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


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.