The Body (and Life) You Want without the Suffering

Friday, December 24, 2010

Dog Days Are Over

What are your impediments to expression? Do you come from a culture of stiff-upper lip and stoicism? Have you been sick, or worse, lobotomized? Do you lack access to clean water or nutritious food? Do you work 4 jobs to support 6 children? Are you lacking formal education? Do you just lack time? What are the impediments?

Every one of us has a reason, or quite a few reasons for not expressing ourselves. Personally, I like the coziness of conversation with the voices in my head. In contrast, they are quite difficult to commit to paper. Also, I have utter meltdowns when my body betrays me in some specific ways - say if I bleed a little too long or feel fatigue or find I cannot get my jeans up past my thighs. I stop thinking creatively and begin wondering if there is enough money for a funeral.

Sir Ken Robinson makes an excellent point in his TED talk about creativity and the value public education places on the arts. His asserts that public education places no value on creativity or the arts. Robinson’s driving point is that children are educated in a way that separates the head from the body, and the body is reduced to a carrying case for the head, which isn’t hot. At least 90% of the body’s bass is below the neckline, it doesn’t make sense to act as though the head is all that matters.

Contrast that mode of education with this quote from legendary boxer Joe Frazier, “Kill the body and the head will die.”

The tongue is a muscle. The brain is a nerve-rich area with muscles. The jaw, the skull - they are just bones like the bone in your pinkie toe. So, as a collection of muscle and bone we can take heart in training ourselves beyond impediments. Some people cannot think without moving. I am one of those people. My day’s thinking is usually accomplished in a 30-45 minute block while I swim laps in a pool. That’s all the thinking I do in a day, the rest is just expression of thought on paper, verbally, or through music. Any new physical activity depends on my ability to add length and speed over a period of time - the same with writing.

Every day since starting my Real World MFA I have written a half a page of a story. One-half page. It isn’t a full page, it isn’t Stephen King or James Patterson-worthy 8 hours of hammering out story. It’s a half page a day and I find myself satisfied at the end. I get it in between swimming and work and I go through my day feeling pretty good abut myself because my story either progressed halfway through a new sheet of paper or it progressed enough to finish a page. It’s very cool.

In many disciplines you must start small and take things as they come. Writing isn’t so different, it’s a physical exercise of expression and relies on the hands and brain. It can be taxing (as all those who just wrapped up National Novel Writing Month can attest), and it must be refined over time. The youngest writer, out of sheer persistence, can produce a work of formidable length. Imagine!

No matter where you are in your life you can get somewhere else by slow, steady work. It adds up, it builds upon itself. And while it may feel contrary to all you’ve been educated to understand - that’s the way all things happen, it’s how all things work.

Friday, December 3, 2010


“To change one’s life: Start immediately. Do it flamboyantly. No exceptions.” - William James

“There is an essence of grit to fight through something like that. You have got to get own and dirty and battle with yourself. My work can be great but I’m nothing special.” - Sam Sheridan

I can’t write when I’m unhappy. There are years when my journals are truncated trash until I exorcise whatever demon is futzing with my ch’i at the moment. The cause can be as small as a memory I can’t put to bed or as large as PTSD. Whatever it is, it stops me in my tracks.

I remember reading Rita Mae Brown’s “Getting Started” and her talking about a writer’s need for peace. That’s been a hard one for me. When I read the book the first time I was pretty peaceful (read: alone and drugged sufficiently to stop the noise in my own head) but I was actively seeking out people to hurt my feelings and make me feel bad. It was a habit I still find difficult to quit. I didn’t know conciously what I was seeking. I’d been dumped by all of my usual mean girls. I was in “recruitment” mode. I was also hobbled by botched-surgery complications, which meant crazy had to come to me because I could not go to it. It was a very productive period. I was with myself a lot.

I remember my less-dramatically-inclined friends (really, just one existed) asking why I put myself out there for the type of people who didn’t mean me any good at all. I still had Rita Mae Brown’s words bouncing around my brain but I couldn’t codify the concepts. A peaceful existence was something I may have yearned for, but how would I have I known what it was if I’d never seen it?

E.L. Konigsburg wrote in her book The View from Saturday, “How do you know excellence if you’ve never seen it?” I can not speak for anyone else, but I know my life up to a certain point only had peace as a byproduct as loneliness - the “does anyone remember I’m here” and “we’ve just moved again and no one wants to know me” varieties of loneliness. It’s take a lot to separate peace and loneliness as qualities, then to focus on the the one, peace, without lapsing into the the other, loneliness.

There have, thus far, been three distinct movements in my quest for peace. The first, as with so many firsts, was inadvertent. I lost all my party friends after getting sidelined by surgery. It may amaze you to learn this, dear reader, but healthy people don’t think much about the sick. I know, it shocked me too! No visitors, no calls, everyone had to help their cat expunge a fur ball or something. The phone and my doorbell were silent. I did try to stir up some drama but the steady intake of codeine slowed that effort considerably. I spent a year mulling over what happened and discovering the renewed joys of (l)on(e)ly childhood.

The second movement had more purpose, focus, and direction. I evaluated my needs - primarily financial and health-related - and decided I should be best friends with a doctor. Yes, I think like this, exactly this calculating if amorphous. A doctor promptly made himself available and I went with it, farther than I even intended: across the country, into a foreign land (the American South), for a very long time. I actually wanted my family, but they weren’t taking prodigals at the time, so I had to start anew. Not so peaceful on the surface, not so peaceful at all actually. But I did get the healthcare help, so there is that.

The third movement has been the hardest, I’m still stroking through the sometimes frigid waters of creating peace for myself. And it may be a little late for this, but let me share my definition of peace - it’s largely cribbed from Harriet Rubin’s book “The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women.” “Peace is: tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom, all three together.”

I seek what Rubin calls “a wild peace,” the moments between battles that is defined by them. It was such that in 2007 when I lost almost all of my friends, a vital nerve cluster in my pelvis, and that I felt so alive and so glad of it that it took over a year for the anguish to begin.

The difficulties cannot be exaggerated. The benefits of being turned inside out and scrubbed by scalpel, amnesia and isolation cannot be counted. There was eventually some measure of peace, but I remained vulnerable to trouble and troublesome people. Still I yearned for approval of the impossible variety until all the doors closed - physically closed - and I found myself on a cross-country flight reading about the necessity of a strong mind for survival in mixed martial arts. I asked myself, what is life if not a fight to the very end? I asked myself, why are you content to be weak-minded because bad shit has happened? I asked myself, “can you do better?” I asked myself, “will you do better?”

Then, I asked myself, “when?” Because tomorrow is hardly guaranteed, and in the words of a venerable old gentleman in Menlo Park, CA “they will never love you the way you need them to, so are you going to destroy yourself trying to prove you’re worthy of love they cannot give?”

He’d looked right through me and called my number. At least he fed me first.

Rita Mae Brown makes a comparison in her book between surgeons and writers. I’ve observed surgeons up close and in person for for going on 8 years now. Know what I’ve noticed? The world can fall apart around the best of them and they remain committed to the outcome of their patient.

Surgeons seek stability in their personal lives, but the work comes before almost all else. It isn’t always admirable. There are difficult decisions made to preserve professional roles that damage personal relationships, but there is a commitment to stability.

In an operating room there is a zone, a refuge between life and death where a surgeon’s heart soars and merges with all that is or ever was. There is that place for every craft, most especially for artists. But how protective are we of ourselves? How often do we fixate on the quixotic and kaleidoscopic, imagining our lives should be works of art more than what we produce? Certainly I have been a victim of that fallacy, and I watch those I love struggle to mold their voices while battling lovers, parents, and false friends. I am extracting myself slowly from these distractions. I have larger wars to wage. I prefer wild peace. And winning.

“In everyone's life, there's a need to be happy. Let the sun shine, a smile your way.” Devotion by Earth, Wind and Fire

Friday, November 26, 2010

Between the Lines by Linnea Ashley

By the time I left the US to live in South Africa in 1999, I had almost forgotten about my actual written self; the part of me that wasn’t held hostage to copy-inch space and the need for literal understanding to outstrip the slightly more opaque, but also more eloquent prose that was my own. I’d hired my words out like hookers, and like hookers I’d learned to fake the pleasure of writing – I pretended I enjoyed what others paid for instead of the freedom and pleasure of what I needed to say.

In middle school, writing became a physical addiction. I had to have my hand wrapped around a pen, a pencil, hell a piece of chalk would do. With time it intensified, tand he medium didn’t matter. I couldn’t resist marking the smeared edges of old newsprint as I scrawled in the small margins of the day’s news. My uneven chicken scratch bled into the neat rows of Times New Roman. My ball-point indented the top of a Styrofoam container at lunch. A Crayon yielded slightly into the indentions of the white wall. The need intensified with age.
The desire was never about tagging, it was never about leaving a mark. I just had to get it out. It was like some magical toxin that underwent a chemical reaction into something cathartic once released. But I had to get the words out, the feelings down, to initiate the transformation from poison to salve.

My subsequent writing years were punctuated by the orderly rituals of daily newspapers. I wrote without the flesh-driven urgency. I harnessed the poison, muzzled it, and in the process, muzzled myself. Looking back, I think I dried out my words and settled instead for the occasional sentence that almost resurrected that need, that drive, to recreate the world around me in a way that made sense, in a way that made me make sense in it. It was fleeting. That moment of clarity would blur into the next line manufactured for a paying audience.

I fled the limiting rules of newspapers and found myself in a village in South Africa dotted with concrete houses wearing tin roofs and traditional houses made from mud and thatch. A broken water pump, dull metal contrasting against the dun sand around it, stood useless just beyond the shade of the towering Marula tree reaching toward a cloudless sky.

In that village English was spoken without nuance and cultural touchstones. A second language for those who spoke it, if at all, English was a way to translate the world in literal terms – the food is good, my family well, the rains coming. There was no room or understanding for metaphors that likened the womens' daily sweeping of their compounds to South Africa’s attempts to sweep away its bloody history; no metaphors to convey the beauty of flames dancing, magically suspended under a moonless sky. I could say South Africa’s government was changing and that the countryside was beautiful. It was English, but not my English.

I had forgotten context and perspective; assumed words alone explained the why and the how, showcased the cynicism and splendor. Unwittingly I’d brought the literal rigidity of my newspaper world with me and it was inadequate to explain my new world and how I fit into it.

I scrounged for my pen and a piece of peace to write in, the need finally resurfacing after so many years. The need to convey a world bigger and more profound than simple facts could express. I wanted to hint, hide clues, but never reveal specifically because the beauty was in broad strokes that painted the greatest detail.

South Africa took the tactile urgency I’d been accustomed to once and transformed it into a different kind of need. All of a sudden it was an urgency of understanding. Sure, I might be able to tell my friends back home what I saw, but they were worlds of understanding away. So I had to write about how the jacaranda trees’ leafless limbs wore royal lavender coats, and the heartrending reality that the jagged tufts of straight hair peeking out beyond tightly coiled afro kinks on little girls’ heads were the result of lye – black wasn’t beautiful in African villages.

It didn’t take much: rural isolation and relearning everything I never knew prompted my words, my poetry, my personal lexicon to return. The process was sporadic. It was also without the ego that expected everything to stop in anticipation of an artistic revelation.

Two years later, I returned to America, where people understood me when they wanted to; where my existence – removed from the challenges of cholera and a burgeoning democracy- seemed less worthy of the ink and the energy required for me to capture a moment and paint it in words.

Everything changes. I slowly realized that life’s beauty and worth are not the exclusive possession of extremes of politics or suffering. The desire to be understood a continent away is no more profound than the need to be understood by friends, the tragedy of one person’s fight with a familiar sickness no less heartbreaking than the fight against an “exotic” one. Realizing that, I found cause to again describe the world and my place in it.

These days I continue to traverse both foreign and familiar countries. Settling long enough to get my bearings and provide commentary on the initially interesting and eventually mundane, I write for a hybrid of my original reasons. The physical addiction removed, I still have cravings. I still write from some deep-seeded need to communicate and trust that I am understood.

Uganda as my current home, I document the different-ness. Toupee chickens, bare necks accentuating the tuft of black feathers sprouting at the crown of the head like a duster combover punctuate the point. Children singing “mzungu” –foreigner - as I walk to the crowded market accentuate my feelings of otherness as paler mzungus’ glance over, past, beyond me, unrecognizing unless they hear my accent. I see it, feel it, and need to write it all down.

Small notebooks scrawled with seemingly innocuous observations line my daybag, temporary lodging for my life in whatever “here” I’m in. Experiences, revelations, and insecurities I seldom read about compel me to write to ensure that someone, somewhere understand, even if they can’t relate.

Editors Note: Read more of Linnea's travel writing at The Happy Homeless

Friday, November 5, 2010

Life Hungry Stupidity

I’ve been taking time to work and think of why I would do the wholly ignominious task of blogging about my writerly aspirations. Aren’t there better things for me to do? Yes, certainly, but every morning when I go into my closet I stare into my toolbox of writer craft books and, even just subconsciously, I am reminded there is as much science to this craft as there is art. There is so much to learn! When I read Susan Orlean or Yann Martel, I am transported, and I am always convinced that they sprang fully-formed as writers into the world.

Then I find their early work.

Often I see the glimmers and the big looping stitches that will become thought comets and tautly wrought language in the early stories. My response is always the same. “Hunh! They are human too.” Po Bronson in a closet with a head full of sandy hair is a version of the guy with silver foxiness who writes with authority on a range of topics. Neil Gaiman plying his trade as a journalist for a very long time to keep his family fed is the person who created the Stardust juggernaut, the genius beloved for Sandman’s haunting brilliance and an unprecendented Nebula award. Alice Walker had 10 books in print before she became a “name” and Toni Morrison was just a mother writing books in the wee hours of the morning before packing her children off to school and clocking in at Random House.

I look at the progression of Ms. Walker through Meridian, then The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and The Color Purple. There, I say, are the themes she kept wandering back to. Here, I say, s the leitmotif of the Mister character, but there is the science and the alchemy that makes Mister palatable and three dimensional when Grange Copeland is too exposed. Maybe it’s just perspective, which is another element of craft Ms. Walker adjusts kaleidoscopically in her books until she hit the perfect series of notes in The Color Purple.

Yann Martel’s Life of Pi rocked me to my core the very first time I read it. I was in the backwoods of a small island, surrounded by mosquito netting, lurking out back of a government hospital overrun with people in profound need. Life of Pi is a beautiful survival story and contemplation of life, and I’ve spent most of my life surviving one calamity or another. Some of us just belong to volatile times, or come from volatile people, or both. When I felt darkness begin to outweigh the buoyancy of my spirit, I would read of Piscine Patel on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger and think, “I can make it though this, whatever this is.” I could no more attest to the life of this character being fiction than I could imagine an alternative to the physical and mental pain that had defined my life since the onset of puberty. Read this passage:

My face set to a grim and determined expression. I speak in all modesty as I say this, but I discovered at that moment that I have a fierce will to live. It’s not something evident, in my experience. Some of us give up on life with only a resigned sigh. Others fight a little, then lose hope. Still others - and I am one of those - never give up. We fight and fight and fight. We fight no matter the cost of the battle, the losses we take, the improbability of success. We fight to the very end. It’s not a question of courage. it’s something constitutional, an inability to let go. It may be nothing more than life hungry stupidity.

To read that passage is to wonder what cosmic hand caressed the writer with such care and love as to make these feelings words on a page.

Then I go to an earlier collection of Martel short stories and despite feeling very game for the experience, I struggle, founder, stop, restart, and struggle more. I research Martel and his yen for seafaring, his peripatetic upbringing, his current whereabouts and writings and come to a conclusion (c’mon reader, you see this coming).

It’s as much science as art to this craft and I’m determined to learn the science, practice the art, build this craft. It’s why I stare at the toolkit daily, why I push poorly formed ideas and sentences into the mawping void of the Internet. Maybe I hope someone will read and relate, or just read, but there is real satisfaction in seeing my thoughts out there - beyond personal journals and lucid dreaming.

I do this because it pleases me; it is pleasurable work and my heart sings for the effort alone - regardless of the result.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Pleasure Principle

The best way to predict the future is to create it. ~ Peter Drucker

You know, this blog is me musing out loud on how to create the life I want. A bit of dreamlining, if you will. A lot of that involves money, but there is a backstory here. I am 31, how on Earth has it taken me such a long time to start focusing on my dreams? Long time, you say? Well, yeah, let's do a quick redux of Camille's Modern Life.

Late 1970s - My parents have a bouncing baby girl. The doctor said I was going to be a boy and I was supposed to be born two months later. Not really a preemie, just a fine-boned mother. Dad calls me "pinch-a-penny" for no readily apparent reason.

Age 3 - Pre-school. Things go swell until I follow the crowd and jump into the side of the kiddie pool one hot summer day. A spanking is swiftly delivered by the pre-school matron to my still-wet bottom. I ask her if she is crazy and get soap in my mouth for the trouble. Lesson learned: Following the crowd is anti-fun.

Age 6: My first job! Grandma lets me clean up discarded flowers and dust 45s in her record shop. I earn 50 cents an hour and spend all my cash on soda and candy for my cousins, I'm not allowed to have either treat. I reserve 10 cent for tithing at church. Work is awesome, free music and flowers are perks.

Age 8 - BookIt! enters my life. Spawns lifelong addiction to pizza and vampire novels, often at the same time. Family moves to Germany.

Age 9: Living in Europe is difficult. I go introverted and start writing poetry. A poem publishes in a compendium for U.S. students across the continent. Pretty jazzed, family is very happy. Lesson learned: I can express myself.

Age 12: Return to States to discover my peers are illiterate. Return to introversion and working for Grandparents.

Age 17: High School graduation. Mom had announced in 9th grade, "we don't have money to send you to college, so I suggest you get scholarships to get yourself there. Here's some information on a girl who earned $100,000." I read the article, decided I could do better. 4 years later, I've amassed approx. $200,000 in scholarships. I now work in a Roller Rink. There is a trend here.

College: I travel lots and write about as much. I edit the school paper. I contribute to an online magazine (in 1998 this was pretty slick). I organize some student government campaigns just to see if I can (I can). An invitation for a bag lunch draws me into journalism Copy Editing and I earn a Dow Jones Scholarship and internship at the Detroit Free Press for the summer. The Free Press gives free food from recipe samples and weekly mentor lunches. I'm hooked. Someone mentions The New York Times having the best perks and I decide I should go there next.

Another brown bag lunch is made available by the editors of the Times during a visit to campus, I show up and grab a few bags. I like to eat. We talk. They offer me a job. I think they are jerking my chain, but decide they are nice people and mosey off. I get paperwork 3 months later. Color me surprised. I graduate college having turned a tidy profit each year I was in school.

2000: I bomb. The gig at the Times goes well, but my life goes batshit crazy. Bad relationship, poor health, confusion reigns. I leave the Times and move to Indianapolis. I leave Indianapolis 8 months later, the worst winter in 20 years drives me off. I am also broke, having not worked since leaving the Times.

2001: I call up the Times and they give me another job at a smaller paper they own in San Francisco. I start negotiating salary from the pittance I'm offered up to a fair-living wage. I show up for work and my new boss/editor informs me he drove off the last woman in my position within 2 weeks. He looks at me expectantly. I look back at him. He can't be worse than Indianapolis, right? I'm a horrible employee, made worse by not understanding anything about megalomaniac managers. I devolve into sitting in my cubicle composing long letters, stories for online outlets, and flying across the country (or the Atlantic) for long weekends. I run out of sick and personal days, vacation, and seriously consider calling in dead.

2003: While recovering from emergency surgery I learn I've been fired. I'm relieved. I start an academic editing business, but can't figure out how to price my services and ultimately end up becoming a discount service. I fire myself when a functionally illiterate client refuses to pay because on the assumption I would edit her 200 page thesis for free since she was just learning to read. Having decided the gig is not for me, I focus on generating a few pages of fiction a day while collecting unemployment and wondering what I will do with my still-sickly self.

2004: A family friend says his medical practice isn't making money and asks if I can look at the books, he doesn't trust anyone else. What I find is startling, he's making plenty of money but he's giving most of it away. I write a six-page proposal for fixing the problem; he offers help me through the labyrinth that is Healthcare in America if I'll help him navigate the business of medicine. I suggest we start with Online Bill Pay.

2009: Five years, seven surgeries, and a lot of Percoset later I proceed to have a nervous breakdown.

2010: I get my hands on a copy of The Fighters Mind and read it cover to cover during a cross-country fight. I'm particularly struck by the idea that "It never always gets worse" and the amount of mental commitment Mixed Martial Arts requires. I transcribe half the book into my journal and ask myself, possibly for the first time ever, what I want out of my life and the people in it. I want to be a writer and I want to be happy and I'm tired of standing in my own way on all accounts. I declare Thursdays "writing days," and I start taking night classes at Emory. Having continued to work while hospitalized for 7 months, and while coming apart in 2009, I see no compelling reason to give it up just because I want to be more creative. I decide the company can run a little more lean and get offered partnership for my innovations. Now I'm a business owner AND an aspiring writer, life is pretty sweet. I'm 31 years old, I have scars, and finally, I have some stories.

And now, something *really* entertaining: Po Bronson in a closet!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ms. Cleo & the Pursuit of Mfappyness

I don’t see a lot of reason to go to school other than to hang out with writers I admire. I did enjoy meeting Colum McCann at Hunter and was impressed at the thought of hanging out, drinking in a pub in the Village with this GREAT WRITER. However, hanging out with great writers does not ensure one will become a great writer, that’s more private, often terrible, labor.

To whit: I have harbored Toni Morrison dreams, but I’m not at all convinced I have that much talent. I have to hack this craft with what’s on hand – nearly debilitating insecurity, strong survival instincts, a penchant for hard work and a very thick thesaurus. I dig away at the obstacles until they crumble. Or I do.

I’ve not been convinced a Masters of Fine Arts means more money for work in the Arts and no one at the Open Houses I attended had good answers to my main questions.

1. How does a writer build a career? Most careers now follow the school-training-feet on the ground and experience trajectory, is writing the same thing?
2. Is there career counseling at MFA programs or job placement?

Question #2 is probably more wishful thinking on my part than anything, but I’m a girl who loves a good plan.

Among the professions listed in post #1, there aren’t too many that require an advanced degree. In fact, most of them are undergraduate degrees at best and it’s not uncommon to find someone with a high school diploma and a little chutzpah working as a blogger, editorial assistant, copywriter, or reporter. I asked a good friend who heads an advertising firm about the necessity of an advanced degree for creative work as a copywriter.

"No MFA. Writers come from eclectic backgrounds. They are amazingly creative in their ability to make the complex simple, understand how people think, what motivates and usually vey strategic thinkers. They will do a year at Creative Circus or the Portfolio Center- schools where they can build a book of writing and ads to show they have promise."

An aside, quite a few bestselling writers came out of the ranks of advertising, one of the most popular of the moment is James Patterson (who does have a master’s degree, though I’m not sure in what). Advertising has its own hierarchy and a recent development is similar to the push to drive applications to MFA programs – Advertising professional schools such as Creative Circus charge considerable fees to help students develop a portfolio for employment.

The Difference: Ms. Cleo and the MFA

Does anyone else remember the Ms. Cleo Psychic Hotline commercials? They were hilarious and on every 20 minutes. Ms. Cleo had a crazy Jamaican accent, gave out fabulous advice that was entirely predictable using tarot cards and eye rolls.

Ms. Cleo, it was revealed, was just an actress with a shitty accent, but she did quite well for herself, I thought. And it is in her honor that I’m naming my Masters of Fine Arts the Ms. Cleo – or Fake MFA.

The Challenge

To take the $10,000 - $40,000 per year I would spend for graduate school and commit it to my development as a writer.

That’s already enough to make me a little crazy, I don’t make that much extra scrilla, but if I take time from work to write, at least one day per week, then I’m taking a pay cut and I start making some numbers.

I had to inch my way up to this project, it’s been on my mind for years, but I couldn’t see myself giving up health insurance (which I need because I have chronic health issues) or a steady paycheck (which I also need because I have chronic health issues).

My first significant step came in Spring 2010 when I had an innocuous exchange with my great-Godfather Abner. He tossed a copy of The Teaching Company’s catalogue at me, asking if I’d ever seen it. An octogenarian, he was appalled by the prices for the audio and DVD courses.

“$60 for a class?” he said, snapping and yanking his red suspenders as we sat at the kitchen table, big band jazz playing in the background of the breakfast conversation.

I was astounded. “Do you know how much this course would cost at The University of Iowa, where the instructor is an…instructor?” I thumbed the pages, scanning the course description and brimming with incredulity at the bargain – 12 hours of instruction for $60 on my iPod, accessible whenever I wanted it, what a deal!

Abner stared at me a bit, then said, “School must be expensive now.” He lives in Menlo Park, people, home to Stanford University and bungalows priced in the high six figures.

Learning to Read Like a Writer

I purchased two courses from the catalogue that day, $130 bucks very well spent as far as I was concerned, and downloaded my first course in audio form. The first two “lectures” were difficult, it’s been at least a decade since I dealt with academia. I muddled through and by the sixth lecture (I did one a day) I was feeling something akin to epiphany.

I was learning. I was learning about reading fiction and I felt as though my brain had turned on for the very first time. It was awesome!

That pretty much opened the flood gates. I’d hacked every other area of my life and failed profoundly at my attempt to go to school for writing. So, I thought, “what if I hack this writing career thing? I’m in good company riiiiight?”


Friday, September 24, 2010

How Money can Make You a Better Writer

Does anyone else approach their creative career with money in mind? I've approached every career move I've made with a threefold question, "Will I have fun, is there free food, and how much will I be paid?" This particular focus isn't popular, I've learned. It's always been difficult to have conversations with friends in the arts when I inevitably steer the conversation toward money, largely because artists are reticent to disclose how much (often how little) they are making. Yes, there is beauty in art, but there is ease in a comfortable, well-fed life.

I think of an anecdote about Colette being told her fee for writing a story was too high. She responded, and I paraphrase, that if a famous, desired writer did not charge high fees, how would a struggling writer ever get a penny for his/her work? Colette knew of what she spoke, she spent her early career ghostwriting best-selling novels for her first husband, who went on to leave her impoverished.

An excellent contemporary book on money and writers is The Secret Currency of Love, an excellent collection of essays by writers who discuss Money & Romance, Money & Family, and Money & Self. It is great read by authors across the spectrum who detail, in sometimes stunning particulars, the myriad mistakes they have made - often starting with the failure to ask how much they will be paid for work.

In fact, I'm such a stickler about my lifestyle that I never seriously entertained writing as a career choice until it was suggested I find out the top fees paid for short fiction. It never occurred to me, prior to that time, that short fiction or essay exchanged for currency any longer. I am a former journalist, I understand fees for articles; the fiction thing went right over my head. The top literary magazines - those paying for literary fiction - top out at $7,000 per story. $2500 seems to be the median with well-respected publications. Those are numbers worth paying attention to, though, and they provide inspiration for building a career as a writer.

I ask myself, where does one go with a MFA? In many fields, advanced education increases earning potential (EP). Do writing careers tend to trend differently?

Basic Career Options for MFA Grads

Here are some basic numbers and graphs regarding employment for "writers" - and the term is used broadly for comparison's sake:

Here is the average salary range as provided from
• Acquisitions Editor: $37,000 to $57,000
• Assistant Editor: $26,000 to $40,000
• Associate Editor: 33,000 to 44,000
• Blogger: $17,000 to $38,000
• Copy Editor: $21,000 to 42,000
• Copywriter: $41,000 to $63,000
• Editor: $37,000 to $54,000
• Editorial Assistant: $24,000 to $38,000
• Editor-in-Chief: $51,000 to $95,000
• E-learning Developer: $42,000 to 75,000
• Fact Checker / Researcher: $25,000 to $37,000
• Grant Writer: $35,000 to $47,000
• Junior Copywriter: $29,000 to $44,000
• Junior Technical Writer: $31,000 to $42,000
• Legal Editor: $36,000 to $45,000
• Managing Editor: $37,000 to 49,000
• Managing Editor: $40,000 to $64,000
• Medical Copy Editor: $29,000 to 44,000
• Medical Editor: $37,000 to 52,000
• News Editor: $25,000 to 35,000
• Newspaper Reporter: $24,000 to $51,000
• Online Editor: $31,000 to $50,000
• Proofreader: $29,000 to $41,000
• Proposal Writer: $41,000 to 69,000
• Public Relations Writer: $34,000 to $46,000
• Publications Assistant: $25,000 to $37,000
• Senior Copywriter: $54,000 to $80,000
• Senior Editor: $42,000 to $66,000
• Senior Technical Writer: $56,000 to $81,000
• Speech Writer: $51,000 to $73,000
• Technical Copy Editor: $36,000 to $52,000
• Technical Editor: $36,000 to $57,000
• Technical Writer: $42,000 to $63,000
• Web Editor: $22,000 to $44,000

Now we have a good idea where MFA graduates end up, next we'll look at how that compares to those with Bachelor degrees and what differences, if any, exist when a writer does not obtain an advanced degree in the Arts.

Continued in Part II

Friday, September 3, 2010

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Difference: Study Writing or Be a Writer

This blog was inspired by this post:

"WARNING: I'm a little bit buzzed right now, read at your own peril.

I got rejected from Hunter College this morning. In retaliation, I had a rum punch for breakfast, whined via text message, forgot why I was upset, ran errands, and signed up for a writing workshop. I think I may take rejection exceptionally well. Or it could be my short attention span at full mast."

That was me 5 months ago. Hunter was one of the last schools to reject me. I went on to hire an editor and to discover I was a terrible writer.

Humbling doesn't begin to cover it, but hey, it was $400 worth of Elance editing very well spent. I've thought a lot about school since then, my rash decision to apply, the editor (not from Elance) who soaked up $375 for services I have yet to understand, and I've talked to a number of MFA students who have profoundly mixed feelings about their programs.

I'm still undecided about trying a low-residency program, but leaning toward not bothering with a MFA altogether for a few distinct reasons:

1. Money. As in, I like to keep mine.

2. I majored in English undergrad and ended up a copy editor at a top newspaper, much to the surprise and chagrin of most of the journalism students. This was largely because I discussed fashion for 2 hours with an editor while sneaking a few brown bag lunches to take home since the fridge was empty. All that to say, I have pretty good people skills and I deploy them at will. I can network outside of a school program and probably get farther, faster.

3. I don't really see the point of going to a program, quitting my job, selling my assets just to go into big-time, serious, life-altering debt.

4. I can take 2 days from work to work on my craft, excluding weekends. I own a company, I hire people with brains who think just fine without my daily input.

5. Night school is more to my taste, I hate mornings and Emory University just created a Creative Writing Certificate program. I've taken my first class in the program and I love it. I'm focusing on Creative Nonfiction because I have nonfiction stories that keep interrupting or taking over my fiction. I'll get the Essays out of the way, then move on to the fiction. This actually limits MFA options as most programs do not have Creative Nonfiction concentrations, despite the popularity of the form.

6. This post from Tim Ferris, explaining how he created his Real World MBA. It worked very well for him.

This blog will be an exploration of writing for those of us not in full-time programs - whether we have not gone, we have graduated, we have dropped out, or we didn't know they existed. In the past 15 months, I was definitely in the last category.

Making a writer out of oneself isn't a new idea, quite the opposite. Iowa has the oldest program in the U.S., and it's reported to be a tough program to get in and even tougher to come out of. Writing programs are big money makers for schools - but less advantageous for participants. Last year I applied to Columbia University and during Open House the Financial Aid Director addressed tuition head on: "One year is $40,000."

I raised my hand at that point and asked for clarification, mostly because I was amused by the gasp the announcement elicited and wanted to hear it again. Columbia is a three-year program. Columbia is a lovely campus and the students who took time to speak at open house were interesting and fairly diverse, however $120,000 - 40K x 3 years - is a stiff bill. I was rejected, which meant I was only out the $120 application fee.

The major flaw in this design is that unlike other high-priced degree programs - your professional degrees in business, law, medicine - writing is almost guaranteed to result in marginal employment opportunities. A creative, determined person can and will make a good living, but it's rare to do it as a writer of one genre only. A doctor may invest 20 years and $200,000+ for a degree, but that doctor also has the opportunity to make that money back fairly quickly after medical school and residency, or work off the debt with the military or the health service.

Other programs are less expensive, but inundated with applicants. It's a recession, school is always a popular idea when jobs are scarce. Most programs are not transparent to applicants, so it's difficult to know what opportunities exist post-graduation. If you are a person who has found a niche in a creative field, moving into a writing program could be financial and professional suicide. Unlike MBA programs and other professional degrees, writing programs seldom specify where their graduates end up because it's not a well-defined industry.

It is my goal to see if a person can build a writing career outside of a MFA program. There is nothing in me that wants to be an impoverished student. I like my lifestyle, but want to increase my personal satisfaction and intellectual engagement in the world around me. I'm putting my money and my time where my heart is: into the writing. A little structure never hurt anyone, so I'm going to build my own learning lab for the writing career I would like to have. I invite others to go on this journey with me, we can be the class of 2013.

Writing into the night...