Posts Tagged ‘rutgers’

This post is “lovely”

June 23, 2010


Someone said it at lunch. A student. I can’t remember now who. It was a warning to vulnerable, over-sensitive student-writers with flimsy self-esteem: “You gotta toughen up for these workshops.”

Twenty years ago when I took my first writing class at a college in North Jersey run by Dominican nuns, I would have agreed. Sister Bridget was a fairly kind-hearted woman but she’d rip you to shreds in front of your peers if you failed to put together a story with some semblance of meaning. But times have changed and now, successful writers with huge credits to their names (New York Times book review, New York Times Op Ed section, Granta, Harper’s, three published books, etc.) forewarn their workshop groups to be “compassionate,” “sensitive,” and to “discuss the piece’s finer points.”

We don’t want to offend anyone, now. Do we?

Here’s my gripe: The pros, who are all having nightmarish flashbacks of their MFA workshop experiences are applying these nicey nice terms (Great, Lovely, Has Potential) to everyone’s work. It’s not just my stuff that’s “great.” It’s John’s, and Jane’s and Larry’s and even Juanita’s who’s never taken a writing class in her life. We’re all “great,” and “lovely.” And there’s no distinction among us. And while this is great and lovely for our self-esteem (God forbid anyone’s sensitivities are offended) it doesn’t do squat to help us learn, grow or trust the validity of our professors’ opinions.

Granted, I’ve only been to three workshops so far this summer, but inevitably, they all begin with the same recurrent address: “First off, let me say that overall, this was a lovely piece of writing…I really enjoyed the bit about the blah, blah, blah, and I love the way you intuited blah, blah, blah…Also, I think you have a lot to work with here as far as blah, blah, blah goes.” If we’re lucky, the lecturer says this: “I have one criticism…”

Inevitably, when I’ve been workshopped previously, that “one little criticism,” no matter how clearly it comes across (which, usually it doesn’t because no one wants to offend me), no matter if I take notes and write it down in my binder and later, circle it and put arrows around it to mark its existence, goes in one ear and out the other. It evaporates. I’ll tell you why. Because I don’t want to be a writer that has to go back and edit her work. I want to be a writer who delivers a work of art on the first draft. I want to be the diamond in the rough. I want to be a star. And forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think others are like this too. Heck, who doesn’t want to be told that what they’ve created is a flawless shiny ball of fuzzy perfection?

But the trouble is, none of us are perfect and only maybe one or two of us (yes, that’s it) have submitted a publishable piece that has real potential at the moment it is being workshopped. And we as students know this. We have to read all the manuscripts as well and comparatively speaking, we all know what’s crap and what isn’t. So two things occur: cognitive dissonance—we recognize something as being black, but then we are told it’s white, and an internal prompt to follow the herd and be nice too. No one wants to offend anyone else. No one wants to step up to the plate and go against that social construct known as correctness (political correctness, social correctness, etc.). And why should we? We’re taught, so as to bolster our self-esteem of course, that Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was rejected 20 times before someone published it, or that no one wanted to publish Bukowski for years. Not only that but the very nature of art and creative writing is subjective. Who’s really to say what’s crap and what’s not? And who am I to be so presumptuous?

And yet, this is our business. This is our life’s work. There is standard in the industry that, as students, we need to know if we are to attempt to reach it. My guess is that Obama will not “gently suggest” to McChrystal that he should resign. My guess is that Ben Bernanke got where he is by virtue of a lot of hard knocks and struggles, not by a gently cresting sea that propelled him forward with “First off, let me say that overall, you’re a lovely person…”

Bullshit.

In yesterday’s workshop I felt Big Brother was watching, controlling what we said and how we said it. And we were not given enough credit for trying to be humane on our own. We were forced into using words like “lovely,” “great” and “nice,” even if we didn’t mean it. Everyone was on guard. Even men like ______ held back their idiomatic language and bold criticism that for an entire year, inspired me to work harder and strive for better.

I am not suggesting that we denigrate or disparage individuals. There’s no place for “you suck.” But work is another matter. Work cannot be taken personally, despite the fact that it is the product of the individual. Work is in the public realm and when you put it there, it is up for criticism.

There was this kid yesterday whose piece was about to be discussed, until we were reminded to be nice. He spoke up and said, “I can take it,” but by then it was too late. Instead of a more accurate discussion of his work, he got the “this is lovely” version. And to add insult to injury, everyone talked it to death out of nervous energy. Truth is, it wasn’t bad. If he held his focus, if he removed the immaturities and judgments in his voice, if he tightened up a few parts and expanded on others, it would have read better. Would he believe me amid the phoniness that ensued? Could he trust anyone brave enough to tell him the truth? I don’t know. I hope so. Because that’s what will make him a stronger writer. And if he’s able to identify with and trust the judgment of people whom he admires, he just might be led in the right direction.

Teachers have an ethical responsibility to students not only to foster an environment conducive to learning, but to tell the truth. We need to know when our work works and when it doesn’t. The problem is, no one wants to suppose that there is one truth or that they have the right to judge. And maybe there isn’t one truth, and maybe they don’t have the right to judge. But someone needs to step up to the plate an offer up what’s known as an OPINION. Because there is a standard of good writing, and opinions count, and if a teacher is not willing to cultivate someone’s work, a student has to be willing to seek out the truth, even if it hurts. As for me, I’m looking for the truth in magazines. One thing I can be sure of is that the publishing industry isn’t afraid to tell me if my work sucks or if it truly is lovely.

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Reality Fiction

June 15, 2010


SO, last night was a night alone–completely alone–no kids, no boyfriend, no friends, no nothing. And quite honestly, I enjoyed the heck out of it. People who can’t be alone shock and amaze me. And it’s not that I make very good use of my “me time”: Dr. Phil and Intervention marathons are sadly as wild as I get.

But I did read last night; that’s a big plus.

There are several things I’m reading- Ron Rash’s Serena, Mat Johnson’s Hunting in Harlem, and then several lit mags: Creative NonFiction,  Glimmer Train, and Tin House, the latter of which was the only thing that interested me last night as it had a great interview with David Shields who believes in “tell don’t show” when it comes to fiction.

Interesting! If you know anything about fiction writing, as students we are told the opposite, that “show don’t tell” is the first rule of writing and so, our fiction ends up looking like this:

Carey studied the frozen dinners. He’d had turkey and dressing for the last four days, so salisbury steak would be good for a change. But did he want the Big Man’s or the regular?

A scent teased his nose. Not the overwhelming smell of fish and frostbite, but a fresh smell, like the smell of skin just out of the shower. He glanced sideways and saw the most perfect arm he’d ever seen in his life. Long, slender, graceful, full of sinewy muscle and smooth skin. His eyes followed the arm to the shoulder and then the head. Her head. A head covered with long blond hair and containing a face that made his heart stop.

“Hi,” she said, her voice rich and melodious.

Carey’s mouth didn’t work. He tried to return her greeting, but only a grunt came out. He tried to smile politely, but his face erupted with a grin as large and toothy and goofy as a cartoon character’s . . . (taken from: Inspiration for Writers)

The above, of course, is a bad example, and yet, it illustrates nicely what most of our fiction looks like. Shields is saying that “fiction” hasn’t caught up with our contemporary culture which is a blend of reality and fiction and that most literature is egoless because it “shows” action, rather than tells of what the mind is thinking, what the emotions are feeling. The subconscious, he argues, is what is most desired and what can be exposed in literature and yet no one is doing it.

I’m sure I’m bastardizing his philosophy, but what I find greatly fascinating is that when I worked with PBQ I kept pushing for what I called “Reality FIction.” KVM thought I was nuts. But my point was to expose a reality in fiction that no one seemingly wanted to read. Bad literature. But the reality was, as far as submissions to the magazine went, there was more bad stuff than good. And if we were to portray “reality” this is how we would do it. Not only that, but i wanted to publish the cover letters. Marion got me. KVM didn’t. Nice to know another “Shields” gets me.

He will be speaking and reading at Rutgers for the summer writers conference. I can’t wait!

Just nod your head for “yes!”

July 14, 2009

But then when he had got settled at the hotel, and they had started their little pattern of cafe life at the Eckmühl-Noiseux, there had been nothing to write about- he could not establish a connection in his mind between the absurd trivialities which filled the day and the serious business of putting words to paper. – The Sheltering Sky

I am at a point of stunted growth, or shall I say, blankness. I have no mind right now for words and meanings and conceptual thinking. And it will take grad school to bring it all back to me. I was talking to A last night, who I’ve known since PBQ, circa 2002. She’s just finishing up the MA program, while I am heading into the MFA. She was telling me, “your soul will just explode with creativity and energy for life once you begin your classes.” I am so hoping this is true. Lately, to which I’m sure this blog attests, I have been uninspired. The only thing on my mind is love and making love and sex and D and keeping my kids busy and happy and grateful this summer. And though all that is GREAT, I really can’t wait to begin caring for my mental state. I can only handle “suburban housewife” trance for a few years at a time before going nuts.

Tragedy

April 16, 2009

What was it that Elaine and George Costanza concluded about men’s and women’s brains and sex? That men can think much clearer when they’re not having it and women can think much clearer when they are?

Bullshit. Or, I’m loaded with too much testosterone.

Since D, my brain has turned to mush. Literally, it produces nothing but sappy cliches. Too horrible to ever post.

It’s not that I’m thinking less- through the mush I am still having deep thoughts. It’s that I can’t seem to hold on to them long enough to get them on to paper. Or perhaps, it’s just that I could care less. The thought of D going down on me is far more thrilling than any pontificating I could do about anything else I seem to come up with during leaner times.

And it’s not that I am not busy or physically doing less either. My life has changed little in that respect. I’m still running, still reading Grodstein’s book and Spinning Will, still chatting up an intellectual storm with KVM and D and whoever else. But again, thoughts of lust and sex and all that fun stuff have pushed out whatever else might have had the chance to form and grow. And I am left with the “duh” effect. The sad truth is that the overpowering stranglehold of lush, abundant love is growing in my soul like a weed and taking over. And I am slowly being destroyed.

Need…to….step…back….Need…to…reclaim…my….soul…

What a tragedy.

And speaking of tragedy, last night I went to see Daniel Mendelsohn read from his book “The Lost” at Rutgers in Camden. The reading itself was no tragedy. Mendelsohn was an excellent reader. The dinner was great. I shmoozed with Lauren Grodstein and Lisa Zeidner and a few others. I had the lovely D by my side. Etc. Etc. What summoned the idea of tragedy was Mendelsohn’s masterful comment on why classical Greek literature is so important to him. “The Greeks understood tragedy,” he said. And went on to add that we have done ourselves a huge disservice by not accepting pain and suffering in life. We take pills to erase our pain. We go to therapy for constant awareness and answers (even he claims 16 some years of analysis). We file lawsuits– all in the hopes of regaining some sort of restitution or peace. We are always looking for compensation for the bad things that happen in life. We want constant pleasure. Constant and perfection producing. This is pure silliness, of course. There is no guarantee that you will be “healed” or repaid or repaired for the suffering you incur. There is no life without pain.

I, of course, applauded his sentiments. I too, believe we have become culturally dependent on the notion that happiness is a right, not, as it were, a privilege. Or perhaps, more likely, that those who are happy are merely lucky.

I have worked a great deal over the past year with very depressed individuals, women mostly, addicted to one thing or another. Almost all of them hit bottom and come to recovery angry and self-loathing, and in pain, wanting to be healed, wanting answers, wanting desperately for the pain to stop. And yet, only a small fraction of them are able to grasp the concept that pain and tragedy happens. That the idea of recovery is not to avoid pain, but rather to deal with it. We have very little control over the suffering that befalls us. Most of these women want to live a Hollywood movie. They honestly believe that that is what a “normal” life looks like.

Professor Tim Martin (English, Rutgers) came up to me last night and congratulated me on having been accepted to the MFA program. “You must be quite talented,” he said. I felt like a fraud, especially considering that I have written so poorly over the past few weeks. I felt like saying, little do you know that my brain has turned to split pea soup and I will produce little or nothing for the Rutgers English department. But I nodded a thank you. Some where deep inside me I am grateful for the opportunity, believe me. And there is a tenth of a part of me that believes I am somewhat talented, if only I worked a little harder for it.

So, Tim shook my hand once more and went on his way.  Moments later there was a pause. D and I stood finishing up the last of our Cabernet before heading out. I pulled him close into me and whispered in his ear, “how many of these folks do you think are going to go home tonight and get laid like us?”