The Mark sat down with Samantha Dunn to ask her about advising for the program and to get her take on the participant experience.
How does the Mark differ from other writing classes/programs?
It’s kind of like winning the lottery. Okay, maybe not. Winning the lottery is like winning the lottery. What I mean is, life-changing opportunities for writers—like writing a New York Times bestseller, having Oprah revive her book club for you, being selected for the Mark—arrive after tremendous amounts of blood spilled on the page, persistence, diligence, and serendipity. Talent factors in there, too, but often blooms in the presence of these other things (to mangle a quote from Mark Twain).
The Mark, as a formalized program, is more stringent and demanding than merely taking writing class after writing class. It requires the writer to really look under the hood, so to speak. The writer has to understand the inner workings of his story—to understand the concepts of “story” in general!—and has to be able to articulate them. It requires outside readings. It requires attendance and engagement. At the same time, the Mark provides an environment of absolute support—you have a workshop leader who is totally focused on your work and fixing writing issues, as well as an advisor, who is there to help get your work out into the world, hash out ideas, hold your hand, listen to you whine, and then put you back on your path. And that’s not to mention the PEN staff who attend you—Libby Flores and Marytza Rubio are truly goddesses. (No joke. Hey, you, out there reading this: light incense to them. Build an altar. Good things will come.)
Come to think of it, forget the initial lottery simile I gave. The Mark is like climbing Mount Everest: exhausting, a major accomplishment, but with sherpas and a plush base camp.
What is a critical step in the revision process?
Being willing to reimagine your entire work. Not “edit.” Not move shit around. Think of the Mark as a serious, ass-kicking lesson in non-attachment. Forget Fitzgerald’s “kill your darlings” idea. Be ruthless. Take a hack saw to those puppies and MURDER. Let the possibility exist for something greater and unexpected to be born in the rewrite(s).
The Mark Program is broken down into three parts: the Defense, the Mid- Project Review, and the Final Review. Can you tell us how this structure helps a manuscript?
The Defense should be referred to as “The Wake-Up Call.” By requiring you to articulate, in front of four people in a meeting, what your story is about and why, it forces you to examine what you have, look unblinkingly at deficits in the manuscript, and assess the depth of work you need to do and the craft skill you need to hone or acquire in order to produce an excellent book.
The Mid-Review is something of a make-or-break moment: by this point you should have a handle on the big issues and the rewrite should be firmly taking shape. For some, though, it is a moment of crisis, when they realize areas of weakness not previously understood. Luckily, they still have the time—if they work like hell and get real—and the support they need to realize their vision for their work.
The Final Review should be the time when we kiss you goodbye, comb the cowlick from your hair, and tell you not to forget to call—especially to invite us to the book party that is sure to come. (I’ll have a vodka martini, thanks.) Truth is, though, you don’t really leave—you take along with you great support and wonderful contacts that you can nurture for the rest of your career.
What is the key to getting to the heart of a story?
Tears. Either from laughing so hard at the sheer ridiculousness of life or facing the unbearable. (Often both.) Your own heart beating faster as you write is a good indication that you are getting close.
I mean, come on. If you’re not going to write about what really matters, if you are not writing to change a world—your own or somebody’s or everybody’s—what’s the frigging point? Jesusmaryandjoseph. There are so many other things to do. Maybe become a cook and get a reality show. Or, hey, how about going into commodity trading? At least then you can afford to send your kid to a great school. Becoming an actor somehow makes more sense to me. At least a lot of them are good looking. (I mean, how many really hot writers do you know? Let’s be real. I can name maybe five…) Anyway, you get where I’m going.
How does teaching help your own writing process?
It cuts down on the hours I have to procrastinate. That and motherhood are the two things that have ruined my life as a slacker.
Honestly, though, teaching has enriched my life and my work in unimaginable ways. Being able to recognize what works and what doesn’t work in other people’s writing has helped me understand what I know and what I still need to learn about the incredible, intricate craft of writing. It sounds corny to say that my students’ stories inspire me and educate me, but it’s true, all true. The bravery of some people to face histories of unbelievable pain helps bolster me to face what I want to avoid in my own work. The intelligence and wit of others makes me strive to be smarter and more informed.
What are you working on now?
The laundry. With a three-year-old boy like mine there’s really not much time for anything else. Hence the reason I have only produced some essays and a few articles in the last year.
In doing short pieces and adjusting to the changes in my life—going from “Sex and the City” to “Married with Children,” let’s say—has caused some big changes in my writing and my plans for future work. For years I have been wrestling with my “magnum opus,” a nonfiction book with the working title “Trailer Trash: An American Story,” centered on my growing up in a New Mexico trailer park. Now the way I view that story has radically changed; meanwhile, I feel a burning, almost manic desire to grow a novel out of a short story I did for Steve Erickson’s Black Clock. It’s called “The Tortilla Construction Handbook” and centers on a young bull rider and his family. At first I thought that story was going to take place in Albuquerque, but now I think it’s going to be in Norco. Maybe. We’ll see.
Trust me. When I speak about the need to re-imagine your work, I am speaking from the horror of personal experience!
Who would you recommend apply to the Mark program?
Writers who are committed to seeing their work out in the world, reaching others. The ones who don’t want to be “good enough” to be published. The ones who want to be great. The ones who want to work to the limits of their ability. The ones who are willing to leave their reasons for why they can’t do it behind and embrace the work of actually doing it.