Multiple Enthusiasms

Infinite jest. Excellent fancy. Flashes of merriment.

Tag: mpw

So if I’m now doing what I want to do when I grow up, does that mean I have?

When I got the call that offered me a position teaching fiction, I was staring down a fork in the road. After this semester, I’ll be a mere few courses shy of an MBA, and one of those courses is a capstone, which I get the impression is a demonstration of the proficiency I have acquired by way of my courses.

I decided to earn the MBA because while I learned some great things about craft and writing in USC’s MPW program, the courses I took concerning the business side of things really set me thinking and made me want to learn more. I hear too many stories of too many writers who concentrate solely on one word after another with no concern for audience and how to reach it. And while I think that strong writing and good stories must be one’s primary concern, the thing about strong writing is that writing is a form of communication. It is meant to convey a particular idea from one party to another. It’s not just about the words, but what those words are conveying, and by extension, to whom.

I think it’s detrimental to a story to neglect that. Any story. Writers must consider to whom and for whom they are writing, as those aspects, I think, must be part of the why they are writing; if not to convey information, if not to transport a reader, if not to entertain and excite, what, precisely, is the point? Don’t take me wrong; the ideas conveyed may be for some purpose, to convince the reader, but still, both reader and purpose must be considered.

Which is why marketing and branding fascinate me. I have always liked stories that strike on a visceral level, stories that, for some reason or other, somehow transcend the words and the pages so that the stories take on lives beyond both writer and reader; stories are the halfway point in culture where tellers and their audiences meet, and like all halfway points, there is much power in them.

Before I digress too far, however, my dilemma: three courses left for a general degree, only a couple more than that for specialization–I’ll be done by next May at the latest, and probably sooner.

And what to do then?

I haven’t had a corporate job since I stopped working at a small publishing company in South Jersey a month before I left for USC, and one of the myriad reasons I had to stop working was that I could no longer fulfill my end of the employee contract. I would say the corporate lifestyle of set hours and salaried wages doesn’t appeal to me, but really, to whom does it?

I love marketing and branding and advertising, though. I thought I might be able to usefully apply what I’ve learned in my business courses beyond my own writing career by trying to find work as a copywriter in ad agency, eventually working my way up to creative director. Of course, a position like that requires much experience, which requires many long hours working for clients. I’ve been in that position before, working with Kraft and Sony and Campbell’s. I won’t say it’s not fun. I can’t say it’s not fulfilling.

But there’s writing.

There’s always writing. I tried for years not to do it. I tried to find other things I liked to do as much.

And then, at USC, I did. I still remember the moment I was standing at the reception desk as the gym where I was working, mostly folding towels, when I realized I’d like to stand in front of a class. When I considered how interesting it might be to teach. At the time I envisioned a fiction workshop.

In four semesters, I’ve gone from teaching freshman composition to teaching core fiction. And this fiction course? It’s a dream. I walked out of the meeting during which I talked to the chair about the books I hoped to use, and I was giddy. I literally jumped and clicked my heels. Because I always heard that’s what people do when they’re happy, and so I made it a habit to do so when I get great news.

I’m only a few days in. I’m still teaching Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which I’m using as an introduction to elements of story like structure and plot, as well as to outline the Hero’s Journey as explored by guys like Joseph Campbell and George Lucas. So far, I’ve been relating it not only to Star Wars and The Matrix but also to the big myths, the real myths, like the stories about Baldur and Christ.

So far, I’m having a great time. I’m hoping my students will ultimately say the same. I’m hoping they’ll learn some new things about fiction.

It’s been validating enough that I’m realizing I need to retake the general GREs and then take the subject one, too, because, okay, fine, yes, I want to get my PhD. I always avoided it because I never thought I’d find a place in academia, but maybe I don’t need to. Maybe it’s worth enough that I feel like I can say the same thing about a chalkboard and a roomful of students that I always said about a keyboard and a screen.

Give me those things, and I’m home.

When I got to USC’s writing program, I was lucky that I had already completed at least a draft of a novel; truth is, I’d finished several drafts by then, and I was about half-finished the then-current draft. I actually completed it a few weeks after I took my first class, and then I set it aside to write it as a screenplay before I picked it up to start it all over again.

I mention this because it had some effect on how I approached the program; besides the thesis/final project, there was also an opportunity to take a semester of guided research with the faculty mentor nearly of one’s choice. Given that I already had a draft, I bypassed that semester in favor of other classes and workshops.

When it came time to take my guided research, I chose a man named Sid Stebel as my advisor. Sid is a great, puckish guy with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and we got along like gangbusters. He can be very opinionated, but also allows he could be wrong. I guess what I liked was that he wasn’t afraid to make suggestions. That, and that the man knew stories. He knew them well (his book, Double Your Creative Power!, is built around his idea of secret story, which I’d actually like to study further), and a lot of times, you could just tell. Some of his suggestions for the way characters might interact in the context of the story’s structure . . .

Yeah, I learned a lot from Sid. I like to think there are ways we’re alike, and not just considering we’re both fair writers.

I mention Sid, however, because one thing Sid likes to talk about is Ray Bradbury; he and Ray go back many years, and they’ve shared a friendship through the years. When I found out, I kinda flipped a little.

I like Ray Bradbury for a somewhat obscure reason. Back when I was a sophomore in college, my history professor assigned Fahrenheit 451. I read and enjoyed it immensely, but what really caught my attention was a ‘Coda’ my buddy, captain doctor Brian, pointed out to me in his edition. In this Coda, Bradbury talked about critics and reviewers, and he said, and I’ll never forget this:

“Get off our fields and let us play.”

I loved that. Immensely. My father taught me early on about criticism, that there were always going to be people who had something negative to say, but they’re not the one’s down there, wrestling the lions–he used to allude to a quote by either Hemingway or JFK, I can’t remember which (though I think it was the latter). It’s something I continue to struggle with, in fact, the just-playing part, because I’ll admit I sometimes pay too close attention to how my writing is received. I know I shouldn’t, but old habits etc.

I’ve always liked allusions, and there are many in my novel: to Bradbury, yes, but also to Fitzgerald, Eliot, Williams, and Whitman, among others. They’re quick enough you’ll miss most of them if you blink, but they’re there. I mean, you write a time travel novel, you ought to pause time when there’s an explosion, and when it’s raining, and if it’s gonna be raining, it oughta be a storm, and if there’s a storm, you can bet there’s going to be a sound of thunder (all that’s part of story theory, by the way. That there are certain elements that just make sense given a story’s framework, and how it functions). My protagonist, in fact, happens to live on Bradbury Lane.

So when I found out Stebel was friends with Ray, I had to ask if he could get my novel to Ray.

Sid didn’t think that was the best idea, given Bradbury’s current health, which isn’t bad, exactly, don’t think that, but certainly Ray reads way less books than he used to. But, he said, perhaps an excerpt, a few pages where the story kicked, where there was something that really pulled out all the stops . . .

Well, lemme tell you, I’ve got plenty of pages like that. There aren’t any stops in my novel, because I pulled every last one of them out.

And if I sent him that, Sid could send the pages along to Ray. Maybe, he said, we could even get a quote from Ray for my book.

At this point, I’ll tell you, I’m struggling not to get too excited. Not so much about a possibly Bradbury quote to put on the cover of my novel, though, yes, of course, how fucking awesome would that be? But Ray Bradbury! Reading something I wrote!

Two weeks ago, I sent Sid a few pages from the climax of my novel. I was pushing hard by the time I wrote them, trying to fire on all cylinders at once, really nailing down the theme while never forgetting, hey, there are characters to care about here, and what’re they doing? I do some experimenting with both typography and formatting at certain points in my book, but I cut them from the climax, solely wanting an honest, sincere moment, making the effort to rely solely on the strength of my words to make readers feel something and trying to avoid clever at all costs.

Sid sent it along immediately.

So for two weeks I’ve been on pins and needles, here. Trying not to hyperventilate, and trying not to get too excited.

Turns out I probably shouldn’t have worried.

I got an e-mail from Sid last night; Ray called him late Wednesday evening to comment on what he’d read. He was, apparently, extraordinarily encouraging (Sid paraphrased), and he said to just sit down and write write write like he did with The Martian Chronicles.

Ray Bradbury. The Martian Chronicles. Write write write.

I’m smiling.

A quote, something to put on the cover of my book, even a single word like “Splendid!” probably would have been enough to start a career on. But then again, I realize, I already started it, and while a blurb from Ray Bradbury probably would have helped me sell it, that, up there, is the real part of it. The real part of it is not the selling it; it’s the sitting down to write write write every day, and maybe I needed that reminder. Sure, I’ll admit, I really would have liked to have a Bradbury quote, but maybe I’ve got to learn that I don’t need it, that what I really need is to work harder, to sit down and keep at it, and to be honest about it. Because it reminds me that a few words on either cover won’t have any effect on the words between them, and those are the ones that count. And those are really the only part I have any control over.

If I don’t remember that, no matter how many books I sell, no matter how many stories I tell, no matter how many pages I write, it arguably won’t be much of a career, anyway, much less a devotion.

As you may or may not have noticed (if you read this on any regular basis), I became a little too busy in the past few weeks to keep up with Imagery and et cetera. But that’s okay; I got lots of pictures and even some videos from the road that I’ll be posting to the former on a more regular basis, and let’s face it, the publishing industry moves at a glacial enough pace that missing out on a couple of weeks of news doesn’t make much difference (NEWS: books were published! People read them! Some even liked some of them!).

But anyway, here’s a new picture at Imagery; it’s of my final image of USC.

And in et cetera, a couple of publishing manifestos from people contemplating the future of books, as well as the Los Angeles Times’ evisceration of James Frey’s new A Bright Shiny Morning, which sounds like it’s every bit as bad as A Million Little Pieces, only just not pretending to be true.

But finally, one of the reasons I think I’m going to be able to keep up better again; everything at USC is done, handed in, graded, and finalized. I got my final semester grades; I pulled a 3.8. Back when I was an undergraduate, that would have meant I graduated summa cum laude; I’m not sure if that’s the case in graduate school, but still, I’m happy with my performance. Two B+s on my transcript, but one came from Irvin Kerschner and the other came from Janet Fitch, and hell, that’s cool by me.

Now, on the other end of things, I have somewhat mixed feelings about most MFA writing programs, but I can honestly say that going to Los Angeles was one of the single greatest decisions I ever made in my life, and, I think, helped determine the future course of it. I’m in a ludicrous amount of debt and now have to figure out what I’m going to do with a degree in writing, of all things, but still, baby, while it lasted, it was one for the books.

It’s really settling in, with full force, that I’ve finished USC’s MPW program for all intents and purposes. Today, in my email, I got a note about some loan exit interview I’m supposed to do before I graduate.

And then I came home to find a box from Lulu on my stoop:

Which I then opened:

To find a stack of two books, sheathed protectively in foam:

Which I then turned over:

To find my uber-pretty, perfect-bound thesis, The Prodigal Hour:

With its title page:

And then a page I’ll give you a ‘before’ of:

Because I’m meeting with my advisor tomorrow so he can sign it.

A note on the cover: I actually made one myself, with Photoshop, but then got up to the Lulu page and decided to just go with one of theirs, for a simple reason: this copy, in particular, is going to do nothing more than collect dust on a couple of shelves (one with me, the other with my program). It’s really kind of cheesy, but then, I was like, well, who’s really going to see it, and it does sorta match the story (with cool light effects around a pair of eyes, and a cityscape, and then cosmic implication, all of which are included in what the novel is about).

Yes, just two copies:

And here will be the only place you’ll ever be able to see them.

Lucky you.

Fuckall, I’m done with grad school.

I was going to write about why I’m moving on to Denver, but that’ll wait for another time. I’m going to take an evening to process this.