So much of writing for me is sitting my ass down and writing, even when I don't want to. I have really good discipline. I can write for fifteen hours straight sometimes, and then revise and edit for days and weeks afterwards. The hardest part of writing I can do and have done since my first workshop back in 2002. The other crucial part of writing for me involves psychological and emotional maintenance (aka self-care), which is just as important. Normally, self-care for me means not only exercising, meditating, getting enough sleep, eating well, and going on dates with LB every week, but also ignoring my own negative thinking and putting myself out there again and again (even when it feels POINTLESS) and not getting discouraged (even when NOTHING is happening), which has been particularly difficult this summer.Read More
I found out today that my novella, The Laws of Drowning and Rhetoric, is a finalist in Curbside Splendor's Second-Annual Wild Onion Novella Contest, which is fucking amazing and wonderful (though I won't let myself get too excited because the other three finalists are all talented and worthy). For those of you not familiar with Curbside Splendor, it's one of the best indie presses in the whole goddamn world (it's true). And what's even more awesome, Curbside Splendor is a Chicago joint, which makes me happy and proud to be part of this contest since Chicago is and will always be my hometown. The winner will be announced in the beginning of December, but I'm not gonna lie, it would be fucking incredible to win this contest. It would be a dream come true. It would help build my career. It would help me stay connected to my city forever. It would be incredibly encouraging too. And considering that I've been working on this novella for ten years since I started my MFA, it would be life-changing for all the work I put into this manuscript. But for now, we'll have just have to wait and see. Fingers crossed, man. Fingers crossed.
By this point, most of us have already read part or all of Junot Diaz's critique of MFA programs in the New Yorker as being oversaturated with white faculty and white writers. If somehow you've been hiding in a capsule hotel with a nasty case of Malaria so you haven't been able to catch up on the world, you can check it out here:
Are MFA programs too white? Junot Díaz reflects on his experience: http://t.co/ebVcYqyM2u
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) May 4, 2014
Anyway, Junot Diaz doesn't need me to defend him in any way, but I do have a few things to add to this discourse concerning the role (and also the constraints) of race in workshop. Here are my thoughts:
1. Most of the pissed-off comments on the New Yorker website are by white educated readers, which proves the very point Junot Diaz was making about our cultural inability to tolerate, moreover, accept race as both a construct and also a cultural and literary reality for writers of color. In fact, the response of most of the posters mirrors the response of many writers I knew in my own MFA workshops concerning race, who either saw race as an ideological and thematic obsession for writers of color that made their writing polemical somehow (because writing about being white is never polemical), an impediment to some imaginary "pure" prose school that was supposed to focus on the universality of human beings and not their particularities, or a direct challenge to literary realism that has been dominated by white, upper-class, heteronormative, East Coast writers for so long now that the"white" narrative has become a synonym for "neutral," "standard" and "uncontroversial." In fact, whiteness is still part of the literary default settings: if an author doesn't specify the race of a character, most readers still assume s/he's white unless there's a stereotypical race marker.
2. One thing most commenters failed to understand about MFA programs is that they don't share the same theoretical training or theory-obsessed culture as the English PhD programs that MFA programs are usually part of. For example, critical PhD students rarely enroll in MFA workshops because of enrollment caps in workshops and many MFA students avoid literary theory classes whenever possible. What this means is, it's very possible (and also very normal for MFA students) to avoid any and all conversations intersecting with minority discourse, postcolonialism, queer theory, marxist theory at all. The point is, most MFA programs are dead spaces for the examination of racial discourse and the analysis of non-white cultural/racial narratives. In fact, in most MFA programs not located in Oakland, California, race becomes a venereal disease that no one wants to talk about. They don't even wanna touch it.
3. As a hapa who reads white but is actually part Asian (Japanese) and part white (French and British), I'm actually on both sides of this dynamic. And I have to say that I mostly agree with Junot. I encountered a shitload of resistance when I wrote about non-white characters during my MFA years in part because of the assumptions that other writers made about my own race (which filtered what they believed I was allowed to write about and what I wasn't). I remember in one piece I submitted to workshop, I had a desi character who I was very fond of. For a draft, I found her to be smart, independent, complex, and intriguing. But the workshop completely rejected her characterization, not because they found her to be an Indian stereotype (for this would assume familiarity with Indian culture), but because they didn't understand why I had an Indian character in my manuscript at all. One white student even suggested that I put an Indian character to spice up my chapter. That's a verbatim quote, by the way. And when even one of my Pakistani writer friends (another desi!) in workshop vouched for both the cultural authenticity and also the uniqueness of her character, the workshop rejected his comments and then spoke over him. Think about that for a second: a group of mostly white writers telling a hapa writer and a Pakistani writer what was culturally authentic and culturally permissible in workshop about non-white people. The reality is that having mostly white writers and mostly white faculty can create a hostile MFA atmosphere in which people either deny that race exists at all (either in the world or on the page), they treat race as if it were some cultural crusade to punish white people or they assume that race in fiction and in workshop is always an act of tokenism, shallowness, political correctness, white guilt or even more paradoxically, of racism. Even worse, many white writers and faculty treat race, the issue of race and racism and racial constructions like a didactic exercise that writers bring into workshop in order to teach the workshop something, as opposed to simply being a reflection of non-white reality. There must be a reason why there are non-white characters in this short story, they say inside their minds.
4. Of course, writers in workshop should call out racist, hackneyed or shallow characterizations of characters of whatever race, but this shouldn't create a culture of fear or intolerance in which either people are too afraid to talk about race and racism or deal with race or racism in their own writing, or where writers are denying the cultural vocabulary of writers of color (or characters of color). And yet, I saw this shit all the time in my MFA where white writers were the most intolerant to the topic and the examination of alternative racial realities in writing. And the thing is, there were more than a few writers of color in my MFA (desi, Asian American, Latino), but none of them ever contributed to the discussion of race in class whatsoever. In fact, most ran away from the topic at all, maybe because they didn't want to get dragged into the cesspool of race, derail the workshop flow or maybe they didn't share any "radical" views about race at all. Or maybe they believed that art was about people, not race, and so they sympathized with the subtle white persecution of race in workshop. Either way, and this is precisely where I partially disagree with Junot Diaz, even the inclusion of more writers of color in workshop doesn't necessarily dismantle the structure of white supremacy that operates silently sometimes inside workshop. Especially if those writers of color have been trained (brainwashed) to believe that literary merit, not the translation of literary merit through the lens of class, race, gender, etc., etc., should be the sole criterion of workshop analysis.
-To read more about my thoughts about the construction of race in writing, workshop politics for writers of color, and the importance/impossibility of writing non-white cultural narratives, you can go here.
-Additionally, to read more about the ongoing problematic of teaching creative writing workshop as an instructor of color, and also the no-win situation of being a writer of color inside a creative writing workshop, check out Matt Salesses smart piece in NPR, "When Defending Your Writing Means Defending Yourself."
My short story "The 12-Step Program for Yuki Hiramoto," which is part of my second collection, Atlas of Tiny American Desires, was published this week in the Santa Monica Review. This literary journal has always been one of my faves in the whole country (and has been for many years now). I remember as a MFA student flipping through copies of the SMR in the creative writing office and thinking how someday I'd love to publish one of my short stories in it. Now, I can scratch that off my list of things to do. Baby steps, bro.
Remarkably, it's been ten fucking years since I've been back at AWP. The last time was in Atlanta in 2006, back when I was a confident, driven, ambitious, but also paradoxically naive, trusting, and hyperidealistic MFA student whose only aspiration at the time was to publish short stories and essays in the best literary journals possible. The idea of publishing novels was fundamentally foreign to me for the simple reason that I hadn't written a novel yet, nor a collection of short stories. There was no lofty expectation because there was no product.
Ten years later, I'm both amazed, horrified, and also humbled by how differently I look at the publishing industry in general and at my literary ambitions in particular. Unlike ten years ago, I have a bunch of stories and essays published in a number of legit literary journals, but it's no longer enough for me anymore. Also, unlike ten years ago, I have several manuscripts that are ready for publication. I have more than a few realistic publishing possibilities with several awesome indie presses (though they remain merely possibilities until those manuscripts become material objects of art for public consumption). I have--I always seem to have--several agents and a senior agent at a major New York publishing house reading my novels. I have two rad lecturer positions at UCI and CSUN teaching literature, writing, rhetoric, research, and creative writing. I have probably too many advanced degrees now, but whatevs. I have a network and a community of friends (many of them APIA writers, but certainly not all of them). I have some fans who follow me on Twitter because of the things I've written. Most importantly, I feel--possibly irrationally, possibly delusionally--that I finally have momemtum in my writing career. So, I apologize for this self-indulgent recollection, but the point I'm making here is that I see this conference in such a different way than I did before because I bring a different emotional and professional technology than before. I feel like I can almost touch my future, as absurd as that sounds.
Among other things I did at this year's AWP, I got to:
1. Attend readings from Claudia Rankine, Eula Biss, Jonathan Lethem, Geoff Dyer, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, my friend and mentor Percival Everett, Shonda Buchanan, Judy Grahn, Joyce Carol Oates, and Peter Ho Davies, which were all pretty amazing.
2. Attend a fascinating (and inditing!) panel by Adam Atkinson, Lillian Yvonne-Betram, and Sarah Vap (an SC student) that presented the results of its survey and data collection about race and racial representation within PhD programs in Creative Writing.
3. Talk to editors of several of my favorite indie presses and do a tiny bit of politicking (almost all of it unplanned and unintentional)
4. Make new writing friends and also do some networking (which never hurts in this business)
5. Most importantly, meet up with and reconnect with former professors and old friends from my MFA and PhD years, many of whom I haven't seen in years and whom I've missed, sometimes terribly, including Steve Tomasula, Marc Irwin, Joshua Bernstein, Chris Santiago, Lily Hoang, Gwendolyn Oxenham, Casey and Denise Hill, Heather Dundas, David St. John, and Percival Everett (who hugged me and then said, "What's going on, brother?")
6. Buy a shitload of books and literary journals from indie presses
7. Remember again why I'm a writer, a writer before I'm anything else in the professional and artistic domains
Yesterday, I got the good news that my short story "My 12-Step Program for Yuki Hiramoto," which is part of my debut collection Atlas of Tiny Desires, was accepted by the Santa Monica Review. Of course, this is fucking awesome, not only because I've been sending the SMR submissions since oh, 2005, when I started my MFA program, but also because it's one of the best journals out there. Certainly, one of the top west coast journals. And, while I know the publishing landscape has changed a shitload since then, I happen to know that my friend and mentor, Aimee Bender, found her agent (Henry Dunnow) after she'd published her own story in the Santa Monica Review, so there's always hope when you're getting your shit out there for the world to see.
When I was finishing my MFA at Notre Dame, I was waiting to hear back from a bunch of creative writing fellowships, a teaching position for the JET program + Notre Dame's Sparks Prize. To be honest, it was scary as shit because I knew in exactly one month I was either going to be flat broke with absolutely no job prospects, no funding, no school--my inertial dream coming to a sudden + dramatic halt--or I would live to fight another day as an aspiring writer. The one thing I thought I had the best chance of getting (the JET program position) I wasn't even a fucking alternate for. I guess I should have seen the signs considering the 3 people in my interview were assholes, insinuating in their questions that I was too old for the JET program, that my lip piercing made me unfit to teach English, that I would AWOL anyway (they ignored of course, my years of experience teaching English/Writing to Mexican immigrants, international students + Cuban refugees, but let's not get technical). But the thing I thought I had the least chance of getting (the Sparks Prize), in part because I was competing against my entire graduating class + in part because my writing isn't mainstream (which was supposedly part of the judging criteria), and yet, I won that damn thing. Suddenly, I had funding for a whole year, I got to give a reading of my novel in progress on campus + I started dating LB in Chicago. In many ways, winning the Sparks Prize defied logic but it also made perfect sense.
Fast-forward to Buenos Aires. After living in South America for a year + literally crying at the thought of eating another motherfucking empanada or walking into pile of dog shit, I realized that I just wasn't writing enough. In fact, I'd only written two new short stories + revised BLANK, my first novel, in the entire time I'd been living in Cap. Fed. So, I talked to Valerie Sayers, my thesis adviser at Notre Dame + told her I was considering applying to PhD programs in English/Creative Writing + she was like: Go for it, Jackson. I applied to FSU + USC + got waitlisted at both schools (which was a blow to my ego, but whatevs). At the end of March, I got into USC, which was my dream program since I really loved TC Boyle + Aimee Bender's short stories, I was intrigued with LA + I'd be an hour and a half drive away from my mom. Out of all my options, getting into USC was the best case scenario. I honestly wrote it off by March. And I knew that if I hadn't gotten in, once again, my dream to become a published novelist would slowly die with a five-day a week. But I got in + disaster was averted. This gave me the time to write + workshop a second novel, get some stories published in some prominent journals, work with a few literary heavyweights + read a shitload of novels. It was honestly as awesome as I'd hoped it'd be.
Now I'm back at the same either/or fallacy: I just finished my PhD + my MA in English/Creative Writing at USC, which is one of the seminal moments in my life + now I'm fighting to keep that dream alive for another year (or two), for another month (or three). But the options are so dramatically antithetical it's ridiculous. Either I score an teaching position or creative writing fellowship in the next couple months, or frankly, I start making mocha lattes dressed in an apron + barista visor. I know that sounds dramatic. I know that sounds insane. I know that sounds like I've simplified my reality, but this is the continuous struggle of being an emerging writer in the US: Trying to scrap together funding or score a teaching gig or win a fellowship or win a book prize or live temporarily at a writing residency, all that, all of that shit, just to keep your dream alive until you finally make it (which will be never), or at least, until your books are published by Riverhead.
At this point, if I could do anything else in the world to make a living, if there was anything else I was as good at, as devoted to, if there was anything else I had as much talent + passion + dedication + vision as with writing, If there was anything else that fucked me up + made me as bipolar + euphoric + as certain of my place in this galaxy as writing does, I would totally run off + do that because this writing life is nothing but a slow-mo existential crisis, a chess match with yourself, an artistic war with almost no survivors. But dude, I can't help it. This is the only thing I'm awesome at, the only thing that has ever made sense to me, the only thing that has kept me up at night + woken my ass up in the early morning, the only thing that I could do for days without food or water, the only thing that threatens my marriage + confuses my family, the only thing that rings inside of me like a broken campanile + gives me cosmic significance as nothing else ever has. It's all or nothing, man. It's all or nothing.
Today is the day I give my my first reading from my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, the first + only time I have to give a reading as the 2007 Sparks Prize winner + also the first (but not the last) time I'll be reading to people at Notre Dame all by myself. I'm crazy excited + also nervous as shit.
Today LB and i drove down to hear Michael Martone read at Notre Dame, and as usual, he was funny, entertaining, clever, the whole 4-movement symphony. i sent him a text (he asked all of us in the audience to) that said:
This is your mother.
Drink your water.
Which he did, though, not because he'd read my text.
While i was there, i chatted with Steve about science fiction, who i still call tom sometimes, i talked with William about his pile of slush from last year that he is only now sending rejection letters for, i talked about binary translation fallacies with Joyelle, being a mom, her 2 books coming out with fence and tarpaulin sky press, then i ran into Valerie, and i gave her a short update, later i ran into Megan the ndlf organizer extraordinaire, and Laura Fox, who is probably one of the most impressive, put together (and cute) undergrads i've met in years--we talked about Simon + Schuster and i think she knows Ginny Smith. que pequeño es el mundo, cabrón.
I have to say, it felt so good running into these people. they reminded me of what i love the most about my experience at notre dame, and it filled a small void in me to be able to talk books for a few hours, something i complained about ad nauseum last year, but that i can appreciate in bursts like today.
I hope i get to have coffee with Valerie, Steve, and William in chicago in the near future, and as Michael Martone requested, i'm definitely going to email him and pick his brain about writing. maybe, just maybe inshallah, if i'm really lucky, Michael Martone will actually read defiance of objects, the manuscript i submitted for the FC2 innovative fiction prize, but that's probably wishful thinking. on verra. . .
Anyway, so i sent him two pieces and waited. that was in february and it's strange cuz i was just thinking recently, man, he's never going to read those two pieces, and i deliberately sent him two short pieces, one is 4 pages, another is maybe 5 pages cuz i know he's mad busy. well last night, i got two emails, one from the mcsweeney's editor and another from Dave Eggers' assistant, both saying, i'm so sorry, your email got lost in the shuffle. mcsweeney's editor rejected a story i sent him in february, but told me to send him more fiction, and he also wanted me to know that he just recently read the email i'd sent him 6 months ago and he forwarded it to dave. and then dave's assistant, michelle, also sent me an email saying, Jackson, we're so sorry about this, we know you sent this email 6 months ago, but i want you to know that right now Dave's in the sudan, but he wanted me to tell you that he got your two pieces and he's going to read them when he can.
You know, it almost doesn't matter if Dave Eggers doesn't publish what i sent him. just the fact that he stayed true to his word and the fact tat he remembered me, and that he sent his assistant a personal mesage for me, makes me really happy.
Now, if Dave Eggers will just pick up either of those two pieces, i'll be ecstatic for the rest of august inshallah.
Anyway, right now, i have mad respect for Dave Eggers. he's a true mensch.
I'm gonna leave sobe in 2 days having written:
1. A complete 434-page novel
2. Sixteen new pieces of creative non-fiction
3. Twenty-six new pieces of flash fiction
4. Six new short stories
5. One really terrible napkin poem
6. Nine little hip-hop single review blurbs so far like this one
And i've published a bunch of stuff too, which is cool.
Okay, now, time to pack, and time to move back to my city. CHITOWN! CHITOWN! here i come. . .
Also, I checked my grades today and i got another 4.0 leaving my cumulative gpa at 3.96. what this really means is, i'm gonna graduate, and that's so fucking sick.
1. it's gonna be around 400 pages. there's just no way around it.
2. it's cooler and much more flawed than i thought it was gonna be.
3. once i'm done with this draft, i need to sit on it for a few weeks, and then revise the hell out of it.
4. and then, send it to lynn nesbit.
5. writing a novel is simultaneously the most natural thing i've ever done--far more natural for me than writing a short story which reminds me of someone trying to fit all of his clothes into a tiny suitcase--and by far, the most demanding and intense thing, artistically i've ever done.
6. writing a novel, even more than a collection of short stories, is the very definition and essence of h. bergson's theory of élan vital, no question about it.
7. this novel is gonna be fucking big man.
Now, i really need to take a shower and think about something else.
I know this is the name of the game, but frankly, this past week i've been getting so goddamn sick of rejections. i don't even understand how the worst story in the whole world--statistically speaking--could get rejected that many times, morever, a really good story. the numbers aren't in our favor, but still, sometimes, i still have to keep asking myself, why is it so fucking difficult to publish an awesome short story of mine, and why do i keep reading stories in journals that are like hmm, or ho-hum, and sometimes, oh nice, but almost never, holy shit. i mean, i haven't read one short story in one journal that is technically perfect yet, and that's normal, and my stories certainly aren't anywhere near being perfect either. but why can one of those great but imperfect short stories be one of mine? it's annoying the shit out me and putting me in a really bad mood today. . . hence, the ghetto star rap i've been enjoying so much. i understand now, more than ever, why there are more literary journals than there has ever been in america. paradoxically, there aren't more lit journal readers, there are just more journals, and why? cuz writers are sick of rejections. there can't be another explanation. one day, another writer says, you know what? fuck this, i'm gonna start my own shit.
I must have received 5 or 6 really encouraging rejection letters from Missouri review, but i just can't seem to get a yes from those fuckers. okay, i luv the Missouri review, but i really wish they'd finally publish one of my stories. literary publishing is like the greatest cock tease/drive by of all time.
my mfa thesis reading
my japanese oral exam
my written japanese final
my mfa thesis
a gazillion quizzes and tests
a 100 kanji later
I'm all done with everything. i'm gonna graduate and everything. i'm so stoked about this. i can't possibly tell some of you how excited i am to have closure on grad school after having to leave yale when i was too poor to finish, this really means alot to me. and i had to work so damn hard to get here, to get accepted into a mfa program when i was a americorps volunteer living on 700 bucks a month and foodstamps in chicago, and to graduate, and it's been worth every moment and i'm so grateful. in two to three weeks, i'm gonna sit down, look at my diploma that came in the mail, and say, yo, i have a masters degree now. and that's so fucking rad for me. it means the world to me. and if there's truly a spirit world, it means everything to my obaasama too.
Now, i just have to pack, and work on my novel. i have 2 weeks to pack, 2 weeks to finish my book, and around a month or so--give or take, well, another month or so--to revise before i send lynn nesbit my finished draft. i think this summer is gonna be rad. i can barely contain my joy.
I got an email from lynn nesbit's office a few days ago that said, sorry, we had a misunderstanding. the consensus here--in the new publishing world, god i wish--is that you're a very good writer (chin up kiddo) but we need a complete manuscript before we can decide whether to take you on as a client. in a way, though, this was the perfect impetus to finish my novel cuz now i have someone to write for again now that i'm 3 weeks from graduating and ditching this school cafeteria.
My rejection from 9th letter was depressing. even after i became friends with the cnf editor, Juan Sanchez, who's a cool dude, i still couldn't publish my piece. no luv from the cnf putos.
My consolation? Yakitate japan anime (i'm sad that i only have 6 episodes left--a sure sign of my addiction). Also, I bought these great frozen soba noodles, and with a good miso base and some okonomi sauce, it's really quite something.