Writerly Ambition

“The good stuff always wants to be better, and its writers are always reaching way above their heads, to create something even they weren’t sure was possible at the outset, something that hasn’t yet existed in the world. Formula work only seeks to fulfill the formula. Mediocre work seeks only adequacy. Commercial work seeks cash first. Art–real art–seeks the unknown.”

“The good stuff always wants to be better, and its writers are always reaching way above their heads, to create something even they weren’t sure was possible at the outset, something that hasn’t yet existed in the world. Formula work only seeks to fulfill the formula. Mediocre work seeks only adequacy. Commercial work seeks cash first. Art–real art–seeks the unknown.”  Emphasis my own

A quote from Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth by Bill Roorbach

art

Passion Life Ministries Emails Me

Passion Life Ministries emailed me asking me to promote a pro-life video. I laughed, but there’s the email.

passion life ministries

This email recently came in, which is quite funny since I’m pro-choice and I’m probably part of the “powers of death” this man is referring to in his statement below. I guess I am spreading John’s message but not in the way he’d like. Oops. (I DID offer myself to interview John Piper or to have a civil debate about abortion and I’ll be honest-I did not watch this video because I could give a fuck about either of these Johns.).

Here’s the email I got:

“My name is Michael Bonner and I represent Passion Life Ministries, an organization whose mission is to “disarm the powers of death with the gospel of life”. During the Passion 2013 conference John Endor sat down with renowned pastor John Piper and talked about the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This interview will be released in four parts starting on Thursday January 17. You can view the first video at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QYYwHSUiarM. Please help us spread John Piper’s message by sharing this video with your readers via blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc.”

john piper

[Grace from Are Women Human discusses John Piper here.]

A bizarro biography of Hunter S. Thompson

E. Jean Carroll’s biography of Hunter S. Thompson is discussed.

So, for some reason E. Jean Carroll’s old book from the 90’s (which was republished in 2010 as an eBook that you have to read from the website…ew!) is floating around the internet lately.

The book is called HUNTER: The Strange and Savage Life of Hunter S. Thompson, and biographer E. Jean Carroll starts the biography introducing Hunter S. Thompson’s sex-starved biographer, Miss Laetitia Snap.

Hunter woman cesspool

 

Unfortunately, Miss Laetitia Snap doesn’t exist. She’s a fictional biographer. Yes, that’s right. She’s fake. So, what is E. Jean Carroll’s point to creating an over three hundred page bio of Thompson when you can’t even figure out what is fact and what is fiction? Perhaps I’m not enough of a Thompson aficionado to know the reason. Apparently I’m not the only one who doesn’t get it. The reviews for the book are terrible. Here’s one, for example.

hunter amazon review

However, this was interesting. Carroll reports (accurately or inaccurately?) a sample daily routine for the gonzo journalist (Note that he’s finally ready to write at midnight. That’s my kind of writer.):

hunter_s_thompson_daily_routine

 

h/t to my Facebook friend Hilton Price for the original link to the Mental Floss story.

Back to school, again

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ll be going back to school again this semester. I’m going to take a few required courses and then be done with that chapter of my life. Thankfully, an awesome professor was really sweet and worked with me to get enrolled despite how late it is, and some other challenges I’ve faced. I also was able to add a class from UCLA but only one. As it turns out the other one conflicted with a required course, so I had to say goodbye.

girl studying

{Photo above: Not me}

As I mentioned yesterday, I’ll be going back to school again this semester. I’m going to take a few required courses and then be done with that chapter of my life. Thankfully, an awesome professor was really sweet and worked with me to get enrolled despite how late it is, and some other challenges I’ve faced. I also was able to add a class from UCLA but only one. As it turns out the other one conflicted with a required course, so I had to say goodbye. It’s okay, though. The one I’m enrolled in will be perfect for where I am with my memoir writing and the instructor’s syllabus made me excited. Yes, excited. She has very good taste in memoirs and we’re reading one of my favorite memoirs, The Kiss. I’m obviously excited to study it with the class and the professor, though, because even though I’ve read it twice, professors always frame the study of a passage or a book in an entirely different way than what you may have seen. Classmates are good at that, too.

I had to submit some nonfiction writing samples to get permission to take the class, though, so now that I jumped over that hurdle, I can relax until next week when I start the juggling act–work, school, homework, book…sleep?

In the meantime, I’m preparing the materials I need for applying to MFA programs (a graduate degree in Creative Writing). Some of you know, there’s a lot of work that goes into applying to grad school. The application is one tedious part, the fees, getting your transcripts mailed to the school and processed, then your personal statement and test scores. For writing programs, it’s a bit different. Besides submitting all of this, a student also submits up to 25 pages of (really great) writing, and a critical essay on books you’ve read in the past (this is a breakdown of themes within the novel, outside research, and study of the characters or the diction). Reading is a major part of writing, so they want to make sure you are a good reader and know your shit. They are also making sure you’re fit to be in a graduate level literature class, since most programs have so many of them. The reason? Many people who receive MFA’s go on to teach English at the college level.

I actually wouldn’t mind teaching, but teaching is something you have to practice doing and many times you practice by working for little to nothing initially. For the first few years it’s a challenge financially while you establish your teaching experience, at least for the young professors I know. I do have a job, although I’m not entirely certain it will be a long-term career, so I think it’s great timing for me to consider other options.

Don’t you get a graduate degree in writing to be a writer, Lisa? If only it were that simple. To become a professional writer, one must write–often and well. Although the purpose of your graduate degree is to complete your work on a thesis (a book-length manuscript in this case), that’s just one manuscript. It usually takes many, many, many more to become self-sustaining on residuals (and many writers don’t ever reach that stage). There are, of course, the very lucky few who “make it big” but writing is like acting–success is possible, but it’s a long shot.

That’s reality, but of course we’re all dreamers. We imagine we will be the one to make it big; have success; land on the New York Times best sellers list with our first book.

Writing: The hardest job West of the Pecos

Why are MFA programs so impractical? I don’t know. I think professors build their classes upon what their professors before them did and a lot of that means degrading genre writing and focusing largely on theory and art rather than becoming a professional writer. They do have a point in much of their tradition: great writers are born from studying great writers. Mediocre writing can be born just about any way.

Memories.

As much as I am a writer, I don’t want to write at all lately. Of course when I get lazy or uninspired, I judge myself and get sad that I won’t reach my self-imposed goals of finishing my own book. I will admit–I have wanted to quit writing this book since September and feel like life would be easier if I would. But it won’t. I know myself–if I were to quit, I would feel so guilty and not be able to sleep at night.

Instead of continually suffering, I decided to enroll in a few memoir writing classes this semester along with finishing the final two classes I need to graduate. I should’ve graduated long ago, and would have, but that’s a novel so I’ll refrain from telling the story here.

For years, I have debated with myself over whether I need an MFA to complete my book (an explanation for non-writers: an MFA is a two year graduate program focused solely on producing a book-worthy manuscript that’s been peer reviewed and reviewed by professors and mentors. The chances of getting your manuscript published after an MFA program seems to be higher than doing it the good old fashioned way, judging from my observations, although it’s not a certainty and the more I’m observing I realize many writers don’t publish immediately after their MFA is complete) and whether I could afford an MFA. An MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree is an expensive one and they are often located in areas of the U.S. that I don’t want to live and where my job is not located.

Meanwhile, until my inner debate is finished, I’ve decided to take a few classes locally. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the UCLA Extension writing classes (UCLA does not have a traditional creative writing program) and there aren’t many options when it comes to creative writing (it’s not as popular as science or business, so classes are limited). A few friends have had great professors and gotten a lot of good writing and instruction from full courses or weekend courses. I’ve signed up for one weekend course and one full course, although I’m not sure how I’m going to balance it all this semester (with work, plus two traditional courses, plus these). If all else fails, I’ll put them off until this summer or next fall, but knowing that they are there and very close makes me feel good.

Speaking of next fall, I’ve started my application process to two graduate writing programs despite not being entirely sure if I can afford it. I’ve decided to apply and see if I’m accepted (first) but since almost all of the application deadlines for Fall 2013 have passed, I have to act now to actually reserve a place in these two programs who are still accepting applicants.

My main deterrents to applying to MFA programs prior to this were two things: 1) Most MFA programs are very impractical (teaching mostly theory and very little on how to actually make money or how to get published) and 2) I would likely have to give up my job and move which would make it financially impossible for me to attend. MFA programs typically frown upon genre writing (or writing that is commercially successful).

I was supposed to apply to one program last November and it was a program I wanted to attend years prior, but the more I started looking at the theory-heavy coursework I started dreading the idea of getting my master’s there and getting into that much debt. I knew I would clash with some professors (because of my non-traditional view of what the MFA should be) and didn’t want to spend two years and a hell of a lot of money doing just that. So, I didn’t apply and stopped researching programs for the time being until I figured out what to do. After all, I couldn’t attend a graduate program until my classes were finished and it didn’t look like I would get all the paperwork in in time. (As it turns out, I did!)

 

Only a few months have passed but the writing has not gotten any easier. I have written some pages I am very proud of and I feel like I’ve found the voice and am framing my story very well, but I’m back in the same spot again, wondering if I should go back to school to finish this damn manuscript and knowing that I did really well writing in a workshop environment. (Again, for non-writers, a workshop is where you share your written work with fellow peers and they go page-by-page pointing out strengths and weaknesses. It’s the standard way writers get their work edited before we have agents and publishers and all that.)

Why are MFA programs so impractical? I don’t know. I think professors build their classes upon what their professors before them did and a lot of that means degrading genre writing and focusing largely on theory and art rather than becoming a professional writer. They do have a point in much of their tradition: great writers are born from studying great writers. Mediocre writing can be born just about any way. Also, most writers want to teach writing so the MFA is suitable for teaching after the program is over. I do think great writers are made partly by focusing on the art of writing and devoting hours of study to great masters before us, BUT no MFA program should be entirely focused on this especially to the point of neglecting the real world, the publishing industry and industry trends toward commercial work.

I found the following great interview with Tod Goldberg the other day while searching for a low-residency MFA program and what Tod says here is what I have been saying for years. Of course, that means I’ll be applying to his program. If his words here are any indication of his classes, I have to admit, I will feel it worthwhile to attend.

Caleb J Ross: You said something at last year’s AWP which stuck with me. Paraphrased, of course, you said that you teach your MFA classes like an instructor of any trade program might, with the end goal of providing financial opportunities for the students. This seems like a radically different approach than most MFAs which may instead focus on non-definable, creative signposts to gauge student success. First, am I expressing your idea correctly? Second, how is this goal compromised by a low-residency program, if it even is?

Tod Goldberg: Pretty close. Essentially my philosophy is that if you’re in an MFA program, your goal isn’t to become the most well-read person on earth with a handful of literary quotes at your disposal at all times, it’s to be published. It’s to be produced. Graduate programs in creative writing are some of the few that seem entirely esoteric because they don’t seem to be training you for anything tangible, apart from maybe being a particularly enlightened barista, because, well, that’s frequently the case. But I think that has to change. Being a professional writer is a job. And if you want to write books, or write screenplays, or write poetry, simply for personal edification, you certainly don’t need an MFA program to do that. But if you want to become a professional writer, I think an MFA program can and should be a clear stepping stone in that direction. Most aren’t. Most entirely eschew the idea of life after the MFA — in fact, most programs tend to herald your acceptance into the program as the “making it” part of your writing career, which is silly. It’s school. It’s what you do afterward that makes a difference. So in that light we talk about publishing and production a great deal in the program I run at UCR, about the difference between being workshop-good and publication or production good. We have agents and editors and film producers and studio heads that come in an read our students work and give them a real world idea of where they stand. And our professors are doing it, too (no one works in the program in the professor who isn’t still publishing or producing).

I got my MFA late in the game — I’d already published 5 books, countless short stories, sold several projects to Hollywood, written hundreds of pieces of journalism and was actually directing two MFA programs at the time (before going to strictly a low residency MFA, UCR Palm Desert also had a part-time traditional MFA program, too) — when I went to get my MFA from Bennington, so I feel that I have a unique perspective on this. Clearly, I didn’t need an MFA to be successful. But my experience with one particular professor at Bennington, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, opened my eyes regarding how to become a better writer, how to build on what I did well already, and that alone was worth the price of admission, and I believe that comes from that mentor/mentee relationship that low residency programs foster.

So I don’t think this philosophy of mine is hampered in the least by low residency program; in fact, I believe it is the best avenue to pursue this line of thinking. Being in a low residency program mimics the life of the professional writer. You’re probably balancing your writing with another job, you’re probably also writing some stuff like book reviews on top of your creative work (or doing coverage if you’re a screenwriter) and you’re probably at home on the weekends, up until late in night, in your underwear, typing.

(Excerpt from Caleb J Ross/AWP Blog. Read the rest of the interview here. I highly recommend it.)

 

 

Information from around the web on MFA programs: 

Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) (I’ve always found their information useful.)

Bennington College (A low-residency program I’ve heard great things about.)

Vermont College of Fine Arts (Another low-residency program I have heard good things about.)

The Atlantic’s Five Top Low-Residency M.F.A. Programs (Take it for what it’s worth. I don’t know that I would rank Antioch very high, at all.)

2012 MFA Rankings: The Top Fifty (Poets & Writers Magazine) (I use this as a guide to what programs exist, not for their ranking system)

Why the Poets & Writers MFA rankings are a sham (a Columbia graduate scolds P & W for ranking his alma mater lower each year due to their very high tuition)

Stan Lee Reaches out to High School Shooting Victim

16-year-old Bowe Cleveland, who was shot in the chest and abdomen by a fellow student at his high school on January 10th, is in a medically-induced coma, but is expected to survive. Moments after the shooting happened, students from Taft High were starting Tweeting to Bowe’s hero, Stan Lee. #StanLeeMeetBowe started trending and people from around the world started sharing the tweet.

stan lee 2

(You can read all the tweets here.)

As it turns out, Stan Lee might actually pay Bowe a visit:

Stan Lee meet bowe cleveland

The shooting occurred at my former high school, Taft Union High School, a small town north of Los Angeles.

Life is hard these days

Life really is hard for me at the moment, so let me be raw for a moment and I hope this blog has returned to a somewhat safe place for me to be transparent. It’s tough to open up about some of what I struggle with because, as you may well have experienced, not everyone appreciates a candid person.

All the troubles lie on his shoulder

[This post is dedicated to the many individuals who we lose to suicide daily. In most recent news, a young man whose work was integral in forming the site Reddit committed suicide. RIP, Aaron Swartz.]

Life is hard. Life isn’t a bed of roses. Blah, blah, blah. You know the mantra.

Just think positive. Just relax. You’ve heard those before, too.

In some ways, sadness may be preventable I suppose, but I don’t think that is always the case. Many people don’t understand persistent sadness. Although they mean well, they can’t empathize.

Life really is hard for me at the moment, so let me be raw for a moment and I hope this blog has returned to a somewhat safe place for me to be transparent. It’s tough to open up about some of what I struggle with because, as you may well have experienced, not everyone appreciates a candid person.

Case in point, I went out to dinner with some friends around the holidays and explained how things were really going (read: not well). They were rather dismissive and just laughed and started talking about something silly instead of recognizing that I was actually in pain. I’m so well-versed in my feelings of sadness and depression that I know they will fade away or diminish, so those moments aren’t as affecting as they once would have been. I used to feel gravely rejected when people treated my pain this way. However, I’ve come to learn that not everyone deals with life in the same way and many people haven’t had to deal with the pain I have, so they simply have no frame of reference for the kind of sadness life hands some people. It doesn’t make them bad people, although it makes me not want to be around them. It’s tough to be yourself sometimes. I’m not the life of the party these days. At all. I’m probably a grump and a stick in the mud and depressing.

As much as people say, the cure for depression is to be around people, that isn’t always the case. Sure, there are days it really helps (especially when those you are around know you’re having a sad day) but other times it aggravates the condition. It’s just the reality of sadness.

That drug commercial “Depression hurts. Cymbalta can help.” makes me sad. They nailed it. Sometimes every day things just feel painful. When other people are laughing, it hurts. When your dog licks your face, you burst into tears. It is what it is and it’s nothing if it’s not pervasive and strong.

Author’s Note: Some days are harder than others, but it does get better. I often experience deep sadness and will have weeks of happiness. My moments of happiness are lasting longer and longer; in part because I’m aware of my pain and face it rather than cover it up. I write this entry in part because my blog is a part of my daily life and also because there are people who need to know that they aren’t alone, nor are they weird. Sometimes depression and sadness (not always the same thing, of course) suck. We take life day by day and it’s okay to be open about our pain without forcing happiness. Face sadness head-on; don’t quit. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please seek immediate help. Call 9-1-1 or in the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.    

A touching excerpt from Cory Doctorow’s words on his friend Aaron Swartz’s suicide:

Because whatever problems Aaron was facing, killing himself didn’t solve them. Whatever problems Aaron was facing, they will go unsolved forever. If he was lonely, he will never again be embraced by his friends. If he was despairing of the fight, he will never again rally his comrades with brilliant strategies and leadership. If he was sorrowing, he will never again be lifted from it.

Depression strikes so many of us. I’ve struggled with it, been so low I couldn’t see the sky, and found my way back again, though I never thought I would. Talking to people, doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, seeking out a counsellor or a Samaritan — all of these have a chance of bringing you back from those depths. Where there’s life, there’s hope. Living people can change things, dead people cannot.

I think I have emotions again

I have PCOS and high testosterone. Along with this wonderful (ya, right) condition, I get daily acne, hot flashes, and irritability. I’m even balding. Fantastic.

Solitude

I use an app to track my periods (Sorry, boys.) because they’ve been inconsistent over the past few years. My app is pretty cool because it allows me to track my moods and my symptoms. For the record, I have PCOS and high testosterone. Along with this wonderful (ya, right) condition, I get daily acne, hot flashes, and irritability. (Thus the symptom tracker) I’m even balding. Fantastic. My go-to’s these days are 10% benzoyl peroxide gel, a fan at my office desk, and a mixture of zinc and biotin that my doctor says will help the balding after six months. To be honest, the more I type, the more I want to cry. It’s so very miserable but it’s also embarrassing. Balding? I’m a lady!

I also have a mild case of hypochondria, which I think I’m controlling quite well thank you very much.

Last week as I was tracking my moods, I noticed a shift from “irritable”, “fatigued”, “I want to blow someone up” to “crying”, “clear headed”, “happy”. What?! Is this ME? 

For three or four days I was crying quite a bit at night but during the day (when it mattered most/aka, when I earn my paycheck) I was clear headed and happy. Once again I noticed how gorgeous the mountains in the horizon were and I was able to focus on getting stuff done at work. It was nice for a change. It was quite a change though. I can’t speak as an expert on PCOS but I am discovering the difficulties of living with this condition. It’s not at all fun. Having high levels of testosterone messes with your emotions and in my case, I felt like I turned into the Hulk. For me to now cry over seeing a kitten or have a melt down over seeing wedding pictures…it feels normal (again). That’s my normal. It just feels strange after such a long departure.

Welcome back, tears. You have actually been missed.