Thursday, March 21, 2013

Lessons from First Book Authors and Grad School Survivors

Every year for the past eight, Ball State's English Department has held the “In Print Festival of First Books,” a two-day event in which authors who have recently published their first book come to read, speak, and answer questions. This week I went to my first In Print Festival. This is a shameful confession for me, because I’ve been at BSU for three years and I’ve never taken advantage of this extraordinary opportunity to meet and learn from talented, published writers. Honestly, I’d heard of it before, but never realized what a fun and enlightening experience it could be.

This year’s writers were Elena Passarello (author of the nonfiction essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat), Eugene Cross (author of story collection Fires of Our Choosing), Marcus Wicker (author of poetry collection Maybe the Saddest Thing), and Sarah Wells (managing editor for River Teeth and Ashland Poetry Press, as well as a poet and nonfiction writer). Each of them brought unique and helpful advice to the table.

Another recent event at BSU was the Graduate School for Creative Writers Panel featuring professors who had MFAs or doctorates in Creative Writing. I’ll be honest, I mostly went because it was required for my class-- I have almost zero interest in grad school. I don’t want to teach and I don’t need deadlines to keep me writing, so the only benefit would be the possibility of learning more about the craft. While that’s nothing to set aside lightly, I’m content with my B.A., at least for now. Still, I learned a lot about grad school that I didn’t know before.

Here are a few of this week’s lessons that were most valuable to me:

1. Bust out the red pen. Elena, Marcus, and Eugene all agreed that their finished pieces barely even resemble their first drafts. Marcus Wicker said that revision is all about time, distance, and being ruthless with your work. I feel like revision is the broken hammer in my writing toolbox, so I soak up any tips on it like a sponge.

2. Hit the books. Elena Passarello spoke of the months of research that went into each of her pop-culture laden essays. This was encouraging to me because I’ve always envied non-fiction authors who (I thought) were able to just spout off about celebrities and movies and songs and famous events. Now I know that, at least for some, this knowledge isn’t just lying around in their brains, it’s the result of hard work and digging. I can do that!

3. Make time for your writing. Even these four published authors face the distractions that plague me (and probably you): TV, the internet, family and friends. But they approach writing like a job, a responsibility, which I like. If you’re approaching it like a hobby, it will end up taking second place to a lot of other things in your life. Sarah Wells, who is married with two kids and has an ungodly demanding job, still finds time to be productive-- so can I.

4. Never give up. Eugene Cross shared how he was rejected time and again, felt uncertain and inadequate, and even moved back home to live with his mother. Of course, his story has a happy ending (or rather, a happy new beginning). The reason he’s now a published author? Perseverance, of course: not just submitting over and over, but continuing to polish his old work and create more.

5. Only fools rush in. If you are considering grad school, be aware of your reasons and be certain they make sense. Don’t go because not being in school scares you or because you don’t know what to do next. Don’t go because you need someone looking over your shoulder in order to stay on track-- do you really think you’ll be any different with an MFA under your belt? It’s often better to take a few years off and figure yourself out than to leap directly into grad school after college.

6. Find writers you trust. Marcus talked a lot about sending his poems to writer friends for feedback or calling one of them up when he’s in a rut in order to get some fresh inspiration. Having a circle of writers who will be honest and encouraging is essential. Sarah mentioned a more experienced writer who took her under his wing. Mentors are also extremely important-- harder to find and keep, but worth the effort.

7. Don't hold back. Eugene, whose stories are often very sad, fielded a question about how dark he was willing to go. He stressed that the most important thing is to be true to the characters and the work, no matter how you think other people will react to it. I like this because my short stories almost always have someone dying or in crisis. As Janet Burroway says, “Only trouble is interesting.”

8. Challenge yourself. Experiment. Marcus is currently working on a set of sonnets, a big change from his more freeform work in Maybe the Saddest Thing. Elena is departing from the theme of her first collection, the human voice, and writing essays about those who can’t speak: animals. Both feel that they are growing as writers because of the new parameters they have set for themselves. Don’t be a one-trick pony.

9. Read using Eugene’s “spiderweb” method: Find a book (or essay/poem/story, whatever) that you love, and look at who the author thanks, the name of the publisher, etc. Seek out the other authors related to that book, read their work, and find related writers, ad infinitum. 

10. It’s not easy for anyone. We all have dreams and goals for ourselves as writers, but we have to be flexible with the timeframe and not despair when we fail. Being willing to accept where you are in your career and use the time and tools at your disposal is key to getting ahead.

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