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Impressions of Life as an Unpublished Writer

The Rodney Dangerfield of graduate degrees, the MFA in writing gets no respect, like what is this guy so angry about and even those with the degree have been known to disparage it.  But this consensus mostly comes from literary circles in which I’ve come to travel.

This summer, I returned to my tennis instructor job in New Jersey, and discovered the MFA afforded me a surprising amount of professional respect from colleagues at the club, former students, and new students.

Of course, not yet being published can be tricky.  On first dates, women take stock and ask if I’ve been published.  I can’t wait to say yes one day, and mention some incredibly obscure journal. At the moment, I temper my response by explaining the different levels of rejection one receives from literary magazines.  (the standard reject is a generic rejection letter sent to the overwhelming majority of submitters, nice reject is given to maybe the top one percent and includes some positive words and encourages the writer to submit again, a personal reject will have actual ink from an editor) and mention that I’ve received a few “nice rejects” and maybe even a “personal reject” since the line can be blurry.

Earlier this week I was accepted with a partial fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center.  So I’ll certainly be mentioning that on future first dates.

Speaking of first dates, once I reveal I’m working on a novel, women tend to ask, “So what’s it about?” After some hemming and hawing, I explain the premise:  A guy in his late twenties, who grew up in an affluent white suburb, got off-track after graduating college, rebelled by joining a band and started delivering Chinese food instead of getting a career oriented job, finds his life in upheaval after his long-term girlfriend dumps him and he ends up getting drunk at a work-party and going home with a young girl who may or may not be eighteen.  Not bad, right?

Turns out, everyone assumes I’m describing myself and not my main character.  Yes, I’m from an affluent New Jersey suburb, yes I didn’t begin a high paying career job after college.  Okay, so I guess I am a bit like my main character, (except for getting dumped by a long-term girlfriend and going home with a girl who may or may not be eighteen) but I see my character/narrator as very separate.  I created him basely loosly on a friend with a little bit of me thrown in, but after a month or so of writing, he became wholly distinct.  The more I wonder, the more I realize I should accept he is a part of me.

A famous writer, when asked if any of her characters were her, said, “Honey they are all me.”  I suppose that’s as true as anything and as good a time to end this post as any.

Creative Non-political/-fiction Politics

In case you’ve been sleeping under a straw house, this week has been a lot of fun. Creative nonfiction and politics collided with three of the major actors from 2008:

According to Huffington Post, Dubya plagiarized his memoir, Decision Points.

Fox news said “Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General,” referring to Obama’s new book, Of Thee I Sing, and its inclusion of Chief Sitting Bull:

Sitting Bull was a Sioux medicine man
who healed broken hearts and broken promises.
It is fine that we are different, he said.
“For peace, it is not necessary for eagles to be crows.”
Though he was put in prison,
his spirit soared free on the plains,
and his wisdom
touched the generations.


And Sarah Palin’s new TV show premiered on TLC. Here’s a clip:

I wonder where Hillary Clinton’s autobiographical coloring book is?

Lunch Break Sketch

Republican Majority Whip, Eric Cantor, looking disappointed.

competitive nerdery

fair warning: you might have to be a huge nerd to appreciate this.  a while back, the geniuses at coudal partners (a creative agency which seems to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things for fun instead of for clients) invented a game called layer tennis.  though you can sign up for “season tickets” with your e-mail address, this is not a game you go anywhere to watch or pay to see.  it’s a head-to-head competition between graphic designers, but it’s something that happens on the clock, at a very specific time, like a real professional sports game.  the gist of it is, two designers will square off, passing files back and forth, with each individual getting 15 minutes to add/respond to the work as they see fit.  and just like in real athletic contests, there’s a winner and a loser.

these matches happen pretty regularly on fridays, and you can see some previous matches (including the color commentary) in the lyt archive, but today is a special friday.  it’s the playoffs, baby.  a single elimination tournament.  they got brackets and everything.  the first match starts off at 11am central time today, with the day’s second match at 1pm, and additional matches every friday until the championship on december 17.  head on over to the layer tennis site to get in on the fun.

Kill Yr Plot

We discussed, in nonfiction workshop the other night, exposing our plot points early as possible while writing personal essays. If we rely too much on a “shocker” moment, we run the risk of placing said moment at the climactic peak of that annoying narrative arc we all saw charted on the chalkboard in intro to creative writing class a million years ago; we run the risk of writing up to that point, kind of like when a band releases one good single, runs out of ideas, and records an album of garbage surrounding the hit. Given our imperfect memories, if a personal essay is straight narrative, the opportunities to make things up increases and readers therefore either lose trust in the author, or think, so what? Basically, we’re not reading a personal essay to find out that the author’s dad has cancer, or that the author’s girlfriend gets killed by a bloat of hippos in Africa. The essay is always about something deeper.

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Patti Smith’s Just Kids Wins NBA in Nonfiction

Possibly the coolest person in the world, Patti Smith won the National Book Award in nonfiction this year with Just Kids. Short excerpt here. Reviews here, here, here, and here.

I haven’t read it yet, but Melina did, and she said it was, well, cool.

Atwood- Ctd

Shira’s replies got me thinking again about Atwood’s reading.  I agree, maybe we expect the impossible from readings.  And then I realized I forgot to mention the coolest part of the Atwood evening.  (Memory is an odd duck)  In addition to the usual “playbill” type handouts, we were given a double-sided poem by Atwood.  One side had a printed version.  The back-side was a photocopied “first draft” scribbled in ink.  I was struck by the similarities.  So many lines, even stanzas survived unchanged in the final version.  And it was fun to imagine, when I did notice changes, how they came about.  What else did she try?  Did she “workshop” this poem?

Of course, there was no discussion of this on stage.

Another instance of outrage gone viral

The Wasserstein Prize is awarded to emerging female playwrights under the age of 32: a $25,000 cash prize named after Wendy Wasserstein, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who died of cancer in 2006. It’s been awarded for the last three years, thanks to its grant-based financing. This year, however, after writers were nominated and work was judged, the committee decided not to award the prize.

Michael Lew, a blogger and a playwright, was able to review one of the rejection letters sent to the 19 nominees, and wrote a letter to the adjudicator of the prize to protest the decision. The letter stated:

I recently had the chance to review one of the rejection letters for the Wasserstein Prize. As stated in the letter, ‘We regret to inform you that of the 19 nominated plays, none was deemed sufficiently realized by the selection panel to receive the Prize. As a result, the Wasserstein Prize will not be presented in 2010. While the panel thought that many of the scripts showed promise, they felt that none of the plays were truly outstanding in their current incarnation.’

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Three-minute fiction winner

The Round Five winner of NPR’s Three-Minute Fiction contest has been announced. Michael Cunningham, this round’s judge, has selected “Roosts” by Zach Brockhouse. (All of the 5,000+ submissions were read, thanks to help from students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

This contest had a few very specific parameters. The story had to begin with the line, “Some people swore that the house was haunted,” and end with, “Nothing was ever the same again after that.” Submissions had to be 600 words or less.

You can read the winning story here. Brockhouse is a copywriter with an ad agency; this is the first piece of fiction he’s had published.

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New William S. Burroughs Documentary

A new documentary – William S. Burroughs: A Man Within — is reviewed in the NYT today. From the review: “For those who celebrate Burroughs as one of the darkest and greatest of all comic artists, he is an extreme social satirist of Swiftian stature, whose quasi-pornographic images offer a stark, ghastly/funny photonegative image of the American body politic…. While burnishing the Burroughs mystique, ‘A Man Within’ assiduously tries to humanize an author whom it is all too easy to view as an avenging nihilist, a black hole of icy misanthropic contempt.” The above clip is Burroughs reading/reciting “A Thanksgiving Prayer.”

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