Salvatore Pane

Tag: University of Pittsburgh

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

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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

 

Educational Autobiographies

Recently, I posted my plan to let my comp students write about their own obsessions in a mode similar to Tom Bissell’s stellar essay “Grand Thefts”. It didn’t turn out as well as I expected. Alongside the obsession option was another essay prompt about art that only two students out of nineteen took. I tell my kids all the time that I’m not some godly authority, that I’m learning as much as they are. And one thing I’ve learned is that sadly, I have to cut that obsession essay from future versions of the course. Luckily, the final essay prompt seems to have gone over extremely well. I’m only halfway through the papers but they’re really fucking impressive. Essay assignment is below. Let me know what you think, what types of things you teach (if you teach), if you have suggestions, etc. etc. etc. For this one they had to read “Aria” by Richard Rodriguez, “I Just Wanna Be Average” by Mike Rose and “Telling Tales in School: A Redneck Daughter in the Academy” by Hephzibah Roskelly.

Essay #5 (4-5 Pages)

Students will float to the mark you set. I and the others in the vocational classes were bobbing in pretty shallow water. Vocational education has aimed at increasing the economic opportunities of students who do not do well in our schools. Some serious programs succeed in doing that, and through exceptional teachers… students learn to develop hypotheses and troubleshoot, reason through a problem, and communicate effectively—the true job skills. The vocational track, however, is most often a place for those who are just not making it, a dumping ground for the disaffected. There were a few teachers who worked hard at education; young Brother Slattery, for example, combined a stern voice with weekly quizzes to try to pass along to us a skeletal outline of world history. But mostly the teachers had no idea of how to engage the imaginations of us kids who were scuttling along at the bottom of the pond.

—Mike Rose in “I Just Wanna Be Average”

Personal inquiry. Argument. Personal inquiry. Argument. At times, this course has felt like a battleground with lines clearly drawn between those who would rather write personal essays and those who feel that much more is at stake in formal arguments. For Essay #5, we want you to produce a hybrid, an essay that not only reveals the writer’s life ala David Masello and Tom Bissell, but one that also strives to make a point ala Peter Singer and Kelli Whitehead.

The educational system is something every American has experienced on some level. Each person in this course has gone through high school, and now you’ve chosen to extend your education at least four years here at Pitt. Yet many of you feel there are a great many problems within the education system. Richard Rodriguez tells a personal story about being forced to speak English instead of Spanish and how badly that damaged his relationship with his family. He then parlays that into an argument against widespread bilingual education. Mike Rose tells a personal story about being shuttled into the vocational track instead of the honors courses where he rightfully belonged. He then parlays that into an argument about students rising to what’s expected of them so that honors students act like honors students and vocational students act like vocational students. Hephzibah Roskelly tells stories about stories, referring to her days growing up on the farm and listening to her family’s tales. She parlays this into an argument about narrative as educational tool and the unjust stereotype most people think of when they hear the term “redneck”.

For this essay, you must write a personal story about education and parlay that into an argument about education. Pick something you care about. Be interested in your work. If you are bored with your topic, so will your readers. What links Rodriguez, Rose and Roskelley is that they have all chosen to write about deeply personal matters and use those feelings to write a coherent argument about education. You must critique the educational system. Nearly anything is fair game, everything from kindergarten to high school to college athletics to unfair distribution of scholarships. Secondly, like Roskelley, you must use outside sources. For this essay, we are requiring THREE OUTSIDE SOURCES. This does not mean Wikipedia. This means books in the library or articles on PittCATT. Your sources must be integrated organically into the paper like in Roskelley’s, and you must provide a works cited that follows MLA format (Microsoft Word can do this for you). Search out people who agree with your argument. Search out people who disagree with your argument and “beat” them at their own game just like you “beat” Peter Singer. Like anything, the debate concerning education is an ongoing conversation. Your paper is not an island, but a mere dialogue in an endless series of conversations.

An Alternate 1985: The Neverending Quest for More Time

I now realize how much of a gift my time in grad school was. I had so much time to write, so much time to read. And I’d like to think I made the most out of my three years, but who can be sure, right? By the final year, I was writing every single day and had managed that feat on and off for much of the first two years, but that certainly isn’t the case now.

So many of us writers are led to academia after graduation, but holy fuck is it a time drain. I’m teaching a 3/3 load and, Christ, am I grateful for that opportunity, but that coupled with a kind of hyper mega doom cold has drained my writing time down to nil. I’m pretty much healthy now and have been writing maybe 4 or 5 days a week which depresses me greatly. I’ve had to go back to what I did my first year of grad school and come up with a writing schedule. During the end of my time in the Pitt MFA program, I simply made the time, would wake up at 8 or 9 and write for 3 hours. Now that I teach at 9am, I no longer have that luxury.

Another problem with the writing every day rule: I’m no longer working on a novel. I found it easiest to write every day when I had a consistent world and voice to return to. It was so easy for me to fall into the voice I used for The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist, because it was so close to my own natural writing voice. Within a few weeks of writing I fully understood that world, and what a comfort it was to inhabit it for a few hours every day for well over a year. The act of writing itself was a joy. It almost always is, but I felt a special kind of happiness working on that project.

With short stories, I just don’t have that level of comfort. You’re always coming up with new worlds, new characters, new voices. It’s such a drain. And I wish that I had the time to start a new novel now, but I really do believe you have to sit between these bigger projects and give yourself some time to replenish the well. I moved right from a very awful novel–the aforementioned ABORTION if you’ve read this blog for any length of time–into Digital Narcissist, because it took me 300 pages to find one interesting character and plot in that first book. I amputated that and started again. Otherwise, I would have probably waited.

I talk about this with my students a lot in workshop. As writers, some of us are sprinters and some of us are marathon runners. I don’t think my style or sensibilities are necessarily suited towards writing the short story in any long term sense. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been writing a short story or novel and found yourself wishing you were writing the other form?

Dispatches From a Creative Writing Camp and the Strange Allure of the Nintendo Novel

This is my second week teaching at the Young Writers Institute, a University of Pittsburgh summer writing camp for middle schoolers and high school kids. I’m teaching 7th and 8th graders, and although I’ll undoubtedly write something longer about the experience later, there are a few things I want to discuss now. First off, it’s amazing to me the type of writers these kids respond to. Last week, we took them to the Carnegie Library and I managed to get a bunch of them interested in Flannery O’ Connor, Tom Perrotta, Stewart O’ Nan and Belle Boggs. One even picked up Kevin Wilson all on her own. Today we went through a bunch of the superb exercises in John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I expected Harry Potter and Artemis Fowl, and while the kids do all seem to like these books (can you believe current 7th graders were born after the release of the first HP book?!), they also seem to be drawn to “serious” “literary” fiction which is a promising sign.

But that’s not what this post is going to be about. One of my students reminds me a lot of a younger me. He’s unreasonably tall and built like a matchstick. He spends much of his day talking about Nintendo and always arrives earlier than anyone else. Usually, he has a new chapter from the novel he’s writing for me. What’s it about? It’s a sequel to a video game I never heard of, a Japanese Role-Playing Game that involves a bunch of Nintendo characters, including everybody’s favorite Italian stereotype, Super Mario.

For those unware, Japanese RPGs are extremely text heavy video games. They usually take 30-60 hours to complete, and much of that time is spent watching cut scenes or reading dialogue, the exact opposite of Tom Bissell’s beloved luddonarratives. Typically, these games are standard fantasy fare, i.e. knights and wizards. But in the nineties, things began shifting towards steampunk. When I was kid, RPGs were my favorite type of video games. And although I haven’t played one in a few years, I can relate to my student’s desire to ape this narrative style. A group of warriors and wizards are thrown together due to an extreme crisis. They band together and travel a fantastic world learning new abilities. They save the planet. I can relate to wanting to write in this style, but I don’t understand it.

As a child, I wrote many Nintendo novels, hundreds of pages of material following the typical RPG path. What I don’t understand is why this was the major type of story I, and apparently many others, tried to emulate. I was exposed to countless comic books and read a ton of young adult sci-fi and fantasy. Yet I never tried to recreate or sequelize those worlds. Why is that? Is it because they were more fully fleshed out? Because the worlds and characters of RPGs are only ever suggested and never fully realized? Is it because the stories of RPGs were inherently simpler than kid novels from writers like Bruce Coville, and thus, more easily copied? I’m not really sure. But I’m wondering if others out there tried to write Nintendo novels as kids. I’m wondering if anybody has any thoughts on why.

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.

Audiobooks, Podcasts, THE FUTURE

Anyone who read my AWP Media Guide knows I’m a total over planner when it comes to having crap to do on long drives or flights. I’m going on a couple of big drives over the holiday weekend and have been pestering people about what new audiobook to get for the trip. After a lot of input, I settled on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, another Pitt MFA grad. But what I’m wondering about is what you all do for long drives. Audiobooks? Podcasts?

Before I discovered audiobooks (about twenty years too late, trust me I know), I was really into podcasts. On the literary side, I really dug the selections from The New Yorker, The Missouri Review, Selected Shorts and Hot Metal Bridge (which sadly doesn’t seem to put out new content anymore). Each one has their own unique feel and is well worth a listen. TNY is special in that it features a big name author (somebody like T.C. Boyle or George Saunders) who goes through the TNY archive, selects a story, reads it aloud, then does an interview about it with fiction editor Deborah Treisman. It’s always helpful to hear what other writers think about stories that aren’t their own, and I can remember very vividly listening to James Salter’s amazing “Last Night” on the TNY podcast and nearly swerving off the road during its creepy climax. TMR, on the other hand, uses its podcasts mostly for contest winners. What’s cool about their contests is that they’re often billed specifically as audio contests, meaning performance factors in. Nothing against TNY, but writers aren’t always the best public speakers. Selected Shorts is similar. They use professional actors to read all the stories which gives the podcasts a different flair. Sometimes they go a bit overboard and sound too stagey, but for the most part they succeed. Oh, and Hot Metal Bridge? We used to release our grad student readings. It was always nice to see your friends names pop up in iTunes I guess.

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite comic book podcasts which have gotten me through many hours of driving and working out (via Twitter, Josh Flanagan assured me I’m not the only one who listens to iFanboy podcasts while biking). First up is the aforementioned iFanboy’s Pick of the Week podcast. Josh, Conor and Ron spend a little over an hour a week going over the major releases and answering fan questions. What I love about this podcast is that Josh, Conor and Ron have been friends since college (at least) and their discussion reflects this. There’s a chumminess to their show that’s not always present in other podcasts, and it reminds me of hanging out with my buddies back at Susquehanna, drinking forties and talking about Spider-Man. Next up is IGN’s Comics Smash podcast. Headed by three IGN editors, this one is released less frequently but also covers that month’s biggest comic and movie news. It’s a bit more informative and slightly drier but definitely one of my favorites. 

As for audiobooks, I typically stick with CNF (no memoirs). I find it difficult to focus on longer narratives while driving and prefer short stories or more informative books like Sarah Vowell’s Assasination Vacation or the almighty Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized Biography. But I want to flip this discussion and turn it back to you. What do you guys listen to on trips? What are your favorite podcasts? Your favorite audiobooks? Do you have strange preferences like I do when it comes to narrative and driving? And what lit podcasts am I missing? I heard Electric Literature releases its issues in podcast form now. Any other options like this out there?

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.

An Online Panel on Literary Journals (Part 2 of 4): In Thee Candled Operahouse with Blood for Flames (Penance ex genesis)

Last week, I began an online discussion about literary journals. We continue this week with commentary from Robert Yune, a writer living in Pittsburgh. Some of his past jobs include factory worker, construction worker, landscaper, online banking representative, behavioral health interviewer, and teaching assistant.

In 2008, he earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and received a full tuition minority scholarship to the advanced fiction workshop at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. In 2009, he received one of nine fiction writing fellowships through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and published a story in Green Mountains Review.

He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, Eighty Days of Sunlight.

From Robert:

“Recently, I’ve been using a combination of Newpages and Duotrope to find literary journals. I’m careful about who I send to. It’s surprising how many seem professional until you click on the ‘about us’ or ‘staff’ page. I take my writing seriously and don’t want my work published on a website whose ‘about us’ page contains the phrases ‘fun-kay scribblings,’ ‘bLeEding SOuL’ or ‘Send us your best cat haikus!!!!!!!!!’ I have nothing against journals whose staff pages pictures are all dancing monkeys, but they’re just not for me.

Beyond personal preference, some literary agents read literary journals and contact writers. This is another reason I submit to professional journals–I’m not sure how many agents read Cat Haiku Literary Journal. But now that I think about it, writing a cat haiku actually sounds like fun.

I work in bursts and tend to send out dozens of stories over the course of one or two days. For me, it takes a certain mindset to send work out: SASE, manila envelope, email or submission manager, put _____ in the subject line, do/do not put your name on all ms. pages, attach international reply coupons for foreign journals, etc. For me, it’s simply faster to get into a submission mindset, send out stories, and return to a writing state of mind.

I’ve noticed that many literary magazines have specific submission guidelines, for example, ‘Put your name and the word “Fic Submission” in the subject line of your email submission’ or ‘Please use claspless manila envelopes.’ While these guidelines surely have practical reasons (‘Fic Submission’ subject lines make it easier to identify submissions, clasped envelopes jam mail slots), they’re also the fastest way for editors to determine how competent a writer is. From an artist’s perspective, everything about the submission process should generate the reader’s goodwill, from the cover letter to the manuscript’s layout. Taking care to follow specific directions is probably one of the most overlooked parts of the process.

I imagine many of you are MFA candidates. My best advice is to volunteer to work for a literary journal. I worked as a reader for Hot Metal Bridge and the experience was invaluable. I quickly learned countless things not to do when submitting. As someone with a deep love and respect for the craft of fiction, imagine how I felt when I received a story with a title like ‘In Thee Candled Operahouse with Blood for Flames (Penance ex genesis)’ by vampyrepoet32@comcast net. Imagine how I felt when I received a story whose title was misspelled, and not on purpose. Also, it’s really useful (and healthy, somehow, for a writer) to understand the debates and timelines behind the editorial process.

I should also mention that we, as writers, need to support literary magazines. Even subscribing to just one literary magazine a year (which costs like $20) makes a difference. A lot of colleges are looking to make budget cuts, and many are scrutinizing their MFA program-sponsored litmags. It’s easier to justify cutting a litmag with 300 subscriptions than one with 5,000.

On a very primitive level, the primary reason to purchase subscriptions is simple self-interest. If a literary magazine (especially one you got published in) runs out of money and closes, the value of your publication dwindles into nothingness. The opposite is true: the more subscriptions (and money, and resources) a litmag has, the better your publication looks. I realize how obvious and ugly this argument is, and I apologize for making it. But in terms of simple numbers, a mid-sized litmag might have 15 staff members reading 20,000 submissions a year and only 2,000 subscriptions–this kind of budgetary imbalance is simply not sustainable.

I’ve worked as a volunteer reader for a litmag and spent months searching through literally thousands of submissions to find that that one astonishing, beautiful, or devastating story. And I did my best to argue for that story during editorial meetings, I did my best to promote that story by recommending it to friends, family, and students after we published it. Literary magazines do a lot of boring, grinding, behind-the-scenes work to support writers.

I’ve always believed that good writing will find a home. Sometimes, it just takes longer than expected. I hope this helps.”

An Online Panel on Literary Journals (Part 1 of 3): Huh? What? Stop.

I just returned home from Denver and AWP late last night. I’m still collecting my thoughts and trying to wrap my mind around the event, and I’m not sure if I’ll make a proper post. In case I do, I don’t want to spoil the good material now. In case I don’t, highlights include: drinking with Kirk Nessett and his dog, meeting Justin Taylor and Roxane Gay, meeting two separate people who actually referenced entries on this blog, an awesome poetry reading in honor of Black Warrior Review, and great readings and panels all around.

Aside from that, this post will have nothing to do with AWP. Instead, I’m going to do my own online panel. So if you missed the shenanigans in Denver, dear readers, worry not. For awhile now, I’ve wanted to say something about literary journals. Not THE STATE OF THE LITERARY JOURNAL (I’ve already done that), but how one goes about submitting, choosing where to submit, publishing, and all the other difficulties that come with lit mags. Obviously, with only three journal pubs under my belt, I am no expert. So I’ve enlisted the help of two University of Pittsburgh MFA alumnus, Robert Yune and Adam Reger. Between the three of us, we’ve  published in different enough places (and have different enough methods) to be of use to the general reader/aspiring writer. Robert will be guest blogging the next entry later in the week, and Adam will follow after that. But for now, you’re stuck with this guy (I promise, this won’t take long).

I used to be the Fiction Editor of Hot Metal Bridge, and it was always very apparent to me when a submitter had never read our journal in their life. Our publishing tastes were quite eclectic at HMB, and we had no problem running flash fiction from an emerging writer about an obscure Tick henchman alongside a novel excerpt from the wonderful Dan Chaon. That being said, we still wanted fiction. Sometimes I received poetry. Sometimes I received scripts. The point is to read the journal you’re submitting to. And that doesn’t just mean figuring out what genres are allowed. HMB always published a wide variety of genres but not all journals are like that. You wouldn’t send the same piece to Ploughshares that you’d send to Electric Literature. One specializes in realistic fiction, and one clearly does not. Get a taste for what the journal you’re submitting to publishes. Do that and you’re already a leg up.

Ok. Ok. I hear you. Everybody knows that. Fine, assholes. What about Duotrope? I’ve been using Duotrope for about four years (I began submitting to the Colorado Review when I should have been submitting to Nowhere), and it’s a fantastic resource for any writer serious about submitting. It tracks all your submissions so you never get confused about when or where you’ve sent stuff out. That’s the part most people know. But what it’s even better for is finding journals. It has entries for every journal you can think of along with acceptance/rejection rates from the Duotrope community. Also, there’s fantastic statistics for ever journal. For example, under Weave, it says that people who submitted there also sent to Caketrain and PANK among others. It also says that people who successfully published in Weave, also published in Night Train and The Collagist. This is invaluable for many reasons.

First off, this gives you a good idea of what other journals to look at. Let’s say you love Flatmancrooked but don’t know where else to submit. Cruise on over to their Duotrope listing and see where else people who’ve submitted there have sent to. Then pick up some of those magazines. Similarly, these listings give you an idea about your current foothold in the literary world. If you can’t get into One Story no matter how many times you’ve tried, why not pick a journal a successful writer published in before they landed One Story? This, my friends, is called coming down the totem pole.

Speaking of totem poles, I know Robert and Adam are going to discuss their methods, so let me get mine out of the way. When I complete a story, I sit on it for awhile, maybe a month, then submit to 8-10 journals. These are usually reaches, but I’ll send some to places I think I have a solid chance with (but to be brutally honest, in the world of lit journals, they’re all reaches).  If the story is rejected 10 times, I give it 10 more chances. After 20 rejections, it’s retired. I’m going to go full disclosure with my stats now, so brace yourself. Right this second, I have 30 submissions floating out there somewhere in the ether. The earliest was sent July 16, 2009; I sent the latest yesterday morning. You have to be a machine when it comes to submitting. You have to be relentless. And you cannot take rejection personally. Alongside those 30 “pending responses” are 3 acceptances and a staggering 147 rejections. That means my acceptance ratio is 2.5%.

2.5%!!!!

Is there anything more depressing than 2.5%? Yes. Yes there is. Every time I sign onto Duotrope I’m greeted with this message: “Congratulations! Your overall acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.”

HOLY SHIT! That means I’m winning. That means getting rejected 97.5% of the time is seen as some type of victory to Duotrope. These are the odds we’re up against, and it’s crucial you’re absolutely honest with yourself before you begin this process. Is your work ready for publication? Does it meet the quality of your desired publications? But most importantly, can you handle the rejection? Because like death and taxes, that’s one thing certain for every writer: rejection, a shit ton of it, 97.5% to be exact.