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I just came to my blog input page and saw that I haven’t posted in a week. That may be a record. Why have I been so MIA? Because I am so crazy busy that all I can think about is how I can get done everything that I have to do. It’s because I am a college professor and my life is hectic. This is why this crazy little video (above) gave me pause this morning.
Almost everything said in this video is true– although there are some key differences between the MFA and the PhD, but I will get into that later. Yes, it’s really hard to get a tenure track job, even with beautiful letters of reccommendation and perfect grades. And yes, many many professor positions are out in the sticks. (You will not believe the places I have lived.) And what she said about the social life– it’s real baby! And the video didn’t even get into the nightmare than graduate school can be. It’s hazing sometimes. I regard the years that I spent in a PhD program as the worst years of my life, one of my few experiences that I truly regret.
As you may know, I ended up kicking the whole Ph.D. to the curb. I was only doing it because my parents (Dr. and Dr. Jones) were really into it. I decided to go for the MFA because my heart was in writing. The Ph.D. can take from five to nine years, while the MFA lasts between two to three. And, of course, creative writers are much more likely to write something that is actually read by avergage people. But other than that, the analysis in the video is pretty much on point.
So, why on earth would anyone go to graduate school in the Humanities? Because you love what it is that you’re studying. Once I got to my MFA program and was able to make writing my life for two years, I embarked upon the most satisfying journey of my life. No, grad school wasn’t a cakewalk. I had to deal with the people who called me an “affirmative action” candidate because they were jealous of my financial aid. And, it was no fun on the first day of classes when I was serving as a TA when I was pulled out of my classroom and accused of stealing an overhead projector. All of that sucked, but I loved writing my first novel under the careful direction of Ron Carlson. Graduating with Leaving Atlanta in my hand was worth all the crap I had to put up with.
I know that I am very fortunate to have a tenure-track position at a research university in a decent city. I had to put in my time teaching in places that are so far off the map that you wouldn’t know where they are. And those years were lonely and difficult. But in every place that I have taught there have been amazing students with whom I maintain relationships to this day. I know this sounds hokey, but nothing makes me happier than to hear from a student shaing some good news.
So, chuckle at the video above. If you’re already at a university, join the union and try and make change in the conditions under which scholars work. But if you have a passion for a subject and you want to study it. Go for it. But if you’re going to graduate school just because you like the idea of having the letters Ph.D. after your name, or because you can’t figure out what else to do with your life, get a hobby instead. Really. Becuase this life ain’t easy.
My new “Surviving The Draft” column is up. I’ve moved the schedule back from once a week to every other week so that A) I won’t be driven deadline crazy, but also so that I can post only when I have something good to write about. Today, I am writing about choosing names for characters. Here’s a little teaser:
When a fiction writer chooses a name, you must to do so carefully, as it should be a clue to the character’s background. Don’t underestimate “invisible” names—ones that sort of blend in with and strengthen the background of the story. (Of course there are many famous authors who take a different tack. Toni Morrison’s quirky names come to mind. Milkman! First Corinthians!) Quiet names can be workhorses in a story—not flashy but they do a lot of work. The name “Keisha” was really popular for African-American girls of my generation. Nothing says “southern belle” like a woman whose middle name is her mother’s maiden name. These names might not be fun—after all they have the banality of real life—but they can do some heavy lifting in your story. To tighten the strings on your story, try for a little traction by making tension between the ambition of the name and the life of the character.
Here are the winners of BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF. Email me the way you can email almost anybody in America– firstname.lastname at gmail to claim your book.
Terrance Hayes gets a NBA nomination in the category of poetry. I heard Terrance read him this collection at the 92nd Street Y in April and it killed me. With Terrance, go ahead and believe the hype. Just don’t tell him that I said it. (You know how he is.)
And, oh yeah, a lot of other folks got nominated in a bunch of different categories. Go check it out.
The National Book Awards finalists are being announced today at noon (EST) and I wish I didn’t know about it. The truth is that I don’t want to care about the NBA or any of these other huge literary wards. I know– as you probably do too– that these awards do not necessarily reflect the best books of the year. And they don’t represent the most important books of the year, either. (I think “best” and “important” aren’t always the same thing.) But just to make things complicated, these committees sometimes get it right. But either way, I just don’t want to be invested in these decisions. It’s a recipe for heartbreak.
On the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards, I was invited to blog about an award-wing book of fiction that was meaningful to me. I was shocked to learned than only in 1980 was an African-American woman chosen as a winner of this award. (It was rare tie- both Gloria Naylor and Alice Walker won the prize.) It was a really disheartening discovery.
Why why should I have been so bummed out? Not being on the list of winners didn’t mean that black women hadn’t written books that matter, that had changed people’s lives, and added to the national and international conversations. I should have been a little irritated by my discovery, but not all out blue.
But still I was.
Last year, when Jayne Anne Phillips didn’t win for Lark and Termite, I literally cried into my dinner plate. It was a very hard night. In addition to the fact that no women or people of color were honored that night, I was snubbed by a writer whom I admire and I was cornered in the bathroom by a woman who insisted that I give her tips on how to style her child’s hair. It was a pretty marginalizing affair.
Nevertheless, I will no doubt purchase a ticket to attend this year’s event. Why? Because I can’t quite let go of these events mean something, that a win for a book I admire matters. I mean, of course it matters in what it will do for the author’s career– but what I am talking is less quantifiable than that.
I know it’s foolhardy, but my relationship with these book prizes is like my relationship with a bad boyfriend that I just can’t quit. I know he’s trifling, but sometimes he’s nice, and I keep telling myself that his heart is good, and that he will change. Silly as it is, I keep holding out for happily ever after.
I haven;t forgotten about the raffle for BEFORE YOU SUFFOCATE YOUR OWN FOOL SELF. I wanted to do the raffle on video and I couldn’t find my little microphone thingie, then my accountant called me and suggested that me and Wesley Snipes might end up as roommates if I didn’t get my paperwork in on time… So, I haven’t gotten my act together. To make it better, I will raffle off TWO copies– one hard cover and the other will be a galley.
Meanwhere, here are some delicious recommendations– the roundup of the folks who entered the raffle and the books they recommended and why:
There is a chapter that I had to take out of Leaving Atlanta where Octavia gets her hair pressed for the very first time. She thinks that she will get to a salon and pick her style out of a hair magazine, but her mom sends to an old lady’s kitchen. When Octavia complains about her experience the old lady– whose hair is so thin that it looks like spider webs stretched over a bowling ball– well, the old lady says, “Pretty ain’t easy.”
When I wrote that line, I was about twenty-five and I was mostly thinking about how much time I spent on my own hair, nails, and make up. But now that I am almost forty, I am thinking more about the politics of pretty.
Pretty, as you know, is a woman’s trap. There is the endless pursuit of pretty- and don’t let me get into the cultural stuff. We’ll let ToMo handle that with The Bluest Eye. And then, once you catch pretty, there is the problem of being too pretty and not seen as smart enough. But if you’re not pretty enough, there are consequences, too. It’s a trap and it’s hard not to end up gnawing off your own foot. An friend told me that for my author photo, I tend to favor “beauty over mood”, which in her view was a mistake. I didn’t even know what to do with that piece of information, or how a person would go about implementing it.
But the author herself isn’t the only factor is the conversation about pretty. There is the matter of the book cover.
I want a pretty book cover. For one, I really like pretty things. (My friends can testify to this.) BUT… I don’t want my book to be *too* pretty. I mean, I want serious review attention. And as always, my book deals with some not-so-pretty subject matter. (SILVER GIRL is about the secret daughter of a married man. “Illegitimacy” is a pretty heavy issue.) At the same time, it’s a delicious story about family, sisterhood, love, and scandal. And the word “silver” in the title just invites shiny and shiny is one of my favorite things. My friend, Lauren, told me that all cultures think that shiny things are beautiful. (So, ladies, slather on the lip gloss!) But do I really want you to think of lip gloss when you see my book. Well, I do if it makes you pick it up.
I don’t think that male writers go through this. (Poor Jonathan Franzen– he is my new shorthand for “privileged” now that Updike is gone to glory.) I really doubt that Mr. Franzen really had to worry about whether or not he or his book were too pretty/not pretty enough.
And while we are on the subject of gender here is another question– will a man read a pretty book in public? I guess that’s why we have the Kindle. And should I even worry about that?
One thing I have learned in the ten years I have been in publishing is that every issue that you deal with in your day to day life is magnified when you publish a book.
My publisher and I are still working on the book cover, wanting to strike the perfect note. Algonquin does great work– bestselling great work, so I know I am in good hands. But you know, this book is my baby and I want everything to be just right. Still, as always, the answer to every writerly problem is to just keep my head down, get writing on the next book. Control what I can control and just have faith.
Sorry for being so MIA, but my life has been a three-ring circus, and I mean in it a good way, sorta. There have been dazzling high wire acts, but also a fair share of elephant dung, if you know what I mean.
But in this post, I am just going to share Silver Girl news:
This is all fabulous news, but it’s keeping me really busy and a little away from the blog. But I’ll be back soon.