Posts Tagged ‘mfa programs’

More than just about anybody, it was Blake Butler who inspired me to reach out toward a larger literary community  with his blog posts, his journals, his books and stories. So, I am particularly thankful that Blake took the time to chat with me about his role as a writer, editor, and publisher.

Q: A few years ago you wrote a blog post on the idea of literary citizenship. I’ve always found it an eye-opening and inspiring post–in part because for a long while I believed that a serious writer or artist should focus entirely on creating art–somewhat out of fear of being distracted or writing for the wrong reasons and somewhat because for me writing was always something done behind closed doors and when my parents weren’t looking. Was this idea of being a literary citizen natural for you? Has being an active part of a larger group of writers influenced your writing and your idea of being a writer?

A: I don’t know about being a literary citizen, but the idea of being open to ideas and motions and building off of other people in not a creative way but an energy kind of way came naturally, I think. Primarily because of it being online, and that you could do it from home on your ass, which is conductive to me because I’m bad at being motivated physically to correspond as often, particularly about books. The main value the internet has for me is this way of being able to connect with people who like the same shit you do, so why not use it and build a kind quasi-structure in this way, like the way one would in a quest videogame. If anything, it’s a wish to destroy the ego that has often surrounded literature and made it seem like a classroom rather than the yard around the school.

One thing I’m particularly interested in and impressed by is that all of your output–from journals you edit and publish to fiction to non-fiction to things like tweets–seems to share a remarkable consistent and distinctively “Blake Butler” voice. Do you have a particular voice or tone you are looking for when you begin a journal or edit an issue? Or are you just accepting work you like or soliciting writers you enjoy?

As an editor I think the common element of what I want is that it be raw: that is, not sloppy necessarily (though sloppiness can be used effectively at times), but more so a concision of vision and power that kind of ignores why it’s being made or what is being made and instead is the thing itself. A lack of formality, maybe, though as well a formal tone can be used in the manner I most like. Something that burns, perhaps, or operates out of a destructive center, where destructive can also mean becoming larger than the thing itself. I like to not fully understand, and I like things that feel full already: if I have to make suggestions or edits or something, I’m less interested, even if the edits are copy-based: I like typos and weirdism and mess ups when they contribute to that center. It should almost be as if the thing were published before it were even written.

Do you have any concerns about opening things up too much? Maybe not for you, anymore, but for younger writers or writers who are working their way up. I mean, there are benefits to being obstructed, right? To having an authority at the front of the room saying “this is how you should do things”?

Yeah I mean it’s easy, particularly online, to come off sounding like a snot no matter what you say. I think particularly early on in typing into these places I would just blather off at the head however it came on, and even if I thought I meant it at the time, and even if I meant it all with the implied “no one really knows anything about anything I’m just a fuck,” it definitely can end up blowing up in your face or seeming like too much. No tone online means people will often assume the worst about you as a person, and I guess I’ve made splashy sounds that made others think I’m some kind of Mussolini in my mind when really I think everyone is the same person. So, the longer I’ve been around it, the more careful maybe I’ve become about knowing when is the right time to spout off, and when to just keep it to myself, or to return to the truest thing for me, which is just sitting quietly and listening and doing what you need to do in silence.

I can certainly see that as a common thread in your work and in the work you publish–and it was certainly something I found particularly compelling when I discovered it.  I wonder where that moment of perception happens that there is a beauty in mistakes and weirdisms. After all, as writers we spend so much time learning how to polish and being told to polish and reading the most polished type of writing.

Did this interest in and openness to ‘raw’ writing come from editing or was it something formed out of your own work or maybe another medium?

I guess it came from having had a certain kind of excited feeling about creation when I first sat down at the machine for years, and writing basically alone without these online forums much and just banging the buttons and working in a kind of nowhere of my mind. When I went to MFA school, and the more I was around the mind of a certain kind of literary journal culture, which I became obsessed with, I went through a phase of trying to ‘act like a real boy’ or something, to try to clean away what now I think of as my best strengths because they didn’t seem to fit this idea of what things are supposed to be, based on this very specific sect. And as the online world took off more and I started doing my own journals and finding more in my own original spirit of doing it for yourself and letting things fall where they lay, and just feeling way more at home and open and free in the original spirit of working in my own mind but now paired with this kind of open void spirit place where things both had no stakes and therefore had a totally different kind of brain to it, which thereby at the same time ended up turning me further inward, in my own work, and further outward, in the approach and in the milk of other people. So it was kind of just an inherent, fleshy reaction, like when one contracts a terminal disease, in this case one where the symptoms require, in my body, prolonged periods of sitting and staring into a light, and eruptions of control in the lymph and fingers.

Where is American literature going at this point, as an industry and as an art? Where do you see the future and what should our goals as writers, editors, and publishers be?

I have no idea where it’s going. I don’t see the future. I see a hole. Our goals should be to break shit without moving.

I think you’d run an interesting press. Have you ever put any thought into starting a press of your own and publishing books? And, building off of that, have you ever thought about publishing your own work?

Shane Jones and I put a book out together last year. Kristina Born’s One Hour of Television. (http://www.laminationcolony.com/LIQUIDATOR/born_ex.html). If I had more energy I’d do it again. It’s a good feeling. I don’t know what I’m doing with my mind anymore. I’ll probably end up publishing my own stuff one day, sure. I have a couple novels on my hard drive that wouldn’t probably come out any other way, but I’ll more likely just let them sit there and remain published only among the community of their peers: the jpegs and the spam. Every day I say things out loud I might do to see how it feels to say them. I do like 1 out 1,000. The one that is most inside the hole.

Read Full Post »

The subject of this chat is Matthew Salesses . Matthew is the author of a slew of stories, a very tremendous chapbook (“Our Island of Epidemics”), the forthcoming The Last Repatriate as well as the fiction editor of The Good Men Project and the former editor of Redivider. And it was these various roles (that he handles always so brilliantly) that I wanted to talk to Matthew about.

My thanks to Mr. Salesses for helping out with this ongoing series of conversations.

Q: We both went to Emerson, although apparently you were there a little after my time. There’s such a close proximity there between the publishing and the creative writing programs that I want to begin there. From my point of view, I never wanted to spend any time with the literary journals or the publishing students (except for my wife, of course) because at the time I thought a writer should entirely focus on the craft of writing and conjuring the muse, so to speak. I wonder if to any extent you had similar notions or conflicts or if you entered the program thinking about the opportunities offered by writing and editing?

A: When I decided on Emerson, the publishing thing seemed a great asset. It probably was. I didn’t take much advantage of it. I never took publishing courses, though I had a friend who ended up in the publishing program, by chance (she claims), at the same time.

I did, however, get involved with Redivider rather immediately. Part of that was an immediate network of friends that were involved with the journal (I was lucky), and part of that was a desire to enter into a community, which I thought, and probably still do think, was the thing an MFA most had to offer. I actually applied to MFAs only in NYC, San Francisco, and Boston–I didn’t know anything about funding until after the acceptances came with paltry sums.

Redivider was fantastic. A great opportunity, and one of the two best things about Emerson–the other being Margot Livesey. It was so valuable to see the behind-the-scenes process, to see what made a submission rise to the top of the pile or get immediately put aside. I also met most of the people I know now (in the writing world) through the magazine.

Q: Did those behind the scenes processes drastically affect the way you wrote?

A: I think it helped me to keep in mind that someone would be reading what I wrote and looking for a reason to keep reading or to stop. To keep reading, a reader needs to settle immediately into a compelling situation and voice. To  stop, a reader needs only an out-of-place word, or action, or cliche. It’s easy to stop reading. This sounds obvious, but when you are buying books you already know you want to read, it isn’t obvious. It’s only obvious when you are reading in the face of time or obligation.

Q: Did any of the submissions you recieved or writers you worked with at Redivider directly influence your direction as a writer?

A: In issue 7.1, I did an interview with Alexander Chee (author of the amazing novel, Edinburgh). Among other things, he says,

It’s more like teaching people to stay close to their excitement. The thing that I see so many people do with their books is they break it up into all these nutty little pieces where they’re talking to me about character development and backstory. All these phrases that were really just meant to describe something have suddenly become orthodoxies. And they’ve lost their sense of the unity of the thing. They keep asking me, “How do I develop my character?” And I say, “Tell the story?” I feel too many people are working from the wrong end of the stick. They’ve got something very abstract they’re trying to make specific and exciting, and they’re doing it in this Frankenstein’s monster sort of way. So it’s like, “Here’s my backstory sewn onto my character development sewn onto my climax, and now I add the ending and apply electricity!”

This was when I was at the end of my time at Emerson, and to hear this was to articulate a lot of what I felt was wrong with workshops. I think it is eye-opening to hear an evaluation of writing as either exciting or boring (though of course I’m paraphrasing). Exciting/boring is something a reader thinks immediately, but writers are almost trained out of this thinking by workshops. I think that many times when a writer says, more backstory, or try a flashback here, or even I don’t believe this, really what is being said is: make this more interesting. Because if a piece of writing is interesting enough, all those problems fade away. There is a Lynne Tillman quote about how she hates backstory. I am interested in why a reader wants to know more about a character’s history or not, or why a reader questions a character’s believability or not. I think what happens is, if the reader is excited by what she is reading, then those questions never come up, and if the reader is bored, then she wonders why.

I am starting to think that the most helpful critique a writer can get is for her reader to say, these are the parts where I was bored, and these were the parts where I was reading happily. I also think this is a taboo thing to say in a workshop.

I’m not saying you can’t teach writing. I think the tools learned in workshop are helpful once you start thinking about how to increase excitement in the reader–through greater stakes, more conflict, etc. But often the “technical” evaluations made in workshop are made out of a sense of obligation to the workshop setting. It can be hard for a writer to hear her own voice in the chorus of suggestions. Part of the MFA experience is finding those readers you trust and staying in touch with them later.

Q: Earlier you mentioned the importance of finding a “community.” Other than cultivating that handful of trusted readers how has this idea of community affected your writing?

I think that handful of readers is the main way. I’m not sure the community affects one’s writing so much as one’s writing life. The people you meet can provide conversation, support, motivation, opportunities, etc. They might steer your writing in a certain direction if you let it be steered, whether through pressure to publish or desire to be accepted or by stoking interest in a certain style or genre, or so on. And maybe that has happened to me to a certain extent–I write more short shorts than I might have, for example–but mostly the effect is one of infrastructure or something. I’m not explaining this well. What I’m saying is, I *think* my writing is more influenced by what I read than by my personal relationship (if such exists) to a writer, or writers.

Q: To what extent are your decisions as a writer or an editor affected by audience or venue? For instance, has your approach changed at all with your work on the Good Men Project?

I think one’s audience should certainly influence one’s writing/editing. We all know who we’re writing/editing for, even if we say it’s ourself, and even if it is. There is an audience we have an mind. I wrote a thriller last summer. I paid a lot of attention to plot. I gave my characters guns. The whole thing would have been pointless if I hadn’t tried to satisfy a reader who likes thrillers.

Also, it’s not just the writer for whom an intended audience is important. I blew through all those Harry Potter books at about a hundred pages an hour. When I started reading them, I expected to read like a certain type of reader I am not when I read The Alexandria Quartet. We make these adjustments all the time. We are happiest when our expectations are fulfilled.

There was this study done (I was told this, so can’t cite) that showed that people were far more likely to see a movie if the trailer gave away the plot than if it did not. This might seem counter-intuitive–you might think we want to be surprised–but people are mostly interested in seeing things they expect to happen happen.

All of this applies to the Good Men Project, as well. I always want to push the boundaries of a reader’s expectations–that’s what makes a reading experience in any genre, including literary, special–but I don’t want him to feel as if his expectations were misguided.

Read Full Post »