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


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


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.