Dispatches | February 17, 2014

By Michael Nye

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away … well, actually, it was just 1985. Back to the Future and all that. At the time, The Missouri Review was housed in the Arts and Science building, several blocks east of our current location in McReynolds Hall. A young man, Mike McClaskey, was earning his Masters in English and contemplating pursuing a PhD in literature. He had a long conversation with Speer Morgan about whether or not this was a good idea. Shortly after graduation, Mike left Mizzou and went into the technology field, spending twelve years with Perot Systems, before ending up at some company called DISH Network. You might have heard of it.

Mike has always been a generous support of TMR. This year, he and his wife Janet agreed to fund two new internships, which began in August 2013. These internships will provide assistance to students and post-docs who will be working to support the technology initiatives of The Missouri Review.

Mike is now a senior vice president and chief information officer with DISH, and he frequently returns to Mizzou to recruit students, from all over campus, to come work for DISH in a variety of areas: human resources generalists, information technology, analytics, and so forth. With approximately twenty-four thousand employees, DISH has lots of ground to cover.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with interning in publishing?

When I graduated from Ohio State in 2000, I knew two things: I wanted to be a writer and I wanted to leave Ohio. Anything beyond those two concerns (or even, really, how to achieve concern #1) didn’t enter my mind. When compared to today’s frequent and lousy news about tenure-track employment and the state of the humanities, my goals seem relatively quaint. While our editor-in-chief, Speer Morgan, hasn’t exactly told students not to bother with academia, he has emphasized that we need to consider areas other than study at an university. Speer asked Mike to come talk to my class, and Mike generously took the time to showcase what some of those other areas might be for graduating seniors.

Toward the end of this week, one of the second-semester interns (who are recognized as “Advisors” on our masthead) asked me how I keep up with what’s going on in publishing. I had just come down to the main conference room to get coffee, and the intern was reading manuscripts, and we fell into a natural conversation about how to not get overwhelmed by all of it: the endless number of submissions, the three hundred thousand books published in English every year, and how this shapes and shifts one’s own writing.

I have an answer that I think is pretty good. Reading manuscripts at a literary journal is an excellent way of seeing, in the here and now, what your contemporaries are writing. Say what you will about the New Yorker, but subscribing and reading their fiction shows what the heavyweights in contemporary literature are doing and—factually, if a bit cynically–showcases the work of a novel that has just been published or is forthcoming within a few months. Reading the Books section of Entertainment Weekly. Knocking out the core books in The Canon, various -isms aside, gives a writer a needed foundation in literature. There’s also websites such as The Millions and The Awl, and following writers, publishers, editors, and agents on Twitter.

I also think this answer lacks something useful.

Take a look at that paragraph again: that is a ton to ask anyone to do. That’s not just seeing what’s going on (“Oh, Meg Wolitzer published a new novel…”) but that’s asking someone to find, read, and absorb all that writing, which can easily feel less like a love of reading and writing but the drudgery of keeping up with the Joneses.

And it doesn’t even address one’s writing. That’s just keeping up with other people’s writing.

I think my student’s question came from a place of uncertainty. And I know that for me, that place of uncertainty creates an anxiety that never goes away. I didn’t experience these feelings when I was an undergraduate because I didn’t know any better. It started to creep in during graduate school, and now that we’re all connected online all the time, it’s impossible not to feel pressure to Do Something Big. Or, at least, the pressure to not feel small, to not feel inconsequential. One of the (many) criticisms of the online world is the way it puts rose-colored glasses on everything. I’m sure such thoughts on Facebook and Instagram as narcissism and self-loathing are not originally to you; book reviews, regardless of medium, are filled with general praise for all writers and all their books, as if they are the grown-up children of Lake Wobegon. In the online world, this is, of course, counterbalanced with the opposite end of the spectrum: irrational, enraged hatred and scathing criticism calling everything bad and unreadable.

It’s all quite exhausting. All this noise can feel crushing.

Americans love talking about happiness. When you think about it, especially as a writer, having language such as “the pursuit of happiness” put into a government document is curious. My old mentor, Lee K. Abbott, would call that a “stout stake” that makes a narrative promise that you, as writer, better deliver. I’ll keep the cultural commentary to a minimum here, but when a nebulous and temporary state called “happiness” is part of your national heritage for nearly three hundred years, the tendency to avoid sadness, fear, embarrassment, pain, disquiet, vulnerability, and restlessness becomes normal. It’s why so many books by American writers are interior and focused on the individual. It’s why so many books by American writers (and the writing workshops where the foundation of these books are birthed) feel like therapy.

(see what happens when I’m asked a seemingly innocent question while I’m getting coffee?)

This mixture of disparate emotions, however, should not and cannot be shut off, not just because such complexity makes narrative art great, but because this complexity also makes us human, makes us feel alive. This complexity is integral to ourselves, and the people that enter and exit our lives. It’s beautiful and it’s joyous; it’s ugly and maddening and unavoidable.

The standard advice to a young writer still holds: write frequently and read widely. If he or she wants to write, hey, that will come naturally in time. But the reality is that there will be doubt and anxiety on a regular basis, and the trick is, I think, to recognize and accept this as normal. The key is to keep writing. Remind yourself: you can quit at any time. Right?

So why quit now? Exactly: you don’t.

Maybe it’s as simple as that.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye