How to Support the Writers You Know (Mostly For Free!)

Recently my cousin Yvette sent me an e-mail with the photo below attached. She’d put in a request to have my story collection, Faulty Predictions, considered for purchase for her local library’s collection. I felt incredibly grateful to her; this is the kind of action that can really help out a writer, especially writers whose books are from small or university presses that don’t have large marketing budgets. I hadn’t asked her to do this; she just saw the forms and decided to ask her library to consider purchasing my book.

It struck me that I haven’t asked anyone to do such a thing, and maybe I should. I find book promotion to be challenging. It takes a good amount of hustle and extroversion and self-promotion, which can be difficult things for writers who are more comfortable behind a desk working quietly than in front of a crowd talking about themselves and their work. As I was considering Yvette’s kind gesture, I thought that maybe there are people out there who would like to do things to help the writers in their lives, but they don’t know what they can do. Before I published a book, I had no idea about how I could help writers, beyond buying a copy of their book. So here are a few ideas. Most of them are free.

1) Ask your local library (or university or college library) to order your writer friend’s book.

2) Leave a positive review on Amazon for the book. It doesn’t have to be something really in-depth that you spend hours writing. It can even be a sentence long, something like “I really enjoyed this book!” If you have time and have specific things to say, great, but if you’ve only got a minute, a short review helps. I’ve heard rumors that the more reviews a book gets, the more it will be promoted by Amazon. I’m not sure if this is true, but that’s the word on the street. The rumor is that fifty reviews is the magic number; apparently, if a book gets fifty reviews, it will show up in more searches and will be promoted more, even to people who aren’t searching for that particular book. Again, I’m not sure if this is true, but it can’t hurt for a book to have a lot of positive reviews.

3) Leave a positive review on Goodreads. The same idea applies as above. The review can be short, or it can be long and detailed.

4) Choose the author’s book for your book club and ask the author join your book club, either in person (if you live near the author) or via Skype. Most authors are happy to do this for free (I certainly am and am always appreciative when a group of readers decides to read and discuss my book).

5) If an author has visited your book club and you enjoyed their book, leave positive reviews for the book online.

6) If you are affiliated with any organizations or groups that organizes readings, ask the author to give a reading. If you can pay the author, that’s great, but if you can’t, many authors will still be willing to give a reading, especially if they don’t have to travel far to do so. It’s also great if you can advertise the reading and help draw a crowd.

7) If you ask an author to give a reading and can’t pay, you can always try to organize a book sale to go along with the reading, which would give the author an opportunity to sell their books and would let the audience get their books signed by the writer. If you don’t have the resources to organize a book sale, you can invite the author to bring books to sell, and you can tell whoever introduces the author to encourage audience members to buy books. I run the reading series at the college where I teach, and I’ve realized that while I’m introducing the reader, it’s helpful to say, “Please consider buying a book after the reading. It’s a great way to support the writer who has come to campus, and you’ll be able to get it signed, so it’s something special you’ll have.” From running the reading series, I’ve realized that a few words encouraging the audience to buy books results in more book sales for the author.  

8) If a writer you know is giving a reading near where you live, show up for it (especially if the reading is free, which most readings tend to be). It’s hard to get people to show up for readings because there are so many things and responsibilities that compete for an audience member’s attention. But it’s a great thing for a writer to look out into the audience and see a friendly and familiar face looking back. Plus, there’s always the fear that no one will show up for a reading, so if a writer knows that you’re coming, they’ll know they can avoid the dreaded I-gave-a-reading-and-no-one-showed-up scenario.   

9) If you are a student and have a writing teacher whose classes you’ve enjoyed, read that teacher’s book(s). You may not have a lot of money right now, and that’s okay. You don’t have to buy the books; you can check them out from the library or ask for a copy of the book as a birthday or holiday gift. Do the steps above—ask your local library to purchase their book; if you or a parent or other relative has a book club, suggest they read your teacher’s book; leave reviews for the book if you enjoyed it. Trust me: your teachers will appreciate your curiosity and interest in their work. Your teachers spend a lot of time being interested in you and your writing; they will very much appreciate it if you show some interest in their work and acknowledge them as a writer and not only as your teacher. When I was a student, I was too shy to tell my teachers that I’d read and liked their work. Now I know how much they probably would have liked knowing that their student had read and appreciated what they’d written.

10) And, finally, if you can afford to do so, buy a new copy of a book by someone you know. For many years—while I was an undergraduate and graduate student—I only bought books used because that’s what I could afford. But used book sales don’t help writers because used books don’t count toward their sales records and writers don’t earn royalties from sales of used books. It’s always a good thing to get a deal on a book, but once I had a full-time job and salary, I switched to buying new books because I wanted to make sure writers got compensated for purchases of their books. For a long time, I didn’t realize that buying used books meant that writers weren’t being compensated for those sales, so I thought I’d mention it here in case others also don’t know this.

I hope this list helps to give some ideas about how you might support the writers in your life. It surprised me to learn how much readers can do to help out writers, and I’ve very much appreciated the support I’ve been lucky enough to receive from friends and family in the years since my book came out. If you do any of the things from the list above, I can assure you that the writers in your life will be extremely grateful.

Confusion Isn't Mystery

I've got a guest post up at the Zafris-Kothari Novel Workshop blog. Here's the beginning of the post:

For years I’ve been giving my fiction-writing students an exercise about ambiguity, mystery, and confusion. I came up with this exercise because I kept seeing drafts in which the students withheld critical information readers needed in order to understand the story that was being told. 

First, I give students these paragraphs to examine:

Mark looked around him. The room was cold. White. There were machines hooked to him. They beeped. He felt horrible. Absolutely horrible. Lots of parts of his body hurt. He was in pain from what had happened. There was no one in the room but him. No one was visiting. Or maybe they all were dead. 

This aloneness left him time to think. He thought about a lot of things. He thought about what had happened. He thought and thought, his mind racing, images flooding through his mind. He couldn’t remember very much, but he remembered enough. 

He looked at the paintings on the wall. They were generic paintings of flowers. He felt the rough blanket that covered him. It was an okay blanket because it was warm enough. He liked his down comforter at home better, though. He looked at the pitcher of water by his bedside. It was beige and he thought the water inside might be cold. He wasn’t sure, though; he hadn’t had any water yet. Maybe he would have a drink. Maybe he wouldn’t. Only time would tell.

To read the rest of the post, click here.

And to learn more about this unique workshop (where writers get to workshop 200 pages of a novel), click here.

What I'd Like My Students to Know About Academic Jobs: Part IV

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

For the past few semesters I’ve asked my creative writing students to read a short essay called “Workshop Is Not For You” by Jeremiah Chamberlin from the Glimmer Train bulletin. We always read it before we start to workshop. The premise of this essay is that students gain a great deal by taking the time to carefully read and comment on their peers’ work in a writing workshop. Chamberlin says that students shouldn’t get upset if their classmates don’t seem to be putting as much time and effort into responding to work as they are. They will gain more from responding to their classmates’ work than they will from having their own work up for discussion.

I agree completely with Chamberlin’s idea here, but I’m not sure I would have agreed when I was an undergraduate or a graduate student. During my years as a student, I was often frustrated with the feedback I received from my classmates. I would always type comments and I’d give my classmates at least a page of single-spaced typed feedback on each of their stories. From some classmates I’d get a few scribbled comments back on my manuscript when my work was up for workshop. Some classmates didn’t return my manuscripts at all, and I often wondered if they’d even bothered to read my work. I was really angry about this for a long time, but ultimately I realized that all that time I’d spent as a student writing responses for my peers helped me out tremendously when I became a teacher. I felt completely comfortable responding to student writing because I’d had so much experience responding to my peers.

And something else happened when I went from being a student to a full-time teacher with so many student stories and exercises that I spent hours and hours a day grading: I learned a ton about writing from reading this work, from figuring out what was working and what wasn’t, and articulating my ideas about how the work could be revised. I think it would have taken me much longer to figure out a lot of things if I wasn’t grading so much and only looking at my own work for those two years that I taught at Missouri State. For example, when I was in graduate school, one of my professors kept telling me that all of my stories started too early. Often, I could cut away several pages of unnecessary material at the beginning of a story. When my professor pointed this out to me, I could see what he was talking about, yet in each new story I wrote, I began with too much exposition and backstory. Left to my own devices, I would start each story with a lot of information that would be better integrated into the story later on or simply left out altogether. Even though my professor kept pointing this out to me, I just couldn’t get it into my brain as I was writing that my stories could start later. But once I started seeing dozens of stories a week that started a page or two too early, I immediately understood what my professor had seen in my stories and I was able to stop doing this in my own work.

You must read and grade all of this!

You must read and grade all of this!

And not only does a job with a heavy teaching load force a teacher to look at a huge amount of writing, it also forces you to read carefully and take apart published stories in a way that many writers who are not teaching might not do. I know that I study a story more closely before I teach it than I would if I were just reading for pleasure. When I prep a story to teach, I go through it at least twice (usually three or four times) and try to figure out why the author made the craft decisions he or she made. I study the story and pick it apart in a way that I never would if I were not planning on getting in front of a classroom and leading discussion. From this close examination of stories, I’ve learned a great deal about the strategies writers employ. During some semesters when I was at Missouri State, I was teaching four sections of the same class, and leading discussion after discussion of the same story helped me to understand these particular stories well and to have a better idea of how stories can work in general. Sometimes students would make comments during these discussions that were so smart and would further illuminate the stories for me.

It wasn’t until I started teaching that I became a good editor for my own work. Before I started teaching, I was dependent on feedback from professors and classmates on my stories. I didn’t know whether a story worked well or didn’t work until workshop when I got feedback. But as I kept teaching and reading so many drafts of stories, I was able to sharpen my editorial skills. I don’t think this would have happened as quickly (or perhaps at all) if I hadn’t had to look at so much student work.

Did I make mistakes during my first two years of teaching? Hell, yeah. In each class, I gave each student at least ten graded creative exercises to write a semester plus three full-length stories plus typed peer reviews of each peer’s stories that they’d have to turn in to me (so in a class of twenty-two students where the students were workshopping three stories, each student would write sixty-three peer reviews). I gave the students so much work, which also meant that I was constantly grading piles of papers. I typed pages of comments for each draft of each student’s story. I wanted to teach each student in every class I taught everything I knew about fiction writing in one semester, and that’s just an impossible task. Now I know that I likely overwhelmed students with feedback. I was often frustrated back then because I saw that in their revisions students didn’t use all my suggestions on their first drafts that I’d spent hours typing for them. Now I think that it’s more helpful to choose two or three bigger issues for students to focus on, especially in an introductory class. Students can fix three issues in a revision. Students can’t fix forty issues in one revision. I think the students who wanted to continue writing got a lot out of my classes, but I also think some of the students who were just taking the class to fulfill a requirement probably shook their heads when they realized I’d spent more time writing comments on their work than they’d spent writing it. I spent so much time copyediting every single page of work I got, and I finally realized that this copyediting didn’t result in the next stories or papers being stronger on the sentence level.

I was working very, very hard, but I don’t think I was working terribly smart. It took a few semesters of that super hard work—long nights grading until 3a.m., spending weekends grading, falling over exhausted and sleeping for days at the ends of semesters—to realize that there had to be ways of teaching that were still valuable for students without completely draining me. Those two years were really a teaching boot camp, and they helped me figure out how to assign a reasonable amount of work for the students and for me to grade. In a way, I was lucky that in the instructor position I wasn’t responsible for committee or service work or advising. All I had to do was teach my classes and attend department meetings once a month. This compartmentalization of teaching was great for me because I only had to worry about teaching for two years. At my next job, I had many more duties outside of the classroom, and I was really glad that I’d had the time during my first job to figure out how to design and teach my classes.

Yes, this is another photo of papers, but, honestly, for those two years, my life consisted of staring at piles of papers for almost all of my waking hours. 

Yes, this is another photo of papers, but, honestly, for those two years, my life consisted of staring at piles of papers for almost all of my waking hours. 

For me, this job was ultimately worth it because I learned a lot about being a teacher and all that grading helped me to strengthen my own writing and editorial skills. That job wasn’t sustainable, either in terms of salary or workload, but it was a tough first job that I don’t ever regret taking. Putting in those hours and paying my dues led to better jobs with fewer students and better compensation. But I think that now, more than ever with a tight job market, it’s important for students who are thinking of going to graduate school and who want to teach at the college level to know that oftentimes there are a lot of dues-paying years. This is not to say that after the first few years of teaching everything becomes easy, but since I left that job I’ve never had a semester in which I taught ninety students. Now I have other responsibilities at my school outside of teaching, and I think I can do a good job of balancing my teaching, service, and writing, and I owe a lot to my first job for allowing me the chance to figure out a great deal about teaching.

These four posts have been a very long explanation to “How did you get your job?” To my students, I have this to say: There’s often a long and difficult path that your professors have to follow to get where they are. And if you’re willing to travel that path—to pursue opportunity, embrace change, and compromise—you very well can end up with a job that is fulfilling and allows you to spend your days thinking and talking about reading and writing. And that, I think, is not a bad life at all.

What I’d Like My Students to Know About Academic Jobs: Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

I was shocked when I got a call from Missouri State shortly after I submitted my application. In a way, this was confusing. A university was actually interested in me, but dozens of non-academic jobs had found me unworthy of even sending me a rejection. As I reflected on my skills and preparation, it made sense that I was better suited for teaching than I’d been for most of the other jobs I’d applied for. Maybe I was a viable candidate for teaching at a university. In fiction writing classes we talk about epiphanies and whether people in real life have epiphanies as often as characters in stories in fiction workshops do. The answer is, of course, no, we’re not going around having huge realizations all the time, but I have to say that realizing I might be qualified to teach at the college level was an epiphany for me.

During the initial call, a phone interview with the search committee was scheduled for a few days later. During the phone interview, I was asked questions about my teaching and writing. Among other topics, I talked about how I crafted assignments, how I graded creative writing, and how I facilitated workshops. I talked about the stories I'd been writing and sending out to journals. A few days after the phone interview, I was invited out for a campus interview. I flew from Pittsburgh, PA, to Springfield, MO, and spent an entire day on campus talking to faculty and administrators. Because it was the middle of the summer and most students were not on campus, I didn’t teach a sample class (which is usually part of an on-campus interview). Instead, I read one of my short stories to a handful of professors from the English Department and then answered questions about that story in particular and my writing in general. I had dinner with two members of the English Department. I flew home, and a few days later I was called and offered the job.

An aside: This timeline is incredibly sped up and compressed because they were looking for someone so late in the year. Generally, academic jobs are posted in the fall—usually between the end of August and mid-October—with deadlines in early to mid-November. Job seekers submit applications and then wait until December, when, if they are lucky enough, they get calls about either phone, Skype, or conference interviews (there is a large conference every year called the MLA—Modern Language Association—Convention, during which many interviews are held for college-level teaching jobs in English. There is also the AWP—Association of Writers & Writing Programs—Conference, where some interviews are also held, but this conference often occurs too late in the academic year, usually late March or early April, for it to make sense to conduct interviews there). The conference/phone/Skype interviews are first round interviews, and around a dozen candidates get interviewed at this stage (sometimes more, sometimes fewer). Depending on the job, these twelve or so candidates may have been whittled down from hundreds of candidates. Usually the top three candidates are invited to campus in January or February to teach a sample class, give a talk or do a reading, and meet with/interview with students, faculty, and administrators. Then it might take until March (or even later) for the offers to be made. The delay is because all three candidates’ campus visits need to transpire and then the hiring department needs to meet to discuss the candidates and the department needs to get final approval from the administration to extend the job offer. The whole process is long and drawn out and full of waiting. People who are not in academia are often surprised to hear that you may have to wait until March or April to hear the results of a job you applied for in September.

I was excited by the opportunity to teach at the college level, and I immediately said yes to the job offer at Missouri State. This meant that within a few weeks I would have to pack up, move halfway across the country, and begin teaching four classes a semester. I had to leave behind people I cared about and move to a place where I knew no one. But this isn’t unusual; there are plenty of people out there who have left a great deal behind for academic jobs. This moving around, this starting over and over again, is something that most people I know who’ve taught in colleges and universities have dealt with. In a way it’s exciting and allows you to get to know different parts of the country (or even the world), but if you’re really tied to a certain place, it does drastically limit your options on the academic job market.

Here’s what I remember most about the phone call in which I was offered a job: the person who chaired the search apologized to me before he told me what the salary would be. When I heard the salary, I was struck by the fact that the salary was the exact same amount I’d made five years before—before I started graduate school—teaching GED and Adult Basic Education. I knew immediately that I’d be working a lot harder for the money than I had in the job before graduate school. I’d been teaching as a TA long enough to know that there’s a lot of take-home work with college-level teaching, and the hours in the classroom are only a fraction of the work of teaching at a college or university. The search chair said that I could not negotiate for a higher salary because this was all they could offer. He told me that one piece of good news was that the cost of living was fairly low in Springfield, so that salary would go farther there than in a lot of other places. He sounded contrite but I was incredibly happy to have been offered a job and grateful for the opportunity and assured him the salary would be fine. (I had been told explicitly that I couldn’t negotiate for a higher salary, and so I didn’t, but I also was unaware at that point that one could negotiate.) I’d been searching for a job for months, and I’d come to the conclusion that I wanted to teach at the college level, and this job seemed like an excellent place to start a teaching career. Since Missouri State is a public institution, that salary isn’t a secret. If you want to see it, click here. Let's do a little math here. Each year I was teaching eight classes with twenty-two students per class. So that's 176 students. Take that salary and divide it by 176, and you come up with $153.41 that I was being paid per student. And that was BEFORE taxes. Let's say I was being paid around $110 per student after taxes. If I divide that $110 by the number of hours I spent grading each student's work, I would end up with just a few dollars an hour in compensation per student. These aren't pretty numbers, but I don't think this kind of thing should be a secret to students. 

I was okay with taking a job with that salary because I knew the job was a good start. I would gain skills, enter into the profession, and continue to grow as a teacher of creative writing. I knew I’d never get rich being a teacher, and, honestly, the salary was more than twice what I’d made each year for the last five years as a TA. During the two years I held the job at Missouri State, I lived frugally and saved whatever money I could. But during my second year, I needed a root canal and then, after the root canal, my tooth cracked, and I needed a crown. And once I paid for my dental work (even though I had dental insurance that covered a portion of the costs), I was left with almost no money in the bank. At that point, it truly hit me that the job wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t keep working and ending up with no money in the bank at the end of each year (while spending little on anything besides rent, food, utilities, car upkeep, and other basic necessities. I was also paying off a small loan that I’d taken out while I was in graduate school to help supplement my TA stipend). What if I had a medical issue? What if I needed to spend a significant amount of money on a car repair? What if my computer broke down? Actually, this did happen, and I had to ask my parents for help purchasing a new computer because I needed it to do my work. And I hated having to ask for help, especially as someone who was employed full-time and was working hard. Something seemed a little off-balance to me: I thought that with the amount of work I was doing, I should have had enough to buy a new computer when my old one broke down. Plenty has been written lately about compensation for non-tenure-track faculty members, so I won’t write too much here, but I think it’s worth letting students know that oftentimes their teachers—especially those who are adjuncts or in visiting or non-tenure-track positions—are not compensated particularly well.

The job entailed teaching four sections of a class called Creative Writing: Short Story a semester. Each class had twenty-two students in it, for a total of eighty-eight students. Some semesters I also worked one-on-one with students in tutorials, so during those semesters I had ninety or more students. Except for one literature class I taught during my second year, my classes were all writing courses—either this introductory short story course or an intermediate fiction writing course. This meant a lot of reading and grading of student writing. A lot of reading and grading of student writing. But here’s the thing: this university was trusting me with eighty-plus students a semester. They were giving me the opportunity to figure out how to teach creative writing. And no matter how difficult the job was, this was an opportunity. A good one.

Read Part IV here: What I learned by teaching all these students and why this difficult job was ultimately worth it.

What I'd Like My Students to Know About Academic Jobs: Part II

Read Part I here.

Today I want to talk about my own post-MFA job search. This is all the specific stuff I want to tell my students when I talk to them about graduate school and life after graduation, but it’s what I never have time to say. I want to tell them about rejections and difficulties, but also about acceptances and what went right. I want to tell them not to give up when they get rejected because we all get rejected at some point. I want to tell them about the long, circuitous path that led up to my sitting in the classroom in front of them.

I finished my MFA in 2006, and during my last semester of school I spent a lot of time applying for jobs. I still have a folder on my computer labeled “2006 Job Search,” so as I was writing this post, I was able to go in and see where I’d applied.

First, I applied for fellowships. My dream “job” at that point would have been to have a fellowship that allowed me plenty of time to write. An added bonus would be getting some additional teaching experience, beyond the classes I taught in graduate school as a TA. Here’s where I applied: Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin, the Olive B. O’Connor Fellowship at Colgate University, and the Axton Fellowship at the University of Louisville.

I was rejected from all of these fellowships. All of these applications were a long shot; I didn’t have the expectation that I would get any of them, but I also knew that there was a 0% chance of getting any if I didn’t try. I should also say that I applied for some of these fellowships several more times over the years and was rejected again. (It took me a long time to learn this, but if you get a rejection, it doesn't necessarily mean that you're unqualified or bad. Oftentimes, it means that the gatekeepers were looking for someone that they thought would be a better fit. Or it means that there were hundreds of applications, and those who were doing the choosing tried their best to pick well, but they had to reject a lot of people who were good and qualified. In many ways, getting rejected from fellowships and jobs is similar to getting rejected from literary magazines; there's simply not enough room for everyone that could do a good job.) This is what I want my students to know: keep trying and trying and trying. Sometimes something happens and sometimes it doesn’t, but if you don’t try, nothing will ever happen. Rejections suck, but if you want to be a writer, you need to get good at dealing with them. And even though I didn’t get the fellowships, I got good experience submitting applications, writing personal statements, polishing my résumé, and proposing possible courses I could teach. All of these skills were helpful to me in subsequent job and fellowship searches.

I then applied to jobs teaching English at private schools. Through my work as a TA in graduate school and a job before grad school teaching Adult Basic Education, I’d realized that I loved teaching, but at that point I just didn’t believe anyone would hire me to teach full time in a college or university. I didn’t have a degree that would allow me to teach in public schools, so I thought private schools were my only option. I applied to a dozen jobs all over the country that had been advertised for English teachers at the middle and high school levels. I also applied to a service that paired up teachers with private schools. I was rejected by this service with an e-mail that said I didn’t have enough teaching experience. I felt pretty demoralized when I got that e-mail, but in retrospect the rejection was fair since I hadn’t taught much at the middle or high school levels (I’d worked with younger students in summer programs for gifted students and had participated in the National Writing Project’s Young Writers program, but I’d never taught middle or high school students for more than a summer).

Applying for jobs and fellowships is utterly exhausting.

Applying for jobs and fellowships is utterly exhausting.

One private school was interested, though, and I drove from Pittsburgh to New York for a full-day interview. I liked the students at that school. They were smart and polite and engaged. I would be teaching both history and English to fifth and sixth graders if I was offered the job. I was told what the salary would be, and when I looked up the cost of living in the area, I realized that there was no way I could live within a one-hour radius of the school because the school was located in an extremely wealthy area. I knew the school day would extend to about 5pm because all teachers were required to supervise some sort of after-school activity. I calculated that with two hours of commuting, I would be out of the house more than twelve hours a day, and I withdrew my candidacy. I knew I wanted a job that at least offered me the possibility of time to write, and this job would not do that.

As I drove away from my interview, I had to take some photos of the neighborhood surrounding the school. It was beautiful there.

As I drove away from my interview, I had to take some photos of the neighborhood surrounding the school. It was beautiful there.

I then scoured many websites that posted jobs and applied for positions in a variety of fields for which I thought I'd be qualified. Here are some examples of where I sent applications and the type of jobs I applied for: copywriter for Abercrombie, editor for a magazine for teachers, software trainer for a healthcare organization, copywriter for Hammacher Schlemmer, editorial assistant for a magazine for radiologists, assistant editor for cookbooks. I didn’t get an interview or even a single rejection for these jobs. I wondered if my MFA was working against me and whether these employers would rather hire someone with a BA, with the thought that they’d work for less money. I wondered whether these employers were looking for people with more specialized degrees (perhaps in marketing or advertising in some cases) or lots of internships (in the cases of the editorial positions). I knew it was difficult to get a job, but I worried that my MFA actually had made me a less viable candidate for non-academic jobs than I’d been with just a BA (click here to read about some of my post-college job search mishaps). I hadn’t been offered many jobs with my BA, but I had been called in at least for a bunch of interviews.

It was getting late in the summer (I had graduated in April from my MFA program), my lease would run out on August 1st, my remaining funds from my TA stipend were dwindling, and I had no idea what else I could do. Then I saw a job ad for an instructor position at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. At that point, I didn’t know there were sites online where academic jobs were posted, so I must have seen it on a general job search website, something like Monster.com. What I didn’t know then was that most academic jobs are posted in the fall (more on that in my next post), and I was lucky to have even found a job that was still accepting applications in the summer. I don't know why they were accepting applications so late, but this usually happens when someone announces that they're leaving for a new job in the fall or if the approval and funding for a new position comes late in the academic year from the school. I’m not sure when the deadline was for the Missouri State job, but my cover letter was dated June 28, 2006, so my guess is that the deadline was July 1st. I didn’t really think I had a shot at the job, but I applied anyway because at that point I was applying to anything I thought I might even have a remote shot at. I liked that the ad asked for a lot of material; I thought of it as multiple ways that I could prove myself, and it seemed like maybe I’d have a better shot at getting a job when they asked for a bunch of stuff as opposed to a job that just asked for a one-page résumé, and a one-page cover letter. This ad asked for a CV, transcripts, three letters of recommendation, teaching evaluations, course syllabi, and a writing sample. Because I’d applied for all those fellowships, I had letters of recommendation from my professors, so I was able to use those letters. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to pull together an application so quickly. (And for students that are reading this, DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT ask your professors for letters of recommendation—for anything—at the last minute. Even if your professors say yes, they won’t have the time to write you thorough, detailed letters.)

I’d never really thought seriously about applying for academic jobs before and during graduate school. I thought only people who had PhDs or fiction writers who’d already published books could teach full time in colleges and universities. My MFA program didn’t spend too much time preparing us for jobs post-MFA, but there were several experiences I had as a graduate student that helped me immensely. One of the best things I was able to do during graduate school was participate in hiring a new professor to teach in our MFA program. Graduate students were able to read candidates’ files, sit in on interviews, have breakfast with job candidates, and give input about which candidates we thought would be the best fit to teach in our program. While I was reading their files (which consisted of CVs, cover letters, writing samples, teaching evaluations, and letters of recommendation), I was just trying to figure out whom I’d want to study with, but by the time I decided to apply for a college-level teaching job, I realized I’d been lucky to have had the opportunity to see what an application for an academic job looked like.

During my last year in my MFA program, Cathy Day, one of my professors, gave a presentation on academic jobs for MFA students. She showed us her CV and gave us a packet of information from AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) about applying for academic jobs. It was so helpful for me to see her CV (curriculum vitae) because a CV for academic positions is very different from a résumé for a non-academic job. I’d shoved those materials from Cathy under a pile of papers on my desk, thinking that I wasn’t qualified for those kinds of jobs, but when I saw the Missouri State ad and saw that they weren’t necessarily looking for someone with a PhD or a published book, I pulled out the handouts from Cathy’s talk and studied them carefully. I realized there were certainly jobs that were looking for people who had books and had already taught a lot of college-level classes, but there were also jobs that were looking for people who had some teaching experience and had enough publications to show they’d have the potential to publish more.

At that point, I’d been submitting my work to literary journals for four years and had published seven stories and one interview with an author. I’d been teaching at the college level for five years as a TA (as I mentioned in Part I, even though the title was TA, I was fully responsible for planning and teaching all the classes). At Temple University, where I’d earned my MA, I’d taught Composition and Creative Writing: Fiction. At the University of Pittsburgh, where I’d earned my MFA, I’d taught Seminar in Composition, Short Story in Context (a literature class), Introduction to Fiction (a creative writing class), Introduction to Creative Writing (a multi-genre creative writing class), and had spent a year working as a tutor in the Writing Center. I hadn’t thought about it while I was teaching in graduate school, but these experiences were preparing me to teach afterwards. Now I tell my students that if they’re thinking at all about teaching, they should seek out graduate programs that allow them the chance to teach.

I went on the forums of The Chronicle of Higher Education and spent hours reading the discussions about academic job searches there. I read and absorbed everything, down to the advice people gave for how to dress for interviews. I scoured the Internet for samples of cover letters and teaching philosophies for academic jobs. After I felt I’d done enough research, I put together a CV that was different (mostly in the amount of information and detail included) from the résumés I’d sent out for non-academic jobs. I wrote a cover letter that described the classes I’d taught as a TA and included my thoughts on teaching creative writing to undergraduates. As I was putting this material together, I thought for the first time that maybe I did have the skills to teach at a university, and that the work I’d put in as a TA for the past five years had taught me a lot. I found it much easier to write a convincing statement about teaching than I had about cookbook editing or teaching middle school history. And at that moment, it struck me that perhaps teaching writing at a college or university was what I really wanted to do.

Part III has the results of this job search.

What I’d Like My Students to Know About Academic Jobs: Part I

Each fall two of my English Department colleagues and I lead a fifty-minute presentation and question and answer session for students who are interested in graduate school in English. My colleague Keith talks about PhD programs in literature, my colleague Todd discusses programs in composition and rhetoric, and I talk about creative writing programs. Our goal is to inform students about the possibilities for graduate study in English and writing. I set out to just focus on  graduate school, but the questions the students ask always have a lot to do with jobs afterward, so I know this is a concern—perhaps the primary concern—for them. A lot of the students who attend these sessions say they want to teach at the college level and this is why they want to go to graduate school. They want to know how we got our jobs and how they can get similar jobs in the future. Again and again, students have said to me, “What I really want to know is how I can get a job like yours.” (I am an assistant professor in an English department, and I mostly teach creative writing classes, although I have also taught composition and literature courses.)

I think the question “How did you get your job?” is something that takes a long time to answer, something I don’t have time for when we’ve got less than an hour for our presentation. During these talks, my colleagues and I try to squeeze a whole lot of information (GREs, letters of recommendation, personal statements, writing samples, etc.) into a fifty-minute block of time, and I always feel like I have so much more to say. Every year, in the weeks after our presentation, I have a handful of students who come to my office and ask more questions about pursuing writing after their undergraduate degrees are over. I talk to them and try to learn about their individual goals, and I hope they leave my office feeling like they have a bit more of a sense of direction. But I still think there’s more to say, and perhaps it might be helpful to spell out the long answer to “How did you get your job?” Of course it must be noted that what I’m going to detail here is just one experience, and no experience is typical. But sometimes it helps to hear about how even one person went about things. (Please note that these blog posts will focus on graduate school and employment in the field of creative writing and not English programs in general.)

In this series of four blog posts I want to talk about not only the process of getting a job post-MFA but also what academic jobs entail. I know that when I was a student I had no idea what was involved in teaching at the college level (even though I’d spent many years in school), so perhaps these posts might help clarify some things for others who have a vague notion that they want to teach but don’t know what teaching jobs—especially first jobs after graduate school—are all about. I hope this series of posts might be a resource for my students, and maybe for others as well. Each year I get e-mails from a handful of former students saying they want to go back to school for an MFA with the eventual goal of teaching college students. It is for these former students, especially, that I want to get all this information up here.

Here’s the quick rundown of how I got to my current job (this is really all that I have time to say during our grad school presentations): I am in my first tenure-track job, teaching at Siena College in upstate New York; it took me six years of full-time teaching and three big geographic moves before I landed in this job. I went to the University of Pittsburgh for my MFA, and then I moved to Missouri to teach at Missouri State University for two years as a lecturer. From there, I moved to a small town in Ohio to teach for three years as a visiting assistant professor at the College of Wooster. That job was not renewable after three years. When I finished at Wooster, I moved to Boone, North Carolina, and taught for one year as a visiting assistant professor at Appalachian State University. I knew that none of these jobs was permanent, and almost every year while I was teaching I was also balancing being on the job market, which is a time consuming task (there are recommendations to ask for, teaching philosophies to write, cover letters and a CV to write and update, teaching portfolios to prepare, interviews for which to prepare, teaching demonstrations to plan, etc.). I did not select these jobs because of their geographic locations; the job market dictated where I ended up moving and teaching. I didn’t know a single person in any of these locations before I took these jobs. One thing I think many students don’t know is that for academic jobs you’ve got to look and see where there are openings; you generally can’t choose a place you want to live and/or choose the schools where you’d like to work and ask if they’ll give you a job. You’ve got to check the job lists every year and see what positions have opened up.

You might be wondering if my experience is typical, if all that moving around is necessary if you want to teach creative writing. I don’t know; I don’t think there’s really anything that’s typical about academia. There are some people who immediately fall into a tenure-track job after an MFA or PhD, but I think this is less common in creative writing than in other fields. (I’m basing this just on what I’ve seen happen around me, both with my peers from graduate school and my colleagues at the schools where I’ve taught.)

I know that sometimes my colleagues and I might make students rethink pursuing graduate school when we conduct our grad school talks. It feels responsible to mention the challenges of a career in academia (or even getting a job in academia) to young people who are seriously contemplating spending years (and sometimes a lot of money) pursuing a graduate degree. In some cases, I think our discouraging these students can be a good thing. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school simply because they can’t think of anything else to do or because the job they landed in after college is boring. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school in English or writing because they kind of like reading and writing; these are activities one can participate in outside of school. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school because they think a graduate degree is a guarantee of publication. I don’t think someone should go to graduate school because they think a graduate degree ensures them a tenure-track job. But I do think there are students who’ve made serious progress as undergraduate writers and would benefit from a few more years to work on their writing surrounded by other people who care deeply about creative writing. I also think there are students out there who would make great teachers, and I want to encourage these students to keep going, to keep pursuing the study of literature and writing in an academic environment, and to take advantage of the opportunity to teach as a TA. (I should note here that the term "teaching assistant" might be misleading; I had full responsibility for teaching classes while I was a graduate student. In some fields, TAs help professors, but I taught composition and creative writing classes throughout graduate school, and I think having full responsibility for prepping and teaching classes is fairly typical for graduate students in English departments.) I also want to encourage students who don’t want to teach but want to pursue a field of study seriously and intensely to continue on to graduate studies. There are many good reasons to go to graduate school, but I think it’s important for students to realize that getting a graduate degree in English doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed afterward.

I think that lots of students have an idealized notion of what it means to teach at a college or university. Throughout my years of teaching fiction writing, I’ve had students write stories in which characters were professors (mostly English professors). Often, these characters were married to other professors, and they spent evenings reading novels out loud to each other. At meals, they quoted lines from Shakespeare’s plays. These characters loved books, and one, if I’m remembering correctly, had time to open a bookstore on the side. These fictional professors spent a lot of time reading for pleasure and being passionate about books. Of course these are activities real-life professors partake in, but in these stories I didn’t see the professors spending late nights grading papers, prepping for classes, advising students, completing piles of paperwork, or serving on committees. These stories made me realize that many students don’t really understand what it means to teach at a college or university. In a way this is a good thing. This means their professors have been enthusiastic in discussions of literature and writing. It means their professors have shown that they’re passionate readers and they love working with students. But the passionate, enthusiastic face presented in class is only one part of what it means to be a professor. There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes hard work that’s invisible to students. I think most professors I’ve encountered love the time spent in the classroom and time interacting with students. I know these are the best parts of my job. But there is other stuff that’s a whole lot less fun that students don’t know about; like any job, there are boring components that take up a lot of time (time most of us would rather spend writing or working with students). There’s paperwork and forms to fill out and proposals for new classes to write and submit. There are students to advise. There’s service in the form of committee work. There are meetings that can be long and boring and sometimes contentious. There’s the hard work that goes into developing new classes. There are student e-mails to answer. There’s participation in the process of hiring new professors. If you’re on the tenure track, there’s the process of getting promoted and applying for tenure, which involves a ton of paperwork and a lot of accounting of your teaching, scholarship, and service. I won’t spend too much time going into the non-teaching portion of academic jobs, but I will just say that students need to be aware that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes, and there’s a lot of work that goes into preparing for that hour or so that you see your professor in class.

If you are a very good professor, you get a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with a ladder in your office. Just kidding. 

If you are a very good professor, you get a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf with a ladder in your office. Just kidding. 

I think that if students are aware of all these things—the lack of guarantees after graduation, the work that goes into teaching, the good chance that they’ll have to move at least once after graduate school—and are still enthused about pursuing graduate work in English and writing, then they should, by all means, pursue what can ultimately be a very rewarding and fulfilling line of work.

I’ve separated this post into four parts. Part II  discusses my post-MFA job search, Part III describes my first job offer, and Part IV talks about what my first job entailed. 

Where Do Stories Come From? (Part II)

In this post, I’d like to continue my earlier discussion about where stories come from. (Here’s a link to my previous post.) As I mentioned in my earlier post, stories can come from all sorts of places, and for each writer inspiration may strike differently. What I’d like to do in these posts is talk about stories I’ve written that can be read online and describe what sparked each of these stories.

Last summer I heard a story about an inflatable bouncy house being blown away. This happened in South Glens Falls, New York, about forty-five minutes away from where I live. A strong gust of wind swept the inflatable house over fifty feet in the air. Because the story was both incredible and local, I heard a lot about it on the news for a few days. Here’s an article about this event. Three children were injured as they fell from the house while it was in the air. One child fell shortly after the house lifted into the air and suffered minor injuries, another fell from about fifteen feet and broke both arms, and the third fell from fifteen to twenty feet and landed on a car, suffering a head injury. The three children were treated for their injuries and all survived. After the children fell out of the house, it continued to rise; some reports say that it blew as high as one hundred feet into the air.

Here’s a photo taken by a bystander of the bouncy house up in the air:

Photo from the Post-Star

Photo from the Post-Star

This story captivated me because it’s about the unexpected happening. Children are playing, the scene appears pleasant and innocent, and then something unimaginable occurs. As a fiction writer, I thought the image of that inflatable house spinning through the air could be used as an image that carried symbolic weight in a short story.  To me, the image conjured up disorientation, and I wanted to use it in a story and create a character who was in a situation where she felt—both literally and figuratively—she could not get her feet on the ground.

I wrote “Away” last summer, and it was published this May in Green Mountains Review. You can read it here.

As I was trying to figure out what character I’d place in a bouncy house blowing away, I thought about when I’d felt most “up in the air” in my own life. I realized those times of disorientation had been when I hadn’t known what was next. I felt disoriented when I graduated from college and didn’t have a job. I had the same feeling when I finished graduate school and, once again, hadn’t found a job yet. I felt it most strongly when I completed a three-year visiting assistant professorship and, despite having had a few interviews, had not secured a new job. For me, the sense of not knowing is worse than knowing about something difficult. If you know, you can deal with it in some way, but it can be frustrating when you’re just waiting for the next thing to happen. For my story, I came up with a character, an eighteen-year-old young woman. She is someone who does well in school and is stunned when she is rejected from every college to which she’d applied. What’s next for her? She doesn’t know; this isn’t a scenario she’d ever imagined. She’ll apply again the next year, but in the meantime, what should she do with herself? On top of this, the narrator's cousin, who is also eighteen, comes to live with the narrator’s family while the cousin's parents are going through a divorce. The cousin, Garnet, has gotten into every college she’s applied to and can’t understand why the narrator didn’t apply to at least one safety school. I needed Garnet in the story to apply extra pressure to the narrator, to make, as a result of her success, the narrator feel even worse about not getting into college. My narrator feels jumbled and twisted and scared, and I thought these feelings could parallel what it must be like to be lifted off the ground and into the air. After figuring out who my protagonist would be, the next step was figuring out how to get her into a bouncy house.

So where did this story come from? It came from that image of the bouncy house up in the air. The circumstances of the story are completely different from what happened in South Glens Falls, but that image led me to the story of this young lady whose life feels, for the foreseeable future, up in the air.

I chose to end the story where I did—with the characters literally still in the air—because I wanted to conclude with a sense of not knowing, for both the characters and the readers. I looked at that image of the bouncy castle floating and twisting in the air, I thought of how unstable and disorienting that must feel, and I tried to capture that sensation in the ending of the story. 

Photo from the Post-Star

Photo from the Post-Star

And since I promised I'd include a photo that could be used as a story spark with each of these "Where Do Stories Come From" posts, here you go:

Photo Prompt: Shoe Tree

I'm in Minneapolis right now, just finishing up at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference. Yesterday I had the chance to explore the city a bit, and I wandered around the campus of the University of Minnesota. On the campus, I saw a tree that was covered in shoes. It seems that the origins of the shoe tree are unclear, but I kind of like the hazy history. For me, this tree might spark a story idea. Maybe the tree in the story isn't on a college campus. Maybe it's in the middle of a forest somewhere. Maybe the shoes came from the sky, instead of tossed from a bridge nearby. Maybe all those pairs of shoes belong to one person. There are lots of possibilities here.

Where Do Stories Come From? (Part 1)

A question that is often asked of fiction writers is “What inspires your stories?” Stories can come from so many places (except from some magical muse that just plops ideas into writers’ minds. Well, at least I've never personally been visited by a muse). Oftentimes, something I encountered—an image, something someone said, something I saw on TV—triggered either an entire story or an element of a story. I think these triggers are absorbed into my brain and then the most productive or interesting sparks stick with me and find their way into stories.

This past summer I couldn’t get the image of an outdated calendar hanging on a wall out of my mind. I didn’t know why I kept thinking of it or where it came from. I was working on a story about a young man who’d drowned. The man’s best friend and younger sister were both having an extremely difficult time dealing with his death. The best friend worked in a dark, wood-paneled bar, and as I wrote scenes set in the bar, I kept picturing an old calendar hanging on the wall in a corner. I added the calendar into the story. It was initially just a setting detail in order to give readers a sense of what this bar looked like; it was an outdated place, stuck in the past, and the calendar showed that the owners didn’t care about the upkeep of their dining room. As I worked through drafts of the story, I realized the calendar could be used as a symbolic object. For both the best friend and the sister of the deceased character, it was difficult to move forward. The calendar—several years outdated—could serve to show how time essentially stopped for these two characters and how they had been in a holding pattern since their loss.

When I returned to school this September, I immediately saw something that I hadn’t consciously noted before. I share an office with a colleague, and on her side of the office there was a calendar hanging on a corkboard. I looked closely and saw that the exposed page on the calendar was from December 2011; it was almost three years out of date.

calendar.jpg

I’m not sure why my colleague still has that calendar up. I think she’s probably forgotten about it. It’s easy to not notice because it’s halfway behind a bookshelf. The calendar certainly doesn’t bother me; I never even consciously took note of it for the entire first year we shared an office. But the image of the outdated calendar had clearly buried itself deep in my mind, and it emerged as I was writing my story set in the dark bar. The calendar in the story isn’t the same calendar that hangs in my office; the office calendar is a bright red and gold calendar from an Asian supermarket. I imagined the calendar in my story as plain and unadorned. Even though the calendar in my story differs from the one in my office, this real-life object had made its way into my story as a useful object. The outdated calendar in my story wasn’t pivotal to the plot, but it helped me see that the story was ultimately about stasis and the need to move on. Would that calendar have appeared in the story without my seeing the calendar every time I walked into and out of the office? Probably not.

I plan to write a few more of these posts and will discuss more catalysts for my own stories. At the end of each post, I’ll include a photo—without any commentary—that I hope might serve as a story spark for readers who are interested in writing their own stories. I think photographs, especially photographs for which writers don’t know the backstory, can serve as excellent ways to generate story ideas. And, so, here is the first photo:

Okay, I know I just said I wouldn't comment, but I lied. So, yeah, this dog is obviously awesome, but there are lots of stories here. Look at everyone surrounding the dog. Each person has a story. Maybe the story here belongs to the dog. Maybe not.

Okay, I know I just said I wouldn't comment, but I lied. So, yeah, this dog is obviously awesome, but there are lots of stories here. Look at everyone surrounding the dog. Each person has a story. Maybe the story here belongs to the dog. Maybe not.

Did This Happen to You?

I have been asked by people who know me fairly well if I have a background in biology. I don’t, not at all. I barely slogged through biology in high school, and completing my two-semester science requirement in college was one of the biggest reliefs of my life. These questions about me and the world of science started after my story "Care" (retitled “Designated Driver” in Faulty Predictions) was published online. This is a story about a recovering alcoholic who currently drives a city bus. Previously, she had been in veterinary school, but she dropped out of school after she spayed a cat while hung over and made a mistake that forced her to euthanize the cat. Here’s the paragraph from the story that describes the surgery:

Then there was the white cat. Her abdomen had been shaved and she was ready for you. Your head was pounding and you couldn’t focus your eyes. You made the incision through the skin and abdominal muscles, and the line your scalpel made was crooked, but you kept going. You’d meant to remove just the ovaries and uterus, but you slipped and the scalpel plunged into her stomach. There was no reasonable way to save her. Since she was already anesthetized, you opened her chest cavity, injected the sodium pentobarbital intercardially. The next day, you dropped out of school. In the two years since, you haven’t trusted yourself to touch an animal, not even a quick pat when a dog runs up to you in the park. You thought you were dangerous, poison to animals.

I think what people really want to ask is “Is this true? Did this happen to you?” Maybe asking if I have a background in biology feels like a safe question. It’s a more polite question, certainly, than “Were you an alcoholic? Did you have to drop out of school?” As more of my writing has made its way out into the world, I’ve gotten more questions about what’s true and what’s not in my fiction. I’m grateful that people are reading the stories, but I want to ask, “Why does it matter if something is autobiographical? Does it make it better if it is? Does it make it worse if the story is wholly imagined?”

This is not a photograph of me. But I do like the snazzy wrap-around coat the veterinarian is wearing.

This is not a photograph of me. But I do like the snazzy wrap-around coat the veterinarian is wearing.

So if I don’t have a background in biology, how did I know the details of the surgery? Research. For this story, I didn’t do heavy-duty research; I just consulted a few sources online that seemed to have reliable information. I hope I got the details right, but even if I didn’t, I think I’ve convinced at least a few readers that I know something about spaying a cat. In a chapter titled “Write What You Know” from the excellent Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern discusses how what we know extends beyond just personal experience. One way of knowing that he writes about is research: “We do have to acknowledge research as a legitimate way of knowing, or much fiction will be impossible. Writers immerse themselves in books on medical remedies, legal procedures, and haberdashery history for background information. They talk to plumbers, police officers, and podiatrists to gather authentic details.” Stern also discusses imagination as another way of knowing and states that fantasy and science fiction wouldn’t exist without imagination. I think readers can clearly understand that these genres fall into the realm of the imagination, and readers can also assume writers do research for works of historical fiction. However, things may get confusing with stories that are set in the contemporary world in which we live and contain events that seem as if they could plausibly occur. The desire to conflate author and character seems to occur even more when there are similarities (in terms of age, profession, geographic location, etc.) between author and character.

The question about what is true doesn’t just come from readers who aren’t writers. In one of the first fiction writing workshops I took, the students spoke to the authors throughout the semester as if they were the protagonists in their stories. They’d say things like, “When you got into that car accident on page seventeen, I thought your reaction was kind of melodramatic.” A lot of the people in the class confused author and character, and it’s something that I’ve seen happen in every creative writing class I teach. Before we start to discuss student work, I tell the class that unless an author explicitly says that their poem or story is autobiographical, we shouldn’t assume that it is, and we should use “the protagonist,” “the narrator,” or “the speaker” instead of jumping to the conclusion that the protagonist and the author are the same person. I remind students of this often throughout the semester, and the fact that students keep saying “you” instead of “the protagonist” indicates that they’re thinking of the protagonist and the author as the same person. The issue seems especially pronounced when a poem or story is written in first person.

In that early workshop, I wrote a story about a young woman whose grandfather was very sick and slowly dying, and my classmates referred to the grandfather as “your grandfather” throughout the discussion. This made me uneasy because the grandfather was decidedly not my grandfather, and when I revised, I wrote the story from the grandfather’s point of view because I wanted to make sure no one would think the protagonist and I were the same person. This perspective shift wasn’t productive for the story, but back then it felt important for me to have readers understand that my characters and I were different people. Throughout the rest of the semester I only wrote stories in which the protagonists in no way resembled me. I wrote no more stories about young women. I felt that if I wrote young female characters—especially if I wrote in first person—I  couldn’t let my characters do what I wanted them to do, and I certainly couldn’t let them cause trouble. I was afraid that everyone in the class would assume I was a troublemaker. Now I’ll readily admit that I was too sensitive back then, cared far too much about what other people thought, but I can’t imagine I'm the only aspiring writer to ever feel this way in a workshop. It was profoundly uncomfortable sitting in a classroom and listening to people dissect an imaginary character and her flaws while looking at me and referring to the character as “you.” As a teacher, I don’t want any of my students to feel constrained, to feel as if they can’t write about certain topics because readers will assume their writing is autobiographical. As an adult, many years beyond that early workshop, I care very little about whether people assume I’m the same person as my characters, but I think this assumption that writers are their characters can be a problem for a sensitive budding writer.

Last year I took a poetry workshop. One of the poems that was part of my first batch of submissions for my poetry class was, in a way, autobiographical. In the poem I lamented the fact that we no longer use card catalogs in libraries. I wrote about the memory of feeling the softened edges of index cards beneath my fingers as I flipped through the cards in my elementary school library. The first comment I got was from a man who said, “You’re not old enough to know what card catalogs are! How could you write this?” Perhaps I should have taken the comment as a compliment because I am most certainly old enough to have encountered card catalogs in libraries, but instead I wondered why it mattered whether I had actually used one. What I wanted to know from readers was whether my description of the card catalog seemed convincing. Could they picture how the child in the poem had to climb on a stool to reach the highest drawers? Was my description of the softened edges of the index cards that had been pawed through for years vivid enough? That’s what mattered to me. And what if I wanted to write a poem about the Civil War or Gutenberg’s Press or, heck, dinosaurs? Would I be disqualified for not living through the 19th century, the 15th century, or the Jurassic period?

I have known and loved card catalogs. But that doesn't matter!

I have known and loved card catalogs. But that doesn't matter!

I don’t think the question for writers should be “How do you know this?” The “how” doesn’t matter. The question should be whether the information in the poem or story feels right and accurate and authentic, and it doesn’t matter whether the writer knows this information through personal experience or some type of research.

Now, I’m not discounting using autobiographical material in poetry and fiction. A lot of writers do it and do it well. But what I’m warning against is assuming that all creative writing is autobiographical. Readers need to keep in mind that although some poetry and fiction might have roots in what the writer has experienced, not all creative writing does. There are lots of ways of knowing (including imagination, empathy, research, and interviews), and personal experience is only one of many ways.

Some Thoughts on Rejection

I’m going to start this blog with a post on literary journal rejections because it’s something I think a lot about, both as a writer who submits to journals and as a teacher who encourages students to submit. I’ve had students who’ve submitted to one journal, gotten rejected, and gotten discouraged. I think it’s important to keep in mind that while rejection certainly is discouraging, there are lots of reasons work gets rejected. Sure, sometimes you get rejected because your work isn’t good enough, but other times there are other reasons.

Sometimes work gets turned down because it’s not ready yet. I had never considered submitting work until I got to graduate school and talked to classmates who were sending their work out. I thought that if others were sending work out, I should too. I felt panicked that I hadn’t submitted yet. So I chose a handful of stories that I considered finished and sent them out haphazardly. All of these stories were rejected, and now I’m glad they were. They weren’t finished. They weren’t ready to be out in the world. Yes, maybe they had endings, but having an ending doesn’t mean a story is finished. (I won't get into the idea that a story is never finished here.) I think there’s a certain amount of energy that comes with completing a story (note that I didn’t say “finishing a story”) and sometimes that energy carries over into wanting to get the story out into the world immediately, but I think it’s worth holding back a while, letting the story sit, and going back and looking at it with fresh eyes. In general, stories benefit from several—or, in most cases, many—rounds of serious revision.

Sometimes work gets turned down because it’s just not a match for the magazine to which it’s been submitted. If you look at the websites of most literary journals, they’ll urge you to read an issue to see if your work would fit in well with what they publish. This is good advice, and I think it’s advice that would save a lot of writers a lot of time if they heeded it. Most of the stories I write are fairly traditional realist stories. For years, I submitted to a handful journals that publish experimental work. My writing was never going to fit into those journals. I only understood this when I actually got my hands on copies of these journals and read them. It took me a long time to figure out that fit was an important thing with literary journals. I’ll be honest and say it wasn’t until after I’d been submitting for years that I began to subscribe to journals. When I was a student living on a TA’s stipend, the idea of spending twenty or thirty dollars on a subscription felt extravagant, but as soon as I had a job after I graduated, I started subscribing to and reading journals and realizing which journals my work might fit well with and which ones it wouldn’t. When I first started submitting, many journals didn’t have much content on the web. Now, most journals have some content from each issue online, which can be read for free. And if you’re a student, you can read journals that your school subscribes to, either the paper versions or through online databases.

There are other reasons work gets turned down that editors can elaborate on more than I can. But here are some I’ve heard: a piece is too similar to a piece that was recently published, a piece is too long and would take up too much “real estate” in a journal, a piece—for whatever reason—didn’t resonate with an editor, the piece was sloppy on the sentence level, the piece didn’t follow the guidelines that were outlined by the journal. Or, say, maybe your piece about a character breaking his leg came across an editor’s desk on the same afternoon she got back from the hospital after getting her broken leg set, and she didn’t want to think about broken bones—real or fictional—right then. As you can see, some of these reasons for rejection are the writer’s fault, but others are not. And sometimes work that doesn’t fall into these categories gets rejected too. I’d like to think that I’ve learned to avoid the pitfalls of submitting too early and submitting to the wrong places, but I still get rejected regularly. And, to me, that’s okay. It’s part of the process, and getting rejections means that I’ve tried, that I’ve sent work out into the world, and that I’m giving myself a shot at getting published.

Sometimes, though, I think it just takes a while to get a piece published, and I think there’s a good amount of luck involved in the whole process. The story has to get into the right editor’s hands at exactly the right time. And how does a writer maximize the chances of that happening? Once a story is actually finished, submit it to a lot of places. Now, I’m not saying that a writer should send out work to every journal that’s accepting submissions, but you give yourself a better chance of getting published if you submit to ten journals than to one. Even if a story is publishable, there’s still that luck factor: you need to give yourself a good chance of getting your story in front of an editor who will be an advocate for your work.

Here’s some information about my story “Lobsterama,” my most rejected story ever. This is a photo of my submission charts for "Lobsterama," where I kept track of the name of each journal I sent the story to, the date I submitted, the reply I got, and any comments I received from the editors:

Total number of submissions: 114

Number of major revisions during the submission process: 4. On the first page of my chart, I’ve written, “Round 2 – revision focusing on ending; decision put in Olive’s hands, returns story to her.” I’d submitted the story to nine places at that point, and one editor had written me a note about how the ending wasn’t working. She was right, and it was generous of her to take the time to write down her thoughts. My story was about Olive, the protagonist, but then the original ending shifted to another character. This may have been something that I would have figured out myself if I’d held onto the story for a little longer.

Number of years I spent submitting this story: 8. I began submitting it in 2004. I finally got an acceptance from South Dakota Review in 2011. (Thank you, kind people at South Dakota Review.)

And here are the statistics for my story “Prized Possessions,” the most rejected story in Faulty Predictions. It was published in Epoch in 2010:

Total number of submissions: 66

Number of major revisions during the submission process: 3

Once again, this was a case of my sending out work before it was truly finished. I just hadn’t really figured out the plot in the early drafts, and I shouldn’t have submitted it before I sorted things out. I sent out the too-early version to many journals, and then once it was revised, I couldn’t send the story back to these same journals, so I narrowed the field for myself.

Number of title changes: 1

The story started out as “Appraisals.” Is “Prized Possessions” a better title? I’m not sure. Maybe. “Appraisals” is pretty vague. “Prized Possessions” implies that there’s a character who has something that he or she cherishes, and that at least indicates more about the story than "Appraisals" does.

Time it took to get the story accepted: 4 years

A photo of my rejection slips for "Prized Possessions" (keep in mind that some of my rejections were electronic, so they’re not included in this picture):

And, finally, some outtakes from my rejection photo shoot. I think the correct attitude toward rejections is demonstrated here: give yourself a few seconds to contemplate each rejection, keep your head up, and move on: