What is “learning” anyway?

October 10, 2009 at 11:28 am (education, philosophy, Writing)

I love my NKU (Northern Kentucky University) grad program. I really do. I’ve told everyone who will listen how great it is and how much benefit I’m getting from it.

I preface my post with that because I’m about to bring up a complaint, and I don’t want it to seem like I’m just grumpy about homework and research papers (I’m not – I actually LIKE doing the homework!). My concern has to do with the critical theories we’re learning about in my Intro. to Graduate Studies class. The class itself is a great overview and I’m thoroughly satisfied; it’s the theories themselves – and by extension English Studies in general – that seems flawed.

There are many ways in which literature is analyzed and interpreted: New Critical Theory, Feminist Theory, Structuralist Theory, Queer Theory, New Historical Theory, etc. Each one looks at literature in a different way and comes up with their own – sometimes widely separated – interpretation. Their own “take” or “point” you might say. Some theories don’t even care what the author had in mind when he wrote. Some care very much. Some theories look very carefully at the text (this is called “close reading”) and other put more value on the reader’s response to the text. And so on.

While there are plenty of problems with individual theories (I’ll save that for another day), an equally large problem is with the bigger picture: Most of these theories (and their theorists) do not claim to be correct. We’re not taught to search for the exclusively “right” way to interpret. Nor to look for what a text really means. The value in these approaches is the diversity of perspective that they bring. Such diversity is touted as beneficial for the variety of viewpoints it opens us up to, but after several weeks of this I get the impression that much of theory (and I’m not condemning theory, by the way, just how it’s carried out) is just an academic exercise or a way to push a certain agenda.

So what are we “learning?” If there is supposedly no “right” or “correct” way of reading a text, but just the benefit of a diverse perspective, then what truth or knowledge are we actually gaining. Diversity for the sake of diversity, variety for the sake of variety, and perspective for the sake of perspective seem empty if there is not hard truth to be found at some point.


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Literary or entertaining

October 5, 2009 at 7:55 am (education, Writing)

Had an interesting conversation in my Fiction Class about literary short stories and their popularity (or lack there of) with the general populace. Historically, some of the most popular and well-known short-fiction writers – Poe, Twain, O’Henry, and others – were enjoyed by those outside academia. Like novelists, they were well known and widely-read. Somewhere along the line, however, writers of “serious” fiction, those stories published in literary magazine and the like, seem to have increasingly left the mainstream and often circulate mainly in the world of academia. In class we’ve commented many times on the unique style of this modern, literary fiction: it often lacks a plot and/or action and leaves the reader with a very ambiguous taste in their mouth.

As I’ve thought about this, two things strike me. One is that it’s very unfortunate that the “best” of narrative fiction is so often unattractive to the common reader . It seems that many of these stories have forgotten what a “story” is. Human beings are enthralled by good stories, captivated by them, and when a work is so obtuse that only intellectuals can enjoy it – and I use “enjoy” fairly loosely here – it has wandered from the latent power of narrative fiction and has in some ways ceased to be a “story.”

Secondly, I have realized that I have little interest in writing this brand of literary fiction. In the past – recent past – I’ve been very intimidated by this “high-brow” writing and felt that my work was far below many of these literary publications. But I’ve realized that the reason I love writing, the thing that has drawn me from childhood to put stories down on paper, is just that: STORY! To create, imagine, to build. To enthrall my reader, to take them somewhere new. I want those who read my stories to love the characters and the plot; to be entertained on the surface and be caused to think about life – their life! – at a deeper level.

That’s why I love writing. And if I’m never published by those in academia, so be it.

NOTE: Obviously, I’m making some broad generalizations here about literary fiction. This post is meant more as an expression of what I’m learning and thinking through as a writer than as a real analysis and critique of literary short fiction.

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Literary Event

October 2, 2009 at 11:32 am (education, Writing)

Attended a literary event for one of my grad school classes. It was pretty interesting and very informative so I thought I’d post my review here.

Literary Event Review

Speaker, Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Review

The first presentation of the NKU Honors Program Distinguished Speakers Series welcomed Jeanne Leiby, editor of the Southern Reiew, to give a talk entitled: “Straight-Shooting from the Top: Editing Literary Works in the Post-Feminist World and Bottom-Line Economy.”

Summary: Ms. Leiby gave a charismatic and informative talk that began with her background and wound its way naturally to the specifics of her job as editor of the Southern Review. She read a short selection from one of her own fiction pieces that gave a fictionalized account of her school years in Detroit and then moved on to describe her winding career path and the importance of a mentor in leading her to where she is – and who she is – today. The descriptions she gave about the realities of current editing and publication included the editorial and selection process current at the Southern Review, explanations on what editors are looking for in writing, and pitfalls – including plagiarism and inaccurate content – for the writer to avoid.

Reaction: I found this talk both very encouraging and – paradoxically – disheartening. On the discouraging side, Ms. Leiby pulled no punches in her description of the current state of fiction publication in America. It is driven not by quality writing as much as by market trends and, of course, profit. Publishers are interested in what sells  – right now! – and often engage in sloppy or nonexistent fact-checking on the manuscripts they approve for publication. She also described the overwhelming amount of competition in the fiction market, citing the 17,000 submissions that the Southern Review receives every year and the paltry 1-2% that are actually accepted. Her own short story, the one she read an excerpt from, was rejected over 60 times before finally being accepted and published.

However, it was not all doom-and-gloom. Especially if one applies a optimistic spin – one that would make the White House proud – to Ms. Leiby’s information and personal story.

For example: Her piece, a quality piece and worthy of publication, was rejected multiple times before someone finally saw its value. Translation: Just because a story I’ve submitted has been rejected by a few journals doesn’t mean its not good or won’t be accepted somewhere down the line. Press on! Keep trying!

Another example: Ms. Leiby has worked at a variety of jobs – including that of a horse groomer – and taken a rather winding road to get where she is today. Translation: Being a good writer, a successful writer, takes time and experience. You can’t expect immediate success. Press on! Keep trying!

One more: The fiction marketplace is filled with successful writers who plagiarize and use sloppy – or nonexistent – research in their work. Translation: I don’t plagiarize and can do great research. I can compete with these guys. I just need to press on! Keep trying!

You get the idea.

Aside from these rather emotional reactions, I found the practical information that she shared helpful as well. I didn’t know how important fact checking could be for a literary journal. Nor did I know much of the behind-the-scenes work that goes on at a literary publication.

Conclusion: This was a great night that combined good information with entertaining speaking and I’m very glad to have been in attendance. Bravo to the Honors Department and to Ms. Leiby for this beneficial event.

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September 16, 2009 at 8:52 am (Writing)

As a writer, it goes without saying that I have a great appreciation for the written word. A well constructed poem or novel or essay can be a beautiful piece of art. It can also be very powerful.

I must say, however, that sometimes I envy music’s ability to touch the heart in a way writing never will. It’s remarkable, really. With the right tune and tone and pitch (and a hundred other factors I can’t even begin to understand) music has the ability to bypass the mind and head straight for the emotions. To stir things within the human soul that have seemingly no connection to circumstances or events in the real world. Many times a song – even one without lyrics – will bring a tear to my eye, unexpected and emotion filled. That’s power.

The written word certainly has advantages as well; areas where music simply cannot compete. But there is a mystery about music that sometimes makes me jealous. I’m very glad that God included it in His creative plan and that there are people in this world who can master it for the benefit of us all.

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Fabulous find!

September 9, 2009 at 8:41 am (education, published, Writing)

One of the frustrating and time-consuming tasks that constantly faces a writer – especially a new writer – is finding the right market for their work. You slave over a story, enduring countless edits and revisions, and end up with a polished manuscript. But who will buy it? Who will read it?

In the past, the Writer’s Market has been the go-to guide. It’s published every year with updated lists of journals, magazines, webzines, and publishers. Though it is certainly helpful, however, it has some serious drawbacks. By the time it comes out, some of its content is already out of date (journals close, for example, or change their submission guidelines). This can lead to lots of wasted time as you follow leads from the book only to find that they do not match your needs (or no longer exist!). Also, you really need a computer to make the Writer’s Market useful; you have to double check information on the specific market’s website. Plus, the book is pretty expensive.

I’ve found a better way. In one of my grad classes last week, the prof showed us a website that does everything the Writer’s Market does, but better. Duotrope’s Digest is like an online search engine for markets. You simply plug in your criteria (“I have a short story, of the mystery genre, and I want to be paid as a semi-pro.”) and it comes up with a list of current markets. On top of the information on submissions right there on Duotrope, you are obviously already on the computer and can very conveniently zip over to the specific website to get more detailed info. The best part is, I’ve been told that they update very frequently; no more waiting for a hardcopy publication that’s already out of date.

And it’s free!

I haven’t used it much yet (I only found out about it last week) but I’m looking forward to exploring it. Gotta love anything that saves time!

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Critique survived!

September 3, 2009 at 10:59 am (editing, education, Writing)

Last night was my first critique for the Advanced Fiction Workshop in my grad program. Wow! Talk about pressure and intimidation. There were several points leading up to the critique where I was just sure that everyone was going to hate – absolutely disdain – the story I had submitted. All these fellow graduate students, all literary and knowledgeable and high-brow, picking my piece apart. MY piece, that I had spent HOURS on, that I felt was one of the better works I’d done. The night was destined to end badly.

Ok, so I was a bit overly-concerned. But still, it was stressful.

In the end, the comments were both encouraging and helpful. They seemed to generally like the characters, flow, plot, and structure of the story. Some of their suggestions hit on things I hadn’t even thought about, but most of them will be quick fixes (as opposed to a full “scrap-and-start-over” revision). After all my worry, it ended up being a positive night.


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Over and over

September 2, 2009 at 8:44 am (editing, Writing)

While I don’t mind editing, after awhile it becomes nearly impossible to accurately judge my own work. After reading and re-reading and then reading a piece again, I can no longer tell what sounds right and what doesn’t. Or what dialogue works and what doesn’t. I’m too close to the writing as is, and after overexposure it usually all starts to sound either really good (which undoubtedly it isn’t) or really bad (which hopefully it isn’t). I try to set a piece aside for a week or so and then come back to it fresh. This helps, but still, a few more reads and I’m back to editorial blindness.

I suppose this malady isn’t unique to me. Thank goodness for wives (and mine at least loves to be the first person to read something I’ve written), friends, and grad school classes. Tonight, as a matter of fact, my Advanced Fiction class critiques my story. I’m excited (and nervous) to hear what they have to say.

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Lookout Joe’s

August 28, 2009 at 9:26 am (cafe', Job search, Writing)

Found an excellent Coffee House in Mt. Lookout (Cincinnati). Basically, it’s a hometown Starbucks, but much more comfortable and less…refined. They do their own coffee roasting – as is evidenced by the imposing roaster, looking like an Industrial Age steam engine, sitting in the corner – and must do pretty good business. The place was packed.

If you’re wondering, “why does he keep talking about cafes?” I’ll tell you. A good coffee house, full of the proper atmosphere and caffein, is my ideal place to write. Sometimes I just have to get out of the house, and it is well worth the $3 I’ll spend to get four hours in a stimulating environment. As a matter of fact, if I were ever to work up the courage to start my own business – something with a probability similar to that of the proverbial flying swine – it would most definitely be a place like Lookout Joe’s.

But then again, if I was working, I probably wouldn’t enjoy it nearly so much.

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Advanced fiction writing

August 27, 2009 at 7:11 am (education, spiritual growth, Writing)

Began Advanced Fiction Writing grad class last night. It’s going to be great! I did get to submit my story for critique – the first in the class – and I’m looking forward to hearing what people think of it. I’m feeling a strange mixture of “its so good they’re going to be blown away” and “its so terrible I’ll be humiliated for the next three months of class.” Yes, that would be pride and the fear of man, both rolled up into one. Looks like its going to be a spiritually stretching class as well:-)

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A hesitant, reluctant, uncharacteristic knock on Starbucks…

August 25, 2009 at 5:01 pm (cafe', Writing)

I love Starbucks. As a matter of fact, I am on record as saying that there is no drink quite so perfect as a Starbucks’ mocha, and I love writing with its goodness coursing through my veins. However, I have to say that rather than paying $4 for that esteemed beverage and then sitting in an often crowded, noisy, uncomfortable setting, today I found a better way. My $4 at Panara bread got me a Jones Soda and a huge chocolate cookie; it’s quiet, comfortable – leather chair! – and I’m not paying a dime for the wireless connection I’m using to make this post.

I’m not saying that the Siren song of Starbucks caffein won’t capture me next time…but for today, contentment was found elsewhere.

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