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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“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.

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 »