Q & A #2

Posted by @ 5:26 pm on December 29th, 2009

If you have questions about writing or publishing or whatever, leave them in the comments or e-mail them to roxane at roxanegay dot com and we will find you some answers.

Q1: What are some good ways for a writer to self-promote? bad ways? are there unwritten, unspoken rules? rules of engagement?

Ken

Share: tell those you respect they can read something that you’ve written. Tell them twice.  Move.

Amy

The same advice you’d give to a girl who can’t get a date would apply here too: Be confident! Don’t insult your own work. People will start to believe you if you keep saying your story is shit. At a reading, don’t count down to the end of your reading (just 4 more poems, just 3 more poems). Assume that if people came to hear you read, they want to hear you read.

Karma works too. Help promote your friends and people whose work you admire, and they will help promote you.

Alexis
I suck at self-promotion. I kind of think the best way is to just get your work out there and find people who “get” you. My friend calls it finding your tribe. But even getting work out there is hard for me. I’m rebellious and don’t like being told there’s a particular way of doing things.

Being social is good, but what if you’re not very social? Right.

I also think blogs are good outlets, but single author blogs don’t get  a whole lot of traffic, particularly not poets.

Roxane

I think self-promotion is crucial for writers. You have to be your own publicist. That said, I feel as others here have said, that it’s more important to promote the work of others. Those efforts contribute to sense of community and get people excited about new writing and it is a great way of introducing your circle of friends and their circles of friends to writers and writing styles and approaches with whom and which they may not be familiar.

There is also such a thing as over promotion. My personal pet peeves are when people announce their acceptances, regularly and when writers say negative things about their published writing displaying what is, ultimately, a false insecurity designed to garner them more attention and compliments about their writing. That seems excessive and in poor taste. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if I had a story accepted by the New Yorker, I’d tattoo that information to my forehead.

Q2: Why don’t more editors tell it like it is for writers? If a story sucks, it sucks.

Ken
There are good days and bad days for editors, and the good days are often filled with honest rejections.

Alexis

So, would the rejection slip read, “This story sucks, and you should probably stop writing”? Yeah, maybe we are too nice. Maybe bullshit gets published every day. I mean, I open up the lit mags that mysteriously land at my doorstep and there are maybe one or two things that excite me. And that’s on a good day. The wheel of mediocrity. Keeps the machine running.

Roxane

Writers are not interested in the truth. I’ve gotten angry e-mails from writers when I’ve told them the truth (and I am speaking objectively here, we’re talking about contrived, piss poor writing). It depends on my mood for the week as to whether or not I dispense my editorial version of the truth about a writer’s work. If I’m depressed, I just send form rejections so I don’t have to be even more distressed by angry, insulting e-mails from people who feel slighted, misunderstood or unappreciated. Instead of e-mailing me, take that shit to your blog, writers. That’s what they are there for!

Ryan

When I send rejections and a story ‘sucks,’ I’d rather simply send the form reject and not put in effort to create a relationship not worth my time as an editor. If I were to tell someone their story ‘sucked,’ then I would feel like I needed to support that claim with reasons and evidence, which would take me a lot of time to do, because I would want to be fair, and so my response/explanation would open up the possibility for a response from the author, maybe? As an editor, I’d rather interact with authors whose work I like, or whose work I’m interested in considering in the future. I don’t mean for this to sound as harsh as it is; I think it is a pretty business-like approach. If I were, say, working with a different hat on, maybe I could be more forthright in the evaluation? But, and this is just me, when I submit and I get a form rejection in return, I don’t think it is rude, nor do I think it is a condemnation of my story. I wish all authors and editors approached form rejections this way; it could save all of us a lot of worrying. I think, however, to simply write an author and say ‘no thanks, this sucked’ is rude. ‘No thanks’ and nothing else is fine, but ‘this sucked’ without explanation is not, I think, a responsible editorial action. So I think more editors don’t tell it like it is because they are trying to manage their committments: one editor might think a story sucked and not care to pursue the issue further, while another editor might feel it is perfect for his or her publication.

Q3: What are five important books every writer should read?

Ken

Their five favorite books very, very closely.

Matthew Simmons

Katy and the Big Snow, Where the Sidewalk Ends, The Cave of Time (A Choose Your Own Adventure Book), Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Book 1 of the Dragonlance Chronicles), and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Sort of a flip answer at first look, I guess. But, seriously, if I hadn’t had those five reading experiences, I would not have read anything else. And I never would have started writing. The child who read those books was perfectly happy watching reruns on television, riding his bicycle, and playing K.C. Munchkin on the Odyssey2 until he was convinced by those books that reading was fun, too.

Amy

Far be it for me to specify, but I will say that in grad school I learned the importance of models. Look for five novels, essays, collections of poems, short stories that tie in with what you are trying to do with a specific project, whether that tie-in is stylistic or thematic (preferably, you’d find a mix of both kinds of models). Don’t worry about feeling like you are mimicking someone’s style or thought pattern; it’s going to come from you. Models work well at all stages, I think, but I’ve found them especially useful if I’m feeling a little stuck in my thinking about a piece.

Alexis

Oh hell. I’m gonna go with 5 books of poetry outlined some different possibilities of language early on. This is not a top 5 list, but definitely in the top 20 for me. Dean Young’s Primitive Mentor (this was not early on, but I think it’s his best book). Yusef Komunyakaa’s Pleasure Dome. Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems. A.R. Ammons’ ommateum with Doxology. James Tate’s The Lost Pilot / Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion.

I learned about freedom, apophenia, musicality, intricacy, chant, and harnessing emotion from these particular poets.

Roxane

I don’t know where these books rank in terms of importance but five books that tell amazing stories are:

The Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the Bible, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay by Michale Chabon.

Ryan

The general answer to this question is read constantly the five (or more) books that you both are enamored by and feel are necessary to your current project, and you should try to have those books around you and within easy reach. In my case, those project books are, perhaps unsurprisingly, The Age of Wife and String by Ben Marcus, Stories in the Worst Way by Gary Lutz, Nightwork by Christine Schutt, Motorman by David Ohle, and Log of the SS the Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford. Specifically, I’d say that my five important ‘thought’ books are the following: The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, Fiction and the Figures of Life by William Gass, Not-Knowing by Donald Barthelme, Understanding English Grammar by Kolln and Funk (or some other grammar book you like to read), and, I don’t know, maybe The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker or Aristotle’s The Poetics? All of these books rotate across the ‘hot’ shelf of my bookshelf, the bottom shelves of which are now empty due to my puppy’s happy teeth-browsing the other day.

Q4: Is Harold Bloom for real?

Ken

No

Matthew Simmons

Probably

Jimmy Chen
I saw an interview of Harold Bloom in which he used the word “verisimilitude” in a way suggesting that he really enjoyed saying that word, the same way Cornel West seems to really enjoy saying words that I have to look up in dictionary.com. It’s like he made love to the word with his entire face, accommodating the wet syllables with this throat. As for if Bloom is real, I’d say he has verisimilitude.

Amy

Harold Bloom certainly doesn’t have the kind of hip cultural capital of a critic like Susan Sontag, though he’s no less unflinchingly devoted to the aesthetic above the moral or the political. I love his idea of radical misreading as the basis for art (e.g. Melville’s radical misreading of Dante being Moby Dick, Austen as the true child of Chaucer). I teach my lit classes about his theory that Shakespeare created modern cognition, as with Hamlet’s act of self-overhearing, something never done before Shakespeare, and I like Bloom’s notion that a Shakespearean reading of Freud is more interesting than a Freudian reading of Shakespeare. I think people get too caught up in Bloom’s list-making of canonical works and overlook his sensitive and intelligent readings of those works. I find some candy in most every paragraph I read by Bloom. He’s not sexy, but he is for real.

Alexis

He sure has his opinions.

Roxane

I have never heard of Harold Bloom and will now consult Dr. Google.

Ryan

As far as I know, Harold Bloom is a real person.

Q5: What should a writer look for in an MFA program?

Matthew Simmons

Someone else who has gone to the program and can vouch for the diversity and engagement of the faculty. You’re told to look for a place where the faculty is full of writers you admire, and this seems at first to be excellent advice. But what if you end up at a program with your favorite writer and find out your favorite writer is a horrible teacher? Or, worse, that your favorite writer has absolutely no interest in your writing?

Alexis
Writers you want to study with (though I went to a program with writers I didn’t know yet, and that turned out to be a great experience). A good mix of academics and workshop classes. An MFA program that encourages writers to explore courses outside of their chosen genre.  Try to go for as little money as possible because you’re really not going to pay of that debt quickly.

Ryan

When I applied for my MFA, I had no idea what I was doing. I looked at some stupid ranking from ’96 or something to gather a batch of programs (which is why I don’t like rankings, because that old ranking basically determined my search and maybe cut out some other programs that might have been better fits than half the programs I finally applied to), and then selected ten programs, I think, based on their faculty, location, and the recommendation of my undergrad profs. I was only accepted to George Mason University. I had liked a Richard Bausch story I read as a sophomore in college, so that was why I applied. The summer I arrived in Fairfax, I learned that Bausch had left for Memphis, the city that I had just come from. Anyhow, in an MFA program, I was looking for a writer whose work I liked and with whom I could study, whatever that meant. What I found was a program administered by writers I had not read before, but who clearly, despite their different writing styles, understood how to ‘mentor’ a writer and respond to different kinds of writing. I’m speaking specifically about two writers, Susan Shreve and Mary Kay Zuravleff, who really helped me out by encouraging me to examine my writing closely, one sentence at a time, so as to both help me catalogue/understand my strengths and teach me how to avoid some of my more lazy habits. One of my favorite bits of writing advice comes from Mary Kay, which I’ve twisted to suit my own writing: “If you think you should do something in a story, do the opposite.” The context wasn’t so general as I’ve made it out to be; I forgot her exact words, but I remember she was talking specifically about dealing with workshop comments (at her program, she sometimes got very frustrated in workshop with people’s comments, so she used to just do the opposite of what they suggested just to spite them). I’ve since adopted it as a reminder to explore a story as I write. It’s a bit of a refrain, much like Christine Schutt’s advice to find the one interesting word or part of a sentence and turn slightly away from it, that I refer to for help.

But back to MFA: unfortunately, I don’t know how to look for this kind of thing (writers who are great at working with students) in a potential MFA program, nor do I know how to advise someone to look for those kinds of things, as those kinds of close relationships are hard to rank and filter for. The thing I’d encourage an applicant to do is email students in the programs. This is hardly groundbreaking advice, but it was something I did not do. Anyhow, the good news is that those close working relationships are probably common to many places (or so I assume). I think my point is that my perception of the MFA program was different than the reality of an MFA program. This was surprising to me. So I would say this: avoid rankings. Instead, look for writers you like. Start there. Then talk to students. I don’t know.