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The following post was cowritten with Ian Prichard and originally published on TreeHouse (“Awe, Anxiety, and the Anti-Oprah: An Evening with Jonathan Franzen”) on November 29. It has also appeared on At the Wellhead (“Oprahsbane”).

 

Jonathan Franzen was at the Newport Beach Public Library on a perfect fall night in late October, and so were Ian Prichard and I.

One of the keenest and most celebrated observers of the American condition of the century thus far, Jonathan Franzen is known equally well for his fiction (The Corrections, Freedom) as he is for his essays and reportage (How to Be Alone, Farther Away). Whether he’s translating Karl Kraus or detailing the plight of slaughtered songbirds or developing complex, comedic pitfalls for his fictional characters, one of Franzen’s main themes is disintegration: of society, the environment, literary culture. He’s been (not so lightly) chided by hoi polloi and the intellectual elite alike for his attitude, which is often read as snobbery – and which he’s just as often owned and defended: “Difficulty tends to signal excellence; it suggests that the novel’s author has disdained cheap compromise and stayed true to an artistic vision. […] Pleasure that demands hard work, the slow penetration of mystery, the outlasting of lesser readers, is the pleasure most worth having” (“Mr. Difficult”).

Time

Time

My writer friend Ian had spent the previous couple days at a writer’s conference, learning about SEO and platform-building and audience-generation and how you, too, can be a Published Author! and basically, like, how the timeshare actually pays for itself! after year six. He was actively looking forward to a little literary snobbery. I was submitting my MFA thesis, a 172-page excerpt from the novel I’ve been writing for the last six years, in four days and should have been home finishing the last chapter and critical statement. But this was Jonathan Franzen – my literary hero and intellectual idol of the same past six years – and he was going to be a twenty-minute drive away.

Neither of us was missing this, and neither was disappointed.

We’ll start where Franzen did, at the title of his lecture: “Storytelling and the Modern World.”

“You know,” he said, “they ask you to submit the titles to these things so long in advance. I thought, Am I not a storyteller? Is this not the modern era?” He shrugged, we laughed. “I can say whatever I want.”

“I was glad it wasn’t an interview,” he went on. “Interviews get annoying after a while. They ask you the same questions, none of which were interesting the first time.” But and therefore, he said, he was going to interview himself. He’d come up with and answered eleven questions no one had ever asked him before, some of which were fairly straightforward (his favorite joke) and others of which were a bit more complex. Like the very first question: “What role have envy and competition played in your life as a writer?”

“No one has ever asked me that before!” he said with glee, and was off. What followed were forty-five minutes of familial quips, societal harangues, collegial (and not-so-) jabs, self-deprecating jokes, and emotional admissions. This is our attempt to capture just a little bit of that.

ThecorrectionscvrIan Prichard: What most impressed me was Franzen’s honesty. Not just about his disdain for writers he used to envy – though his bits about Updike and Roth being worthy of his moral judgment were pretty good – but about his motives for writing. David Foster Wallace, for instance – Franzen said he started The Corrections the day after he finished reading the manuscript of Infinite Jest, and that he began working in earnest on Freedom as soon as he came back from DFW’s funeral, both as a kind of counterpunch. It was no surprise those two guys felt competitive; it was a surprise to hear Franzen say his dear friend “partly killed himself as a career move.”

Michelle Arch: It was, but I think that speaks to their relationship. In Farther Away, Franzen recounts one of the final conversations he had with Wallace: “I said that the last time he’d been through near-death experiences, he’d emerged and written, very quickly, a book that was light-years beyond what he’d been doing before his collapse.” Franzen alluded to this paradoxical connection between Wallace’s “depths of infinite sadness” and writing success.

IP: And he suggested that Wallace knew he would be even more successful posthumously. “That’s not why he killed himself,” Franzen explained at his lecture, “but he was smart enough to know what it would do to sales.” Which is brutal, but which was, in his telling of it that night at the library, also funny. One of the things we mention in the intro is laughter. There was a lot of it throughout the event. What’d you make of that? Were you expecting him to be so funny? 

MA: No. This is a guy who says things like “It’s hard to consider literature a medicine, in any case, when reading it serves mainly to deepen your depressing estrangement from the mainstream” (“Why Bother?,” How to Be Alone) and “To laugh well at humanity, both your own humanity and that of others, you have to be as distant and unsparing as if you’re writing tragedy” (“Authentic but Horrible,” Farther Away). So, no, I didn’t expect him to be funny. I expected him to be aloof and abstruse, which would have been perfectly fine with me. The humor was a surprise.

But I appreciated most how uncomfortable and somewhat awkward he seemed. When he was asked to describe himself in five words, he could only think of one: anxious. And he said it several times, remember? “I’m anxious. That’s really the only word I can think of to describe myself.”

Not believing him, there was a pause while we all waited for him to rattle off a varied list of four more self-descriptors, which would undoubtedly contain an adjective or two that resonated enough for each of us to nudge our friend or seat neighbor with a wide-eyed nod. Yeah, that’s me, too; I’m just like Jonathan Franzen. But he simply said “Yep, anxious” again. Another long moment passed as he seemed to be thinking hard of other possibilities, and then he gave up. “That’s really all I can come up with,” he said with a shrug.

Scarlet_Letter_-_Illustration_LogoI’m incredibly self-conscious myself and have been told that my discomfort in my own skin is actually quite observable, so I related to his answer. There’s a reason professional and aspiring writers are holed up in solitude most of the time. We’re a mess, socially. Franzen says he and Wallace agreed that fiction is a way out of loneliness.   

IP: You’re right, he did say “anxious” at least three times. But that anxiety didn’t keep him from performing, from cracking jokes and interacting with the audience, even parading around in imitation of the typical TED Talk stage presence. And I think that self-consciousness is a common attribute of scriveners, and I certainly understand the tendency towards solitude, but Franzen’s hardly a shut-in, and I think his presence on the world stage says a lot about what kind of writer he is.

For someone who so consistently and loudly disdains social media (in “Against Heine,” a translation of a Karl Krauss essay, Franzen confesses a sense of “disappointment when a novelist who ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter”), Franzen is discussed and debated and lionized and demonized all over the place. It’s a delicate balance between touring and appearing and writing and contributing to champion your own work and “fight the good fight” of promoting literature qua literature, and disdaining the overpopularization of writers and their work.

There’s no denying Franzen’s ability – the man can write – but the ability to do so is fairly well distributed across the population, and Franzen’s stuff is hardly breaking new stylistic ground. So why is he such a phenom? 

MA: Uh, because Oprah said so?   

IP: Well, yes and no. She’s definitely never hurt anyone’s sales.

Part of Franzen’s success, of course, is that he’s a white American male. And an intellectual New Yorker who was born in a small town in the Midwest – dude has coastal and fly-over appeal. On top of which he writes WASP family dramas, and WASPs love reading about themselves, and publishers know they can sell a lot of WASPy books. America may in fact be too diverse for there ever to be a real actual Great American Novel, but the country’s still predominately white, and if Time is going to label anyone the “Great American Novelist,” it’s going to be JFranz. (This is nothing new.)

Boomslang

Boomslang

And yet, Franzen presents as an unknowable, semi-obscure deity dragged kicking into the light. I know referring to someone as a “rock star” is hackneyed, but when your irascibility, elitism, and general middle-finger-to-the-worldness cause a number of people to hate you but many more people to love you, even – especially – if they don’t know your stuff, then perhaps the moniker is fitting. Keith Richards says “fuck you” to everyone, especially the music establishment and excepting a handful of blues players, and everyone loves Keif. He happens to be an incredible guitarist, but how many people who love him really know what that means? How many care? Franzen may not have the sordid drug and womanizing history as Mr. Richards (I’m not trying to say they’re much alike at all), but he did manage to talk down about Oprah’s book choices (“schmaltzy,” wasn’t it?) and be uninvited from her show (what a relief!), but remain on the Book Club list and see sales soar. So yes, the whole Oprah “thing” certainly helped.

So, speaking of “things” in quotation marks, how much of his persona are we supposed to buy, and how much see as performance? Is there a difference?

What do we make of the fact that he criticizes the American mainstream for desiring unliterary texts, yet still makes a killing writing family dramas that he insists are not, well, difficult? 

MA: The distinction, of course, is that they’re not difficult to him. And that’s both his point and his dilemma. His literary palette is that of DFW and William Gaddis and Dostoyevsky. In “Mr. Difficult,” Franzen recalls “Mrs. M.,” an angry reader who is outraged by his sophisticated vocabulary and overall level of difficulty in his fiction. Presumably, Mrs. M. represents the “average person” who is just looking for a pleasant reading experience, and the ostensibly elitist Franzen has failed her and the reading public in general with his “fancy words” and highbrow phrases.

Confronted with this reader’s hostility and apparent opinion that it is the consumer (alas, often via Oprah) who decides what constitutes good and appropriate writing, Franzen is conflicted. He presents two very different models of the relationship between fiction and its readers and admits that he subscribes to both: the Status model, which suggests that the best novels disregard the issue of accessibility and “invites a discourse of genius and art-historical importance,” and the opposing Contract model, which is based on the author earning and sustaining the reader’s trust and connecting with the audience. In the Status model, a high level of difficulty suggests excellence. In the Contract model, the author fulfills his or her obligation by entertaining readers; the relationship is founded on providing and receiving pleasure.

IP: Yes, I suppose that distinction depends on what you mean by “entertainment” and “pleasure.” For Franzen, and I think for anyone who actually goes back and reads them of their own volition, the novels of Dickens and Dostoyevsky are incredibly “entertaining” – The Inimitable in particular wrote them expressly for that purpose. And Franzen says in “Mr. Difficult,” “in my bones, I’m a Contract kind of person.” Tastes change with the times, I suppose, and I guess the question is what, exactly, is wrong with reading for entertainment? And, by extension, writing for those who do? 

Crime and Punishment Dual LanguageMA: I think it’s a slippery slope. As Franzen describes it in “Difficult,” “Contract is a recipe for pandering, aesthetic compromise, and a babel of competing literary subcommunities.” From my perspective, this is a polite way of indicating that writers who subscribe to the Contract model may need to “dumb down” their work to appeal to the least common denominator of readers in order to sell books. As both a reader and aspiring writer, I’m offended by the notion that authors may need to supplant complicated, unfamiliar text with two-syllable words and well-known phrases to ensure that the majority of the reading public is able to enjoy a “good read.” After all, intellect can be transformed and often is through reading complex and challenging books. I have a multitude of hard books on my bedside table and shelves that I’m still slogging through, and, for me, it’s the hard that makes them great, at least partly.

IP: I have to disagree; I don’t think that hardness is a gateway one has to pass through into greatness. And I think that Fra—wait, did you just quote A League of Their Own in your defense of Franzen’s literary difficulty?

MA: I was wondering if you’d catch that. You’ve got to admit that’s an excellent line from a pretty great Contract movie. I suppose I could have better underscored my Status advocacy with Emerson. “’Tis the good reader,” and all.

IP: I’ll admit that it may be an apt allusion. A League was a compelling story, and a decent script. I’m sure they could have found much better actresses than Madonna and Rosie and Geena Davis, some real Status actresses that might have better brought those characters to life, added some complexity and dimension, some real gravitas – at the very least, some believable tears. But how many people would have seen the movie without those Contract personalities? How many people – how many guys – would recognize a quote from it twenty-some years later?

MA: Yeah, I’m fairly impressed.

IP: My point is that it begs the question, what’s “great”?

In that article we keep referring to, Franzen also says each reader is “ultimately […] alone with his or her conscience.” And I think this is true of writers, also. We make choices about every single line we commit to paper. What we’re going for with those choices, what we hope the book will accomplish, influences each of those choices.

How will this sound to a reader? 

To what kind of reader?

How much do I care? 

MA: And, one of my favorites, How much of my characterization of real people is going to offend or hurt those people?

HowtobealonecvrBut then I guess it all really comes down to your third question. As Anne Lamott quips in Bird by Bird, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” During his lecture and in Farther Away, Franzen addressed the issue of loyalty and how his own family felt about their obvious depictions in The Corrections, particularly his oldest brother: “The question then becomes: Am I willing to risk alienating somebody I love in order to continue becoming the writer I need to be?”

IP: Man. My family hasn’t shown up in my fiction much (yet), so I haven’t had to think about that too much. Thankfully.

Maybe we don’t ask these questions every time we look over each sentence, but they color the attitude we bring to the writing desk. Except for a very few pure-genius types (who no one will probably hear of until they’re dead, and who probably don’t care), we’re all answering that third question, if we’re honest, with something between “a fair amount” and “it’s everything.”

The problem is that second question, and wanting our conception of the perfect target audience to number in the multiple-millions. Franzen seems at times to imply that he wants there to be more people like him, readers who don’t want cheap tricks and actively want to work for their pleasure. And he gets accused of impressing that effort on people. But the Mrs. Ms of the world aside, the line-by-line writing in his books is nothing anyone with an eighth-grade reading level can’t comprehend (okay, maybe he’d need a dictionary every thirty or forty pages, but that’s hardly an insurmountable barrier) and Franzen actually does have multiple-millions of readers.

If I can borrow the movie’s phrase, a lot of people think Franzen thinks of himself as being in a league of his own. I’m not so sure he thinks that – he’s no blue-collar champion of the workingman, but I don’t think he’s as much of an elitist jerk as some folks make him out to be. I am sure, however, that he thinks of himself as belonging to a cadre of people who get pleasure out of a certain kind of book.

MA: I’m certain that you and I wear that cadre’s insignia.

IP: Absolutely. And I don’t know, I think that even if the reading of “literary fiction” and “serious novels” becomes a “cultish” activity vis-à-vis “mainstream” culture (forgive all those “”s – you can tell how fraught I consider labels), there’ll still be a lot of people in that cult.

MA: And apparently they’ll all be recognizable by something more than a metaphorical badge. I’ll never forget the book signing part of the evening. We waited in that line for, what, twenty or thirty minutes? And when we stood in front of Franzen at last (I all starry-eyed and semi-lovestruck, imagining the dinner parties we would throw), he just stared at us.

“You guys wouldn’t be…writers, would you?” he asked finally. It was as if we had spilled writer juice on our shirts or something. I swear I looked at your forehead for a mark or tattoo or scarlet “A” – for anxious.

“Working on it,” I think I stammered self-consciously.

IP: You weren’t the only one stricken – if this were another time and ours another profession, I would have asked for an apprenticeship.

It’s funny what things one remembers – and what counts for encouragement in our rather solitary pursuit. I’m sure it was simple civility, but what made an impression on me was how sincere he sounded when he handed us our books back and said, looking at us over the top of his glasses, “Well, good luck.” 

 

479px-Jonathan_Franzen_at_the_Brooklyn_Book_Festival

David Shankbone, 2008

 

 

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Four months ago, I bemoaned the fact that 2014 was half over, and I had not written any new chapters (“This is That Summer”). The novel I have been crafting intermittently for the last six years, Time of Death, is also the thesis for my Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing at Chapman University, so the pressure to finish has been intense, to say the least.

In January, I carefully planned the year, as I always do, dedicating the first five months to the enormous reading load for my last class at Chapman and an overdue and ostensibly quick and simple home remodel. The entire summer, September, and October were allocated to completing and submitting the manuscript by the fall deadline of October 29.

At the time of that post in June, I was fifty-five pages away from finishing the narrative and needed to write a ten-page critical statement of my work, as well.

I dug in.

My writer demon was ever-present, scoffing at every new bit of dialogue and mocking every plot twist. I ignored him and focused on my protagonist, Fawn Evans, and on telling her story. The work has been both exhilarating and excruciating as new chapters were written and old chapters were revised seemingly ad infinitum to achieve cohesion.

Revision, I have found, is an exasperating, interminable process, especially for a perfectionist; I am never unreservedly pleased with any passage, so any declaration of its completion is nebulous at best. Even now, as I admire the bound manuscript I will be delivering to my thesis committee tomorrow, I know that, within the span of thirty or so days, innumerable deficiencies will have been identified and addressed with mortification at their untimely discovery.

That fact notwithstanding, I am proud of this journey to date and excited about the opportunity to defend my work in November. As both the author and heroine of this immense project, I am rooting for Fawn on each page and, in doing so, am rooting for myself.

 

Paul Hoecker-Vally, 1888

Paul Hoecker-Vally, 1888

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With the first of November just around the corner, writers everywhere are stockpiling food and saying farewell to their family and friends as they prepare to hole up in their writing caves until December 1. November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, an annual internet-based creative writing event that challenges participants to write a new 50,000-word novel in thirty days.

The project was founded by Chris Baty in 1999 with twenty-one participants, and the official NaNoWriMo website was launched the following year. The number of registered participants has grown steadily every year, and the affiliate Young Writers Program and official podcast were developed in 2005.  In 2010, over 200,000 writers registered for the challenge, and nearly three billion new words were written.  A summer version of NaNoWriMo (Camp NaNoWriMo) was introduced in 2011.

Many of us in Chapman University’s MFA program have impending thesis deadlines, and the NaNoWriMo challenge gives us the perfect opportunity and support to complete this critical component of our degree requirements, particularly if we have decided to start a new project for the thesis or complete a novel rather than a collection of short stories.

The novel can be on any theme and in any genre. However, it cannot be a project already in progress.  Writing of the new novel cannot have commenced prior to midnight on November 1, and the 50,000-word mark must be reached by 11:59 p.m. on November 30.

For a comprehensive list of FAQs and guidelines, visit the website at www.nanowrimo.org.

Have fun, and good luck!

 

NaNoWriMo

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It seems unfathomable to me that five years ago on this day, with a succinct, autogenous “Hello, World!” announcing its quiet arrival on the heavily populated, cyber literary landscape, Archetype was launched.  Conceived originally in 2009 to chronicle my academic journey through Chapman University’s dual Master of Arts in English and Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and provide a forum for peer critique and camaraderie, I promptly posted passages from one of my short stories (“Windmill Ridge”) and my novel-in-progress Time of Death and invited classmates to contribute their work.  I also published original essay excerpts on Jonathan Franzen and the waning of a literary America (“Antisocial or socially isolated?”, “‘Tis the good reader that makes the good book”), mirrors and reflective imagery in world literature (“Masks, Manipulation, and Madness”), and the notion of the invoked doppelganger in fiction (“The Self We Seek”), all of which I was studying in those first few months of back-to-school bliss.

362px-Th_Richter_Dame_in_der_BibliothekLike any creative endeavor, the site evolved as I did and soon reflected my deepening involvement in and abiding commitment to literary and academic pursuits.  In addition to promoting Chapman fiction and poetry readings and publication opportunities in those first years, I mined journals and the Internet for interesting and informative local events taking place beyond the university’s borders.  Details regarding local and national writing contests and Calls for Submissions were and are still posted regularly, as well.  In 2012, I added a section for the growing number of my guest blog posts, my interviews, and other places where I’ve stumbled pleasantly upon my own work in the cybersphere.

Followers know that I most often post poems and passages that have timely personal significance.  From my occasional struggles with insomnia and feelings of isolation to my simple delight in a book or summer plum, each post, like a journal entry, suggests precisely where I am intellectually and emotionally.  Early on I rejoiced to find pictures, particularly nineteenth century oil paintings, that evoked or complemented the literary piece I was posting, and I now spend nearly as much time searching for corresponding artwork as I do on literature.

Thanks to my passionate professors and their fascinating courses on Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, the life and works of Virginia Woolf, female enchantresses of modern British literature, and Gothic and fantastic fiction, Wilde, Woolf, and the works of A. S. Byatt, Katherine Mansfield, Angela Carter, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Edgar Allan Poe were frequent early Archetype subjects.  Posts on Wilde culminated in November 2009 with the writing of my course thesis on The Picture of Dorian Gray (“The Act of Creation,” “Wilde Irony”), while Woolf reigned in the fall of 2010.  (Click on these links to review excerpts from “The I in the Portrait: A Bakhtinian Analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray and “On the Wings of Angels and Butterflies: The Chaotic Journey to Woman in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.”)

Anichkov Palace Library in St. Petersburg, 1869

Anichkov Palace Library in St. Petersburg, 1869

My penchant for Russian literature and philosophy was also soon discovered, and I immersed myself and, by extension, Archetype in Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Nabokov and began to examine just about everything through the lens of Mikhail Bakhtin.  Later courses exposed me to the intriguing life and works of Gertrude Stein (“Back to Bakhtin: The ‘I’ in Ida), Junot Díaz, Ralph Ellison, and many others, and every newly encountered author was explored here to some extent.

The craft of writing is another recurrent theme on Archetype; “Genetics-Based Grammarianism,” “In Celebration of Technique,” “Last Writes,” “More is More,” “Not Quite Write,” “Drafting Perfection,” and “A Sense of Style” are my personal favorites.  However, it is the angst of writing about which I tend to muse and articulate most freely; “Why Write?,” “One True Sentence,” “Bird by Bird,” “Write About Now,” “Demons and Darlings,” “The Reality of Rejection,” “In conclusion…,” “A New Summer of Writing,” and “The Write Stuff” all convey my own grapples with the creative stall and feelings of inadequacy.

Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, 1904

Félix Emile-Jean Vallotton, 1904

With the MA in English attained two years ago, a few modest writing awards under my belt (“Praise for Time of Death,” “On the Write Track”), and conferral of the MFA degree scheduled for November, I’ve been in the process of considering what’s next these past few months – for me academically and literarily and for this site (“A Silent Abyss,” “A Beginning and an Ending,” “Writing in the Afterlife”).  As I’ve mentioned recently on Archetype (“Это правда?”) and in an interview on TreeHouse, I’m planning to apply to various Ph.D. programs in English, Comparative Literature, and/or Rhetoric; however, with applicant admission rates of approximately four to five percent at local universities, I’m keeping the likelihood of acceptance in perspective.  Nonetheless, the pursuit of admittance will be next year’s undertaking and will, of course, be recounted here.  For the immediate time being, my focus will remain on completing and defending my MFA thesis, a 150-page excerpt of Time of Death (twenty-six pages to write as of this post’s publication!); submitting my short fiction and nonfiction work to various conferences and journals; and preparing for both the General and Literature in English Graduate Record Examinations.  And there is still the full novel to finish and market (“This is the Year,” “This is That Summer”).

During the last sixty months, I have published 593 posts about literature, critical theory and writing technique, literary figures and events, submission opportunities, favorite poems and passages, articles of interest, books I’m reading, papers I’m writing, other literary blogs I’m following, conferences I’m attending, and demons I’m wrestling.  Archetype celebrates holidays, welcomes new seasons, and even gives the occasional nod to lunar activity.  Finally, personal aspects of my affective life and literary journey are memorialized and shared (“Write of Passage,” “Cartwheels Under the Arch,” “Pathetic Fallacy,” “Beyond Words”), even when the discovery and healing are mine alone.  The site maintains a small but seemingly loyal band of subscribers and blogroll partners, to whom I feel completely accountable and utterly grateful.  I hope you will all follow me as this final chapter at Chapman closes and a new narrative begins.

 

430PX-~1

 

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Last month I had the pleasure and honor of being interviewed about the genesis, maintenance, and future of Archetype by the online journal TreeHouse: An Exhibition of the Arts.  With the fifth anniversary of Archetype occurring this month and the six hundredth post targeted for early September, I thought I would publish the interview in its entirety here.

Enjoy!

 

TreeHouse: Is Archetype your first attempt at blogging? If not, what came before? 

Michelle Arch: Yes, Archetype is my first and only blog.  I didn’t think about the logistics of it much when I created it.  I simply chose a WordPress template, and, within an hour, I had written my first post to the world.  Then I sort of panicked.  I had just committed myself to something I had no idea how to maintain.  I posted a lot about Oscar Wilde back then.

TH: What initially drove you to create Archetype? 

MA: When I originated the site in 2009, I had recently begun the dual English and Creative Writing graduate program at Chapman University and wanted to establish a virtual writing workshop or MAB (multi-author blog) for artistic experimentation.  At the time, I was immersed in the process of literary coursework, reveling in each newly discovered or rediscovered text and learning to conduct scholarly research and master’s level composition.  And, most importantly, I was writing fiction again and risking what seemed the ultimate rejection and ridicule by (gads!) sharing my work with peers and professors.  I was a first-year MA/MFA student, and I was terrified and exhilarated and self-conscious and buoyed.  It was glorious, and I had this inexplicable desire to share what I was experiencing.

TH: From where do you derive inspiration for content? 

MA: I’m inspired primarily by literature and fear.  I’m constantly reading classic fiction and poetry and stumbling across passages that seem impossibly resonant.  I sometimes find myself actually holding my breath as the passage unfolds.  I get so awestruck and emotional about such beautifully written validation that I have to post what I’ve unearthed.  Most of the poems and prose I publish have timely personal significance.  From my occasional struggles with insomnia and feelings of isolation to my simple delight in a book or summer peach, each post, like a journal entry, reveals some hidden aspect of my life, whatever that’s worth.  My ever-present inadequacy demon is also a common Archetype theme.

TH: How much time do you devote to creation and maintenance of the site? 

MA: Most people would probably be a little quizzical if they knew how much time I spent each week preparing posts, mining for corresponding images, maintaining the site’s appearance, and keeping the contest deadlines, calls for submission, literary events, bedside table books, and other site features updated.  With a relatively small audience of subscribers and Facebook and LinkedIn connections, one could argue that my time could be more appropriately allocated.  I can’t explain it; some innate force propels me to post at least every three or four days.  And I have consistently done so for nearly five years.  Those close to me know how distressed I become if I’m unable to post by the fourth day.  It really has become a journal (and a journey) for me.

TH: You are a busy lady and a prolific writer, to say the least. How important is it to you to devote the time and energy to keeping Archetype going? 

MA: First, I’m not sure how prolific I am as a writer, but thank you for saying so.  I’m certainly trying.  Part of that objective requires building a platform and establishing a readership, so my website has become a large component of that.  Further, I like to think that every post resonates with at least one person besides me.  If it does, then it connects me to that person.  I’ve also realized through my blog how much I admire nineteenth century oil paintings and to which poets I’m drawn – like Christina Rossetti and Sara Teasdale.  As I’ve shaped and defined Archetype, it has shaped and defined me as a writer.  I simply can’t imagine ending it after all this time and effort.  It’s truly a labor of love.

TH: Where do you see your blog headed? 

MA: Now that I’ve completed the MA and will defend my MFA thesis in the fall, I’m thinking a lot about the next thematic basis and future of my blog.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t harbor a Carrie Bradshawesque fantasy of having all my “Best of” posts (personal commentary) published in a book someday (not to mention my picture on a bus and a closet full of designer shoes).  When I first launched Archetype, I couldn’t foresee beyond perhaps a year of posting.  I didn’t have a long range plan for the site or even a vision of an audience; I simply wanted a space in which to articulate the moments of joy and angst and Aha! I was experiencing and share the poems, passages, and images that have moved me in some grand way, a probable void accessible to everyone and accessed by no one.  And here I am, nearly five years and six hundred posts later, both trapped and liberated by “an unseizable force” that impels some of us to observe and question and reflect and write in a silent abyss with no end in sight.  I have many ideas and additional features I want to incorporate when the time allows.  I plan to pursue a PhD in English or Comparative Literature, so that endeavor will provide a lot of content.  (I currently have my GRE study list posted if anyone is interested.)  For now, I’m actually pretty content just having it as a forum for my own random discoveries and thoughts and knowing that its quiet appeal is appreciated by a few others.

TH: Who are your readers? Do they comment/interact with you often? 

MA: I only know about half of my subscribers personally.  That group is comprised of former Chapman peers, authors I’ve met at conferences and other venues, colleagues, and my mother, who, incidentally, was an English professor and department chair until just a few years ago and wishes I would post more Shakespeare and Milton.  I think the others are teachers and writers who have stumbled onto the site inadvertently and liked it.  I really appreciate that small band of strangers and its ongoing support.  I do get a fair share of comments and interaction, which I enjoy.  I will say that most Archetype subscribers are loyal.  Once they subscribe, they tend to stay subscribed.  Either that or they’ve relegated my posts to their Junk mail file.

TH: What are the pros and cons of blogging?

MA: For a perfectionist like me, it can be maddening when the site changes my intended font or doesn’t post an image exactly where I want it.  I’ll invest hours wrestling with a template limitation and ultimately losing.  And I spend a lot of time proofing and editing to ensure every post is as flawless as possible.  At first I was terrified to write anything that was personal or overly provocative; the permanence of the Internet can be inhibiting.  But Archetype is about literature and writing and art and all the feelings those creative forms evoke; it’s not likely to offend.  I did think long and hard before posting a painting of a nude woman reading in bed a few years ago.  Knowing it would probably garner more views than my posts normally attract, I wanted to be certain that my reasons for posting it were purely artistic.  But the image is so hauntingly beautiful, and it complemented the poem I was posting perfectly (“The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” reposted in 2013).  It resonated with me, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.  Once I posted it, I realized that as long as what I write and post are consistent with my core values, I don’t worry about what people will think.

TH: What blogs do you follow?

MA: I follow quite a few and have a growing list of additional sites to check out.  The first blog I found and immediately followed was Irvine Valley College English and creative writing professor Lisa Alvarez’s The Mark on the Wall.  Like I was on Archetype, Lisa was also promoting Orange County events and posting poems and images, as well as her own thoughts.  Since we were both local, I reached out to her, and we have promoted each other’s blog ever since.  I also follow my good friend Ian Prichard’s site At the Wellhead, my Chapman pal Ruben Guzman’s blog Literophanes, Orange County author DeAnna Cameron’s Et Cetera, etc., Barbara DeMarco-Barrett’s Pen on Fire, TreeHouse, of course, and several others.

TH: You often post about calls for submissions and writing contests on other sites. How important is it to you to assist other writers with submitting their work? 

MA: I want Archetype to be a literary resource for aspiring writers.  But, again, I only promote calls, conferences, and contests that appeal to me and seem like valuable opportunities, so the lists certainly aren’t comprehensive.  I review a lot of websites, online journals, calls for submissions, seminars, and workshops before deciding which to promote.  I push Glimmer Train and Tin House calls a lot, because many of their stories end up in Best American anthologies.  I also advertise fiction and poetry readings and other local happenings, as well as prominent national literary events.

TH: An excerpt from your novel, Time of Death, won First Prize in the Fiction Writing Contest sponsored by The Editorial Department, Second Prize in the WestBow Press Writing Contest, and Third Prize in the Beverly Bush Smith Aspiring Writer Award competition at the 2012 Orange County Christian Writers Conference in Newport Beach. At this point, where in the creative and publishing process is Time of Death

MA: It’s not that much further along than it was at that conference, I’m afraid.  I was so shocked and excited about its reception that my motivation to finish the book soared after that event.  The award from The Editorial Department was a lengthy review and critique, which was incredibly helpful.  And I had detailed conversations with WestBow about self-publishing, which I decided isn’t for me at this time.  But a few months after the conference, the momentum waned.  Between my MA and MFA course work and my career, it was extremely difficult to find time and energy to write.  At one point, I dashed off about forty pages and thought I was well on my way to finishing, but then the story got stuck.  And that’s where I am today, trying to unstick the story.  At least 150 pages of it comprise my MFA thesis, which is due in October, so that’s what I’m working on now.

TH: What initially inspired you to write the novel? How does the novel figure in with Archetype? 

MA: The blog and the novel are pretty separate projects, but I do write about the challenges and anguish of novel writing on Archetype.  I’ve also promoted Time of Death’s occasional successes on the site.  For me, the process of writing a novel is the essential premise of Archetype.  I think the fact that I can bemoan about the trials of writing (and my inadequacy demon) give it some credibility.

TH: Do you feel your blog posts have helped you craft your other writings?

MA: Absolutely.  I’m a guest columnist for the Orange County Register, and many of my columns are derivatives of blog posts.  Still, each article needs to be adapted to the specific audience of that medium, so they often end up looking nothing like their earlier versions.  I met the editor of Orange Coast Magazine a couple of years ago and was invited to send him some pieces, which, of course, I wanted desperately to do, but I didn’t have the time I needed to tailor an article for his magazine.  With so little available writing time, I try to get as much mileage as I can from a piece.  Archetype has also helped me develop my personal commentary voice, so my posts, columns, and essays have a consistent tone.

TH: How did you make the progression from blogging for yourself to writing articles/posts for other websites and blogs?

MA: Honestly, that has been a combination of networking and sheer luck.  I am so appreciative of the opportunities I’ve had to write for other websites and publications.  Among TreeHouse, American Christian Fiction Writers, the Orange County Register, and other random forums, it seems I always have an upcoming deadline.  In fact, I have more invitations to submit than I currently have time to accept.  I’m hoping that, very soon, I can finish my thesis and organize my writing time so that I’m taking advantage of every possible opportunity – they’re definitely out there!  Although, I’ll soon be busy studying for that pesky GRE, too…

 

"Reading Woman" by Albert Edelfelt, 1885

“Reading Woman” by Albert Edelfelt, 1885

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The problem, if anything, was precisely the opposite.  I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming, too many characters to raise up from the dirt like flowers whose petals I peeled down to the intricate frail organs within, too many terrible genetic and fiduciary secrets to dig up and bury and dig up again, too many divorces to grant, heirs to disinherit, trysts to arrange, letters to misdirect into evil hands, innocent children to slay with rheumatic fever, women to leave unfulfilled and hopeless, men to drive to adultery and theft, fires to ignite at the hearts of ancient houses. […] I was nowhere near the end.

 

~ Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys

 

Janez Šubic, 1878

Janez Šubic, 1878

 

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I knew the coming of June would thrust me into panic mode.  In January, I carefully planned the year, as I always do, dedicating the first five months to the enormous reading load for my last class at Chapman and an overdue and ostensibly quick and simple home remodel.  The entire summer, September, and October were allocated to finishing and submitting my MFA thesis by the fall deadline.

With both of these earlier distractions now behind me, I’m wondering how half of June has passed without any new chapters written.  The calendar and clock terrorize me constantly as I count the days and hours that remain in relation to the number of pages still unwritten.  I assure myself that my goal is readily accessible, that I’ve allowed for unforeseen impediments such as an unexpected business trip, migraines, or a complete lack of inspiration.  But I’m not sure that’s entirely true.

Tick-tock, tick-tock…

It always surprises me how a day can pass so easily without a word being written, particularly since writing is what I love to do most.  But life does seem to have a way of depleting time and energy, despite the best of intentions each dawn. Finding stretches of uninterrupted time to write fiction was a recurring topic in my workshops at Chapman.  While full-time professional writers can hole up for days and weeks or even months to attend to their craft, the novice or aspiring professional writer has a “real” job and other demands that take precedence – or at least appear to in the moment.

I admit I could ignore the layer of dust on my furniture and let the carpets go unvacuumed more often than I do.  And I’m sure my body won’t collapse into a state of utter disrepair if I skip spin class or a run now and then.  But there are some truly conflicting priorities, and our days are finite.

At this point, I have no choice but to devote all available resources to my manuscript.  I’m fifty-five pages away from finishing, and my defense committee convenes in November.  This is it.  This is The Summer I complete the thesis portion of Time of Death.  I will be writing fifteen pages each month through September, leaving only October for formatting and the ten-page critical statement and chapter outline.

We’ll see how it goes.

My writer demon is ever-present; I can hear him chomping on an apple over my shoulder and scoffing at every new paragraph, but I’m ignoring him.  He’s not an agent, and he’s not on my thesis committee.

 

You must write the book, else there is no book.  It will not finish itself. 

                                                                                            ~ Tom Clancy

 

Leonid_Pasternak_001

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