Not long ago I interviewed to teach composition at a small college. The chair of the department and his secretary both grilled me about my creative writing degree, which makes getting a job at the school in question difficult, if not impossible.
“Your degree is in creative writing?” the secretary asked. I said that it was.“Not poetry, is it?” Half-jokingly, the chair of the department told me not to answer that. “I plead the 5th,” I said. They laughed. The secretary made a joke about the “P word” being roach spray to the hiring committee. Apparently I chose the wrong major.
I talked to a fellow graduate of my program about this, and he told me he had undergone similar experiences. The common conception of MFA grads, he said, was that they spent two years fine-tuning their use of commas. The perception that my degree is a worthless piece of paper ought to depress me. But truthfully, it only bothers me while interviewing for jobs teaching freshman comp.
I often ask my students why they chose their respective majors. Usually, I hear, "because I want to be a (fill in the blank)." Rarely do I hear a student say, "because I'm interested in learning about the subject." This was my foolish reason for going into debt and spending countless hours reading, writing, editing, and peer reviewing—hours I could have been sleeping. In this economy, I can’t fault students for thinking with their pocketbooks instead of their hearts.
Yet if I could go back in time I would likely make the same decision. Why study anything unless you love it, right? Jobs come and go. They are what you do to get money so you can do the things you love. I may never get a great job teaching and I may never publish another poem. I may spend life toiling in drudgery, but I’ll always have poetry to sustain - if I may borrow a line from Nazim Hikmet - the tiny jewel in the center of my chest.
On its website, the Book Cellar advertises itself as “Your independent bookstore in Lincoln Square.” The curmudgeonly old cynic who rents a room inside my head suspects that is simply a clever piece of marketing. The true believer who owns a vacation home in my heart, however, is totally smitten. The Book Cellar just feels like my neighborhood bookstore, even though it is not exactly in my neighborhood. It’s a short, pleasant walk from my apartment to the store, but I suspect that book lovers across the expansive city of Chicago think of the Book Cellar as their very own.
What makes the Book Cellar stand out among friendly neighborhood bookstores is not only its ability to stay in business but also the charming cafe one finds inside. You can have a cup of coffee at the Book Cellar if you like, but you can also have a beer or glass of wine. The cafe also offers a surprisingly wide array of salads and sandwiches, including a grilled cheese that is worth stopping in for even if you aren’t book shopping.
Despite its novelty, the cafe doesn’t feel like a gimmick, either, and that is what makes this arrangement work. It’s not a way to attract customers, at least intitially. That’s what the books are for, speaking of novel ideas. The cafe is a natural outgrowth of the proprietors’ and patrons’ sincere appreciation of the written word. It’s a place where locals gather for book clubs and readings. It’s a place that tempts one to wax poetic about sustenance for the soul and nourishment for the mind. And it’s possibly what keeps the Book Cellar open and thriving in an otherwise bleak world for independent booksellers.
After a period of weeks in which I joined tens of thousands of others in troubling over the imminent collapse of St. Mark’s Bookshop, a store of far more historical import, the Book Cellar is a welcome respite from the reality that bookstores everywhere are closing. Not so long ago, my parents’ generation lamented the paving of paradise so that parking lots might be built. I fear that we’ll see those parking lots serve not bookstores, but convenience shops in the relatively near future. At the Book Cellar, though, it’s easy to mistake the death rattle for the hustle and bustle of a thriving book business.
Herman Cain, a Republican presidential hopeful, recently hired Atlanta-based attorney, L. Lin Wood, to, well, do something or other with respect to the sexual harassment accusations leveled against him. "I'm not here to scare anyone off," Wood said, adding that people should "think twice" before publicly accusing anyone of wrongdoing. Wood has a history of high-profile defamation suits, and bringing such a lawyer to a media event seems designed precisely to, oh you know, scare off potential accusers.
But there might be another aim to the show. "Mr. Cain is being tried in the court of public opinion based on accusations that are improbable and vague," Wood said. "The media -- bless your heart -- you turn our system of justice into one of guilt by accusation." Okay, now we're talking -- it's the media's fault. And what's Wood's role here? "I've been brought in to bring an element of fairness to the accusations being brought," Wood said. Look at Wood's litigation history and you'll find that a great many lawsuits against media outlets: suing a newspaper on behalf of a security guard cleared of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing; suing various media outlets on behalf of JonBenét Ramsey's parents; suing a Vanity Fair writer on behalf of Gary Condit, the former Congressman romantically linked to his intern but never made an official suspect in her murder.
So, Cain fires a shot over the bow of the media. Writers, newspapers, lo, even websites, better be careful. And he gets a lot of free coverage about the fact that he brought out a defamation lawyer. If he's thinking about suing, maybe he didn't really do it, right? As the article notes, winning such a case would be extremely difficult because Cain is a public figure and would have to show that the accuser or media outlet knew the accusation was false or showed reckless disregard for whether it was false. But winning a lawsuit, or even bringing one -- does he really want to sit for a deposition for sworn testimony on the subject? -- might not be the point.
Joan Didion's new memoir, Blue Nights, is out this month, and not since Patti Smith’s Just Kids has a single book so inundated my inbox and social media feeds. Colleagues and classmates have been raving over its poignance and power, critics are praising its honesty, and one friend even suggested an impromptu, one-time book club exclusively dedicated Blue Nights. But since we just succumbed to Daylight Savings Time - along with the afternoon darkness and circadian-rhythm confusion it brings - I admit I’ve been reluctant to commit to a such a pensive, raw, and depressing book. In the winter months, I prefer more fantastical and lush writing - Calvino, Proust, Bender, Chabon, Collette - not to mention chocolates, spa treatments, and fireplaces. All these things are, in a word, comforting, and it is impossible to count Didion's latest among them.
In some ways, Blue Nights is the master esssayist’s follow up to 2005’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which Didion relayed the grief that followed the sudden death of John Gregory Dunne, her husband of almost four decades, in 2003. The book won the National Book Award, and shortly thereafter Didion suffered another traumatic loss when her 39-year old adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, passed away (Quintana Roo had been in the hospital while Didion was writing The Year of Magical Thinking).
Such grief is immersive and for Didion, it renewed her old fears about parenthood, the focus of Blue Nights. Throughout, Didion concentrates on her daughter’s life and of Didion's struggle as an author and parent to cope with this second vast loss, asking herself, as the New York Times puts it, “Did she do her duty by her daughter, did she nurture her, protect her, care for her, as a mother should? Did she, in a word, love her enough?”
The Times also calls this book “more raw” than Magical Thinking and Didion told Terry Gross that, "I didn't actually want to write it…I had some dim idea that it was a much less personal book than it turned out to be." The fragile quality of the book has beget thoughtful criticism. This, from the Guardian: “What she cannot do is master her own material: instead of grieving with her, we are watching her grieve. This is a piteous and exposing process, and one which places a moral burden on the reader.”
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but even though I use this Didion quote—“I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking”—like I’m being paid to, my familiarity with her work is limited to 1979’s The White Album. So, I’ll join that Didion-centric book-club. Just don’t think any less of me if I require a Zoloft or two to balance Blue Nights with these short Chicago days.
Good writers borrow, great writers steal -- so goes the old saw. But the writer toils arduously to mask his thievery in his own invention until the stolen material appears fresh and original. Unless, of course, you’re Davy Rothbart, who had the revelation that if you steal from reality, all you need is the eye for the right material. From right here in Chicago, Davy launched FOUND Magazine, which collects the funniest and most tragic notes, receipts, journals, photographs, and anything else that can be photocopied you can imagine. People all over the world comb the streets and recycling bins for humorous or poignant peeks into the lives of strangers, and Davy and his colleagues sift through the chaff so we can enjoy the wheat.
This Friday, November 11, 2011, Rothbart will be at the Music Box on Southport to read some of his favorite finds, both new and old. His brother Peter will perform his excellent interpretations of found songs. If you have never seen a live FOUND show, it is worth the trip. The show is in partnership with the Found Footage Festival, which screens humorous clips from VHS videotapes found in thrift stores, garage sales, and dumpsters.
And if it seems voyeuristic, just remember, the United States Supreme Court long ago, in the search and seizure context, put Americans on notice that they don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy in anything they expose to the public, including their trash.
This week, the literary blogosphere has been abuzz about National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo, an annual November “race” to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Begun in 1999 by writer Chris Baty, the popular project has now gone international. To “win,” you simply submit your 50,000-or-more word novel to the site’s administrators at the end of the month. (For the paranoid, it’s easy to scramble your words before submitting.) No one at NaNoWriMo reads or judges your work; the project is truly just a goal-setting exercise. In other words, quality is not necessarily a priority; it’s all about getting the words down so you have something to work with.
Lest you think it’s a crazy idea, Poets and Writers just posted about NaNoWriMo, linking to a list of six successful novels written in a month; (among them, On the Road, natch). And The Rumpus published an article about six figure book deal that began with a NaNoWriMo draft.
Since successful participants should write an average 1,667 words per day, planning ahead is crucial: I’m here to attest that if you begin without strong characters or a solid story, you won’t get far. To that end, there are plenty of resources out there for the 30-day novelist. MediaBistro’s Galley Cat offers 30 tips, such as “Stop clichés before they start” and “Use a plot diagram tool.” For their part, 826 National offers an “emergency novel finishing kit.” The NaNoWriMo site itself has discussion forums—everything from advice about outlining to story plotting software and other useful technology.
What I like about the project is that it encourages fast, automatic writing. IE: You can’t go back and edit/obsess about a sentence; there’s no time, man. As Anne Lamott says in her famous “Shitty First Drafts” essay, “For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
It’s tantalizing to think about the unconscious taking over. Patricia Highsmith has a great quote on this: “The unconscious mind takes the germ of an idea and develops it, but usually this happens only when a writer has tried hard, and logically, to develop it himself. After he has given it up for a few hours, getting nowhere, a great advancement of the plot will pop into his head. I have been waked up in the night sometimes by a plot advancement or a solution of a problem that I had not even been dreaming about.” Even Stephen King says in On Writing, “I believe the first draft of a book — even a long one — should take no more than three months.”
In a participatory digital domain it is hard to tell what will provide and confer literary value. Yes. The old guard is going digital. Fine. You can get published with the old guard online. But how else have things changed? What is new and literary?
John August delineates some of the challenges writers face in the digital age. Two of the four challenges he presents have to do with the timeliness of the work: immediacy and permanence. It is quite strange to adapt our assumptions and expectations of literary fiction to a chat room mentality. Yet online, even if a story disappears from the homepage of a given publication fairly quickly, it may reappear in an Internet search for much longer than anyone would ever expect a print journal to last.
Some worry that the digital age will put an end to good literature. But even if we’re culling for quality in a search for what is literary in the overwhelming morass of digital content, we do not want to re-introduce elitist sensibilities. We want to get away from the tiers and hierarchies wherever possible. We don't want to get trapped in a mentality that ranks books above literary journal publications above other online publications above blog posts above comment threads above chats above Tweets above text messages. Yet it is exhausting to put equal artistic effort into every single use of language exchanged online. Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa said, "My hope is that the new technology won't mean a banalization of the contents of the book.”
I found his quote on what was itself a fairly banal webpage. It was right beneath a directive to “Download Audiobooks - Start your 14-Day Free Trial today. Listen on your iPod or Mp3 Player!” And on this same page, if one takes the time to truly consider Mr. Llosa’s further comment that "…good literature, by awakening the critical spirit, creates citizens who are more difficult to manipulate....” one will also find herself wondering about the veracity of, “Local mom reveals $5 trick to erase wrinkles. Shocking results exposed!” and whether or not to click on the picture of the friendly old man with the white mustache to discover which, “4 things happen right before a heart attack.”
Yet I do not believe that literature can possibly lose its way. Nor do I agree with TIME’s assertion that literature is out of control. It’s changing quickly, yes. The current world of digital publishing can easily be likened to a red algae bloom or a gold rush boom town—two analogies that do little to offer the painstaking writer much solace. And yes. Fine. The simple fact is that if we’re going to make any headway at all about the worthiness of even a fraction of what’s out there, we really do need a website called The Review Review. But even when faced with an incomprehensible marketplace, Mr. Llosa reminds us that, “No matter how ephemeral it is, a novel is something, while despair is nothing.”
On my most recent trip to St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York City’s East Village, I struck up a conversation with the cashier. At the time, St. Mark’s was in a rent dispute with their landlord, Cooper Union. St. Mark’s couldn’t afford to pay the rent. Cooper Union couldn’t afford to decrease the rent. “Basically,” she said, “they just don’t know what to do with us.” At the end of last week, Cooper Union decided to do the right thing. This is not especially surprising. While there are some who believed that Cooper was unwilling to lower the cost of occupying 31 Third Avenue simply out of callous greed, it’s unlikely. Founded in 1859, Cooper Union admits students on their merits alone, and awards any student admitted a full scholarship. Its mission, according to its website is to offer “public programs for the civic, cultural and practicable enrichment of New York City.” Not exactly Scrooge’s counting house.
The rent dispute incited a veritable furor in the blogosphere. There was outrage. There was vitriol. There was a petition. Yet the one thing there was not, at least not when I was at St. Mark’s, was a crowd. When I told the cashier that I’d been following the story from Chicago and hoped they were able to come to an agreement with their landlord, she looked from me to the empty shop as if to say, “Chicago must be really boring.”
Shuffling out the door with my purchase (Paul Hendrickson’s new biography, Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961), I had to wonder where all the East Village Bookworms had hidden themselves. True, the freezing rain that was falling when I walked in the shop had become a pre-Halloween snow by the time I left, but St. Mark’s strikes me as just the right sort of place to hole away on a snowy October afternoon. The shelves are lined with everything from Penguin Classics to small press poetry collections, not to mention their striking selection of literary magazines. This was not a store pushed to the brink by digital publishing or Amazon. This was a store on the verge of death by apathy. It’s a funny thing to say about something that nearly 45,000 people signed their names to protect, but if we were to try to answer the bard’s question by process of elimination, “Next month’s rent” would probably be a good place to start a list of Things That Are Not in a Name.
The shelves at St. Mark’s are peppered with signs that read “Find it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.” This is not just a pithy slogan. It is a desperate plea. Their only hope - the only hope of any store - is to stay in business through regular patronage. It isn’t a matter of greed. It isn’t a matter of capitalism. It isn’t a matter of freedom, or liberty, or justice for all. St. Mark’s has provided a service to its community for which its community has kept its owners and employees afloat for nearly four decades. Now, Cooper Union has agreed to lower the rent at 31 Third Avenue, and has even encouraged its students to help St. Mark's rethink its business model while remaining true to the landmark store that has been inextricably woven into the fabric of the neighborhood. I realize that it isn't possible for you all to shop at St. Mark's, but if you have the means, I highly recommend stopping by.
John Donne – A poem can be holy. As a severely lapsed Catholic, I usually find poetic references to God trite. Then I read this, the power of which made me long for such longing.
Charles Bukowski – A poem does not need to be holy. 21 year old males have an annoying tendency to laud Bukowski’s genius while literature professors dismiss him as a drunken hack. But both groups miss the mark. Hank was a genius and a drunk. He wrote clear, uncluttered poems that spoke directly to the heart. Scoff at his grimy subject matter and lack of craft, but he wrote diligently and without concern for trends, a practice a lot of would-be poets should consider emulating. To Bukowski, a poem did not need to be holy or beautiful; it just needed to be honest.
Antonin Artaud – A poem can be both lyrical and obscene. Never before have I encountered poetry simultaneously so ugly and beautiful. Artaud was stubborn, to be sure, but his resistance to the rules of surrealism allowed him to break from the confines of a movement that really should not have had any to begin with. The results are often stunning, immoral, ugly, and compelling.
Nick Laird – Poetry requires slowing down. I’ll paraphrase form a very interesting piece Laird wrote for the Guardian: In the age of Twitter, poetry is more important than ever. Information is now delivered at lightning speed, and while this is not a bad thing, there’s no denying it has altered (ruined?) our collective attention span. We are becoming trained to think that immediacy equals quality. The antidote? Poetry. What other art form requires one to slow down in order to digest it fully?
Joseph Brodsky – The rejection of poetry condemns one to linguistic mediocrity. Again, this is a paraphrase, but Brodsky advocated for poetry throughout his life in order to rescue his age from empty rhetoric, political hucksterism, and other forms of banality.
Aharon Shabtai – Poetry should be provocative. I mean, just read this.
Nicanor Parra – Everything is fodder for poetry. Well into his 90s (pushing 100!), Parra is still producing poems. Some are arresting in their ambition; others are simply hilarious. The way to approach writing might be to do as this antipoet has always done: to shake off elevated diction and just write. The lesson: there is nothing that can’t find its way into poetry.
Ciaran Carson – Clarity and precision are everything. Carson’s best work is clear, focused, and devastating. Look no further than his landmark collection Belfast Confetti, a book of long lines and prose poems that crackles rather than rambles. No small feat.
Vladmir Mayakovsky – Clarity and Precision are nothing. The futurists were concerned with movement, not tradition. Mayakovsky evinced these concerns in his strange, expansive poems. Sure, the images are obscure and the poems are ripe for editing, but MFA tendencies would rob this work of its unique quality.
Walt Whitman – A poem is never finished (but maybe it should be). Ever read Leaves of Grass? Okay, which edition? If you’ve decided the so-called deathbed edition is best, as it is most complete, you’re missing the exuberance of the 1855 draft of “Song of Myself”—perhaps the finest poem written by a North American. Later editions of the expanding Leaves of Grass altered the tone and bogged down the early poems with some lesser works. It’s a mixed bag, though still pretty untouchable. The lesson: no poem is ever finished in the eyes of the poet, but in the eyes of the reader the poem has an end. Constant tinkering can ruin a perfectly good poem. Ultimately, you need to learn to step back and move on.
Hey writers! Have you heard this crazy law-student idea that a graduate degree should guarantee you gainful employment? A couple months ago, a New York law-firm brought suits against one law school in New York and one in Michigan, claiming they were deceitful in representing post-gradudate employment rates. The gravamen of the complaints is that the schools included any type of employment in their statistics, even part-time jobs that had nothing to do with the legal industry, painting a false picture of their graduates' success.
Whatever the merits of the complaints, I sympathize with students that have large debts and few employment prospects. And apparently so does President Obama, who recently announced the "Pay As You Earn" initiative, which is designed to help consolidate, reduce the interest rate, and even forgive portions of qualifying student loans. The New York Times penned a helpful guide. Call your school financial aid office to see if you qualify.
What about those writers thinking about that old copout/day-job-getting-maybe-standby of going to law school? There are still good reasons to go to law school. It will make your mother happy. It is more fun than the paper-pushing job you have now and might or might not get afterward. And my sense is that if you go to a top law school or one well-respected regionally, your employment prospects are still pretty good. But in the name of Louis Auchincloss, talk to some lawyers and ask them what they do on a daily basis and decide if that sounds good, or at least tolerable. And try to avoid those crushing loans.