Writer Culture Fatigue

I've been thinking a lot recently about the defects of writer culture. You know what I'm talking about: we become experts on not only MFA programs but also literary journals, artist colonies + residencies, agents + editors, contests + book publishers. We start to form a rolodex in our mind of important writers we've read, worked with, know gossip about. We drop casual workshop jargon in our craft conversations as if art is dead, some sort of clinical experiment that involves goggles, rubber gloves + a fucking pencil knife. Unconsciously, we begin amassing a long list of craft maxims, followed by an even longer list of craft exceptions, obscurity-to-fame stories, industry gripes and undeserved success stories.

I guess we do this not only because writing is our life, but because all of this stuff makes us feel somehow like we're just a little closer to making it--whatever making it means these days. I'm sympathetic to all of this shit + I'm guilty of all these things too. But now I'm starting to think that:

1. While the average technical ability of a fiction writer today is much higher than it was a 100 years ago, I feel like there is also very little original art being created in America's workshops, which is troubling

2. While important, networking should never replace great writing. Ditto with name-dropping, program nepotism + market saturation.

3. Great art should trump everything else, and somehow, in this age of self-publishing, bottom lines, sell-throughs, contractual fine print, cost benefit analysis, great writing isn't making it to the bookshelves enough, and I'm not just saying that because I haven't found a publishing house yet for BLANK.

4. I don't like talking about writing anymore. Let me qualify that. For years now, I've felt like I'm not talking about writing for the right reasons. By that I mean, I no longer talk about writing because it's changing my life, but because I'm examining it, which, in a way, belittles writing. When writing stops being about great ideas + powerful narratives + starts being about narratives arcs, backstory, dialogue + flashbacks, I think the battle is already lost. I don't mind technical analysis, but the point is to analyze technique in order to improve the transmission of art, not to improve the technique itself. Isn't the ultimate goal of writing to produce art? Wait, before you bark back another writing platitude, think about that. Has writing + art become separate mediums? Because to me, it feels like the goal of writing has changed from creating art that is ambitious, socially-conscious + emotionally powerful into producing technically competent writing, as if that's the goal, as if writing isn't art anymore, but a form of circular logic whose ultimate destination is itself.

Whatever writing is, for me, it is above all else, art, motherfuckers. It's supposed to provoke, speculate, create, engage, analyze, move, inspire, devastate, reify, push and pull, twirl in circles, slur, slap, arouse, infect, overwhelm, exhale, fly, imagine, dare, delight, infuriate, affect, teach, hurt, open up, give voice to + often, scare us. If it doesn't do that, some of that, any of that + so much more, then I don't want to read it, whatever it is, no matter how well written it is, I'm just not interested. Medical journals are extremely well edited + technically polished, but yo, they don't fucking have what I need.

Why I Really Want to Win a Book Contest

So that now I'm officially entered in 3 separate book contests for short story collections (the AWP Prize, the Flannery O'Connor Prize + the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) + will have to wait forever to hear the results, I can't help but dream the impossible dream. The reality of life as a literary fiction writer is obviously changing a lot + MFA graduates are spraying out of an art pipe right now that universities can't possibly absorb or sponge up fast enough, but I still believe (have to believe) that winning a major literary prize + or subsequently publishing a first short story collection/debut novel would basically change my writing career. I mean, fiction writers have gotten fame + tenure on less than that + fame + tenure gives writers summers (moments) to write while keeping their hands warm in the Winter. Not a bad fucking deal at all for a boy used to nothing.

But my desire to win a book contest transcends my desire to teach + avoid a life of prolonged poverty. Part of it is about the concreteness of seeing my book, my stories, my work, transformed into an external object that other people can consume, underline, wrinkle, argue about, analyze, misquote, all of which are different ways of giving weight to words. Metaphysically, this is the closest thing a writer will get to a miracle.

Another part is, I don't seem to be very good at winning contests. I've only won one in my whole life (the Sparks Prize) + I was only competing with 10 other people, not exactly inspiring odds, even if that prize did in fact help clarify my priorities for me and remind me of my purpose on earth (thank you, universe!). But there's something about having a readership, about gates flung open by the same gatekeepers that once locked you out of your destiny for a decade in the form of workshop teacher, editor, reader, agent, that all seems so fucking amazing to me. With one book, it becomes impossible not to say these words: you're not a writer. You may not be a good writer (fuck, you could be a terrible one), but no one can take away who you are anymore the way they did when you were just a bundle of great ideas and pretty lines. And there's something reassuring about that.

The truth is, I don't know what that feels like. I'm constantly living between the potential + kinetic art worlds all the time. One minute, I'm stoked because I'll get to see a chapter from BLANK in a nationally distributed journal like Fiction that my friends will be able to purchase at any Borders in the country--unthinkable three years ago. But then the next minute, I realize I've only heard good news from one journal this whole year + it's already half-way through 2010! Even worse, I don't feel any closer to publishing BLANK or my collection of short stories than I did when I'd finished my MFA, and that kinda depresses me because I feel that I've really evolved as a writer into someone with a particular, unique style that has a place in the publishing industry.

So that's the rub I guess: without dreams, I don't enter contests or submit stories to journals or send my novel to finicky agents and language-worshipping small presses. But because I do those things, I get rejected more than any other writer I know, certainly more than the other writers that either give up or just stick their stories in the bottom desk drawer. And dreams can really fuck you up as an artist. They implant ideas inside your heart that only end up leaving paper cuts on the places they touch. Sometimes all you want to do is spend your life writing, which is hard to do when your writing doesn't pay your electricity bill.

But then again, if one contest goes your away, everything changes in a silent flash. It doesn't change a lot, just a little. But when you change one thing completely inside of yourself, you fundamentally change everything connected to it. And that is where my hope begins, right where luck makes out with destiny.

Baby Steps

As an emerging fiction writer, you have to continuously find new ways to believe in your writing for the simple reason that in the beginning--and it's always the beginning until you're famous--you're the only motherfucker who believes in it. Parents, friends, classmates, wives, pediatricians, as lovely as they are, don't matter, at least not in the publishing world. All the love in the world won't get you published, at least not until it's an editor who's swooning over your language play. So, in order to find the perfect agent + publish your polished novel, you need to make a name for yourself first. So you send query letters to agents + submit stories/chapters to literary journals, all of which entails a shitload of rejection. And with all that rejection, it's easy, so easy, in fact, to listen to that nagging little voice inside your head that says you're just not cut out for this industry that seems to reward technique over beauty, name-recognition over originality. Maybe you're not talented enough (unlikely). Maybe you're not intrepid enough (more likely). Maybe you're not well-connected enough + your skin isn't thick enough (very likely). But to stick it out in this game, inevitably, you learn to be intrepid, you build your own networks + through scar tissue, you become thick-skinned. You have no other choice. Otherwise, you give up. Luck helps, but as it turns out, you can't bribe her. . .

My problem (+ greatest strength) is that I don't give up on the things I love. The few respectable print publications I have so far are as much a product of my talent as my stubbornness. But shit, I'm human + sometimes I need to replenish, not only my faith in myself as an literary fiction writer, but also my hope as a human being.

So, here are a few things that help me keep the faith:

1. Submitted Love + Porn, my collection of short stories, to the AWP Contest in short fiction

2. Submitted Love + Porn to the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

3. Submitted Love + Porn to the Drue Heinz Literature Prize

Winning any of these contests is really fucking hard because each contest receives hundreds upon hundreds of manuscripts, many of which are as polished + pretty as yours. But you have to face these odds with your bare fists + fight for your right to live as a writer. And every contest you don't enter, your failure rate is 100%. So I'll take my 1-2% chance, thank you very much. Besides, even with those slim odds, the potential payoff can be fucking amazing: you win a prestigious literary contest, you win some cash + most importantly, you get your first collection of short stories out there in the world (which later, will probably get picked up by a major publishing house too--it happens all the time). And then, suddenly crowned with your first book, you'll give a few readings. You might give an interview or two for a journal. A book club wants to chat with you. Readers argue about you on Amazon. And suddenly, suddenly, your application for that creative writing faculty position, it goes from the bottom of the pile to somewhere in the middle. All of that with just one book, one contest, one piece of conspiracy that goes your way.

Beyond that, there are other things too that give me hope in the now + these things matter:

1. Like finding this awesome review in Ruelle Électrique of "A Full Cellar" that was published in ZYZZYVA, part of which you can read here (though this is not the complete story, by the way).

2. Finding my writing blog on New Pages without having to beg someone!

3. When times get tough, I remind myself that 8 years ago, I'd never taken a workshop before + now, TC Boyle is my thesis adviser

4. Remembering how only 3 years ago, I didn't have a single short story published in a prominent, nationally-distributed print literary journal. Not one

5. Fanmail. Though sparse, I've officially received 3-4 emails from people who read something of mine + loved it. And that really fucking makes my day. It helps me know that my writing does matter

Granted, there is still so much more to accomplish as (just another talented) fiction writer in this cut-throat market. But you can only take baby steps in this industry. And finally, I've taken a few. Just a few. But that's how you get to where you need to be.