Review of The Pursuit of Perfection and how it Harms Writers

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s The Pursuit of Perfection: And How It Harms Writers (WMG Writer’s Guide) (Volume 3) is one of the best — though brief at 46 pages — writing advice books I’ve read in some time (click either on the link or cover image to purchase at Amazon.). It’s especially valuable to those of us who are perfectionists, either by nature or training or a mix of the two. (I think most of us get a little of both along the way. Or perhaps the training reinforces the nature?) It’s also a nice introduction to thinking about writing in terms of a business pursuit as much as an art or craft.

The business side of writing is an area I’ve only recently begun to explore, so I won’t at this point talk too much about trying to tackle the business side of freelance writing. That area is regrettably one I’ve cast aside for far too long and have much to learn.

On the nature side of things, I think some of my perfectionistic tendencies might be rooted in psychological fears about money learned at an early age and reinforced in later life by negative experience and accepting some myths about writing, myths Rusch explores in the book. I wonder how many of you have had similar backgrounds when dealing with money and business education?

What I want to concentrate on in this review are some of the myths Rusch brings up. In particular, myths from the world of the MFA in creative writing. Now, I sheepishly admit there’s a bit of me — the ego protecting me — still touchy about not getting into an MFA program when I entered graduate school eons ago, so I tend to get a bit giddy about critiques of MFA programs in general. But, for me, I saw the MFA as a route to becoming a fiction writer — as a way other than publishing that validated my fiction as valuable. Isn’t either Stephen King or George Orwell who says writers write to get published because a publication is a validation of existence?

While I didn’t get into my school’s MFA program, I did get into its graduate program in English — barely. At least I would be around the MFAs, right? Maybe I could absorb some of those writers’ wisdom? (Of course, there are other reasons I went to grad school: I was deeply afraid of engaging with the real world. Fear is always a constant bugaboo, isn’t it?).

So, here is one paragraph from Rusch’s book that dug into my brain like a hungry worm:

Creative writing, so far as I can tell, is the only degree a student can get that doesn’t offer any study of how to make a career as a professional who makes her living at the craft described in the title of the degree. In fact, in most universities, creative writers are told from day one that they cannot make a living at their chosen profession.

And that’s just bullshit.

What hit me so much about this passage was that it seemed outside of being a scholar and teaching (whether in secondary schools or at colleges or universities) there was nothing offered of how my English degree could help me make a living. It wasn’t until I consulted a school counseling service for other issues that I even thought I could be an editor. Still, I had no idea how to go about becoming an editor. And for that matter, an editor of what?

Scholarship seemed to be for scholarship’s sake as getting a creative writing degree seemed to be for the sake of producing more MFAs. On the other hand, the journalism department at the other end of campus taught their students to be journalists. You learned how to get internships at a paper or radio or TV station. You learned marketable job skills.

There was also a sense in grad school that a career of some sort, that pursuing a profession was something of a betrayal of art or politics or even self. Now, this was the ’90s and I know now there are classes in editing, and degrees offered in technical and professional writing. So, things are changing. Maybe? But how many people are getting their MFAs just to get them?

Anyhow, this isn’t to disparage my graduate school experience: I learned great research skills, I read a lot of literary works that I had missed or avoided in my reading life and my critical thinking skills are stronger than say the average bear.

But, I’ve had to struggle with the cannot make a living at writing thing for a long time — about two decades. I would write stories and take two or three months and polish them to perfection then submit them to one or two usually non-paying literary journals or magazines, get them rejected and pretty much give up on them. I still go through this. I’ve brought my perfectionism to my journalism and to my fiction writing still.

It’s something I work through and hope to overcome. Some of it’s rooted in fear, which I think is part of the perfectionist’s nature. But, Reading Rusch’s book has helped even with that part of me, giving me a different way of thinking.

— Todd

 

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Lesson learned

I think I learned a beginning writer’s lesson: Always read the submission guidelines thoroughly.

I submitted a short story Friday morning and about an hour later received a message that I hadn’t formatted my submission correctly. I was frustrated not only by the message, but by the complicated process of editing the submission so it would conform to the publication’s format.

Part of the frustration I felt was that the manuscript I submitted was already set up in a normally acceptable format from William Shunn. The requested format wasn’t too much of a deviation — an elimination of all references to the author’s name, supposedly for a more objective consideration of the story. But, then reading the guidelines further, the editor mentions not to use Courier. Times New Roman was preferred.

This seemed very absurd, overly picky. But I changed the font.

After resubmitting, my frustration subsided. I kept thinking about students I’ve had in the past who couldn’t get formatting. I was feeling like those students must have. And I wonder, too, if not submitting the story correctly had something to do with the quick rejection — received today.

Did it reflect on my professionalism not submitting correctly?

— Todd

Writing short

If you’ve read my story collection, The Arc of the Cosmos, you know I’m capable of writing short short fiction. And yet, I have a hard time writing short, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, although stylistically I tend toward writing lean. I just seem to have a lot of story to tell.

I am currently in the process of revising a longish short story, “Earl,” the original draft of which runs just a little over 6,800 words. As I revise, that count keeps moving up. And as I revise, I wonder if the story will end longer than it started. Which makes me wonder if my original idea is too expansive for a short story.

I love short stories, love learning how to write them. I like the “window of the world” stories present, as much as I like the expansiveness of novels.

I’m not averse to stories like Joan Didion seems to be in  this essay from Brain Pickings.  Like Didion, I like having “room in which to play.” But am I playing with too much room?

I think about this too after a recent interview—due out next month—with science-fiction writer Lou Antonelli, who is known for writing lean, swiftly moving prose. He told me his revisions tend to shorten his stories.

How much expansion is too much expansion? How much tightening is too much?

—Todd

Let the Tale Tell the Tale

Sodiviner's script, like many of my scribbler friends, in November I started a story-a-week project that resulted in me finishing two stories and getting them into slush piles (and one rejection; sent that story right back out.) I finished a third story the third week that is in the hands of my beta reader.

I started a fourth story in the fourth week. That story is still being written. It’s moving past story length into the territory of novelette or possibly novella. In some way this is discouraging because it doesn’t fit at all into the goal of writing a story a week, much less a story a month.

Still, I am determined to finish it, whatever its length, and found encouragement to carry on after reading an essay by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who wrote “But most of all these writers [referring to writers such as George R.R. Martin, Connie Willis and Robert Reed] are spectacular storytellers. They tell long stories and short stories and medium length stories and short punchy stories. They let the tale determine its own length, and they continually add to an already rich field.”

Not to say I am a spectacular storyteller by any means, but I am determined to finish this story and let the tale determine its length. Is it a good story. I hope so. I know I’m enjoying writing it. And I look forward to its outcome, whenever that comes.

My literary life: A photo essay

After completing a commercial project today, I drove across town to Avoca Coffee Roasters for a cappuccino or two. Delicious coffee and they dress them up with artful milk flowers, like this:

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Avoca is a nice little hipster coffee shop, a nice place to sip your drink, read, scribble in your notebook, and listen to an ambient selection of hip-hop and techno dance pop, and maybe a little Eminem. Or I guess that’s what the kids call it these days.

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I went here for the coffee and the experience. I flipped through the Dallas Observer and read a few pages of Rudy Rucker’s Postsingular, a trippy SF novel about out-of-control nanomachines and out-of-control people and other dimensions inhabited by “angels”.  I would stop to write in my notebook and it occurred to me that this is sort of how I imagined my literary life—sitting into cafes, sipping cappuccinos and writing. It’s a pretentious realization, I know. But, pretentious or not, it was a nice, pleasant diversion after a busy work day. And if having that sort of moment is pretentious, so what?

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The Romance of Carl and Bobbi Jo, or a Little Silliness Brought on by Wine

While playing around on Facebook and drinking wine  last night,  I composed this piece of flash fiction:

The Romance of Carl and Bobbi Jo

Another work day over, Bobbi Jo was too tired for having fun. She had been working in the coal mine.

Then Carl showed up. “Hey, Bobbi Jo, you want to slip on down to the Oasis?”

“Carl, you know I got friends in low, low places.”

Later that night, much much later. Both were drunk, Carl and Bobbi Jo. They stood on Bobbi Jo’s front porch, under amber light.

“Lord, I am so tired,” Bobbi Jo said.

“Too tired for having fun?” Carl said.

“No, hardly Carl.” She embraced Carl and kissed him deeply. “No, my dear, I want you to pretend you’ve been working in a coal mine.”

Carl was a bit slow, given the 42 shots of gin he had drunk. He stared at Bobbi Jo, puzzled.

“And you’re goin’ down, down.” She grinned.

Carl grinned, too. It was a pretty good night.

Even later:

“Oh, Carl, you spin me round, right round,” Bobbi Jo said.

“Right round?” Carl said.

“Like a record, baby. When you go down.”

Carl looked at the clock. “Baby, it’s five o’clock in the morning.”