About time for another blog entry. It’s been over a year and a half since my last one. Strangely, that sentence reminded me of the opening line of Catholic confession, or what used to be the opening line: “Bless me Father for I have sinned. It has been X days, weeks etc. since my last confession”. If I ever went to confession again, the time span would be measured in decades. It might be that I’ve got religion on my mind as a result of the possibly apocalyptic times we live in. Christianity is good for fiery visions of the end.
I was down by the presidential inauguration area at 4 this morning to drop my oldest daughter off for work (She’s a Capitol Hill cop). It’s very busy down there, and it looks like they are really going to make Trump President. Then I came home and read an article in the Washington Post about Robert Spencer, the Great White Hope of neo-Nazis, moving to the DC suburbs. He was the guy leading the “Heil Trump” salutes on TV last month at a fascist meeting. He says he expects his cause to do a lot better now that Trump is President.
Tomorrow is the anti-inauguration. That will help improve my mood.
For the record, I completed my MFA program and my first novel. I hear from agents, little magazines and small presses all the time, but the answer is always the same. I did get one from Bomb last week regarding a short story, and it was the nicest, most encouraging rejection notice I ever received. Thank you Bomb.
I’ve finished three semesters of Lesley University’s four semester MFA program. I considered quitting the program, primarily for the money I’d save. I’m not interested in teaching, so the degree is less useful than would be if I had any desire to work as an adjunct. For me, the primary benefit of an MFA is access to good writers who can help me sharpen my skills. Lesley gave me that.
What I need now is a first-rate writer/editor to work with me as I make the final revision on my novel. I could get this done at Lesley. The novel would be my graduating thesis. Or I could pay a writer friend to do it which would cost a lot less than a semester in grad school.
My partner pointed out that the MFA is useful when applying for grants and hard to get into writers’ colonies. I guess her argument tipped the balance in favor of academia. I’m going back. And I am looking forward to the residency coming up this month. There is some value in craft workshops and they are immensely satisfying exercises. Reading and talking about Chekhov and Carver has got to be good for you.
I’m doing a special studies MFA project on the art of memoir. I don’t see myself writing a memoir for publication but I figured it might help dredge up useful material I could use in my fiction. It also seemed like it would be a good opportunity to complain and feel sorry for myself, and it is. But when I look at what comes out, I see that alongside my grievances, I am turning up evidence that I was a shit when I was a kid. Whatever crap my parents dealt me, I passed it right on to my younger siblings. Of course this isn’t a complete surprise, but putting it in writing does seem to make my sins look bigger and my grievances smaller.
Last semester, I wrote an adaptation of my first novel as a screenplay for an interdisciplinary studies project at Lesley. The novel needed revision, and I figured re-imagining it as a screenplay would help in that process. It was an interesting exercise, and it gave me some practical understanding of the difference between narration in literature and in film. There is a fundamental problem in adapting a novel for the screen – the written word can quite effectively convey the mental activity of a character, his or her thoughts, memories, desires, emotions etc., while film can only imply this inner life. To quote the cinema studies pioneer, George Bluestone, “The film by arranging external signs for our visual perception, or by presenting us with dialogue, can lead us to infer thought…but it cannot show us thoughts and feelings.” (Novels into Film).
After the completion of the project, my advisor suggested I enter the script in a contest. It turns out there are a lot of these. Every little film festival usually has an associated screenplay competition. I’ve entered a few now, and I’ll continue until I get disgusted with the process as I usually do with novel and short fiction contests. Here’s a link to a site that lists over 300 film festivals. It also has information on how to structure and format your script.
To bring my many readers up to date, I’m still working on my MFA, and I’m still dicking around with various “Little Magazines” trying to get something published. I haven’t been able to kick the habit totally. To quote Silvio quoting Michael Corleone, “I tried to get out but they drug me back.” Every time I write a new story, I can’t resist trying it out on some contest or other.
The MFA experience has been useful on the whole. I have picked up some new skills and read a lot of great stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Nevertheless, the point of investing this much time and money hangs on whether or not I start getting stuff into print. Actually, aside from publication, what would be lovely is for the workshop leader to simply say, “This story is magnificent. I wouldn’t change a thing.” I learn from the workshops, but the learning comes from being introduced to my blunders. That’s helpful. I can usually avoid those specific blunders in the future. For instance, I am much less likely to bore a reader with long passages of dialogue that is really disguised exposition. But there are always other mistakes to make, and I never hear, “By God! You’ve done it!”
I’m reading How to Build a Girl by Caitlan Moran. It’s wonderful. I can’t imagine Caitlan Moran ever hearing discouraging words from workshop leaders. The novel’s heroine, Dolly Wilde, is a desperately poor, desperately horny 16 year old girl living in public housing and trying to break into rock-and-roll journalism in London. She explains that writing is one of the few activities poor people can engage in because “…writing, unlike choreography, architecture, or conquering kingdoms – is a thing you can do when you’re lonely and poor, and have no infrastructure, i.e. a ballet troupe or some cannons.” I am reminded of Catcher in the Rye only because Dolly is young like Holden Caulfield and also a seeker of truth. That’s where the resemblance ends. She is so much smarter and funnier than that irritating little pill.
It’s been a year since my last blog entry, but that isn’t to say I haven’t been writing. I’ve forged ahead with my Lebanon novel, the plot becoming more and more convoluted. My slightly chicken-hearted protagonist is now involved in selling hijacked oil from Yemen and there are plans to send him to Iraq to check out war profiteering opportunities (in my novel, the year is 2005 and the Bush Administration is flooding Baghdad with shrink-wrapped bundles of 100 dollar bills, many of which are promptly stolen.) When I tried to bring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the story, I had to stop myself. That really would have been jumping the shark. Maybe I can turn that abandoned chapter into a short story someday
I no longer enter those damned literary contests. I can buy a lottery ticket downstairs at the liquor store if I feel the need to hand money over to uncaring strangers, and, by most calculations, the odds are better with the lottery.
The writing is going okay in terms of content, but in this past year, I’ve begun asking myself those old questions – Am I getting any better? Is there hope? Why would anyone want to read this? I was in a rut. I was churning out the pages, but where was the passion?
I needed to do something to shake up my process and sharpen my skills. I figured going back to school might do the trick, so I signed up for a low-residency MFA program at Lesley University in Cambridge. I had never heard of the place, but Poets and Writers ranked the program in the top 10 nationwide, and Lesley is right next door to Harvard, so it must be a serious institution.
I just completed my first 10-day residency (shortened by one day due to the Polar Vortex). It was an interesting and at times sobering experience. I figured I had half a novel and I would use the MFA to finish it. I discovered that I didn’t really have the first half yet. There are a lot of things to fix and maybe a first chapter to totally eliminate. The problems seem obvious now. I think I can fix them but I’m not so sure I can learn to avoid making them again in the future. We’ll see. Getting the MFA is a two-year process.
The winner of Boaz Publishing’s Fabri Prize was supposed to be announced at the end of September. I don’t think I’m going to hear from them. Funny thing is, no one has heard from them as far as I can tell. The web site announcing the June 15, 2012 deadline hasn’t been updated. I guess this is a bit better than outright rejection.
Fortunately I’ve entered a dozen other contests – novels, short stories, short-shorts. Hope springs for a little while longer.
I expect to hear from the Fabri Prize judges any day now, and I’m braced for disappointment. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen others winning a string of literary contests that I had entered with high hopes. Most recently I found out I had not won Gulf Coast’s Barthelme Prize for short short fiction. I found out on my own when I saw an issue of the magazine celebrating the winner of the prize, and the name of that person wasn’t me. Rejection notices are never fun and I’m sure editors don’t like sending them, but I’ve learned that it is better for the writer to get one than to be simply ignored if he’s not a winner.
I’m not upset every time I don’t win one of these contests, but this one got to me. I know my story was very good. It’s hard to feel total confidence in a novel or even a short story. There is always some little thing or other you could fix. What about that flat exposition in chapter two, for instance? Maybe you should add a plane crash right after Uncle Jo-Jo passes out in the bushes. But a short short? Even my attention span is wide enough for a short short, and I knew mine was good.
I showed the winner to my partner and fellow writer. She readily agreed mine was the funnier story. She also pointed out that the organizers of the contest might have expected the submissions to look like a Barthelme short story, since the contest was named after him. That hadn’t occurred to me. I just assumed they wanted to make the contest seem classier by attaching a famous writer’s name to it. Sure enough the winner read a lot like Barthelme. The elements were there, even if it wasn’t very funny.
My entry was a parody of Faulkner, entitled Intruder in the Garlic. No imitation, no homage – a parody, but it was a pretty good parody.
Now I’ll wait to hear from the Fabri Prize people. If someone else wins, please don’t let me find out about it from Fox News or the neighbors. Give it to me straight. I can take it because I’m a writer, and writers have to be tough.
My book, Now Appearing in Baghdad, is a finalist for Boaz Publishing’s Fabri Prize. The prize includes a publishing contract with a $7,500 advance and a $5,000 marketing budget. Pretty nice. I guess winning the prize means that agents would answer your emails. I wonder if finalist is good enough to catch their attention.
The reason Gallant was a starving writer in Spain was that payments for several stories in the New Yorker were kept by her agent, Jacques Chambrun. She wasn’t the only client he robbed. This entry in the New Yorker blog, describes Chambrun’s larcenous career including his embezzlement of $30,000 from W. Somerset Maugham.
There is a moral to this story, I guess, for those of us pining for an agent.