Saturday, December 22, 2007
I've been a member for a month or two (thanks to Wade, who showed it to me). But local writer Cliff Garstang, posted a reminder to join over at his blog, so I figured I'd follow his lead. He also does an interesting analysis of the Pushcart Prize, which is worth a look here.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Some things to check out before we break for a week or two:
- Fiction alum Art Taylor has a series of mystery book reviews over at the Washington Post. Also, he let me know that the next MFA Alumni newsletter (the winter edition, I'm guessing) should have a plug for our blog, but he didn't reveal anything else about its contents. I imagine we can expect to get the newsletter soon though, and hopefully a few more readers will stop by as a result.
- This is an older article, but I just came across it recently. The Mason Gazette profiled fiction alumna Elyse Becker here.
- Non-fiction Mike is doing his best to grow a beard by the time he turns 30 in a few weeks. Visit him at his blog, Beard By 30, to read about it, and send him luck.
- I will not challenge this person to play Scrabbulous.
- MFA programs in the UK are catching on, it seems, but they're called MA programs, I guess.
- The New Yorker published Lethem's Fall for the Book story "The King of Sentences." The afternoon before he read it in Harris Theater, he emailed the file to me so I could print it out. Therefore, I am famous by association.
- A different kind of holiday-inspired, literature-related list: Author Suicides.
- New issue of the online journal The Quarterly Conversation is up.
Okay, that's all I've got.
Friday, December 14, 2007
- the latest issue of Gulf Coast, which features a special section of Donald Barthelme's collage art and such
- the Winter 2007 issue of Praire Schooner, out of the University of Nebraska
- the latest Mid-American Review
- and the recently redesigned magazine from the University of Memphis: The Pinch (formerly called River City)
Feel free to drop by the office if you'd like to "check out" one of these journals, or any other on our shelves for that matter - simply sign them out in the blue three ring binder.
Thursday, December 13, 2007
Wendi explains the series here:
"Lists. We love 'em here at the Happy Booker. So when we asked a few authors to help us kick off the holiday season with a list of their favorite gift books—either to give or to recieve—we could not have been more pleased with the results.
For the next month, we will be running these wonderful book lists, all brimming with titles sure to please even the most difficult-to-buy-for people on your list."
Have a look.
Monday, December 10, 2007
Two of our favorites (and faculty members to boot), Susan Richards Shreve and Kyoko Mori, will be reading at the George Washington University Visitor Center, at 22nd and H Streets NW. The reading begins at 5 PM, this Wednesday, Dec. 12. I haven't seen it publicized anywhere, so keep it quiet...shhhhh...
Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones make an appearance. In the story, I mean.
And, by the way, it's the last print issue of Pboz - print it out, take it to Kinko's, bind it, keep it on your shelf. It is free. And if you ever have a chance to pick up an older print issue, do so immediately. I found #3 at Powell's this summer, but my dwindling funds somehow convinced me to wait - surely I'd find it some other time. That has not happened yet, and I am full of regret to this day.
Friday, December 7, 2007
Unless, of course, there is another writer named Courtney A. Brkic living in Arlington.
If you see Courtney, congratulate her.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
Matt Ellsworth graduated from Mason in 2004 with a concentration in fiction. While he was at Mason, he taught freshman composition and a few creative writing classes. He also served as the fiction editor of Phoebe. Since leaving Mason, he has worked with numerous non-profit organizations and spent a brief stint reading slush for Zoetrope: All-Story; he now lives in Arizona with his wife and daughter, and he produces a variety of web and print projects as part of the communications team at a philanthropic foundation, which seeks to support the state's biosciences field. He blogs at EditWrite.
And now, the interview:
On your blog, EditWrite, you've said "though I write to make a living, I love reading more." As I understand it, you're a writer for a non-profit organization in Arizona, and you freelance on the side. Have these responsibilities changed your writing and reading habits since you studied at Mason? If so, how?
Half the time, I think I'm one of those alums who make Bill Miller cringe. I'm definitely screwing up the average for Mason writers who have won the National Book Award for fiction.
I've barely picked up my lucky fiction-writing pencil at all since finishing the MFA, and I certainly haven't read as much as I did in the program. A sense of regret doesn't eat away at the core of my being, but I do miss it and I more fully understand the statement various people have made about the main benefit of the MFA being space and time--the space and time to step outside of a daily slog and learn something about The Writing Life.
Today's excuses for not working on a story or finishing that book gathering dust on my nightstand are pretty good--wife with the flu, two year-old daughter pooping in the shower, big deadline at work, construction crew ripping out the street beneath our bedroom window at 5:30 am. But they're still excuses.
From a more psychological standpoint, I've found over the past couple of years that I don't have a bottomless well of writerly energy. Not that anyone has ever accused me of being Philip Roth, but I'm not. In fact, at times when my writing in the workplace has been most intense, I even have to bail on the simplest, no-imagination-required freelance editing jobs.
The good side of that, to be sure, is that I am writing in the workplace every day. That's enormously gratifying. The work I do now, drafting articles about proteomics and biosurfactants and God knows what else, requires its own skill set, as was the case in my last job as a grant writer for a child-welfare agency. And the skill set I'm honing now does share an ancestor with that of a fiction writer.
But I think what you're saying about this ancestral relationship between fiction writing and professional writing is interesting, and it might be one of those connections MFA students miss in the scramble for fellowships and teaching jobs. Would you care to talk more about the similarities between the two skill sets? How the writing program at Mason prepared you for that transition (if at all)?
Or, if you'd rather a more concrete question, how did you get into grant-writing/non-profit work?
I have one real regret about my time in Mason's program--I made no serious effort to try out professional writing, despite all the opportunities for that in the DC metro area. Probably the most useful action I could have taken as a student would have been to find an internship or part-time job that would have yielded clips. I got a sense of how interesting that writing could be in Alan's literary journalism course (which I think should be required every semester), but by then I was nearly out of the program.
We moved to Berkeley after I finished, where I might have found a job teaching, but I said I wanted to write for a living. For four months, the closest I got was slush-pile reading for Zoetrope, a great experience that did nothing for the checkbook. Eventually, while futilely applying for jobs at grocery stores and REI, and working a few hours a week for an after-school tutoring program, I got my "break." The director of the tutoring program left, and the overarching nonprofit hired me as the replacement. The curse and blessing of such a tiny nonprofit--it had four full-time staff--is how little institutional infrastructure exists to support or restrict you. I was able to build out the tutoring program, get some experience recruiting and managing staff, and when the development director was "released," I started helping out with grant-proposal and report writing, plus some agency print and web publications.
That experience got me a grant-writing position for a much bigger operation, and there training as a fiction writer began to pay off. Richard Ford said something about fiction writing being a kind of impersonation, and my task felt like that: to represent for funders, as if it were mine, the expertise of really talented clinicians and administrators. Essentially, I had to attend to voice and audience. And having spent some time in workshops, it didn't bother me when a program director asked me to include something in a proposal and the chief executive officer told me to take it out. My colleagues apparently found that as impressive as any writing I did.
My work now is different, somewhere between journalism and public relations, but as elsewhere, I'm relying heavily on training as a writer attentive to structure at the narrative and sentence level. I'm amazed at how structurally complex well-written journalism can be, and I'm newly impressed by the art of general-audience science-writing. I've got a long way to go before I'm good at it.
I'd like to quickly talk about Zoetrope, and then move back to your writing, if that's okay.
I don't know the numbers of submissions Zoetrope gets a quarter or whatever, but I somehow have this picture in my head of a walk-in closet kind of room full of boxes of slush-pile stories.
In your experience reading for them, how often did a story make it out of that "room" and into the editors' office? How is that process set up (aside from the agented work, I mean)?
Your image is pretty accurate. The magazine's offices are above the appropriately named Cafe Zoetrope, a wine bar in North Beach, around the corner from City Lights Bookstore and Caffe Trieste--where Coppola supposedly wrote the screenplay for The Godfather.
At least during my short time there, slush-pile reading happened in a small room with a couch, a table, a computer for logging submissions, a big window with a nice cross-breeze, and a wall of metal shelving, filled with cardboard boxes of submissions.
Stories rarely made it out of that room. There wasn't a specific rule, as I recall, but I think it took a second recommendation from a reader to get a story to an assistant editor. I'd estimate I advanced one of every twenty I read. Once in a while, a slush-pile story made it all the way to the magazine.
Still, I took more hope from the process than you might at first think. For one thing, they had an application for would-be readers that included substantive written evaluation of some sample stories, followed by a little interview. So I think they had readers who knew something about reading. Second, because it was hard to place a story in the magazine sans agent, I at least was excited at the prospect, and read carefully and generously, hunting for a gem.
It's nice to hear that Zoetrope had generous readers like you working their submission piles. And hopefully they still do.
Earlier you mentioned missing the kind of writing life that an MFA program creates for its students. Do you have any plans to eventually return to some of those creative projects such a life made possible? I'm thinking of fiction or non-fiction work, even something like a non-fiction project in the manner of that general-audience science-writing you admire?
The last thing I want to do is say I plan to start writing again--I already know plenty of people who say they're going to write but don't. I'd rather be He-Who-Doesn't-Write than He-Who-Intends-to-Write. And yet, I would be deeply disappointed if I never returned to writing fiction. So let me contradict myself: Yes, I'm going to get back to it; I think it will be sooner rather than later. But until I actually do, I probably shouldn't say much.
One thing I will say is that I'm literally where I want to be to write--in the Southwest. I remember Alan asking a question at the second or third meeting of Forms, something along the lines of, what writer serves as your model? The two names that first came to mind for me were Wallace Stegner and Rick Bass. When I first read them, I didn't know how to learn from the technical skills they were employing, but I was enthralled with their intertwining of character and plot with landscape. Emulating them seemed as great a reason to write as any I'd found.
I've only been back in Arizona for a few months, but already I feel myself reconnecting to the landscape, and to the tensions that come from growing hordes of people living in such a fragile, sometimes inhospitable place. I know that "a sense of place" isn't essential for all writers, and probably won't be for me forever, but for now, it's marvelously energizing. If that means Mr. A. A. Knopf in New York City can't make sense of what I write, so be it.
Right, I feel as though I can sort of understand the contradiction there - for me, it grows from a hesitancy to tell people certain things for fear of either those things not working out or, even worse, my then having to actually do those things. In both cases, I'm often faced with the question - "Hey, whatever happened to such and such?" It's a hard question to answer, especially when I'm the one asking it of myself. If that makes sense.
It sounds as though you'll be settled in Arizona for a while then. Are you originally from there?
I'm not an Arizona native, but I grew up and did undergrad studies here, and one branch of my family arrived in the 1860s, looking for gold and building cabins and stealing land from the native population.
Outside of the tribal communities, that kind of longevity in the state is pretty unusual, and it has contributed to my sense of being a "Westerner," though as the population of the Southwest continues to metastisize, that's an increasingly empty designation. (While we're still talking about imaginary writing I haven't done) I do get the sense that the tensions produced by the region's transition and ever-more blurred history might ultimately provide the backlighting for my fiction.
Monday, December 3, 2007
Here's the first batch of pictures, from the one who isn't a professional photographer. The good one's are coming up next week.
A treat for you:
In response to the idea that the Kindle will allow for interaction between readers and authors, thus redefining authorship, Tom writes, "Jeff Bezos' little handheld machine is going to make Michael Chabon rethink how he writes? Really? Why-- because he'll have to cater to the whims of regulars on Internet message boards? As a message board regular myself, I must confess to you non-message boarders: 95% of all things written on message boards are retarded."
For more, go here.