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Earlier today a student came to my office for a conference, and I keep trying to figure out what I could have said instead of what I did say.

We bantered for a bit about literary magazines and publishing in general, and then he got to the point: “I guess I really just want to know if my writing is any good.”

And suddenly we were having “the talk.” Not the birds and the bees, but just as awkward. I would have preferred him to ask about that. All aspiring writers want to know whether they are talented and have what it takes, and some of them are bold enough to ask their teachers. I never was.

As I always do when I am asked questions along these lines, I stuttered and stammered through an explanation of why I did not, in fact, want to tell him whether his writing was good.

“I don’t want that kind of power,” I said, invoking a weird image of me tapping a sword on his shoulders, as if proclaiming his knighthood. (But I called the sword a magic wand, mixing my metaphors and confusing things further.)

“Nor is this the only question to be asking,” I added, citing the importance of things like artistic vision, persistence, determination, desire, inner strength, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own.

But then, feeling like I’d de-emphasized the importance of good writing, I blurted out, “But good writing is important too!”

We sat in an awkward silence while his original question hung in the air.

——

This semester while I am teaching writing, I am also taking art classes. I took an 8-week figure drawing class at the South Bend art museum, and a couple weeks ago I took a week-long mixed-media workshop in Mexico City over spring break (which I have lots to blog and post about!). So all semester I have also been a student of something I really really want to do well.

When the instructors would come around and look at our works-in-progress, I would feel myself get nervous, and if they praised me, I would leap with joy (you know: inwardly).

I'd never used pastels before. My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti's drawings. I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures. But when I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles.

My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti’s drawings, and I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures, but I’m not sure that’s how she meant it. When I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles!

 

In other words, I want and need external validation as much as my students. I would love to ask an art teacher, “Hey, I know I’m like 20 years late to the game, but are my drawings any good?” But I guess I know that the answer would matter and not matter. That it’s up to me. That it’s a process – the learning of the craft, the shaping a vision, the commitment to a certain type of life.

Plus I’m of the ilk that thinks: go figure it out for yourself. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t wait around for permission.

Thus, I didn’t tell the student that his writing is good (even though it is, yes). I did ask what he thinks of his writing (he thinks it’s good). I tried to tell him that there are other questions to ask. I didn’t think to tell him I’ve had dozens of students who are excellent writers doing everything from finishing up MFA programs to quitting school to raise kids. I did tell him to email me in 5 or 10 years and let me know what he was doing.

——

I started my “How to Become a Writer” interview series because I was surprised to see how much my own idea of “becoming a writer” had been shaped by wrong and romanticized ideas based on black-and-white photos of writers smoking.

It was only after I’d been writing for a decade that I realized how much of it was about the things I’d been doing all along: writing, revising, going to conferences, meeting people, meeting deadlines, writing reviews and blurbs, reading literary journals, figuring out how and where and when to submit, writing more, revising more, reading my fellow-writers’ work, etc. Occasionally I attended a party where someone smoked a cigarette.

So, maybe I should have directed my student to my super long list of interviews with writers who advise aspiring writers to persist, keep going, believe in yourself, and don’t stop believing.

But maybe I should have just said, “Yes, yes, your writing is good.”

Because man it’s nice when a teacher tells you you’re doing something well.

 

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I already hate myself for the impulse to write this post. I find few things more annoying than a short op-ed or whatever in the New York Times or whatever about the English Major or the Humanities or whatever and how they are disappearing or dwindling or whatever and how we should keep them around because they preserve our highest values and make us better people or whatever and how everyone (“everyone” here is defined as a bunch of sappy humanities people) weighs in with treacly, cliched supports or refutations or whatever.

But I’m an English professor; I just read Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker; I can hardly help myself.

Gopnik’s final sentences: “The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” Does this make anyone else throw up a little in their mouth? And then swallow it again, which is actually the worst part throwing up in the mouth. We’re human! How very profound!

Last month I met with my Dean, who, having reviewed The Numbers, observes that students are hot on Creative Writing. Writing of all sorts – creative writing, business writing, writing for the web – is where it’s at. Duh, I think. My creative writing colleagues (none of them tenure-track, btw) and I have been making this claim for years, begging for more money, more support, more staff. Students want to create, whether it’s stories, poems, or friggin’ web content. Some of them even want to write literary analyses, which is also creation, the creation of ideas and arguments and insights.

[Side note: Eminem is playing on my Pandora. Yes.]

The Dean seems to think that, just like at Pomona (where English majors are down to 1% of the student body), the English Major is dying. That everything is trending toward Writing.

One would think that I, as a creative writing prof, would be super excited to have the Dean seeing what I have been trying to tell the Dean since it was a different Dean I was talking to. And yes I am. Except I’m not saying that the English Major is irrelevant or dying. I’m just saying we need more support for writing, which is a growing component of the discipline. The problem, at least as I see, at least in my department, is that we have a disproportionate number of faculty teaching literature to faculty teaching writing.

But that doesn’t make the Literature classes irrelevant. One of my colleagues occasionally laments that our English Department, in terms of curriculum and staff, looks exactly like his undergraduate program in the 70s. I can see his point, and I do think English Departments can be shockingly conservative in their structures, especially when people are fighting for their jobs. But I’d argue that what happens INSIDE the classroom is WAYYYY (sorry, I’m shouting) different than what happened in the 70s, especially at Regional Campuses of State Universities, like ours.

[Now it’s Amy Winehouse “Back to Black.”]

My literature colleagues are pretty much all from Research One graduate schools (or, you know, Yale), and they all engage in complex, 50-shades-of-gray literary analysis, and they demand rigorous thinking and writing from our students. Thinking about things they (the students from small-town, northern Indiana) have experienced but not necessarily reflected on. Or about things they’ve not experienced, but that other people have. Or about things that other people have imagined and that suggest alternative ways about thinking about what the students have experienced. Then they have to analyze those textual representations, make connections to both experiences and other texts, make arguments about their relationship, and support those arguments with evidence.

Which is why I regularly make this claim: that English Majors are the smartest kids on campus.

I know it’s not new in the realm of defenses-of-the-English-Major to cite critical thinking as an important skill and outcome. And I know that some of this happened in the 70s in the wake of the radical 60s; it wasn’t all Literary Appreciation. And I know, as the Dean suggests, that most of our students don’t want to go on to graduate school; they just want a degree. I also know that, as everyone else suggests, it is stupid to go to grad school in English in this economy. But I also know, because I teach these students, because I WAS one of these students, that they have NO IDEA what they want to do or can do or what might be available to them if they pursue what they are passionate about.

[Lana del Ray on the Pandora now. “Blue Jeans” remix.]

I remember taking my daughter, who is now 17 but who was actually, impossibly, at one time 2 years old, to the park. Mt. Storm Park at the top of a hill overlooking the west side of Cincinnati. I was pushing her on the swing and she was squealing with glee or whatever. Then she met a friend at the park and they ran off to climb the jungle gym and throw mulch at each other. So I started talking to the mother of the other kid, who turned out to be the wife of an English professor at the University of Cincinnati, where I had just been accepted to grad school.

“Don’t do it,” she told me, referring to grad school. “It’s miserable and there are no jobs.”

This was 1999. They say the same thing today.

I had just quit my job and was so excited to start grad school I could hardly stand it. Who wanted a job? I was going to get to read and write and talk about reading and writing and meet other people who loved the same thing? I remember thinking, “Whatever, lady. Nothing can stop me.”

And nothing did. Not my family, who would have preferred that I have a ‘job’; not the lack of money; not the limited job prospects. And when I finished my MA and PhD and applied for jobs, I got offered not one but two. Even my friends who didn’t get them right away, eventually got jobs. I’m not saying academia always works like this, or that I don’t know people who got exploited on the adjunct track. And I’m certainly not saying that any of my mom-friends understood what the hell I was doing in grad school when my daughter clearly needed me to get from soccer practice to violin lessons. I’m just saying it’s Life, who the hell knows what will happen?

Dammit. I’ve lost track. I was surely going to say something profound about English Majors. Something even more profound than “We’re human.” But now I’ve gone on too long for a blog post. And I don’t even have any pictures!

[And now, no joke, on Pandora is a commercial for an online degree. The University is dead. Long live the Online University.]

 

In April 2014, I led a four-day writing workshop with a dozen graduate students at Miami University. The subject: The Architecture of Stories. The assignment: Write a story inspired in both form and content by a significant architectural structure.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the stories along with info about the architectural structures. Here’s the second one!

Architectural Inspiration: The Cincinnati Art Museum…

 

 …and a failed exhibit that involved a gun being fired in the building. The bullets were aimed at this box…

 …and were supposed to form the shape of a crown. Oops.

 

The Story: excerpt from “Dead Art/Not Relevant” by Curtis Dickerson

“It takes bold, very genuinely thoughtful people to understand that it’s not a crazy thing to do.”

The sniper is anonymous. The artist name on banners hung from light posts and museum walls. Ballistic gel in place, calculations calculated. The sniper asks if the artist would like a particular shape in the target. Between the two: Ann Ford, Portrait of a Man in Armor, Whistling Boy, Vase, Blue Hole, Commode, Shiva, Reclining Female Figure, Human Figure, Romanian Blouse, Soup Can, Dancer, Greek God or Hero, Mummy of Adult Male, St. Stephen, St. Christopher, Bill Curry, Eve. Circa 2500 BC – 1980 AD. There are no female artists represented. Where is the artist? He is adjusting his monitors. Where is the sniper? S/he is calibrating his/her weapon, s/he is picturing the target penetrated, s/he is not a talkative person.

“For young people with no real idea of how to make anything, or any real talent or skill or inspiration, this kind of work comes easy.”

From ten to five, Eden Park is rife with gunfire, normally regulated to less desirable/bad/problematic/depressed/scary/different parts of town. We were cautioned with fliers, with reports on the local news. We are interested, we are angry, we are excited, we are annoyed, we are confused, we are repulsed, we are thrilled; our concerns are not considered. We must relive it again a year and a half later when the exhibit opens. The artist is profiled in the Enquirer. He is a “Cincinnati artist” who lives in New York City. We are Cincinnati artists/lawyers/teachers/editors/housewives/businessmen/actresses/clergy who live in Cincinnati. His point of reference is a film that came out eleven years before he was born. We saw it in theaters, have rented it from the Cincinnati Public Library. “It is disturbing, but is it disturbing in a meaningful way? This seems so far from the mission of a general art museum, which is to preserve, display and exhibit art.”

A column, plume–a geyser of energy, instantaneous, captured with/through six blinking cameras–propels projectile. Sheriffs stand arms sheathed smirking: better than a day spent on a beat or in the office at least. The ghosts of greats trapped in canvas are anxious, the pulses of nervous energy from the living they sense through pores. Watch as it passes, if you can. And you can, a year and a half later. And you can feel it, perhaps in a century. And you can feel it coming, though once you feel it it’s already past.

“To shoot a gun in the halls in the museum, it’s in bad taste. The speeding bullet is going in front of 18 iconic treasures. I think it’s his way of showing that it’s dead art and not relevant.”

(quotes taken from the Cincinnati Enquirer article “Cincinnati Art Museum’s ‘Crown’ exhibit under fire” written by Janelle Gelfand and published 15 March 2014)

The story behind the story (as told by Curtis Dickerson)

I happened upon this story listening to our Cincinnati NPR affiliate. A museum curator was being interviewed for WVXU’s local program “Cincinnati Edition,” and when the prompt for our sprint week was explained, I immediately thought of this instance. I’m not sure I have a position on the correctness of firing a gun in a museum, especially one that houses works as old as the Cincinnati Art Museum does, but it’s a heavy decision to make, and I don’t envy anyone who had to look at the artist’s proposal and decide whether or not that this was a thing that should have been done.

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About the author

Curtis Dickerson, a native of Dayton, Ohio, studies and teaches writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where he lives alongside his partner and dog. His interests and passions include social justice, reality television, and animal advocacy. The most recent book he has read which he highly recommends is George Packer’s The Unwinding.

In April 2014, I led a four-day writing workshop with a dozen graduate students at Miami University. The subject: The Architecture of Stories. The assignment: Write a story inspired in both form and content by a significant architectural structure.

I’ll be posting excerpts from the stories along with info about the architectural structures. Here’s the first one!

Architectural Inspiration: Meera Sky Garden House, Singapore

“The concept of Sky Garden House is strongly influenced by the ambition of enhancing the occupant’s quality of life. This is largely achieved by the roof gardens on every level. As well as having direct access to these, interior spaces have large areas of glazing with views out over the gardens to the sea and sky.” (from Archello)
Click here for more views.

The Story: Excerpt from “Nobody Belongs Here Less Than You” by Michael Stoneberg

When he begins walking toward the house, it surprises him. He doesn’t have a plan, but he knows there’s a pool running along the front of the house, and that submerged basement windows look out into it, and he wants to look into the basement. The ground-level yard slopes up to those picture windows where the man and woman are watching TV, but with the lights blazing, he knows they’d only see the inside reflected back at them.

The pool is long and narrow, but deep.

He is aware of the daughter perched

in the garden above him. He kicks

off his flip flops and sits at the pool’s

edge, easing his legs down. The water

is warm, the pool lights, if it has them,

are off, but cool ambient light

from the basement leaks up through

to the water’s surface, dancing where

his legs leave ripples. He eases himself

down, submerged to his waist, then his neck.

He lets go of the side and sinks.

The story behind the story (as told by Michael Stoneberg)

I did not immediately have a building in mind, but I was interested in sustainable (or green) architecture, and so I searched around for examples. I was pretty taken with the terraced shape of the Meera House from Guz Architects, the sloping grassy roof and pool with subsurface basement windows looking into it. I was also pretty taken with the $20 million price tag, and the way these green projects are often unattainable without fatcat pockets. It’s also on this resort island in Singapore called Sentosa, and the more I read about the island, the more I felt inspired to write about it. So I wanted the story form to reflect the shape of the house, the shape of the actions, in the layout of text on the page (something poets dabble in often, and, hey, why not fiction?), and to have the tension between sustainability and cost at its core.

 

stoneberg

About the author

Michael Stoneberg is a drifter and writer of fictions, originally from Oregon, currently at Miami University in Oxford, OH working toward his Master’s in Creative Writing. His fiction has been published in a chapbook from Plumberries Press.

 

 

I recently returned from Miami University (that’s Ohio, baby), where I was happy and honored to teach a week-long class to fiction writers in the graduate program. The class is called a SPRINT Class because it’s short and fast and intense: we met 4 days in a row for 2.5 hours of class each. Plus I assigned them 70 pages of reading. Plus I made them write a story. Plus I met with all twelve students in a half-hour conference. Plus I gave a reading. Plus we had a party. So, yes, a sprint. But way more like one of those intense and long 800-meter sprints than, say, a hundred-yard dash.

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I attended Miami my freshman year of college, and here’s a pic of my old dorm, Dorsey Hall.There’s a huge track in front of it that I used to run on VERY SLOWLY. No sprints.

 

The topic of the class was The Architecture of Stories. I asked the students to do what I did in my book, Liliane’s Balcony, set at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater:

Choose an architectural structure and write a story that engages it in both form and content.

So, under the watchful eye of this guy…

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…these students made the most amazing stories!

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I created a tab on this blog with notes and quotes for the class (Architecture of Stories), which I plan to continue to develop – maybe into a craft book of some sort. And I’m going to be sharing excerpts of their work on the blog over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

Thanks to Joseph Bates for inviting and hosting me, and thanks to the students for making is such a fun and fulfilling week!

This week’s photo challenge is From Above

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This picture looks to me like the earth strung with lights, but it is actually a photo of a puddle at a Berlin biergarten. I love how the change in perspective makes you see things in a new way. Just like taking students to Prague and Berlin in 2011 helped them see the world differently. And spending time with students at a biergarten helped me see them differently! Here is part of the group:

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(Note the lights and the trees in the background. They were captured in the puddle as we left.)

I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.

Photo Credit: Drew Dalton

Erica Bernheim is the author of The Mimic Sea. She was born in New Jersey and grew up in Ohio and Italy. She received her MFA from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and her PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Since 2008, she has been an Assistant Professor of English at Florida Southern College, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Honors Program.

Read more by and about Erica:

Book: The Mimic Sea

Poem: Like a Face

Poem: Elegy Next to Cleanliness

Review of The Mimic Sea

Poem: 63rd and Pulaski

How Erica Bernheim Became a Writer

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 (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Erica for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I was fortunate to grow up in a home where reading was encouraged. Becoming a writer seemed like a natural progression to me, something you could do after you had read enough books to have your own ideas. My father is a writer and an English professor, my mother is an editor, and books were almost always on hand; when they weren’t, creating my own stories seemed like a logical step, although I never did much with poetry until later. I also grew up in a family that travelled constantly, both overseas and for long car trips on a regular basis, and I was fortunate to be a good car reader (of books, never maps!). I learned to read quickly and would think about whatever I read for a long time afterwards, trying to remember sentences verbatim, and puzzling over whatever I had forgotten to remember, hoping I could try something like whatever I had read in a book of my own at some point. I wanted to make other people feel the way I did when I read something I loved.

2. How did you go about becoming a writer?

I majored in English in college, but it wasn’t until I enrolled in an MFA program that I found a community of writers, many of whom I remain close with still, like Michael Dumanis, Robyn Schiff, Nick Twemlow, Suzanne Buffam, and Chicu Reddy. Being around other writers showed me how to be one, as well as how not to be one. After finishing the MFA program, I moved to Chicago and worked in publishing for a few years. For me, taking a few years off between the MFA and PhD was important. I wrote a lot during that time; I relied on writing in a way I never had before, and I realized that I wanted to be around writing all the time, that it shouldn’t be a luxury or just a special occasion.

Robert Creeley in 1972. Photo by Elsa Dorfman, courtesy Wikimedia.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

I already mentioned my parents and their guidance and encouragement, but I’ve also had incredibly smart and generous teachers. Keith Tuma, Jim Reiss, Jorie Graham, Mark Levine, Dean Young, and Jim Galvin were tremendously supportive. Studying Faulkner at UIC with Chris Messenger taught me a lot about how to be a scholar and a professor. And of course there are so many poets whose work has helped me. The most important has always been Robert Creeley, whose poems I happened upon happily in Paul Hoover’s Norton Postmodern Anthology. After reading Creeley’s work, I switched from writing fiction to poetry and have never switched back. I also started reading John Berryman and Denis Johnson around this time. Brenda Shaughnessy and Noelle Kocot’s work has helped me find more to admire in language and scope and narrative, as do the poets I mentioned in Question #2. Working with 42 Miles Press and with David Dodd Lee has been a wonderful experience, and their support has been somewhere far beyond helpful and into the miraculous.

4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

This was the hardest question for me! I am inspired by the work—rather than the lives—of many artists and writers, and yet I struggle with a semi-New Criticism impulse to separate biographies and texts. Oliver Sacks might be a good answer for me to this question; I admire people who can do practical things, like figure out how to relieve people of suffering, and I think he is a beautiful writer, someone who clearly loves sounds and language and humor and pathos. And perhaps it’s strange to say this, but I find my students and the tiny pieces I know of their lives very inspiring; I think they’re so brave, many of them, to want to become writers, and they make me want it for them, too.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Read a lot. Read everything. Go to other people’s readings. Find a community of writers. Get used to sending your work out. Keep track of both the rejections and the acceptances. Try other things, too, and see if writing is still the best. Listen to every conversation you can. Eavesdrop. Keep a pen and scrap of paper with you always and write everything down before you can forget to remember it.