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On writing residencies, with a stop at American Short Fiction

Wednesday 8/24/22

I saw something on Facebook two or three weeks ago, that I thought I'd mention on here, because it was instructive or could become instructive in these pages. There was a post by a woman who billed herself as a gay poet. She went on at some length--or I should say she repeated herself many times--about the gay thing. Gay gay gay gay gay gay gay. Very specifically, a gay poet. Her "brand."


When you talk about yourself this way, I know that you cannot write. I know you're terrible at it. Now, almost everyone is, but this is a different way of letting people know. This isn't some anti-gay thing. I could care less whether someone is straight, gay, Black, white. It means absolutely nothing to me when I am looking at who they are and what they do. When you define your writing, though, in this way, that you write through a gay lens or whatever, I know how limited your writing is. I know it's some autobiographical crutch for some kind of validation you think you need. I know it's not for people. It's not intended for them. Their enrichment, entertainment, growth. In the life sense, no one cares what you are, in terms of these labels. That's two-fold. Firstly, because almost everyone out there only cares about themselves. When they do "good" things, they're doing those good things for attention and credit. They don't actually care about anyone, let alone what you are or aren't. Secondly, the few good people there are couldn't care less because they only care about who you are as a person, and what you put into the world.


This woman had the gay poet thing in so many of her posts, which were whiny, defeatist, maudlin. I have stories about trans characters, gay characters. "Net Drive" is a gay hockey story. If you're any good at writing, you're not a gay writer, a straight writer, a trans writer, with your gay, straight, or trans lens. No. You're a writer. The less limits you have, the less you're about a single lens, the better you are at writing.


Butt this woman defined herself this way. I see it all the time. Then if you do look at the work, it's like something from a fifteen-year-old's journal, without the realness. It's like open casting therapy. The person usually wants attention and what we now call community, but it's not real community. It's social media likes and pity and "you got this" BS. They need a brand. They don't write well enough for that to be the brand, so it becomes this other thing.


This woman announced on Facebook that she'd been invited to a "prestigious" writers' residency. First of all, there is no such thing. Those residencies are for people who can't write, who want to boast that they went to a residency, where they sit around with other people who also can't write, who are also broken and pretentious, dead inside, and pretend to be having some significant, life-altering experience because here they are in this sequestered community, with that idea of being special and apart from the masses brought to symbolic life. Ironically all of these people are empty inside, but there they are at some bucolic spot. It's as delusional as you get. I'd never go. Can you even imagine? Me sitting around with these people sipping chai lattes as the sun sets over the river discussing microfiction? Any way is a better way to spend your time, allowing that you're not murdering, raping, stealing, discriminating, setting anything on fire, etc.


What pretend writers--and almost all of them are pretend writers; merely writing something doesn't make you a writer; it's a lot more than that--never seem to understand is that anyone who was ever any good at writing didn't need to go anywhere like this to do it. Do you think Emily Dickinson would have been better if she went to a residency? Of course you don't. They sat down, alone, motivated by themselves, what they had in them, and did it. And you know what? That's the only way it works. You can lie to yourself, you can go wherever, you can sit around with losers, but that's the only way it works. Sorry. Don't like it? That's because you're not a writer and never will be. You're looking for something else. Because you're broken. Work on that. Make that your focus. You do not have it in you to be a writer. I don't have it in me to be handy. Such is life.


The woman says that the prestigious residency is huge, it will change everything with her and for her writing, but the problem is, she's a poor gay poet, and she can't afford to go. I'm going to give writers and pretend writers and anyone to whom this might be relevant some very practical advice here: When these places want you to pay them, they are ripping you off. It's a scam. For instance, at American Short Fiction--and this is typical of most of these literary magazines, which no one actually reads--a writer has to pay money to have them read their piece. It's usually $3. They want you to pay them. You give them your credit card info. Seriously. But American Short Fiction is run by bigots like Rebecca Markovits and Adeena Reitberger, and what they are doing is taking your money--because they have no intention of publishing the people who are paying them, and they are ripping you off. They're stealing from you.


Let's do that thing we do where we hop on a magazine's site and grab the first story we see, and without fail--because there never are any exceptions--we can marvel over how bad it is. So, here we go: This is Denise Heyl McEvoy's "Bodies of Water," the most recent fiction at American Short Fiction. Again I ask you: How would you even describe how bad this is? If your kid came home from sixth grade, and this was something she wrote, you'd think, "okay." Look how basic that story is. Where is the skill? In what way does it not read like something written by a dull sixth grader? I think your kid can do a lot better, don't you? Anyone wish to argue that it's good? Why? How? What makes it good? Do you think if you walked into a room of people and you read that aloud that any of them would be like, "Wow." You cannot be worse at anything than all of these people are at writing. I hadn't even looked at this before I began this paragraph. It's a given. It's how it is every time. It really is like some attempted satire of a Creative Writing 101 story, but no, it's actually real. Can you believe that? I mean, honestly, can you believe how bad these stories are when I put them up? I've been doing this for a long time, and even for me, it never ceases to blow my mind how bad it all is. How obviously bad. This isn't like, "Well, you need to be a literary expert to tell if it's bad." You could show this to anyone and they'd laugh at how bad it is. I'm still understating this. Imagine Nate Brown, managing editor of American Short Fiction, a bigoted, envious, talentless writer himself, who has done nothing in his career, and who writes fiction like this, trying to lecture me about "Fitty." I cannot think of anything more insane or backwards than this set-up/system. Additionally: this is someone who is a senior lecturer in the creative writing program at Johns Hopkins University. If you have kids and they are studying writing at a university, your money is being spent, in almost every instance, on someone like Nate Brown to do what, exactly? What qualifies him to do this? Because he sat in school? Look at his writing. Go to his website. Look at the scant amount he's published in his life. Look at how bad each and every piece is. What is he, forty? He stands in front of your kids--this is what you're paying for--and tells them how it is?


How about we make this more explicit? Let's compare and contrast first sentences, shall we? We'll use that first story I just grabbed from American Short Fiction, and my most recent story. Just to have it be random. A first sentence is a pretty big thing, no? A first sentence presents two significant options. To bail--"I'm out of here"--or to stay and go deeper. Here's the first sentence of the American Short Fiction story:


There is an agitation in the Morgans' swimming pool.


What does that even mean? Are you pulled in? I'm annoyed. An agitation? What? So, maybe an alligator got in the pool? What's an agitation? What a flat, bald, boring statement that's a non-statement, which invokes no curiosity, no need to know more, in bland language, that also creates confusion and is clumsily worded. We're done here. The reader leaves. They're out. You're probably not reading any further unless you're feeling generous. And even if you are, the next sentence will get you to walk away for good. Why waste your time?


Let's compare with this first sentence:


“Don’t pretend it’s not exciting,” one leaf communicated to another leaf in the manner leaves do, with a tearing of an outer edge, as they each fell from the same tree within a fraction of the same second.


What could possibly be more obvious than that gulf in quality? How do you even quantify the difference in quality between the two? And bigots like Rebecca Markovits, Adeena Reitberger, and Nate Brown expect me or anyone on earth to sit back and somehow pretend that the first one is better? Do you think they think that the first sentence is better than the second? No. Because no one does. So what was going on then for years and years and years? Pretty simple, right? These are bad people. Bigots. Plain as can be. Though it's somehow still plainer how much better that second first sentence is. Are you agitated?


Anyway. That's how places like this keep going. Because, again, no one buys them. You'd have to look far and wide to even find the journal on the lit mag shelf of a bookstore's magazine section, if it even has a magazine section now, where it's still unlikely to have a lit mag shelf if it does. No one outside of the publishing world has heard of American Short Fiction. The people in the publishing world who have heard of it have done so because they think it means something to be in it and they can brag about it if they were to four people exactly like them who also are terrible at writing, or an agent can sign up someone who was in American Short Fiction, because it's all insane and there is no thought involved in anything here. Not a single person who asks, "What does it mean? What is the value? What is the point?" Never pay anyone because you think it advances your writing or your writing career. They are trying to scam you. At American Short Fiction, they are reaching out to their cronies and the people of the system and hand-selecting who goes in. And very rarely is any work taken by the people who paid $3 to not even have their writing read, and to instead just get form rejected, but maybe with language that's a tiny bit open, so that that person will try again and they'll get their $3 again and again and again. I actually watch these delusional people post those rejections on Facebook, and other delusional people try and analyze the language of the form letter. Utter insanity. They congratulate the person. "Wow, they must have loved your story to say that. Brava!" These people can't give away their three bucks fast enough after that. Do you think Joyce Carol Oates paid them $3? Do you think they even read her slop before they accepted it? Of course not. They just took it from her agent, because of the name, never mind that she can't write. That's all this is. The name, the flavor of the month, the sister-in-law, who the agent is, color, gender, pronouns, cronyism, etc. It's how much you suck in every way possible. As a writer, a person. Can you imagine half a dozen people at a magazine sitting around and discussing the above story in "Bodies of Water" and whether to include it? How could you even have that conversation? What does it look like? What could you say? What could you make up trying to sound smart and serious before you fell over laughing? "Yes, the symbolic entreaties of the swimming pool foreground the freedom of the woman's right to choose." What on earth could seriously be made to come from your mouth? And then people in that room or on that email chain agree?


Back to our gay poet. She was desperate to go to this residency, but she couldn't afford to pay them to have her. That really is something: "Hey! You're in! Come stay! What an honor for you! Make the check out to..." How dumb do you have to be not to get what this is? I knew where this was heading. You may know already yourself. A day or two goes by, and then there it was: She put up a GoFundMe for herself to send this poor gay poet--and believe me, there was the label again, and again, and again--to the residency that would make everything change and help her writing so much. You know what was going to happen next. Within no time, she'd soar past her financial goal. And the wonderful friends, who are every bit as delusional as this woman is, made it possible. I could understand a writer who works hard, who needed something, and had to ask for help. Like if their computer broke. They were poor, they were hustling, and this was bad. You have to have a computer. That's need. Going away to a residency is the furthest from need you can get. It's so elitist. You're just going to leave life to play dress up? To go to fantasy camp? When you could just apply yourself. Or be honest with yourself.


Let's look at this a different way. Pretend you were following the life of someone online. Let's say they had a blog like this one. They were a writer. A poet. You read an entry detailing all that I just said, but written in the first person. "Now I can afford to go to the residency!" Would you ever think they might write something you had to have in your life? Yes, I know, you're reading their blog, but just play along with me for a second. That eventually there'd be a book by them that you reread every year? That you needed, that spoke to you, and spoke to you in different ways each time you read it? You'd never think that was going to happen, right? Because it wouldn't. No shot.


But how about if this person said that their writing wasn't going the way they wanted it to. They weren't where they wished to be. So they were going to take a different approach. A different approach in their life. You noticed in their blog entries a greater focus than before. For instance, they'd be up at four in the morning on a Saturday, and would write for the next four hours. Trying. Pushing through. The next day they also arose at four, worked for two hours on what was written the day before, and then took a ten mile walk, alone, no music, thinking. Letting new thoughts come to them. Observing the world. They wrote about how they were reading Keats' letters, and listening to Miles Davis's Second Great Quintet and watching Jean Renoir films and wrote journal entries about how Ella Fitzgerald sang, the way she handled phrasing, and how they lay in bed every night and what they thought about was what they might write next, what they were writing now.


As they're documenting this, they're getting better at thinking, at writing, at being present. They take long walks in the woods. They learn to identify trees, birds. They spend less time on social media. They give up drinking, recreational drugs. They go to bed earlier. They never go a day without writing. They stop cheerleading for people they always knew weren't writing for the right reasons, who had nothing to say. They become more determined. To do what? Just to get better.


You're reading all of that. You follow along on their blog. In two months they've changed a lot. A hell of a damn lot, and you can see it in each entry, each sentence. Now who do you think, if you were reading blogs by two different people--the one with the residency, and the one with the approach described above--would actually have any shot at being any good? It's obviously the second one, right? That's it. That's the only way. Some version of that. Again, I'm sorry, but if you don't want to do that--if you don't have to do that--and you're all about the nonsense of option #1, then you are wasting your time and very likely your life, or what passes for one. As for the cost of option #2, it's free. Well, okay, it costs money to get to the woods maybe, and it costs money to go to the Renoir film, but so does a cup of coffee or takeout.


This gay poet would never think any of these things on her own. The people who were cheerleading for her--which really means enabling her--would never suggest any of this to her. She'll go. She'll be enabled some more. Sit around and delude herself. She'll take to Facebook after and romanticize the whole useless undertaking. She'll do that for a long time. And nothing will change. The writing won't be any better. She wouldn't have learned anything there. She'd learn exponentially more taking fifteen minutes to read this post on this blog. One would learn more reading this post than they would as a creative writing major in college, and then getting their MFA. You will learn more in these fifteen minutes than you would in six years of higher education that will most likely just create debt for you and stamp out any ember of creativity you might have had. No one will say this to you there, because they're also scamming you. The people who teach you, with few exceptions, cannot write. Nor do they have anything of value to impart to you. The academic set-up is how they live. A parasite needs a host. A scammer needs someone to con. A weak person needs someone weaker, or who just doesn't know.


But to write well? It doesn't work that way. It comes from you and you alone, so I hope you believe in yourself. That also means what you go out and learn, on your own, and how you experience the world and people, and how present you can be. You need to know everything about everything. If you write a story about a gay person, it's not enough to know about being gay or how it is for that character. Everything there is has to be in there in a way. Even when it's in there in the sense that you knew it wasn't to be included. A color you didn't use. But when you looked at the paint box, you still saw it. So many people are working with one color. That's all that's in their paintbox. It's all they have to look at.


This is simply how it is. No wishing, deluding, enabling will change that. Look within. Be present everywhere and in everything. Learn every single second of your day. And write. Every second of the day. Write as you walk, write as you talk, write as you sleep. And sit your ass down, and put the words on the page.