Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

It’s nice when you’re #1

Screen Shot 2019-12-13 at 5.08.17 PM As I’ve written before, I’m not the biggest fan of ranking MFA programs, though I do think those rankings have some value. For one, they tell you what programs other applicants are likely to apply to. When they’re despcriptive, they can give you some valuable information as well.

Though I don’t take a lot of stock in these rankings (and fewer places are doing them), it’s still nice when you’re ranked #1, which is true of our MFA program at Mississippi University for Women, which was recently ranked first at Intelligent.com and also at The Best Masters Degrees. What I like about both of these rankings (besides that they picked us) is that they look at more than just cost. Yes, they consider the cost of an MFA, which is a significant issue, especially for low-res or fully online programs that don’t have a lot of scholarship funding, but they also consider quality. This helps our program stand out in a field that is often composed of both MA and MFA degrees. The two aren’t comparable, and to compare a 48 hour degree (ours) with a 36-hour degree (most MA programs) on the basis of tuition alone is highly problematic.

We also like to think that these websites have at least looked closely at our website and tried to get a sense of the satisfaction of our students or their productivity in the literary marketplace. I know they didn’t ask the program for information, but I like to think that our program will stand out on its own. And these rankings are evidence that we do.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’re the best program for everyone. But if you’re looking for a low-residency or online degree that is affordable and high quality, then I hope these rankings will encourage you to give us a closer look. I think you’ll like what you find.

At the very least, these rankings give us something to feel good about for a little while before we turn back to the much more important work of trying to do our very best for our students and alumni. That’s where the true value is, and if we weren’t listed #1, I’d still be just as proud of all the accomplishments our students and faculty have achieved and the honors we’ve earned.

Writing Digital Literature

untitled20design202My article “Crossing Genres in Digital Writing” is available at the Macmillan International Higher Ed blog. They are my publisher for A Writer’s Craft. I decided to write on digital writing because it’s an area I’ve been exploring recently.

One of the most fun classes I get to teach in The W’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing is a course we call Writing for New Media. We chose that name because we didn’t want to limit ourselves in scope for the future, but the reality is right now most of what we cover is digital literature. This class take students (and me) into the worlds of kinetic poetry, twaiku or twit lit (and other uses of social media for literature), hypertext fiction, mapped stories and poems, and even gaming as a means of storytelling. Our goal is to see what happens when we leave the confines of the page, how forms blend and narrative or lyric structures transform in new media.

ehpiugcxkaap8fbThis fall, after writing this post, I was invited to speak at the Middle Tennessee State Writers’ Conference, and I decided it would make sense to adapt some of what I talk about in the article and teach in the class to a workshop setting. Obviously, everything had to be very compressed for an hour and fifteen minutes, so I decided it would be best to do a little digital writing of my own to demonstrate. Since the conference was right before Halloween, I decided to write “River Hill: A Ghost Story” on Twitter, Google Maps, and Google Sites, which is what I decided to use for the hypertext component of the story.

Follow any of the links above to the story. Start with Twitter, if you want to read it in order, but in true hypertext fiction style, it’s meant to be started anywhere, and there are multiple links back to the other parts of the story to follwo whenever you want. I even left the story unfinished for now, hoping my workshop or other readers might write or suggest their own endings. That hasn’t happened yet, but you’re welcome to try!

Writing literature on Twitter is easy enough, either attempting to write a complete story in 140 (or 280) characters or by linking tweets using hashtags or by replying to successive tweets to create a tweetstorm story. Images or even video can be included with the tweet for a more multimedia effect. Some of my students have experimented with using Instagram instead of Twitter. You can do many of the same things, though it’s a little harder to link posts on Instagram compared to Twitter, though you can use hashtags. Facebook or Tumblr could also be used, I suppose, though each platform has its own culture and its own quirks about how posts are displayed. It might even be fun to aggregate posts across different platforms using Pinterest, for instance, by pinning images from each part of the story to a board.

Google Maps is a little more complicated to set up, but doesn’t take a ton of technical know-how, once you figure out how to get to your My Maps. The most straightforward way I know to do it is to open Google Maps, use the menu to go to Your Places, then click on the Maps tab, then Create A Map. Or you can try going to https://www.google.com/maps/d/u/0/home, which might take you directly to your maps or you may need to login with Google before you do that.

Using Google Sites for a hypertext story worked well, and any web hosting platform ought to work to build a simple linked story. However, in my class, we get a little more complicated, so working with Twine has been better. Twine allows you to map out your links using in graphical user interface, which can be helpful when links multiply exponentially. It also allows you to do more with the code and even create some fairly sophisticated games. There are lots of examples on the Twinery, and there’s an active user support group that can be searched to learn tricks and techniques. You can download the Twine app or write your story online using either Twine 1 or Twine 2, which each have different features and templates.

Happy 100th Birthday, Shakespeare & Co

This week marks the 100th birthday of Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris. Shakespeare & Co. is an amazing place, both for its beautiful interiors with floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves and for its long history as a meeting place for Modernist writers. It was also the scene of one of the most magical literary evenings of my life, when I talked my way into giving a reading, though I’m sure it is a long-forgotten blip in the history of this legendary store.

The date was September 19, 1988, and I was a young poet, just two years out of college. I had quit my job in Chicago and taken the summer off to travel through Europe, first visiting my brother in Poland just before the fall of Communism (which we had no idea would happen within the year), then visiting friends in Denmark and Belgium, arriving in time for the marriage of  Frank Van de Steen and Sabine Daeninck. It was an earlier and safer (or more naive) time, so much of my travel was by hitch-hiking, and I stayed in hostels when I wasn’t visiting friends.

According to an old journal I found, I had been in Paris for three days. I had already walked all over the city, seen the Louvre and the Rodin museum, and been to Notre Dame. I’d also been to Shakespeare & Co., though the first time I went, the shop was closed because it was Saturday. I lent 100 francs to an Austrian couple I met whose car had been broken into, though I didn’t really believe their story and I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t show up at our meeting place to return the money. But that might have been part of the reasong I ended up back at Shakespeare & Co.

Earlier in the day, I had been brash enough to try to arrange a reading there with a rightfully dubeous George Whitman and had talked him into at least considering me for a date in October. But when I went back later in the afternoon after waiting around Notre Dame plaza for my Austiran ‘friends,’ I overheard that the American poet whose reading I had planned to attend had to cancel. Being young and unabashed, I volunteered to step in. I had published a few poems in magazines, performed in Chicago, and even had a poem on the radio. I probably made it all sound a lot more impressive than it was, and they agreed to let me read. After all, people were about to arrive, so why not?

With that decided, I went down to the Seine to find a quiet place to practice my poems and get prepared. The reading was after hours, upstairs above the bookstore. As I recall maybe a dozen people stayed for the reading. I’m sure some went home disappointed that the poet they expected hadn’t shown up. But according to my journal, the reading went very well. Those who stuck around had a good time, there was a lot of energy in the room, and we had a great discussion afterwards when several of us went out for drinks.Of course, I didn’t get paid (other than a glass or two of wine) and didn’t have any books to sell. It wasn’t my first public reading, but it was my first and so far only international one, and it was in Paris in one of the most famous bookstores in the world.

The Personal / Universal Paradox in Art

The other day, one of my low-res MFA students, Dani Putney, and I were conferencing a poem and we got into a side discussion of the personal and the universal. Dani’s stance, which I agree with, is that the Universal doesn’t exist. (I’ll use a capital letter here, though Dani didn’t since we were talking by video, not writing out our thoughts. The capital is to indicate Universal in the broadest terms.)

The idea of the Universal is often used in the sense that an artist should make their work accessible to a Universal audience, but Dani’s point was that this often means to make it palatable for an older, white, male audience. This is not new ground, of course, but it was a good discussion to have and to keep having. Universality in this sense is a myth. What gets defined as Universal is far from universal, and what gets defined as too personal or too limited in scope is often just as relevant, but to different, less powerful communities.

Isn’t that hegemony, after all? Those with cultural power define what is good or beautiful or universal and then assume, because they can, that everything else is lesser-than if it is other or different. I get it, and I fully agree that this definition of Universal is wrong. But the question remains, where does that leave the artist—in our cases, where does it leave the poet? Is it, therefore, simply all right to write about your own personal concerns and not pay any concern to universality?

On the one hand, I would probably answer: sure, why not? After all, what feels important or beautiful or moving to you will likely find a group of people who share that feeling. On the other hand, I am sympathetic to a slight reservation: couldn’t this lead to endless navel-gazing?

The question I posed to Dani is: Do we, as artists, look out or look in? The answer may be that we should do both, simultaneously. In other words, to only concern myself with my own concerns and never consider how they might be relevant to others is probably a mistake for an artist. I say probably because there are exceptions to every rule.

When I’m drafting a poem, I am intially only concerned with myself, with what I think or feel or the words that come to me, and I try not to worry about any other audience. As I’m revising a poem and maybe even as I’m thinking about what poem I might write next, I do look outward. I want to know who gives a damn about what I’m writing, and I hope the answer might be ‘someone.’ This is where the universal without a capital letter comes in. Do I write only for my moment or do I write for a future reader? Do I write for myself or even my community, or do I hope to reach others who are vastly different from me?

Writing that is universal is relevant to many readers from many communitites and with many identities. That is its strength. Who those communities are may be up to the writer or may be impossible to predict. It comes from looking in and looking out and finding ways to connect with others. It does not fit any one definition of Universal, though.

The Universal comes from looking in and assuming everyone else should see what you see and value what you value, assuming that your experience is definitive and therefore is Universal by definition.

How personal and how universal to be is every artist’s choice. We know that sometimes the most intensely personal art (at its creation) can become the most universal (as others respond to its intensity). The more intricate and deeply felt a work of art is, the more relevant it can become; the more general and universal it tries to be, the more it loses its power to move us. We want to write about things other people will care about, yet often the things we care most about end up being what finds others who care.

Like a lot of things, there is no one right answer, and everyone must find their own balance. It is an issue we subconscioulsy weigh with every line, every image, every poem. And then we make our peace with it in a final draft (we hope) and send the poem off to make its way and find its readers. No one should tell us what we need to write to be Universal, though. No one can predict the journey a poem will take, who will read it, or how they will respond. To make assumptions about Univerality is to make assumptions about which readers matter, and to be truly universal is to remain open to all readers, regardless of their status, their community, their identity, etc.

I believe this comes first through embracing your own identity and your own community, however you define it, and then through striving to make your art relevant to anyone who cares to listen. True Universality may be a myth, and an oppressive one at that, but the goal of universality, though unattainable, may not be such a bad one if reaching it goes through the personal.

Word Processors for Poets

Today’s my birthday, so my gift to you is a recommendation of free software.

Poets get a bum rap for never having money (it’s true!), but that’s not why I’m recommending two free word processors today. And it’s not because poets are so anti-establishment we have to fight against Microsoft’s domination with alternatives to MS Word, though that may be a noble cause.

Even Apple with Pages (free with your Mac, so not exactly free) might be worth fighting against on those terms, but I don’t mind it as much as Word. Pages doesn’t do the things that bother me most about MS Word, so it might be a good alternative if you already own a Mac, but for the rest of the world (PC or even Linux users), there are a couple of great free options to Word. (Sorry Google, I’m not thinking about Docs!)

First, what’s so annoying about Word, especially for poets? I’ve always struggled with its default settings, which are geared to an office environment. For one, I always have to instruct my poetry students how to force Word to single-space their poems. They set it to single space, but Word thinks every new line is a new paragraph and every new paragraph needs to have extra space between it and the previous one. Can we spell business letter, anyone?

(There’s an easy trick to fix that, actually: edit your default document template to set your default font and paragraph spacing options. It will affect every new file, but most of us don’t mind. Or create a poem template that has your settings for poetry, so you can keep your business letter template as default, if you must.)

The other annoying habit of Word isn’t quite so easy to fix. Word likes to have a capital letter at the beginning of every new line. It apparently thinks it’s a new sentence as well as a new paragraph, so in order to turn this feature off, you have to turn off capitalization at the beginning of a sentence. But then all sentences are affected, not just the ones at the beginnings of lines that aren’t really the beginning of sentences.

So the quicker, easier, and perhaps more gratifying solution is to switch to OpenOffice or LibreOffice. Both are free, open source office suites that are perfectly stable and secure. They do everything Word does, but the don’t treat poets like business execs (or their assistants). You don’t have to do anything to get them to work the way you want. They work well for poets right out of the box!

Both also include a database program, which might be more useful for keeping track of submissions than Excel. I’m currently working on that, and if I get it to work, I’ll post about it later. They both also have spreadsheet applications and other common office suite apps.

From what I’ve read, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are virtually identical, though if you want to save your files in Word format, then LibreOffice is the way to go. Both will open files in and save to a number of different formats that Word can see, and OpenOffice can save to a .doc file, just not .docx (which many people hate), so if you want to look like you’re using the latest Word when you exchange files, then LibreOffice is probably the way to go. Otherwise, choose the one whose icon or interface you like best or flip a coin. You can’t go wrong with either word processor, and you will be thankful for the reduced number of headaches they cause you, esp. if you write poetry!

Or you can do like a lot of Instagram poets I’ve seen recently: buy an old typewriter, type your poems, take a picture (typos and all), and post it online!

How to Prepare to Apply to an MFA Program, Part 1

Okay, so you want to apply for an MFA in Creative Writing, but you don’t know whether you’re good enough or where to start. You want to brush up on your writing and you want to put together the best application you possibly can. But how? In this post, I’ll try to give you some advice and point you to some resources to help you develop your writing. Then we’ll look at resources to help with the application process.

First, write. If you are going to be in an MFA program, you will write like you’ve never written before, so why wait until after you’ve been accepted? Start by writing every day or every time you possibly can. Write new material, try new genres, test your boundaries.

Next, rewrite. Don’t be satisfied with that most recent good draft. If your best writing was done in college, you would probably write it better now. Nearly any piece of writing can be improved or polished. Go back and re-read your older work, esp. if you don’t have ideas for new work. Try to find new layers. Do more than just correct errors (though fix anything and everything you can so you have absolutely clean copy). Sometimes this revision leads you to your next good idea. Going to a workshop or being involved in a writer’s group can be helpful, so you get feedback from others. If you don’t have someone nearby who can help, try going to a workshop or conference.

Finally, read. As I’ve said before, every MFA applicant should read widely in literary magazines. You need to know what’s being written today by the writers you admire (or the ones you’ll only admire once you’ve read them). You need to see what other MFA applicants are reading and what their professors are reading and writing. If you know what programs you want to apply to, read their literary journals to see the editorial choices of their current and former students. Our low-residency MFA program publishes two journals Ponder Review and Poetry South.

Go to bookstores and libraries to find the books that are being written that you’d like to emulate. What genre or sub-genre do you think you want to write? What authors are being published in those areas? Buy some books and read them! Or check them out from the library. Find out who those authors’ agents are. Start learning about the publishing industry.

You will have a better writing sample and letter if you’ve prepared yourself for your MFA than if you rely solely on your own talent.

That’s enough for today! I’ll continue soon with some resources that can help you with the application process.

Meet Me at the Book Festival

IMG_0089One of the great developments for writers in recent years has been the inception of state-wide or regional book festivals across the country. Mississippi holds its @MSBookFest in August on the Capitol lawn, and I’ll be there next weekend, August 17, for the fifth year. My first time, I went as a volunteer. My second year, I went as a writer with Barrier Island Suite, and for the past three years, I’ve gone to represent The W with our magazines, writing programs, and the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium at an organization table. I don’t get to hear as many of the great readers that way, but I do get to meet a lot of people and talk about writing and publishing in our state.

The readings take place inside the capitol building in the air conditioning. Our tables are outside in the shade, so the heat is never too unbearable, though last year we got some rain! Here’s some of what I’ll be missing out on inside. Mary Miller will read from her novel Biloxi, Kiese Laymon will read from Heavy. They will both also be at the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium this fall, so I will get a chance to hear them in October. There are many other panels with luminaries liek Joyce Carol Oats and Ann Patchett, as well as writers you may not have heard of, but whose work will delight.

John Bateman and T. K. Lee will be outdoors with me on Author’s Alley, where small press writers can represent their own books, and there are bookstores, food tents, and live music. It’s a great way to end the summer and start off the school year (if, like me, you’ll be heading back to classes soon). And it’s free! The only things you’ll need money for are books and food. Come enjoy a lovely Saturday (here’s hoping for good weather again!) in Jackson, Mississippi. And if that’s too far for you to travel, find the book festival in your state! More and more, it seems like something states are doing, and that’s great news for books, reading, and culture!