Like many writers, I wonder sometimes if I should get an official advanced degree in writing. The MFA debate is one that has raged across the pages of many of my favorite journals, and I’m nowhere near ready to make that decision, but I do look at programs and their admission requirements, just to keep my options open.
Almost every program I’ve seen requires the applicant to describe their reading in the genre in which they are applying, and that has inspired one of my writing goals for the year: read both deeply and widely. I’ve always been omnivorous when it comes to reading, which my bookshelves could tell you, and my library ranges widely across many subjects– but there’s still room for improvement. I haven’t read as many international authors as I would like to, for example. Also, I want to remind myself to read deeply– to read past the most-anthologized poem by an author, or past their most well-known works. I want to get a better sense of an author’s body of work, not just the highlights. This is a task we’ve attempted at the secondary school where I teach, so a student reads not only “Ozymandias,” but other pieces by Shelley that may help them see continuing themes or techniques. I’ve done this with authors in the past (like Edith Wharton and Carol Shields), but need to continue.
One of my other goals was to try and make this site as useful to me as possible, and so that’s one reason why I’ve started doing book reviews here. If I’m doing all this deep and wide reading, I want to keep track of what I’ve read and what I’ve thought about it. I’m also trying to use Good Reads for this purpose too, so friend me there if you like!
I’m deep into reading Edith Wharton (Vintage)Hermione Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton, and I’m really enjoying it. I really love reading biographies, especially well-written ones that really delve into a person’s life and character without seeming prurient– another great example is Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov, which I have read several times also. I’m not into tell-alls, but I’m fascinated by individual lives and what they can tell us about periods in history, politics, and literature.
Lee does an amazing reconstruction of Wharton’s life and feelings, considering that Wharton was extremely private– she burned much of her correspondence and implored her friends to do the same, which is not too surprising since privacy, surveillance and betrayal are major themes in a lot of her work. Edith Wharton has always been one of my favorite writers, but I feel like I’m gaining new insight into her work through Lee’s lens, which is truly a testament to her abilities as a biographer. If you’re a Wharton fan, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
There’s a great scene in Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man where he gets his high school students to read recipes and cookbooks out loud and discuss them as if they were poetry. I love cookbooks– in fact, the joy I get from reading cookbooks was one of the big factors in helping become a better cook. The lists of ingredients like cardamom and meringue, the directions to fold and whip and simmer are all pure poetry.
I bought myself a new cookbook yesterday, Little Cakes: Classic Cakes for Any Occasion, because I’m planning a birthday brunch for a friend, but was then fascinated by the text of the book itself. Susan Waggoner, the author, got many of the recipes from vintage cookbooks and sprinkles the text with historical information as well. Did you know that in Roman times, white flour was much more intensive to make than whole wheat, and therefore served as a sign of luxury and status? Did you know that the first cookbook published by an ex-slave was What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, in 1881? Or that chocolate-based cake recipes did not become common until the end of the 19th century in America or Europe, that chocolate was used stricly in beverages?
Sure, those could be very helpful tidbits for authors of historical fiction or those writing about food or chef characters, even just for setting a period of history, food is rich with detail and significance. When I write short fiction, and am trying to better delineate a character, I always try to think of what their favorite food might be, and how they might eat it, and with whom.
There’s nothing more lovely than a well-turned phrase, no matter where it appears, and here’s my latest favorite, courtesy of Manohla Dargis, film critic for the NYT, who gives new movie Cloverfield a scathing and witty review. When discussing the movie’s characters, she says they are, “Smart as Tater Tots and just as differentiated”.
The New York Times book section’s blog, Paper Cuts, is one of my favorite literary blogs (soon I will link it on the sidebar). Today’s interview with Buzz Bissinger is a gem. He admits that the Internet is a bad influence on his productivity, and also that he Googles his name frequently for no real purpose! It’s always encouraging to me, as a junior writer, to hear my own concerns and insecurities coming from the mouth of a larger figure in the literary world.
Also, if you haven’t read Friday Night Lights I can’t recommend it more highly. In the interview, he talks about his upcoming book about parenting twins– I’m definitely looking forward to that as well!
Recently I went to my favorite local bookstore and bought some literary journals, so I thought I’d favor you with some reviews!
Swivel is subtitled “the nexus of women and wit,” and their website says they’re interested in “smart, funny writing by smart, funny women.” Both of those phrases mean this journal should be right up my alley, and by a stroke of luck, it is!
This particular issue includes artwork and cartoons, poetry and short stories, and I was amused and entertained by many different selections. In addition, thoughts were provoked, which is always nice as well. Lauren Weedman’s “Fatty-Gay Christmas” is just as funny as the title and takes us with the narrator as she meets her new boyfriend’s family, who still love his dead wife, and Ellen Forney’s “Trapeze” is a multi-page wordless comic that was both witty and evocative. You may have read Weedman’s “Diary of a Journal Reader” in 2005′s Best American Nonrequired Reading, which made me laugh out loud. There’s also a “quick fix sestina” by Kelle Groom that prominently features doughnuts.
In conclusion, humorous work about serious subjects is difficult to do, and the writers in Swivel pull it off with grace and ease. Men who think women aren’t funny should read every issue.
A common tip in writing books is to find inspiration in other mediums. I have found inspiration in music often– I’m working on a poem right now that I want to be in the blues tradition, and I’ve written a few short stories inspired by and about different songs, or with lyrics interwoven through the text. I have a neat anthology around here somewhere in which each story is inspired by one song– my favorite is one by Jennifer Belle inspired by Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
Yesterday my sister and I went to see a wonderful exhibit of Edward Hopper’s paintings and etchings, and I found myself scribbling in my notebook as I wandered through the different galleries. Did you know that he always kept telephone poles in his paintings, but never the wires, so that they were only compositional elements and not functional? The glimpses into the private lives of female city-dwellers, the look through windows into windows, and the empty landscapes that still seemed vital– all of it was lovely and I drank it in, even though I didn’t much about him before that exhibit.
I think at least one poem will come from that experience, and it reminds to look to other arts to inform my own. If you haven’t tried it, I would highly recommend a trip to a gallery near you, thinking all the while about your own artistic or creative work.
One of the reasons I think I lost a little direction with my nonfiction work is that I had formulated a list of target markets a few years back, and over the intervening time, I landed pieces in almost all of them. One has since closed shop, but I’ve been able to become a regular contributor to another (Bitch magazine, linked in sidebar) which has been a great experience. Making such a list was another great tip I picked up from my writing group, who also helped me think of where I should be aspiring.
But of course, once you’ve reached a peak, you have to keep climbing, and I never got around to making a new list of target markets. One of mine is the sole place I failed to access before, of course, but I’ve spent some time recently trying to decide where else I should aim for. I’d like to place more pieces in local markets, after my luck with Urbanite– in fact, I’d love to place a more substantial piece with them. I’m adding some journals where I hope to place poems, and today I made a trip to my favorite local bookstore, Atomic Books (link in sidebar also) and came home with a nice stack of possibilities.
So, to sum up, this resolution is to make a new list of target markets and then put serious effort towards checking them off.
Do you have a list of target markets? If not, you should think about it.
One of my writing resolutions this year is to work on one nonfiction piece each month, either a personal essay or a cultural criticism piece My secondary goal on that resolution is to go through my notebooks and either do new drafts of abandoned pieces or flesh out ideas that never made it past the scribble stage. I have a bad habit of leaving too many pieces in my notebooks, never getting them out into a full draft that gets typed up and revised, so I’m trying to break that. I also want to focus on getting pieces finished, which is why I’m going to concentrate on one piece per month so I can actually finish some! Of course, I won’t keep myself from making more scribbles, but I need to increase my follow-through.
This is also a rejuvenating mission for me, because my nonfiction work has really taken a back-burner since we moved to a new house last May. I’ve done some short pieces since then, but nothing more substantial. Poetry has been on the front burner recently, which has been great for my work, but I think balance will be the key.