April 2010 Blog Update:
Happy End-of-April everyone. Thank You to all of you who’ve referred people to The Lab and to my 1-on-1 services for writers. Everyone knows the overall state of Arts Education these days, and I’ve been blessed to have work. I couldn’t do it without you!
It’s such a great time of year to be a teacher. Especially one at SF State. We have two Pulitzer Prize winners this year, which is almost as great as hearing from current/former students are busy preparing to take off to various places: one to New York after getting hired by Teach for America, others to grad school: one to University of Hawaii at Manoa on a full teaching scholarship, another to The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and another to San Diego State. I’m going to miss this year’s graduates very much. There is no place on earth where a more interesting mix of people exists than in an undergraduate creative writing class at SFSU. Congratulations to all of the undergrad graduates and to all of the folks on their amazing achievements.
And the grad students? How proud could I possibly be of the Fourteen Hills editors and staff? This Spring alone, they’ve produced a fundraiser and a big fiction reading all while sifting through hundreds and hundreds of literary and art submissions to make a magazine. These are students who, despite endless-seeming funding cutbacks and tuition increases in the State of California, know how to make their own education. 82 people have RSVP’d for our next event, The 16.2 Release Party, happening on May 21st at The San Francisco Motorcycle Club. (You should join us. It’s so much fun, it’s really not to be missed). By the way, Fourteen Hills is easy to follow. They're everywhere. On a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter. Sign up!
People have been asking about the manuscript I recently got off to my agent. Why isn’t the hardest part of writing a novel writing a novel? This is my second time finishing that task, and it seems relatively easy when compared to the waiting to see if an editor and publishing house will pick it up. My agent is confident, as are the people who’ve read it, but meanwhile, it’s nerve wracking, to say the least. About a month ago, I was having a conversation with a former SFSU student who has become a good friend. She asked me if I were writing. We were both surprised by my answer, I said, “Honestly I don’t know if I have what it takes to write another novel unless I get a book deal on this one.”
Both my novels took five years to write. In retrospect, I’m glad my first one never sold. It came close a couple times. Two editors wrote letters saying they brought it to the table at their publishing house to fight for it. Both times it lost when it came to discussions on marketing/audience. This feedback was more painful to me than feedback like, “It’s not ready. Get back to work.” I like “It’s not ready. Get back to work.” I’m a writer. I’m a worker. I like writing. I like working.
But marketing? Is that an excuse? Do they mean it? Does that really matter? Can’t the right person market anything? It’s impossible to tell. Some say it’s a polite blow off. Others say that people don’t have time to write extensive letters (one was two pages, single-spaced, by and editor at Crown) unless they believe in your skill.
Somehow, my actions are defying my statement. Suddenly I find myself exploring a new character in the few moments when I’m not teaching or at Trader Joe’s replenishing my food supply. He’s starting to hang out with me more, whisper in my ear, and share his opinions. I’m filling up a handwritten notebook, which is in the pocket of my motorcycle jacket. I find myself pulling it out when I shouldn’t, which is always a good sign.
Michelle Carter, one of the best creative writing teachers on earth, has a yet-to-be-published book on fiction writing. It’s unlike anything else out there. One of the things she asks her readers to consider at the beginning of the book is writing a list of things they’re afraid to write about for fear of getting “wrong.”
Number one on my list is the particular complexity it is for me to have siblings. I’m the middle of three male children. We split up when my older brother was 17 years old and my younger 10, and none of us have lived in the same state since. They’re both fathers, and married to women.
There’s nothing more charged or complicated to me—how I feel about them, the dynamics of being one of three boys. How it is to be the gay one, the unmarried one, the one who is not a father.
To complicate it, there are aspects of our pasts, years gone by with little-to-no-contact, gaps that cannot be bridged. We didn’t live together through adolescence, didn’t spend a moment together in high school, never played on the same sports team. There are so many experiences we each celebrated and endured alone, separately, even though the other two were out there in the world somewhere doing something like same thing. Why? Why did we not stay in better touch? Why are those bonds so strong that we can’t just stay out of each other’s business? Why does it feel so good to be together, even when it doesn’t? Why do their struggles or sadness make me feel so helpless in ways that my own struggles and sadness do not? What is it about the intensity and trust that they once held their tiny babies out to me, wanting me to hold them?
All of my fictional characters have been only children.
In relatively recent years, my family has become the most important thing in my life. I relish the time I get with my parents and brothers, their children, their wives. I’m fascinated by our similarities, our defenses, the ways our parents succeeded in passing down the vices and predilections of generations of Clarks and Davisons and the nuanced and glaring differences in how they manifest.
Perhaps it will not be a novel. I haven’t written a short story in over a decade and I want to spend the summer working on the short stories I wrote and started in grad school. Lots of them got published and I think I could put together a collection.
So apparently I can write while waiting to hear about another novel. I got caught in a moment of fear. I froze because my ambition and desire to be a part of the kinds of conversations one gets to when one has a book--my ambition and desire to take my teaching to the levels one can when one has a book--are sometimes overwhelming.
More good news? Apparently I can, while riding the waves of desire and ambition, even start writing about the thing I fear the most I’ll get wrong.
All of this is subject to change, but James, my new character, is a middle child. One of three brothers. He’s unmarried and childless. His brothers are not. So far that’s an exhausted list of the ways James and I are similar. Still, it's charged as if much more personal. The other day I wrote at Café Flore for a couple hours and the whole time my heartbeat felt a bit too fast for a person sitting still. I kept looking up, afraid the person next to me might see.
Who knows what, if anything, will come of it, but I'm so glad to have the teachers and students in my life who keep me pushing forward. People who've always emphasized the artist process over the product without being afraid to pursuit the product. People who have not made success bad or wrong just because of its challenges and elusiveness.
Thanks for reading my update.