Monthly Archives: August 2011

Spotlighting The Writers’ Community

Welcome back English Majors! We here in the department hope your summer went well and that you’re as eager as us to get the new semester going. There are several exciting events planned for the coming months that we will keep you updated on and hope to include you in. In addition to new classes and events, be on the lookout for new features added to the blog which will aide in navigation and result in an improved user experience.

To get the most out of the new year, the blog will be spotlighting several clubs within the English Department who are always eager for new and excited members. Our first spotlight is on the Writers’ Community.

The members of the Writers’ Community are first and foremost written language enthusiasts. Under Todd McKinney as club advisor, the Community holds weekly meetings to discuss and explore a myriad of written works. The Community is not just for Creative Writing students. Rather, it is comprised of various interest and major groups who simply wish to express themselves via the medium of the written word. Veteran members of the Community encourage new and existing members to share their original works, which range in form and style and include poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, and experimental fiction. Haven’t written anything lately? The community also loves sharing pieces or passages from some of our favorite authors. The club welcomes all forms of creative writing to inspire creativity and spark meaningful discussions.

In addition to weekly meetings, the Community is also an active agent in setting up and supporting various events within the university and surrounding area throughout the year. For example, the Community aims to set up at least one reading a month which features various Community members, other writing enthusiasts, and even professors. Pieces read at the events span all forms of writing from poetry to scripts for plays. Also, it’s not unlike the Community to arrange trips to surrounding cities such as Indianapolis to attend, and on occasion participate in, bigger readings featuring authors from around the country.

In creating the Writers’ Community, the English Department has set out to bring together a collective of student readers and writers who wish to expand upon their own creativity and seek to inspire those around them. The Writers’ Community is a wonderful outlet for those looking to share and engage with others regardless of writing style or experience. Through the Community, writers will gain a wider exposure to audiences and influences alike and ultimately integrate themselves into the bigger world of written language.

For updates and more information regarding the Writers’ Community, visit their blog at http://bsuwriters.wordpress.com/

–Tyler Fields

Andrew Scott Interviews Jared Sexton About His Forthcoming Book and His Life as a Writer and Teacher at Ball State!

Earlier in the summer, we celebrated Andrew Scott and the publication of his first book by asking Jared Sexton to interview him about his life as a writer and a teacher at Ball State.   Then, we found out that Jared will also soon be publishing his first book and decided to ask Andrew to return the favor.   Their interview is below.

1. You often use the first person in your short stories. Is this your first instinct as a fiction writer, to channel stories through a character’s voice? 

I really like first person. Since I’ve been reading and writing I’ve always preferred to be closer to my characters, particularly in my short stories. There’s something about the perspective, something about the bias and fallibility of a person that draws me in. Besides, this collection that’s getting ready to come out is full of mostly autobiographical material that kind of warranted the perspective. Though they are not entirely about me, and they are not entirely factual or related, there was a necessity for me to tell these stories in the kind of voice I grew up speaking and hearing. And, in a way, these are stories that serve to speak for a region, or more specifically, Southern Indiana and the Hoosiers who live there. I like second and third person, a lot actually, but I think when choosing which to go with for a story or a novel, it’s important to think about what you’re trying to accomplish.

 2. Tell us a little about your forthcoming collection. It will be published next year, is that right? 

Yeah, I think so. Either 2012 or 2013, that hasn’t exactly been ironed out yet. Its title is “An End to All Things” and it’s got a little bit of an apocalyptic feel to parts of it, so it would make a ton of sense to market it in the middle of next year’s Armageddon freakout. The content itself is pretty diverse. There’s a smattering of relationship stories, him and her if you will, and there’s a good deal of minimalist, traditional pieces. But there’s definitely a bunch of experimental work in there and commentaries on bigger issues. I think it all comes together though pretty well and makes a decent little romp. One second you’re drinking and the next you’re in a full scale revolution. It’s like a popsicle variety pack, only with more violence.  

3. You’ve taught screenwriting for a few years now. How has that shaped your own writing, especially your fiction writing?

The funny thing about screenwriting is that it makes you understand pacing and tension. A lot of films are formulaic and rely on the same old tricks, but when you’re writing those or television shows you have to be constantly aware of your constraints, both in content and time. By studying the arc of films I’ve come a long way in realizing how scenes should play out and what sort of length and attention should be given. And, not to mention, the visual aspect of it is invaluable. If you want to learn how grow images that resonate and are handled properly, you could do a hell of a lot worse than pay attention to a film or two. 

4. What piece of advice do you have for your younger self about writing and publishing?

When I was young, at Indiana State to be exact, I was an experimental machine. Looking back on old stories and pieces, I literally have no idea what I was getting at or what I thought I was leading my prospective readers into. I would definitely tell myself to cool it a little bit with the self-aggrandizing prose and giant logical leaps and take better care of those reading my work. I’d get myself to spend more times getting characters from point a to point b and then dealing with the artistry of it than the other way around. It took a long time to learn that and I wished I’d tackled it earlier.

 5. What can students expect if they enroll in one of your writing courses? 

Honestly, I want them to be serious. I don’t mean they have to live and breathe writing and keep ambitions to someday be a famous writer, but even a person wanting a decent knowledge or experience in a creative writing class should handle themselves appropriately. There are things to learn from creating art, things about yourself and your ability to communicate with others and society as a whole, and taking an introduction class or a fiction workshop or whatever should help in that. Read the work assigned, put your best effort into the production, and care. 

6. Name one book you think every fiction writer should be required to read. 

I’m going to cheat and name two. As far as craft, John Gardner’s Art of Fiction is an absolute must-read. The prose is arrogant and off-putting at times, but it does a world of good for someone interested in crafting their own voice and style. The rules section alone should be handed out to anyone with any sort of desire to make prose. 

The second is a novel, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show. When I was in grad school my professor Pinckney Benedict told my workshop that that book was a perfect example of a well-constructed narrative that literally anybody could piece together with the right amount of concentration and care. He was right. Just by reading and examining that book a young writer can learn a ton about structure, plot, and character. 

7. What’s next for you? Are you working on a novel? A screenplay?  

I work on too much, honestly. I’ve spent the summer beating away at a novel, my first one, and I’m tinkering around with a screenplay and a book of nonfiction essays. Mostly I’m focusing on the former and tending to the others whenever the stress gets to be too much or I want a change of scenery. The forms are all different, of course, so sometimes it leads to something of a schizophrenic existence. But the important thing is to keep busy, keep involved, and I think throwing yourself into these things is necessary.

Prof. Victoria Barrett Writes About Her Experience of Starting Her Own Press!

What Do You Think You’re Doing? On Starting a Fiction Press When the Book is Supposed to Be Dead

Teaching in BSU’s Writing Program is a deeply fulfilling, collaborative, ongoing learning experience. But it rarely ever leaves me feeling like the definitive expert in anything. This is as it should be; I seek to learn from my students as I help them to learn from me and from one another. Still, at some point in a professional life, a time comes when expertise—and the confidence that accompanies it—is required. For most of us who teach at the college level, this requirement is met by the practice of scholarship, where we contribute new ideas to our respective fields.

But for a creative writer—or any artist—the practice of scholarship is fraught with insecurity and struggle. This, too, is as it should be. While all good scholarship is a process of discovery, of reimagining and rethinking and challenging each idea, for most creative writers, the work never quite reaches the point of asserting its ideas. Few of us ever know when a great story is done. (Most of us don’t even know, as regards our own work, what “done” means.)

For years, at first in graduate school at Puerto del Sol, then for the past several years at Freight Stories, the online fiction journal I co-edit with Andrew Scott, I’ve exercised my expertise in fiction as an editor and publisher of short stories. Last year I began seriously looking for something bigger.

What do you think you’re doing? 

The book is dead. Long live the book.

The death of the book is greatly overestimated. While total U.S. book revenues have declined since their peak in 2005, it’s only been six years since more money was spent on books than ever before. Further, the decline of book revenue does not necessarily reflect a decline in the total number of books sold. Consider that many small presses price their eBooks ridiculously low, generating, obviously, less revenue per copy, for one example of a mitigating factor. Details like this are boring, so they get left out of trend articles and internet conversations. But ignoring them plays into a narrative about the production and consumption of literature that is both inaccurate and damaging. Actual sales figures do suggest that hardcovers may be in death throes for everybody except libraries and collectors. But books—both electronic and paperback—are doing just fine.

What may be dying are old ways of working in the book industry. In the seven months since I announced my presence as an industry insider, big New York presses have taken dozens of steps toward the working models of small presses—they’re moving more quickly from contract to pub date (traditionally no less than a twelve month span) and from hardcover to paperback editions. (The linked New York Times article attributes this to the rise of eBooks, but I don’t think that explains it.) The rest of the system—where Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly won’t review you if you don’t send them a copy of the book three to four months in advance of release—will struggle to catch up. But it will catch up.

Formerly locked doors are opening to small presses. I ended my work day last Thursday with a lovely conversation with a buyer at Barnes & Noble’s corporate headquarters about my first original title, a story collection by National Book Award finalist Patricia Henley. Last year’s National Book Award winner in fiction was published by a tiny press. The Pulitzer before that was, too.

It seems the world of publishing literature is circling back to its beginnings—family businesses, real relationships with authors, equitable royalty splits. It was possible to be profitable in the old mode, before huge corporations ate the family businesses and imposed a profit demand 400 to 500% higher than was previously expected. I want very much to have a role in that rebirth.

What do you think you’re doing?

When I was in high school, there was a Reebok print ad with the slogan, “Why be perfect at one thing when you can be pretty damn good at everything?” It was selling cross-trainers, of course. But also something else. I tore it out of a magazine. I’ve kept it for twenty years.

I wasn’t a writer yet then, but I see now how the ad speaks to a novelist’s work. A novelist creates whole worlds, has to know enough about the world—both the real one and the imagined—to get it right. She has to understand structure, style, image, narrative theory, all of it.

For a one-woman press (Engine Books has no employees), publishing is like that, too. I read a query letter to see whether I might want to work with a writer, to see potential and professionalism. I read a manuscript to see what’s there, and perhaps what should be there, and whether it belongs at Engine Books. Once a manuscript is accepted, I advise the writer on both large and small revisions of the book’s next draft, and begin to imagine it as a finished product. I design its cover and lay out its pages. I generate publicity, create a web campaign. I make phone calls and send emails to reviewers, bookstores, foundations hosting contests. I stuff envelopes with advance copies, promotional fliers, personalized letters. I write follow-up emails to the recipients of the envelopes. I arrange appearances.

The inflection of that subheading—the suggestion that someone else, someone male, or older, or already on the inside—would be better equipped for this work is not at all unfamiliar to me. There are only a small handful of presses run by women, and among them, even fewer wherein the women are more than figureheads, for one example. But “You can’t do that” was a familiar refrain to me long before I even thought about the publishing world, one I’ve heard all my life. All my life, it’s been a source of motivation.

So I’ll spend the remaining days until the fall semester begins finalizing contracts with the four authors whose books I’ll publish in 2012, editing those books, answering and returning phone calls from reviewers and retailers, building the necessary relationships to get those books into readers’ hands. During the academic year, I’ll stuff envelopes and design covers in the evenings, after teaching and grading and answering student emails. I’m not sure there’s anything more fulfilling or valuable a teacher of writing can do than bring new literature into the world.

For more information about Engine Books, please visit the press at enginebooks.org.

Recent Alumnus Phil Call on His Successful Search for a Teaching Position in Secondary Education

Hey,

I recently graduated with a degree in English education and a license to teach English as a second language (ESL).  After applying for 11 jobs, receiving 10 rejections, but eventually winding up with two offers, I am glad to say that I will be teaching English and English as a second language this fall at Warsaw High School.  I wrote a post in November 2010 about the English ed program generally; here, I want to share some experiences and suggestions about the job hunt.

1: Apply early and often. Most school teachers I spoke with said that I didn’t have to worry about applying until school was over. After checking the jobs posted on the Indiana Dept. of Education website, though, I learned that while some schools accept applications well into July, others stop doing so by late April. I sent out as many as I could in the time I had to schools across the state that had jobs sounding even remotely interesting.

2: Accept the rejections. Although I had anticipated a few rejections, I was surprised several times after what I felt had been excellent interviews. I tried to pry some worthwhile information during the consolation calls about my shortcomings and thereby obtained a few tips for how to improve as well as learned that some of the shortcomings they perceived in me were actually important parts of my teaching philosophy and identity, which made me feel glad I wasn’t extended an offer.

3: Read and talk about what you’re reading. One school whose rejection was particularly unexpected had asked what I was reading and required me to read Results Now by Mike Schmoker. I had an especially good discussion with the principal, who, upon my inquiry for other good reads, pulled The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner off his shelf and gave it to me. Subsequently, when another position opened up, he called and offered it to me, giving me a week to respond.

4: Show how much you want it. Although I felt good about this aforementioned position, there was another job at another school that had a course load and location I much preferred. I used the weeklong deadline to leverage a quicker interview and response time from this second school. I felt bad about being so forward and somewhat demanding, but the assistant principal assured me that it was okay and actually helpful because it let him know how interested I was.

5: Be honest about weaknesses and strengths. When I showed up for the interview at this second school, my hopes were immediately dashed after I was introduced to the ESL coordinator for the school district (20% of which is Hispanic/Latino) and then saw another interviewee go into her office and start conversing with her in Spanish, which I don’t know at all… long story. In my interview, I made it clear that I didn’t speak Spanish but was sure to emphasize my student-centered, project-based pedagogy. The artifacts and example lesson I had to present focused on these strengths as well, which were evidently sufficient since I was offered the job.

So, this fall, and for the foreseeable future, I’ll be teaching four ESL classes in the morning and two English 10 classes in the afternoon.

Best of luck,

Phil