I’m going to wax on a bit about my love of writing here, but to a pointed end. Please indulge me a bit with this post.
Writing is, to me, a supremely paradoxical effort. We romanticize the solitary nature of it when in fact it’s often so populated with collaborators sometimes it’s hard to know what’s yours anymore. I came to realize this most in graduate school, where everything I wrote went through the gauntlet of a workshop group. We all understood that nothing was firm, that everything was a draft in search of abandonment.
I appreciated my fellow graduate students more than they can understand, since I’m not a gushy person. (I married a gushy person, and it has made my life all the better. I’m learning. Slowly.)
Writing and reading for a solid 2 years of graduate school, I learned the greatest gift that reading and writing offer – empathy. The sheer amount of living in someone else’s perspective, be it through writing or reading, leaves fingerprints on the soul. It does so in a way that movies, tv, plays, and any other medium where you aren’t directly inside the character (unless you’re doing the acting), simply cannot. Actors are sympathy generators. Novels live in empathy. Neil Gaiman defended our need for libraries in a lecture posted on The Guardian said much the same:
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
When Robert Bly stopped by campus to talk to a poetry workshop group, I sat in. I won’t forget what he said – that the best thing about MFA programs is simply finding people who get you and who get your work. You need to hold on to them, he said. They’re the ones who will help you get what you want out of your writing.
Another thing I got out of MFA school was a feeling of community. We read each other outside of class. I spent one summer workshopping pieces with two other students just because we knew this time of dedication to fiction was fleeting and we would be wasting that gift by taking the summer off. When one of Becky’s workers at her writing center was working on a short story and she asked me to help him, I didn’t hesitate. This is normal.
Writers are nothing if not in need of the crucible of readers, particularly readers who know how to articulate what they read in helpful ways.
During my graduate program, I also took an intro to publishing course, part of which included a field trip to Minneapolis to visit various publishing-related businesses and non-profits. One stop was the Loft Literary Center. I found their mission inspiring. “The Loft advances the artistic development of writers, fosters a thriving literary community, and inspires a passion for literature.” I wished I lived in the cities to take advantage of their classes and space for writing.
10 years later, we live in the cities, and Becky signed me up for my first Loft classes. I even signed up for two free classes they were offering through the library system. The first of which was “Selecting Literary Agents,” taught by Brian Malloy.
This 90-minute class was an education in how little the Loft lives up to its stated mission. There was so much wrong with it, I have to resort to a bullet list.
- Malloy told us how he didn’t get published until his fourth book, and that was through the slush pile. In short, he never got agent representation until AFTER he got a book offer. Yet he was teaching this class on how to find an agent.
- He spent an inordinate amount of time disabusing the attendees of any notions that they would ever earn money or be published. So much for “inspiring a passion.”
- Some time spent on what rights you should expect with a publication, which seems a bit cart before horse, but this is a minor point.
- Several name drops of people he knows.
- The sum total of his information on finding agents – listing two websites to do a search for one.
- The students spent 5 minutes doing in-class writing of query letters – for no reason. We didn’t look at each other’s or read any out loud. So much for “community.”
Having had some success with my query letter, I thought maybe, just maybe I could salvage the evening with a gut check reaction. I’ve had requests for my manuscript, but it’s not at a batting average I think a better letter could get. I’m always tweaking this letter. I thought maybe Malloy could take a quick look at my current draft and simply point me in a direction to focus on – nothing more than a skim and 10 words. My letter is about 220 words long, which is less than the first 4 paragraphs of this post.
Hell, it wasn’t even as if I needed it. I’ve had many people with better qualifications look over my letter and give me feedback. But I figured why not, one more opinion won’t hurt. Still, I was nervous. I’d been out of the fiction community for so long, hiding in blogs and narrative journalism. I gathered my courage.
I queued up my computer, waited patiently for the class to disperse and a few stragglers to ask Malloy questions. He was gathering his things as I approached and asked “I was wondering if you could do me a favor and take a skim of my query letter for a gut level reaction?”
“I’m sorry, I only do that for my students,” he replied.
My physical reaction to this was that icewater rush in your guts you get when you finally get enough courage to try something and are crushed with a few words. My face felt numb. He was packed up and out of the room before I could even close my laptop.
It’s been nearly 10 years since graduate school now. I poured everything I had into my novel. Revised it dozens of times. I had several close calls with it – even an offer of publication that Becky and I determined was not enough to say yes. I gave up two years of my life to work on this novel, and it’s been sooo hard to get motivated to do it again. After years of Becky’s encouragement, I’ve finally started the process of coming back to fiction. Part of that motivation was the Loft opportunities.
I imagine a writer without a strong background with writing, without a Becky in his corner, just struggling to find the courage to share with anyone, and being met with such an answer, and I feel even shittier about what happened.
Later that night, I told Becky about the encounter and class. She went into full Mama Bear mode and emailed the Loft a very angry letter explaining what happened and how the class failed to live up to the Loft’s mission and the description of the course. She also threw in our relevant background of multiple graduate degrees, teaching experience and more so they would know we knew what we were talking about.
The response she got from the director of education at the Loft is an object lesson in missing the point, which seems particularly ironic. The condescension and lack of empathy makes one wonder why the writer is in the literary field at all. I’ll let it speak here:
I’m so sorry the Loft’s October 7 First Pages session wasn’t able to meet the needs of your husband.
(Good start here, but we’re about to take a quick turn into defensiveness and not giving a shit about your complaint)
Brian Malloy’s First Pages presentations have indeed been vetted and evaluated by me, as have all of his Loft classes. He has over a decade’s worth of history at the Loft, as well as at institutions such as Emerson College in Boston and the University of Minnesota, as one of the highest ranking teaching artists we have, through both student evaluations and performance reviews. He is, and will continue to be, a valuable asset to the Loft’s education programs. Evaluations from this First Pages presentation reflect a high degree of satisfaction with the material covered; I’m sorry your experience different.
(I think she means Emerson to be impressive here, and it might have been to someone who hadn’t gone to graduate school at Boston College ((double snap!)). Also, note the “vetted and evaluated by me,” subtext = I think it’s fine, so I don’t care what you think. Also no mention that both Becky and I have a decade of college teaching experience, have attended hundreds of undergrad and grad writing and literature classes, and might, just might, have some valid points.)
First Pages sessions are structured as very brief introductions to basic craft and practical aspects of creative writing and publishing; there is no way a teaching artist can address individual needs of individual students in such a short time frame.
(Hence why I waited until the very end before asking. If more people had been doing it, I wouldn’t have. Also, your own website says that these First Pages sessions are for “writers of all levels, abilities, and backgrounds.”)
I encourage teaching artists to answer participant questions within the 90 minute time frame of a session. I encourage them NOT to read student work – including query letters, manuscripts, short stories, novels, poems, etc – in addition to teaching their session, as this is outside the scope of what a First Pages session is for. This is also outside the scope of the service they have been contracted to provide.
(Would have been good to know before attending. Would have been good to know that you encourage your teachers NOT to engage directly with the work of others. Even something 1/3 the length of Becky’s letter about the situation and shorter than your response letter. I understand the risk here, as a former writing teacher, that you get sucked into reading someone’s 20-page short story on your own time ((though I have)). Again, I wasn’t asking much more than the courtesy and dignity I would afford anyone in a class – whether a student or colleague.)
Many of these writers provide critique services and writing instruction via Loft classes and their own businesses; asking them to provide such services for free would not be an equitable practice for the Loft to engage in.
(As writers, we are aware of this, I regularly see freelance job posts like this that amount to asking a writer to work for almost nothing, but thanks for condescending as if I’m not in the business. Again, no mention of this was in the class description. Had I known this was a mere opportunity for a writer to get paid to talk about what can be found in the introduction of any query letters book ((I’ve read several, currently reading this one)) and not provide any practical advice, I wouldn’t have wasted my time as you have wasted the time of the dozen participants who know about as much after this class as they did before on how to find and select an agent. I’m not trying to come off entitled here, but fear that is how it appears. At the very very least, he could have recommended reaching out to such a service, or better yet, to check out local writing groups.”
We pride ourselves on being able to pay writers for their services, as much as we pride ourselves on providing valuable educational opportunities for a diverse population of writers at all levels. I’m so sorry you – or your husband – feel this free opportunity to learn from the unique experience of a published and award winning author was not one of those valuable experiences.
(Really piling on the corporate speak here, isn’t she? Again, just reiterating the qualifications of the writer without acknowledging the very real and clear concerns ((see bullet points if you forgot)) we raised or addressing those concerns. Just a whole lot of “I hear you, but your problem doesn’t exist, because qualifications!” And more subtext = It’s free so quit yer bitchin’. I appreciate that the Loft is able to pay writers for their services, except for when ask writers to work for free, but like the Huffington Post, they offer exposure!)
It sounds like your husband is well on his way to achieving literary success of his own; I wish you both continued good fortune in your literary endeavors and thank you for taking the time to get in touch.
I’d like to give Ms. Dodgson the benefit of the doubt she didn’t take the time to give us, to “This is Water” her. Perhaps she’s unused to adults with experience taking courses through the loft, and they are more used to novice dreamers throwing money at them in hopes it will magically make their books happen. Perhaps since this is a free program, I should just accept that it isn’t awesome. Maybe she’s got kids and it’s MEA week and the last thing she needs is someone complaining about the stuff she works all day to schedule and publicize. She’s doing good work for writers who don’t have many sources of income. But at the bottom, all this letter says to me is “I don’t care.”
On the plus side, after calling and leaving a message, they did refund us the whole cost of the upcoming class I had already paid for. Usually they only refund 85%. And the message she left on my phone was pleasant enough without addressing the complaint. And to be fair, I did attend one of the paid classes, which was well done, though not enough to wash the bad impression from my memory.
I know the effect her letter had on us as writers struggling to find a voice – it was ultimately stifling. Becky’s been pretty crushed by the whole experience and is finding reasons to continue writing at all incredibly difficult. Thanks for that, Loft.
And so, having dipped our trembling toes into the waters of the local writing community and finding the water freezing, we withdraw back into the unknown.