Monday, September 15, 2014

The fictional fine line


For my historical fiction workshop class last Wednesday,  the group read T.C. Boyle's novella Wild Child (from the 2010 collection Wild Child and other Stories) based on the famous true life case of the "Wild Boy of Aveyron." To summarize the true life case in brief: In 1800, in France, a boy was found living feral in the woods, naked.  No one knew for certain when he went in or for how long he'd lived there, but based on earlier reported sightings authorities estimated that he had lived for seven years or more in that environment, alone.  The boy seemed to have no knowledge of any language and did not react to any sounds.  It was assumed at first that he was a deaf-mute.  When it was discovered that he could in fact hear, a determined young doctor named Icard tried to civilize him, the hardest work of which was to try to teach him to understand and even speak the French language.  Icard also chose the name Victor for the boy.  After years of fantastic effort, Icard had to give up his experiment.  Victor simply was not progressing in his language acquisition, and in some ways he seemed to be regressing.  He was henceforth allowed to live out his life in the home of Madame Guérin--Icard's housekeeper--serving as Guérin's houseboy.  Victor did not cause the woman any undue trouble, but neither did he seem terribly happy.  To say the least, the attempt to turn the "savage" into a civilized man was deemed by all to have been a terrible failure.

From what I knew about Victor of Aveyron, and from what my students could tell, Boyle seemed to be sticking very closely to the known facts of the case.  Many of them also described the tone of the narration to be distant, clinical, impassionate, observing rather than participating.  (Perhaps this is what led one of them to call Boyle's style "stodgy.")  What Boyle appeared to be doing with the story was taking the facts of the case and lining them up inside a fluid, readable narrative.  I use italics on appeared because neither I nor my students knew enough about Boyle's intentions or his method of working to speak conclusively.  I had tried to find an interview with Boyle or an article about him in which he discussed the novella and his research in detail, but I wasn't successful.  The way the discussion was going I wished I had tried a little harder.   One student wondered aloud what made the novella fiction since Boyle's apparent modus operandi could describe a great deal of narrative nonfiction, including some very celebrated examples of such.  I have to admit the question stumped me.  I was completely unprepared for it.  (I'm much more ready to respond to those who attack a work of historical fiction for playing too loosely with the facts.  Fiction writers are rarely if ever questioned for being too faithful to the historical record.)  I said that since it was published in a collection of fiction I just accepted it as such, which is true but not a terribly convincing argument.  And I offered my apology for not finding out what Boyle himself had to say.  A pretty meager response.

Later, after I'd had time to think about it, I realized there were aspects of the book I could and should have pointed to in order to nudge it, in my students' minds, clearly to the side of fiction.  First, despite the complaints about the distant and clinical narration, the novel isn't written in third person objective; Boyle doesn't narrate, not completely, from the stance of the neutral historian.  Instead,  he shows the perspectives of a variety of the book's characters, most importantly, Icard, Madame Guérin, and Victor himself, especially in one especially fraught scene when Victor flees from Icard's control to find himself lost and and at a loss on the streets of Paris.  Given how shut out from Victor's mind the people around him felt, this scene certainly represents a leap of the imagination for the author.  A leap based partly on the facts of the case, of course, but even more on Boyle's intuition.  And too,while the novella's narrator demonstrates more powerful control over what we know and find out and believe and interpret than is typically the case with contemporary fiction--in which scene is primary--it's not like Wild Child is without scenes or without dialogue.  As I frequently say to people who like to discuss research vs imagination as if they are strict writerly dichotomies,  just because you know Mr. Brown had a conversation with Mrs. Smith at French restaurant in New York in 1931, and you even know the subject of their conversation, there is little to no chance you know what the actual words were that they used in that conversation.  And even if somehow you know the actual words, you don't know what the sky looked like outside the window; or what oddities marked the appearnce of the passersby; you don't know the state of the tablecloth on their table or how dingy was the lighting; you don't know who was sitting at the tables nearby and whether their conversation might have made it hard for Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith to concentrate; you don't know if Mr. Brown and Mrs. Smith's conversation became a distraction for them.  These are just a fraction of the possible details that could potentially make up a scene in story, and they are details that the historical fiction writer must often create with his or her imagination.  Yes, that's right.  Must.  Those details are certainly evident in Boyle's story, even as he also relates a tremendous amount of factual information about the Wild Boy's behavior, the other principals and their backgrounds, and the philosophical debates of the time that made Victor such a crucial test case.

Meanwhile, a strict writer of narrative nonfiction would forbid himself or herself from risking such a liberal assertion of the the imagination.  I remember once hearing a radio interview with Sebastian Junger in which he claimed that every single detail in The Perfect Storm, even conversations between the principals, was derived through research, whether that meant through reading or by talking with knowledgeable people, including the families and friends of the men who died in the storm.  Junger refused to allow himself to speculate about how a person involved might have felt or might have thought or might have perceived something.  If he could not derive a detail convincingly from research, even if that detail might have made his narrative more vivid,  he left it out.   Clearly, this is not the way of the fiction writer.  And I think it's safe to say it wasn't Boyle's way in writing Wild Child.  Perhaps he came as close to the fiction/creative nonfiction line as any writer of historical fiction dares, but I'm not willing to write him off as not being among us.  He is T.C. Boyle, after all.  Don't you want him in your corner?

(Pictured on right: Boyle, in our corner.)

Monday, September 1, 2014

At long last--the historical fiction class


[This post is being dual-posted on my other blog, Payperazzi.   For weekly reflections on writing, teaching writing, publishing, and the writing life, check out Payperazzi.]

For years at UCA we've talked about it: running a workshop class solely devoted to historical fiction.  There seemed to be a pressing need.  After all, as I've written about repeatedly on my other blog Creating Van Gogh, historical fiction is enjoying an especially fruitful time right now: as popular as it's ever been in terms of mass market sales, while at the same time its writers routinely win or make the short lists for prestigious prizes like the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Award.  Most importantly, the students want to try the form out.  They want to focus on it.  They want to study it.  So really it's about time.  And, yes, now it's happening, and I'm honored to be the instructor allowed to teach it.  The crop of students in the class--a nice mix of graduate students and undergrads--are all genuinely interested in the form and eager to throw themselves into at least one, if not three different, past times in order to write a story or stories.  (I've given them the option of writing three separate fictions or one longer one.)  One of the undergrads is a history major.  Another is a business major/writing minor with an interest in the form that dates back several years, when I first had him in workshop.  Then he was writing about medieval Japan; now he's interested in Joan of Arc.  One of the graduate students is working on an historical novel for her MFA thesis; another wants to explore family stories from out of Kansas.  They're excited.  I'm excited.

Because the course was created under our Topics in Creative Writing rubric, for now it's a one-time shot.  Let's hope the class succeeds, which means the students like what they read and, more crucially, what they write.  And because it's a brand new course, it's an utter experiment, as any brand new course is--making it, from the teacher's standpoint, both thrilling and anxious at the same time.  I'm giving the students quite a mixed bag of work to do: required readings in historical fiction (including two longish novels), presentations on articles about historical fiction as a craft, the original fictions that they compose, in-class journal writings and reflections, peer group meetings, and, later in the semester, full class workshops.  It will be a full room of fifteen people and, as is usually the case with any workshop course, trying to figure how to balance all the different elements within the time alloted will be the biggest test.

I got the ball rolling last Wednesday with a short presentation on some of the issues surrounding the form.  First of all: What is historical fiction anyway?  Opinions definitely vary.  (Does historical fantasy count?  What about alternative histories?)  And: What are the "rules" of writing it? Here opinions vary even more widely.  I was hardly trying to lay down the rules myself but instead trying to suggest some of the areas of most sensitive and commited disagreement.  For instance, when employing an actual person out of history in your story, can you make things up that you know never happened?  When setting the story in a much earlier period is the writer required to describe in detail the physical setting of that period?  How closely should you--or even can you--try to mimick the way people spoke in the time period?  And what if the language they would have spoken is medieval French or Turkish or Russian, and you're writing in English for an English language audience?  How do you approximate one language through the other?  I do have my own measured opinions on these questions.  Opinions I'll certainly share with the students.  But I'm hoping and expecting that as the students write their own fictions and research what others have to say about the form, they'll uncover lots of different opinions about such questions as well as plenty of questions that I haven't yet brought before them.  It seems true, in the end, that what the governing rules are for historical fiction is something that each writer of historical fiction has to decide for himself or herself, just as the governing rules of any novel have to be determined by that novel itself.  So in the end what rules my students choose for themselves will likely be as varied as the projects they are working on.  But we're only at the beginning now; the ending is quite far off indeed.  I'm excited and anxious to see how this ride goes.

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Giveaway reminder:  Just another reminder that through Goodreads I'm running a giveaway promotion (on three continents!) for Island Fog, my forthcoming book of linked short stories.  The book is half historical fictions, one of which my class is reading for this coming Wednesday.   Let's hope they like it!  And if you haven't yet, let's hope you sign up for the giveaway.  Just follow this link.  The promotion ends on Oct. 1, which is the official release date for the book.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Island Fog giveaway starts today!


The official countdown for the October 1 release of my linked story collection Island Fog, published by Lavender Ink in New Orleansstarts today!   Beginning today and continuing until the release date, I am running a giveaway promotion on Goodreads.  Shortly thereafter I will be mailing free copies of the book to three lucky Goodreads users.  If you aren't a member of Goodreads already, you really need to be.  (Because if you read this blog I know you're a book lover.)  Unlike some social networking sites, I find myself coming back to Goodreads over and over.   

So how do I enter the giveaway?  Easy.  Just follow this link, and you'll be there.   Click on the "Enter to Win" button, provide your contact information, and you are officially entered!  

I'm excited, not just for my book, which I am deeply proud of, but for this chance to get it into the hands of someone who's curious about it and wants to dive in.  Or just into the hands of someone who loves books!  

Good luck to everybody who enters.  I'm eager to see who wins! 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Two years later . . .


[This post originated on my newer blog Payperazzi.  Check out that blog for my latest musings on writing, the writing life, and teaching writing.  I'm publishing it here too on Creating Van Gogh because I first mentioned this subject (briefly) in a CVG post a couple years back.  Consider this an update and a coda.]

Two years ago, I was all set to go into the movie business.  Well, sort of.  Here's what happened.  Early in the summer of 2012 I was contacted by an actress in London, one with reasonably serious stage and screen credits to her name.  In between acting jobs this actress had been serving as an assistant producer on some films.  Now she wanted to produce a film of her own, a short.  And she wanted to base that short on my story "My Word," which she had just read in the online journal Literary Mama.  What's more, if all went will with the short film, she wanted to expand the short into a feature.  You can imagine my surprise and delight.  A film?  Of my story?  Maybe a feature?! This opportunity felt like it had dropped out of heaven and into my lap.   The whole thing was as bizarre and amazing and exhilerating as it was unexpected.  After all, although I have a strong and abiding interesting in writing plays--and in the entire art of stagecraft--I've never, unlike so many of my undergraduate students, had the least interest in writing a screenplay or getting involved in the business of putting a movie together.  And yet here was this movie-making opportunity; from a credible, connected source.  I wasn't about to say no.   And I didn't.

Due to various delays--some unavoidable; some which struck me as quite avoidable--it took two months before the actress had a contract to show me.  But finally in early August she faxed it to me, and I signed it.  The contract would cover a period of two years.  And it would only apply to the short.  I wouldn't be paid for my story, but I would receive co-producer credit on the film, and my specified duties would include reviewing and commenting on the screenplay, which she was determined to write herself.  (I had asked around to various people in the know, and what I heard was that with a short film the writer usually just gives the story away for the sake of publicity.  "But," the same gurus said, "if she does decide to make a feature you need a new contract, one that pays you actual money.  Because if it's a feature there's going to be more money involved.")  After the delays in getting the contract finalized it looked like the project was finally about to take off.  The actress was begining a three week vacation (in America, ironically), and she had decided that it was to be a writing vacation.  In a phone call from her vacation spot, she told me that she would have a screenplay ready to show me in a week.  And she was certain that the film would not only be started but in the can in no more than a year.  Sounded great.

I checked in with her via email after a week, only to be told that she hadn't actually started writing yet.  But she was about to, she said; I should give her another week.  When I checked in the next week, however,  she said she had encountered some problems in the writing and had decided to read a novel by John Steinbeck to give her some ideas on structure.  Hmmm.  Okay.  When I emailed her a week after that I received no reply.  At some point she must have shut down her vacation and flown back to England, but she did so without sending any further word about the supposedly imminent screenplay.   That fall I emailed her semi-regularly--just light, friendly messages--hoping for good news.  I didn't actually ask about the screenplay; I just wanted to keep lines of communication open.  Mostly she didn't respond to my messages, but sometimes she did.   She only addressed the screenplay once.  She said she still hoped to get to it, but she had two or three other projects to get to first.  Oh.  Eventually she stopped responding to my emails altogether, so I just let it go.   If she really did want to do this movie, I figured, she would contact me.  But she didn't.

And she hasn't.

Now, two years later, the movie project based on my short story appears to have been long since scuttled without ever having been launched.  And now that the contract has expired there's little to no chance of the project being resurrected.  Every now and then I check the actress's IMDb resume of acting and producing gigs, in hopes of noticing some reference to our film.  But nothing's been added to her resume in over a year, so I have to wonder if she's even in the business anymore.   I guess so far this post makes me sound bitter.  Maybe I am; just a little.  But, honestly, not that much.  Even when it appeared that all systems were go and my story was about to generate a movie, the project didn't feel real to me.   It felt instead like some kind of pretend amendment to my life.  To my actual life--the one with my family--but also, just as importantly, to my writing life: which is about composing fictions.  (Btw, that August, while I was waiting on the screenplay that never came, I did reconfigure "My Word" as a one-act play.  I wanted to be able to imagine it as words and movements only, in order to be better prepared to "consult" when the time came.  I didn't really write it in order to be performed, but I did publish it last year in the online journal Foliate Oak.)

Looking back on this curious episode, I'm tempted to try to draw some lesson from it.  But the only lesson I can draw is one I already knew at the time.  That is: Know who you are and keep doing what you do.  After all, it's the only thing that's really yours; the only thing you can control.  Even as I emailed and phone conferenced with the actress, even as I hoped for and looked forward to her screenplay, even as I prepared myself to help with it, even as I was disappointed that it never came,  I kept working on stories.  I wrote new stories; I revised previous ones.  It's who I was.  It's who I am.  It's what I do.  Now, two years later, I have a book of short stories called  Island Fog forthcoming from Lavender Ink press in New Orleans, and I couldn't be happier.  Lavender Ink is clearly serious about the project.  Lavender Ink has promotional plans.  Heck, Lavender Ink answers my emails!  And still, even as I busy myself this summer with marketing work on the book--lining up reviews in magazines and on blogs, drawing up plans for a late fall book tour, consulting with the woman who will be designing my website--I'm composing new stories.  It's who I am.  It's what I do.  Any life and any career will encounter setbacks.  This includes a writing career.  And with a writing career the best way--the only way, I think--to handle any setback is to keep writing.  It's hard to concentrate on, or even remember, bitterness from a lost opportunity when you're engaged in creating a new story with new characters and all new oppoertunites.   The story of your last story falls away and all you see is the story of the new one: the potential there and the pleasure.  Suddenly you're thinking not about the recent past but the future, the future of this story.  After all, in two years who knows where it could be?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Why we write together


[This post originated in my newish blog Payperazzi.  I crosslist it here on Creating Van Gogh, for the sake of CVG readers and also because I provide some news about my forthcoming book Island Fog, half of which is made up of historical fictions.]

In a recent commentary in The New York TimesBonnie Tsui discusses her lifelong difficulties writing around other people and her recent breakthroughs doing just that.  (Thanks, by the way, to Erika Dreifus for another great reading recommendation.)  Interestingly, one of Tsui's discoveries stems from the fact that when she is around other people she talks more than she writes.  But that, it turns out, is a good thing.  The talking lets her flesh out various possibilities in a piece and thus decide what it is a right path and what a false trail without wasting several hours of writing before coming to the same conclusion.  (I'm not sure if, for a fictionist, any writing is truly wasted--but that's a discussion for another day.)  More intriguing is Tsui's past reasons for resisting writing in groups and the fact that despite these reservations she finally found value in it.  Some of the reasons--e.g., fear that someone will steal one of her ideas--seem almost amateurishly overblown (nothing is more commonplace than an idea); other reasons--such as the fear of distraction--strike me as more realistic.  The bottom line, though, is that Tsui has discovered a generous, supportive community that not only gives her important feedback on her work but informs her about, and connects her to, many important aspects of the writing world that lay beyond her narrow personal focus: readings, conferences, classes, etc.  Tsui has discovered that writing is both solitary and social; that the two aspects can and do feed each other.

Since in just about every class I teach I make my students spend at least some in-class time generating new material, I was heartened by Tsui's essay.  I can't remember when I first started making my students produce original work in class--I was never made to do this myself as an undergrad or a grad--but it has come to seem essential to me.  This is especially so in a forms class, in which I lead the students through a series of specifc fictional or non-fictional or poetic forms, and I want to make sure that they actively try every form we cover.  But no matter what the class, I always set aside in-class writing time.  In my mind, it's as central to a creative writing class as workshopping.  After all, if one takes a class in painting or dancing or acting or playing the piano, one expects to paint, dance, act, or play the piano in class.  One would feel cheated if denied the chance to do so.  So why should it be any different for a writing class?  Just as with painting or dancing, it's a matter of working on one's craft.  A minute spent practicing writing is about the best minute a writer can hope for, and the minute in which the writer learns the most.  And if one does that writing in the company of others and then shares that work with others--or at least hears about it from others--one learns not only about his or her own work but about someone else's and about the genre at large.  The learning is multiplied.

I always write along with my students, and I look forward to those days more than any other on the schedule.  First, as anyone who has taken a creative writing class can tell you, doing nothing but workshopping each other's stories or essays or poems all semester long can wear you out and finally even sap your creativity (because you're exercising your analytical and not your creative self).  Meanwhile, doing nothing but reading the work of masters, while an extremely valuable activity, turns the class into a literature course.  Having the element of on-site creativity affords a crucial pedogogical element of pause, of rest, of reenergizing, of rediscovery.  And far from being "just crap"or "just writing," what my students generate in class often becomes what they work on for their formal assignments.  Often what I write in class leads to a finished and published story.  I can't tell you how valuable that time has been for my career.

Over the years, nearly all my students have appreciated this in-class writing time, even my graduate students (and never more than when I teach Novel Writing Workshop). But of course this is not always the case.  Most years there is a student or two who turn their noses up at the practice, as if they are too good to waste precious time wrting in the presence of plebes.  Yes, as you can tell from my description, these students don't simply not want to write in class but, almost to a man--and they are always men--believe that they are better than that.  They glance around the room, at the other students and me--our heads bent over notebooks or laptops--with a caustic smile on their face, as if we are all dupes, or beginners carrying out grade school games.  Their writing time, you see--unlike everybody else's apparently--is special, holy, inviolate.  It must be done entirely in priviate--like some cultic religious function--or it can't get done.  In fact, again, to a man, that's what they tell me when I question them about their in-class inactivity: I have to write alone.  I became so quickly tired of this attitude that years ago I installed in my syllabus a warning (yes, I felt I had to warn them) that--gasp--we would actually be writing in this writing course.  I would remind them that my department existed in a College of Fine Arts, an arm of the university where creativity was routinely expected in classroom settings (painting, playing, dancing, etc.) and no excuses were afforded.  Finally, I felt I obliged to add this sentence:  "Being writers, this prospect ought to excite not discourage you."  

And that's really what it comes down to for me.  Of course writing is a solitary activity.  And I am someone who typically tries to keep distractions to a minimum when I write.  I don't write to music (although the vast majority of my students do); I don't write with the television or talk radio on; I don't try to write and text at the same time; I even like to keep the internet out of the way, unless I need to quick research a point directly related to what I'm working on.  I am by nature quite the solitary person.  But I learned easily enough, as soon as I started asking my students to, to compose while in the company of twenty or more people.  You do that by not being so much into yourself and about yourself and your holy rituals as into and about the work at hand.  You let the work at hand take you away.  And that can happen anywhere, in any company, no matter how large or small in number.   Finally--finally--you need to get over yourself.  That's what it's about.  For the good of your own writing, your own development, you need to.  And that includes the attitude the you can't ever learn from the people sitting in class with you; and the attitude that you can never learn a new way of composing.   To me, the writer who can't summon the necessary power of concentration to be compose--and I mean compose meaningfully--in a group of others is not more of a writer but less of one.  He is not able to do what others clear can do, and even enjoy doing.  His proud resistance is revealed to be less that of a genius than that of a misanthrope.  And perhaps, for all his haught, an insecure one at that.  Fortunately, with every year I see fewer of these types of students.  Perhaps initiatives like NaNoWriMo, with its big fat group writing parties, has shown young people the value of writing together.  Or perhaps this generation of students has just been been better taught how to work in a collaborative fashion, or at least in group settings.  But so far there are still the tenacious holdouts.  God bless them, I hope for their own sakes they leave aside the tiresome role of lone wolf, roaming the woods at night in search of inspiration, and allow themselves a step into the sunshine of immediate generation.

Quick personal note: I had a wonderful vacation last week in South Dakota, specifically in Custer State Park in the middle of the Black Hills region.  I'd never been to the Black Hills, or even to the state, before.  And now I won't ever forget it.  (Trying to figure how we can import buffalo herds down here to Arkansas.)   

Follow-up to my book marketing post:  Several weeks ago I put up a post that highighted all the marketing and promotion work I'd taken on for the sake of my book of linked stories, called Island Fog, which will be out in October from Lavender Ink press.  The last few weeks, thanks to a great reference book my wife gave me, I've been researching hundreds of book bloggers, national and international.  (Yes, I am pleased to report, there are hundreds of them out there.)  As a result, I contacted 65 or so to ask if they wanted to read and review Island Fog.  To date, 25 of these bloggers have said yes!  This is better than I could have anticipated, and now I can't wait to see the results.  A few of them are ready to go right away and I have to tell them, "Wait, it's not available for sale until October!" So I talk them down to September. I'm so glad I'm doing this all in advance.  (And I have to thank my publisher for the timely kick in the pants to get going.)  Hopefully Island Fog will be blogged galore come fall.  I'll let you all know.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Requiem for Joanna


The University of Central Arkansas, and most especially its Writing Department, suffered a terribly keen loss last week with the passing of our colleague Dr. Joanna Castner-Post.  Joanna was way too young, way too energetic, and way too loved for us to believe she's gone, but there it is.  And Joanna wasn't only loved, she was needed.  If you spend a lot time in higher education, whether as a student or professor (or both), you come to recognize a certain kind of undying, mid-level hubris that exists there.  After all, you're talking about people who have been lionized their whole lives for being smart--and they usually are, and they have the degrees to prove it.  And they are determined to prove it.

Joanna wasn't like that.  She was a supportive and enthusiastic colleague, a colleague who tried to see the best in the people around her and encourage the best in those people.  She did not act out of any closeted agendas.  If she told she believed something, you knew it was so.  Instead of shooting down new ideas and explaining why they couldn't work, she exulted over them and encouraged us to try to make them work.  She was that rare human being in academia: someone you could trust completely.  Even rarer: She was an optimist.  And she worked really hard.  It was for these reasons that she was so incredibly beloved at UCA.  Not only by her colleagues, but by her students and by the many classes of tutors she helped train at the UCA Writing Center when she served as its director.  For a week before her death, Joanna was in the Critical Care Unit at Conway Regional Hospitial in a chemically induced coma.  You never saw such a steady stream of people visiting a patient.  There were literally lines of people waiting to see her, to offer her their prayers and encouragement, and, in the end, to say goodbye to her one last time.   Not a soul was there because they had to be, only because they wanted and needed to.  One young man, a former Writing Center tutor, flew in from Utah just to see Joanna and say goodbye.  He then proceeded to fly right back.  At one point seven of her former tutors surrounded her bed, not wanting, any of them, to leave.  Several of her former students visited as well, many in tears.  It was a very very difficult week, but also an astonishing one.  Astonishing for the amount of love and respect one person could engender.   But then again, we're talking about Joanna.  

I remember when we first hired her in the Writing Department.  For some reason, which now I can't fathom, we did not receive the usual excessive number of applications in response to our job ad.   Some of us were unhappy with the pool of candidates en masse.  We talked about how we should go about our next job search to make sure we got a bigger pool.  I'll never forget what our (then) department chair Dave Harvey said in response:  "Yes, it would have been nice to have a bigger pool of candidates, but the bottom line is that if you've hired Joanna Castner-Post, you just had a very successful job search."  Of course Dave was right.  Something Joanna kept showing and showing as the years went on.  In fact, it might have been our best job search ever.    
                                                                      *     *     *  

Within hours of her passing last Friday morning, some former tutors of UCA's Writing Center established a Heifer Project "Send a Girl to School" fund in Joanna's honor.  The goal of the fund was to raise $275, as this is the amount that guarantees that one otherwise underprivileged girl can go to school in the developing world.  As of this writing, only two days later,  the fund has raised several times that amount.  Indeed, it's headed toward $2000.  What a testament to Joanna.  She may end up sending five or six girls to school--maybe more!  I mention this only as an example of the great love Joanna inspired in the UCA Community and beyond, not to try to trick you into opening your wallet.  But if you think you'd like to donate to the fund, you can do so by following this link.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Who pays?


[This is a post I generated for my other blog Payperazzi, for which it's admittedly better suited, but I'm cross-posting it here in the hopes of hearing as many different stories as I can.]

It's been my experience, and it's also perfectly natural, that the majority of students who trek through a MFA in creative writing program--along with several students who study creative writing as undergraduates--hope to someday, in some capacity, work in higher education, preferably teaching writing and preferably full-time.  This isn't surprising, and I can tell them that on the whole I've been rather happy with my choice of profession.  Indeed, knowing myself, and looking back over my job history, it's hard for me to imagine I would have stayed satisified in the different careers I tried when I was younger.  That said, there are all sorts of practical details of a full-time higher education job that no one considers when they are in graduate school but probably they should be warned about.  For instance, there's that messy little business of job-mandated dinner appointments, appointments for which one is rarely if ever reimbursed.  All things considered this is a minor matter in one's life as a college professor, but it's a matter that comes up time and again, year after year, like a pebble buried in the heal of one's running shoe, as job candidate after job candidate comes to your university and you are simply required to pay up, out of your own pocket, in order to host them.

Sometimes one willingly and eagerly pays to help host a visitor.  For instance, when the creative writers  at my school invite a writer to campus I am often so happy to have the chance to break bread with the writer that I don't mind paying for the privilege.  Such meals aren't burdens but opportunities, opportunities that we creative writers gave ourselves when we decided to invite those specific people to our school.  But some dinner appointments are much less interesting while at the same time mandated.  This is typically the case when a job applicant come to town for an interview and you are on the hiring committee that reviewed his or her folder.  I understand that a school must feed a person who's on campus for a job interview.  What I don't understand is legislating that the meal is the only way the committee gets to interact with the job candidate (this does happen), meaning that not a soul on the committee has the option to skip the meal, even if his or her bank account has no funds with which to pay for it.   I don't imagine that when managers at Wal*Mart or IBM or Exxon or _______ (insert name of familiar corporation here) take a job candidate to dinner, those managers are paying for their own meals.  Perhaps they do, but I'd be surprised.  In higher education, faculty are required to do this all the time.

And one dirty little secret of academia is that there are drastic discrepancies in faculty pay.  I don't just mean from region to region, state to state, and university to university.  Those can almost be anticipated.  (And they make meaningless any figure cited as a "national average" for college professors.) But even within a given university, faculty of equal rank, seniority, and accomplishment often receive vastly different salaries.  By "vast" I mean vast.  By the way, did I say that discrepencies are vast?  They are.  They're vast.  This has nothing to do with the amount of hours one logs on the job, how well one is teaching one's students, what service work one is performing for one's college, how much one is publishing, or whether or not one has a national reputation in one's field.  It simply has to do with what discipline you're lucky, or unlucky, enough to excel at, and how highly the university regards that discipline.  In certain disciplines you're driving sports cars; in other disciplines you're wondering how you are going to make it to the end of the week.  But no matter what the discipline, if you're on a hiring committee you're expected to take the candidate to dinner and pay for your dinner yourself.

Like I said when I opened this post, this is a relatively minor aspect of one's day-to-day life as a higher education professional.  It's one of the down sides to a career choice that has many ups.  But it does grate.  It just seems to me that if the university is mandating that one attend a given dinner for the sake of university business, the university should foot the bill.  Obviously, a person who is not on the hiring committee, and therefore does not have to attend the dinner, should pay his or her own way if he or she chooses to dine.  But if you're made to be there, the body that is making you owes it to you to cover your expense.   This strikes me as only commonsensical.  But it's just another example of an unfortunate phenomenon I've noted in recent years.  Universities will often hail the virtues of the "corporate model" if doing so means they can spend less on and for faculty.  But those same universities will ignore the corporate model in situations where corporations are actually more generous  toward their employees than the university wants to be.  In certain universities one has the uncomfortable feeling that the administration would prefer to actually spend nothing at all on faculty, despite the obvious fact that gathering students and teaching them is the entire point of higher education.  It's the reason why the university exists at all.  It's why those pretty brick buildings were built.  It's why administrators have the jobs they do.

Oh well, if I get started down that road I could go on forever.  So, tell me, who pays at your university for mandated dinners?  Am I wrong about the corporate world?  Does anyone have a better system and a happier story?