Welcome to the Literary Jungle

Eudora WeltySeveral times a year I am the recipient of emails or phone calls from friends, colleagues, parents, or complete strangers in search of writing guidance. Often the messages begins, “Hello, my name is Barbra. My daughter wants to be a writer. She’s very talented. Jill Matthews said you might be able to . . .” What follows ranges from, “give some advice” to “edit her trilogy.” These types of messages leave me sighing, not because I don’t enjoy cultivating new voices, but because how those people perceive the writing community and the writing vocation is often vastly different from actuality.

While it would be easy to give advice from my personal experiences, those experiences are just that–personal. Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Ivan Ang

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 Ivan Ang, a candidate in the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire. You can follow Ivan on Twitter @Agonized_Writer—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

PB212730I was going to title this essay, “How to be the Only Asian in the MFA Program and Not Drop Out,” when I was reminded of British comedian Matt Lucas, playing a gay character named Daffyd Thomas in a series of sketches called “The Only Gay in the Village.” In the series, Daffyd was convinced that, being only gay man in his tiny Welsh village of Llandewi Breffi, he would be “naturally” hated by everyone else. In reality, everyone in the village was very gay-friendly. Daffyd’s refusal to believe that he was being accepted for who he was formed the basis of the comedic conceit.

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Writing Lessons: Amy Mackin

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 Amy Mackin, a candidate in the Communications program at Curry College. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

justamy_medIn my late thirties, I decided I wanted to write for publication. (I had always written, just not for public consumption.) To begin this endeavor, I started writing a young adult novel—a coming-of-age story featuring a fourteen-year-old protagonist. The process quickly consumed me and forced me to examine my own upbringing and teen years in a way I had never done before, leading to the realization that some of those experiences had negatively impacted me for years after.

For a pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstraps native New Englander, this wasn’t easy to admit. I was of the camp that says, “Toughen up. We’ve all been through it. We all survived.” Only the truth was, we all didn’t. There were kids who retreated into drugs and alcohol to dull the pain, and never reemerged. Some resorted to violence to place themselves at the top of the social hierarchy. Others, labeled too sensitive, too thin-skinned, took their own lives.

My son falls into that sensitive, thin-skinned category. I had been working on my teen novel for a couple of years when he began to get off the school bus without a word, storm to his room, and slam the door behind him. When I asked what was wrong, he shouted, “I hate my life!”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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Writing Lessons: Steve Lewis

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 Steve Lewis, a faculty member at the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute. You can visit Steve’s website at www.stevelewiswriter.com—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

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Back in the 80s I’d sometimes find, in my battered rural mailbox, pressed between SASEs from Harper’s or The Atlantic, manila envelopes stuffed with short stories written by my sister’s son Pete, my brother’s son Jake, and my sister-in law’s daughter Isabel.

As I read those ripped notebook pages speckled with whiteout, I happily assumed the pose of the kindly uncle professional writer, enthusiastically pointing out moments of real resonance—and gently, ever so gently, making one or two standard issue suggestions about showing not telling.

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Writing Lessons: Emily Maloney

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 Emily Maloney, a student in the MFA program at the University of Pittsburgh. You can follow her on Twitter @emilyfmaloney—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

emily_bridge_photoI registered for my final required workshop last fall. Up until that point, I had mixed feelings about my MFA program. I felt disconnected. I loved teaching but it took so much energy, and I never seemed to have time to write. Enter final required workshop.

There were six of us (seven if you count the professor), including one student from another discipline altogether. I hadn’t been the best about writing regularly. I prided myself as someone who wrote when I had deadlines. Have to turn in an essay for workshop? Fine, I’ll write something and send it in. Need to submit something for a contest? Maybe I’ll revise that thing I wrote last year. I had something of a routine before graduate school, mostly structured by my job and my commute, but the acres of free time I had accumulated since leaving made me procrastinate.

The official class met once a week, like many workshops do. But what our professor suggested we do before we did anything else, seven days a week, was show up to a coffeehouse close to where most of us lived. Starting at 6:30 a.m., you could show up and write. If you missed a day, that was fine. It was like a yoga class, or a dojo (our professor used to teach Judo, so this analogy made sense).Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Sandy Pool

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 Sandy Pool, a student in the Ph.D. Creative Writing program at the University of Calgary. You can follow her on Twitter @sandypools—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

IMGP4022-2 copy 2Do you find poems impenetrable? Do you cry easily? Are you overcome with grief at inopportune moments? Do not despair.  I have borrowed from my good friend and colleague, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, to illustrate how easy it is to confront the difficult poem, and move on with your rich and fulfilling life!*

Confronting the difficult poem can be easily broken down into five distinct stages, as illustrated below:

1. DENIAL

“This can’t be happening to me.  I can’t be forced to read this crappy Yeats guy.”

Student uses denial as a temporary defense. Denial can be conscious or unconscious refusal to read poem. Student may insist on ice cream, or Chuck Palahniuk. Denial is a defense mechanism and some students can become locked in this stage.**

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Writing Lessons: Jackie Mercurio

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 Jackie Mercurio, a student in the MFA program at Sarah Lawrence College. Jackie’s creative nonfiction will be appearing in the May issue of Good Housekeeping, and you can also follow her on Twitter (@jackmercurio) and Facebook—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

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I was caught eating Fritos by E.L. Doctorow.

I had softened the chips with saliva, to lessen the crunch, but it didn’t work: I realized (a mouthful of Fritos too late) that I had disturbed the author. We had been sitting in his office, as we had done every week at NYU, to discuss my thesis paper, and as he had been reading over my stack of stories, probably thinking of a nice way to tell me, You’ve written crap here, I sat there with my big pregnant belly, munching Fritos.

He looked up from my thesis, and directly at my mouth as if I had no face attached. And feeling ashamed, and not knowing what to do, I simply swallowed, and held open the bag of chips. “Here, Professor. Have one.”Continue Reading

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

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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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