Monday, November 26, 2012

Boston and London


2013 promises to be an exciting year of conferencing for me.  It starts in March, as I head to Boston for the annual mammoth necessary insanity of the AWP Conference.   Boston, of course, is one of the great heritage cities of the United States and has the added benefit of being the hometown of my oldest sister.  I'll be wearing two hats at AWP this year.  I'll be there to represent Toad Suck Review, of which I am currently the associate editor, as we share our brand new issue #3 with the world.  (See my previous post for more commentary about this.)  But I will also be speaking on a panel that addresses the subject of novel writing workshops.  Such workshops are a relatively new, but exciting, development in the world of creative writing instruction.  For decades the short story form has dominated fiction workshop activities, and basically for one reason: a class can easily read in advance and discuss in one class period an entire short story (or two or three).  It's a manageable sized bite of work to prepare and process.  Now I adore the short story form--I really do--but it's a fact that most fiction-writers-in-training have their eyes on writing novels eventually (or immediately), and it's also true that novels are typically preferred over story collections in the eyes of publishers.  Most of all it's true that learning to write a successful short story does not really train one to write a successful novel.   They are very different animals.  So what, as creative writing teachers, do we do about this? Do we open up our regular workshop class to both novels and stories?  Or do we create separate classes just for novel writers?  And if the answer to that is yes, can we ask students to write a whole novel in a single semster's time?  Do we expect the whole class to read it?  How do we workshop it?  Does a teacher possibly have time to read 15 or 20 student novels over the course of a semester or at the end of the semester?  These are good, pressing questions, and different teachers--myself included--have come up with their own answers to them.  What we should not and cannot do is fail to encourage our students in their pursuit of longer forms.  That would be a disservice.  By happy fortune, I will again be teaching my Novel Writing course next semester--to a mixed group of graduate and undergraduate students--and therefore I will be able to bring my latest news, and my latest experiences, to the panel discussion.  I'm really looking foward to it.

The wanderings continue this summer when I head off to another of the world's leading cities for the Great Writing Conference, held June 29-30 at the University of London, Imperial College.   The brainchild of Australian Graeme Harper--who studied, wrote, taught, and administered in the UK for decades and does so now in the United
States--Great Writing is in its fifteenth year and going strong.  Without question it is the most important creative writing conference in the United Kingdom and arguably the second most important in the world.  Writers and teachers from virtually every part of the Anglophone world participate.  I submitted both a proposal for a critical presentation--on historical fiction (of course)--and a proposal for a creative presentation.  Graeme later informed me that the selection committee liked both proposals and accepted both, but I had to choose to present one or the other.  As a creative writer, it's my first instinct and my first pleasure to read from my own fiction, so that's what I've decided to do.  I will read from a collection of short stories--half historical and half contemporary in nature--that are all set on the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts.  Nantucket is a hisorically fascinating and physically beautiful place, a piece of the United States but at the same time--in rather fundamental matters of personality--not really.  I can't know how many in the audience will have ever been there, but it doesn't really matter.  My job is to bring the island to them.

What an honor to have the chance to speak at both Great Writing and its American predecessor in the same year.  In many ways, Great Writing is a superior experience to the manic, crazy-busy, bacchanalian, writers-on-steroids entity that is AWP.  At Great Writing, the papers seem a tad more thoughtful, the audiences a bit more attentive, and the discussions between sessions more relaxed and more probing.  (Because more time is afforded for them.)  It's a very nourishing conference, and I've missed it.   I last attended Great Writing in 2007, when it was held in Bangor, Wales; the year before that I attended my first Great Writing in Portsmouth.  Both Bangor and Portsmouth are quietly charming locations, cities I was quite glad to get to know.  But it is certainly hard to beat London as a site for a major international conference.  We won't quite stop traffic like the Olympics did, but I like to think that, for a few days at least, Great Writing will something real to the cultural life of the capital.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Waiting for the Toad


One of the more pleasant of my many duties at the University of Central Arkansas is to serve as Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review, our national--and international--literary magazine.  (The journal is named after a place in central Arkansas, but we publish writers from everywhere.)  It's an especially pleasant time now as we read over and put final edits on the latest issue we have assembled, our third.   As I see all at once what took chief editor Mark Spitzer and me many months to put together piece by piece, I cannot help but feel proud.  I am struck by the quality and daring of the work, a solid portion of which came to us in our gmail inbox from writers we had never heard of.  Little miracles just delivered to us out of the blue.  It's one of the most exciting aspects of working on a literary journal.  Some of these writers are Arkansans, but most of them are not.  Most have never visited our state; some have never visited our country.  Yet as I look over the magazine I see that in every genre we publish--eco-literature, Arkana, short fiction, poetry, translations, criticism--sterling work came to us from these previously unknown sources.  Just as a small example of what I mean I offer you a taste of Georgian poet Zviad Ratiani, whose lyrical, existentialist musings were sent to us by his translators, Dailila Gogia and Timothy Kercher:

     And take me now to Rome, I say to my life,
     my snickering life.

     I suppose I couldn't quite believe that the world really existed,
     that those countries, cities, waterfalls, islands,
     really existed,

    so, when I found myself somewhere I'd never been before
    for the first, second, third times,
    I felt altogether embarrassed, disappointed,

    disappointed with both the world and myself,
    yet more with the world since I had expected more of it,
    while it turned out to be what and only as
    it should have been.  That is,
    besides being real.

Imagine just finding that one day in your inbox.  TSR debuts at the AWP Conference in March, and I feel confident that it will grab its fair share of well-deserved attention, if for the cover alone, which is the brainchild and masterwork of our mad genius Mr. Spitzer.   But I won't say anything more about that.  You'll just have to wait to see it in March.   For now, I'll say that we really like what we've put together for our readers, and we are eager to to show it to you.

Lagniappe 1:  I had a lot of fun participating in The Pinch magazine launch party reading last Saturday. They are good people, and it's a great journal.  It was an especially rewarding event for being able to catch up with two formers students who have settled in the Memphis area and were kind enough to come out to hear me read.  Thanks to managing editor Chris Moyer for inviting me to participate--and to submit in the first place.  When he introduced me on Saturday, Chris told the crowd that when he tweeted about my participation in the event, what he heard back was, "Is he performing live?" "Yes," he responded, "and no cover charge!"  Once again, I am mistaken for John Vanderslice, the west coast indie rock singer. (I'll have to meet this guy one day.)  As I told the group on Saturday, if they ever heard me sing, they'd gladly pay a cover charge to get me to stop.

Speaking of singers, the drive over to Memphis gave me the opportunity to listen (again) to Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1 by Jackson Browne.  The CD was released in 2005, but I only bought it in October.  Since then I've been listening to it compulsively.  Can't seem to get enough of these hauntingly stripped down versions of some of his more familiar songs.  Coming back to Arkansas, however, I had to put the dang thing away.  Too soulful!  I needed to stay awake! 

Lagniappe 2: Like many others, I am mourning the loss of Isaiah Sheffer, the founder and artistic director of public radio's Selected Shorts program.  Like thousands of others I was a dedicated fan of the Selected Shorts podcast, and I even had the opportunity to see the program recorded on stage in Chicago several years ago.  I can't count the number of fine writers it has introduced me to, writers I read regularly now and cherish.  Sheffer's life was all about bringing art to as many people as possible, and that is a life well-lived.  You can follow this link to read tributes to him composed by grateful listeners.

Lagniappe 3: You may or may not have noticed that as we approach the American holiday of Thanksgiving, various people on Facebook--that is, Americans--have been putting up daily gratitude posts.  The reception is mixed.  My British friend and colleague Garry Craig Powell,  a self-described "unsentimental, miserable old git" has just about run out of patience with all this gratitude.  Last week he excoriated  Facebookers (all in good fun, of course) for their "mawkish posts about being grateful for Jesus, their wonderful husbands, wives, children, dogs, cats and goldfish."  So far I've refrained from inflicting any of my own gratitude on the Facebook universe, but with Garry's permission I'll say a little something here.  On Wednesday, my family and I will travel to Lowell, Arkansas to celebrate the holiday with my younger brother and his family, and with my mother.  I am quite looking forward to this trip.  It's been a beautiful, but in some ways painful, semester.  It will be good to get away.   Last summer, this same group was assembled at Cobb Island, Maryland for the better part of a week.  At the time, my mother was only a few months removed from finishing up (light) chemotherapy, post-surgical treatment for ampullary cancer.  Her spirits were good, but as a lifelong very active person it was frustrating for her to be hampered by the same old bum hip that had kept her on a cane for almost two years.  For so long she had wanted to get the hip replaced--it was during a doctor's visit to consider the feasibility of the operation that the cancer was discovered--but she could not be sure if or when the doctors would clear her for the procedure.  After all, her body had been put through the very difficult whipple procedure for the cancer and, on top of that, her heart was showing new, mysterious symptoms.  Fast forward four months, my mom's cancer is still gone, her heart is better, and her hip replacement surgery is scheduled for January.  Recovery, she has been told, will not be difficult--nothing like recovering from the whipple surgery--and she is on cloud nine with anticipation.  It should be a fun Thanksgiving, and for that I am very much grateful, if in advance.

Monday, November 12, 2012

So that's finally over


This isn't a political blog, but it is a fairly personal one, so with your permission I think I'll spend a few personal words on the American election of last Tuesday, especially now that the very last state to report results (Florida) has done so.  Four years ago, when Mr. Obama was announced as the new president-elect, I went out on to my front porch and shouted with delight and amazement.  "You made a good decision, America," I said.  (For once, we made a good decision.)  I crossed the street and knocked on the door of a neighbor who was an early Obama supporter.  He offered me a celebration beer, and we watched all the excitement in Chicago's Grant Park.   Last Tuesday night, however, after the election was called I just went to bed, not so much excited as relieved.  Or maybe a bit of both.   The next day, I saw a Facebook post from a former student chiding both Obama and Romney supporters for placing too much hope in polticians, for expecting a politican to be a savior.  Of course, my former student is correct, but this election, to me, wasn't about finding a savior.  It was about wondering if I even knew my own country anymore.  Whether you care about politics or not, it's hard not to agree that the sitting administration in Washington sets the tone for the government and to a large extent determines the parameters of policy debates.  It became increasingly hard for me to fathom that after the eight long, difficult Bush years--with only a four year reprieve of sanity--that we would again want a president whose foreign policy would have amounted to the Return of American Arrogance, chockful of the same blockheaded decisions, ill-considered statements, and eagerness for military confrontation that characterized the Bush administration.  Is that what we really wanted?  The whole world hating us again?  Were we really about to elect a man who would gladly cut government benefits to poor and middle class people--not to reduce our federal deficit but in order to give more money to the already wealthy?  (How "conservative Christians," who generally support such policies, reconcile them with Christianity is beyond me.  Have they even read the gospels?)  Is that what poor and middle class people, many of whom are still struggling terribly, actually wanted?  Would they support such disgusting policy positions with their own votes?  I didn't understand it.   I couldn't understand it.  I didn't know what to make of this country I call home, if it was set to install such a person into office.

So I was simply relieved when the results came in last Tuesday.  I felt reassured that maybe America wasn't insane after all; that I could still call the country my own.  I even felt good for the many millions of people who voted for Mr. Romney, because I actually feel that their needs and concerns will be better addressed by the current administration than they would have been under Mr. Romney's.  They just don't realize it yet.  (One of the terrible ironies of American politics is that most of the people so vocally opposed to the supposedly horrible "Obamacare" law will actually benefit from it.)  And I got a kick at seeing the variety of legislative impulses afoot in different states.  My own very conservative state of Arkansas--in which Republicans ruled virtually every statewide election--came within a hair's breadth of approving the use of marijuana for medical purposes.   (On election night, NBC's Brian Wilson turned to a political "expert" sitting next to him and with the wryest of smiles said the line that you know he'd waiting for  hours to deliver: "There's weed all over the ballot tonight!")  Boy, are we a big and complicated nation, with so many different personalities.  Some of them actually interesting.  I just feel glad that, for this week at least, I can still call the nation mine.   I recommend that anyone reading me today follow this link to commentary by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.  It's from last Wednesday, the morning after Mr. Obama's reelection.   Maddow explains exactly what, to her, the election meant.  I am not a political animal.  I don't watch MSNBC, although many people I respect do. I don't follow the Sunday morning political talk shows or read the front page of my newspaper every single day, but I have to admit to not only liking this piece but being moved by it.   Do check it out.

A few followups to previous posts, and a tiny little publication related bit:

Followup #1:  Last week I blogged about the importance of Just Keeping Going: in running and writing.  I probably should have mentioned that not only am I out there training again on Prince Street, but I've jumped into a new novel in recent weeks.  Too early to say exactly what the heck it is, except that I think it's a comedy.  (I think.)  I've just added an Australian and a ouija board.

Followup #2: About a month ago, I blogged about the connection between cooking and writing, and I expressed some dissatisfaction about my countrymen's approach to eating.  In nonfiction class last week we had a great discussion of this very topic, due to an essay in our textbook by an author who ridicules Campbell's "Soup to Go." The author's main argument is that the company took one of the most ancient and communal kinds of food and turned it into something one is supposed to guzzle while sitting alone in one's car.   (The cannister itself was designed to fit into a car's cup holder.) Many of the students opined at exactly how bad canned soup is--one had even tried this particular product and found it inedible.  This, in turn, made me wonder outloud if there is a whole stratum of Americans who have never actually tasted Real Food (i.e., made from scratch by one person for another), who have literally no idea how much better Real Food tastes and is.   Unfortunately,  I do think this stratum is actual.  How else to explain the ever expanding numbers of fast food  outlets and varieties of prepackaged, on the go, because-we're-too-busy-to-spend-as-much-ten-minutes-on what-we-stick-in-our-mouths products.  (You can even buy pre-made, vaccum-sealed peanut and jelly sandwiches, for heaven's sake.  This is unspeakably stupid.)  My new pet theory as to why Americans are obese: The food we eat is such Not Real Food, that to derive any pleasure from it we have to consume it in great quantity.

Tiny little publication related bit:  A bizarre, comic story of mine--it's formatted as a pretend shopping list of someone who is being held captive after being kidnapped from a superstore--was published recently in the print journal The Pinch, published out of the University of Memphis.  One of the editors contacted me last week and invited me to read at their launch party this coming Friday.  It certainly is nice to be asked, so I'll probably be making that two-and-a-half hour drive Friday afternoon.  Too often the journals I publish in are located so far away that there's no way I can make their launch parties.  I'm happy for this exception.  Thanks, The Pinch.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Another one down


Just over a week ago, for the fifth year in a row, I ran the Soaring Wings Half-Marathon.  It raises money for a good cause, an institution that takes in troubled kids and tries to give them structure; it also is quite a challenging course and the only race of its distance in my hometown. I can't not do it.  And I'm happy to report that for the fifth year in a row, I met my goal: to finish in under two hours.  I even ran faster this year than last!  (Okay, so it was only 35 seconds faster, but 35 seconds is 35 seconds!)  I'm also happy to report that I managed to finish in the top 25% or so, better than usual for me.  This is not to suggest I am a fast runner.  No one's ever accused me of that.  Fact is, I don't have a natural talent for speed.  What I have, instead, is a talent for Keeping Going.  Maybe talent is the wrong word to use here.  Let's say a disposition--or simple thickheadedness.   Which is why the longer the race, the better I tend to do relative to other participants.  The longer the race, the more attrition and exhaustion sets in.  Inevitably there are runners who don't train well enough for the distance, or who set out in too fast a pace, or whose bodies just aren't up for it that day.  You see them walking along the side of the course, hands on hips, head bowed, their faces washed in pain and frustration.  Then there are those who simply have the mid-to-late race realization that a) This hurts, and b) I am doing this to myself voluntarily, and thus c) Why don't I just stop? Oh, I can sympathize, believe me.  I don't think there's any normal mortal who's ever run a marathon or half-marathon (well, especially a marathon) who hasn't had those thoughts.  But so far at least, I've never listened to them.  If I start the thing, I'm going to finish it.  You just keep going.

I'm set to teach a course next semester called Novel Writing Workshop.  The semester's theme and the semester's process will be: Keep Going.  I won't be expecting masterpieces from my students, just finished drafts.  That is, drafts of novels that meet the word count requirement I set for them.  They won't have time for existential crises related to writing because they will have to get a certain number of words down each week.  And the next week.  And the next.  I'm convinced, after several years of teaching, including teaching some truly gifted people, that what keeps students from achieving their dreams of becoming novelists isn't a lack of talent or a lack of good ideas or any sudden short circuiting of their imaginations, or even the business of life; what stops them is an inability to just keep going.  Keep going despite the fact that you have other schoolwork to do or your job is calling, despite the fact that you're not sure anymore where your damn book is headed, despite the fact that you don't even like your characters anymore, despite the fact that you suspect this just might be the dumbest novel ever, despite the fact that your favorite movie is on tv or your laundry needs folding or your best friend just suggested dinner out or maybe a weekend romp to Fayetteville.  Despite the fact that far from feeling inspired you'd rather be doing anything else than sitting in front of a computer hacking at your amateurish story.  Yes, well.  Welcome to the writing life.  My advice to my students next semester?  Keep going.  You can't know what you have until it's actually done.  Then you can curse at it all you want.  Until then, under threat of a F grade, don't you dare stop.   (Here's the thing, though: It may actually be a lot better than you think.)

Learning to write even when you don't feel like it, learning to see every writing session as just another one down, another day's work done, may be the hardest but most necessarly lesson for any student writer.  I don't know about you, but I've never heard a writer on the radio say, "I only write when I'm inspired," or, worse, "I can't write if I'm not inspired."  I've never heard one of the writers who visit my campus say that.  Never.  What I hear writers say is that they try to make writing a ritual, something as normal to the process of their day as brewing their morning coffee or brushing their teeth.  When I was an undergraduate, one teacher insisted that not only should we write everyday but that we should write at the same hour everyday.  Over time, her theory went, your body will get used to being creative at that given hour.  It will become easier and easier to slip back into your story, even if just before sitting down at your desk your mind is AWOL, three thousand miles away, or simply stressing over the electric bill.  This makes perfectly good sense to me now; and given that most people--like most animals--are more habitualistic than they realize or care to admit, Making Writing a Habit is the single most useful way to Keep Going.

A last thought: You can't get too taken up in your good days either, those times when you put down a great scene or a great paragraph or a great chapter.  Okay, so pat yourself on the back, give yourself whatever compliments you need, but finally that day's work--or that year's work--is just another day down.  When the next day comes, you have to be ready to work then too.  Keep Going, remember?  I recall something another teacher of mine said.  This was years later, in graduate school.  He said that it's really hard to be too proud of a book you've just published, because by the time the book comes out and you start on a book tour, reading excerpts to admiring audiences, six months to a year has passed since the thing was finished.  Since then you've started your next book, and what's on your mind isn't how great is the book you've just published but all the problems you're having with your current one.  He described this as a kind of useful humility.   Yes, it is that, but it's also a revelation of a working writer's credo: Every project you successfully complete is just another one down.  And then it's on to the next.

After my better than expected showing in the Soaring Wings Half, I gave myself the next day off, but on Monday morning I was out there on Prince Street, shuffling--very sorely--through my usual daily trek.  Saturday's race was down; but there was always next year's to prepare for.   I had to get going.