Defining and revising the literary canon…

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Books from top left to bottom right: I am a Cat by Natsume Soseki, Bed by Tao Lin, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, and Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball.

One of the things that identifies you as an “intelligent” or “cultured” person is familiarity with the literary canon. This alone is a somewhat arbitrary standard. For me, it’s incredibly important to read the classics, because I intend to be a writer and an English teacher, but I think my brother, who is majoring in physics, would be better served by reading scientific articles than 19th century novels–unless, of course, he really liked 19th century novels. These books might grow my soul, but others find their inspiration elsewhere, and that’s okay. But let’s say for now that it’s important for everyone to be well-versed in the literary canon. What, then, does that canon consist of? And who decides it?

There are millions of books floating around in the world. Generally, the classics are the ones written decades or centuries ago–those that have withstood the test of time. But what are the standards by which these books are considered to be universally important? What are the standards by which we choose which books are taught in school? Just about everybody reads The Great Gatsby in high school, or at least they did when I was growing up. Why is this book better than anything else F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, or anything else that was written at the time? Is it because it’s easy to use it to fulfill curricular goals? Is it because reading it will somehow improve people’s minds, moreso than any other book about the same topic?

Certainly, some books are better than others. The Great Gatsby is a skillfully written book. But what about The Iliad? It’s a classic because it’s a relic of a long-past age, because it’s one of the first texts that we have to go on. But if you read it, you see that it’s promoting rape. You could say that it’s important to understand what things were like during the time it was written, and you’d be right, but why do we then read it uncritically? Why don’t we talk about how unacceptable that is, and not just about it’s historical context? Why do we have to read about men being given women to rape as a reward for killing villagers in order to be cultured and intelligent? Why is Franz Kafka’s work considered classic when it was published posthumously against his will? Why are Shakespeare’s plays, which weren’t meant to be read but to be seen, and which weren’t even written by completely by him in the first place, considered mandatory reading? Why did no one ever tell me to read Natsume Soseki?

There are books that I personally feel that everyone should read. This is because I personally enjoyed reading them, and feel that doing so made my life better. But this is a small cache of books, because there are only so many books I as an individual can read. No one can read all the books, and no one can know for certain which books will be best for which person, except, of course, that person. As things are, it is important to be familiar with the literary canon, because it will be referenced repeatedly. It’s important to be able to read and understand the cultural script. But the cultural script is determined by what we continue to read. If we collectively decided that we didn’t need to read Shakespeare anymore, after a few generations, we’d stop referencing him.

I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t read Shakespeare, or Homer, or Kafka, or Fitzgerald. I am arguing that we read Soseki, and that we also read other writers of color, and that that be a mandatory part of any literary curriculum. We should be reading women writers and venerating them along with their male peers. The books that American society deems worthy of note are written by white men. This is a problem because America does not consist solely of white men. Women and people of color need to see what people like themselves have accomplished, and see those accomplishments viewed as just as important as the work of white men.

Also, we need to be reading contemporary literature, if we care about literature as a concept and not just historical benchmarks. If we don’t see what people are doing now, we’ll have a heck of a time seeing where our own work might fit in. If we’re not writers, we still should be doing this, so that we can see how the world we live in is reflected in art, and thus gain a better understanding of that world–meaning, our world, not the world of our great-great-grandparents. It’s important to learn about history, but we’re rarely asked to read contemporary books in school, and we should be.

When we think about what should be in the literary canon, we need to stop naming books we haven’t actually read. We need to stop saying that books are classics because they are classics. We need to be deciding what we think about books based on their actual literary merit, and we need to include a big pile of books not written by dead, white man.

Rejected!

Yesterday, I got rejected by the New Yorker. It was the best thing that had happened to me all day.

Sounds weird, right? It definitely sounded weird to the friends and family that I told this to. Who wants to be rejected?

The thing is that the New Yorker was a long shot. I never expected them to publish me. They publish Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami, and Junot Diaz. Why should they look twice at someone with three published stories to her name? Besides, it had a fantasy/sci-fi edge to it. Not really the New Yorker’s style.

I submitted it because they sometimes publish unknown writers, and they sometimes publish sci-fi. Both are rare, but I was confident in the story and I thought, why the heck not? The worst thing they can do is not respond to me.

They did respond. Here it is:

Dear Anna Lindwasser,
We regret that we are unable to use the enclosed material. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to consider it.Sincerely,The Editors

This isn’t the response that I wanted. It was a form letter. No specific information about my work. But they bothered to get back to me. They spelled my name right. Presumably, someone at the New Yorker read my story. That isn’t much, but it’s something, and right now, it’s enough. Now that the New Yorker is done with it, I can focus on more realistic market.
Yesterday, a few hours after receiving that rejection letter, I sent my story, Angelhands, off to Daily Science Fiction. I will certainly have some stiff competition, but they do seem to be open to new writers. We’ll see how it goes.
To my readers–would you submit to the New Yorker? Is it a waste of time, or is throwing your hat in the ring worth it? Does rejection ever make you feel good, or is it always a disappointing experience?

How To Win At NaNoWriMo

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Image Copyright Nanowrimo.org.

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is the brainchild of Chris Baty. It’s an event in which you write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. Every year since 1999, thousands of people have signed up for this challenge. Many of them came out of it with a first draft of a novel on their hard drive. Some, such as Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, even turned their first draft into a book deal. Pounding out a novel in just a month might seem daunting, but don’t despair! There are simple guidelines which can help you make it to the finish line without too much heartache.

1,667 words a day…or not?

Seasoned NaNo’ers know 1,667 as the magic number—the number of words you have to write per week if you want to make it to 50,000 in thirty days. If you’re a methodical person with a predictable schedule, this strategy is your winning ticket. But what if your life is more scattered? What if Sunday is the only day you can see your boyfriend, Monday you have classes from from dawn until dusk and a graveyard shift at K-Mart, and then on Tuesday you have nothing to do? Everyone has a different schedule, and you have to figure out a pace that works well for you. This isn’t an excuse to fall behind. Some people thrive on the mad dash to the finish line, and write 50,000 words in a week, but most people can’t do this, and it isn’t healthy to try. Work on your novel whenever you can, but don’t sweat it if one day you write 3,000 words and the next day you only write 500.

Planning Ahead

Before trying out NaNoWriMo for the first time, many people wonder whether they should outline the plots of their stories, or develop their characters extensively before the start of NaNoWriMo. There are as many different answers to this question as there are participants. Some people love the planning stages. They map out everything about their story before they write a single word. For some of those people, that works great. For others, too many planning can kill their love for a story, or make them freeze up at the thought of committing their ideas to paper. Not planning anything also has mixed results. Some people write best by learning what their story is about as they go. Others need direction, or they get stuck. Most people work best with a strategy that’s somewhere in the middle. You should know something about your story, but not everything. You know, for example, that your main character is a dragon slayer who has no idea what to do when faced with robot dragons. You don’t know that he’s going to fall in love with one of the robot dragons. Know what works for you!

Your Social Network

Some people undertake NaNoWriMo with a group of friends, and rely on each other for support throughout the process. They meet up for write-ins, have contests to see who can wrote the most over the span of ten minutes or an hour, help each other develop plots and characters, commiserate, and cheer each other on. If your friends aren’t doing NaNoWriMo, encourage them to join you. If they’re not interested, all is not lost—there’s still a number of ways to connect with fellow NaNo’ers. The NaNoWriMo.org website has an incredible forum where one can gain support, and municipal liaisons in various locations all over the world organize write-ins, parties, and other events to get you writing and to help you meet other people who are doing the same. To find a municipal liason near you, click here.

Balance

It can be tempting to dedicate every waking moment to NaNoWriMo, and many participants will urge you to do so. You may have to cancel social engagements in favor of your novel, and you may have to spend less time on other hobbies. Remember, though, that NaNoWriMo is not more important than your life. It is not more important than your five-year anniversary with your wife. It is not more important than taking your son to the dentist. It is not more important than going to work or going to school. It is not more important than eating healthy food, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep. NaNoWriMo should be fun, and it should be challenging, but it should not consume your life. 

Haiku

Recently, I’ve been really interested in writing haiku.

This interest started when the lovely Black Heart Magazine had a haiku contest. I wanted to enter, but I simply couldn’t justify spending $5 to submit just one haiku, especially when I was new to the art form. By the time I realized that it was $5 per haiku instead of $5 per person submitting, I’d already filled a few pages in my notebook. I was disappointed not to be able to enter, but that didn’t put a damper on my new found enthusiasm.

Haiku are perfect for me at this point in my life. I’m a graduate student in the middle of her student teaching. It’s hard to find time to work on my long-term projects. Haiku provides a quick, uncomplicated template with which I can finish something in a short period of time. While none of these haiku are masterworks, many of them are surprisingly decent. Writing them gives me an injection of that beautiful, illusory feeling–the one where I’m a real writer who actually writes things. In some ways, writing haiku may actually be a bad thing, as it distracts from what I consider to be my real work. I’m a prose person, not a poet…person.

Regardless, it’s a lot of fun. I decided to make a Twitter to showcase my experiments. It’s called Fistful of Tea, and you should follow it. So far, there’s no real theme. Here are some examples.

/ Your first steps on Skype / and your first words recorded. / Sister, I miss you. /

/ what if i just said / the word butts repeatedly / what would you do, then? /

/ Staten Island is / full of misery / and stray, inbred cats. /

/ Fuck you, new printer. / Why do you not come with a / USB cable? /

As you can see, it’s all really profound and fascinating. I’m adding new ones every day, and I may expand into other short poetry forms if I can figure out how to count to numbers other than five and seven. Check it out!

Justifying the expense of entering writing contests…

Today, I finished writing a short story that I intend to enter in a contest. The contest costs $10. Thankfully, $10 is something that I can afford right now. Because this hasn’t always been the case, I find myself thinking about what else I could do with the money.

$10 could buy me four Metro Card fares with a dollar left over.

$10 could buy me between one and two packages of good tea, or between two and four packages of okay tea.

$10 could pay for lunch for two days.

$10 could get me two pints of ice cream.

$10 could contribute to my Pokemon Black 2 fund.

$10 could get me another turtleneck at Uniqlo.

$10 could get me ten books at Book-Off, and one book off of Amazon.

$10 could buy me a CD off of iTunes.

$10 could buy 10 Luna Bars

$10 could buy me a movie ticket if I went for a matinee.

$10 is what it will probably cost me to print and mail the story in the first place.

So there are a lot of things I could do with this $10. My inner cheapskate is screaming at me for considering spending it on a gamble. And that’s what a contest is. You pour your heart and soul into an entry, you do the very best job that you possibly can…and then you don’t win because someone else did the same thing and did it better.

I go into these things with the mindset that I will lose. Sure, I indulge in fantasies of literary glory, but I don’t count on anything. If I do, I’m bound to be disappointed. Sometimes, this attitude helps me. If I’m not afraid of rejection, there’s no harm in putting myself out there. But if I’m expecting to lose, and I’m writing a check, it can feel like a huge waste of money. I can rationalize this by saying that I’m supporting literary institutions. I care about that.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to priorities. I may not win the contest, but I care about my writing. I care about my potential writing career. I’m paying thousands of dollars to attend graduate school, which does not guarantee me a job, so why not spend $10 to potentially further myself as a writer? I’m talented, and I deserve to give myself chances to prove that. My basic needs are still covered whether I spend $10 or not, and my creative work is more important than ice cream.

So, those $10 are going toward my entry fee. If you’re trying to decide whether to spend money on a contest, think about what you’d use that money for otherwise, and think about whether that’s more important than a chance to prove yourself as a writer. If you can’t pay your rent without it, pay your rent, but if it’s going to trivial things, it may be worth the sacrifice.

THE ALMIGHTY LIST OF THINGS I AM ATTEMPTING TO WRITE, AND MY PROGRESS THUSFAR

THE ALMIGHTY LIST OF THINGS I AM ATTEMPTING TO WRITE, AND MY PROGRESS THUSFAR*

*This list will be updated whenever I have something of note to report. Additionally, it will serve as a links page for entries discussing these projects.

1. A novella about a teenage boy named Andrew whose best friend murdered his little sister. Andrew is obsessed with revenge, dependent on his tutor for the affection he no longer receives from his parents, and furious with his other best friend, who could have stopped the murder but didn’t.

Progress: I have written an outline. I also started a word document entitled “Novella”, which has no words it it as yet.

2. A short story about two teenagers trying to figure out a place to bang outside in NYC.

Progress: It’s about halfway done in terms of the plot, but it’s going to need a lot of editing.

3. My 2011 NaNoWrimo Novel, Find a bird and put it in jail. It’s the second draft of a story about a woman named Rhiannon who can make people sick by touching them.

Progress: About 40 pages. I’ve got all the characters living in the same house now, but the plot hasn’t really started to move yet. I’ve got a long way to go.

4. Editing my 2008 NaNoWriMo Novel. This is a complete story about two badly damaged teenage boys who slowly develop a meaningful and idiosyncratic relationship. Either that, or they exude seme-uke stereotypes, because I developed these characters as a twelve-year-old weeaboo. I’ve written their story in many different ways, ranging from a series of short stories, to a 347-page novel that was so awful that I can’t look at it without laughing. My 2008 novel is the version I’m satisfied with, but it’s a hot mess. It needs editing.

Progress: None. This project has been stagnating while I focus on short stories.

DDR Master

I initially started this blog because I got a story accepted at Black Heart Magazine, and they wanted you to have a website for your work. I figured it was best to start one up and start trying to be at least moderately professional about this. It’s possible that saying that automatically makes me unprofessional, but oh well.

This is my latest offering to the literary world. It’s a short story called DDR Master. I wrote it one winter while visiting my parents in upstate New York. Up there, the winters are so cold that it’s almost impossible to go outside, and the roads are too icy to walk on without risking your neck. I’m sure it’s totally doable for someone used to the climate and has appropriate shoes, but I’m not, and I don’t.

Because I couldn’t go outside much, I started playing a lot of DDR with my siblings in order to keep my limbs moving. The game was addictive, and I ended up playing it for hours every day. I started thinking about an emotional reason for someone to do that–mine was physical, and it wasn’t a very interesting story, but if DDR was filling a hole in someone’s soul, it could be.

This story was the result of that thought process. The unnamed main character’s entire life revolves around getting perfect scores on the Wii version of DDR. She has no friends, no family, nothing to occupy her time but the game. She had a boyfriend, but they recently broke up. The obsession with the game might be her way of dealing with losing him, but it might also be her general pattern of dealing with life.

It was published on September 7th, 2012 at Black Heart Magazine. You can read it here.