try again

Try again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

-Samuel Beckett

Once I wrote a novel for 10 years. I wrote it at varying degrees of productivity, but still, I doggedly persisted until the bitter end. The end was, in fact, quite bitter. Because even though I finished the book, it was hopelessly flawed. I had written and then re-written each sentence over and over as I went so that by the time I got to the end, it didn’t match up with the beginning. The book didn’t work as a whole.

On the upside, I did craft some really stellar sentences.

I never sent it out.

More recently, I finished another novel. This one only took six years. (In fairness to my timelines here, it should be noted that I had a baby during each of these novel spells.) I wrote this one all at once in a horribly messy draft to figure out the story. Then I went back and rewrote another draft. Sent it to writing friends. Rewrote. Sent it to writing friends again. Rewrote. If I had to guess, I’d say it’s gone through no fewer than 14 drafts total. And still, now that I’m “done”, which is maybe more to say ready to move on, I don’t really want to send it out.

It isn’t perfect.

But in looking back to my first imperfect novel, I wish I’d had the audacity to send it to a few agents anyway. Because why not? And that’s what I’m telling myself now.

Is my novel perfect? No. But I’ve taken it as far as I can and I think it’s good. And if done is better than good, then isn’t good better than perfect?

Today I sent it to an agent.

I Don’t Regret My MFA (Just My Student Loan)

I sometimes call the friends I made during my time in grad school my $30,000 friends. Because that’s how much I took out in loans to get my MFA. And also, the writing community I found there really is quite valuable to me. But is community really worth so much debt?

Probably not. (Still love you, friends!)

I loved my time in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University.  The people were wonderful, the mentors were nurturing & brilliant, and the program, on the whole, was phenomenal. I grew as a writer in both skill and confidence. I have only rave reviews of my time and experience there.

And yet. When people ask me if I think they should pursue an MFA, I usually tell them no.

Not unless you can get into one of those full-time, fully-funded programs and have the kind of life where you can drop everything and move. Or you can get your work to pay for it. Or you are independently wealthy. Or you don’t mind shouldering thousands of dollars of debt over the next few decades as you try to balance your creative endeavors with the realities of student loan repayment and the cost of living.

As much as I loved my MFA program, the literal cost has just been too high. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of that when I applied. Back then, I was isolated in a small town, at home with two toddlers, desperate for some kind of writing life. Even if someone had given me this advice at the time, I probably wouldn’t have listened.

In her wonderful book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t hold back skepticism for pricey MFA programs. In an interview with the Miami Herald about the book, she summarizes by saying, “I think any system that tells you that you need to spend an enormous amount of money to be legitimized as a creative human being is a racket. If you want to do something because you love it and want to engage with it, and you want to dance and play with it, go do it! You don’t need a permission slip. You don’t need an MFA.”

Some people really want to teach. In which case, you probably need at least a masters in a related field. But still, my advice for this instance remains the same. I can tell you from experience: the cobbling together of adjunct teaching jobs does not exactly generate a cushy income.

In retrospect, I think I could have found the kind of support I was looking for by patching together attendance in workshops and conferences over several years. And while these gatherings can sometimes be pricey (my dream workshop in Positano, Italy (where incidentally Elizabeth Gilbert is the visiting writer this year), is a whopping $4600), nothing is quite so costly and creatively soul-sucking as trailing around a relentless debt for a few decades.

 

Daycare is My Superpower

Lauren Groff’s new story collection, Florida, is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in Fiction. Good for her. It was an excellent book (though her favorite of mine remains Arcadia). There was a delightful clip of an interview she gave to the Harvard Gazette when her new book came out that made its way around the internet, where she was asked to “talk about [her] process and how [she] manage[d] work and family?”

Groff responded: “I understand that this is a question of vital importance to many people, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.”

Interview answers do not get more badass than this.

But still, inquiring minds want to know.

Fortunately for us, and maybe because she wasn’t asked directly, Groff does more or less answer the question in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine (July/August 2018 Issue), which struck a profound chord in me and which you should rush out to buy and read. Alas, the article is available in print only.

Groff asserts that “American parenting remains a sexist enterprise.” As as a parent myself, I agree with her. But while we tend to assume that women will do the heavy lifting of parenting, we also tend to assume that writing isn’t “real” work.

No one would think to ask a female dentist: How did you manage to extract so many teeth this year AND have three kids at home? The answer is obvious: Someone else was watching her kids.

And (spoiler alert) that’s basically what Groff says in the P&W article: someone else–her husband–is acting as the primary parent. If you want to be a professional–to pull teeth or write novels (and aren’t the two things often one and the same?)–then you’re going to have to get someone to watch your kids. That’s it. That’s the secret.

That was the mystery I was so desperate to crack back when I was in a low-residency MFA program, staying home with a three-year-old and a one-year-old and finding it extremely difficult to get any writing done. Then, one day in the car, I heard an interview with Myla Goldberg on The Diane Rehm show (Does anyone else desperately miss Diane Rehm?). Diane asked her this very same question: With two young children at home, how do you do it? How do you write?

I leaned in, hungry for the secret.

“Well,” Goldberg said, “my oldest is in school and my three-year-old is in daycare. That’s how I do it.”

It seemed a very anti-climactic answer. And it blew my mind in the best way.

I eventually found a sitter for my kids a few days a week and got through grad school.

The secret isn’t staying up late or waking up early or writing with your toddlers in your lap, as well-intentioned people often tell me Toni Morrison did (though one of my mentors who knows her personally says this is a myth. That Toni Morrison lived with her mother and her mother watched her children while she wrote.) The answer is the same for writers as it is for dentists or Walmart employees. The mystery to getting so many customers through the check out line is simple: you don’t bring your babies to work with you.

The answer, in other words, is daycare. A stay-at-home husband. A Toni-Morrison-style live-in grandma. You are then able to, in the words of Seth Godin, put on your smock and get to work like a professional.

 

on manually lifting the S.A.D.ness

I’ve been unsettled by several things of late: the number of women in my online courses who identify 50 Shades of Grey as their favorite book, for example. Or the fact that I was ID’ed at Target for buying Elmer’s Rubber Cement Glue. Apparently you have to be over 18 to get your hands on that stuff. Probably some kind of #huffresponsibly campaign. Who knew? And then there’s good old Seasonal Affective Disorder, sapping the energy I normally reserve for things like making my kids’ lunches or putting on a bra. Guys, I’m S.A.D.

But then today I had the emotional energy to do some laundry. Broad City is back on television. I meditated this morning. Spontaneously (somewhat irresponsibly?) booked a spring break beach condo that allows dogs. And after a week of avoidance, I’m going to actually work on my novel today. In other words, the Groundhog was wrong. Spring is coming early this year.

Lost & Found

My husband took our girls to his parents’ place last Friday and I spent the weekend alone—reading, writing, watching really great films I knew Dave wouldn’t want to see (Her and Before Midnight, both of which I’m still thinking about days later).

Sunday morning, I was feeling energized and adventurous and decided to take a walk along a nearby trail I kept hearing about. I followed the signs to the place, parked, and then spent 20 minutes looking for the trailhead. I couldn’t find it. I had no one to ask. There was no one around to cooly follow. Dave wasn’t answering his phone. Google searches failed me.

The map near the parking lot inferred that I need only step forward to begin. But there was no where to step. It was one of those moments where I felt like the world’s dumbest person. Across the arroyo, on a wide and straight road leading to a water tank, I saw a retired couple walking their four dogs. And, determined to walk somewhere, I drove across and began up the hill, thinking that all dummies like me are destined for the old-people paths. Still, it was a nice enough walk. And a while later, I saw a biker in a neon yellow shirt crossing ahead. The paths—the one I had wanted and the one I was on—intersected. I followed the former back down and finally found the trailhead.*

I’m a believer in life’s intersections.

Lost Dog Trail

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*For the record, the trail began on an unmarked dirt path next to a water tower that very much gave off a “no trespassing” vibe. So, not the world’s dumbest person. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

chronicle

I don’t like subscribing to magazines because they end up piling up on the back of my toilet (and sometimes falling into it), unread. And I can’t bring myself to throw them out because they look an awful lot like books and throwing away books is evil and I’m typically too disorganized to donate them to the library and also, there’s the chance that I might one day read an article in one of these magazines. Usually I never do, but there’s the chance.

Last night, I took advantage of such a chance. In the bath. Sometimes, for 30-min increments, my life is really heavenly.

Anyway, I read the recent Writer’s Chronicle interview of Joan Wickersham. She had so much wisdom to offer. And now I want to read her new novel The News from Spainwhich I had heard good things about and already wanted to read, but now I really want to read it.

I’ll leave you with some of her sage writer-parent wisdom, for those of you who, like me, rarely get around to reading magazines:

“I’m glad I had two [children], but you know that cliché about doing it all? I think you can do it all, but you just have to do it sequentially. I wish I had understood that when I was younger. I spent a lot of time beating myself up about not writing. I wish I had just accepted that that’s how it is right now. It won’t always be that way.”

We are living in an era of screen addiction and capitalist pornography. As a species, we are squandering the exalted gifts of consciousness, losing our capacity to pay attention, to imagine the suffering of others. You are a part of all this. It involves you. This is the hard labor we’re trying to perform: convincing strangers to translate our specks of ink into stories capable of generating rescue.

–Steve Almond, This Won’t Take but a Minute, Honey

I’m pretty sure the only way to get a copy of this book is to pay Steve Almond cash for it. So my advice is to track him down immediately. You won’t be sorry. 

Diane Freund

Lately, I’ve been thinking about one of my first mentors, Diane Freund (pronounced Friend), who died of brain cancer in 2010. And I guess I want other people to think about her, too. So, here she is.

Diane Freund

My dear friend, Robbie, introduced us at a small writing conference in Southeast Arizona, where Diane was a frequent presenter. I wasn’t actually attending the full conference that year. I’d had a baby the week before and had slipped away for an hour or so to hear Diane speak.

Later, she agreed to work with me on my novel, offering what turned out to be two years of invaluable critique and encouragement. Her own first novel, Four Corners—the frightening, beautifully-written story of a young girl’s life after her mother is admitted to a mental hospital—won the Pirate’s Alley/Falkner Prize but was ultimately overshadowed by the events of September 11, 2001, four days prior to the book’s publication.

Still, Four Corners eventually aided her in receiving an NEA fellowship. When I wrote to offer congratulations, she gave me this:

This was the third time over the course of six years that I’d applied. When I was denied the grant in 2005, it came on the same day that I was diagnosed with cancer, so it seemed especially hard to receive that news. Now I realize that it wouldn’t have been a good time. I was sick and heart sick. This is just to say that I know how hard it is to be passed over, but you must persist against all odds. I am certain that with your incredible talent, you’ll one day be recognized for your achievements, that the stars will align just so, over your house.

During our first interaction, moments after we’d only just met, she gave me a book—a guide to writing poetry. A gift. She made me feel important. Special; of course, this was her true gift—she made everyone feel special.

At her memorial service, a familiar gathering inside a Bisbee restaurant, I looked around at her friends: a group of poets and artists and activists, each one hunted out from beneath the rocks of this remote small-town cluster in the desert. Diane’s power was drawing out beauty from every well.

*To donate to the Diane E. Freund Memorial Writing Celebration Fund—offering financial assistance to writers unable to afford the referenced writing conference—click here and specify Diane’s name in the donation scholarship space.

AWP 2013, or, Any Excuse to Get Back to Boston

Outside Porter Station on my way to AWP.

A week filled with blizzards, books, and the best kind of friends!

“I didn’t become a writer the first time I put pen to paper or when I finished my first book (easy) or my second one (hard). You see, in my view a writer is a writer not because she writes well and easily, because she has amazing talent, because everything she does is golden. In my view a writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway. Wasn’t until that night when I was faced with all those lousy pages that I realized, really realized, what it was exactly that I am.”
– Junot Diaz

writing space

Steve Adams on the importance of location:

“Finding an environment where one can consistently tap into a creative state is no small matter. It’s the ground level of establishing a regular practice, and a regular practice is how large works get written. Nothing happens, or will happen to you as a writer until you find a way to bring pages upon pages, both good and bad, into existence.”

Read the full article at Glimmer Train here. And while you’re in the neighborhood, check out their Short Story Award for New Writers!

“This is what I believe in, what I trust will ultimately distinguish those who want to write and publish from those who do write and publish: work.”
–Bret Anthony Johnston

unknown

unknown girl and her dog

My grandma is a historian. She collects the past in the forms of photos and china dolls and stories. She’s written three books about her ancestors. People give her artifacts. They know she’ll keep them safe. They rely on her inability to throw away anything old.

I plucked the above photo from a pile of unmarked photos my grandma was offering up. A miscellaneous pile. Unmarked and untraceable. She doesn’t know who this girl is. I don’t either, obviously, but I think about her often. How she lived an entire life that has been forgotten with time. Not because the world is cruel necessarily, but because it’s persistent. Because if you don’t write them down, your stories don’t exist. This is why I write. The stories in my brain, the stories in my life: I want them to persist in the persistence.

rejection

Rejection slips crowded my inbox this December. You know, the ones that read something like:

Dear Submitter,

Thank you for the opportunity to read your work. Unfortunately, it does not meet the needs of our magazine at this time.

And you’re ugly.

Regards,

The Lit Mag of Your Dreams

Probably editorial teams were anxious to clear away their work before the holidays and logically I understand that. It’s just that getting two or three rejections a day was slightly dampening my Christmas spirit. Still, if you’re not getting rejected, you’re not working. Isn’t that how the saying goes? I read about a poet who actually made a goal to get 100 rejections in 2012. That way, she could feel like she was winning even when she was losing. But she failed: only 95 rejections in 2012. Which is actually a win, I guess.

Anyway, here’s to the coming wins of 2013!

click, clack, moo: women in love with typewriters

I have a thing for typewriters. I love the way they clack and ding. The way the paper tangibly fills up right before my eyes. I scour the shelves of second hand stores for them. I let my daughters pound their keys on lazy weekend afternoons. Typewriters are awesome. I recently watched Woody Allen: A Documentary, which was such a fascinating survey of his life and work. He introduced his own typewriter–a beauty he’s owned over 40 years–with which he has written and continues to write out all his screenplays.

The other day, a radio news story made mention of the beautiful nostalgic hybrid manufacturers USB Typewriters. Seriously. Hook my typewriter up to my computer screen?!? How is this not the most brilliant idea ever? But to tide me over until my husband surprises me with one for Christmas, I went ahead and downloaded an awesome vintage typewriting font. Second-place awesome. And free.

 

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