Monday, January 28, 2013

That Great Cathedral Space: My First Year Post-MFA, Part Two

“I don’t know. Emma as you see is the foundation
of my house. Toni is the perfume in the air.”

~ Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method

Everyone believes they’re a writer until they realize the expenditure. It is only then that most (not all, but almost most) recognize that they were only pretending.
            I’ve found myself having to mistressize my writing. I’m forced to hide it away in my office (when the baby is napping and the wife is busy struggling to decide how to properly consume her own little crumb of free time), at work on my breaks, in the “super-secret” notepad app on my IPhone, and various writing journals I’ve covertly deployed throughout our townhouse. I hide it from friends. I hide it from family. Most importantly, I hide it from my wife because—in the event that we do have free time—she (as well as I, because I am the caring husband-type, despite what I’ve written beforehand) usually likes to spend it together, given that we never, ever, ever get any time alone. And there is where the legendary “rub” lies.
            For persons like myself who didn’t grow up with a whole lot, survival becomes a desperate game of shadow boxing against your environment/condition, because poverty behaves like a bully: every day slapping you across the face and kicking you in the solar plexus. You’re left with no choice but to develop an imaginary feud with it—a feud you learn to carry every single day of your life, for the duration—until it carries you out of that margin and into that great cathedral space that you can’t help but only imagine exists above it.
            Now, as it relates to writing and the writing life, this is an approach that the serious writer has to assume in order to survive. I’m not advising writers to approach writing with a combative attitude—save that for Call of Duty marathons online. I’m simply suggesting that an aggressive attitude can and will keep the keyboard, and you, alive. Let’s face it: this lovely game of ours, in its own twisted way, does function similarly to online battle games, save for one major difference: even though failure begets the same sort of figurative death, the aim is survival and not just mindless carnage.
            I’ve managed to lift myself out of that margin and into a better place, however, not without a few spells of knuckling-up. And even while I am more than happy with the situation I find myself in, I’m still not completely satisfied with it—not without the level of writing/professional success that I’ve come to expect out of myself. My wife, my daughter are the foundations of my life. However, writing will always be that lovely “perfume in the air.” It’s another little feud I’ll have to carry-on forever, but one what I’m willing to uphold at any and all costs.
            Why? Because a writer lives the way a shark does: we swim constantly and endlessly or else we float to the surface and die off. 

A graduate of Florida Atlantic University's MFA program, Michael J Pagan's work has appeared in The Rumpus, DIAGRAMThe Coachella Review, The Nervous Breakdown, CommuterLit, Gone Lawn other publications. He is a fiction reader for Burnside Review. He lives in Deerfield Beach with his wife and daughter where he continues work on his first poetry manuscript, With a Bullet, Sparrow Voices, along with his first stage play, PING. You can read his blog, The Elevator Room Company, here:

Monday, January 14, 2013

A New Year for new habits (good ones)

Writing is an act of pure discipline.  No one demands I transfer thoughts (hopefully significant) to paper or computer screen.  No one leans over my shoulder or paces around the table encouraging me or yelling at me to get it done. 

Due to the metamorphosis of thought into written language, the solitary process of writing requires an enormous amount of discipline.  We’re taking the already difficult attempt at communication, and then striving to construct a complex piece of literature.  As writers, our task lies in this evolution of communication.  Some people might say, “I write for myself.”  While this is a great starting point (and the only one I know of), the completed work should ideally be accessible to some sort of target audience. 

I’ve strayed from discussing my point about discipline, but I think my purpose behind writing should be revealed in order to provide a reason for developing fierce, and I mean fierce, discipline.  I recently finished Stephen King’s memoir about his life as a writer (thanks, Meg Mary, for lending me the book).  King states that to be a true writer, you must take that shit serious - you can’t tinker with it here and think about it there.  In his early years, every day after work he closed the door of the laundry room in his doublewide and wrote for four hours.  Door shut, alone in a room, balancing a typewriter on his lap, he worked while his wife (who has always supported him and is a published author in her own right) watched the children - he existed in a sphere of solitude and self-discipline (I don’t intend to sound sexist, for the women writers the husband can sit his ass in the other room watching the children and leave you to your work as well).  

During my first semester fiction workshop with Professor Furman, we read a book about Emerson on writing, and an Emerson quote stuck with me: "The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when your arrows are spent."  To me, Emerson is stating that writing is an all or nothing endeavor, so to be a serious writer you can’t half-ass it.

I can be extremely undisciplined by nature, so striving for rigorous self-control can be a brick wall sometimes, but once I get that first sentence down, the brick wall begins to fade, thoughts connect, and I make sure to ride that momentum to at least 500 words.  Which to me is not near enough (and I don’t write 500 words a day, but when I can, I sure as hell do).  I think King remarked that he writes 2,000 words a day. 

I’m not saying we all have to be as prolific as Stephen King, but what we do is not what “normal” people do, therefore, we must be abnormal in our work ethic.  In order to become writers, I believe we must go beyond other peoples’ capabilities in terms of perseverance and work ethic. 

A few notable authors’ writing habits:

Maya Angelou - 10–12 pages of material a day, which she edits down to three or four pages in the evening.

Graham Greene - counted each word, and would stop for the day at 500, even if he were in the middle of a sentence.

James Joyce – “In the pantheon of great writers of the last century, Joyce looms large. And while more prolific writers set themselves a word or page limit, Joyce prided himself in taking his time with each sentence. A famous story has a friend asking Joyce in the street if he’d had a good day writing. Yes, Joyce replied happily. How much had he written? Three sentences, Joyce told him” (  (Personally, I’d suggest writing more, we can’t all be James f-ing Joyce, nor should we be.)

Jack London - between 1,000 and 1,500 words each day.

Joyce Carol Oates – “I try to begin work as early as possible, 8:30 a.m., perhaps, and I try to work until past noon or 1 p.m. I try again to write in the evening. Much of my writing is ‘remembering’—I imagine scenes, entire chapters while running or walking—I am very dependent upon this meditative quiet time.”

Currently, Ben Hill Parham is an MFA - Fiction student and GTA of English composition in the FAU creative writing program.  He grew up in LaGrange, GA drinking beer around big fires.