Thursday, January 14, 2010

You Might Be A Writer If...

I've written before on the human need for identification with a specific group. Nerds love to be associated with their own kind, Jeff Foxworthy has made millions uniting rednecks, and we've all watched VH1's I Love the [insert decade] while nodding our heads and saying, "Yes, I remember the Monchhichi!" Well, writers have their own funny little ways, too, and after a week and a half of hanging out with my own kind, I have compiled a short list of "You know you're talking to a bunch of writers when..." (Jeff Foxworthy, eat your heart out.)

1. You correct someone's grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc., and they don't get mad.
If a writer is reading this blog entry, right now they are probably saying to themselves, "She really should have used angry since mad technically means crazy, and you know what? I'm okay with that. Nothing like a bunch of writers to keep you honest, at least from a language perspective.

2. You sit around discussing the finer points of your personal language/writing pet peeves.
Mine include people who say, "I could care less" instead of "I couldn't care less" and people who misuse the word "nauseous" (which includes almost everyone these days.) Nauseous means causing nausea, as in "these gas fumes are nauseous." It does not mean "to feel nausea." So when someone says, "I feel nauseous," I can only agree. Their abuse of the King's English is making me queasy.

On the final night of residency, several members of the fiction group (including some faculty) sat around a lovely dinner at Spartanburg's Inn on Main discussing their own language obsessions. One woman was on a personal vendetta against the use of "alright" in writing since technically it should be written as two words, all right. Another woman crawls out of her skin whenever someone says the non-word, irregardless. (I have to say, I'm right there with her on that one.) The best part of the evening? No one thought we were being nit-picky language snobs. Everyone at the table "got it." No judgements were made...except of those violating our grammatical code of conduct.

3. You make stupid writing puns, and everyone thinks they're hilarious.
There's always the classic, "Avoid cliches like the plague." (Yes, Martha, it's funny every time you say it.) Then there's the one I made up the other day, "She abuses adverbs horribly." (The best part? Steve, my non-writer husband, thought that one was amusing.) Basically, any play on words gets us chuckling. What can I say? We love the language.

4. You begin every shared anecdote with the phrase, "Okay, I'm going to tell you something, but you can't use this."
Writers are fiercely protective of their ideas for future work, and rightfully so. Writing is hard work, and you just can't make some things up. Cow-milking Dalmatians and possessed bedside lamps are like gold in the writing world, and a writer must store up these little gems like a squirrel storing nuts for winter. You never know when an idea draught is coming. And no, you can't steal either the lamp or the Dalmatian. They're all mine.

This list is, of course, not exhaustive. There are as many writerly tics as there are writers, and it is wonderful to be with a group of people who understand the shorthand that all us writing nerds speak. So if you're ever at a cocktail party and you walk into a small group scoffing at some author's multiple point of view shifts or debating the use of the frame story, you'll know you're in the company of writers. (And that you better watch what you say since they'll certainly be judging you by it.) You probably don't have much to worry about, though. We don't get invited to too many parties.

***Due to time constraints, there are probably typos in this blog. Feel free to alert the author to any mistakes you find, but beware: she is a writer, so be sure you know what you're talking about!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

"When I Get A Little Money I Buy Books" Erasmus - Winter Residency Part II

Perhaps I should begin this the second installment on my winter residency with an explanation of the low-residency program. I had no idea when I entered this program how many times I would have to explain it to people. Sometimes the listener looks at me like I'm making it up. So allow me to assure you that these low-residency programs exist across the country and that we actually have several nearby (Queens College and Warren Wilson, both in NC.) The purpose of the low-residency program is to offer an MFA degree to the student who is unable to relocate to a city whose university or college offers a residential MFA program. It also allows the student to continue to hold down a real job. This is accomplished through two 10-day residencies that are held on campus, followed by a semester-long study and writing plan coordinated with a faculty mentor. Packets of the student's work are sent in to the faculty mentor throughout the semester. The workload is fairly extensive, but the student is free to schedule their semester work around their lives. Acceptance into these programs is based on the quality of the manuscript submitted. Because many potential MFAers are grown-ups with jobs and families, the low-residency program is increasing in popularity.

With that bit of housekeeping out of the way, I feel more free to share the rest of my week with you, the well-informed reader. As you can imagine, winter residency (and summer, too, for that matter) is an intense week of workshops, lectures, and writing with little time for sleeping or resting. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, however, our benevolent leader did schedule a bit of a break for us on Wednesday that was much appreciated (especially by the 8 months pregnant lady with puffy feet!) Wednesday night I did return to school for a screening of the film, New York in the 50's, a documentary based on Dan Wakefield's book by the same name. Though the film did have the misfortune of being shown in the scorchingly overheated Hartness Auditorium, it managed to rise above the steamy circumstances to entertain and charm. The only downside was that Mr. Wakefield was ill and unable to be at the screening. So we're all saving our questions for the summer residency when we hope to see him again.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday went by in a haze of workshops, lectures, and vain attempts to find a comfortable chair and a place to prop up my feet. There were a few standouts, however. R.T. Smith's (yes, he's my mentor!) lecture on place in short fiction was amazing. Who else could read their lecture and still be so interesting and enlightening? Plus, he brought his Edgar Allen Poe action figure! Albert Goldbarth also made a last minute appearance in both a reading and lecture. On Thursday night he read with the always brilliant (and funny) Susan Tekulve, who read an essay on Scottish food and beverage. I also picked up a copy of her new book, Savage Pilgrims, which I can't wait to read. Albert Goldbarth's reading and lecture were both mind-blowing (and as always, entertaining.) My only regret was that the reading had to be held in Cleveland Hall, which managed to be both cold and uncomfortable. At least I got to sit next to the charming Peter Meinke and his wife during the reading. I can't remember the last time I met two kinder or more friendly people. (He's an amazing poet, too.) I can't wait to go to his reading at Converse at the end of the month (January 26.)

So, now it's all over. It's just me and my computer and a UPS guy loaded down with a massive book order. I have two deadlines before the baby gets here (let's hope she's not an early bird, which doesn't seem too likely considering her parents), not to mention the deadlines and work I'll have to do after she gets here. Here's hoping the muse does not forsake me. I've certainly been given more than enough practical advice and inspiring speeches to carry me through. I guess, now, it's up to me.

For those interested, here is a list of the books I purchased during Winter Residency and also my Reading List for the semester. Feel free to read along with any of these and let me know what you think!

Books I purchased:
Savage Pilgrims, Susan Tekulve (fiction)
Uke Rivers Delivers and The Calaboose Epistles, RT Smith (fiction)
To Be Read in 500 Years, Albert Goldbarth (poetry)

Winter 2010 Reading List:
Fiction 100 (anthology)
Lie That Tells The Truth, John Dufresne (craft book)
On Writing, Eudora Welty (craft book) *
Naming The World, Bret Anthony Johnston (craft book/exercises)
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner (fiction)
The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers (fiction)
The Optimist's Daughter, Eudora Welty (fiction) *
I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down, William Gay (short fiction)
The Art of Fiction, John Gardner (craft book)

* It's like Rod read my mind! I was so wanting to reading some Eudora Welty this term. I mean, I did go Flannery O'Connor mad last term, so it's only fair.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Tight Schedules and Tighter Shoes: MFA Winter Residency Part One

I realized this morning that I have been missing from blogland for nearly a month, and what a month it has been. I went to Maryland for a week to visit family and just missed their record-breaking Christmas blizzard. I celebrated Christmas with Steve in a very quiet, laid-back way, and that was followed by a less than stellar new year as we lost our precious cat, Hobson to cancer and congestive heart failure. So while champagne was already off the menu for the New Year celebrations this year, it wasn't exactly with sparkling grape juice and noisemakers that we welcomed in 2010.

On a happier note, January 2nd meant the return to school as the Winter Residency began. Since Saturday (Jan 2), I haven't stopped. My life has been a whirlwind of lectures, readings, workshops, and traipsing across campus in the coldest weather Spartanburg has seen in a decade. A fine time to have ridiculously cold weather - when I'm too big to button my coat! The good news is that the program director has worked in a nice little break into the middle of all this craziness, so today I can (quite literally) put my feet up for a few hours, do some writing assignments, and just enjoy my home furnace and humidifier. I even have a nice, warm cat (Abby Tabby) cuddled beside me to keep me warm. Of course, I'll be back at school tonight for a showing of the film adaptation of Dan Wakefield's New York in the Fifties, but I'll be refreshed and ready to go by then. Besides, I'm really looking forward to the film, and Steve has promised to go with me.

Being pregnant during the residency has certainly made it more challenging, but I don't mean to imply that it's been 5 days of torture. The lectures have been great, and the faculty and fellow students are amazing. There have been plenty of highlights (or hi-lites, as I saw on a beauty shop sign near my house yesterday) to celebrate.

  • RT Smith, editor of Shenandoah (and my mentor this semester!) gave a reading of his new fiction on Saturday night, including a Southern re-telling of Rumplestiltskin.

  • Sarah Kennedy's lecture on the prosy poem. I will now think of her at every poetry reading I attend, wondering if the next poem will "outstrip" me or simply take me along for the ride. Here's hoping for the former rather than the latter.

  • Leslie Pietrzyk's (my fantastic former mentor) lecture on finding the story in your novel or short story. I love the practical way in which Leslie approaches writing. She always has such amazing tips and tricks to suggest, and it's so comforting to know that a writer of her caliber has to work hard and use tips and tricks, too.

  • Having a 3 hour gab session with my favorite fellow student at Jason's Deli. I think we solved the problems of the world and completely dissembled each other's workshop pieces. Good times!

  • Peter Meinke's reading of his poem about the undercover poetry reader.

  • Tim McKee's (editor of Sun Magazine) lecture on "Surfacing Pearls" where he actually gave us lists of what he looks for as an editor and what not to do in your stories. Way to be the first editor/speaker we've had that was willing to be that specific!

  • C. Michael Curtis' reading of some of the crazy cover letters he's received as editor of the Atlantic Monthly.

  • Looking at really, really old issues of Concept while taking a workshop break in the Coker Room.

Today, I enjoyed a bit of a lie-in and a little blogging time, and this afternoon I have lots of writing to do after my weekly doctor's appointment. Here's hoping I'm able to write my re-imagining of "Hills Like White Elephants" and my point-of-view switch exercises before heading to the movie. Tomorrow it's back to the insanity, and Friday I get workshopped. I better start psyching myself up now.