Dispatches | May 13, 2014

By Michael Nye

The title for this blog post borrows from the opening sentence of Don DeLillo’s novel Americana. The full sentence is “Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year.” Given that it is the first sentence of a novel, the reader hasn’t come to the end of anything, but to the beginning. And, as opening sentences go, that certainly gives the reader a strong sense of the voice of boredom and restlessness at the center of protagonist David Bell.

However, what I’m after here is not boredom or restlessness (there remains plenty to do during the month of May) but to emphasis that for my students, they’ve merely concluded chapter one.

When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I had no idea what the writing world looked like or what my school had to offer. One of my professors, Lee K. Abbott, required me to subscribe to one of four journals by bringing him an unsealed envelope with a check written out to the journal of my choice (I don’t remember what the four were, but two were definitely Epoch and Boulevard. I choose Boulevard. Why? No idea). If Boulevard made any impression on me, I don’t remember it. I asked my various writing professors about MFA programs and how to get into one and why to go. I didn’t ask my professors about book publishing not because I didn’t know what to ask but because publishing as an industry worth knowing something about was a concept that had yet to enter my brain. All I knew was that I was going to write a Great American Novel … only I didn’t have a germ of an idea or any concept of how to write a novel or what pitfalls were out there for an emerging writer.

By comparison, my students are light years ahead of where I was at the same point in my career. This semester, each intern read approximately 300 manuscripts from her/his peers, and saw what contemporary writers are doing with poetry and the short form. They read five separate literary journals, and had the chance to talk via Skype with four of the magazine editors about their publication, their writing, and anything else under the sun. They discovered the cost of running a literary magazine, an individual issue of TMR, submission systems, and what tools are out there to disseminate the work we publish. All the while, my students were continuing to take their creative writing workshops and literature classes.

Last week, I asked if there was anything we hadn’t covered this semester that they wanted to know. They responded with silence. To jar their memory, I walked through everything my class covered in the previous fifteen weeks, then asked again if there was anything I hadn’t covered that they wanted to know. Again, silence. Okay, then. I guess I answered all the questions!

Of course, this isn’t true. The questions they have are probably of two types: personal, about their own career in the arts and not something they want to ask in front of everyone; or, they are questions that they don’t know they have yet (“unknown unknowns”) and won’t come to them the week before final exams.

Like any other field, there is a ton of turnover at a literary magazine. Our graduate editors and interns leave on a regular basis. They go to MFA programs. They go teach abroad. They go to New York and work in publishing. But, if I was to look back at my first publishing class in 2011, and before that, any of the internship classes from the previous ten or fifteen or twenty years, I would guess that majority of them are not writing and not working in publishing. They are almost certainly doing something else.

I don’t have anything useful to say about Great Big Life Questions. Like most people, my “advice” is really just repackaged anecdotes of what I did with my life. That’s not really useful to my students. Nothing really prepares you for that post-college shift, when you discover people who get great jobs before you do, when people start families, buy houses, fall into alcoholism, die too young, and all those other really messy things that happen in your twenties.

What I hope my students have taken from my class are the foundation tools to go in whatever direction they want to go in writing and publishing. I hope that in my class, and in their other writing or literature classes, they’ve made friendships that they will have (and lean on more than once) for the rest of their lives. I hope that they understand that more than any other time, the publishing world is deeply interconnected, and you never know who you’re going to come across that will have a meaningful role in your work.

Your novel, however you define it, is just beginning. Let’s dive in.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye