If September 11th wasn’t reason enough to cancel a party, then there was a much more down-to-earth excuse the following year. In the party that welcomed the new group of students (including yours truly) the year before, my friend Rosalyn took a fall down a flight of stairs. It was the type of mistake anyone could have made, had they been a little too close to the staircase that led from the living room to the basement floor. While there were handrails, the rectangular hole in the floor that showed the stairs was hardly noticeable. With drinks, high heels, and the stairs’ low visibility, anyone could have tumbled down and hit their head. But it had to be Rosalyn, one of the people who lobbied for the party.
At the Universtity, the English Department traditionally sponsored a welcoming party for the MFA program at the beginning of each academic year. Fortunately, it wasn’t held on campus grounds, but in the home of a student. She was a retired English teacher-turned-professional MFA student as she had been working working on her degree for nearly a decade. The benefit of an off-campus party is the warm atmosphere only available in someone’s house, a gorgeous spread, and the alcohol. The last item is definitely essential as it facilitates socializing, but more importantly, it’s expected. The one that was held in my first semester in the graduate program would be the last one of its sort.
Henry O’Donough, this post-modernist professor at the University, kept office hours in the afternoon and “bar hours” on Thursday night, on the border of the City, between one of its eastern suburban neighborhoods and the exurban neighborhoods of two cities with names that translate into English as “The Table” and “The Box.” Most of the students who came to this little strip mall dive bar to hang out with the esteemed scholar, interviewer, and editor of several postmodern anthologies, including one that is a perpetual best seller for Duke University Press. And Professor K, ever trying to hold on to the tail of the fast-moving Zeitgeist, has a decent story in O’Donough’s best known anthology. Strangely, during my first year of knowing Professor K, I would go to “bar hours” to hang out with Henry and some classmates, past and present associates of Henry’s, and to unwind from Professor K’s classes, which were always held on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
Professor Joseph K is the pseudonym of a professor I worked with when I was in graduate school. The name, of course, is borrowed from Franz Kafka’s protagonist of The Trial. This professor, author of small tomes, and armchair anarchist is the nemesis in much of my previous posts about him. Here, he finds himself in the midst of something I really wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. He’s definitely in that category
It’s funny that Professor Joseph K would find himself in the midst of a Kafkaesque nightmare at one point in his career. Some time after I ended my academic and professional association with him, he found himself the subject of a University investigation. I only have second-hand information on this subject. Given that I had been a student and employee of his for two years and that the investigation occurred while I was still in the MFA program, I’m surprised I was never interviewed as a witness. Getting back to the subject at hand, the reason why the University was looking closely into Professor K’s affairs was that a student felt their grade was at stake after she objected to attending Professor K’s class when there was a sexually explicit presentation.
In this Six Feet Under episode, Olivier is caught in unprofessional conduct by Claire and tries to buy her off with a grade of her choice.
I should be over something like this. As much as I can dwell on the whole MFA experience and what a racket it was, people like the Professor Joseph K are a joke. Unfortunately, my dealings with him and his self-serving behavior haunt me to this day. At the start, he was the mentor figure, the one who gave me admission to his inner literary circle. In the end, I got tossed aside. As much as he told people that they should do what’s beneficial to them as writers, he wanted people to take his workshops and tell him how brilliant he was for publishing his slender little volumes of deviant behavior. Regarding his writing workshops, there wasn’t much to get out of them. Publishable in his terms meant “I publish you, you publish me.” As a grad school friend of mine said, fiction could not create a villain as evil as Professor K.
It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on my experiences in my MFA program. One very significant figure, whom I’ve discussed in previous posts, was Professor Joseph K, who served as my early mentor, friend, boss, and later silent tormentor. This post is Part 21 of If You Want To Go To Grad School.
We’re at a party early on for the University’s MFA program and I mention working with Professor Joseph K. You ask me what he’s like and I’ll try to give you a sound byte answer. After all, this is a party, and the conversation’s not supposed to be too deep. So, here’s what I say: Joe’s a good guy and I work very well with him. I also enjoy his workshops a lot.
My answer would change much later, as I was only one year into my academic and professional relationship with Professor K. Being his secretary didn’t pay much, but I liked it better than working in the supermarket. There, I was paid better and I had benefits, but with Joe, I had keys to the mail room and his office, and I had a code for the English Department copier. I had a place to hang my coat, to read, to study, and even to write. I even had my own desk so I wouldn’t use his. What I had lost in practical terms, I gained in privilege. Which is essentially the case with anyone who goes into something arts or humanities related. I also harbored great hopes that my association with Joe would benefit me in the future. Perhaps I would become an editor or a professor, or even an editor-professor like Joe.
I took this iPhone screenshot at 8:09pm for the visual pun.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, I want to stop procrastinating. It is my goal for this year, even if I might not cut out all of my bad habits. The idea is to start.
One manifestation of living on Procrastination Street is writer’s block. It is easy to put off writing because the rewards aren’t so immediate. Twittering my time away or posting witticisms on Facebook get more response, but those sentences are sent out on the quick and don’t take much process to make it into a story or a poem that expresses an idea.
Yesterday’s post took me down the proverbial memory lane regarding Professor Joseph K*. I’ve written several posts about him in the past, starting with when I first met him. Like the relationship itself, looking back upon the whole experience has been an emotional roller coaster. Several years ago, when my friendship with him disintegrated, I was hurt and angry. I’ve had some time to process those feelings over the past several years and I can now look at it a little more calmly and objectively, but I don’t think I’ll ever have anything close to “warm fuzzy feelings.”
At any level in college, students find mentors in their professors. That was the nature of my relationship with Professor Joseph K, or Joe, as I’ll refer to him from time to time. At the time, I thought he was different from all the other English professors at my university. He had a post-modern cool about him. He wore black clothing and sunglasses indoors. His course materials were outside of the canon, which I found intriguing. As I got to know him, he became very paternal towards me. Like my father, he had a very dry sense of humor. I would later learn that he could be just as mercurial.
There were some positive things, especially early on. When I took his upper division course in my last year of college, he gave me some confidence in my abilities as a student and a thinker. One of the things he did was to invite me to take a graduate course the following semester. I was, at the time, trying to find direction as a writer experimenting with various forms. Joe was the editor in chief of an avant-garde literary journal with the university press and he invited me to be part of the editorial team. He soon promoted me to assistant editor when my predecessor found himself too busy to do the job. He saw some of my work, gave me some encouragement, and helped me put together an application packet for the MFA program. He also wrote a letter of recommendation for me.
During the time I waited to get into the program, I had a place to hang my coat and a room of my own to read and write. Joe gave me a key to his office, and it was mine during the daytime. Joe often only came to the office at night before his classes.
As far as publishing goes, he gave me the lead to a journal that took one of his works and I got published alongside him. It was the Gold Lady’s debut. In Joe’s journal, some of Richard Kostelanetz‘s “one word stories” were accepted and I did the artistic formatting. I got to be a published writer and artist within a few month period.
Joe did not make extravagant demands upon me. All I did was check the mailroom for his mail and submissions, logged the submissions, and did a few other errands. He was a pain in the ass during the manuscript editing process, but even that wasn’t bad. I wasn’t expected to bring Starbuck’s coffee to him piping hot, nor was I expected to got unpublished Harry Potter books for his children.** None of the deadlines he gave were unreasonable, even when it came to dealing with the galleys.
I house-sat for Joe a few times. Like the office, the borrowed home during his times away served as a place where I could benefit creatively. He owned thousands of books and it was nice to have access to his personal library. It was a quiet place, away from family, so I occasionally had a place where I could do some work. Of course, there was an episode that wound up becoming part of the university’s MFA lore. It involves some cookies, but I’m not saying anything more.
to be continued…
*Pseudonym from the protagonist of the The Trial by Franz Kafka. The name change is designed to protect the guilty and even the innocent.
**The Devil Wears Prada.
In my last post, I discussed the joy of dealing with incomplete grades for students. For anyone who doesn’t know what this entails, it is a basic right students have in the event they are not able to compete the coursework for a semester. There may be some variations on this policy from school to school, but here are the basic conditions:
- The student needs to fill out an agreement with the instructor regarding their need to finish their coursework beyond the semester.
- There is usually one assignment that’s needed to satisfy the requirements for a student’s grade, but there may be more.
- The student has one year from the end of the semester date to complete their work.
- After the conditions have been outlined in the agreement and the instructor turns in the agreement, the student’s grade is recorded as “I” or INCOMPLETE.
- Here is the dangerous part: If a student does not complete the work necessary for them to get a passing grade, their “I” or INCOMPLETE will turn into an F.
I’ve never took an incomplete in college. I’ve never been a big fan of paper work, and the less there is, the better. Now, this is an unrealistic desire for someone in my profession. When I was in graduate school, there was some silly piece of paper to turn in to some office every week. Of course, this is a gross over-exaggeration, but I don’t think I’m too far from the truth. The incomplete was simply another document to fill out.
Given that, I did not make it a habit to approach my professor mentors and tormentors for incompletes. I usually finished my coursework by the end of the semester, even it killed me. There were many times where it almost did.
There was only one semester where I ever approached a professor to do an incomplete. It was a course on the great world novel and I chose to my semester paper on Shusaku Endo‘s Silence. This novel’s theme was suffering, which I would ironically experience as I struggled through the year to do the paper.
For some reason, it took me a while to decide on using this work as the topic for my paper. However, it would take me a long while to get it done. I often found excuses not to do it. The following semester, I dealt with drama. I had a personal and professional falling out with the professor who helped me get into graduate school (a cautionary tale against doing graduate programs in your undergraduate alma mater). It didn’t help that I worked as assistant editor for his disturbingly sick literary* journal at the time (I formally resigned mid-year shortly after any sign of friendship and personal regard disintegrated on both sides). I had an unrequited interest in a supposedly good friend of mine who took advantage of it. He lived in my apartment for a while and he didn’t hesitate to cash in the benefits when it suited him. He rejected me at a point when I started to think I had a chance with him. I then kicked him out of my apartment, but my woes were far from over. I wound up seeing a counselor that spring semester to deal with both issues, and one of the things that came up in the conversation from time to time was the incomplete.
In the aftermath, I was dealing with the emotional issues listed above, but I still struggled with getting a silly essay done. I still had to do creative writing for the workshops and readings for the lit courses in my program, which also had essays. I kept putting it off and putting it off, but the incomplete was always on my mind.
I did manage to get it before the year was over. The paper wasn’t great at all; however, I didn’t let it turn into an F. I just couldn’t afford it.
After that, I vowed never to take on another incomplete again. To use a cliché, it was a monkey on my back. I could not stop thinking about it even when I wasn’t working on it, and that was a constant distraction. As for the drama that served as a nice excuse? It soon passed. From time to time, I had to deal with the former mentor on a bureaucratic level. As for so-called friend, I realized he was useless and I never fell into that unrequited trap again. I am glad that the counselor didn’t let me forget about making sure I satisfied the incomplete.
Knowing that I don’t work well like this, I always feel some concern for students who take this on. As a teacher, I’m not too crazy to being tied to any class for a year.
*This is not a statement of literary conservatism on my part as it is more of a pot shot.
Yes, I know the term’s called writer’s block. It’s an age old plague, one that manifests itself even to ranting bloggers. I suppose posting Tyra vid after Tyra vid is one sure sign of that. As you may know, she’s one of my favorite celebrities and I even posted a spoof of her famous Vaseline episode on her talk show. It was partly based on my desire for free gasoline. However, it was my only creative endeavor involving Tyra and isn’t necessarily getting over writer’s block.
Then there’s something called NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Also, there’s NaBloPoMo, spelled out as National Blog Posting Month. Every month’s some kind of special month. Why can’t a month just be a month? We have enough damn holidays as it is. Nonetheless, some have taken it upon themselves to create that extra kick in the pants for everyone to write more. NaNoWriMo is for those who have that Great American novel in them, but they just need it spit it out the way Linda Blair famously did with green slime on The Exorcist. NaBloPoMo is for the rest of everyone else who’s just too lazy to blog everyday. If you need that extra push to write, then get in on it.
Chris has generated a few thousand words of his novel so far. His word count can be tracked on the NaNoWriMo site. I don’t think I’ll officially get into this. I’m too nervous about submitting any work to the site, even though I know it’s just word count they’re concerned with. However, it is good practice to write every day, so that’s what I’m going to do. I’ll keep you posted on my progress as I go along. As for Chris, just don’t leave this novel or the act of writing it in November. Once this special month is over, keep writing and revise!
Brian and Fredo have gotten into NaBloPoMo. I’ve come across both of their blogs earlier this year when I started to actively blog. There have been several attempts in the past, such as my Live Journal, which went through bouts of lots of postings to dry periods where I didn’t post at all. When I started this blog last year, I also tried blogging on MySpace to create a “mirror blog” that “my friends” could read. After writing a memoir series on grad school and some rants, I fell out of the blogosphere sometime last summer. I got this job (which I’m glad to be out of), and I got nervous about blogging. At the time, I wondered what the hell could I write about besides the dysfunctional people I work with, the incompetent boss, the uptight accountant, inane water cooler conversations, and some assorted bitches I dealt with on a daily basis, especially after the central and local office were consolidated. I guess there is some material there, but I’m still not willing to touch it beyond my open letter posted a few months ago. Getting back to blogging, I have blogged more posts this year than in the past. I haven’t posted every day this year, but I have tried to post regularly, even during August, in which there seemed to be a writer’s drought. I’ve been posting every day this month. All I need is the badge.
Badges? I don’t need no stinking badges! I couldn’t resist this even though it’s cliché. Do I need any badges to keep writing? Not really. However, it’s fun.
Josh’s recent post about writing got me thinking about the issue as well. In discussing some approached to writing, he mentions trying out Stephen King’s approach:
I even gave Stephen Kings 10,000 words a day method an attempt. I ended up producing a bunch of shit.
Stephen King’s method is the closest to NaNoWriMo’s, though they’re not as demanding. I suppose it’s good for full time writers and others who have plenty of time on their hands. The one that works the best for Josh is Kurt Vonnegut’s approach:
Legend has it that old KV would produce one page of writing a day, would pore over that page, writing, rewriting, and painstakingly editing every character, every sentence, every paragraph. Taking a book one page at a time is actually a hell of a good idea. First of all, its a fairly easy goal to meet. I can turn out a page of quality content in about 30-45 minutes.
Josh is careful to point out out that each writer is different, so what works for him may not work for another writer. Some may thrive on the marathons!
As for writing fiction, I’ve found I’ve had to unlearn all the writing workshop nonsense. It was easy to get addicted to them, especially in grad school where the program was set up for one workshop per semester. The problems I see with workshops are the that fiction (and even poems) become writing by consensus and that one can become dependent upon those who facilitate the workshop. There are some great teachers out there. On the flip side, there are some egotistical cult of personalities who prey on the weaknesses and insecurities of their disciples. The advice and even affirmation of either case (though the latter can be very destructive) can be a crutch. Then there are the classmates. Some lavish endless praise on some works, while ripping apart others. They’re all literate, they know what they’re taking, so this and that should be changed according to what the group wants. What happens is the literary version of Mexicali soup.
For me, there’s another issue. The people I’ve been in workshops with over the years have become the personifications of the inner critic, what I think what most people want, and even doubt. During the time I took workshops, I would hear these voices in my head, especially after I went home with returned manuscripts in hand. It was stifling, but I now know the issue is that I hadn’t learn to trust my voice. I’m not saying that trusting my voice means that my writing will be perfect, but that I know what I want to say and will work towards making sure it is said how it should be said. No one else can speak for me, nor would I want them to.
For me, it’s just a matter of getting out of writer’s block. The whole point of doing this blog was to keep writing, though I’ve made some friends along the way. If I can keep plugging away at this version of ShindoTV every day, I can set aside some time for myself to write. Oh, I also need to silence all those inner workshop participants. They’re not invited to the party.