Friday, December 12, 2014

On Writing and Publishing

I want to stop writing. It is like quitting smoking. I should stop. It is getting me nowhere. It may be bad for my health—not the writing so much as the trying to write, the trying to publish and failing, the emotional toil of dealing with the rejection, the extreme emotional toil of dealing with the rejection which signals that I will not become “professional” as a writer, that the kind of professional work I want to do (academic/teaching) I cannot do professionally without the right kinds and numbers of publications. And so giving up writing is, in a way, giving up the academic professional pursuit, which in some ways would be better for my health. Pursuing writing and publication in the hope of a full time academic, teaching job entails stress, self-annihilation, emotional destruction, critique, and devaluing of anything that is good about oneself. Instead, I have come to focus on the symbolism (everything bad) that comes with each rejection. I am talking about creative work (poems, creative essays, weird short fiction) as well as academic writing (critical essays on any variety of mainly contemporary writing topics). The academic rejections are easier to take—maybe because I haven’t been doing that kind of writing for as long as the creative, and haven’t sent/had rejected as much, and have internalized my own inadequacies as an academic (writer). But when one has been a “creative writer” for so long, and so much work is consistently rejected, one has to start to question the point of doing it at all, let alone continuing to send it out for inevitable rejection. Even when one know the editors of a journal from grad school, and still one’s work is rejected there, then it must begin to become clear that there is so much writing in the world that is better, smarter, more clever, more stylistically brilliant than one’s own. A real writer might argue that writing, and process, and the experience of writing are important, and publishing should not be the focus. But not having time to make brilliant writing is a stress that I wonder would be better just let go.

To find out more about this mini-essay project see the Introduction:The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

The (Contingent)(Academic)(Teacher) in 2015

The Introduction:

I would like to pursue a series of mini-essays, each on a topic of interest to me, and maybe of interest to others. We are teachers who have become emotionally (and maybe physically) battered by the destruction of the educational system in general, and the dismantling of academia and the college/university system in particular. In more particulars, there is continually reduced interest in the importance of education as a value and little (to no) investment in teachers who are invested in offering kinds of comprehensive and quality educational opportunities to their students. At the college/university level, full-time work is farmed out to increasing numbers of part-time instructors. 

In the fall of 2014 I agreed to teach seven courses at three different schools (well, two of the schools are U of M and so share some resources, which made the extra jobs a bit more manageable) which in all reality is not actually possible. Or, well, it is possible because I did it. And I honestly don’t think I had to let too much of my own teaching philosophy and work ethic go to the wayside in order to manage that workload; though of course I have often had to work 60+ hour weeks in order to manage it. Part of me believes I should have put more of my pedagogy and work ethic aside in order to feel like a regular, professional, working person instead of trying to kill myself. The payoff is that this year (2014) I will make around $40,000 (when I do the tax return, I am estimating, but since I don’t have a salary and I try to calculate, I never really know how it all works out until I do the taxes). That sounds better than the horror stories you read about in the national news about “adjuncts” making poverty wages. But I will add here that the tenure-line faculty at two of the places I work, teaching the same classes, teaching two or three or four sections each semester, make $60,000-$70,000 or more, per year. And they have benefits which include job security (they know which and how many classes they will teach each semester), health and retirement, and also some kind of insurance I had never thought about that people have with full-time, benefits jobs: if you have to stop working for health or other reasons it offers you financial support (this is in place of, or in addition to, social security, or disability insurance which you may or may not be entitled to depending on the reason one is unable to work). 

I am also a creative writer. I have an MFA in creative writing as well as a Ph.D. in literature. I have had little success getting enough “nationally recognized” publications to be considered for full time creative writing teaching jobs. I am finding that everyone publishing now is super brilliant, and I have less and less time to work on writing in ways that would also make it (or me) super brilliant. Sometimes though what is published is the opposite of brilliant, and then I think there is the luck of the draw, or some other factors involved in publishing. I also do more experimental and innovative kinds of work in my writing. You may see some of that on this blog too. But when I am teaching seven classes, I don’t have time or interest in writing. And when nothing is getting published, I figure I am not any good at that anyway and so maybe I should just give it up and make my life easier… but this is yet another continuing conversation/debate I have in my head on a regular basis.

I also endeavor to professionalize in various ways, in order to maybe one day actually be offered a full-time teaching job. I submit all kinds of writing (academic and creative) for publication, I go to conferences, I try and read new things in my field(s). But I have many fields. The creative writing. The teaching and pedagogy in composition and rhetoric. The fringe fantasy of publishing about, and ever teaching, literature. There is no way to keep up on any of these individually, let alone all of them. But what I have learned from sending many job applications and getting few to no interviews, is that my 15+ years of teaching experience doesn’t mean as much as having publications. Maybe there are other factors. The point is that this world of teaching and writing is an apocalyptic one. These being the things that I do, and really the only things that I do well, point to my professional life as also a complete disaster. 

I can find some personal and spiritual satisfaction knowing that I have affected many students in their educational lives, and I have seen them grow and learn and develop as writers and thinkers, and as people. And because I mostly have taught at places where many students are working, and coming from working class backgrounds, I feel like teaching is a further way to practice my philosophical and social engagement in the world around me. Nonetheless, this situation goes well beyond a “love of teaching” which many argue is why people like me are doing this contingent life/work (lack of) balance. I am disrespected by these institutions exploiting my labor and time. And the students are shafted out of a better quality education for which they pay large money in their tuition dollars. The dollars don’t go into classrooms and teaching faculty. The dollars seem to go everywhere else instead.

These are the things that I think about continuously, on a daily basis, while I also wonder what I have done so wrong in my professional life to have come to this place. And I wonder what kind of a world we are now living in, in which education is in so much freefall and implosion. That doesn’t even make sense (the words) because it has become impossible to comprehend (the idea).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Review of Laura Mullen's Enduring Freedom

Check out the new issue of Something on Paper, a lovely online poetics journal filled with amazing writing and thinking by so many great poet writers:

  Something on Paper

Darling on Mullen:

Friday, August 29, 2014

from George Orwell

"Why I Write" I give all this background information because I do not think one can assess a writer's motives without knowing something of his early development. His subject matter will be determined by the age he lives in — at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own — but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. It is his job, no doubt, to discipline his temperament and avoid getting stuck at some immature stage, in some perverse mood; but if he escapes from his early influences altogether, he will have killed his impulse to write. Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are: (i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money. (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations. (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity. (iv) Political purpose. — Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude. It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time. By nature — taking your ‘nature’ to be the state you have attained when you are first adult — I am a person in whom the first three motives would outweigh the fourth. In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books, and might have remained almost unaware of my political loyalties. As it is I have been forced into becoming a sort of pamphleteer. First I spent five years in an unsuitable profession (the Indian Imperial Police, in Burma), and then I underwent poverty and the sense of failure. This increased my natural hatred of authority and made me for the first time fully aware of the existence of the working classes, and the job in Burma had given me some understanding of the nature of imperialism: but these experiences were not enough to give me an accurate political orientation. Then came Hitler, the Spanish Civil War, etc. By the end of 1935 I had still failed to reach a firm decision.

Friday, August 08, 2014


On a day when lyrics have become fluted, like rain, flickering. As if announced, the entertainment portion of the event swallows any serious discussion. A correct calibration of nonsense, humor, desperation. A gentle brush, a silence. We long for anything poignant. Imbibe flattery. This generic unfulfilled wish is like constant flattery, a repetition of a single last hope. I am trying to describe the way that sci-fi captures each fault and promise of something better. In the stars a construction of syllables that equal personal expression and salvation. The intoxicating sound of eyelashes fluttering will lead us all into Nirvana. In the meantime, details shatter. Noise is metallic. We forget to walk through the park. Fashion has become political. We can’t remember yesterday. The pink sky behind industrial jobs blinds us to its pollution. We use the word temporary. Pain is like a weed that flowers by chance, dies off in winter. Only hiding out until the return of spring. We have come so far, a visual sensation narrates progress and the sun rise of each morning. Potential lies under the surface, bubbling. Bare tree branches represent the inconceivable. Hope has feathers you know, little else maybe. Concrete lies against wild nature. Grey and orange mix, become indiscernible. Storms linger. Silence repeats, holds back texture and choreography. A body impulse is more like intoxication, a drunken monologue of manic silence. We create a theory of expression. We claim our spaces. Watch political intention like soap on the box of media saturation. We imbibe the status quo. And we recalculate. In bold colors, against skin, using a thesaurus of words, dictionaries piled like castles, the power of language, we correct your misconceptions. You shatter. You blaspheme, spit nonsense, fake pleasure. We no longer love. We shame you and your deceptions. Our homes may be made of glass but the walls are covered with roses, tinted and peeling, but still scented sweet. We cook stone soup and name it future, an inspired culinary choice. Respect a slower pace. Practice the erosion of monotony. Combat violence in thought and action. We are endeavoring for a sense of meaning. Fill in the edges until the edges are full of power and commitment. We are 99% of the fed up and concerned with alternatives. We want you to give back: our money, our time, our dreams, our integrity. We are embarrassed for you. And we are moving out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

sustain sun in through unexpected listening, a visual sensation narrates.  potential, under the surface, bare tree branches of the inconceivable. hope has feathers you know, little else. concrete array intoned against,  storms lingering. grey orange mix. silent refrain—repeat and hold back—the coloring texture noisy maneuvering. body impulse, intoxication,  monologues of manic silence.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

memory, or this moment, and a camera

I have found and am wearing my overalls from the early 2000s. Loungewear. Summerwear. Feeling like I am still a graduate student. The early 2000s, the early years of creative optimism. The dog relocates sleeping spots, it was thunderstorming just earlier, she's less pestering about a walk, we'll get to it. I am working on focusing myself. Into and out of writing-block. Project-block-due-to-overwhelming nature of too many projects simultaneously. And another new idea. The goal is to focus on one project at a time. The reality is the opposite. Collections of sub-par writing. But I read published collections of sub-par writing all of the time. Or maybe I don't read the whole collections, when it is not great work. Moving work around, revising, deciding. Taking pieces out, putting pieces in. Breaking larger projects into smaller ones. Different submission requirements. How to focus the collections in particular ways and develop further. It is spring. It is not raining like it was forecast just yesterday. I want to write essays like Diane Ackerman:

My infant years might have happened in an aquarium, so silent and full of mixing shapes were they. How strange that a time filled with my own endless wailings, gurglings, and the soothing coos and baby talk of my mother should remain in my memory as a thick, silent dream in which clearer than any sound was the blond varnish on my crib, whose pale streaky gloss I knew like a birthmark, as it was for so many months of my life. (from "In the Memory Mines")

Or like William Vollman, who uses the camera obscura as metaphor and prop for thinking of his own place in the world as journalist, father, and citizen in a complex contemporary culture...

Upon the shallow curved bowl within the camera obscura, the gray sea began to turn. It had been turning before, but until my pupils dilated I saw nothing but darkness. A circular railing protected me from falling into this living picture of organized daylight projected into that concavity. Came the Cliff House, out of focus because it was too near. I might have seen two lovers wandering hand in hand into the Musee Mecanique.

The lens whirls over a map of Afghanistan. We see points of light. These mark the sites where our cruise missiles have struck. Whom did we kill and why? No matter--the lens must move on. What do our new enemies say about us in their capital? Well, we can imagine--or more likely, we can't imaging--and it's time to move on.

Here is Kabul at night: headlights, lanterns within wheeled fruit stands, people in buses packed tightly together like the inmates of mass graves, turbaned Talibs sauntering down the street, lords of all they survey, everything dark and dim, then just dark with snow falling. Women in blue and black burqas are walking home. I hear the rattle of handcarts, and now it's darker and darker. My lens moves on. Have I "understood" Afghanistan? Not by a long shot. But at least I saw it. I didn't just watch it on CNN.

 This essay was originally published in Forbes ASAP, a shoot-off publication focused on writing about technology and digital culture, and that stopped publishing in the early 2000s. I am surprised that this was published there, its formal creativity and non-linear narrative--one might say hybrid--structure. And reprinted in a Best American Essays (2001) which I have, somehow, specifically because it is edited by Kathleen Norris, a prose writer with thoughtful poetic sensibilities. But as a series it is also mainstream in how work is chosen generally from  well-known, mainstream publications (New Yorker, American Scholar, Georgia Review, Harper's...).

I am reading the call for submissions of innovative nonfiction manuscripts at Graywolf Press, which has published a number of books that I love. But I wonder what they mean by innovation in form? and work that pushes the boundaries of literary nonfiction? Eula Bliss's No Man's Land is an amazing merging of cultural critique and personal essay. But does it transgress formal boundaries? It is not like Lia Purpua's On Looking or the hybrid essays so well outside the conventional in D'Agata's edited The Next American Essay. But Vollman's essay was published in Forbes ASAP, not a venue for the innovative in form. Or innovative form is what is unexpected, that grabs you and holds on, the starts with language and then brings you in deeper.

My focusing project thus continues to be multi-directional. To practice innovating prose in quality, writerly ways, and to continue to revise and re-imagine these various collections of work and decide what to do with them. Mostly I feel like all I do is practice, or revise as some kind of practice which doesn't usually feel like it is making the writing stronger. How does one do the writing, and keep it moving in a direction that seems fulfilling?

Lia Purpua:

I shall begin with the chests of drowned men, bound with ropes and diesel-slicked. Their ears sludge-filled. Their legs mud-smeared. Asleep below deck when a freighter hit and the river rose inside their tug. Their lashes white with river silt.