Monday, May 31, 2010

No Exclusivity

In every story about a gang of misfits or group of friends, there are nicknames and headquarters, secret passwords, pledges to the end. The 3 Investigators had their booby-trapped junkyard, the Baby-sitters Club had their shared diary, the members of Pig City (in Louis Sachar's Sixth Grade Secrets) had their secret salute, and there wasn't a member of The Goonies or The Greasers that didn't have a nickname, be it Ponyboy or Data.

While my friends in middle school referred to one other as characters from Super Mario Bros.~ (I am proud to have been Goomba)~ slyly passing notes to each other in class using the school's complimentary assignment books, I began to recognize my peeps in other ways. The unnamed narrator of Fight Club understood he was part of a vast network of malcontents and rebels when he saw a heavily-scarred server in a high-end restaurant. I know my kindred spirits by the time they spend buying a new blank book, by the pages they devour on the El, by the novels they seal in gallon Zip-loc bags when it thunderstorms.

I am lucky to discover more of them each day. When my interview with Megan Staffel was published in the current issue of The Rain Taxi Review of Books, I was excited for a number of reasons: I love her collection, Lessons in Another Language, and the more people who know about it~ and about the press that published it (Four Way Books)~ the better. It was a pleasure interning with Four Way, and when Rain Taxi's Editor-in-Chief, Eric Lorberer, decided to publish my interview, I couldn't have asked for a better experience. Another reward was adding to my must-read list based on the quarterly journal's insightful reviews. Rain Taxi proves that reviews are an art unto themselves, and the journal is singular in that they publish two different issues (in print and online) each quarter. They cover fiction, nonfiction, poetry, video, and graphic novels, and won the Utne Independent Press Award for Arts & Literature Coverage in 2000. They remain a driving force in the Twin Cities literary community and Lorberer is the director of the Twin Cities Book Festival, taking place on October 16th this year.

As a card-carrying member of the world's literary community (my library card), I am proud to discover so many of us everywhere, all the time, putting our passion, skill and persistence to work. Our numbers continue to grow. If you read, you're in. If you love, you're in.

Welcome. It's the best club in the world.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

PMS: Post MFA Syndrome

I was reminded recently that 6200 people this year are graduating with an advanced degree in creative writing. (Actually I made that number up but it sounds right) Ten years ago, I was one of them. It was probably the most conflicted time of my life. I’m still convinced that there is little worse than being twenty-six years old and graduating with a master’s degree whose purpose, to me, remains elusive . In light of this, if you are graduating with your MFA or have graduated recently, or you know someone who will, I’ll recount the nebulous time after graduate school –that literary purgatory--- in hopes that you might take comfort.

I knew once I drafted my thesis exactly what loomed ahead of me. Hours and hours of nothingness. No job. No prospects. Nada. I never got a Stegner Fellowship, though I wanted one desperately. I didn’t get into Provincetown, or that one fellowship where you teach wealthy prep-schoolers in New Hampshire. Hell, I didn’t even get chosen to be a waitress at Breadloaf. In short, my writing couldn’t even carry a drink for a better writer. The truth stared me in the face. I was a good writer, an adequate writer, but I wasn’t great. I wasn’t doing anything revolutionary. I was and still am a funny writer who can’t spell.

We never had a formal graduation, only a public reading wherein we listened to our colleagues work that we’d begun to not so privately loathe. In turn, they listened to ours, while smiling fakely and applauding politely after its vulgar, surprising, wholly unsurprising, earned, inevitable, kind of O’Henryish denouement.

Meanwhile, my rejections from fellowships, residencies, literary magazines mounted in piles around my student-ghetto apartment. As everyone around me prepared for a writerly something in their future, I prepared for its antithesis. Fuck writing, I thought, resolutely. Just fuck it. After two years of point-of-views, irony, Chekhovian reversals, pithy and clever Lorrie Moore, despondent Katherine Mansfield, enthymemes, schematics, post-modern deconstruction, and two hour discussions featuring the em dash, I was done. Done.

After graduate school I went home. That’s right, I moved back in with my family and slept from June until September. Why not get a teaching job? Everyone seemed bent on asking several times a day. Why? Because I hate teaching, I answered. It sucks up all my time. I wind up dissecting their writing instead of mine. Well, what else can one do with a master's in fine art? Nothing, I screamed. I can sit here.
So I sat there.

We all know what happened on September 11th. Still unemployed, I was pulled from my childhood bed by my mother, who cautioned, “This is war.” Dropped in front of the TV I wondered if I had somehow woken up in hell. Like everyone I was shocked, and horrified. I had absolutely no desire to write about it. Even then I had no desire to write about anything.

However, I did have a desire to do something. Something drastic. Something unexpected and out of the ordinary. One month later, I signed up to be an Americorp volunteer and moved to New Mexico to initiate literacy centers. Evidently, I was done with sitting.

Ten years later I am still here, in Albuquerque, deeply involved with literacy. I was astonished to discover that I loved the work-- that I preferred discussing the letter B as opposed to symbolism in Bauderillard. I got married and had children. I never thought I’d write again.

Until I did. And man oh man, did it come back with a vengeance.
I’ve since learned that many MFA graduates “take a break” after graduate school. I didn’t write, but I continued to read. I read books that made me want to be a writer in the first place: Stephen King, Lois Lowry, Phillip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Jack Kerouac, Judy Blume, Terry McMillan, Jamaica Kincaid. Students worked through the poems of Shel Silverstein and I listened.

Despite all signs pleading that I give up, throw in the towel, and move on with my non-writing life, I didn’t. I couldn’t. I am, at my deepest core, more than an educator, more than a wife or mother, a writer. And even writers need a break sometimes. So give yourself time to rediscover people, not characters. Rediscover books, not treatises or tomes. Let your writing self slip away for a while. It will be back. It always comes back. And you’ll be cowering with excitement and terror to rediscover it.

Jennifer Ruden has published stories and essays in Nerve, Word Riot, Puerto del Sol, Literary Mama, Amarillo Bay among other magazines. She recently won an Orlando award for creative nonfiction. The essay, oddly enough, is about writing.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Ghost of Sylvia Plath, & Other Perks of an Artist Residency

Before I started applying to artist residencies, I pooh-poohed the idea a little bit. I had always managed to write at home, thank you very much. By the time I was leaving for my first residency, in the winter of 2007, my reluctance had ballooned, due to the story a fellow writer had told me about the very place I was going to, where he had had a run-in with the ghost of Sylvia Plath. She woke him in the middle of the night with a creaky metal cart she steered down the hall. Then she opened the door to his bedroom, rolled the cart to his bedside, and flourished a piece of paper, on which was written—unfortunately he couldn’t tell, being too stunned and flummoxed to reach for his glasses.

Imagine my dismay when, on my tour of the place, my guide told me that I, lucky girl, had been assigned the room where Sylvia had always liked to sleep when she was a resident, and where, so the legend goes, a drunk Katherine Anne Porter once fell across the threshold begging Sylvia—or was it Anne Sexton? I was drunk, myself, when another resident told me this story—to make love to her. I was frightened of all of it, and slept my first night with the lamp on.

But Sylvia, it turned out, was awesome, as was the residency itself, and the one I’ve done since. I love residencies. It turns out, for me, anyway, that not only do I get more work done at a residency, but it goes rather more peacefully—due in large part to the fact that you can call writing “work” and not suffer the snickering and censure of family and friends, for whom “work” is something one makes money at; even winning a fellowship or grant is easily confused with going on the dole. Another perk of going to artist residencies is interacting with that wonderful, completely alien creature, the visual artist. It’s true that sometimes you’ll find yourself organizing an artist statement for free (and boy, do they need it!), and they can’t remember anything worth shit (in particular the detailed plots of books and the exact wording of trivial conversations), but the way they work (overall I find them to be more freewheeling and confident), and see the world (in terms of color and shape, rather than in gradations of misery), is inspiring, and can smack a girl right out of her confining writerly shell. You’ll find covers for your current and future books (it’s still going to happen, Katia!), and get invited to fun arty events that are more like real parties than any reading you’ve ever been to. Quite often, I’ve also found them to be good dancers. I’m dating one now!

Residencies are a bit like camp for adults, and like camps they all have their special areas of excellence. For instance, as Rachel Donadio said in The New York Times, “The sex is better at Yaddo but the work is better at MacDowell.”

And the ghosts! One of my last days at my first residency, I was taking a nap before dinner (which they prepare, and serve to you; you don’t even have to do the dishes. This isn’t welfare, it’s a hotel!), feeling warm and sad over the leaving of one of my new friends, when, just as I opened my eyes, a woman’s voice, tender and a little amused, softly called out my name. “Sylvia,” I responded into the dark, and I was so unafraid, but at the same time so overcome by emotion, that I cried a little where I lay in my bed.

(Right before I left for dinner that night, Sylvia also turned my desk lamp on and off a few times, until I admonished her with teasing affection—“Sylvia!” It must be noted that it’s possible this was actually some kind of short circuit, as an enormous ice storm had recently messed with the electrical system.)

A few days into my residency, after I’d gotten over being afraid of her, I had started to talk out loud to Sylvia, one of my literary heroes, and ask her advice: “Is this a good way to begin? Can I really leave the ending as sad as that? What do you think, Sylvia?” And here she had come, right before I had to go, to help me feel that I was on the right track, and that everything would be all right.