makes a compositional pattern that we can observe and experience over time. Meter divides and unifies a poem, making the space of the page a contained realm within which the mind of the poet may move like weather. Scansion is the practice of measuring and describing the metrical patterns at work in a poem, but you can apply its principles to any unit of language. One of my favorite teaching activities is to have students scan their own names to find the metrical music in them. Thomas, for example, is a trochee because it’s comprised of a stressed first syllable and an unstressed final syllable. The inverse of a trochee is an iamb, a pattern that some scholars believe mimics the natural patterns of Anglophone speech or even the da-DUM of a beating heart. The trochee, by contrast, is more performative. It has roots in the Greek term trokhaios pous, the running or spinning foot.

So, our Thomas is a sprinter.Continue Reading

Time and Opening Chapters: Gaining Trust

time

Clock image credit: Daniel Waters, Co.

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about time in novels. How to manipulate it, whether it should be linear or nonlinear, and what that choice means for a story. I began to examine it more closely after a recent weekend novel workshop I took with Lauren Grodstein. Part of her advice was that I reconsider the timeline of my novel, which now progresses linearly. This suggestion is drastic enough that it could have been horrifying, but Lauren made her case so well that instead I’m excited to try it.

Independent of this advice, I’ve been feeling more and more strongly that in the first chapter or two of a novel, the writer teaches the reader how to read the book, sets expectations, makes promises. I don’t mean the writer gives everything away. I do mean she establishes trust and provides a sort of map.

The reader wants to know: what kind of book is this? Part of this question has to do with the story’s timeline. Is it the kind of story that jumps around in time? Is it the kind of story that moves forward linearly but then skips ten years, and then another ten? If we leave a time period will we circle back to it or is it gone forever? If the rules are established too late, the reader can become anxious and distracted, and at worst completely alienated. How can this be avoided?Continue Reading

Exaggeration & Distortion: What Writers Can Learn From Visual Artists

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey

Photo courtesy of DonkeyHotey

The purpose of art is not to depict reality—it is to transform reality into something more interesting and meaningful. And the only way to do this is to distort, exaggerate, or in some way embellish what is there.

Supernormal stimuli excites us more than reality does. Birds, mammals, fish, all human beings and at least some arthropods exhibit heighten emotional response to exaggeration.

This phenomenon, known as the “peak shift effect,” originated with the discovery by scientist Niko Tinbergen that herring gull chicks will tap the red spot on the beak of their mother when they want to be fed; expose the chicks to a fake beak with multiple red dots and their rate of pecking increases proportionally. A shift of stimuli towards exaggeration peaks the effect.

Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego has theorized that visual artists instinctually know how to employ the peak shift effect. The exaggerated female form in ancient fertility statues, suggests that this instinct in artists is ancestral.Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Query VI

vintage virginia

This is the fourth installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here, here and here.

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Query VI: “Productions mineral, vegetable and animal”
A notice of the mines and other subterraneous riches; its trees, plants, fruits, &c.

At root, Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia is a carefully curated syllabus, a structured list of discussion topics. Throughout the document, and most heavily in Query VI, Jefferson uses lists to elaborate the landscape and productivity of the Commonwealth. His catalogs preserve a lasting record of his attention, but paying attention was no passive enterprise for Jefferson. When we consider his lists, we have to remember the archaic meaning buried within the contemporary definition of the word. “To list” also means to intend, to want, to incline.

If the act of listing is an act of will, then every list is both artifact and verb. This is also true of a poem, which William Carlos Williams described as “a small or large machine made out of words.”

Taking up about a third of Notes, Query VI concludes Jefferson’s catalog of Virginia’s natural resources and connects to his subsequent analyses of society, government, and economic production in the Commonwealth. Despite his observation that “a complete catalogue of the trees, plants, fruits, &c. is probably not desired,” Jefferson furnishes the names of dozens of native species. European-derived crops flourish (or, in Jefferson’s parlance, are “elaborated from the soil”) in the cultivated agrarian spaces of the New World:

The gardens yield musk melons, water melons, tomatas, okra, pomegranates, figs, and the esculent plants of Europe.

The orchards produce apples, pears, cherries, quinces, peaches, nectarines, apricots, almonds, and plumbs.

Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Interview with Chris McCormick and “Desert Boys”

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Photo by Chris McCormick

This month, I chat with author Chris McCormick, whose terrific debut of linked stories, Desert Boys, follows main character Daley “Kush” Kushner and his friends Robert Karinger and Dan Watts. The book is largely set in the growing desert suburbia of the Antelope Valley, 70-odd miles north of Los Angeles. We talk about what it means to write about the West and live in and write about the desert; we share our mutual love of Louise Erdrich and writing that goes “deeper than geography.”


Joseph B. Horton: Take this however you will. What does it mean to be a Western Writer, or One Who Writes About the West?

Chris McCormick: There are so many definitions and tropes, but my guess is you know you’ve met a “Western” writer when you ask this question and they start squirming. I think that’s the result of a deeply internalized resistance to being categorized. One of my questions in Desert Boys was what happens when certain western tropes—real or imagined—are challenged, what happens when open spaces become grids through suburbanization, what happens when a person grows up longing for community in a place that almost fetishizes self-reliance. I guess a Western writer—at least this one—is someone who grapples with those questions even though he’s suspicious of the premise.

JBH: In the past you’ve mentioned Louise Erdrich as an influential writer, and specifically her debut Love Medicine. I love her and that book dearly, and I’m interested to know more: what, to you, does it mean to write about an isolated or insulated community? Do interconnected stories—from different points of view or not—serve that community best? I don’t think it’s too much to say that you’ll be introducing many readers to the Antelope Valley for the first time. Is that pressure? Opportunity?

CM: Oh, Louise. The first book of hers I read was the novel, Tracks, which begins with one of the most beautiful and devastating first lines in fiction, I think: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” Then I read as much of her work as I could  borrow or buy. From early on, I knew I wanted to write in a language as beautiful and as clear as hers. But it was the structure of Love Medicine that became the biggest influence on this particular book of mine. Whenever you’re writing about a place—especially a place that’s been relatively overlooked in literature—there’s so much pressure not only to get everything right, but to get everything down. I’m upset with myself that I left out specific institutions or aspects of the Antelope Valley that just didn’t fit in this book, like the Performing Arts Center or the AV Fair or the Poppy Festival. People don’t only crave accuracy about the place they call home, we also crave thoroughness. Linked stories provide a strategy to be as expansive as possible without sacrificing the specificity of focus, moment by moment. No one argues harder than I do that stories and novels are completely different forms. But when it comes to book-length fiction, I’m not convinced that linked story collections make up a different form than the “traditional” novel, so much as a different technique.

JBH: I’m fascinated by this line about Karinger’s soon-to-be wife, Jackie Connolly: “She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which was to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.” Care to elaborate? I think, for one, that there’s a lot of truth in the defensive invoking of desert beauty.

CM: I’m both glad and embarrassed that you picked that line out—it was one of those lines I wanted people to underline, which meant I probably should have cut it. I don’t know, I think the line speaks for itself. Just as we have permission to insult a family member but would fight anyone outside the family who made the same insult, people in the desert lament the place until someone else calls it boring or ugly. Then, in an act of love, we step up and defend the singular elegance of the yucca.

JBH: Though the entire book thoughtfully considers the desert and life in the desert, I always come back to the story, “The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley,” in which Kush helps prepare a neighbor’s yard for giant palm trees. Working as a day-heat novice, he says, “In the desert, the idea of spring was a myth from another culture. It went from winter to summer like flipping a coin, and it seemed as though I’d lost the toss.” It strikes me that I think some people don’t even consider seasons in the desert, that it just exists as it always has, unchanging. Certainly your portrait of the valley talks about what remains unchanged and what changes dramatically. How do you see that change, or the balance between permanence and impermanence?

CM: This is a great question, maybe the question. Part of the mythology of the (white) west is an outlaw culture, a kind of lawlessness allowed by existence on the fringes. Lawlessness might be another way of saying randomness or unreliability. For that reason, I always thought part of the myth of the west was a resistance to permanence, the willingness and dexterity to adapt. The idea of settling there, then, seemed like a paradox to me. In the newer, suburbanized west, there’s been a fierce resistance to change, a distrust of progress. For the epigraph of the book, I use a lyric from Jackson Browne’s song, “The Fairest of the Seasons”: “Do I stay or do I go, and do I have to do just one?” I’m interested in these extremes in the desert—where there is no “fair” season—and curious about the spaces between adaptation and settlement, between leaving and staying.

JBH: From “The Immigrants”: “Not just the desert, but all of California was in a severe drought, and as I lay floating [in a pool] on my back, I felt immensely guilty, remembering an old teacher of mine, a farmer, who’d once made us draw bar codes on our faucets to remember that water wasn’t free. But the guilt, as always, passed.” Even now, when drought is much more prominent in the collective mind, I hope, how do we continually allow this guilt to pass?

CM: Guilt is easy, and so is shame. Most of us can build an entire life around guilt and shame, no problem, so long as we feel personally culpable. But collective guilt—the guilt associated with being a tiny, almost negligible part of a problem, even a problem as severe as ruining the planet for some invisible, future population—requires something really difficult, which is imagining the world without us in it. And people have children to raise and bills to pay and lovers to kiss and enemies to fight. I can’t really blame anyone for not thinking ahead, I can only offer my admiration to those who do.

JBH: How do you write about a place when you aren’t living there? (In an MFA program or transplanted across the country, or even in a different part of California or the West…) Even if you’ve spent plenty of time in your literary locale, during the actual act of writing, how do you (re)conjure that place? On the other hand, is it ever easier to be more distant? Does that remove ever prove particularly useful?

CM: Writing down what I know about the place wasn’t hard. The hard part was figuring out what I didn’t know about the place, why I still loved it despite my dedicated attempts for so long to leave. Those kinds of questions tended to be deeper than geography, and no amount of time at home would help or hurt my ability to grapple with them.

JBH: You’ve talked elsewhere about a “mythic” California and the opportunities to both challenge that myth—beaches, Hollywood, the Golden Gate Bridge, say—and at the same time create more myths. (Maybe a moment that speaks to this runs, “…[The townspeople] were also no monolith. Some might say they were persons, not a people. That’s why stories happen. That’s why this story happened.”) The image California actively promotes of itself has been a topic of this series, and recently the New York Times published Parag Khanna’s map and analysis of “superstates” in the country, lines re-drawn based on “common economics and demographics.” Are we in the age of two or ten Californias? A hundred? Are there any shared bonds of Californians, or is this a state of 40 million separate Californians?

CM: This is a good time for me to thank you for the work you’ve been doing at Ploughshares. It’s been an education to this Californian, and a pleasure to read. As a desert kid, I grew up longing for places that seemed, on the map anyway, not that far out of reach: the freedom and glamor of the ocean, the celebrity of Los Angeles, the progressiveness of San Francisco, the racial and ethnic diversity of Oakland, the activism of Berkeley, and on and on. All those myths turned out to be both true and false, all at once, and maybe that’s why myths last. They’re built on the dreams of more than the forty million who call California home. They’re like mirages—another desert trope. They’re there, and they’re not, all at once, and no matter how close you get, they’re always just a little farther down the road.

JBH: Lastly, you had a book tour stop in the Antelope Valley. What was that like? Last month, I wrote about John Steinbeck being variously disowned by the Salinas Valley during his career. Do you worry about this? What is it like reading a book in its hometown?

CM: Variously disowned sounds like the place to be. As a person, I avoid confrontation to a fault. But as a writer, I don’t mind sparking discomfort. It means I’m writing toward the unsteady middle ground we talked about earlier, the place of questions not answers, the place where fiction should live. But I’m glad to say the event in the AV was a huge success, with lots of love from friends and family and strangers alike. If there’s anyone from the AV who detests the book or thinks my take on the AV is unfair or unrecognizable, I didn’t meet them. If they’re out there, I hope they’ll use that frustration in a constructive way by writing their own stories and poems to help create a diverse and nuanced literature of our strange and lovely home. Stories are more fun to write than angry emails, I bet, and definitely more likely to be read.

 

 

Conflict & Tension: What Writers Can Learn From How Visual Artists Use Contrast

 

MLContrast is the visual artist’s most powerful tool. Contrast does not necessarily mean opposite. Evil and contentment, white and off-white are both contrasts, but they are not opposites.

Artists use a spectrum of tools to achieve contrast: color and light, saturation and tone shading and line, focus, scale and perspective, body language and facial expression, subject matter and concept and every one of these tools can be used the same way in writing.

At its most basic, contrast can telegraph to an audience what’s important and where to look. I might concentrate my focal point on my character’s fidgeting hands and fade everything else into the background. Contrasting light can do the same thing.

But what makes contrast such a powerful tool is its ability to render complexity, tension and conflict.Continue Reading

On the Art of Perspective: Christopher Castellani & Maggie Nelson

e.v. de cleyre 35mm dining table setting light room pshares

“I want to tell you what happened on the way to dinner.” Christopher Castellani‘s The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story begins with that simple phrase, the driving force of storytelling: the author has something they want to convey. Which quickly leads us to the issue of how to convey it. Castellani, a Ploughshares Solo author, doesn’t know how to convey the story of what happened on the way to dinner, “because I haven’t decided who’s telling it.”

There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time.”

“Perspective” is defined as a particular attitude or point of view, or an understanding of the relative importance of things—a sense of proportion. Perspective in literature is often boiled down to first, second, or third-person point of view. Castellani widens the lens, broadening the subject to the point of needing to note where the book touches the edges of its scope: “The question of how far outside her own experience an author is ‘allowed’ to write has more to do with politics than with craft; as such, it is outside the scope of this book.”Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

vintage virginia

This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

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Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Erotic Parodies of Women

A writer and I were on the sunny plaza outside the Nobel Museum in central Stockholm and she was telling me about an erotic parody project she’d collaborated on. The project was called Fifty Shelves of Grey and involved a dozen or so British authors doing erotic rewrites of fifty classic books, all published under the pseudonym Vanessa Parody. However, amidst all that bodice ripping, partner swapping and heavy breathing, there arose a very real problem for those salacious scribes—finding works of literature that had two or more female characters that were not blood relatives. Though there were plenty of male/female and male/male relationships to uncloak; female/female relationships were almost exclusively between sisters, and mothers and daughters. The relationships of unrelated adult women are nearly invisible in literature. This absence is not only a hindrance for aspiring erotic parody writers, but is quite possibly a symptom of a larger erasure of the lives and experiences of women across literature.

Last year writer Nicola Griffith published a survey of the gender representation among the winners of half a dozen major literary awards. She looked at competitions from the last fifteen years and found that nearly two-thirds of Pulitzer winners were written wholly from the perspective of a man/boy, while zero were written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. The Man Booker fared slightly better with a total of two books of the last fifteen written wholly from the perspective of a woman/girl. So, it seems that stories that center on the lives of women are rarely elevated to the highest echelons of literary praise. It should then be of little surprise that relationships between women are nearly invisible in literary fiction.Continue Reading