Sunday, December 28, 2008

Reckonings and Resolutions

As 2008 draws to a close and winter break gets into full swing, I’m weighing up where I’m at right now, what I’ve done this past semester and year, and where I’d like to go from here. This is one of the things that I like the most about being involved in an MFA program: every semester there is an end, the perfect opportunity to really look at yourself as a writer, figure out where you are, where you’d like to be, and set goals to get yourself from here to there.

This past semester was an off and on productive one for me. I got a new draft done of my thesis, and one that I think is finally fairly close to where I want this novel to end up. I got some new stories written, some old ones revised, and I spent some serious time on improving myself as an academic writer, something that may not be important to all writers out there but if you want to be a teacher it’s not a bad idea to work towards getting papers published as well as whatever sort of creative writing you do.

But there are a lot of things that I’m looking back and shaking my head at, too. Recently, I started tracking how many hours a day I write with the hopes that I would discover that I write two to three hours a day on average. It turns out that, on average, I write a little less than two hours a day. Which is okay, I guess, surely a lot more than a lot of would-be-writers write, but it’s not as much as I thought I was writing. It’s useful for me to be aware of this, I realize, even though it’s a little disappointing.

I don’t know that this is a number I can reasonably change too dramatically, between being a wife and a cat-mom and a student and a teacher and let’s be honest, it’s important, as a writer, to read a lot, too . . . But I think it’s useful to be aware of how much time you actually do spend writing, and if the number is surprisingly low, it’s something worth working on. I’m going to set a sort of resolution for myself that for the year 2009 I’ll spend an average of at least two hours a day writing. I may or may not be able to do it, but I think that just by having that as a goal and by keeping track of it, I’ll be more likely to push myself that extra little bit.

The other thing I’ve realized I need to push myself more on is seeking out feedback from fellow writers. This semester with workshop and as I worked with the head of my thesis committee on my novel, I really realized the value of having people outside of yourself look at your work and give you honest feedback. This has been on my mind a lot lately because I’ll be graduating next semester and, if all goes as planned, I’ll probably be moving on to a graduate program in literature instead of creative writing and, who knows, I may never take another workshop class again.

I think it’s really important to be involved, one way or another, in a community of writers who you can learn from and grow with and who, if nothing else, can look at your work from unbiased eyes. I notice a lot of my fellow MFAs exchange work and give each other feedback outside of workshop, and it’s something I need to be more brave about taking part in, myself. I tend to be shy about it. I feel like I’m burdening other people if I ask them to read something and give me feedback, but I think it’s important and, especially once I graduate next semester, it’ll be something I’ll simply have to force myself to do since I’ll no longer have a workshop and thesis committee to share my work with.

And with that, I’ll sign off for the year 2008. Check on January first, when the first issue of MFA/MFYou will be up.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


I’ve been thinking a lot about priorities, since with the end of the semester I had to meet those final deadlines as both a student and a teacher, and I had to set my writing aside to make sure I was spending time on the appropriate things (this is very much on my mind right now because I had hoped to get some work done on a specific story this weekend but I ended up having to A, do laundry, B, grade papers and submit my final grades, and then C, spend time with my husband). The end of the semester always makes me think about how we set priorities and how we squeeze writing into our otherwise busy schedules.

Of course, one of the major draws to an MFA program is that it forces you to set your creative writing as a top priority. If you work full time as a – whatever – and your writing is a sort of a hobby on the side (by hobby I don’t mean to belittle creative writing, but instead classify it based on how it fits in to our lives…) you have to take the initiative to decide to write instead of doing whatever else you could be doing. As an MFA student, of course, there’s also some choice in it (you can choose not to do your homework, as many of us know full well) but it IS expected of you that you will be writing regularly.

But whether you’re an MFA student or not, where we go as writers all comes down to how we set our priorities, and what we set as our priorities. Sometimes I’m not very good with prioritizing, as my not-so-clean-right-now cabin can prove. But whether you’re good with prioritizing or not, if you want to make it as a writer, you have to learn to set writing as a top priority, and an MFA program can be used as a kind of fool-proof way of doing that. Sure, you can slack off as a student, you can procrastinate and not take it very seriously, but either you spend at least some time on writing, or you won’t make it through the program. Period.

And the higher you can set writing on your priority list, the better writer you’ll be.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Workshop Reflections

Because I am extremely sick today and because I think it might be interesting, I’ve decided to post as my blog for this week a portion of the assigned final commentary for my workshop class this semester. We each had to write a 5-8 page self commentary on the pieces we turned in this semester, our process of writing them, what we struggled with, our revision tactics, etc. One piece that I turned in to workshop this semester in particular I think of as a telling sign of how much I’ve gained through the program:

The second story I submitted for workshop this semester was one I had written a few years ago, and submitted to workshop during my first semester at UAF . . . to disastrous results. In response to this story people actually hinted in their feedback that nobody who would write something like this could possibly be a good writer – and I thought about giving up as a writer altogether.

Needless to say, I set this story aside after that workshop and I didn’t decide to come back to it until just this summer. I’ve always really liked the idea behind this story, and I thought that, since through my experiences in the program here at UAF I’ve grown a lot as a writer, perhaps I could rewrite the story entirely from page one and make it workable. I did just that over the summer, and felt like it came together much more smoothly than the earlier draft that had gotten ripped to shreds during my first UAF workshop class. I changed just about everything about the story (the narration, the characters, the tone . . .) except the core idea of the story.

The workshop feedback on this story this time around was much more encouraging while at the same time being very useful. I had the impression that people generally thought the story had potential (which is certainly a shift from that earlier workshop experience) and I got a lot of extremely useful suggestions on points to expand, points that need to be clarified or maybe left out, and ways that I can increase the tension and stakes for the main character. I’ve been working on revising this piece further for the past few weeks now and I plan to continue revising it over the break. It’s coming together well and my hopes are that by the end of the break I’ll be able to start submitting it to journals.

I learned a lot through the revision process of this story in particular because I was forced to really look at it not just from the perspective of “what happens in this story?” but from an angle of closely analyzing craft: how does the narration function; how can sympathy be created for a genuinely despicable main character; how can I include exposition that’s necessary without letting it take over the present scene? And because early drafts of the story were problematic because of an unintended metafictional element; I was forced to be more aware of craft from a perspective of things I did not want this piece to be.

I feel that this piece is a good gauge for how much I’ve improved as a writer during my experience at UAF. The first draft of it I actually wrote for an undergraduate workshop; then I revised that and took in a new version to my first graduate level workshop. Before I came to the program, as this piece can verify, I didn't think about craft on a conscious level; I just wrote what sounded good to me. But now, two years into the program, I was able to completely rewrite the entire story with more of an awareness of craft and technique and I think, even though I’m still revising it, it’s a much better piece now.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Probably the most useful thing you get out of an MFA program (in my opinion, at least) is that you are forced to set aside any illusions you had about writers being born with the skill, or that some people are just literary geniuses (and what goes along with that, unless you’re REALLY self deluded, is that you have to accept that this means you are not a genius, either).

This can be very difficult at first. I know it was for me. It wasn’t that I came into the program thinking of myself as a literary genius, not in those terms, certainly. But I did believe that some people were just naturally gifted, that writing was something you were either good at or you weren’t, and I, I believed, was one of the good ones.

But I almost immediately learned that the reason I had gotten to the level I was at was because I had spent my entire life, since I was old enough to spell, practicing; I just didn’t think of it as practice. And on top of that, the level I was at wasn’t good enough. I still had a long way to go.

These lessons sort of bombarded me, what with all of my peers in the program who were all just as good as me (and many of them were better), the quite large number of high quality submissions that got rejected from our literary journal, the amount of work I expected my students to put into their academic writing, watching how much those students would improve when they did put in the work (and how the ones who believed they were already perfect and refused to put the work in didn’t improve at all and often ended up behind the other students by the end of the semester) . . .

By the end of my first semester I knew two things for absolutely sure: that nobody was just born with the gift of writing, and that to become a good writer you have to work, work, work!

It’s hard work; it means spending a lot of time and effort on your writing and it means making sacrifices. Whether or not you are willing to put in that work (and especially after you realize that any ideas you may have had of one day making a living off of writing were also illusions, too, but I’ll talk about that some other time) is entirely up to you.

But the beauty of the MFA program is that, at least in my experience, you realize pretty quickly that making it as a writer is going to take work and that you have to commit to it or else you’re just wasting your time. And once you make that commitment, your life will never be the same.