How Music is Making Me a Better Writer

A few weeks ago, it occurred to me that the bulk of my time was spent on creative writing and academia.  Granted, that’s probably what you’d expect from a creative writer who’s also a teacher and a doctoral student, but it seemed almost overwhelming.  I felt one-dimensional.  I was worried that I had tunnel-vision, and that my creativity would suffer because of it.  Because of all that, I decided that I needed a new recreational activity.  I have a tendency to turn to other art forms for this sort of thing.  In the past, I’ve worked with acting and visual arts.  This time, I was drawn to music.  I happened to watch a movie that featured a theremin, and decided that I might want one.  I did all sorts of online research, became awestruck by Clara Rockmore, and ultimately bought a relatively inexpensive pitch/volume theremin.  I’ve been playing almost every day, and what I love about it is that it doesn’t feel dire.  My writerly and academic pursuits can sometimes feel really weighty because they’re such a big part of my identity.  When I think about not being a writer or not being an academic, I feel like I don’t know who I am. (Psychologically, this is probably not super healthy, but psychological soundness has never been my primary goal in life anyway.)  I’m sure that many people feel this way about their passions.  I cope with this by adding other things into my life.  Maybe these things won’t become the core ingredients of my identity, but sometimes they become the spices.  They become the subtleties that make me feel like I have more than one dimension.  I love playing the theremin, but nothing about that experience is quantified or qualified by performances evaluations and publications.  It unlocks a sort of freedom that translates into the other, more “serious” areas of my life and makes me a more innovative and productive writer, scholar, and teacher.  What artist doesn’t want that sort of growth in their life?  I guess the moral of the story is that taking a break from what you’re serious about can make you better at it.  And if, in the process, you can learn to play spooky, electronic versions of every tv sci-fi theme song from the past twenty years, so much the better for you!

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Staring Down the Male Gaze

Currently, I’m taking an independent seminar that has me analyzing the male gaze in literature across four different centuries.  I’ve plowed through four primary texts so far, with another four to go, and the whole thing will  (hopefully!) culminate in the writing of some sort of cohesive article.  One of the things I’ve been considering is how these texts not only demonstrate the male gaze, but also challenge it.  In some situations, the objectification of the gaze’s female subjects is pretty blatant, such as in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine.  I mean, I couldn’t ask for a better example of male perspective commodifying women based on appearance and general physicality.  (Come to think of it, this whole project is begging for a Marxist analysis, with a focus on commodification, but I don’t know if I can squish Marxist and Feminist analyses into one paper.  I’m definitely running the idea by my advisor, though!)  However, despite the prevalence of the male gaze as a literary institution, I’m actually finding that the sample of authors I’ve chosen buck the system more than might be expected.  Furthermore, not all of the challenges to the male gaze come from literature of the later centuries.  For example, I was able to find a few interesting anomalies in Madame Bovary, despite the fact that the novel is elsewhere stuffed with examples of the m.g.  Of course, this isn’t to say that contemporary literature is any less impressive in its opposition.  In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson seems to almost entirely avoid the male gaze, despite the fact that her first person narrator is male.  Not only does she eschew this thorn in the side of feminist theory, but she also offers alternative “gazes” that complicate and develop their subjects.

“So…that’s great and all, but what does this have to do with your writing?” you might ask.

Here’s the thing:  This whole project has made me more conscious of the perspectives I create for potential readers in my own writing.  Granted, the male gaze functions a bit differently in poetry than it does in fiction, but I’m a fiction writer as well as a poet.  When I started my doctorate, I decided to go on hiatus from fiction, due to my concerns about balancing a teaching schedule, a grad school workload, and TWO genres of creative writing.  However, now that I’ve been at the whole grad school thing for almost two years, I feel like I might be able to safely pay a little more attention to my fiction writing without completely upsetting the fragile balance of my chaotic little universe.  That being said, I’m now considering how I can best challenge the prevalence of the literary male gaze in my own work.  I worry that if I describe the appearance of a female character, that I might do so in a way that’s objectifying.  I’m trying to pay more attention to how I can use reader and character perspectives to celebrate the autonomy, complexity, and value of female subjects.  This matters to me because my doctoral project has reminded me of how pathological the male gaze is as a literary technique.  I believe that it absolutely reinforces gender inequality in contemporary society, whether consciously or not.  It’s very reassuring to me that a Pulitzer Prize winning novel such as Gilead is also a work in which I find so much progress being made in this area.  For this, I applaud Marilynne Robinson, and hope to follow her example.

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Writing and Masochism

Sometimes, I go through phases that make me feel like everything I write sucks.   As you might imagine, this isn’t great for productivity.  To top it all off, artistic self-loathing also makes it really difficult for me to accurately assess my own work.  Consequently, it’s a real challenge to determine whether or not the writing in question is, in fact, abysmal.    Many craft books suggest that putting your writing “in a drawer” for a few days/weeks/etc. can help you gain perspective on these things.  I tend to vary the theme a bit by just putting my writing in my purse, but I’ve found that the same principles apply.  In the past, here’s what tends to happen when I revisit my work after [ insert requisite amount of time here.]

1.) I discover that the piece of writing in question is so horrendous that reading it makes me feel like I’m having a stroke. This description might be a bit hyperbolic, but you get the point. There have been things that I’ve written that are utterly unusable.  Sometimes, I pull my notebook out of my purse (read: satchel the size of a body bag), reread my work, and decide to not even bother revising the damn thing(s).  To be fair, there have been times when I’ve come across some piece of drivel from years prior, and have actually been able to revise it into something that I feel excited about.  However, these exceptions are few and far between.  Over time, I’ve decided that it’s okay to write things that I can’t salvage.  It’s also okay to right things that I could, feasibly, salvage, but don’t want to.  Furthermore, I don’t believe that these poems/stories/letters to various superheroes are purposeless.  At the very least, it clears the pipes for future, and hopefully better, ideas.

2.) I discover that the piece of writing in question isn’t as bad as I thought it was.

 Let’s say my original assessment of the writing put it at the same level of badness as 1980s era Aquaman.  It’s possible that taking some time away from the writing might help me realize that it’s actually only at the same level of badness as New 52 era Aquaman, which is actually pretty decent.  In this case, I’m usually able to revise said piece of writing into something that I might actually send out to a journal or include in a manuscript. (Something at least on the same level of goodness as Batman:No Man’s Land era Commissioner Gordon)  *Alternate Scenario:  Sometimes, the writing really is as bad as I thought it was (read: Aquaman’s prosthetic hand made of enchanted lake water), but I somehow get a really great revision idea, and am able to do something with the piece, anyway.  The process is basically the same, it just takes a lot more work. :)

3.) I discover that the piece of writing in question is actually something that I’m totally satisfied with, and I can’t figure out what my initial gripe even was

 Okay, so this one is pretty rare, but it’s happened.  At least twice.  I think.  Sometimes, my artistic-self-loathing brain is just a terrible arbiter of quality.  I like this scenario because it’s a good reminder of how beautifully subjective artistic interpretation can be.  My interpretation of my own work is not the only interpretation. This also serves as a reminder that another person’s interpretation of my work is not the only one that’s valid.  This can be particularly helpful when dealing with rejection letters.  Just because magazine X hates my poems doesn’t mean that Magazine Y won’t want to publish them.

Regardless of which of these outcomes I end up with, I never feel like my efforts are truly wasted. This is not to say that I don’t feel hacky and frustrated when my writing seems bad to me.  It’s just that, creatively, bad writing is probably still better than no writing at all.  I started this post yesterday, right in the middle of a stretch of artistic self-loathing, and expected to be in a similar frame of mind when I finished it today.  However, I just finished writing a poem that I’m pretty fired up about.  The level of goodness I’m feeling about writing this poem is comparable to the level of goodness of The Long Halloween era Batman.  Nothing bad lasts forever, it would seem.

I wrote this post to share some of the less fun parts of my writing process.  I know that every artist has to grapple with challenges, and going through phases when I hate everything I write is, unfortunately, one of mine.  I don’t really have any eloquent, closing words, so I’ll leave you with some written by a smarter, more prolific author than I: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” – William Faulkner

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Writing on the Job

My primary source of income is teaching.  I work at two different colleges, teaching writing and literature courses, etc.  However, I recently had the opportunity to pick up a part time job that basically requires me to be a warm body in a chair.  The boss for this job pitched it to me by telling me I could use the time to do all of my grading and grad school work.  Easy money, AND I can get other stuff done? Sign me up!  However, in addition to bolstering my academic productivity, the large blocks of time spent behind a desk have also allowed me to develop a more regular creative writing routine.

This past semester, I taught six courses and also completed an independent seminar for my doctorate.  I did manage to produce some solid creative material, but my methods were incredibly erratic.  This was a period of time when there were lots of 3AM insomnia poems.  The experience reminded me a lot of my undergraduate years, when my schedule was equally chaotic and unstructured.  There’s an excitement to this kind of process that I genuinely enjoy.  The immediacy of poetry that demands to be frantically documented in the middle of the night is something that makes me feel truly alive. That being said, this type of free-form writing schedule made it really difficult for me to accomplish tasks that required organization, such as submitting to journals, or laying out my next manuscript.  This new, part-time job turned out to be an unexpected gift to my writer-self.  Since I’m virtually chained to a desk for eight hours a week, why NOT use the time to revise poems, submit to journals, and start structuring a collection?  That, my friends, is precisely what I’ve been doing.  Granted, some of these eight-hours are dedicated to grading (and writing!) papers, but I’m still left with plenty of time to work creatively.

When I was working on my MFA, my mentors were adamant that writers needed to prioritize their art, many of them even advocating a daily writing schedule.  This is something that I staunchly adhered to while writing my thesis novel.  I would work from 8-4, go for a run, and then spend an hour or two writing.  However, since I’ve started teaching at the college level, my schedule is much less uniformly structured, and sometimes overstuffed.  For me, this kind of chaos makes the clockwork writing of my MFA days more difficult to achieve.  Strangely enough, taking on yet another job amidst a plethora of other responsibilities seemed to be the magic bullet that propelled me back in the right direction.  Of course, my long-term goal is to figure out how to maintain this kind of motivation and focus, to create a calm, productive space for my artist-self, even when it’s not convenient.  In the mean time, onward…

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Contemporary Television and the Character-Driven Plot

I’m calling it the “Walking Dead Phenomenon.”  The “it” I’m referring to is the increased use of quasi-ensemble, revolving door casts in current television dramas.  Granted, I don’t regularly watch many tv shows, so it’s possible that what I’m identifying as a trend might simply be a collection of isolated situations.  However, the fact remains that it’s resulting, at least in my opinion, in shitty storytelling.

The storytelling angle is really the only reason why I have any business at all analyzing television shows.  I know virtually nothing about the television industry.  However, as any  writer should, I know at least a tiny bit  about how to tell a story.  Before I explain why the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” is problematic, I should probably define it in more detail.  The casting situation I’m referring to is founded on a semi-ensemble cast that is bloated with characters.  I say semi-ensemble because, in most cases, there are a few “key” characters that are more important than the others.  The revolving door component references the way in which characters are frequently killed off with all the ceremony of a toddler wielding a chainsaw.  This is, of course, to make room for more characters, who will likely fall prey to the same chainsaw-wielding toddler within the next season.

The “Walking Dead Phenomenon” irritates me primarily because I’m a fan of the character-driven plot.  Well-developed and otherwise interesting characters will sell me on just about anything.  This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of action, but rather that I don’t think that a story can survive on action alone.  I don’t care if you’re writing a story about dragons that shoot laserbeams out of their toenails; if you fuck up the character development, my interest level will drop.  In fact, I’ll probably stop reading it.  If you disagree with me regarding the necessity of character development, I understand and respect that.  However, I hope that you’ll also be able to understand where I’m coming from as I itemize the reasons why I think that the “Walking Dead Phenomenon” (hereafter to be referred as the WDP) is a storykiller.

  • Insufficient Attention to Subplots Due to the Unmanageable Number of Characters

The Following is one of my favorite new shows.  There are some fantastic narrative things going on there.  However, because so many characters are introduced in the first season, there are a number of backstories and subplots that emerge in relation to the second-tier (i.e., not Kevin Bacon or James Purefoy) characters.  This, alone, is not problematic.  What bothers me is the fact that, due to the necessity of moving the main plot and resolving central conflicts, these backstories and subplots are abandoned or poorly developed.  This is closely connected to my next gripe, which is…

  • Killing Characters Off in MId-Arc

Sometimes, the reasons why the aforementioned subplots and backstories are abandoned are that the characters involved get killed off in the middle of their arcs, and are never fully developed as a result.  (The Following contains a number of examples of this, which I won’t discuss in detail so as to avoid spoilers.) In my opinion, this is just poor form.  It seems like the narrative equivalent of driving into a brick wall.  Who knows why this is happening, but I theorize that it’s related to the size of the casts.  Because these shows already have more characters than they can manage, they have to clearcut their casts in order to add any new characters, even if it means leaving storylines unresolved.  Incidentally, my next complaint is…

  • Meaningless Character Death

I get really emotional when I have to kill off my own characters.  I also get emotional when other people kill off theirs.  (People always say to me, “Why are you crying? None of this is real.”  I think that they are oversimplifying their definitions of real and unreal, but that’s neither here nor there.)  Killing a character is a big deal.  It should matter.  If it doesn’t matter that a character dies, then why should we, as the audience, care about anything that they do while they’re alive?   The WDP facilitates a cycle of character death without consequence.  Shows like The Walking Dead and The Following have large casts, and they do a decent job of individualizing their secondary characters.  However, they also kill them off so frequently and unceremoniously that the audience becomes desensitized to the implications of their deaths.  As mentioned before, these character deaths can also leave characters partially developed and conflicts unresolved.  It seems, in many cases, that the WDP creates a climate in which character death is a shock-value commodity with little or no bearing on the development of the story as a whole.  All of these things are discouraging to an audience; why would we bother getting invested in any of the characters at all?

I hope that this illustrates, at least in part, my concerns regarding what I’ve dubbed the WDP.  To be clear, I don’t think that the shows I’ve mentioned are bad shows.  As I mentioned, The Following is one of my new favorites.  I referenced them only to provide examples of the phenomenon I wanted to discuss.  My point is simply that storytellers have responsibilities to their audiences, regardless of their medium. 

 

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National Poetry Month and the 30/30 Challenge

I’m so grateful for the fact that there’s an entire month dedicated to the celebration of poetry.  As a poet, I sometimes worry that poetry is marginalized by current, maintstream culture.  If you look up the New York Times bestseller lists online, none of the categories listed are for poetry.  They have categories for children’s picture books and manga, but not poetry.  Certainly, there are entire organizations and events devoted to celebrating poetry at any time of the year.  Weekly open mic nights dapple the nation.  The National Poetry Slam gathers together poets from around the world every summer.  Magazines publish pages upon pages of poems every month.  It’s not like poetry is only an active force in the world during the month of April.  Still, I worry that this force is not as noted as it should be on a regular basis.  I worry that people care more about 50 Shades of Grey by E.L.  James than they do about Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey.  Because of all of this, I find it validating to have a nationally-sanctioned poetry month.

During April, many poets participate in something called a 30/30.  This involves writing a poem a day for every day of the month.  I’ve done a few 30/30s, in April or otherwise, and have found them to be fruitful pursuits.  I haven’t done one in quite awhile, mostly because I’ve been feeling alot of pressure from other areas of life.  I figured the last thing I needed was the added stress of having to write a complete poem every single day.  This year, I’ve decided to do it.  Why?  Certainly not because I’m under less pressure.  Currently, I’m working as an adjunct college professor.  It’s a job that I love, but my adjunct status means that I have to teach twice as many courses to make half as much money as my fulltime counterparts.  As a doctoral student, I’m also studying for a candidacy exam that covers 120 authors.  I’ll be taking that beauty in May.  I’m doing the 30/30 because I have to prioritize my writing in the same way that I prioritize anything else matters to me.  That’s not something that the world will do for me.  My identity as a writer as just as important to me as my identity as a teacher and a scholar, so I have to treat it accordingly.  I think that sometimes non-artists perceive art as a frivolous or trivial vocation.  It’s not.  I respect my artist self, and I respect yours, too.

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How to Sort of Succeed in Writing While Trying Really Hard

One of my goals in starting this blog was to chronicle my experiences as a writer. You may have noticed that many of these experiences have related to my strategies for dealing with the gut-punch of rejection letters. Despite that, I do manage to get published every now and then in various litmags, journals webzines, etc. However, the most monumental development in my writing career to date occurred in December of 2013, when my first full length poetry collection, How a Bullet Behaves, was released by Scars Publications. Granted, you probably won’t find my book at your local Barnes and Noble, but people can buy it on Amazon (and actually have!), which is still pretty cool. (Plus, I bet Barnes and Noble could order it for you, if that’s your thing.)

Publishing my first book has been probably my longest-standing writing goal. Getting to this point made me think about my future goals as a writer. Sometimes, I worry about stagnating, or entering into a slow decline. I always want to be moving forward with my art. I always want to be working toward achievements that excite me as much as this one did. I perennially want to be a better writer. For all of this reasons, I attended a writing conference this weekend, sponsored by the New Hampshire Writers Project. I got to hang with writers of all sorts, including friends, strangers, and a few wildly successful bestselling authors.

One thing that struck me while I was at this conference was what I truly wanted out of my writing career. On a basic level, I want my books to be published and I would like people to read them. If only it started and ended there. At the conference, I had the opportunity to listen to many authors present on the more practical aspects of a career in writng, such as the challenges of working with agents, negotiating contracts, and simply getting paid. This made me question how I define success, and whether a big-money, high profile book deal is a necessary component of that concept. Don’t get me wrong; if a publishing giant ever offered me a multi-book contract with a nice advance, I would consider myself extremely fortunate and would jump on that opportunity. However, if that doesn’t happen, and it probably won’t, will I count it as a failure? I don’t think I will, and here’s why. For one thing, many of the bestselling authors presenting happened to work in genre fiction or “blockbuster” novels. I, on the other hand, write poetry and quirky, literary fiction. These are not genres that are currently clogging bestseller lists(regardless of whether I think they should be). The current list of NYT Bestsellers in Fiction includes authors like Janet Evanovich, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Linda Lael Miller. Although I respect and admire their talent,I will never write like these authors, nor do I aspire to. This may not preclude the possibility of my achieving commercial success, but it probably won’t grease any wheels.

In considering these things, I’ve realized that commercial and financial success is not at the top of my priorities list as a writer. DISCLAIMER: This is not the moral high ground. This isn’t a commentary on anyone who values these things. Now that we’ve established that I’m not trying to be obnoxious, I’d like to stipulate that I would certainly be thrilled if I happened to achieve fame and fortune as a result of my artistic endeavors. I’m not saying that I don’t want these things, or that I would reject them. I’m simply saying that it won’t ruin my life if I don’t get there. I would consider myself a failure if I stopped writing. I would consider myself a failure if I never tried to publish another book or schedule another reading. If I can manage to be an active writer for the rest my life, I’ll probably feel pretty good about that.

Postscript: I left the conference feeling humbled, motivated, and fortunate to have received guidance from such brilliant artists. Props to NHWP for putting on such a killer event, and much gratitude to all the authors who taught workshops, especially Alice B. Fogel, Andrew Merton, JoAnn Adinolfi, and Elaine Isaak.

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