BSU + MWW: or “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”

BSU + MWW: or “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”

CW Programs Literary Citizenship Teaching

2013-07-26 16.47.32I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again:

Did you know there’s a writers’ conference in Muncie, Indiana?

Did you know that Veronica Roth, author of the best-selling dystopian YA novel Divergent found her agent at this conference in 2009?

Well, now you do.

This conference is called the Midwest Writers Workshop, a yearly gathering of agents, editors, and publishing professionals whose mission is to help people become published authors.

Basically, MWW brings New York publishing to Muncie, Indiana, and this year, the conference celebrated its 40th year with 238 people in attendance from 20 states.

Watch this video and see for yourself how awesome it is.

As soon as I found out about the conference, I started thinking: How can I bring MWW and BSU together?

Answer: apply for a grant through the Discovery Group. Thanks to this amazing organization, many Ball State students (all of the English majors or minors) were able to attend this year’s conference as paid interns and scholarship winners.  

The Scholarship Winners

These students applied for scholarships to attend the conference, a $250 value. They were selected by the creative writing faculty based on a writing sample and essay. They attended two days of panels, presentations, and talks by industry professionals.

  • Jessie Fudge
  • Adam Gulla
  • Rianne Hall
  • Alisha Layman
  • Logan Mason
  • Brittany Means
  • Tara Olivero
  • Chase Stanley

Some of the scholarship recipients have taken my novel-writing course, where they learned the basics of the publishing process. I was happy some of them signed up for a pitch sessions and that my former students Alisha Layman and Jessie Fudge were successful in piquing the interest of agents about novels they began in my course.

Junior Brittany Means received the award for best poetry manuscript submitted, as well as for best overall manuscript (the R. Karl Largent Writing Award) and a $200 cash award. This is even more significant when you consider that Brittany wasn’t selected as the best student writer at the conference, but rather the best writer. Period.

Pic 2 Brittany Means winning Karl Largent Award

The moment Brittany Means found out whe won the Karl Largent Award

The Interns, aka “Social Media Ninjas”

These students worked as tech assistants, social media tutors, and agent assistants. They got a rare glimpse of the publishing industry, gained real-world experience, and built credentials that will give them an advantage in their careers.

Here’s what they did (and please click on the hyperlinks to read the Storify for each day of the conference!):

Day 1: Tech Intensives

Students worked alongside faculty in two all-day “tech intensives. One helped attendees learn how to create and format an e-book (taught by editor Jane Friedman), and the other helped them build an author website (taught by writer and editor Roxane Gay). I wrote about the tech intensives in more detail here.

The interns also served as buzzers in a fun game of Literary Jeopardy.

Day 2 & Day 3: Helping the Attendees and the Literary Agents

During “Part II” of the conference, the interns were split into two teams.
Six students worked as Social Media Tutors.

  • Mo Smith
  • John Carter
  • Madison Jones
  • Rebekah Hobbs
  • Kameron McBride
  • Jackson Eflin

Everyone who attended Midwest Writers had the opportunity to schedule a free, 50-minute social media consulting session. This is what it looked like. In advance of the conference, the tutors studied their clients’ current online presence and made recommendations about how they could be better online literary citizens. In two days, students met with over 50 clients.

Five students worked as Agent Assistants.

  • Rachael Heffner
  • Sarah Hollowell
  • Becca Jackson
  • Kiley Neal
  • Sara Rae Rust

Each agent heard approximately 30 three-minute pitches. In advance of the conference, the assistants coordinated schedules, communicating with the literary agents and the attendees. At the conference, they handled last-minute changes to the agents’ schedules.

All students had a chance to spend an hour and a half talking to literary agent Brooks Sherman. The conversation ranged from careers to publishing trends.

All the interns got a chance to pick the brain of a NY literary agent.

All the interns got a chance to pick the brain of a NY literary agent.

The Final Verdict: “Awesome”

Intern Sarah Hollowell said it best. “Here’s what I took away from #mww13: I am meant to be in this community.”

The Dirty Little Secrets of Internships

CW Programs Literary Citizenship Teaching

intern_headerDear Midwest Writers Interns,

This week,  your internship at the 40th annual Midwest Writers Workshop begins.

  • On Thursday, half of you will assist Roxane Gay in her “Building a Website/Blog” class, and the other half will assist Jane Friedman in her “Creating an ebook Class.”
  • On Friday and Saturday, six of you will staff a Social Media Lab where attendees can get hands-on help and advice, and five of you will work as assistants to the literary agents who will be hearing pitches.

I thought I’d give you a few words of advice about internships. Here’s why:

  • I’ve been on both sides of the experience. I’ve been the intern, the outsider trying to get inside, and I’ve been the employer, the insider trying to train someone coming in from the outside.
  • Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of former students complain about bad internship experiences, and I think that half the time, the students’ gripes are probably valid and the other half, the students’ gripes are the product of unreasonable expectations.

Internships aren’t classrooms (although they’re supposed to be)

In this particular internship with you, I am a college professor (a teacher) who is also on the planning committee for the MWW (the employer, although it’s my grant that’s really paying you). I’m used to explaining things. But most of the time, internships aren’t coordinated by teachers. They’re coordinated by busy people who are under no real obligation to you. You can’t give them a bad eval or complain to their department chair. You are almost completely at the mercy of the internship coordinator, and your generation is not used to this scenario one bit.

Most of the time, the “intern coordinator” is someone relatively low on the totem pole who is told that they must train you in addition to a bunch of other responsibilities. Understand that fact, and you’ll be better off.

(Later in this post, I’ll talk about how this situation might be changing for the better.)

Even “failure” is a victory

I’ve had two internships in my life. I was an intern at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine (I wrote a short story loosely based on my experience) and at a small-town newspaper. Neither of these experiences led to a job (although both offered me a position). What I learned was that my temperament wasn’t suited to writing for magazines or newspapers, because those jobs required me to be “on” and extraverted and forceful in a way that was really, really hard for me. Yes, I knew it was supposed to be hard, and so I soldiered on (with the help of a lot of cigarettes) because I’d spent years envisioning myself in one of these two careers. But finally, I was forced to admit that I just couldn’t do either of those jobs for the rest of my life.

I left each internship feeling depressed, like I’d failed, although in retrospect, I know that I saved myself a lot of time by figuring out these things early.

It’s not about you

The most important thing I can tell you about most internships is that (with exceptions, of course) no one really has time for you or whatever it is you think you need you need to derive from the experience. Does this indifference bother you? Too bad.

It’s scary isn’t it? Realizing how completely indifferent the world is to you. I remember this as being a pretty terrifying realization.

From an employer’s perspective, it’s almost always easier to do a job yourself than to explain to an intern how it should be done. The reason that most interns get stuck doing relatively meaningless duties is that these are the only tasks the intern coordinator can assign relatively quickly and with low stakes. Because what the coordinator really needs to do is give you something to do so they can get back to their job.

If you approached college from a position in which you were trying to “get your money’s worth” because you were the “consumer” and your professors were “working for you,” then you probably won’t respond well to most internship environments. Because you think the situation is all about you, and it isn’t even remotely about you.

You will make mistakes

When I worked at that small-town newspaper, the editor told me to do a story about a new shopping center in town (a Wal-mart and a bunch of smaller stores). I called all the little stores and asked how business was, typed up the story, and it ran. The next day, the publisher came into the office fit to be tied. Apparently, this story was supposed to have had a particular angle. The shopping center owners had promised those little stores that the complex would be anchored by a Walmart on one end and an Aldi on the other end; however, the Aldi had never come, and I should have asked questions to prompt the store owners to speak to that. But hey, I didn’t live in that town–I was a college student visiting for the summer–so I didn’t know that backstory, didn’t ask those questions, and the editor forgot to fill me in. He didn’t even THINK to fill me in.

It was a major screw up, but also sort of unavoidable. Things like this will happen.

My cousin Mark says “A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved.” That’s a major freaking truth.

Be indispensable

If you want to get a good recommendation out of your internship, maybe even stay on in a paid position, you must learn how to be indispensable.

Do what they tell you to do, and do it right the first time. We had some difficulty early on in this internship when I was charged with the task of creating the copy for this webpage. I sent all eleven of you an email with directions which included a sample bio and a link to a similar webpage. Easy, right? No. I got eleven different kinds of bios. Some straightforward (what I was looking for), some more whimsical. Some people hyperlinked to their website. Some didn’t. Some people put their photos in the right folder, some didn’t. Some of you spelled things wrong. I spent many hours rewriting those bios. What upset me about this was that I sent you samples of what I needed, but I didn’t say “Do it like this,” because I didn’t realize I needed to say that. And honestly, I shouldn’t have needed to say, “Do it like this.”

Following directions is–seriously–half the battle in real life.

Be independent. A good intern is one who the employer rarely has to talk to but who still accomplishes a significant amount of work. Don’t wait for direction. See what needs to be done and do it. And when they give you something to do, ask a few good questions so that you won’t have to ask a bunch of followup questions.

Think like your boss. The best kind of assistant is the one who knows how their sponsor thinks and knows what they need before they need it. It takes time to get inside someone’s brain, but it can be done.

Seek out resources. Find out who does have time to talk to you and absorb everything they have to give you. If this person happens to be your supervisor, be grateful for this.

Write well. The first time. Every time.

I’ve met many students lately who have gotten internships as social media assistants–running a company’s blog or social media presence. If you get an internship like this and you cannot write clear, graceful prose, you will be sunk.

Here’s what needs to happen: your supervisor says, “We need a blog post about Topic A.” You write said post and give it to your supervisor. S/he reads it over and posts it. The end.

Here’s what you don’t want to happen: your supervisor says, “We need a blog post about Topic A.” You write said post and give it to your supervisor. S/he reads it over and spends a half hour or more that s/he doesn’t have editing the post and/or explaining to you how it needs to be done. You do it again. S/he reads it over and posts it. The end.

Every time the second scenario happens, your chances of staying on at this company diminish. Nobody needs more work to do. When you become more work for someone, they decide it’s easier to just do something themselves or to find someone else. End of story.

I say this to my students all the time, and I don’t think they believe me: You must disabuse yourself of the notion that it is anybody’s job to fix your shit for you. If anyone has consistently said to you, “Your writing doesn’t make sense,” or “You’re too wordy,” or “You have problems with grammar,” thank these people and learn how not to do these things anymore. Once you are out of school, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone with loads of time on their hands eager to edit your work for you. If, on the other hand, if you can become someone who can be depended on to write clearly and well, you will become indispensable.

Internships in the News

The subject of unpaid internships is very much in the news these days. Last month, a judge in New York ruled that interns on the film Black Swan should have been paid at least minimum wage.

These are the Department of Labor’s criteria for unpaid internships. Notice how much these criteria are intended to benefit you!

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern, and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

In an ideal world, employers who take on an unpaid intern should understand that they are taking on the task of teaching that intern. However, most of the advice I’ve given you assumes that employers are not abiding by these criteria, but they might, however, if a lot of class action lawsuits continue moving forward.

The dirty little secret about internships

  • Unpaid internships are a stepping stone to important careers.
  • Only some kinds of people can afford unpaid internships.
  • Hence, some careers might seem completely out of your reach.

Maybe you’re geographically and/or economically at a disadvantage, but in this case 1.) Midwest Writers Workshop brings New York to Muncie, and 2.) the Discovery Group gave me a grant so I can pay you.

I know you all work a job or two or three. You take care of your aging grandparents and great grandparents and kid sisters and brothers. You don’t know people in New York City who you can stay with while you do that big internship at Whatever House. You don’t have a trust fund or a safety net to live off of like some people do.

But I firmly believe that with the right attitude, skills, and resources, kids from Middle of Nowhere, Indiana can achieve whatever they desire. This week, you’re making an important step in that direction, and I can’t wait to get started.

Bringing New York Publishing to Muncie, Indiana

Literary Citizenship Teaching
This is the table where BSU Board of Trustees meets. It's kind of awesome.

This is the table where BSU Board of Trustees meets. It’s kind of awesome.

Thanks to a grant from the Discovery Group, I’ve hired 11 Ball State students for internships at this summer’s Midwest Writers Workshop.

I’ve told you before about this conference, but here it is again.

Some backstory

Ever since I arrived at Ball State in 2010, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to expose students to the benefits of this conference.   MWW is run by a group of dedicated volunteers. It’s not funded by Ball State University; it just happens to take place on campus. One day, I was talking about this to BSU professor Beth Turcotte (who knows everything about how to find the resources to make amazing things happen) and she recommended I look into the Discovery grant, and boom, I applied. In December, I found out I was a finalist and made a presentation to the members, and in February, I found out I’d been funded. I quickly put out a call for applications, and by April, I’d assembled my team.  Continue reading

10 Things You Should Know about the Midwest Writers Workshop

10 Things You Should Know about the Midwest Writers Workshop

Writing

1.  The Midwest Writers Workshop, or MWW for short, happens in my town! A few miles from my house! Muncie, Indiana, July 26-28, 2012.

2.  MWW’s faculty this year includes a Pulitzer finalist, a paranormal romance YA author, four literary agents, a best-selling author of cozy mysteries, a poet/memoirist/indie publisher, and quite a few long-time editors and publishing professionals. Including Jane Friedman, who I’ve been following for three years (long before I moved to Muncie) and who I credit with saving my writerly butt from literary oblivion.

3.  MWW has been around for a long time: 39 years! Last year, I was on the faculty. This year, I’m the newest member of the Planning Committee. Some of the committee members have been working to make this conference happen for over 35 years. You can read more about the history here.

The Ball State Alumni Center.

4.  MWW is the only writers conference I know of that offers on-site, totally free “social media consulting”—a drop-in tutoring center where you can get your Facebook/Twitter/blogging act together.

5.  Veronica Roth, author of the best-selling, dystopian YA novel Divergent (which is really, really good) got her start at MWW. My fellow committee member Kelsey Timmerman also got his start at MWW. He attended a few years ago, pitched his idea to an agent, and thus his book became a reality: Where Am I Wearing: A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes. There are many other success stories.  

6.  Remember when I wrote about how anxiety-inducing AWP is? Anxiety + Community = AWP. MWW, on the other hand, is small, intimate, encouraging—nothing at all like AWP. It’s open to anyone. You don’t have to apply to get in or secure a letter of recommendation.

7.  Remember when I wrote this post about how much I hate it when people ask me “How do I get published?” Well, here is your answer: Expand your circles! Get thyself to a writers’ conference! Here are a few other good reasons to go to a writer’s conference.

Jane Friedman, middle, and MWW director Jama Bigger, right

8.  If you read this blog because you teach creative writing, listen up. If you have strong students, don’t think that sending them to an MFA program is the only way to help them pursue their dream. Send them to MWW. Remember a few months ago, I asked, Should we make it our business to teach the business of creative writing? The response to that post was a resounding, Yes. Writers conferences are one way we can teach our students about the “biz.”

9.  If you read this blog because you’re an aspiring writer, listen up: I know you write and read and edit alone. You go online to find community and advice about what comes next. But you need to find community IRL. You need to stop Googling “How do I publish a book?” You need to fork out some dollars, because believe me, there’s nothing like spending some money to help you start taking yourself a little more seriously. You need to actually show up to an actual brick and mortar building where others like yourself have also shown up.

10.  I know I said this already, but this conference is in Indiana. Not in Boston or New York or even the bucolic Florida Keys. It’s in Muncie, Indiana. One reason why I left Indiana 20 years ago is that I believed you HAD to leave Indiana in order to be a writer (or an artist of any kind), but I came back two years ago because I wanted to help the next generation of Hoosier artists realize their dreams and become the people they want to be. When you’re poor or working class or live in a place where there isn’t a lot of literary activity, it’s not that easy to imagine yourself “becoming a writer.” That’s why bringing the publishing world to Indiana matters. A lot.

Will I see you there? This summer? Next summer for the 40th anniversary? I hope so. And do you know someone in the Midwest who wants to be a writer? Send them this link. Thank you.