Salvatore Pane

Tag: Tom Bailey

Fall 2011 Fiction Recommendations

One of my favorite aspects of teaching is recommending fiction to students. There’s almost nothing better than reading a student story and thinking, “This person absolutely needs to read Lorrie Moore!” Matching students with their established counterparts is an integral and rewarding part of the job. I vividly remember being an undergrad creative writer and going to meet with Tom Bailey or Gary Fincke. Their office shelves were lined with books, most of which I’d never heard of. They’d go over my drafts with me and then list off three or four writers I had to read right that very second. Most times, I’d walk straight to the library and take out every last book they recommended. Reading everything I could get my hands on helped me develop as a writer, and I try really hard to pass that enthusiasm on to my students.

That being said, I’ve decided to again share every fiction recommendation I’ve given out this semester. This term I taught two fiction workshops, one at the University of Pittsburgh and another at Chatham University. In total, there were 33 students, meaning 66 workshops and individual conferences. The same ground rules I set forth last spring still apply. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the writers I teach. In fact, most of the writers on this list don’t show up in my syllabus. I recommended them because students put up work that was in conversation with these established writers. There was something to be learned there, something we might not have covered in the classroom or maybe not in enough detail. Some of the writers who appear the most often were in the syllabus, and I kept recommending other work by them to remind students of the lessons we’d learned throughout the semester. And literary journals! There are a bunch of literary journals at the bottom of the list. I want all of my students to become active literary citizens in the vein of Blake Butler, and that means supporting (submitting AND reading) emerging and established literary journals.

The numbers alongside the names represent how many times I recommended a specific author. Please leave suggestions in the comments feed. I’m always looking to shake up my reading list. If you have certain writers you recommend to students again and again, share. If you’re a student and were truly impacted by a specific writer, share.

George Saunders 15
Alissa Nutting 14
xTx 11
Andre Dubus 10
Matt Bell 8
Patrick Somerville 7
Kirsty Logan 7
Amber Sparks 7
Etgar Keret 7
Raymond Carver 7
Lorrie Moore 6
Martin Amis 6
Wells Tower 5
Breece D’J Pancake 4
Tom Perrotta 4
Alice Munro 4
Emma Straub 4
Bobbie Ann Mason 4
Roxane Gay 4
Kelly Link 4
Brian Allen Carr 4
Cathy Day 4
Scott Snyder 4
Deborah Eisenberg 3
Tillie Olsen 3
Colson Whitehead 3
Don Lee 3
Joyce Carol Oates 3
Matthew Simmons 3
Donald Barthelme 3
Gary Fincke 2
James Alan McPherson 2
Tobias Wolff 2
ZZ Packer 2
Alice Munro 2
Paul Yoon 2
Richard Yates 2
Barry Hannah 2
Bret Easton Ellis 2
John Fowles 2
Benjamin Percy 2
Donald Ray Pollack 2
Blake Butler 2
John Minichillo 2
Steve Himmer 2
Rick Moody 2
Philip Roth 2
Trey Ellis 2
Tim Jones-Yelvington 2
Junot Diaz 2
Steve Almond 2
Jonathan Lethem 2
Justin Taylor 2
Tina May Hall 2
Tom Bailey
Stewart O’Nan
Sarah Gardner Borden
Deborah Eisenberg
Teddy Wayne
A.M. Homes
James Baldwin
Peter Bognnani
Jayne Anne Phillips
Rebecca Barry
Aubrey Hirsch
Joe Meno
Richard Ford
Seth Fried
Rick Bass
Sherwood Anderson
Jeffrey Eugenides
Brian Oliu
J.A. Tyler
Lydia Davis
Dennis Cooper
Douglas Coupland
Cormac McCarthy
Cory Doctorow
Mike Meginnis
Rachel Glasser
Kevin Wilson
Gregory Sherl
Dave Eggers
Jay McInerney
Miranda July
Scott McClanahan
Brock Clarke
Peter Mewshaw
Frank Hinton
Shane Jones
Aleksandar Hemon
Tim O’Brien
John Irving
Gary Shteyngart

The Emprise Review 5
Hobart 5
kill author 4
PANK 4
Metazen 3
Prick of the Spindle 3
Flywheel Magazine 3
Annalemma 3
Atticus Review 3
Monkeybicycle 2
Decomp 2
Gargoyle Magazine 2
Dark Sky 2
Barrelhouse
Pear Noir!
Parcel
The Collagist
Diagram
Weave
FRiGG
Caper Literary Journal
Elimae
Stoked!
Barrelhouse

Selinsgrove Lit Events or Party In The City Where The Heat Is On/All Night In The Club Till The Break Of Dawn/Welcome To [Selinsgrove]/Bienvenido A [Selinsgrove]

On Saturday, September 17th I’ll complete a huge personal goal of mine by returning to Susquehanna University to do a reading! It’s the 15th anniversary of the Writers Institute and to celebrate, there’s going to be a reunion and reading at 5pm in the Degenstein Gallery during homecoming. Gary Fincke will be there! Tom Bailey will be there! And the lineup is extremely impressive.

Jay Varner
Nick Ripatrazone
Shanna Powlus Wheeler
Sarah Turcotte
Alexis Czencz Belluzzi

I’m so humbled to be reading with this group and at Susquehanna no less. So if you’re around Central PA next month, definitely make it a point to drive down to the gorgeous campus. There will be readings. There will be homecomings. There will be mayhem.

Every Last Thought I Have on Process: Nothing But a Dream and a Cardigan

Two nights ago I was at the Squirrel Cage with a bunch of writer friends (Chris Lee, Erin Lewenauer, Travis Straub, Lee Skirboll), and in between watching the Pirates game and tweeting about oddly seated couples, we got on the subject of process. I’ve never been very good at talking about my writing process. I remember in grad school Cathy Day encouraged us to set up a process blog. I can’t recall exactly what I posted, but I’m pretty sure it was mostly thinly veiled references to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” (I named the blog “Nothing But a Dream and a Cardigan”). Looking back, I think I was so inarticulate during Cathy’s class because I wasn’t really working on a novel at the time. I was revising what would eventually become Last Call in the City of Bridges, but the overarching draft work had been done, and I was mostly polishing it for agents. The majority of my time was spent on short stories, and with those, I have less of a defined process. I try to stick to a daily schedule, but I fall off the wagon way more often when I’m doing short stories. Novels comfort me. I love having a consistent world and cast of characters that call me back day after day.

This summer, I’ve been working on a second novel, and I thought maybe I’d share my work-in-progress writing routine. What really interested me at the Cage was how different all our processes were. What works for Chris certainly wouldn’t work for me and vice versa. So I guess this isn’t meant to be a primer on a writing routine that will work for everyone, it’s just a primer of a routine that’s working for me right this second on this particular project. In my experience, the fiction leads you to the right process and you always want to listen to the fiction.

So the second novel. A brief background. I’m describing it as Revolutionary Road meets Crisis on Infinite Earths. My agent Jenni Ferrari-Adler is describing it as a “love triangle between three fallen superheroes” which is why she works in a great, big building in Manhattan, and I sit in my underwear in Pittsburgh with three fans pointed at my sweating body for the majority of any given day. I write every day from about 9am-12pm with some light editing in the evenings, but the real preparation begins the night before. My old instructor Tom Bailey used to put a big emphasis on writing the moment you woke up so you’d be as close to your dreaming self as possible. He used to tell us that every serious writer he ever met wrote in the morning, every morning, and I took a lot of stock in that. But I’ve found I fare better when I do a little prep work the night before, falling asleep to some DVD that’ll put me in the right headspace for the morning. From 2007 until this summer, I switched back and forth between episodes of The Simpsons and Futurama. I liked the social satire, sarcasm, and the way the whole town becomes a character in The Simpsons, and on Futurama, I loved the unbridled sci-fi imagination coupled with a deep pop culture reverence. I didn’t start out watching these shows with this intention. I just noticed over time that whenever I watched The Simpsons while falling asleep (by this point I must have gone through season 1 to 10 front to end at least 6 times) I would gravitate more toward realism, and whenever I watched Futurama I’d edge closer to experimentation. At night, I watched whatever series was closest to the story I planned on working on in the morning.

SO THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE WHEN DOVES CRY!

Recently, I switched over to rewatching the entire run of Mad Men. Like I said above, the book is a mixture of bizarre superhero detritus and the kind of doomed suburban love stories I grew to love in college and grad school. Mostly, I’ve found that I don’t need to do much to keep the superhero stuff fresh in my brain. That’s probably because I read comics every single week, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a new superhero movie in theaters every four days. I switched to Mad Men because I’m trying to keep that world alive in my head, not the world from the show, but the kind of commuter family/office worker/adultery drama that is more difficult for me to maintain when I’m not actively sitting down at the desk. I’ve been playing with this tone for awhile, and the notes I’m really trying to hit with this book are the kind of unflinching arguments Yates does in his work combined with bizarre, fleeting references to a superhero lifestyle that’s come and gone. I’ve only put my own writing on this blog one other time, but I’m going to do it here to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. This brief scene takes place right after John, one of the protagonists, leases a minivan for his wife only a few days removed from a confrontation where she told him she wasn’t ready for kids yet and wanted to be more settled in her career. First her reaction to the van, then a quick cut to her walking away from their home in Arlington (this is all pretty fresh and unedited, so keep that in mind):

For a moment, Nessa thought someone had made a mistake. The minivan pulled into their driveway and parked, the engine cut. She stood. The faux-Victorian was at the end of a cul de sac and this would happen occasionally, people would pull into her driveway and turn around, and although this infuriated John, it never bothered Nessa. They didn’t own the driveway, she’d argue, and John would always say, Yes, actually they did. But this time the vehicle did not turn around. A man emerged from the driver’s side and it took her an entire blinking second to recognize this unfamiliar creature as John. John Ditko. Kid Dragonfly. Her husband.

            “What do you think?”

            Nessa had never seen him so expectant, so genuinely filled with joy as he crossed the yard toward her, a big goofy grin across his face. She looked behind him at the minivan. It was neon red. The ugliest color she could ever imagine. A black hole of neon, it sucked the life out of everything around it. Somehow the houses, the trees, even the grass looked darker, grayer, deader, just from being in the presence of this impossible color, this cartoony shade of blood. It reminded her of the one and only time she’d gone into outer space with Kid Dragonfly and the overly enthusiastic members of the Teen Super Protectors, how they’d blasted off in their Sky Caravan—why, Nessa had wondered even then, had they christened it with such a pathetic name—to fight the Crimson Blob from Beyond the Moon. That pulsating glob of sentient metal looked a lot like the minivan parked here before her.

            “I don’t know what this is,” she said as calmly as she could, still not comprehending exactly what John had done.

            He took her by the elbow and steered her to the back of the minivan. The license plate. Nessa1. Written in bright blue letters above a Kids First sticker. To the side of her name were two imprints of a child’s grubby little hands. She looked at the license plate. Then she looked at John. Nessa1.

            “This is a top of the line 2001 Ford Windstar,” John explained.

            “Ok.”

            “I bought it for you.”

            “For me… What is wrong with you? You didn’t think to even consult me on this? This is a huge decision.”

            Her voice was raised. John looked nervously up and down the street, presumably to see if anyone was watching. Only the Miller sisters were outside, and all three of them stopped jumping rope and came closer to the edge of the fence.

            “Honey.” He again took her by the shoulders. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

            She shook loose. “Don’t honey me.” Don’t honey me? What a cliché. How had this happened? How had Nine Lives turned into this: arguing with her husband about a minivan deep within the catacombs of the DC suburbs?

            And so, Nessa started walking. She didn’t have her books or notes or even an umbrella, but that didn’t matter. Retrieving those things would only lessen the gesture of what she was doing, and more than anything, she wanted John to feel this, how stupid he could be. Nessa1!

            “Nessa!” he called. “Nessa, wait!”

            But she had already passed the house next door, then the next house and the next. All identical faux-Victorians. John jogged up beside her, smiling, wiping the sweat from his brow, nervously looking into each window they passed. The Miller sisters trailed them, strolling casually down the middle of the street, and like the houses, Nessa could not tell them apart.

            “Nessa, please. What will the neighbors think?”

            She still didn’t stop. “I don’t care what they think. I have to catch my bus to work.”

            “The bus? Don’t you want to take your new car?”

            “That’s not my car, John. I’m not going to drive that thing. It looks like the Crimson Blob from Beyond the Moon.”

            He looked nervously back at the sisters. “Christ, Nessa, keep it down about that stuff.”

Watching Mad Men the night before orients me in a way so I’m ready to write the kind of relationship dynamic I’m shooting for right when I wake up. I get up around nine or earlier, make coffee, and then sit down to write. Some days I’ll do nothing but write new material, and some days I’ll focus completely on revision. The first two weeks of July, I went back to Last Call and rewrote some of that, and when I returned to this book, I spent the next four or five days just revising, going from page 1 to 112 before I felt ready to really write again. A lot of times in the morning, I’ll just feel spent or at a dead end, and whenever that happens, I’ll watch some video on YouTube. Like Mad Men, I try and watch things that put me in the right headspace, so I don’t necessarily use the same video for every project, otherwise I’d just watch this Earthbound commerical for the rest of my life.

This video, you guys. This video! It captures the sense of joy and wonder I’ve tried to imbue in both my books while acknowledging how difficult that is in 2011, how sarcastic, ironic, how knowing we all have become. The way this video combines the super sweet story of a young Yeti (who looks so much like the beloved Muppets from my youth) with the eternally knowing, cameo happy Jon Hamm is just utterly perfect. The first time I watched it, I just kept waiting for a joke, a punchline, anything. But it never goes for the joke. I’ve just always loved combining the sincere with the sarcastic, that please, please what I’m telling you is so very important, just don’t take anything I say seriously attitude. This video nails it.

Like I said earlier, I’m pretty good at keeping  the superhero stuff in my mind while I’m writing. But you have to remember I was weaned in an era of dark and gritty superheroes, and these days that’s not really what I gravitate to. Take Batman for instance. Most people prefer the darker Batmen, the Christopher Nolan version, your Frank Millers. I always like the crazy takes. The Batman on the moon punching out aliens. The Batman who fights cavemen in the age of the dinosaurs. Batman is a guy who dresses like a bat and lives in a cave and fights people like Clayface. I appreciate the over the top, and nothing is more so than this video from the ’60’s TV show (a close second comes in the ’60’s movie when Batman sprays shark repellant in the face of a hilariously fake shark clinging to Bats as he hangs from a rope ladder connected to the Batcopter. Yeah. That happened.).

Frost/Nixon was a revelation when I watched it a few months earlier. I’ve long been fascinated with Nixon. I’ve read his memoirs and I’ve used him in fiction here and here. In college, my friend Mark Kleman and I once toasted the anniversary of his death by drinking Black Label whiskey (Nixon’s brand) and watching the Oliver Stone movie about his life. This scene sums it all up. He’s so fucking relatable! I know that’s not Ron Howard’s intention (this scene is pretty much lifted from any movie about a cop tracking a killer who suddenly tells the cop before the third reel showdown that beneath it all they’re really the same person), but I find it so easy to agree with Nixon here. He’s so flawed, so awful, so human, just like the rest of us. Remember in Mad Men (there’s a pattern here) when Don Draper says Kennedy is just another rich boy born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but when he looks at Nixon (a self-made, hardworking man) he sees himself? I feel that way. He’s the funhouse mirror version of ourselves, bloated and magnified. Sarah Vowell talks about how certain presidents are like unrelatable saints (Lincoln, FDR, Washington) who give us something to aspire to. Nixon’s not like that. He’s down in the fucking human dirt with the rest of us. I have so much class rage that I’ve never really dealt with (my solution is to just bury it deep deep down and drink a lot of Gaviscon and beer) and Nixon is that anger birthed into a president. So yeah, he’s a major character in this book, and when I write him, I think of this version, except in my book he’s also kind of like Bucky Barnes.

One thing that’s really different with this book compared to Last Call is the amount of research I’ve had to do. Last Call is about a twenty-something in Pittsburgh, and even though nearly every scene and character arc in the book are totally dreamed up, it wasn’t very hard for me to imagine. This book is more ambitious. Bigger in scope, page count, everything. I was reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad right when I started writing this, and it really inspired me to go all out. That’s one of the most ambitious books I’ve ever read. It goes to the future, the past, African countryside, a dictator’s compound, the solar panels of tomorrow, and the whole time you get this feeling that Egan is having so much fucking fun. You ever read a book and think, well it’s good, but it doesn’t seem like the writer enjoys writing very much? I hate that. I never want to be that person. I want to love what I’m writing and take real joy from it and I want to aim for as big a scope as possible, and Egan is kind of my inspiration for that. But that all means research, that I can’t just draw from my own experience. After AWP this year, I decided that I really wanted to write something set in DC. So when the idea for this book started to come together not long after, I figured DC and what it really represents to this country would be a perfect setting. That meant visiting DC as much as humanly possible.

Last month I went down to DC and spent an entire day driving around and taking pictures and videos of places where my characters go, relax, live. I’d never done that before, and it was a totally surreal experience. I had maybe a hundred extremely rough pages by that point, and actually going to the towns where they lived really made them come alive in my head, especially Nessa who I mentioned above. They become real, which is strange but true. Nessa especially seems realer to me than people I actually know in my own life. When I went to where she lives in the book (there’s actually a suburban development in Arlington that borders a cemetery), I experienced this bizarre sensation that I was about to meet her. I started grinning like an idiot and looking around like I’d find her sitting on the porch or walking around the neighborhood. The same thing happened when I went to Georgetown where she teaches. I walked around the building where her office is and hung out where she takes her smoke breaks and it was all just very surreal.

A few of the pictures and videos are below. There’s more, and I look at them sometimes when I get stuck or when the videos above don’t do the trick. One neat thing I did (inspired by my boy,  Robert Yune, who before working on a novel about the Century III mall, walked around its corridors with a recorder to really capture the atmosphere) was videotape a few of my characters’ commutes to work. I think commuting is such a big part of our lives, and I really wanted to have the details right.

Beyond the trip to DC, I had to do a lot of reading. Like I mentioned here, I started by restricting myself to books that were in the third person. First person comes really naturally to me, but I knew early on that the scope of this book was too big, and because Faulknerian-novels with multiple first person narrators make me nervous, I went with third. I started the summer reading Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and the aforementioned Egan along with some other chapbooks and collections I’d agreed to review. But then, fairly early on, I realized that if I was going to watch Mad Men to put me in the right emotional place (adultery, adultery, adultery) then I needed to do the same in my reading list. I read through Sarah Gardner Borden‘s deft debut Games to Play After Dark which absolutely terrified me in sections. Then I moved onto Updike’s Couples which is in many ways a kind of spiritual cousin to all those Yates novels I devoured as an undergrad.

Fictional research is all well and good, but while I was writing an extremely vague outline of the book I discovered that I was going to actually have to read a ton of nonfiction too. I wanted sections of the book to deal heavily with an NBA team’s front office (in this case an alternate universe version of the Washington Bullets) along with a long stretch involving an American soldier in a Yemeni office job during the War on Terror. As I continued writing, I discovered more and more real world inspired subcultures I wanted to include (the utterly insane Monkees movie Head, an underground military bunker near Durban, South Africa, and NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts). Obviously, I just couldn’t make stuff up. So I asked around. I know a lot of other writers via Facebook and they’re always helpful in tracking down certain nonfiction books.

South Africa was fairly easy. The section in the book is from the POV of an American traveler, so I didn’t need years upon years of history. I just went to the library and picked up a travel guide. I stole the Monkees movie from my mom (technically I gave it to her as a gift years earlier) and Amy Whipple among others recommended Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars to cover all NASA related questions. The hardest was the War on Terror and NBA front office stuff. I found a lot of Iraq/Afghanistan memoirs, but most are set on the frontlines. Aaron Gwyn suggested a whole mess of books that look extremely helpful. Horse Soldiers. Roughneck Nine-One. Kill Bin Laden. Not a Good Day to Die. And a friend of mine who’s a librarian tracked down five books about NBA front offices. Inside Game. Taking Shots. The Breaks of the Games. Foul Lines. Money Players. I haven’t read any of these yet, but my goal is to finish one from each category before the end of the summer. My advice for cnf research? Download that shit on iTunes and listen to it on car trips. You may have to pull over every now and again to take notes, but at least you’re getting work done while driving.

One last thing: the only other process thingy I’ve been using while writing the second novel. I stumbled onto this post by the lovely Kirsty Logan where she writes a novel to do list. Mine’s digital, and I’m not going to post the whole thing because A) this is already really long and nobody cares, and B) I want to avoid massive spoilers. I’m the type of writer who doesn’t like to know how things will end, but I do need to have signposts, scenes and images I can build toward even if they’re deep in the distance. And sometimes, I just need to make notes to myself, otherwise I’ll forget everything. There are a lot of moving parts in this book. It’s hard to keep it all straight in my head sometimes.

NOVEL TO DO LIST

REGGANE IS WHERE THE FRENCH PRACTICED NUCLEAR MISSILES IN THE SIXTIES

DR VON LIEBER IS INVOLVED WITH PROJECT MAYFLOWER – LARGE HADRON COLLIDER of the West

REPLACE FLATBRUSH WITH BROOKLYN HEIGHTS

Mention the Sentry Satellite hovered over the White House earlier

Dick should have a magical monkey pet who was retconned out of existence similar to Beppo the Kryptonian Ape

Nessa confronts the ghost of Richard Yates in Tuscaloosa while giving a guest lecture or something at ‘Bama/Goes to see her father

President Michael Nesmith’s War on Extinction

Darko Millic analogue is drafted by Bullets

John has to meet the President of the Washington Bullets (Marc Cuban analogue) on a yacht

John becomes obsessed with termites in second half

Reasons why the planet is dying:

-Cell Phone Cancer

-Nuclear Fallout

-Oceans Rising, No Ozone, Glaciers Melting, Global Warming, Ecosystems Gone

-No Oil

-Water Shortages

-Food Shortages

-Internet Memes come to life and destroy us

-Tim Tebow is the antichrist

-No more bees

I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.

The above is every last thing I’ve done to prepare writing this novel. I’ve been working on this book since April, and I don’t anticipate getting a first draft until Christmas at the earliest. And my friends who have read my first drafts can tell you that they usually stink. Tom Bailey compared his to recently birthed children, all sticky with blood and kind of gross looking. It takes time for them to become presentable. But for the foreseeable future (and I mean years here), I’ll be in this world, plugging away at my keyboard. It’s kind of reassuring to be honest.

The Summer of Third Person

Third person doesn’t come easy to me. I’ve always written, or at least, I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t write–my favorite “toys” as a kid aside from my Nintendo were my collection of notebooks where I’d write novel after novel, most of them bad continuations of video game plots. But like lots of idiots and jerks, I didn’t SET OUT TO BE A WRITER OR WHATEVER until after I finished Cather in the Rye in high school and thought, shit yeah, I want to do what this Salinger dude did right here. So I saved up money from my job in the mall at KB Toys and I spent a week that summer at Susquehanna’s Writers Camp where I met Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke and that pretty much put me on the path that led to SU and then Pitt and then teaching. And in those early years, I mostly wrote first person stories. Pieces that aped whatever writers I was biggest on at the time, be it Ray Carver or Richard Yates or Bobbie Ann Mason or DJ Pancake or whoever.

In grad school, I attempted a third person novel during the summer between my first and second years. This was back in 2008 I guess, and I’ve referred to it a few times on this blog, and it’s pretty much the most terrible thing anyone has ever written ever. If I ever get too cocky–which is frequent because I have a monster ego–I open that file on my computer and am reduced to protoplasm by just how bad practically every piece of it is. Cathy Day will now tell you otherwise (and I love her for that), but at the time, when she was reading what was most likely the 85th draft of that beast of a book a few weeks before my second year of grad school came to a close, she suggested that I just start fresh and write something closer to my own experience, closer to the kind of ludicrous first person voice I was then using on overindulgent facebook photo albums.

So I followed her advice and for the next two years worked on Last Call in the City of Bridges, formerly The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist, formerly The Digital Graveyard, a first person novel. So that’s done. And it got me an agent, the super smart Jenni Ferarri-Adler, and it’s pretty obvious to me that Last Call is the wellspring from which everything good in my life has emerged from if that makes any kind of sense at all.

At this point in my life, my development I guess, I feel like I can handle first person, or at least a very specific breed of first-person fairly well. I understand how it works and how to manipulate it. But during the revision process of the novel–pretty much the entirety of 2010 and a few months immediately before and afterward–I really wanted to spend some time trying to master third person, to add another tool to my writerly toolbelt. I attempted this through short stories.

Here, here, here, here, and here. These are the most successful ones though there is still a ton of room for improvement–like there always is. But I really wanted to use short stories during this period as a time to develop a third person voice with the idea in the back of my mind that once Last Call in the City of Bridges was truly finished and sent off to publishers, I could begin a third person novel.

Finally, that time is here. And I’m really happy to say that I am in a new novel, that I’m past the 50 page mark–I’m superstitious about novels and won’t even admit I’m doing one until it’s past that mark, otherwise I’m afraid I’ll jinx the whole thing. And it’s in third person! That’s not to say that everything’s great. I’m pretty good at keeping to a schedule where I write every day 9-12 or so and then edit in the afternoons, and often there are times when I’ll reread what I’ve written and just feel like every paragraph, every description, every sentence, every word is dead, dead, dead. But then there are times when I feel like I’m onto something, when I sense that flicker of a heartbeat that this book, this thing is growing with strength even though I’ve abandoned a mode of writing–first person again–that I feel so utterly comfortable with.

Recently, I came to a decision that for the rest of the summer–and maybe even awhile afterward–I’m only going to read third person novels. I’ve just finished Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply and I’m planning on Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and then Egan’s A Visit From the Good Squad next (I know it’s not all third but I really want to read it). There are some collections I’ve agreed to read this summer for review purposes, and I’ll do those too, cheat a bit I guess. But this all kind of goes back to being superstitious about novels. I don’t want to read any first person while I’m in this book. I don’t want to disrupt the third person sensibility in my head that for me is so difficult to cultivate and maintain. But what I’m really curious about is if anyone else does weird crap like this? Do you ever avoid books that are totally unlike what you’re working on right that minute? Or are most writers the opposite, are you trying to get out of your own head/world when you’re reading? Secondly, third person novels! Recommend that shit to me. I always keep a big reading list on my computer but a lot of that is currently null-and-void thanks to the temporary first person/second person/short story ban. Tell me what I need, damn it!

Here’s Everything I’ve Recommended to Fiction Students So Far This Semester

So, I’m running this advanced fiction workshop and it’s all like woah. One thing I like to do in a classroom setting like this is meet individually with every student after they workshop. I remember very vividly going to see Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke in undergrad and how reassuring and empowering it was to know that writers I really respected were taking my work seriously (not that the students necessarily respect me in the same way I outright worshiped Tom and Gary). In my conferences, I always bring a marked up copy of their manuscript along with a one page note with strengths and prescription. But there’s also, usually, a note at the end with some writers and journals to read, and maybe even a few places to begin submitting to. At AWP, Amy Hempel said one of her favorite parts of running a workshop is putting an emerging writer with a published one, giving a young writer the book they absolutely have to read right this second. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job too, and I’ve kept track of what I’ve recommended so far.

Keep in mind, we read a lot of stuff in class. So I rarely touch on writers we’ve discussed ad nauseam like George Saunders or Lorrie Moore or Gary Shteyngart or Amelia Gray. Also, it’s only halfway through the semester. So there’s still a lot of time. Basically, what I’m trying to convey here, is this isn’t a list of the best writers for undergrads. It’s merely the group that this particular class needed to read at this particular moment. When there’s something lacking in student work that is absolutely nailed in a story collection or novel, students need to see that–in fact, there are a few writers on here I respect without actually enjoying their work. So, without further hand-wringing, here’s what I’ve recommended so far this semester.

Writers

Andre Dubus (5)
Ray Carver (4)
Wells Tower (4)
Alissa Nutting (2)
xTx (2)
Bobbie Ann Mason (2)
Emma Straub (2)
Sean Ennis (2)
Stewart O’ Nan (2)
Adam Levin
Michael Chabon
Trey Ellis
Tobias Wolff
Matt Bell
Don Lee
Ethel Rohan
Tina May Hall
Jayne Anne Phillips
Bret Easton Ellis
Jay McInerney
Douglas Coupland
Martin Amis
Cormac McCarthy
Joshua Ferris
A.M. Homes
Rick Moody
Jonathan Lethem
James Alan McPherson
Joyce Carol Oates
Deborah Eisenberg
Cathy Day
Richard Russo
Blake Butler
Miranda July
Aleksandar Hemon
Shane Jones
Jeanette Winterson
Philip Roth
Deborah Willis
ZZ Packer

Journals

The Fourth River (4)
Flatmancrooked (4)
FRiGG (2)
PANK (2)
Bluestem Magazine (2)
Weave (2)
The Emprise Review (2)
Metazen (2)
Hot Metal Bridge
Annalemma
Barrelhouse
Dark Sky
Fairy Tale Review
The Good Men Project
Wigleaf
elimae

Comics

Fables

Corium Magazine Showcase!!!!!

It’s official. A few days ago, Corium Magazine Editor-in-Chief/doomsday prophet Lauren Becker invited me to join her staff as Short Fiction Editor. This is especially exciting for me as Corium was one of the first journals to publish my work, and it’s actually a position I inquired about many, many months ago.  People who knew me in the long, long ago of my MFA days know that I was once Fiction Editor of Hot Metal Bridge and then later Editor-in-Chief. Even in college I took nonfiction editorial positions for a few of Susquehanna’s journals. I’ve loved literary journals ever since that day Tom Bailey took our intro to fiction class to the library and passed around dozens of the little magazines. And it’s always been a goal of mine to be part of that vibrant community.

But what does this shocking development mean for you? It means that if you’re reading this, you should probably submit. Length’s 1000-4000 words. But wait, you ask, what type of work does Corium publish? Below you’ll find a list of some really notable Corium stories. That isn’t to say that they’re not all notable (which they are), but linking to every piece Corium has ever published seems a tad counter-productive. So here are the ones I love the most. Keep in mind, I’m not a big poetry dude. So this is pretty heavy toward the fiction side.

“Sisters” – Amelia Gray and Lindsay Hunter

“All the Imaginary People are Better at Life” – Amber Sparks

“Retention” – Ravi Mangla

“One More Beneath the Exit Sign” – Stephen Elliott

“Mirrorball” – Carrie Murphy

“Girl, Luminous” – Donna Vitucci

“Eating Heart” – Cami Park

“Bonnie Parker Visits Her Final Getaway” – Sean Lovelace

“Given the Chance” – Alec Niedenthal

“Choo and Rumble” – Kim Chinquee

“Demoiselle” – Uche Ogbuji

“Des Moines Gymnopédie” – Scott Garson

“Shiny” – Andrea Kneeland

“Still They Hear What They Want To Hear” – Kathy Fish

“Inner Geographies” – Roxane Gay

“The Gone Children They Said Tell Us a Story” – J.A. Tyler

“All Our Canoes Are Safely Ashore” – B.J. Hollars

“An Intervention” – Matthew Salesses

“Two Earthquakes” – Nicolle Elizabeth

“Something More Interesting” – Tara Laskowski

“Drive” – Curtis Smith

“Regional Keystone” – Erin Fitzgerald

“Hands to Work” – Steve Himmer

Holy fucking shit, you say. That’s a lot of badass work by so many badass writers. I sure wish I could experience the unadulterated awesomeness of Corium in person! Well guess motherfucking what! You will have the chance in little under a month at AWP 2011!

Come party with me, Lauren, our wonderful poetry editor Heather Fowler, and of course, the good folks from Prick of the Spindle and SmokeLong Quarterly (edited by fellow Susquehanna alum Tara Laskowski). And look at those readers! Steve Almond! Michael Czyzniejewski! It’s going to be better than 10 Super Bowls.

What Are You Teaching In Workshop?: O Captain, My Captain!

I’ve been reading Cathy Day’s blog lately and all her insightful posts about her undergrad fiction workshop as they went through NaNoWriMo, and the whole time I’ve wondered why more fiction teachers don’t share their syllabi or process or what have you. I’m a sucker for community. It’s what drew me to a university known for its creative writing undergrad and eventually to the MFA itself. Now that I’ve graduated, I miss that feeling of being part of something. There are substitutes. HTMLGIANT. The Rumpus. We Who Are About to Die. Uncanny Valley. And so on and so on. But I don’t know many first year teachers who are teaching workshops, composition and community college. So I thought that maybe I would write about my experience here a little bit, include a draft of my new syllabus, and then if anybody wanted to share similar thoughts that would be great.

This is my fall semester intermediate workshop class. I showed up the last day and they were not only dressed like me, but they’d brought in a Spider-Man cake and noisemakers. To be sure, it was one of  the most touching and humbling moments of my life. I’m not exactly sure why the students responded so positively to the class and to me (I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that they all really got along and the level of criticism was really advanced), but I hope that it has something to do with how I tried to take them seriously as writers, that when they came into my class they weren’t student writers, they were just writers. (Much of my pedagogy comes from this video of Tom Bailey minus all the crying) A lot of them came into the class complaining about how previous workshops focused on inane guidelines (one student said he’d come from a workshop where students had to fit so many imperative, declarative and exclamatory sentences into stories), and I think they responded to how difficult I made the class. I ran it more like a graduate workshop and tried to focus on publishing and literary journals. We looked at PANK, The Collagist, Flatmancrooked, just an absolute ton, and the first student publication (of what I really think will be a lot) will go live on Metazen late this month.

Despite the difficulty (I’d go on about why I think this class is a lot of work, but I’ve included the syllabus below), 15 of 19 students signed up for my advanced fiction workshop in the spring which is the next step up in the program. I honestly couldn’t be happier (although, it poses some syllabus problems because I can’t use any of the same stories from this semester), and have taken this as a mandate to push them further, to expect more from them, to transform them into writing workhorses who believe in perspiration over inspiration and the daily writing schedule. So, with all that in mind, below is the first draft of my new syallbus. Please let me know what you think and feel free to share your own. Have you ever taught a workshop? What have your experiences been like if so? If not, do you want to, do you plan to? Why?

Required Materials

3X33: Short Fiction by 33 Writers edited by Mark Winegardner

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore


Welcome to Advanced Fiction Workshop

In this course, you’re going to write and read a lot. This is not going to be easy because becoming a writer isn’t easy. There will be no easy A’s, and no easy weeks. Writing is a constant struggle, and this course will reflect that truth. However, and I can guarantee you this, if you’re serious about the craft of fiction, if you’re willing to put in the work, you will be a better writer at the end of the course compared to the first day.

Each student will put up 15-20 pages of literary fiction for workshop twice during the semester. You can write a traditional short story, multiple flash fiction pieces, or a novel chapter, but remember, you have to demonstrate the fundamental principles of literary fiction in all of your workshop pieces. That means you shouldn’t hand in a novel chapter that is less than a page. I want to see structure, character, development. I want nuance and complexity. I don’t want filler pieces meant to get you closer to the page requirement.

Substantial revisions will be required. Substantial revision does not mean fixing grammar. Substantial revision usually means a complete rewrite and perhaps multiple rewrites. Students must also post 500-100 word critiques for every student story we workshop. Similarly, you will read a large amount of stories from 3X33 and a few handouts. Students will post 500-1000 word critiques for every assigned story we read. In addition to those critiques, you will write two 1200 word papers in which you do a craft analysis of the novels Super Sad True Love Story and A Gate at the Stairs.

Reading so much literary fiction will allow you to build a library of published stories in your heads. Students are expected to use their knowledge of writers like ZZ Packer, Richard Yates or Lorrie Moore to comment about peer work up for discussion. Students will make parallels and use the published work to inform their critiques of peer work. The majority of the course will be spent workshopping. The goal of the course is for you to not only become a better writer, but to become an active literary citizen who can participate in the ongoing dialogue concerning fiction.

Workshop

You will be prepared for every workshop class by doing the following:

1.)    Write comments in the margins of stories up for discussion. You MUST use the comments feature in Microsoft Word. All comments will be transparent to the entire class. I want you to upload your marked up versions of workshopped stories to Blackboard. Failure to do so will negatively impact your grade.

2.)    Write a 500-1000 word critique for each peer written story we read this semester. You must critique the story based on its own intentions. For example, if the writer is attempting to write in the realist mode of Ray Carver, do not suggest a woman who gives birth to a newborn baby every night ala Amelia Gray just because you don’t like realism. On the flip side, do not knock a postmodern story because you prefer realism. Judge the story the writer wrote, not the one you want to write. Try and help them see how they could better serve their material and unique world vision. In your responses, first describe what you think the writer is attempting to do and what the story is about. Then discuss the piece’s strengths. Finish with prescription, a section where you point out very specific things that still need work within the story. Go beyond grammar. Character, plot, prose, all the building blocks of fiction are on the table. You must use the description, strength, prescription model.

3.) Post your critique and margin comments to Blackboard by 8PM the night before workshop. All critiques will be visible to all members of the class, and I encourage you to read what your peers are saying about every story. Name your thread on Blackboard after your favorite line of the story in question. If you don’t turn in these materials BY 8PM, you will lose points.

Example of a good critique:

[There’s a critique I wrote here in graduate school, but I’m removing it from the blog because I never told the person whose story I culled from. If interested, look in the Crow Room.]

Notes About Workshop

When you are being workshopped, it is very important that you are quiet, take notes, and do not respond to anything verbally. To reiterate, you are not allowed to talk when being workshopped unless I specifically ask you something, and that will be very rare. You are not there to defend your story. Your story must stand on its own.

Please proofread your work. If a story is excessively sloppy, I will not workshop it. Do not depend on your classmates to fix your grammar.

Distribution of Manuscripts

Stories are due from every student at specific points in the semester. Upload them to Blackboard on the due date by 9AM. If your story is late, your grade for that story will drop by an entire letter. If you are more than a day late, you will get an F, no exceptions. You are responsible for printing out your peers’ stories for discussion on workshop days.

Blackboard Reading Posts

On most weeks, you will be required to read at least one outside short story. On these weeks, you must post a 500-1000 word critical response to said story on Blackboard under the appropriately titled forum. Posts must be uploaded by 8PM the day before we discuss the story. If your post is late, you will take an F on the critical response in question. During the first two weeks in which we will be discussing two professional short stories a classroom session, you are required to write three 250-500 word responses each class session, one for each story we read (the exception being Super Sad True Love Story when Paper 1 will be due). Post your responses on the appropriate Discussion Board forum. There’s a forum designated by name for every professional story.

Let me be very clear on this. This is not a forum for you to explain whether or not you like the piece in question. I don’t care. What I’m looking for is a craft analysis. These stories are published. They’re not up for workshop. What can you learn from them? If you simply talk about why you love or hate a specific story, you will take an F on the critical response in question.

Papers

Two papers will be due in this course, one for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shytengart and one for A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. They will be due on Blackboard the night before class at 8PM like our reading critiques. The goal in these papers will be to do a craft analysis and pick out a few pieces in the work in question that specifically helpful to your development as a writer. Do not analyze these novels in a vacuum. Feel free to tie in your own work or other books you have read.

Fiction Pods

After everyone has been workshopped once, I will break you up into Fiction Pods of four and five in which you will read each other’s revisions and then run mini-workshops. I will explain more about Fiction Pods when we reach that point in the semester. Keep in mind, you will be required to meet with your Fiction Pods for 90 minutes outside of class on two separate occasions during the semester. You will also have to e-mail me where and when you met and a very brief summary of the meeting.

Attendance

I want to be as clear as I can on this. If you miss class four times, you will fail. There will be no make up assignments. Don’t come back to class. The ONLY excuse I will accept is a doctor’s excuse. I am not going to make any exceptions on this front.

If you are unprepared for discussion or workshop, I cannot give you credit for attendance that day.

Grading

This is what you have to do if you want an A in this course. You have to put up two thoughtful workshop pieces. Then you have to take the time to substantially revise them. You have to be engaged in classroom discussions and add something relevant every class. You must do all the Blackboard posts and turn them in on time. You do all these things, you get an A. You slack off, turn stuff in late or short, doze off in class, and you’re not getting an A.

Here’s the grading breakdown. 70% of your final grade will come down to your final portfolio, i.e. all of your revised work at the end of the semester. The other 30% comes from Blackboard posts and participation. Please note: participation is mandatory. If you are not contributing to every single workshop, you are not going to get a good grade. This is a workshop course. The same goes for Blackboard. If you consistently fail to turn in work on time, you’re not going to get a good grade.

Final Portfolios

On the final day of class, you will be expected to turn in two revisions of your workshop pieces. Late portfolios WILL NOT be accepted.

Conferences

After your workshop, please schedule a conference with me during my office hours. Revisions will be due at the end of the semester, but you can turn them in at any point. Conferences are mandatory!

Outside Events

Students are only required to attend one event outside of class. On April 7th, writer Lydia Davis will read in the Frick Fine Arts Building at 8PM. You are required to attend and write a short, 500 word craft analysis of her reading. ATTENDANCE IS MANDATORY. If you cannot attend, you must go to a make up reading that I will assign.

Academic Integrity

Cheating/plagiarism will not be tolerated. Students suspected of violating the University of Pittsburgh Policy on Academic Integrity, noted below from the February 1974, Senate Committee on Tenure and Academic Freedom reported to the Senate Council, will be required to participate in the outlined procedural process as initiated by the instructor. A minimum sanction of a zero score for the quiz or exam will be imposed.

Plagiarism, as defined by the University of Pittsburgh’s Academic Integrity code, is when a student:

Presents as one’s own, for academic evaluation, the ideas, representations, or words of another person or persons without customary and proper acknowledgment of sources.

Submits the work of another person in a manner which represents the work to be one’s own.

Knowingly permits one’s work to be submitted by another person without the faculty member’s authorization.

Special Assistance

If you have a disability for which you are or may be requesting an accommodation, you are encouraged to contact both your instructor and Disability Resources and Services, 140 William Pitt Union, (412) 648-7890 or (412) 383-7355(TTY), as early as possible in the term.  DRS will verify your disability and determine reasonable accommodations for this course.

Course Sequence

Week One

Thurs January 6

Syllabus

Introductions

Amelia Gray “Babies” and “Dinner”

Week Two

Tues January 11

Raymond Carver “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” 3X33

Tobias Wolff “The Liar” Blackboard

Dave Eggers “After I Was Thrown in the River but Before I Drowned” Blackboard

Thurs January 13

Antonya Nelson “Naked Ladies” 3X33

James Alan McPherson “Why I Like Country Music” Blackboard

Donald Barthelme “Robert Kennedy Saved From Drowning” 3X33


Week Three

Tues January 18

Gary Shytengart Super Sad True Love Story

STORIES DUE


Thurs January 20

Workshop 1

Workshop 2

Week Four

Tues January 25

Workshop 3

Workshop 4

Thurs January 27

Workshop 5

Jonathan Lethem “Super Goat Man” Blackboard

Week Five

Tues February 1

Workshop 6

Workshop 7

Thurs February 3 – Guest Workshop w/Travis Straub

Workshop 8

Workshop 9

Week Six

Tues February 8

Workshop 10

Workshop 11

Thurs February 10

Workshop 12

Andre Dubus “The Fat Girl” Blackboard

Week Seven

Tues February 15

Workshop 13

Workshop 14

Thurs February 17

Workshop 15

Matt Bell “His Last Great Gift” Blackboard

Week Eight

Tues February 22

Workshop 16

Workshop 17

Thurs February 24

Workshop 18

Richard Yates “The Best of Everything” 3X33


Week Nine

Tues March 1

Workshop 19

Workshop 20

Thurs March 3

Workshop 21

Workshop 22 (IF NEEDED)

A.M. Homes “The Former First Lady and the Football Hero” Blackboard

SUNDAY REVISIONS DUE

Week Ten

Spring Break

Week Eleven

Tues March 15

Lorrie Moore A Gate at the Stairs

New Stories Due

Thurs March 17

Workshop 1

Workshop 2

Week Twelve

Tues March 22

Workshop 3

Workshop 4

Thurs March 24

Workshop 5

Workshop 6

Week Thirteen

Tues March 29

Workshop 7

Workshop 8

Thurs March 31

Workshop 9

Workshop 10 (IF NEEDED)

ZZ Packer “Dayward” Blackboard

Week Fourteen

Tues April 4

Workshop 11

Workshop 12

Thurs April 7

Workshop 13

Workshop 14 (IF NEEDED)

George Saunders “Sea Oak” 3X33


Week Fifteen

Tues April 12

Workshop 15

Workshop 16

Thurs April 14

Workshop 17

Workshop 18

Week Sixteen

Tues April 19

Workshop 19

Workshop 20

Thurs April 21

Workshop 21

Workshop 22

 

Flashback Monday II: The Single Worst Personal Statement in the History of MFA Applications

It’s an absolute miracle I got in anywhere. Abandon all hope.

Sal Pane

Personal Statement Final Draft

10/26/06

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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Personal Statement Final Draft

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

Cash, Money, Hoes: BABY BOY’S GOT TO EAT!

A couple of great posts on The Rumpus recently focused on something near and dear to my heart: writers getting paid. Elissa Bassist–whose amazing exit interview with her boyfriend has to be read to be believed–quotes the writer Elaine Showalter who wrote:

I told… all my graduate students, ‘Learn to write so well that you can be paid for it, rather than so badly that someone has to be paid to read your work.’ Many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable. But actually getting paid as a freelance journalist demands hard work and luck, as you know, and these days the market is tighter than ever.

Elissa then goes on to discuss her decision to self-publish some of her work and implore readers Radiohead style to contribute via paypal. The second Rumpus post to deal with money is a farce about a writer answering fan mail and essentially begging for money or a job. Doesn’t seem too far removed from reality.

Compensation is something I discuss a lot with my MFA pals, but usually that conversation’s about the tiered funding system our program uses. But when I think of getting paid to write (and by write I mean publishing short stories, doing book reviews, blogging for lit websites) is it an absolute travesty for me to say I don’t think we should be getting paid, or at least not very much?

Let me back up. Many will accuse me of  having a privileged opinion, and hey, I come from Scranton. My whole family’s working class, especially my immediate family, and I have enough student debt and scholarship cash to jump start the economy all by myself. So that shouldn’t be a major issue. But something that’s always stuck with me is a scene I witnessed in a workshop at Susquehanna University, where I went to undergrad. A professor of mine, the oft-mentioned Tom Bailey, was leading a workshop of a story about an arty photographer who got really mad that they had to do day jobs. Tom got pretty angry and gave us a speech about how real artists should be willing to sacrifice for their art, that they should even do so happily.

Now I’m not saying that writers are paid 100% fairly. There’s pretty much zero way for any writer to support themselves wholly off of literary writing. But there’s other ways, right? Teaching? Technical Writing? Writing in a different field–be that screenplays or comic books or what have you? And of course, the argument is always that if writers didn’t have to do all that extraneous stuff to feed themselves, they’d be able to produce better art. Maybe. But writing is a privilege and it has to be earned (and guys, don’t forget that Chekhov was a full time doctor and I think he did just fine).

I really applaud what Elissa Bassist is doing–check out her work and donate some money here. She saw something in the system she didn’t like, and she made an attempt to change it. And maybe one day, that will be the new model, and writers will be paid for doing much of the work they now do for free. But in the meantime, I’m absolutely fine with blogging and reviewing for free and making the majority of my income through teaching or other means. But where do you guys all stand on this? Does it burn you up that writers make so little, or do you see it as a necessary sacrifice for your art (because honestly, there’s probably a billion easier ways to make better money than writing literary fiction)?

The Super-Ego: Kanye West vs. The Last Son of Krypton

All contemporary writers are inherently egomaniacs. It takes an ego of unimaginable strength for a person to look at the summation of the written word and think, “Yeah. That’s not good enough. I have something unique, vital and oh so very important to add. Shakespeare? Fuck Shakespeare.” Ego is undeniably a necessary component to the act of, if not writing, then at the very least publishing. If there’s not enough confidence, or even arrogance in the strength and validity of your own work, it’ll probably go unread on your hard drive for all eternity. However, too much ego can quickly become a danger for writers. Three days ago, I posted about novelist Tom Bailey and how he would routinely deliver incredibly harsh critiques to undergrad students, often asking them to pick one great sentence from their drafts and start completely over (meaning new characters, new settings, new plots, new conceits). This pissed off a lot of students and some even changed majors or left the program once they realized the type of rewriting Bailey wanted. And this is where the danger lies. Because although you need to have enough faith in your work to believe it is worthy of existing, worthy of publishing, writers also have to be able to deal with criticism. Otherwise you get explosions like that one time Richard Ford kind of spat on Colson Whitehead over a negative review.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why ego is so necessary to writers, where it comes from, and what other professions it applies to. This is something my novel deals with a lot, so I’ve been wrestling with these issues for awhile now. In the book, one of the central figures is Kanye West. The Kanye of my novel is an odd amalgam of true reports and utterly fictionalized bullshit (for example, there’s a scene where Kanye rides a steel horse into space to eradicate an old folks’ home on Mars). One of the things that first really excited me about Kanye is his blog. I’m not naive enough to believe that Kanye’s the one actually posting music videos, linking to art exhibits, or gushing about the latest sneakers, but every once in awhile, a post shows up that is clearly written by Yeezy himself. For an example, check out this video of South Park mocking Kanye and then Kanye’s real-life response on his blog:

Click Yeezy for video.

SOUTH PARK MURDERED ME LAST NIGHT AND IT’S PRETTY FUNNY. IT HURTS MY FEELINGS BUT WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT FROM SOUTH PARK! I ACTUALLY HAVE BEEN WORKING ON MY EGO THOUGH. HAVING THE CRAZY EGO IS PLAYED OUT AT THIS POINT IN MY LIFE AND CAREER. I USE TO USE IT TO BUILD UP MY ESTEEM WHEN NOBODY BELIEVED IN ME. NOW THAT PEOPLE DO BELIEVE AND SUPPORT MY MUSIC AND PRODUCTS THE BEST RESPONSE IS THANK YOU INSTEAD OF “I TOLD YOU SO!!!” IT’S COOL TO TALK SHIT WHEN YOU’RE RAPPING BUT NOT IN REAL LIFE… I JUST WANNA BE A DOPER PERSON WHICH STARTS WITH ME NOT ALWAYS TELLING PEOPLE HOW DOPE I THINK I AM. I NEED TO JUST GET PAST MYSELF. DROP THE BRAVADO… AS LONG AS PEOPLE THINK I ACT LIKE A BITCH THIS TYPE OF SHIT WILL HAPPEN TO ME. I GOT A LONG ROAD AHEAD OF ME TO MAKE PEOPLE BELIEVE I’M NOT ACTUALLY A HUGE DOUCHE BUT I’M UP FOR THE CHALLENGE… I’M SURE THERE’S GRAMMATICAL ERRORS IN THIS… THAT’S HOW YOU KNOW IT’S ME! (West)

Kanye’s quote might seem ridiculous to some, but I think there’s something very true and undeniably human about it that makes it worth examining. If anything, West is completely self-aware. He realizes quite accurately that his hyperbole and hyper-ego (the one that first allowed him to attempt to create something and show it in a public venue) originated in his vague, adolescent insecurities. His ego began as a way to boost his self-esteem, but in the wake of rampant success, grew completely out of control. There’s something about this admission that’s always struck me. Ego and insecurities. Are these two warring sensibilities necessary for all writers? Maybe even all “performers”? And if that’s the case, then aren’t we all performers? And are the dangers in overplaying one’s ego that are specific to writers?

These are all issues I’m still grappling with and definitely ones I plan on tackling in future work. My thoughts on the subject (much like this blog post) are kind of scrambled and inconclusive. All I can really add to the subject is this: a week ago, my mother asked me how I was doing. I’d been having a rough go of it (she knew this) and instead of answering her outright and explaining why I now felt so much better about the world, I told her a story. Because I really do believe that stories are how people make sense of reality. I reminded her that after Superman died in his climatic early-nineties throwdown with emotionless super alien Doomsday, the body of Clark Kent/Kal-El was placed inside of a magical regeneration chamber hidden away in the Fortress of Solitude that massaged him back to life with wondrous rays of sunshine imported from the planet Krypton. I told my mother that my ego had the same effect; it comforts, empowers and renews. Kryptonite is on one hand Superman’s greatest weakness, but on the other, it is the wellspring which makes all things possible. For without his Kryptonian lineage, what is Superman other than a disturbed individual who wears his underwear outside of his pants? My mother said, “That’s nice, dear.” That’s probably the best I can expect.

I wish more people understood how much of a self-serving asshole Superman really is.