Recently one of my mentors passed away: Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Oscar was my mentor through my Master of Arts in Cross Cultural Studies and my Ph.D. at UAF. As a writer, I often need someone in my corner telling me, “Go for it. You can do it.” Oscar was such a person. Oscar encouraged me to look outside the box, to explore other ways of knowing, other ways of looking at the world. My experience being his apprentice prepared me for the second year in my MFA. During the second year, students in UAA’s MFA are required to create and participate in a community relevant project.
Anchorage Daily News photo
So when I found myself living in Puerto Rico at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Borinquen, I decided that the perfect master’s project would be to start a writers' group. After all, I had a captive audience; I lived behind a guarded barbed wire fence. I knew there would be people like me who felt a bit uprooted. Puerto Rico, despite being an American commonwealth, is very foreign.
My husband, Howie Martindale, is in the same MFA program, also the poetry genre, so as soon we arrived in our temporary home in Puerto Rico, we announced the new writers' group in the base newsletter. The base command took the creation of our writers’ group very seriously, considering it essential to the moral and well-being on the base. Our first members consisted of an enlisted corpsman, a local Puerto Rican man who worked on base, the base librarian, and the nearby military school’s librarian and her teenage daughter.
During the year and a half we spent in Puerto Rico the writers’ group members changed as some members moved away, were transferred, or got out of the Coast Guard. New members included a retired Puerto Rican U.S. Army officer, a young mother from Hawaii, and the wife of a Border Patrol pilot.
For me, the writers’ group accomplished several things; it helped dull my homesickness for Alaska, helped me learn to be a mentor, and provide a much-needed community service to the air station.
But my mentoring stint didn’t stop at an adult writers’ group. After a few months of facilitating the adult writers’ group, I started a teen writers' group. Several teens had inquired about joining the adult group but I had felt, at thirteen and fourteen, they were too young. As it ended up, in the teen group I had five teenagers; one male and four females. It was a blast! I had no idea I would be so inspired by teenagers but their enthusiasm was incredible. During the first session, I sat open-mouthed, listening to their conversations as they went back and forth about their day in school. I had forgotten what it was like to be a teen. For each session, I baked cookies and for one hour we ate cookies, talked about school, their lives, and then wrote a bit. They’d leave with a writing prompt for the next week.
Shortly after the teen group started, a young girl, age twelve, approached me about attending the teen group. I knew that my teen group wasn’t for her, so I asked her if there were other young writers that would be interested and before I knew it I had started a group for ages 9-12. We met once a week for an hour. The younger group was very different from the teens. They had enough energy to power a diesel light plant in my hometown of Wrangell. It took all my parenting-teacher skills to facilitate this group. But it was worth it. Again, I got a firsthand insight into the quirky working minds of that age group. I still remember one young writer's story about an escape pod from Puerto Rico to New York.
All in all, I mentored nearly thirty writers. I had no idea that my MFA project would grow into something that fit me so well. Creating and facilitating a writers’ group is something that you can do, too, Dear Reader. Especially if one is looking for an MFA project idea. I used a free space at the local library for the adult group and the younger groups were held in my home.
Now, as I move to Kodiak, Alaska, I’m considering starting a teen and adult writers’ group on the Coast Guard base. One of my young writers, now age thirteen, is being stationed in Kodiak too. Since she learned we were being stationed together, she’s been pleading with me to start another writers’ group. Am I ready for another round of mentoring? In my mind, I can hear my former mentor Oscar Angayuqaq Kawagley telling me, “You can do it. Go for it.” Yes, Oscar, I think I will.
The bridesmaid, dressed in peach chiffon with a giant bow on the back of her gown, is not the one everyone in the room is gawking at. The groom smiles at his bride; the wedding guests snap photos of the bride. The bridesmaid is sitting off to the side sipping a bit too much champagne wishing it was her special day. That’s how it feels in the literary contest world to be in the place of runner up, honorable mention, or a finalist: almost, but not quite. For about seven years I’ve been submitting to literary contests. I’m tired of being the bridesmaid. I want a big silver or gold sticker on the front of my book like UAA Professor Linda McCarriston has on the cover of Eva Mary. I want to be a prize winner like Derick Burleson, Anne Caston, and Ernestine Hayes.
For me, the problem always was money; literary contests fees are expensive. I started sending stuff out when my husband and I were both poor-starving-college-students. I spent a couple hundred on submission fees and postage. That time, I didn’t even get an honorable mention. I tried again a couple of years later. Again, not even a mention.
Then I noticed that some contests offered a subscription to their literary journal or a copy of the winning book. I figured if I entered those contests at least I’d get something in return for my investment. Typically, a book contest entry fee (reading fee) costs between $20 and $30 dollars. A chapbook contest runs around $10-20. And a single poem contest can be around $10. At one point, I only sent my work to single poem contests because ten bucks for a reading fee wasn’t so bad. But I never won. I’m a perpetual bridesmaid. I received honorable mention in the Harold McCracken poetry contest at UAF. I was a finalist (twice) for the Joy Harjo Poetry Award. I was a finalist for the Winning Writers War Poetry Contest and received honorable mention in Boulevard’s Emerging Poetry Award. Is the literary contest route worth it? Sometimes a writer can spend years and a ton of money entering contests.
Here are some of my literary contest tips:
1. Only enter reputable contests (CWLA’s Kathy Tarr sends out contest information to students, and contests are regularly announced in Poets and Writers magazine, AWP's The Writer's Chronicle, and on www.newpages.com).
2. Check to see if your university offers a contest or if a regional journal or writers group has a yearly prize. Often they don’t have a “reading fee.”
3. Enter “first” book contests not “first or second book” contests.
4. Enter contests for students in MFA programs.
5. Enter contests that offer you something in return: a literary journal subscription, a copy of the winner’s book.
6. When you are first starting out, enter short story, novel excerpt, or poem contests. Those reading fees are easier on the wallet.
After entering hundreds of contests there was one thing that changed my mind about being a bridesmaid in the literary contest world: writers often credit their stint as bridesmaids. Wait a minute, I thought, the writing life must be similar to life in Hollywood where actors and directors claim they “almost” won: an Academy Award nominee. What a great idea! After this year, I can say that I am a Pushcart Prize nominee. Definitely, the writing life has its advantages over other professions. Where else can people brag about their near misses? I don’t think I want to know if my doctor almost won a prestigious prize. I’d wonder why she wasn’t competent enough to win in the first place.
Eventually, entering contests did pay off —I won first prize. No, I didn’t get a book prize, I received a Ray Troll autographed t-shirt. I had submitted a poem to Alaska 49 Writers’ Ode to a Dead Salmon Contest and won first place. Now, whenever I wear my Ray Troll t-shirt I don’t feel like such a bridesmaid. I’m a grand prize winner!
After my MFA is finished this year, I might try the literary contest circuit again. I think I have a strong manuscript and I do have experience in rejections. Also, the internet makes it easier to enter with Submishmash and the push of a PayPal button. When I first started entering contests I had stack of manuscripts and manila envelopes on my kitchen table. But the real reason I’ll continue to enter literary contests is that I can still imagine myself dolled-up in my peach chiffon gown blushing at a podium as I accept my newly published book with the shiny gold star on it.
For many years I didn’t send my poetry to journals because I feared rejection. Over the years I had accumulated several hundred unpublished poems in dozens of notebooks. However, in the three years since I’ve been in the MFA at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I’ve had around fifty poems published including one digital poetry chapbook from my MFA thesis. My friend and fellow MFA poet, Sandra Kleven, assumes I’m fearless. But the truth is I fear rejection like any other writer. Though since the Internet submission revolution, I no longer send much through the mail. Still, I second-guess my work whenever I press "send." It’s the same fear I had when I used to put poems in an envelope and slide them in the outgoing mail. Many times I thought about prying open the mail slot on my street corner to retrieve the letter. Many times I want to tip my computer and shake that email submission out onto my desk.
What if the journal or publisher rejects me? Well, they can, they will and they do. Early on in my submissions venture I did what no writer should do. After a “snarky” (or so I thought) rejection via e-mail, I sent a snarky e-mail right back to a reader that said, “I wouldn’t expect someone living in NY City to understand what it’s like to live in Alaska.” Ooops. I wouldn’t ever do that now (but I would think it).
What submitting to journals and anthologies does for me is that it makes me more confident about the submission process. Becoming familiar with the process makes rejection hurts less. Over the last few years I’ve received a ton of rejections but my acceptances are nearly as many. On one occasion, I received a rejection and two acceptances all in the same day.
I am confident enough, now, to send my work to some biggies: Poetry, Prairie Schooner, Ploughshares, Alaska Quarterly Review, but with no luck so far.
When I first started to send out poetry, my husband, Howie Martindale, also a poet in the same MFA program, proudly tacked each rejection note to my corkboard next to my desk. I was appalled; I didn’t want anyone to see them. He said he was only doing what Stephen King claimed to have done in his memoir On Writing. King proudly displayed a wall full of rejections before he got published. Nope; that wasn’t going to work for me. I keep my rejections in a file in my file cabinet if they come in by postal mail. If they come in by email, which is most of the time, I file them in a special file called "Writing Crap."
Now, I’m an editor for a journal called Flashquake and I’m on the other end of the rejection. It’s my job to reject or accept poetry and prose. Flashquake requires editors to write one or two sentences about why we reject a piece and, believe it or not, I’ve received emails back from those I’ve rejected thanking me for the feedback. I really try hard to give constructive feedback though sometimes I want to say, “This is really, really bad,” but I don’t because I know how it feels to receive a rejection in the inbox. Now that I’ve experience being an editor, I know that sometimes my rejected poems weren’t ready to be sent out yet. And sometimes my poems just didn’t fit the journal aesthetics. Perhaps the journal’s editor had certain tastes and, like me, thought that no matter how well written, a flash fiction piece on quark dust mining on the planet Darcon just didn’t sit right.
So, no, Sandra, I’m not fearless, I’m just getting used to the rejection; I’m developing a thick skin. Once in a while, an acceptance floats into my inbox with encouraging words. Recently an editor wrote, “We really love your work.” Another time, an editor said, “Your poem was the best poem published in our journal this year.” They nominated that poem for a Pushcart Prize. Those are the e-mails that give me hope, that keep my pointer finger hovering over the mouse, hesitating slightly before I press send.
Following my confession about my general ignorance of High Literature and my crush on Jane Eyre, I’d like to argue why the baggy old capital “C” Canon, while no longer venerated as widely as it once was, might still be useful to us here in the program.
Even if you set aside the equally baggy old and rather vague notion that a writer should be well rounded (meaning well read) and familiar with the world of literature and its history, there is a simple pragmatic reason to read the capital “G” Great Books: to avoid a Tower of Babel when we attempt to discuss the craft of writing in classrooms or workshops. Because, just as the larger culture is becoming less homogeneous and more diverse all the time, each new class of writing students brings a myriad of new literary influences and inclinations along with it.
It’s no news that at one time, maybe a hundred years ago, every English major leaving an American college would have read many of the same books as every other student of that time, from Homer to the Bible to Samuel Johnson and Keats and so forth. A conversation then, at the graduate level would assume a certain common base of referents. Today, our national religion being individualism, it seems that we can’t gather together ten students (or maybe even ten faculty) who’ve all read the same one book. In the mentorship mode of our program it’s not a problem: a teacher can assign books, or negotiate and find books the two parties have coincidentally read. But in larger classroom situations, it’s not easy.
Like everyone else, readers across the board seem to be more and more specialized today. Some read voluminously, but sometimes narrowly: say, almost nothing but detective novels, for example, or only nature essays, or whatever. In the day to day world, it’s not a problem. But the rise in respectability (or maybe it’s simply the grudging acceptance) of genre writing is beginning to raise questions about how to discuss writing when a smaller and smaller percentage of each class has read the same books. And if there’s any question that genre writing is becoming more acceptable, consider this.
Last week, an issue of the Missouri Review landed in my mailbox, as respectable a literary magazine as you could ask for. This issue includes a review and commentary on four novels; it is titled “Books With Bite.” Four vampire novels. Just imagine how the many “literary” novelists who sent their books to TMR to be reviewed feel about being overlooked in favor of the tooth-in-neck genre. I’m not complaining; it was a fascinating piece--and I’ve never read a vampire novel. I enjoyed it very much. But, then again, I don’t have a novel floating around out there trying to get attention in serious literary magazines.
However you feel about genre writing, there is no turning back the tide now. We will continue to get more and more genre writers in the program. And this is not entirely new. One of my best friends in Alaska is the science fiction writer, Michael Armstong. He received his MFA here at UAA in 1986; his thesis project was his first published sci-fi novel, After the Zap.
The argument for salvaging some part of the traditional Canon, for insisting that students are familiar with some of the old Greats, is that it provides us with some common referents. One of the most durable ways to teach the unteachable subject of creative writing has always been to show by example. The question is (for our purposes): which example? Even the Great Books add up pretty quickly. And, unless a student happens to have a BA in English Literature, the odds are still slim that a whole room full of people will have read the same long, dense novels.
However, anthologies of short works offer a possible solution. In fiction, one simple way to provide a wide range of good examples of good writing is to assign a big fat anthology of great short stories for all fiction writers--even if they want to write a dwarf and elf novel. Then, every aspect of craft can be easily pointed to in a classroom discussion. We can say, “Look at how Flannery O’Connor used dialogue to create tension between Julian and his mother.” Or, “Look at the way Chekov shows Guruov’s heartlessness when he sits there eating that slice of watermelon as Anna weeps for her lost honor.” Or, “Look how Fitzgerald first shows us his main character’s good intentions in 'Babylon Revisited,' and then shows how his weakness crushes him.” Elves and dwarves need to do all that stuff, too. So do cowboys and detectives and space aliens and fly fishermen.
The same goes for poetry and essay anthologies.
I’ll argue again and again that it is more important how you read than what you read. There is plenty to be learned from every successful work, regardless of genre. Those authors are doing something right. If it were really simple to write a successful wizard or western or sci-fi or detective novel, everyone would be home making millions doing that, instead of going to graduate school to learn how. Some of you have had to listen to me go on about reading like a writer, so I’ll spare you that here. And I’m not arguing that everyone has to read the old masters because they are good for you and will make you a better person.
I’m here to give writing advice, and I find that it’s a lot easier to do when a roomful of students have read some of the same writings as I have. The truth is, nobody can be widely read in every genre. But the building blocks of narrative are used in every story regardless of genre: conflict, character development, setting, action, summary, scene, dialogue and so forth. What I’m asking for is a way to talk about those things using examples students will recognize.
The Great Books are great because their authors knew how to do some of those things very, very well. It would be a shame not to take advantage of that.
P.S. I’m almost done with Blathering Heights. Some time, let’s talk about whether it was wise for Emily Bronte to use a first person narrator to tell us what is almost all told to 'him (inside quote marks) by Ellen Dean the servant, including lengthy (apparently memorized) passages of dialogue that she recounts verbatim (quotes within her quotes) between herself and other characters, and even including some overheard dialogue that another character recites to Ellen (quotes within quotes within quotes). Somebody should have said, “Emily, babe, I have two words for you: ‘third person.’”
Ok, here comes an ignoramus advocating for the traditional canon of literature. No, seriously, I’ve never loved traditions of any kind: too often they’re just excuses avoid thinking for yourself. And I really never loved the literary classics. In fact, I think it was Pride and Prejudice that ruined the very idea of a canon when I read it in a Masterpieces of Lit class about twenty-five years ago. I hated it so much I eschewed the entire nineteenth century for as long as I could.
The older stuff was even worse; I signed up for Medieval Lit and dropped it after two weeks, signed up for Renaissance Lit the next year and dropped that too. I did what grad students are inclined to do. I read the kinds of books I liked, the kinds of books I wanted to write. In my case that meant the short fiction then ascendent: Carver, Wolff, Ford, Dubus, Barthleme, Barth, Coover, Paley, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison. The shorter and more contemporary, the better. Somehow I did manage to read Shakespeare’s greatest hits for a semester or two, and seven or eight Faulkner novels. (They’re now the apotheosis of brain fog). But, mostly left to my own devices, I graduated with a writing degree knowing very little about anything other then short contemporary fiction. That was not smart.
Now, nearly twenty-five later, I find myself reading the books my high school age grandson is reading. Yes, the canonical chestnuts. Why now? Two reasons:
1) I’ve been working on something for a long time and I don’t want to be unduly influenced by popular, contemporary trends or voices. I’m weak-minded, and a bit of a mimic too. So, I’m reading things nobody would try to imitate.
2.) It can’t be good for you to stay ignorant forever. It just can’t.
Maybe it’s my age, but I’m not quite as impatient as I once was with books, nor as sure of my own judgment. It’s frightening. I’m almost becoming thoughtful. No. Really. For the past few winters I’ve been catching up a little. I finally read Moby Dick a couple years ago (terrific: learned how to fillet a whale---if I ever get one to rise to a dry fly), The Iliad (What’s not to like about hacking and hewing limbs off people?), Jane Eyre (loved it, loved her), Tom Jones (hilarious). I’m slogging through Wuthering Heights right now (Dithering Heights is more like it, but that’s another story). Others. I didn’t love everything old and revered, but I had enough patience now to appreciate the skill and the art in them. And very recently I discovered another reason they’re still out there being read.
On the lam from the Alaskan weather, I went to live, mostly alone, in Phoenix, Arizona, this past winter. The house had been my mother-in-law’s for many years, but she’s now 96 and living in a nursing home. I have to keep it maintained. My mother-in-law has been a packrat of epic proportions all her life. I spent several dusty, spider-fearing days going through three aluminum storage sheds in her back yard holding the excess inventory of things she didn’t need but wouldn’t throw away: pieces of old kitchen appliances, pieces of old furniture, pieces of weaving implements from a mid-life yarn habit she’d finally kicked in her eighties, an old-fashioned leather suitcase full of musty Arizona Highways magazines stained with rainwater and mouse pee. Everything had been baked by decades of Arizona summers. It was pretty bad. Even the spiders had moved out.
Her old books, however, were safe inside her house in a wall of shelves I built for her about thirty years ago when I was first dating her daughter, now my wife. My mother-in-law had read some of them as a young girl in school, eighty years ago and more: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and Longfellow’s poems, fiction from the moderns still alive when she read them: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Some names I didn’t recognize.
Days I wrote, and worked on the house. Each afternoon I risked my life jay-walking across the four-laned Glendale Avenue to the Safeway store and brought home things I felt like making into dinner that night. I listened to NPR news while I cooked, and had a cocktail or two. In the lonely evenings, I caught up on some long overdue reading (I have a hunch really well-read people have no friends and don’t get laid much.) On my mother-in-law’s old shelves, the first spine that caught my eye was Tale of Two Cities. I seem to remember a film version from my eleventh-grade English class. Actually, I remember a lovely girl named Darina-something who ran out of the room when the guillotine started falling on aristo necks. Reading the book now I found only one passage that sounded familiar. One of the male characters (maybe Carton, the dissipated but valiant lawyer who sacrifices his own life for Charles Darnay) was said to be vain about his shapely legs. Today it would be his abs.
But here’s the thing about this: At the core of the book the enduring questions it raises about human behavior still matter. In fact, they never mattered more than now. Madame DeFarge and the revolutionaries started out to dethrone the oppressive aristocracy, but mutated into a murderous Palinesque death-panel that no amount of health insurance could save you from as it kept feeding the guillotine to justify its existence.
On public radio, the news had shifted from the repercussions of the shooting in nearby Tucson to a revolution then underway in Egypt. When Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down, the news people kept saying, “The question is, ‘Who is in charge?’” Would the fearsome Muslim Brotherhood, or some other potentially dangerous group take control of the country, become as blood-hungry as the “sans culottes?” No one knew how it would turn out. It sounded like a novel.
It was the first week of February, 2011; I was sitting in a small room I’d built onto that house in Phoenix in 1981, reading a book I should’ve read in school circa 1966 in Niagara Falls, and listening to voices from Cairo by way of NPR in Washington talking about the same ideas Dickens had considered in London in 1859, as he wrote a fictionalized account of events that happened in Paris in the 1780’s.
This is why we have a canon of literature. Not because the books have been declared “the best” by some hegemonic cabal of powerful literati, but because they continue to be relevant. Now the question is, “Who’s reading them anymore?”
Times change. Sure. Not too many men today will admit to being vain of leg. Ok, maybe RuPaul, but not too many lawyers. Still, once you get past the overstuffed nineteenth century verbiage and the melodramatic love story, that high school level classic still has something to say to us, even to a twenty-first century digital boy like me.
Part Two: How the classics can help us in the writing program.
This Week's Blogger: