Kicking it with Ron Carlson because UCI

I met up and chatted with Ron Carlson today (the author of Five Skies, The Signal, and Plan B for the Middle Class,among other works) and I have to say, I thought he was pretty cool:  smart, funny, interesting, observant, slightly offbeat.  Aimee had introduced me to him being a UCI MFA grad and everything.  Anyway, here are some of the highlights of our convo:

1.  Unlike some compulsive fiction writers (à la TC Boyle and Joyce Carol Oates), he told me that sometimes he doesn't write for days and he really enjoys that perspective, the simple act of living, which gives him a good counterbalance to his writing life

2.  He said he never wants to hate (his own) writing, which is why he never pushes himself to write when he doesn't want to write

3.  He said that you can't force your writing.  You can't rush your writing.  And you can't quantify the quality of the work itself as if your writing operates on some point system.  If you write one awesome page, that's better than say 50 meh pages

4.  After I told him that I've had a bunch of agents asking for full manuscripts of Ninjas in the past year, and how Coffee House Press was still considering Atlas of Tiny Desires, my collection of short stories and how Kaya Press was about to give me their verdict on Amnesia very soon, he said:  —You're busy.  Then he said:  —I hope you don't mind me giving you some advice (which I didn't), but don't get burned out, Jackson. 

I told him I knew what he meant, but also that I tried to use one manuscript as artistic respite from another manuscript.  So, for example, if I got sick of revising Amnesia again, I'd work on Dream Pop Origami, my experimental memoir.  When I could no longer evaluate that manuscript effectively, I'd switch to Ninjas.  It's my way to keep writing without hating the act of writing itself.  So far, it's been working out pretty well.

5.  I also told him that if he needs any more lecturers in creative writing in the future (it can't hurt to ask), he should hit me up.  He gave me a knowing smile and then said he's got my email now, which was his way of saying "Nice way you snuck in your pitch like that but as you know since you teach here, our department is being ravaged by a Dean who just gave a bunch of lecturer positions to TA's from other departments."

6.  I told him how much I'd learned from Aimee, one of his protégées, how she taught me to actually sit with my characters instead of whizzing by to the next scene and he seemed to appreciate that advice.  He said that often the biggest mistakes fiction writers make aren't the obvious ones that workshops focus on, but the things they passed on up, the missed opportunities in their own fiction to let a character, a place, a moment, bloom for just a few moments.

Ultimately, there was a lot more I wanted to talk about with him, but our conversation came to a comfortable and organic lull after forty-five minutes and I was happy to leave it there.

Just as important to me, I know now that when I spot him in the bright hallways of UC Irvine in the next year, we'll recognize each other, which can only be a good thing for me in the writing universe.

Resisting False Dichotomies (AKA a Month of Fidgeting)

I do my best to resist false dichotomies.  Not only are they warped, fucked up little distortions of reality, but they're also usually untrue.  This is why false dichotomies are considered a logical fallacy, one I taught my students at USC to identify + deconstruct.  But sometimes your life actually is one + that's where things really go to shit.  And the worst part is, this happens almost every 2-4 years . . .

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.