This post is in now way, shape, or form insulting the podcasts I list below (I'm not saying they're boring, because they aren't!) But as someone who has had insomnia that ranges from wretched to occasional-but-mild, I'm willing to do pretty much anything that gets me to sleep. Normally reading can wind me down, but sometimes that doesn't work.
What does often work for me: listening to certain types of voices speaking in particular types of ways. These are some of my regular podcasts I listen to--on very light volume--when I'm trying to get to sleep. Typically I use the my sleep timer on my phone on for one hour, then it automatically turns off.
My top choice. This podcast is from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which does fantastic in-depth stories on important issues. Two recent really good episodes were about racial disparities in lending for mortgages and one on a contraceptive implant and how a company and the FDA responded (or didn't respond..) to serious health issues it caused. The host has a soothing, smooth voice, and there is never any abrupt music or sharp sounds (loud laughter, etc.)
This one may overtake Reveal as my favorite. Not good if listening to stories about murder disturbs you.. so disclaimer there. Each episode focuses on a murder or serial killer. The two hosts handle the content from a research angle that is dead serious (no jokes) and they clearly do a lot of research for each episode. Both the hosts have incredibly soothing voices and both, weirdly enough, happen to talk with this rhythmic cadence that just lulls you.
3. Teen Creeps
I wish I had discovered this one sooner. The two female hosts are comediennes/ writers who read one teen YA pulp horror novel a week and rehash it on the podcast. I was a huge reader of Christopher Pike and RL Stein-- both of whom are strongly represented. I had fond memories of these books, but boy do they not age well. They rehash the plot but also provide commentary and go on tangents. There is some laughing (quite a bit, actually), but no music or abrupt noises. You don't need to have read the books to follow the podcast. They both have softer Millennial-ish voices that never bother me.
So yeah, this is a podcast about the Bachelor franchise. (They cover both the show and all its spinoffs). Which of course means it's only running when there is a current show, with a new one released about a day after each airing of the show. The show approaches the Bachelor from exactly the same perspective I have on it: it's ridiculous, but often riveting.
Only the non-humorous episodes, which occasionally have weird sounds. The ones that cover only one story per the entire hour are best. Just to note that there is some music which occasionally pops up.
This Canadian podcast covers one incident for an entire season, doing a deep dive into murders and disappearances. It's soothing and understated, never intense despite it's content.
As someone who has had the misfortune of writing longer short stories/ novellas, I sympathize with anyone who has tried to publish them because I have spent so much time scouring the internet screaming WHY WONT YOU TAKE MY MASSIVE TOME THAT ISNT QUITE MASSIVE ENOUGH TO BE A NOVEL. Below is a working list of literary magazines, contests, and small presses that publish longer short stories and/or novellas. This is a list for literary fiction, not genre fiction and of course those lines can be blurred but if you've written something that can be considered genre you should probably familiarize yourself with the magazine because these markets are indeed different than the stuff I see in genre magazines. This is not a exhaustive list, it is a working list I will update, and mainly includes magazines I know to be well respected and presses I have seen with my own two eyes. (I have submitted to many of these.) [links and content updated 5/30/19]
Magazines and Small Presses
Alaska Quarterly Review, up to 50 pages. One of my white whales! A great magazine that has been beloved for so long. They only take hard copy submissions.
A Public Space doesn't list an upper length limit, and specifically says "novellas and novel excerpts are always welcome."
BatCat Press takes stuff of any length. They publish weird, beautiful books; this is not a standard market--I think they are looking for stuff that is "out there."
Blackbird is a well-respected online magazine. If you have a piece that is 8k or over, you can query first to see if they're interested. (that said, the magazine sometimes is on the higher end of how long it takes to get back to writers.)
Big Fiction, 7,500 – 20,000 words, fiction in any genre (except children’s and YA) with a clear literary intent, and essays as narratively straightforward or as experimental as you envision.
Boulevard takes stories up to 8k
Conjunctions is one of the most well-respected magazines out there. It has no official restriction on length, but does not take simultaneous submissions and submissions are hard copy.
The Collagist (a magazine run by Dzanc Books) takes stuff up to 8 k
Online magazine failbetter says they publish novellas, but given that it is online, I would page through to see how long their stories actually run.
Fiction is old-school respectable. Their website says they prefer under 5k, but would consider longer works. (read: long shot)
Gettysburg Review up to 10k. Interpret as you may: "We do not publish genre fiction—mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and the like—but are certainly not opposed to considering work that self-consciously employs the tropes of more formulaic writing for more sophisticated literary ends." They take about half a year to get back to you, but are a great market.
Malahat Review up to 8 k, Canadian lit mag that discourages simultaneous submissions. They also run a novella competition every other year for submissions 10-20k
Massachusetts Review takes stories up to 8 k, but they also have a digital release program called Working Titles that has a 7-25k limit.
Missouri Review "While there are no length restrictions, longer manuscripts (9,000 to 12,000 words) or “flash fiction” manuscripts (2,000 words or less) must be truly exceptional to be published." Extremely competitive market.
One Story 3-8k, this should be one of your top markets. Given that they only publish one story per issue I wish they would take longer stuff :(
Paris Review does not have length restrictions; that said, they take hardcopy only and I don't know anyone who ever got in there off the slush pile.
Ploughshares Solos 7,500-20k, extremely competitive market
Nouvella Books 10-40k. They publish beautiful little (literally) books. This isn't run like a standard literary magazine (because it isn't one), but they view their novella line as a way of investing in and launching emerging writers.
Puerto del Sol, up to 10k
Seattle Review, at least 40 pages. Recently they stopped having a print edition in favor of an electronic edition only.
Tin House up to 10k. A top market but I don't know anyone who's ever got in off the slush pile. (for the magazine- for the blog, yes.) You can submit, but it's one of those "submit it and forget it." Seriously. You might not hear back for more than a year so it's not a "they're taking a while so I must be making it up the decision chain!" thing.
Yemassee, up to 8 k
Incidentally, and I'm thinking of one magazine in particular, don't submit anywhere that has a $20 or higher submission or reading fee. Magazine submission fees and contests are two different things. Submission fees are controversial, but a few bucks doesn't seem unreasonable to me given how literary magazines are struggling. For more than a few bucks--you do the math, it isn't ethical.
All of these prizes are yearly or close to it and have entry fees. There are of course more contests than just these, but these are the ones I know of that I would call good. (ie, the entry fee/ prize ratio isn't eyebrow-raising, the judges are well known literary writers, the winners go on to do well in their careers). Maybe this is an obvious tip, but if you're submitting to a contest you should wait until a few days before the deadline. When submitting simultaneously, if you submit to a contest in January that doesn't have a deadline until March, there's a chance your piece will get picked up somewhere else first and then you can't get your entry fee back from the contest when you withdraw. Submitting early doesn't help you in any way.
Heritage Future Great Story Project (formerly 1888, formerly Black Hill Press) CURRENTLY OPEN FOR SUBMISSIONS JUNE 1 to JULY 31 2019, accepting novels, novellas, and short story collections. They publish beautiful books--I love the artwork they use.
Black Lawerence Press small press that publishes full length novels, poetry, collections, anthologies, etc. The Big Moose prize is for "novels" but their submission guidelines say 90 to 1,000 pages--90 pages would put you within the range of a novella.
Texas Review Press Clay Reynolds Novella contest 20-50k
My experiences getting longer stuff published.
1) You need to be really patient and 2) you need to have your eyes peeled for random opportunities that pop up that aren’t necessarily regularly run literary magazines. Of my 7 fiction publications, 3 of them are in the “long to the point of being hard to place” category. The longest, "Twelve Years, Eight-hundred and Seventy-two Miles," had an 18 k word count, which meant really limited markets that would take it—I had to hunt and did so persistently; I started submitting it in 2013 and got it accepted in 2015. “The Bleeding Room” was 8,600 words—I submitted it to half a dozen places in 2002, stopped for 10 years, then submitted it to one magazine and placed in a contest. Note that both these markets—Day One and Glimmer Train—no longer exist; the market changes constantly. I have another long one coming out at the end of this month from Radix Media, which resulted from me seeing a random call for submissions, probably via either Facebook or Submittable’s newsletter. There are a lot of these one-off opportunities that you might not find out about if you aren’t subscribed to newsletters or don’t poke around on social media occasionally. Incidentally, I’ve never found Duotrope to be particularly useful for the one-off stuff, just the regular lit mag data. Where does this leave me? With one unpublished 8,600 word story that has my second-highest “we liked this but no, please submit again” rate—I’ve pretty much come to the realization that that particular story will probably only find its home in a collection. The other is a 10k sci fi story—the Venn diagram between “sci fi” and “leans literary” and “long ass” is quite small—but this would be a good story for one of these one-off opportunities. In sum— keep your eyes open and your chin up. Also make sure that your word count is worth it—that 10k story was trimmed down from 11,200 and those were only surgical line edits.
This was my first AWP and I felt like moderately sleep-deprived lost child during much of it. There were some ups and some downs and very very long days and a hotel room where the AC kept rattling. I heard someone say that 12,000 people were there--I'm not sure if that's an exaggeration, but officially speaking, it was a shit-ton of people. For some reason, just seeing them all this made me feel vaguely threatened. All I could think is "every single person here is a writer...?" with the overall feeling of, well, I guess you're not very special are you. It seemed like every single person had a book coming out and tons of awards and fellowships, although a friend pointed out to me that everyone feels that way at AWP. I definitely feel better when I'm in an active writing phase (mine go fast and hard) rather than and admin period (time between projects where I send things out and apply to things) so maybe that contributed to it. I don't feel this way at psychology conferences, some of which are even larger, but perhaps that's because I feel more settled in my other career.
The panels were hit and miss--some people are just more engaging speakers. A couple standouts were a panel on failure and another on diversity (or lack thereof) in publishing. The best point of the former: that the Thing that you think is going to make you might not be the thing, some other side thing might actually be the thing. Don't write a book for the sake of writing a book, a couple of the novel writers said--write it because you love it. In the latter panel, there was a lot of discussion about increasing diversity in publishing houses and literary agencies via hiring. This is perfectly reasonable and should be done. Two of the authors there referenced god-awful things they had been told by editors that were extremely cringeworthy. At the Q&A I asked if anyone in the industry circled back to talk to editors when they make comments like these. What I didn't add, for lack of time, is that this ends up feeling like it's your burden to deal with, and maybe you're tired of doing this, or don't feel that you should have to, but then again if you don't do it, who will. (The question was answered with interest--that perhaps the method that makes sense is to be informal about it, given that writers don't have any power in these situations.)
The two best highlights: One was a reading from Nafissa Thompson-Spires from her upcoming book Heads of the Colored People. I went to this reading because I was exhausted and lazy and it happened to be in my hotel's bar and maybe I didn't want to be in my room for that much time (there was a millipede situation--a story for another day). I have never laughed so hard at a reading. I might have even clapped (singularly, at particular jokes), which is somehow encoded in my DNA as an Indian person. Really looking forward to her book coming out.
The other highlight was the bookfair, which I think is 50% of the reason for going to AWP. It is a booklover's greatest dream and nightmare combined into one--so many books and at healthy discounts. I like to support small presses but don't necessarily like ordering online, so this was a great opportunity to get my hands on books from a bunch of presses and to awkwardly make eye contact with people I "know" from Twitter. I came home with about a dozen new books making my carry-on painfully heavy, including stuff from Small Beer Press, Press 53, Red Hen, Sarabande, Vandalia, Louisiana State University Press, and ECW Press. My first go around (it takes several sessions to go through the whole fair) I noticed a book which had a blurb likening the book to The Children's Hour, a play about two closeted lesbians at a private school. I noticed it because I have a friend who is obsessed with The Children's Hour. I wanted to take a picture of the book to send it to him asking if he wanted it, but the bookseller was hovering (there is a lot of hovering..) and I didn't want them to think I was taking a picture to go buy it on Amazon or something. So I left it, but then it haunted me, causing me to return and to hurriedly search for the book during the very last hours of the fair. (To no avail- I still don't know what book this is, and I haven't been able to Google it). Ah, the lack of closure is painful. (on the off chance that any of my .7 readers know what this book is, drop me an email.)
One thing I could not help noticing that made me want to gouge my eyes out. (Okay, two things if you could the millipede). The vast majority of women asking questions at Q&As were unable to ask a question without a significant amount of apology or preamble. Least offensive version of this: "Um, how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" worse version: "Um, so one of the things I was thinking about listening to you is how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?" eye gouge version: "Um, so, this panel, listening to all the panelists, and thank you for being here, it's been so great, so I was kind of thinking about like um, with my novel I've tried and I've done things, and, you know, how do you know when to give up on a manuscript?"
Um, ladies. For the love of god, stop apologizing for existing. (also there's a limit to Q&A time).
Why do I continue to love this show? Despite the fact that it's formulaic--and continues to be after years of being on the air. Despite the fact that it's fake. Despite the forced moralizing that occurs at the end of each episode, wherein the catfish is supposed to feel bad for catfishing but often doesn't. Despite the hokey "hosts being adorkable" thing (I like Max, but not a fan of Nev).
It's the same story over and over. A youngish person ostensibly contacts the show with a story about how they have been in love with someone for several years that they met online, but they have never met in person. The other person--the catfish--refuses to videochat/ has a broken phone/ lost their truck and therefore can't meet the catfishee. Nev and Max arrive with their high tech investigative skills (ie, they look on Facebook and Instagram and do Google image searches, which apparently no one else has figured out). They contact the catfish when they've collected enough "evidence," and the catfish always miraculously agrees to not only meet up and be filmed (show spoiler: typically the catfish actually contacts the show, which is why they never run into a catfish who refuses to meet). Despite the fact that it's the same thing over and over, I find myself completely riveted during act three, the moment when they're knocking on the catfish's door and you have no idea of who is going to come out. I will run out of the kitchen in order to not miss the reveal. (NB: I am never sitting in front of a TV and just watching it, so when I actually have my eyes on the TV for more than 3 seconds, someone has done something right.)
Forty percent of the time, the catfish is someone who is LGBT but closeted, often in a small town where no one ever says, "Wait, which gay bar with the roofdeck and the bartender with the arms?" (#DCLife). Forty percent of the time it's just someone who used the pictures of a (culturally-dictated) more attractive person because they're insecure. The remaining 20 percent is a grab bag of more interesting cases: pure sociopaths, best friends who were secretly in love with the victim for years, and one recent rarity: and old gross dude trolling for young women. (sidebar, why doesn't that happen more often? And I can't even think of an instance of the catfish turning out to be married.)
The show often sends the hosts to meet victims in places where reality TV typically doesn't go: Oklahoma, small towns where one can apparently be the only LGBT person in their entire class. You see small houses and trailers, and tons of people of adulting age that live with their parents and yappy dogs and work regular jobs. It seems a stark contrast from the constant parade of TV/movies/books that focus on New York City, LA, London, places where people who would be poor in real life live unrealistically opulent lives (not to use a dated reference, but it's beyond laughable that we're supposed to believe that Carrie Bradshaw can afford all those designer shoes when she's a freelance writer). Every so often on the show when the host takes the victim to meet the catfish, they find out that the victim has never actually been on a plane before. In some cases, they've never even left their hometown. The hosts often respond with a chipper, "You've never been on a plane before?" How quaint! Median income in Oklahoma is (let's ballpark it based on this dated website) is $45,000; in my hometown of DC its $93,000 (to be fair DC has one of the highest median incomes in the US, and using the median rather than the mean glosses over the income disparity the city has but whatever). There's even been cases where it clearly seems that both the catfish and the catfishee were faking just so they could meet each other (maybe just to get on TV, or maybe so someone else can pay their airfare.)
I wish the show would get more in depth about the psychology behind this incredibly weird phenomenon. In between the movie and the TV show, the concept of catfishing is so well known that they added the new meaning of the word to the dictionary over at Merriam Webster. People on the show know what this is, but still fall for it. Or maybe they don't fall for it at all-- maybe they know the whole time that these relationships aren't real. Sometimes the people involved are somewhat isolated--just in general, not just in terms of not being willing to pursue other romantic relationships because they are spoken for. Sometimes they are approached by other would-be mates, but turn them down in favor of a relationship that is purely electronic. In either case, they've settled for an electronic facsimile of a relationship: no physical presence, not even videochatting, just a stream of texts, phone calls, emojis, and maybe an occasional picture stolen off Instagram.
We don't really talk about loneliness in this country. Usually we're kidding when we are: making fun of cat ladies and "Oh no I'm going to die alone LOL." Even for introverts, the desire for companionship is so fundamental to what it is to be human that being denied companionship can often be lethal. Suicide is the tenth largest cause of death in America--it's right up there with cancer and heart disease. Even amongst people who can both articulate their feelings and are willing to do so, they're far more likely to say they are "sad," "bored," or "depressed" than to say that they are lonely, or lacking in human companionship. Some turn inwards toward depression (self-directed hate), some turn outwards. We always talk about lone wolf mass shooters. They're "lone." I don't feel bad for them, but I wonder about the power of the sickness that is loneliness, not feeling part of a community, or not feeling validated.
Last week I was at a speakeasy (#DCLife again) with some friends and one lamented that he wanted to move into a commune in the woods and just not deal with anything. Easy to feel that way when the news is pretty stressful, but we were also talking about how the very structure of life--at least here and now in America--is isolating, overly focused on work, overly focused on nuclear families. In this scifi thing I'm writing, there's this character from a planet that has been destroyed that is often described as a utopia. People sitting on porches calling out to each other, a town where everyone knows your name. One thing I based it off of (here's a knife in your heart) was something one of my Arabic teachers told me about her childhood growing up in Damascus: a large house that is more like a compound, shaped like a square with a courtyard in the center, the whole extended family living in the same house so closely that the cousins are like brothers. So . . . not sure what it says about me that I had this planet destroyed.
When I'm rubbing elbows with writer types at conferences and the like, sometimes the breakdown feels like 80% "full time writers" and 20% "other." The full-time writers include no one who writes full time (as only the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings of the world actually sell enough to do this.) More likely, these are typically MFA or PhD students; people who teach creative writing full time or part time as adjuncts; people who work in publishing in one form or another; or people who are writers but are more or less subsidized by family wealth. The 20% "other"--of which I am a part of--is a motley crew--some are people who hate their "day jobs" and are just doing them to pay their bills, some are people who have a career that they like or love but who also write. I'm in this last category.
I lean pretty strongly towards the "Don't get an MFA" camp. It's not that I don't think writing can be taught--I definitely learned a lot from the workshops I've taken. But generally speaking, I think such classes can make a good writer better, but not make a bad writer good. I also think there are diminishing returns from workshopping. After you've done it enough, I'm not sure how much you're gaining from it. For me, going to a workshop/conference/retreat is more about making connections, reading and critiquing others' work, shoptalk, etc. But mostly where I'm learning at this point is by reading a ton, consuming media in all forms, and writing, of course. I also find that sometimes people take workshop (or the advice of their mentors/teachers) too seriously: at some point you have to be able to send a story out without workshopping, at some point you have to be able to completely disregard something someone smart said after reading your work because there's a voice inside you that just knows they're wrong. Don't keep going to workshops because you don't trust your own judgment and need some validation.
People who are smarter and more well read and a whole variety of other things have already written about attending an MFA program while being a minority, so I will skip over that. But some of those arguments tie in to things I'm about to say about money.
There are two main arguments (other "I want to be a better writer") for people who are considering getting an MFA. One is that they are imagining a career track in academia, and the other is that they are specifically not imagining a career in academia but just want the time to focus solely on their craft/writing. Let's take this conversation away from the arts to the sciences for a sec: I finished my doctorate pretty close to when the Global Financial Crisis reared its ugly head. Tenure-track jobs that had been listed started getting pulled. People were panicking. At the risk of sounding like an asshole, I went to a top-rated doctoral program for my field. This is how it shook out for my cohort, and I can tell you with hindsight now that a good number of years have passed. None of my friends from my program are unemployed and destitute. All of them found something one way or another. But what happened was that the hierarchy of candidates shifted down and was spread more broadly across time. Golden students who normally would have gotten tenure track positions--maybe even a choice of them--ended up postdoc-ing, then looking for a job afterwards. Postdocs sometimes did more than one postdoc. Then the freshly graduating PhDs couldn't really compete for the tenure track jobs because they were being compared against people who had been postdoc-ing for a while and therefore had better publications and connections. So everything got shifted back, timewise. What also happened is that tenure track positions that wouldn't have been appealing to top candidates a decade ago were now desirable. If this was happening at a top-rated program, imagine what was happening far down the line at programs that weren't as competitive, didn't provide funding, and didn't have as good connections. What I told undergraduates who were thinking about getting a PhD in psychology was this: If you can get into a well-rated program that's very competitive and has good funding, go for it. There won't be a pot-of-gold/ tenure track position waiting for you at the end, necessarily, but your prospects are reasonable for something if you're going to a competitive program. Sadly, academia has continued along the path of offering fewer tenure track jobs and just hiring adjuncts and lecturers that they don't have to provide benefits for or who sometimes do not even have the right to unionize. I've seen people in both the arts and sciences struggle to piece together their finances with adjuncting and no health insurance. I feel for them.
Here's my bit about the "I just want the time" argument. After leaving your MFA program, you are never going to have "the time" in your life for writing--you might as well start learning how to write without the time right now. Having the time to focus solely on your writing is romantic and lovely, like taking a gap year to travel the globe. It also exists on an economic plane of existence that does not make sense to me. Worst case scenario: you go to a program that doesn't fund you and rack up 30-60k a year for 2 to 3 years. Teaching afterwards will be super- competitive (if that's what you want to do) and you'll be competing for jobs against people who went to programs that funded them. Best case scenario: you got funded--great. Most people think of this in terms of gained benefits-- you gained "the time" for free and got 2 to 3 years of time to focus on your craft and the connections you make there. ***
**slight tangent. Notice that the benefit of going to the program is the time to improve your craft, but one thing I did not mention is anything related to the business side of writing. Yes, there are grad degrees in publishing, but I'm talking about MFAs in writing. Not a single person I know with an MFA says that they received decent training or guidance in submitting or selling their work, getting or dealing with agents, business networking, marketing, or paying taxes and the financial side of the publishing world. In fact, several of them have complained that they wanted their program to cover these topics and were annoyed that they didn't. I guess this is based on the idea that one does not want to sully one's art by thinking of how one will pay the bills. Here's the reality: we all have fucking bills. For some reason, the artistic world likes to pretend that money does not exist. Female writers do not want to acknowledge their corporate income husbands. No one talks about money management. There's a lot of hullaboo about the small percentage of writers who get six-figure advances, but not much about the cost of being one of the people who don't. end tangent ***
So let's say you got funded and went away for 2 to 3 years and had a great experience. But there's an opportunity cost associated with that time. My incredibly unsexy proposal: you could have spent those two or three years getting a degree in something else that would result in stable (or at least more stable) work in another field, one that would get you jumpstarted into a career in a way that an MFA might not. (hold on a sec before I get to the "artist as a singular sole-focused thing" argument).
An adjunct lecturer could have a 2-year masters or a 6 to 8 year doctorate (and may or may not have 5- or 6-figure debt) and make about 24 k, likely with no health insurance. An editor at a New York publishing house is probably someone with a BA, but possibly a Masters as well. According to this article, the average salary for an editor at a a New York publishing house can be about 55 k-- the editor in chief positions are in the mid-70s. Here are some other salaries for people with Masters-level education (these are medians): Electrical engineering 121 k, Economics 114k, Com Sci 109k. All my degrees are in psychology, which people think of as a "soft" science (maybe it is, but I've done well for myself and minored in quant.)
You can hope to be James Patterson, but, statistically speaking, you probably won't be. It would be nice to get a tenure-track teaching job, but are the odds in your favor? (they might be! they might not be.) If you're going to teach piecemeal, or freelance, or work in the publishing industry, you had better really really love the work. The people who do it, do it because they love books, and from the sounds of it editors and agents are taking home stacks of manuscripts with them at home at night and working long hours. Editing and agenting aren't writing though--you would be working in a related field, but one that is demanding of a lot of your "free time" outside of work to catch up on reading.
When I first started getting interested in speculative and science fiction, several people told me I had to check out the Clarion workshop. It sounded like a great opportunity... except it costs 5 thousand in change (not including travel). They offer scholarships, but they average at 1,500. Beyond that IT'S SIX WEEKS LONG. Yes, I love the dream world were you could go off on a six-week eat, pray, love, sci fi thing, but who the hell has six weeks off work to spare? People who don't work but have a lot of money I guess from being independently wealthy? People who are being financially supported by a loved one? People with unstable work who can squeeze the workshop in between one contract or gig? But very few people with a standard 9-to-5 in a country where we don't even get maternity leave are going to be able to swing six weeks away from work to write sci fi. It's a dream. Thus, you end up with a really specific population of people who can attend.
Like many second-generation Asians, I was pressured by my immigrant parents to pick a career which would involve a graduate degree followed by relatively high income work. I didn't fit into the standard doctor/lawyer/computer science mold, but I did make my way to getting the Asian parent stamp of approval. This did not result at me toiling away at some soulless job that I hate. It didn't result in my giving up my hopes and dreams of becoming a writer--I have a genuine love of psychology and methods and there is a certain satisfaction I get from solving high-level problems that, as much as I love writing, I do not get from anywhere else. I've noticed that when I'm at writer's conferences there's very little conversation about people's "day jobs." I get the sense that this is because the "day job" is not considered a career, and the thing that truly defines you is your identity as an artist/ writer. There's an unstated feeling--at least in my opinion--that the art is the higher thing, and the other thing is just the unseemly thing you do to pay the bills. Work is what takes away from your ability to be a writer. I really strongly, ardently disagree with this idea.
First let's talk about the thing that's terrible. We live in a country that does not have a good social safety net and what little safety net we have is increasingly being taken away. Like the adjuncts I mentioned above, more and more stable work is being transformed into contracting work that's less stable and offers few if any benefits. For some reason millions of people in this country don't think that health care is a basic human right. The cost of this lack of safety net is debilitating. Do the thing you love and the money will come?? The people writing those inspirational articles have apparently never had to pay for cancer treatment. They are, I guess, unlike the average American, who is one $2,000 emergency away from serious financial problems.
So when I hear someone contemplating whether or not to get an MFA, or whether or not to "follow their dream," I can't help thinking, no, do the thing that puts you in a place where you are financially secure, and you'll be all the closer to that dream. You are not a lesser artist because you decided to become an accountant. Consider the financial cost of "taking the time." The longer you delay being at the point where you can save for retirement, or for that $2,000 emergency, the more of a bind you might find yourself in down the road when that social safety net is increasingly eroded.
Here's the part about "the time" I find mystifying. There's this notion of your day job taking away from your life as an artist. In terms of time and/or energy or, I don't know, artistic street cred. I would argue that it isn't an issue of time so much as efficiency, and the very fact that you even have a day job adds to the richness of someone's writing, rather than taking it away. Say you work a 9-to-5. This means you more or less have from 5 pm to 10 or 11 pm to find some time to write. Okay, take some time away to take care of the dog, cook dinner, go to the gym, whatever. Writing does not actually take that much time. I write pretty quickly. I'm not on drugs and I don't really drink coffee. I don't wake up before the sun rises, I don't write during lunch breaks or stay up until 1 am. Generally speaking, when I'm working on a project I finish my work that day, watch about an hour of the crappiest TV possible (The Bachelorette, for example), then I write for an hour or two before heading out to the gym or to social engagements. I write some on the weekends-- ranging from half an hour to maybe 4 hours total, but definitely not more than that.
How long does it take to write a novel? Say you type 50 words a minute. If you wrote for half an hour every day, you'd have 1,500 words a day--that adds up. How much physical strength does it take to write a novel? You know, because you're exhausted when you get home from work. It's sitting down at a table.. It's not as exhausting as cleaning the house, cooking, or lifting weights or any variety of things one does after one comes home from work. Toni Morrison was a single mother. Stephen King wrote Carrie while working full time as a teacher in addition to doing laundry at an apparently disgusting hotel. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly guy wrote a motherfucking book by blinking. Might it be a reasonable argument that having a separate career might help you manage time more efficiently? (Let alone, in the case of literary fiction, if more of us had jobs there would be fewer books about English professors having affairs with sexy manic pixie undergrads, because we would have a broader world to write about.)
Wendy J Fox, in an article in The Millions, writes:
We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.
I'm a weightlifter and oftentimes I hear people say something like it's 10% lifting and 90% what you eat. Maybe writing is like 10% writing and 90% dealing with rejection. All I know is that I don't think there are frank, open discussions about money amongst writers, and that I'm eternally grateful that I'm not doing this to put food on my table. Being rejected over and over can be disheartening to the point of depression--imagine if your next meal depended on it.
wow that was kind of a downer.. Next week: a primer on puppies!
I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately.
It bothers me how frequently readers/reviewers assume that first person novels are actually autobiographical. I don't do this because I assume fiction is fiction and is very much deliberately fiction for a reason. Surely some novels are semi-autobiographical, but the author made a conscious decision to have them be fiction and not memoir. Last year I heard quite a bit of discussion from minority writers that people assumed that because their book focused on a MC that was [insert minority], that the book was autobiographical.
It's puzzling to me that an author can be accused of being racist if their character is--all the more likely if the book is in first person. I've read more than one essay about how Lolita is problematic, misogynistic, patriarchical etc etc-- it seems to me that there's a difference between "you must be a disgusting pervert asshole to write this" and "author writing about a disgusting pervert asshole." The character views the world in a sick way, so the author has an obligation to depict him as such, unless of course we want all our MCs to be Disney versions of reality where everyone is wonderful all the time.
There is the distinction between "you must be the sickness you write about" and "a person writing about sickness." This distinction is sometimes hard to make, and sometimes people don't make it at all. Context matters, but often words are put into the authors mouth and sometimes they are the same words that they wrote. I have been thinking a lot recently about context collapse, and how this is a problem that is getting increasingly worse with social media. It denies nuance and ignores that the people we are on social media are not really us.
As modern media increasingly pushes authors into being public/political figures, if your character does something racist, you will have to answer for it as if it were you who was the actor. This denies the space that should exist between fiction and nonfiction. In my opinion, all novels, regardless of person, have narrators and those narrators don't necessarily give you insight into the author.
A 1st person novel should be imbued with the values and perspectives of the character (which aren't necessarily the same as the values and perspectives of the character). Two different 1st person novels with different MCs by the same author should not feel the same. A 3rd person novel, whether mainly through one POV or many, has a sort of ghost narrator. The author, behind the scenes, is the person moving the marionettes. Things are arranged into order and a snapshot is taken. If the story is about redemption, the narrative will hit on those themes--but this doesn't mean the author believes in redemption--it was just a redemption story.
I have a story which, thematically speaking, is very much about the power of brotherly love and how it helps the characters transcend their personal trauma. It is earnest, funny, tinged with sadness, but ultimately hopeful. I have another story, "This Isn't Happening Again," which is the bleakest thing I have ever written. There is no hope. The narrator is cruel. It is the only thing I have ever written that is intended to make the reader feel bad. If you read the first story you might assume I'm an earnest hopeful person. If you read the second, you would have a completely different impression of me. Which is the real me?
Neither really. Each story called for something different--different tones, different values. They are their own thing; just because I created them doesn't mean I am them.
I was at a reading fairly recently for a 1st person novel that was very much about sexuality. A member of the audience (much to my dismay) asked how autobiographical it was. Did people do this a hundred years ago? Was I the only one who felt the question was salacious and kind of invasive? Part of me thinks that with increased access to authors, we want access inside them.
Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" talks a lot about birding, and Jonathan Franzen happens to be into birding himself. Write what you know. The problem with this is the audience thinking that they know what I know. We only know Franzen likes birding because he's talked about it publicly. Birding isn't really controversial, so I don't think anyone got their panties in a bunch about the birding in that book (well I did because I find birding uninteresting.)
I'm writing this because I've increasingly encountered this idea in reading reviews or cultural criticism where someone is upset about something. Here's a book about a serial killer who targets women because he's a misogynist (this is often true in real life). Some reviewers are outraged about how the book is misogynistic--not the character. Is this unique to writing? When a painter paints a dolphin, we don't assume the painter is dolphin. WTF.
I feel like visual art gets more credit for being about something-- the distance between the artist and the art is respected. This week the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama were revealed. The artist, through his own unique style, says something about Obama--by the expression on his face, the nontraditional setting, the flowers. The portrait is about the person, as rendered through the style of the artist. The portrait is not the artist. It's Obama.
As a slight tangent, a few days ago I read an article about memoirs of incest. I recall the controversy with Kathryn Harrison's book The Kiss. People attacked her in a way I find surprising. The book, they accused, was salacious--like she was mining her own trauma for gold. Who can call a memoir salacious? Here's the problem with this--it's Harrison's story. She may or may not have wrote it during a period of time where she was messed up. Or maybe she wasn't messed up, but was writing about messed up-edness. Maybe she was trying to get a narrow slice of what her life was like back then. Not every memoir should have a "The More You Know" PSA message weaved into it--I guess there is pressure for memoir to be this way, because some people think "lessons learned" is the point of memoir. Less so for fiction.
I have no point to round this out. Just that I've been talking with writers a lot lately who are having trouble writing because they can't get the hypothetical critical reader out of their head. The one that's looking at the author, not the book.
I won't cover all the well-trod territory that has been written elsewhere about how ridiculous this series is. I just watched the second movie because, well, it was there and it was raining outside. I wanted to talk about money, but first one small sidebar: how on earth do you make a movie about sex where Jamie Dornan is hotter as the serial killer in The Fall than he is as the male lead in the aforementioned sex movie (which is to say, not at all)?
So here's the "economy" of these movies. You stumble out of college with ostensibly no real skills and accidentally come upon a job opportunity (unearned) interviewing this business guy. Despite you being exceptionally bad at this interviewing gig, business guy falls in love with you, and is of course fabulously wealthy (never mind the stalking and stuff). You would never have to work. You would never have to worry about making decisions--about what to eat, what to wear, how to have sex--because he likes to control everything and your only question is whether or not you're down with that.
--Short interlude--you break up because you dislike and felt emotionally abused by his main way of getting his kicks. You've got a job at a publishing house--you go girl! Movies/book like these never seem to have any comprehension of what work, let alone work in publishing, is. Work is generally a topic that is often glossed over in fiction, which is crazy if you think about it. People in America work 40, 50, sometimes even more hours a week. We spend more time at work than we do at home, if you subtract the time we spend sleeping. Depending on the week, sometimes I see colleagues more than I see my friends. Work, that is, what we do with the majority of our lives, is such a huge part of who we are. It is, at a minimum, the thing we occupy our minds with most of the time, and at a maximum, is heavily tied into our identities. I wish there were more compelling stories that were focused on work, rather than work being the background for "grander" stories--about romance, about mystery, or whatever else. I don't think there is a word for it in English, but I've noticed that people really enjoy watching other people be really competent at the thing they excel at--it doesn't matter what that thing is, but the level of expertise and interest of that person is for some reason fascinating. I recently watched The Post, and rewatched All the President's Men and Spotlight, three movies about journalism that despite their dark content, are a joy to watch. You see people at work, and the relationships they have with people at work, and it's incredibly compelling.
End tangent, back to this bad movie:
But in this thin fantasy, your job involves vaguely doing office work for an attractive and obviously about-to-to-sexually-harass-you older man. (No sense of the long hours of work that actual people in the publishing industry have to work.) You move papers around a desk, because the person who created you has no idea of what this sort of work is, or how someone might actually care about it or be engaged by it. Your paramour doesn't want you to have a job so he can control your economic independence. Your paramour buys the company you work for.
That scary work situation? The sexually harassive boss? Don't worry, you'll barely have to deal with it, because your paramour will get him fired. Somehow, you will just fall into the position of senior editor to replace him, because, gosh, no one else knows what to do with the empty slot, or with your untrained unqualified ass, for that matter. (Never mind that under these absurd rules of "well someone has to take this job lol" the black woman in your office was there for longer and has more work experience.) How terrible fiction sadly attempts to address the topic of work: newbie sits at the meeting with the big guys and makes a startlingly brilliant observation that NO ONE has ever had before. You mean we should publish the big sellers AND take a chance on new authors?? MIND BLOWN! The other way bad fiction deals with work, specifically people who are supposed to be billionaires: they sit in fancy offices and they have very attractive female receptionists. You might get some jargon thrown at you if the author spent a few minutes on Wikipedia looking up "hedge fund."
Work is there, humming in the background. There when you need a B plot. Your biggest problems will instead be relationship problems, which we all know are more interesting than all other problems in life. (This is not to say that relationship problems are not interesting, but that I would prefer to see a more holistic view of a human being.)
You know what I would wish someone would write? A literary novel like The Office only not a comedy, a really character driven saga that follows however many unrelated people working in an office and how they change over time. Can someone do that--? Thanks.
I try to pick something once a month to work on--either something about myself, or my environment, to try to make my life a little better. For January I worked on making my apartment look more like an adult lives there (getting rid of my college-era mismatched dinnerware, a minor renovation project in my bathroom, buying glasses instead of drinking out of cleaned out Classico tomato sauce jars. Pictures of the "renovation" are forthcoming!
At the end of January I decided that my thing for February was to unplug more. I have a news addition which is pretty unfortunately: I can't not read the news because I need to be very well informed for work. On the other hand, I consume way more of it than I need to, in addition to "news" peripherals, like thinkpieces, and thinkpieces about thinkpieces. And tweets. And angry Facebook posts.
I decided to take all social media off my phone--I still have the accounts, just no access on my phone. I'm also trying to cut down on how often I check the news when I'm at home. The first think I noticed, even within a day, is how often I just idly reach for my phone for something to flip through. Why? What's the point? All the major things that are going on in the world are going to go the way they're going regardless of whether or not you are obsessively reading about it or feeling anxious about it. This doesn't mean choosing to be ignorant: I'm still very well politically informed, and I still do what political actions I can and engage in long convos about stuff. But do you really need to know something right away? Do you really need to read a second, third, fourth article about whatever rage-inducing thing happened?
And social media. Yeah, I liked keeping in touch with my friends. But right now a huge percentage of social media is people being enraged about something that I am more or less impotent to do anything about right now. (I did, incidentally, decide in January that every time I heard something that enraged me rather than posting about it on social media, I would just send some money to help with whatever issue.) And as someone who reads a lot of actual news, the amount of dubious information passed along on Twitter is more than disturbing. Just because someone says something doesn't mean it's true. Even if you want it to be.
I guess we'll see how it went at the end of the month. There's a line somewhere between actively choosing to be ignorant about the world, and giving yourself an ulcer--I don't think it's a fine line that's hard to find. You just have to commit to it.
Every now and then you're at a movie and you can just feel the joy of the audience in the air. This was one of these movies. This movie currently has a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes--beaten out only be Coco, which apparently makes people openly weep in their seats (I've been meaning to get to that one this week.)
This was a movie that was clearly made by fans, for fans. The Disaster Artist is fiction, based on a nonfiction book, about the making of a movie called The Room. The Room, if you haven't seen it, is quite possibly the worst movie every made. It was written, directed, produced, and stars this guy Tommy Wiseau, who then featured a huge picture of his face on the movie poster. The Room is badly written with a hackneyed plot that doesn't really make sense, badly acted, awkward, bizarre, unintentionally funny--but strangely, has a high production value. It presumably was intended to be serious, but then turned into a cult classic. DC is one of several cities that has midnight showings where people interact with the screen ala Rocky Horror. You drink, you throw spoons, it's good fun because it's so ridiculous, especially after a few cocktails.
The Disaster Artist tells the story of how the film was made, starting with how Greg Sestero, a hopeful actor, meets Tommy in acting class. Tommy has long black hair, a clearly eastern European accent that his claims is from New Orleans, and massive amounts of money with mysterious origins. Greg gloms on to Tommy's relentless pursuit of an acting career despite not having any talent, and the two agree to make a movie.
Ultimately, the film is about the friendship between a relatively normal guy trying to make it in the acting world (Greg), and a bizarre, emotionally needy, possibly borderline possessive friend (Tommy). There is real emotional content in the movie--about friendships, about how hard it is to make it as an artist, about what happens when your friends pass you by--but really, it also explains how this incredibly weird movie got made and it's just so funny. It's probably funny even if you haven't seen The Room, but my theater in particular (this was a limited release screening in DC) was filled with people who clearly had seen it and could quote from it.
The film has tons of throwbacks (stay for the clips at the end!) and a surprising number of celebrity cameos. James Franco is amazing and needs to win all kinds of awards. He embodies this person in total--the weird unplaceable accent, mannerisms, even physically (I can't tell if Franco was squinting one eye for the entire movie, or if maybe they injected him with something, but in either case, damn.). After a rough weekend, this movie was just pure joy.