Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Best Quotes from MTV's Jersey Shore - Episode 4

Episode 1 quotes
Episode 2 quotes
Episode 3 quotes
Episode 4 quotes
Episode 5 quotes
Episode 6 quotes
Episode 7 quotes
Episode 8 quotes
Episode 9 quotes

Episode 4 is easily the most delightful yet, despite respectable competition from the first three installments. This week, Ronnie and Sammi prove they are soul mates, having found in each other their rival for Shore's Biggest Drama Queen (apparently even guys on steroids have a tender side). Ronnie and the Situation trade a few light jabs while sitting in their respective barber’s chairs. Vinny, likable and charismatic generally, continues to be an unsavory source of sanity in this Dionysian dreamworld, and thus remains banished from the Jersey Shore spotlight.

The Situation and Pauly D run a double ditch-and-switch, followed by an historically unprecedented reverse double ditch-and-switch, but ultimately fail to close the deal.

And of course, the plush and occasionally adorable Snookie tragically discovers the one man on earth who is willing to earn his 15 seconds of fame by sucker-punching a little girl on a nationally televised reality show.  The country is later encouraged to learn her attacker is a public school teacher.

Given the range of epic performances there are a plethora of Special Awards this week, some old, some new -- so many, in fact, it renders my customary countdown almost arbitrary. But enough preface and apology. Let’s get started, shall we?

Best Quotes

7. “You gotta stay fresh to death.  That’s what I call it.  Fresh outfit, fresh haircut, fresh tan. Just stay fresh.” – Pauly D

6. “Mike would bang a Gatorade bottle at this point.” – Ronnie (referring to the Situation)

5. “Oh my god.  I’m going outside.” – Vinny (in the barbershop, after listening to Ronnie and The Situation debate The Situation’s prowess for several minutes)

4. “He’s a really good guy.  Like that’s the guy I need in my life.  I think his name is Ron.” – Nicole, aka "Snookie"

3. “I’m sucking up my pride right now, and apologizing.” – Jenni, aka "JWoww"

2. “Yes, I had sex.  Like, hello.” – Sammi "Sweetheart"

1. “If you’re not hitting the gym for like an hour or so then, you know, you may have a problem.  Okay?  Because I’m at the gym for like an hour AND A HALF.  You know?  I’m working on my fitness.” – Mike, "The Situation"

Lord Byron Award for Romantic Verse

No surprise this goes to the defending champion.

“You really have to like catch my eye and be like really, you know what I mean, something special for me to be like, like I’m feeling you.” – Ronnie

“Yeah, we smooshed.” – Ronnie (referring to first act of lovemaking with Sammi)

“I was ready to put you in the equation.  Like, YOU... in the equation.” – Ronnie (loses something without the tears)

Pythagoras Award in Profundity

The next three awards go to Snookie, beginning with this newly established (perhaps long overdue) prize for the following revelation.

“I’m like, growing.” – Snookie

Jersey Pride Award

Though none of the cast members are Jersey natives, this prize recognizes cultural observations that make those of us who are natives of the Garden State swell with pride.

“It’s the Jersey Shore.”  - Snookie (responding to her mother after she comments that the water looks dirty)

Famous Last Words Award

Another first, and probably not the last.

“Get your ugly ass out of our faces.” – Snookie (before getting punched)

Best Exchange Award

Short but sweet, for the understanding reached between the two lovebirds at the end of their first major argument.

Ronni: “You’re fucking disgusting.”

Sammi: “YOU'RE fucking disgusting.”

*Lifetime Achievement Award*

It was inevitable that The Situation would take this one home solo eventually (he shared the honor with Snookie last week).  It might be said that withholding the honor this long was comparable to the Academy reserving Peter Jackson's Oscar for his last installment of Lord of the Rings.

But we can't award the Situation without also simultaneously recognizing Pauly D for his essential supporting role.  The Dynamic Duo raised the bar in so many ways -- reaching new heights of effortless egoism, sexism, childlike lust, grammatic license, etc -- that there was a temptation at first to create a bunch of sub-Lifetime awards... that is, before adequately capturing the essence of these two-dozen-or-so snippets proved impossible.  For instance:

Best Tangent Award

Awarded for rehashing the best "story before the story."

“We have both the chicks in the bed.  Me and Mike.  Mike has a chick.  I have a chick.  We’re in bed.  We’re just fooling around, whatever.  I couldn’t have sex my girl—she had her period.  I go to take her pants off, she wouldn’t let me.  No big deal.  And then…” – Pauly D

Rapid Fire Award

Created to recognize The Situation for producing three gems in a span of just under 10 seconds (yes I timed it). The moment occurs during one instance (of what has already become frequently recurring scenario) of Pauly D and The Situation coaxing a pair of coy women into the upstairs hot tub.

“Do you guys need like any, any, like we’re gonna get towels you need anyth—we’re good, we’re good.” – The Situation (attempting to be accommodating then abandoning attempt mid-sentence)

“I feel you on that.  But really, fuck it." – The Situation (responding to girl’s complaint that she has no bathing suit)

"We’re going in our underwear.  That’s what’s going on right now.”  – The Situation (afterthought to “I feel you… fuck it.”)

Then things just got away from me:

“We were the fucking MAN at Karma.” – Pauly D (referring to himself and The Situation, or possibly to whole house)

“We’re beating up the beat.” – Pauly D

“I was hooking up with my girl.  Pauly’s hooking up with his girl.  And uh, we’re gonna have sex.  So, you know, it’s a situation.” – The Situation

“They were acting kinda stupid.  But we were making the best of the situation.  Like we always do.” – Pauly D (referring to girls' ambivalence about hot tub)

“Chill out, Freckles McGee.” – The Situation (referring to girls' ambivalence about hot tub)

“When I go into the club I have a game plan.  I don’t want to waste my time and take home a girl that just wants to hang out.  I just want to get to the business.  So you line it up, and then you move on.  And then at the end of the night, you see what you end up with.” – Pauly D

"So, the girls are coming with us.  We’re walking with them.  But then we notice these two girls in a convertible.  So we immediately run over to the car.  It’s like a reflex… The other two chicks were pissed.  They turned around and walked back.  We didn’t even care.” – Pauly D

“Well it’s kinda the way I say it.  You know what I’m saying?  Not to give you too much credit, but at the same time I’m attracted to you.” – The Situation (to girl after she questions his choice of modifier when he tells her “You’re kinda cute.”)

“Holy shit.  What the fuck are we gonna do?”  – Pauly D (to Situation, when original girls they ditched suddenly show up at house while they are entertaining the convertible girls upstairs) 

“Tell ‘em to come back in twenty minutes.” – The Situation (responding to Pauly D's question) 

“Shhhhh.  Be quiet little Italian girl.” – The Situation

“You girls are cuter.  I am feeling you right now, and I’m about to kick out the girls upstairs.” – The Situation (to original girls they abandoned, referring to convertible girls they were abandoned for)

“I might have to give her a little attention in the future, but, I don’t know.  Maybe not.” – The Situation

“Basically, one of these girls was, uh, definitely more cuter than the other, and it happened to be, uh, my girl. And Pauly D was with the grenade.” – The Situation

“My girl was fucking busted, so I’m like just trying to go with the flow.” – Pauly D

“I was taking heavy fire.” – The Situation (after Pauly D abandons him)

“That girl was a bomb.  And Pauly didn’t know the code to decipher the bomb.  That’s pretty much what happened right there.” – The Situation

“Calm down sweetheart.  Stop hating." – The Situation (to Grenade, from bed where he lays naked with Friend of Grenade)

“You wanna walk this girl downstairs?” – The Situation (to Friend of Grenade, referring to Grenade, who stands a few feet away)

How could an award possibly do all that justice?

Best Guest Quote

I am, however, delighted to award the first Best Guest Quote to the Grenade, who closes out this week's collection.

“I would so do your dishes but I’m not even trying to do that now.” – The Grenade (pondering dishes in sink while The Situation hits on Friend of Grenade)

*All photos courtesy of

Saturday, December 19, 2009

MFA Applications Done

What has 2 thumbs, and finally sent in the last of his 9 applications, and is pissed he had to type out his basic information seventy times, and vows for this reason that if even one of these 9 schools rejects him he will exact icy revenge (yes, on the whole school, or schools), but for now is going to reward himself by gorging on Mexican food and ice cream?

No seriously, this is a funny joke. Can you guess?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best Quotes from MTV's Jersey Shore - Episode 3

Episode 1 quotes
Episode 2 quotes
Episode 3 quotes
Episode 4 quotes
Episode 5 quotes
Episode 6 quotes
Episode 7 quotes
Episode 8 quotes
Episode 9 quotes

Lose the dead wood!

In Episode 3 the two cast members in relationships break up with their boyfriends, one of whom completely self-destructs.

Visiting friends Alana and Elena are no help to Angelina (yes you are pronouncing those three names correctly) as she feigns illness, skips work, tells off her boss (who she’s only met twice) from behind a bathroom door, and leaves the show entirely.

Meanwhile Sammi and Ronnie continue to flaunt their romance in front of The very wounded Situation -- who doesn’t care, at all, but also does -- only to suffer a communication breakdown at a nightclub. And the boys learn a thing or two about operating a propane grill.

Mining for quotes has become far more challenging. While many stand alone, an increasing number require some context. It’s hard to determine how big a piece I can extract before it loses its potency. It’s a fine line to walk, but I feel I am honing my craft.

The countdown is short this week, due to Vinny’s limited role in the episode plus the multiple Achievement Awards going out.

Top quotes

5. “I’ll break it down dancing. I love the beats. I got my creepy patent move.” Ronnie

4. “Tommy said that if I did cheat on him he’d leave me. So I just have to figure out…” [pause] “how to approach this.”Jenni, “JWOWW”

3. “Honestly, like, I’m sick. When you’re sick, like, honestly, like.” – Angelina, “Jolie” (when asked why she didn’t get someone to cover her shift at work)

2. “Snookers is funny. She likes her pickles.” – Pauly D

And the Best Single Quote Award goes to:

1. “Next thing you know, the grill is legit burnt. Smoke. Like, flames.” – Sammi “Sweetheart”

Honorable Mentions

“She just doesn’t want to feel like a trash bag because she has a boyfriend and she kissed me with her tongue.” – Pauly D (referring to JWOWW, after she denies any memory of making out with him)

“I’m gonna fucking knock a bitch up.” – Sammi 

“I’ll make everyone hate each other by the end of the night.” – JWOWW

“The fact that JWOWW broke up with her boyfriend, it just means she’ll feel less guilty now when she hooks up with me.” – Pauly D

“I guess I’m single. I don’t know. If I am, we got a problem on our hands.” – JWOWW

“Angelina wanted us to like beg her to stay. But I don’t think anybody’s gonna do that.” – Pauly D

“I met JWOWW’s boyfriend. Seems like a cool guy. But if JWOWW was my girl, I would break up with her in a second. Your girl shouldn’t be out there dancing like that, lifting up her skirt. And I already made out with her so…” [pause] “I think he’s kind of a sucker if you ask me.” – Pauly D

Lifetime Achievement Award

As you can see from his strong showing in the Honorable Mentions, Pauly D nearly scooped up the Lifetime Achievement Award again.  Alas, he was edged out by Mike, “The Situation,” and Nicole, aka “Snookie,” who share the honor this week.

“Look at these PANCAKES, what’s UP! –The Situation

“Pickles is my thing, like, and the boys always stare at me, like, if I’m eating pickles." – Snookie

“Me and Mike have hooked up before. That’s why when I saw him at Headliners I was like, oh shit, I’m gonna bring him home and I’m gonna get my fix.” – Snookie (referring to surprise encounter with an old friend)

“I wouldn’t be a dick if you weren’t a little bitch.” – The Situation (to Angelina)

“Bless all the roomies that are still here.” – Snookie (saying grace)

“Angelina was like a half-assed firecracker.” – The Situation

“That’s what I’m talking about. People get shocked when they see something like that.” – The Situation (after showing abs to Snookie’s friend Ryder)

“Snookie’s friend Ryder I thought was kinda cute. You know, she wasn’t ugly, she was thin and petite, and I kinda like that.” – The Situation

“Mike can be a nice guy, like, he shows he good side, then he shows off his jerkoff side. And that’s what I like, a good guy and a jerkoff. It’s all in the same.” – Snookie (referring to The Situation)

“Making out was fun. If one thing leads to another, I’m not gonna tell him to get off.” – Snookie (referring to The Situation)

“Ah heh. Ah heh heh. WOW The hot tub with Snookie and Ryder was very very entertaining. Um… it actually got pretty wild at certain points throughout that, uh, the, the…" [losing composure] "Heh heh heh – The Situation

“Fuck my fucking asshole right now.” – Snookie (to The Situation, after he tells her to start doing dishes)

Congratulations to Snookie and The Situation.

Special Awards

We also have some special accolades this week, first of which is The Lord Byron Award for Romantic Verse, which goes to Ronnie, for his honey-drip lyrics of affection regarding fellow cast member Sammi.

“Honestly I thought the shore house was the best thing to happen to me. But YOU are. You are.” – Ronnie (to Sammi)

“You’re mad cool. I like you. I don’t like most girls that I meet.” – Ronnie (to Sammi)

“At first I was like I’m not gonna shit where I sleep. But for her, I’ll roll around in my shit all day, to be honest with you.” – Ronnie (referring to Sammi)

We must also recognize a brilliant tag-team performance by creating the Best Dialogue Exchange Award, which goes to The Situation and Pauly D for their joint reaction to the gas grill going up in flames (as a result of charcoal they placed inside).

Situation: Yeah, this is a problem right now. We could possibly, blow up right now? It’s… it’s burning the… it’s burning the whole thing! Pauly take care of it before we blow the fuck up!

Pauly D: I’m gonna use this thing. (referring to fire extinguisher)

After dousing the grill with the fire extinguisher, Pauly D and The Situation ponder the retreating flames, approaching the grill cautiously.

Pauly D: You want me to shoot that? Wait, wait, wait it’s working the way it’s supposed to work.

The Situation: Yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. I think we might be able to still cook on that.

Pauly D: For real?

The Situation: For real.

*All photos courtesy of

After All These Years, the Jersey Shore is Still Good to Me

Would you believe that my compilation of quotes from the premiere of Jersey Shore has increased my blog traffic five-fold? Go figure. Though I suspect this will be a flash in the pan, and that the people finding my blog are among the least likely to ever come back, this response easily trumps my other popular posts, like Blue Ink vs. Black Ink or my endorsement of the Michener Center.

Since I seem to have cornered the market on Jersey Shore wisdom, I kinda feel obliged to continue my archiving efforts if only to see how much I can leverage it. With the one post up, I come in as the 8th hit when you google “Best Quotes from Jersey Shore” (27 if it’s just “Jersey Shore Quotes”). This positioning has brought about 1,300 people in nine days.

Let’s see if a second post pushes me up that list. Stay tuned for Episode 3, (I’ll get to Episode 2 at some point).

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Application Update

Seven applications down, two to go.  S'all.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Best Quotes from Premiere of MTV's "Jersey Shore"

Episode 1 quotes
Episode 2 quotes
Episode 3 quotes
Episode 4 quotes
Episode 5 quotes
Episode 6 quotes
Episode 7 quotes
Episode 8 quotes
Episode 9 quotes
On Thursday night MTV debuted its new reality show Jersey Shore (watch episode 1), and I'm a happy, happy boy . Hailing from New Jersey, and having spent many of my younger summer days in Seaside Heights (the Mecca of the Jersey Shore if you didn't know), I happen to have a little experience with the unique slice of culture featured in this brilliant -- I repeat, brilliant -- piece of television-making.

The concept is simple and familiar:  Stick eight empty shells resembling human beings inside a chic-looking house and tape the melodrama that unfolds.  Correct, there's nothing new about that. The show's subjects are as sculpted, self-important and soulless as your typical Real World cast, and as collectively dense as the contestants in The Bachelor or The Bachelorette.

The new twist, besides the unique setting, is that the show overtly embraces the unflattering stereotype it depicts -- in this case, the young, urban, east coast Italian-American or "Guido" -- as do its characters, who (with the possible exception of Vinny) are no more self-aware for it, and possibly less so. Traditionally, the satire of similar reality shows has depended at least in part on the ironic disparity between the way the cast members think the world views them and the unflattering way the show depicts them -- The Real Housewives of... franchise arguably delivers the starkest examples of this disparity and brand of satire.

But in Jersey Shore there is no attempt, however arbitrary, to fly anything under anyone's radar, not even in the interest of political correctness.  Stigmas are props to be used over and over again, and from start to finish are volleyed back and forth like bunch of airborne beachballs.

I can personally attest that the utterly magical things coming out of the cast members' mouths are absolutely authentic. As an ardent student of language, I have taken it upon myself to archive these linguistic masterstrokes, or at least to initiate this worthwhile endeavor. Here are the best quotes from the premiere of "Jersey Shore."

7.  "I'm bringing New York to Jersey because A, they don’t even know how to drive and B 'cause they don’t know how to party."  [long pause...]  "Get the fuck out of my lane." - Jenni, aka "JWOWW"

6.  "Dude you can’t bring a girl into this house when you’re vibin' with a chick. That's just going to cause, like, massive amounts of problems." - Ronnie

5.  "My name around town is Sammi 'Sweetheart.' I'm the sweetest bitch you'll ever meet. But don’t fuck with me." [Later, in same interview] "If you're not a guido you can get the fuck out of my face." - Sammi, aka "Sweetheart"

4.  "I’m the smallest guy here. Fuck." - Vinny

3.  "What is she doing, this girl? How do you go in a fucking Jacuzzi with a thong? And a bra? Wear a thong bikini—that's a little bit more classier if you're going to wear anything at all, you know what I mean?" - Angelina, aka "Jolie"

2.  "Where the fuck did everyone go? Why the fuck is that thing quacking? That’s really weird." [later, during interview] "Quack! Quack! Quack! Like, shut the fuck up." - Nicole, aka "Snookie"

And at number one, the Best Single Quote Award goes to...

1.  "I’m very anxious to get down there with my hot clothes, and my tan. Just arrive. 'Cause once I arrive it's like, what's up, I'm here." - Mike, aka "The Situation"

Congratulations to The Situation.

But the highest accolades belong to the cast member who seems incapable of saying anything that isn't poetry. The Lifetime Acheivement Award goes to Pauly D, the sleeper from Rhode Island, of all places.  Here are some of the gems that mark his historic acheivement (and mind you these are from a single episode):

"It takes me about twenty-five minutes to do my hair. It comes out perfect every single time." - Pauly D

"I don't try to take a lot of guys' girlfriends, but it just happens." - Pauly D

"And in walks this girl with like garbage bags. I thought that was kinda like ghetto, and like weird. Like you can't find a suitcase? No one in your family's got a suitcase you can borrow?" - Pauly D

"I can never go out without my hair gel." - Pauly D

"I was born and raised a Guido. It's just a lifestyle. It's about being Italian. It's representing family, friends, tanning, gel, everything. Dude I got a fucking tanning bed in my place, that's how serious I am about being a Guido and living up to that lifestyle. My tagline is 'I'm Your Girl's Favorite DJ.' I want the Guidettes to c** in their pants when they hear my music." - Pauly D

"Girls are supposed to cook, and guys are supposed to eat, you know what I mean? That's how it is." - Pauly D

"I hope it's not like hard work. I don't even wanna work. I'm a DJ." - Pauly D

"Guidos... when we stop, our chrome keeps spinnin'!" - Pauly D

Honorable Mentions

"This is 'The Situation,' right here. My abs are so ripped up it's… we call it The Situation." - Mike, the Situation

"I mean this situation is going to be indescribable. You can’t even describe the situation you're about to get into the situation." - Mike, the Situation

"Just take your shirt off and let them come to you. Like a fly comes to shit." - Ronnie

"I am like a praying mantis. After I have sex with a guy I will rip their heads off." - JWOWW

"I have real boobs.  I have a nice, fat ass." - Angelina

At a large dinner table seating over a dozen members of Vinny's extended family, one family member asks of Vinny:  "So where are you going in New Jersey?"

Vinny's answer:  "The Jersey Shore."

*All photos courtesy of

Thursday, December 3, 2009

World's Fastest Rejection

Since I was giving my short-story/adapted-epilogue yet another overhaul -- I'm using it as my writing sample for grad school applications -- I figured I might as well submit the latest version to more journals too.

Literary journals are not generally known for their quick turnaround time.  I've waited as long as 8 months to get a response.  But among the latest batch was Sonora Review, which stood out to me because it used a manuscript submission service I hadn't seen before (  Unlike other online submission tools, this one charged $2 a pop, not that it was such a big deal to me.  I uploaded my story at 5:17 p.m.

At 8:15 p.m. I got a response:

"Thank you for submitting your work to Sonora Review. Unfortunately, we are unable to accept it for publication at this time."

Whoa!  Are you sure?  Maybe you want to take a second look at it?  Perhaps you should step away from it for a while... just take a break, then return to it in a couple of weeks with a "fresh pair of eyes?"

I have to admit, the speed is quite refreshing -- well worth the two dollars, if you ask me.  Imagine if every journal were that quick?  But still, ouch.

The worst part is that they are clearly not sifting through piles and piles of stories if mine went straight to the top of the queue.  Yet even with this limited pool of stories my baby did not make the cut.  I feel like the little league coach chose to field eight players instead of filling the empty slot with my clumsy-and-inept-though-well-intentioned child.  Aw, come on, Coach!  Give the kid a chance!

The Best Literary Journals for Short Story Submissions

Just finished sending my epilogue/short-story to another round of journals, and updated my submission guide accordingly.  In addition to the O. Henry and Best American Short Story awards, I've now factored in the Pushcart Prize.

Since the Pushcart website doesn't do its own tally, my plan was to go through each collection for the last ten years and see which journals the stories came from that were not already on my list.  I was dreading it because the award-winning fiction pieces are interspersed with poems and essays, so tallying up appearances by each journal promised to be a long, mind-numbing task.

How happy was I to discover that a fellow fiction writer had already done just that!  Cliff Garstang, at the blog Perpetual Folly, compiled his own Pushcart Prize Rankings -- a list of every journal that has had a story featured in Pushcart ordered by number of appearances.  He even went back a full ten years, as I was planning to.

What a great resource for writers trying to determine what journals they should submit to.  Thank you for your service Cliff!

I have updated my own guide to includes my latest group of submissions, this time to journals that have won 2-5 Pushcart Prizes in the last ten years (and, again, not already on my list).  They are divided as before into those which allow simultaneous submissions, those that don't, and those to which I (personally) cannot submit my story for miscellaneous reasons.

For the hell of it I'll re-post my standard cover letter too.  I hope these prove useful to some of you.

Oh, and for those keeping track the score is now 30, as in my story has been rejected by 30 journals.  Maybe more.  Never say die.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taking the GRE for MFA Programs

The GRE is a requirement for most MFA programs, and a particularly annoying one considering it's not a major factor in your application.  But I will say this: The day I signed up for a GRE test date, and a Kaplan prep course, was the day I knew I was no longer just considering applying to MFA programs -- I was actually going to make a concerted effort to get into one.  Signing up for the test was quick, yet highly committal given the specific date and the $250 fee.

Perhaps some of you, like me, can consider signing up for the GRE your launch pad into grad school reality; throwing your proverbial hat into the ring, if you will.

I learned shortly thereafter that Kaplan was evil -- I invite you to read my account -- and that there are perfectly adequate resources for GRE preparation that you may find online, for free.  Which I suppose should come as no surprise.

1.  Comprehensive online test prep for the SAT, ACT, and GRE, founded by professors and graduate students who wanted to make high quality test preparation universally accessible. Nice.

The courses are organized in a fashion that is not overwhelming, so that you can plan your schedule of study fairly easily (I crunched mine into a three-day weekend).  Their review of the basic math you'll need for the quantitative portion is helpful and quick.  They provide clear instructive answers explaining why you got an answer on a practice question wrong (or why you got it right), taking special care to point out all the "traps."  And because it's all online, your practice will come as close to true GRE conditions as possible -- versus, say, using a workbook.  Just a fantastic service all around.

2.  FlashcardExchange:  This gem is more hidden.  Arguably, the only true guarded knowledge at Kaplan (and apparently not so well-guarded) is their list of high-frequency GRE words -- this is no joke.  There are roughly 600,000 words in the English language, and the average human vocabulary consists of 10,000 of those.  That leaves 590,000 words that test-makers could choose to baffle us with, but for some reason they are compelled to include a large number of their favorite 295 words on every exam.

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Taking the GRE for MFA Programs (p.2)


Beats me what is so wonderful about these words.  As a writer I find some of them impractical and downright ugly.  Circumambulate, meaning to walk around?  Amatory, pertaining to lovers or lovemaking?

Try turning somebody on with that.

Anyway, on FlashExchange, where creators of digital flashcards graciously share their study aid with the rest of us, there are a few batches of cards available to help you with these popular GRE words.  Here's one example.  That means you can avoid buying flashcards, or worse, writing up your own.

The site lets you sort by which cards you get correct or incorrect (according to your own judgment), and by cards you've studied versus those you haven't.  You may study a sub-group of the full deck, and then a sub-group of that sub-group, etc, and FlashExchange will record your entire study history.  Thus, I was able to study in batches of 50 at a time, returning to those I got wrong, then once more, then repeating for the next 50, etc.

Took a few hours but eventually I had all 295 cold.  Was it worth it?  You bet your ass.  Even though I was betting on it, I still found myself stunned that so many of these words were on the exam.  Easily made the difference of 100 -200 points. 

There are also hot lists greater than 295 if you have the time (500, 800, 1000, etc.), but I found 295 to be sufficient.

3.  Free Online Practice Test - This is a no-brainer, and it seems there are plenty of them available.  I arbitrarily chose the practice exam offered by Princeton Review and it suited me fine.

*One more GRE learning experience I'd like to share.  I'm sure it was buried somewhere in the resources I've listed above, but I completely missed the part about reporting your scores immediately after completing the exam.  The test fee includes up to four score reports, mailed to schools of your choice.  The trick: You can only take advantage of this once, right after you finish the test.

After that, sending your GRE scores to schools is 20 bucks a pop.

I was so dazed by the end of the test I couldn't even figure out what the damn computer was asking me.  "Score reports... sending to... wait, what are these things it says I'm applying to?"  Thankfully I had the wherewithal to look for my top choice and enter it, not really knowing what I was doing or what the school would get.  I figured I could work out whatever it was later.


So don't be like me and piss away $60.  Be ready with four schools you know you're applying to.

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Free Online Test Prep for GRE. Why?

Because Kaplan sucks. That's why. Here's a story for you.

Taking the GRE is required for entrance into most MFA programs, and while the score itself is not a huge factor, I figured that bombing it might make an otherwise respectable application appear suspicious. I signed up to take a test on September 29, and didn't even consider taking advantage of the test prep resources available for free online.  Instead  I looked into pay-for prep courses, figuring it was worth two or three hundred bucks to relieve myself of having to develop my own study plan.

I almost vomited when I found out the standard month-long course at Kaplan, consisting of nine 2.5-hour classes, was $1,200. Now before I go on, can we just take a second to do some fun calculations (think of it as practice for the quantitative section).

If the Kaplan prep book by itself is is $30, then that means I’m essentially paying 1,169 dollars for (9 x 2.5 =) 22.5 hours of classroom instruction, or 52 dollars per hour. Must be one hell of a teacher.

Especially when you consider how much revenue this guy rakes in! Let’s assume a classroom of 20 students, $52 times 20... that's over a $1,000 per hour. Wow! This must be like having Socrates as a mentor!

Considering how little the GRE’s factored in to my application, twenty-plus hours and twelve hundred dollars seemed too big an investment to have somebody take me through a workbook. Thankfully, Kaplan also had an Express course -- $399 for sixteen hours over one weekend. This I could stomach, so I signed up (and paid) for a course in Cambridge (easy to get to) on Sept. 26 and 27, two days before my exam so I’d be fresh from practice.

On September 11th I get a voicemail and an e-mail from the local Kaplan Center. They both said the same thing, and the e-mail read as follows:

Dear Kaplan GRE Student,

Hello! My name is [Jerk Face] and I am the Associate [Jerk Face] at Kaplan. Thank you for choosing Kaplan to prepare for your GRE exam! I'm excited to meet you and begin working with you as you strive towards your highest possible GRE score.

I am writing today to inform you of an adjustment [my emphasis] that we have had to make to your Kaplan GRE Class schedule. Your first class is now Saturday, September 19th instead of September 26th, and will be held at the Boston Kaplan Center located at... instead of at the Cambridge Kaplan Center.

It is not often that I am faced with changing a class on such short notice... but my hope is that this inconvenience is minimal and that we can still help you to prepare for your GRE and entrance into the graduate school and program of your dreams! Please don’t hesitate to [blah, blah, blah] and I look forward to [blah, so polite and professional, blah].


[Jerk Face]

Well, hel-lo to YOU! You are so kind to alert me to this adjustment. Now I have ample time to cancel my weekend trip to Maine, or my house inspection, or my visit to my dying grandmother, or whatever lower priorities I'd foolishly scheduled when I should be keeping my weekends flexible in case something like this should happen. God forbid I had scheduled something I couldn't cancel, I might have had to go into my scheduled GRE exam (250 dollars non-refundable) completely unprepared!

PAGE [1] [2]

Free Online Test Prep for GRE. Why? (p. 2)


The modest amount you charge for your Express course certainly doesn't obligate you to keep me abreast of such alterations, and I shudder to think what kind of service I would get if I went with one of those other prep courses. Kaplan, you really do make dreams come true.

Are you.


Kidding me?

Since the e-mail offered no details explaining the reason for this cancellation, like the classroom burned down, or a typhoid epidemic wiped out half the instructors in Western Massachusetts, I can only assume that the reason the class was canceled was that they couldn't fill it, so they tried to herd us like cattle into another class they couldn't fill to achieve maximum cost efficiency.

I'm appalled this note avoided any mention of a refund, even though it's almost certainly illegal for them to deny one, considering they cannot provide the service I paid for. The intention here was clearly to suggest this "adjustment" was obligatory, and that there was no other recourse, in the hopes that people would go out of their way to the location that best suited Kaplan, instead of signing up for the next most convenient test date and location, or simply getting their money back.

This was deception, pure and simple.

I gave myself a day to respond so I wouldn't blow up before knowing I had my money back. But I could taste blood. I was hoping, praying, they would put up a fight.

Sadly, I met no resistance, except that I had to return the prep book first, that piece of toilet paper which should have been my consolation prize -- the least they could do, but whatever. There was also a long delay getting my credit card reimbursed and I had to poke them a few times before it actually went through.

I didn't have to look long after that to discover there are ample resources available, for free, to help prepare for the GRE. And it occurred to me (I can't find the article I read validating this): What you're really paying for with a Kaplan course is structured and guided practice, nothing more. That's the only reason scores go up.

But the keystone to Kaplan's marketing campaign is the "Kaplan method," an implied set of tightly guarded secrets that allow one to exploit the formulaic weakness of standardized test questions, make them transparent, and arrive at the correct answer regardless of whether you're able to solve the problem in a traditional manner.

It's all mystique. There is nothing unique, innovative, or exclusive about the very basic strategies they employ. Here, for instance, is a slide presentation divulging one of their "secrets."

In short, Kaplan is a racket, and an especially deceptive one. If you'll benefit from the classroom structure (I probably would have if my scores mattered more), then maybe it's worth considering. Otherwise, I say avoid this vulture at all costs.

PAGE [1] [2]

Applying to Top MFA Programs

About three months ago I had an unexpected mental development: This will be the year I finally apply to the Michener Center. I still wasn't entirely married to the idea of going, even if I got in (and that's probably a long shot), but I figured going through the process of applying to one, and not getting in, might motivate me to apply to several the following year.

That motivation, to apply to several, struck me much earlier than I thought.  I've spent the last couple of weeks preparing my application materials for nine schools, in the hopes of having most of them submitted by December 1st.

Over the next few months I intend to document my full experience here, and will provide any documents I create to keep myself organized and the schools organized, samples of my personal statement, and any other bits of wisdom I might garner from the experience. Items I would like to include:

*Studying for and taking the GRE - (let's just say I have some strong opinions about Kaplan now)

*Selecting schools to apply to

*Securing worthwhile letters of recommendation - (a challenge considering I've avoided the writing community since starting the novel)

*Choosing and preparing the writing sample - (not much to this, it's the same piece I've been submitting to journals and has been rejected about 30 times --- I think it bodes well)

*Writing the personal statement

*Helpful resources

*My charmingly witty reflections

This will take a while, and will probably be of little use to my fellow applicants this year.  Hopefully it will be worth something to next year's class.

In the meantime, cue the drum roll, because here are the nine programs on my list, not necessarily in order of preference. More detail on selection process to follow, but there's no real secret formula --- they pretty much represent the programs have the best reputations and/or the best funding, minus a few, like Iowa (Ye Olde "Writers' Workshop" does not pay enough to live in Des Moines) and Cornell (love my alma mater but I think going back would be a constant and depressing reminder that my glory days are behind me).

I've also included check boxes that anticipate these programs' ultimate, yet-to-be-calculated quality rating, as determined by an algorithm which incorporates a broad constellation of weighted factors (The author admits this rating will be based in small part upon whether the school accepts me, wait-lists me, or rejects me):

1. UT-Austin (aka Michener Center)
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

2. UC-Irvine
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

3. UMass-Amherst
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

4. University of Michigan
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

5. University of Wisconsin
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

6. Indiana University
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

7. University of Florida
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

8. Brown University
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

9. University of Virginia
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Starbucks Rapes Halloween

America's favorite coffee conglomerate has just surpassed Big Tobacco as the most evil commercial enterprise in history.

I'm sitting in their lounge right now listening to Sting croon about Christmas -- a 'Bucks exclusive compilation, no doubt -- on fucking Halloween.

You are two months and two major holidays ahead of schedule, you corporate sluts.

Maybe after they're done pissing in every child's trick or treat bag they can start adding a drop of morphine to their frappuccinos.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

How Long Does It Take to Write a Novel?

A little over a year has passed since I finished a draft of my manuscript. At that time I predicted one more year to revise, edit, incorporate suggestions from friend-editors, and finalize a version worthy of shopping around to agents and publishers.

Due in part to unexpected hiccups in my planned work schedule plus a long motivational slump over the winter, I have, since then, managed to revise (and to a greater extent re-write) a little over one quarter of the book.

I'm quite happy with the changes, but they're not exactly coming at a breakneck pace.

Just goes to prove a personal theory, a truth that is comforting, superbly annoying, and easy to suppress and forget over and over again: This book has a life of its own, and will get done in its own time.

A number of friends have recently inquired of the book's status. Reporting on such has become a source of mild embarrassment, but in the course of listening to myself offer the same confession several times, a curious realization struck me. As far as I can recall, beginning from the day I started writing it, I have always predicted I am one year away from completing the book. Truly, I believe this has been a constant for five years running.

If true, this phenomenon yields an unsettling, yet zen-like, question: If, from the day you ask him, Jim always has one more year of work on his book, does the book ever get finished?

Of course, amount of time spent completing on a novel varies greatly and depends on the writer and the work. If in self-flagellating mood, I can find models for comparison which are devastating. When more rational, I can reassure myself by recalling writers who exhibit inhuman patience when it comes to completing their masterpieces.

On the one extreme, we have machines like Nora Roberts who, at her most prolific, publishes 15 books a year or more, putting even the NaNoWriMo nuts to shame. For a less commercial example, take John Updike, who wrote roughly one book of dense, artful prose over the course of his career.

On the other end we have James Joyce who, time line be damned, took 17 years to write Finnegan's Wake, which from what I understand is about how long it takes to read.

I was especially comforted recently when I met Joseph O'Neill at a reading and signing for his book Netherland, which it turns out took him seven years to write --- and we're not talking an especially lengthy book here. That puts me two years under the wire.

After a long rain delay, the warmth and sun of summer have finally emerged in the Boston, and the contended mood they inspire allow me to go a little easy on myself, at least for a while. For now I can brandish the license given me by Joyce and O'Neill, and take my sweet friggin' time.

As if I had a choice in the matter.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why did my PageRank go up?

It occurred to me last time I was posting to glance upward at the PageRank meter in my Google toolbar, which I hadn't done in a while. The last time I looked was months before, and it was ranked a 3 at the time --- that was before I reached my point of winter burnout and returned to full-time hours at work, which has in turn resulted in a complete cessation of my promotional activities (no comments on other blogs) and my, as of late, neglectful posting rate of once-per-month.

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw that Ink and Beans is now ranked a "5." How did that happen?

My understanding was that PageRank is determined primarily by the number of websites linking to you and the relevance of those sites, i.e. how highly ranked are those sites linking to yours? This is why I'd been busting my butt to become an active member of the blogosphere, commenting on other writers' blogs, attempting to trade links, etc.

From what my Analytics report tells me, I have gained no new links to my site, which makes sense considering I've made no efforts to acquire them. And while it pleases me greatly to see that some of my linking, blogger-friends have also become more relevant in Google's eyes (friends like _holm and Highland Madness have also increased in rank since I last saw them... not that I'm keeping track guys :) ), I doubt this would contribute wholly to me jumping two points myself.

Perhaps I shouldn't question good fortune, but it frustrates me when I exerted so much effort to understand and affect a factor that, it now seems, is entirely out of my hands and beyond my understanding.

Has this increase in Google significance affected my traffic, you want to know? Somewhat, yes. I've only been posting once per month and I haven't been sending my usual e-mail and facebook alerts after doing so, yet I seem to be getting about 25 visitors per day. That means a lot more people are finding me via keyword searches on Google, which in turn is explained by my higher Google-relevance.

So I guess I'm only half complaining, but I still wish I knew what I did right, so I could do it more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Submitting Short Fiction to Literary Journals (Addendum)

Just got one of the warmest-fuzziest comments on my blog since this thing started. The timing is perfect because I'd been getting anxious about posting something --- Lord knows it's been a while.

My newest literary war-buddy, Peter, commented on what has turned out to be my most popular (not saying much really) archived post about "Submitting Short Fiction to Literary Journals," and also checked out the update I wrote a year later. Peter writes:

"Just discovered this post while searching for reputations of literary journals. The Excel spreadsheet you created is a godsend (yeah, that's my emphasis). I've been struggling to figure out some sort of logic for determining to which literary journals I would submit my short story manuscripts and this has been tremendously helpful toward that end.

...Again, thank you so very much for posting this article. At the least, now I know I'm not the only person who was initially overwhelmed by the task of selecting literary journals for story submissions."

Well that easily made my week, and possibly my month. I can't begin to express how much a note like this makes keeping the blog seem worthwhile. Thank you Peter. I concur: It is a tremendous relief to know others find the submission process overwhelming at the start. It's not just that I'm an idiot, yaaay!

Peter also asks:

"Have you considered Glimmer Train? I noticed they were missing from your spreadsheet, but a local writer suggested I check them out."

Indeed I have, and in fact they are one of the first journals I ever submitted a story to --- not my epilogue, but a different one I wrote a while back. I didn't include them in my spreadsheet because, at the time I last updated it, GT did not meet my imperfect criteria of publishing a story that has been featured in BASS or O. Henry in the last ten years. But that may simply be because they're relatively new?

Actually I'm looking now and I see they're 17 years old... so maybe they're not so new. At any rate I sense they may be on the rise. I see them cited all the time, and I remember them featured in a short list as one of the best journals in terms of financial compensation --- $700 for a standard submission! That's like 4-5 times the average payment.

I personally found GT's website and submission process very inviting compared to most other sites. In short, I highly approve of submitting manuscripts to Glimmer Train, and I may send my beloved epilogue there before long.

On a related note, it recently occurred to me in a bookstore what my next source for top-tier journals to add to my submission list will be: The Pushcart Prize, another annual compilation of prize-winning stories.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Best Film of 2008: Rachel Getting Married

Yes I'm going out on a limb. And dammit, I feel alive!

Seriously though, I just watched Rachel Getting Married, and I think I enjoyed it more than any other movie I've seen in the past year (including the best picture nominees though I haven't seen Slumdog Millionaire yet; also, for purposes of gushing here I'm excluding a certain bat-themed movie). I'm not sure I've ever stated this explicitly before on this blog, but I live for good movies and, more recently, good television on DVD. Because of my trouble with reading novels I actually find more inspiration from screenwriting than I do from novels. Doesn't seem quite right, but it is what it is and I've come to terms with it.

That being said, perhaps I should allow myself to include a movie review in this blog now and then.

I figured I'd like RGM for two reasons. First, it received good reviews. Second, it stars my crush of the last four years, Anne Hathaway. Until this movie I was never completely sure whether my future wife was a talented actress in addition to being quirky and beautiful, but I question no longer. Her performance was riveting and worthy of the Best Actress nod she received

But RGM has so much more going for it than Anne. I can't remember the last time I felt so emotionally exhausted after a movie. The film centers around a recovering drug addict, Kym, and her family. After a nine month stint in drug rehab Kym is allowed to leave for the weekend to attend her sister Rachel's wedding. While it is a joyous occasion indeed, the suppressed dysfunction of the entire (in my opinion well-meaning) family begins quickly to reemerge, threatening any hope of happiness or peace for the lot of them. The whole cast was superb --- there was no character I didn't like --- and there was delicious tension throughout, nearly unbearable at times but for the moments of piercing tenderness thrown in. My heart was pounding through most of it, as if I were watching a blockbuster action film. Kym may be the instigator most times, but every family member has their weakness, and despite their love they struggle to get out of each other's way.

And thankfully, though much of the movie was heart wrenching, it is not a tragedy. I found the resolution very satisfying and somewhat uplifting, without being sugary. Thus, I did not walk away saying: "Wow, that was a great movie. I want to kill myself now," which is sometimes the trouble with "realism" in film

The best thing about this movie was the depth of and interaction between the characters, but there's another thing that impressed me. As a cultural treatment, the film is extremely progressive. The families being joined by the marriage both share an intelligent warmth, and a deep appreciation of music, but the similarities stop there. Kym's family is white, but the groom and his family are black. The older generation seemed to have accents I thought placed them somewhere in the Caribbean but apparently they're from Hawaii (which adds even more racial complexity to the mix). The flock of musician friends occupying the house during wedding preparations add several more ethnic ingredients to the mix. And I'm no music aficionado, but I doubt anyone could find a unifying regional theme to the various (danceable) songs performed during and after the ceremony. The bride and bridesmaids even wore saris, though none of them were Indian as far as I could tell. The clash of cultures was overt, joyous, and pervasive, yet it was not spoken about once. Even at the height of aggression and anger between some family members, there was never a hint of prejudice, ignorance or race resentment betrayed. It simply was not an issue, not even unconsciously. How encouraging!

Incidentally, the film was directed by the very capable Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) which I suppose should not surprise me, but I tell you, I'm very eager to see what else first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet has up her sleeve.

If I needed any more evidence that this movie did it for me, I've been raving about it non-stop since it ended (always a sign I've seen a winner). Moreover, I'm writing copious notes for a short story idea that came to me, inspired by the film, which hasn't happened since I wrote the epilogue to my novel (which started as a short story) years ago.

There's my pitch. Go see this movie!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Does Revision Ever End?

For those keeping score at home, my epilogue has now been rejected by 16 magazines and journals. The good news is, I made significant revisions that I think will really improve its chances. While I'm encouraged by the changes I've made, it's also a little grueling to revisit the same piece for, like, the hundredth time and see so many areas for improvement. Starts to make you feel like there's no light at the end of the tunnel, like you could revise the piece forever.

I believe the pursuit of perfection is, and should be, endless, but in terms of an artist's craft, not a particular piece. Ideally, a piece reaches a finite point where it is fully "realized," for lack of a better word, where any further changes become almost arbitrary, or even detract from the quality. If such is not the case, then what's to stop an artist from working on a piece indefinitely?

Perhaps "realized" simply means you keep improving the piece until it gains the specific approval you seek for it, whether it be approval from a general audience, or a critic, or a peer, or an institution --- in my case I seek approval from a reputable journal (and subsequently, with any luck, readers of that journal). Submitting the story according to my method, then, the story's development will end when it is published, i.e. when the progressively decreasing prominence of the journals I submit to intersects with the increasing quality of the story.

Still, it would be nice to think my story could be realized without the approval of a journal, that its development will reach some natural endpoint on its own. Next time I review my beloved epilogue (and I really do love it), whether it be published or not, I hope I come away thinking: "Wow, this doesn't really need much change at all. It's great the way it is. Good for me."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Submitting Short Stories to Literary Magazines (Part 2)

Of all the articles I've written so far, the post outlining my method for submitting short fiction to journals (written October last year) seems to be the most successful in drawing new readers to my blog, via search engines.

I'm not talking droves here, but for a while I'd say about a dozen people per month found me on Google (and such) via search phrases like "submit my short story," and actually stayed on my site a while, instead taking a quick look and leaving, as the majority of search-engine visitors do... at least for this site.

Since yesterday I sent the short-story version of my epilogue out to yet another group of journals, I figured I might as well get some mileage out of this popular search topic.

I've updated my submission guide, which now includes, to the best of my knowledge, every journal that's appeared either in Best American Short Stories or the O. Henry Prize Stories at least once in the last ten years. The journals that appeared once and only once --- which are the ones I've submitted to most recently --- are at the bottom.

As before, I sort them by whether simultaneous submissions are accepted or discouraged, and include info about length limits, reading periods, response times, and whether they take electronic submissions. It's an editable spreadsheet so you can add the journal's website, mailing address, and whatever else helps keep you organized.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Spike in Visits

Obviously I haven't posted anything in a while, so when I checked my Google Analytics report to see what my traffic looked like, I wasn't surprised to see it hovering around 12 visits-per-day. Even on the days I post something new, and send an alert via e-mail and Facebook, I rarely get more than 35 visits in a single day.

But then on Monday, out of nowhere, I had 113 visitors. Sweet!

Naturally I was curious how this happened. The report indicated that the post receiving the most hits that day, by far, was the summary of results from my Blue Pen vs. Black Pen, published two months ago.

Turns out my poll results were discovered and talked about on the Fountain Pen Network --- a discussion forum for ink and fountain pen fanatics. To be sure, my article did not generate nearly the level of in-depth discussion that many other topics on the FPN do, but I was flattered just the same.

My traffic has already returned to normal levels, but this was an exciting blip, and gives me hope that in the future other posts might get spontaneously "picked up" by various online networks, be they discussion forums, e-mail networks, or just other blogs with more activity than the serene pond that is Ink and Beans.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Store and Share Your Fiction Online

Yesterday I learned that Yahoo! Briefcase --- the service I've been using to store my novel (and some other random documents) online --- is shutting down. The service always seemed pretty archaic to me, offering only 30 MB of storage and a rigid interface that never changed in four years, so I thought this day might come eventually. Truth be told, I sometimes wondered whether I wasn't the only person on earth using Briefcase in the first place.

Meanwhile, you may recall that I only just posted my first chapter excerpt a few months ago. Accomplishing this turned out to be an arduous task because, while it seemed like a simple and obvious feature to include. you can't store documents on Blogger. In this case, I wanted to find a web service, preferably free, that allowed me to upload a document and generate a unique URL address for that document, so that people interested in, say, reading my chapter, only had to click my link once and, presto!, my chapter would appear. At the time, the best option I could find was Google Sites. Better than nothing, but it required at least two clicks to get to any document I wanted to share, and the intervening window was confusing.

Hooray for SkyDrive! Store and Share Your Files.

Apparently I was looking in the wrong places. Within minutes of looking for a new place to store my private files, I found this article outlining many free options for storing and sharing files online.

I went with the first in the list, Microsoft SkyDrive, and so far I'm pretty pleased. If I install a little applet I can drag and drop all the files I want into a folder, then simply click an "Upload" button and away they go. Much faster than the Yahoo service I'd been using.

Also, if I place files in a public folder, I can generate a hyperlinked icon that people can click and go straight to the file I want --- no intermediate screens or clicks. Yay! Here's what it looks like (sharing both my first chapter and my short-fiction-submission-guide):

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Best MFA Program in Creative Writing

[Update: After my 2009 experience applying to Michener and other top MFA programs, and coping with my subsequent acceptance to none, I am geared up to make a second go of it.  Wish me luck!]

For the last two years I've seriously considered pursuing an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) in creative writing. If I my novel ends up not getting published, returning to school to sharpen my skills would hopefully improve my chances second time around. Moreover, the supportive environment and imposed structure may be what I need to pick myself up and take a second swing, as this has been a taxing experience.

And if I do publish my novel, I may go for the MFA anyway, because even though I'm not finished I'm absolutely ready for something new --- a new project, a new location, new learning experiences, new people. And there will be much to gain by increasing the amount of feedback I get from other serious writers.

At the very least, it would be nice if the second phase of my writing career weren't quite so solitary.

What I know of MFA programs I've garnered from two sources. The first is Tom Kealy's The Creative Writing MFA Handbook, which as far as I can tell is the most focused and comprehensive source out there (especially in conjunction with his blog). Second is this more digestible list from the Atlantic Monthly*.

After poring over these I found myself gravitating most toward the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin. Inevitably I came to idealize it, which is inconvenient since, ya know, these programs are pretty hard to get into. Practicality aside though, the Michener Center is highly reputed, which is the most obvious reason to put it near the top of my list. But there are three additional factors that make the Michener Center my favorite:

1) It's the best-funded program out there. Many MFA programs pay full tuition for students, and some even pay a stipend with no or minimal teaching requirements. The Michener Center pays a 25,000 dollar per year stipend for three years, no teaching requirement, and allows you to apply for an additional 2,000 dollars for "professional development." You get paid living wages to write and to learn to write. Am I dreaming?

2) I like its multi-genre emphasis, such that students must choose a primary and a secondary focus among the four areas of fiction, poetry, playwriting and screenwriting.

3) I've yet to hear a bad word uttered about Austin, Texas. All reports I get from those who lived there are that Austin is fun, young, cultured... I hear it's even warm.

Since deciding the Michener Center is my top choice, I've lately found a fourth reason to go there, which is that James A. Michener, reputed author and founder of the program, is my new nemesis. If I'm to complete the prophecy, bring balance to the force, and prove that I am the chosen one, I must descend upon this writers' Mecca to challenge and defeat his legacy. The prophets have spoken. I shall journey to Austin and face my destiny.

If I feel like it, that is.

*I also recommend this associated article. It contains provocative thoughts from BU's MFA program director Leslie Epstein, like his theory that a novelist must have a semi-concrete notion of an ending in mind (which I agree with) and his scorn for the ellipsis (which I think is a little harsh).

The Inspiring, Intimidating James Michener

A few days ago I dropped a line to a musician friend to wish him a happy birthday, sparking an unexpected and pleasing exchange (a little one-sided, I dare say) about favorite books. It turned out that Mike* --- a popular solo performer and parodist here in Boston --- is an avid reader and was starved for some good book conversation.

Thus, I found myself in the familiar and embarrassing position of confessing my troubled relationship with books and, as a result, my relatively (for a novelist) poor familiarity with the universe of quality fiction. Undaunted in the least, Mike proceeded to rattle off some of his more recent favorites. I further confessed that I'd read none of the authors he listed, and that his favorite, James A. Michener, I wasn't even sure if I'd heard of before.

I've always felt an artistic kinship towards musicians --- I suppose I relate to their dual wish to inspire and entertain with their art, and because they're not prose writers (usually) I don't regard them with competitive caution. I know how vital, how nourishing, inspiration is to fellow artists and so I always take special interest in their recommendations. And with Mike, I don't harbor my usual suspicion that some unconscious desire to project sophistication is selecting his favorites for him --- his signature song, after all, is about masturbation; talk about somebody who doesn't take himself too seriously.

I never doubted that Mike had classy tastes, but his passion for Michener intrigued me. When I told him so, he wrote back:

"Michener won a Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific. It's weird. I never read Michener while he was alive because they were always making movies and mini-series of his stuff (it's all historical fiction) and I assumed it was fluff. Man was I wrong. As soon as I read my first Michener (Hawaii) I was blown away.

"I assumed there was no way he could have written anything else as good. Wrong. EVERYTHING is as good. if i had to pick a favorite American author, it'd probably be him. I'm putting him in the company of Twain, Melville and Toni Morrison here. I've read about a dozen so far and I'd be hard pressed to pick a fave. I'd suggest you start with The Source, Chesapeake or Caribbean. One caveat: to Michener anything under a thousand pages is cliff-notes. His general formula is to take a small geographical area and cover it - literally - from the beginning of time to the present. It's not unusual in a Michener book for life not to appear on earth for 150 pages or so. It sounds dull, but it's RIVETING. Something interesting is that he wrote about 80 or so HUGE books, but he didn't write the first one til he was in his 40s."

This pitch compelled me to Google Michener immediately. That I was so unfamiliar with his work up to this point astounds me. Not only did he write 40 lengthy books, but he seemed just as comfortable with fiction as with non-fiction. Not only did he win a Pulitzer, he was immensely popular too, selling 75 million books worldwide. His books are apparently all epic and well-researched. He spent whole mornings writing, and whole afternoons reading, meeting people, and generally immersing himself in the places where his stories unfolded. And as if these accomplishments aren't enough, he was also a naval officer in WWII, and even took a stab at politics.

Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

The real kicker for me is that James A. Michener was also a generous philanthropist (as I fantasize I will be should writing ever make me rich and famous) who gave away 100 million dollars to various charities, universities, etc. It was at this point that I finally realized I had heard of Michener once before, because he founded my dream MFA program in creative writing, The Michener Center For Writers, at the University of Texas in Austin.

Well that does it. James A. Michener is my new mentor-nemesis, at once a benevolent inspiration and a source of fear, envy and hatred. If he is the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi, I am the bitterly passionate and frequently misguided Anakin Skywalker. How can I live up to him? And yet I must. Such is the paradox of model inspiration: He who daunts you, drives you.

It may take a while, but soon enough I will pick up one of his books, even though the odds of me finishing are slim. For me, reading a thousand page book would be an even greater accomplishment than writing one --- hell, I even put down Anna Karenina and David Copperfield halfway through, and I was enjoying both. Whether I finish it, or like it, doesn't really matter though. A new bar has been set, for better or worse.

You may have passed into the afterlife, Master Michener --- your Jedi robe now a puddle at my feet --- but our rivalry has just begun.

Bonus contest - I'll ship a copy of Mike's album, Pissed in Boston, to the first person that can guess who my previous nemesis was. (You cannot participate if I've told you at some point already). Two hints: (1) I've never really read anything by this author, either. (2) Unlike Michener, age was a vital factor in this rivalry. Submit your guess in the "Comments" section of this post.

*Mike Barrett is a solo musician and parodist (sounds like Irish folk meets Tom Waits?) who performs all around greater Boston, and for one month of the year in Ireland. I watched him perform during my first summer in Boston, 2oo1. My friends and I were so thrilled we hired him to perform at a party later that year at Cornell, where he was a smash(ed) hit. We've kept in touch since. You can check out Mike's music and shenanigans at MySpace, Facebook, and buy his album at CD Baby. To add yourself to his contact list and be notified of upcoming shows, drop an e-mail to