Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lit Seminars, a Necessary Evil

I’m bogged down these last few weeks of the semester with what feels like an uncomfortable load of reading to do (of course, a fair amount of my stress comes from the fact that I’ve been spending too much time on my thesis and workshop stories and so, now that the semester is almost over, I’m realizing how much I have ahead of me to get my final paper ready for the lit seminar I’m taking --- poor time management is what I call that). It brings up an interesting issue related to MFA studies – literature coursework.

When I started my MFA program, I was actually a little surprised to see how much of the program was involved with not only studying and practicing the craft of creative writing, but studying and analyzing literature. That’s not to say that studying writing isn’t also part of it, of course there are workshop credits, thesis credits, forms credits. . . . And I suppose I expected, in a back of the mind sort of way, that getting a master’s degree in English would involve advanced levels of literary analysis, but I think I thought that it would be a minimal part of the program, that most of my time would be spent on creative writing.

What I’ve realized is that you gain an awful lot, as a writer, from analyzing and reading literature, too. While a lot of the ability to write well boils down to how much practice you put into it, I think a fair amount of improving as a writer comes from just reading as much as you can and analyzing it not only for craft, but in the same way that non-writers are going to analyze your work – as a work of literature.

So, while on some level it’s frustrating to look at my next few weeks and have to tell myself I probably shouldn’t be spending time on my fiction right now (and I know full well, even as I write this, that I’m going to spend time creative writing anyway and kick myself later when my final paper isn’t as good as it could have been…) at the same time, I know that I get something out of this other coursework – the non-creative writing part of a creative writing program – as a writer.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Those End of the Semester Blues

One thing you can expect from an MFA program is that it will keep you very very busy. If you take it seriously, anyway. For the next few days I’ve got a stack of papers to grade, what feels like an awful lot of reading to somehow squeeze in between having one on one conferences with my students, and I’ve got to get work done on my last workshop submission of the semester, my thesis, and my final paper for one of my classes, all of which have deadlines looming in the future. Thank God we get a couple of days off for Thanksgiving, huh? Anyway, this’ll be it for my blog this week. Message: MFA programs keep you busy and sometimes you have to sacrifice doing other things you’d like to do.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Planning Ahead

With my time in my MFA program quickly running out, I’ve been thinking more and more lately about what, exactly, you do with an MFA degree. It seems to me there are two major things you learn in an MFA program: how to be a better writer and how to be a good teacher.

The first is probably the reason why most of us join an MFA program to begin with and while I believe you do gain a lot as a writer from an MFA program, it seems to me that it’s rare for someone to finish their MFA degree with a ready to publish book. Many people finish with a book that needs more work and many people finish with a practice book, something that they learned a lot through writing but something they will never publish. For most people, an MFA program is only an early step in the VERY slow progression toward a successful book publishing career. How far along you are as a writer by the end of the program also greatly varies from person to person and is completely dependent on how much effort you put in. (How many hours a day did you actually spend writing and how many days a month did you convince yourself you simply did not have time to write? How much did you actually pay attention to the feedback you got and how much did you write it off as “that person just isn’t my audience”?)

The second thing you learn is a bit more concrete. I think every single person who has a teaching assistantship learns loads about teaching while they’re in an MFA program and by the time they finish, they should be ready to go out and teach. Sure, there’s still plenty more to learn – teaching (like writing) is one of those things that you learn by doing. You get better and better each semester and, essentially, to become a four star college professor, you just have to keep teaching semester after semester and just keep developing and growing with each class.

Now here’s the rub: An MFA degree, on its own, isn’t worth much as far as getting a solid teaching position is concerned. First, you have to get a book published. Combine a book deal with your MFA, you’ll probably be able to find a decent job. But what do you do for the several years after finishing the program but before making that first book sale?

There are several options. You may decide you don’t really like teaching and just go out and get a job doing something else. This seems to me a pretty solid option, especially since as a teacher you may find it more difficult to write every day when your job essentially uses the same brain faculties as writing requires. But what if you find that you really love teaching?

Well, you can try and find a full time college or university job, but it’s unlikely.

You can scrape by teaching adjunct until you sell that first book – but you better hope you don’t have any student loans or credit card bills to pay in the meantime, because things will be tight and you don’t have any idea how many years you’ll be doing this before you’re in a position to move up.

You can teach at the high school level. This is one I always thought (until just last night as I was talking with some friends who plan to teach high school when they finish the program) would be undesirable, since at the high school level you’re teaching 5 days a week, several classes a day, and on top of that, you’re teaching bratty teenagers. But this might not actually be a bad way to keep teaching, get a decent full time job, and still keep that ultimate goal of teaching at the University level in sight.

The option I’m hoping to take is to go on to get a PhD. With a PhD, you’re more likely to find a good teaching job and it gives you a few more years to work on getting that first book published. My plan is to first get an MA to prepare me more for the research and literature focus in a PhD program, and then stay on at the same school to get a PhD. I love school and so I’d be very happy to extend my time as a student, and on top of that it would give me about 7 more years to get a book published before I have to find a full time teaching job (but I would be able to keep teaching the entire time as a TA).

It’s something I think everybody should start thinking about from day one – maybe even before day one – of an MFA program: What are you going to do with this degree? Be REALISTIC and don’t assume that going through an MFA program will leave you with a publishing career or that an MFA degree will help you get a good job. And hey, being aware that the degree itself is fairly worthless without a published book may help you push yourself that extra bit to actually write every day, to actually get what you planned to get out of the program – to become a better and more serious writer.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps . . . Part II

This week I met with one of the members of my reading group and we came to a consensus on how to handle the triple “Maybe” piece we read for Permafrost. While each member of my group had different reservations about the piece, when I sat down and talked with the second reader, the one who had been unsure of the frame, we realized that ultimately, we both have a similar problem: between the frame and the story’s disaster aspect, it felt like there was too much going on. It just wasn’t clear (to us) what these two things added to the story, which was already very interesting and complicated without them.

So together we drafted an e-mail to send to the author, letting him know what we liked about the piece and what we were confused about. We encouraged him to revise the story, if he wants to, and resubmit it. It was a sort of exciting feeling to realize that our problems with the story could be traced to one specific issue, and to think, also, that while we couldn’t accept the piece as it was, we liked it enough to want to see a revision of it . . . in other words, that we were willing, on our end of the journal, to pinpoint why we weren’t accepting it and to let the writer know that if he fixed that issue, we’d be happy to consider it again.

This is something, I’ll admit, that a lot of editors for a lot of journals, especially the higher profile ones, probably rarely have time to do. But it’s a nice thought, somehow, to be reminded that the first priority of a literary journal is to find good stuff to publish and not just to reject, reject, reject. We liked this piece, we enjoyed reading it and felt we would be proud to have it in our next issue. And we didn’t want to reject it, for that reason. But at the same time, as good as it was, it wasn’t good enough, not with those seemingly irrelevant elements still in the story.

It was interesting to consider, too, how much we seemed to influence each other when considering the piece. When I passed the piece on to the second reader, I made sure to let her know how I felt about it, and by the time the story got to the third reader, he had two people’s opinions about it to filter his first reading through. It would be impossible to say how much we influenced each other, but I think we certainly did and I think people can be influenced in the opposite way, too (that is, you get a packet of stories and look at the ones that already have two “No”s - you’re much less likely, aren’t you, to spend too much time on those pieces that you already know the other members of your group didn’t like?)

It’ll be interesting to see, now, what the writer will choose to do. It could very well be that we are simply not getting what he’s trying to do. And that’s fine. Just because it didn’t work for us, doesn’t mean he should feel obligated to change it. But it may be that, once he reads our comments, he’ll agree and rework the story for a much better final product. Either way, the experience demonstrated, I think, some interesting behind the scenes elements of how a literary journal works, how difficult it is to come to a consensus on acceptances, and how much more there is to getting accepted than just having an engaging writing style or an interesting idea.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps . . .

The past couple of weeks I’ve had an interesting experience with my Permafrost reading group. For Permafrost, we divide into reading groups of three people and each person says “Yes” or “No” (and, very sparingly, “Maybe”) to each submission. In order for a submission to get accepted, it generally needs a “Yes” from every single person in the group.

This time, as usual, there were some submissions that everybody said “No” to, without even having to put too much thought into it. And there were some that one person liked but the others didn’t. There was one submission that I read first, and I was completely engaged with the voice of the first person narrator. Yet at the same time, I had some reservations about giving the piece an absolute “Yes.” My major problem with the story had to do with its inclusion of a significant American disaster, one that everybody across the board feels emotional about, to draw some reaction from the reader, rather than the writer doing the work to get this reaction through his own writing abilities (something I have no doubt this writer could pull off with ease).

I gave the piece a “Maybe,” and passed it on to the next reader, and told her about some of my thoughts about the piece. I really wanted, I told her, to say yes to it, but I just couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. So maybe she could put it over the edge and give it an adamant yes, and I would change my mind.

She loved the story and felt that the disaster element was warranted, but she didn’t feel like she could give it an absolute “Yes,” either, on account of some confusion over the frame structure the writer used. I had been okay with the frame part of the story, but once she brought it up, it suddenly did seem unclear how this bit fit in with the rest of the story.

So she gave it a “Maybe,” too, and passed it on to our final reader, explaining to him some of her reservations about the piece first.

He read the story with all of our thoughts about it in the back of his mind, and he was, it sounds like, just okay with the story, though he was very engaged with the voice, as well. He gave it a “Maybe,” but more because we had both given it a “Maybe” already than because he actually liked it that much. I asked him if he would have just said “No” had we not both already expressed to him how much we liked the piece, and he said for sure he would have just given it a “No.”

Now we have the dilemma: what do we do with this piece? We all liked the narration, and were engaged with it enough to justify not saying “No,” though some of us less than others. I suggested we simply reject it, that maybe we had too many problems with it to want it in the journal. But one of the other readers really wanted to find a way to accept it. But we couldn’t, we all agreed, accept it in its current form, not with all of our issues with it.

Should we ask the writer to revise it and tell him we’ll accept it if he makes certain changes? Should we essentially reject it but tell him why and then let him know if he revises it we’d be happy to consider it again? Should we reject it, but with a personal note letting him know how much we really liked it, and encourage him, please, to submit to us again?

And what of the fact that we each had very different feelings about what wasn’t working about the piece? We all agreed on what we liked, but what I didn’t like the others were fine with. What the second reader didn’t like, I would never have even noticed. And what the third reader didn’t like, in his eyes, was deep rooted enough to reject the story altogether had we not both already made it clear to him that we really really really wanted to accept it.

Chew on that for a week . . . To be continued.