I’m just back from three weeks in Mexico City, where I studied some Spanish, worked on a new project, visited old loves like Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo, and found new loves like Lilia Carillo, the painter, and Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god.
Here’s Leonora Carrington’s Cocodrilo on Paseo de la Reforma (and my quick watercolor sketch of it):
I love her amazing collection of retablos, amateur paintings made to thank the Virgin of Guadalupe for interceding at life-threatening moments:
These influenced some of her most famous paintings, and the museum juxtaposes small reproductions of her actual paintings with the retablos that inspired them:
At the Museum of Modern Art, I got to see Dos Fridasin person for the first time:
This painting was made after one of her breakups with Diego and represents two sides of herself, one as a comfort to the other. She is dressed in European attire on the left and in her classic Tehuana dress (which Diego preferred) on the right.
In all my times of viewing the painting online, I’d never noticed that the heart on the left is gray and withered:
And I discovered the beautiful abstract paintings of Lilia Carrillo:
We saw an outdoor film at the Monument of the Revolution:
about this guy, Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god:
…who was removed from his original site in Coatlinchan and relocated to the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The film, La Piedra Ausente (The Absent Stone), tells the amazing story of the removal of the stone amidst the town’s protests and its celebrated/contested arrival in Mexico City.
[More Mexico City magic: The night before the film, we went to a birthday dinner for a friend and met a woman named Sandra. After we’d talked for a while, she said, “I made a film; it’s screening tomorrow night at the Monument of the Revolution. You should come!” So we did. It was awesome.]
At the Palacio Nacional, we saw the journals of the artist Francisco Toledo, which were part of an exhibit of — get this — art that Mexican artists give to the nation as payment for their taxes:
These inspired a couple of my own journal sketches:
I thought I saw a Dirty Dancing sculpture, but it was just a strange sculpture that happened to have an ad for Dirty Dancing, The Musical behind it:
Finally, I should mention that there was a tree hanging in the center of our airbnb apartment building:
The theme of this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge at Word Press is SILHOUETTE. So here goes. My silhouette photo has three stories, probably more.
The first is the historical story:
This is a statue in Prague of Jan Žižka — One-Eyed John — who, in 1420, led the Hussites (who preceded the Protestants of the Reformation) in a significant and successful battle against the Hungarian king who was supported by the Pope. (Blah, blah, blah, read more here.)
Five hundred years later, in the wake of WWI and the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, this statue was erected at the site of the battle, Vítkov Hill, as part of a larger monument to celebrate Czech nationalism. But before the monument was completed, Czechoslovakia began decades of occupation by the Germans and Russians, and their cute little national history was either ignored or altered.
For example, here are some additions made to the site by the Soviets who had their own story to tell:
The second story is literary:
In my (er, unpublished) novel set in Prague, my protagonist is taken to this site by her tour guide and romantic interest. He explains the significance of the various statues and signs, but he ultimately tells her more about the history of Prague than about himself. At this monument, she has an epiphany of sorts. But it’s relatively early in the plot, so of course she’s wrong.
The third story is personal (but it overlaps with the literary and the historical):
I first visited this site in 2005 as part of Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program. The professor of my Czech literature course took us there and that’s where I really fell in love with Prague and its sad statues and monuments that try to mean something but get changed, through history and its power struggles, into meaning something else – or nothing at all.
We walked around to the other side of the monument where there were two Socialist Realist statues, one of which was a model proletarian family: father, mother, baby; healthy and muscular; farmers prepared to reap the harvest. That statue, which was already outdated and a relic of a previous regime, became the foundation of my character’s epiphany mentioned above. And it repeats as a motif for the rest of the novel.
I was in Prague again this summer, and I finally made it back to this site, which factors so significantly in my novel and in my mind. It’s kind of out of the way and up a steep hill, and I got lost trying to get there, and I was thirsty and hungry and my feet hurt, but I made it! And at long last, the site has achieved its original intent: it is a National Monument, celebrating Czech history. I took the pictures of Žižka that I’ve posted here, and I wandered around to the other side to see the statue family that I’d written so much about.
But it was gone:
The missing statue.
It freaked me out. How could it be gone when it was so present in my mind and in my novel? Had it ever been there? Had I imagined the whole thing?
It also thrilled me. I was experiencing first-hand the problems of memory and monuments that are so important to any history. It’s just like Milan Kundera’s Milek says in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:
The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.
Just before this quote, in the opening chapter, Kundera describes a 1948 photograph of communist leader Klement Gottwald in Prague’s Old Town Square. He was cold, so his comrade Clementis gave his fur cap to Gottwald to wear on his head. A photograph was taken of Gottwald in the hat, with Clementis in the background. But Clementis did not stay in the background. As Kundera says:
Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and, of course, from all photographs.
And history – or at least this blog post – comes full circle, for it is here at the Vitkov National Museum that Klement Gottwald’s dead body was kept on display for NINE YEARS, with multiple doctors working day and night to keep his body presentable to the public. Why? So people would not forget him. (Read the rest of that creepy-awesome story here.)
But a body is not a statue, and it cannot be kept forever. Just like a statue is not a body that lives and breathes. And a silhouette is not a statue or a body, just a shape, a suggestion of what is – or is not – there.
Writer and professor Cathy Day has a terrific blog post that is framed as her last lecture of the semester. It’s about the relationship between publishing and the question her students really want to know: But am I a writer?
Here are a few exquisite tidbits from her post:
In my experience, a writing apprenticeship is about 5-10 years long. The timer starts the day you start taking writing seriously—meaning you stop thinking of writing as homework and start incorporating it into your daily life.
The Great American Novel Jenksinson’s Boardwalk, Point Pleasant, NJ summer 2012
Day continues to quote from and respond to her students:
You say things to me like: “I just want to publish a book and hold it in my hand.” Are you sure that’s all you want? Because these days, you can publish a book and hold it in your hands fairly easily. What I’m trying to talk about are all the different ways to publish. Only you can decide what it means to you to be meaningfully published.
This is one of my favorite points from the post. How it’s not just about being published, but deciding for yourself what it means to be “meaningfully published.” And the thing is, this will change over time. As soon as you have reached the level you wanted to achieve, you’ll set a new level.
Day, who has published two books and achieved lots of acclaim for her writing, closes with the following point:
I’m 43 years old, and I thought that publishing a book meant I was a writer, but I was wrong. Convincing yourself each day to keep going, this means that you are a writer.
It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.
Dr. Amina Lolita Gautier is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her short story collection At-Risk. Gautier is the second African American writer to win this award in its thirty year history. Gautier is a writer, scholar, and professor. Following in the footsteps of the late nineteenth century African American intellectual (Charles W. Chesnutt, W.E.B. DuBois, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins) who merged both critical and creative talents, Gautier’s academic interests are two-fold. Her background as a scholar of 19th Century American literature and, more generally, African American literature combines with her training as a fiction writer such that she is both a critic and a creative writer, fully engaged in the analysis and creation of literature.
More than seventy of her short stories have been published, appearing in Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review and Southern Review among other places, and her fiction has been extensively reprinted, appearing in several anthologies, including Best African American Fiction 2009, Best African American Fiction 2010, New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2008, The Notre Dame Review: The First Ten Years, The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Contemporary Women Writers on Forerunners in Fiction, and Voices. Gautier is the recipient of the William Richey Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Danahy Fiction Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award. She has received fellowships and scholarships from Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, Hurston/Wright Writer’s Workshop, and the Ucross Residency.
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Amina for saying yes!
Note: This is an April Fool’s Day treat! I’m posting the newest interview today – a week early – and will take off on Easter Sunday. Enjoy!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I came of age during the anti-apartheid movement in the US; I was an adolescent when Stevie Wonder recorded his anti-apartheid song, when the play Sarafina! toured New York, when the Cosby spin-off A Different World was weaving anti-apartheid material into its episodes, and when Nelson Mandela was not yet free. At home, my mother had a copy of Kaffir Boy and when I entered ninth grade, Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People was selected as the book in common, the one text all incoming students would have to read and discuss communally. I was surrounded by adult and peer discussions of apartheid, which also led to conversations wherein which it was easy to draw parallels between the restrictions placed upon native (black) South Africans during apartheid and on African Americans during slavery and after the Reconstruction, one of the most obvious being restrictions upon literacy and education. This atmosphere impressed upon me the importance, power and danger of literature. When factions attempt to create oppressed societies, one of the foremost ways they go about doing so is by banning thought-provoking literature. It is no accident that slaves were forbidden to read and write, or that women were long kept out of universities. Knowing this so early on made me believe that being a writer was the best thing one could be and that writing literature was the most revolutionary, dangerous, powerful, empowering and important thing a human being could do.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
Short Answer: I have always been a writer.
Long Answer: I played with dolls and listened to music. When I was a child, I imbibed many elements of craft without any conscious effort on my part, learning quite a bit about writing stories from playing with my toys and listening to music. Any child who has played with toys—be it Barbie or Transformers—has the makings of a fiction writer. As any kid knows, there’s no game without a premise or story. Playing with dolls went a long way to helping me learn the intricacies of plot. No matter what I had in mind for Barbie and Ken, Midge or Skipper could always interfere. Enter subplot. Enter characterization. Enter forward moving action motivated by a character’s wants or desires.
The Temptations; image from Wikipedia
The first stories I ever recognized as stories were actually songs. There was no way to live in my childhood home and not be exposed to music. When I was younger, I was part of an extended family and I had only to walk from one room to another to hear a different song i.e. a different story. My grandmother played gospel, my cousin favored hip hop, and my uncle preferred rock, but it was in my mother’s room, where she played soul music that I first absorbed stories. The songs I heard: Ashford and Simpson’s “Hi-Rise” The Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and “Since I Lost My Baby,” Luther Vandross’s “Superstar/Until You Come Back to Me,” The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and “Children of the Night,” Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” and “Jimmy Lee,” Natalie Cole’s “Just Can’t Stay Away,” Blue Magic’s “Sideshow” and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s duet “You Are My Heaven” were complete and linear narratives set to music. They had beginnings, middles, and ends. If you took away the musical accompaniment, you would have short stories.
In the more formal sense, I began with writing poetry, in the way that most elementary school kids in Brooklyn begin with writing poetry. My language arts teacher exposed us to poetry around the fourth grade and made us kids in the gifted class enter a variety of poetry contests. My poems won a bunch of these school-wide, district-wide, borough-wide, city-wide contests. One particular win allowed me to meet the mayor (Koch, at the time) and shake his hand. All of the contest wins came with trophies and savings bonds. All in all, it was a good deal and it wasn’t anything I thought very much about. When I got to Stanford, I majored in English with a Creative Writing Emphasis (the precursor to the minor which the university now offers). The creative writing courses were all taught by Jones Lecturers (former Stegner Fellows who stayed on to teach) and entry into the courses was by lottery only.
As lottery would have it, my number came up for the fiction workshop first, though I continued to write poetry. My fiction instructor shared an office with one of the poetry instructors and one afternoon I brought some of my poetry to Chris Wiman for some feedback. After showing him my poems, he promptly shot me down. And—here’s the thing—I let him. I realized that I had no desire to be a poet if I had to train to do it. This was partly because the rewards of it had come too easily to me as an adolescent and partly because I just wasn’t interested enough. That’s how I knew I was a fiction writer. I’d only been in the workshop for one quarter, but I already knew that if I’d shown my fiction teacher my stories and he told me I would never make it and advised me to quit, I would not have been meek and walked away with my tail between my legs. I would have ignored him, marched to my dorm, written ten brand new stories, and made him choke on his words. After only weeks, I was fully invested. There was no one in the world that could discourage me. In order to be a fiction writer, I was willing to be in it for the long haul, to work as hard as it took, to write as many hours as it required, to dump as many boyfriends as it necessitated and to lose as much sleep as I could afford.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
Odd as this may seem, my Latin teachers helped me to become a good writer. I started studying Latin in fifth grade and continued with it all the way through high school to AP Latin my junior year, after which there was nothing left to study until college. The rules of grammar, which I found confusing or irregular in English, made sense to me when I viewed them through the lens of this non-native language. Exposure to Latin will, of course, improve anyone’s vocabulary, but the focus on word formation, etymology, derivatives and nuanced language will serve the fiction writer a good turn. Since no one expects secondary school Latin students to prepare for lives as theologians or priests, much of the material students learn to translate is secular rather than ecclesiastical. Thus, Latin exposed me to rhetoric and poetry. Although I learned first through another language, I was already well-versed in scansion, metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, hyperbole, irony, litotes, caesuras and all of the other rhetorical devices long before I ever got to AP English. My study of Latin made me hyper-aware of language, syntax, diction, and rhetoric earlier than I might have been expected to care about the formal qualities of language. Thank you—ago tibi gratias— Mr. Doddington, Mr. Schroeder, Mr. Mulgrew, Miss Bennett, Barb Watson and David Demaine.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
I’m not particularly interested in any fiction writer’s biography. Perhaps I would be if I were reading poetry or autobiography, but when it comes to fiction all I need to know about the writers that I read is that they write damn good stories and don’t cut corners. Just as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan never met a shot they didn’t like, I’ve never met a story I didn’t like. For just a small investment of my time—somewhere between five and thirty minutes depending on the story’s length—I can read a story that will make my heart and mind grow by leaps and bounds. That’s a great return on investment if ever I’ve heard of one. Unfortunately, I’m not as open-minded when it comes to novels. Given the tendency of many contemporary novels to disintegrate three fourths of the way through, I’m hardly willing to invest hours or days of my time into one unless multiple trusted sources can vouch for it. If, by some chance, I am roped in to reading a novel that dies midway through, I make it a point to never read anything else by that author ever again. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
I am, however, inspired by lines and passages in stories. If I’m in a funk, reading the last line of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or the opening paragraph of Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies” or the “Be a Martin” scene in Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews” will always bring me back to a better frame of mind.
To write with taste, in the highest sense, is to write with the assumption that one out of a hundred people who read one’s work may be dying, or have some loved one dying; to write so that no one commits suicide, no one despairs; to write, as Shakespeare wrote, so that people understand, sympathize, see the universality of pain, and feel strengthened, if not directly encouraged to live on. That is not to say, of course, that the writer who has no personal experience of pain and terror should try to write about pain and terror, or that one should never write lightly, humorously; it is only to say that every writer should be aware that he might be read by the desperate, by people who might be persuaded toward life or death. It does not mean, either that writers should write moralistically, like preachers. And above all it does not mean that writers should lie. It means only that they should think, always, of what harm they might inadvertently do and not do it. If there is good to be said, the writer should remember to say it. If there is bad, to be said, he should say it in a way that reflects the truth that, though we see the evil, we choose to continue among the living.”
Gardner’s suggestion that literature can soothe the desperate and that good literature is a matter of life and death rings true with me. Literature has certainly saved my sanity. Therefore, whenever I write, I am always mindful of Gardner’s inspiring advice. It reminds me that my reader has many faces. He or she is not just a person with leisure reclining on a sofa. He or she is also a nursing home patient, the quiet teen who turns to books when shut out of reindeer games and socializing and reads late at night in corners of the house/apartment when parents are asleep, an infirm person who rarely has visitors, the adolescent who closes the bedroom door and buries himself or herself in a book to drown out the noise of adults fighting, the retiree who has been waiting decades to read literature at leisure. Knowing this prevents me from cutting corners and taking shortcuts as a writer, it deters me from writing gimmicky material, veers me away from sentimentality, forces me to write however many drafts the story requires.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
1. Get Out of Your Own Way:
In his rap “Bad” LL Cool J rhymes “You want a hit? Give me an hour plus a pen and a pad!” Bravado aside, his lyrics boil the writing process down to its bare essentials. In terms of accoutrements, all a writer needs in order to write is pen and paper. All of other the niceties are a bonus, like sprinkles on ice cream, nice but not necessary. Real writers can write anywhere, anytime, anyplace. You don’t need a certain time of day, peace and quiet, the right circumstances, the correct placement of the constellations in the sky, green apples or any type of rituals. You don’t even need a muse. These esoteric needs are actually self-imposed obstacles and roadblocks aspiring writers place in their paths. If you spend your time awaiting optimal conditions to begin writing, you are setting yourself up to fail. Writers are not picky. When we need to write, we will write on whatever is handy. I have written on computers, typewriters, and word processors. I have written by hand. I have filled spiral notebooks, Trapper Keepers, legal pads. I have written on index cards, construction paper, receipts and cereal boxes. I have even written on myself. I am a writer. I write.
2. Don’t try to write something ‘new.’ Just try to write something good.
Although fiction is not as old as poetry in terms of genre, it is at least four hundred years old (if not older), if we date it back to 1605 with Cervantes’s Don Quixote, which many cite as the “first novel.” Plenty of stories have been written since then and most, if not all, stories have already been told. Writing a short story as a series of emails is neither new nor innovative, since it is based on the premise of writing a short story as a series of letters, a technique which is at least as old as Samuel Richardson’s novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748). Same thing goes for writing the story in the form of a photo album, homework assignment, map, radio broadcast, telegram, or PowerPoint presentation. Ditto for writing the story in second person, first person plural, or the point of view of an animal/inanimate object/ghost. This is not to say that the writer should eschew experimenting with these forms or any others; it is merely to say that the writer who does so in the belief that adopting any of these forms makes the story “new” is a writer who is not well-read enough to discern. There has been a tendency among aspiring writers and workshop students (at least in my own classes) to offer the following commentary as praise when discussing a fellow student’s story: “This is good. I’ve never seen it before. It’s very original” which erroneously conflates quality, originality and lack of exposure, when all it really means is that the person making the comment needs to read more and read better.
3. Remember what Yoda told Luke: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
My last post was an interview with the poet Carrie Oeding that ends with this advice: “Write and read, and things will happen.” I’ve been writing this blog for almost two years now, and something definitely happened.
I got Freshly Pressed! I got hundreds of comments and likes and new subscribers.
I can’t help but think of it in literary terms: like a Deus Ex Machina. The WordPress gods intervened – apparently out of nowhere – and changed the story.
But the point of my How to Become a Writer interview series is not to perpetuate the idea that things happen out of nowhere, that we should just sit around and wait for a god to get lowered into our life stories to solve everything. Just the opposite: that things happen because we’re working to make things happen. One of the comments on the Carrie Oeding interview post said something like, “Don’t forget the importance of luck.”
Which makes me think of the quote by Seneca: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
I was hugely lucky (and grateful) to get Freshly Pressed, but I’ve been preparing for the opportunity for years. I remember reading a Wordpess post about “How to Get Freshly Pressed,” and there was advice like have good content and give credit to your images and links. I made sure to follow the advice. I’ve been writing this blog for almost two years, and I created a series that I hoped would be of interest to others, and I tried to make it look nice.
It’s the same thing I’ve done in my journey as a writer: I keep writing and submitting my work and rewriting and resubmitting. Yesterday I got a rejection letter. Today I’ll send something new out.
Anyway, what I mean to say is: Hi! I’m excited to meet all of you who subscribed to my blog and left comments. I’m still going through your comments and visiting your blogs – which are from all around the world. I’ve subscribed to some of your blogs and left comments on others, and I’ve even got a couple new writers for my interview series that came from your comments and suggestions. Thank you!
Stay tuned for a new interview to post this weekend…
You’ve probably never heard of her. I hadn’t either – until I went to Prague.
She was a woman and a writer. And she is on the 500 crown note of Czech currency. (A woman! A writer!)
That image was the inspiration for my painting:
(A woman in America would probably have to invent the moon and the stars before she’d get put on a dollar bill, but that’s another sad story.)
She spent much of her 19th-century life promoting Czech nationalism, traveling the Czech and Slovak Republics (aka Bohemia and Moravia) and recording the folk tales of the people – in their own languages. She was fighting against German – though, oh how she loved German Romanticism – both the language and culture that threatened her native lands. Ironically, her last name (the one she got from her husband, who hated her as much as he loved her) means GERMAN.
So she’s a fairy tale writer and story writer. Her Babička was one of the most famous Czech books ever. Babička means grandmother, and the book, based on her own grandmother, celebrates rural Czech life. Here’s a copy I bought at a used book store in Prague this summer:
You can see how warm and homey the images are. You just want to sit on Granny’s lap and hear another story. Or toss some yarn to the kitties. But Granny’s stories and not all happy stories. (There’s poor Viktorka…seduced by a soldier…drowned her baby…killed by lightning…)
And there’s more to Božena Němcová than you find when you start looking around, like I did. What I found was that all the sources said how bitter she was.
For good reason: she had a miserable marriage and more miserable affairs. She had four children whom she struggled to afford, and one of them died at age 14. She wrote and wrote and got paid almost nothing. Her husband said she’d amount to nothing. And she died in her 40s, probably of cancer, definitely in poverty. Then her body was carried through the streets of Prague in a huge procession and she was buried at the Vyšehrad Cemetery in the company of folks like Antonín Dvořák, Bedřich Smetana, Karel Čapek, and Alphonse Mucha.
But! Then I started reading her letters and fairy tales, and this woman was so much more than bitter. So I started arranging all those words – hers, theirs – to see what new story might emerge.
Part of my progress is posted here at Shadowbox Magazine. (Scroll over the CAR, which will say FOLIO. Click. Read. Scroll down.)
I got an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission to keep on keeping on. Which is good because I’ve got more to do: more paintings, more images, and some letters of my own addressed to B. About being a woman/writer/mother/desirer.
As someone who makes a living grading creative writing (so many -ings!), I have some sensitivity to the notion of subjectivity.
This month I have an article at Talking Writing about why we need tough grades in creative writing. The subtitle of my article is “The Myth of Subjectivity,” and I suggest that assumptions about subjectivity are among the reasons that grading in creative writing classes is so anemic.
Since writing that I came across this blog post by Robin Black: “The Subject is Subjectivity.” She writes eloquently about subjectivity in creative writing, and about the inherent issues in the creative writing workshop, reminding us that only half of a group will like Virginia Woolf and a third Faulkner. Subjectivity, indeed!
Everyone likes different kinds of art and literature, so how can it be graded? There’s a difference between subjectivity in liking and subjectivity in grading.
Woolf and Faulkner? We’re talking about two “A” students! Whether they like them or not, most creative writing teachers would objectively give them A’s.
I’ve had students accuse me (usually on final evaluations, where I can’t reply – awesome!) of “liking” certain writing more than others, which I do, and of grading it better as a result, which I don’t. I may love a particular student’s voice and humor, but if the piece doesn’t work according to the criteria we’ve discussed all semester, it will not get an A. Likewise, I may have zero interest in a spring break in Panama City story, but if it’s nearly publishable, even in a journal I’d never read, it will get an A.
Last year I was a judge for the Best Books of Indiana contest, for which I read and ranked a number of novels. There were two other judges, and I could tell from our email exchanges that we would have very different preferences as readers. But I also knew, as I read through my piles, that we three judges would choose exactly the same top 3-4 books. And those books were books I subjectively dislike – two Christian historical romances and a Western – but objectively recognized as superior in criteria such as storytelling, pacing, and character development. I had no problem ranking them as the best because they were, objectively, the best. And I was not surprised in the least when my fellow judges also ranked them the best.
[Yes, people, this is the second post in a row that takes its title from a showtune. From Once Upon a Mattress (Princess and the Pea): “Sensitivity, Sensitivity, I’m just loaded with that…”]
At long last, we say. How many faculty successes does one need before one gets recognized? How many graduate jobs and student publications? Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred? How many amazing literary events? How many more top-20 rankings of its literary journal? (Go Cincinnati Review!)
Now at last we get some recognition.
So, how DO you measure, measure a Ph.D. program. To the tune of Rent’s “Seasons of Love,” sing it with me now:
In funding, in selectivity, in job-placement
In CGSR compliance,
In reputation, faculty, in number of applicants.
I can’t sing it either. (At least push play so you can listen as you read the rest of the post…)
But as I read the P&W fine print, it looks to me like Ph.D. programs are ranked not according to all those things, but according to how many people claimed to have applied there since 2007. The answer – 40 – put UC in a tie for #8.
I’m not very good with reading or comprehending fine print, so I may be wrong about that disappointing criterion, but either way, let me give some personal reasons why I still think of my time at U.C. as a #1 “Season of Love”:
1. All the faculty, friends, and fellow students I thanked by name and general reference (karaoke!) in the acknowledgments page of my book.
2. This is a continuation of #1 because I can’t say enough about it. Let’s talk faculty. I graduated in 2006, and I can still send an email to my professor who no longer works there AND is on vacation with his family, ask for a reference letter, and I will get it. My other professor who is still there recently invited me back to give a reading in the spring. And a professor I never even had in class has, 5 years after I’ve graduated, carried on an extended email exchange about a grant opportunity I’m pursuing. (Thank you Brock, Michael, and Don.)
3. This is also a continuation of #1. Friends, fellow students, & ma’ ladies. When my writing was rejected, or when I screwed up in my oral exams, I was encouraged and supported by voices even more powerful than the ones in my head. Since then, I’ve had many opportunities that came about through my network of increasingly successful alums. Who were the first to invite me to give readings at their universities when my book came out? And who did I contact first when I started my How to Become a Writer interview series? You know it.
4. Before grad school the closest I came to interacting with a living author was maybe at a reading at Joseph Beth Books. At U.C. I had lunches, dinners, parties, and even airport chauffeuring with major and emerging authors, and even if I didn’t always have long in-depth conversations, I learned, like all writers do, by observing. (It is impossible not to observe when Lorrie Moore is across the lunch table or Michael Cunningham is in the passenger seat of your crappy Nissan Altima.)
5. It was in my town. I was married and had a young child when I started grad school, so my geographical options were limited, and I consistently thought, Lucky me that this perfect program is right here in my city.
6. Perfect program? Pretty much. I’m sure I would have also loved a program with publishing and book arts, but a Ph.D. was a great way for me to go because I’ve got an academic side as well as an artistic one, and because it gave me so much extra time. I actually got my M.A. and Ph.D. at U.C. back-to-back, so it was six years to launch, and I needed every minute of it.
7. Yes, funding is important, and I was well-funded. If I weren’t, I would have had to quit after my M.A.
8. I’ll stop at #8 since U.C. is #8! How do you really measure a program? Sing it with me:
In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
All of which I had at U.C., and more, making it intense and wonderful and #1.
Now I know how I got into this blogging situation: idle time.
Because here I am, after one full year of blogging, enjoying another idle Ides of March, and my mind is alive. It’s spring break, I’m in my jammies, and I’m not finishing final preparations for the class that I would usually be teaching in an hour. I’m not tired from having taught a grad class last night. And I’m not answering a million emails (oops! spoke too soon – my university email just made its little alert).
Brenda Ueland being idle
I’m invigorating myself with books like If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which insists that everyone is original and talented and that there are other reasons for writing sonnets than to have them published in the Women’s Home Companion. Ueland says that to be creative, one should be:
idle, limp and alone for much of the time, as lazy as men fishing on a levee, and quietly looking and thinking, not willing all the time. This quiet looking and thinking is the imagination; it is letting in ideas.
With just a week of idle time, my imagination regenerates, and I get crazy ideas like, “I think I’ll start a blog!” That was a year ago over spring break.
One hope I had for the blog was that it would be a venue for me to pause and reflect now and again. As a famous writer* once said, “How do I know what I think until I write it?” I wanted the blog to help me figure out what I think about things by forcing me to articulate them to some sort of public. Otherwise, I have a bunch of unformed thoughts floating around my busy head. The blog would be like forced contemplation. Ueland quotes the philosopher Plotinus: “So there are men too feeble for contemplation.” I’m probably one of those men, which is why I need the blog to force me to do it.
Ueland equates idleness with big ideas, and busyness with little ideas:
So you see the imagination needs moodling,–long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas, such as: “I see where I can make an annual cut of $3.47 in my meat budget.” But they have no slow, big ideas. And the fewer consoling, noble, shining, free, jovial, magnanimous ideas that come, the more nervously and desperately they rush and run from office to office and up and downstairs, thinking by action at last to make life have some warmth and meaning.
The nervous running up and downstairs, from office to office, hits a bit too close to home. Something about academia (or surely any institution or business) can turn one into a busy, waltzing mouse full of little ideas. I feel it happening sometimes to me and my colleagues when our budget gets cut again and we’re told to stop making photocopies for the next two months and to consider holding a bake sale to pay for student writing awards. Little, staccato ideas.
Ueland distinguishes between idleness that is a “complete slump” full of worry and fretting, and creative idleness:
…the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time, or take a long, dreamy time at dressing, or lie in bed at night and thoughts come and go, or dig in a garden, or drive a car for many hours alone, or play the piano, or sew, or paint ALONE; or an idleness–and this is what I want you to do–where you sit with pencil and paper or before a typewriter quietly putting down what you happen to be thinking, that is creative idleness. With all my heart I tell you and reassure you: at such times you are being slowly filled and re-charged with warm imagination, with wonderful, living thoughts.
So, on this idle Ides of March, I warn you: Beware!
Beware long walks and long drives and other forms of idleness. They just may lead to big ideas.
* A quick google search of “How do I know what I think until I write it” suggests that this was said by E.M. Forster, Joan Didion, D.H. Lawrence, Richard Hugo, William Faulkner, and others. I thought it was Flannery O’Connor!
Talking Writing is talking PRINT. Is it dead? I took a stab at the question. Here’s the beginning of my article:
‘Print and the Revolution’
In 1984, Prince and the Revolution released the album Purple Rain. One of its mega-hits—“I Would Die 4 U”—reads today like an early version of a text message. Prescient Prince also called on us to “party like it’s 1999,” evoking our millennial obsession with apocalypse.
And a fellow shy, Midwestern book lover writes a love letter to a Cincinnati library:
‘Love Letter to the Mercantile’
I began my writing life as a girl in love with books.
At twenty, I was awed when I first walked into the Mercantile Library in downtown Cincinnati to attend a public reading. The Mercantile, one of the few remaining membership libraries in the country—the Boston Athenæum is another—has hosted such megastars as Emerson and Melville. The space simply feels literary. The musk of Great Men lingers, like particles trapped in the spines of old books.
The fellow shy, Midwestern girl is Sarah Domet, author of 90 Days to Your Novel, which you should buy and use as your guide to planning and writing the novel you’ve been planning to plan and write. Read the rest of her love letter here.
KELCEY PARKER ERVICK is the author of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, a work of biography, memoir, and art. Her first book, For Sale By Owner, tells short stories of suburban surrealities. Her second book, Liliane's Balcony, tells ghost stories at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. She teaches creative writing at Indiana University South Bend.