Protecting this Delicate Thing Called Hope

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. 

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The Spaces in Between

The period between March and June has always been, and will probably always be, a dramatic time in my life.  Most of the best (and also worst) news I've received is during this time frame.  For example:

1.  Winning the Sparks Prize

2.  Getting rejected from the JET program (for being too old)

3.  Getting accepted into SC's PhD program in Literature and Creative Writing

4.  Hearing back from all the tenure track jobs you applied to, where they gush about what an insanely large and especially talented pool of candidates there were, which made their job especially difficult

5.  Seeing my short story on Tin House's website

6.  Getting accepted in Notre Dame's MFA program

7.  Visiting Rome, Hong Kong, Macau, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Tokyo, and London

8. Finding out whether I'm getting (re)hired at UC Irvine after an exhaustive application process

9.  Getting married to LB, something I never thought I'd do and something I never wanted to do until we fell in love

This list could go on.  If we were at a café, this list would go on.  But the point is, shit always goes down this quarter.  Sometimes, it's bad.  Usually though, it's good.  But it's always crazy enlightening (and crazy dramatic too).  So, it's with immense curiosity (and slight trepidation) that I wait to hear the state of the world for me in 2016.  Stay tuned, people.  Shit could get crazy.


Riffing with TC Boyle

Every time I meet up with Tom, it invariably becomes this dope riff session on writing, culture, and music.  We end up talking about our favorite writers, our MFA days, our different views on craft, SoCal cultural mythology, East Coast/Midwest nostalgia, famous writers we've worked with who changed our life, a short bitch session on literary agents, random Rock'n'Roll references, followed by a short Q and A where I ask him questions about reading for the New Yorker Festival and going on tour in Europe and his revision process.  Today, more than ever, I felt like we were two friends in two very different stages of our literary career, just kicking it for a half an hour.  Some of the highlights of this convo included:

1.  Tom gave me some love for "The Invisible Dress," a chapter from my debut novel, The Amnesia of Junebugs, that he read as part of the Writer-in-Residence deal at USC.  He said it was one of the best things he's read of mine in a while, but then he stopped himself and said, "but you've written a lot of great stuff, so . . . "  I laughed when he said that

2.  After he said that sometimes he likes to "rewrite" classic short stories like The Overcoat, we began crooning about the Russian masters like Gogol, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky, all of whom I read voraciously in college.  Diary of a Madmen, The Nose, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Possessed, Notes from Underground, The Idiot, War and Peace, The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, were some of my most treasured novels back then.  And for Tom too, a connection I didn't even know we had

3.  Tom told about his experience being an editor for the Best American Stories 2015, which honestly, sounds totally fucking exhausting.  It was especially interesting to hear him talk about how he picked thetwenty stories for the collection

4.  Tom talked about switching from Viking to Ecco, his sadness about leaving one editor and his happiness about working with another

5.  Tom said he thought this was gonna be my year.  I told him I hope he's right.

6.  Tom asked me how things were going at UCI (very good).  Then, he asked me if I was applying to tenure track jobs this year, which I am.  I explained that I'm applying to every decent, great, and awesome, tenure track job out there located in or near a major metropolitan area, even jobs out of my league, because you've got to.  Someone will get those jobs, why not me?  He replied, "Now, you just need a book contract and everything else will fall in line for you with your PhD."  In his own sweet but indirect way, Tom implied that he's waiting to write a blurb for me and honestly, I can't wait for that.  In fact, sending him, Aimee, Percival, Valerie Sayers, Frances Sherwood, and Steve Tomasula emails for blurbs will be one of the sweetest parts of finally getting a contract because I'll get to thank them for all of their support, advice, and insight over the years

7.  Tom talked about his days as the fiction editor at the Iowa Review where he basically picked the stories he liked the most, and then sent his recommendations to Robert Coover who picked from Tom's shortlist all the way from London

8.  Tom talked about how fucking slow McSweeney's is, even with marquee writers like him.  They bought one of his stories a million years ago and still hadn't published it yet, which eventually made his agent, Georges Borchardt, badger them a little bit.  "I really don't care," Tom explained, "because they already bought the story."  Must be nice to have such an illustrious publishing career that you actually don't give a shit when McSweeney's gets around to publishing your short story.

9.  Tom and I agree that Tobias Wolf's Bullet in the Brain is one of the gold standards by which other short stories should be judged

10.  I feel like now, more than ever, Tom is waiting for me to make it big.  I feel like my time is coming.  He feels like my time is coming.  I know he believes in me as a writer with talent and stubborness to burn, which is an amazing source of confidence and support for me, but now I have to go out and slay this dragon myself.  I'm the only one who can do it.  I know he'll be cheering me from the sidelines, which I feel blessed about

Dr. Now What?

So, a lot has happened in 2013.  I finished Dishonored . . .
I played the shit out of Borderlands 2 (including all 4 expansion packs--what a dork!).  Personally, I like the Siren.
I published a lyrical essay in the Kartika Review about the last days of my Japanese obāsan's life + her battle with dementia.
I finally received my contributor's copies of my short story that was published in Fiction International
I defeated the final boss in Final Fantasy XIII-2, which was fucking hard, man!
For the first time in my adult life, one of my two fave college football teams was ranked #1 in graduation rates + #1 in the BCS at the end of the regular season (before getting their ass kicked by Alabama).  The national championship game may not have been pretty, but I'm still crazy proud of ND for going 12-0 against four ranked teams.  I think this augurs well for Brian Kelly + Irish fans.
I saw the Chagall mural that literally changed my life as a Chicago teenager (+ also heard the Smiths playing in my head)
I experienced a real Winter for the first time in four fucking years.  Here's Zoe captivated (horrified) by Chicago's brutal wind chill
I flew back to LA for my thesis defense, hung out with some great friends + walked around Venice Beach (pictured)
I passed my thesis defense with flying colors (or so my committee chair said)
I turned 39, which really scared the fuck out of me, but at least both numbers are divisible by 3 (my fave number, dude)

I  finished my dissertation + became a doctor!

I finished playing Bioshock Infinite on both medium + hard levels (not 1999-I kept running out of $$$).  And maybe, just maybe, I had a small crush on  Elizabeth.  I also fucking loved the quantum mechanics narrative at the end, which was brilliant.

So yes, by all means, I've had a few seminal moments in my life since the beginning of 2013, some of them huge, others simply fun + self-defining.  But the problem with getting your PhD (if getting a PhD can be a problem) is that you go from have a clear-cut path for 4-6 years (4 in my case) with guaranteed funding, amazing conversations in + outside seminar + a sense of purpose, you get to vaporize a shitload of life-changing novels (which you can't really appreciate because you're reading them too fast), evolve intellectually, work with some of the best fiction writers + scholars in the whole damn world, live in a cool (+ totally unsustainable) city like LA + exist in a perfectly linear trajectory for all of grad school.

But now what?  I just went from one of the most pivotal moments in life ("I'm so awesome!") to being unemployed ("I'm so sad!).  I went from knowing exactly what I wanted to do with my life to having no idea what I'm doing, from having enough cash to buy so many books + posthipster clothes my heart could almost burst, to being gradually poorer, from hoping for the best situation with academic jobs to considering the crappiest comp jobs you could imagine at the lowliest community colleges, just to get by.  It's something you don't wanna think about while you're pounding away on your dissertation because you can't even think straight when you have a soft deadline for your thesis defense + a hard deadline for submitting your dissertation to the Graduate School for formatting.  But once you're done with all that, you look around + you go:  fuck, now what do I do?

Don't get me wrong.  I'm an eternal optimist.  I believe in people.  I believe in myself.  I believe that good things will happen.  I could get a literary agent next week.  My second novel could be accepted for publication by an indie publisher next month.  My collection of short stories could be accepted for publication sometime in Autumn.  I could get an email for an interview for one of the many academic jobs I applied to, like tomorrow.   But the thing is, my life as an aspiring literary fiction writer + professor-to-be is one big contingency plan, a perpetual lesson in professional + existential uncertainty.  Things can work out.  I believe things will work out.  But right now, I have to say it kinda blows.

Lucy Carson Requests Full Manuscript of Ninjas

After a month, I thought Lucy Carson had erased my query letter.  Because I have my shit together (I'm OCD), I keep a linear log of all my submissions (both to agents, literary journals + CW jobs), with color coding based on the final results of each submission.  Black = manuscript still in play.  Orange = manuscript being reviewed (useful only for submishmash/journals with online submission manager).  Light grey = rejection (because it's the easiest on the eyes).  Green = acceptance.  Blue = withdrawn.  Red = who who the fuck knows what happened?  The point being, after a week, I'd already changed my query status for Lucy Carson from black to red because I hadn't heard a thing.  Usually, when agents don't respond within a week, they don't respond at all.  That's been my experience 99.999% of the time.  But today:  Jackson, meet exception.  Exception, Jackson.

Today I got a very gracious response today from Lucy Carson requesting the entire novel.  She also thanked me for my kind words for one of her clients, Ruth Ozeki, who I read at USC + mentioned in my query letter.  Some of the clients at The Friedrich Agency include:  The Pulitzer prize-winning Jane Smiley, Esmeralda Santiago, Ruth Ozeki, Carol Muske-Dukes (a USC poet, no less) + Elena Gorokhova.  Not bad at all.  But to put things in perspective, statistically speaking, the number of literary fiction writers + male writers at this agency is slim.  So, I'm not going to delude myself into expecting miracles here.  But, I def appreciate the full manuscript request.  Now let's see if it's a good fit for her.  If not, I'm certainly flattered nevertheless that a tech-savvy agent like LC showed interest in my novel. 

Lyrical Essay Published in Kartika Review

It's tough writing about your family, even tougher I think writing about your Japanese Grandmother when she was the heart + soul of your family as mine was.  Years after she passed away, I'm still trying to understand how much of my own cultural identity came from her, from our conversations, our meals + our holiday traditions, from her stories of Japan + of our Japanese family in Tokyo + Osaka.  After taking a class on war + memory with Viet Nguyen at USC during my early PhD years, Viet allowed me to write a lyrical essay instead of an analytical one for our final paper, which was an amazing blessing.  After a lot of intermittent revision over two years + more recently with the CNF editor at Kartika Review, Jennifer Derilo (who I respect/adore), my lyrical essay "The Transfusion of Yukiyo Kanahashi" is now live.  In many ways, it's heartbreaking + raw + honest + powerful.  But my hope is that this essay will keep her memory alive while also providing me (+ the reader) the space to take apart our own preconceptions about our selves while celebrating the erosion of memory + even life.  I make no bold claims about this essay except that it helped me celebrate my sobo's life + the Japanese ancestry in our family while also giving me the cultural + emotional space to finally let go of her + share my imperfect memory of her with the world (reader).  If you wanna buy a black and white hardcopy of issue 15, go here.  If you don't have funds to drop, you can also read my essay on line here.

Runner Up for the Poets and Writers California Writers Exchange Award

This morning, my writing friend Christina Lee Zilka congratulated me + some other peeps for being a finalist of the Poets and Writers California Writers Exchange Award.  I applied for this award when I was still living in LA but had totally forgotten about it.  Since then, my wife + I decided to move back to Chicago.  So, maybe in the spirit of the award I don't deserve it cuz I'm not in California anymore.  But regardless, when I took a look at the P+W website, I discovered that I was the fucking runner up!  Out of 600 fiction manuscripts + I was the motherfucking runner up!  My joy, though was quickly taken over by frustration + elation + sadness.  Dude, I was so fucking close.  If the judge (the well-known + well-respected Chris Abani, who's a former PhD alumnus of my program at USC, by the way) had picked my manuscript, I would have received an all-expenses paid trip to NYC to mingle with agents, editors + give a fucking reading in the City.  Winning this award would have helped launch my emerging literary career + put me in contact with some of the players in the industry.  This would have been it, man.  This would have been it. 

Motherfucking runner up.  Don't get me wrong, I'm crazy flattered.  But being so close, I'm depressed too.  I mean, at least being a finalist is like:  Yo, you're really good, but who knows how many people separated you from the winner.  But runner up is one of those titles with all the prestige + none of the glory.  You get the name, but no hardware.  It's like being 4th place in the Olympics.  I've always felt the worst for that dude, for that woman, who came so close to distinction but then fell short for whatever reason.  I'm happy for the winner, Laura Joyce Davis.  Her manuscript was polished, controlled + very well-written.  Personally, I think my story is a little better + a little more cohesive than her novel excerpt, but whatevs.  She deserved it.  Though, of course, I think I did too.  But the truth is, I didn't realize how much I really wanted this thing until I understood how fucking close I was.  You know what I'm saying?  I'm happy about the honor of being a runner up + happy for LJD, but I'm so bummed, man.  This could have been my opening as a hapa fiction writer.  But instead, I keep looking for a way in like I always do.

David Mura Writes Back

I wrote David Mura a few weeks ago, author of recent poetry collection Angels of the Burning + novel Famous Suicides of the Japanese Empire (Coffee House Press), among other books, telling him I really admired/loved Where the Body Meets Memory + that I was planning on using part of it in the critical component of my dissertation I've been working on at SC.  Anyway, I'm included part of his response which he kindly sent me:

Dear Jackson

Thanks so much for your kind words about my work. It means a lot to me that someone like you is taking an interest in and writing about WTBMM. Your dissertation sounds like an interesting and exciting project (I have a friend who's also doing a dissertation combining scholarly and creative writing although her committee only allowed a chapter for the creative writing) . . .

Good luck with your work, and yes, if your novel is published, do hit me up for a blurb.

Good luck with your work.


2nd Story Accepted in 2012

I was at Argo Café, the one near the Water Tower when I checked my email on my iPhone + saw this message today:

Dear Jackson,

I am writing to let you know that Bob Fogarty, the Antioch Review editor, is trying to reach you.  He sent you an email and called as well.  Perhaps you can try to reach him at ***-***-****.

Thanks, M*****

Now, Bob sent me a nice rejection letter last year for a story I'd sent him + also told me to give my regards to Aimee + Tom the next time I saw them since he'd published stories by both of them both in the 80's + also more recently.  So I called him, my heart beating madly in my once-sticky t-shirt (typical Chicago summer, man).  I figured he just wanted to talk to me about my story + tell me the things that didn't work for him, a sort of gracious rejection.  But he was out, so I was left in complete suspense.  As it turned out, he'd sent me this email that never made it to me until a month later (5 August 2012, to be exact), which would have cleared up a lot of things:


Thanks for the call. I read your story and want to take it for AR.  I will call this afternoon.

Bob Fogarty

Later on, he called me + we did talk for a good twenty minutes about David St. Jean, who was the former poetry editor at the Antioch Review (my first year at USC, I took this amazing interdisciplinary graduate seminar with David St. Jean + Frank Tichelli, a class where poets wrote a series of poems, ending in a complete poetic cycle, +  then composers set those lyrics to music + finally MA + PhD musical performance students performed the music with your words--fucking amazing).  Then, we talked about Tom, Aimee, Rogers Park (where I live now, what I called a little Berkeley + Bob called a little Brooklyn), how walkable Chicago is, how great its mass transit is + about how creative programs are slowly being devoured by English Departments (Read:  Columbia College).  And then at the end of all of that, Bob told me he really liked the energy, voice + intensity of my short story "The Blue Men inside My Head," + thought the length was appropriate for the subject matter + that he'd be happy to publish it in the Antioch Review.  Again, if I'd received the above email, the suspense wouldn't have suffocated me so much!  Still, I was so excited I almost came in my pants.  Fortunately, I recovered + told him I was really flattered/excited/happy to finally get a piece in his journal.

To give you an idea of how badass this journal is (if you already know, feel free to skip this part), the Antioch Review is one of the oldest literary journals in the country + has published luminaries like:  Ralph Ellison, John Dewey, Philip Levine, Sylvia Plath, William Trevor, TC Boyle (holler!), Gordan Lish, Raymond fucking Carver, Edith Pearlman, Aimee Bender, Bret Lott, Ha Jin, among others.  It's just such an amazing honor to get a story accepted in this journal.  I've sending stories to this journal off + on for over 7 years. And now, it's all worth it.    

At Least I Know My Writing is Hot

And the battle continues, my friends:

Dear Jackson Bliss,

Pleased to have your project, " . . .", what a provocative title.  Clearly, your writing is HOT, which is why Tom Boyle recommended you, I’m sure.  And yet, I’ve found that I’m just not connecting w the material in the way I’d hoped, and am having some trouble w the narrative voice. It somehow reads more like a memoir than a novel, and can feel predictable. Of course, I could be totally wrong about this, and a big house may be excited to sign on. Otherwise I see this as a better fit for a smaller house, in which case you don’t necessarily need an agent. This is entirely an objective opinion, as you know, and I’ll wish you the very best with another agency!

Shall be cheering you on, and thank you again for the look, and for Tom’s kind referral.

Sandy Dijkstra

After the bad news, I did the one thing that always makes sense after a big rejection, I submitted my novel to Graywolf Press.  Ding, ding:  Round 9.

Sent My Second Novel to Sandra Dijkstra

If you'll remember, Tom ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year and a half ago at some literary event + asked him if he could recommend any up-and-coming fiction writers to her. TC Boyle was kind enough to recommend me (which was relatively easy for him to do because I'd just taken a workshop with him the previous semester so my work was pretty fresh in his mind), after which, she told him to tell me I should send her my novel. So, I stopped by Tom's office where he promptly hand-wrote a referral letter for me on SC stationery, sealed the envelope + then plopped the letter in outgoing campus mail. I was so flattered + excited. But then a week later, I sent Sandra Dijkstra a query letter with my first novel + I never received a reply. To be honest, I was really pissed off.

But because I'm a stubborn motherfucker + also because glitches in the matrix happen all the time, I decided to write Sandra Dijkstra a year letter with a new query letter for my second novel, just to see what would happen. And miraculously: It turns out that they never got my first query letter. This shit happens all the time, man. If anything, I was relieved to hear they hadn't received my first query letter because I was superfrustrated at not getting a response. Anyway, long story short, they apologized for not getting my first email but told me they'd love to read my second novel, so I've been doing a master revision for the past two weeks + I just sent them the entire novel a few minutes ago. Would it be fucking amazing if they picked me up? Hell yes. Do I think this is really gonna happen? No idea. See, one of my biggest problems is that I always think everything could change in a flash + I keep pushing for that moment to happen. But I make no assumptions, I just cross my fingers during these liminal moments + keep on writing. Maybe it'll work out. Maybe not, but either way, it's a chance I didn't have before.

Talking about Mountain Lions at TC Boyle's House

LB + I were in Santa Barbara last weekend.  I mentioned this to Tom earlier in the week + he told me to stop on by his house.  I believe the exact words he used were "pop by for a bit."  LB was fidgeting during the whole car ride, at the Vietnamese restaurant where we ate lunch with the unfriendly waitress, driving up the hill to Tom's place.  We parked on the street, kicked open a stuck gate door + saw this:

Then we walked down the pathway where Tom eventually greeted us at a side entrance. He gave us the grand tour of his amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house (which was the partial inspiration of The Women, a fact he pointed to us as we were talking around, taking in the pouring sunlight inside his house). I knelt on the floor and looked through Tom's glass bookshelves, filled in neat, long rows of his books translated into 12 different languages. Man, I thought, this dude is the straight dope. He's the real thing.

After introducing us to his 17-year old cat, who seemed shocked that I'd interrupt her during her catnap to pet her, we met Tom's wife (Karen) + then walked into the backyard and to an adjacent yard where Tom's daughter lives (I guess). Then we drank red wine with Tom, Karen, one of Tom's gregarious millionaire neighbors whose teeth were eerily perfect + his Siberian wife, Tom + Karen's daughter's boyfriend, Spence, + this dude who looked vaguely familiar, who was housesitting for Tom's daughter + I believe was also in the process of making Anne-Marie's book trailer for Two Dollar Radio Press. But I dunno, maybe I totally fucked up that whole who's who. LB + I politely passed on the stinky French cheese (because we're both vegan), but did nibble on potato chips. And man, some of the things we talked about were absolutely strange. A few highlights:

1. Speaking in French with The Man with Perfect Teeth (ah, combien tu me manques, la langue française!)

2. Getting in a long, heated, but largely one-sided argument with Tom's wife about what a total fascist Steve Jobs was + how much better Bill Gates was. The truth is, I love me some Apple products, but I abhor Apple labor practices in China in much the same way I abhor the manufacturing of virtually all tech stuff in Asia. I also love/admire the hundreds of millions of dollars that Bill Gates has donated to charities, as well as his immunization project since his retirement from Microsoft. But, as I pointed out, Bill Gates was as much of a fascist when he was Microsoft's CEO as Steve Jobs was with Apple (both of them stealing shit from the little guy), so it's a wash. This is where I thought we were gonna come to a compromise, but then Karen started ranting about the way Steve Jobs disowned his own daughter. This is when Tom came to my rescue + said that the topic we were talking passionately about was one of his wife's little obsessions.
--It's not an obsession, she snapped.
I laughed, sipped my wine, and realized I kinda liked Karen's spunk. She's got chutzpah, man

3. Getting in a prolonged conversation with Tom + the neighbor with the perfect teeth about--of all things--brown bears, moose and mountain lions. Tom said he's seen several mountain lions during his strolls around his neighborhood + had almost run into several bears too. I was thinking: Man, I have absolutely nothing to contribute to this conversation

4. Talking with Spence about living in Argentina for a year + learning the art of voseo + rioplaténse Spanish

5. Hearing Tom call my wife LB (which is my nickname for her that I claim is her actual name whenever I introduce her to people. Actually, it stands for "little bug," but Tom said he liked LB, in part, because it's like "TC")

6. Getting in a nice, long conversation with Tom about The Ninjas of My Greater Self, which he's probably going to read this summer since he's my thesis director. I told him that after not hearing from Sandra Dijkstra for a year, I'd sent her office a new query letter for NINJAS + got a gracious response soon after explaining that they never got my first query letter (which I totally believe) but that they'd love to read NINJAS. Tom seemed pleased about this. You have to remember: He ran into Sandra Dijkstra a year ago, who'd asked him if he had any writers to recommend + he told her about me + she'd shown interest in reading my work, so Tom had written a personal letter on my behalf right in front of me in his office. Then, I'd sent the agency a query letter for BLANK + nothing. Now, we know why. Obviously, this new development is much promising for me. FYI, I'm revising NINJAS for like the 100th time + I'm planning on sending Sandra Dijkstra my novel sometime in the next week. I also learned through talking to Tom with my stained, red lips + tannin in my teeth, that Sandra Dijkstra represents another one of Tom's former students, Chris Abani, author of Graceland, among other novels, so maybe, just maybe there's even a little precedent on my side. Either way, it's still an opportunity I didn't have before I was one of his students, so I'm extremely honored to have this chance.

7. Right before LB + I left, I told Tom about my vision: I want to become a spokesperson for a cultural revolution that embraces technological innovation (like my fucking dope new ipad I use to read the Huffington Post + Le Monde) but also consciously embraces old skool media, like record players + most importantly for me, hardcover books! He liked it. T

8. I confessed to Tom that I'm a writer because it's the only thing I'm actually great at. Sure, I can play piano + write electronic music pretty well. I'm proficient with foreign languages. I love understanding people + relationships, I'm intuitive + a passionate lover. I'm also a pretty good cook + my sense of style is respectable. But, writing is the thing I'm really fucking good at, the one thing where I feel I can make an important + unique contribution to this world. I may not be able to figure out a viable two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, but I can write the fuck out of a novel.

9. Tom told me I'm like him because my writing has a lot of energy + I love giving readings, I love the performative, interactive element of being an author as much as I love the writing itself, which is important. That's when I realized that I'm just a little bit like Tom (or an early version of him), which is probably one of the reasons I applied to SC in the first place, to work with such a literary legend.

My Summer Just Got a Little Easier

Summers are always a source of anxiety for grad students (do I teach comp? Do I grade AP exams? Do I work for minimum wage at an indie bookstore? Do I schlepp mocha lattes to IT professionals? Do I apply for some random travel grant for grad students who are of mixed Armenian-Azeri-Turkish descent + also gay, fans of Ayn Raynd, and former wards of the state?). For this reason, summers for me now are diametrical to childhood summers, when simply muttering the word "summer" evoked images of swimming, summer camp, girls in jean shorts, festivals, watermelon, fireworks, cherry pies and gilded skin. Adulthood is nasty that way. But I just found out yesterday that I received an ACE/Nikaido fellowship for this summer (my second one in two years), which will give me enough money to pay my bills, split rent with LB, study conversational Japanese in Chicago at the Japan America Society of Chicago (god knows I need it considering my nihongo still sounds like a babbling 6-year old) + most importantly, spend this summer reading books for my dissertation, revising NINJAS, starting a third novel + writing the critical portion of my dissertation. I don't have a wealthy daddy or a trust fund or leftover cash from a recent stock transaction, but what I do have is institutional support for this summer + next year (when I go on advanced fellowship), so I'm insanely grateful for that. Also, I have a wife who has a real job + that of course helps the most.

Disappointing Form(ish) Rejection from Georges Borchardt

Dear Jackson,

Thank you for sending in the complete " . . . ". Several of us here have now read your manuscript and I'm afraid we are just not quite passionate enough about this project. This is, of course, completely subjective and I'm sure you'll find the right home for this soon.

Best of luck,


I don't know what makes me sadder, the fact that Georges rejected my novel or that he sent me a fucking form rejection. Fuck, man. This hurts inside. I'm not gonna lie. But, after I get my shit together--and I will, make no mistake about that--I'm gonna pick myself back up + send my novel to some more agents. My novel has a place in this world + I need to figure out where that is. For now, I'm gonna listen to Arcade Fire, get my snack on + send out some submissions to journals.

I don't give up. I just don't. I can't.

There's Something Kinda Punk Rock about You, TC Boyle

I stopped by Tom's office yesterday to get his signature for my qualifying committee forms + also shoot the shit. I haven't chatted with him in quite awhile except for the occasional email. I have to say, I wasn't disappointed. Among the many highlights of our conversation, we talked about:

1. Tom's relationship with John Cheever at the Iowa Writers Workshop (IWW) who apparently was always drunk all the time, but was also gentle, insightful + brilliant considering he got kicked out of high school for smoking + never returned.

2. Tom's relationship with Raymond Carver, who he said, like John Cheever, drank and smoked all the fucking time. TC Boyle told me that for a while, Iowa was distancing itself from Raymond Carver, but that he + all of his classmates thought that Carver was a genius + that once the NYT Review of Books starting heaping a shitload of praise on Carver's work, the IWW asked him to teach a workshop.

3. Lan Samantha Chang, who Tom calls "Sam." I confessed to Tom that I wasn't particularly impressed with Hunger + that I'd read other Iowa fiction writers that I was much more impressed with. Tom said he hadn't read Hunger, but agreed that he didn't think she was an amazing writer based on the stories he'd read of hers, but he also argued that she had the hardest job in creative writing, which is probably true. I wouldn't want that gig. Too much pressure, man.

4. Dave Eggers, who Tom said was one of the nicest guys in the business. Not a great writer or a great reader, for that matter, an evaluation I happen to agree with having met Dave at his book signing at the Notre Dame Literary Festival back in 2006, but by all means, an important writer if for no other reason than his 826 volunteer organization, the creation of McSweeney's, The Believer, his political engagement of Sudanese causes + his annual Nonrequired Reading Anthology are all awesome, important + amazing literary things that make this world a better place. But in terms of Eggers's reading persona, that's a totally different deal. In fact, Tom mentioned that while he liked Dave Eggers a lot as a person, he found his performance as a public reader left much to be desired, in part because instead of actually reading his novel to his audience/fangirls/fanboys, Eggers mostly talks about random shit, cracks jokes, tells stories, which Tom sees as belittling Egger's own writing. And I have to say: I agree.

Near the end of our chat, I told Tom that I knew there was a reason that I always wanted to work with him when I was working on my MFA: --There's something kinda punk rock about your attitude as a writer that I really enjoy, I said, in part because it happens to be close to my own vision, though I lack the awards.
--Oh, they'll come, he said, and someday when your novel is getting a lot of buzz, you'll have to deal with all of this too.
--Well, anyway, I guess I see a kindred spirit.
That's when Tom smiled, we shook hands + said goodbye. It was a perfect chat with TC Boyle.

Well, Here Goes Nothing

So I finally did it, I sent my complete, fully revised manuscript + sophomore novel, The Ninjas of My Greater Self, to agent extraordinaire, Georges Borchardt, agent of Elie Wiesel, Ian McEwan, Robert Coover, TC Boyle, who is also in charge of the estates of Tennessee Williams, Aldous Huxley + John Gardner, this is the man who first introduced America to Lacan, Barthes, Bourdieu, Fanon, Duras, Foucault, Ionesco + Sartre. Yes, this dude is a big fucking deal, representing over 8 Pulitzer Prize winners + 2 Noble Prize winners, in fact, he may be the biggest fucking deal I've submitted to in my entire life. And while sending him my novel (which he asked for in its entirety last year after I'd sent him the first 145 pages + an outline) honestly scares the shit out of me because it puts me on the chopping block, at the same time, I kinda want to get this over with, one way or another. Does that sound bleak? I guess it does. But Ninjas is the best thing I've ever written yet. It's a fucking awesome novel, it really is.

And at this point, while nothing would make me happier in the whole fucking world than for Georges to pick me up as a client, if he doesn't, I guess at this point, I want to know that, accept that + go on with my life + stop pining for something that's not gonna happen. It's just the realist in me. Of course I'd be bummed if he didn't give me a shot, but I'd find a way to soldier on. Hopefully, though, he loves this novel enough to say yes. God knows how that would totally transform my writing career . . . I hope he sees what I see. It could be the beginning of something massive if he did.

The Ugly Side of Being a Fiction Writer (My Guidelines for Aspiring Fiction Writers)

Recently it's come to my attention through some spirited exchanges on Literary Rejections on Display, as it does at least 100 times every year, how ugly it can get trying to make it as a novelist. Now, I don't claim to have all the answers. If anything, I probably have too many questions. And though I've made some definite progress in my writing career (for which I'm always grateful for), for the most part, to quote Chris Parris-Lamb, the best part of my writing career is definitely ahead of me. All of this makes me want to lay out my own guidelines as an emerging fiction writer. These won't be your guidelines + they won't be your mother's either, unless she writes literary fiction like a motherfucker, but they are my guidelines + they help me remember what's really important in this industry. Maybe, just maybe, they'll help someone out there:

1. Don't hate on other writers. You have every right to crit the shit out of their technique or dislike their novel, or disagree with the premise of one of their short stories or remain emotionally unaffected by the characterization of their last book--published or not--but don't hate on the author. You don't fucking know the author at all, so stop pretending you do. You have no idea how much time she spends working on her writing, how much time he spends editing + revising + changing + pruning + re-revising + editing + revising his shit all over again, how dedicated she is trying to publish her novel + make her career into something besides a delusion of grandeur. For some reason, writers, especially fiction writers can be the most judgmental motherfuckers in the whole world. Put that shit in your novel + spare other writers your own couch psychoanalysis because I promise you, you're wrong 99% of the time when you think you know the author. Also, if you think an aspiring writer is whiny, try submitting 300 manuscripts in three years + then tell me how you're feeling about the industry. The vast majority of the time, writers judge other writers really harshly who are working just as hard as they are + often, even harder, to get to where they are. But all of our hard work is invisible until we get something published, sad as that is.

2. Hate the industry, not the people working in it: While I've never met an editor I didn't totally respect/admire, I've read a lot of industry stories that make me shit on myself. It's time to take a reality pill: The industry, despite itself, publishes fantastic writing (e.g. Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan, Don Delillo, Junot Diaz, Haruki Murakami, Susan Choi, Aimee Bender, TC Boyle, Joan Didion, Chuck Palahniuk, Susan Steinberg, Carole Maso, Lydia Davis, Michael Chabon, Phillip Roth, Salman Rushdie, Percival Everrett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Susan Choi, Julie Ostuka, Nami Mun, to name just a few). But it also publishes a lot of absolute crap: Celebrity memoirs, talented movie stars that publish shitty short story collection just because they're famous (James Franco, I'm talking to you, punk), reality TV stars like Kim Kardashian, Snookie, Amanda Knox. True, commercial shit pays for literary fiction, that's the rub. But it's precisely because publishing houses publish so much crap that literary fiction has no chance of succeeding, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's about accessibility: People can only buy what you put out there + if you don't put enough quality literary fiction, people don't buy it + then then the genre stagnates, slowly dying, continuing the cycle.

And while the above authors don't write workshoppy fiction, a lot of MFA grads who do get contracts do, publishing stories that agents have told me are totally derivative + safe + uninspiring + extremely polished bullshit that no one cares about. If they're lucky, they're one + out. But people need fiction that really matters. The above parenthetical writers do that, but how many other fiction writers never get through to us? Why was Confederation of Dunces not published until after John Kennedy Toole committed suicide? Why is it that we can read Jack London's Martin Eden + it still rings true about the insane cliff of rejection we face that arbitrarily changes even when our writing doesn't? I think about a story Aimee (Bender) told me once how once she had an agent, journals that had rejected her short stories suddenly started accepting the exact same stories, which really pissed her off in the beginning . . . who in his right mind would try + defend that? The system is fucked, but the people working in it are the true champions of the industry. Contradiction? Yup.

3. Don't listen to anyone who says you should fuck all the rules of follow all of them. Personally, I follow 97% of the industry rules, choosing to selectively fight my own battles the other 3% of the time. But some people treat the publishing industry as if it's some sacred child prophet--don't. It's not. It can be improved. It deserves to be critiqued. There are plenty of flaws in the system. But there are also plenty of things that are right about it too, like the authors mentioned above, like publishing houses taking a risk + publishing great art, something that's smart + challenging + richly creative like Infinite Jest + Underworld + Gravity's Rainbow + Ulysses + Hardboiled Wonderland + The End of the World + Ava + A Night at the Movies + Patchwork Girl + so many other great works of art out there, there are plenty of things working in publishing right now, like underpaid, literature-loving editors who are working nights + weekends because they love fiction more than their spouses. In fact, don't listen to anyone else's rules on writing fiction or submitting or craft maxims or writer ego or writer humility, not even mine. Write your own fucking rules + figure out which ones work for you.

4. Don't apologize about your self-confidence. To be honest, you'll fucking need it to make it in this industry. Otherwise, you'll eventually give up after you realize that some authors are publishing stories that are as good, if not worse, than your own stories, which will (should) piss you off. Mary Yukari Waters once told me that your confidence should be quiet confidence. She's probably right. Either way, you'll be criticized for believing in your own ability, you'll be criticized for believing in your own art, for believing that with enough hard work, time + serendipity, you can be the next Hemingway or Salinger or Junot Diaz or Jennifer Egan, for believing that your shit is actually comparable to other authors who've already made it to The Show. But listen, don't pay attention to the haters or the critics. Art isn't modest, it doesn't ask for permission + frankly, often it's not even welcome in the gallery. You just write your ass off + try to meet the right people who love your art + even better, happen to be powerful in the industry too.

Here's the other crazy thing: When you start working with well-known novelists, they'll be the first ones to tell you you've got the right stuff, don't give up, you've got it, keep pushing it, keep writing, you're really talented, you're gonna make it someday if you don't give up, you're already a novelist. They'll actually affirm what you tell yourself on the rough days (which can be every day). And all the things your haters + critics told you you aren't + shouldn't be, all the things they criticize about you, your mentors will, in their own way, affirm that you are + you should be, as long as you have discipline, talent + dedication, as long as you never give up + fight for your outrageous dream. Of course, your critics will tell you you're arrogant + ungrateful, but your mentors, your inner self, the budding artist within, all of them will know that you're not arrogant (that implies you think you're better than other people, a thought you've never had), you're just confident in your own ability, + also hard-working + insatiable + ambitious + creative enough to never be complacent with what you've got, never settling for what the industry gives you, but always creating new momentum for yourself in each possible lifetime. That's how you slowly make your own career, by never settling + always thanking those who have helped you--two things I've always done my entire writing career, two things I'll never stop doing.

Either way, you have to believe in your art, otherwise you'll get your heart broken + you'll give up or you'll burn up with envy + despair, + then a 1,000 other aspiring fiction writers will rush to fill your empty space you worked so hard to carve out for yourself. The truth is, people will always call you arrogant as long as you think your writing deserves to be read, but as long as you're still writing + publishing, who fucking cares what they think about you? Really, the critics/haters are making you strong for the next phase of your career, so you should thank them.