George Orwell Makes the Rules ~ Another View From the Keyboard

In his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell provided a list of five (by his count) rules for writing:

 i.    Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

  ii.    Never use a long word where a short one will do.

 iii.    If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

 iv.    Never use the passive where you can use the active.

  v.    Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

 vi.    Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Let me just say that I find rules number ii, iv, and vi particularly good ones.

More pictures and words coming soon to View From the Keyboard. If you’d like to submit your own work and workspace, please see the guidelines. And thanks to the evocative (but perhaps now dormant) uppwords.blogspot.com for the Orwell image. -PMc←

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Something Dignified and Heroic ~ Gerard Woodward on Earning as a Writer

For the past few months, the novelist and short story writer Gerard Woodward has been writer-in-residence at Columbia College Chicago. It has been a great joy to have him spend time with us, and we will miss him. But Bath, England is home for Gerard, and so he must return. Through the magic of the internet, though, we can keep the conversation going. Here Gerard answers Gina Frangello’s questions about writing and money making, and he also poses the next questions for us to consider in “Why the Short Story? – A Conversation Among Writers.”

Gerard: I have always seen a writing career as a way of avoiding, or side-stepping, or ducking, the need to have any other sort of career. When I made the decision to try and be a writer, at the age of ten or thereabouts, part of its attraction was that it appeared to be an occupation for which one needed no qualifications, no training, no financial investment (apart from pens, paper and typewriter), no network of other people to worry about, no bosses or supervisors. The only downside, I could see, was that there was no salary.

Well, I exaggerate a little to say that I foresaw the impecuniousness of the profession at that tender age, and like most people I assumed that once you had a book published with a proper publisher, your financial problems were solved for the rest of your life. Beyond that vague notion, the question of money and how I would support myself didn’t enter my head.

But sooner or later it did. Perhaps it was after the first thrilling, (but shockingly small), cheque arrived from a literary magazine. Ok, you gradually realise, I’m not going to make much money at this, at least not yet (and the ‘not yet’ is very important). How am I going to find a way to support myself that doesn’t take away all my time and energy for writing?

There seem to be two kinds of writers – the pragmatists who sort out their financial lives with a steady job and regular income before trying to make room for writing, and the idealists who launch into a writer’s life straight away, and then try and find room for doing something that makes money. Both approaches have their pros and cons, the penniless bohemian might sometimes look enviously on the comfortable lifestyle of the gainfully employed but time-starved writer, often to have their envious stare returned. In the end there is only one answer to the above question – how do you support yourself as a writer in a way that doesn’t take away your writing time – by selling that writing to publishers. Any other means of support is going to eat into that writing time, no matter how closely related to writing it is. I have nothing but admiration for the pragmatists who maintain high pressure careers, waking up at the break of dawn to write for a couple hours before the day’s salaried work begins. Some people just have those sort of overspilling brains that still have something left after the day’s demands have taken their toll. I’ve undertaken all sorts of work, most of it of the manual and menial kind, to support my writing. I was lucky enough to get some awards and prizes for my writing early on, a few thousand pounds here and there, which in those days I could make last for years, and which persuaded me I was heading in a direction that was worth following. Eventually the prizemoney ran out, and I still wasn’t earning enough from writing to support myself, (I was a poet) so I took a job. It wasn’t the first time I had worked. When I left school, aged sixteen, I had six jobs in two years, thanks to a low boredom threshold and a healthy job market (yes, it was a long time ago).  There are some very versatile and industrious and resourceful poets who do manage to make a living out of freelance teaching, giving readings, doing workshops and so on, but I wasn’t resourceful enough to be one of them.

As a writer, I’ve always felt that it doesn’t really matter what one does in the world, it is all experience that will feed into the writing. The jobs I had sound mundane (warehouseman in a motorway service station, vending machine filler, pizza restaurant waiter, antiques dealer to name a few) but they provided a vast resource in terms of characters and stories that I will be mining for years to come. It doesn’t matter if a job is physically demanding, as long as it’s not mentally demanding. It means there is energy left in the brain. In fact I think hard manual work can be quite good for the imagination– it tires out the body but actually invigorates the brain, getting the oxygenated blood flowing through the cortex. One forgets how physically demanding thinking actually is (stop laughing, people with physically demanding jobs), you can measure the energy consumption of the brain as it performs mental tasks, and it is like watching an electricity meter when someone switches a toaster on. I sometimes start creative writing classes with physical exercises, to stimulate blood flow. Never forget that the imagination runs on blood. (I frequently forget, which is why I’m struggling to stay awake as I write this).

So, let me try and answer the specific questions in Gina’s post. The first one is by far the most complicated. “What role, if any, does money play in your decision to write and what to write?”

I feel, quite strongly, that a piece of writing doesn’t exist, in any meaningful way, until it is published. Up until that point it is simply an externalised and fixed part of your imagination, something you can refer to if you want but something that affects only you and those people you might have shown it to. To bring a piece of writing fully into existence it needs to be published. (I will ignore, for the moment, on-line publishing, its still too early to say what counts as proper publishing in that nebulous world). In other words, one writes with the eventual goal of publication in mind. (I exclude purely personal writing such as journals, diaries or pieces of writing aimed at one person, like an epistle (although no one writes those any more, so we’re told)). What this means is that one should write with publication in mind. When a piece of writing is published, money usually changes hands (or it certainly should). So writing, publishing and making money are all part of the same triple-streamed process. But this doesn’t necessarily mean one writes purely for money. As we have already discussed, there is so little money to be made from publishing short stories that the financial imperative couldn’t seriously play any part in the creative process. Even more so the case with poetry. (When a teenager of my acquaintance speculated that a certain poet was only ‘in it for the money’ I had trouble explaining why I was rolling on the floor laughing). With novels it is different. The potential market for any novel is huge. Of course, most novels only reach a tiny fraction of the market. Nevertheless, it is a very different world from poetry or the short story, and in theory one could make a living from writing novels, and nothing else. But do the maths (or the math), decide what you think is a comfortable annual income, and multiply it by how many years it takes to write a novel. That’s how much advance you’ll need for your next novel, and for every novel you write thereafter, for the rest of your life. Then consider how many writers you know might earn that sort of advance. And then consider how many writers are currently professors of creative writing.

But why not? Updike managed a novel a year over his very long career, and was quite open about the fact that that was the only way he could hope to earn a living from writing – a novel a year for the whole of his working life. And he managed it, without too much dilution of quality (forget about ‘Terrorist’) right up to the end. Not all of us have that energy or sheer talent. I’m already seeing gaps of two or three years opening up between my novels, the sad mathematics of which means I’ve maybe only got five or six left to write. Oh God, how did I get to this depressing piece of speculation? What I’m trying to say that there is nothing wrong, in fact I think there is everything right, about writing for money. I would even go so far as to say there is something dignified and even heroic about it (stop laughing again, people with proper jobs), much as I try and avoid romanticising the writer’s life, anyone who tries to dedicate their life to the production of written stuff in a time when written stuff is being pushed aside by filmed and digitally animated stuff is a hero in my book (or will be in my next book). But the point is – the money should not affect the content. I should say that in big letters really, THE MONEY SHOULD NOT AFFECT THE CONTENT. The writer’s purpose should be to make well made things that publishers would like to buy. If a book is written well enough, the content is of less importance. So don’t write something because you think it will have a mass appeal, write it because it’s what you’re interested in and excited by. The most common feeling I have when writing is – who on earth will want to read this? – and then carry on regardless. If it’s well made, someone will buy it.

I think I’ve answered as much as I can or want to. Now I must get back to making some money.

Oh – I nearly forgot. It’s my turn to ask a question now. I have a strong feeling that the best ones have already been asked, but here’s one that has always intrigued me. What’s the best way to end a short story? Open endings? Closed endings? What does it mean to be open-ended? How do you avoid a reader feeling cheated or frustrated by what might feel like an inconclusive ending? How does it square with achieving a sense of completeness, of closure? Does it ever work to have a more conclusive ending to a story, or is that just old fashioned, and only suitable for genres like horror and romance? Perhaps most importantly, what are your favourite stories in terms of their endings?

Thanks, Gerard. We will miss you over here! -PMc←

A View From the Keyboard ~ A View From the Palette

Philip Hartigan is a visual artist born in the UK and now living in the US. (With me, in Chicago; he’s my husband.) Along the way from there to here, he has had some very interesting stops. Among them, time he spent in Barcelona working on a Masters degree in painting. He has started a series on his blog called MY STUDIOS, and this is the first installment. (I think he sorta stole the idea from View From the Keyboard–a View From the Palette, if you will.) And while this was not his writing space, his work has often been inspired by another of his loves (reading) and his first degree in literature. So there’s the connection to the View From the Keyboard. (And it is just a cool place to create.)

My studios: Part I

Poble Nou, Barcelona

Before I went to art school, I used a room in my small, three-bedroom terraced house as a studio. My first real studio was in Barcelona, Spain, during the year that I lived and studied there for my Fine Art M.A. The English art school had rented two buildings, one in the heart of the Barrio Gotico near the Picasso Museum, the other in an old factory building in Poble Nou, the old anarchist quarter a few miles from the center. I was in the Poble Nou space, sharing the building with nine other artists. When I say factory, I mean a small workshop rather than somewhere they built cars. It was an L-shaped building faced with ochre stucco, with 25 feet high ceilings and a glass roof.

 The studio building was part of a cluster of similar structures on a site about four acres in size, surrounded by a wall, forming a compound for light manufacturing that was common in Barcelona in the late 1800s-early 1900s. You entered the compound through a wide arched gate. As you crossed the cobbled courtyard to the art-school studio, there was a long low building on your left that housed the design business belonging to Mariscal, the guy who was the official designer for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Toni, the mangy dog who lived in the compound, would bound up to greet you when you came up to the building. When you slid open the big wood door to the studio, Toni would always try and squeeze in ahead of you, so you would have to fend him off with a foot at the same time as you were grappling with this eight-foot high door.

The downstairs space was subdivided by drywall into eight studios. There was a loft area above the main entry-room, which I shared with a Scottish guy called Eoghann. We took two walls each, and worked back to back with headphones on, trying to give each other space and not bump into each other when we stepped back to size up our work.

From left: me; Eoghann

I was 31 when I went there, and used to getting up very early for work. He was 22 and came to the MA straight from his BA, and rarely appeared in the studio before late morning. So I continued my early-rising habits, and usually had three or four hours painting on my own before Eoghann arrived.

Any studio given to me during my MA would have been use the same way: I had all day, every day, for more than a year to paint, and that’s what I did, trying things out, discarding ideas, observing my peers as much as I could, developing a few things of my own and then pushing them as far as I could go. What stays with me now are the memories around the studio: of the subway ride from the Barrio Gotico to Poble Nou, and the short walk from the Selva del Mar stop to the studio; Bar Sanchez, on the corner outside the compound, where I went for the menu del dia every day, and struck up a friendship with Paco, the owner, over our love for Barcelona FC:

 

You could walk from the studio to the beach in a couple of minutes, and sit by the Mediterranean for a while before returning for a few hours more painting. I also recall that even though I was there as a painter, I also experimented with sculptural objects and even installation while I was there, placing a few things in an empty warehouse for a while and taking some juicy photos of them. The studio and the memories of a year in Barcelona are all mixed together. It was such a great place to have my first studio.

Thanks for letting me borrow from your blog, Philip. This was originally posted on May 16, 2011, at http://www.philiphartiganpraeterita.blogspot.com/ . To contribute to View From the Keyboard, please click the View From the Keyboard Guidelines button to the right. We would love to see your space and read your work.←

Gina Frangello’s Plan B ~ On Writing and Earning

Continuing with “Why the Short Story?” A Conversation Among Writers, author of Slut Lullabies and My Sister’s Continent, Gina Frangello answers her own questions about making money as a writer.

Gina: Recently, I posed the question to this group about how our writing lives are impacted by financial concerns. We are a diverse group of writers, and the responses thus far have been equally diverse, from Dennis McFadden, who works full-time as a projects manager for the New York State Department of Health, to those leading a more traditional “literary life” (a category that itself entails much diversity, both economically and in terms of what this means for how much writing time such a life actually permits).

Money is a deeply complex thing in the arts world. Although there are writers, painters, musicians, etc. who make a great deal of money at their craft, these individuals are perhaps more in the “minority” than in any other professional guild, so to speak. Among attorneys, among nurses, among teachers, among advertisers, among electricians—among just about any profession one can think of that isn’t arts-based—there is less extreme disparity between those who attain a celebrity level of fame and money, vs. those who literally earn not one dime for their work . . . like, ever. Generally speaking, if you train to become a doctor, for example—going to medical school and graduating—the only reason you would make absolutely no money would be if you are not currently practicing medicine, or that you have obtained sufficient wealth that you have made the choice to now donate your expertise philanthropically as a volunteer. Writers, sculptors, guitarists, on the other hand, may literally work daily at a craft that never pays, period, and that necessitates full-time work in another field for the entire duration of their lives. Even taking into account those in the arts who may lack the essential dedication or skill to succeed, there are indisputably legions of driven, talented people out there who simply never “make it,” and part of that equation entails a particular relationship between art and money that seems unique to any other field.

I grew up poor. This is something people tend to say, because “poor” means different things to different people: being the poorest members of an extended family; the poorest household in an otherwise affluent town or suburb, etc. My meaning is pretty literal: my family was below the poverty line, which at the end of my youth (the time I left home for college) was 10K annually. My father never graduated from the 8th grade, and no one in my entire extended family—on either side—had ever gone to college. Hence we were poor both economically and culturally: a distinction that’s become increasingly interesting to me* as I age, since I know many, many writers now, as an adult, who make a low annual income but whose lives bear little in common with the lives of the culturally-and-educationally-impoverished people I knew in my childhood.

Like many writers, I have written since my earliest memories. I dictated stories to my mother before I could print, and then illustrated them and made them into stapled “books.” I began writing my first novel in earnest at the age of 10, ripping pages off a brown butcher roll of paper my mother had bought to save money. I meticulously hid my writing from my peers, who already considered me a dork for reading so much and constantly wanting to go to the library instead of hanging on the corner, playing sports, or chasing after the neighborhood gangbangers. When I put the nail in the coffin of my own weirdness, by neighborhood standards, and went away to college (on grants and loans), I had already been writing fiction for basically fourteen years, but it never occurred to me for even a minute to major in writing.

I had never met a published writer.

The one “writer” I knew at all was unpublished, unemployed, lived in my parents’ garage and tended to have a lot of dead ants on his floor. He drank too much and died of liver disease in his fifties. I had never—regardless of the season—seen him without the same tan raincoat, nor had I ever seen his hair clean. To say that he was not an ideal role model (though it may also be true that he was the best-educated person I knew in my youth—and according to my father the most “interesting”) would be an understatement.

As I saw it then—and as I still, I must admit, see it now—anyone who would major in writing as an eighteen-year-old college student with no clear vision of how s/he will make a living in this big world must have a trust fund. (Since most of my writing students here in urban Chicago have nothing resembling trust funds, I realize that this perspective is not accurate, but must conclude that my students are a far more optimistic lot than I.)

But as for me at eighteen: I majored in psychology. I was going to get my PhD and open a private practice, or so my plan went. I got all the way through my master’s degree and practiced as a therapist for three years before starting to stay up all night writing my first novel, and calling in “sick” to work in order to stay home and write, and—in my mid-20s and one year into my marriage—defecting from the practical plans of my youth and going back to grad school in writing.

At this point, my husband was on a NASA fellowship in space physics, and if I’m remembering it accurately that was something like 25 or 30 grand per year. This was in 1994. By the standards of my youth, you have to understand, this was Rockefeller terrain—this was the kind of money I would flagrantly quit my job for and go back to pursue my previously unattainable dream of writing as a career. My husband and I labored over this decision and decided that we were going to swing it—that we would live on his income as an academic (he was doing a post-doc at U of C at that time) and somehow pull together a life in which I could write full-time. Previously, it had been a given that I, as a therapist, would probably make more money than he ever would as a physics professor. Now, that plan was upended, and any solid income from me was no longer a “given.”

It’s hard to believe that was nearly twenty years ago. So many things have changed during that time. My husband, tired of moving from city to city and grant to grant, soon left the world of space physics and went into finance, where his income has improved (though is arguably even less stable and predictable, given the current economy). I, meanwhile, got my master’s in Creative Writing, published quite a bit of short fiction in lovely literary magazines that almost never paid, started reading for and eventually took over the editorship of Other Voices magazine, got most of my way through a PhD program, launched a book press in 2005, have taught at several colleges (most consistently at Columbia College Chicago), had two books of fiction published, became the Fiction editor of a hugely popular online literary site (The Nervous Breakdown), have gone through three literary agents, recently went on a fairly massive book tour, have another novel coming out in 2012, and just two days ago finished a new one that is about to go out “shopping.”

These days, I am often asked to blurb books and write letters of recommendation. I appear, it seems, to have a career in writing—and if judged by Dennis’ standards of standing around literary conferences, readings and parties (with or without shrimp), talking shop with other writers, I indisputably lead a “writing life.” To be blunt, I am pretty geeked out with excitement about this literary life of mine, and the ghetto girl who grew up knowing no one who even owned a bookcase can scarcely believe it is real.

Here’s the part I can believe: I make about as much money (less than 25K in my best years) as I figured I would, back when I—very accurately—assessed that, if left to a writing life, I would never be able to pay back my student loans, raise children, buy a house, or support my parents in their old age.

If it were not for my husband’s more standard career—and his unfailing support of my writing, editing and adjunct teaching—I would not be able to lead this lifestyle. The house I could do without, sure. But being a mother—and keeping my own parents financially afloat—are non-negotiable issues. If my family needed me to earn more money, then my editing, my part-time teaching, my taking time off traditional work to go on a book tour . . . those lovely perks of my life would be out the window in a heartbeat.

This is a fine and nuanced point, as it turns out. Because there is a difference between leading a writing life vs. being a writer, just as there is a difference between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty. Because even if I had become a psychologist with a private practice, I would still write fiction. I wrote fiction in elementary school, in high school, in college, while getting my graduate degree in counseling, while working as a therapist. No matter what I was doing, ever, I would continue to write. I would no doubt write somewhat less than I do now if I were also the primary breadwinner in my household. But to think about a life without writing, period, would be like a life without love or a life without air. It would be an impossibility.

On the other hand, I lead a certain type of literary “lifestyle” that is tied deeply to economic circumstances and choices. People who lead this sort of lifestyle—working nonprofit and teaching without tenure and having enough free time to hang out at readings or go to AWP every year—often fall into two categories: those of us with some other economic means (a dual income with one’s spouse, or the luxury of having come from money), or those of us who have made very difficult choices and lead an extremely Spartan lifestyle—one that may never involve home-ownership or raising children, for example—in order to be able to focus heavily on our art, whether or not it pays well.

There can be loopholes. Some writers may suddenly hit it “big” and earn good money on their craft, sure. More commonly, tenured professorships—increasingly hard to come by, but still the most coveted gig for most writers—can provide enough financial security that extreme sacrifices no longer have to be made, and though professors are not wealthy, they can usually afford to have a family, go somewhere cool on Sabbatical now and then, and still have enough time to write, which adds up to a pretty sweet life.

But my question . . . well, back to my question, huh? How does money impact our choices as writers? Well, some writers I know have made financially-driven choices within the writerly arena (such as writing novels based on successful TV series, or giving up literary fiction to write chick lit) that will support them in somewhat higher style without it meaning that they have to get some kind of office (or health department) job. For some writers, this can offer a compromise they find livable: a best of both worlds. But many writers—myself included—just don’t have the right skill or interest set for those kinds of compromises. For myself, I have always felt that if I were to suddenly face financial choices that made it imperative that I earn better money, secure healthcare for my family, then I would go back to working as a therapist, or perhaps teach high school English, rather than “changing what I write” to make my work more lucrative or—that loaded word—“marketable” in the arenas of publishing where the money is. To me, from the very first, the concept of writing has always been fully inextricable from being able to write what I love. Short fiction and literary novels, whether the market rewards these forms financially or not. All that other stuff—the publishing, the networking, the touring—is so much fun icing. But it’s never been even half of what I’m in this for. I write, as most writers I most admire do, because I have to. But more: I write what I have to write, psychologically, artistically. I don’t choose my style or topics based on practical concerns. The work chooses us, as much as the other way around.

The writing life is a beautiful life. There is an almost obscene pleasure in being able to talk about books for a living—a surreal honor in being entrusted with work-in-progress from students and from writers who submit to Other Voices Books or The Nervous Breakdown. There’s incredible camaraderie and rich, lifelong friendships to be found in a tribe of fellow-writers, fellow creative writing teachers and in-the-trenches indie editors, that would be hard to trade for water cooler office politics at an ad firm or something. If you’re like me, and never thought you would have the luxury to live in this world, you spend pretty much every day grateful, and work—even when you’re toiling seventy hours per week for the kind of pay you’d likely exceed as a line cook at McDonald’s—feels like a glorious vacation. This would be a hard world to leave, now that I have had the privilege of dwelling in it.

Someday, I may have to leave it. My husband’s industry is a volatile place. The world is a volatile place.

Should things change, I still don’t foresee myself abandoning short fiction and attempting to become a chick-lit writer or something to bring in some cash. I don’t see myself attempting to mold my writing around my financial realities. I think I would go back to Plan A, in which my writing would have existed on the sidelines of an Other Life, the life in which I would have been supporting my parents and children with a full-time, more predictable job and income.

Ironically enough, I might have no less writing time in that alternate scenario. Editing a book press and TNB Fiction, plus teaching, in addition to mothering three children with no childcare, does not exactly leave me with a full-time writing schedule as it is. Sometimes I write one or two days a week. Sometimes I do not write any new fiction for six months. I’m guessing I would manage just about the same amount of writing time if I were seeing clients or teaching high school. I’m guessing that the things that really matter would largely stay the same—that the work would remain.

But Dennis, I’m not gonna lie. I would really miss the shrimp.

_______

*The multi-layered distinction between economic vs. cultural/educational poverty is one of the main topics of this interview I did for Michael Kimball over at The Faster Times: http://thefastertimes.com/writersonwriting/2010/07/28/i-have-a-character-in-my-head-michael-kimball-interviews-gina-frangello/

Thanks, Gina, for your very thorough and frank answers to these questions. Gerard Woodward, recently returned to the UK after having been visiting writer here at Columbia College Chicago for the past five months (we’ll miss you Gerard!), is next up to answer Gina’s questions. Thanks for reading. Happy Short Story Month again! -PMc←

“Toss the Confetti! Release the Doves!” ~ David Abrams Joins the Conversation

One of the best things about this huge world of social networking is that you get many opportunities to stumble across folks and their words you might not find otherwise. Just so with the post that follows. I cyber-ly met the writerDavid Abrams when he visited Alan Heathcock’s VOLT-mobile on View From the Keyboard, a series on this site. Since then I’ve made visits over to his fine, fine blog The Quivering Pen. He has graciously given me permission to rerun this post, and I’m adding it into our “Why The Short Story?” conversation series. Read on, and celebrate the short story with the rest of us.

(From The Quivering Pen, Thursday, May 5, 2011)

Toss the Confetti! Release the Doves! It’s National Short Story Month!!*

Before too many more days tick away on the calendar, I want to remind everyone that May has been unofficially dubbed National Short Story Month.

We have a National Soft Pretzel Month, a National Bird-Feeding Month, and a National Stamp Collecting Month, so why not an entire four weeks dedicated to the art of short fiction?

I’ve always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends–good friends, well-read, intelligent, reasonable friends–who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, “Oh, I don’t do short stories.”  It’s said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, “I don’t do meat.”  When I come back with, “Why not?” the answers are always vague and insubstantial.  I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don’t like short stories.  I suspect they’re afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school.  Quite possibly involving nuns, rulers and knuckles.

It’s true that the short story is the most commonly assigned form of literature deployed by high school English teachers.  They’re quick, they’re easy, they’re….short.  For every To Kill a Mockbirdthere are five “Hills Like White Elephants” in the classroom.  It makes me wonder if we’re ruining future short-story enthusiasts at the age when they’re less capable of finding the subtleties and nuances of stories than they are in easier-to-grasp novels.  By their nature, short stories compress language to its densest gem-like state (second only to poetry); novels sprawl and emphasize plot and are generally more accessible to younger readers.  I could be wrong, but I think the average 15-year-old would rather read The Catcher in the Rye than “Young Goodman Brown.”  (I’m talking about 15-year-olds with an overall lack of interest in reading; for teen bookworms like me, I gobbled up Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” with a spoon.)

Where is this tangent leading?  How did I get here?  Oh yeah, short-story haters.  A puzzling demographic of our literary society.  I suspect they’ve already stopped reading this post, so I can say whatever I want about them.  They’re stuffy, waddle around with a stick in their asses, and are so rigid in their routines and tastes that they’d never try eating at anything exotic as a Persian restaurant that served goat kebabs.  There, I’ve said it.  I feel better.

Enough soapbox and on to Short Story Month…

The origins are a little murky.  I first heard of the concept in 2007 when Dan Wickett devoted a month of postings to the short story at The Emerging Writers Network.  Four years earlier, Larry Dark, director of The Story Prize, floated the idea when he told The Pennsylvania Gazette: “I think the story needs advocacy as a cultural institution the way poetry has done.”  He preached a similar sermon to Poets & Writers magazine in 2005: “I feel like the short story is almost in the same position as poetry.  It needs a lot of cultural advocacy because it’s certainly not commercially strong.”

Dark is referring, of course, to National Poetry Month which is still in our rear-view mirror.  Since designating April as National Poetry Month in 1986, the nonprofit Academy of American Poetshas enlisted a variety of government agencies and officials, educational leaders, publishers, sponsors, poets, and arts organizations to help with the festivities each year in April.  The short story deserves at least as much time in the spotlight.  In 2009, at The Story Prize blog, Dark wrote: “It’s going to take more than a little noise to make it happen. For NSSM to come about and have any impact, it will need to have a strong organization behind it, a real concerted and nationally coordinated effort, and buy-in from bookstores, schools, and libraries, not to mention authors and publishers.”

Dark got the conversation rolling but Dan Wickett was the one to put the rubber on the road on May 1, 2007 when he wrote at theEmerging Writers Network: “Now we move into SHORT STORY MONTH. Quite possibly my personal favorite form of writing to read. It might not make sense, but to me an incredible story, one nearly flawless, tops a fantastic novel. Even the best novels I’ve read have a slow spot somewhere within–a spot not at the same incredible level as the rest of the work. This doesn’t happen, really can’t happen, in an incredible short story–there’s just no room for bits of filler.”  Wickett recently discussed the origins of NSSM at theFiction Writers Review blog.

Since 2007, National Short Story Month has been gaining momentum, primarily among bloggers.  It would be great to see bookstores climb on board** with their support: offering discounts on selected collections during the month, holding in-store read-a-thons, talking up the idea of National Short Story Month to local media.  Someday soon, maybe we’ll start seeing posters in airports and subway terminals promoting NSSM (a champion boxer holding up a copy of Knockemstiff and a tagline “Knock ’em dead with a short story,” for instance).

In the meantime, you can join the festivities at these websites:

Start with the Godfather of Short Story Month,*** the Emerging Writers Network.  Wickett has already highlighted stories by Victor LaValle, Steven GillisErika Dreifus, Roxane Gay, and others.  He’s an earnest champion of under-read books and has brought dozens of new writers to my attention.

Matt Bell’s blog where, in addition to his regular posts, he’s ambitiously taking on 31 stories from print magazines in 31 days.

That Shakespearean Rag is joining in that 31-in-31 marathon.

The Fiction Writers Review, which has so many different blog events planned for NSSM, it’s almost like walking into an Old Country Buffet and being overwhelmed by all that the steam tables have to offer.

Necessary Fiction is embracing the true spirit of NSSM by publishing a complete short story each day.

At Perpetual Folly, Clifford Garstang is building steam by writing about stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Donald Antrim, and Abby Frucht.  The month is still young, so expect more perpetual goodness to come from the blog.

There are plenty of other NSSM hotspots in the blog-o-sphere–including a Facebook page.  Most of the sites mentioned above have links to places where you can find more celebration of short fiction.

As for me…

I don’t have the time and energy of the other bloggers, but I will be doing my part on a smaller scale.  I’ve set aside the week of May 16th for daily giveaways of short story collections.  Along with the giveaways, I’ve invited each of the authors to contribute their thoughts about the short story–why they matter, why they’ll survive, and why readers should never dismiss them with a wave of the hand.  Stay tuned for more details….

*And with that, I’ve exceeded my monthly quota of exclamation points.
**I’d love to know if anyone out there is already doing something to promote NSSM.  Feel free to share in the comments section.
***So dubbed by The Story Prize blog

→Thanks, David. Looking forward to the celebration over at The Quivering Pen next week! (Oops, another exclamation point!)-PMc←

Summer Camp and Summer Writing

How many of us can remember those days of summer when we were kids? The way it felt on the last day of school, the jittery eagerness for the final bell to ring, the doors to be thrown open to let us out out out? And the day would be warm and sunny, hot maybe; and we’d be in our new summer shorts, our cotton tops, our sandals that rubbed a blister on our heels because we hadn’t broken them in yet. (But what did a little blister matter when the whole of two-plus months of long days and no homework and the caliope music of ice cream trucks was waiting? A tiny annoyance in a vast season of freedom and pleasure!)

And some of us were the lucky ones who got to go to camp. Remember? My own family couldn’t really afford it, but one summer Roger (my brother, two years older, now recently deceased) and I were able to be campers at Wagon Wheels Day Camp. Somewhere there is a picture of us standing at the end of our driveway, waiting for the bus and wearing matching dark blue shorts (I used to pretend we were twins) showing off our not yet summer-tanned dimpled knees, sporting strange little cotton caps (think Gilligan on his island) and Wagon Wheels Day Camp t-shirts. I still remember arts and crafts and Popsicle-stick log cabin constructions, pinch-pot ashtrays (remember when it was not politically incorrect to make your parents something to support their unhealthy habits?), vinyl lanyard key chains. I remember our talent show at the end of summer, and all of us Doing the Freddie and me pretending to play the drums to Herman’s Hermits’ songs. 

Those were some of the great joys of summer camp: monkeying around and showing off. And getting to do those things you loved: making stuff, hanging out with new friends, playing in the sunshine. Getting away from the drag of real life.

Now here’s the good news. Adults can have summer camp, too. Really. They come in the form of adult arts programs. Places like Interlochen College of the Creative Arts up in Northern Michigan and Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, give adults a respite from the daily drag, a chance to play in the sunshine, to make stuff, and (if we are so inclined) to show off our talents.

This summer I am thrilled to be teaching for these programs. From June 2 – 5, I will be running a Writers’ Workshop at Shake Rag Alley. Four days of prose writers sharing work, making excursions into the Wisconsin countryside, and writing, writing, writing.

From June 20 – 23 at Interlochen College of Creative Arts, I will be co-teaching with Philip Hartigan a Journal and Sketchbook class aimed at helping writers of all levels to use scribbling, sketching, and drawing to better see their writing. (Artists are welcome to come and learn how to use writing to further see their drawing as well. Consider the intriguing interplay between image and text.) This workshop will be part of the very popular Interlochen Writers’ Retreat, four days of writing and writing craft, walks on the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lake Shore, readings and gatherings.

August 8 – 11, Philip Hartigan and I will be returning to Shake Rag Alley to teach another Journal and Sketchbook class that can be taken in conjunction with Philip’s Artist Books class. More playing in the sun. More making stuff. More talent sharing.

Each of these classes are designed to meet participants (campers) at their own skills levels, guaranteed to send them home with ideas and creative practices and work-in-progress. And the best part of Adult Summer Camp? For those of us who want it, there’s beer.

For a preview of what you can expect from your summer camp experience, check out this clip: 

Happy summer, everyone. See you at camp.

Oh, and by the way, Vanessa Gebbie, one of the conversationalists in our “Why the Short Story?” series going on over at the Conversations page of this site, is also teaching workshops this summer: one in Ireland, one in the UK. Drop by her blog to get more information. And don’t forget the sunscreen.←

The Milk is Free ~ On Writing and Earning

Recently Gina Frangello—one of the conversationalists in our series “Why the Short Story?”—asked the rest of us about how our writing life affects our financial life. Do we make a living as writers? Did we ever consider pursuing a more traditional livelihood? As I watch a number of my students prepare for graduation and the now-more-than-ever complicated task of finding work that both satisfies and pays the bills (among them very big student loans), this question seems particularly interesting to me.

I have been working since I was 13. When I was in junior high, I breaded mushrooms at a sandwich shop and babysat every single Saturday night pretty much all the way through high school. I had a job as a shampoo girl, worked at McDonald’s, did filing at my father’s office, baby sat some more, spent a summer scraping and painting a family friend’s fence, and baby sat some more. Oh, and I was a candy striper, too. When I went away to college for the first time (it took me a few attempts to get it right) I had board jobs that included working in the cafeteria and housekeeping in the common areas of my dorm. Off campus I waitressed at a pizza joint and I bartended.

I guess I liked to work, for some reason. Did I need the money? Maybe some, but I think I just liked to earn it. I liked it to come from my own endeavors. Most of my friends worked in high school; we all had summer jobs. That seemed to be just how it was. Years later, when I was teaching (part-time when I was a grad student, when I was also working fulltime for a commodities firm, and teaching aerobics part-time) I asked my students to write about their worst jobs. And—this kills me—about one quarter of those students HAD NEVER WORKED.

Now we all know the legends of writers who’ve worked and the jobs they held: Kafka in insurance, Hemingway in a brothel, Tom Lynch as an undertaker, Dennis Lehane parking cars, and so on and so on. Work, I mean work outside of just the work of writing (and it is work, don’t let anyone fool you; if you think it is not work at least sometimes, then you ain’t doing it right,) might well be necessary to a writer. Don’t you think? There are those experiences we rack up and write about (have you ever read Aleksandar Hemon’s short stories about selling magazines in the Chicago suburbs? Don De Grazia’s account of factory work in American Skin? The odd jobs Nami Mun’s main character holds in Miles from Nowhere?) but there is also our extrication from the deeply internal gaze of the writer, the one that sometimes takes us so deeply into our creative mind that we lose all sense of the wider world, the external audience, the very important context of life outside our imagination. It is, I think, important for us to lift our heads and look around once in a while.

But this isn’t what you asked, is it Gina? Is writing a lucrative choice for a career? It can be, but for a very, very few. I write a bit of freelance, and that has helped pay the bills some, allowed me to—in all good conscience—write off my home office space when I do my taxes. My fiction has paid me little: a few prizes that usually come at a very, very good time; some small royalties and one-time token payments by journals and anthologies. When I first started writing seriously, the money mattered very little. This was when I was still working in the financial markets, back office manager, and then vice president of a small managed accounts firm. I made good money. Really good money. And I could pay my way through school as I went. But then one day I was sitting in a seminar at a commodities dealers’ conference, listening to a speaker talk about compliance documents and client responsibilities and series 7 exams and certifications, and I thought: What in the hell am I doing here? And that was when I started to make a plan. I moved out of my gold coast apartment in a high rise with a doorman and into a small courtyard building in Uptown (my car was broken into and my bike was stolen within a couple of months of my move.) I gathered a small nest egg. And I quit my “real” job. It wasn’t easy. There were times when I sold pieces of jewelry and much loved books so I could pay for the train to school. I ate a lot of noodles. But after a while I started to teach more (you know the adjunct dance, where you have gigs all over the place—five classes at three different schools was my record) and survived.

(I should say that after a year of near-poverty I married my first husband who made enough to support us both, but my desire to make my own money sent me back to a full time job as a bookkeeper for an insurance company while I was still teaching part-time. Luckily it wasn’t too long before I landed my tenure-track job at Columbia.)

So what am I trying to say? I would love to be able to live off my writing alone, but I am sorry to say that it is in all likelihood not going to happen. And I write, like so many of you all have said, for the writing’s sake, not for the money. But isn’t it a shame that we have to make that distinction? That our writing (and maybe I mean the kind of writing that some call “literary” here) doesn’t have a more recognized monetary value? That most of us can’t—as our ancestors did—get paid for a short story? That we are expected to almost always give our work away? And think of the journals and their editors and publishers. Not only do they give their work away, but I would imagine that most of them work at a loss, putting some of their own hard cash into the production. Why is that? Flower arrangers don’t give their work away. Professional ball players don’t. Strippers don’t. Are writers just cows who don’t mind giving their milk away for free? No moos of complaint?

BUT. This all sounds as though I am bitter about the writing for publication and profit thing. And I don’t really think I am. In fact, I very much like collaborating with small presses and with upstart journals—those venues that are not in the position to offer much (if any) cash. See, the thing is, when a small journal publishes my work and the time comes around for them to nominate pieces for various awards and prizes, my odds of being one of the nominations is significantly better than if I were published in one of the richer, glossier, wealthier publications. The same goes for book publishers. I am running in a narrower field in these smaller presses, and that can lead to some good things. I have won two Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards after having been nominated by smaller, lesser-known journals. I have received a number of Pushcart Prize nominations. And these small presses are often run by other college teachers or students, and so it is not unusual that I get invited to read at various events. And sometimes, too, I get paid for that. And, like Vanessa Gebbie mentioned, I get invited to teach at various writers’ conferences and workshops, something I enjoy very much. (There are two of these coming up in just a few weeks’ time this summer.)

Each of us needs to negotiate this money/writing thing in our own way. Dennis McFadden works very hard at everything he does, writing and project managing. He has a family that he takes very good care of, and this is important to him. Would he be happier just writing, not knowing how his family might eat? I doubt it. Not having to worry about these things can make the writing go easier, I’d bet. And writing, I would imagine, also makes his daily work go better. Me? I’m willing to put the writing on hold now and again in order to do a good job at the other things I get paid for. But I will always, always, always come back to the writing. And doing other things makes me all the more needful of writing. And yearning is a good motivator for me. And let’s not forget how convenient it is to have a built in excuse (I gotta work) so that when the writing isn’t going well, we can put the blame on our busy-ness and not on the limitations of our own writing that day.

Writing students often look for jobs in writing, but I’d caution them to be careful. It is hard to want to write the things you want to write if you have had to spend all day in front of a computer. Teaching writing is not always the right choice for a writer. Being surrounded by the writing of others, your eyes and brains full of work-in-progress can also get in the way of your own work. I know a woman who went back to tending bar after one semester of teaching just because it was easier for her to think about her own writing when she didn’t have to think about someone else’s. Another friend teaches part-time and works in a grocery store. The grocery store work brings him into contact with other people’s lives and their stories, not bad experience for a writer.

So, to recap: Working. Yeah, it’s a good thing. Making money? Also a good thing. Writing? Now that…that is the best thing of all.

Gina Frangello will answer her own questions about writing and making money in a few days, and Gerard Woodward will weigh in on this, too. Oh, and the clever cartoon is from http://mysteryreadersinc.blogspot.com. Thanks for reading. -PMc←