“Michael Chabon’s career is often the work of a writer hell-bent on destroying the line between “literary” and “genre,” and his most famous work is an epic adventure novel about comic-book creators. But I think Wonder Boys, while increasingly looking like a piece left over from a different puzzle, is still his best work. Chabon has said he responded deeply to Jonathan Yardley’s Washington Post review of Wonder Boys, where the critic challenged the author to “explore larger worlds” in his next work. And while this apparently spurred Chabon to write his Pulitzer-winning epic The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay I can’t help but wonder what might’ve been if Yardley hadn’t scrambled for something negative to say about Wonder Boys, or if Chabon hadn’t taken him so fucking literally.”—
This movie and this book also had a profound impact on me. I was a freshman at St. Bonaventure University and my then-girlfriend (my first real relationship), and I went to see this. We had to wash down the taste of Fight Club, which disturbed and amazed us both so we went into this. By the end of this film, I couldn’t help but see so much of my future self in Grady Tripp. Was I going to end up like that guy? Being eighteen, I wanted to be Tobey Maguire’s character. Worse, I felt that I had to be, that anything less would be failure. And I think that’s quite a lot of what’s hung me up over the years is that need that the movie and book implanted. When it should have just been—do good work, rather than think about how you want to play pretend in someone else’s story. But this movie and then book was my introduction to Michael Chabon, someone who still shapes my writing life and someone I study as I make my way as an English teacher in higher education.
Are MFA programs asshole-making machines? The contributors Harbach has assembled for MFA vs NYC offer up some interesting answers to this question. They explore whether fiction programs can turn established writers into jaded teachers, cashing the paychecks necessary for writerly survival while caring little about students’ work. They consider whether MFAs can make talented younger writers into producers of bland, indistinguishable, commercially viable books. They explore the extent to which it might be better to stay in Iowa working on draft #143 of your masterpiece, rather than schmoozing at NYC publishing parties, and they ask—to quote from George Saunders’s own contribution to the book—whether, as MFA programs continue to proliferate, there’s “something gross about a culture telling a bunch of people who are never going to be artists that they maybe are, even if only by implication.”
What was it that grabbed me? I guess the system of turning out writers into writing teachers, a system I’m a part of, and seeing that as a necessary result. Teaching needs to happen, teaching how to help people communicate with one another and see another perspective is a necessary result to making a living. Just like garbage getting picked up, I’m getting paid to read other people’s writing, which helps me understand them and what they need to do well. It helps me understand what I need to do well so that I can support myself. Austin Kleon, talks about how you’re not entitled to do what you love, doing what you love creates a better life, but it doesn’t owe you financial success. Fortunately, I find myself at a crossroads where that’s not true. My job helps me be compassionate, and it spotlights when I’m being unreasonable. It trains me to recognize my ticks and spasms in other people and it’s so time-consuming that it provides a framework for finding the time for me and my art. That taking the time, the hour to sit down and write every day is necessary to my mental health, because the entire day can’t be all about other people. I don’t really care that much about whether the book I’m writing now will ever see a bookstore. It probably won’t, but it’s not something I’m worried about, it won’t see a bookstore if I don’t make an honest effort and try to get better.
I haven’t read MFA vs NYC, but I want to see if it talks about anything outside of these two paradigms, that there is space between these two literary powerhouses, because unfortunately it seems like the thesis is narrow.
“Soccer I actively hated. But it lasted only a few weeks, until I figured out that if you were too tired to keep playing, or if you had a cramp, you could raise your hand and the coach would pull you out. So as soon as he put me on, I would raise my hand. Once I did this and he yelled, from the sidelines, “Come on, John, goddamnit!” Our eyes met. I kept my hand in the air.”—
I woke up this morning at 4am. I’m staying at home with my parents to help pre-empt the flooding that always occurs during April. Mud season. We go right from awful March, my least favorite month, to April where there is mass flooding. It’s awesome.
I woke up and started reading John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Blood Horses, because I’m so into what it is he does. I really enjoy his work, and I can’t quite get enough of it. You know a writer is for you when you read something and say, “Yeah, me too.” I say that all the time when reading him and the thing I’m learning from him is compassion. A willingness to empathize with people, all people of various shapes and sizes, and their interests.
This quote literally sprang me from my bed, all of his sports-related anecdotes could have been pulled whole-cloth from my own athletic misadventures.
About a year ago, I had a meeting with a production company, who wanted me to host a show for them. The concept was simple, I thought it had the potential to be incredibly funny, and I really liked the people I met with.
“I can’t just be a host, though,” I explained. “I’ve been producing Tabletop for two seasons, and if I’m going to be the public face of a show, I need to have a hand in its…
“These people at Mohegan Sun were not even drunk; they were dancing in front of the stage, mostly sober—had I ever known anyone who could or would dance sober? I was still in the back, by the bar, but I was jumping up and down, and the rest of the bar was jumping up and down, everyone’s face positively stupid. And it occurred to me then that fun is only fun when’s stupid. That there is no joy without stupidity, without abandon, without judgment—that music is best enjoyed in this stupid way, in a stupid place like this, with people you love holding stupid tambourines and playing with strangers amid strangers, who are dancing around to a song about spaceship-people building municipalities without permits or city planners but with pop songs.”—Dave Eggers in an excerpt from his forthcoming book of travel essays, Visitants. A book that doesn’t seem like it’s going to come out in the US, but I definitely want to read.
I’ve been to Mohegan Sun. I found the place to be a den of sadness. Generally, that’s my reaction to strip clubs and casinos. I had a poorly cooked hamburger there.
“Media studies has really embraced cultural studies, but having people as a whole think your work is awesome is very different than having a hiring committee, especially one made of people who aren’t necessarily in your field, think that celebrity gossip is worthwhile, if that makes sense. So for me it’s a combination of what I study, but also the way that I write about it—I study something feminized and devalued, and I do a lot of that work on the internet, which is still considered to be not “real” scholarship. I was always doing “real” scholarship alongside this internet work—I’ve published eight peer-reviewed articles—but if my time on the market is to be believed, it simply didn’t matter. Same with my book: because I got paid to write it, and because it’s with Plume/Penguin instead of a university press, it’s not legit.”—
I’ve known for some time that my work, and the sort of audience I love writing for, is not a very good fit for academia, but I thought that I could wedge/force/hipcheck my way into a position that would reconcile the type of work that I wanted to do with the teaching that I love. But as a friend of mine said amidst her time on the market, “academia is drunk”—not belligerent or irresponsible so much single-sightedly focused on things that may or may not ultimately matter.
In other words, no one wanted to hire me! I want to be super explicit about that because I think people will assume that because of all the writing I do, both on and off the internet, that I somehow had some cornucopia of choices and was like “show me the money.” OH MAN I WISH. I get so much satisfaction from teaching, but there was no way to keep doing so—and continue the writing I find fulfilling—and make a sustainable salary. BuzzFeed gives me the platform and support to do the type of writing (and reach the type of audiences) that I love, but can also provide me with a living wage.
I wonder about this sort of thing. I don’t consider myself an academic but the fears shown in this interview mirror my own. My field is English with a focus on cultural and media studies. The chances are not good that I’ll have a secure job as an English professor. That means publishing regularly, getting a Ph.D, and being extremely lucky. I’m not sure that’s a thing worth engaging in at thirty-three. The other day, a colleague who has been teaching at the college for over thirty years says there isn’t a focus on a narrow field of study, professors teach many classes that are not what they have their graduate degree in. He teaches English, ethics, and permaculture. Next semester, I’m teaching an interdisciplinary course, composition, and a comics studies class. I’m not really sure what to think, but I guess I should have a more open mind on my options, because I’m not sure what I would do professionally if my day job wasn’t being a teacher. I don’t really want to have anything else be my day job. Well, being full time novelist would be fine, but I’d say that’s a long shot, and not something to count on.
AMAZING X-MEN #7 KATHRYN IMMONEN (W) • PACO MEDINA (A) Cover by KRIS ANKA • Guest-starring THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN! • Iceman, Firestar and Spider-Man renew their amazing friendship to save New York City. • Guest-Issue by Kathryn Immonen (AVENGERS ANNUAL) and Paco Medina (X-MEN, NOVA)!
OH SICK. (Also thanks for following, I can’t tell you how much I love both of your work.)
Powers is a long running, independently owned comic book series written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Michael Avon Oeming. I am a fan. In fact, when I had an opportunity several years ago to work as a freelancer at Marvel Comics, Powers was one of the series I started…
“Today, play a game with yourself. Just do the one thing you are doing at that moment carefully and correctly. Don’t spend time thinking about what you did wrong yesterday, or how much you have to do today, or any of it. If you focus on that one small thing you are doing — “Right now, I am putting this toast rind in the garbage. Now, I am washing this one dish and drying it,” — you’ll do it right, then move on.”—
I have a hard time with this, mostly because my to-do list runs at about ten points long, and usually if I don’t get set of goals done by the end of the day I spend the evening thinking about how I didn’t get my five hundred words in because of an extensive administrative list.
So for the 30 minutes or so between my door and my friend’s, including a stop at the store, I dared myself to keep my attention on the current real-life scene only, and not get drawn into any mental dialogues. Put another way, I decided to put words aside for a little while, and observe everything else.
It worked. The talkative part of my brain mostly shut up, and I discovered for the 600th time that the world is intrinsically beautiful and peaceful whenever I manage to take a break from thinking and talking about it.
Ideally I’d spend my whole life in this state — when you’re just observing things and it really doesn’t matter what happens, because it’s all very curious and beautiful, and if trouble does show up you’re already in the best headspace to deal with it. You get the specific sense that you don’t need to be anywhere else, which makes you realize how rarely you feel like that.
I’ve been practicing this, and I’m getting much better at getting things done as a result. I should probably consult David Allen Greer’s book.
I’ve trained myself to to focus on one goal and one goal only in a given amount of time. It’s difficult to train your mind to do this, because I’m used to thinking about the two things I have to do after I’m done with—say—the dishes. Will I have time to write while the beans for chili are soaking? Oh, I still have to vacuum. Even in bed I think over and over again about the things I need to do. Like today, I got up because I still have one more paper to review for the freshman research writing assessment meeting I have tomorrow. And mid-term grades are due today by noon, so I got up and did those things.
This is where meditation comes in. Focus on one thing in that moment and move on. I’m averaging about ten minutes a day, perhaps six days a week and I feel like a total wreck on the days I skip.
“You only become bulletproof when you refuse to disguise your injuries. This ends the show and deflates any notion that you have your shit together all the time. The wounds are a gift: with the mask gone, you get to be a person again. You learn how to accept help, and better yet, how to better give it.”—Frank Chimero.
“Why is it that many people feel that they “can’t draw”? In a recent article Cohn, 2012, I put forth a new theory that compared the cognitive structure of drawing to the cognitive structure of language. Like language, drawing uses schemas that combine in innumerable novel ways, and thus children learning to draw must acquire these schemas from the drawings in their environment. However, while most people in the United States and Europe “can’t draw,” Japanese children have far greater proficiency in drawing. This paper explores reasons for this cultural disparity in graphic fluency originating in the structure of the drawing systems in those respective cultures and the beliefs that frame ideas about drawing and art education. In particular, I explore the intriguing possibility that cultural assumptions admonishing imitation of other people’s drawings prohibits the acquisition of graphic schemas, thereby leading to people feeling that they “can’t draw.””—
“The dark green trees behind her on the Wesleyan campus sharpen her outline. She is dressed in pale colors, pearls at her neck and ears. She’s tall, athletic, vigorous. Her skin glows. She holds out her hand. Chee, she says. Give me a drag off that. She calls us all by our last names.”—
I teach Annie Dillard’s “The Chase” in my English 101 class—that story is a delight. I use the essay as a jumping off point for my students’ narrative essays. I haven’t read more of Dillard other than that short story, or Chee. I’ve been reading him on social media for a while now.
I’m curious about how writers are as teachers. I’ve been working on being a creative writer since I was thirteen, but teaching is my day job and I think it makes me a better writer, so I’m always in search of how others approach the subject of teaching writing. Especially writers who made teaching a day job like John Green, Dillard, and David Foster Wallace. You could say I’m leeching off of these people, because—basically—I’m a sophomore teacher. This is my second year as an english teacher, and I’ve been trying to figure what are good methods and how I can be better. I’m always asking my colleagues and such if I can sit in on their classes, what they do in particular situations, how they structure their essay assignments, etc.
This article was especially enlightening, because it’s Chee’s perspective as Dillard’s student. This bit, on her requiring the papers to be triple spaced is interesting:
There was that much to say. Each week we turned in our assignments on a Tuesday, and by Thursday we had them back again, the space between the triple-spaced lines and also the margins filled with her penciled notes. Sometimes you write amazing sentences, she wrote to me, and sometimes it’s amazing you can write a sentence. This had arrows drawn pointing off towards the amazing sentence and the disappointing one. Getting your pages back from her was like getting to the dance floor and seeing your favorite black shirt under the nightclub’s blacklight, all the hair and dust that was always there but invisible to you, now visible.
This is one of the many things I’m constantly worried about: going through nearly sixty papers a week, giving that much feedback leads to there not being enough time in the day—and burnout. Giving as much detail as I can in my comments is a tough cat walk.
What I try to do in my classes is preach this:
You are the only one of you, she said of it. Your unique perspective, at this time, in our age, whether it’s on Tunis or the trees outside your window, is what matters. Don’t worry about being original, she said dismissively. Yes, everything’s been written, but also, the thing you want to write, before you wrote it, was impossible to write. Otherwise it would already exist. You writing it makes it possible.
I think most well-intentioned writing teachers try to put this on, or attempt to try and help the students become themselves rather than mini versions of the teacher. I had a discussion with a student who said a previous english teacher told her never to write research papers using the quote hamburger. Are there better, more eloquent methods? Probably, but I haven’t found one as effective and I get good results. The quote hamburger is a concept I picked up from my time at Brooklyn College where the top bun of the paragraph is the topic sentence, the meat of the burger is the quote or evidence from another source not your opinion, and the bottom bun re-contextualizes the quote into your argument. The purpose of the research or thesis paper is to have a conversation between yourself and another writer. The student might have have misinterpreted the previous teacher’s point, but at the end of the day you’re not there to turn them into versions of you, but help them be themselves and also know how to properly write a research paper. How they write their sentences, what they write about is entirely up to them.
Finally this bit was really cool, and not something I’ve ever thought about, but I’m going to do it the next time I’m in a bookstore so I’ll probably teach it too:
Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, she said. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.