Guest post, Sara Schaff: The Age of Success

My first book came out in the fall, which still feels miraculous to me. The stories took years to write and years to find a home for. Holding the actual book in my hands for the first time, I felt moved by the lovely cover and by the physical presence of words I had labored over in my thirties—which, by then, were almost over.

Next month I’m turning 40, a number that used to seem distant and possible to avoid. As my stepfather likes to remind me, when he turned 40, I made a giant banner that read “Over the Hill” and hung it on the wall as a snide happy birthday greeting. (I was thirteen at the time and probably more concerned with the fact that he was my stepfather than I was with his age, but whatever, he’s right: 40 looked ancient.) Alice Munro was 37 when she published her first book. Toni Morrison was 39. George Eliot 40. As a beginning writer I’d read the bios of brilliant, “late-blooming” writers and feel inspired. But also terrified: I couldn’t imagine waiting that long to find literary success.

When I began graduate school in creative writing almost a decade ago, I considered it reasonable to assume that my two years there would soon lead to the vision I had of “success”, which included not just a published book but tenure-track job and “a viable writing career.” To some of the twenty-somethings in my program, I probably already seemed old at thirty, but forty still seemed so far away. Of course I would publish a book before I was anywhere near forty!

One thing I couldn’t have known is how in my thirties the whole nature of time would change. Days and years used to feel full and incremental and possible to keep track of. Starting in grad school everything began to hurtle past.

Yet somehow the writing continued slowly. Mostly while I was working full time. And though sometimes the slow writing was painful, often it was the opposite: every word I made time for reinforced for me the joy of making art. Every sentence contained the promise of a magic trick—plucking something from my head and making it live on the page.

I’d like to believe that writing while working made me a better writer—or at least a writer who can usually find a few minutes to write, because sometimes that’s all there is. In grad school, I adored listening to professional writers talk about their schedules: the coffee in the hand, the butt in the chair for the hours of 8-to 5, or 9-2 while the kids are at school. It felt like a dreamy formula: caffeine + hours + story = bestselling/award-winning novel. For the majority of us who are working office jobs, or teaching, or taking care of tiny children, that kind of schedule is a luxury, not a mathematical proof.

Sometimes you have to write at work in secret. (I did some of my happiest writing in an office cubicle.) Sometimes you write only while the kid is sleeping or doesn’t realize you’ve slipped upstairs for some writing time but is about to realize it, so better write that sentence real damn quick. Sometimes you have to write late at night when the house is a mess. Sometimes early in the morning. (But never at 4am. Writers who get up that early are masochists and no wonder: they’re totally sleep-deprived!) If you want be a successful writer and you’re neither independently wealthy nor supported by a large advance for your Great American Novel, be flexible. Be kind to yourself. But don’t forget to write.

For me, the idea of success continues to be a moving target. I’ll never win any award for youthful brilliance. Probably not even for brilliance of the “over the hill” variety. My forties might slip by faster even than my thirties. But throughout the next decade I’ll be writing—ten minutes here, an hour there. My second book will come together slowly, and sometimes I will doubt whether it will come together at all. Every minute and every word along the way will be a small gift to myself. And, eventually, I hope to someone else.

Guest Post, Charlotte Holmes: Post-partum Depression and the Terminal Degree

Graduation CapI want to use the opportunity of this blog post to discuss something I’ve observed often in my thirty years of teaching creative writing, most of it in an MFA program. Going into graduate school, a person often thinks this will be the real trial: Do I have what it takes to shine? Will I make it through? The real test comes after, when you don’t have weekly workshops to keep you productive, when you don’t have a circle of friends and competitors clamoring to see your next opus, when you discover that the writers on faculty who supported you so diligently now have a new crop of students to support, and that, frankly, (almost) no one gives a rat’s ass whether or not you write another beautifully nuanced poem or story or lyric essay.

The plummet that many MFA graduates experience begins gradually. You’ve got that degree in hand! You finished your thesis! You’ve worked damned hard for two (or three) years. Now you want just to chill for a couple weeks, stretch your head, shake your fingers and ponder what next while you look for a job or begin your next adventure. About three months in, you begin to notice that either you aren’t writing, or what you’re writing would not past muster in the rigorous workshops you so recently attended. After another couple of months of this, the panic and depression set in. You’ve lost your mojo. Who knows if you’ll ever get it back?

The more you worry, the worse the writing/not writing becomes. You remember every hesitation your thesis adviser expressed about your work. You remember the rejections that have piled up—sure, at the same rate they were piling up when you were in graduate school, but wasn’t the degree supposed to change all that? You remember the criticism leveled at your story/poem/essay by someone who—you’ve just now heard—has published a piece in a prestigious venue, or—worse yet!—had their thesis accepted for publication, which everyone knows almost never happens.

I’ve noticed that this state befalls younger MFA graduates especially, the people who go straight from an undergraduate program into graduate school. Often, it’s as undergraduates that the possibility that one is a writer begins to take shape. Maybe you’ve never shown your poems to anyone, and suddenly, you take a creative writing class and everyone is praising your work in a way you never dreamed would happen. Or the work isn’t praised, but you’ve a passion that helps you withstand the blistering criticism. However the experience plays out, you find a way into an MFA program to continue your growth as a writer, and immerse yourself anew. By the time you finish your MFA at 24 or 25, you’ve had a good four to six years of uninterrupted fostering.  And then, suddenly, it’s gone.

People who’ve been out in the world a few years before going back to school to pursue an MFA have already experienced the world’s utter disregard of, and investment in, their writing. Many of them have written in solitude and obscurity for the middle part of their twenties, so when they get to graduate school they’re a little stunned that their work suddenly gets so much attention. Which is not to say that the older MFA graduate is exempt from post-partum depression. Sometimes it’s worse. They know how this isolation feels, they’ve been there before, and now—despite the hard work, the degree—they’re back again. Maybe they’re working the same jobs they were working before they went to grad school. Talk about depressing! What’s a writer to do?

The first thing is to prepare yourself. The terminal degree plummet is very like post-partum depression. If you know such a thing exists, when you wake up at 3 a.m. with a screaming, inconsolable baby on your hands and have thoughts of throwing him out the window, you can take a step back, recognize what you’re feeling, and deal with the situation like a reasonable human being. You are not the only one who feels this way. People have felt this way before and survived. This, too shall pass. Good mantras to cultivate.

Part of that preparation is to cultivate, over the time you’re in your degree program, a close circle of people whose work you admire and whose opinions you respect. These people will not include your teachers. Though you might have looked primarily to your teachers for guidance, they have now (it’s been three months, remember? The new semester’s already started!) turned to their next batch of students. Now, you have your peer group. And though one of you may be in Frankfurt and the other in L.A., the miracle of technology allows you to form an online community that will get you through the darkest of these days.

This peer group will also be a lifeline as you struggle to meet like-minded people in the place you find yourself after graduation. I’ve known former students who, after moving to the city where they’ve always dreamed of living, discover that meeting other writers to hang out with and show their work to is not always an instant process. Writers tend to be solitary folk. Sometimes, it takes a while before you meet the person who introduces you to her cohort of friends that includes a couple people who become your life-raft, because they get you and your work in a way that nobody ever has.

In my first year of graduate school, my teacher Charles Wright told our workshop, “Many are called. Few are chosen.” Does anyone ever believe he or she will not be among the chosen? But over time, most people—surprising people, including some of the most talented, the ones who seem the most driven, the luckiest ones—will go on to pursue different kinds of lives. As Katherine Anne Porter said, “Writing is, above all, a vocation. No one’s a writer ‘on the side.’” But for those of you who stay together in your close, narrowing circle of supporters, reading and commenting on each other’s work that may not see publication for years or at all, reading and commenting on work that will win prizes and awards and fellowships, you will ideally come to understand that what matters is the work itself—and that you’re doing it, and doing it to the best of your ability, and can’t conceive of a life without it.

Past Intern Updates: Eric Hawkins

Eric HawkinsEric Hawkins from Issues 2 and 3 is in the process of applying to graduate programs. He shares with us these words:

When I graduated three years ago, I was unsure of what the future would hold for me professionally and academically. A degree in English carries with it few obvious career paths, especially for someone like me whose focus was in poetry. All I knew for sure was that I wanted to be involved with literature as much as possible. I sought advice from one of my professors, who recommended I take at least a year before enrolling in graduate school to explore possible career paths and see if anything spoke to me.

My overwhelmingly-positive experience with Superstition Review led me to the world of publishing. I moved to New York City and set about applying at publishing houses, magazines, and advertising agencies. I eventually landed an internship with a literary agency, where my job was reading and evaluating manuscripts from writers seeking representation. It was enjoyable and interesting work, but it was temporary (not to mention unpaid) so before long I had to move on.

It is no secret that the job market is tough across the board, but print media has been hit especially hard. I had no illusions that finding a great job in the hyper-competitive environment of New York would be easy, but I was still stunned at just how grueling the process was.

Ultimately I came to the realization that I was going to have to fight very hard to build any kind of career that would satisfy my passions, and I decided that a job in publishing was not something I wanted badly enough to justify the struggle. With that in mind, I left New York to further develop my poetry and determine my priorities. Since then I have been writing extensively, and have even had a few poems published.

When I think back to my favorite parts of studying English at Arizona State, the thing that stands out the most are the poetry workshops. I love discussing the thematic and technical complexities of poems, and those sessions really helped me overcome my shyness with regards to my own work. These fond memories led me to realize that I wanted to be a teacher, and toward that end I have decided to go for my Master’s degree.

Even though I find myself now in the same position as if I had gone straight from ASU to grad school, I will always be grateful to that professor who advised me to wait. Would I give the same advice to someone else in my former situation? That would depend on how clear of an idea they had about their future. Coming out of college I had only vague notions and scattered ambitions, and these past three years outside of an academic environment have taught me a lot about myself as a person and a writer. Most importantly I now have complete confidence that teaching is what I am meant to do, and it is worth the struggle.

Meet the Review Crew I

Content Coordinator for Poetry and Nonfiction: Ashley Maul

Once, she was asked to list five books she’d bring with her on a deserted island and without fail her answer remains: Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireThe Scarlet Letter, a collection of Allen Ginsberg’s poetry, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Billy Collin’s The Trouble with Poetry. Her favorite reading reflects her own writing style – a combination of youthful fancy and shenanigans mixed with sarcasm and adult confession.

Like many students so close to graduation, she is unsure of where the future will take her, but she is very interested in the publishing industry and imagines a career that allows her to telecommute as an editor for a posh literary magazine or book publishing company. With a history in bookstore management and an avid thirst for reading and writing, there is little she can imagine that can combine her interests so perfectly.

Art Editor Arjun Chopra

Arjun started working with Superstition Review over the past summer as a guest contributor with his blog series, “Dispatches From Delhi.” Despite being relatively new to the world of editing/publishing, Arjun finds his position intellectually stimulating and instrumental in giving him his first glimpse into the actual working side of writing. He finds his work to be a comprehensive learning experience in meshing creativity with professionalism, an invaluable skill of those who strive to make a living through their writing, a skill he is glad to have the chance to practice.

When not in class, doing homework, or compiling graduate application materials, Arjun enjoys spending his free time reading novels and poetry collections, writing, watching movies, skateboarding, and listening to a wide variety of different music.

Advertising Editor Brooke Passey

Along with her reading load for class, Brooke tries to read one recreational book a week. To stay motivated she posts weekly book reviews on her blog brookepassey.wordpress.com. She also loves horseback riding and spends her spare time training and teaching riding lessons. In the 15 years that she has been riding she has only fallen off a horse once—when she was reading a book while sitting on her horse bareback. Although she loves both hobbies she has since decided to keep them separate. After graduation she plans on pursuing a career where she can use her writing skills during the day and her riding skills in the evening.

Fiction Editor Abbey Maddix

Superstition Review is Abbey’s first experience working with a literary magazine and hopefully the first stepping stone to a career in the editing and publishing world. She finds the position demanding but educational, particularly informative when it comes to thinking about her own future career as a writer. Her work centers on fiction of all forms, exploring genres and forms and her own limitations. She enjoys pushing the boundaries of her comfort zone and enjoys exploring the question “What does it mean to be human?” from both a literary angle and a scientific one.

On Abbey’s “favorites” bookshelf there are the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, Italo Calvino, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although she’d like to expand her experience with contemporary literature. Although she has a difficult time understanding poetry, the works of Pablo Neruda and Tomas Tranströmer have managed to win her over.

Guest Post, Tyler Sage: On Being a Western Writer

I once sat in on a poetry workshop with the Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott. I am not a poet, but he had agreed to come to my graduate school after a reading and I wanted to hear what he had to say. I snuck in and took a seat at the table, hoping that I wouldn’t be noticed. When Walcott entered, he took his seat, looked over the assembled poets, looked back again at me, and asked “What’s Woody Harrelson doing here?” (This is a remark I’ve gotten many times, although never from someone with a Nobel.)

When the chuckling around the table subsided, he let his smile fade too, took up the stack of poems, gazed at them for a moment, and then set about lambasting the assembled poets. He insisted that writing is a relationship with power; that it is a relationship that cannot be conducted in any serious way from inside the dominant center. Writing, he said, must be conducted “from the provinces.” According to Walcott, every young poet in the room was writing as if he or she was (or wanted to be) in “New York City, looking out at the rest of us.” He meant New York City literally, I think, but also metaphorically, as a kind of mental space in which artistic insiders, by virtue of being on the inside, come to be allied with the centers of cultural power and the dominant narrative. According to Walcott, this was an inexcusable artistic mistake.

The relationship with the center of power is one that (whether or not we agree with Walcott on the particulars) bears directly on writing about the American West. Like many people from the region, I grew up with a host of “Western” narratives and beliefs. I was raised in the great outdoors, fishing and backpacking, and I imbibed a heavy dose of frontier mythology – cowboys and gunfighters, Indians, pioneers, mountain men, pulp novels and Western movies. This is classic provincial stuff – the kind of heritage that, at a college back East, or a cocktail party on the Upper East Side, is often treated with a solicitous condescension. As Marilynne Robinson has noted, when she tells Eastern folks that she is from Idaho, one common response is “Then how can you write a book?” And yet it is also this province which has given the nation what is perhaps our deepest cultural myth: the self-reliant pioneer, the immigrant moving west to find land and freedom, the illimitable expansion of possibility, our Edenic vision of our nation.

In Walcott’s terms, then, the West is caught in a kind of paradox: it has the status of a province, and yet its myth has been enshrined as the national dream. Being a Western writer ties you unavoidably to this paradox. You are a provincial, a writer who will always, like it or not, operate from outside the center of power; but it is exactly towards this province’s myth of the radical individual that the American center has always wanted to feel it is moving.

An it is indeed a myth. We should all know by now. Beautiful and destructive, hopeful and violently acquisitive, forced relentlessly onto us by a culture that adores power and spectacle and self-help mantras, and yet with little regard for truth, either historical or human. Post-colonial writers like Walcott have always been viscerally aware of the effects of this, because they come from places that have born the brunt of its damage. I wonder if it’s time for more Western writers to engage with this awareness.

Meet the Review Crew: Evan Lopez

Evan Lopez is currently a sophomore at Arizona State University pursuing a degree in English Creative Writing with a concentration in Fiction. As a content coordinator at Superstition Review he is responsible for overseeing submissions in fiction and art, as well as copy editing, proofing past issues, inputting new content, and more. He’s hoping to use the experience he gains at the magazine to help him as he pursues a career in publishing.

Born and raised in Southern California, he hopes to attend graduate school abroad or on the east coast where he will be able to experience new people and places while furthering his education. In his free time, he enjoys dabbling in songwriting and music production. He has always admired all genres of music and the way that musicians use language in beautifully unexpected ways. He hopes to be able to incorporate his love of music into his future studies and career.

Growing up, he had always wanted to be a writer and was inspired by the work of Ayn Rand, J.K. Rowling, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, Richard Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut. Eventually, he hopes to publish his work and inspire and connect with readers in the same way that he was inspired by his favorite authors.

Meet the Review Crew: Ofure Ikharebha

Ofure Ikharebha is a social networking intern pursuing a degree in Linguistics with a concentration in English, and a certificate in TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages). Upon graduating, she hopes to either attend graduate school for a master’s degree or jump into a career in publishing, editing, or localization.

Ofure was born on the West Coast, but Phoenix is where she has spent the majority of her time growing up. As a child, she was always an avid reader and developed a burgeoning interest in literature and language; Ofure believes that this is all due in part to her parents having used “Hooked on Phonics” and an interactive alphabet desk. Oh, to be a child of the ’90s…

While many might find the “classics” boring, they are Ofure’s literature of choice. This interest was first cultivated in middle school after reading various works by John Steinbeck, George Orwell, and Ray Bradbury. (You’d actually be hard-pressed to find her admitting her deep appreciation for old school sci-fi.) Aside from reading, she also enjoys embarking on creative projects, studying languages, watching a wide variety of television shows (from Asian dramas to Breaking Bad), and blogging.

Ofure applied to SR out of necessity and curiosity; while the extrinsic values of gaining more internship experience within a desired field are important, she is most excited about working with a team to organize a literary magazine issue and the publishing process. With her internship at Superstition Review, she hopes to help develop and maintain an active social media presence and put her years of extensive social networking use to good work.

One of Ofure’s favorite poems is John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s “High Flight”:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.