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.