I had this wonderful conversation with one of my undergrad professors yesterday and we were talking about work and I told him I feel like the hardest thing right now is prioritizing. I don’t know when to hunker down and work on something long versus how much of these short interviews/reviews to do versus whether I should really push to publish something academic since it’s about one year from my inevitable job hunt.
What I’m getting at here is that this blog has slipped down in priorities and I think that doesn’t matter, but I do need to transition to some sort of non-blog-based web presence in the not so distant future. Any suggestions on that front would be fantastic – what are your favorite author sites?
2016 has gotten off to a good start. I already occasionally use a standing desk, but one of my first investments of the year was an exercise bike with a desk attached. I’m using it while watching television and getting my morning interneting done – I don’t think I could read on it, but I think it works well for most other things. I think we need to tell beginning writers/academics more often that so much of getting started is figuring out how to make being hunched over your desk for a long time work out for you. You don’t just have to do it, you have to do it while remaining healthy (physically, emotionally, socially, financially) and productive. That looks different for everyone.
I’ve also written a letter, went on a mini road trip, and baked – all things I want to do more of in 2016. I think I’ve hit the pinnacle of hipsterness by drinking some small-batch tonic and enjoying it.
I don’t know what my goals are for writing. I think I want to get something academic published before I start job hunting. I want to review only books by people of color, women, or translated authors. I have a new job as a blogger for Ploughshares, which I’m pretty pumped about. I’ll be doing an interview with a translator for them once a month. I also want to pitch some long-form journalism. We’ll see what happens.
Lots of good Star Wars writing out there. This has minor spoilers and was one of my favorites.
As the semester draws to a tumultuous close, I’m looking ahead longingly at the month-long break of winter vacation and thinking about how to spend it. Of course, it’s not really a vacation. There are still book reviews to write, submissions to be made, a syllabus to write, and a book chapter deadline to meet, among the various personal obligations that accumulate throughout the semester. But it is a vacation insofar as I get to spend a lot more time working on writing projects as opposed to classes (both as a student and as a teacher).
Thus, as I look ahead longingly, I’m thinking about what things I’m not doing now that I want to do then and what things I’m doing now that I don’t want to do then. The former includes decisions between academic essays versus nonacademic prose, short-form versus long-form, revisions versus new writing, etc. Ultimately it will come down to what projects I’m most motivated to work on at that time, but it’s still nice to speculate.
The latter question, though, that’s the one I’ve really been turning over in my head. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve had a lot of struggles with controlling the time I spend playing video games. I’ve tuned it way down since starting grad school. What helped was not playing as many “endless” games (MMOs, PVP-oriented games, ARPGs, etc.) and, to be honest, having a lot of my video game friends stop playing and leaving me with fewer people to play with. Plus, I can justify some of my playing since I write about video games occasionally, so that’s no longer an issue.
That means I’ve turned my sights to my other modes of procrastination, namely social media/networks. Reddit is already fading from my life on its own: the racism/sexism is just too much, unless you stay confined to tiny subreddits, but even then it’s become embarrassing to talk about the site with anyone else because of how bad most of it is. Twitter and this blog feel important, as they should, in theory, contribute to my persona as someone who writes and researches. They also don’t take up much of my time (as is obvious by my infrequent entries here). Neither does Instagram, which I just use for personal fun.
Facebook, though, Facebook can eat some time. It’s become way too easy for me to jump from Facebook to articles and videos and god knows what else. It’s also just way too easy for me to procrastinate by opening a chat window with a friend or family member. On one hand, this keeps me in touch with people better than I probably would on my own. On the other hand, it also has this kind of relationship equivalent to slacktivism, where these tiny bursts of communication stop me from sending out meaningful missives or having a real voice conversation with people.
So I’m thinking about deactivating my account for winter break, to turn off that source of procrastination. We’ll see what happens, where that goes. I would like to add a caveat though, that there is one function of Facebook that I just love. Debra Monroe, in her latest memoir My Unsentimental Education, has this great line about how in reality, people disappear from our lives, and that’s tricky to write about in memoirs because characters in books shouldn’t just disappear. Facebook has stopped some of those complete disappearances from happening, for me. Maybe it’s just a voyeuristic thrill, but I love the occasional reminders that people who were once important to me but have drifted away due to the movements of time and space are still out there, are still doing okay. It’s really satisfying and one of the reasons I would probably never consider a permanent separation with Facebook.
I still need to send more letters, though.
Jason Segel’s interview on WTF has been my favorite aural experience recently.
Lincoln Michel has a nice compilation of thoughts on getting published in lit mags over at Buzzfeed. Probably nothing new there for most people, but a nice centralized repository of concepts.
Speaking of procrastination, I got kind of fascinated with Graham’s Magazine recently. Someone buy me an original copy or three.
So following up with my last entry about being a good reader, I had an essay about what it means to be a good reviewer published in Full Stop. I was expecting to have some sort of dialogue pop up around the piece, but it didn’t – I wonder if that’s a lack of readers or a statement of consensus.
As a sort of continuation of this train of thought, I’m moving now from how to write book reviews to when to write book reviews and other short pieces. I said no to a solicited book review for the first time this week, and for a good reason, but I couldn’t help but think about the fact that a year or two ago I wouldn’t have even considered turning down any chance to have writing in print, no matter the circumstances. This line of thinking pushes me to spend time worrying about what I should be writing.
Of course, honesty check – if I spent as much time writing each week as I ambitiously plan to on Monday mornings, I wouldn’t really have to choose. Such is life.
This summer I had planned on spending a lot of time on a long-form project with the hopes of having an almost-complete book draft done before I started the MFA program. Given I have about a month and a half left, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. Instead, I’ve completed a variety of short-form pieces: a couple of book reviews, a couple of essays, and an academic presentation/article/amoeba. I think individually each of those pieces was absolutely worth it, but the amount of time they’ve taken, theoretically, from my long-form project was probably not worth it. I say theoretically because that’s not really true. I write short-form pieces faster because I can hold the whole scope in my head and because there’s a quicker pay-off. Delayed gratification and marshmallows and all of the nonsense.
I think there’s a lot of people at this place in their writing careers – at least, that’s what it seems to me watching others on Twitter and other sites. I think you have two choices, and both are difficult. You can throw yourself into a long-form project that may or may not get published and probably end up having to find a day job anyway. Or, you can pump out short-form pieces and attach yourself to various sites and publications as a reader, an editor, or a regular contributor and hope this eventually leads to a paying gig. (Here I am disregarding the infinite complexities of also being a spouse, a friend, a parent, a family member, a student, a teacher, or whatever other roles you take on “outside” of your writing life [outside in quotes because all of it is inextricably linked and tugging on each other].)
Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive (There’s tons of people who start off doing regular short-form work as writers and editors then break through with a novel. Thinking here of The Rumpus contributor Cheryl Strayed and editor Roxanne Gay, as well as journalists like Caroline Knapp) and obviously some people will tend toward having the skills of one or the other, but it’s a crappy choice to make because it’s so easy to fail at both. It’s also crappy because it feels like, for me at least, that if I worked just a little harder it wouldn’t be a choice at all, that I could write enough short-form to continue contributing, write enough of my long-form project to keep moving at a decent pace, and contribute to social media and other sites enough to stay semi-networked in.
And maybe that’s true or maybe it isn’t, but I guess it does no good to worry about it, or write entire blog entries about it, but here we are.
Outside Content: Speaking of delayed gratification and marshmallows, did you know that the infamous marshmallow experiment not only correlated their choices regarding the marshmallows with their performance as young children in school, but also showed significant differences in their brain activity as adults more than 40 years after the experiment? Scary.
Also, sorry for the lack of English subtitles, but this video is beautiful. A child realizes the eating animals means killing them, and decides he wants to eat potatoes instead. I think if more people really thought it through, they would make similar choices. Not all of the time, but enough to make a difference.
Finally, in the midst of all my anxiety over teaching for the first time, I had to go and read something like this. Although, in truth, I’m more worried about not being able to be fair when someone comes teary-eyed about a paper.
Writing has a bunch of clichés surrounding it about how to be successful. Work more, write every day, go for walks, write drunk, etc. (Big fan of this post that makes fun of some of those clichés.) One of the more often repeated ones is that to be a good writer, you need to be a good reader. Like DFW points out, though, sometimes those common, simple, omnipresent clichés turn out to be true. What doesn’t get talked about, though, is how one can become a better reader beyond just reading more. In the past few years, I think I’ve done a better job at reading, and I’d like to share what has helped me.
1) Be mindful about what you’re reading.
This has a sort of unstated first part, which is that you read for a purpose. Of course, not all of your reading has to be for a purpose, but I have gained a lot in being more conscious about what I’m choosing to spend my time reading. For example, three weeks ago I started /r/contemporaryshortform and since then I’ve made myself find a recent short-form prose piece every day to post in that subreddit. This forces me to become familiar with a lot of the venues that I would seek to publish short-form pieces in, and it gets me reading some really cool, more nontraditional stuff. I’m typically more drawn to spending my reading time on books, but this gives me the motivation to mix it up some. Beyond that project, I’ve also started finding reasons to read books beyond having heard the author’s name, or it being popular. I’m working on a nonfiction project with a fairly specific format, and normally the simplistic way of reading for that project would be to look at books that have tackled the same subject. However, I think it’s been more useful looking at books with a similar structure to what I want to do. (Hey, on that note, suggest to me nonfiction books about a subject, the author’s experiences with that subject, and the culture/people around the subject. Thinking of books like Pack of Two by Knapp, Of Dice and Men by Ewalt, Absolutely American by Lipsky, Teachers Have It Easy by Eggers and co., Eating Animals by Foer, etc.) I think this idea really clicked for me when I took David Lipsky’s workshop, where he had us read Martin Amis’s piece “Emergency Landing” for humor, the first chapter of Nabokov’s Pnin for understanding how to set up questions and answers for readers, and the beginning of Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark for understanding how to build tension. Finally, I also read books to be a part of a conversation (more on that with my second point). Reading recent popular/award-winning books gives a great frame of reference for talking to other readers, and thus I seek them out a lot more than I used to.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t read for fun. I still read stuff with no “purpose” beyond thinking that I’ll enjoy the book, and I think that’s important. Definitely not an either/or situation, you can do both.
2) Talk about what you’re reading with other people.
One of the reasons that I’m pursuing an MFA and have greatly benefited from writing retreats/workshops in the past is that talking about writing gets more excited about writing, but it also gets me thinking about writing in a different way than I would when I’m off writing by my lonesome. Talking about reading accomplishes something similar. Another one of those clichés is that the person who is being workshopped doesn’t benefit as much from the process as the people doing the workshopping, and that’s another thing that I’ve found to be absolutely true. Talking about someone else’s writing, whether it’s a piece being workshopped or a published book, forces you to think about what that writing does that works and what that writing does that doesn’t work, and it forces you to be able to articulate it. Our default setting when we read, I think, is to just think positively or negatively toward a work and not examine why we feel that way. Being able to express those ideas then allows us to turn that lens onto our own writing and see how it can be improved.
Side note: Tips on starting a successful book club?
3) Take notes.
This has been the big breakthrough for me as a reader. I started being better at taking notes as I read due to graduate school, but it became cemented as I began writing book reviews. Now, I take notes for a majority of the books I read, even if I don’t intend to do anything with them. These notes serve to accomplish a lot of what talking to other people does, but it has an added benefit of giving you something to reference after the fact. Often, there are particular scenes I want to reread when I’m working on something specific, and having a folded up piece of paper inside that book on my shelf (or a typed up note about the excerpt on Google Drive) that helps me find that passage and reminds me what I liked about it is invaluable. My notes highlight things that work, summarize structure, make a reference to other literary works cited/discussed in the text, ask questions I want to look up the answers to later, and more.
Like many things, I think this just boils down to a heightened awareness. Hopefully laying out some specifics helps someone else.
Finally, the cancellation of Jesus Christ Superstar has made me very, very sad.