• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    by Christine Sneed

BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)


Red Pens and Other Ego-Paring Tools 

This is my post for Ploughshares this week, Jan. 24, 2011. 

In “Dr. Deneau’s Punishment,” one of eleven excellent short stories in Lori Ostlund’s Flannery O’Connor award-winning collection The Bigness of the World, the title character despairs over the current trend in American schools to reward students for their mediocrity.  Under the new regime of the militantly optimistic, the red pen is suspect, likewise the honest verbal assessment of a student’s shortcomings (which, in a college business course years ago, I learned should be termed “areas for improvement” rather than “limitations” or “weaknesses”).  Ostlund’s comic genius and astute social critique are particularly on display in the scenes where Dr. Deneau is forced to defend his desire to label his weakest reading group “The Spuds,” “The Mongrels,” or “The Chain Gang.”  (The principal’s parrying suggestion is “The Cheetahs.”)  I’ve been thinking about this story ever since I finished it a couple of weeks ago, about how Ostlund has so wittily underscored one of many recent, unsettling trends in our culture.

I’ve taught college writing courses on and off since 1995, and in graduate school, I remember receiving instructions from a student a year ahead of me:

- It’s a good idea to forgo red pens in favor of blue or green, which aren’t as likely to make students feel like they have been slapped.

- It’s not a good idea to cross out a student’s words and replace them with your own.  The better strategy is to put the poorly chosen words in parentheses.  (I’ve wimpily used this tactic for years but have found that sometimes it confuses, the, uh, Mongrels – on one revision, a student simply copied the parentheses onto her second draft, not realizing that the words needed to be replaced by better ones).

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Dead Stories: When to Say When

This is a cross-posting with the Ploughshares' blog.  I'm writing a weekly article for them through April 2011. 

The harsh truth is this: sometimes it’s time to give up.  It can and often does take years for me to reach the decision to stop sending out a poem or prose piece because giving up is so antithetical to what most of us have been taught about the writing and publishing business.  We’re told repeatedly by our best teachers to be survivors, to turn the other cheek when we’re slapped with another rejection letter.  We’ve been given examples of now-famous writers who repeatedly submitted their manuscripts to uninterested editors, and in some extreme cases, died before their genius was celebrated in dorm rooms and book clubs everywhere.  (I’m thinking of John Kennedy O’Toole and of Nabokov’s Lolita in particular, though fortunately, in the second instance, the author lived to see his masterpiece praised and canonized). 

I have submitted some of my stories dozens of times to various self-respecting journals and in a few cases, I’ll probably continue to send them out until my mugshot joins the line-up on the US Post Office’s Most Wanted wall (my crime being jaw-dropping vanity).  One of the three previously unpublished stories in my first collection, Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, was rejected more than fifty times.  I refused, however, to believe that it had few merits and defiantly included it in the manuscript that won AWP’s 2009 Grace Paley Prize in short fiction.  A few of my early readers mentioned how much they liked this story without me needling them for praise, and each time, I felt a moment of relieved vindication. 

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Why Do We Do It? 

I’m not sure how other fiction writers and poets feel about the choice they’ve made to ignore friends and family and the world at large in order to spend innumerable hours alone in a room with the door closed, computer screen or blank page glaring at them, but the sorry fact is, I can’t imagine not doing it, just as I can’t imagine a life without windows and doorknobs.  When I was in the seventh grade at Highland School in Libertyville, Illinois, I developed the habit of writing tortured love poems about boys who never looked twice at me unless it was to laugh at my frizzed-out hair and oversized ‘80s glasses.  I assumed that you had to have some sense of yourself as having been chosen (by a god or a demon, maybe both) in order to lay claim to the writer’s magic cloak of eloquence.  I didn’t have access to any cloaks, nor did I think that supernatural beings, good or evil, had my number.  (But wait! I did kiss the Blarney Stone on a chilly May afternoon in 1992, which was rumored to impart eloquence to the foolish few who lay down on their backs and suspended themselves over a rickety grate on the roof of a medieval Irish castle to kiss it.  The rumor was that mischievous boys also liked to pee on it.)

            My junior year in college, however, I decided that I didn’t have to wait around for someone to tell me I could write and go on to inflict this writing on people who had previously liked me.  This was the same year that I studied in France and visited many museums in major European cities and got the sense that maybe I could become a part of a conversation that had less to do with where I would buy my next mini-skirt and more to do with how it felt to understand that people everywhere had frizzed-out hair and suffered from unrequited crushes and somehow also recovered from them well enough to write triumphant blogs about what it means to be a writer in 2010, one who drinks too much soda and worries about her friends’ happiness and her neighbor’s alarming tendency to shriek loudly after midnight (because of a video game, I think, rather than because someone is beating him bloody). 

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Eat, Pray (That This Movie Ends Before Your Next Birthday) and Cast Aspersions on Those Who Grossly Misinterpreted a Good, Entertaining Book  

   If I mention the screen adaptation of a popular novel or non-fiction book, it often results in the eye-rolling disdain of my movie- and book-loving friends.  Still, despite the flops, there have been a number of notable successes: Dr. Zhivago, Ordinary People, Schindler’s List, Chocolat, Cider House Rules, Election, Wonder Boys, Into the Wild, The English Patient (there’s even a memorable Seinfeld episode based on this movie’s appeal to women, and whether or not you too had a crush on Ralph Fiennes, there were a lot of other things to admire about it).  I can even think of one case where the movie was much better than the book – The Bridges of Madison County (with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep as the leads, it seemed a pretty likely success, but there’s also the fact the screenwriter was able to spin straw into something resembling gold).

            When the source material is very good, I think our expectations are even higher (though we’re just as likely to feel pessimistic about the film’s chances of being a faithful and nuanced adaptation).  After I learned of its summer release, I looked forward to seeing the movie version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love.  A friend had given me the book two or three years ago, and it sat on the shelf until this past March when a Facebook discussion on the fiction writer Laura van den Berg’s wall motivated me to read it.  I know that Eat, Pray, Love has been the source of a lot of literary controversy, some of it waged in the strangled tones of the Seriously Aggrieved.  How dare Gilbert complain about her perfect New-York-City-GQ-world-traveler-writer’s life! How dare she leave her husband and nice house to search for fulfillment in Italy-Bali-India just because she’s going through a rough patch! Doesn’t everyone go through rough patches? And she at least had the money to see a shrink.  Harrumph.  She also seemed to have several dozen brilliant friends to bitch to about her sorrow and existential despair and disaffection!  Not to mention the fact she also got to have sex with a super-cute actor guy right after she dumped her husband on his lame, suburban ass!  And then she got to have sex with this dreamy South American guy who fell in love with her and she with him!  Damn that *&%$ bitch! 

Probably I’m making a few enemies by saying this (if I haven’t already based on what immediately precedes this paragraph), but I think the main source of Gilbert’s critics’ outrage can be summed up in this way:  How dare she take her personal problems and turn them into a highly readable, erudite, witty memoir that also happened to make her a lot of money.  A book that might also be the book of her career: there’s so much in it that works, so much self-effacing humor and sympathy and a sheer love of life with all of its felicities and surprises and possibilities.  It’s a book I’ve been recommending to my students and a lot of other people.  It affirms why I love to write, to travel, to be in love, and why, candidly, I love to be alive. 

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The Long(er) View 

My inaugural blog post! 

A little over a year ago, I was invited to guest edit prose submissions for an American literary journal that has been in existence for many years.  It has a devoted subscriber base, and the poems and stories its editors select often appear in the annual "Best of" anthologies. 

I was a contributor to a recent issue and one of several fiction writers and poets who were asked to guest edit for an upcoming issue.  The editors assigned me 600 submissions which I downloaded from the journal's Submission Manager. (In case you're not familiar with this Web software, it was created by Devin Emke several years ago and has since been adopted by dozens of journals and presses because it reduces the waste and expense of paper submissions.  It also allows many journals' far-flung screeners easy access to the hundreds, often thousands, of submissions that literary journals receive during their open reading periods.)

The journal I was guest editing for accepts submissions year-round, both paper and online.  They do not charge a fee for online submissions, but many journals now do.  In the download from the journal's Submission Manager that I did last March, there were 7,600 files.  I was humbled, appalled, and a little bit dazzled.  So many hopeful writers, so many poems, short stories and essays.  These 7,600 submissions were only a portion of what the four main editors read through every year.  I have no idea how many paper submissions they also receive.   Probably at least several hundred a month.  The editors are inundated, obviously, and it usually takes a full year to receive a response from them on unsolicited submissions.  Not ideal, but writers do get a fair, patient reading of their work, and simultaneous submissions are allowed.

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