gradschool, the academy, workstyle, writing

“Are you getting somewhere…

or did you get lost in Amsterdam?”
– Guster

I have been mounting a lot of defenses of creative writing programs lately. It’s come up when talking to Harvard lawyers, to Hopkins grad students, even to complete strangers. May and June of 2010 seems to be defend-your-workshop season.

My favorite strategy, hitherto only used in my head, is the one where I quote song lyrics as if they mean something. “As Ray LaMontagne writes in ‘Hannah,’ ‘I lost all of my vanity when I peered into the pool,’ which I think we can use as a metaphor for the workshop process.’ ” Like that. I’ve started to view everything as a potential defense for creative writing programs, since every occasion becomes an occasion for defending them.

I’ve thought of putting one up here, or writing a kind of point-by-point rebuttal to all the questions I’ve gotten since doing a year at this program, as well as to the objections made in print. It seems like it might be of interest. What might be of more interest would be a bad satirical defense of creative writing programs, in the manner of the “Dr. Grant Swinger” character, invented by Daniel S. Greenberg*, from the mythical Institute for the Appropriation of Federal Funds. Perhaps both.

“SWINGER: …Actually, our people have an advantage. They aren’t torn between research and teaching. They’ve resolved that conflict.
SWINGER: By doing neither.”
– from a mock interview in the 2002 Science

Not right now, though. I’m going to go for a walk, as I have for the last five days running. First thing in the morning, before trying to get any work done. Blogging beforehand is cheating, a bit. But rules were made to be bent.

* Heard about Greenberg & Swinger from this NYT review of Greenberg’s new campus satire, “Tech Transfer,” in which Nicholas Wade writes:

“…“Tech Transfer” is the world of Dr. Swinger writ large, populated by scientific entrepreneurs who have learned how to absorb federal funds, suppress charges of malfeasance and live high off the hog. When Dr. Winner assumes the presidency of Kershaw University, he learns the folly of challenging the tenured faculty on any of their sacrosanct, non-negotiable issues:

“These included annual pay increases, lax to near-non-existent conflict-of-interest and conflict-of-commitment regulations, and ample pools of powerless grad students, postdocs and adjuncts to minimize professorial workloads. As a safety net, the faculty favored disciplinary procedures that virtually assured acquittal of members accused of abusing subordinates, seducing students, committing plagiarism, fabricating data, or violating the one-day-a-week limit on money-making outside dealings.”

workstyle, writing


Last semester, when trying to revise my portfolio, I did something kind of bonkers; I opened ten little Stickies on my desktop and put one poem in each one. This allowed me to see all the poems at the same time, and as I thought of lines or ideas, move from one to the next.

It seems like a kind of death by multitasking, but I have been doing a similar mass revision today, and it works, I think, better than you would expect. I guess this is a sort of workflow self-hack. I am, always have been, easily distracted. If the distraction can be another form of what needs to get done, all the better.

But I think this technique has, also, to do with my desire to see the bigger picture of the story. If I can persuade myself that the details that need to get cut out of Poem X can go into Poem Y, I have less trouble cutting them.

Things I have done this weekend that were not related to work included reading back issues of Horse and Hound, online. “Research.”

theater, workstyle, writing

never have I ever

directed a play…

I am going through three boxes of scary files that have not been sorted. I bought something that looks like an able seaman’s chest, or some Western debutante’s Trunk, off the street where I live, and am filling it with properly alphabetized production documents. This is only reminding me of my age. I didn’t remember that I did the choreography for Don Giovanni…or AD’d a production of Frankenstein (the classical music version)…or…so many things.

I’ve been doing this for ten years, after all. Ten years. L once told me I needed to make a list of every production I’d ever done, because otherwise I would forget. I thought that was absurd. How can you forget something that takes so much work? But she was right.

Seeing these old files is like seeing a slide show of my past. Or reading a biography of someone whose work I like, but who I don’t know that well. The things I have done are now so far away that they seem detached from me. AVW and BH might as well have been directed by another person. I know I did it, but I don’t know how I did it! And I don’t know if I could do it again!

Also, I found a file of my old Stanford papers, one of which is about Bovary, and uses the word “Epist-Emma-Ology” in the title. Ha ha.

My writing, when I was in school, was insufferably arrogant. I don’t know that my writing has changed that much since then, or my ego, but I will say that reading these papers, written before I had learned how to spell “humility,” let alone possess it, makes me laugh. Some of the writing is awful. Some is okay. But all the papers, well written or not, are confident to the point of exploding.

criticism, poetry, workstyle


I actually have a post to share, for once, about “workstyle,” the subject this blog is supposed to be about.

There is something different about being in the library this time, as opposed to when I used to be there at Stanford. I used to feel that every second I spent in the library was a second deprived from the more important work of making my theories live and breathe on the stage. My time was a zero-sum game and theater was the dying person, or the baby, to whom you cannot possibly give enough attention. Really, none of these metaphors are appropriate. I felt, always have, that I had a purpose with regards to the chorus which was not mine to disregard. A vocation. A command.

Except, now, I have, of course, given it so much – and I am free to read poetry criticism for a few hours without being struck by lightning. I think I was afraid, on this return to grad school, that I wouldn’t be able to focus, just like I couldn’t in undergrad – and that, three hours after walking onto the Hopkins campus for the first time, I’d be starting rehearsals for something.

Well, not yet, at least. I read for a long time, and I experienced that feeling which I have heard scholars talk about, but never, actually, known – the sense that theorizing might be more important than praxis. I found myself skipping past the poems to read the criticism. (Eep.) There was fun stuff – like actor headshots being metonymy for the person. The kind of observation that has no application to your life or work, but is so clever. (I don’t have the citation for that, I’ll get it.)

Creepy, huh?

workstyle, writing

settling in for the night

Two expatriate Californians, two MacBooks, two hopeless tasks. I am at B’s house on Addison writing the scene that never gets written till Friday night, trying to write it sooner by being at B’s house. B is trying to apply for a job, and thinks me being here will help. We’ll see about that.

Sitting in one armchair with my feet on the other makes me remember nights – multiple – sleeping in this arrangement, last year. That must have been at someone’s house, working on some play, but I don’t know which one.

B stacks piles of job applications across the coffee table. I blog.

workstyle, writing

let’s get it started

I am revising a scene for my playwriting class this morning. I’ve woken up so early every day this week to help C move that I’m used to not sleeping, and have become more productive. She is staying here tonight, waiting to finally move in. I’ve had or been a houseguest every night this week. It’s been fun.

C was telling me about her brother, the short story writer, who rises super-early each day to write before his 9-5. I like the hour of the day for writing myself. I just never know, when I go to bed, if I will manage to get up. I think having her in the house helps. It’s more exciting to get up and start another day if there’s someone else to start it with.

Speaking of starting, this is my third attempt to write the first scene of the play. I do think each one gets better, but for my sake as well as the play’s, it would be nice to have a second scene some day.

workstyle, writing

now approaching

I have been riding a lot of trains lately, for job interviews. Chicago is linked by many, many train lines – not just the rainbow of the El but also the less-colorful veins of the Metra. And I find whenever I am on an above-ground train, I write. Below-ground trains make me want to go find the Minotaur, or fall asleep, but if I can see the sky, I can think of things to say. I sit as high up as I can, always in the second story of the Metra, and write and watch.

I like writing on trains so much that I almost, but not quite, accepted a job last week with an enormous multi-train commute package. It was a little excessive. But I do think I would get more writing done.


it’s not selling out, it’s selling in.

Last night, for a job interview, I ironed a shirt for the first time in four years. I even ran the iron over each interlocking pleat, like separating seaweed out from water and straightening it, one strand at a time. It was peaceful and ominous.

The shirt is part of a program of wearing businessable attire every weekday between 9 and 5, even if what I have to do is just sit at my computer and write. It’s supposed to help me have separation between my work and my personal life – difficult when you can work at any time, in any attire. It’s been very effective.

And the interview is part of a program of making a more stable life for myself than can be afforded through freelance grantwriting, exclusively – and anything with the word “freelance” on it – assistant directing, you name it.

These are good things, and necessary, and perhaps a little overdue for someone about to be 27 in a couple weeks. But on the way home from said interview, I heard The Chariot, by Cat Empire, in my ears: “we never yield / to conformity.” For a glorious moment, I leaned against the side of a building on Rockwell and pretended I had a plane to catch, a show to do, an all-nighter to pull, a tech to run. I felt a spasm of defiance, like someone shaking me by my spine. I wanted to run, as fast as I could, away from anything that takes place in an office.

And I walked home, calmly and concisely, still wearing the ironed shirt.

I am reminded of an interview I had with a female director some months ago, who gave me this advice: Align (or ally?) yourself with institutions. It was advice spoken of honesty and experience, from the point of view of someone who had tried to live as a freelancer and also within the structure of a theater, who successfully had a child, a relationship, and a career in the arts. It was wise. I’m trying to take it.

To this end, I continue to try to self-institutionalize, for my own safety and security. But who wouldn’t sometimes hear that music and wish they could still be as young and stupid as they, perhaps, still are?

(For the record, I am blogging on my self-imposed “lunch break.”)

art, workstyle

making things harder

Yesterday, I had one of those false revelations, distilled out of ignoring problems, that seems to clarify everything: the most important thing to do with your talents is not what is hardest for you, but what is easiest and most natural.

For a short time, this answered all my questions. A few hours later, it clarified nothing, but today, it still seems true.

Challenge is good, but to challenge yourself to the extent of consciously ignoring the work at which you’re most talented is perverse. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? It has never been, for me, and this formula is the opposite of how I’ve worked for a long time.

I frequently make a point of avoiding the easiest and most natural areas of art in which I can work, and have pursued other artistic objectives, not exclusively – but partially – because they are difficult to the point of being impossible.

I have other friends who work in this way, too – deliberately against their own strengths. Although we all spend a lot of time half miserable over it, I respect them. I have the same condition. I know it comes from a desire to have no shortcuts, no favors, no lucky breaks – but to win whatever artistic achievement you can through nothing but cutting through granite with a plastic spoon.

You know that line in the Mary Chapin Carpenter song, “Everything we got, we got the hard way…” ?

Sometimes I wonder if we will ever settle ourselves down to doing the things at which we are best. Trying to do so is the next step. We are all getting too old to keep working on the rock.