A Writer Writer: The Writing That Counts

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In an episode of HBO’s Girls titled “Free Snacks,” aspiring writer Hannah Horvath lands a job producing “advertorial” content at GQ. Characteristically sharp and observant, she immediately brainstorms circles around her coworkers; at this rate, they suggest, she could really make a name for herself. But Hannah isn’t interested.

Hannah: I’m not looking to take Janice’s job.
Karen: Why not?
Hannah: ‘Cause I’m a writer.
Joe: Yeah, we’re all writers.
Hannah: Yeah, but I’m like, no offense, just a writer writer. Not like a corporate advertising, working-for-the-man kind of writer.
Joe: Who is? Kevin over here won a Yale Series of Younger Poets award back in 2009.

Chewing the very Clif Bars and SunChips supplied by writing-for-the-man, Hannah’s coworkers reveal their italic-worthy credentials. Karen has placed writing with n+1, Joe wrote for The New Yorker not a year out of college. This moment of their unmasking and Hannah’s subsequent transparent alarm reveals some things: it clarifies Hannah’s myopic self-obsession, whereby she can’t imagine her coworkers sharing any part of her own fervent, and private, artistic vocation. More broadly, we get to see the widely prevalent coexistence of commercial labor and artistic aspiration, even if it’s represented only to be rejected.

The skill set nurtured by a writing-intensive education and practice lends itself to all kinds of writing-based projects paradoxically thought adjacent to “actual” writing, and such a paradox begs the question: What kinds of writing count? Which contribute to, or threaten, the ultimate project of Becoming (/Being) a Writer—and who, if anyone, is served by the mythology of such distinctions?

Some writing-labor can be neatly subsumed under related professionalization: composing syllabi for writing-intensive courses, or publishing book reviews. But it remains that much of writing-while-writing seems to lack the romance of day jobbing in an explicitly unrelated field (e.g. bartending; retail; animal husbandry). The ostensible dichotomy of manual labor versus artistic process is protected by assumptions that 1) each is insulated from the other, and 2) “mindless” work can buy one time to make art. Such a body/mind dualism gets significantly more complicated when one’s day job also, or primarily, consists of writing. If foaming milk is honest work, generating copy is practically cheating on your art.Continue Reading

The Millennial-Gen X Rift Part II: the MFA System And A Digital Latina/o Literary Renaissance

are_you_seriousHector Tobar wouldn’t be the first to speculate about a contemporary Latina/o literary renaissance. That hype has been around for a long, long while. It surrounded the work of Gen X Latina/o writers beginning to publish in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s of which Junot Diaz is the most notable. The same can be said about the generation that produced Helena Maria Viramontes and Sandra Cisneros.

So many latina/o writers I know have heard that word so often they scoff at it. Renaissance. A close friend, an old prof, said to me in jest once that Latina/o writing goes through a “renaissance” every twenty years or so. People bestow upon our literature that label. But who knows why? There’s probably a lot of wishful thinking in aligning Latina/o letter with the trajectory of something like the Harlem Renaissance, but probably twice as much marketing can be gleaned from that word alone: clean, prestigious, professionalized. It signals the arrival of something, the coming-of-age of something. Who doesn’t want that? More than anything, who doesn’t want to buy into that? Writer or reader. Continue Reading

YA vs MFA

I’m not a rule-breaker. I like order and organization (lord help you if you try to cut in front of me in the burrito line). And generally I don’t go looking for trouble. Except when it comes to writing YA.

I was in my second year of my MFA program at Emerson College when I signed up for a “Writing the First Novel” class. I’d spent my first year focusing on literary short stories and was excited to try a longer project that veered more into the territory of YA. The week before class started, I tossed around ideas—maybe I could focus on that humorous character I’d been toying with since college; maybe a Pride and Prejudice adaptation set in a high school debate club; maybe I could expand that short story that needed a little more room and a little more voice.

Cut to the first class, reading a syllabus that included the dictate: no genre fiction, including fantasy, sci-fi, romance or young adult fiction.Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Andrew Jason Valencia

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Andrew Jason Valencia, an MFA candidate at the University of South Carolina. You can follow Andrew on Twitter @AValenciaWrites —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

photoOf all the adjustments I had to make when I enrolled in an MFA program, coming to terms with depression was the most confusing. For those of us who study fiction, it’s easy to fall into the habit of viewing life in terms of epiphanies, of measuring our personal growth according to moments of clarity or transcendence, when suddenly we feel that something major has changed, and that the change will be permanent. Or, as the character Bonaparte puts it in Frank O’Connor’s story “Guest of the Nation”: “And anything that happened to me afterwards, I never felt the same about again.”

The problem with depression is that the condition often presents itself as a total absence of feeling, good or bad—so that even if you find yourself in a moment when things suddenly seem clear, it’s unlikely that your brain will register the experience accordingly.

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POC vs PLOT: The MFA, Chipotle Cups, and Narratives We Crave

la-ar-weigh-in-on-your-favorite-cosby-sweater--002By now it seems everyone’s read Junot Diaz’s MFA vs POC blog on the New Yorker website. Even my freshmen at Cornell these days say to me, “Dan, was it really like that?” Usually I just shrug in response. I was a notorious recluse in my MFA. I had a girlfriend—now fiancé—in New York City who I visited every other weekend, and during that time I was watching a lot of films and HBO GO, desperately trying to figure out how narrative worked.

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Writing Lessons: Sarah Sherman

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Sarah Sherman, an MFA candidate at The College of Saint Rose. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

64440_10202770643213471_1562209064_nBefore speaking to us, he sat comfortably in the middle of the room with his shoes off and his eyes closed. I imagined him praying to Buddha, asking for a warm and welcoming group of students—which, luckily, we were. The class was Advanced Creative Nonfiction, led by a visiting writer, Sparrow. Some of us had Googled him, read about how he picketed The New Yorker, laughed at his old, hippie appearance. But still we didn’t know quite what to expect.

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Get Real! Or Maybe Don’t Get Real? A Conversation with Lincoln Michel (Part 2)

Recently, on social media, Gigantic magazine editor Lincoln Michel questioned the label of “realism.” I write “realism,” and I’m branching into other genres, so I introduced myself and asked a few more questions. Our conversation, conducted over e-mail, spanned several days, topics, and now two blog entries for Ploughshares.

Lincoln Michel’s fiction appears in Tin House, Electric Literature, Unstuck, NOON, and elsewhere. He is a co-editor of Gigantic magazine and Gigantic Worlds, a forthcoming anthology of science flash fiction. Sometimes he draws authors as monsters. He tweets at @thelincoln.

Part 1 can be found here. In Part 2, we discuss “realism” in writing workshops, shifts in the literary market, and how we both approach writing “non-realism.”

Publicicity image of Lincoln Michel. Rebecca Meacham: Earlier in our conversation, we discussed writers who work in more than one genre. There seems to be a move in the last decade toward genre-infused work in the mainstream—and that’s welcome news.

Back in 2003 when I was shopping my first book, I was encouraged to make the stories alike to “unify” the collection. Do you think versatility—in genre, form, voice, theme—is welcomed nowadays? Established writers make genre leaps: Isabel Allende just published a murder mystery, for example. Even debut writers, like Jamie Quatro, are garnering praise for their range.

Lincoln Michel: I do think it’s more accepted—hell, almost expected—for literary writers to dip into genre these days. Colson Whitehead wrote a zombie book, Sherman Alexie wrote a YA book, Cormac McCarthy wrote a post-apocalyptic book, and so on. (I myself am finishing up an anthology of science flash fiction, coedited with Nadxieli Nieto, that got a tremendous response from literary writers and readers when we had a Kickstarter.)

At the same time, those books I mentioned tend to use a fairly established genre or subgenre where audiences are familiar with the topes and conventions. Obviously those authors, being great, subvert and complicate those conventions in interesting ways.

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Writing Lessons: E.B. Bartels

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from E.B. Bartels, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @eb_bartels—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

EB Bartels - headshot

Photo: Janna Herman

Usually, when writing, I practice what I call The Withholding Method:

You wake up—time to write. But first you want coffee. STOP. Have you written a sentence yet? Write a sentence, then make coffee. Now you want to drink the coffee? NO! Write a paragraph first. Funny, you’re hungry? You’ll need a page before foraging for a snack. You chose something salty? Too bad. No water until you have two pages. Now you want to take a shower? HA! Maybe after 2,000 words. Go to the bathroom only if you feel good about your work.

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Writing Lessons: Rachel McCain

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Rachel McCain, a student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. You can follow Rachel on Twitter @Raqafella—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

rachel_1Fact: I don’t trust computers. I’m always paranoid my laptop is going to crash, disintegrating my work in the process—which has happened before. Several times.

I’ve lost USB flash drives, misplaced them. I forgot a USB in Staples over the summer. Tragic, but a way of life.

As it goes.

So I write everything down in a notebook—or try to. Usually, stories end up on the backs of bills lying around, receipts, in large blank spaces on old assignments. When I’ve written a substantial amount, I’ll type it up—save as I go—and then print it out and edit again. You know, just in case.

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MFAs Do It Best: Your Graduate Degree in the Workforce

Are these workshop participants secretly preparing for the workplace?

Are these workshop participants secretly preparing for the workplace? Photo credit: MadLabUK

When I graduated with my MFA this past May, I got a decent-paying job and the hell away from academia. I’d taught for four semesters and knew I didn’t want to do it anymore. I also knew that I had to get out of New Orleans, where the job market is hollow in the best economies. I had no service industry experience and there really wasn’t much else in the city for me in terms of work.

Fortunately I found a job in Chicago that I thought I wouldn’t hate too much, one that would also give me time to work on writing projects nights and weekends. I’ve been doing it since August with moderate success—and strangely enough, I’ve found that my MFA prepared me well for my new office workplace.

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