Tagged with josip novakovich

“Girls”: The Story behind the Story

I think “Girls” will win the prize for the longest gestation period of any story I’ve ever written. The opening sentence is exactly as I wrote it in 1984 as part of my autobiography for Mr Caravello’s sophomore English class. Mr NewImageCaravello liked that so much he had me read it out loud to the class.

I’ve toyed with ideas of what to do with that sentence since then. I tried submitting it on its own as a bit of microfiction and it achieved my first tiered rejection from Fence. I tried turning this voice into a young adult novel, but wasn’t able to make it through the first chapter. 

So I decided to return to the original autobiography. In that piece, the first “chapter” was an absurdist bit about a tractor accident in the farm in my family’s backyard and then I decided that as a dateless sophomore, I would recount my most humiliating rejections. I took as much of that as I could remember and rewrote it and began interpolating some additional nerdy stuff (the π section came to me one morning in the shower as I was thinking about the piece). Not all of the piece is autobiography, but enough is to make it recognizable to a few people. In one instance, I sent the story to a writer friend to get her feedback forgetting that she was one of the girls in the story. Oops.

The piece has a long history of close-but-not-quite responses from various publications, the most notable of which was from The Atlantic (perhaps my most treasured rejection). It was actually accepted by another publication earlier this year, but they wanted edits that I couldn’t agree with including moving the opening sentence away from the opening and rearranging things so that the π section was no longer section 3 which misses half the joke.

Useful feedback along the way came from Josip Novakovich, Resa Alboher, Kerri Allen, Travis Kiger, Kevin McFadden and Benjamin Tier.

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Final residency—Days 1 and 2

Day 1

In a near-replay of last January’s travel difficulties, I arrived at the hotel at 4a. Despite a mere three hours of sleep, I managed to make it to the opening session on time and even have a bit of prep time in the morning.

After the initial orientation, we had a breakdown by cohort with those of us in our final residency learning about life after the MFA from Erica Dawson and Jessica Anthony. 

Our first seminar of the day was David Kirby talking about book reviewing. He views this as a great opportunity for writers since, “Nobody wants to do book reviews.” He advises using clips of previous reviews as a means to work your way up the food chain from indie publications to paid reviewing. The latter doesn’t necessarily pay a lot, but $350–600 for a review is typical.

David Kirby

He went on to look at structural aspects of book reviews using a few reviews he had written for The New York Times and The Washington Post to illustrate his points.

The reading for the day took place early and featured Kirby and his wife Barbara Hamby each reading from their poetry.

We then adjourned to the hotel for the pool party and barbecue. There was a threat of lightning storms so the barbecue ended up being burgers and hot dogs served from steam trays in the hotel ballroom. The rain held off so we ended up mostly standing around near the pool although some of our number had brought their suits and actually entered the pool.

Day 2

Kevin Moffet

The day opened with a genre workshop from Josip Novakovich. Those of us in our final term had some open time while the others had their small group workshops. 

After lunch, Barbara Hamby talked about writing across genres, although like so many people, the question of how do you know whether something is a poem or a story was not really answered satisfactorily.

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We then had the first round of graduate student readings (I’m on tomorrow), some mighty fine stuff there.

The evening readings were Kevin Moffett and Tony D’Souza. Kevin had a reading consisting of three monologues from The Silent History and he employed MFA students Kat Grilli and Benjamin Tier to perform two of them. Their theatrics actually made for some of the better readings and I look forward to hearing them read their own work later in the residency.

Tony read from an article he recently published about his last trip to Côte d’Ivoire.

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Residency day 7

The pacing of the residency is such that it kind of feels like it’s all coasting from here on. The morning seminar was “Anthology” with Denis Johnson in which we contributed poems that made us want to be a writer. I, being a fiction person, lied and chose “These Poems, She Said” by Robert Bringhurst. If I were honest I would have chosen T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” but someone else picked it so all was good.

Workshop was dedicated to new five-page stories that we brought in. I managed to get a new piece finished last night before going to sleep, but it will apparently come up tomorrow.

The first afternoon seminar slot was dedicated to book arts in which we did a simple pamphlet stitch. Having studied bookbinding back in the 90s, it as a bit unexciting for me. This was followed by Josip Novakovich talking about creating stories out of anecdotes, something which had some resonance later during the question and answer session after Denis Johnson’s reading.

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Residency day 5

The mid-point of the residency and the traditional morning-time reading and writing period. I got a bunch of work done including some work on the novel. After lunch we had first synthesis (it was interesting to see someone else’s take on the time). Interestingly, it seemed that most of the synthesis groups finished up early. If I recall correctly, we used the full time last year.

The lone seminar of the day was Pedagogy I, the first of three pedagogy seminars led by Heather Sellers. There was a wealth of good information in the seminar. My big takeaway was the idea of having colleagues review syllabi and lesson plans, something that I rather wish I had done something along these lines back when I was teaching.

Evening readings were Josip Novakovich and Terese Svoboda.

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Residency day 7

We began the day with Josip Novakovich’s talk on negative motivation in fiction. Again, the large size of the group tended to work against it being a proper seminar. I’m also seeing Josip being fond of using exercises as part of his writing instruction. For me the problem is that these sorts of exercises address problems that I don’t have. Beginning a story is an easy thing for me. I have notebooks full of wonderful opening lines, paragraphs, even pages. The trick is being able to bring this to a complete work. I wonder how there could be an in-class exercise in things like conclusions or revisions.

In the afternoon workshop, we had another large group for the genre workshop. I found the analyses we did of openings to be in some ways helpful, although was a bit embarrassed by the fact that I was familiar with 3/4 of the pieces including the relatively obscure Heliodorus piece.

The afternoon seminar was ”Print Matters” where we visited the University of Tampa Book Arts studio. I mostly spent time with the Intertype operator, and had the opportunity to actually do a bit of keyboarding work on the Intertype. The keyboard of that is a fussier object than I had imagined and it takes a light touch to keep from deploying multiple mats with each keystroke.

The evening reading was Jeff Parker and Arthur Flowers. Parker was the sacrificial lamb who had to be part of a reading with Flowers whose reading was as much performance as reading, with no printed manuscript to work from. Instead, he told/preached/sang his stories. One African-American girl in the audience asked where he got what he did from, and I kept thinking, girl, don’t you go to church? Flowers didn’t acknowledge it, and it might be a case of parallel development of traditions, but what he was doing felt very much a part of the African-American preaching tradition, even if he substituted Yoruba words for the usually Christian terminology.

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Residency day 6

Today began with a seminar by Peter Meinke which seemed to have been better-planned for a small group of poets than the entire student body courtesy of a last-minute cancellation of the opposing talk on experimental fiction. Meinke’s views on poetry are a bit opposed to mine. I stand more with Charles Bernstein, who wrote in “Against National Poetry Month as Such”:

The path taken by the Academy’s National Poetry Month, and by such foundations as Lannan and the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest, have been misguided because these organizations have decided to promote no poetry but the idea of poetry, nd the idea of poetry too often has meant almost no poetry at all. Time and time again we hear the official spokespersons tell us they want to support projects that give speedy and efficient access to poetry and that the biggest obstacle to this access is, indeed, poetry, which may not provide the kind of easy reading required by such mandates.

The solution: find poetry that most closely resembles the fast and easy reading experiences of most Americans under the slogans—Away with Difficulty! Make Poetry Palatable for the People! I think particularly of the five-year plan launched under the waving banners of Disguise the Acid Taste of the Aesthetic with NutriSweet Coating, which emphasized producing poetry in short sound bites, with MTV-type images to accompany them, so the People will not even know they are getting poetry.

The afternoon workshop was the “wildcard workshop” which gave us an opportunity to spend some time in an intimate setting with a different faculty member than was our usual mentor. I chose Maile Chapman, largely because of how much I was intrigued by her narrative point of view choices in Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto. I’m not entirely sure what brought the other eleven students, but the size of the group implied that somewhere, there were one or more mentors with empty or nearly-empty rooms.

The afternoon seminar was Arthur Flowers, speaking largely about Zora Neale Hurston in something that was half lecture half performance. There was a great deal of energy about it and I look forward to hearing his reading tomorrow.

The evening’s readings came from Josip Novakovich and Don Morrill, but since I’m writing this well past my bed-time, I’ll say little more than intrigued readers should read their books rather than the summaries of a weary grad student.

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