Q & A #2
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?
Share: tell those you respect they can read something that you’ve written. Tell them twice. Move.
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.
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.
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.
There are good days and bad days for editors, and the good days are often filled with honest rejections.
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.
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!
Q3: What are five important books every writer should read?
Their five favorite books very, very closely.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Q4: Is Harold Bloom for real?
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.
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.
He sure has his opinions.
I have never heard of Harold Bloom and will now consult Dr. Google.
Q5: What should a writer look for in an MFA program?
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?
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.
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.