A Mini-Rant Prompted by the Nobel Prize for Literature

By now you are probably aware that the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature is J.M.G. Le Clézio.

Thanks to my beloved mentor, I am one of the apparently few Americans who’d heard of Le Clézio before last week. But frankly, I’m less concerned with the implications of this choice and the bewilderment it seems to have provoked among American writer-bloggers than I am about other things that point to some grains of truth within Nobel juror’s Horace Engdahl’s much-criticized comments about the “insularity” and “isolation” of the United States and its writers.

I’m far less bothered by the collective “Who?” that greeted the Nobel Committee’s announcement this year, for example, than I am by the fact that the same bemused question met an instructor’s reference to another French writer (Stendhal) in my own (American) MFA program.

And I’m much less troubled by the paucity of American readers-at-large who would be able to read Le Clézio in the original (since only a tiny fraction of his books is available in English translation) than I am by the honors students in a program I used to teach in at Harvard who tried to petition their way out of a very light “foreign literature” requirement for students who weren’t studying a “foreign” literature as part of their program specializiation (for instance, those focusing on the United States and/or Great Britain, rather than those choosing to concentrate on France, Germany, Latin America, or a host of other options).

These students had among their champions a colleague of mine who proclaimed at a departmental meeting: “If that requirement had been in place when I was a student here, I wouldn’t have graduated.” My take at the time: Either we have a requirement, or we don’t have a requirement. But listing requirements in a program catalogue without enforcing them, and worse, without asking students to demonstrate how they’ve synthesized this “other” work into their larger course of study–whether we were talking about the “foreign literature” requirement or the “foreign history” requirement (subsequently renamed the “America in the World” requirement), as this colleague and too many others were perfectly willing to let the students do, incensed me. (The long battle that had to be waged to get that “America in the World” requirement organized would be evidence enough to support Engdahl’s comments, but that’s another story.)

If we don’t expect undergraduates and graduate students who are specializing in literary studies of various sorts to go beyond their own comfort zones and to graduate having looked outside themselves, their own time periods, and their own countries, how can we expect it of anyone else?

On Rosh Hashanah

For those of you unfamiliar with Jewish holidays, today is a big one. I won’t be blogging, but will be back tomorrow. If you’d like to learn more about Rosh Hashanah, which I am celebrating today, please click here.

School Days

Anne’s recent post about her high school and Boston magazine’s coverage of a high school lots of my college classmates attended (there were so many alumni of Newton North High School in my dorm, which was officially named “North House,” that the place was nicknamed “Newton North House”) have reminded me that I owe my own alma mater of the 1980s some congratulations. Millburn High School has been named the best public high school in New Jersey, and that’s impressive.

As miserable as I was most days I walked through its doors (and routinely I do thank God those years are over), I owe Millburn High School a lot. I owe it introductions to and quality time spent with Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sinclair Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dreiser, Shakespeare, Racine, Stendhal, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, W.E.B. Du Bois, Arthur Koestler, and so many others. I owe it the experience of co-editing-in-chief the school newspaper and helping to produce literary magazines in two languages. I owe it the confidence imparted by those faculty and staff who saw something worth cultivating and encouraging in me and my work. I owe it a lot of things that have contributed, in various ways, to my development as a writer. (And let’s not forget the most important practical skill that the Millburn public schools gave me: the ability to type, courtesy of that 12-week “related arts” course back in seventh grade.)

So, in this back-to-school season, allow this alumna to express some long-delayed appreciation for the best public high school in New Jersey.

A Personal Digression

Please forgive the personal digression, but as many of you know, as much as I self-identify as a practicing writer my favorite role these days is as “Aunt Erika”. Today marks five years since I officially earned the title. Read all about it (and see some “archival” newborn photos of my niece) at my sister’s blog.

Response to a Reader: Getting It All Done

I have been receiving some of the most flattering e-mails from you folks lately. I want to thank you for telling me how much this blog (and the newsletter) mean to you. Really. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.

One of our readers included a question with her kind words. Here’s an excerpt from her e-mail:

How do you do it all?

You recently posed your own question to your blog readers–how does one prioritize, versus “just” set goals?–and related to that, I would like to know what your basic weekly schedule looks like. How do you keep up with the various facets of this varied industry, talked about in so many journals, blogs and other media; teach (and prep for teaching); write (both fiction and nonfiction, and now poetry); read (both for pleasure and for reviews); submit; go to literary events (even just the informal, ‘easy’ ones, like readings); expand to new projects; whatever else I’m neglecting to mention; and sleep and eat? And just think. Or just relax.

[….]I would appreciate your inspiration as well as your concrete, specific ideas (the latter even more so, at this point): How and in what form do you create your to-do ‘lists’? Do you say, wake up by reading a set group of blogs and journals, to always start up-to-date; are lunch hours reserved for pleasure reading (and eating)? You obviously have a good model, and I’d greatly appreciate the opportunity to use it, or adapt it, as well.

Wow! Our reader gives me A LOT of credit. Much more than I deserve.

I’m certainly not satisfied with the amount of reading I’m doing, or with the number of literary events I see listed in Time Out New York but somehow don’t manage to attend. And I shouldn’t receive kudos for teaching or fiction writing these days. As you’ll see if you continue reading through the response I’ve cobbled together for my correspondent:

1) I’ve learned to say “no.” I’ve learned to accept that it’s OK to move on from certain projects and commitments when the time seems right. For example, after one semester teaching my online book reviewing course for the Lesley University MFA program while simultaneously settling into my full-time desk job in New York, I went on a teaching hiatus. While I’m considering returning to teaching in adult education and one-time seminar settings, I’m not taking on any semester-long commitments right now. It’s just too much for me. Similarly, I’ve cut back on producing new e-books/guides (and those I once updated quarterly now receive semi-annual updates). I’ve even retired some of the guides as I’ve the purposes they served (providing lists of short fiction or poetry markets, for example) handled better elsewhere. So I do manage to open up time and mental space for new projects (sometimes!).

2) I use technology, to the extent I’m able. This may seem silly, but my research moved exponentially faster once I switched from dial-up just a few years back. Also, I’m now able to draft some blog posts ahead of time, and schedule them for publication so I don’t have to allow drafting time before work each morning. Those are just two examples. If you’re more tech-savvy than I am–and trust me, there’s an overwhelming likelihood that you are–technology will likely help you with your writing practice, too.

3) I do indeed check the same set of blogs/sites more or less daily, first thing. This may sound odd, but having accumulated a set of resources that I know and trust really makes my information-collecting life much easier.

4) I use my lunch hour for correspondence with editors, more Internet research, blog/newsletter work, etc.

5) I try to update my immediate to-do list each week (usually Sundays). I exchange a list with another practicing writer (a poet). I print out the list after I e-mail it and keep it in my organizer (see, I really am a Luddite–I use a leather-bound organizer).

6) I try to maximize and combine as much as possible. For instance, next month I’ll be attending a writers’ conference, where I’ll focus on fiction more intensively than I’ve been able to do for months. Said conference is in Paris, a city dear to my heart that I haven’t visited for years. Vacation time is especially precious now that I’m a 9-5 gal again. So being able to focus on my writing in a place I’ve been longing to return to makes particular sense for me. (Bonus: It turns out that I will overlap briefly in Paris with one of my best friends, a college roommate who shares my Francophilia; we now live several states apart, so I’ll get in some quality staying-in-touch-with-those-important-to-me time as well.)

7) I get adequate sleep. Although there was a time when I could function on relatively little sleep, that time has passed. I need my sleep, and I make sure I get it. That helps, too.

Finally, though I’m not about to recommend it as a “strategy,” I should acknowledge that I do not have children of my own. Although I do spend a lot of time with the precious little ones in my life (for which I am indescribably grateful; I know that my life–and my writing–is the better for it), I do not have the all-consuming responsibilities of parenthood. And I certainly recognize that that frees up quite a lot of time and energy. It also seems relevant to add that I’m in good health (knock wood); there have been stretches when I was less productive than I might have been because, frankly, I wasn’t. (This public declaration should hopefully encourage me to stop testing fate and start exercising more regularly and rigorously, not to mention getting a little more strict with myself nutrition-wise.)

That’s about all I can come up with right now. Yes, I could agonize over how “complete” this answer is, and/or try to revise it further. But I’m going to stop. And go on to something else.

Anyone else have productivity pointers to share? Please do so, in comments!

Goals and Priorities

Recently, one of my practicing writer friends, in what I’m sure was an effort to be helpful (since I was rambling on about various writing-related ideas and projects), asked me what my priorities are. I was stumped. Goals, I have a-plenty. But what are my priorities? And isn’t it possible that I need to identify them (the priorities) in order to accomplish those goals?

Here’s what I mean. According to the dictionary, a goal is “the result or achievement toward which effort is directed; aim; end.” My writing goals have changed over time. When I was applying to MFA programs seven-plus years ago, for example, I wanted to see the novel I was working on then published. And I wanted a tenure-track job teaching creative writing. Now, those goals are simply not among my priorities.

Which is to say, they are not things “given special attention”; they do not have “the right to precede others [as in, other goals], in order, rank, privilege, etc.”; they do not have “the right to take precedence in obtaining certain supplies [like my time and attention], services, facilities, etc., especially during a shortage.” Between my full-time “day job” and my family involvements at the moment–two priorities that are without question at the top of my day-to-day mental list–and a couple of non-writing goals that should probably be priorities (like exercising more often and eating more nutritiously and exploring more fully all that New York has to offer), there is indeed a “shortage” of resources I can devote to my writing goals.

Clearly, I’m more committed to my current writing activities and projects than I am to that abandoned novel and job search. What’s not so clear to me is how I should prioritize all the pieces of my writing life, both those already under way (like trying to place the story collection many agents and independent presses have already turned down [most recently, last week]; maintaining this blog and the Practicing Writer newsletter; writing and revising new poetry and prose and submitting that work, etc.) and those goals that are still nothing more than ideas in my head (like creating some particular new resources for other writers and acquiring the skills and expertise to run my own small press, for starters).

Any tips? How do you prioritize your goals? This practicing writer needs to know!