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.

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