Tag Archive: Writing

  1. Reginald Dwayne Betts shares stories from his “writing life”

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    Reginald Dwayne Betts, legal scholar, writer, and education and prison reform advocate, aims to build 1,000 libraries in prisons across the country. Now, he will put copies of his own book — on the craft and significance of writing — in these very libraries. 

    Betts, a doctoral candidate, has become a Yale law graduate, nationally acclaimed writer and a National Magazine Award winner. He started his writing career while serving a nine-year prison sentence. Betts recently collaborated with PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting and celebrating freedom of expression in America, to release a writing guide for people in prisons titled “The Sentences That Create Us.” 

    “I read similar books when I was inside and those books always helped me think about what it meant to be a writer and the process of actually putting pen to paper and going one letter to the next,” Betts told the News. “What’s interesting about this book is it’s both for craft [and], it’s also an exploration of what it means to do that particular job, what [it means] to write an essay.”

    Betts said the book will help people in prisons explore the craft and significance of writing, but would also be helpful to those outside of prison.

    Since the book’s release last month, more than 75,000 free copies of the book are being distributed in prisons, and 18,000 people have requested to read it. But Betts emphasized that this book should only be one aspect of the repertoire of books that helps one craft a “writing life”. 

    Still, he said, the book is important in helping people in prisons know that writers have written both inside prison and after they have gotten out.

    Since 2009, in his own writing life, Betts has released six books.

    “The first version of my writing life has been in terms of ‘what does it mean to build community as a writer?’” Betts said. “So the first thing I did was teach poetry in local schools. But while doing that I was going to workshops. That somehow allowed me to build community in a different way.”

    Betts went on to attend Warren Wilson College for creative writing, where he said he continued to build community.

    He then matriculated to Yale Law School, where he got his juris doctor. His work as a writer intersects with his law and advocacy work.

    “It’s all part of the same package,” Betts said. “It overlaps. When you write you try to educate somebody about something. But also, you try to create a world. And a lot of the worlds I write about are worlds while in prison. Obviously, the advocacy work I do revolves around literature and freedom and books, and your medium is the word, just like it is as a writer.”

    Originally from Maryland, Betts was arrested at age 16. He was prosecuted as an adult and sentenced to nine years in prison. After being released, he would go on to serve on former President Barack Obama’s Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in 2012. He moved to New Haven and has served as a member of Connecticut’s Criminal Justice Commission since 2018. Betts is currently working towards a doctorate at Yale Law School. While writing and studying at Yale, the years he spent in prison are central influences on his writing and advocacy.

    “Some things you can’t run away from,” Betts said. “There are some things you really can’t get away from. It’s just such a part of life that I’ve lived.”

    Betts says that he got into law and prison advocacy by coincidence. He worked in a legal library with the hopes of learning how to type so he could type his poems up. His first published piece in prison was about juveniles being tried as adults. When he got out of prison, he started speaking at events and thinking about the problem of mass incarceration. Those experiences taught him that “the law can be used as a way to freedom.”

    Yet he notes that his success can’t be purely attributed to skill, but also to an element of luck.

    “I took advantage of opportunities that presented themselves,” Betts said. “If I were to put a percentage to it, it might be 95 percent skill and 5 percent luck. But without that 5 percent, I might not be where I am.”

    Betts was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the “Genius Grant,” for $625,000 in September 2021, which helps the recipient explore their potential.

  2. Windham in Their Sails

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    Tuesday morning, Beinecke Library staff set up a small, modestly lit stage and 40 chairs upstairs to prepare for the announcement of this year’s Windham-Campbell Literature Prize winners. The prize awards $150,000 to each of nine writers — three in drama, three in nonfiction and three in fiction.

    Though this certainly makes for a noteworthy accolade, few people attended the ceremony. Almost all those who came worked at the Beinecke. University President Peter Salovey read a short speech: He named the winners, summarized their careers, thanked listeners and left. The whole thing took less than 20 minutes.

    Despite the small reception in New Haven, the event attracted a much larger audience than could be contained in the Beinecke. Michael Kelleher, program director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes, opened proceedings by saying, “We’re being watched all over the world live right now.” Indeed, the announcement was live-streamed over the Internet.

    The ambitions of the Windham-Campbell Prize certainly merit global attention. It aims to reward writers in the English language from all over the world for demonstrating achievement or promise in their respective genres. In an interview with the News, Kelleher joked that he was happy that this year was the first when over half the winners already knew what the Windham-Campbell Prize was, and that no one thought the phone call notifying them that they’d won was a Nigerian Prince scam. But in all seriousness, the vast scope of the award has attracted international attention, and though it was created only three years ago, the Windham-Campbell Prize has quickly acquired significant prestige.

    The prize was created by Donald Windham who, upon his death in 2010, left the majority of his estate to Yale in order to fund the Windham-Campbell Prizes. Hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, Windham moved to New York City soon after graduating high school to become a writer. There, his career took off when he collaborated with Tennessee Williams on “You Touched Me!,” and he went on to become a critically acclaimed novelist.

    Windham’s success never came easy. He never went to college, and as a young, financially struggling writer, he worked odd jobs in New York City. It is perhaps because of this difficulty that Windham wished to create a prize that would not only honor well-known authors with impressive bodies of work, but also — and perhaps more importantly — provide younger, less established writers with the financial opportunity to focus on their craft.

    Eugene V. Kokot, co-executor of the Windham-Campbell estate, says he ensures that the selection committees choose winners that match Windham’s goals. “It was Donald’s intent to give someone the prize who would really benefit from money to aid [their] writing, without having to work a second job to make ends meet,” he said. In keeping with this mission, last year’s winners have expressed their gratitude for the prize, which has enabled them to stop looking for temp jobs and worrying about money, and to finally focus on establishing themselves among literati.

    The newfound ease of the prizewinners is the result of a long and complicated process. Each year, Kelleher travels to a different part of the world to familiarize himself with the region’s literary circles. He then chooses 60 nominators — usually writers or academics — who will each choose one “established” writer and one “up-and-comer” to nominate for the prize. He cited the importance of having what he called a “saturation” of nominees from a particular part of the world, so that every year selectors can closely examine the literature of a given country, rather than annually comparing literature from all over the world.

    Selection committees choose winners not based on a single masterpiece; instead, they look at the writers’ entire bodies of work. Judges on the committee then pick a book they think is indicative of the overall quality of an author’s work to send to a panel of jurists, who decide on the final winners. It’s a long process, and usually takes an entire year. In fact, Kelleher begins searching for new nominators the day after winners are announced.

    This involved procedure yields promising results. “The proof that the selection process works is in the people who are selected,” said Richard Deming, an English professor at Yale who teaches the popular creative writing course Daily Themes. “By and large, they aren’t household names, but they have been very impressive.”

    The names of the nominators are never made public, and nominees do not find out they’ve been nominated unless they win. The selection committees, also composed of anonymous members, work in seclusion throughout the process to determine the best nominees. Even after their term ends, previous judges cannot reveal their identities to the press.

    “The process is anonymous because we wanted to avoid conflicts of interest,” Kokot said. “We want nominators to nominate purely on the basis of their review of authors who deserve a wider audience.”

    This could explain the modest reception that accompanied the announcement of the winners; unlike prizes such as the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award, there is little fanfare surrounding the selections. While other literary prizes have celebrity judges and long processes involving publicized longlists, short lists and finalists, the Windham-Campbell doesn’t make a show of its procedure. As J.D. McClatchy, editor of “The Yale Review,” puts it: “The Windham-Campbell has prestige, like the Bollingen, more than glamour, like the Pulitzer.”

    McClatchy is not the only person to compare Windham-Campbell to more established prizes. Though the Windham-Campbell program is still in its infancy, members of the literary community have high hopes for its future. The prize was profiled in a Foreign Policy article about prestigious global literary awards, along with the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Man Booker Award. Unlike these accolades, the Windham-Campbell does not allow almost-winners to benefit from being named finalists. However, Teju Cole, one of this year’s fiction winners, says he wouldn’t have wanted to know had he been a finalist. For him, the anonymity de-emphasizes the competitive nature of literary prizes. “Making art is not about rivalry,” he said.

    Most commonly, interviewees compared Windham-Campbell either to the Macarthur Genius Award, as the decision processes are similar, or, perhaps more aptly, to Yale’s Bollingen Prize, which is essentially Windham-Campbell’s poetic counterpart.

    The Bollingen Prize has awarded literary excellence ever since its inception in 1948, when Ezra Pound was the first winner. Also affiliated with the Beinecke, the Bollingen selects American poets who have published the best book of poetry in the two years preceding the prize’s announcement. It also takes into account lifetime achievement that the judges deem particularly impressive. Its goals, then, are somewhat different than those the Windham-Campbell — the Bollingen is not international, and is rarely given to a junior poet without a significant body of work.

    Nancy Kuhl, curator of American Literature at the Beinecke and Program Director for the Bollingen Prize, thinks that, because of these different functions, the Bollingen and Windham-Campbell will mutually inform and enrich one another.

    “The two prizes together highlight Yale’s deep investment in great literature,” she said. “This isn’t just a deep investment in research, but also in the creation of great works of art.”

    The relationship between Yale and the prizes is, in a sense, symbiotic: The prize enhances Yale students’ experience of literature, and association with Yale lends the prize automatic prestige. Kuhl went on to explain how awards such as these impact students and aspiring writers who are considering entering the field: “When we give an award to a writer, we don’t know what’s going to arise from their imagination, or how that will spark the imaginations of others at a distance.”

    The Windham-Campbell has already put significant effort into sparking young imaginations. Since its inception, the prize has maintained a partnership with Co-op Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven. Each year, six students concentrating in creative writing or theater coordinate a panel and workshop with one of the winners.

    Lynda Blancato organizes the cooperation between the Beinecke and Co-op High School. “This program shows students that the prizewinners have very diverse paths to their careers as writers,” said Blancato. Even just meeting new people who aren’t from New Haven, she said, is exciting for students — so working with writers from all over the world was especially rewarding.

    The high school’s affiliation with Windham-Campbell winners is, in a sense, indicative of the realization of Windham’s goals — for many writers, especially those from outside the U.S., local recognition in New Haven is the first step to recognition abroad. “I’m literally trying to bring these writers to the world,” Kelleher tells me. According to him, the Windham-Campbell Prize intends to bring acclaim to writers who deserve it and whose art should be appreciated by literary enthusiasts around the world.

    That said, fame is not the ultimate goal of most writers. “I think making art is about having a voice — prizes are not the reason we do this work,” said Cole. (This was, of course, after saying that he was very happy to have received the Windham-Campbell this year.) “But any opportunity to develop that voice is very meaningful. Money is not the end in itself, but it allows the work to go on.”

  3. The Art of Getting By

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    Anyone who’s been to the extracurricular bazaar has heard this refrain: “Do you sing?” “Do you act?” “Do you watercolor/beatbox/bhangra?” (Cue tone-deaf freshman-year me signing onto 37 unnecessary panlists.)

    If this scene is any indication, we have a lot of artists at Yale. Enough to fill five improv troupes and seven major theater venues every weekend. Enough to fill 15 world-class a cappella groups. Fifteen! That’s a ton! Now, where do all these talented people end up after senior year?

    Well, according to Yale’s Office of Career Strategy, 15 percent of the class of 2013 took jobs in financial services and 12 percent took jobs in consulting. Only four percent went into the fine or performing arts.   

    We watch our friends act in Dramat shows and sing for The SOBs and perform for Teeth and dance for Rhythmic Blue. And we watch suited-up graduates shuffle off to jobs at Goldman Sachs. I want to know where all that creative juice goes. Are all those poets and actors and comedians really hunched over in midtown cubicles? I don’t think they are. But we don’t really talk about our campus’ aspiring artists — and whether they receive proper preparation at Yale.   

    How To Be a Working Actor

    When Alex Kramer ’13 graduated, he returned home for the summer and dusted off a copy of a book he’d received in high school: “How to Be a Working Actor.” “It was like reading a user’s manual on my life,” Kramer chuckled. “It was so helpful but it was also so straightforward — why couldn’t Yale give me this information? It’s maddening.”

    Kramer had known since sixth grade that he wanted to be an actor. At Yale he’d made all the right moves: performed in shows with the Dramat, studied theater abroad in London, devised a senior project combining the 2012 presidential election with Shakespeare’s Richard III. But post-graduation, things were a bit more complicated.

    “You hear things like ‘you’ve got to move to New York and start auditioning,’ but I had no idea what that actually meant,” he told me. At Yale, Kramer had access to training, mentorship, heaps of funding for theater pursuits and a thriving arts community. But he received little of the guidance he needed to actually make it in acting.

    Had the University offered more resources and preparation for auditions, Kramer feels his path into the theater world might have felt a bit simpler. The lack of practical counsel dissuaded some of his classmates from pursuing careers in acting, he explained.   

    “Some of the theater training at Yale is obstinately and decidedly anti-vocational, especially given the wealth of talent among composers and playwrights,” said Bonnie Antosh ’13, now a working actress in New York. “I think it’s a shame that the department doesn’t host a senior showcase for casting directors and literary agents.”

    Joseph Roach, former chair of Yale’s Theater Studies program, is quick to defend the University’s lack of pre-professional focus. He notes that a good number of Yale students have gone on to become successful actors — many likely came to Yale for a liberal arts education, not any sort of career training. “From my perspective, no major in Yale College has, or ought to have, a self-limiting vocational focus,” Roach wrote in an email to me.

    Susan Yassky ’16, a Theater Studies major, also felt that Yale strikes a delicate balance between theory and practice, an academic education and pre-professional training. “The department focuses more on cultivating our passions and less on training us in practical skills,” Yassky said, “But that’s what I want from my classes here.”

    And it’s not every school where you would find Theater Studies majors like Yassky taking science credits along with screenwriting classes. For some students, that’s a huge perk. Yale certainly doesn’t offer the vocational preparation that conservatories do but our liberal arts approach has its advantages — like diverse academic offerings and funding in the form of Creative & Performing Arts Awards.

    Nathaniel Dolquist ’15, a Theater Studies major, feels that the University’s distributional requirements make for more well-rounded artists, “People who appreciate many academic disciplines and can bring what they’ve learned back to their art.”

    To Tim Creavin ’15, also a Theater Studies major, Yalies know that they won’t be receiving the same training as conservatory students. He said that those who want to further develop their craft after Yale can enroll in MFA programs.

    What Yale does offer, Creavin argues, is a ‘Do It Yourself’ mentality, and Matthew George ’11, a working playwright, agreed. “Yale provides opportunities to self-create and insofar as self-creation is how you make art, that prepared me,” George said. “But it didn’t offer me much in the way of practical experience. Everyone you talk to sort of ends up saying, ‘just find your own path!’”

    And finding your own path can be difficult — especially when others have theirs clearly defined.   

    The Scapegoat

    Katherine Paulsen ’14 began her senior year the way many Yale kids do — with interviews and case preparation for consulting jobs. She assumed she’d take the same route as many of her friends, getting work as an associate and moving to a large city nearby. The trouble was, the job descriptions on Symplicity simply didn’t excite her. Toward the middle of her senior year, Paulsen realized she wanted to pursue work in theater. The choice wasn’t easy to make when so many of her friends were entering more lucrative fields.

    Looking at the stream of Yalies entering consulting and finance post-graduation, many students pin the blame on Yale’s Office of Career Strategy. Recruitment events for Morgan Stanley and Goldman abound on campus, but jobs in theater and writing can be harder to find.

    “When I was a senior, all these people were going into consulting and banking,” says Yael Zinkow ’12, currently in Los Angeles pursuing work as a comedian. “It was scary because we didn’t have any recruiters coming onto campus to say, ‘hey here’s how you pursue comedy.’”

    Recently, however, the University’s career services took a significant step in catering to the undergraduate arts community. In the summer of 2013, OCS appointed an advisor for students pursuing careers in the arts, Katie Volz.

    Since stepping into her new role, Volz has launched a wide range of initiatives, from hosting screenwriting workshops to connecting students with alumni in theater. She finds that alumni in the arts are particularly eager to lend a hand, recognizing the unique stumbling blocks in their fields of work.

    Volz strives to remain particularly sensitive to the financial difficulties that aspiring artists encounter. Last semester, she organized a financial planning workshop for musicians and performing artists, during which OCS outlined sample budgets and encouraged students to consider alternative revenue sources.

    Volz takes an optimistic — though realistic — approach in helping students finance their artistic careers. “I don’t entirely ignore the ‘starving artist’ notion,” she explained. “While a life in the arts is possible, one has to plan for it in order to give yourself the best possible chance of succeeding — like anything else!”

    The new OCS approach operates under a simple premise: Yale students don’t have to exchange artistic dreams for recruitment sessions at the Omni. It’s not easy to make the leap from the Calhoun Cabaret to Broadway, but it’s also not impossible.

    Take Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick ‘15, a senior major in Theater Studies. Eventually, she told me, she is going to be a theater director. Hoyt-Disick has found OCS’s new arts-focused resources “quite helpful” and said she plans to attend an upcoming OCS workshop on careers in theater.   

    “I just met with Katie Volz a couple of days ago, and I can’t say enough good things about her,” Hoyt-Disick said. “She answered every question I had with thought and specificity.”

    Creavin imagined that OCS resources are geared toward students not as familiar with arts opportunities. Those who have already learned about major casting sites might not find the resources as helpful, he explained. He adds that OCS might take a few simple steps to improve its services: The website might list opportunities according to region and provide contact information for Yale-affiliated arts companies.

    Despite these shortcomings, OCS advisors find themselves in a unique position. In many ways, Yale students are removed from the challenges facing most recent graduates. We’re disconnected from that national narrative — the typical young person who fails to find work and moves back in with his parents. The unemployment rate among workers under age 25 is 14.5 percent. Yet by June 2014, over 95 percent of Yale’s graduating seniors had jobs lined up for the fall.

    “There’s this almost self-indulgent feeling of invincibility because we’re part of this history and we have this name stamped on our diploma,” says Tao Tao Holmes ’14, a former columnist for the News, now teaching English in rural China. “We have this sort of head-in-the-sand mentality of ‘of course we’ll get jobs.’”

    Students with that mentality might feel more comfortable gambling with their careers. Charlie Kelly ’14 said that as a Yale graduate, “It feels like you have a backup plan.”

      “I know that if I sent my resume around enough I’d find something that would keep me alive,” Kelly explained. “It leaves you in a good place to set yourself up creatively.” In other words, being a Yalie affords the opportunity for risk. And for many, these are risks worth taking.

    Double-Edged Sword

    On a Friday evening, Larissa Pham ’14 gathers with other Yale alumni in Teo Soares’s ’13 New York apartment for a writing workshop. One of the graduates in attendance now works at Google, another at a Manhattan dance company, another at a local non-profit. They’re doing what it takes to get by, doing real things and adult things.

    But in their spare time they write and share their work with one another.

    “I love having this group to get together and bounce around ideas,” Pham said. She draws inspiration and support from this network of creative Yale graduates, all finding ways to balance their interest in writing with their day jobs.

    Pham’s writing group is just one example of an alumni cohort staying connected in the working world. New York City — colloquially known as “Yale Part II” — is home to many communities of alumni who live and work and socialize together.

    “Almost all of my friends from college live within 10 blocks from me,” says Willa Fitzgerald ’13, an actress living in Crown Heights. As she was making the decision to move to New York and audition for shows, it helped her to know she could rely on the friends she’d made in Yale’s theater community.

    Paulsen told me that, right before our phone interview, she went out to dinner with three other Yale graduates who are also auditioning for shows in New York. They all traded tips and advice on New York theater — what to wear for auditions, how to prepare in advance.

    Dolquist said he sees no drawbacks to New York’s theater world, where Yale graduates can find a broad range of opportunities and a welcoming alumni community.   

    Lucy Fleming ’16, an aspiring actress and writer, is a bit more skeptical of the post-Yale migration to New York. “I do think there’s value in taking time away from the Yale bubble,” she explains. “I know it’s a huge shock to leave undergrad and suddenly not be surrounded by all your friends, but that’s also an important aspect of transitioning into adult life.”

    Living and working with friends from college, many graduates do indeed make a concerted effort to break into new social circles. Antosh decided to actively seek out new friends in New York. “Staying totally immersed in an exported Yale bubble was never attractive to me,” she explained.

    It’s for that reason that some Yale graduates leave the Northeast. Holmes told me that one of her Global Affairs advisors urged her not to “continue Yale” by moving to New York City. “I see Yalies living together and I anticipated feeling a small pang of FOMO, but I haven’t had even the smallest bit,” she said. “Four years is enough. I was ready to leave.”   

    New York’s expansive Yale network didn’t really appeal to Holmes. And she isn’t the only Yale graduate navigating a complicated relationship with the institutional name on her degree. Graduates say that in the theater industry, stamping the Yale brand on your resume doesn’t always work in your favor.

    “I find that the Yale pedigree is a double-edged sword,” said Antosh. “I’ve had directors who probably gave me a second look because they assumed I was a ‘smart actor,’ and I’ve had other directors almost not cast me because they’d worked with other Yalies who had a chip on their shoulder.”

    Kelly, who’s looking for work as a writer in Los Angeles, said that he has noticed a similar adversity toward Yale graduates. He finds that employers respond well to narratives of desperation, tales of sacrifice for art’s sake. “If you come into meetings like ‘I’m this well-bred Yale graduate,’ they don’t respond well,” Kelly said. “They automatically assume you’re this trust fund-y preppy graduate who already has their ducks in a row.”

    Summer Homes, Starving Artists

    John Stillman ’14 and Brian Loeb ’14 were roommates their sophomore year at Yale. Post-graduation, they’re living in the same place again: New York. (Surprise!) But this time, they’re not sharing a bedroom — they’re not even in the same neighborhood.

    Loeb is working at J.P. Morgan, living in a Tribeca apartment with two other graduates. He typically gets into work around 9:00 in the morning and can finish anywhere between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., sometimes even later. Though the hours are long, Loeb said he’s enjoying work and loves living in New York City with its myriad bars, restaurants and concerts. His apartment, he added, is “a lot bigger than I would’ve expected.”

    You’ll find Stillman in Williamsburg, where he’s working as a freelance journalist. He has taken on side jobs to support himself; he has worked as a caretaker and he has done gallery installations. He has even modeled for a Facebook messenger ad. Right now, he said, he’s not ready to determine his lifelong career — he’s experimenting, trying to see what fits.

    That’s somewhat difficult in a costly city like New York, where the disparities between professions become apparent pretty quickly.

    “I’m making enough to live, but my friends are making enough to buy summer homes,” Stillman laughed. “I’m happy for them, but it’s crazy how the disparity is not something that takes time to set in.”

    Charlotte Parker ’13, now working on a farm in New Jersey, has also found that class divisions take root after graduation. “When you’re at Yale, finances aren’t totally relevant,” she explained. Of course, she continues, there’s that small subset of students who eat at posh restaurants and throw lavish parties — but frequently students’ financial situations are unclear. “Once you graduate, you can tell a bit more about what people’s financial situations are by what they’re doing on the weekends, where they go out to eat.”

    Sometimes, Parker sees the Instagram photos posted by her classmate working at Vogue. Despite living and studying together for four years, she said, their lifestyles won’t ever be the same.

    Even if you’re doing what you love, you might not find it easy to pursue your passions when your classmates are making six figures. And some say it’s not all a matter of personal choice: Our undergraduate lifestyle informs our career plans. Yale and its frills — its parade of comestibles, its endless fellowships and grants — might encourage certain expectations of future wealth. To some students, the emphasis here is on the luxe (and not the lux).

    “You become accustomed to a lifestyle at Yale that’s kind of unattainable if you really do the starving artist thing,” explained Kelly. “You get chained to a kind of fanciness.” Finance and consulting recruiters give us the chance to latch on to that fanciness, Kelly said, with their lavish information sessions at the Study.

    Paulsen certainly felt the pressures that Kelly describes. She says it wasn’t easy to turn down a high-paying consulting job and its accompanying prestige. “But I realized that sort of work is always available,” she said. “If I don’t try to do acting now though, I never will. I’ll never again put a two-year pause on my life to be a starving actress.”

    Not a single person asked me if I wanted to audition for a management consulting troupe freshman year. On the other hand, I was accosted by about five comedy clubs and nine publications and all 15 a cappella groups.

    So what happens between an extracurricular bazaar and senior year? At Yale, are the arts just a hobby, or are they a possible career?   

    I guess there’s no easy answer.

    But still, so many graduates are making art and making ends meet. Right now, they’re the four percent. And as OCS expands its arts resources, their numbers may grow.

    Antosh told me she was willing to make sacrifices for a career in theater. Unlike some of her peers, she gave up money and security and outside affirmation. But to her, the art was worth the risk.

    “Deciding to pursue a career in the arts was never a matter of courage,” she said. “It was a matter of hunger and love.”

  4. In Memoriam: Marina Keegan

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    This week marks the launch of Marina Keegan’s ’12 first and last book, “The Opposite of Loneliness.” While an undergraduate at Yale, Keegan was a frequent contributor to these very pages. Her work varied from reported features to personal essays, but sustained a clear faith in her audience’s ability to be more than what was expected of them. Keegan’s life was tragically cut short in a car accident days after her graduation. Her writing and her memory survive.

    In this issue, we have reprinted excerpts from pieces by Keegan that ran in the News, along with reflections on her enduring spirit from those who met her, read her and knew her from afar.


    The “Ferrocarril” Test


    I am still at The Lynwood. Marina had hired movers to transport her furniture to New York on June 2. K came in this past week to leave her own furniture in Marina’s apartment. T, the rising senior taking over her place next year, bought all my furniture. I had arranged with Marina to move my stuff into her apartment by the time I move out on May 31, as it now belongs to T. She was going to ask her movers to take my bed downstairs to her place. It’s really heavy for me to move on my own. 

    Marina approached me the first week of freshman year, at a party. She spoke to me in resolute Spanish. I remember asking her to say the word “ferrocarril,” jokingly, as a test. I also remember, and with strange accuracy, how well she pronounced it. She was wearing a very pretty white dress that night. White looked so good on her, but the color she really liked to wear was green.

    I asked Marina to write the last WEEKEND cover of my tenure as editor because I wanted it to be memorable. She told me she was honored that I asked. I was only thankful that Marina would even consider devoting the time to write a long piece for the News; I knew she was working on “Cold Pastoral” and “Independents” at the same time.

    I initially wanted that story to be about the Yale chapter of DKE, which had been banned from campus but was still fully operating, underground. She didn’t think that was interesting and suggested writing about the popularity of finance and consulting jobs among recent college graduates. She came up with “Even artichokes have doubts.”

    The story was the most viewed of the year, and one of the most viewed in the history of the News’ website.

    Marina would email me every time she got a mention anywhere on the Internet. She’d thank me for asking her, for editing with her, for giving her “so much freedom.”

    Marina and I were not friends by either of our definitions of the term, and that never bothered us. I would tell her how much I admired her all the time. I’d say, How are you so talented? How do you do so much? I’d compliment her hair.

    “Is it dirty? Are you making fun of me?” She was always suspicious.

    Some have to work hard and some are extremely talented. Marina was an extremely talented person who worked hard.

    I still become paralyzed every time I think about how angry she would have been if she’d known that that was it, that so much of her potential would remain unrealized.

    I spent the summer after her death trying to rationalize what had happened to no avail. I only found some comfort in the thought of my own death.

    One more time, Marina had made the unimaginable feel proximate and less scary.

    Gabriel Barcia was a WEEKEND editor in 2011.


    “I want to watch Shloe’s movies and I want to see Mark’s musicals and I want to volunteer with Joe’s non-profit and eat at Annie’s restaurant and send my kids to schools Jeff’s reformed and I’m JUST SCARED about this industry that’s taking all my friends and telling them this is the best way for them to be spending their time. Any of their time. Maybe I’m ignorant and idealistic but I just feel like that can’t possibly be true. I feel like we know that. I feel like we can do something really cool to this world. And I fear — at 23, 24, 25 — we might forget.”

    — From “Even artichokes have doubts,” September 30, 2011


    On “Bygones”


    The first and only time I saw Marina was when I visited Yale as a senior in high school, giddily excited about the prospect of being in college but also experimenting with my newly found nonchalance toward societal expectation, authority, and respect. I was only half-listening. I sat on the floor in a corner with the friend whom I’d come to see perform, and we whispered over her spoken word poem. When Marina apologized for the fact that she hadn’t practiced it in a while and would be reading it off of her laptop, he and I grinned at each other. But somewhere in there, I started listening. Her words about all of the glee and nostalgia associated with being a junior in college were stunningly similar to what I was going through as an almost-high school-graduate, and I had to silence my cynical friend to have more of a listen. By the end of it, I was touched, but I still hadn’t heard it all.

    But the poem stuck with me for months. I emailed my friend at Yale quite a while later and asked him to find out her name for me and send me her email address. I got in touch with her and asked her to send me a copy of “Bygones.” She responded right away with the poem, and asked me if I was coming to Yale the following year. I told her I was choosing between Yale and Harvard, and her immediate response was, “What’s your phone number? I’m going to call you and convince you to come to Yale.” I made the usual excuses of homework and no time but sent her my number and asked her to call me over the weekend. She called right away.

    What followed was a breathless two-minute call of Marina energy and listen-I’m-walking-to-class-and-I’m-in-college-so-I-don’t-have-time-to-talk-either-but-if-you-care-at-all-about-the-arts-or-poetry-or-having-fun-you-HAVE-to-come-here-and-NOT-Harvard talk. She blew me away. She was the single factor that made it hardest to pick Harvard. When I emailed her to let her know I’d made my choice, she responded with a beautiful, “Harvard is despicable, but perhaps less so for your attainment. GOOD LUCK!” In the same email, I’d told her how “Bygones” continued to inspire and illuminate even the most confusing emotional crises and she replied, “I can’t tell you sincerely enough how much it means to me that my poetry has helped you. It’s really an ultimate goal of mine and I’m so happy you can relate to some of my concerns and anxieties and quandaries and happiness’!”

    By some wacky coincidence, I was reading the same poem again, many months later, when I got the news. It was my tried-and-tested pick-me-up, and I was going through a rough patch during my gap year. I pasted a link to a video of Marina reciting the poem at the end of a blog post I was writing, and my friend sent me a link to the article about the end of her life. If someone had told Marina three years ago that her first book would be coming out in April of 2014, I’m sure she’d have been overjoyed. If someone had told me three years ago that I’d know Marina’s mother so well today, and that I’d be working with her on a project to publicize that book, I would have been happy and honored. I am happy and honored. This isn’t the way I would have chosen to read Marina’s words, but she reminds me every day to stamp out some of that too-cool-for-college nonchalance and be thankful, so that someday when the sun dies and the human race ends I won’t still be texting to see if that other party’s better. Thank you, Marina.

    Ratna Gill is a sophomore at Harvard.

    “We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re twenty-two years old. We have so much time. There’s this sentiment I sometimes sense, creeping in our collective conscious as we lay alone after a party, or pack up our books when we give in and go out – that it is somehow too late. That others are somehow ahead. More accomplished, more specialized. More on the path to somehow saving the world, somehow creating or inventing or improving. That it’s too late now to BEGIN a beginning and we must settle for continuance, for commencement…

    We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I’d say that’s how I feel at Yale. How I feel right now. Here. With all of you. In love, impressed, humbled, scared. And we don’t have to lose that.”

    –from “The Opposite of Loneliness,” May 27, 2012


    In Passing


    There’s a line in Marina Keegan’s “The Opposite of Loneliness” that will make you stop in your tracks. “We’re so young,” she writes. Then again, for emphasis: “We’re so young. We’re 22 years old. We have so much time.”

    Keegan died shortly after the piece was published, in a car accident made all the more tragic by her recent graduation from Yale. I was studying abroad in Paris at the time, between my sophomore and junior years, and had just received some bad news myself: My Italian grandfather and namesake, Andrew, had suffered a massive heart attack and died on the way to the hospital, the night after I arrived in France. My parents contacted me via Skype to let me know. Grandpa was 77. His last words to me, before my departure, were: “Parlez-vous français?” I still remember him waving goodbye with his usual toothy grin as our car pulled out of his driveway.

    The news of these deaths hit me like a one-two punch. On our first day of class, a friend enrolled in the same French program told me about Keegan’s passing (she had learned of it online) and explained that she didn’t know how to feel. Neither of us had gotten the chance to say goodbye. And both of us, I suspect, felt guilty for essentially being on vacation while our loved ones grieved at home.

    I never met Keegan but her name had been among those Yale upperclassmen who you know will find success in life. She seemed capable of so much: She led the Yale College Democrats, wrote various pieces and plays and interned at The New Yorker the summer before she died. How did she do it all? How could she? Keegan was one of those Yalies who make you feel inadequate and impressed at the same time. She appeared “effortlessly excellent” in every sense of those words.

    Still, Keegan’s story forces us to confront a reality that many of us tend to avoid — we just don’t know how much time we have. Keegan didn’t, my grandfather didn’t, and I certainly don’t either.

    This is a terrifying thought, and one which Keegan — a true intellectual — probably confronted often. But it didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions, and it shouldn’t stop us from pursuing ours. I, for one, aspire to be an author, and Keegan’s memory serves as a model. Her writing haunted the halls of The New Yorker office, where I interned last summer, and it haunts me now as I wrap up my senior thesis on the French author Albert Camus.

    He also died in a car crash too young, at the age of 47, and is widely remembered for his lucid, moral voice. In the wreckage was the manuscript of Camus’s unfinished memoir, which now survives as “The First Man.” It’s a beautiful and tender story of the author’s childhood and the forces that shaped it.

    Over fifty years later, although the accident that ended Keegan’s life smashed her laptop, it didn’t destroy the hard drive containing her most precious writings. These are now preserved in a book available on Amazon and in stores nationwide, for those who knew her and those who didn’t.

    I can only dream of such success. But Keegan — as much as she makes me feel both inadequate and impressed — continues to be a source of hope.


    “We talk into these scratchy microphones and take extra photographs but I still feel like there are just SO MANY PEOPLE. 1035.6 books are published every day; 66 million people update their status each morning. At night, aimlessly scrolling, I remind myself of elementary school murals. One person can make a difference! But the people asking me what I want to be when I grow up don’t want me to make a poster anymore. They want me to fill out forms and hand them rectangular cards that say Hello This is What I Do…

    I read somewhere that radio waves just keep traveling outwards, flying into the universe with eternal vibrations. Sometime before I die I think I’ll find a microphone and climb to the top of a radio tower. I’ll take a deep breath and close my eyes because it will start to rain right when I reach the top. Hello, I’ll say to outer space, this is my card.”

    — from “Song for the Special,” September 9, 2011


    The Democrat


    I don’t quite remember where I first met Marina. The only thing I can say with certainty is that we met at an event for the Yale College Democrats. I joined the Yale Dems the first semester of my freshman year, when Marina was serving as the Elections Coordinator. Though I was hesitant to get involved—I had never done elections work before—Marina’s enthusiasm was infectious. I found myself regularly attending Yale Dems meetings.

    At the end of the semester, Marina asked me to grab coffee and told me I should run for a board position. I was hesitant to run, and I didn’t feel qualified, but Marina told me that I had been one of the most involved freshmen. With her urging, I ran and was elected for Communications Director. Over the next year, while Marina served as President, I worked closely with her on different projects including repealing the death penalty, passing the DREAM Act here in Connecticut, and registering students to vote for the aldermanic election.

    In her most famous essay, Marina wrote that she had found the opposite of loneliness at Yale. But Marina didn’t just find the opposite of loneliness, she created it. Under her leadership, the Yale Dems was a community that embodied what she wrote about. I will always be grateful to her, not only for welcoming me to Yale, but also for reaching out and encouraging me to take a leadership role with the Yale Dems.

    The last time I saw Marina was at an event for the Yale Dems at the end of her senior year. She told us how excited she was for us to get involved during the 2012 election cycle, and she promised to take the train back from New York some weekends to help out, never wanting to miss an opportunity for elections work. Sadly that never happened, as she died a few weeks later.

    Looking at my copy of “The Opposite of Loneliness,” I know we lost a brilliant writer who spoke for our generation in a way few others could. But we also lost someone who was a fierce advocate for the causes she believed in. Marina was a progressive, not just in thought but in action, unapologetically working for progress, for change, and for hope. It is that spirit, that belief that change could happen, that I miss the most.

  5. Chang-Rae Lee’s '87 Folk Tales of the Future

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    As a Yale undergraduate, Chang-Rae Lee ’87 was admittedly a quiet one. He majored in English, but avoided creative writing courses, including “Daily Themes,” about which he said he “didn’t take it, thank goodness.”

    But Lee, who was born in Seoul and moved to the United States at a young age, has become one of the most acclaimed writers of our time. His fiction experiments with setting and style, and his novels have collected accolades like the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Novel, awarded to “Native Speaker.” “The Surrendered,” a novel centered on the Korean War, was shortlisted for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, and his most recent novel “On Such a Full Sea” has been described in The New York Times as “a wonderful addition not only to Chang-rae Lee’s body of work but to the ranks of ‘serious’ writers venturing into the realm of dystopian fantasy.” Currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton, Lee spoke to us about folk tales, finding stories through characters and how he runs his fiction seminar (which, he confesses, he would not have taken when he was in college).


    Q.You’ve previously written novels set in the past or in the present. What made you want to tackle the future with your latest novel “On Such a Full Sea”? 

    A.Let me back up a bit. I had no intention of writing a book that was speculative fiction. I came across a premise about populating abandoned urban areas in the United States en masse with settlers from foreign countries, particularly from China. I liked the idea, but obviously the premise wouldn’t be very plausible set in the contemporary moment. And so, in wanting to pursue the idea, I set it in the future. But of course, once you set a story in the future, then you have to describe the future. That’s actually how the novel came about. Some science fiction writers of a certain type are deeply and obsessively interested in that world and all its details, and really, their joy is to describe everything about that world: the governmental structures, the architecture, the technology. I only do it insofar that it informs how we might think of the characters rather than for its own sake.

    Q. You write a lot about culture and the idea of belonging and culture contributing to belonging. What do you try to convey in portrayals of these struggles in your novels?

    A.To be honest, I don’t start with a theme or some broad kind of philosophical or psychological idea. I really start with an individual, and in exploring that person and looking into their history and present life and all the things they might think about, certain ideas come up — larger ideas about the society or the culture in which that person lives. I don’t start out with an agenda and then look for characters that fit that agenda. It’s really the other way around. The characters suggest ways of thinking and ways of looking at a community or society or culture. In this book “On Such a Full Sea,” I suppose I was, in some ways, forced to look at the society first, just because of the world-building. Of course the only way to think about those societies is to interrogate — at least through a thought experiment — those inhabitants just to see what kinds of things they held as true and what beliefs they had, what kinds of expectations they had for their lives. Then a picture of a community or society starts to form. In those things, you have a sense of theme, but nothing really too definite.

    Q. Speaking about character then, I have to bring up the idea of race or minority groups. Your novels have been described as great Asian-American novels, and you as a great Asian-American writer, but you’ve also written before as a white narrator and from the point of view of A Chinese-American female in “On Such a Full Sea.”

    A. Actually, it’s narrated by a collective “we” voice of her community.

    Q. But the protagonist would be the Chinese-American female?

    A.Yeah, she’s the hero, but it’s not really from her point of view.

    Q. So, then, how do you feel about being thought of as an Asian-American writer? Do you think it’s possible for someone of one racial or ethnic group to write in the voice of another?

    A.Well, those are two separate questions. I think these days it’s funny because I’ve always said that being described as an Asian-American anything is probably just the vaguest way to describe anybody, whether they’re an Asian-American artist or Asian-American writer because “Asian-American” is composed of so many different kinds of peoples and languages and traditions. So really what we’re talking about is the racial category, right? Because you can’t define Asian-American very finely at all. So in one sense I accept the category because I am Asian-American, and because I am a writer, but I think that ends up being one of the least interesting and descriptive ways of describing me or my work. It is a way to do it but it’s not terribly provocative. I just don’t think it’s an interesting term or even an idea. I would rather — as all writers would — be described in terms of my craft and the kinds of notions that my work brings out and to be spoken of — as all people would like to be spoken of, especially artists — as individuals rather than always being put in a group.

    I’ve always felt that people can write about anything they like and from whatever perspective they like. That doesn’t mean they’re successful at it. It doesn’t mean that we should like it. But I think that if a writer approaches a project with an open mind, a lot of thinking, a lot of personal integrity and a lot of desire and purpose to get at a certain kind of truth, then I feel like they should be able to write about anything they like. So whether that’s me writing about an Italian-American guy in my third novel “Aloft,” or a white writer like Robert Olen Butler writing about Vietnamese people in “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain,” there’s a big responsibility on the writer to do as much as he or she can to bring as much open thinking and good hard thinking to the project.

    Q. That’s a really positive way of thinking about it.

    A. I think if you start disallowing people or censoring people in doing certain things that they’re “not supposed to do,” that’s a very dangerous game, [chuckles] both politically and artistically.

    Q. When you were at Yale, what sorts of literary pursuits did you embark on, academically or extracurricularly? How did those experiences shape you as a writer, if at all?

    A.Well I was just a generalist, but I enjoyed and concentrated in American literature. That’s probably an affinity I had entering Yale rather than something I found out there. I surely preferred postwar American lit to, say, Victorian literature [laughs]. It just spoke to me. Who knows why? Whether it’s just aesthetically or partly because of my being from an immigrant family and considering American-ness in all those ways and trying to figure out what American-ness meant. It’s all part of what made me interested or focused on those things. I think writers are influenced by all things that they’ve read, but I don’t know if it was formative more than any other reading I’d done in other times of my life. I didn’t really do a lot of creative writing at Yale. When I was a student, there were just a couple of writing classes — fiction writing classes — and maybe one or two in colleges like college seminars. But I was shy about sharing my work even though I was writing on my own. I don’t think I was cut out for those kinds of classes, and I don’t think I was cut out for the kind of classes that I teach. [laughs] I always thought I was a pretty good writer, but I was hesitant to share that writing and have it talked about. I had one really fun and great class with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was teaching a class in autobiography, and we were reading all these great classic autobiographies, but he would also have us write autobiographical pieces. Of course, he allowed a lot of latitude in the way we might write them and what we would write about, so that was a lot of fun. It was probably my favorite writing experience at Yale. Aside from that, I was more of a reader in college.

    Q. A good amount of writers think that writing can’t or shouldn’t be taught.

    A.I think that one who wants to write should write and practice writing, and those classes are great for that because they prompt writing that you otherwise might not do because of your schedule or what have you. There’s lots to say about the practice of writing, whether writing can be taught through techniques or theories or exercises. I don’t really feel that that’s the case. I do think that people can be helped to become competent writers. I don’t think that competent writers can be made by virtue of a class into really fine writers. Other things need to have happened, and other things need to be there.

    Q. What is your approach to teaching writing to your students at Princeton? Do you ever have them read your own work? How is the writing and literary environment there different from what you experienced at Yale?

    A.I never have my students read my own work. I think it’s a strange thing to do. If we’re really going to discuss it or do a close reading of the text, I think they need to feel completely at liberty to do or say what they want. If it’s the professor’s work, I don’t think that’s possible. There are so many good stories and novels out there to be read. There’s no need to be focusing on mine. In the end, it’s about those discussions. My class is partly a workshop where there’s a critique of people’s weekly production. But really half the class is about close reading short stories that I assign. Really, it’s just a contemporary literature class in my view, but it’s not just to expose them to literature but also to get them in the practice of reading as a writer, rather than a critical theorist or a feminist or what have you. Our agenda is quite different from what you might get in the Lit Department.

    When I was at Yale I was in the English Department. I’m not in the English Department here. We have our own little creative writing program. No one can major in what we do, and they’re selective courses. Therein is a big difference. If I were in the English Department, things would be quite similar to what I experienced back then. But I really can’t compare the two things.

    Q. So there’s no creative writing concentration at all? Do students just take these classes for fun?

    A. Most of the time students take them completely as electives. There are some people who want to get what’s called a certificate, and they end up writing a thesis in creative writing after taking a certain number of courses, but those people have to apply for the certificate at the end of junior year, rather than having a concentration within the English major. Our students are drawn from across all majors, which I like.

    Q. “On Such a Full Sea” has been described as a dystopian novel, but from what I’ve gathered, the novel is a rather mild take on the future. What made you decide on this specific setting?

    A. I never conceived of it as a dystopian novel. I thought I was writing a kind of folk tale set in the future. All these strange and bizarre things end up happening, and the society is a little warped and different, but that’s the case in a lot of folk tales. I considered it as an adventure tale about this girl who goes into a wild and odd landscape, but really also as a kind of fable about her adventures. I guess it’s been easiest to say it has a dystopian feel to it. While I can accept that notion, it’s really not how I preconceived of the book.

    Q. What were your influences in creating this story and universe?

    A.Probably more fables and fairytales, frankly, rather than the classical dystopian novels like “1984” and “Brave New World” and “The Road.” While I’d read those, I really didn’t have those in mind.  I suppose I wanted to write a novel that was quite strange in a lot of ways.

    Q. That’s funny — I was just wondering because I read a review that compared “On Such a Full Sea” to “The Hunger Games,” but that doesn’t seem like what you were going for.

    A.Well, if you read the novel, you’ll see that there’s really no [connection]. Whatever is so common is so basically common that it’s not even remarkable. And the way that my book is written, I hope, is distinctive and original.

    Q. You’ve been shortlisted for the Pulitzer and won many other awards. Your most recent novel has gotten glowing reviews, and I’m sure we’ll see your name on many award listings at the end of the year. I’m sure many Yalies and aspiring writers want to know how you define success, and when you think you reached it as a writer?

    A.That’s a big question [chuckles]. I think it changes a little bit. When writers start out, they dream about a whole career, but they really just focus on publishing a book. A worthwhile, honest book. For a long time that was my definition of success. Once you begin to see that maybe you can have a career as a literary writer, then I think the measure changes a little bit. For me, it’s not about the prizes or anything like that. I guess I measure it when peers that I respect tell me about their appreciation of my work. That’s the most gratifying feeling. Obviously I love it when readers will email me and say that they love the book, that’s really great stuff. But what truly makes me think that I’m on the right track or maybe I’ve done good work that could last is when fellow writers and really serious readers can appreciate some particular thing that I did either in my approach or my language. It’s usually something specific that makes me feel that I’ve done something really good. But I don’t think there’s an end point where I’ll suddenly be “successful.” I really don’t accept that. Each book has seemed so difficult and mysterious and almost impossible at times. I think it’ll always be that way. Success to me is where you can stop doing what you’re doing. I don’t really think that exists in art. Maybe that exists in a Wall Street career because you’ll get a certain number in your bank account [laughs].

    Q. Who are some of these peers that you speak of? Who are some writers that you respect or enjoy reading?

    A.Those two groups are not the same. Time prevents me from reading all the writers that I want to read and respect. But I don’t have to look very far. At Princeton, we have an incredible department. Think about the people who teach here. From poets like C.K. Williams and Tracy Smith to my fellow fiction writers Jeff Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates and Edmund White, I mean, those are exactly the people that I deeply respect. There are lots of people like those everywhere.

  6. What We Talk About When We Talk About Editing

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    “Beginners by Raymond Carver; Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” is a long title for a short drama. Based on Raymond Carver’s eponymous short story, the play was adapted by Phillip Howze and directed by András Visky, blending together elements of biography, theater and criticism. It’s both a play and a commentary on the machinery of editing.

    Most of the piece is an adaptation of Carver’s short story about two couples who talk love over drinks. The conversation escalates when the older woman, Terri, talks about an old flame who nearly killed her for love. Arguments over the nature of love ensue. Carver’s short story is composed largely of dialogue, which explains its immediate appeal to a playwright. It’s easy material to convert, and it’s good material. His prose is shimmering, smooth, easy, and it captures the American idiom and rhythm of speech. It’s almost written like a screenplay — dialogue with brief pauses to describe gestures, lighting and movement. But a nearly word-for-word adaptation is a double-edged sword. You get the ease and fluidity of Carver’s dialogue, but a question arises: Does the adaptation do anything the short story doesn’t?

    It does, of course, but its innovations only work some of the time. Spliced into the plot of the story are extended voiceovers, in which an unseen actor reads from correspondence Carver had with his editor, Gordon Lish. Carver defends the story as he wrote it, tells Lish he loves him, begs that nothing be changed and so on. Meanwhile text from the story is projected onto the back wall; little carrot-marks and cross-outs show the editing process at work. Unfortunately, the text swirling about can be difficult to see or process before more text replaces it. Nor is this move particularly original. It’s a rather literal demonstration of editing.

    The direction does better when it explores editing through subtler means. For instance, characters occasionally step into the limelight, leaving the rest in the dark, embarking on monologues that Carver eventually cut from the final version of his story. We see blocks of crossed-out text behind the actors. Indeed, we see that Carver was right to excise these soliloquies, mostly poetic excurses on cattle and snow that have little to do with his minimalist and everyday style. The director sheds light on Carver’s maturation as a writer without breaking the rhythm of the play.

    Elsewhere, the rhythm feels off. The adaptation tries too hard to shoehorn Carver’s smooth and understated prose into the standard forms of performance — monologue, banter and retort, rejoinder. Actors rush their delivery to swell a scene or raise their voices to show they’re agitated. The quiet, subdued rhythms of Carver’s prose are replaced with those of the capital-T Theater. The “human noise” made by Carver’s characters, ambiguous and rich, is forced to fit the confines of dramatic performance. The lines of dialogue in Carver’s story are so bare, so unmediated by narration. They could be caustic, gentle, tragic or humorous. Onstage every line has a too-specific intonation — sarcastic, or ironic, or effusive.

    The play asks good questions, but does so imperfectly. The interruption of the plot with voiceovers, though jarring, raises interesting concerns about character. When the characters all freeze in the darkness and we hear Carver talking about them to his editor, we become acutely aware of the fraught power dynamics between a writer and his work. The excised monologues and material we’re shown on the screen reveal just how much Carver’s characters live and breathe in his consciousness. We see how almost maniacally possessive Carver is of his creation. We wonder whether he’s fully in control of his characters, or whether they’ve slipped out of his grasp. It’s painful to see entire pages of text pared down to a couple words, to see parts of characters pruned away, maimed by their author and his editor.

    At the end of the play, the actors stare at a screen whose text describes their own movements. In moments like these, the play rises to the level of thought-provoking, textual self-consciousness. While this move isn’t new, it is interesting for its integration of biographical and historical context. But often this effort at incorporation is forced, or imperfectly executed. Despite the bold staging, the play’s directorial gambles don’t quite pay off.

  7. The Female “I”

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    In her memoir “I Love Dick,” Chris Kraus writes that young women who wish to be taken seriously do not use the first person. I do not use the first person. The first person is immediate and raw and I’ve never even liked the look of it. The uppercase “I” is too tall and the uppercase “I” demands an honesty I cannot provide.

    A woman who writes about herself is easy to dismiss and even easier to diagnose. Her talent is incidental, secondary, irrelevant. It’s just a symptom of psychosis, they say. We rarely separate the woman from her “I”, I think, and when we read her pieces we cut through form and go straight for the content. We pathologize. The woman isn’t a writer — she is a woman writing. She’s building castles and moats and armies with words. She’s crazy and she’s scared. Readers demolish her castles and wade through her moats and slaughter her armies! Prescribe a few pills, the writing might stop. No one wants another Sylvia Plath.

    In high school, I thought I would act for a living. I’m 19 now, and know that I won’t be able to — but I remember the rehearsals, the costumes and the stink of sweat. I remember the advice our director gave. She cared a lot about body language. On stage, we hovered near chairs and took faltering steps, and the ambivalence drove her mad. “It just looks so awkward!” she’d exclaim. “When you’re on stage, you’re always standing near a couch or a stool. You look like you’re playing musical chairs or something, like you’d better have a place to sit when the music goes off or the lights go out. Don’t do that. The audience gets uncomfortable. The audience wants you to either sit down or get up, but don’t stand with the backs of your knees against the seat.” I often feel as though I never learned to choose, as though the backs of my knees are still up against a seat. I can neither sit down nor walk away: I squat somewhere between fiction and nonfiction.

    And so I write in the third person mostly. I fashion ciphers with names like Anna and Clara and Sue, each one sad and plain and shy. I am a young woman who wants to be taken seriously — please do not tell me how to be.

    I spent a lot of time with my old English teacher this summer. We walked around the park and talked about Woody Allen. She wanted to discuss women in the modern age, and so I said a few cautious things about blind sex and self-hate. She blushed and stammered. She confessed that she’d only just discovered the Brazilian wax, and the idea was appalling. “Porn is the problem,” she said, and I smiled. Clara and Anna and Sue would have smiled, too.

    We also talked about a story I’d only just finished, a short piece about a girl named Bess. Bess has trouble with the male gaze. Bess thinks about the men who’ve “wanted to undress her.” Bess might be me. I let my teacher edit until the story was tight and spare. But my teacher is good friends with my mother, who heard I was writing again and said: “Jane, I love your work. Could you send me the story?” I sent her the story, and the next day we drank coffee and I left California. We never spoke of it again.

    That Sunday, the Sunday before classes began, my sister came up to visit. She took the MetroNorth from Grand Central, and we got pizza and beer and talked about her plans and her new apartment. Mom had called Kat a few days ago. She wanted to talk about me. “I don’t think Jane’s having fulfilling, consensual relations with guys, pumpkin. I read that thing she wrote and just felt so sad, you know? I wanted to tell her right then and there that she doesn’t have to go down on anyone. D’you think she’ll figure it out?”

    Even though the story contained no trace of that tricky, female “I,” my mother read each “Bess” as if it were Jane. Perhaps mothers will always find clues to our secret lives in curious places. Perhaps she’ll continue to collect fragments, cobbling together an intricate, imperfect idea of my life from emails and essays.

    But I am a young woman who wants to be taken seriously. And in “I Love Dick,” Chris Kraus writes with an “I.” She rolls around in her feelings like a pig in a mud bath. But the feelings aren’t messy or dirty when you’re as discerning as Kraus, Kraus who reappropriates the language of lit crit to examine and legitimize her own fixation. (She’s fallen in love with Dick Hebdige, a popular sociologist.) Kraus subverts a feminine trope with masculine rhetoric. But still I fear that my own “I” is trite. I am not Chris Kraus. I write with small words in small rooms, and I am only brave enough in the briefest of moments.

  8. DELIA EPHRON: Essayist, Dog Lover, Cronut Cynic

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    Delia Ephron can claim all the major titles of the literary world — novelist, screenwriter, playwright, essayist. Her latest work,“Sister Mother Husband Dog,” came out on Tuesday, and on Wednesday Ephron stopped by the Yale University Art Gallery to talk about the book. She wrote this collection of essays in the wake of her sister Nora’s death in 2012, which ended a lifelong creative partnership between the two. Their collaboration spawned the films “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle”. With sporadic asides to her dog — “honey, down!” — she spoke to WEEKEND over the phone about her writerly genealogy, the tweetable future of essays and trendy New York pastries.

    Q. Your latest work, “Sister Mother Husband Dog” came out today. How did this collection differ from other pieces you’ve written?

    A. I hadn’t written a collection of essays for ages, not since I wrote about being a stepmother, when I published a book called “Funny Sausages” — God, I don’t even know how many years ago. My last book was a novel that came out last year called “The Lion Is In,” and the two books before that were novels. I had been writing for the New York Times op-ed section, but really, it was the death of my sister that started it. I would go into the office, sit down and just start writing. It was a way for us to be together — we were sisters, writers, collaborators. It was a complicated life and I wanted to understand it. And I needed a way out of this world I was in. It was like living in a world where the street signs were missing.

    At one point, later, I was at a Jewish bookshop, and I was being bombarded with questions about how Jewish I was — and I was raised in a very non-religious family — and so I wrote an essay about religion that made its way into the collection.

    So I had these two things, and then I realized I was on a journey. Somehow I branched into all my major food groups, writing these essays.

    Q. The essay is having its “moment” — hailed, I think, as this Mason Jar of literary form: simple and versatile. What do you see as the future of the craft? Have we arrived at what the New York Times dubbed the “essayification of everything”?

    A. I don’t think of essays as trendy. I think of blogs as trendy, and I don’t think blogs are essays. I liked writing the essays because there’s a whole way to weave in and out of storytelling. I’m a dramatist, I deal with drama, I write screenplays, and you can create a drama in an essay. I have no idea what the future of it is, I’m not comfortable predicting that — I mean, maybe the essay will be reduced to 140 characters and we’ll tweet them. I don’t know.

    Q. Do you have a “favorite” piece of writing, or writer?

    A. I’m a huge E.B. White fan. Someone recently sent me an essay on his dog Daisy’s death, and I had a dog named Daisy, so … so, well, I feel an enormous bond to E.B. White, not so much his essays, but his children’s work. “The Trumpet of the Swan,” “Charlotte’s Web” — the way he combines whimsy and emotion — there’s a whimsicality to his work that I worship.

    Q. Often, writing is characterized as a solitary profession by nature. How did your relationship with your sister, Nora, influence your creative process? 

    A. My rule for writing is, “Only do what you can do.” It keeps you looking inside, instead of becoming obsessed with what’s popular. Since I come from a family of writers, it seemed important to figure out who I was through writing. It was my fingerprint.

    When we collaborated, it was best to find material that was personal to both of us — but not personal to one more than the other. Collaboration is a shared interest, and the two collaborators have to like the same things, they have to have a mutual investment, because it’s very important that the material be a place where you can be creative equally.

    Q. You champion a style of enviable familiarity, a breezy authenticity mastered by many successful screenwriters. Have you always approached writing with this informality? 

    A. I remember my mother saying that if you want to be a good writer, write a letter and take off the salutation. I’ve always remembered that. Writing must come from a more natural place. The important thing is that you access truth — and I take that really seriously. You can be conversational and be emotionally thoughtful. For me, it’s always, “Can I make you laugh and can I make you cry?” I want to do both.

    Q. How do you explain your approach to writing?

    A. When I first started, I thought that I needed to try something new every year. I wrote these craft books in my 20s, but in my 30s I really started my career and I thought I was late and that, no matter what I did I had to learn all these new things. I had wasted my 20s, absolutely wasted them, so I thought I better figure this out.

    But an idea, a plot, a story, a notion — if I’ve started to fantasize about something — I think good ideas stay with you. Is this a novel, a screenplay, an essay? You have to figure out what the idea is.

    Q. Your family has a dynastic dynamism. Nora, of course, but also two screenwriter-parents and two more writer-sisters. Did your childhood feel exceptional as a result? I can only parallel the eccentricities of the Kennedys or the Foers.

    A. Everyone’s childhood … Everybody has different parents. You are born in and you relate to your parents differently. I think my experience with my parents, for example, was different from my sisters’.

    I think something very exceptional about my childhood was that I was raised at a time when women didn’t work, and my mother worked. But she was an alcoholic. One version, a sane version during the day and then at night, she was … she was another person.

    I had, on the one hand, blessing, and on the other hand, trouble. But it was my experience — and it was different than how my siblings might relate to our parents.

    And, I think this is especially true given your audience. You start to look at your parents differently when you go to college. But I think that all of your 20s is such a major shock to the system. Some people have it all figured out, but there’s this humongous group of us who are still floundering. And sometimes finding your way later is better. I truly believe that. My essay “Blame it on the Movies,” from the collection, is about my 20s and I think that really explains a lot.

    Q. Do you describe yourself as a “career writer”? That is, have you always wanted to be a writer?

    A. I was raised in a family where it was the expectation, but I just got — well, I had the genes! And the temperament. I like to be alone. It’s been a blessing that I’ve been able to do that professionally, that I’ve been able to make a living at it.

    Q. Any advice for stumbling undergraduates (Yale is full of them!) with an interest in the craft? 

    A. That piece, “Blame it on the Movies,” is extremely useful for getting yourself into writing. The most important thing, if you want to be a writer, is that you develop work habits. It means gluing yourself to a chair several hours a day. And it’s so hard now, with all the social networking, but you’ve just got to get into the habit. You have to do it five days a week, until you start to like it.

    Q. Thoughts on the merits of writing classes? 

    A. I never took any writing classes. I’m sure a great teacher is very helpful — and for some people, it’s the right thing.

    Q. I want to end with a reference to your latest opinion piece in the New York Times on bakeries. Thoughts on the cronut — is it the latest version of the “depressingly American” idea of “having it all”? Or worth the hybrid hype?  

    A. I personally did not like the cronut. It’s certainly not my version of having it all. It’s this way overdesigned pastry — it’s a pastry that’s also a punchline! Way too sweet for me.

  9. Call for Submissions: The Wallace Prize

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    Do you have any unpublished fiction or creative nonfiction? Would you like to win money and recognition for your work?

    The Wallace Prize for Fiction and Nonfiction is Yale’s most prestigious independently-awarded writing prize, and submissions are due tomorrow, Monday, Feb. 27, at 4 p.m. Application forms are available in the English Department office or at the News’ building at 202 York St. Winning entries will be published in the May issue of the Yale Daily News Magazine.

    Questions? Email ydnmag@gmail.com.

  10. Louise Glück takes prose to whole new medium

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    Louise Glück, a former U.S. poet laureate and Yale’s Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence, may have taken her to a new medium this month: Yelp.

    Ostensibly writing through a woman named “Krystal G.” on the popular review website, the Bollingen Prize-winner composed an ode to Heather’s Home Cleaning, a cleaning service in Berkeley, California.

    Glück waxes poetic about her “dismal and faintly sordid” apartment, with “early dentist’s office” decorations. Just when one loses oneself in the boundless despair of Glück’s interior design, Heather’s Home Cleaning enters from stage left.

    “Never have I seen clean like this,” Glück, or Krystal G., writes. “Walls and tiles changed color, surfaces I’d been reluctant to actually touch glittered.”

    Glück then considers kidnapping one of the cleaning service’s brilliant workers for her “REAL house.”

    If it was Glück after all, she may not have thought it her best work— as of Thursday morning, the comment had been “filtered.” Read it in full here.

  11. Daily Themes comes to the Magazine Blog!

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    Starting today, we’ll be publishing pieces composed for ENGL 450, “Daily Themes.” Interested in being featured? Submit your theme with its prompt to lauren.oyler@yale.edu to be considered for publication.

    Prompt: “Write a narrative that has the form of a list embedded in it. It might be the story of a particular day, or a series of errands or some other simple actions or events. Suggest but do not explain the implications of the order of the items in your ‘list.’ Push the sequence toward a surprising conclusion that illuminates the list’s secret coherence — or possibly that undermines the expectations you have built up.”


    Marc surveyed the anxious crowd before him. He knew he would have to pick 10 today. There was a light frost on the ground, and his uniform, newly acquired when he’d been upgraded only this past September, provided little protection. He hated this part. He knew he was supposed to be a man, to revel in the power of choice, and he was working on it. He was looking for the strong ones, the fearless, the healthy. He hated weakness and fear. He didn’t want to be reminded how unsure he was in this unlimited authority. You, he said, pointing to a tall red-head. The male got up and looking guiltily at those he was leaving behind walked slowly to Marc’s side. Narrowing his eyes, Marc pointed this time to one of them who had short hair and folded arms. He seemed tough. You, he beckoned. Then he chose one with a sharp chin, another with a broad face, and one who stood absolutely still, not shivering in the cold. That seemed a good sign. There was one smaller one with glasses and longish hair, but when Marc turned his eyes on him, he smiled in return to Marc’s gaze. Disgusted at this implication of equality, Marc turned aside the choice. Glasses were weak, he decided. Finally ten were lined up to Marc’s right, facing the crowd that was left behind. The crowd searched the group desperately with their eyes while the line of chosen looked only at the ground. Relieved, captain by virtue of his new high-school status, Marc sighed and picked up the red ball. The neighborhood dodgeball team had been selected.