Tag Archives: Arts

On Envying Other Writers

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.

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The Stars Our Destination

Writing seriously means nursing enormous egotism, believing that your inner life is worthy of concrete expression, worthy of sharing. The outside world wants to constantly remind you that you are nothing but a small, failed, decaying byproduct of its grand mulching system.  But bringing forth what’s inside you gives independent life to something that never before existed outside your mind, something that cannot be immediately quantified, digested, and mulched.  Therefore, writing is subversive.  Writing is Occupy Consciousness.  Writing is black magic.  It’s an external frame of reference, a constellation of ideas, a place outside the compost heap.  And we can go there together.


Cognitive Bric-a-Brac

I spend a lot of time writing about writing, but I don’t say very much about reading.  Since the line between what we write and read is always very thin, I think I should remedy that.  I’m planning a “creative writer’s reader response” post sometime soon.  For now, I think it would be fun to post something like an annotated bibliography of current reads.

Websites & Blogs: Here is a short list of some of the things I read online.  I’m fascinated by blogs that show me something new, and I find the following sites really interesting.  The subject matter skews sharply toward my interests in architecture, civil engineering, creative writing, Asia, funerals, life-hacking, languages, and abandoned places.

  • The Forgotten City of Iram – Natasha Edgington’s image blog.
  • Bones Don’t Lie – A PhD student in anthropology who specializes in mortuary archaeology.
  • Bridgioto! – A gifted animator who isn’t afraid to show her work toward becoming a better painter.
  • Grinding.be – Articles about dystopias, architecture, and post-humanism.
  • I’ve Infused Myself with Puppy DNA – Voice-driven creative nonfiction by a gifted, if sometimes unfocused, writer.
  • Japanese Rule of 7 – Ken Seeroi’s thoughts about living in Japan as an English teacher.  Smart and often very funny.
  • My Hong Kong Husband – Multicultural marriage, Hong Kong, strange things afoot.
  • Functional Shift – Lisa Minnick is a linguistics professor and a gifted teacher.  Her thoughts on the implicit and explicit uses of English are fascinating.
  • Ribbonfarm – Venkat Rao’s writings on the relativity of perception and other interesting concepts.  Very smart guy.
  • Rune Soup – Gordon White is a funny, insightful, somewhat pissed off, chaos magician.  Reading his blog gives me story ideas and that would be reason enough, but I should note that he is clearly one of nature’s prototypes.
  • Order of the Good Death – Caitlin Doughty, licensed mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a blog dedicated to fostering an intelligent discussion of death and “death theory.”
  • Things I Don’t Understand And Am Definitely Not Going To Talk About – Jen Snow’s small, highly absurd posts sometimes read like status updates and other times like well-crafted micro-fiction pieces.
  • Judecca – a webcomic by Jonathan Meecham and Noora Heikkilä about three lost souls who live on an island in one of hell’s rivers.  It’s well done.  A love story in hell.
  • Damned to Deutschland – Poems and short shorts.
  • The Witch of Forest Grove – Sarah Anne Lawless is a real-life witch / shaman as well as a very talented crafter, illustrator, and herbalist.
  • Du Fuchs – Photography and urban research in Tokyo.
  • Life in Russia – Traveling through post-Soviet spaces.

Books: What am I reading right now?  What will I be reading after that?  (I do update Goodreads from time to time as well.)

At present:

  • The Beautiful and the Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea – Yukio Mishima
  • The Walk – Robert Walser
  • Oxfordshire Folk Tales – Kevan Manwaring
  • The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherine Valente

Waiting on my desk:

  • The Informers – Bret Easton Ellis
  • Amerika – Franz Kafka
  • Chasing the Dime – Michael Connelly
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  • The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco

The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club

The discipline has three steps.  It begins at home.

You want to do something–paint, write, act, play the hammered dulcimer, whatever–because it calls to you.  It’s more than just a passing interest and you’re aware of this (I think hammered dulcimers are kind of cool, but I feel no compulsion to start taking lessons down at Jim’s Dulcimer Academy).  This thing calls to you more deeply than it does to the dilettante.  You think about it when other things aren’t distracting you.  Then it becomes the distraction.  You love and even idolize existing practitioners of the art.  You read their interviews, their Wikipedia pages, the pretentious Rolling Stone pieces that treat them like geniuses or flops.  You fantasize about that being you.

So you take a step and get some training.  Lessons.  You pay for a class at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.  Extension courses at the local community college.  Don Webb’s class at UCLA.  Maybe you get a method book or join a group that meets in the back of a bookstore once a month.  Maybe you hit the pawn shop and buy that beat-to-hell Mexi Strat in the window with some Dylan tablature.  Maybe you just get some paper, a pen, a stack of your favorite Stephen King novels, and start imitating.  The point is that your brain is a learning computer and, whether you’re aware of it or not, you’re learning.

So it goes: you produce a lot of bad material that you soon come to recognize as such.  Then maybe you make something small and good.  Then a few more small good creations like it.  Things begin to seem possible.  Your teachers (if they’re ethical) encourage you and suggest possible directions.  You start to calibrate your “built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”  You’re at the door of the Shaolin Temple.  Again, whether you know it or not, you’re standing there looking for admittance with your duffel bag and $300 in personal burial money.  You are not coming into fame and fortune at the top level with connections, Aspen lift tickets, and a sugar daddy to introduce you to literary agents or casting directors.  You’re doing it yourself.  And you’re probably starting to get pushback from those who now identify you as competition and want to end the threat before it begins.

As soon as people start trying to stand in your way–friends, family, other practitioners, teachers, coworkers–you know you’re moving forward.  This is also the moment when you truly have to apply “the discipline.”  Here it is as I have formulated it for myself.  This is a theme that runs throughout my writing on this blog and, in a more subtle way, my fiction.  The two things I care about most in life are helping people find their “thing” (bliss / true will / highest actualization–whatever you want to call it) and being able to follow my own path as a creative writer.  This has led me into teaching, which I love, and a lot of philosophical / sociological / life-hacking explorations.

Step 1: Mental Discipline: orienting all ambitions toward your art but expecting nothing in return save the art itself.  Just as publishing houses care primarily about volume of sales and production companies about box office returns, see commercial art for what it is.  In exchange for the freedom to make the art you want to make (if you’re not a commercial artist–if you are, you have a different set of problems than I’m addressing in this post), accept that “industry values” come from a vastly different universe than those of fine art and never think commerce cares about art beyond its baseline profitability.

You can’t control whether someone wants to buy your work.  You can slavishly imitate the trends, hoping that there will be room for one more clone.  Or you can recall what inspired you to start doing art in the first place–the possibility and texture of self expression.  So if you want to be authentic and original, save yourself a lot of pain and disappointment by accepting that your work may or may not be appreciated by those who seek to profit by the creativity of others.  By all means, submit your creations for publication and consumption.  But make that peripheral to your emotional center as a practitioner.  Make the work come first and the marketing come second.

This is the first step of the discipline because there will be enormous pressures levied against you for even thinking that you have the right to be original.  The publishing industry, like the movie industry, does not run on originality.  It runs on predictability.  Taking chances can be disastrous for them in the worst, career-wrecking sense.  You will be told a version of this in 1000 different implicit and explicit ways: try to imagine your audience and write to their expectations.  The serious artist will be following something else in her work than trend and established taste–something industry professionals may not even believe exists.  Two different sets of values.  Different universes.  Thus, the serious artist must be disciplined in what she believes, how she lets herself be influenced, what choices she makes about the integrity of her work.  The best way I know to do this is to embrace the real possibility of being ignored while continuously putting your work out there.  It can be emotionally difficult at first.

Step 2: Financial Discipline: keeping survival (but not respectability) always within your peripheral vision.  The second wave of pushback comes with the very real threat of extreme poverty.  Staying away from the infectious and materialistic mechanisms of the business world, status jobs, job trends, upward corporate mobility, and attendant notoriety is essential.  At best, these things are distractions from your daily commitment to furthering your art.  At worst, they will lead you into value systems that are openly antagonistic to serious, non-commercial productivity.  The same attitude behind “A BA in philosophy?  What are you going to do with that?” is the one that will frame you as an unrealistic dreamer who is certainly crazy and misguided, possibly stupid in a number of hidden ways, and someone we don’t want our daughters dating.

But these worlds and their inhabitants will be more than willing to ignore you if you ignore them–if you do not ask them for a handout or add to their unabated misery, jealousy, and covetousness by showing them the contrast between your values and theirs.  Rather, the second step in the discipline involves smiling and waving good-bye to middle-class ambitions; practicing “cheerful retreat”; and going your own way.  Being non-threatening (actually invisible) to those who hold status and money as the highest good will allow you to (1) avoid being influenced by their values; (2) avoid having to defend yourself against them; and (3) the space and time to simplify your life financially.  You are not a threat–so the fact that you are living humbly and frugally is a non-issue for them.

Simplifying your life is easier said than done.  And it may not seem like others would have a problem with this, but people will actively try to prevent you from simplifying and reducing your levels of consumption if they feel threatened by this.  However, you must arrange it so that the bulk of your personal responsibility can be shifted toward your art.

Because it’s good to live in human society–because that, too, provides fuel for your work–accept that “shifting personal responsibility toward your art” will entail a certain amount of discipline.  You may have to take the kids to football practice.  You may have to do what seems like an all-consuming job as a psychologist or a Zamboni driver or an IRS agent or a drug lawyer or a hot dog vendor in the mall.  All of these can be scaled down.  Take fewer hours.  Accept two (or three?) part-time jobs instead of a full-time job if that will build in greater flexibility.  Plead your health, your ailing family life, your grandmother’s lumbago, but reduce, reduce, reduce.  Become a freelancer.  Become a contractor.  Become a minimalist in everything but your work (and even in your work if that’s where your creativity leads you).  Read and apply The Four-Hour Workweek, Choose Yourself, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, Possum LivingThe Shoestring Girl, Working, The Outsider and Gordon White’s brilliant blog, Rune Soup–especially “Apocalypse Timeshares: Radical Strategies from Inside the OAT.”

Step 3: Be Determined / Take Your Lumps.  Do not think that frugality means limited options in any sense.  This is another cruel fiction propagated by the industries that depend on a manufactured, highly misleading, and unhealthy post-WWII middle-class will-to-respectability.  As a person practicing this discipline, you can do anything you want to do as long as you are willing to approach it in a transactional way (ironic, given the degree to which I inveigh against zero-sum materialism, but this is not always synonymous with transactional thinking as I use it here–see Browne’s book linked above).

In other words, if you want to, say, study herbalism in Shanghai, you can.  You may have to become a dishwasher, an ESL teacher, a private tutor, a person who carries pipes in a shit field, a dog-walker, a nanny.  You may have to cut costs by mostly eating rice, thin broth, and yam cakes.  You will have to learn a version of Chinese to a practical extent.  You will have to sharpen your social skills in order to get along and get what you need.  All of this takes energy.  All of this is disruptive and sometimes painful.  All of this can be done while functioning as an artist.  But you will have to pay for these experiences through a degree of chaos, stress, effort and the disapproval of others.  There will be dreadful moments.  But if you want to lead a different life–one that includes art and new experiences, you will accept the trouble as a necessary payment for doing what you want to do.  The discipline means taking your lumps and eternally paying dues.  Nothing comes for free but sometimes the payment is fun and sometimes it doesn’t even matter.

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this firsthand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.


A Tale of Two Cities (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Creative Writing)

It was the worst of times.  It was the worst of times.  It was incontrovertibly, without a doubt, the absolute worst of times.  And yet my former student—we will call her Mary Sue—still had the presence of mind to ask me how I was before she broke down in tears.  She’d gotten rejected by 7 MFA programs for creative writing and zero acceptances.  This is not because she is not an excellent and talented story writer.  I’m not the only one who thinks she is a very good, very talented writer.  I worked with her through the process of submitting her stories to magazines, stories which eventually got published.  And she taught me as well in the way that every good student teaches his or her teacher.  Still, she hasn’t written a line since the first MFA rejection came in the mail.  I think she took a month to mourn each one before finally Skyping me a few days ago with the ultimate question: Why?

I get a lot of questions and comments about writing on this blog, most of which I respond to via email.  However, now and again, I’ll hear from a student I taught at a previous school or online at the Gotham Writers Workshop.  Sometimes these messages will be positive and cheerful.  But, more often, they will be full of bitterness and frustration.  Before you laugh—haha those silly little writers and their silly little angst—I suggest you try it.  If you have, you know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t and still want to make fun, I suggest you fuck right off.

Anyway, I did my best to respond to her in a reasonably useful manner.  But it is worth noting—as I did in our Skype conversation—that there is no real way for me to divine why she was so consistently rejected.  I was tempted to respond with something long the lines of: harden up.  If you want to last in this business, you’d better make friends with rejection.  But a comeback like that solves nothing and would only serve as a way for me to avoid sincerely answering her question, a tactic I encountered all too often as a student.

In truth, I have been there.  I have felt sad and kicked around by the writing world.  I’ve been scoffed at by fellow graduate students, had my stories panned in workshop.  I’ve felt like a fraud many times.  I’ve been told not to give up my day job (or to get a day job or, post-911, to put a fireman in my novel / write some urban fantasy because that’s where it’s at right now, Davis—an office hour conversation that put me into a week of depression because a professor who talks like that has never said an honest thing in his life).  In fact, there were long, long stretches of time where I got absolutely no encouragement from anyone other than my immediate family and sometimes not even that.  So I felt for Mary Sue.  Being a creative artist is hard—hard in many hidden, difficult, often deeply painful ways.  Brutal, elemental rejection, when a young writer first experiences it, is something that lasts, that must be dealt with and overcome.  If we’re serious, we ask why over and over.*

She wanted to tell me that she felt like this was it.  Her writing career was over before it could begin.  And I don’t think it would be unfair for me to add that there was a subtle degree of accusatory shading there, to wit, why did you encourage me when this proves that I am clearly a loser?  Her mother wants her to go into nursing.  Her father hasn’t spoken to her since she told him she’s always liked girls more than boys.  All of this fits together in the nasty, if stereotypical, jigsaw experience of young people trying to develop themselves in unique ways after college.  So, with her permission and (I’m relieved to say) amusement, I am writing this in the hope that it will inspire others who may be in similar circumstances.  I know a lot of writers visit this blog.

Most of my initial response to Mary Sue came from my experiences working closely with professors in creative writing programs—at two different MFAs and then a PhD.  Here, I’m not speaking about any of those programs in particular.  I’m offering a general picture of the graduate creative writing admissions process as I’ve come to understand it.  I know some readers will have a hard time with this, but I will neither whitewash nor condemn what I think goes on based on some very vivid firsthand observations.  Instead, I’ll try to be fair when answering the question: how, if I’m so great, could they possibly reject me?

Let’s start with who’s reading your application.  No, I don’t mean the drones at the graduate college who only look to see if all the components are in place and you’ve actually taken the GRE / Single Subject Exam.  I mean the actual professors who sit around a table reading applications.

There might be anywhere from 50 to 150 applications in manila folders, stacked in the middle of the table.  150?  Aren’t you exaggerating, Davis?  Really.  150.  I’ve never heard of that many applications for, say, 2-4 PhD or 8-10 MFA acceptances.  You must have mistyped.  No, actually, I did not mistype.  There will typically be 3 or 4 professors who—in addition to all their usual teaching, writing, conference attending, committee participating, student advising, recommendation writing, colleague slandering, cat brushing, and therapist meeting—will be expected to make thoughtful decisions about a lot of people they’ve never met in a very limited period of time.

Most of these professors, reasonably or unreasonably, will quietly resent having to read these applications year after year.  Again, I recommend that we do not criticize them too harshly for this.  Yes, it is part of the job.  But reading those application packets is not easy or fun.  In fact, I have seen professors get incredibly exhausted when all of the duties and expectations they normally have converge with the application deadline(s).

What are they looking for?  Oh, you mean the paragraph of meaningless rhetoric on the department website where it says they’re looking for talented hardworking individuals who show unique promise and dedication to the field?  Set that aside for a moment and consider the existential state of an English department.  You have a collection of more or less gifted individuals who have dedicated their lives to an aspect of their field.  They, like you, majored in English because there was something about it they came to love.  In fact, they loved it so much they kept on with it year after year, even when good judgment and the economy told them they’d be better off working in a nail salon.

Many of these people have spent their entire lives in academia, got their degrees from an R1 institution, and deeply, religiously believe in the mission of their discipline.  Given the way the humanities degrees are generally treated by society at large, English professors also tend to exist in a perpetual state of consternation—exasperated by having to justify the relevance of their field to those who cannot or will not stop questioning whether it’s cost effective to offer anything beyond “Communication for Business Majors.”

Moreover, most of the English professors I’ve met have been fundamentally decent people.  Unfortunately, a university is not built to encourage fundamental decency.  It is, at heart, a relic from the old world—a patchwork of highly distorted medieval, renaissance, and Enlightenment thought-styles and power dynamics.  Its circulatory system is patronage (funding, awards, other less mentionable bonbons).  Machiavellian feuding exists on all levels.  And the outer covering of any given thing is nearly always a façade.

When you live in a world like that for a few decades, when your emotional life distributes itself along those channels, you tend to see people in terms of career opportunities; you tend to see career opportunities in terms of survival and self-protection, tenure notwithstanding.

With this in mind, the people reading your writing program application tend to be interested in one or more of the following: (1) your existing connections / prestige—will your existing status make them / the department look good if they accept you (Iowa / A-list magazine publications / famous daddy / already have a book contract)?  (2) your staying power—will they be wasting their time on you because you’re going to leave for law school next year?  (3) your potential level of compliance—will you be a problem, will you show up at their house in your underwear at 2AM in the middle of a nervous breakdown sometime in spring semester?   (4) your work ethic—how much of their busywork do you seem like you might take on for free if they told you it would look good on your resume?  And (5) sadly, mostly for the young-ish female applicants who have made a visit ahead of time, do you seem datable?

But what about the writing sample?  What about the letters of recommendation?  What about them?  How long does it take to briefly skim the top page in a packet when there are 49 more to read by tomorrow night?

Davis, you’re so cynical.

No.  Back up.  Think for a moment.  Getting an advanced degree and a tenure-track professorship does not automatically confer a “Good Guy” badge.  It is a mark of professional and academic achievement.  It shows that you have rhetorical savvy, that you’re gifted, that you care about something besides just turning a buck.  And it strongly suggests that you have willpower, that you still have some idealism, and that you may also care about at least part of the world—the part that involves your field of study.  It does not make you ready for canonization.

If you want to believe that everyone reading your application is a perfect and impartial judge of quality, sitting in a clean room, saying a decade of the rosary to the Blessed Virgin between those piles of dismal prevarication and puffery known as MFA applications, go ahead.  I’d also like to interest you in some beachfront real estate.

Most professors reading MFA apps do their best, which is to say, they try hard to balance all the above considerations against what they think might be good for the department in terms of the funding and other resources at hand.  It’s very hard.  And I have been present during such a process on three separate occasions.  Unprofessional, you say?  Don’t start.

Goes like this:

Professor 1 and Professor 2 are sitting in a conference room.  The obscene pile of applications in manila folders is on the table between them.  It is late morning on a Friday.  Neither of them are smiling.

P1: “Who’s this now?  Okay.  Thomas Anderson . . . from . . . Upper Hoboken State College.  Hmm.”

P2, who has been given to understand in no uncertain terms by her cousin, Thomas Anderson’s mother, that if he doesn’t get accepted, there will be hell to pay: “Yes.  Yes, that is a very fine school, I hear.  Yes.  Really.  And look, he’s published in two journals.”

P1: “Is that so.”  He removes his glasses and massages the bridge of his nose.  “Lost Nose Quarterly and Foetid Goat.  Have you ever read anything in Foetid Goat?”  He glances at the top page of Thomas Anderson’s writing sample, then moves the entire application packet to the side with the blade of his hand.  “Now how about this other one.  Sarah Prim.  She went to NILU, I understand.”**

P2: “Sure.  NILU.  But did you read her writing sample?  She hasn’t published anything.  I mean, given the number of applications—”

P1: “But she went to NILU.”

P2, seeing her cousin’s face: “Sure.  Right.  But I really think it’s important to give extra weight to publication—”

P1 puts his glasses back on, peers across the pile of application packets at P2: “Did you read their writing samples?”

P2 hesitates, then: “Of course I did.”  She takes a long drink of coffee.

P3 enters the room, visibly, wretchedly hung over.  “Hello.  Everyone.”  He sits way down at the end of the table, realizes that he will have to come closer to the pile of application packets, and moves two seats away from P2.  He clears his throat, massages the back of his neck, sighs.

P1 and P2 wait in silence for P3 to read both applications.  P3 skims Thomas Anderson’s CV, then takes a deep breath and excuses himself.  He can be heard running toward the men’s room at the end of the hall.

The professors break for lunch.  Three hours later, they reconvene and P3 looks healthier after a massive infusion of coffee and five cigarettes.  They sit back down in their places, everything right where they’d left it.  There’s no question that they’re now ready to work.  They’re going to get the day’s application reading done.

P3 scans Anderson’s CV again.  He takes Sara Prim’s CV out and sets it down beside Anderson’s, murmurs to himself, “NILU.  How about that,” thinking about the two-story Victorian just off the NILU campus where visiting writers and other dignitaries live for a semester.  All that stained glass.  NILU is one of the places he’s wanted to teach for a semester.  Who’s the chair there?  Dr. Smith?  Look at this.  Dr. Smith wrote Sarah Prim a letter of rec.  Good for you, Sarah Prim.

I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad or to point my finger at the unfairness of the process.  I can’t.  I was selected by good programs where I was an exception to this sort of nonsense because there were professors who refused to behave like this.  Unfortunately, I have been present, physically present multiple times, while this sort of thing went on.  And I have not forgotten it.

This is not to say that P1, P2, and P3 are bad people.  It’s to say that they are people.  And that they are forced to make judgment calls in an unforgiving system where an enormous amount of stress stays hidden under the surface of daily work.  I think it’s important for us to stay aware of this.  And admissions decisions become inherently absurd when based on overheated letters of recommendation, CVs, dreadful cover letters, and careful writing samples that may or may not reveal actual talent.

So let’s take out our writer’s crystal ball and do some projecting.

A few months after the scene in the conference room, Sarah Prim receives her acceptance letter and a similarly worded yet somehow heartfelt boilerplate acceptance email from the department’s graduate advisor.  It begins, Dear Sarah, I am delighted to inform you . . . and ends, to welcome you to the department!  Sarah is overjoyed.  It was her first choice.  She takes a stroll in the park with her writing journal but is too overwhelmed to write anything today.  She just sits on a warm bench and watches kids play on the jungle gym.  She smiles at the world and says to herself, Maybe I do have some talent.  Dad was right.  I just have to work hard and apply myself.  I think I’ve learned something hopeful about the world.  I’m going to be a writer.  When I publish my first book, I’ll dedicate it to mom and dad.

At that same moment, somewhere in Jersey, Thomas Anderson takes a smoke break behind the coffee shop where he’s working a double shift because his dick of a manager, Trevor, can’t be bothered to get up off his ass and hire another barista.  When Anderson checks email on his phone, he drops his cigarette.  The email begins, Dear Mr. Anderson, I regret to inform you . . . and ends, that there have been many qualified applicants this year.  We wish you success in your future endeavors.  He feels crushed.  This was his first, and only, choice.  He says to himself, Dad was right.  I just don’t have what it takes.  What can you do with a fucking degree like this anyway?  I’m not going to even tell him.  I was crazy to think I could do this.  I never get picked.  Story of my life.

Thomas Anderson will apply again next year and will probably get in to a state college MFA program that’s less prestigious than the one that just rejected him.  He’ll go through his 2 or 3 years and produce a book-length manuscript of short stories, some of which he’ll publish in magazines with names like Burning Trout, Load, and Catscratch Fiction Review.  He’ll also secretly produce a novel fragment that won’t work and that he’ll abandon around page 70.  He’ll give a thesis reading, go to the AWP Conference a few times and walk around aimlessly, worrying about money.  Then he’ll get a job as a dispatcher for a garbage truck company.

At that point, all bets are off.  He could go back to academia and get another degree.  He could join the Foreign Service.  He could settle in and keep dispatching them garbage trucks.  Whether or not he continues to write and publish in foetid magazines is entirely up to him.  And that’s the purity of a situation like his.  His entire education, his entire preparation, what he’s acquired as an artist will resonate more with the concept of the “Invisible College” than with the cottage industry of creative writing.

Meanwhile, Sarah Prim begins her program.  While there, she makes a lot of friends from Brown, Vassar, Mills, Middlebury, and Bennington.  She produces very few short stories and takes the bare minimum of workshops.  This is because, she is told early on that novels are where it’s at.  And that is correct, from a career-advancement standpoint.  The year before she is set to graduate with her MFA, she will have completed the first draft of a novel.  It will be about a wealthy yet sensitive 20-something, with an advertising job in Manhattan, who comes to terms with her identity through a series of colorful romantic entanglements.

While skiing in Vail over Christmas break with a few friends, Sarah will meet an older, newly single art history professor from NYU.  He’ll invite her to the city.  Shortly thereafter, she’ll be living in two places.  She will also have an entire new circle of friends, one of whom is a well-known literary agent.  After her MFA, she will move to New York City and get a small job as a copy editor for a fashion magazine.  Her novel will come out as part of a 2-book deal and she will be featured in a Writer’s Chronicle piece alongside Wally Lamb, Gary Shteyngart, and Dave Eggers.

At this point, she will decide that teaching might be interesting.  She’ll be offered an assistant professorship at a small liberal arts college the same way she was accepted to her first choice MFA program.  (If Thomas Anderson ever met Sarah, he would somehow realize that Sarah has never dropped a cigarette due to shock and dismay.  She would find being in his presence extremely uncomfortable—maybe that look in his eyes.  Maybe he’s just an awkward, hostile person by nature?)

So who’s the success?  Who worked harder?  Who “made it”?  These are stupid questions.  Both of them are writers.  Both have something to say in their work.  Both will speak a completely different language, will live in completely different worlds, will think of themselves in completely different ways.  And both of them deserve the best future they can make for themselves as artists—as long as they don’t forget one essential thing: art is not about any of this.  Art is what creative writers do at home at their desks.  Art doesn’t care about your CV or how much you can stroke the world or how the world might stroke you back.  Your only obligation is to your art.

So.  The bottom line:  if you say you want to go to a graduate creative writing program, by all means go.  But remember: keep your head straight.  Understand that the university is, has, and always will be a patronage system at heart.  It’s misunderstood by society at large and generally loved and hated by everyone in equal parts—especially by those who spend their lives inside it.

We can argue that things should be otherwise, but that would be a waste of our precious energy and attention.  Instead, let’s go skiing in Vail.  Let’s dispatch the garbage trucks (if we don’t, who will—no job should be beneath us just because we went to grad school).  And let’s get all of it over with so tomorrow we can get up at dawn and sit at the desk and write a story.

* Incidentally, this is the reason every writer should make friends with a dog if possible—a dog will always have the most sublime optimism, the deepest solicitousness for our struggle.  I once knew a miniature German Shepherd, named Molly, who would growl at bad paragraphs in our story workshop.  She would never growl at the writer.  That dog understood things.

** Near Ivy League University.


Problems and Solutions

This morning I sat down at my desk, read for a while, and then asked myself the same questions I’ve been asking for the past 15 years: what can this writer teach me?  What does s/he do especially well that I can study?  How would I write this differently?  What I haven’t often thought of is how I came to ask these questions as a kind of fiction writer’s daily office.

When I was a MFA student at the University of Montana, the famous editor, Rust Hills, came to talk in our program.  Though retired, he was still connected to the fiction being published in Esquire and he seemed to radiate all the confidence and clarity of the romantic minimalist tradition—the pared-down prose style that writers like Hemingway, Carver, and Ford helped make the dominant paradigm in North American fiction for the latter half of the 20th century.

Here was Rust Hills, sitting in our workshop, live and in person.  Everyone was excited and I was no exception.  I was very much a fan of his book, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.  At the time, it seemed definitive, the young fiction writer’s answer book.  Forget Rilke.  Here was someone who told you exactly how not to embarrass yourself on the page, how not to write like a fool, in a way that sounded far more elegant and far less proscriptive than John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction—the other book on writing that everyone trusted at the time.

When I met Hills at the usual dreadful faculty-grad student party for visiting dignitaries, I was also happy to discover that one of my heroes was a decent human being—something that quickly becomes an exception rather than a rule when encountering visiting celebrities in MFA programs.  He was a soft-spoken thoughtful person, witty, and perfectly at ease in every situation.  He was essentially a gentleman.  Moreover, he spoke about writing with the sense of quiet surety that comes from being wholly immersed in a particular aesthetic.  When this happens, the boundaries and characteristics of the style in question can provide an answer for everything.  And though I have since rejected this as a kind of creative sickness, an over-stylization that traps imagination and limits possibilities, I was young enough back then to believe.  Someone with Hills’ degree of conviction had to be right.  At least, he had to be righter than someone like me who wasn’t sure about anything as far as how to write was concerned.

For the rest of that year, I rededicated myself to writing the Lished-down Carverian prose line.  I read Ford’s Women with Men, Munro’s Open Secrets, Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here, and Janet Fitch’s White Oleander.  I took “Gazebo” and “Cathedral” apart, writing imitations that tried to evoke the same invisible weight of implication between simple lines.  I learned how to admire Exley’s A Fan’s Notes and I fell in love with the stories in Busch’s Absent Friends.  But then I read Waltzing the Cat and everything fell apart.

Up late one night, smoking, too much coffee, I looked at the handwritten draft of my latest story and started to feel sick—that heartsick dread we get when we don’t want to admit that a particular piece of writing has already failed, failed conceptually and therefore completely.  I tore it up.  I looked at the last 10 or 12 story manuscripts in my cardboard “finished pieces” box: crap.  In fact, they were a special kind of crap: slavish craven imitation.  I had produced most of a story collection over the last year and it was garbage.  And I didn’t know if I could write another word.  I didn’t know if I should or if I even wanted to.  It seemed that my personal heroes were guilty of some glaring lies of omission.  A long night of whiskey ensued in which a fellow grad student and I jumped a train and wound up in a snow bank, which did not help.

Hung over and covered in angst the next day, I wanted to blame Pam Houston for everything awful in my life, especially for my artistic faith crisis.  But how do you blame someone who wakes you up?  Is it really possible to blame Lucifer if the apple makes you less gullible?  In Waltzing the Cat, Houston was doing just what the minimalists did—practicing economy, implicitly characterizing through dialogue and action, showing change only within the frame of implications and assumptions established in the beginning of the story.  But she was also enjoying words.  A playful absurdity undercut many of her scenes where straight Hemingway-esque minimalism would grind its teeth in existential despair.  Essentially, Pam Houston’s collection gave me a way to imagine other ways of writing—ways that diverged radically from what Hills easily set forth as the way it should be.

I read Cowboys Are My Weakness  that week and had a similar experience.  Then I started to look at how she was doing these things, how she could blend the hard-cut storytelling abilities of the minimalists with maximalist sensibilities.  That line of inquiry helped me produce “Living in It”—a short story that would become the first in my book, Gravity.  While working on Gravity, I discovered that there were a lot of established fiction writers diverging from the minimalist party line.

Pam Houston made it possible for me to learn from a different tradition that was largely overlooked by my writing teachers, most of whom had built careers around prose that was minimalist and therefore easily publishable and who typically defended their way as The Way to Write.  But that was untrue.  If I’ve learned anything by asking myself how other writers do things, it’s that there is no one way.  It’s a hard realization, especially for beginning writers looking for some kind of objective clarity.

Since having that realization, I’ve taught students of my own and have suggested that by all means they should imitate the writers who interest them.  It’s one of the best ways to learn.  At the same time, it’s important not to become a true believer—not to get sucked into an existing aesthetic simply because it’s there and it gives you boundaries.  Those boundaries will ultimately kill your work.

Instead, become a student of literature and read with a writer’s eye.  Read Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular and The Art of Fiction and Story and Narrative Design.  But also use your own brain.  Keep a journal or a computer file in which you write about what you’re learning.  Above all else, keep an open mind.  Genre writers can teach you structure and dramatic tension like no one else.  Poets can teach you voice and depth.  Playwrights live on implicit characterization.  And other hybrid forms like comic books, online interactive narratives (hypertext, etc.), songs, legends, and folk tales each have something that is particularly useful to learn.  Read everything.

This is what I’ve done and what I continue to do.  And I think this is what has led me to question everything I read as if its author were sitting across from me, eager to explain.


By an Inner Sky I Chart My Way

Planisphaeri Coeleste

Planisphaeri Coeleste

The structure of what I write is the structure of my emotional life.  My fiction isn’t autobiographical in any overt way.  Yet how I approach my subject matter depends on the way I see the world and myself in it.  Therefore, conceptually, perceptually, structurally, I write the narrative of my life the way I write any narrative—certainly in words but, in a deeper sense, in images.  Strung together in the mind, they form a constellation of emotions unique to me.  The physical manuscript is a chart of these moments, an inner star map, a personal zodiac that makes it possible for others to see what I have seen and feel the way I have felt.  The secret of such navigation is not in the words but in the structural relations between them, not in any given star but in the proportionality of the constellation.

This is my current understanding of creative writing: building associations between emotional states instead of focusing on monolithic things (characters,  paragraphs, settings, scenes).  A character is a humanlike set of particularities that exist in relation to something else.  A paragraph is a movement, an emotional gesture.  A setting is an environmental set of particularities, also significant insofar as it relates to something else (even to the eye of the reader, Mr. Fish).  A scene is all of the above moving together and in relation to all the other scenes.  And all of it exists for one purpose—to map a structure of intricate emotional movements that took place first in my mind, now in yours.

Is this difficult or complicated?  Not really.  But it is more honest, more elemental (-ary), than saying, “according to so-and-so, a character should do X, Y, and Z in a dramatic scene.”  Focusing on X, Y, and Z misses the point.  I don’t write to fulfill a preset arrangement of static constituent categories.  I write to move my reader.  And that is just as dynamic, relational, and variable as any emotion I might feel.