Sunday, December 28, 2008

Reckonings and Resolutions

As 2008 draws to a close and winter break gets into full swing, I’m weighing up where I’m at right now, what I’ve done this past semester and year, and where I’d like to go from here. This is one of the things that I like the most about being involved in an MFA program: every semester there is an end, the perfect opportunity to really look at yourself as a writer, figure out where you are, where you’d like to be, and set goals to get yourself from here to there.

This past semester was an off and on productive one for me. I got a new draft done of my thesis, and one that I think is finally fairly close to where I want this novel to end up. I got some new stories written, some old ones revised, and I spent some serious time on improving myself as an academic writer, something that may not be important to all writers out there but if you want to be a teacher it’s not a bad idea to work towards getting papers published as well as whatever sort of creative writing you do.

But there are a lot of things that I’m looking back and shaking my head at, too. Recently, I started tracking how many hours a day I write with the hopes that I would discover that I write two to three hours a day on average. It turns out that, on average, I write a little less than two hours a day. Which is okay, I guess, surely a lot more than a lot of would-be-writers write, but it’s not as much as I thought I was writing. It’s useful for me to be aware of this, I realize, even though it’s a little disappointing.

I don’t know that this is a number I can reasonably change too dramatically, between being a wife and a cat-mom and a student and a teacher and let’s be honest, it’s important, as a writer, to read a lot, too . . . But I think it’s useful to be aware of how much time you actually do spend writing, and if the number is surprisingly low, it’s something worth working on. I’m going to set a sort of resolution for myself that for the year 2009 I’ll spend an average of at least two hours a day writing. I may or may not be able to do it, but I think that just by having that as a goal and by keeping track of it, I’ll be more likely to push myself that extra little bit.

The other thing I’ve realized I need to push myself more on is seeking out feedback from fellow writers. This semester with workshop and as I worked with the head of my thesis committee on my novel, I really realized the value of having people outside of yourself look at your work and give you honest feedback. This has been on my mind a lot lately because I’ll be graduating next semester and, if all goes as planned, I’ll probably be moving on to a graduate program in literature instead of creative writing and, who knows, I may never take another workshop class again.

I think it’s really important to be involved, one way or another, in a community of writers who you can learn from and grow with and who, if nothing else, can look at your work from unbiased eyes. I notice a lot of my fellow MFAs exchange work and give each other feedback outside of workshop, and it’s something I need to be more brave about taking part in, myself. I tend to be shy about it. I feel like I’m burdening other people if I ask them to read something and give me feedback, but I think it’s important and, especially once I graduate next semester, it’ll be something I’ll simply have to force myself to do since I’ll no longer have a workshop and thesis committee to share my work with.

And with that, I’ll sign off for the year 2008. Check mfamfyou.com on January first, when the first issue of MFA/MFYou will be up.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Prioritize!

I’ve been thinking a lot about priorities, since with the end of the semester I had to meet those final deadlines as both a student and a teacher, and I had to set my writing aside to make sure I was spending time on the appropriate things (this is very much on my mind right now because I had hoped to get some work done on a specific story this weekend but I ended up having to A, do laundry, B, grade papers and submit my final grades, and then C, spend time with my husband). The end of the semester always makes me think about how we set priorities and how we squeeze writing into our otherwise busy schedules.

Of course, one of the major draws to an MFA program is that it forces you to set your creative writing as a top priority. If you work full time as a – whatever – and your writing is a sort of a hobby on the side (by hobby I don’t mean to belittle creative writing, but instead classify it based on how it fits in to our lives…) you have to take the initiative to decide to write instead of doing whatever else you could be doing. As an MFA student, of course, there’s also some choice in it (you can choose not to do your homework, as many of us know full well) but it IS expected of you that you will be writing regularly.

But whether you’re an MFA student or not, where we go as writers all comes down to how we set our priorities, and what we set as our priorities. Sometimes I’m not very good with prioritizing, as my not-so-clean-right-now cabin can prove. But whether you’re good with prioritizing or not, if you want to make it as a writer, you have to learn to set writing as a top priority, and an MFA program can be used as a kind of fool-proof way of doing that. Sure, you can slack off as a student, you can procrastinate and not take it very seriously, but either you spend at least some time on writing, or you won’t make it through the program. Period.

And the higher you can set writing on your priority list, the better writer you’ll be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Workshop Reflections

Because I am extremely sick today and because I think it might be interesting, I’ve decided to post as my blog for this week a portion of the assigned final commentary for my workshop class this semester. We each had to write a 5-8 page self commentary on the pieces we turned in this semester, our process of writing them, what we struggled with, our revision tactics, etc. One piece that I turned in to workshop this semester in particular I think of as a telling sign of how much I’ve gained through the program:

The second story I submitted for workshop this semester was one I had written a few years ago, and submitted to workshop during my first semester at UAF . . . to disastrous results. In response to this story people actually hinted in their feedback that nobody who would write something like this could possibly be a good writer – and I thought about giving up as a writer altogether.

Needless to say, I set this story aside after that workshop and I didn’t decide to come back to it until just this summer. I’ve always really liked the idea behind this story, and I thought that, since through my experiences in the program here at UAF I’ve grown a lot as a writer, perhaps I could rewrite the story entirely from page one and make it workable. I did just that over the summer, and felt like it came together much more smoothly than the earlier draft that had gotten ripped to shreds during my first UAF workshop class. I changed just about everything about the story (the narration, the characters, the tone . . .) except the core idea of the story.

The workshop feedback on this story this time around was much more encouraging while at the same time being very useful. I had the impression that people generally thought the story had potential (which is certainly a shift from that earlier workshop experience) and I got a lot of extremely useful suggestions on points to expand, points that need to be clarified or maybe left out, and ways that I can increase the tension and stakes for the main character. I’ve been working on revising this piece further for the past few weeks now and I plan to continue revising it over the break. It’s coming together well and my hopes are that by the end of the break I’ll be able to start submitting it to journals.

I learned a lot through the revision process of this story in particular because I was forced to really look at it not just from the perspective of “what happens in this story?” but from an angle of closely analyzing craft: how does the narration function; how can sympathy be created for a genuinely despicable main character; how can I include exposition that’s necessary without letting it take over the present scene? And because early drafts of the story were problematic because of an unintended metafictional element; I was forced to be more aware of craft from a perspective of things I did not want this piece to be.

I feel that this piece is a good gauge for how much I’ve improved as a writer during my experience at UAF. The first draft of it I actually wrote for an undergraduate workshop; then I revised that and took in a new version to my first graduate level workshop. Before I came to the program, as this piece can verify, I didn't think about craft on a conscious level; I just wrote what sounded good to me. But now, two years into the program, I was able to completely rewrite the entire story with more of an awareness of craft and technique and I think, even though I’m still revising it, it’s a much better piece now.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Commitment

Probably the most useful thing you get out of an MFA program (in my opinion, at least) is that you are forced to set aside any illusions you had about writers being born with the skill, or that some people are just literary geniuses (and what goes along with that, unless you’re REALLY self deluded, is that you have to accept that this means you are not a genius, either).

This can be very difficult at first. I know it was for me. It wasn’t that I came into the program thinking of myself as a literary genius, not in those terms, certainly. But I did believe that some people were just naturally gifted, that writing was something you were either good at or you weren’t, and I, I believed, was one of the good ones.

But I almost immediately learned that the reason I had gotten to the level I was at was because I had spent my entire life, since I was old enough to spell, practicing; I just didn’t think of it as practice. And on top of that, the level I was at wasn’t good enough. I still had a long way to go.

These lessons sort of bombarded me, what with all of my peers in the program who were all just as good as me (and many of them were better), the quite large number of high quality submissions that got rejected from our literary journal, the amount of work I expected my students to put into their academic writing, watching how much those students would improve when they did put in the work (and how the ones who believed they were already perfect and refused to put the work in didn’t improve at all and often ended up behind the other students by the end of the semester) . . .

By the end of my first semester I knew two things for absolutely sure: that nobody was just born with the gift of writing, and that to become a good writer you have to work, work, work!

It’s hard work; it means spending a lot of time and effort on your writing and it means making sacrifices. Whether or not you are willing to put in that work (and especially after you realize that any ideas you may have had of one day making a living off of writing were also illusions, too, but I’ll talk about that some other time) is entirely up to you.

But the beauty of the MFA program is that, at least in my experience, you realize pretty quickly that making it as a writer is going to take work and that you have to commit to it or else you’re just wasting your time. And once you make that commitment, your life will never be the same.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lit Seminars, a Necessary Evil

I’m bogged down these last few weeks of the semester with what feels like an uncomfortable load of reading to do (of course, a fair amount of my stress comes from the fact that I’ve been spending too much time on my thesis and workshop stories and so, now that the semester is almost over, I’m realizing how much I have ahead of me to get my final paper ready for the lit seminar I’m taking --- poor time management is what I call that). It brings up an interesting issue related to MFA studies – literature coursework.

When I started my MFA program, I was actually a little surprised to see how much of the program was involved with not only studying and practicing the craft of creative writing, but studying and analyzing literature. That’s not to say that studying writing isn’t also part of it, of course there are workshop credits, thesis credits, forms credits. . . . And I suppose I expected, in a back of the mind sort of way, that getting a master’s degree in English would involve advanced levels of literary analysis, but I think I thought that it would be a minimal part of the program, that most of my time would be spent on creative writing.

What I’ve realized is that you gain an awful lot, as a writer, from analyzing and reading literature, too. While a lot of the ability to write well boils down to how much practice you put into it, I think a fair amount of improving as a writer comes from just reading as much as you can and analyzing it not only for craft, but in the same way that non-writers are going to analyze your work – as a work of literature.

So, while on some level it’s frustrating to look at my next few weeks and have to tell myself I probably shouldn’t be spending time on my fiction right now (and I know full well, even as I write this, that I’m going to spend time creative writing anyway and kick myself later when my final paper isn’t as good as it could have been…) at the same time, I know that I get something out of this other coursework – the non-creative writing part of a creative writing program – as a writer.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Those End of the Semester Blues

One thing you can expect from an MFA program is that it will keep you very very busy. If you take it seriously, anyway. For the next few days I’ve got a stack of papers to grade, what feels like an awful lot of reading to somehow squeeze in between having one on one conferences with my students, and I’ve got to get work done on my last workshop submission of the semester, my thesis, and my final paper for one of my classes, all of which have deadlines looming in the future. Thank God we get a couple of days off for Thanksgiving, huh? Anyway, this’ll be it for my blog this week. Message: MFA programs keep you busy and sometimes you have to sacrifice doing other things you’d like to do.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Planning Ahead

With my time in my MFA program quickly running out, I’ve been thinking more and more lately about what, exactly, you do with an MFA degree. It seems to me there are two major things you learn in an MFA program: how to be a better writer and how to be a good teacher.

The first is probably the reason why most of us join an MFA program to begin with and while I believe you do gain a lot as a writer from an MFA program, it seems to me that it’s rare for someone to finish their MFA degree with a ready to publish book. Many people finish with a book that needs more work and many people finish with a practice book, something that they learned a lot through writing but something they will never publish. For most people, an MFA program is only an early step in the VERY slow progression toward a successful book publishing career. How far along you are as a writer by the end of the program also greatly varies from person to person and is completely dependent on how much effort you put in. (How many hours a day did you actually spend writing and how many days a month did you convince yourself you simply did not have time to write? How much did you actually pay attention to the feedback you got and how much did you write it off as “that person just isn’t my audience”?)

The second thing you learn is a bit more concrete. I think every single person who has a teaching assistantship learns loads about teaching while they’re in an MFA program and by the time they finish, they should be ready to go out and teach. Sure, there’s still plenty more to learn – teaching (like writing) is one of those things that you learn by doing. You get better and better each semester and, essentially, to become a four star college professor, you just have to keep teaching semester after semester and just keep developing and growing with each class.

Now here’s the rub: An MFA degree, on its own, isn’t worth much as far as getting a solid teaching position is concerned. First, you have to get a book published. Combine a book deal with your MFA, you’ll probably be able to find a decent job. But what do you do for the several years after finishing the program but before making that first book sale?

There are several options. You may decide you don’t really like teaching and just go out and get a job doing something else. This seems to me a pretty solid option, especially since as a teacher you may find it more difficult to write every day when your job essentially uses the same brain faculties as writing requires. But what if you find that you really love teaching?

Well, you can try and find a full time college or university job, but it’s unlikely.

You can scrape by teaching adjunct until you sell that first book – but you better hope you don’t have any student loans or credit card bills to pay in the meantime, because things will be tight and you don’t have any idea how many years you’ll be doing this before you’re in a position to move up.

You can teach at the high school level. This is one I always thought (until just last night as I was talking with some friends who plan to teach high school when they finish the program) would be undesirable, since at the high school level you’re teaching 5 days a week, several classes a day, and on top of that, you’re teaching bratty teenagers. But this might not actually be a bad way to keep teaching, get a decent full time job, and still keep that ultimate goal of teaching at the University level in sight.

The option I’m hoping to take is to go on to get a PhD. With a PhD, you’re more likely to find a good teaching job and it gives you a few more years to work on getting that first book published. My plan is to first get an MA to prepare me more for the research and literature focus in a PhD program, and then stay on at the same school to get a PhD. I love school and so I’d be very happy to extend my time as a student, and on top of that it would give me about 7 more years to get a book published before I have to find a full time teaching job (but I would be able to keep teaching the entire time as a TA).

It’s something I think everybody should start thinking about from day one – maybe even before day one – of an MFA program: What are you going to do with this degree? Be REALISTIC and don’t assume that going through an MFA program will leave you with a publishing career or that an MFA degree will help you get a good job. And hey, being aware that the degree itself is fairly worthless without a published book may help you push yourself that extra bit to actually write every day, to actually get what you planned to get out of the program – to become a better and more serious writer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps . . . Part II

This week I met with one of the members of my reading group and we came to a consensus on how to handle the triple “Maybe” piece we read for Permafrost. While each member of my group had different reservations about the piece, when I sat down and talked with the second reader, the one who had been unsure of the frame, we realized that ultimately, we both have a similar problem: between the frame and the story’s disaster aspect, it felt like there was too much going on. It just wasn’t clear (to us) what these two things added to the story, which was already very interesting and complicated without them.

So together we drafted an e-mail to send to the author, letting him know what we liked about the piece and what we were confused about. We encouraged him to revise the story, if he wants to, and resubmit it. It was a sort of exciting feeling to realize that our problems with the story could be traced to one specific issue, and to think, also, that while we couldn’t accept the piece as it was, we liked it enough to want to see a revision of it . . . in other words, that we were willing, on our end of the journal, to pinpoint why we weren’t accepting it and to let the writer know that if he fixed that issue, we’d be happy to consider it again.

This is something, I’ll admit, that a lot of editors for a lot of journals, especially the higher profile ones, probably rarely have time to do. But it’s a nice thought, somehow, to be reminded that the first priority of a literary journal is to find good stuff to publish and not just to reject, reject, reject. We liked this piece, we enjoyed reading it and felt we would be proud to have it in our next issue. And we didn’t want to reject it, for that reason. But at the same time, as good as it was, it wasn’t good enough, not with those seemingly irrelevant elements still in the story.

It was interesting to consider, too, how much we seemed to influence each other when considering the piece. When I passed the piece on to the second reader, I made sure to let her know how I felt about it, and by the time the story got to the third reader, he had two people’s opinions about it to filter his first reading through. It would be impossible to say how much we influenced each other, but I think we certainly did and I think people can be influenced in the opposite way, too (that is, you get a packet of stories and look at the ones that already have two “No”s - you’re much less likely, aren’t you, to spend too much time on those pieces that you already know the other members of your group didn’t like?)

It’ll be interesting to see, now, what the writer will choose to do. It could very well be that we are simply not getting what he’s trying to do. And that’s fine. Just because it didn’t work for us, doesn’t mean he should feel obligated to change it. But it may be that, once he reads our comments, he’ll agree and rework the story for a much better final product. Either way, the experience demonstrated, I think, some interesting behind the scenes elements of how a literary journal works, how difficult it is to come to a consensus on acceptances, and how much more there is to getting accepted than just having an engaging writing style or an interesting idea.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps . . .

The past couple of weeks I’ve had an interesting experience with my Permafrost reading group. For Permafrost, we divide into reading groups of three people and each person says “Yes” or “No” (and, very sparingly, “Maybe”) to each submission. In order for a submission to get accepted, it generally needs a “Yes” from every single person in the group.

This time, as usual, there were some submissions that everybody said “No” to, without even having to put too much thought into it. And there were some that one person liked but the others didn’t. There was one submission that I read first, and I was completely engaged with the voice of the first person narrator. Yet at the same time, I had some reservations about giving the piece an absolute “Yes.” My major problem with the story had to do with its inclusion of a significant American disaster, one that everybody across the board feels emotional about, to draw some reaction from the reader, rather than the writer doing the work to get this reaction through his own writing abilities (something I have no doubt this writer could pull off with ease).

I gave the piece a “Maybe,” and passed it on to the next reader, and told her about some of my thoughts about the piece. I really wanted, I told her, to say yes to it, but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. So maybe she could put it over the edge and give it an adamant yes, and I would change my mind.

She loved the story and felt that the disaster element was warranted, but she didn’t feel like she could give it an absolute “Yes,” either, on account of some confusion over the frame structure the writer used. I had been okay with the frame part of the story, but once she brought it up, it suddenly did seem unclear how this bit fit in with the rest of the story.

So she gave it a “Maybe,” too, and passed it on to our final reader, explaining to him some of her reservations about the piece first.

He read the story with all of our thoughts about it in the back of his mind, and he was, it sounds like, just okay with the story, though he was very engaged with the voice, as well. He gave it a “Maybe,” but more because we had both given it a “Maybe” already than because he actually liked it that much. I asked him if he would have just said “No” had we not both already expressed to him how much we liked the piece, and he said for sure he would have just given it a “No.”

Now we have the dilemma: what do we do with this piece? We all liked the narration, and were engaged with it enough to justify not saying “No,” though some of us less than others. I suggested we simply reject it, that maybe we had too many problems with it to want it in the journal. But one of the other readers really wanted to find a way to accept it. But we couldn’t, we all agreed, accept it in its current form, not with all of our issues with it.

Should we ask the writer to revise it and tell him we’ll accept it if he makes certain changes? Should we essentially reject it but tell him why and then let him know if he revises it we’d be happy to consider it again? Should we reject it, but with a personal note letting him know how much we really liked it, and encourage him, please, to submit to us again?

And what of the fact that we each had very different feelings about what wasn’t working about the piece? We all agreed on what we liked, but what I didn’t like the others were fine with. What the second reader didn’t like, I would never have even noticed. And what the third reader didn’t like, in his eyes, was deep rooted enough to reject the story altogether had we not both already made it clear to him that we really really really wanted to accept it.

Chew on that for a week . . . To be continued.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Knowing When You’re Done

The other day Damien and I went to see Patricia Hampl read out of her new memoir, The Florist's Daughter (which was extremely engaging and now I desperately want to read the entire book). Afterwards, she answered some questions and one of her responses really struck me. One of our Creative Writing Professors here asked if she had any advice for the people finishing books soon, people who would soon be looking to get their first book published. Amongst a lot of the other useful advice that she offered, she mentioned that one important thing, if you’re finishing an MFA program with a book length thesis, is to understand whether this book is actually done or whether you still have more revising ahead of you.

In my experience, many people, after they finish the program here, still have a fair amount of work ahead of them before their thesis is actually publishable. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently since, with only a semester and a half left, I’m going through a very dramatic revision of my novel in which I’m actually rewriting the entire thing on a fresh blank document to make the changes easier to work in smoothly. I had always thought this thing would be done, ready to send out, by the time I finished the program, but now I’m starting to wonder . . .

One important thing that you have to learn as a writer is how to tell when something is ready, (force yourself to stop tinkering already and send it out) and how to tell when something is not. It’s a skill I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own abilities with quite yet, as I’ve had I-can’t-even-say-how-many-times where I’ll be sending something out, getting back rejection after rejection, and then I go back to look at the piece again and find all kinds of ways I can tighten it or even make the plot better. And then there are other pieces where I let it sit on my computer, keep opening it up and looking at it and never find anything to change, but can’t force myself to send it out because what if I’m just missing something . . . and then when I finally do send it out it gets accepted right away.

Being able to recognize whether your piece is ready is an even more important ability when it comes to a book length work, since if you exhaust your options for agents and publishing houses that’s it, you won’t ever be able to get it published, and if you have a book that’s totally ready but you never send it out, it’ll never get published, either. So I’m hoping, for one thing, that my committee will be honest with me next spring and tell me whether they think this book is actually ready or whether they think I have more work to do. And I’m also hoping that, when I finish the program next spring, I’ll have honed that ability of being able to look at my work myself and see whether it’s good enough, yet, whether there are still things to work on or whether it’s done.

But one thing I know I’ll be ready for is the extra work ahead of me if it turns out it isn’t ready this spring. The revision process on my thesis has been exciting and fun, way more fun, actually, than writing the first draft was. If I finish the program with the understanding that I’ve still got several more drafts ahead of me, that’ll be alright. I’ll stick with it. Because I love this book and I think it could be really good, if I just get it to that point, and I do not want to put something out there in the world that could have been really good, if I had kept working on it, but it isn’t good. And now it never will be.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Learning the Art and Craft

Do you know that when I started at UAF, I really wasn’t thinking of it as a chance for me to learn and grow and become a better writer? I knew, in a vague sort of way, that way where you don’t consciously think about it but if someone asked you directly you’d say “well, yeah, sure,” that the more practice you got at something the better you would become. But I honestly didn’t believe that writing was something you could learn. It was something you just either had in you or you didn’t.

This is a ridiculous opinion, but it’s one I shared with a lot of really successful writers. Thinking about it now, it’s irritating to look at famous writers who have made a lot of money based on hard work but who tell their fans that they were just born with “it.” Sure, they all admit that a lot of it comes down to the work, too, but many of them suggest that part of it is just natural talent and I think that’s a delusional crock.

At any rate, I came to UAF thinking not that I was going to learn a lot about writing, but that I would get three more years to focus on my writing and put off the inevitable moment of having to select a career a little longer. And I did get that benefit, as well as the benefit of developing an absolute passion for teaching, but I also learned A LOT about the craft of writing, how to write better, how to find the balance between what you want your art to be and what an audience will actually appreciate, too.

My first big breakthrough was with a story I wrote for my first graduate writer’s workshop, “Interpretations of Aurora.” I wrote this story in the style I had been practicing for a long time, with a dark, brooding, apathetic narrator who feels removed from the world around him. But just to do it, just because I thought it would be what the workshop would ask me to do, anyway, I included some really vivid descriptions of the setting. Sensory imagery. Movement, too. I had my narrator sitting down on the front steps of his porch folding autumn leaves and then piling them on top of the step below him as he has an argument with his wife.

This was a sort of snide addition on my part. I thought everybody would hate it, and I would think, “a-ha! But this is the very sort of thing you would have told me to include!” In fact, everybody loved it. The sensory imagery makes you feel like you’re really there; and this small, seemingly insignificant action tells so much about this narrator; and when the wife sits down on the step below him and she knocks the leaves onto the floor, it says so much about their relationship without the narrator having to say anything but what happened.

I went back and looked at the scene afterwards and realized that they were right. This was a great, telling moment. It got us out of the narrator’s head and let the reader be involved in the story, rather than just having the apathetic narrator, whose voice I still loved but who was standing in front of the reader’s line of sight, tell the story to the reader. And it had come about entirely by accident, by my trying to prove how pointless this sort of detail was.

I learned a lot during that first semester, and while it was, as I’ve said before, the hardest semester I’ve ever had to endure, it was also the most educational. Once I realized that I wasn’t brilliant and that I actually had to work at it and learn and grow and develop, I began to do just that. And now, as I’m entering the last stretch of the program here at UAF, I feel like I’m a much better writer than I was before I came, and I can only just keep getting better.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Slowly Climbing Up the Ladder

On Sunday night of this past week, I said to Damien that I was beginning to feel discouraged. I had, the day before, received three different rejections on the same day, and for the past few weeks I’ve been receiving a fairly steady stream of rejections in the mail. By now, I’m so used to rejections they don’t bother me at all . . . unless, it turns out, I open up my PO Box and find a full stack of them waiting for me.

As someone who has toiled on both sides of the literary journal machine (as one who reads submissions and as one who writes and submits them), I have a pretty thorough understanding of how little rejections often mean. It could be as simple as the editor skipped breakfast that morning and wasn’t able to concentrate as they half-assedly read your piece, or maybe that the topic you’re exploring is one that the editor is just not personally interested in. Rejections, as I said, don’t bother me.

But three in one day . . .

I was beginning to wonder if I was deluding myself. If, in my case, the rejections did mean something more. If my stuff was any good wouldn’t someone somewhere want to publish it? On Sunday night I mentioned to Damien that it was a good thing I set a monthly goal to send 10 submissions each month, otherwise I was likely to give up, for the time being, on submitting at all.

Onward and upward and all that, Damien told me. Chin up and have faith and I like your stuff.

And the next day I received an acceptance, and not just any acceptance, my first acceptance from a paying journal. I can actually say I sold a story. For money. Someone liked my story enough to pay me for the right to print it.

This is a small but important step, just like getting that first acceptance from a small, non-paying journal was. Just like getting an acceptance from a larger journal with a bigger circulation will be. And just like (one day) getting an acceptance from a more prestigious journal, a national journal, a journal that you can tell your folks to pick up at their local bookstore.

It may seem like a small thing (let’s be honest, I’m only getting like $30 plus contributor’s copies and a free subscription), but it is a big small thing, an important one. I’m another rung up the ladder, now, and I feel like I’m making progress. I’m slowly but surely moving up and I feel (perhaps temporarily but hey, it still counts) reinvigorated to keep working at it, keep striving, so I can work towards moving that next short rung up.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Connecting

I’ve been working on a new draft (my fourth) of my thesis this week and I’m feeling extremely excited and hopeful about where it’s headed. I met with the fabulous Gerri Brightwell, my thesis advisor, a couple of times in the past few weeks to discuss where this book is headed and it’s amazing how, just from talking with her and getting some feedback, I was able to make some very important breakthroughs that I don’t know if I would have come to on my own. She didn’t tell me what to do, she’s not writing the thing for me, but she gave me her thoughts on the current draft which helped me to pinpoint some major structural and voice changes I’d like to make.

And as much as I’m grateful to Gerri for helping me figure this out, part of me feels a little nervous. Because I think these new changes are going to really bring the book together; these changes are essential and are helping to make the novel into a real novel and not just a rambling story that never gets where it’s trying to go. And I don’t know if I would have realized these changes needed to be made without Gerri.

Now, of course, this is why MFA programs are set up like this. This is why you have a thesis committee – to help you find your way through that first publishable book length work. But some part of me wonders, what will I do in the future? What will I do with that next book, for which I won’t have a thesis committee and the sheltered MFA environment to help me along the way?

I think part of what you learn in an MFA program is how to look at your work and give yourself the sort of objective feedback you might expect someone else to give. But part of what you learn, too, is that writing is not an altogether solitary thing. That no matter how good of a writer you may become, you will always need other people to read your drafts and give you thoughts for revision. And my understanding is that the industry has changed so that most editors and agents don’t give feedback, the way they used to for the old school writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald.

An important benefit of an MFA program is that you meet other writers, and if you’re lucky, you may be able to make some close connections with other people who you can exchange work with and give honest feedback to, and get feedback from. I’m as shy as the next guy, shyer than the next guy, actually, but I’m starting to think more and more that one of the main reasons for going through a program like this is to make friends and establish connections with other writers. Hey, we probably all have plenty in common, so why not?

I’ve been pushing myself recently to come out of my shell. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how much I do genuinely like and want to establish real friendships with some of the other people in my program. I hope these friendships can last, because this may be one of the important deciding factors between who makes it as a writer and who doesn’t (and because, like I said, I genuinely like some of these people a lot). The successful writer is probably one who has a close circle of writer friends to share with and to grow with and to just make connections with.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I’m Nobody! Who Are You?*

My first winter in Fairbanks I felt completely lost. Moving here, going to grad school, seemed to have been a huge mistake. Damien hated Fairbanks and neither one of us had made any friends. It was cold and dark and there were gigantic ravens everywhere and the pipes in our cabin (ah, our cabin, which we paid twice as much rent on as most people but we had ourselves convinced it was worth it because it had running water) kept freezing up and going out of commission for a week at a time. I hated teaching, I was terrible at it, and I had just barely survived a semester of very painful workshop.
Something had to give.

I was a terrible writer, I saw that now. I was terrible at teaching, too. And my academic essays, which had always had undergrad teachers falling over them and praising my writing skills, left the professors in the graduate level thoroughly unimpressed. As far as I could see, I had two options. I could drop out, cut my losses and find a job somewhere, and Damien and I could start saving up and try to get the hell out of Fairbanks. Or I could use it all as motivation and work harder, improve, become better.

I chose option B and during the winter break of my first year in grad school I set some major goals to get my life back on track. Instead of being hurt at first and then passing into a state of accepting depression (you’re right, I should just give up . . .) when what I was doing was exposed as imperfect, I would learn from these mistakes and become a better writer, learn how to be a good teacher, and become a better student, too, a deeper thinker and a better academic writer.

I spent most of my time off that winter writing new stuff and revising the old stuff that I believed had potential and I vowed to myself that I would get my first publication acceptance in 2007. (I have since learned that it’s a basic rule of goal setting that it’s not useful to set goals that are out of your control. For example, it’s okay to set a goal to, say, write 1,000 words a day for the entire year. It’s not okay to set a goal that you’ll get a story accepted, that’s out of your control and depends on too many outside variables. But I didn’t know that back then. . . .)

To meet this goal, I had to start submitting again (something I hadn’t been doing at all that entire first semester) and I would have to make the commitment to take writing more seriously, not just assume that everything I produce is gold after one or two polishes and not feel upset but glad to get the feedback when someone doesn’t like what I’ve been doing. And I stuck to it.

I did get my first acceptance in 2007, and shortly after that I got my second, and most of my rejections, these days, come with some sort of written comments on them. But even more important, I finally stopped wanting to be a writer and I feel like I actually became a writer. I’m still getting better, each new story is the best thing I’ve ever written, and, best of all, I plan to just keep getting better and better and better (and I also think I’ve become a damn good teacher and a better student, too). And I owe it all to that miserable first semester in grad school and how it made me face that I was nobody special at all.

*Title comes from Emily Dickinson.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Unexamined Thesis Is Not Worth Writing

It goes without saying (then why do you feel the need to say it, Ashley?) that one of the major things you get out of an MFA program (and I would probably say the single most important thing) is you are forced to put together a book length work: your thesis. You will not graduate if you do not have this completed, and whether or not you pass is supposed to be gauged on whether or not your committee believes your thesis is publishable.

We come to grad school with different levels of experience. Some of us have written full novels, or story or poetry collections, (and sometimes even gotten them published!) before starting in the program. Some of us have written several random short stories or poems or maybe began work on a novel but never got past the first chapter. But no matter where you’re at when you begin grad school, by the time you finish the program you should have a book ready, or at least one last revision away from ready, to try to get published.

I came to grad school having already decided what I was going to write for my thesis. My entire first year here I brainstormed and made notes on it. I sat down during my first summer break to write the first draft of it and, instead, I wrote almost 300 pages of a completely different novel altogether. Suddenly I realized this is the story I wanted to tell first; this is the one I’d like to try to break in with.

There were a number of reasons for the decision. One was that this new idea had much more of a hook. It’s high concept, as they say, it’s got a much more pitchable premise, an easy to point at quality that I can say, “here, this is unique, this has never been done before, to my knowledge.”

Another reason I changed my mind is because the main character of the new idea was male, and the other book was about a woman. Why does that matter? I firmly believe that there is a smaller audience for books about women. Women, I think, will read anything, whether it’s about a woman or a man, as long as they like it. But many men are not interested in reading about a woman character (they wouldn’t be able to relate, they say. No offence or anything, they pat you on the back and tell you, just don’t understand the way the female mind works).

But more than anything, the reason why I switched ideas is because, when I sat down to actually write the first draft, I just didn’t feel like writing that other one. This one just seemed way more interesting. This novel is far more complicated than anything I had ever attempted before. It’s not your typical chronological relating of events, a lot hinges on the voice of the narrator, the relationships between the various characters are extremely complicated but must be handled with subtlety, and the structure has numerous components that all have to work together perfectly to get the story across in a believable and engaging way.

In short, I guess, it’s a real novel and not a practice novel, like the unfinished ones I had attempted before or the finished and revised one that will never, thank the god of your choice or Lady Luck, whatever you believe in, make it out of the womb that is the file on my computer titled “Failed Attempts.” It’s the sort of thing I certainly wasn’t ready to tackle, nor even realized that I should, before coming to grad school.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Old Stuff and the New

My first semester of Workshop at UAF could reasonably be described as a disaster. Fairly early on, I submitted something that should not have been submitted, spent an hour of class time having my writing abilities attacked from every angle, and then drove home close to tears, seriously considering giving up my quest to be a writer. I just wasn’t any good, I realized.

They didn’t like the plot. Didn’t think the characters were interesting. Didn’t like the metafictional technique I had tried to employ. Thought it was riddled with clich├ęs and pointless. By the end of the session, the discussion degenerated into complaining about the sentence structure (not enough variety, bland and boring to read . . .) and one woman came damn close to saying that anyone who would write something like this couldn’t possibly be a good writer.

For the rest of the semester I felt anxious and scared every time I had to submit something. I stopped reading the written comments by all but the teacher and two or three other people who I knew made an effort to say nice things on top of pointing out the problems, and who, when they pointed out problems, didn’t try to turn it into a story they would have written or suggest that these are mistakes only a very bad writer would make.

And I didn’t submit a single thing for publication the entire semester.

The problem was that I had turned in to Workshop something that I had written as an undergrad, a full year before. It was a piece that I thought was pretty much ready already. I’ve since noticed similar problems in other people’s work. There will be a story that seems of much lower quality than the other stuff that writer submits, and you find out later that this is one he or she wrote several years before. I would almost say that when you start grad school, you should write 100% new stuff and accept that everything you wrote before, or at least most of it, was just practice. But at least dramatically revise anything old that you do feel has potential (and I mean preferably rewrite the entire thing from page one).

You grow as a writer extremely quickly in an intensive grad school setting, and it doesn’t take long for your skills to far surpass wherever you were at before you started the program. This is a good thing. But it also means that you have to accept that not everything you ever wrote is good. I’ve heard that it generally takes something like 100,000 words of crap before anyone can write anything publishable and while a number like that (my own approximation of an approximation) isn’t exact, certainly not for each different individual, I think it’s true that you get better and better as you go and most people don’t start getting really good until they begin to seriously devote themselves to honing their craft.

One way that a lot of people do that is by joining an MFA program. Yes, you have to be at a high enough level that the people reviewing applications see your potential for you to get into an MFA program to begin with. But still, you’ll most likely become such a better writer so fast that most anything you had written previously won’t be a good representation of what you do. And if you’re dusting off stuff that you wrote a year before just to have something to turn in, you’re not really getting one of the major benefits of Workshop: motivation to always be writing new stuff.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hard Work and Perspiration

This summer we had several recurring students at the Writing Center. Some of them came back repeatedly because their teachers required it or maybe offered them extra credit. But some of them came back over and over again, having us look over each new draft of the same paper until it was due, simply because they wanted to get that paper as good as it could be and because they genuinely wanted to be better academic writers.

One of these students was sort of an inspiration to me. I didn’t work with him on his early drafts, but I know from talking to his teacher and the Writing Center tutor who did work with him that he had a lot of problems when he first started coming in. Trouble forming coherent ideas. Habitually going off on tangents that seemed perfectly relevant to him but had little or nothing to do with the actual thesis. Unable to organize his thoughts on a topic into a logical order that actually backs up the thesis.

This student would come in everyday, sit at a computer for several hours working on his paper, and ask to work with a tutor often two or three times in the same day. And his hard work paid off. His writing slowly but surely began to take shape, he began to understand what wasn’t working with his old papers, and he actually started catching problems on his own, without needing them to be pointed out.

The last draft of his final paper that I saw was an amazing transformation from the jumbled set of meandering ideas I had seen a couple of weeks before, and I imagine the final draft that he actually handed in was even better. No, he didn’t go from terrible to pure genius in a manner of weeks, but he did drastically improve and it’s all because he was willing to put the effort in and work, work, work.

The same, I believe, is true of creative writing. I’ve said before I don’t believe in innate talent, and whether you agree or not, you can probably at least agree that whatever level you’re at right now, you can always stand to improve, and the only way to improve is hard work. This means actually writing, for one thing, something that some would-be writers seem to do very little of, but it also means spending time revising (and understanding that there’s a difference between revising and editing), it means reading a lot to have a broader understanding of what’s been done, what works and what doesn’t, and it means not sitting around daydreaming about the day someone will realize how brilliant a writer you are and, instead, actually being a writer.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Short Stuff

With the new semester starting in the next week (and having already turned in my first workshop submission to be discussed on day one) I’ve been thinking again about one of the major benefits you get from workshop: that strong hard push to work on short pieces, even while you might be totally involved in, say, a novel or some other big project.

Now, it’s important to point out that a lot of people bring novel chapters in to workshop, and that’s fine if it works for them. Personally, I only bring in a chapter of a novel if I’m trying to make that chapter work as a stand alone short story. I just think it’s too hard, as the reader, to give good feedback when you’re only reading a small portion of a larger work, and it’s too hard, as the writer, to get much out of feedback from a person who doesn’t know the whole story.

I’m at a point right now where I’m pretty preoccupied with book length works. I’ve got my thesis, which, once I get some feedback from my committee members, I’m going to be working on more revisions of soon. There’s my new novel, which I’m pretty much totally engaged in right now as I work on the first draft. And there are a couple of different children’s book projects, too, which I’m just doing as a fun side project but I’m having a really good time working on. This summer I’ve had to kind of force myself to keep up with my short stories, in the midst of all these other larger projects.

So I’m excited about going back into a workshop environment. Workshop takes the choice out of my hands. I feel more comfortable, now, setting personal goals that revolve mostly, or perhaps even entirely, around my book length projects because workshop will force me to spend time, as well, on short stories. I can’t get away with not working on those because it’s homework. And I’ll be in a position where I’ll be kind of refocusing my attention on short stories, too, because I’ll have people reading and responding to my short pieces. I’ll be looking at my stories in a new light and they’ll be pushed back to the front of my mind. I’ll be excited, again, to go back and tackle them.

And I think it’s really important, when you’re in the early stages of a writing career, to work on those shorter works, whether you’re finding ways to break up and publish small portions of a novel or what. This is true, I think, for all creative writers. You might, for example, be looking at your poems as a book length collection, but you should probably, also, think of them as independent sets that you can submit and try to publish in smaller chunks. I’m not saying don’t work on the book length projects, too; I intend to continue working on mine. But it’s my understanding that it’s extremely difficult to get an agent or a publisher interested in a book if you can’t show them that you’ve had several smaller pieces published, first. And workshop helps you keep that focus on the smaller works, the steps you have to take now, to get to that later stage where you can actually get that full book published.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Training for the Gold

The comparison of writing to athletic disciplines has been made many times before but I’m going to go ahead and make it again as the 2008 Beijing Olympics (and what an Olympics! Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, world record after world record . . . but I digress) draws to a close. The reason why this comparison gets made again and again is because, let’s face it, it’s true. Whether you believe that there is such a thing as natural talent or whether you think it's all about practice, either way you surely must admit that ultimately, success as a writer, or as an athlete, comes down to a whole lot of hard work.

And training is key.

This is where an MFA program comes in. I would never suggest that there is no other way to train at writing than MFA programs; that would be absurd. But I will say it’s an excellent option for those who have three years or so to dedicate to it. In an MFA program you’re pushed hard to constantly work (always be producing and revising), you’re pushed to go out there and compete (by submitting and entering contests), you’re set up with a group of peers to work with and to work against (share your stuff, trade feedback, but also remember that in the race for the Gold it might be you or them so you’ve got to try your best to hold your own), and you’ve got coaches, all who have been through it themselves in different ways, to encourage and guide you along the way (the MFA faculty, obviously).

Okay, so writing is much more subjective than most Olympic Sports. It’s not like a race where there will be three people who were objectively faster than all the rest. In writing, you can train and train and train and get to where you, personally, want to be, and still have some people who read your stuff and go “Eh, it’s just not my kind of thing.” Even if you win the writing Gold, say you snag one of the many prestigious writing awards, or your latest book makes the New York Times Bestseller List, there will still be people who read your stuff and say “Eh. Overrated.”

So what that means is there will never be an end to your training. You will never have one specific goal that you’ll retire after reaching. The training you go through in your MFA program isn’t really the means to an end. It’s more like the beginning of a lifetime of training that, if you’re in it for what I would consider the right reasons (again, a very subjective issue), will prove to be its own kind of Gold medal in itself.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Buying a Little Time

One thing that you get out of an MFA program is simply time. And I don’t mean time to write; like I’ve said before, I don’t feel that you actually have as much time to work on writing in an MFA program (especially if you’re a TA like most of us are) as you would working a 40 hour a week job and writing in your spare time. What I mean by time is that you get to delay the future just a little bit longer. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’ve only got a year left and I’m beginning to think I should have gone for an MA, instead, so I could continue on for a PHD and gain even more time.

When I was an undergrad and avidly working on the first novel I actually finished and revised (though it’s one that no one anywhere, thank God, will ever read), I kind of thought I was going to get a book published by the time I was out of college. When it became increasingly clear that, A: that novel wasn’t any good, and B: even if it had been, it doesn’t really happen that easily, I realized that I needed to go on to grad school, if for no other reason (although there were many other reasons . . .) to give myself another 3 years to write and work on getting published before I had to go out there and get a “real” job.

In grad school, I’ve had time to really focus on my craft and work to become better and better and better. If, instead, I were working full time at, say, the medical clinic I worked at before coming here, I might feel less justified in spending so much time on writing. I might feel like I was wasting my time because it hadn’t happened yet and it probably never would.

As a creative writing student and an English teacher, I feel like it’s totally acceptable to spend so much spare time on this thing that would otherwise just be considered a hobby. I’m sort of given permission to let it be the center of my life for a little while. I get to exist in this kind of cushioned bubble where I can go whole days, if I want, where I don’t do hardly anything but read and write.

And I think it’s made a huge difference in my skill level and endurance as a writer. I write consistently way more and way better stuff than I did just two years ago, and I expect these extra three years that I bought myself with the MFA program will have made a lasting difference in my future writing life, as well.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Redefining Success

It’s interesting that helping students at the Writing Center has turned out to be one of the most useful tools in my own development as a writer and my experience this week was no exception.

A Sports Psychology teacher (I know, right? That’s a real thing?) assigned her students to write a paper on their definition of success, what goes into becoming a successful athlete, and how these characteristics can lead to success in life outside of sports. Almost every paper that I looked over talked about the importance of setting goals.

These young athletes discussed the value of motivating yourself by setting attainable goals, by constantly reminding yourself what these goals are so that you can never let yourself get off track, and by putting in the practice and hard work necessary to reach these goals. That, most of the students agreed, is what true success is. Not winning the big game. Not getting drafted into the NFL. Not becoming the most well respected and famous athlete around. Success means setting goals that you could conceivably reach and then reaching them.

The same is true of writing. I think a lot of us, when we first started thinking we could translate this obsession with writing into becoming a “writer,” had this image of becoming the next Stephen King or J. D. Salinger or whoever, being rich and famous and world renowned for our brilliance and wit. Or perhaps your image of success has always been making it onto a bestseller list or someday making it into the canon.

If you haven’t already realized this, I have to break some possibly painful news to you. Those are not realistic goals. There’s a good chance you will never achieve any of them, just like most of the young athletes (all of them?) that I worked with this week at the Writing Center will not become the next Tiger Woods. And even if you do reach these goals, it’s probably based as much (and perhaps even more) on luck as it is skill. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful writer, it just means you may have to redefine your definition of success.

I set small writing goals for myself every month and while I do have a running hope that the things I write will get published, my actual goals are simply to write, to revise, and to submit. At the beginning of each month, I consider all of my other engagements and responsibilities for that month and I set them against what projects I’m currently working on or what I would like to work on. This way I come up with a goal that will push me just enough, but no harder than I can comfortably go. I don’t believe in setting goals that are ridiculously high because even if I get a lot done that month, I end the month feeling down because I didn’t reach my goals.

I usually meet each goal by the end of the month because I’ve set goals that are appropriate for me for that specific month and also, because I know that if I don’t meet the goals, I’ll feel like a failure. Sure, I’ll get right back into it the next month, but there’ll be a moment when I have to face the fact that I didn’t succeed and it’s discouraging. So I push myself that extra bit to avoid that end of the month slump. But if I do meet those goals, even though nobody else really cares and even though it doesn’t mean anything in the bigger picture, I feel like I succeeded (and it feels damn good!).

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Faculty Guidance

I just finished reading Cold Country by Gerri Brightwell, the head of my thesis committee, and I was ecstatic to find that it was an excellent book. I recently listened to and enjoyed her latest book, The Dark Lantern, on audiobook and I decided it was high time I went back and read her first novel. It was absolutely packed with beautiful sentences, a strong voice, engaging and quirky characters and a plot that I just could not wait to watch unfold. It reminds me how much I really am getting out of the MFA program here.

When I started at UAF the MFA program was kind of in transition (actually, I think it still pretty much is) and one member of the fiction faculty had up and quit, I guess unexpectedly, over the summer. So there was only one fiction faculty member and my first semester here I took two classes, Forms of Fiction and Workshop, with the same professor, Gerri Brightwell.

Naturally, I asked Gerri to head my thesis committee and have not once regretted the decision. When I first started working on my thesis I found myself kind of floundering with how to get across this huge theme into a 300 or so page novel. I’ve been writing unfinished novels since I was a little kid, and as an undergrad I actually finished and revised one complete novel (which I realized partway through the first revision could never be more than a practice novel). And even as I set out to write a novel for my thesis, I didn’t feel confident in my abilities to really make a full novel come together.

I wrote the entire first draft with a third person narrator and then brought in the first few chapters and an outline of the entire story for Gerri to read. Right off the bat she wanted to know why I had chosen third person. The fact that I didn’t have a good enough answer was answer, enough.

There were other things, too, issues with the plot and the main character, that I didn’t quite know how to deal with. Gerri did an amazing job of steering me in the right direction, mostly by asking questions about why did I make this choice and what had I hoped to accomplish with that? It’s startling, really, to see how much simply having someone ask you questions about your work can make you realize what isn’t working (and how to fix it).

After meeting with Gerri a couple of times I was charged to do a complete rewrite for the second draft, now with a fairly new plot, a first person narrator, and some essential changes to the main character’s personality that made a dramatic difference in getting out the major theme I’m trying to play with.

Now that I’m done with my third draft, I’m extremely anxious to finally pass it on to Gerri and have her read, for the first time, a complete draft of my novel. It’s kind of scary, having someone whose work you really respect look at your work. But it’s exhilarating, too, because I know she’s going to make me see all kinds of new things I hadn’t even thought about before and I know I can really trust what she has to say.

I wonder if this is maybe the most useful thing you get out of an MFA program – working with successful and talented writers who you admire and respect. People who know what they’re talking about, who have been there and can tell you all about it. I’ve gotten really lucky because I feel a real affinity with Gerri’s writing style and it happened by chance. I hadn’t even read her stuff before I joined the program nor had I known, when I came, that there would be only one fiction faculty member there during my first semester.

But at the same time, I think it isn’t really luck. MFA faculties generally consist of excellent writers who are willing to share what they’ve learned to help the next generation of writers find their way. And that, even if you gain nothing else from an MFA program, is worth it right there.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Workshop Benefits

The fact that graduate level workshops don’t give you the kind of encouragement that undergrad workshops do (and in my case, sometimes discourage me so much that I ask myself over and over again on the drive home whether or not I’m just wasting everybody’s time with my unattainable dreams of writing) is actually a good thing. It’s actually the very reason that graduate level workshops are so much more useful.

There are a few reasons why:

First, when you know that people aren’t going to be impressed at all with your sentence level skill, that is how poetic you can write, how beautifully crafted your sentences are, how much meaning you can pack into a tight space, when you know none of that will matter to anybody because they can all do that, too, you put out a whole new level of effort into actually making the stories, the plots, the significance of it all, the clarity and cleverness of what you’re doing, as good as possible.

For me, this was a completely new stage of writing. I used to just kind of think, well everything that I write is well written, therefore it’s all good. But in actuality, LOTS of people can write well, on the sentence level, but not everybody can write something worth reading and it’s something that you really have to work on and practice.

Consider, too, that while nobody is going to be impressed with your writing abilities, they will notice and dwell on all sorts of problems that you probably could have noticed on your own, if you had taken the time to look. So you push yourself to revise and revise and revise some more before you bring your stuff in to workshop. After all, you don’t want to waste your chance to have a bunch of people with different tastes and skill levels to look at your stuff and give you honest feedback. If you bring something in that has problems you, yourself, are fully aware of the entire class time will likely be spent discussing those problems and you will have gained nothing from the experience.

This is something that I know not everybody agrees on. Some people do prefer to bring in first drafts to workshop and I have to admit, I’ve done it, too (last semester almost everything I brought in was a first draft because I had been spending most of my time prior to that preparing for the Comps exam and revising my thesis). But generally, I like to work on my stories until I reach a point where I can’t see, anymore, what else needs to be done before I bring them in to workshop, and that’s definitely not something I worried about when I was an undergrad because I knew that no matter what I brought in I would rarely get any actual feedback, mostly just compliments.

The third and possibly most important reason why graduate level workshops are more useful is that they give you a chance to see just how good your competition is. Chances are, not all of your fellow students’ writing will be to your taste, you probably wouldn’t read all of their stuff for fun on a Sunday night, but you do have to admit that they are good at whatever it is that they do. This is a sharp contrast to what you probably experienced as an undergrad, where you may have been the only one in the class who actually wanted to be a writer. This is important (I would argue it’s perhaps THE MOST IMPORTANT stage you must go through to be able to reach any level of success as a writer) because if you don’t even get to that point where you realize that A) you are not some kind of literary genius, and B) the only way you can get your stuff picked over all these other peoples’ really good stuff is by really working at it, revising exhaustively, and really paying attention when somebody else reads what you wrote and points out problems with it.

I'll get into more detail in later posts about some of my specific workshop experiences but I would definitely say as much as we all like to have our egos stroked, this other way of doing workshop, the way where people take it as a given that you're good and instead try to help you make your stuff better, is better, in the end. It's the only way, really, that will help you move into those more advanced levels of writing skill.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Encouragement

One of the other main expectations I had coming into the program was that I would be in a really supportive environment where people encouraged me and said nice things about my writing to keep me going. This is one of those dreams, I think, that a lot of us have when we decide to go into MFA programs. In our undergraduate workshop classes, we had people pretty much in awe of our abilities because we actually wrote in our spare time and had gotten to be quite good at it while most of our fellow workshoppers were just taking the class for a fun and easy elective. But in grad school the demographics, if you will, are different. Everybody there is a writer and everybody there is really good (if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have gotten in to begin with).

Positive feedback, at least in my experience, is rare. It does come, sometimes, and it often comes in the written comments that get handed to you after class discussion is over. Most of the time in workshop, class discussions are spent really picking apart every possible thing that could be considered wrong with your piece, to the point where if you didn’t know better you’d think everybody believes you’re a terrible writer and that they’re all gently trying to urge you to give up.

This can be frustrating at first (it was for me!). I mean, we’re all just starting as writers. Many of us haven’t even gotten anything published yet when we begin grad school, and the ones who have probably haven’t gotten anything published anywhere that special. We need to believe in ourselves so we keep sending things out (and have the faith in our own abilities to keep writing and submitting after each rejection).

But the thing that I had come to accept by the end of my first semester in grad school is that, while it’s hard, sometimes, to get negative feedback and you really wish someone would say something nice now and then, it really is more useful as a developing writer to hear the negative comments. I can not even tell you how much my writing has improved in the last two years, just from watching my stories get ripped to shreds every single time I submit something to workshop.

I’ve learned to recognize the faults in my own writing; I’ve picked up on the mistakes I tend to make over and over; I’ve gotten the hang of looking at my own work with an unbiased and impartial eye. And now even my first drafts are much much much better than they used to be. And my final drafts are finally getting to the point where they’re (dare I say it?) publishable.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Turn, Turn, Turn . . . A Time to Write?

I think it would be useful to backtrack a little bit and talk about what I expected to gain from being in an MFA program. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the main expectation I had going into it was that I would have time to write. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Seems like in a program that’s designed to make people into better writers, the main focus would be giving those same people time to practice writing. I don’t think I ever really believed writing is something you can learn (although, actually, now that I’ve been through two full years of the program, I know that it actually is possible, but you have to first accept that you’re not a brilliant writer to begin with). So what I really thought I was going to get out of the program was just a lot of spare time to work on my novel.

In fact, I have very little time to actually write during the regular semester. (So my husband, Damien, doesn’t call me a whiner, I have to add that during the summer I have an unfair amount time to write. I work at the Writing Center, where we’re actually allowed to read and write whenever there are no students to tutor, which is pretty much most of the time.) During the school year, I spend most of my time and energy on teaching, then what’s left generally goes to whatever literature and theory courses I’m taking at the time. I thought an MFA program would consist mostly of workshops, but you really take far fewer workshops then just plain lit courses (at least at UAF). So you end up having to carve out time to write, the same way you would if you were just working a full time job.

Only in many ways, it’s even harder to find that time because the brain functions that you use to write are the same ones that you use as an English student and as an English teacher. I might put all my energy into reading the novels and stories for my classes, preparing myself for class discussions and writing elaborate research essays, or else I spend my time agonizing over my lesson plans, worrying about how to engage my students, how to really get them thinking so they can, in turn, get writing. In the limited amount of time I have left, I sometimes don’t really feel like writing, or I might feel like it, but it’s hard to actually do it. Instead, I’ll open up a blank document and just stare at it, mind vacant and unfocused and pretty much totally exhausted.

The difference, though, between working a regular job where you have to find the time to write in your spare time and being an MFA student where you have to force yourself to write in your spare time is that, in an MFA program, it’s just expected that you’re writing. Whether or not you have time to write, the instructors and the other students assume that you’re doing it and by the end of your stint in the program, you are required to have a complete and publishable book finished. This does translate to an obligation and if you want to earn that degree (and not embarrass yourself in front of your fellow writers) you simply have to find the time to write. Everybody is in the same boat as you, but they’re all making it work. There is just no way to justify it if you can’t generate enough stuff to bring into workshop, or your thesis advisor keeps hounding you for the first few chapters of a novel you haven’t even begun to write.

It also makes it way harder to come up with excuses for yourself for why you didn’t write today. Each day that you don’t find some way to squeeze writing time in, you fall a little bit farther behind. And what are you going to do at your thesis defense, tell them your dog ate your novel? No, you have to have to HAVE TO find the time to write. And so, miraculously, somehow you do.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Line Between Acceptance and Rejection

In my first year of grad school, I was still, myself, unpublished, and I made up my mind to be a very harsh reader for our literary journal, Permafrost. If I couldn’t get published, then, in my eyes, nobody who wasn’t writing stuff that was way better than mine deserved to be published, either. But being harsh wasn’t, as it turned out, as easy as I had thought it would be. For one thing, it’s hard, damn near impossible, to read the work of a fellow writer, whose hopes you hold in your hands and who you have the ability to either make happy or to crush like a bug between your fingers, and not be fair and even-minded the way you hope the editors reading your work will be, too. And on top of that, I quickly realized that there’s a difference between the sort of writing that objectively any reasonable (and reasonably literate) person would say is bad, and the sort of writing that is completely subjective to the mood, taste and biases of the individual who is, at that moment, reading it.

Don’t get me wrong, in any packet of submissions (our packets usually consisted of ten to twenty pieces), there was almost always at least one piece that was just genuinely bad, poor grammar, poorly constructed sentences, difficult to decipher meaning, totally unoriginal premise and plot. Those ones were the easy ones. You could usually stop reading by the end of page one (if not earlier), say no, and move on to the next piece.

But those ones were certainly the exceptions. It was way more common to read through a story, trying hard to find some reason to give up on it, and not really find any that didn’t seem too picky. Even if the writer got on your nerves in their cover letter, and even if they had some typos or misspelled words, it was still the case that most of the stories would be totally publishable if they just had some basic editorial assistance or maybe if the writer would just revise it one more time.

It’s a shock, because if you read much of what editors, agents and publishers have to say, many of them claim that the vast majority of work they see is downright terrible. They’d have you believe that there are tons and tons of deluded writers out there who have no idea just how bad they are and they keep on submitting and submitting in spite of a mounting number of form letter rejections. The problem with this line of thought is that, if that’s the case, anybody who is actually any good should never get rejected, right? If almost everything these editors see is terrible, that means the few pieces that are any good at all that make their way onto the slushpile would be gushed over and, it goes without saying, they would be accepted.

In other words, if you’ve ever received a rejection at all (and every writer who actually sends stuff out receives rejections), this idea that the majority of the work out there is bad would also mean that your work is bad, too. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have gotten rejected.

Bullshit. If the work that gets submitted to Permafrost is as good as I say (and it is!), and if Permafrost is such a nothing journal (and, sadly, it is), either we just got really lucky and have a huge number of abnormally talented authors submitting to us, or the majority of work that gets submitted to the majority of journals is very, very good. Which means you can be very, very good, and still get rejected.

What really gets my bacon sizzling (and I’m not a very angry person, just in general, so it really means something when I say this) is that even some our fellow new writers, who are themselves getting rejected left and right, seem to, without really realizing it, subscribe to those same attitudes. I’ll tell you in a later entry about the Permafrost slushpile party that I went to that just about made me want to give up because of how unjust the publishing world is, but for now, I’ll just say that many, many, many people seem to believe (and I can say this because, as you well know, I was once one of them) that there are a few truly gifted writers in the world and everyone else is an embarrassment to the written word. These people believe that they, themselves, fall into the select group, the chosen ones. It’s like a religion. But all you have to do is work on a single issue of a literary journal, and an MFA run one is as good as any, and you’ll see how fuzzy the line actually is between what gets accepted and what doesn’t.

The truth is what makes something publishable is just one great big gray area, and the smartest thing you can do as a writer is to realize that the competition is fierce and to make it, you’re going to have to be better than good and you’re going to have to keep getting better and better with each new submission. And above all else, you’re going to have to keep trying because sooner or later (assuming you’re not one of the few lousy ones and we may as well assume that you're not) some editor is going to pluck you from the slushpile, be in just the right mood, and say yes.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Nothing Journal

For fun and to gain a broader perspective on what sort of writing other new writers put out, I volunteered to work on the literary journal that my MFA program runs. Permafrost is an interesting project because, while it really does receive a lot of submissions, way more than we could possibly accept, nobody ever seems to buy the damn thing. We have shelves and shelves, boxes just full of back issues of the journal that nobody ever bothered to buy.

Part of the trouble is that the journal isn’t actually for sale anywhere besides the website, and the only people, as far as I can tell, who ever check out the website are not people interested in buying the journal, but people interested in submitting to it. It’s just one of those dilemmas that I imagine most literary journals, and certainly most run by MFA programs, have to deal with. But it’s interesting to realize, as a writer, that while you may be excited to get the news that some story you wrote is going to be published in print, it may not actually mean that anyone will actually read it.

This knowledge certainly put the damper on my excitement when I got my first real acceptance from Compass Rose, a small literary journal run by the English students at Chester College of New England. I realized that, while Compass Rose certainly is a high quality journal, packed full of beautifully written stories and poems, it’s not one that anybody, anywhere, for any reason is likely to actually stumble across, then purchase, then, likewise, read.

And yet, an acceptance still means something, means a lot, in fact. When I first started working for Permafrost I was actually quite surprised, and almost overwhelmed, with the high quality of most of the work submitted. We were small and unread, but we still got a ton of submissions and for every, I don’t know, let’s say ten stories I read, I would say nine of them were, in my opinion, good enough to be published. But we couldn’t publish nine out of ten, couldn’t even publish half that. And so our standards had to be impeccably high, ridiculously high, high enough that you could be the next Hemingway and still stand a good chance of getting rejected (well, you'd get rejected by me, anyway, because I don't like Hemingway. That's right, I said it).

I’ll tell you next time about the sort of writing that got submitted to Permafrost (and, for that matter, the sort of writing that gets submitted to MFA/MFYOU . . . good writing) and my struggles with realizing how much it really does just come down to luck.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Introduction

When I was very young, though not too young to know better, I got it into my head that I was something of a literary genius. (For that I hope you will show me a little lenience, since most of us, if we’re really being honest, have to admit that at some point in our lives we thought we were destined for great things.) I don’t quite remember where the unfounded notion came from. Perhaps it was because I always excelled in English (and English being the only thing I was any good at, I must have really taken it to heart) or maybe it’s because I was exceptionally shy and, while the other kids were out playing together and having healthy social interactions, I stayed in my room and wrote despondently on my dad’s hand-me-down word processor. Who knows? But somewhere along the line I decided that I was brilliant and that it was only a matter of time before the world realized it, too.

You’d think that by the summer of my 25th year, after dropping out of high school, then finishing up through correspondence, then dropping out of college, then going back to finish my Bachelor’s in English at a much older age than my fellow students, I would have stumbled across the basic truth that I am not, in fact, a genius. But that August as my then boyfriend, Damien, our cat Zooey, and the few remaining belongings we hadn’t given or thrown away made the long drive from Flagstaff, Arizona to Fairbanks, Alaska, I still somehow had it in my head that my moment in the spotlight was sure to come soon. Now that I was starting grad school it wouldn’t be long, I was confident, before my writing simply blew the mind of some Creative Writing professor or other, who would then pass me on to his or her agent, who would sell my book for 6 figures to one of the top publishing houses, who would then market the hell out of me and I would be IN.

(This is the point where I should warn you, in true Lemony Snicket fashion, that if you don’t like true stories about foolish people whose dreams are shot down, one by one, you should probably stop reading now. But if you like to read about dumbass jerks who get what they deserve, and maybe even learn something in the process, read on, my friend; this blog is for you.)

In Alaska, I thought my future would open up before me like the really good book I had yet to write. A masterpiece. I was going to be big, I thought. Phenomenally big. The next J.D. Salinger. People would stand in awe of my much deserved fame and fortune. I was a Writer, capital W. It was my identity, my destiny. And while, if you had asked me, even back then, if I believed in destiny I would have laughed out loud. I would have said, “No way.” But in my bones, in my core, I believed I had “it,” whatever “it” may be.

Oh, come on, don’t laugh. You’ve been there, too. We all have. It’s how you got the courage to send out that first story, and then send it out again, after the first place rejected it. It’s how come you finished that first novel that all these years later you realize is beyond terrible. It’s probably how come you’re reading this blog now, because you can relate.

Alright, go ahead and laugh and I’ll laugh right along with you. Because it is funny, really, to think that on that day, as we pulled into Fairbanks for the first time and my big head was filled with hopes and dreams and visions of my inevitable achievements to come, I had no idea how quickly and completely my entire world view, my image of my Self, was going to come tumbling down.