Write with Fire

My third semester in MFA began last week and boy are my arms tired.

In his excellent memoir of craft, On Writing, Stephen King says:

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.

I had the concept of Absolute Truth beaten out of me by my undergraduate work in comparative literature. We read Plato and then ripped him apart. We supplicated at the feet of Derrida and Lacan, embraced Nietzsche, rejected hegemonic narratives of history and humanity. If you’ve never read Plato, Derrida, Lacan, or Nietzsche and if you don’t know what the hell the word hegemonic means, suffice it to say I was taught to furiously question Authority and to reject the idea that there is any one dominant Truth. I looked at literature and the world as a celebration of murkiness.

And that idea of everything being all muddled up together is a sound one for a writer. Who would Gatsby be without his green light? How would we ever come to love Elizabeth Bennett if she didn’t also have her faults? Strong characters are complicated characters and didactic novels that wrap everything up in neat little suppositories are no good at all.

I believe that art should leave us with more questions than answers. I engage with art as if it were a conversation, not a lecture. Art should say something but leave me room to say something back.

Sometimes it’s like an argument. Other times it’s like drinking beer with a group of friends while casually picking apart the universe. And some of the best times are when it’s like sneaking out of the house under a blood moon, wandering down to the beach, and sitting  with a water bottle of wine, communing with myself in that deep, witching hour way.

And here is a surprising thing: I also believe great art gets at some Truth of the human condition.

How have I gotten to this space, where a rejection of Truth and the necessary condition of Truth collide? Can they exist simultaneously?

One of my mentors in undergrad, when teaching the difference between quiddity (the whatness of something, e.g. the chairness of a chair) and haecceity (the uniqueness of something, e.g. the thatness of that chair) would sometimes bring up sex. An orgasm is an orgasm no matter who is experiencing it. But particular orgasms are beyond description and classification, are wholly unique to time and person. This, of course, is the basis of not only our ability to tell stories but to our ability to communicate through signs and symbols at all (through words, through sign language, even through images). We ignore the haecceity of experiences in favor of their quiddity in order to talk about them.

So the Truth of the human condition is the quiddity of humanness.

And allow me to take this extremely academic and jargon-heavy discussion a little bit further, if you will. I believe that when a writer pushes the limits of the haecceity, the singularity, the uniqueness of an experience, that’s when the writer hits us with Truth. It’s the difference between cliches (which have their place, to be sure) and those weirdly specific details that make you go “yes, yes I know this.” I believe we most recognize ourselves not in the generality of characters but in their idiosyncrasies and strangeness. We recognize our world not through the most abstract descriptions but in the specific. And emotion speaks to us when it is true and precise.

I think, in the quote I began with, that King is really asking us to come to the page with honesty.  Making art is a little like having sex for the first time. Whether it’s angry, loving, passionate, gentle, furious, it must be done without all your clothes on. It takes a degree of trust and vulnerability.

So there’s my thoughts for the week. Write openly, be honest, because your job is to speak to the human heart. You’re dealing with Truth, here. Take it anything but lightly.

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I Am Officially a Paid, Published Writer

Okay, so now I can stop bugging you all about it. An Unlikely Companion is out and in it is my story “An Emptiness That Burns.” If you pre-ordered, I’ve been told the book starts shipping today. If you didn’t pre-order, you can still order a copy here.

To celebrate, I want to boost some of the people* I’ve been working alongside over the last year. In no particular order:

Taylor Lea Hicks has been in almost all my classes. As in, I have fake memories of Taylor being in classes she didn’t take. She has a vignette over in the Portland Review titled “Boneyard,” a flash absurd historical fiction piece called “The Vanishing Table” in Circa, and in Gandy Dancer she has a story called “Neon Tigers” that really hit me in the gut.

KD Williams is impossible to write anything about because I want to say all the nice things and we just don’t have time for that sort of thing. She’s kept me sane this last year. You can read KD’s poetry at Big Words.

John Stintzi is by far one of Canada’s best exports. He was the first classmate to really read my stuff. I particularly like “A Diasporic Population in Southampton, New York” a poem John wrote while adjusting to living on the Island, now published in my school’s very own Southampton Review.

Tyler Allen Penny took me to see the ocean the first week I met him and that was terrifying. Do you know how big the ocean feels when you can’t see it at night? Infinite. Five poems of Tyler’s are on Columbia‘s Catch & Release this month and you can find them here.

Martina Clark hasn’t been in any of my classes yet but she’s always posting links to resources and is a delight to run into around campus. She’s a contributor to The MFA Years, which is definitely one of the best MFA blogs there is, and you can read Martina’s writing at her website.

Whitney Gaines is one of the cool second year students that intimidated the hell out of me when I started classes last fall. Fortunately, Stony Brook Southampton is a program where supporting each other is valued far above petty competitiveness. Whitney writes an excellent blog called Highest Form of Whit. It’s funny, easy to relate to, and the writing is top shelf.

Adrian Bonenberger doesn’t need much introduction or editorializing. You can read his satire at sayagainover and his essays and articles over at The Wrath Bearing Tree.

I am terrible at regularly doing anything, let alone regularly updating this blog, but we’ll see what the summer brings.

Shout out to all the classmates I didn’t or couldn’t list in this post.

*There are considerable gaps in this compilation. Partially because not everyone is published or has a blog and partially because Taylor was the only one who sent me links.

MFA is Basically Puberty

I survived my first year of grad school.

Celebratory Sbux Time. I am the stereotype.
Celebratory Sbux time. I am the stereotype.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the growing pains I’ve had this year. My first semester felt so rotten and wonderful at the same time–suddenly I became a part of an actual community of actual writers and it was beautiful and intimidating like a nebula.

click to go to JPL NASA photos
That’s right my fellow SBS writers, I just compared y’all to a beautiful interstellar cloud of dust. [[Click through for more awesome space photos.]]
I feel that I’ve grown up as a writer this year. I’ve been brainstorming and taking notes more (collecting pieces of life for inspiration), I have a clearer approach to revision, and I feel less intimidated by other writers.

Hell, I can even refer to myself as a writer without throwing up. It’s the little victories.

The process hasn’t been painless, though. Growing pains, like I said. And as in adolescence, sometimes I feel about a million things at once over my work. Maybe a billion. So many emotions that I get irritable and feel like I’m going to burst.

Attending the MFA program so far feels something like a second puberty. A writer’s puberty. Except the raging hormones are just complex feelings about literature. I love you Chekhov, I hate you Chekhov. I love you Munro, I hate you Munro. Although at least I don’t have to ask books out and face potential rejection and ridicule. Books always say yes to readers, the strumpets.

So that’s that. I’m looking forward to a summer of reading and writing and sunning. And acquiring more rejection letters from magazines. Just so long as no one asks me what my thesis is going to be.

You can still pre-order the anthology An Unlikely Companion in which my short story “An Emptiness That Burns” appears. The anthology will be released May 31st and if you use the code “4TRAVIS” you’ll get 10% off your order.

If anyone is in or near New York City next week, my visual storytelling professor from this semester Jules Feiffer is going to be in conversation with Neil Gaiman at the Kaufmann Concert Hall on Thursday, May 14th. Jules is one of the funniest, sharpest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to study with. It’s going to be a fantastic evening so if you can make it and afford the ticket (I think the only seats left are $35-$39 but there might still be a $15-$30 ticket in there) then I definitely urge you to go!

And hey, did you know you can follow me on twitter? Here’s just a taste of what you can expect from that:

Quality nonsense right there.

 

How To Write

This is how you write:

Read. Read a lot. Read poetry. Read short stories. Read the first chapters of novels. Read memoirs and biographies and histories. Read entire novels. Think about what you’re reading. Go on long walks when you need to take a break from reading. Keep a piece of paper and pen on you in case you think of something you don’t want to forget.

“Eduard Swoboda Bücherwurm” by Eduard Swoboda (1814–1902)

Write about things, like your day or what you’ve been reading or your dream last night or that nightmare when you were ten. Write about the weird lunchroom food trading system in elementary school. Write about your worries over the mold in your shower. Whatever gets your mind moving across the page. Don’t think of writing stories, don’t think of writing for an end. Just write stuff–this is how you oil the cogs and gears. Oh, and keep reading.

John Rae, 1912

Have an inkling of an idea, yet? Don’t look at it directly but keep it in the corner of your eye. Keep reading. Sit down, start writing. Track the idea in your peripheral vision. Don’t look at it too hard, don’t think much about it.

Now: begin.

If you surprise the story you may be able to catch end of it. Start tugging. Coax it with treats. Speak softly. Do not pull too hard, do not yell, do not force it. Do not scare it off. Write.

“Enfant écrivant-Henriette Browne” by Henriette Browne

If you start to worry the story’s crap, stop. Get up. Go for another walk. Remember the paper and pen. Read more. If you start telling yourself the story sucks or isn’t good enough it will hear you and you will hurt its feelings. As much as you might want to tell yourself the story is terrible, please, please don’t let it hear you. An infant story needs care and love or it will die. Keep writing.

“Albert Anker Schreibender Knabe c1908” by Albert Anker – Koller Auktionen.

Now you have drawn the story out completely. Let it alone. You both need some space to breathe and grow. Celebrate with your beverage and meal of choice. Get a massage. Go to a party. Take yourself to the movies. You’ve earned a break and so has your story. Read. Read a lot. Read something new. Read something by a writer you’ve never heard of. Write about your day, the massage, the party, the movie, what you’re reading.

Has enough time passed that you’ve forgotten the close-up details of your story? If you cannot distance yourself from the work, stop. Go for a walk. Write about other things. Read.

If you can read your story as separate from yourself then start revising. Read it once over. If you cannot see the value of the story, put it away again. It has grown a thicker skin but if you don’t value it, the story will become hostile and resist you.

“Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix 055” by Eugène Delacroix

If you can see the story honestly, take a pen or a pencil and make notes. What do different scenes mean? Who are the characters? What is happening in each scene or section? What details are showing up and what were left out? What are the themes and motifs? What is the story about? Get to know the story from the outside in. Make a map of the story.

from the HBO series True Detectives

Now, see where the holes are. You might begin to understand what the story was actually supposed to be about. Write that story. Add to the story, subtract from the word count, rewrite. Be sure to stay hydrated. Be sure to back up your files. Be sure not to get down on yourself or your story because constructive criticism and revision are not meant to be bullying. Do not bully yourself or your story because then the story will become aggressive and injure itself.

“Sandner Bär wird von Bienen attackiert” by Georg Ernst Sandner (1736–1811)

How does the story seem, now? You’ve written it from the inside out and revised it from the outside in. It might be hard to tell by this point. It’s time to get a second opinion.

Find a reputable source to give your story a checkup, do not hand it over to just any old quack. Although, occasionally or often a story requires not medicine but magic. Choose the right readers. Listen to what they think of the story. Ask questions. Trust their judgment. Trust your intuition above their judgment. Do not trust your sense of wounded pride.

This is a pretty accurate depiction of workshop. “Ryckaert, David III – La ronde des Farfadets de Les Farfadets – 17th c” by David Rijckaert (III)

If you have to make major changes to the story, do so. Do it like ripping off a bandage, like ripping off an at-home bikini wax.

Fluff the story up, give it a nice bath and blow dry, brush it one hundred times, add a bow. It will not be perfect. Nobody is perfect. But is it breathing? Does it shine when the light hits it just right? Has it learned a few tricks? Does it vibrate with some wild energy? Good. You can begin to send it out into the world. Let it go.

Do not worry if it cannot find another home. Now you know you’ve brought a story into our world, that you are capable. Read. Read a lot. Go for walks. It will be more difficult the second time. That’s okay. Like working out a muscle or learning the steps to complicated dances, you’ll improve over time. You have already gotten stronger by the sheer act of pulling that first story out. Start a fancy tea collection in a cookie tin. Learn how to brew the perfect cup of coffee. Keep writing. Read more.

This is how you write.

“Ever Tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better”

I’ve been having a crisis of faith, lately. Faith in myself as a writer, faith in myself as a student, faith in myself as a functional adult. I’ve been in a kind of stasis this last month, wringing my hands and bemoaning my inability to do anything useful or good. I don’t just mean with my writing—with everything: washing my dishes, cooking myself a meal, keeping my apartment somewhat tidy. I haven’t updated in weeks and feel terrible about it. Suffice to say, my promised Gone Girl review is not happening.

Last week I was fighting a sinus infection and an ear infection at the same time. I assumed it was the antibiotics that were putting me to sleep so early every night. But now I think that’s just been the stress. I overwhelm myself to the point of immobility. But just because I’ve stopped doesn’t mean the world has stopped with me. It keeps going, piling more on my plate as I watch Netflix and feel sorry for myself.

Check out the bags under my eyes.
Check out the bags under my eyes.

The reason I write is to be read. That’s it. I write stories or poems or essays with the hope that someone will read them and connect. There’s more involved there—changing the world would be nice. But it boils down to a desire to be read. One way of getting read is by publishing, whether traditionally (which seems to involve mostly luck once you reach a certain level of competency) or though self-services.

But I can’t think about that now because I just don’t believe I currently have anything worthy of publishing. Part of the problem is being a member of a talented community. When I’m reading other people’s work multiple times a week, work that makes me laugh or takes my breath away, it adds to my inner inertia.

But it’s a perspective problem, I can see that now. Readers on the outside world read published works as finished products, even if the writer feels those works are not finished and could never be finished. Readers in the workshop world are reading works in progress. Their responsibility is to help the writer improve (or give the writer something to fume over at the bar that week, which is helpful in a different way). The focus is not on how much someone loved your work (though complements and positivity do abound here) but on what your fellow writer thinks would make the work better

I will get past this bump in the road, this lump in my throat, as I have before. I will find it in me to convince myself that something is worth sticking in front of an editor’s nose. I will rack up more rejection emails because, now that I think about it, I was happier getting those, knowing someone somewhere took the time to at least read my cover letter if not the story in its entirety. Rejections to small magazines are easy to shrug off because you know they get a staggering amount of submissions and only have space for a few.

The publishing date for my story “An Emptiness That Burns” in An Unlikely Companion still says November 2014, but the anthology has not been released yet. I am hopeful that having that trade paperback in my hands, seeing my name in print, will give me a small boost and reignite that old hope inside me.

My job right now is not to publish or produce shining, award-winning work. My job is to fully inhabit my role as a student: to take risks and fail as spectacularly as I can.

Note: Today’s post title is from Samuel Beckett’s Westward Ho

Accelerate

I’ve been thinking this week about ego and self-esteem when it comes to our creative work.

Count me among those who tend to undersell their work. I get intimidated by other writers easily and I never think I’m good enough.

A little humility and a pinch of desire to improve go a long way in the arts, but they’re like salt and pepper: it’s possible to go overboard.

Or a better analogy: When driving, if you leave your foot on the brake pedal then you’re never going to get anywhere.

These last couple months I feel I’ve been driving around with the E brake on. I’m not so down on myself that I’ve been incapable of writing, but it’s been a battle.

And then a funny thing happened last Wednesday. Everything clicked. It clicked after a few hours of conversation with a colleague, Tyler. We talked about intimidation and how I should stop putting other people’s work on a pedestal above my own. He said nice, encouraging things, the way one might coax a bunny out of hiding.

The next day, I finished my first real short story draft of the semester. It needs a lot of work, but it felt good to get a whole new story down on paper again. My funk of self-loathing has lifted and I am full of ideas. I finished a weekly assignment that normally takes me four hours of groaning and procrastinating in half an hour, for example.

I know the slump will come back. Like a children’s book villain, The Slump always comes back. But I am reminded again of why I chose to make writing my priority this year: the sheer joy.

And it helps to be surrounded by people going through similar things. I am so grateful to have met such a wonderful group of people and to count myself among them.

I could have continued writing on my own, without heaving my whole life into my boyfriend’s Honda and moving four hours away from everyone I knew and then watching that Honda pull away towards a long distance relationship. But I wanted to utilize the resources MFA programs offer. And, yes, as much as my artist’s soul shakes with indignation, I wanted to have a degree that would let me teach at the college level. But more than either of those things, I wanted to be around people who would “get it” without my explaining “it” (many of them can explain it in better words than I, I’m sure).

I told my boyfriend after my first week of classes that I’d found my people. I think community is, perhaps, integral to making good art. We need other people to puff us up when we’ve deflated ourselves.

This Is Exactly What It’s Like

Friendship, in other words, is good for the soul. And the soul is what makes art.

Nobody Reads Anymore

The basis of all these blog posts, as some of you know, is my weekly response to my required introduction to graduate writing course. This week, we read about whether or not poetry is dead. And why nobody reads poetry anymore but everyone writes it. My response this week was about what was missing in all the discussions: the role of the internet.

So instead of putting up yet another essay, this week I’m just going to share with you a few internet things I feel are worth sharing.

First, there’s this NSFW music video from Bo Burnham. I watched Burnham’s show “what.” at a friend’s house last year and immediately bought his illustrated book of poetry Egghead the next day. Burnham is someone whose career was made on and by the internet. This music video for Burnham’s song “Repeat Stuff” was released just six days ago and I love the message. Remember, this is NSFW.

Though I don’t consider myself a poet, Billy Collins is a big part of why I applied to Stony Brook’s MFA program in the first place. Before I’d ever read Collins’ poems, I saw this Ted Talk from 2012.

A friend of mine got me hooked on Broodhollow, a horror comic by Kris Straub. I can’t describe this series and I can’t recommend it enough. You might remember Straub if you remember Candle Cove, one of the creepiest short stories I’ve ever read.

Finally, I’d like to remind you all that you can still pre-order the anthology An Unlikely Companion in which my short story “An Emptiness That Burns” will appear. Use the code KOLCOW-FRIENDS at checkout to receive 30% off your order. The anthology is slated for this November.

Look at all the different things the internet provides. Just this morning I was sent a link to a poem I hadn’t read before. The poem is “Meanwhile, somewhere in the state of Colorado” by Simon Armitage. It begins:

Meanwhile, somewhere in the state of Colorado, armed to the teeth
with thousands of flowers,
two boys entered the front door of their own high school
and for almost two hours
gave floral tributes to fellow students and members of staff
beginning with red roses

You can read the entire poem at Isabel Losada’s website.

Go forth and explore, my friends. New literature and experience await you.

Edit 10/01: In a previous version of this post I called Simon Armitage Stephen. My sincerest apologies for this mix-up.

My Prose Machine Feels Broken

I pick up my screwdriver. Phillip’s head. I carefully unscrew the plated metal guarding my broken machine. I lay this aside.

I pick up my hammer and my stomach flips and then drops. I tighten my grip on the wooden handle. It’s a weighty hammer. A weapon. The machine looks so delicate and carefully built. Like the inner workings of an old clock or the motor of a carousel. But when I built it, I used a hot glue gun and clogged up all the cogs and gears and pulleys. A rushed, sticky mess.

I crunch. I bang. I smash apart.

Now the machine rests in pieces. I drop the hammer and it clangs against the warehouse floor. I am wearing a blue jumpsuit and the warehouse has a single overhead lamp illuminating my mechanical mess. I crouch and sift through the fragments. The smithereens. Oh God, what have I done?

Here’s a part that isn’t too beaten up. And another. I don’t know what this bit here was meant to do originally, but it’s clear it no longer belonged. As I separate the good from the bad, I begin to see a different kind of machine emerging.

I will have to dumpster dive and crawl through junkyards to find the missing pieces. I will have to wander flea markets and yard sales and pick up whatever feels necessary. I’ll know these things when I see them.

This is a craft. When it is finished it is art, but in the middle, in the warehouse with its single lamp and shadowy echoes, it is a craft. It takes sweat and blood and tears. A smashed finger, a misplaced nail gun, and a lot of cursing. There are no instruction manuals.

But I am learning what I should be listening for when I rap on the side of the machine:

An answering knock.

God, Gold, or Glory: Why Get My MFA?

I always tell children who want to be writers that there are only two things they must do to be writers: read a lot and write a lot. “That’s all it takes,” I tell them. But I’m lying by omission. There’s something else involved in great writing, even beyond innate talent, that every book I’ve read about writing seems to acknowledge in one way or another.

On page 17 of The Triggering Town, Richard HugoRead More »