Ryan Van Meter’s Homecoming

By M.A.W.P. student Brittany Petersen

On Tuesday, author Ryan Van Meter returned to his graduate school alma mater to read from his new book, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, and to answer questions from students eager to replicate his journey to success. But Van Meter was the first to admit that journey was improbable, to say the least; he didn’t want to mislead his audience into thinking that his ascension as a writer was the easy or typical road. It really doesn’t happen like this, he said. At least not on a regular basis. He worked hard; he got lucky; seriously, you guys, this never happens.

But for Van Meter, the fairy tale came true: After graduating from DePaul with an M.A. in creative writing, he landed an M.F.A., published his thesis, and secured a faculty position at the University of San Francisco – all in a few short years. That thesis was published this month by Sarabande Books and so Van Meter returned to stand in front of his peers, an example of what the DePaul English Department can help you achieve. He is a tangible success story, a testimonial for that potent combination of talent, dedication, and hard work (though having a really good memory certainly helps).

Van Meter’s book is a collection of creative nonfiction essays, some of which were begun under the tutelage of DePaul Professor Michele Morano. Years after she first noticed the pupil with the striking aptitude for narrative storytelling, she couldn’t keep the grin off her face as she introduced him to a room full of current writing and English students, including the fifteen students in her graduate revision workshop. (I’ve taken two classes with Professor Morano, and we’ve read Van Meter’s work in both.) Van Meter addressed this new generation directly: Morano’s class, he said, changed his life. It was at DePaul that Van Meter truly learned what creative nonfiction was, after all.

After growing up in the closet in Missouri and earning a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Missouri-Columbia, Van Meter packed his life into his car and moved to Chicago at the age of 22. The excerpt he read on Tuesday, titled “The Goldfish History,” told the story of the years that followed: his relationship with his best friend, Kim; his realization that he was gay and subsequent coming out to Kim in the bathroom of a gay bar; his first goldfish; his first boyfriend. Van Meter wrote, “Goldfish…have a reputation for being disposable. If it dies, you get another one. The pet store tanks are full of hundreds and maybe even thousands of them, glittering and tightly packed together like sewn sequins. Drunk kids used to swallow them as a dare because presumably no one would miss a few dozen, so why not? It might be said that goldfish aren’t usually important.” Framing the story around the lifespan of his fish, Rufus – named for his favorite musician, Rufus Wainwright – Van Meter explores some of the most important relationships in his life and tracks how they developed, changed, died, were reborn, or weren’t. He told the story of this fish, and all this fish came to represent.

If the rest of the book is anything like “The Goldfish History,” I’ll read the entire thing in one sitting. In fact it’s sitting on my desk at this moment, staring at me, willing me to ignore it until my other work for the day is done. (Hint: That won’t happen.)

After the reading and a short Q&A, Van Meter stuck around even longer to talk to Professor Morano’s workshop students. I asked a question about how he’d structured the story, which covered six years in just 21 pages and provides an impressive display of mastery over transition, the seamless juxtaposition of action and background and exposition. Another student asked about how Van Meter secured an agent and his plans for his next project; Van Meter joked that his contract requires that his publisher get “right of first refusal,” which sounds so negative – shouldn’t it be “right of first acceptance”?

Van Meter’s visit, in my opinion, was a marked success; to see anyone thrive spiritually and financially as a writer is inspirational. To see a DePaul graduate do it is even better.

If You Knew Then What I Know Now is available directly from Sarabande Books and at bookstores around the country (including Amazon). A video preview of the book, based on Van Meter’s story “First,” can be seen here. Pictures from the reading can be seen here.

Small Presses and Literary Magazines Offer Opportunity

By M.A.W.P. student Christopher Smith

I recently came across an article online published by the New York Journal of Books about the success of the small literary publisher. These small publishers are publishing books and journals, online and in print, that feature strong writing in a variety of genres, and they are being read by people that love to read and write literature.

In the M.A.W.P. program, we talk about how smaller presses are the perfect opportunity to get work published. I believe this to be the case after reading this article and seeing the list of small publishers submitting to the Pushcart Anthology each year.

This article was particularly applicable to my class ENG 484: The Art of Revision with Professor Morano. For one assignment, we had to find a couple of literary journals to research as possible places for submission in the future. Why does this matter? Because literary journals that are smaller and independently run are actually doing well in this weakened economy.

Publishers are starting new journals and publishing operations because of the dedicated people who run these presses. These people love literature and are extremely dedicated to their work, often times staying for decades with a journal that they support. They are also aware that things are shifting to a digital publishing format, and many have websites that reflect this change by offering issues and samples on their websites in PDF format. Keyhole Press does something interesting with Twitter—offering followers a digital copy of a book for free simply by tweeting the title to your followers using a Pay-by-Tweet service that they have attached to the book. This is an interesting convergence of social media and literature in the digital age. For now, this seems like a perfect way to spread the word about literature to an untold number of people who may have not known about these presses before.

Editor of Keyhole Press, Gabe Durham, is enthusiastic, “The scene’s doing great. I doubt there have ever been this many great magazines and indie presses running simultaneously, both online and in print, and so many of them are well designed now, too. So it’s a golden age in a lot of ways. . . .”

As we witness Borders closing more and more of its stores due to bankruptcy, seventeen in the state of Illinois alone (five in Chicago), it might be a little too easy to cry that the printed word is dead. This is not the case if these small publishers have anything to say about it.

You can read the full article here.

The Wall Street Journal has a list of all the Borders stores closing.

Ryan Van Meter Reading Tonight

Ryan Van Meter—who received an MA from the creative writing program—will be reading from his much-praised new essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly recently described the book as a “moving debut” with “profoundly universal appeal.”

Ryan Van Meter
Tuesday, April 26
6:00 p.m.
Dorothy Day Room 400
John T. Richardson Library, 2350 N. Kenmore Ave.
DePaul University Lincoln Park Campus

Ryan Van Meter holds an MA in creative writing from DePaul and an MFA in nonfiction writing from The University of Iowa. His essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, and Fourth Genre, among others, and selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009. He currently lives in California where he is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at The University of San Francisco.

Alumnus News: John Lillig

Are you an alumni or current student of the M.A.E. or M.A.W.P. with news of your own? Please send announcements to Molly Tranberg at mtranber@depaul.edu. A warm congratulations goes out to John on his accomplishments.

John Lillig (M.A.E., J.D.) and co-author Richard Boonstra recently published an article, “Downtown Disposal, Inc. v. City of Chicago,” in the April, 2011 issue of the legal publication Administrative Law.

Dangerous Territory: Reflection on Master Class with William Lychack

By M.A.W.P. student Shane Zimmer

Last Thursday I took part in a Master Class with author William Lychack as part of the Visiting Writers Program at DePaul. I was one of three fortunate M.A.W.P. students who had their stories selected for the hour-and-a-half workshop. Along with Javaria Afghani and Amanda Gibson, I had the opportunity to talk shop with the author of The Wasp Eater and The Architect of Flowers.

Lychack took time to respond to each of our stories candidly. Though he had comments for each individual piece, he shared one particularly memorable insight that applied to all three of us. Our stories, he said, seemed to stop short of crossing into dangerous territory.

What exactly is dangerous territory?

If I understood Lychack correctly, it’s the place where characters get themselves in the most trouble. It’s where they confront their deepest fears and desires, where they cannot hide from their vulnerabilities and they are forced to view themselves and their relationships in the most revealing light.

Rather than being abstract, Lychack identified specific scenes (or lack of scenes) in all of our stories that could have crossed into dangerous territory. I can’t speak for Javaria or Amanda, but in my story I missed a few opportunities to get my protagonist in trouble. He went through the gestures of transformation without showing proof that his change was real.

Speaking generally, it was a great help just to be reminded how important it is to keep a lookout for dangerous territory and to reveal my characters by propelling them directly into its heart.

Lychack also shared five questions he learned from the writer Charles Baxter. These are the first questions he asks himself and his students when responding to a story:

  1. What’s the story about?
  2. What does the main character want?
  3. What is he/she afraid of?
  4. What do you remember most from a story? Or, as the writer, what are you trying to hand over to the reader?
  5. What is idiosyncratic about the story? What in the story is yours?

DePaul’s Professors Miles Harvey, Richard Jones and Michele Morano, plus several students, contributed their own questions and insights. All together their input made for a fruitful discussion on narrative craft. Such conversations are why I enrolled in this program. It is always a humbling experience to present a piece of writing in a workshop, thinking it’s near to finished, and then discovering how many ways the piece can be improved. The workshop is dangerous territory in itself, and one I am always glad to have entered.

Thanks to Professor Harvey and the Department of English for arranging the Master Class and thanks to William Lychack for taking the time to share his wisdom.