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.