Posts Tagged ‘summer writers conference’

Mat Johnson

June 29, 2010

Here’s today’s intro for Mat Johnson, who gave an awesome workshop and told a great tale during his reading this afternoon. Look him up. Buy his books. Twitter him now.

I met Mat Johnson several years ago when he was teaching at Rutgers University. I was an undergrad at the time, working on Painted Bride Quarterly. And although I never had the pleasure of attending one of his classes, I have this great memory etched in my brain, that I wanted to share as a way of introducing this wonderful author. I was standing in the hall, on the fourth floor, outside one of the English Department offices and I was talking to a bunch of other English majors and professors and we were having this conversation about Mat, as to whether he was going to stay at Rugers, I believe, or return to Bard. Because you know, at that time, (2002-2003) Mat Johnson was roughly 30 years old, his first novel Drop had been chosen as a Barnes & Noble’s Discover Great New Writers selection, Interview Magazine named him a “Writer on the Verge” and his second novel “Hunting in Harlem” was due for release. So, it’s no wonder we were all so infatuated with Mat. And as we were huddled in the hall, he unexpectedly walks by in his chummy,  affable way and he leans in and asks, “What are you talking about?” never realizing we were talking about him. Of course we were all thoroughly humiliated. And the subject was probably “dropped” or changed to something else.

But I think that story illustrates Mat’s great personality, and success as a writer by the amount of respect and awe we as students had for someone that struggled to achieve his dreams.

Mat Johnson’s life, his “story” is an American story- one of a boy who barely passed school with Ds, barely got into a local state college, but eventually realize his potential and began working towards goals. And after several years of international travel, a little poverty, and sleeping on his mother’s sofa in Anchorage Alaska, he was accepted to Columbia University’s Graduate Writing Program where he received his MFA in creative writing and began Drop, a “coming of age novel about a self-hating Philadelphian who thinks he’s found the perfect escape in a job in London.” This novel, published in 2000, was voted Progressive Magazine’s “Best Novels of the Year.” And one in which I, to this day, still recommend.

In 2003 he published Hunting in Harlem, in 2007 The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York, and in 2009, his first graphic novel, “Incognegro,” the tale of an African American journalist who “passes” as white in the 1930s South so as to investigate the murder charge against his brother, was released. It has been described as “smart, pulpy and fast-paced” by Publishers Weekly.

Mat Johnson  has taught at Rutgers University, Columbia University, Bard College and the University of Houston where he teaches currently. He was also named a 2007 James Baldwin Fellow.

Aside from five published novels, inspiring academic achievements, many awards and a growing number of English major fans, Mat Johnson, as memory serves,  is also a great guy.

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I take back everything I said…

June 23, 2010

Isn’t it ironic?

A teacher, criticized for his own work as having “limited relevancy due to…heavy usage of cultural references,” (see blurb below) criticizes a student for virtually the same thing. A comedic writer, not finding a comedic piece funny. And a classroom full of frustrated MFA students whose tolerance for argument seriously diminished due to an earlier line by line by line by line by line by line…analysis of one student’s 18-page story.

Such was our fate this afternoon, which made me want to take back everything I said the previous day.

Poor, poor Pete G____, whose story kicked ass but who got such bad reviews by Max Apple that I squirmed in my seat with discomfort (I think Prof Apple asked us not to use the word “squirm” to describe a character). This was not the kind of criticism I was talking about. I didn’t want anyone to have to hear over and over again “Your piece just isn’t funny.” “It’s just not funny.” “I didn’t find it funny in the least.”

But Pete’s piece was funny. It was subtly funny, and it poked fun at mass consumerism. Apple said consumerism isn’t funny anymore. It was funny But it’s not now. He also said that Pete never took his work to the next level. “It’s stale,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere.” Adding, “especially not for me.”

So, instead of giving Pete his fair share of a line by line analysis, he opted instead to read something that was “actually funny.”

And it was actually funny. It was “The School” by Donald Barthelme. And everyone laughed. BUt I argued that Pete’s goal was not just to offer a “farce” or a “satire” as Barthelme had done. Instead, he was giving us magic realism, farce and social criticism on consumerism. We shouldn’t compare. Max Apple’s reply? “It wasn’t funny.”

In fiction workshop today I learned several important things:

  1. Criticism can be harsh and hurtful. It’s all in the delivery. I think too little criticism on something that is obviously in need of it is not good. Nor is too much criticism to the point of the author feeling belittled. Some where there needs to be reality. As Stephen Dunn put it, “Our work here [in class] is provisional. These are poems on the way to becoming poems. Everyone wants their poems adored and that happen now and then…but not a lot.”
  2. Faces don’t “smolder like a freshly lit cigarette” (but I think I already knew that)
  3. Sometimes things aren’t always as they seem. Students can love a piece for one reason, while an instructor can find reasonable fault with it. Both side have merit. It’s your job to pay attention to both.
  4. And lastly: Don’t argue with an old man who’s written five books and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. Respect him, despite disagreeing with him.

More to come on Stephen Dunn.

“Apple has been compared favorably with John Barth, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen. Although his work has received critical acclaim and enjoys considerable popularity, some commentators think it may have limited relevancy due to Apple’s heavy usage of cultural references. However, it has been posited by some scholars that Apple’s audience is increasingly a younger generation, more sympathetic to his flashy postmodern technique and for whom written language is less meaningful than Apple’s pictographs.” –Taken from enotes

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.